Midsommar. More than Just a Horror Movie.

Every year during the last weekend of the month of June, Sweden celebrates one of its biggest holidays, Midsummer, or “Midsommar.” This year, 2022, Midsommar is celebrated on June 24 and 25. It starts on the evening of June 24 with Midsummer’s Eve, or “Midsommarafton,” and continues with Midsummer’s Day, or “Midsommardagen,” which is a national holiday.

Sweden’s celebration of Midsommar was little known to the world before 2019 when Midsommar, the horror and psychedelic thriller movie by American director Ari Aster went up in the movie theaters. Midsommar is the story about Dani and Christian, a young couple on the verge of a break up who travel to Sweden to attend a once-in-a-century Midsommar celebration in the village of Hårga in the region of Hälsingland.

The location of Hårga is not a coincidence. Hårga is a real place, famous for two things: a legend that involves the Devil and a Swedish piece of traditional folk music called “Hårgalåten.”

First written down in 1785, the Hårga legend tells the story of a dance held outdoors in the summer, which in itself is not unusual; entertainment in the form of formal dances held outdoors is a common thing in Swedish history. But at Hårga, the legend tells us, the music was interrupted when a stranger arrived carrying a fiddler in his case. He began to play and wouldn’t stop until all the couples had danced themselves to death. The stranger with the fiddle was of course the Devil.

“Hårgalåten” is one of the most famous pieces of folk music in Sweden. Artists from all genres have covered and interpreted this piece of music, from musical artists and jazz artists to the death metal band In Flames. Originally an instrumental, “Hårgalåten” is sometimes sung with lyrics telling the story of the Hårga legend.

In Swedish folklore, Midsommar is a night of magic. Research archivist Tommy Kuusela at ISOF (the Swedish Institute for Languages and Folkore), writes on the institute’s blog that Midsummer’s Eve was believed to have been a night of magic because the midsummer solstice marked the transition between spring and summer with summer also being a transition period between sowing and harvest.

Kuusela writes that during this night it was believed the veil is lifted and it becomes possible to look into the future. One way of doing so is to pick seven different types of flowers before going to bed and sleeping with these flowers under the pillow. The flowers will make your dreams predict your future, specifically who you are going to marry. Another way of seeing the future is to fast and not speak during the whole day, and walk the fields at night. The future will then reveal itself to you.

Magic during Midsummer also manifested itself in plants and morning dew. Medicinal plants were believed to be more potent during this night, and the morning dew that fell on Midsummer’s Day was believed to be beneficial to good health and harvests. So, if you stole your neighbors dew and poured it over your own fields, your harvest would be more plentiful than theirs. If you wanted good health for the coming year, it was recommended that you rolled around in the dew. But the dew only works its magic if it touches the skin, so if you want to get a dew miracle cure, you need to roll around on the ground naked.

Midsummer is also a night of evil. The lifting of the veil makes it possible for witches, trolls, and gnomes (“tomte”) to move about. And because the sun doesn’t set, or the night never really gets dark because the sun is below the horizon for only a few hours, when you walk the fields in search of visions of the future or picking flowers to place under your pillow, you are exposing yourself to danger.

All this taken together shows that Midsummer magic is fertility magic. Fertility magic draws on both life and death. For there to be life, there needs to be death. Harvests grow from the soil. The roots of the plants that grow reach into the chthonic realm, that is the realm of the dead, and because of this connection between what is above the surface and what is below, fertility becomes both good and evil.

Seemingly the most obvious example of fertility magic during Midsummer is the Midsummer pole (“Midsommarstång”). The Swedish Midsummer pole looks a phallic symbol. On the day of Midsummer’s Eve, people get together to decorate the pole with leafs and flowers. When it’s done, they raise the pole in an upright position. Then, people dance and sing around the pole.

Raising of the Midsummer pole, Västra Tunhem, Sweden. Film: Erika Harlitz Kern

Because of the look of the pole and the singing and the dancing, Midsummer is sometimes referred to as a pagan ritual that somehow has survived in Sweden into the modern day. The truth of the matter is a bit less enticing. According to ISOF, the Midsummer pole’s origins in Sweden are difficult to trace, but a convincing case can be made for it having been brought to Sweden by German immigrants in the fifteenth century. In other words, the origins of the Midsummer pole in Sweden are neither ancient, pagan, nor native; it’s a medieval import. The tradition to dance around the pole can only be traced as far back as the eighteenth century.

Stories of magic, evil, and the Devil are plentiful in Swedish folklore and are often connected to major holidays such as Midsummer. Daylight is a scarce commodity in a country that divides the year into a winter half and a summer half. Even though Midsummer is a celebration of the light of summer, the Midsummer solstice is also celebrated with the knowledge that winter is coming and that the days will now quickly grow shorter.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 4: Foreword Reviews

It’s time for another round up of the books I have recently reviewed for Foreword Reviews. This round up contains books about fairy tales in a small town in the Midwest, travels around the Black Sea, and an mixed-race family struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.

These are all books that I enjoyed reading. Hopefully you will find them enjoyable as well.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the May/June 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.

Scott Russell Sanders, Small Marvels (Indiana University Press, 2022).

“Midwestern magic abounds in Scott Russell Sanders’s fairy tale short story collection Small Marvels. In Limestone, Indiana, Gordon Mills is a jack of all trades whose big family lives in a dilapidated house that only remains standing because it doesn’t know which way to fall. His wife, Mabel, keeps the family together. With their respective parents, Gordon and Mabel work to make ends meet. Even though money is short, there is always food on the table and plenty of love to go around. But while, on the surface, the family’s hometown seems to be an ordinary place, and the Mills to be an ordinary family, these linked stories reveal that there is more to both than meets the eye.”

I enjoyed this short story collection because I enjoy stories about the fantastical among the ordinary. There is story telling to explore where these two worlds crash up against each other, and it shows that what we take for granted might just be magic.

Jens Mühling, Simon Pare (transl.), Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea (Haus Publishing, 2022).

“Jens Mühling’s colorful travelogue Troubled Water captures the history and cultures on the shores of the Black Sea. The Black Sea has been a crossroads for warring and colonizing societies since human civilization began to take form in the Fertile Crescent. Along its contested shores, empires have risen and fallen, and people are constantly on the move, either voluntarily or by force. Against a backdrop of demographic, political, and environmental change, the civilizations of the Black Sea are examined by looking at every situation from more than one angle. Simon Pare’s vibrant translation from the original German brings out the literary qualities of the prose.”

As I wrote in last week’s post about the interview I did with Jens Mühling, before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Black Sea as a region was generally overlooked in popular history and contemporary politics. But as recent developments in the region have shown, and which Mühling brings forth in his book, the Black Sea has played a crucial role in human civilization for millennia. And not only is this a great book, look at that book cover! I love it.

Jennifer Dance, Gone But Still Here (Dundurn Press, 2022).

“Jennifer Dance’s based-in-truth novel Gone but Still Here follows a tragedy-scarred multiracial family as one of its members is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Mary feels herself slipping. Despite her career as a published author, her words don’t come to her the way that they used to, she has forgotten how to use a can opener, and time passes without her noticing. To preserve her memories before they completely disappear, she begins to write a book about her husband, Keith, who died when their children were very young. Told from Mary, Kayla, and Sage’s points of view, as well as using multiple storytelling elements, from text messages to prose, the novel does a beautiful job of portraying the joys and sorrows that follow from a life-altering diagnosis. Gone but Still Here is an emotional novel about a family faced with the challenges of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.”

I enjoyed this book because of the love and warmth that exuded from its pages. Books rarely make me cry, but this one did.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Interview with Jens Mühling for Foreword Reviews

In May of this year, I sat down with German author and journalist Jens Mühling to talk about his latest book Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea for Foreword Reviews.

When I signed up to review the book in January this year I did it out of my own personal interest. The Black Sea is a body of water that is generally overlooked in today’s West-centric geopolitical debates, but for thousands of years, the Black Sea has been a nexus for human communication. I encounter the Black Sea no matter what type of history I study. The Ancient Greeks colonized the shores of this sea. Constantinople was founded by the Romans as a lock on the sea. The Goths migrated from the shores of this sea and changed the face of the European peninsulas during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia went up against each other for supremacy over this sea, a fight that went on for centuries.

Map of the Black Sea. Source: Jens Mühling, Troubled Water/Amazon.com.

In May, when I sat down to talk to Jens, the world was in a different place than back in January. The Black Sea was at the center of the world’s attention because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s modern southern border stretches along the north shore of the Black Sea, cut short by Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Click here to read my interview with Jens. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Click here to read my review of Troubled Water, which was given a starred review in Foreword Review’s May/June issue of 2022.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Mending the Tapestry. A Review of Cat Jarman’s RIVER KINGS.

This review is based on the paperback edition.

In the parish church of Svinnegarn in the Swedish region of Uppland there is a Viking Age runestone fixed inside a wall. The runestone was placed there when the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, serving as something similar to a mural. Decorated with a large Greek cross at its center, it reads:

Þjalfi and Holmlaug had all of these stones raised in memory of Banki/Baggi, their son, who alone owned a ship and steered to the east in Ingvarr’s retinue. May God help Banki’s/Baggi’s spirit. Áskell carved.

Known as U 778 in the registry of the Swedish National Heritage Board and dated to c. 1010–1050, this runestone is one of more than twenty that mention a Viking raid to the east, possibly as far as the Caspian Sea, led by a man named Ingvarr and which ended in disaster. When news of the expedition’s violent end reached the families at home, they raised runestones to commemorate their dead family members.

Meanwhile further south, another family raised a runestone to commemorate a family member who never returned. Standing at the edge of a field on the Gillberga farm in the Swedish region of Östergötland, the runestone known as Ög 104 is also dated to c. 1010–1050. Decorated with a snake wrapped by its own tail, it tells the following story:

Rauðr raised this stone in memory of Tóki, his brother, a very good valiant man, who was killed in England.

U 778 and Ög 104 are only two examples of the thousands of runestones that were raised and remain standing across the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian countrysides. These stones are invaluable because they are the only written sources where the Scandinavians of the Viking Age speak for themselves. The practice of raising runestones lasted for a short period of time, but the fact that they are found not only in Scandinavia, but also in places where the Scandinavians traveled and settled, such as England, the Isle of Man, and Ukraine, demonstrates that it was an important custom.

U 778 and Ög 104 are also examples of how far the Scandinavians of the Viking Age traveled, and that they traveled both east and west. Traditionally, the idea has been that people from Norway and Denmark traveled west and people from Sweden traveled east. As a scholar, you studied either one direction (west) or the other (east); most often the west because the other direction was the Soviet Union. But as time progresses after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the modern geopolitical split that cut the Viking world in two is healing, contacts between Viking Age scholars on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain continue to be established and nurtured, and the Viking world is re-emerging as even larger and more complex than we could ever have imagined.

In her excellent book River Kings, archaeologist Cat Jarman takes this re-assembly of the Viking world to its extreme when she launches an investigation into how a carnelian bead from India ended up in the grave of a Viking Age Scandinavian warrior in Repton, England. Written like a true crime story, Jarman draws on her expertise and immense knowledge to tell a story that is a real page turner. To find the answer to her question about the carnelian bead, she takes us on a journey where she travels both in person and through history. She takes us to the early medieval emporia of Kaupang in Norway, to the mass grave on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, to the cities of Kievan Rus, to archaeological excavations in Ukraine, to Baghdad, Constantinople, and finally, to India and the last existing workshop that makes carnelian beads the way they would have been made over a thousand years ago.

River Kings successfully adds new weft where the tapestry of the Viking world was torn asunder. The book is beautifully written, the story is masterly crafted, the research solid and deep. The only complaint I have is Jarman’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” instead of “early Middle Ages” in English history. The origins of the term “Anglo-Saxon” have been exposed as white supremacist and racist with no connection to the time period it purports to represent. Jarman acknowledges that the term is modern, has no connection to history, and that it has been “misused” by racists and extremists. By not mentioning the origins of the term, she is able to continue using it because it “remains a widely understood frame of reference for the communities and kingdoms of England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.” (p. 23) It is an interesting conservative choice in an otherwise groundbreaking book. But then again, Jarman also slips in the term “Dark Ages,” which too is outdated.

River Kings by Cat Jarman is a groundbreaking book. Alongside Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm, River Kings is charting new territory in Viking studies and as such is essential reading for anyone serious about the Viking Age.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Why I Write. Thoughts on Writing in the Age of Relentless Despair

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Pexels.com

At the beginning of 2022, I decided I would write one blog post every week for the whole year. I set aside Friday mornings for this task, and around Wednesday, I start thinking about what this week’s blog post will be about. I play around with two, maybe three ideas, but I don’t make my decision until Friday morning when I sit down to write.

This week was no different. Next to me, I have a pile of books that I have read and that I want to discuss; it was only a matter of which book I would choose. But as I sat down, everything that has happened over the past weeks and months (years!) washed over me. All the ideas that I had been playing around with seemed futile and nonsensical. And why would anyone care about what I have to say, anyway?

It was the children of Uvalde, Texas. 19 children around the age of 10, their lives cut short for no reason, and those who can do something to stop it refuse to act. The small towns of Texas resonate with me on a different level than other small towns. When I was a child, my family traveled to Texas several times for family vacations. Because of my father’s job, these vacations were the few times when the whole family did something together.

On these vacations, we would spend two or three weeks driving around the hill countries, badlands, and deserts of Texas, stopping in the small towns that we passed along the way. I was too young to remember exactly where we went, but sometimes names of places resonate with me when I hear them, and the echo inside me always speaks back to me in my father’s voice. Eagle Pass, Laredo, Texas City, Luckenbach, Bandera, Langtrey, Uvalde.

And even though it feels futile to write a blog post this week, I sat down and did it anyway. Why? Because that is what I do. I write. As Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Arguably, this is her most famous quote, sometimes truncated, sometimes paraphrased, but I believe it is famous because it is true.

A writer writes, that is what makes a writer a writer. It is not the publishing contract or the byline that makes you a writer, nor is it the spinning rolls of paper at a printer’s plant or the code that creates a pdf file. No, it is the act of writing that makes a writer a writer.

Writers write for many reasons, but I think that at the core, we write for the same reasons that Didion wrote: We write to understand. And even though writers write about many different things, I believe that the thing we try and understand with all the things that we write is only one: Ourselves.

To be a writer is to be an observer. To be a writer is to be a person who reacts to their surroundings in such a way that it affects them emotionally.

A writer observes the world and reacts to what they see. This reaction triggers an emotional response and a desire to understand. The response and the desire create a need for release. The release manifests itself in the act of writing. Because, writing is an emotional act, an act that is all-consuming.

Gloria Anzaldúa calls writing “a sensuous act” that “produces anxiety” and “psychic unrest” before the act is committed and the writing complete. “To write, to be a writer,” she says, “I have to trust and believe in myself as a speaker, as a voice … .” A voice for whom? For ourselves.

Didion and Anzaldúa spoke about their personal reasons for writing, and in doing so, they put into words what the rest of us feel. Through the act of speaking in our own voice to express our need to understand, we end up speaking for others.

So, as I sat down to write this week’s blog post, I threw all my ideas to the side. Instead, I started typing in the blank box that my blog platform provides without knowing where I was going or what words would come out. I only knew I needed to say something, but I did not know what. The post that you have just read is what came out of my mind and my heart, through the movements of my fingertips, this Friday morning on May 27, 2022.

I wrote because I felt despair at the world. Too many people are dying for reasons that can be prevented. Mass shootings, war, pandemics and epidemics, climate change. I wrote because I needed to understand why today I felt this despair after nearly three years of sadness and chaos.

Now, I understand why I needed to write what I have written. It was the children of Uvalde. May their memories be a blessing, and may they be the last children to have their lives cut short in this way.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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