Gingerbread Cult of Saint Lucy

A re-run from 12 December 2006.

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Tomorrow’s the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son’s school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It’s a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we’re still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can’t believe it’s almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here’s the first verse:

Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,
Lícumafinde!

And in Swedish:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!

The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento…, “The silver star gleams over the sea…”.

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Surrender to Your Darkest Dreams, Kids, in Church

Last night I attended Junior’s school concert in the church of St. Catherine in Stockholm. Here are some of the lyrics sung by the 13-14-year-olds in front of the altar.

Because the world is round it turns me on

Because the wind is high it blows my mind

“Because”, Lennon & McCartney

And

Night-time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses

Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams
Purge your thoughts of the life you knew before
Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar
And you’ll live as you’ve never lived before

Softly, deftly, music shall caress you
Hear it, feel it secretly posses you
Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind
in this darkness that you know you cannot find
The darkness of the music of the night

Let your mind start to journey through a strange new world
Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before
Let your soul take you where you long to be
Only then can you belong to me

Floating, folding, sweet intoxication
Touch me, trust me savor each sensation
Let the dream begin, let your darker side
give in to the power of the music that I write
The power of the music of the night

You alone can make my song take flight
Help me make the music of the night

Charles Hart, “The Music of the Night”, from The Phantom of the Opera

Welcome to the Church of Sweden!

Dark Vengeance of Cryptic Slaughter

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Discreetly hidden under the northern side of the eastern bridgehead of rural Täckhammar bridge is a spray-painted mural. I found it while checking for geocaches. It depicts an evil-looking male face accompanied by a really funny piece of Satanist prose poetry.

“Dark vengeance of cryptic slaughter and Satanic suffering. The boundaries of Hell will brake [!] and humanity fall into frantic oblivion. Hatred and pain will forever rule the realm of Man.”

Dark Vengeance is a 1998 computer game. Cryptic Slaughter was an 80s thrash metal band. “Frantic oblivion”, though an oxymoron, is actually a common expression with many google hits. The mural is protected from the elements down there, and my guess is that it was sprayed a decade ago (note the algae covering the left-hand margin) by some metal-head teen. I wonder if he still foresees the braking of the boundaries of Hell.

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Norm Sherman is an Elder God

i-99bb54c6ae91e6f4d7e2b1aa2a7b277f-normsherman.jpgI’ve listened to Escape Pod, the science fiction short-story podcast, for four years now. And lately I have become increasingly awed by one of the newer hosts, Norm Sherman. His writing is acerbic, his delivery is deadpan, the guy is just so cool and funny. On the most recent EP episode he played an absolutely sublime H.P. Lovecraft love ballad that he’s written and recorded, and it turns out the guy is a veritable Jonathan Coulton! Only one who speaks as well.

Cuz you’re my quasi-icthyan angel
You’re my half amphibian queen
You’re the Overlord of my Universe
You’re the Tormentor of my Dreams
You’re my starry-eyed web-footed wonderful
You’re The Thing that Can Never Be
You’re my fish-frog demigod and baby girl I’m your
filthy gibbering lunatic priest

There’s nothing for it. I’m going to have to subscribe to Sherman’s podcast, The Drabblecast, and listen through the back episodes. All 141 of them. And if you’re anything like me, you probably should too.

Update 21 December: And on the most recent episode, Sherman’s got a hi-la-ree-ous story about cryptozoology and another love ballad; this one about the elusive Mongolian Death Worm. Is there anything this man can’t do?

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Intellectual Aristocrat

One of the best friends I made during my decade in the Tolkien Society is Florence Vilén; poet, novelist, connoisseuse of art and letters. She recently published a volume of poetry, Purpurpränt. Dikter med rim och reson. And earlier tonight when she visited us she threw out one of the aristocratic one-liners she delights in.

Florence once told me off the cuff, “The educated layman became extinct about 1940”. Tonight she happily proclaimed, “I have learned my entire vocabulary of obscene English words from the Times Literary Supplement”.

