From Torsburgen to the Overthrow of the Gods

Posted by Rarignac on May 08, 2012 in Guest Blog, Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Story of How the Gothic Came to Be (© Rarignac).

Bordeaux, Midnight, Fête de la Victoire, 2012


Within the autumn wind’s droning summons to the savageries of winter, my mind kept hearing, far, far in the echoing distances, the first of the late Elvis Aaron Presley’s million-sellers.  Blowing through the close grey northern skies, just becoming light even as day itself was growing old, oddly brittle sounds foretold what chill winter had in store, and in the Maelstrom’s breath I could just barely make out Floyd Cramer’s phantom piano — notes falling like hail over the muffled rumble of a plaintive voice — as the haunted croon of rock ‘n’ roll’s dead king told of an endless walk down Lonely Street.  And still the four winds howled, and the branches of the trees creaked and moaned — if not in sympathy with the winds’ fury then in dutiful subservience to their might —, and I could not help but notice that I was indeed alone….  But lonely?  Yes, lonely… definitely, for sure!  There was a feeling of groaning loneliness, not necessarily my own, but there could be no doubt about it: Loneliness was with me, verily my sole companion in a world in which there was no one that I knew, and, just as assuredly, no one that knew me.

Over the days and nights that were to come, it would be the ever-present, all-encompassing sense of loneliness that struck me, haunted me, as it escorted me to each and every obscure and desolate transient destination that I would fleetingly yet, in memory, indelibly discover in my quest towards the Gothic.  Loneliness would in every way be my tour guide, my airy conductress, across the entire span of my voyage.  A resolute solitude seemed to envelop, permeate, embrace, and anchor every corner of the Gothic world I had set out to experience; it clung serenely, permanently to all the sites I visited, regardless the terrain, the altitude, the latitude, the climate.  This spirit of nostalgic yearning was so prevalent in the scattered miles I trod — burdened not by the heavy load strapped across my shoulders alone — that it would be reasonable to conclude that the Gothic dwells within a world of the forgotten who are nonetheless insistent in reminding us of their absent presence.  It is thoroughly unsurprising though equally remarkable that it was the Scot James Macpherson, in his evocation of a vanished godless Homer of the Celtic northland, who through his conjuring and lamentation of vanished warrior kings prefigured the low-pitched warble of the Gothic song.

This realisation of loneliness and the sensation of the desolate rarely invested my consciousness more strongly, naggingly, fervently than during my moments in Gotland, that windswept isle that I take to be the spiritual home of the Goth and eternal resting place of the Gothic soul.  Despite their priority, these Goths represent the most controversial link in the chain of concordance enumerated towards the end of my previous post, even should they be its key link and myth-weighted anchor.  So miserly were they with any investment of their hoarded words that to learn something of them we must seek out the ample imagery — that original expression of the Gothic Imagination — they left behind, for the question rightly comes, was Gotland, is Gotland in fact and indeed the homeland of that inveterate wanderer, destroyer of civilizations, scourge of the gods: the Goth?

Round shields and short swords (© Rarignac).

When I assert as much many authorities agree with due circumspection while others scratch their heads and express a priori reservations.  Marika Grankvist of the Gotland Tourist Bureau cautioned, “As you note, Gotland has a rich and long history ever since the Neolithic era.  The inhabitants of the island are called gutar.  However I’m not sure if the gutar is the same as the gothic”.  To be sure, no one is!  Yet not a few historians are convinced that this tiny tear-shaped drop of land — barely (with Bergman’s Faro thrown in) 3000 square kilometres of scrub forest, marsh, arable farmland, and limestone run aground in the Baltic — was indeed the Gothic’s tombal womb.  Correspondence between The Gutasaga and Jordane’s Origins and Deeds of the Goth (itself an abridged, Gothicised version of Cassiodorus’s no longer extant History of the Goths), strongly tend to corroborate the identity of the Goth as the Gutar.  In Germania, Tacitus refers to the Goths as ‘Gotones’, and describes them as carrying “round shields, short swords and a submissive bearing before their kings” (1958, 324) — indeed these are the very warriors that, figured in stone, stand guard before a museum at Zaragossa, the very warriors seen represented in the phallic-shaped picture-stone whose image is used to introduce this text.  Tacitus’s Gotones are the Gutar, the great Goths.  So convinced was I that the latter were the former that I set out to notarise the aboriginal Goths’ silent witness.  I knew one other thing as well: that somehow this banished tribe was the source of the ceaseless waves of infinite loneliness I could sense washing over me as I traced the Gothic torque to its fused ends.

