ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the category “folklore”

Of Easter witches and dire death

I just spoke to one of my colleagues who asked me if I was already comfortably seated on my broomstick.
“Not yet,” I told him. “Some hours to go before the annual get-together:”
“Ah. And do you use GPS or a more traditional compass?”
I snorted. “I just point the broom in the right direction, and off we go.”

witches klm_32779_21.300x0

Easter Witch by Jenny Nyström (Kalmar Läns Museum)

Now, for non-Swedes, the above conversation is something of a mystery. Is my colleague (who is also the HR Director where I work) actually accusing me of being a witch? Yes, he is—but in a nice, seasons greetings sort of way. You see, in Sweden everyone knows that Maundy Thursday is the day when every single witch in the country congregates at the somewhat unspecified destination, Blåkulla.

Blåkulla is the Swedish version of the German name Blockberg. According to tradition, Blockberg/Blåkulla was the location of huge orgies, led by the Devil himself. Witches from all over came to Blåkulla to dance, copulate with Satan and in general go wild and crazy for a couple of days. In Sweden, the days most associated with these events were the days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday—yet another sign of just how depraved the whole business was: while the rest of the country was commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, the evil witches were cavorting with the Prince of Darkness himself.

witches 800px-Albert_Joseph_Pénot_-_Départ_pour_le_Sabbat_(1910)

So how did all these witches travel to Blåkulla? Well, obviously a good broomstick helped. Or a goat, a cat, a length of hazel wood. Whatever mode of travelling was chosen, the witches would use a magic potion to ensure a safe and speedy journey. The then archbishop of Sweden, Olaus Magnus, describes in his book from 1555 how the witches would mix henbane, hemlock, belladonna, mandrake and water lilies into a potent mixture which would not only facilitate their journey but also, when it came in contact with their private parts, incite abnormal lust. Now we must take dear Olaus Magnus with a huge pinch of salt: the man is the author of one of the earlier histories of the Swedish people whereby Sweden was once populated by giants. Still: the herbs mentioned above all have hallucinatory properties, so anyone ingesting or inhaling them may very well have believed they could fly—or dance with the devil himself at Blåkulla.

witches blakulla-700x445

Blåkulla (or Blockberg) German postcard from the early 2oth century

Blåkulla and witches are an old, old thing in Sweden. Already in Västgötalagen – one of the first codified set of laws in Sweden, dating to the early 13th century—it is listed as an offence to accuse someone of having “gone to Blåkulla”. Well, unless there was proof, of course. In general, at this point in time the existence of magic and witches was not questioned, but the Church had little time for such superstition and it was extremely rare for anyone to be taken to court on accusations of witchery. It was even rarer for someone to be executed for being a witch: in cases where the judges found the defendant guilty of using magic to stop the neighbour’s cows from giving milk or to cause someone to trip in the street, usually they were sentenced to public flogging. In itself pretty bad for an invented crime, but better than dying for it.

In a previous post I’ve written of when the persecution of witches really took off in Europe, of the Malleus Maleficarium and the sad fate of all those innocents (mostly women) who just because they were odd or alone or healers or old or contentious or all of the above were accused of witchery by those who wanted to get rid of them. Very, very sad. While women died in their thousands on the Continent, England “only” executed about 300 witches (and very many of them due to the thoroughly despicable Matthew Hopkins). In Sweden, a total of 400 witches were executed between 1492 and 1704. Of these, 300 died between 1668 and 1676, when Sweden fell prey to a major witch hysteria. More of that later.

What is interesting to note is that while there were very few recorded cases of witchery pre-Reformation, no sooner had the Lutheran faith set down roots in Sweden but there was a gigantic increase in witch trials. All that fervour inspired by the new faith seems to have resulted in a desire to root out evil in every form, and now that people could read the Bible for themselves, some of them got stuck on stuff like “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Between 1527 and 1596, Sweden has approximately 100 recorded witch trials. Of these “only” ten ended in a death sentence. Between 1596 and 1598, the number of witch trials was about 140 – a major spike.

In general, Swedish law was unprepared for the increasing accusations of witchery. Medieval law had been lenient, valid law required that the person accused either confessed or that there were six witnesses to her (because it was mostly a her) acts of evil magic for there to be a death sentence.

