Ancient Seeress Foresees Twilight of Gods and Scented Candles

This is priceless. There’s a line of scented candles and other spa treatment paraphernalia called Voluspa. Volu-spa, get it? Now, the firm shows no awareness of what their chosen name means. Völuspá is a long Old Norse poem in the Poetic Edda, dealing with the creation and eventual destruction (and re-creation) of the world. It’s title means “Prophecy of the Seeress”, and it’s known as one of the most majestic pieces of writing in its language. With this name, the candlemakers are either just oblivious, or they’re judging that their target market doesn’t know much about the Viking Period.

I am now going to start a bakery, marketing my pretzels as Heimskringla and my cakes as Ecclesiastes.

Thanks to Beatrice Waller for the heads-up.

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New ?Guide Book To Medieval Stockholm

Historiska media is a publishing house in Lund. In recent years they have been putting out pop-sci guide books about Medieval Sweden, province by province. I’ve reviewed the volumes about Södermanland and Uppland provinces here. And now my friend and Fornvännen co-editor Elisabet Regner has written the first volume in the series that deals with a town, not a province: about Stockholm, in whose suburbs I’ve lived for almost all my life. Together with the Uppland and Södermanland volumes, Det medeltida Stockholm gives us Stockholmers a pretty good grip on our Medieval surroundings.

I shouldn’t really be reviewing my buddies’ books, so regarding Dr. Regner’s work I’ll just say that this lady knows what she’s talking about and she knows how to communicate it. The Stockholm volume has all the strengths of the previous instalments in the series: solid and interesting contents, generous thematic bibliographies, beautiful illustrations, good graphic design. But it also suffers even worse than the ones I’ve read before from weak guide-book machinery.

The subtitle is “an archaeological guide book”, but the volume hardly offers any of the rock-bottom basic aids I expect when I buy a city guide for tourists. I lay the blame at the doorstep of the editors, who also happen to be colleagues of mine, not tourism professionals.

  • The contents are organised thematically, not by city precinct. When standing at any given spot in the Old Town, I have to riffle through at least the chapters about the waterfront, the town and the ecclesiastic institutions for bits about that neighbourhood. And those chapters make up most of the book’s girth.
  • The single-page table of contents lists only six top-level chapter headings, and none of the informative section headings inside these chapters.
  • There are no page headers to aid browsing.
  • There is an alphabetical index at the back of the book, but it has been produced blindly according to whatever is mentioned in the text, not comprehensively according to names of streets or blocks. Three interesting spots may be on the same short alleyway, but I’m only likely to find one of them with the aid of the index because in one case the text (and index) refers to the street name, in another to the block name and in the third case to the building’s name, “the Petersén building” etc.

If instead we accept that despite the subtitle this is in no way intended as a guide book, but as a popular introduction to the subject that we are supposed to read from one end to the other (as I did), then we are, conversely, bothered by vestigial remains of guidebookishness. The text keeps repeating certain details in a way that would only make sense if you were reading bits of it here and there. Between pp. 114 and 145 Regner drops out of her attractive expository style and delivers a compact slab of archaeological data with street addresses as headings. Then it’s back to “In addition to the King and the Burghers, the Church was the third power factor that shaped the development of the Medieval town” etc.

To sum up, this good-looking and readable book is full of up-to-date and interesting information based on a comprehensive reading of the technical literature. But when standing, book in hand, at a particular spot in Stockholm’s Old Town, you are unlikely to be able to locate the relevant bits of information about that spot unless you have time to perform a brute-force search through the book from one end to the other. No e-book version that could make this easier is currently available.

New Paper On The Wreck Of The Rikswasa

A few years ago I did some fieldwork at Djurhamn, a peripheral naval harbour of the 15th through the 17th centuries (and blogged much about it: ABCDEFGH, and published a paper on it in an anthology). Now maritime archaeologist Jonas Wiklund has published a paper on the sad fate of the Rikswasa, a nearby shipwreck that was salvaged by a diving firm and made into coffee-table ornaments in the 1960s with permission from the National Maritime Museum. Jonas has kindly allowed me to make his paper (in Swedish) available here on Aard.

Wiklund, J. 2013. Rikswasa — från örlogsskepp till askfat. Marinarkeologisk tidskrift 2013:1. Stockholm.

