Another Strange Old-Time Pagan Burial Custom

In this reconstruction, the Mesolithic man, who died in his 50s, wears a wild boar skin. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

If you read something about “a head on a stake,” you probably imagine someone’s head — on a stake — outside the camp of the colorful but violent ancestors. This is different.

About eight thousand years ago in southern Sweden, several people were “buried,” that is to say, placed underwater and their bodies staked down — yet this was done respectfully?

Archaeologists discovered the man’s skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and an infant, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest were jawless, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes sticking out from the lake’s surface.

The skulls of the dead showed wounds, but also signs of healing. And there were lots of animal bones in with them.

The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.

It’s hard to make heads or tails of the finding: During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said.

The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant’s, were human. While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, including dismembered jawbones and arms and legs (all from the right side of the body), said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. [See Images from the Mysterious Burial Found in Sweden]

You can watch the reconstruction of one man’s skull in here. The work is done by Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish forensic artist, who has reconstructed the appearance of a number of ancient people.

A bear’s jawbone, with scrapes from the butchering process indicated. (Image credit: Sara Gummesson; Antiquity 2018)

Here is a photo gallery of images from the site.

Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of “blunt-force trauma” on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn’t kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, [Swedish archaeologist Fredrik] Hallgren said.

So we have people who have been clubbed in the head laid to rest in the lake — but maybe not immediately after they were injured, since some showed signs of healing. For an unknown reason, their lower jaws are missing.

Were they “us” or “them”?

Some hunter-gatherer people are known to deposit animal bones in lakes to encourage their rebirth — you can think of the lake as a womb or perhaps a gateway to the Underworld. And there are traditions of throwing weapons, personal ornaments, and other items into lakes as well.

You could speculate, therefore, that these were “us” — members of that group who were returned to the “womb,” even as the hunters want the animals to be re-born.

On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?

In an article that I am preparing for the next issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies,1)Free downloads all summer! Diane Purkiss of Oxford University writes,

In creating anodyne and harmless religions, we risk creating powerless religions, religions that cannot address the overpowering emotions that accompany human life. By contrast, our Pagan ancestors understood only too well just how vicious and uncomfortable the relation between the self, time, and nature truly is.

The old-time people had multiple and creative responses to death, we can say that much.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Free downloads all summer!

Swedish Social Democrat Politician Wants to Ban Runes?

From Sputnik News

Back in the late 1990s, I had a young Swedish student in my English 102 (second-semester composition) class. I noticed that he wore a small silver Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) around his neck on a chain, under his shirt.

Was he a Norse Pagan or just making a cultural statement, I wondered. So I complimented him on it a neutral way.

I don’t think he was Pagan as such. But he was interested in the Viking Age and all that.

Nevertheless, he told me, he was afraid to wear the hammer at home, “because people would say that I am a Nazi.”

Now it’s twenty years later, and at least one Swedish government minister is worried about “Nazi associations” with runes. Never mind that they are many centuries old,

A partisan Swedish website reports:

The government is currently investigating the possibility of banning the use of Norse runes. It is reported that the Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson (S) [Social Democrat], is behind the initiative. In the Asa community, which organizes asa troops and people with an interest in the Norse cultural heritage, the outrage is great about what one thinks is a restriction on, among other things, religious freedom. A collection of names has been started and on Friday [May 24, presumably] a manifestation [demonstration] is arranged outside the Parliament House in protest against the proposal. (Machine-translated by Google Translate).

This was picked up by the site Sputnik News (“Pagans, History Buffs Rage as Sweden Considers Banning ‘Nazi’ Runes,”), which sounds like another Russian shit-stirring operation. Nevertheless, I think there is a kernel of truth here.  They quoted a Swedish Asatru group, which said (translated)

Our attitude is that prejudices and misunderstandings are best cured with knowledge and facts. It is not okay to try and replace the meaning of our symbols with one’s own prejudices or political meaning they completely lack. Banning them would wipe out a part of our own history, culture and beliefs — and our freedom of expression because of political interpretations that do not belong in the Asa community.”

Maybe the Swedish Social Democrats could just ban the letters N and Z. My student knew his own culture’s predilections, I can say that much.

Does Anyone “Own” the Vikings? The NY Times Wants to Know

Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

Some years ago — the late 1990s? — I had a Swedish freshman student in one of my classes. Looking over his shoulder as he was typing at his computer station, I noticed that he had a silver Mjöllnir (Thor’s hammer) pendant on a thin chain around his neck.

Naturally, I wondered if he was following Norse religion or just proud of his heritage. I complimented him on the pendant, and he told me that he was interested in the Viking Age.

“But if I wear this at home,” he said, “they call me a Nazi.”

I told him that I did not think he had to worry about that in Pueblo, Colorado.

Now here comes the New York Times plodding down the Nazi/Heathen trail — in Sweden.

Amid a boom in Viking-related TV shows and films — and a corresponding surge in Viking-inspired tourism and advertising campaigns — there is increasing political tension and social unease over the use of various runes, gods and rituals from the Viking era.

Watch a group of Swedish followers of the old religion deal with the usual tired questions: “Who Owns the Vikings? Pagans, Neo-Nazis and Advertisers Tussle Over Symbols.”

Here is another way of approaching such reportage from a leading establishment media voice. Maybe it’s not about “Nazis” at all, except that is the insult of the moment, a way to dismay something disturbing to the materialist world view. These elites are good at dismissing Christianity — it is all “fundamentalist crazies,” “deplorables,” and people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Religion is dangerous. The people in power have always realized this. Either they must tame it — make it all about how King Zork enjoys the Will of Heaven —or keep a heavy, cast iron lid on it.

The trouble with religious people is that they are not always loyal enough — to the king, to the government, to the Party, to the corporation.

Nowadays Paganism(s) is growing. You can’t call the Pagans “deplorables” or “bitter clingers” or “fundamentalist crazies.” Those insults just don’t fit.

But you can call (some of) them “Nazis” or “racists” as a way of marginalizing them, a way of making it clear that no bien pensant, “woke” or “progressive” person would want to have anything to do with that experience that they are offering.

As a commentator on law professor Ann Althouse’s blog wrote, “[Christianity, in this case] is simply the enemy culture. It has to be disparaged and reduced in social status.

Or when they say that your Olympic ski sweaters “raise alarms” about neo-Nazis, that’s a warning shot too.

The Persistence of Runic Memory

Seventeeth-century runic inscription from Sweden.

Seventeeth-century runic inscription from Sweden.

Why buy a book on learning runes from Llewellyn or Weiser when you can learn from the people who clung to them the longest?

But you say that they stopped using them a century ago? That is nothing in the spiritual tourism market. “My grandfather taught me the secret tradition that he preserved!”

If they are trying to keep Elfdalian Norse alive, bring the runes along too. Open some B&Bs, some small hotels decorated with runic inscriptions, some charming restaurants. Teach “runic yoga.” Never mind that it was not invented there. This is tradition we are talking about.

First Impressions from EASR, Contemporary Esotericism Conferences

I did not attend these conference sessions  on the study of esotericism in Stockholm, alas, but several blogging friends did attend. One of them, Sasha Chaitow of the Phoenix Rising Academy, has already posted an initial report, so go read it.