This was not good according to some of the more vociferous proponents of rooting out all evil and all potential witches. Take, for example, the most unsatisfactory case of Brita the Piper, who was accused of being a witch in 1593. Now Brita admitted to using magic. She even admitted to using magic to further her own needs at the expense of others. But she denied ever having been to Blåkulla and she emphatically denied serving Satan. Her judges found themselves in a difficult position: the woman was obviously dangerous (!) but as long as she insisted on never having served Satan she did not qualify as a full witch and could therefore not be executed. Torture was not allowed at the time, and so Brita was left to languish in jail for two years before the court decided to let her go while exiling her permanently from Stockholm.

Witches John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_CircleIn 1607, a woman was dragged before the court, accused of having used a local wizard to “suck the strength and blood” out of her own son. Wow. Sweden’s only recorded case of vampirism. This horrified the entire establishment. The king himself ordered that the woman be burned at the stake. In view of such evil, things had to change. In 1608, Sweden implemented a new Witchery Law which effectively made any practise of witchery a capital crime. At last the country had the legal structure with which to combat evil!

As an aside, Sweden wasn’t the only country afflicted by “witch fever” at the time. In Denmark, the otherwise so progressive Christian IV was actively rooting out witches and burning them. In Scotland the “wisest fool in Christendom”, a.k.a. James IV (and I of England) was all for destroying evil wherever it was to be found, which resulted in the Berwick Witch Trials.

Despite the new law, the Swedish witches brought to trial in the first few decades of the 17th century were relatively few. Only rarely did these cases end with execution. In most cases the accused was fined or sentenced to public whipping.

witches 800px-Blå_Jungfrun,_bred

Blå Jungfrun – the potential Blåkulla (photo sv:användare:Jochr)

This did not mean that people stopped believing in witches. Come Easter, people would light huge bonfires and fire muskets to scare away any witches planning on using their village as a temporary Blåkulla (and yes, we still light Easter bonfires). Those in the know pointed fingers at the island called Blå Jungfrun (the Blue Maiden) as being Blåkulla—Olaus Magnus had done so already in the 16th century. As the location for a good orgy, Blå Jungfrun has its benefits. Situated some kilometres off the Swedish east coast, it’s an isolated place, so the devil and his acolytes would have been able to let their hair down as they danced, fornicated and feasted on frogs, toads and snakes—normal fare for those who dabbled in evil.

As the years passed, more and more people started thinking that the Swedish witches had been exterminated. Until the events of 1665. In this year, a twelve-year-old girl called Gertrud Svensson was accused by a boy of leading her goats to walk on the water. She was interrogated by the local priest and admitted to having been to Blåkulla on several occasions. She’d been lured there by her father’s maid, Märet Jonsdotter. Just like that, the Swedish witch hysteria began.

Gertrud gave vivid descriptions of what happened in Blåkulla. People fornicated with Satan and several minor devils, they feasted and danced, gave birth to frogs which were then eaten. She admitted to having participated in all these evil acts, but also insisted she’d seen a weeping angel, begging her to help God and his angels free the world of evil. Hence the confession, one imagines.

Poor Märet denied everything. Unfortunately for her, she had a birthmark on her left little finger—a clear sign she’d been marked by Satan. She was sentenced to death. However, as long as she denied her guilt, she couldn’t be executed. Not good. In 1672 the law was changed. A confession was no longer a prerequisite and Märit was beheaded before her remains were burnt at the stake.

Witches Häxprocess_Mora_1670

A depiction of the Witch Trials at Mora in the 1670s

Gertrud was forced to run the gauntlet to whip the evil out of her. Her accusations led to other children remembering they too had been carried off to Blåkulla, and suddenly one woman after the other found herself accused by these “innocents” and dragged off to face trial for witchery. Very often, the proceedings were headed by the local priests who saw evil everywhere. Boys known as “visgossar” (wise boys) were considered exceptionally good at recognising witches and were carted hither and dither to point out the witches in whatever congregation they might be visiting. To further help cleanse the country of evil, torture was used, as was the infamous trial by water. Any woman not conforming to society’s norms was at risk. In some cases, children even gave up their own mothers, swept along by this mass hysteria that saw witches and evil everywhere.

