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Saturday, 15 June 2013

Viking Serpents

Viking Serpents

The mystery dragons of Sweden - from Norse sagas to modern sightings

Viking Serpents
Illustration (detail) by Alex Tomlinson
Sweden has its fair share of weird folkloric fauna. When studying the maps and literary works of 16th-century Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus, one might think that Scandinavia was completely monster-infested. Magnus’s seminal work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern People), printed in Rome in 1555, contains detailed, but wildly imaginative, information about the zoology of Sweden. The reader is treated to vivid descriptions of dwarves warring with cranes, sea serpents devouring ships and dancing, satyr-like fairies. His Carta Marina from 1539 shows maps of Scandinavia where the waters are teeming with monsters that look like refugees from a Godzilla movie.

For any Scandinavian, those crocodilian monsters look utterly out of place in the northern climate. Sweden, though beautiful, can hardly be considered a suitable stomping-ground for large reptiles. To the far north are desolate mountains, in the south Tolkienesque, Shire-like landscapes, and in between dense woodland of pine and spruce. It’s all well and good speculating about prehistoric monsters in far-away Congo swamps; it’s not so easy to picture them stalking the pinewoods.

Still, it is in such woods that tales of the dragon and its kin have flourished. To those who dwelt within the forest, it was a world of wonders and terrors, full of magical creatures to be fought with magical means. The Swedish dragon, though reptilian in appearance, had a supernatural rather than natural origin. It was said that when a greedy old miser hid away the inheritance due his relatives, his soul would leave his body at the moment of death and take the form of a scaly, serpent-like monster to guard the hoard. Said dragon would on occasion leave its treasure and soar across the sky in the shape of an elongated, flame-encircled object, thus making a novel transition from mystery beast to UFO. No knights or heroes were called upon to challenge such a creature, but rather the nearest priest, who would exorcise the monster with prayer.

Such supernatural creatures need no appropriate ecology to exist, just human contact. The dragon was therefore no more out of place in the Swedish landscape than ghosts, werewolves and trolls. But there were others of a supposedly more mundane origin. Most lake monsters were considered abnormalities of nature – prehistoric relics, giant fish or hybrids of wildly different species. (How does the horned, finned lovechild of a bull and a pike grab you?) But even such beasts were subject to the laws of the Church; just as in the story of St Columba subduing the Loch Ness monster, many of Nessie’s Swedish relatives were tamed by clergymen.

Among the monsters supposedly native to Sweden, one stands out from the crowd: the lindorm, or “lime tree serpent”, named for its habit of laying its eggs under the bark of the lime tree. Tales of the lindorm are predominately found in the south of the country, particularly in the regions of Småland and Blek­inge. A typical lindorm tale is similar to an account of encountering a large snake in the jungle. Someone is out walking, stumbles on the big reptile and flees. Sometimes there is a violent confrontation and the monster is overcome. That’s it. There’s no moral to the story, no allegory or witty twist. It would appear that what you’re reading (or hearing) is a retelling of an actual event. The lindorm cannot fly or breathe fire and doesn’t have any magical powers. It’s simply a very big, nasty reptile. It is, however, equipped with a potent venom and a curious method of locomotion. But more about that later.

The stories about the lindorm go very far back – all the way to the Vikings, in fact. The tale of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnar “Hairy Pants”), said to have lived around the 9th century, tells of a lindorm kept as a pet by the lovely Tora until the creature grows so large it wraps itself around her house and guards her with great jealousy. Many men try to dispose of the beast, but all succumb to the powerful venom spat by the serpent. Ragnar hears of Tora’s distress and prepares a novel type of armour. He dips bearskins in tar and sews them together to cover his body. He then (in typ­ical Norse hero fashion) rows from Denmark to Tora’s house in the south of Sweden and kills the lindorm by impaling it on his spear. In its death throes, the lindorm vomits all of its venom over Ragnar but his armour withstands the attack. Ragnar breaks off the spear and leaves its tip stuck in the body of the serpent. His task fulfilled, he leaves, but not before spontaneously composing and singing a hymn to Tora’s beauty (another typical Norse hero practice) when seeing her peeking out of a window at him. Of course, this makes Tora even more curious about her saviour and she assembles all the men in the region to match the spearhead stuck in the lindorm’s body with their spear-shafts. Eventually, Ragnar is found, and like Cinderella and the glass slipper, the spearhead fits Ragnar’s broken shaft and he is immediately wed to Tora by her father, the thane of Geatland. Unfortunately, the tale does not end well for the young couple. After some years, Tora falls ill and dies, and Ragnar eventually meets his end (ironically enough) in a snake pit.