Mika’s Place for Underwear

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11-y-o Junior bought his first own album last Saturday: Mika’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much. (My own first was Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, bought at age 12 in ’84 or ’85). It’s an excellent record once you’ve gotten used to Mika’s queeny (and Queenish) style of singing: catchy studio pop. And Junior has this awesome “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” mishearing of one of the songs. When he told me about it and played me “By the Time” I couldn’t hear it any other way either.

“By the time I’m dreaming
and you’ve crept out on me sleeping
I’m busy in the place for underwear”

What Mika actually claims to sing in the liner notes is:

By the time I’m dreaming
and you’ve crept out on me sleeping
I’m busy in the blissful unaware

Beowulf Saves the Royal Pub

i-4a92a677ec618f8d0f3cbb4c850f77af-180px-Beowulf.firstpage.jpegI’m finishing writing a book and you guys will have the opportunity to review the manuscript some time towards late summer. The working title is Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats. Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375-1000 in Östergötland, Sweden.

The title alludes to the Old English epic poem about Beowulf. Set mainly in 6th century Denmark, it is all about the petty kings of the time whose political life was centred upon the feasting hall. That’s where raids were planned, guests entertained, loot from raids shared out, religious rituals performed, epic poetry about raids listened to. Without a mead-hall, an armed retinue, a high-born wife, a court poet and a big chest of gold, nobody could be a king. The conflict that drives the first two thirds of the long poem is centred upon certain problems King Hrothgar of the Danes has with his mead-hall “The Hart”. It is being haunted by a bloodthirsty marsh ghoul named Grendel, and while this goes on Hrothgar is unable to function as a king. Who ya gonna call? Hrothgar calls the ghostbusting superhero Beowulf from Götaland (land of the Geatas, in Old English) to take care of the situation.

Now, the other day I was sitting on the gold chest in my hall talking to my high-born wife while the retinue was drinking mead and listening to this long poem about me. My wife is a journalist, and I received her along with a serious haul of gold back when I swore fealty to the Chairman-Emperor of China. She is my main contact with the real world where people have 9-5 jobs, watch TV and follow the news. And when I mentioned the title of the manuscript to her, it turned out that the beowulfian references an Early Medieval scholar takes for granted are completely lost on people from the modern world. “Eastern Geats” she could guess meant something about Östergötland. That’s after all where I’ve done most of my fieldwork in recent years. But “mead-hall” she interpreted, in analogy with Sw. ölhall and Ge. Bierhalle, to mean “pub”. So, outside the book’s main audience of people who take an interest in 1st Millennium Scandinavia, I’m apparently completing a work named “Guide to the Pubs of the Linköping Area”.

Medieval Church Demolished, Rune Stones Found

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Högby near Mjölby in Östergötland is a magical place because of a serious lack of historical sensitivity. In 1876 (which is really late as these things go in Sweden) the locals demolished their little 12th century church and built a new bigger one a mile to the south. This meant that the parish centre of a millennium or so became a backwater and has not been built over later. It’s completely rural, abutting a farm’s back yard, very quiet. All that remains of the church is the churchyard wall and one of Östergötland’s finest rune stones that was taken out of the sacristy wall. Some fine portal stonework and a 13th century door is in the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. Two more carved stones were found and re-erected nearby.

i-c785590f83dcb262c25433185bc1d215-Hogbystenen.jpgOn the big rune stone, dating from about AD 1010-1050, Torgärd’s poetic commemoration of her maternal uncles can be read.

Torgärd erected this stone after Assur, her mother’s brother. He met his end in the East in Greece.

The good farmer Gulle
had five sons:
Fell at Föret [Uppsala?]
did the brave fighter Åsmund.
Assur met his end
to the East in Greece.
Halvdan was
on the island killed. [Bornholm?]
KÃ¥re died at the Cape. [Zealand?]
Dead is also Boe.
Torkel carved the runes.

