The urge to decorate is as old as mankind. Since time immemorial, adornments have served as status indicators, cultural and national insignia, as well as tribal trademarks. Heraldic badges and coats of arms mark political and familial affiliations, and entire power structures are ranked according to number of stripes or the colors of their dress. During times when large portions of the populace were illiterate, painted and sculpted decor served to inform, educate and intimidate. Our various modes of decoration can place us in a temporal continuum as fashionable styles come and go, and entire dissertations have been written on whether surface ornamentation in architecture is even a legitimate practice – or not. So, considering the endless number of uses for all kinds of adornments, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I learned that builders – even in christianized, medieval Scandinavia – carved ancient symbols, etched messages, and burned marks into their buildings. The truth is though, that the realization tickled me to no end…
Rarely, if ever, will we have the privilege of learning the specific stories behind these marks as they have mostly receded into the fog banks of time. But, from what little is known, we do know that many were put there as a safeguard against sorcery and spirits – a direct attempt to protect property and its owners from harm. These markings constituted a plea to the universe to preserve the prosperity of the homesteads and bestow good fortune on its inhabitants.
Of course, there were also marks of the more profane variety. Take, for example, the “fäbod” – a kind of summer farm up in the hills, to where young girls – and occasionally boys – herded goats and cattle for summer grazing. Most of the fäbod-carvings are attributed to having lots of time to spend and – although rather plentiful – are not as interesting as the marks intended to protect. I guess you could say they were the equivalent of modern day scribbles of the kind you’d find in public bathrooms. Even so, it’s pretty exhilarating to see a stranger’s note to prosperity, over two hundred years later.
In the historic inventory, besides the marks attributed to the urge for artistic expression or a need to stave off boredom, there is also an abundance of commemorative carvings signifying special events. To me though, the far most interesting ones are the marks invoking spiritual and magical protection. Those symbols have been used for millennia in other media and applications, for example in the bronze age rock carvings in Tanum, Bohuslän, dating from 2-3000 years prior. Others show up in pre-Reformation church paintings, traditional tapestries and textiles, etc. Some still show up – in the ubiquitous forms of the saffron buns Swedes bake for the winter holidays each year. In no way do I claim to be a scholar in these matters, but I know a pattern when I see one… Coincidence? Cultural continuity? I don’t know, and I welcome any insights any of you might have. I, for one, am completely intrigued by this…
As I was researching my post on how builders in the past determined quality wood, I picked up a small book from 1965 called “Timmerhus”, published by Dalarnas fornminnes och hembygdsförbund. The book captures several aspects of log building typical to that region, and gives a historical overview of their gradual refinement over the centuries. The first chapter provided an in-depth examination of “Ornäsloftet” – an unusually large and elaborate timber structure from the end of the 1400‘s, and one of the most famous log buildings in Sweden.
Besides its unusual size and architectural form, the reason for Ornäs’s fame is that it provided the setting for one of the most heavily cited dramas of Swedish history; the escape of the future king Gustav Eriksson Vasa. He was alerted to the fact that his seemingly hospitable host – the wealthy silver and copper magnate Stig Hansson – was about to betray his whereabouts to the Danish. Gustav had managed to escape the Stockholm Bloodbath – where, among many others, his father met his fate – and immediately headed north to the province of Dalarna to round up support among the powerful land and mine-owners, to oust the Danish king Christian II and his troops. Hansson’s daughter, Barbro Stigsdotter, who had overheard her father’s intentions, warned the handsome stranger.. Vasa made his infamous escape through the privy, down to a waiting sled, which eventually brought him to safety. After failing to convince the wealthy patriarchs of Mora to join him, Gustav Vasa took off on skis to continue his rallying for support further up the country. Before long, the mighty men of Mora changed their minds, and sent out a pair of brothers to pursue the young noble. They caught up with him in Sälen, 90 kilometers away. The rest, of course, is history. Today the event is annually commemorated with an exceptionally well attended marathon cross-country ski race – Vasaloppet.
The above story alone is enough to have brought scores of tourists and culture gawkers to Ornäs. I too, have been there, but I really wish I had read this little book before going. Knowing what I know now would have made my visit so much more meaningful. And, for sure, I would have been able to offer much better photos for this particular blog entry.
In days past, there were several ways to ensure the protection, preservation and continued good fortune of a homestead, and its inhabitants. In terms of markings, there are essentially three types – the openly visible, the semi-concealed, and the completely hidden. Most commonly, the door and its surrounds was adorned by sculpting the wood with decorative carvings. To modern designers and architects, the front door has generally been reduced to mere opportunity to mark the entry and make a good first impression. To generations past, however, it represented the notable passage to the relative safety of Home from a world largely controlled by wild beasts, unknown enemies, spirits and mythical beings. The door as a symbol of transition and passage is universal, and here it represents the difference between safety and lurking danger. Scandinavian folklore is full of trolls, elves, fairies, giants, etc., who were capriciously and continuously conspiring against people and causing havoc in their lives. A benevolent counteract to these mystical forces was the generally kind spirit called the “tomte” – the farm’s caretaker who lived on the farm.