The Norse lindorm is often referred to as a “dragon”, but doesn’t have much in common with our traditional image of such creatures; it has no legs and no wings, it can’t fly and it doesn’t breathe fire. Eventually, a distinction developed between the lindorm and the dragon in Scandinavia; the dragon came to be regarded as a supernatural beast while the lindorm remained a natural, if unusual, bit of native fauna. Sometimes, lindorm tales focused on the expanding human civilisation intruding upon the monster’s natural habitat. One story from the region of Blekinge tells of a fast-expanding town that ran afoul of a very large lindorm. The serpent devoured peasants and noblemen alike until a committee from the town decided to burn the forest where the beast was believed to have its nest. The lindorm died in the flames, but the wind caught the fire and directed it towards the settlement. Thus, both the monster and its assassins were destroyed in the same conflagration.

Another incident said to have taken place in the naval town of Karlskrona, Blek­inge, had two lindorms escape from a ship anchored in the harbour. After causing some distress to the townspeople, the serpents disappeared out into the sea and were later each spotted at different locations along the coastline, basking on rocks in the sunshine. Both these locations are named after the lindorms.

By the 19th century, magic and tradition had largely given way to industrialism and urban development; there was little time for people to listen to folktales, much less believe in them. But at the same time, this was also a period of Romantic nationalism in which scholars fervently documented the folklore and customs of the rural people. For the first time, collections of Swedish folk tales and fairy tales were printed for the mass market and illustrated by some of the nation’s finest artists. The spoken tale had become literature.

One of the most prominent publishers of Swedish folklore was Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius (1818–1889). After making his reputation and fortune as a diplomat, he set about collecting old tales and folk traditions, using his estate of Sunnanvik, in Småland, as a base of operations. To a large extent, Småland consists of an ocean of shadowy, green spruce forests (in which the Swedish Hermit of Hamneda spent 40 years hiding out. The last Ice Age left the terrain strewn with rocks, sometimes clumped together in hollow, cave-like formations. It’s a landscape made to stir the imagination. With his colleague George Stephens, Hyltén-Cavallius published the important folktale collection Svenska sagor och äfventyr (Swedish Fairy-tales and Advent­ures), from 1844–1849. On his own he published Wärend och wirdarne (1863–1868), which deals with folklore and traditions in Småland and remains one of the key works in the development of Swedish ethnological research. While collecting material for his books, Hyltén-Cavallius frequently came across stories of the lindorm, sometimes even meeting people who provided him with eyewitness accounts. He gradually became convinced that the lindorm differed from other folkloric beasts, and that there must be an actual animal behind the monster.

In 1884, he published the book Om Draken eller Lindormen (Concerning the Dragon or the Lindorm), in which he addressed the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm and insisted that “A suitable reward should be offered for the killing and obtaining of the corpus delicti in question.” However, the learned members of the academy chose not to heed this suggest­ion. Their reaction prompted him to post a reward himself and he started to spread a flyer with the following information:

“According to several rational accounts, there have in our native land of Småland been observations in later years of a large snake, called Dragon, Lindorm or Wheel-serpent in the folktales. Said species, which at present is unknown to the science of zoology, does not appear to belong to the order of venomous reptiles, but is rather analogous to the constrictors known to be found in southern countries. He is darkly coloured, reaches a length of up to 17 feet, is as thick as the thigh of a man and can sometimes be seen displaying on his neck a crest of scales or hair like that of the mane of a horse. When irritated, he will rise up against his enemy to a height of 4 or 5 feet, showing such horrifying fury that he can hardly be killed with anything less than a shotgun. Among our peasants he has been the subject of numerous super­stitions, making him appear to some as the apparition of a dead person, to others as some fairy or troll and to still others as the Devil himself. If someone is able to kill a specimen of this rare breed of animal and present it on the estate of Sunnanvik, either freshly killed or pickled in alcohol, he will be rewarded with the sum of one hundred to one thousand kronor, depending on the size and appearance of the specimen.
"Torne and Sunnenvik, June 1884.
"G.O. Hyltén-Cavallius

