My descriptions of the Northern Peoples – travel in Stockholm and Uppsala

I am returning today to my notes on my travels, and piecing together the literary and cultural associations prompted by my travels through Stockholm and Uppsala in June.

I began to say that I knew little Swedish or Scandinavian writing or culture as I entered the country, but that was not really true. As we took the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm we, of course, went over the Oresund Bridge, that beautiful vaulting arc which haunts the classic of Nordic Noir, Bron/Broen/The Bridge. I had just left Copenhagen and wondered why there were not Nordic Noir tours of this city, which surely would offer a more vital encounter with the contemporary culture than the tired photographs of the mermaid gifted by a philanthropic American. The uncanniness of ordinarily atypical people’s struggles with life and crime and duty, the tragedies hidden in simple affluent modern life – these seemed to be the great themes of Nordic Noir. This gift is perhaps a revival of the Scandinavian dramatic tradition of Strindberg and Ibsen.

And as I look around my study now that I have returned I see fragments of incomplete encounters with Scandinavian literature. I have some poems of Tomas Tranströmer, which I have admired from afar for their privacy, their intermingling of mind and nature. He was criticised, I read, in the 1970s by the then socially radical for being detached from his age, and not making the mandatory social criticisms in his poetry. But surely this is the stance of any enduring poet, even if none of us can know whether our detachment from the age is a step into the infinite conversation or a way to begin and end your writing life in shadowed oblivion.

Of course, I read Ibsen and Strindberg in my 20s, but the content of those dramas is long gone, except perhaps the breaking apart of social roles, especially those of men and women. And there is a big book which I have started but never got very far into, by the early twentieth centruy Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, which portrays, the blurb says, the clash between feudal violence and Christian piety. I also have the great Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala, which I have read maybe one-third of.

Even my knowledge of Swedish history was poor and fragmentary. There were a few cameo appearances in my knowledge of other topics: a Swedish invasion of Russia and Northern Europe in the seventeenth century; the attempt to convert the royal family to Catholicism by the sixteenth century Jesuit papl nuncio, Antonio Possevino; a noble-husband or two with walk-on parts during the French revolution, connected to the great Madame de Staël; the Scandinavian tradition of liquor control through government-controlled shops, that has not transported so well to other cultures; the Social Democrats and the welfare state in the twentieth century; Michel Foucault’s brief and tainted sojourn in the great university town of Uppsala; the assassination of Olaf Palme; and of course, the Viking and Norse heritage.

But none of it cohered into a story that could walk in my dreams. On our trip to Stockholm, however, we did visit the wonderful Swedish History Museum – Historiska Museet , which features an inspired exhibition with a meandering timeline footpath that takes you through the story of Sweden from the 11th century and early Christianisation until today. Of the museums we visited in Europe, the Swedish museums dealt best with the role of women in history. It was through this timeline walk that I learned about the remarkable Queen Margareta of the Kalmar Union (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) in the late 14th century, and the enigmatic Saint Bridget or Birgitta, who I had earlier been introduced to at Roskilde Cathedral. I would recommend this museum to any visitors to Stockholm.

For a bit of fun, you can also use the website of the Swedish History Museum to take a quiz work out the closest match between your personality and a figure from Norse mythology. When I took the quiz just now it reported me as being Heimdall.

Somewhere in that story told at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm was the great book that I had read about in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilisations, but not read myself, Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples. This book is, in Fernandez-Armesto’s judgement, “one of the world’s great unacknowledged works of genius,” which revelled in the difference, diversity, magic and marvels of the great icy El Dorado this exile set down. Olaus was the titular Archbishop of Uppsala, a Catholic exile in a Lutheran state in the terrible mid sixteenth century. And it was in the University Library at Uppsala, which we were being shown around during our visit by our son who was on exchange there, that I saw an old edition of the great book on display in a glass case at the entrance to the library.

It was also in this library at Uppsala that Michel Foucault studied for his doctorate that would later become the grand poetic misrepresentation of The History of Madness. It was here in Uppsala that Foucault taught French with complete disregard for his students, partied like the privileged brat he was, driving his white jaguar around the small regional town, and submitted his doctoral manuscript to the Swedish scholar, Sten Lindroth. Professor Lindroth was unimpressed, and his judgement on the poor scholarship and history of the young Foucault was in retrospect correct. Yet here I stood in the very library hall where was born this strange poetical work that inspired me to read every word of Foucault, and pursue the strange intellectual ambitions of my early life. This was a pilgrimage to the relics of a fallen saint.

Also in Uppsala we happened upon the museum dedicated to the great Swedish, indeed world, botanist, Carl Linnaeus. This museum is Linnaeus’ old house and his specimen garden, and is on one of the main town streets in Uppsala, on the other side of the river to the great old Uppsala Cathedral, spiritual home of the Swedish Church, built to replace the old pagan temple of Gamla Uppsala. The garden features plants of every continent of the world, except of course from the continent we had travelled from, Australia, which was not known to world botany at this time. Linnaeus, who gave the world its system for the scientific classification of plants, and corresponded with botanists across the world, including Joseph Banks after whom are named the banksias in my front garden, which are flowering today as I look out my study window. On the upper floor of the Linnaeus House is a cabinet containing some of the anthropological curiosities collected by Linnaeus. He followed in the footsteps of the exiled Archbishop of Uppsala, Olaus Magnus, in travelling and recording the lives of the people of the North. There in his cabinet are his own notes of his journeys to Lapland, and some of the gifts he received or he acquired, we can never really know, from the Sami people: an old boot and a shaman’s drum, one of only fifty or so remaining.

For, as Fernandez-Armesto tells us:

The magic of shamans, which harnessed the power of the souls of things and summoned the dead in the service of the living, was communicated by drumbeat, until the late seventeenth or eighteenth century, when Christian evangelism stamped it out. Indeed, the drum was regarded, in some communities, as the shaman’s reindeer, on which he rode to the spirit world. Only a few of the great magic drums which accompanied the Sami bear-hunters still survive. Like the books of the Maya, they perished in scores or hundreds at the hands of missionaries. The art of reading their pictographic inscriptions has been lost but that should not be taken to mean that the red figures, traced in alder-bark juice on the reindeer-hide drumskins, did not once recall stories or spells for their shamanic interpreters, or,. according to plausible modern attempts at decipherment, display cosmic diagrams or maps of the heavens.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations (2000), p. 47.

And so, in this unanticipated room in Uppsala I came across my own fragmentary thoughts on the shaman’s drum and the disappearance of stories from the world.

And, of course, I realise now that my mind is drenched in the the night journies of the shaman and the stories of Scandinavian literature, that we know as Norse mythology. My daughter is named Freya. I wear a Thor’s hammer around my neck. I play games full of retold stories of Yggdrassil and the three worlds that surround it. And on my shelves are the Poetic and Prose Eddas, which, through the words of the great skalds, like Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson, and through the care and discipline of the unfashionable monks and scholars who preserved these stories for centuries in the Codex Regius, protected these stories from disappearing from the world or being lost in the snowstorms of the Arctic North.

Image Source: A woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples, showing a reindeer transporting a man in a snowstorm. Photograph from linnaeus Museum. Image of Noadi Northern Shaman from wikipedia

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