Norse Saga About The Buddha

I found something pretty wild in an essay by J.L. Borges this morning. There’s a 13th century Norse saga about the Buddha. And the story has other fine twists as well. This all revolves around a legendary tale of the Buddha’s early life.

In the 6th century BC a son was born to a petty king in what is now Nepal. He was named Siddharta, and it was prophesied shortly after the boy’s birth that he would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father then kept him carefully protected from contact with religion and human suffering, apparently to keep the boy away from the holy-man alternative career path. After 29 years of secluded luxury, Siddharta left his palace for a chariot ride with his driver and immediately confronted an old man (aging!), a sick man (disease!) and a dead man (death!). This freaked him out, but when Siddharta then met an ascetic holy man he took heart from the peaceful look in his eyes and decided to renounce the world.

This story is just a prelude to the part of the Buddha’s life that really interests Buddhists. But let’s fast-forward some centuries. In about the 3rd century AD, Manichaean Persians translate the story into Middle Persian. In the 8th century, Muslims translate that into Arabic. By now the honorific Bodhisattva (“enlightened existence”) of the original text has been misunderstood as the man’s name and rendered first as Budasaf, then Yudasaf, and then Yuzasaf. A Georgian version of the 9th century makes it Iodasaph, a Greek one of the early 11th century makes it Ioasaph, and then in 1048 a Latin version makes it Iosaphat or Josaphat. Along the way, Siddharta’s driver Channa has somehow acquired a more important role and been renamed Barlaam, and the story has been adapted as a Christian tale. This Latin version of “Barlaam and Josaphat” is what King Haakon IV of Norway has translated into Old Norwegian in the 13th century. An 1851 edition is on-line.

Meanwhile, Barlaam and Josaphat have come to be venerated as a pair of Christian saints, celebrated on 27 November in the Western Church. And Borges points out a delicious irony: in 1615 the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto (who lived in India for many years) denounces the heathen Buddhists for believing in a story that is obviously just a garbled version of the legend of Saint Josaphat.

The meaty Wikipedia entry on Barlaam & Josaphat is a good place to start if you want to delve deeper into this story.

The Sacred Blue String of Ethnic Identity

rarestblue-w180pxIn this well-written, painstakingly annotated and beautifully designed book, physicist Baruch Sterman (with contributor Judy Taubes Sterman) traces the history and prehistory of a certain blue pigment, along with its cultural and religious significance through the ages. It’s what the Torah and Talmud calls tekhelet, and it’s made from a gland harvested from Murex sea snails.

Though greatly interested in history, archaeology and biology, I find myself poorly equipped to engage with the book’s subject matter. Or put differently, I don’t think I’m part of its intended audience. Because there’s a major unstated premise here, explaining why a writer would want to view the history of the Eastern Mediterranean from such an odd thematic standpoint. Sterman assumes that his readers will find deeply meaningful certain mollusc-dyed blue treads prescribed in the Torah for the fringe of a Jew’s ritual shawl. Those tassels are where his entire project starts. He clearly feels that the 19th century rediscovery of the ancient sacred dye that had been forgotten for centuries was a symbolically important event that renewed Judaism’s ties with its origins. Indeed, working with dye is “… an integral part of my life’s goal: the modern renewal of ancient techniques and a return to practices forgotten for so many centuries and nearly lost to history” (p. 219). Whereas I – an atheist Gentile, a cultural relativist and a citizen of the world’s probably least nationalistic nation – believe that no culture is particularly meaningful or carries any intrinsic value.

All people have culture and funny traditional garments. That’s nothing to wave about. There is no way for us humans to avoid having culture and funny garments. If we manage to uphold some kind of long-term continuity in this area, then so what? A modern Jew still is not the same as an Iron Age Jew. A born-and-bred Swede, I am not even the same as the people who called themselves Swedes 500 years ago. The people who now wear blue-fringed ritual shawls are essentially reenactors to me. Renaissance Fair.

Don’t get me wrong: though he’s hugely enthusiastic about past leaders of Hasidism, I don’t think Sterman is an ethno-religious chauvinist. He just assumes that his reader will agree that customs such as the wearing of ritual shawls made according to ancient rules are very fine things. He describes his own attitude to those blue fringes in terms of “exuberant fervour” and “overwhelming sense of humility” (p. 210). Sterman is completely OK with the Baal-worshipping Canaanites of yore that get such a rough treatment by the Torah’s writers. But he doesn’t so much as mention today’s Palestinians. And after explaining that the Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Jewish temple’s Holy of Holies, he admiringly describes the Temple Institute, an organisation that prepares for the reinstatement of scriptural Jewish temple service on that very spot! I can only call this passive-aggressive. And in that context it is distinctly odd to find Sterman speaking appreciatively about Irish independence from the English.

