Pagan Arabic Inscriptions Found in a Swedish Garden

Dear Reader, let me tell you about some pagan Arabic inscriptions found in a private garden near where I grew up.

In 1920 an engineer who lived in Saltsjöbaden, a leafy affluent suburb of Stockholm, donated almost a hundred pieces of inscribed stone to a museum in town. They had formed a decorative rockery in his garden. And the previous owner of the property was a famous elderly Orientalist named Count Carlo de Landberg (1849-1924).

The stones had been broken out of the living rock at a site in southern Yemen, probably in the Wadi Ar Ruqub near Aden. Count Landberg acquired them in 1898 during a scientific expedition organised by the Imperial Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Count however came into conflict with the rest of the expedition leadership and abandoned the project shortly after they arrived in Yemen. And subsequently he refused to submit the materials he brought home. The inscribed stones ended up in his garden instead.

The inscriptions are religious dedications written in Old South Arabian using the Ancient South Arabian script. They date from about 600 BC to 200 BC and invoke a god named cAmm, that is, “Uncle”. He ruled the moon and the weather and was head of the pantheon in the Kingdom of Qataban.

So if the weather is particularly fine in Saltsjöbaden, and if the moon shines particularly brightly there, then perhaps people there should thank Uncle cAmm.

My old friend Jan Peder Lamm described the find circumstances and Count Landberg in Fornvännen 1993. And Jan Retsö analysed the inscriptions.


Ever since the first role-playing game was published in 1974, characters in the games have typically had quite an odd lifestyle and a strange set of motivations. The game rules often describe them as adventurers who go adventuring. They’re essentially violent homeless vagrants, or murderhobos. I got to thinking about what an adventurer is in the real world, today.

  • Professional mountaineer / polar explorer / extreme sportsperson
  • Backpacker
  • Hiker (not really, as few people hike for more than a week)

And in past definitions of the word:

  • Gambler
  • Financial speculator
  • Mercenary soldier

The word adventurer is more than four times as common in English writing from around 1800 as in current writing. This is clearly because of the change in the word’s sense. Like in 1800, we certainly still talk a lot about financial speculators and not a little about mercenary soldiers. But we have very few professional mountaineers, and most current writing is not about Dungeons & Dragons.

The German Abenteurer means today what its English cognate means. Peaking in use during WW2, it has not seen any dramatic change in frequency since 1800. The French aventurier has never been a common word but is no less common today than in 1800. It now means “an unscrupulous person who resorts to intrigue, breach of trust, dishonest speculation and violence to achieve notoriety, fortune, power, etc.” Entertainingly, Larousse glosses it as a synonym of captain of industry and schemer!

The Swedish historical dictionary SAOB says nothing about our word äventyrare yet, because Ä is the penultimate letter in our alphabet.

Stop Prefixing with “So”

I was pleased to learn from Current Archaeology #330 (p. 65) that Chris Catling shares my distaste for the habit scientists have recently picked up of prefixing their answers to interview questions with ”So…”.

Q: Where did you find the new exciting fossil?
A: So we found it in Mongolia.
Q: How old is it?
A: So it’s from the Early Cretaceous.

What annoys me about this isn’t just that it’s new. I know that us speakers change language over time. My irritation is down to the fact that I reserve ”So”, when used in this position in a phrase, for two other purposes. Either to mean ”thus, ergo, it follows that”, or to indicate that I spoke about this before and was interrupted, and now I want to pick up where I left off. Neither of these apply to your first response in an interview. To my ear, it’s as bad as opening with ”Nevertheless” or ”On the other hand”.

Dear scientist, if a question about your recently published work, the work for which you have scheduled an interview with the radio, takes you by surprise, then feel free to prefix your reply with ”Well…” while you think about it. If you must.

The Lovecraftian Horror of French

1972 back-cover blurb
1972 back-cover blurb

I bought a used copy of Maurice Lévy’s Lovecraft ou du fantastique (Paris 1972) at the Fantastika 2016 scifi con, and now I’m picking my way through it with the aid of a dictionary. S.T. Joshi has published an English translation, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (Detroit 1988).

Here’s how little of Lévy’s literary French I understand without a dictionary. This back-cover blurb is a particularly hairy piece of writing, I should say.