Myth casts Gotland as a bewitched land, place of darkness, that at the primordial instant appeared only at night, setting into the sea (realm of the dead) with the rising of the sun.  For this reason the island only became accessible and fixed as an observable presence in the world with the taming of fire and the attendant (apparent) defeat of invisibility.  The fire-bringer’s son, Hafthi, given the isle by his father, took the Venus-like Whitestar to be his bride.  Together they claimed their island home at marriage.  On their wedding night Whitestar dreamt that three serpents had come and coiled in her lap, to then slither away into the boundless obscurity.  Soon thereafter, she gave birth to three sons.  Due to triple snakes, triplet brothers, and a single island, the land and the world were divided into thirds and an ingrained trinitarian logic was applied to all aspects of governance, tribe, and cult.

Whitestar conceived three sons (© Rarignac).

The descendants of Hafthi and Whitestar, the Guta, prospered and multiplied until the land could no longer contain their number.  The law of the Third informed an edict that would both dispatch the Goths towards their historic destiny and assure their ultimate disappearance into the greater human populations of Europe and the Near East, thereby making much of humanity part-Goth.  It was precisely this mytho-historic charge that compulsively drew me North like the needle of a compass, and it was this mythological seed that unavoidably came to mind as, through a dirty, fogged up plane window, I watched Gotland magically rise out of the sea, a streak of cloud-lined shadow in a colour-field of mirror-like iridescent silvered-blue.

Gotland appeared from out of the sea (© Rarignac).


Nearly alone in descending the stairway that persons unseen had wheeled out to the aged propeller-driven Boeing, I deplaned at a Visby airport that seemed to be closed.  With the passing of the tourist season, Gotland’s population had declined to such an extent that it seemed to have melted away entirely.  The isle had been abandoned, surrendered willingly and without struggle.  As it came to pass, I had arrived at Gotland’s annual ultimate moment; within the week, connections with the mainland would be severed.  From November on, only when weather permitted would a sporadically dispatched ferry transport supplies to the island.  Boats and planes no longer required, Winter would attend to the island’s needs with all the tender mercy he habitually afforded.  Hurrying away from the plane, I gained the nearly deserted terminal building.  As arranged, the key to my rental car had been left at the information desk-cum-tourist bureau (Eurocar’s airport booth, like those of all other car rental agencies, having been closed for the year).  The few individuals still at the airport with me were all preparing to slip off to other places, no doubt in every instance a unique location each one called ‘home’.

Short of time and money, my every instant was precious.  I had in fact come to shoot a speculative pre-pilot for a programme on “Gothic” in which I was to serve as cameraman, sound operator, writer, host, and porter.  With little more than a day to spend on the island, I had worked out a detailed itinerary over the preceding weeks with the long-distant emailed help of Gotland University Archaeologist, Dan Carlsson.

Dear Dan,

I’ve found the references you provided very useful.  I have come across some other texts of interest as well, including one of your own—also an Australian thesis focusing on iconographic issues….  Using the interactive maps of some of the websites and satellite imagery, I’ve located, or nearly located, the various sites from a list that I compiled.  From that, I’ve designed a great “figure 8”-formed itinerary that will bring me in contact with most of them….  It keeps me on the road, in and out of the car to shoot, for about the entire time I’m on Gotland with little or no time left to visit Visby….

I’d rather view in situ than museum-sited pieces.  My plan is to work like a dog all day on Monday, arrive at Klinte by sundown, then finish driving down to the southern tip of the island where I’ll spend the night in the car waiting for the sunrise overlooking the Homhällar Seastacks.  That is the shot that I really want, looking off over the sea-stacks towards the Baltic Sea and, somewhere beyond, the Vistula.  I then spend the rest of the morning collecting images in the centre of Gotland.

I am attaching my draft itinerary for you to look at and see if you think it is doable.  Some sites I think should be easy to locate, others, I’m not so sure.