No lindorm ever appeared, pickled or otherwise, on the doorstep of Hyltén-Cavallius’s home. He did, however, receive a large number of eyewitness accounts, most of them signed “upon my honour and conscience”, “under sworn oath” or even “upon my immortal soul”. Most of these testimonies were included in the updated, second edition of Om Draken eller Lindormen, published in 1886. The lindorm was seen all over Småland, but seemed to be more frequent near lakes or ponds. The length of the serpents ranged from eight to 17ft. The testimony of one Johan Sedig is typical. He told of a lindorm observed on a small island in Lake Läen. This serpent was 12ft long and a horror to behold. In his own words: “The eyes were shiny, like those of the asp, and about the size of hazelnuts. Its stare was sharp and terrible. There was much talk amongst people about our adventure, so I can truthfully declare that this type of snake or dragon has been much discussed in our watery woodland and that people have claimed to have seen specimens with a long, dark mane along its neck, and reaching lengths up to 18–20 feet.”

In all submitted stories, the aggressive nature of the serpent was stressed. The lindorm seemed to charge any who vent­ured too near, and sometimes launched unprovoked attacks. In 1844, a lindorm was said to have scared off a group of carpenters working on Sirk Island in Lake Åsnen. The following day, the men returned, but could find no trace of the serpent.

There is another element shared by some of the stories, one that casts some doubt on Hyltén-Cavallius’s claim of “rational accounts”: alcohol. The testimony of 73-year-old Petter Johansson recounted an event that took place in 1862, when Johansson was still “a strong and brave man”. Working as a farmhand, he was one day sent to bring home a couple of oxen that were out to pasture. Armed with a small bundle of food, and a rather large bottle of snaps, the strong Swedish alcoholic beverage, he set out through the woods. Eventually, he passed a mere in the forest where he made a startling discovery:

“I saw there was lying, about 18 feet from the water, an incredibly large snake. He was curled up in a tightly coiled ring about 2–2.5 feet across, and he had his head in the middle of the ring, resting on the body so it lay on top of the outermost coil… Its body was black, with a thickness like the lower part of a man’s thigh… I estimated the length of its body to be about 14 feet. Its head was greyish in colour, about 8–9 inches long and about 5–6 inches wide, being widest across the eyes, which were bulging and as large as those of a cow. At the very front, its head was rounded like that of the pike-fish and along the corners of its mouth the skin was folded. Its tongue was red, forked and thick as a pinkie. He had teeth on either side, white as ivory, slightly crooked and very large. But the strangest thing was that he had behind his head black bristles, about half an inch long, and they parted in the middle like the mane of a horse. The snake had a very fierce and cruel appearance, especially when he was yawning, as he then opened his jaws at least five inches and there was a red glow all the way down his gullet:

“As I became aware of the snake, I made no sound and watched him for maybe five minutes, and the snake, on his part, lay still and watched me. Then I turned and went into a part of the woods where I had passed a pile of fence poles. I picked up one of the poles and turned to attack the snake. But as I came to strike him, he suddenly opened his mouth and rose up to a height of about a foot. I was startled and didn’t dare strike at him, so I turned back into the woods where I had dropped my little bundle of food. I took a good, stiff drink from the snaps and thought that I’d be damned if I’d let myself get scared by a snake. So I went over to that pile of poles and fetched me an even bigger one, and so I bravely went again towards the snake. As he now saw me coming at him, he opened his mouth again and rose with lightning speed to at least two feet, his head turned in my direction. At that moment, I sort of felt a chill in my body and I turned back into the woods again. Reaching my safe spot, I was surprised at my behaviour and felt angry with myself. I therefore took another stiff drink and went over to the pile of poles to fetch me an even bigger one. Then I went boiling with anger towards the snake for the third time. As he saw me coming he opened his mouth again and rose up at least four feet. Now I was struck by horror, my hair stood up on my head from sheer fright and I fled the spot. But the image of the terr­ible snake still comes back to me after 22 years as vividly as if it had happened today.