Between Gertrud’s accusation of Märet to 1676, when the authorities in Stockholm put an end to “this ludicrous and superstitious nonsense” close to 300 people were executed, the lion’s share in those regions suffering from bad harvests. The vast majority of the victims were women. As a rule, their child accusers were whipped. After all, they’d participated in the festivities at Blåkulla and needed to be punished so as to save their souls. Me, I think their little souls were lost the moment they lifted their hand to point at a woman and hiss “witch”. Well; at least I hope so.

In 1779, the death sentence for witchery was abolished. Between 1676 and 1779, only five people were executed for dabbling in evil magic. I bet they were just as innocent as all those who died in “the great hullabaloo” of 1668 to 1676.

Having shared all this with you, I feel somewhat less inclined to sit myself astride my broom and whizz off to Blåkulla. What is to me and my contemporaries a cute little story of superstition was to my forebears a reality—and sometimes that reality morphed into a vicious with-hunting beast that left many, many dead in its wake.

When Christmas looms – of decorations, traditions and short stories

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Big, big thing in Sweden. In fact, it is probably the only Sunday of the year when our churches are full, the congregations adding loud and enthusiastic voices to psalms most Swedish people over the age of thirty know by heart. (The younger generation is a lost cause – they prefer other tunes)

julbock 3

A whole table of woolen tomtes – Swedish somewhat more sinister version of the Christmas elf

By the time this Sunday comes around, most self/respecting Swedes will have decorated their homes. Not fully ( As an example, we don’t do trees until some days before Christmas) but there should at least be a poinsettia, some hyacinths, a number of paper stars, candles and a tomte or two. An evergreen wreath on the door is an added plus. Prior to decorating, a major cleaning operation should have taken place.

Now, Advent sort of kicks off the whirling pre-Christmas season. Us Swedes consume mountains of gingerbread biscuits in December, we drink glögg (hot spiced wine served with raisins and almonds) and bake. No Swedish Christmas without home-baked cakes, without a table that groans under the weight of the massive smorgasbord, containing everything from herring, salmon, ham, pork trotters, meatballs, sausages, three types of cabbage, potatoes, cheeses, bread, ribs, and rice-porridge mixed with whipped cream.

IMG_0214

Yum yum – saffron buns

Normally, I would spend December baking. Fruit cake, Swiss rolls, saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, almond cakes, fritters. As I do every year I’d have tried to convince my mother it is high time she gives me her recipe for chocolate and hazelnut cookies. As always, she would promise to do so but keep on forgetting to do so. I’d be considering just how many types of herring I need to pickle and whether it was enough with gravad lax or did we need some smoked salmon as well. By now, I’d have ordered the ham and the ribs. I’d be making toffee and fudge and other goodies. This year, I’m not doing any of that. This year, Christmas will be healthy and very non-traditional.

It’s strange how deep-seated these traditions are, especially if one considers that they’re not much more than a hundred years old or so. If we go back beyond the 19th century, most Swedes were far too poor to eat anything but cabbage and porridge. Only the rich could afford meat for Christmas. Those further down the social hierarchy may have had a pig, but once the beast was slaughtered they sold the meat to buy cabbage and dried peas. (Okay, they may have kept the trotters & feasted on them)

julbock 2Likewise, we burn candles like crazy in December – every self-respecting Swede has an Advent candleholder for four candles plus we do like combating the midwinter dark by lighting as many candles as we possibly can. Our forebears likely didn’t have much more than rush lights, and the very, very cold and dark Swedish winter had them huddling together before their hearths while throwing worried looks at the dark outdoors. After all, everyone knew there were trolls and elves and gnomes in the forest and anyone foolish enough to venture outside after nightfall might very well end up on the troll’s dinner table.

