Friday, August 04, 2006

Toss a Stick for Luck

Took a trip to Björkö / Birka today with a friend, her charming American guests and sundry kids. Beautiful day, great site of course, and I realised that Björkö actually has a really nice little beach for the children. With fat grey clay, to the limitless delight of the three-year old...

The way to go to Björkö, if (like me) you don't want to spend two hours on the boat from Stockholm Town Hall listening to a guide on a tinny intercom, is by car and ferry. Drive to Munsö and onto the Adelsö ferry, drive to the ancient royal manor at Adelsö church, and take a five-minute boat ride to Björkö. On the way home, me & the kids took five geocaches and had a nice dinner at the old parsonage of Ekerö.

One of the caches was right by an unusual ancient monument: an interactive site with a folk tale!

Fantans hög, "The Mound of the Wife of the Servant / Vagrant", is what folklorists call an offerkast, "a sacrificial toss". It's a big pile of sticks and twigs by the roadside. When you pass by, you're supposed to toss a stick onto the pile to avoid bad luck while travelling. For instance, your horses might run out of control if you don't. It's a bit like a Jewish cemetery, where you're supposed to put pebbles on the headstones.

In the case of this particular offerkast the story was that a woman had murdered her husband (a servant or vagrant), and that she was sentenced to running the gauntlet. She was to run through the woods toward Ekerö church, and once she could see the spire, she was safe. But she didn't make it. She fell, was stoned to death, and then her body was cremated on the spot. Where an offerkast subsequently sprouted.

It was a very popular offerkast, growing so big that in the 19th century the sticks were carted off and burnt twice a year. But in 1947, it was finally removed for an impending road improvement. Luckily, it was excavated by archaeologists first.

In the mound of sticks were found a number of coins, most from the 19th century, the earliest dating from 1577. And under it was an oval stone pavement containing cremated human bone. When I was an undergrad in 1990, we passed by the place on an excursion, and were told that the bones most likely belonged to a criminal, perhaps a witch, cremated in the 16th century. But in 2001, someone sent off a bone fragment from the site for radiocarbon dating, and got a late 1st millennium BC date. So the offerkast was actually placed on top of an Early Iron Age grave, which would seem very unlikely to have happened by chance.

Fantans hög was physically destroyed in the 1940s. But its cognitive imprint among the locals remained untouched. A new offerkast promptly appeared at the side of the new road, and is still there today, probably fed considerably by the nearby informative signpost. My son put two sticks on the pile for us today, and we got home safely.

Coordinates for Fantans hög: N59°16.600, E017°46.100.

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Blogger Martha said...

What a great story! It amazes me how a single spot can settle into the imagination, over centuries. The closest I've seen to that is the practice of leaving little shrines along the road where someone has died in a car wreck. You can see items collect over time. These sites don't have the same kind of history, or the disconnect from the original event, but perhaps the basic impulse is the same.

05 August, 2006 22:17  
Anonymous Mattias said...

Well, maybe there is something to the story after all...

06 August, 2006 22:19  
Blogger Martin said...

Martha: We get those little road accident shrines in Sweden too. Certainly inspires you to drive safe(r)...

Mattias: Yeah! Yeah! Maybe an accurate tradition about the murder, the gauntlet and the cremation was preserved for 2000 years until people started tossing sticks onto the grave in the 16th century! (-;

06 August, 2006 22:31  
Anonymous Per-Allan said...

Offerkast is just one of the names for the phenomenon, which is world-wide, and practised still today. Some other swedish names are kasthög and varphög. as in the article Gengångartro och kasthögar i Bohuslän by Carl-Martin Bergstrand. The Cairn is added to by anyone who passes by, for good luck with the weather, to commemorate or condemn a dead person, or just for the joy of adding to a pile of rocks and sticks. An old Scots Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, i.e. 'I'll put a stone on your cairn'. The Inuit call them Inukshuk, in Northern Africa they are known as Kerkour, in Ireland you can find heaps of wooden crosses, and so on, and so on...

08 August, 2006 17:09  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks for enlightening us!

08 August, 2006 19:29  

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