Ritual Specialists and Cultural Change

20 February, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have a book.
Henrik Ågren, Elisabeth Michelsson and Olof Sundqvist (eds). Royalties and sanctuaries. Religious and Historical Symbols in the Context of Cultural Change in Sweden and England c. 1000-1600. Gävle University Press 2009. Pp 108. ISBN 978-91-978329-1-5

I read one of the three essays that make up this volume on the use of tradition, historical markers, rites and symbols in periods of profound change.
Olof Sundqvist: St Erik and Old Uppsala – Interpreting Cultural Symbols in the Context of Religious Change, pp 11-35.
Consequently, in the Old Uppsala case renewal plays an important role too.

A ritual specialist and his ritual scene

On the ritual scene in today’s Uppsala six new priests were ordained on 8 January 2012. It was a solemn mass occasion echoing pre-reformatory practices. To one or two fervent atheists some parts were oddly Catholic-lite and so, everyone – atheist, family, Christian, choirboy, clergy, toddler and the ordained-to-be – was content.  Everyone, because to the best of our knowledge the potentially discontent such as the odd Wahabi or Salafist were not present. The capacious cathedral, moreover, was full of people and the Bishop, Ragnar Persenius, in full pontificals. In the midst of this happening, having managed to control the acoustic feedback, we heard the Bishop loud and clear addressing us, his flock: Peek-a-boo! Peek-a-boo! Two or three toddlers thus silenced and the rest of us checked, he went on to say something. Eventually he turns to the new priests addressing them: Peek-a-boo! Peek-a-boo to you too! (unfortunately it doesn’t rhyme in Swedish). Thus twice taught to let our communications be peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo for whatsoever is more that theses cometh of evil (Mat 5:37) it became obvious that in a turbulent period for the diminishing Church of Sweden brisk modernity and deep tradition convene in a ritual attempt to infantilize us before bringing us onward in Christ.

‘Interpreting Cultural Symbols in the Context of Religious Change’ is indeed a surprisingly complex business.

Olof Sundqvist’s (OS’s) essay is about the man, King Erik, whose remnants are supposed to rest in a brass replica of a once golden shrine, in the feretory behind the Bishop’s right shoulder. Originally, the saint’s shrine stood in the cathedral at what is today (Old) Uppsala, but in the 13th century cathedral, saint and name were moved to Aros, which was thus transformed to Uppsala. The first (old) Uppsala, as it happened, was ‘up’ in relation to Iron Age Sala, 2 km East of Aros. Considering that ‘sala’ means the halls, the paragons of Late Iron Age power and rule, the centre returned and grew in religious importance. It was in other words never an option to call the archiepiscopal see Aros, to find a new saint (let alone one recognized by the Pope) or reshape the existing Aros church to become the new cathedral. The value of the ideological trademark ‘Uppsala’ was obvious to medieval man.

OS argues convincingly that the picture of Saint Erik that we glimpse from Medieval sources speaks in favour of the saint being a vehicle also for communal rites in connection with carrying the shrine around the fields of Old Uppsala in May in order to secure a good crop in the autumn. This part of the Saint’s cult stands out as the continuation of rites with a trademark as old and strong as the name Uppsala. Since, apart from being a typical Medieval Christian wannabe saint surrounded by miracles and pilgrims, Saint Erik is also good with the crop, we may conclude that he possesses a quality, which he has inherited from the pagan god Freyr. When this quality was enshrined the congregation carried it from prehistory, around the fields, into the Middle Ages.

The name Freyr is derived from *frawjaz, i.e. the oldest word in a small time series of Germanic terms for ‘lord’: *frawjaz, hláford, herro – the ‘prudent and skillful’, the ‘bread giver’, and the ‘honorable’ – indicating that the development of the lord was building up from a predominantly practical to a more formal leadership. The pagan cult that Saint Erik superintended, therefore, has obvious roots in the Late Iron Age manor and its prudent and skillful hall-based leadership in Uppsala [1].