The case of Lovecraft … the thick volume of fantastic literature. A limited case where … should cease: between a neurosis which, while it let phantasms bloom in writing, never would become quiet, and the … power of myth, rootedness, the return to …, modest foundation of … . Between the imagery of dreams – innumerable invaders of which the story … the equivocal but knew it also just well enough to become its structure –, and the work of wakefulness which … and organises them according to its persistent logic. But what power does the wakeful man’s persistence have against the might of the night if he has already quietly consented? … believe that the Origin conceals itself there…

An Heraldic Snail

snäckstavikI visited Grödinge church south of Stockholm for the first time Thursday. The occasion was my great aunt Märta’s funeral, an event which, though of course sombre, cannot be called tragic. The old lady was always cheerful and friendly, but by the time she passed away she was 104, severely disabled, and according to her many descendants quite tired of it all. As I like to say, I don’t fear death but I certainly don’t want to become disabled or isolated in my old age. For most of her remarkably long life Märta was in fine shape, and she was never isolated at all.

Grödinge is one of Sweden’s many thousand Medieval churches, and in those there are always innumerable details to catch the eye of anyone with an antiquarian bent. From my pew I looked at the 17th century funeral arms that so commonly adorn the walls. We were in the eastern bay of the nave with four sets of arms commemorating members of the Rosenhielm family, who have roses cheerfully sprouting from their heraldic helmet. But on the north wall of the chancel I could just make out two arms with what looked a lot like… an heraldic snail. After the service I looked closer and found that this was in fact the case. And I soon realised that it’s a funny case of folk etymology gone heraldic.

The plaque under the arms in the picture reads “Here lies buried the late Honourable Lord Lars Sneckenfeldt of Sneckstavyk, His Majesty’s trusted servant, born into this world in Stockholm in the year 1621 on the 23 April, and deceased in Our Lord at Sneckstavyk the 10 June 1664”.

Lord Lars was Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna’s secretary and the first nobleman of his line. His manor was the first one in the parish to receive säteri tax exemption. The property went back at least to the Viking Period or more likely the 6th century, and had previously been named Brötsta. Säteri manors however often received new names, and Snäckstavik (as we now spell it) is typical of the genre. The new manorial name referenced a nearby inlet of the Baltic Sea, Snäckviken, and the new noble line’s name referenced that of their manor.

But why a snail? Well, Snäckviken does mean “Snail Inlet” in modern Swedish, now as in the 17th century, and that is how Lord Lars interpreted it. But as we now know, this place name is almost a thousand years old. And in the 12th century, Snäckviken meant “Warship Inlet”. Names with snäck- dot our coasts and have plausibly been connected to the nascent Swedish kingdom’s naval organisation of the 11th and 12th centuries, the ledung. I’m sure Lord Lars would have been happy with a warship as his heraldic symbol. But as it was, he got something quite unique thanks to a misunderstanding.

Update 24 March 2023: Things are actually more complicated here than I thought. Peder Eriksson Skute (1535-1616), mayor of Linköping which is nowhere near Snäckviken in Grödinge, had a coat of arms with three snails. So had his daughter Margareta Pedersdotter Skute (1560-1657), whose second husband Adler Salvius received Brötsta on Snäckviken for his country seat. Only after that was Brötsta renamed Snäckstavik. A misunderstanding, as I thought: but heraldry first, not the manor’s name!

Grödinge Church
Grödinge Church

Messrs Silk, Licker and Ball Carve Some Runes

We interrupt this transmission for a puerile message from Medieval Bergen. It was found carved with runes on a stick at the Hanseatic docks.

ion silkifuþ a mek en guþormr fuþcllæikir ræist mik en : ion fuþkula ræþr m(e)k (N B434)

“John Silkencunt owns me and Guttorm Cuntlicker carved me and John Cuntball reads me”

Philologists are not certain as to whether fuþkula, “cuntball”, means clitoris, or a well-padded mons veneris, or “cunt cavern”. All the three mentioned men are historical figures known from other sources, but apparently they are usually referred to there as John Silk, Guttorm Licker and John Ball. Possibly a young Guttorm is making fun of all three names here by adding fuþ to them.

For some good, solid and frank scholarship on this theme, I recommend Carita Holm’s recent MA thesis in runology from Uppsala (written in Swedish).

