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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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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How to Drain the Middle Ages of All Its Color, or a Review of The Lawless Land by Boyd and Beth Morrison

Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.

A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.

The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.

Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.

The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.

Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.

Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.

The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.

The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.

The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.

On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.

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

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The Age that Never Existed. How Museum Bureaucrats Created the Viking Age.

As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.

Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories like Njal’s Saga such a compelling read.

Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.

The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.

The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.

Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.

A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.

In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…

Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.

Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.

In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.

As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.

Helmet excavated at Vendel, Sweden. Source: Wikipedia.

The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.

However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.

Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.

Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!

Yes, but, there is evidence in Scandinavia of close connections with the European continent and the British Isles well before either the Vendel Age or the Viking Age. Artifacts have shown that men from Scandinavia enlisted with the Roman army as early as the 4th century CE. Archaeological similarities show connections between early medieval England and Vendel Age Sweden. And then there is the eternal puzzle of Beowulf, considered the quintessential Old English poem but which takes place in Sweden and Denmark of the Vendel Age (also known as the Late Germanic Iron Age in Danish archaeology). Excavations at Uppåkra, today in southern Sweden but during the Vendel and Viking Ages part of the Danish realm, further reinforce the Vendel Age as a high culture with extensive international contacts.

If the beginning of the Viking Age is in flux, so is the end. In their teaching materials for grade schools, the Swedish National Museum dates the end of the Viking Age to c. 1100, thus pushing the transition to the Middle Ages another 50 years into the future. What we see here is how definitive dates have been replaced by transition periods. There is even a case to be made that the Viking Age ended in the thirteenth century when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway and the Icelandic Free State came to an end.

To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.

So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.

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

Additional sources:
Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm. A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).
Cat Jarman, River Kings. A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavian to the Silk Roads (Pegasus Books, 2022).

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How to Extract a Cactus Needle from Your Skin, Or On the Mental Health Benefits of Keeping a Diary.

When the world shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to start keeping a diary. I wanted to chronicle what was happening because it felt as if we were living through a historic moment.

As a historian, I am hesitant to declare anything happening in the now to be of historic importance. After all, history is what we decide it to be, and that decision isn’t made until decades after the fact when we can tell how the repercussions of an event played out (or didn’t play out, which means that the event will not be part of history).

Moleskin diary with a Ballograf mechanical pencil 0.5 and an eraser. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Well aware of the fact that I am not a person whose diary will be read and written about generations from now, I still felt a need to document my view of events for posterity, and also for myself. Little did I know that not only would I go on to chronicle events that took the entire world on a roller coaster ride seldom experienced, but keeping a diary has proved beneficial to my mental health.

I titled my diary “Corona Journal” (Coronadagbok) because my original intention was to chronicle the COVID-19 pandemic. The first couple of months are focused almost entirely on that.

The first entry of the diary is on March 13, 2020. It reads:

“On March 10, Broward County issued a state of emergency. On March 13, the city of Deerfield Beach and President Trump did the same. Lectures at FIU cancelled from March 12 to April 4. I am now teaching the online content available on Canvas. Spent the afternoon at Publix, Target, and Latinos to bunker for at least ten days of social distancing. New cases and deaths are reported every day. At least 15 known cases in Broward. The spread is increasing quickly. Reliable public information is hard to find.”

I started the diary on the blank pages at the back of my Passion Planner. The first few weeks are written spaciously. The writing is large, the spacing between the lines generous. On May 27 I ran out of pages, and I moved on to the large-size Moleskine notebooks I have used ever since. On the last page of the Passion Planner, the writing is small, cramped. I can tell that the pressure on the pen is heavier here than in March. When I finished for that day, I had spilled over onto the fly leaf.

From the first day of keeping my diary, I made it into a nightly routine to sit down and write before I go to bed. I still maintain that routine, and it has changed my life.

Whenever writers get together, sooner or later we end up asking each other, why do we write? Why do we do what we do? More writers than you can imagine answer with a simple sentence: Because we have to.

What that sentence means is that we have no choice in the matter. There are words and thoughts inside us that need to come out. If someone will ever read what we write is beside the point; we write anyway.

Photo by Z Crowe on Pexels.com

If I don’t write I feel a physical discomfort. Until very recently, I thought I was alone in feeling this way. Then I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera where she says that not writing makes her physically ill and compares it to a cactus needle getting caught in her skin: It bothers you until you poke at it enough to make it come out. Then you feel relief. Until the next needle gets caught.

Sitting down with my diary every night is me plucking the cactus needle of the day from my skin. Because not only do I write because I have to, I am also one of those people whose self-esteem is connected to my achievements. When I write down what happened during the day, I see on the page that even on a day when it feels as if I achieved nothing, I always achieved something.

Writing a diary every night for the past two years has decreased my stress, my anxiety, and the physical discomfort I get from not writing. And, it has decreased my need to express myself on social media, which in turns leads to even less stress and anxiety. Instead of searching for a release on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, I make sense of my thoughts and the world in my diary.

I started my diary with the intention of chronicling the pandemic. My original idea was to stop writing when the pandemic ended. Last night, my diary entry began as it always does nowadays, with recording the daily deaths and cases of COVID-19 as reported by Johns Hopkins, and then I went on to talk about my day.

Contrary to what we are told, the pandemic is not over, but I already know that once it subsides, I will continue writing in my diary every night. Because I have to.

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

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