“I told of my adventure to my friends and to corporal Dacke, from Bergunda parish. Dacke then revealed to me that he had probably seen the same snake and gone home to fetch his rifle and shoot it. But when he returned to the spot where he had seen the snake, it had disappeared.

“I am now an old man with no wish to die with a lie on my conscience. What I have told here is word for word the truth, as God is my witness!

A few of the tales even claimed that a lindorm had been killed. In one story, the lindorm was clubbed with a piece of wood and left for dead, in another a huge stone was dropped on its head, definitely killing it. The latter story also reveals another intriguing detail about the lindorm – that it is indeed venomous:

“It happened one Midsummer’s eve, when I was about 20, that I went with the blacksmith Stockhus to buy some Mid­summer snaps for us and our mates. We took a couple of drinks ourselves and were in good spirits. As we were walking down the path, we came across a huge snake, lying across the path with its head towards the lake. It was drinking from the water and showed no signs of wanting to move out of the way. So I grabbed a big stick and beat the snake across its back as hard as I could. The snake then rose up at least four feet above the ground and went at me with wide-open mouth, hissing with fury and spitting a white, smelly liquid, similar to sour milk. I retreated while striking at the snake with all my might… The battle went on in this manner until my stick sudd­enly broke. But by then the snake had had enough and went under some rocks where he apparently had his nest… As the snake was fleeing, I grabbed a rock weighing at least 40lb… ran over to the dragon and straddled its back with the rock lifted over my head and threw the rock down onto the head of the snake, crushing it and thusly ending the fight…

“I can pledge upon my immortal soul that every word I have written here is the truth, so help me God!  Johan Edvard Vallentin, with pen in hand.”

As violent as many of these confront­ations seem to be, there are no reports of any human casualties, save for a few grim stories from the province of Skåne. One Whit Sunday in the early 1850s, the maid Elna Olsdotter was on her way to church in her finest attire. She stopped to rest for a moment under a big lime tree; a huge lindorm appeared from within the tree and gobbled her up whole. The monster only discarded two items that it apparently found distasteful – Elna’s silk scarf and her hymnbook. In another part of Skåne, a little girl and her mother were picking berries near the stump of an old lime tree. The girl discovered a huge snake lying within the tree, and despite warnings from her mother that the snake was nothing less than a lindorm, the girl reached in her hand to touch it and was promptly grabbed and devoured.

In all of the tales, the lindorm was described with remarkable consistency, strengthening Hyltén-Cavallius’s conviction that he was indeed dealing with a real animal. In the second edition of his book he could therefore add the following exact description of the beast:

“It ordinarily grows to a length of about 10 feet, but specimens of up to 18 or 20 feet have been observed. Its body is as thick as the leg or thigh of a man. The colour of its back is dark while its belly is mottled yellow. Along the neck of older specimens is to be found a covering of hair or scales that is invariably likened to a horse’s mane in the folktales. Its head is flat, round and abrupt, with a forked tongue, a maw full of gleaming, white teeth and big, protruding eyes with a savage, glimmering glare. Its tail is short and stumpy and the general appearance of this animal is one of heaviness and ungainliness.

“This serpent is very fierce, and a terr­ible adversary by merit of its strength and rage. When irritated, it will sound a sharp hissing and then start to retract its body in undulating movements. Thereafter, it will rise up upon its tail at a height of about 4–6 feet, and thusly advance upright against his foe with a wide-open mouth. Its scaly body will by then have grown so hard that not even a scythe can pierce it. During the battle, it will vomit forth a very venomous fluid, and if killed its cadaver will exude a most vile and nauseating stench.

“The dragon resides in narrow crags and stone mounds found near bogs and lakes. In particular, it has been seen in the craggy hills and the forests east of Lake Åsnen. It has also been seen swimming in the lakes Yen, Rottnen and Helga. When swimming it holds its head about 2 feet above the water and moves about with the same slithering motion used by the common grass snake”.

Not even this effort could sway the opinion of Sweden’s Academicians, and Hyltén-Cavallius became the brunt of more jokes than ever. Dr Hjalmar Mosén even wrote and published the book Snake Tales in 1884, which dripped with ill-concealed sarcasm:

“It is a great pity that no museum has been able to procure a specimen of this very interesting animal… But a photograph would at least be something. Those among the locals who are not photographers should immediately take up this profession and not venture anywhere without their cameras. When the snake has been documented and the photograph processed, the witness does not have to swear by his immortal soul again to having seen the beast; he will simply produce his photograph. He would thereby also do the science of zoology an invaluable service, as it does not yet know of a snake with a mane and has not even with the aid of a magnifying glass been able to detect a single hair among the 700 breeds of snake in the known world.”

