MALA STONES: To travel beneath the Milky Way

 

A few months ago I was at the circus with my youngest daughter and her boyfriend. It was a small, German circus with dilapidated vehicles and trailers. The audience was not large; a few children with friends and family sat on folding chairs around the ring, the customary wooden rows had not been raised along the tent walls. The performers were few as well, apparently the German owners and their children and a small group of Russians. All of them appeared in various guises. The circus princess had passed her prime, but was nevertheless still quite arresting. She acted as horse trainer and trapeze artist. Self-assured she performed her acts with admirable precision. I assumed it was her husband who acted as a clown and strong man of the acrobats; the Russians, who in addition to performing various acrobatic numbers also acted as jugglers, knife throwers and participated in the director's clown numbers, which actually were quite witty and fun. Although the performers were talented and could have been quite outstanding even in a larger circus context, the performance nevertheless gave a somewhat pathetic impression, as in the rather tragic circus movies that occasionally reach us from countries such as Italy or Spain. The feeling that lingered after the lights had been dimmed was more melancholy than elated, something that favored the specific mood of the evening's second activity.

On our way back to Bjärnum we stopped at Mala Stones, a graveyard from late Iron Age. I had been there once before and knew that the site would appeal to my daughter and her boyfriend. They are archaeologists and thus, with some exceptions, interested in everything that is older than a hundred years.

Mala Stones is a rural cousin of Scandinavia's most magnificent “stone ship” - a kind of stone palisade that outlines the form of a Viking long ship and fences in the grave of a chieftain - the powerful Ale´s Stones situated on a coastal plateau by Kåseberga village in the far south. The ship grave is placed close to the sharp brink of a steep slope down to the sea, thus giving an impression that the stone ship is sailing straight into the Baltic Sea´s sharp horizon. A poem by Anders Österling captures the Spirit of the Place:

Where the coast plunges from sky to sea
Ale built a giant ship of stones,
stately resting where throngs of pale wheat
blend with the boulders´ dark immobility.
A tale hidden within the
murmur of the Baltic Sea,
which alone knows the ship´s meaning.

Grandiose resolve subdued the hill,
iron met bronze, when the adventure began.
The sea king´s ship, stuck to the ground,
is here making its journey to the end of time.
It just has stone for bow
and clouds for sails,
but is still the free ships´ equal.

I lament the fact that I cannot find any translation into English and am thus forced to rely on my own clumsy attempts to make a beautiful poem understandable, while throwing rhyme and rhythm overboard. To get at least a hint of the original splendor of the poem you may try to read the original aloud, which you find in the Swedish version of my blog. The poem has at least twice been set to music and both versions were quite good.

The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who was fascinated by any Northern, ancient history, wrote two poems about Ale´s Stones. One of them I am not particularly fond of, the other one is very short, but captures well the mood of the stone ship´s setting:

In May, in sunlight

the stone boat lies becalmed.

Larks

sing at the masthead.

 

 

Mala Stones are much smaller in every sense, in size and scope, and the place where they have been erected have a more intimate feel to it. An oak grove on a hill, a hundred meters in circumference, harbors seven stone ships and fifty standing stones. In the areas around Mala and Vankiva we find quite a few remains of settlements from the time when the legendary Vikings were active in the northern countries. At that time, the part of southern Sweden called Göinge was apparently a lively area, albeit with a completely different look than it has now. Next to the grave site we find a six hundred meter long gorge, called hålväg in Swedish. A hålväg is a road that in ancient times has been used for such a long time that it has become worn down below the surface of the surrounding ground, a sure sign that the area containing the grave field of Mala was once part of busy and populous district.

In those days there are no conifer trees in the area, only leafy ones. What now are meadows and arable land was then swamps and lakes, people's fields covered hills and islands and just like  the burial ground, they were constantly kept free from forest and shrubbery. No one knows how the grave fields were taken care of,  if offerings and sacrifices were presented to the dead, if the area was considered to be  sacred, if it was protected and fenced.

However, we know that the graves were so called “fire graves” meaning that the interred bodies were cremated and the burned bones and human ashes were gathered in an urn, which was buried in the middle of the stone ship, or in front of the raised stones. Men and women were buried together, but it is quite rare to find any buried children. Several initially erect stones at the Mala grave field have fallen down due to earth movements caused by frost and summer heat. Many boulders have probably been carried away by farmers to serve as stone fences or becoming part of house foundations, but surprisingly many are still standing and the place has retained an air of mystery and seclusion.

