Thursday, May 1, 2008

Valborgsmässafton 2008

JoeValborgsmässafton is one the big three traditional celebrations in Sweden, the other two being Christmas and Mid-Summer. In most of Sweden, the occasion is marked with large public bonfires, and Uppsala is no exception—quite the contrary, actually, as the Uppsala area (or Upplands) seems to have been the origin point of Swedish Walpurgis Night bonfires.

So, despite being exhausted by a day of watching other people get drunk, we took a deep breath and hopped on the #2 bus bound for Gamla Uppsala. Most neighborhoods have their own fires, ours included, and the Flogsta/Ekeby bonfire was probably a lot of fun, but it just seemed to us that we shouldn't miss an opportunity to see a huge bonfire by the Gamla Uppsala burial mounds, and it's only a thirty minute bus ride, so off we set.

We were a little late, as we hadn't counted on the buses being so completely swamped with revelers off to their next party. Fortunately for us, the #2 starts just around the corner from our apartment, and after going through downtown it heads straight out to Gamla Uppsala, with the end of the line being right at the mounds. So we didn't have to fight for a seat or anything, we could just sit back and watch the drunk people getting drunker as the ride went on (apparently that whole "no drinking on the bus" rule falls into the category of laws that just aren't enforced on Sista April). There was a lot of singing too, including some call and response stuff that had at least half the bus going.

Anyway, by 8:45 we were there. It was just heading into dusk, but the fire was already roaring. We made our way across the fields to the music of a large choral group perched on the hillside behind the fire, as small children ran about lighting bits of straw from the smaller fires set here and there, and larger children set off the occasional roman candle. There was a sizeable and mixed crowd: lots of baby strollers, plenty of kids running around the mounds and fields ("no walking on the burial mounds," another rule not in force today), gangs of teenagers hanging out, and so forth. Further away from the fire there was a stand where you could buy a hamburger from the firemen, and behind that a hillside dotted with smaller groups sitting in the darkness, some of them with fires of their own1.

The fire itself was huge, hot enough that you couldn't stand closer than 5 m to it for more than a moment. It seemed to have its own microclimate, spawning dervishes of flame on the upwind edge that would tear off in a whirl of ash and sparks. As darkness set in, the choral ensemble gave way to some somber speech making, replaced once the gloom had deepened enough with a fireworks display just outside the orange glow of the flame.

The whole effect, with the silhouettes of the burial mounds looming behind the fire, was more than a little moving. For more than a thousand years, people have been gathering at this very spot, on this night, to mark the coming of spring. There may or may not have been a thousand annual bonfires at the Uppsala burial mounds, but it was impossible at the time not to believe that there had been. This is a place that has been held sacred for well over a millenium, and when you stand there, you can feel it.

The mounds themselves date from the 5th century CE, and the archeological evidence shows that they weren't just burials. Each was dug down out of a long ridge, and once it had been leveled a huge fire was built to cremate the body along with all the trappings of royalty. Days later, when the ashes had cooled enough to handle, the remains were sorted through, and all the odd little melted metal bits gathered up with the ashes and placed in an urn, which would become the center of the large mound that was built up over the spot over the next year. The four largest mounds are at the northern edge, but the ridge continues to the south for quite a ways, and is dotted with hundreds of smaller mounds, each marking a funereal bonfire from 1500 years ago.

By the 10th century, the mounds at Uppsala had become the focal point of the annual spring rites dedicated to Odin. Every year around the end of April, the people would gather and light fires and make sacrifices, commemorating the nine days and nights that Odin hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, his side pierced by his own spear, in order to earn control over the runes, the magic of which allowed him to safeguard the power of the Aesir and protect their worshippers. Due to his death and rebirth, the night was considered to be a time when the boundares between life and death were weak, and the bonfires were lit to keep the spirits of the deceased at bay.

One of the three largest burial mounds, with the old cathedral behind.

In the 12th century the region started to become Christianized, but the bonfires just kept going. In the church calendar May 1 marked the day of St. Walpurga, an 8th century German Abbess (well, she was born in Wessex, actually, but she was an abbess in Germany), so now the bonfires marked Walpurgis Eve (in Germany they do the same thing, except that the bonfires are lit to keep the witches of Brocken in the Harz Mountains away). And the mounds? They just built the first Christian Cathedral in Sweden right next to them, so that no one had to change their travel plans.

Through most of Sweden, Valborgsmässafton was celebrated over the next centuries in a non-flamey way. Young people would gather sticks and greenery and make them into bundles, which they would then use to decorate the houses of their village. For this service they were paid in eggs.

The 18th century saw the birth of Swedish nationalism, and an emphasis on Sweden's cultural heritage. Naturally many looked once more to Gamla Uppsala2. At the same time, the Walpurgis bonfires, which were still going strong in the Upplands region, began to appear all over Svealand, and from there they spread to much of Sweden.

With the 20th century, Sweden became less Christian and more socialist. The result: out with Valborgsmäss, in with May Day, which just happens to fall on the same day. Voila, new holiday. I suppose these days the bonfires are lit to keep the capitalist oppressors away. Oh, and the teenagers now contribute nothing, for which they expect to be paid in beer.

So, today I am led to contemplate the transient nature of tradition. Last night, however, I was content to feel the heat of the fire on my face, the cold of the wind at my back, and the stirring of a Viking spirit betwixt the two.

1 The most inexplicable thing we saw all night was a group of people wearing red jumpsuits completely covered in random patches, all with keys and bottle openers hanging on chains from their belts. They were gathered around what appeared to be a large alcohol fire back on the hill. I'm thinking they're some sort of techno-cultists, like if the Masons based all of their rituals on the daily work of runway maintenance engineers instead of bricklayers. But I could be wrong.
2 Uppsala had since been moved about 6 km downriver, for bureaucratic reasons, so the area around the mounds became known as Gamla Uppsala.

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