Swedish fairy tales tend to be of the darker type. Rarely does the princess kiss the frog and reveal a prince, Rather she kisses the frog and dies or reveals a huge troll that wants nothing as much as to gobble her down, nicely served on a golden platter (even trolls have style). I suspect these tales reflect the mood of our forefathers, sitting cold and hungry in one-room abodes housing entire families, beasts and a generous complement of fleas and lice. There they were, sitting close together and what better way to pass time but to tell each other stories? Preferably stories that would keep the young ones from exploring too far into the wintry forests…

DD-Blog-Hop-notoptextI like telling stories. (Duh!) So while I will steer clear of all the foodie traditions this year, I am proud to announce that I am taking part in a short-story blog tour which starts today and runs all the way to Christmas. Maximum 2 000 words long, these little nuggets go very well with tea and cake. Or wine and olives. Or coffee and chocolate. And they’re not nuggets – these Diamond Tales are more like sparkling jewels, the entire collection hosted by the Discovering Diamonds review site. So why not spend 15 minutes each day from now to Christmas escaping into a little bubble of glittering escapism? Who knows, you may encounter authors you’ve not read before – always a good thing, assuming you like what you read 😊

julbocken-3004

A typical Swedish Xmas goat with a little “nisse” (elf)

Back to Swedish traditions: In Sweden, we have a Christmas Goat. Very strange, you might think, and there are various explanations as to why we have this fondness for Yule goats. One of the explanations has to do with the old feast day of Saint Nicolas on December 6. Tradition has it that on this day Nicolas would bring gifts to children and to show just how powerful this medieval saint was, he was often accompanied by a goat-figure named Krampus (originally representing the devil) whom Nicolas had on a leash to show that good wins over bad. Not that this was any truer six centuries ago than it is today, but we really do like hoping that the bad will be vanquished by the good, right? Over time, Krampus grew into his own: where St Nicolas would reward the good children, Krampus would punish or even carry off bad children.

After the reformation, St Nicolas was thrown on the scrapheap in Sweden. Saints were scoffed at (except for St Lucia) and instead of having a canonized bishop distribute goodies to the eager children on December 6th, the goat figure/ Krampus took over that role, becoming a mostly benign if stern figure who would reward the good children with presents while butting the bad children with his horns.

The goat was an established symbol here in Sweden loooong before Ansgar made it up here to christen us. Those of you who know your mythology will of course be familiar with the fact that Tor, god of thunder and war, rode a chariot drawn by two impressive goats. Long before St Nicolas & Krampus were household names, us Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice with intense and wet parties that had as their primary purpose to ensure good crops and fertility in the year to come. One tradition was that the last of the sheaves harvested was saved until this midwinter event, at which time it was shaped into a rough representation of a four-legged animal. The resulting “goat” was used in various games but was also seen as a symbol for next year’s harvest, which hopefully would be better (or as good as) this year’s.

julbock 1These days, our goats are mostly decorative. And as we’re now officially in the Christmas season, my goat is already in place, candle and all. As to me, it is time to start clearing my throat and humming a few bars of the first psalm to be sung today!

 

Saving summer in a bottle

midsommar 7409078390_6d0280973b_bToday, Sweden celebrates Midsummer’s Eve. (Being a pragmatic people, we decided quite some years ago to always celebrate Midsummer on a Friday, no matter when the solstice actually happens) All over Sweden, people will be gearing up for one of our favourite holidays, albeit that very often the hoped for sunny weather doesn’t make an appearance. After all, if you’re going to spend the whole day, the whole evening and the whole night (if you’re young, horny and lucky) outside, then it’s much better if it’s warm and dry rather than damp and cold. Fortunately, us Swedes are a hardy lot: we put on an extra layer and dance round the maypole no matter the weather.

Some years ago, it was colder on Midsummer’s Eve than it had been on New Year’s Eve. That was a bummer. As was the year when it snowed on Midsummer. Thing is, even if the sun is shining, many of the outside bits look better on photo and movies than they are in reality. Take that scene in from Here to Eternity where Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster frolic in the surf, well all I can say is Ha! You do that and you end up with sand everywhere. Everywhere.

However, to sit outside on this the year’s longest day is magical. Come evening, we’ll wrap ourselves in blankets – more for the mosquitoes than the cold – and settle down to watch as the day wanes. The sun touches the woods on the opposite shore well past nine, and around ten or so the pink of sunset begins to streak the sky. It never gets fully dark. Instead, the day sinks into a purple dusk, rests there for awhile before rising to the brilliance of a summer dawn.

