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Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol. The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge. The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.
The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea). Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest. Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.
From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s. Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima). In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand. According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!” The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution. It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.
So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.
The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat). The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast. They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.
It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist. Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity. Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden. This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest: the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes. In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.
All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths. Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza. Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:
Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.
Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place. In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology. Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century. Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them. Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats. The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.
If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle. The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth. Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement. With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors). The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere. I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa. Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings. The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?
The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity. They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil. Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves. One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight. One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence. The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree. Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).
Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity. Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post). Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.
The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim. This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences. The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and Vé, slew him and cut him apart). Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger). Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants. But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.