It was still summer and even though the hour was late the dusk lingered on when I arrived at the grave field with Esmeralda and Vincenzo. We had with us a thermos and cinnamon buns and sat down by a rickety table in the middle of the burial ground, which bore traces of once having been adapted to visitors. However, only a few rotted planks remained of the boardwalks, while the information signs had through rain and tear become unfathomable. It did not matter much, the place had a unique atmosphere that was not marred by the decay that characterized the municipality's attempts to popularize the site. The endurance of the site reigned supreme, the leaves of the old oaks did not move, in the distance bellowed some cows. The setting sun made long shadows behind the erect stones

As we sat at the table with our coffee cups and cinnamon buns we watched the stones and realized that the ships formed a flotilla travelled in the same direction with the shadows in their wake. Were they sailing towards the Realms of the Dead? Were these kingdoms to be found in the West? As we gazed at the stone ships we were seized by a remarkable illusion of movement, as if we, or the entire world, were slowly moving in the same direction as the ships.

The sense of mystery and magic was reinforced by our unexpected company. A gray cat, not much more than a kitten, had approached us as we walked up towards the burial ground plateau. Frisky and alert she jumped around our legs, or cuddly stroke herself against them. While we drank our coffee and ate the buns she jumped up on the table. My daughter who remembered the dog that many years earlier, had followed us through the temple area of Cumae, a walk I have described in an earlier blog entry, found the cat's interest in us somewhat unnerving. Was she some kind pyschopomp, watching over the cemetery? My daughter knew that cats were the companions of the Norse goddess Freya, a goddess who was not only queen of beauty, and the deity of fertility, but also associated with divination (seiðer) war and death. She was accompanied by her two big cats, Högni and Þófnir, who also pulled her cart. It is thus no coincidence that the witches of Nordic folklore always had cats as their companions.

The dark aspect of Freya was linked to her power over the black earth's fertile strength and she was therefore closely related to Hel, the terrible mistress of the Underworld. It was Freya who taught Odin sorcery and seiðerwomen wore cloaks lined with cat fur. One of Freya's many names were Valfreyja, Lady of the Fallen, and it was said that half of all the deceased belonged to her. She was called Hörn, Protector, of the dead. So was it any wonder if she had chosen a cat to guard the Mala Stones?

To lighten up the ghostly mood, I explained to my daughter that the cat's interest in us was typical of her specie. If you cuddled a cat and showed it your kind interest it often happened that it followed you and it would be quite hard to shake off. I feared that she, for some reason I assumed it was a female cat, would follow us down to the car and thus ran the risk of being run over when we left the place. The cat's behavior did not confirm my fears, but made my daughter quite confused. Having been with us throughout our stay in the grave field she sat down when we arrived at the gate by the entrance. She sat there, completely still, looking after us when we got into the car and drove away, just like the dog had done when we left Cumae many years earlier. A psychopomp?

A fortnight ago, when my youngest daughter had traveled to Rome, I rode the bicycle between Hässleholm and Bjärnum together with my older daughter. It was night, though the moon shone and the deep purple sky was starry. When we had passed Mala Stones we regretted that we hadn´t stopped and despite the late hour we turned back. In the darkness under the big oak trees we walked cautiously up the hill until we came to the clearing where the four largest and best preserved stone ships could be found. The moon had disappeared, but above us arched the canopy of a mighty night sky. The air was chilly when we quietly stood and watched the dark stones. My daughter raised her head and exclaimed: "Look! The Milky Way is right above us!" Rarely had I seen the wide starry path so clear and densely studded with sparkling stars, it was magic and I felt a shiver down my spine when my daughter said: "Look! The ships are following it! " And verily! The stone ships were placed in exactly the same direction as the Milky Way. It was as if they followed it to the Kingdom of the Dead. I do not have the faintest idea if a similar relationship to the Milky Way is evident in other Viking burial grounds, though in Mala the entire fleet of stone vessels were placed directly under it.

The Vikings had several names for the Milky Way, which by the way has a much more poetic name in Swedish, namly Vintergatan, “The Winter Road”. One Norse name was Bifrost, which is said to mean either "The Trembling Road" or "The Flaming Bridge", a designation that fits well with the aspect of the Milky Way. At night the gods used it as their route over the heavens, by day they traveled along the rainbow, which also was called Bifrost.


Janna and I stood still under the Milky Way´s glittering span of stars, with our eyes we followed the stone ships´ course towards the darks woods that lined the clearing. We felt the connection between earth and sky and I thought about a few more stanzas in Anders Österling´s poem:

For in the middle of the farmer's plot
Ale has embarked
on the ship of Death, the last he owns.

Lindow, John (2001) Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs.Oxford: Oxford Universiety Press.

 

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