June 20, 2015. Lots of friends have been asking me about what it’s like to experience Midsummer (Midtsommer) in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Aside from the fact that it’s hard to sleep because the sky doesn’t get even remotely dark until about midnight — and then rises at about three A.M. — the solstice doesn’t seem to be a big deal here in Oslo. I’ve heard it’s a hoot in western Norway, though, where they perform fake marriages to ensure fertility for the coming harvest season. Sounds like a reasonable plan.
If you want to see pagan partying in celebration of the longest day of the year, the place to go is Sweden. Midsummer (Midsommar in Swedish) is their biggest holiday — even bigger than Christmas. Or so I was told last year when we went to Stockholm for the event. On the flight, I sat next to an Australian of Swedish heritage who explained that he comes home to visit his distant relatives at least every other year for the occasion. Apparently no matter how far away you live, reconvening in Sweden for Midsommar is an expected practice among Swedish families.
However, when we arrived in Stockholm, it was completely silent, as if the zombie apocalypse had occurred. Everything was closed, and absolutely no one was on the streets, just as the Australian-Swede had predicted. (He’d told us that most folks go home to small towns, where they host huge bonfires throughout the night, drink schnapps, and eat herring and potato salad.) To catch some livelier Midsommar action, we decided to heed his advice and take a bus to the nearby small town of Uppsala, the seat of the oldest known Scandinavian royal dynasty, once famous for their pagan revelries.
The modern town of Uppsala proved to be as dead as Stockholm, but we headed out to Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”), the ancient capital made up of burial mounds, a pagan sacred grove, and an early Christian church atop a pagan temple. On the way, we saw tons of locals wearing the traditional Midsommar headpiece — a huge sort of wreath made of branches, leaves, wheat, and flowers. And when I say huge, I mean enormous. Some of these things bristled out from the head by about a foot and trailed down the back, looking a bit like the Native American “war bonnets” of old.
According to legend, wearing greenery (symbolizing the blossoming of new life) and placing it over the front door ensures good fortune and health in the coming year. Both men and women sport the flowery crowns, using them to accessorize modern street clothes or traditional outfits similar to Norwegian bunad. One lady also told us that, if a girl puts seven different species of flowers beneath her pillow on Midsommar’s Night, she’ll dream of her future husband. However, since Sweden is the most unmarried country in the world, most of these girls must be sleeping dreamlessly.
As we approached Gamla Uppsala, we encountered another girl with flowers in her hair, but she wore a Bohemian outfit that was more hippie-dippie-trippy than traditional. Her face bore a rather glazed expression, and she muttered to herself as she wandered trance-like towards the sacred grove. Clearly, she was under the influence of something, but whether it was the voices in her own head, or a Midsommar celebratory drink or drug, I’m not sure. So of course we followed her from a safe distance to see what she was up to. (We sensed that a “druidic ritual” might be in the offing.)
Sure enough, upon arriving at the ring of birches that make up the grove, she pulled out a bottle of water from her backpack, then went from tree to tree, pouring a little drink for each one. Every libation, accompanied by much chanting and waving of arms, concluded with a prayerful pose and bow to each birch. This little show becomes all the more creepy if you know the gruesome legend behind the sacred grove. The trees are believed to be divine, having absorbed the death and decay of sacrificial victims that once hung from their branches.
Let me back up a bit. Before Christianity arrived in Sweden, Uppsala was not only the seat of Sweden’s most ancient royal lineage, but it also acted as the well-known center of a pagan cult to Thor, Odin, and Frey. In his famous work, Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg, Adam of Bremen describes the “barbaric and immoral” rituals practiced here, circa 1073. (Keep in mind that Adam was on a typical “mission trip,” working to expand German business interests under the guise of proselytizing the heathen Swedes.)
According to Adam, every nine years the Swedish kings would sacrifice nine living beings (one human male, as well as males from eight other species) for nine days straight to placate the gods. Typical rituals involved plying the victims with food and drink, then hanging them from the circle of birches, where their bodies were allowed to decompose over the years in between sacrifices. I’d call the grove sacred, too, just to be able to steer clear of it and avoid the stench of 72 rotting men, horses, dogs, bulls, rams, etc.
By the way, across the street from the grove is a 12th-century church — Sweden’s first cathedral — plopped down right on top of the old temple to Thor, Odin, and Frey. Nothing says “our god is better than yours” like appropriating your enemy’s holy sites and holidays for your own use. Along the same theme, one of the church’s walls boasts an 11th-century Dragon-headed Viking rune stone that has been “sanctified” by the addition of a Christian cross in its center. No sense in wasting good building material.
A nearby series of enormous mounds help bring into perspective Uppsala’s importance. The three largest hillocks, called the Royal Mounds, were once believed to have been the tombs of Thor, Odin, and Frey. Later generations of kings claimed these barrows held the bones of Aun, Adil, and Egil — the legendary Ynglinga kings of the earliest known Scandinavian dynasty. (Those of you forced to read Beowulf in high school might remember these guys as the Scylfings.) Still others claimed the mounds were natural formations.
Excavations initiated by King Karl XV in 1830 finally settled the matter. The mounds were indeed graves, likely constructed for Uppsala’s elite during the 5th and 6th centuries. The eastern mound contained the charred bones of a man and woman, bundled inside a clay jar set beneath a stone cairn — a mortuary practice theoretically set forth by Odin himself in the Yngling Saga: “Thus Odin established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth.”
The western mound contained a similarly styled grave of a young man who was buried with animals and other fabulous finds, such as a Frankish-made sword, Roman chess pawns, and cameos from the Middle East, all dating to around the 6th century. Clearly this guy was wealthy and had access to all the best stuff brought home along trade routes. The center mound was left untouched, as were the many other surrounding barrows that once numbered around 2,000 – 3,000.
Matthew and I took a stroll atop several of these rolling hills, which stretched out into the horizon and gave us a good view of Sweden’s flat, green farmland beyond. Our ramblings ended at the table-topped mound of the thing (pronounced “ting”), which was a general assembly held from pre-historic times up through the Middle Ages. According to the Law of Uppland, the Swedish kings convened a thing by calling together the people of the realm during the spring equinox festival of Dísablót (which honored the Valkyries). The assembled were then organized into crews, rowers, and commanders for the ships in preparation for warfare. I can just imagine how this went: “Viking raid, anyone? Who’s ready for a cruise?”
Electing to continue our own investigation of pagan rites and Midsommar mayhem, Matthew and I decided to visit Skansen — Europe’s original open-air folk Museum — which promised a demonstration of traditional seasonal activities. We climbed to the top of the hill, where a midsommarstång (“midsummer pole”), or a majstång (“maypole”), had been erected. The name comes from the Swedish term att maja (to may), meaning “to decorate with greens.” And indeed, the pole in all its traditional phallic-shaped glory — to ensure fertility and a bountiful harvest come autumn — was twined with ivy roping and adorned with wreaths made of flowers.
A crowd had gathered around it, and nearby, a group of musicians wearing folk costumes began tuning their instruments in preparation for playing traditional songs associated with circling the pole. A singer took the mic and invited the crowd to join in, and soon a giant conga line of flower-bedecked Swedes had formed. Some songs required jumping like a frog, others were more folksy, with participants locking arms and performing do-si-dos. But all the steps clearly involved considerable beforehand knowledge, so Matthew and I decided to observe from the sidelines.
We eventually finished our day of revelry with a little herring-and-dill-potatoed dinner of our own and strategized about how we might someday get ourselves invited to a family Midsommar bonfire. Any ideas? Send ’em my way.