Yet there were a few who supported Hyltén-Cavallius’s theories. His old friend and fellow folklorist George Stephens shared his conclusions drawn from the folktales they both researched, and it was apparently he who suggested Hyltén-Cavallius post the reward for a lindorm cadaver. The politician Pontus Fahlbeck and the nobleman and archæologist Nils Gabriel Djurklou encouraged Hyltén-Cavallius to continue with his research. And he did, although in a much more modest way, clearly hurt by the spiteful response from academics he considered colleagues.

In some stories, dismissed as fantasies even by the enthusiastic Hyltén-Cavallius, the lindorm is supposed to have grabbed the tip of its tail by the mouth and pursued its prey rolling like a wheel. This type of locomotion is not uncommon among the odd reptiles of folklore. The Western and lumberjack tall-tales of North America tell of the “hoop snake”, an old adversary to heroes like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.

Is then the lindorm dead as a possible subject for cryptozoology? Not quite, apparently, as folklorist Jan-Öjvind Svahn can testify. After touching upon the subject in a TV show in the 1980s, he received testimonies from more than 20 people who had encountered large snakes in the woods. These modern-day sightings mostly occur around lakes, where the creature is spotted swimming, and the reports don’t refer to the creature as a lindorm, but rather as a lake monster. Nonetheless, observations of Swedish lake monsters frequently mention details common to Hyltén-Cavallius’s lindorm: the shape of the head, the colour of the body and even the striking mane. I have myself met people with family stories of the lindorm. One woman spoke of her father encountering a foul-tempered specimen in a peat bog during World War II. My own uncle Ingvar revealed that a spot in the backwoods where he grew up was well known as “lindorm land”. I visited the location with him and he showed me where the lindorms were said to have been seen and described how they behaved. This bit of forest was densely covered with spruce and fir, but also marshy and waterlogged. There were several streams crossing one another and the moss-covered ground only dried up during the middle of the summer. This had prompted Ingvar to hatch a theory of his own: that the lindorms were in fact very large eels migrating from one body of water to the next. He had himself seen such eels crossing large areas of land when he was a child.

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) grows to 150cm in length, has a dark brown back, a yellow belly and a fin running along its back that could be construed as a “mane”. And perhaps in the company of the ever-present snaps the sizeable fish might take on the appearance of a reptilian monster…

The common explanation for the lindorm-mania of the 1800s is that witnesses encountered large grass snakes (Natrix natrix), which can grow up to 190cm and often have dark backs with lighter bellies. Again, most of the blame is put on the snaps. “What is it about Swedes and snaps?” the curious foreigner might ask. And I really don’t know, as I’m a teetotaller myself. But snaps (sometimes home-brewed) is for the Swedes what wine is for the French or beer for the British. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, two substances were consumed in rural areas almost daily; coffee and snaps, sometimes combined into the cheerfully named “coffee cuckoo”.

So, the old serpents of Sweden might have been debunked as variations of the pink elephant, but the monster formerly known as the lindorm still puts in appearances, only now under the new moniker of “sea serpent” or “lake monster”. And Sweden’s most famous beastie, the serpentine monster of lake Storsjön, proudly displays a mane along its darkly coloured back, according to tradition. I believe we haven’t seen the last of these reptilian wonders and that this might not be the last and only article written on the subject – with pen in hand and as God is my witness!

Bengt Sjögren: Berömda vidunder, 1980.
Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius: Om Draken eller Lindormen, 1886.
Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius: Wärend och wirdarne. Försök i svensk ethnologi, 1863–1868.
Dr Hjalmar Mosén: Snake Tales, 1884.
Jan-Öyvind Swahn: Folksagor: Ur oknyttens värld, 1987–1988.

[Purported photograph of a "Loch Ness Monster" Giant eel, the more likely candidate for Lindorm sightings of ancient and more modern times. Eels are sometimes amphibious.-DD]

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