Sterman’s use of the Torah as historical source is completely uncritical. To point out just one of the more obvious issues, he doesn’t acknowledge that Kings David and Solomon are now widely considered to be fictional. They’re to Israel what the Yellow Emperor is to China. Last I checked, the 9th century BC King Omri of Israel was the earliest Biblical figure whose bare existence has unequivocal support in period sources. If I understand correctly, historians in Tel Aviv have accepted this for decades while the ones in Jerusalem hold on to the traditional accounts. Sterman is a very well-read man, as the book’s meaty bibliography attests. I can only assume that he knows that not even all Israeli Jews believe in King David any more, but has chosen to uphold a polite fiction that his intended reader will be happy to share.

I would prefer it if people living in Israel rolled up both their fringed shawls and their prayer rugs once and for all and sent them off to be recycled. They are a stark example of how unhealthy it is hold on to tribal superstitions and ancient identities. Jews should be more concerned with tying knots of fellowship with the Palestinians and neighbouring countries than with the fictional kings of a bygone golden age.

But if you’re willing to agree that ancient religious traditions should be cherished, that ancient religious scriptures are trustworthy historical sources, and that disgruntled ethnic minorities should be ignored, then this is a good read.

Sterman, B. & Taubes Sterman, J. 2012. The Rarest Blue. Jerusalem & New York. 306 pp. ISBN 978-965-229-621-4.

History of the Swedish Boardgame Market

Karl Olausson has just submitted his Bachelor’s thesis in history: a study of the post-WW2 Swedish boardgame market. The material he’s used is largely interviews with people in our country’s boardgame business. Karl has kindly given me permission to put the work on-line (in Swedish). Here’s the abstract:

This essay is about the history of the Swedish board game-industry from the 1970’s to today. The essay focuses on the companies in the business and how they change during this period and about the causes of this change. This essay aims both at accurately describing the development of the industry as well as asking the question of what influence factors from outside of the industry have upon the change during this period of time. The material used in this essay is mainly extracts from interviews with people who have been working in the industry during the period, as well as literature on the subject and product-catalogues from certain years in the time-frame.

From this material I have outlined the basic history of the industry. From a nearly monopolized industry in the 1970’s to the global market of today with a wide spectrum of different companies competing for the attention of consumers. I have looked at the different kind of games that enter the shelves in the stores and what trends have come, like the party and trivia games, and what have gone, like the electronic board games and the DVD-board games.

I have also applied a theory of society affecting the board gaming industry and looked at if this is true of other factors than just the theme of games. I found that the theme of games is more affected by outside factors than the mechanics are. I also found that while the industry is competing with the quickly growing industry of digital games, board games still sell almost as much today as they did forty years ago. When it comes to the business part of the industry, the globalization and the new ways to fund and distribute products have affected the consumers more than the companies in the Swedish industry. The big Swedish companies still work mainly for a Swedish market and mostly in the same working methods as earlier.

Thoughts of Violence Past in a Peaceful City

Ferdinand Balfoort contributes a guest entry upon a recent ancestral pilgrimage to Stockholm.

I gladly agreed to write something for the blog after being introduced by Martin to a book by Frans G. Bengtsson about Early Modern Scottish brigades (and brigadiers) in the Nordic region including Sweden. I visited Stockholm in December on my quest to find my 16th century ancestor Gilbert Balfour who lost his head during a public decapitation procedure with a sharp implement, somewhere in the Old Town. So far I am no closer to retrieving his head or his grave site, but some illumination has been provided by the good people of the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet), who sent me a scanned copy of another book by a Swedish author named Fridolf Ödberg: Stämplingarna mot Konung Johan III, “The Plot Against King John III” (1897). My ancestor and his antecedents are duly noted, and on the face of it the story is not a wholesome one.

Gilbert Balfour (and his brothers) are noted for their various involvements as ringleaders or participants in conspiracies against several notable persons in Scotland and Sweden. The Riksarkivet noted rather bluntly that it would be unlikely to find my ancestor’s last resting place in the hallowed ground of Riddarholmskyrkan church, and I appear to have opened a can of worms as far as family geneology is concerned, in all meanings of that popular saying. Which takes me to observations about Stockholm.