Ornate portals are well represented in Nordic farm culture. A snippet from Sigrid Undset’s trilogy about the headstrong “Kristin Lavransdatter” comes to mind. The quote is from her father, where he laments the bad luck and misfortune brought on, despite his placing of an ornate header above the front entrance of his home. Instead of giving the ill-slated house prominence and glory, he mourns, it had had the opposite effect, and brought misery and ill-repute. The poor man complains he should have done better by placing it over the door to the outhouse.
Openings in walls – other than doors which could be opened and shut at will – were also considered potentially dangerous, as spirits from the underworld, supernatural beings and evil could easily enter through them. Buildings during the middle ages did not have windows per se, but smaller cut-outs called “tut-gluggar”. Up until the end of the 1500’s, the practice was to use “holy fire” to burn the area around these openings, as well as in all rooms devoid of fireplaces. There is ample evidence of this type of purification at Ornäs. Around that time, the practice of burning started to give way to the notion that the actual shape of the opening could achieve the same measure of protection. What had previously been simple, rectangular openings now often started to take on other, more divine shapes.
The Swedish farm dwellers called these shaped openings “vitter-gluggar”. “Vittror” were a kind of supernatural beings who were thought to live their lives parallel to humans in an alternate reality. Controlling the shape of the opening would protect the inhabitants from potential ill-will. Often, the openings took on the shape of two triangles with two points facing each other, like “a god’s eyes”, watching over the farm.
Other times the openings were modeled after a sun cross – also known as a swastika. The swastika, of course, became the symbol of ultimate evil when it was incorporated into the flag of Nazi Germany in the 1930‘s, but its origins reach back much farther than that. Around almost the entire globe, it is a universal symbol with roots in prehistory, and a complexity of meaning worthy of its own blog entry. For the purpose of this one, however – suffice it to say that it traditionally stood for all things good; sun, fire, good luck, well wishes, blessings, longevity, fecundity, health and life. The “tut-glugg” openings in the shape of carved sun crosses are obviously out in the open for all to see, but Ornäs has an abundance of hidden swastikas too – a fact I found even more intriguing. You can find the silent guardians near the joints where two logs were spliced. Likewise, where timbers converge in a corner, the horizontal surfaces were often adorned with a sun cross to block malicious forces from passing through to the interior. (Since they can only be partially seen, you know they were put there when the building was erected – not later.) Swastikas also often show up as a carved accompaniment to the ubiquitous burn marks around the openings.
Chimney flues were also risky spots, where especially witches were prone to enter. Remember that the 15th century was when Europe was well into the throes of the Black Plague, and the witch scare was in full, brutal development. (You can read more about that near the end of my post about Halloween.) Often a rooster – modeled after Gyllenkamme, who in traditional Norse myth sat atop Yggdrasil (the World Tree) and kept time and watch – was placed as a look-out on top of the chimney. The rooster continued on in Christianity as a symbol for watchfulness, which made its roof top assignment make sense. The rooster’s role in the weathervane is to keep its eye on the winds and alert people to the potential evil they bring. Another popular weathervane motif was the head of a dragon or serpent, harking back to pre-Christian beliefs of the dragon Nidhögg who constantly gnawed at Yggdrasil’s root. As a gesture to Christianity, you will also often see a cross used. An interesting side note; the origin of the word “window” is “wind-eye” from the Norse “vindu” or “vindøye”.
But, back to the carved markings mentioned earlier… At Ornäs, the carvings that made my heart beat a little faster are four footprints that are carved into a door. This same type of motif shows up at the bronze age petroglyphs in Tanum (dating from approximately 1800 to 500 BCE). According to my little book, similar carvings of footprints had been found on a couple of other old buildings, which would indicate that it was not a random occurrence. On the rock carvings, the appearance of feet has been interpreted as an indication of the presence of an unseen deity. I guess we’ll never really know, but it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to think that the ones on the door might have similar origins – a kind of unseen guardian.
On one of the doors at Ornäs, there are also five round indentions – as if five fingers had pushed the wood in. To my eye, these too seem to have an equivalent in the rock carvings, except they are much more abundant carved in stone. The flat granite and gneiss expanses in Tanum are littered with round little “bowls”. Archaeologists call them “skålgropar” [transl. “bowl pits”]. In vernacular tongue, they are referred to as
“älvkvarnar” or [“fairy mills”]. The fairy mills are thought to be associated with fecundity and health. I found a fascinating reference from the early part of the 1900’s – several documented accounts of these types of “bowls” being greased as offerings to the fairies in exchange for health. This ritual was always performed by old, wise women. According to one of them, it should be done nine Thursdays in a row. It’s fascinating reading, but unless you speak Swedish, it unfortunately won’t make much sense to you.
