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The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

Today we have an extremely special treat to counteract the treacle of yesterday’s fluffy movie review: it’s the skull of a Viking king complete with a period crown! Hooray! The skull is what remains of King Erik IX who ruled Sweden from 1156 until 1160 when a political misunderstanding resulted in his head violently flying off his body (admittedly with some help from a large man with an axe). Well, at least that is what we think happened…no historical records have survived from Erik’s reign so all we have are myths, legends, and archaeological evidence (like this bitchin’ skull and crown).

The skull and crown from a different angle

The skull and crown from a different angle

Like many Swedish royals, Erik IX seems to have hailed from Götaland (which is to say he was a Geat)! Erik claimed the throne in 1150 while Sverker the Elder was still king and the two men bitterly contested the throne. In 1156 some mysterious party ordered the murder of Sverker on Christmas day and thereafter Erik was the uncontested king until he himself was murdered while attending mass at Uppsala. Uppsala had long been the center of political and spiritual life in Sweden and it was once the site of a huge temple to the old gods (which stood surrounded by sacrificed human beings and the barrows of ancient kings), however in Erik’s era Christians were taking over and there was already a church at Uppsala in 1160.

The cathedral at Uppsala today

The cathedral at Uppsala today

A fair amount of whitewash seems to have been applied to Erik by Christians who were still in the process expunging the ancient pagan faith from Scandinavia. Additionally his son Knud was fighting for the throne with the Sverkers and shamelessly mixed together facts and legends about Erik to consolidate his position. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that Erik IX formalized Swedish law and led an invasion/crusade against the pagan Finns. Today Erik IX is known as Eric the Lawgiver, Erik the Saint, and Eric the Holy. His severed head is on the coat of arms of Stockholm.

 

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

Although Erik was never formally recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, his skull and crown have long been held in Uppsala cathedral. Historians and archaeologists opened the casket in April of 2014, and the contents will go on public display in June. The crown of Erik is made of gilded copper inset with semi-precious jewels.

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Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany.  Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness.  He was a strange figure as a king.   Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers).  At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.

Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire.  At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War.  Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria.  He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage).   The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles.  The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style.  Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime.  It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat.  Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers.  Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction).  Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane.  Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in).  In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day.  By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman.  The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.

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On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing).  He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden.  The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants).  Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men.  Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake.  The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious).  Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.

These things happen...

These things happen…

The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course).  Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles.  His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).

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The world is different than it seems to be.  Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic).  Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations.  His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state).   Bavarians speak of him fondly even today.  Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.

 

In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes.  He was a perfect guard because, even when some of his eyes drifted off to sleep, others would open up and continue his vigil.  According to the poems of Apollodorus, Argus slew Echidna, the fearsome half-woman, half-snake, who gave birth to most of the monsters in the Greek pantheon (although more eminent writers have described Echidna as an eternal being).  Whatever his status as a monster-slayer, Argus was singularly unfortunate in that he served Hera, whose henchmen always got bumped off horribly (like the villain’s dim-witted flunkies in a James Bond movie).

Argus’ end was singularly pathetic. Hera assigned him to guard a beautiful heifer.  This comely cow was in reality Io, once a lovely priestess to Hera.  Zeus had “fallen in love with” Io, but, just as the king of the gods had begun his courtship in earnest, the couple was accosted by Hera.  To disguise what he was up to, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer (and himself into a cloud).  Hera was not fooled and she tethered Io to a sacred olive tree in her grove and set Argus as a guard.

Hermes and Argus. Painting by Jan Both and Nikolaus Knüpfer (ca 1640s)

Guarding a cow was dull work for the giant.  After a while, the trickster Hermes came into the grove.  Hermes told long dull circular stories until Argus was completely enervated, then the messenger god pulled out his pipes and began to play a repetitive lullaby.  One by one, Argus’ eyes were lulled to sleep by the magically soporific music.  When Argus’ every eye was shut, Hermes murdered the sleeping shepherd with a rock and freed Io (from the tether, not from being a cow).  Hera sent a gadfly to pursue the bovine Io, whose desperate attempt to escape the cruel insect took her eventually to Egypt and to other adventures.

The Argus Pheasant or Great Argus (Argusianus argus)

Hera regretted losing Argus, however to make sure he was not forgotten, she set his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock.  Thus ends the tale of a hapless lackey, casually crushed by the capricious affairs of his betters. Even his end was bad–he was essentially bored to death.  I can never help think of the poor giant on days at the office when there just isn’t enough coffee. Fortunately the peacocks and allied members of the pheasant family are spectacular.  Beyond the familiar Indian peafowl, there is even an Argus pheasant (or “great argus”), whose color is less spectacular, but whose feather “eyes” are even more beautiful.   Hopefully everyone out there, being lured to sleep (and crushed) by the stupid affairs of our superiors can take some comfort in this splendid fowl as well as in the peacock at the top of the post.  For additional visual interest here is a very splendid painting by Jacopo Amigoni which shows Hermes helping Hera to pull the eyes from Argus’ dead head in order to set them in the peacock’s tail.

Juno Receiving the Head of Argos by Jacopo Amigoni (painted 1730-32)

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