The Viking Age Is Really A Period

I have a problem with the term Viking Age. And it’s not likely that I will ever get satisfaction. Because I am a Scandy archaeologist, and the term is owned by UK historians and the general English-speaking public.

The three-ages system was established by C.J. Thomsen in his 1821 book Ledetraad. It divides Scandinavian Prehistory into three ages, characterised by the material used in cutting tools: first stone, then bronze, then iron. In Swedish, this taxonomical level is the ålderstenåldern, bronsåldern, järnåldern – using the close cognate of what Snorri back in the 13th century called his imagined periods of the past. Later in the 19th century Oscar Montelius divided these three åldrar into perioder. And over the 20th century later contributors subdivided these perioder into Stufen or faser. It’s a three-tier taxonomy which, translated into English, gives us ages consisting of periods consisting of phases. Obviously a part of an age can’t also be an age. That would be like calling a slice of bread “a loaf”, or calling a steering wheel “a car”. (Or, if you really want to get crazy, like calling your computer “the hard drive”.)

But. Long before there was any prehistoric archaeology, English historians were using the word age to refer to any demarcated historical interval, such as the Middle Ages – and the Viking Age. To them, the Viking Age was “the time when our island used to get raided or conquered or ruled by Vikings”, i.e. from the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From the perspective of British written history, the raids and the Danelaw are the single most important thing the Scandinavians were doing at the time – indeed, the only thing they did that is worthy of attention, since they did it in Britain and it’s almost the only thing about them that got recorded in writing. Historians don’t deal with silent periods.

To Scandinavian archaeologists, though, the raids on Britain are of little importance since they didn’t occur on our turf. We deal with what people were doing in Scandinavia at the time: mainly living on farms, burying the dead, erecting rune stones, hoarding silver, establishing our first towns and getting our first large-scale political organisation together. To us, the Viking time interval is a period of the Iron Age which starts with the appearance of certain jewellery types and ends with the appearance of masonry architecture. It is most emphatically not an Age. And that’s why, when I write in English, I stubbornly say “Viking Period” (94,000 Google hits) instead of “Viking Age” (955,000 Google hits).

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.

Hedge-Wizards and Hedge-Parsons

The Grey Mouser, along with Fafhrd the Northerner hero of Fritz Leiber’s genre-defining sword & sorcery story cycle, is the archetype of the Dungeons & Dragons thief. He began his career however, Leiber informs us, as apprentice to a “hedge-wizard” who taught him some simple magical cantrips. I never understood what a hedge-wizard was, until now. I imagined it had to do with living in a squalid cottage out in the fields and being in touch with nature, druid-like.

Reading Avram Davidson’s story “The King Across the Mountains”, I now came across a hedge-parson. And googling, I found out that such a priest was once “an Irish priest ordained without having studied at a regular college, but at a hedge school”. And such a school was “in Ireland, school kept in a hedge corner. An open air school”. (All according to Arthur English, A Dictionary of Words and Phrases Used in Ancient and Modern Law, Washington D.C. 1899.)

I wonder what sort of reader Leiber was envisioning, who would be able to make and appreciate the hedge-wizard – hedge-parson link.

Update 17 March: Dear Reader Derek points to an excellent selection of usage for the word “hedge-priest” and explains, “I think, the sort of reader who, like Leiber, would have read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, that was quite popular in his day. Thanks to Scott and other 19th century authors, and their imitators, the hedge-priest was quite a cliché of historical novels set in mediaeval England.”

I haven’t read Ivanhoe in English and my edition is abbreviated. One part that’s been omitted, I now discover, is the argument in chapter 33 where the Prior calls Brother Tuck a hedge-priest.

Quaint Local Pronunciation

My boss at the Academy of Letters used to head the National Archives. Here’s a story he told over coffee the other day.

Some decades ago a delegation of Swedish archivists was driving across the American Midwest to visit a Mormon microfilming facility. Stopping in a small town for lunch, they noticed that it had an unusual name in a Native American language. At a fast food restaurant, the head of Stockholm’s town archives asked the cashier,

“Excuse me miss, we’re from Sweden and this place has such an unusual name. Could you please tell me how to pronounce it?”

The young lady stared at him for a moment, and then said loudly and slowly,