Given the nature of log buildings, the oldest are by now few and far between. The Ornäs loft, dating from the late 1400’s is one of the oldest remaining in Sweden. Part of the beauty of log buildings is how easily they can be taken apart and moved. This happened rather often, and the logs were repurposed to form new buildings. Because of this, unless the etching in question is clearly accompanied by a number indicating a year, it is often quite difficult to determine its age. The sketches of carvings shown below (copied from “Timmerhus”) date from about the 1500’s and on. These carvings survive because they were copied down by historians and interested laymen before the buildings themselves were torn down, or disassembled. Unless accompanied by a date – if the carving depicted a person, the most reliable method for dating them were by identifying the fashions and weaponry of the day. Mind you, as Dalarna was far removed from any fashionable metropolis, it is probably fair to assume a substantial temporal elasticity when dating based on contemporary dress.
The majority of protective markings came overwhelmingly from two kinds of buildings. The most common were barns – in particular threshing barns, but also from the dairy variety. This was where the valuables – the residents’ sustenance – were stored. It represented the prosperity, health and survival of the family. The second building type sporting a wealth of carvings, was the mill. A visit to the mill often offered plenty of down-time, as its customers traveled from afar to wait while their grain was milled into flour. In places like this, there are often groups of multiple carvings, presumably done over time. A certain artistic competitiveness is apparent. I would love to be able to show you more actual photos, but sadly, as I just mentioned, most of these buildings don’t exist anymore. Not sure if the real thing remains in a museum somewhere, but for now, this is all I’ve got to show you.
As mentioned earlier, the most elaborate carvings were usually placed on or near the door. Often the carved magic served to enforce equally adorned locks – as an extra precaution. The actual iron locks and hinges themselves often incorporated protective markings that – until I read otherwise – I would have attributed to the aforementioned decorative urge. But no – grid patterns in the metal, either straight or on the diagonal, were there to fend off ghosts and unwanted spirits!
Steel, or metal in general, was believed to have magical properties, and flaunting it was a sure-fire way to protect yourself. Until a new baby was properly baptized, it was thought to be particularly vulnerable. Its safety was often enforced by putting a knife or other metal objects in its cradle. When old buildings were dismantled, plugged up holes placed near the thresholds of entrances, were often revealed. When the holes were unplugged, it was found that they often contained metal objects, placed near the doors to ensure extra security. In several instances, lead tubes from the 1100’s containing scrolls with runic inscriptions and decidedly heathen adjurations to guard against evil, were found in old convents and monasteries. Likewise, “Timmerhus” mentions finds from the 16 – 1700’s where letters to the Devil had been quietly slipped into the keyholes of the northern portal of various churches, asking for protection and assistance in weathering, for instance, economic hard times. Complementary (or freestanding) carvings of axe heads are also common, to invoke the strength of steel.
Mills were usually situated by streams or water ways – which were inhabited by mystical forces, and often considered dangerous. In folklore, the spirit of lakes and water ways was called Näcken. Often depicted as a nude man enchantingly playing the violin, he could change shape into a large and beautiful white or gray horse – Bäckahästen – who would lure people onto its back and to their drowning death into the water. Only by either uttering God’s name or by tossing an object made of steel in the path of this beast, could you break his spell and avert the tragedy.
Light colored horses have always been important in Norse myth. Odin rode a gray eight-footed mare named Sleipnir, and clouds gliding across the skies were said to be the steeds of the Valkyries. The horse was considered a “lucky” animal, and ruled the fields, forests, sun and rain – all of which were important in a farming society. As a traditional motif in traditional textiles, the horse has evolved from rather straight-up depictions to very stylized, as necessary in a weft and warp application. As the stylized horses are linked together, they create diagonal, swastika-like forms. In wood, the same diagonal dynamic is popular in the common simple but elegant ornamentation of doors.
Perhaps the continuity of patterns I’m relating above is a mere figment of my imagination, but to me, it sure seems like a transposition of patterns stretching across the ages, with shifting materials and applications. All serve to ease the uncertainty of human existence – like a well-distributed thin veil of existential precaution. If any of you know better, please let me know. I would love to hear what you have to say. It took me two months to compile the images to support this post. I have a feeling I’m not done yet, but I think it’s a decent start. So with this near guarantee of future additions and revisions, I leave you for now. Happy New Year, and have a fabulous 2013! May it be your best year yet!
In addition to the aforementioned “Timmerhus” published in 1965 by Dalarnas fornminnes och hembygdsförbund, I relied on my own photos and the books listed below, as well as online searches for photos and illustrations for this post.
Scandinavian Painted Decor by Jocasta Innes
John Bauer – en Konstnär och hans Sagovärld, published by Nationalmuseum
Förstukvistar i Hälsingland by Hilding Mickelsson
Norwegian Wood – a Tradition of Building by Jerri Nolan
Världsarv i Norden by Leif Anker & Ingalill Snitt
Designer’s Guide to Patterns – Scandinavian by Thomas Parsons