One key observation is that the city (and the people here) are very peaceful considering the often violent past. That is no different from the rest of Europe and many places are still wrestling through the violent cycles towards calmer waters. It begs the question as to why such violent pasts have created the current stability and relative peace that is built around consensus rather than the sword, especially in the northern part of Europe. Since this blog lists an eclectic mix of topics, including brain functionality, it might therefore be interesting to tie family history and neuroscience to Vikings. For it appears that a specific gene called the “Warrior gene” (see Science Daily) is responsible for somewhat sociopathic or very psychopathic tendencies, where the MRI scans of such perpetrators as Anders Breivik appear to show a differently coloured pattern in the neocortex. The milk of human kindness appears to dry up in such individuals, but it is also apparent that our evolution necessitated such genetic evolution.

In present-day Palestine, an author of research into the warrior gene – himself the proud possessor of an underendowed neocortex due to the apparent presence of no less that 16 violent murderers in his ancestral matrilineage – has found that through generations of conflict the warrior gene is now establishing dominance in the Palestinian gene pool. His hypothesis is that the more violent males attract mates due to a higher chance of survival for progeny fathered by those with the warrior gene. And so the process selectively advances and causes a cycle of violence which have less to do with politics and more with human evolution. As more violently tending persons are born, this begets more violence and so forth.

As the Riksarkivet person noted, Gilbert Balfour was a rather violent person, who was put to death in a rather violent period of history. And we have fortunately arrived at a much more benign state of affairs, which sees Sweden (and the Nordic countries) ranking highly on the quality of life index, anti corruption, civil society etc. It may in fact all be a case of selective breeding as I have noted. Our ancestors were partners and actors in progress and it is good to know they were there along the way. I am glad myself to now be able to visit Stockholm and enjoy the warm hospitality and the people without fear of being taken off to the Stortorget for a public decapitation. We have come a long way since those unruly days. May it long be so.

Ferdinand Balfoort is a nomadic governance and risk expert dealing mainly with accounting and auditing. In his free time he pursues studies of genealogy, ethics and neuroscience, Sufism and other metaphysics, and plays the trumpet.

Medieval Zombies: the Grateful Dead

Reading Anund & Qviberg’s new guide book on Medieval Uppland, I came across a great religious legend: “The Grateful Dead“. (The band got its name from a dictionary entry on this family of stories.) The earliest version of the legend is found in the German Cistercian prior Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 13th century book of miracle stories, the Dialogus miraculorum. This book was hugely popular for centuries, and though Caesarius is largely forgotten today, we do remember his chilling line about how to tell a Cathar from a Catholic, attributed by Caesarius to one of the Albigensian Crusade’s leaders: “Kill them all and let God sort them out”.

The Grateful Dead on a 1492 votive painting in Kołobrzeg Cathedral.

The cool thing about “The Grateful Dead” is that the story has zombies. Caesarius tells us:

There was a once a man who had the habit, when he passed a churchyard, always to stop and pray for the souls of the dead whose bodies were buried there. Once it occurred that he was pursued by armed enemies into this churchyard, and lo! all the graves in the churchyard opened and one saw all the dead bodies, armed with swords and staffs, hasten to the man’s aid. For fear of them, the terrified enemies turned back and ceased to pursue the man.

In the 15th century, this legend was a popular subject of church art across German-speaking Northern Europe. At least four churches in the Swedish province of Uppland has murals of the Grateful Dead: Biskopskulla, Roslagsbro, Rö and Yttergran. The story was lent new relevance by the Late Medieval preoccupation with Purgatory, where much of religious life became concentrated on ways to shorten the period of cleansing torture — such as indulgences. In that era’s interpretation of the legend, the dead rise to save a man who makes a habit of praying for their souls, thus shortening their stay in Purgatory.

And the imagery lives on. In early fantasy games of the Dungeons & Dragons ilk there was a trope about zombies wielding agricultural implements as weapons. I bet this came straight from Medieval art. The image below is from Jackson & Livingstone’s bestselling 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Zombies by Russ Nicholson, from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.


I’ve found two good papers on the Grateful Dead in Medieval art available on-line, by Hans Wieser 1947 in German and by Åke Nisbeth 1953 in Swedish.

