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A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

Tonight we travel once again to the ancient and mysterious island of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  Ferrebeekeeper has already visited Gotland as the (possible) land of origin of the enigmatic Goths and as a place which is absolutely covered in beautiful medieval churches, but in this post we push further back in Gotland’s mysterious past to contemplate an ancient sculpture.   The Smiss stone (Smisstenen) also known as the Ormhäxan (which means snake-witch stone) is a carved picture stone shaped like a huge piece of toast which shows three zoomorphic serpent creatures entwined in a sort of triskelion pattern.  Beneath the creatures, an apparently female human figure with legs spread holds aloft two writing serpents.

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

As you can see, the actual stone is even more amazing than the already astonishing description (I get the sense that the red paint was added by a later hand, but, alas, I am unable to find an explanation for the brightness of the color).  The stone was discovered in an ancient cemetery in Smiss in the När parish.  Scholars and archaeologists have dated the stone’s construction back to 400–600 AD, the late Vendel era when great migrations changed the Germanic world–but all of the experts disagree concerning the stone’s meaning and purpose.

The "Hall of Picture Stones" at the Gotland Museum in Visby

The “Hall of Picture Stones” at the Gotland Museum in Visby

Some historians (the reputable ones) believe the stone shows a pagan goddess or sorceress…perhaps Hyrrokkin (a snake wielding giantess) or maybe some unknown deity left out of the Eddas.  Other thinkers have speculated that the stone depicts a Minoan snake goddess (although who knows how she got to Gotland from Crete), Odin making love (?), or Daniel in the lion’s den (???).   I am usually good at determining how people perceive visual art, but I confess to being perplexed by these latter interpretations.  The lovely knots and sinuous serpentine animals look very much like Celtic, Pictish, and Mercian designs to me–which would comfortably place the stone’s figures within the cryptic North Sea pantheon of late antiquity.  Unfortunately, there is little and less which is certain about the faith and folktales of that time.  We are left with a haunting beautiful sacred stone, but like so many of the most compelling statues from humanity’s history, the real meaning slips from our grasp and we are left with haunting conjecture.

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

Vamlingbo Church (mid 13th century, photo by photographer Olivia Wittberg)

Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  It is culturally and politically part of Sweden (although it has ancient ties to Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and lands beyond).  Many historians believe the Goths, the tribe of invaders which sacked Rome, originated from Gotland (a story which will have to wait for another post).  The main town of Gotland is Visby, the city of roses and ruins, which was a principal port of the Hanseatic League.  Gotland is scattered with strange ancient rune stones (some of which are graven with valknuts) and ancient hidden treasure hordes, but todays post concerns the island’s 94 medieval churches.  These buildings executed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style are one of the Island’s top tourist draws.

Anga Church (13th Century)

The Romanesque churches of Gotland were built between  1150–1250 AD.  Then the style switched to Gothic from 1250 to 1400 AD (nearly a millennia after the original Goths began to cause unrest in the northern provinces of the Roman empire).   The era of church building was a golden age for Gotland which grew rich from Baltic trade.  Priest, sailors, merchants, bankers, fishermen, architects, monks, and all manner of other folk walked the thriving streets of Visby.   Many of the churches remain (though many have been rebuilt) and their elegant architecture provides a window to the vanished medieval world.  Here is a little gallery of some of the churches of Gotland.  If you are wildly curious about any particular building you can visit this site for a more comprehensive explanation.

Atlingbo Church

Kräklingbo Church

Fårö Church

Garde Church (built originally in the mid-1100s)

Ala Church was originally built in the 12th century

Lärbro Church (Mid 13th Century)

Slanga Church

När Church (photo by Swedish National Tourist Board)

Ruins of St. Nicolai, Visby

Väte Church (14th century)

Träkumla Church

Fröjel Church (photo by Helen Simonsson)

Aren’t they beautiful?  I am sorry that I could not find  the names of a couple of churches, but there is a “find the six differences” aspect to this group of images which I didn’t appreciate at first.  I was hoping to make this an easy Friday post, but I have been trapped at my computer comparing the slants of steeples and the shape of windows.  I’ll leave you with a little picture of the gorgeous cathedral at Visby and let you look for the rest of the churches of Gotland on your own!

Visby Cathedral

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.

Fornsalen Museum, Visby ( Gotland ). Picture stone with Saint John’s Arms Knot (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

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.

Rana museum, department of Natural history in Mo i Rana (Nordland, Norway)

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.

Unicursal form of Valknut–the Triquetra Knot

 

Tricursal form of Valknut–the Borromian Rings

 

The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new).  A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles.  Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden).  The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.

A relief carving of human sacrifice from the Stora Hammars stones of Lärbro (circa 8th to 11th century)

Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones).  The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin:  a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead.  To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree.  The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure.  Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice.  Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil.  In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups.  Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!

The valknut as closed 3-link chain–a modern topological configuration not used by Vikings

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