In all likelihood, the inscription is intended to legitimise Torgärd’s claim to Gulle’s inheritance. Since all her maternal uncles are dead, Torgärd argues, their unnamed sister becomes the heir, and Torgärd inherits her mother.

By the time her descendants decided to add a sacristy to the church, Torgärd’s claim was no longer controversial, but she was probably remembered as a matron of the lineage, possibly its first Christian member. And so her rune stone was made part of the structure.

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Swedish Folkie Greets Spring

Spring’s finally reached Stockholm! To celebrate, here’s a song by one of the city’s finest folk singers, Stefan Sundström, off of his 1992 album Happy Hour Viser, “Happy Hour Songs”. I translate:

Spring Samba
By Stefan Sundström

One morning when he awoke spring was already here
He was bleary, tired and hung over, pretty bedraggled
She got in through the window like a crazy samba in April
And took him right there, no ifs ands or buts

She danced around the room like a stoned tornado
Like a fairy there to wake the mountain trolls
And she ran up to the window and yelled “Our time is now!”
And she stretched her arms wide to the sun

Chorus: Then he said, “Watch out, you might get burned
Watch out”

Well, there he was in the pollen storm, caught red-handed
With his winter’s introverted snowballing
The flies in the window had suffocated from the dust in there
Tired of midnight buzzing

After sitting around getting poisoned like Indian Faqirs
And talking crap for hours about this and that
After he’d gotten hooked on love, always unrequited
He happily ran head first into the wall

He asked her about a lot of things she didn’t know
All she said was “Too much love will only hurt you”
But he refused to believe it, yeah, he couldn’t believe it
And they didn’t care what would happen next

Chorus: And they sang, “But watch out, you might get burned
Watch out”

But now spring was here and swept away every trace
of all the pain way down beneath the snow
And she was zipping around his place throwing up dust clouds from the floor
Someone had to do it after his hibernation

They had to hurry to the train because there wouldn’t be many more of them
He was half asleep standing on the platform
And she left heading for the spring
And he went home and wrote this song

And he sang, “Watch out, you might get burned
Watch out
You gotta look out, my child
Watch out, you might get burned
Watch out”

Voulez-vous?

The Mama Mia movie has revitalised interest in Swedish 70s pop giants ABBA. The other day I heard 10-y-o Junior’s school choir perform “As Good As New”. 5-y-o Juniorette and her pals at daycare sing garbled versions of all the hits, such as “Oo-nay-boo” (“Voulez-Vous”).

I grew up with ABBA and I’m still a big fan. But I haven’t listened systematically through their oeuvre, haven’t really paid much attention to the lyrics as I do when I encounter new music. Looking at “Voulez-Vous”, the title track of the band’s sixth 1979 album, I found something funny.

“Voulez-Vous” is a rousing disco tune, set to raise your pulse and make your pelvis wiggle. The French words mean “Do you want to?”. Its musical mood is excitement, anticipation of something pretty steamy:

People everywhere
A sense of expectation hanging in the air
Giving out a spark
Across the room your eyes are glowing in the dark

But reading the lyrics, I realise that the song’s a bit of a joke: it’s actually about being bored with the disco meat-market:

And here we go again, we know the start, we know the end
Masters of the scene
We’ve done it all before and now we’re back to get some more
You know what I mean

Andersson and Ulvaeus are about 33 years old here. They’ve made all the disco conquests they care to make. Though still certainly not unaffected by music, they’re no longer very excited by the prospect of taking a stranger to bed.

Voulez-vous?
Take it now or leave it
Now is all we get
Nothing promised, no regrets
Voulez-vous?
Ain’t no big decision
You know what to do
I can still say “Voulez-vous?”

And while I’m at it, let me point out that “Feel the beat on the tambourine” is a really strained rhyme. The beat? On a frickin’ tambourine? I don’t think so!