Tomorrow, according to the calendar, is June 21st, the first day of summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. Known by many names – Litha, Midsummer, St. John’s Day – it has been celebrated through the ages, first as a communal agricultural rite to ensure a good harvest and as a fertility ritual. Bonfires are lighted, May poles are erected (pole = male, earth = female), mead made from fermented honey is drunk (hence “honeymoon” in June). Dancing, drinking, dreaming and lovemaking ensue.
Yesterday in Minnesota I wove a wreath of daisies for my hair and danced around the Maypole in a public park. I ate heart-shaped waffles doused with fresh strawberries and sweet cream. Families with picnic baskets sprawled on the grass.
Had I been living in Sweden, where Midsommer is a national holiday second only to Christmas, I might have joined friends for pickled herring and new potatoes, washed down with schnapps and beer, then taken part in games and dancing.
In England thousands will gather at Stonehenge to watch the sun rise over the central axis of this megalithic stone circle. In Ireland neo-pagans may gather at New Grange, a megalithic grave mound constructed so as to receive the last rays of the setting sun on a stone at the back of the cairn – only on the summer solstice.
Midsummer. A time of magic? A time to head out for vacation? A time to renew your committment to preserving Mother Earth? You decide, but don’t let the day pass unmarked.
In case you haven’t heard, the May 20th failure of the world to end has now been termed a ‘spiritual rather than a physical event’ by evangelist Harold Camping. The REAL end of days has been rescheduled for October 21, 2011 – according to a “revised revelation” revealed on FamilyRadio.com. Stand by for further updates.
As we know, the world did not end on May 21, 2011. This fact is not likely to deter those obsessed with predicting Doomsday, however, for we humans seem fascinated with stories about the earth’s ultimate demise – be they blockbuster summer movies or ancient prophecies. Think the Book of Revelations with Apocalypse, think Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle with Gotterdammerung, think Norse mythology with Ragnarok. Ragnarok? Now there’s a spectacle for you! Gods and men battling giants and monsters, the forces of order and control versus chaos and old night. Ragnarok incorporates elements common to other disaster scenarios, such as earthquake, tsunami and fire, but there is one major difference: the end is not the end.
Ragnarok sets the stage with portents of doom: successive winters, return of the dead, and the loosing of monsters via earthquakes and tidal waves. (In my novel, Faces in the Fire, King Hrothgar’s court fear that the appearance of the Grendel monster is a signal of such approaching doom.)
Next comes the gathering of forces from each corner of the nine worlds to square off in a final battle. (Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Book Three) Finally the battle itself, in which opposing forces destroy each other, fire burns everything, and the land sinks into the sea.
End of story? Not quite. Unlike most Christian versions, the pagan Ragnarok ends with a vision of the earth’s renewal. A new world rises from the sea, new gods and men are born, and in this ‘brave new world’ men and gods live happily together – a golden age.
I vote to Ragnarok.
An image of the Kensington Runestone, discovered in 1898 in a farmer’s field near Kensington, MN, will soon be featured on the side of U-Haul trucks across the U.S. The stone describes the massacre of 10 Swedish and Norwegian explorers in the year 1362. Now housed in a local museum, the stone has been called a hoax, and yet was featured on a History Channel documentary in 2009.
U-Haul takes no position on the stone’s authenticity. The company is using the image as part of its “Venture Across America” campaign, with Minnesota as one of the states represented. According to a company spokesperson, “honoring Minnesota will challenge everyone to learn more about Viking adventures, and decide for themselves whether or not the proof is etched in stone.” Hear! Hear!
(Facts taken from May 29 article in Minneapolis Star Tribune.)
I am writing this on Memorial Day, the day set aside to honor our dead, be they soldiers who’ve fallen in wartime, or ancestors buried in the family plot. Typically one places as marker a monument of stone inscribed with the names and dates of the departed to commemorate their lives and contributions. I recently drove to a Quaker cemetery in Indiana to check my mother’s gravestone. Yes, the date of her passing last year had been added to her stone, carved beneth a rose-crowned cross. Next to my mother lies my father, who pre-deceased her by almost 20 years. Above his name is carved an image of a fisherman, casting his line into celestial waters.
Had I been a Viking woman I might have commissioned a similar stone from a rune-master, with names to be chiseled in the ancient runic alphabet, Futhark (so called from its first six original letters). Stones with runic inscriptions can be found all over Scandinavia, as one might expect, but they also appear in places as far flung as Yugoslavia, Greece, the Orkneys, Greenland and Iceland – wherever Vikings lived and died. Over 200 such stones are found in Denmark; over 2,000 are scattered across Sweden – found in public places along roadsides, near bridges, on parish and farm boundaries, even near churches. The usual format is “X raised this stone in memory of Y.” Relationships are sometimes added, or mention of inheritances.
Most Swedish stones are decorated with elaborate serpentine forms which contain the runic inscriptions, such as the memorial stone near a river at Ramsundsherget that says, “Sigrid, mother of Alrik, daughter of Orm, made this bridge for the soul of Holmgeir, her husband, father of Sigrod.”
The two famous stones outside a village church at Jelling, Denmark, include a small one set up by King Gorm in memory of his wife Thorvi, and a larger one, elaborately decorated, set up by their son Harald (known as “Blacktooth”) in memory of his parents. I visited Jelling one summer’s day in 2003, and traced my fingers lightly across the magnificent carvings on Harald’s sone, erected some time in the 900’s.
A few Swedish stones which commemmorate men who died abroad contain verses, such as this one from Gripsholm: “They went gallantly / far for gold / and in the east / fed the eagle” (i.e. were killed). The desire to remember – and to be remembered – transcends the ages.