But all of a sudden, when we, the community, are walking around the fields with the feretory remembering the old days when lords invested practical skilfulness rather than formal honor in their power, our ritual specialist calls out: ‘Peek-a-boo! Peek-a-boo!’ Since we are barbarously old and heathen, we have of course heard of ritual inversions, turning the solemn into the frivolous, balance into esctasy, but that doesn’t help, since being ‘heathen’ is also a metaphor that prompts the Heathens (i.e. those who dwell on the heath rather than in the shadows of the cathedral) to be critical.

Peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo, we can’t help wondering how many PI’s (Persenius Inversions) have influenced and distorted our rituals as well as the source material by which we hope to sort them out. We can only suggest that earlier leaderships were less prone to some of the inversions favoured by later shepherds, but sadly to say, this doesn’t help. In the hands of specialists, rituals, similar to hermeneutics, become unstable and they are not much to build on if we aim at more specific interpretations. That is why we are forced eventually to take a minimalistic stand, defending the idea of the community assembling during prehistoric times to perform a communal ritual some time during late spring, structurally supporting our hopes for a huge crop.

On the other hand, when we fall back on this position we are supported by a few literary as well as archaeological sources. OS mentions the communal feast in Sigurd Jarl’s hall at Lade by the Trondheim Fjord and Iron Age halls and their role in rituals.

More important, but not yet published when OS wrote his essay, is the new Roman Iron Age grave from Ellekilde discussed On the Reading Rest 6 February 2012. This grave suggests that from the third century AD and onwards, communal rituals may be anticipated in relation to the practice of burying people round a hero’s grave. The spirit of the hero, like that of a saint, may in other words be helpful to our kin in death.

The significant notion connected with the Ellekilde grave is the saintly character of the buried hero reflecting the fact that he seems to have sacrificed himself for the greater good. In reality, this may not have been the case, but the installation and the 150 years of burial rituals surrounding the Ellekilde man, define him as indeed a holy one representing other people or helping them in the next world. This means that already in the 3rd century AD prehistoric society in Scandinavia could single out the spiritual strength of an individual, building a ritual practice upon it realizing that when giants fall old bones revive. It would seem that this practice refers to eschatological questions, i.e. questions related to a belief or a doctrine concerning the ultimate or final things, such as death and life after death. This practice, moreover, points to certain social responsibilities referring to individual prudence and skilfulness, i.e. the personal qualities eventually characterizing the Iron Age leader, the *Frawjaz. Not surprisingly the horn blower in the Ellekilde grave is decked out as indeed a man with frawja-qualities.

As seen in this picture, ‘Interpreting Cultural Symbols in the Context of Religious Change’ is indeed a complex matter and saints still a controversial species. In Mogadishu, 25 March 2010, members of Al-Shabaab or at least their specialist jacks-of-all-ritual trades destroy the grave of the Sufi Sheikh Biyamalow. A little later they dig up his bones too. Destroying sheikhs’ graves and their bones is endemic in zealous Wahabis and Salafists. The Salafists, organized politically in the Al-Nour party, controle 29% of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament. Ironically al nour means ‘the light’.

The Ellekilde grave is exceptional because as an installation it refers to an uncommon theme and at the same time an easy one to see. In all probability, however, a number of saints’ graves could well be invisible when excavated because the saintly qualities of their inmates are difficult to decode, install and preserve in a contextually speaking precise way. Since graves that point out some of the qualities of a good and prosperous life are also outstanding during the Roman Iron Age, we suspect that a good life is in itself a sign of the human and superhuman qualities of the buried – the success of the large farm owner is seen as a sign also of personal qualities linked to the general social and religious ones.

Beowulf’s model career, as well as that of the man from Ellekilde, indicate that being a successful warrior, dead, alive or dying, will support your social climbing, and we may thus conclude that in the Roman Iron Age and certainly later we see the beginning of the formation and the development of the Iron Age upper classes as a social stratum based on wealth, virtue, prudence, martial skills and a semi-divine nature. This development included communal rituals centering on outstanding individuals – To you too, peek-a-boo.


[1] There is a summary of the the recent exvacations in Old Uppsala at this adress:



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