Samla Mammas Manna
A plane slowly approaches Visby from the north. Flying unnecessarily low, maybe at 2,000 feet, it returns from the south a bit later. My guess is that the plane is GlobalEye, an early warning & control system (AEW&C) developed by Saab and mounted on Bombardier ultra-long range jet aircraft. Its comprehensive sensor suite includes an extended range radar, Adaptive Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), and all the gizmos a nerd could hope for. Through its multiple operator terminals, it provides centralized target data not just for the pair of Gripen fighter jets that follow a bit later, but for inter-service military use, including the navy, coastal and field artillery, and AA. Along with the Gotland Brigade, redeployed in 2018 and probably thoroughly refitted recently, it sends a clear message to the Danes and other old foes that Nordic democracy will be defended.
And there sure are a lot of democrats on the island today.
I’m about to find out that the show of force and extra security measures are also due to the political carnival called the Almedalsveckan. Visiting Gotland by ferry from Helsinki, I was mentally prepared for the hordes of my unmannered and unsober compatriots on board the Silja Europa, but I had not anticipated that the Visby old town would be overrun by political parties and civil organizations of all imaginable creeds and callings. There is a stand, pavilion, or a soap-box at every ancient corner, with Social Democrats, Sweden Democrats, Christian Democrats — more democrats than you can shake a stick at — as well as associations of LGBT activists, hunters, gatherers, farmers, vegans, and the Falun Gong, all propagating their agenda. While grabbing a quick beer in the afternoon heat and watching the latter do their Tai-Chi exercises, the half-forgotten Swedish words abruptly come to my head.
SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA.
The progressive hippie musical group from the 70’s probably came up with the worst band name ever conceived, but, nonsensically, it suddenly made all the sense to me. Who knows, maybe they even played here.
Fortunately for this idiot (for that’s the word for a person who is not interested in the democracy of the polis), the amplified tirades did not penetrate the stone walls of Fornsalen, the sanctuary for Gotland’s unique picture stones.
“Te saxa loquuntur” – Stones speak
There are about 3,000 known rune stones in Scandinavia, most of them in the Swedish province of Uppland. Some rune stones have pictures, and while some of Gotland’s picture stones (about 570 are known) have runes, too, I consider them an uniquely artistic visual testament to a cosmology mostly forgotten. For the most part devoid of the later Viking-era Christian syncretisms, they are often – but not always – associated with cremation grounds, sometimes marking human settlements and roads, but, as suggested by Anders Andrén, they also seem to demarcate the inmark and the utmark, the organized cultural world of man and the chaotic world of the spirits and the dead, the Midgård and the Utgård. Maybe they even acted as ritual portals between the two. Runic dedications have sometimes been added at a later date, singing the fame of dead men’s deeds and travels, as so many of the later Viking era rune stones found in mainland Sweden do, but to my autodidactic and amateurish mind, the picture stones of Gotland were, at least at some point in time, much more than that.
Archeological interpretation of the motifs in the stones is somewhat tricky, as only a few of the known stones are still in situ, with most of the non-offensive stones having been incorporated into the island’s disproportionately large number of Christian churches in the Middle Ages. Even before that, many of them were reused in burials, possibly even deliberately broken for cists, making it uncertain whether the remains and grave goods excavated have anything to do with the original motifs in the stone. (One could think that the act of vandalism was not necessarily a case of disrespecting one’s ancestors but a heart-felt attempt of making sure one would join them.) The interpretation is further complicated by the fact that Sune Lindqvist (1887-1976), the pioneer in the study of Gotland’s picture stones, basically made his educated guess for later generations when he re-painted the stones with lamp-black prior to WWII. Like Greek statues, the stones had certainly been painted after being engraved by their erectors, commonly with ash-black and earth-red, but after the wear and tear of centuries, some of the lines on the limestone were barely visible and required some artistic guesswork from Lindqvist when restored. With modern 3D scanning, some previously invisible details have come up, however, forcing some motifs to be reinterpreted.
In his pioneering work Gotlands Bildsteine I-II (1941-1942), Lindqvist categorized the stones into four overlapping groups, the typo- and chronologies of which have seen some minor modifications by later research. The earliest stones (Group A) date from ca. 100 to 600 CE and are characterized both by their monumental size (often 2,5–4 meters in height [8.2–13.1 feet]) and their iconography: the upper part is usually dominated by a round whirl, followed by antagonistic, mirror-like motifs – knotted wheels, serpents, horses, men – while the bottom part features a ship.
One magnificent example in the Fornsalet is “Sanda Kyrka IV” (I’m following Lindqvist’s naming). Standing 3,3 metres (10.8 feet) high, it was found in two parts, the first ca. 1900 and the second in 1957.
The Ship of Night
Some scholars have seen the origin of the whirling disc in Roman mosaics and gravestones. I remember first seeing it in Saarenmaa, the large island off the coast of Estonia, where it still seems to be a common motif in folk art. One could imagine the swirl symbolizing the sun, or the seasonal wheel, especially as it would later often morph into a triskul or swastika (see “Hablingo Havor II”). In “Sanda Kyrka IV”, the swirl has eight rays, each with its own number of bristles, but only six in e.g. “Hablingo Havor I” below.
Davidson (1969) saw the swirl in “Sanda Kyrka IV” representing the whole cosmos, which would make sense if the center can be counted as the ninth “ray”, thus symbolizing the nine worlds supported by Yggdrasil. The two serpents below, who both have seven “running dogs”, would symbolize the sun and the moon, followed by the self-evident world tree Yggdrasil in the middle. In her view, the ship and the (Midgård) serpent symbolized the outer ocean. The sea monster, however, seems stylistically like a later addition.
If memory serves (it often doesn’t), I think Amorphis pilfered the opposing serpents for their merchandise back in the day.
However you interpret the motifs above, though, there is something to be noted about the direction of the ship. The men are not rowing East, to the bloody glories and treasures of Miklagård where the Russian rivers would take them. Around 400 CE, when the stone was erected, the West did not mean the plunders of England yet, it was the direction of the setting sun, the Eveningland, the dark rivers of the Night. Elaborating on Flemming Kaul’s theory and drawing on the Baltic pantheon with its solar goddess Saule, who rode her chariot over celestial mountains during the day and returned in a boat through the underworld at night, Andrén (2012) interprets “Sanda Kyrka IV” as depicting the sun’s sacred course around the world tree:
The large whirl portrays the sun at zenith, the opposing snakes represent the sunrise and sunset — maybe the running dogs are “hours”? — while the world tree stands still in the middle of the world, circled by the sun that is carried back through the rivers of the underworld aboard the “ship of night”. The other creatures would be either “helpers” of the sun, like the Baltic dioscuri who would ensure the sun gets through critical passages, or enemies of the sun that threaten its daily course, as in the Icelandic tradition.
Still, looking at the barren tree of life, one can’t but wonder whether the ship also carried, along with the sun, the spirits of the dead to their sunless abode.
In any case, it is a stone that speaks to me from beyond the centuries, telling of something beautiful, frighteningly meaningful, and poignant.
(To be continued)
Andersson, Aaron 1968. L’art scandinave 2. La nuit des temps 29.
Andrén, Anders 1989. Medeltidens födelse. Symposier på Krapperups borg 1. Lund.
Herlin Karnell, Maria (ed) 2012. Gotland’s Picture Stones – Bearers of an Enigmatic Legacy. Reports from the Friends of the Historical Museum Association Volume 84. Visby: Fornsalen Publishing.
Radhe, Birgitta (ed) 2003. Klenoder i Gotlands Fornsal. Visby: Länsmuset på Gotland.