A Journey Through Scandinavia’s Legends

Anna Campbell

Scandinavia’s myths and early history are written into its landscape and natural phenomena. Travelling through the region one becomes aware of a sensation where time seems particularly thin, especially if you venture off the beaten track, to the Arctic north.

The Northern Lights

Standing under the Northern Lights, watching them shimmer and twist in the sky is one of those rare experiences which lives up to the hype. Even now, with rational scientific explanation at my fingertips, it was an otherworldly experience, making it easy to see how the myths surrounding them came about.

Every culture where the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are visible a mythology has been created to explain these seemingly supernatural lights dancing across dark winter skies. The Old Norse legends told that the aurora borealis was created by Valkyrie’s shields flashing as they escorted fallen Viking warriors to Valhalla.

There’s a silent majesty to these far-away yet engrossing lights that perfectly matches the idea of these beautiful, fierce maiden warriors; a natural visual equivalent to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Once the display finished, I was left with a silence, which reminded me of the way everyday noises still fade into the background after listening to Wagner’s famous prelude. For a few minutes, it felt like regular life was suspended and I wouldn’t have been surprised to catch site of a Valkyrie stalking the sky or an ancient Sami shaman behind us.

Photo credit: Claudia Regina

Gamla Uppsala

Gamla Uppsala
Photo credit: Rabasco

This Iron Age gravesite just north of modern Uppsala is often described as enigmatic, yet in many photos it looks frankly underwhelming. It’s one of those sites where history and legend blur together, as they tend to in the case of long-forgotten and fantastic burials of ancient kings and priestesses.

Although the ‘Royal Barrows’ are fenced off now—protecting pre-history from our modern-day trainers—it’s still possible to get close and wander the rest of the site.

We set off from Stockholm at what felt like an unnaturally early hour, fuelled mainly by flasks of extra strong coffee. It was worth it to get to explore the site before the crowds, even if we didn’t get post-dawn mistiness promised by some of the more tantalising photos.

The Royal Barrows are deceptively simple, stripped of all pomp they have a restrained elegance which was surprisingly powerful. Like Glastonbury Tor in Somerset or Thingvellir in Iceland, I’m not sure whether this comes from the knowledge of how important this site has been for centuries, or because this is a place where the landscape stops becoming a backdrop—as it is so often in our 21st century lives—and becomes inseparable from the story, still shaping it after a thousand or more years.
 

Tanum Rock Carvings

Tanum Rock Carvings
Photo credit: Gerben Jacobs

Despite being picked out in red-paint to make them easier for the tourists to see on a whistlestop tour (much to the horror of archaeologists), these Bronze Age rock carvings are still compelling. Unlike so many ancient artefacts which have been carried off to museums far from their origins, they are still visible in situ.

The symbiosis between the carvings and their surroundings is immediate, even after the intervening centuries and subsequent loss of so much knowledge about the society which produced them. It makes it easier to appreciate their startling vigour and clarity.

Matisse Scandinavia
Matisse’s ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’. Photo credit: Shiraz Chakera

After going to see the Matisse cut-outs exhibition at the Tate Modern, I was surprised to see similarities between the two, which made me wonder about the people who had carved these works. Some of the larger works are clearly pre-planned, what was their process? How similar was their process to today’s artists, whose role has evolved but still has story telling and representation at heart? These questions will probably never be answered, but just asking them provoked a shift in my attitude towards these historic artists, from that of shadowy, semi-mythical beings to thinking of them as people who might not have been that different from myself.