In general, I’m interested in imagining the moment described in the Gutasaga when one third of the people were selected to leave the island.  I’m subsidiarily interested in seeing a bit of the legacy of those migrants in the following centuries, thus the earlier Picture Stones.  I’m also interested in the cult aspects, particularly the burial sites and their integration into and separateness from the natural landscape–everything that has to do with great journeys, physical and spiritual; with being cast out and exiled; and with the feeling of land’s end in a northern sea, of the green nature of the island, of the omnipresence of the winds and the sea as it sculpts the rocks and coastline.

Thanks again so very much for your help.

Professor Carlsson answered:

That looks really like an ambitious mission! I have looked through your itinerary, and filled in some information about some places, and changed the spelling.  I hope you realise that it could be rather cold in late October, almost down to 0° C in the nights. And let’s really hope you get good weather!  One thing I think you should look into maybe is what is called Torsburgen.  It is a huge hill fort in eastern Gotland with a nice view of the sea from its eastern part.  And according to the Gotland Saga, the people that had to leave Gotland stayed here for some time, because they didn’t want to leave, but in the end they were expelled further east to Latvia.  In other words. Torsburgen hill fort is important in the story of the departure of one third of the population.

Dear Dan,

I have revised my itinerary to spend less time on the road and more at sites.  I know you are right about the Torsbrugen Hill Fort: this is the crucible in which the psychology of the Gotland outcasts was forged.  I also know you are right that I should find shelter over the more than 12 hours of darkness, now that the nights are cold and the wind is strong.  I have therefore found a guest house in the southeast part of Gotland where I will apparently be the only resident.

I think that the sites you commented on positively are those you think important; those that you ignored, you see as minor.  I have certain iconographic and imagistic, rather than purely historic or archaeological reasons for my interest in visiting certain natural sites.  I want to represent a Gotland-Eden–wind, waves, fields, streams, forests, meadows–, something implicit in the Genesis of the Gutasaga.  I may find that I am wrong in my choice of sites, however.  Better ideas are welcome!

Any further advice that you may have would be welcome.  I have about 5 days left to revise my plans for the various stages of my trip around Europe, and the Gotland leg is a major component.

Thank you again for your assistance, and I will be sure to give you credit in whatever I manage to produce out of this effort.

The Annelund Burial Ground, a graveyard lying within the airport itself (the terminal building nearly being a part of the necropolis), afforded an understated first encounter with the primeval Goth.  On an island with many formerly-worked farms that have been reclaimed by scrub forest, the Annelund looks to be one more abandoned farmer’s field awaiting Nature’s domination.  However the few outcropping rocks visible here and there are actually wind-worn monuments to the parents of a million farmer-warriors.  At the centre of the field pictured below, one can see, nearly at the line of trees, the largest of the cemetery’s numerous circles of stones, circles whose mystical plotted form serves to make the commonplace stone extraordinary, and the ground on which they are arranged a sacred site dedicated to the perpetual memory of the Goth.

The Annelund Burial Ground at Visby Airport (© Rarignac).

More than for its living beauty, Gotland is notable for its immutable graveyards.  Cairns and mortuary monuments from most ancient times are found scattered from one end of the island to the other, from its only airport to its most remote bucolic reaches.  This floating land given over to the dead has for ages functioned as the Goth’s sacred mausoleum.  The Gutasaga explains how in days of yore, “and for long thereafter, men believed in holt and howe [grove and grave-mound], sanctuaries and sacred enclosures, and in the heathen gods.  They made offerings of their sons and daughters and cattle, with feasting and drinking.  They did that in their error.  The chief sacrifice among the people was the one for the whole land, but each Third had its own sacrifice, and the smaller assemblies had lesser sacrifices with cattle, food and ale.  They were called suth-nautar, that is ‘Brethren of the Boiling’, because they cooked [the sacrificial feast] together.”

Massive cairns of imported stones, heaped like so many ebony skulls, are situated next to circles of stones.  Some blurring due to raindrops on the lens (© Rarignac).