20170623_094321Many years ago, when I graduated from Junior High, we sang a song called “If I could save time in a bottle”. In retrospect, the lyrics were wasted on a group of fourteen-year-olds, too young, too convinced of their own immortality to even consider saving time. Life was there for the taking, and we didn’t want to save time, we wanted time to hurry up and speed by so that we could become proper adults and get on with life. We’d not quite grasped that life is what happens right here, right now. Only this singular moment is a certainty – yesterday is no more, and tomorrow may never come. Although, for most of us, tomorrow will come, As will the next tomorrow and the next tomorrow, and the next, until one day…Well: you get the point, right?

As I sit on my porch with the glory of summer spread out before me, I do my very best to engrave the moment in my mind, save it as a memory which I can pull out at need on a freezing cold November day – or an equally cold February day – to reassure myself that after winter comes summer. After dark, comes light. After cold, comes warmth.

Resized_20170617_133041001Sometimes, more tangible mementos are required. Which is why in my family we take the making of elderflower cordial very, very seriously. Nothing evokes summer as much as a glass or two of this fragrant beverage. A pale gold, the finished product resembles bottled sunlight, the warmth of summer trapped in a bottle.

First, we have to find the perfect corymbs. Elders have a tendency to attract lice and we definitely don’t want black specks floating around in the cordial, ergo we must be selective – and pick them early. This time round, we picked 240 corymbs.

Resized_20170617_135929For every 80 corymbs, we need two lemons, sliced in two. Plus we need water and sugar. We boil the water, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves, and pour this over the corymbs. After that, we leave it to sit in the dark for several days, stirring every 48 hours.

Resized_20170617_142238We strain it, add a preservative and bottle it. And just like that we’ve captured a little piece of summer, something to tide us over during the months of darkness.

Today, however, winter is far, far off. Today, we’ll sit in the purple dusk and watch the swifts and swallows dart back and forth. From somewhere far away comes the sound of song, of people laughing as they dance around the maypole while singing about little frogs (What can I say? Us Swedes are a strange lot) On the table stands the customary bouquet of seven different flowers, flowers tradition tells us we should take to bed and tuck under our pillow so as to dream of the man in our life. I don’t need to dream. My man is sitting right beside me, his thigh pressed against mine, my hand enclosed in his. Not a bad way to spend Midsummer’s Eve, IMO. Not bad at all.

When history and legend collide – or what happens when you’re stuck in the Dark Ages

May pic 3Today, I have the honour of inviting Mary Anne Yarde to my blog, hoping she will share some insight into the background of her intriguing series The Du Lac Chronicles. Part fantasy, part history, this series transports you to a time when Britain bowed under the weight of the Saxon invadors – always, IMO, an intriguing period! So let us hear what Mary Anne has to say about this distant, somewhat murky time.

**************************************

Have you ever tried to put a jigsaw together in the dark? No? Me neither. But researching The Dark Ages is a little bit like doing a jigsaw without any light. It is complicated.

The British populace finally expelled the Roman occupiers in the year AD 409. But without the might of The Roman Army, Britain found itself under attack by the Scots, Picts, Angles and the Saxons. She turned to Emperor Honorius for help. Instead of troops, Emperor Honorius sent a letter. In it, he told the people of Britain to “… look to their own defences…” Britain was alone. She would get no further help from the Empire.

What happened next was to change the course of British History forever. Britain split back into smaller kingdoms, each ruled by a powerful warlord. There was no unity, only division. How could they possibly stand up to the foreign invaders when they couldn’t stop fighting each other?

may 800px-Arth_tapestry2They needed someone to unite them. And that someone was none other than a man called Arthur. You may have heard of him?

It was Arthur that kept the Saxons away. It was Arthur who united the kingdoms. It was Arthur that brought about peace. Fact! Well, sort of.

The Dark Ages, as you can see, is the time of myths and legends. And the most famous tale of all was about King Arthur and his Knights. Over time, the story of Arthur was expanded upon. They gave him a castle, a court. He became a Christian King, and so it went on. Each tale more elaborate than the last, until Arthur became a superhero on par with Ironman! Of course, when he died, the Saxons took advantage of this power vacuum. They invaded and made Britain their home. Where was the ‘Once And Future King’ while this was going on? Perhaps someone forgot to wake him up!

may The_Death_of_King_Arthur_by_John_Garrick

Death of Arthur – Garrick

Researching the life and time of King Arthur is like searching for a ghost. There is nothing substantial, just theories and stories. But you would think that there would be something more tangible about the Saxon invaders, right?

Not so. The Dark Ages is a little short on historical documents. The chroniclers had left with the Roman Army. So all we have to go on is the damning sermon of Gildas, and the works of Bede and Nennius. It isn’t until Alfred the Great’s time when ink was finally put to parchment. This document became known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

MAY pic 1There is one Saxon invader that I am particularly fascinated with, and that is Cerdic of Wessex. There is a rumour that Cerdic’s troops met Arthur’s at Bardon Hill — Arthur won that day. But when Cerdic learnt of Arthur’s death he gathered his troops once more. Cerdic landed in Hampshire at the end of the fifth Century. He launched a campaign that led them across the South-East of Britain and as far as the Isle of Wight. It was during this campaign that Cerdic…
“…killed a certain British King named Natanleod and five thousand men with him.”  – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Some say that Natanleod was Arthur, while others doubt his existence at all. It is said that Cerdic became the first West-Saxon King of Britain in AD 519. Bear in mind that The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was written over 300 years after Cedric’s death. It is hardly a primary source and should be treated with, maybe not suspicion, but certainly scepticism.

A lot happened between the end of the Roman occupation and the writing of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It was the bards that kept the history alive during this time. Yes, they may have changed the history a little to make for a more exciting tale, but they can be forgiven because they had to make their money somehow. So you can see the problem the chroniclers had. The Dark Ages and folklore go hand in hand. It is almost impossible to separate them. They are weaved together so tightly that to try to unpick the truth from the fiction would damage the tapestry. Ruin it. So the chroniclers could only work with what they had and what they had was folklore.

In my series, The Du Lac Chronicles, I have tried to weave together folklore and history, paying equal respect to both. It is a challenge but then so is The Dark Ages and that is why I love it!

MAY pic 2Book Blurb

War is coming to Saxon Briton.

As one kingdom after another falls to the savage might of the High King, Cerdic of Wessex, only one family dares to stand up to him — The Du Lacs.

Budic and Alden Du Lac are barely speaking to each other, and Merton is a mercenary, fighting for the highest bidder. If Wessex hears of the brothers’ discord, then all is lost.

Fate brings Merton du Lac back to the ancestral lands of his forefathers, and he finds his country on the brink of civil war. But there is worse to come, for his father’s old enemy has infiltrated the court of Benwick. Now, more than ever, the Du Lac must come together to save the kingdom and themselves.

Can old rivalries and resentments be overcome in time to stop a war?

Amazon US

Amazon UK

About the author: 

Mary Anne Yarde is the Award Winning author of the International Best Selling Series — The Du Lac Chronicles. Set a generation after the fall of King Arthur, The Du Lac Chronicles takes you on a journey through Dark Age Briton and Brittany, where you will meet new friends and terrifying foes. Based on legends and historical fact, The Du Lac Chronicles is a series not to be missed.

You can find out more about Mary Anne and her books on her Website . Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook .

Of uncommon heat, eels, fairies, and trolls

20160908_142937September (and by now we’re in October) in Sweden should not be like this: week after week of glorious sunshine, temperatures that call for shorts and t-shirts, for sandals and sunglasses. Global warming, some say, and there are days when I am prone to agree, because seriously, a five-week heatwave in Sweden is MOST unusual. It is also beginning to have certain unfamiliar effects. We live in a country where access to water is never an issue. If we can’t turn the tap, we can pull put a bucket or two from the nearest lake, and while I wouldn’t recommend drinking it directly from the lake, it is clean enough to wash in – or boil, prior to consuming.

But now the water levels are falling, and our well has at most 35 centimetres of water in it – which leads to several issues, the first one being that none of us want to drink water with a muddy taste to it. It also has me peering down into the darkness while holding on to one of the thick boards that usually cover it, wondering if maybe I will see an eel.

anguilla_anguilla

An eel. Creative Commons License – photo by Ron Offermans

 

An eel? I can almost see the question marks on your faces, people. Who, you think, would want an eel in their well? Turns out us Swedes – and Danes – do. Other than eating eels – and until recently there was a lot of eel-eating going on in our neck of the woods, not so much now that we know it’s an endangered species – we also used these fascinating creatures as “well-guardians”. A young, healthy eel would be thrown into the well and left to grow big and fat in the dark. Fat, because all sort of stuff falls into wells – like mice and moles and toads and fat worms and what have you – big, because eels can become very, very old, and they tend to keep on growing. The purpose was to ensure the eel kept the well-water clean. While its presence would reasonably ensure there were no rotting carcasses to poison the water, all that eating must have resulted in quite a lot of eel poo…

trolls-1024px-john_bauer_1915

John Bauer – Mama Troll, her three handsome troll sons and a very picky princess

Some of these well-eels lived to well over a hundred, and living in the dark caused their eyes to grow bigger than normal. A cruel, stunted life – but the silent creature living in the dark was at times accredited with other, somewhat supernatural, powers. Went hand in hand with all the other superstitious stuff people believed back then, in an age where it was a known fact that mossy rocks were trolls sleeping through the day only to come alive at night. Or that the lifting morning fog was all a human could see of the fairies dancing on the meadow. And fairies were not all that nice: they lured good men away from their true loves, drove these poor guys crazy and laughed themselves silly while doing it. In fact, as any 18th century Swede would tell you, fairies were much, much more dangerous than trolls. Why? Because trolls were stupid – as stupid as a rock (he he)

Despite the lingering warmth, September brings with it shorter days and longer nights. Already, night has taken over, and over the coming three months, we who live in the north must prepare ourselves for ever shorter days, for nights that grow successively darker. Back when it was the norm to keep your own pet eel in the well, there was no electricity with which to light up the night. Instead, those obliged to tramp through the dark had at most a lantern, spilling a weak glimmer of light at their feet, while breathing life into the shadows that surrounded our lonely night walker. Not exactly strange, that those that went before us preferred not to do much walking in the dark – not only due to fear of falling, but just as much out of fear of what they might meet.

august_malmstrom_-_dancing_fairies_-_google_art_project

August Malmström – Dancing fairies

These days, we scoff at trolls. We may enjoy the beauty of a fog-filled meadow, dew clinging like glittering crystals to every blade, every stalk. But fairies? Nope, we’ve lost the ability to see them. Ours is a world where imagination is reined in by science and logic, where everything can be explained – and if it can’t, chances are it doesn’t exist. Except, of course, that some things cannot be explained, can they?

I walk through forests dotted with the remains of those that went before. Crumbling stone fences, house foundations slowly reverting to nature. Life was hard back then, and promises of a better life elsewhere lured people away from the backbreaking labour of clearing a patch of land.

20160924_112208_005

A passage to the underworld?

Here and there, more substantial structures remain. Like ancient food cellars, dug into the hillside and lined with rock. They are cold, they are dark, the doors are long gone, the shelving has rotted away. Some of them are very deep, our predecessors having built upon a natural cavity. Such cavities must be approached with caution – long, narrow tunnels leading into the underworld and the creatures that live in the dark. Before, the back end of such food cellars would therefore sport a timbered wall, ensuring the goblins and trolls couldn’t get out that way. Now, these protective barriers are long gone, the once so stout wood reduced to mulch. I peer into the never-ending dark, and the weak light of the inbuilt flashlight on my phone glitters off damp walls. Who knows where it leads – maybe it’s a convoluted backway to the fabled hall of the Mountain King, the biggest and most powerful of trolls.

I step away from the crevice and make for the sunlit glade beyond the entrance to the food cellar. I may not believe in trolls and goblins – of course not! – but better safe than sorry, right? And as to the eel, I am happy to report we did not have such a sad creature living in our well. But who knows, any day, a wandering well-eel may come crawling through the dark, tired of the well he came from, and eager for a new home. After all, we all know these magical creatures can travel miles from one source of water to the other. Just as we know that they prefer to feed off drowned men and are made of mud and innards. Well…Until recently, no one knew where the eels came from, but these days we know they travel all the way to the Sargasso sea to procreate. Or we think we know. After all, as far as I know, no one has ever seen an eel procreate…

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: