Sweden. Day 21. Sagas.

As I mentioned before, the bird came to my window again yesterday morning, but it was so quick that I couldn’t take his picture. So I put some sunflower seeds to lure him back. He hasn’t appeared since. I suppose Swedish birds are not as materialistic as German ones, they are not interested in seeds, they just want food for the soul.

On the good news side, we have now a new second-hand washing machine, I helped Robert to install it and it’s working well so far. I hope I don’t break this one. By the way, today Robert invited me to visit his local theatre group, so I may have more news about that soon.

But let’s move on to today’s subject. In my morning walk, I saw a few interesting things. First, a group people ice-fishing in the frozen lake nearby. Basically they drill several holes on the ice, then place their fishing rods with bait, and wait.

As I walked more towards the inner part of the forest, I saw something a bit more unusual and unsettling. There were several animal footprints crossing each other, which is not uncommon, but this time one of them was really huge. I don’t know what animal it belonged to, but it was bigger than my foot. A Yeti? But he lives in the Himalaya, doesn’t he? There was also a large surface where the snow had been crushed as if someone or something had been lying there for a while. Now, I could identify a set of footprints as those of an elk or moose, or at any rate a large animal with hoofs. Then there were some other smaller footprints, that I thought could be a fox. But the big ones? What was it? A wolf? A linx?

Using my investigation and deduction skills, I concluded that a moose was peacefully munching on some leaves, when a giant lynx came and jumped on him, starting to eat him on the spot. Then a fox came to get some of the remains, but was chased away. Then the lynx dragged his prey to a safer place, and that’s why you don’t see any bones or other remains.

Well, perhaps it’s a complete fantasy, but it’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it.

Now, seeing people fishing on a frozen lake, and then seeing strange animal footprints in the snow, made me think about how people managed to survive in this hostile region long ago, when there was no electric heating, no modern weapons, no coffee-makers, no Internet.

I was born in Argentina but I grew up and went to school in Brazil, and I have to say that Brazilian history classes are very deficient. We learn very little about Africa, and whatever we learn of it is related to Portuguese colonization there and the influence of African cultures in Brazil through the slaves. We learn almost nothing about Asia, except for the silk trade and perhaps the travels of Marco Polo. We learn a lot about South America. We learn a lot about Spain and Portugal, and a bit about Italy in the Renaissance. We learn a lot about France and their stupid revolutions, about Germany and their stupid reformation, about England and their stupid industrial revolution.

But nothing, zero, about Scandinavia. It is as if, to the north of Germany, nothing else existed.

Now everyone has watched films about the vikings, but I fear that those are mostly romanticized versions that do not real reflect how life was really like a thousand years ago. For that, you may need straight to the source material. I mean the sagas.

“Saga” just means “story” in Swedish and most Scandinavian languages. They were mostly composed in Iceland, many of them by the famous Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturrulson (1179-1241), but also by other anonymous authors. Most of them were composed, at least in written form, during the early middle ages, when a large part of the region had already converted to Christianity, but they mostly refer to an older, mythical past.

I read only one of them, the Völsunga Saga, but I found it quite interesting. It is very violent and adventurous. The most important themes are courage and revenge. Apparently, people back then lived and fought mostly to avenge the wrongs suffered by their ancestors. One of the sequences I best remember is about the fraternal twins Sigmund and Signy (almost everyone in this saga has names starting with “Sig”, which makes it a bit confusing). Sigmund is male, Signy female, and they are the eldest children of King Volsung.

Signy marries King Seiggir because of an alliance, even though she hates him and doesn’t want to, but her father arranges her marriage anyway. Then she finds out that Seiggir is planning to overthrow Volsung. There is a battle. Volsung and one of his sons die. The others, including Sigmund, are put in chains. All are eaten by a vicious she-wolf, who may also be a witch, except Sigmund. Signy saves him, and he hides in the woods.

Signy has two sons by King Seiggir. When the older one becomes ten, she sends him to Sigmund in the forest, so that he may help him to avenge Volsung. But when he gets there, Sigmund says he’s going to loo for firewood, then gives him a bag of flour and tells him to make bread while he’s away. Sigmund comes back. “Where is the bread?” asks Sigmund. “I didn’t dare touch the bag”, the child replies, “because there was something alive in the flour.” Sigmund is disappointed because the boy is not courageous as he expected. He asks his sister what to do.

Seize and kill him,” she replies, “There is no need for him to live any longer.” And so he does it. The next winter, she sends her other son. The same thing happens, and the boy is killed.

Then Signy exchanges her appearance with a sorceress and as such has sex with his own twin brother. Sigmund never realizes it is her, but later on, Signy is pregnant. The boy, Sinfjotli, of pure Volsung blood, grows handsome, strong and courageous.

The same flour trick is repeated. When Sigmund comes back, he asks the boy if he had found anything in the flour.

“I’m not at all sure that there wasn’t something alive in the flour when I first started kneading”, he says, “but I kneaded in whatever was there.”

Sigmund laughs and says: “I don’t think you’ll eat any of this bread tonight, for you’ve kneaded in a huge poisonous snake.”

Then Sigmund and Sinfjotli eventually manage to avenge Volsung’s death by burning King Seiggir to death, but that’s another story.

Anyway, after the Christianization of Scandinavia brought peace, those unending feuds among families and rival clans mostly ended, but then Kings started to focus their efforts on wars abroad, and much later Sweden eventually became an empire.

But that’s also another story, and another text as this one’s already way too long.