New Rolling Stones E-Book

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’s first gig, at the Marquee Club in London. Journalist Hanspeter Kuenzler and Bavarian e-book publishers The eBook People GmbH celebrate the occasion with a massive illustrated two-volume biographical anthology in English on the band. Counting the pages in an e-book is of course difficult. But suffice to say that the first volume, that Aard has received for review, extends to 694 pages on my smartphone, where I read it.

Kuenzler provides the year-by-year narrative backbone of the story and, in a nice touch, for each year lists important new albums. His style is effortless and attractive, and he does a good job of covering the musical, social, world-contextual and gossipy aspects of the story without losing track of where he’s going. It’s an anthology because Kuenzler has also dug up a plethora of contemporary press items on the Stones and certain important people in their circle, both descriptive articles and interviews. After reading what Kuenzler thinks about the Stones’ activities in 1965, for instance, we also learn what the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and NME had to say about them at the time.

Oddly, this period coverage does not extend to reviews of Stones albums or concerts. We learn what journalists of the past thought about the Rolling Stones – but sadly not what they thought about their records. Instead Kuenzler diligently reviews the albums himself from a 21st century perspective. And in these reviews we encounter the book’s only important editorial weakness.

When read immediately after one of Kuenzler’s narrative chapters, the reviews turn out to be full of repetitions, including entire phrases, suggesting that he wrote the reviews first (for an unrelated project?), then the narrative chapters, and then he never returned to re-edit the album reviews. Copy editing and proof-reading are good, though. The book does suffer from a common e-book glitch, namely that there are occasional gratuitous page breaks when I read the .epub file on Aldiko for Android (a lovely piece of software).

All in all congratulations are due all around: to the Stones who have survived for so long and made their many fans so happy, to Hanspeter Kuenzler who has written a good book, and to my fellow music fans who have a good read and many musical discoveries ahead.

50 Years: The Rolling Stones. Views From The Inside, Views From The Outside. Part 1 is available in .mobi, .epub and .epub format and costs $15. Buy it here!

New Guide Book on Medieval Uppland

Sweden’s traditionally divided into 25 landskap provinces. They live on in people’s minds despite having been superseded by a new län division in 1634. The boundaries of the landskap go way back into prehistory, and so they don’t respect the country’s cities much, these generally being much later in origin.

Stockholm is a case in point. Today’s urban area is neatly bisected by the boundary between Uppland and Södermanland provinces. Two years ago myself and other Stockholmers got half of our High Medieval itches scratched by a fine archaeological guide book covering Södermanland. Now Johan Anund and Linda Qviström have returned with a book that sees to our Uppland needs as well.

Det medeltida Uppland is just as jam-packed with goodies as the previous book, full of interesting information and lovely pictures. As I wished for in 2010, the new book has GPS coordinates. But it still does not have a table of contents that covers subheadings, nor individual page headers. These things might be worth thinking about for the volume on the Medieval city of Stockholm that is also forthcoming. (I have written on that subject here before upon reading Nils Ahnlund.)

Here are some tidbits that caught my interest especially.

  • A 14th century legal code for Trögd hundred regarding forestry survives, Trögdbolagen.
  • The Alsnöhus runestone sits on Viking Period culture layers and may have been relocated there as part of the 13th century palace project.
  • In 1937 the Medieval ruins of Svartsjö castle were excavated and the small finds were placed in the nearby Early Modern castle. In 1963 the finds were found dumped on the ground nearby.
  • Häverö church had Late Medieval murals depicting i.a. a nude woman biting on the Devil’s fishing hook (cf. the nude sinners in Bosch’s Last Judgement). In 1825 the murals were destroyed because they were seen as indecent.
  • Svinnegarn church, a regional pilgrimage site, had 12 kg of silverware confiscated by the Crown after the Reformation.
  • There’s a Medieval miracle story about warlike zombies, illustrated by a well-preserved mural in Biskopskulla church. (More on this in a future blog entry.)

I do find, however, that the copy editing and proof reading is sub-par. One thing that grates particularly on my sensibilities is the many comma splices where independent clauses are breathlessly stacked on top of each other with commas between them, not conjunctions or periods. On p. 170, for instance, we find this monster (and I translate):

The purpose of the church porches is controversial, they probably acted both as chapels and assembly halls, sometimes ecclesiastical courts may have convened there.

All in all, though, the book is a fine addition to the popular literature on the Scandy Middle Ages for people who like to visit sites, not just read about wars and royalty.