Over the centuries leading to the current era, as the circles of stones became more elaborate, their form modified, elongated, to eventually approach the shape of the Gothic arch mirrored.  In the bottom right quadrant of the petroglyph whose image introduces this post, we see a series of similar forms that align like a picket fence.  These likely represent houses, shelters whose high thatched roofs rise in a pitched, rounded, inverted-V.  The same pattern, shifted from the vertical plane to the horizontal, is of course present in the contour of the bow of the Viking ship.  This ‘Gothic arch’ template is an essential Goth structural element.  Unsurprisingly, with time, circles of stones commemorating the ancestors’ eternal home, borrowed this form and eventually came to represent a sailing vessel, a ship not only poised like an Egyptian barque to carry its cargo of ancestors across the seas of eternity, but in fact a vessel seen as actively doing so.  The Christianisation of Gotland hardly reduced the islanders’ investment in funereal arts, and I spent my first day on the northern part of the island, filming Gotland’s successive graveyard statements.  In all my activities and displacements I encountered not a single living soul.

Goth warrior-farmers and the Gothic arch (© Rarignac).

A closer view of an Annelund circle of stones (© Rarignac).

The circles of stones became elongated.  The two-headed Goth ship promises return (© Rarignac).

An artist’s conception of the Gotlanders’ cult ceremony at a ‘circle of stone’ transformed into a vessel capable of transporting the ancestors into eternity.  Are the kneeling figures the sacrifice?


Dedicated study of  maps collected in preparation for my trip and previous experience as an urban taxi driver helped assure that I maintained my solar-determined shooting schedule and even managed to extend it into the twilight hours, working until the fading light of day would permit me to continue no longer.  As shadows lengthened and interlocked, darkness sent me speeding southbound, down remote country roads in lightless search of my deserted guest house.  The inn was set so far back from the road I travelled that I passed by without seeing it.  Discovering my error, I backtracked and eventually found myself guiding the beams of my headlights down a narrow tree-arched avenue that opened into a gravel-surfaced car park.  The parking area was fronted by a hedgerow behind which a terrace enclosed an emptied swimming pool.  To the right, a large Baltic villa built to welcome a throng of holiday-makers contrasted with the homey guest house I had constructed in my imagination.  As I recovered the key that had been hidden for me and, with difficulty, forced the lobby door open, Kubrick’s The Shining unreeled in my mind (despite the relative flatness of the Gotland terrain).  Between the building’s 1920s vintage, its large rooms designed to contain an assembly of straw-hatted white-clothed merry-makers, its dark-stained wood covings and yellowed plaster walls, the hotel fostered a queer, anachronistic feeling that exceeded mere seasonal displacement; the dampness of this inn’s autumn chill sent an unnatural shiver down my spine.  If locked doors prevented me from accessing any room but the lobby, strategically placed glass panels afforded glimpses of frozen spaces still set out for summertime guests’ wholesome communal activities: square tables set out for cards, checkers, and parlour games, a large but old-fasioned television mounted high on the wall for collective watching, a gracious semi-circle of overstuffed armchairs arranged to facilitate its viewing: all bespeaking the discreet charms of an era roughly modern yet no longer contemporary.  I had arrived back in the 1950s.

As arranged, an envelope had been left on the reservation desk for me with the key to my room and instructions for closing up upon my departure.  The only possibility for further penetration into the inn available was a servant’s stairway that the note informed me led to my accommodations.  I reached the room at the top of the stairs, settled in, feasted on my canned goods, set camera batteries to charging, and checked the day’s video.  I learned that some of the eBay-purchased used equipment was defective and my day’s work had been less productive than I had believed.  Despite my massive Miller fluid-head tripod, the video image trembled, a sure sign of a camera-circuitry problem.  I did what I could to reorganize my cameras to limit future problems, and doused the light to rest until 4:00 A.M.

Sleep must have come upon me, for confused panic called me to my senses.  I fought against Morpheus’s stranglehold like a breathless man struggling to regain the surface from a great depth of water.  Beyond the rumble of the wind-pummelled window shaking in its casement, there was a more alarming noise, the sound of a rattling doorknob, of someone trying to enter my room.  This is what had snapped the elastic continuity of my Gotland dream.  Terror and confusion pushed me to awareness and I consciously forced myself to situate myself in the dark world.  Had I failed to lock the front door?  A lengthy moment elapsed before I could command my voice sufficiently to challenge whoever it was on the other side of the door.  “Who’s there?!” was my curt English growl.  It turned out to be the hotel owner, who claimed sociability had inspired him to stop by.  (Why hadn’t he knocked?)  He, too, would be in Stockholm by week’s end.  Should I wish it, we could perhaps see each other there….

Having prepaid via Paypal, his visit was more than irksome; still I controlled my simmering anger, arose, put on my clothes, snapped on a light, unlocked and half-opened the door.  Rather than to a lean, long-canine-toothed aristocrat, I opened to a rather round, balding, leering-eyed business man seeking midnight company. Having at last encountered a living human being on Gotland, I could know with certainty that I preferred loneliness to the lonesome.  Politely pleading fatigue and the early hour of my rising, I sent him off and returned to bed.  A timeless moment later, my double alarms were calling me to gather my equipment, and, responding dutifully, I was soon thereafter heading back out into the night.


Down narrow, muddy byways I pushed the rented car further south as I raced the dawn, which I knew, despite the inky darkness, was surely and steadily approaching from the east.  A wild wind carried a heavy mist that sliced horizontally through the air from the west.  The beat of the wipers and the roughness of the roads helped me to maintain concentration.  After a last, dark, tiny village, the capillary roads gave way to ever-narrower, more faintly traced passages that finally dissolved onto a grassy plateau overlooking the sea; the Homhällar Seastacks on Gotland’s south coast were before me just as the first hazy hint of light arced across the horizon to separate sea and sky.  I worked quickly to set up my tripod, fit the windsock on my Shure microphone, and tape my 72-pt.-typed text to a cardboard support clipped to the tripod with plastic clothespins.  I then began experimenting for proper focal points, test recording, then playing back dim images and correcting, wiping the rain drops off the lens, trying to achieve the perfect Kenneth Clark moment.  As I awaited sunrise, the weather grew worse.  Finally, with the soft-focus glowing orb pushing gauzily into the clouded sky, I hit record, found my mark, and, clutching my microphone, began:

It has been said that the Gothic is founded on an endless stream of reflexive referents that, reaching back across time and space, dissolve into nothingness; that the Gothic is, ultimately and utterly, without foundation; that its very charm is that it is but pure, baseless fantasy.

This, this place of stone and sea, of rolling green hills and sparkling clear streams, may betray such postmodernistic poetic notions.

Indeed it is in this place that the Gothic, the native, indigenous Gothic, is rooted.   And it is from this place that the savage Goths went forth to spread their exogenous domains — projecting their reach  from northern isle to southern land’s end, challenging East, West and the world at large as they made their way into History and obscurity.  This, their aboriginal home, is Gotland.

Before I had concluded my introduction, the wind had snatched my script and, having deemed it unworthy, tossed it wildly into the air.  Various sheets of paper whirled on contrary Gothic gusts and fluttered left and right towards the churning sea below, with myself zigging and zagging in frantic, frustrated pursuit.  My cherished opening shot of the sun rising over the Baltic, was proving to be a disastrous gimmick.  The rains had drenched me; the winds, defeated me; yet still I could not surrender.  As the elements raged beyond my control, I sheltered in the car and, heat and defroster blowing full-force, headed off to Torsburgen.

The wilderness surrounding Torsburgen (© Rarignac).

The natural defensive walls of Torsburgen, rain drops blurring the lens (© Rarignac).

Cleavage in the cliffs of Torsburgen, rain drops blurring the lens (© Rarignac).

Looking towards the sea from atop Torsburgen (© Rarignac).

The desolation of Torsburgen’s lonely plain, rain drops blurring the lens (© Rarignac).

The Gotlanders thrived until the land could no longer support them all, when they determined to draw straws.  One third were fated to take their belongings and leave, but those who were chosen for banishment proved unwilling to quit their northern Eden.  They fled, outcasts, to Torsburgen, this mass of stone and earth, island within an island, but still the country would not tolerate them. Here the outcast Goth withstood their kinsmen’s ire, until they were driven off in extremis by the merciless scourge of mass starvation.

By the time I got to Torsburgen — Thor’s treasure trove — the rain’s rage had abated, though heavier drops continued to fall on a world already glistening and wet.  The site was difficult to access, not only due to geographic remoteness, but also because of rain induced slipperiness and the tangles of fallen trees that long departed storms had strewn everywhere, one would almost think in order to obstruct the way of latter day invaders such as myself.  A rocky escarpment easily of a half-dozen meters in height protected a natural plateau that had been extended and perfected by earthworks.  The stronghold was conceived to safeguard the island’s population in the event of invasion by raiders.  Sufficient stores of food were held in reserve here to enable the islanders to withstand attack for a period of days or weeks.  The site’s defensive advantages and supply of food had drawn the strategically-clever deportees to occupy the plateau.  With the aid of a fallen tree, I scaled the cliff with my equipment to survey the scene.  In the greyness of mid-morning, it was fittingly desolate.

Desolate or not, the doomed Goths crowded onto the plateau, and, rapidly or slowly, exhausted its caches of food all too soon.  Starvation began to thin the population as their stay went on.  It is recalled, no doubt with accuracy, that those who clung to life would consume the flesh of the fallen.  It was a time of ultimate misery.  And so it was that there at the primitive fortification of Torsburgen, the essential Gothic character was forged, tempered, hardened: banished from their home and family, cast off to fend for themselves because chance had had them draw the unlucky lot, they persevered through pure obstinacy and brute strength.  Within their broken Northern hearts, nostalgia and courage, anger and determination, audacity and complicity were alloyed to give them the strength to resist and the force to conquer.  They came for defensive protection, but learned to arm themselves with the terrible and intangible: psychic round shields and moral short swords.  Eventually, unable to maintain their stand, but fortified and unified, the cursed ones escaped to Faro.  The sojourn there provided little respite, but their mettle was tested, their passions were cooled, their hearts were tempered like steel.  Too numerous to survive on Faro, too shunned by brother and sister to escape exile, they finally lifted anchor and sailed to the south and east, bitter, fearful but determined and without alternative.

The Gutasaga tells that these Goths eventually went to a certain island off the coast of Estland, called Dagö, and built a town that can still be seen.  Some say the town is Gdansk.  Soon unable to support their increasing numbers there either, the fecund tribe pursued the source of a river named Goddess, Dvina, travelling so far that they came upon the land of the Greeks.

They requested of the Greek king permission to stay in his territory for the waxing and waning of the moon. The king granted their request, thinking the visit would last just for one month. When after a month, he asked them to leave, they answered that the moon waxed and waned for ever and always.

It would seem that the Dvina is the river we now call Danube, for the Goths reached the Black Sea and, passing over it, beyond.  They settled throughout Europe’s heartland as they threaded their moving empire along the river-ways of the European plains.  Rome’s round shield against the Hun, dagger-like sword pointed at the empire’s faint heart, the banished Gotlanders, the Goth, would prosper beyond all expectation and would be welcomed back to their homeland’s shores as heroes.  Over long centuries Gotlanders and Goths would maintain reciprocal, fraternal loyalties and close contact, the Goths extending the reach of the islanders from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, and establishing a floating empire that magically, as the illumination of knowledge brought an end to the darkness of dark ages, vanished like an island into the sea.

Forced to wander because of the lot they had drawn, the Goths set sail (© Rarignac).

It is said that the Goths left no tangible cultural legacy, no literature, worthy architecture, drama or poetry; they but conquered and vanished ignominiously.  This is not exactly true: the Goths left behind graves and burial sites remarkable for their integration into and separateness from the natural landscape.  Unsparingly Gothic, they tell of great journeys, physical and spiritual; of being cast out and exiled; of the empty feeling that is to be found at land’s end in a northern sea, of the green nature of the island, of the omnipresence of the winds and the sea as they sculpt the rocks along the coastline.

If written records of the Goths’ origin on Gotland are nonexistent, circumstantial connections to the isle — primarily based on funereal imagery, petroglyphs, and glittering artefacts that the Goths buried in the land of Hafthi and Whitestar — are plentiful.  It is widely acknowledged that Greek motifs influenced Gotland iconography in a unique manner, as is evidenced through Gotland’s many picture stones.  One picture-cum-rune stone originally erected at Sjohnhem parish, neatly furthered the tale of the mythological founders as it proclaims, ‘Rodvisl and Rodälv had these stones raised in memory of their three sons.  This stone stands in memory of Rodfos.  He was betrayed by the Wallachians on an expedition.  God help Rodfos’ soul.  May God betray those who betrayed him’.  This inscription proves, moreover, that links between continental Goths and the islanders were maintained, likely at least through the 15th century, more than a thousand years after the initial exodus.

Persephone’s flower: Stenkyrka Parish, Gotland (left), Eleusis, Greece (right). (© Rarignac)

Gotland is also exceptional as the world’s single most treasured isle, heaping piles of gold, silver, and brass being frequently uncovered in its dirt by farmers and builders.  The island is full of coins, necklaces, and torques whose antiquity reaches far beyond the millennial and, in the case of the coins, whose minting shows that the Goths’ long reach extended into the Middle East and Orient, as well as into the territories of many nations whose limits touched upon the Mediterranean, Black, and Red sea littorals.  Nearly 800 troves have been unearthed on the island over the recent period, some caches containing more than 60 kilos of precious metals.  Many coins date from the latter centuries of the first millennium of the Christian era, and represent the hoard the Gothic horde dutifully returned to the land of their progenitors.

Entrance to the Iron Age (© Rarignac).


Before reaching Visby at the end of my visit, I came upon a restored site out in the middle of a prairie on which sheep and cattle were grazing.  What was first visible to me was the great high-pitched-roof of the barn, with its massive shaggy thatching.  Adjacent to this structure seemed to be an earthen mound that, as I recall it, ran on for several dozen meters.  The sod encased mound had a crown of thatch along a ridge.  As I drew closer, I could see that there was likely an entry way at the far end.  I circled around.  From a side view, it became clear that this structure was intended for human habitation, and I approached it.

Authentic in situation, size and form, the building was a resurrected Iron Age dwelling.  The whole was built into the earth, stone retaining walls making it as permanent as a Gotland grave.  What had been primarily reconstructed in recent years was the roofing and its sod covering.  No door separated inside from out, though, originally, animal skins — at the least — must have sealed the space from the winds and cold.  Entering, one descends.  Although I can’t recall whether the surface ramps or steps down, the level of the floor was well beneath ground level.  The space, oblong but wider than I anticipated, defined a great hall scooped out of the earth.  Inside, it was as black as night.  The only illumination came from narrow shafts of light that fell through a trio of rough-cut oculi punched through the ceiling.  I imagine that the roof was pierced to allow light in and the rising smoke of fires out of the enclosed space, because in three locations along the central median, just below these openings, open stone hearths and charcoal piles delineated areas habitually used for campfires.  A square patch of light at the far end seemed to indicate an egress similar to the one through which I entered situated at the far end, a two headed house for those who sailed two headed boats.

Despite or because of the darkness, I could not quite see the limits of the incomprehensibly vast space.  No fires were burning, yet there was a smokiness, a mistiness, that was disturbing.  The fresh roofing already appeared soot encrusted.  Strange associations crossed through my mind — the story of Bonaparte’s mystical experience within Kheops and of Goldilocks visit to the house of the three bears swirled nonsensically together in my mind as I proceeded into the space looking through my flickering viewfinder.  Suddenly — as they always say… though suddenly it was —, I came to realise that the feeling of loneliness that had been upon me had dissolved even as the space had become filled with numerous and what seemed to my sensibilities squalid inhabitants: children, and chickens playing together in the filth of the floor, randy adolescents indulging their passions in the penumbra of the corner to my left as their elders mocked the young lovers and howled with laughter at their exertions, apparently most amused by their own ribald humour and grunting pantomimed witticisms.  Scattered in small groups clusters of men with a deadly-serious look about them repaired their arms and hammered away metal on metal, teams of women industriously tended to mending their heavy winter clothing, all in a great tumult of activity and noise.

It was a crazed combination of factory, madhouse, and playground that I recorded: scores of men, women and children about and intently engaged in all kinds of activities alien to my experience; the hunter’s sleek, long ribbed hounds, swimming amongst the congregated humans like four-footed fish, were legion.  The zoo-like odour of what could only have been some mixture of human and animal waste was choking, yet no one but me seemed to notice.  The lean muscular bodies of the young were spectacularly beautiful; afflictions of age and accident were displayed without shame or reserve; mothers, so very young themselves, still nursed children old enough to run.  Virile men with damaged limbs roaring in compensation of their infirmities, toothless smiles of the laughing grandmother, squalling affirmation of life by teething babes all contributed to the noise and confusion.  The profusion of sound, sight, smell and activity was like that of a Saturday farmer’s market of a provincial market town gone mad; while I could understand nothing of the calls and cries, I could understand their butchering of beast and crushing of grain.  Beneath this single sod roof the most sublime and diverse beauties were gathered in startling array; the well-formed and the deformed, exposing those very Gothic qualities so celebrated by Victor Hugo as they were formalised through and by the Gothic cathedrals, apposed in terrible proximity.  This was no place of worship that I could conceive, no home that I could comprehend, but a space of rough, honest sport, labour, and hardscrabble survival — no parlour games laid out, no polite conversation between summer refugees from the Stockholm bourgeoisie here, nothing but dirty, bawdy ancestors, mead-drinking yeomen, working, playing and loving in their rough yet surprising, touchingly gentle, mysteriously dignified ways.  It was crude experiment, biology and madness coming together in a foul-smelling, mitotic, germ-multiplying stew.

As my eyes teared from the smoke and stench, I came to understand that I had come upon a moment of delicate intimacy, had entered a place akin to dreams, and in so doing I had violated these residents’ privacy as surely as my Gotland host had tried to violate mine.  Realizing that I could in good faith proceed no farther into this tunnel-like hut, I began to retreat as discreetly as I could.  It was then that they seemed to have noticed me at last, for, having been indicated to the others by a squatting, impish looking boy, they all began laughing and pointing at me as if I were a clown or a freak.  As the assembly roared, a shifting of bodies exposed to my sight a terrible looking warrior — handsome, yes, in a startlingly Romantic way with his massive cape, half-scarred face, oddly curled lip, but no doubt a merciless killer.  With his one valid eye he looked straight at my camera lens with a regal arrogance that made me shudder, though something about his knowing regard seemed to say acceptingly, “Ah, it’s you!”.  That steely look, sharp as a razor, passed directly through the multiple components of the lens and the electronics of the camera into my startled mind to cause my own eye to sting and smart.  In pain I fled as quickly as I could, nearly tripping in my haste to be back out into the empty world of Gotland.  The echo of their laughter chased me back to the rental car, whose chiming signal of an open door reassured my temperate modern heart that I was safe.  Before I could sigh in relief, however, I felt the silent return of Loneliness slip into the car beside me, though now I was comforted that we had grown to be on better terms with each other.  I had seen its face.

Perhaps provincial, yet nothing can be more Gothic than a Gotland chapel (© Rarignac).


My last mission was to visit the ruins of the 13th-century Gothic church of Sankta Katarina in Visby.  Curator Gus Westholm was to have left the great Gothic keys to its gates at the Gotland museum for my use.  This was the third occasion on which an unseen person had provided me with a key to unlock Gotland’s mysteries.  It was enough.  I guiltily stole my images in the ruins, returned the key, and regained the airport with time to spare.

With my visit to the deep, misty past as complete as time and courage would allow, I deposited my final clutch of keys into the Eurocar slot and waited to get my equipment through security and to embark on my flight back to Stockholm.  Before me, I still had a scheduled evening interview with a crew of young goths on Gamla stan — the island old quarter of Sweden’s capital.  In the morning I would be Easyjetting south towards Eleusis and the ruins of the temple that Alaric and his Goths had destroyed 1600 years previous.

When night fell again, I set out with my bag of cameras, microphones, and clip lights down Torsgatan to keep my goth rendezvous.  Dismissing dead kings as I passed over the bridge on Norrbro and traipsed over the cobbles and on through the palace courtyard of Bernadotte’s heirs, I welcomed into my mind an impression of the shrill measured majesty of John Coltrane, blowing like a maddened wind in celebration of ‘Dear Old Stockholm’, and tried as best I could to forget the terrible feeling that the king of rock ‘n’ roll had visited upon me with his eternal pledge still wafting forth from the long-sealed hotel room of heartbroken decades past: “You’ll be so lonely you could die!”

Archway at Labrö Cemetery (© Rarignac).

Tiny URL for this post: