I am always curious about where and how my creative friends find inspiration for their projects. I listen with awe as someone describes how a major event in their life became an artwork, how specific images and experiences became fabric and stitches that speak without words. I have thoughts I hope to share one day, when I find the images and textures and my mind, hands and eyes have learned more about how to make things that speak. I understand now that everything I make is working to that end. And I am gaining courage with my understanding: if I see something I love, some image or idea, I am allowed to try to make it my own. So, a story.
in which I encounter unexpected delights in Copenhagen
In 2016 we went to Denmark, mostly to see the Vikingskeetmuseum in Roskilde (which is superb), but also to pay my respects to Egtved Girl and other Bronze Age displays in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen (and eat wonderful food at Torvehallerne). I led my poor husband back and forth through the museum rooms, pursuing trains of thought and interest, returning several times to the display describing ‘The journey of the sun across the sky‘ based on the motifs found on Bronze Age razors and rock carvings throughout Scandinavia. I had vague memories of reading about some of this, somewhere, but seeing the items themselves was gripping. Something about this story, those motifs, caught my imagination, spoke to me. I took photos to be sure I would remember the images but in truth it wasn’t necessary: I have not forgotten the story.
I took other photos, too.
The journey of the sun across the sky
As summarised on the text of the museum display
At sunrise a [Sun] Fish pulls the Sun up over the horizon from the Night Ship to the Morning Ship.
At noon the Sun Horse takes the Sun from the Morning Ship.
In the afternoon the Sun Horse delivers the Sun to the Afternoon Ship.
As the sun sinks the Serpent takes the Sun and, once it is extinguished, delivers it to the Night Ship.
Isn’t it a wonderful story? I think of people living by and on the ocean, seeing fish glittering briefly as they catch the light, turning in the water. The waves glitter on the eastern horizon as the sun approaches (see the line of wave symbols on the horizon behind the morning ship as the fish pulls the sun up, up to the surface). And then the sun sinks, dimming (trapped in the coils of a serpent) down into the western ocean to travel through the night and rise again.
But where did this story come from? Is this truly a story from the Bronze Age?
We don’t know. We can’t know.
Since I first read it this has felt to me like a charming storyteller’s tale, a story invented to connect the motifs rather than a story summarised by the motifs. To me this is part of its charm, this proof that humans seek patterns, find stories everywhere.
The images come from razors. Similar (when new) to the replicas shown below, from a website that no longer exists (bronsereplika.no).
The story seems to come from Ships on Bronzes: A Study in Bronze Age Religion and Iconography by Flemming Caul, published in 1998. I can’t find a copy of the book, but the one review I have found doesn’t seem completely convinced by the story. In fact the reviewer points out some rather large flaws. But the motifs are real, the story could be real (I am smiling fondly as I type that) and research into the possibilities continues. I particularly liked Warmenbol’s paper pointing out that in one view (imagine the broad razors in that image turned 180°, broad head to the left and tail curling under the narrowing body to the right) the razors look like a bit like sperm whales, so that the ‘broken ship’ motif could in fact be reference to the razor as sperm whale.
The tale of the razors: how the Bronze Age came to Scandinavia
The journey of the sun may be nothing more than a charming story, but the razors are real. They tell us an almost equally remarkable story. Looking idly for more information about Scandinavian Sun Cycle/Sun Cult imagery I found an article about a ‘golden calendar’, a reinterpretation of the designs on a golden bowl found in a Swedish bog in 1847, which in pursuit of documented links between Sumer, Babylon and Scandinavia included mention of the inscription on an obelisk in Nineveh
“In the search for cultural trading links to Europe and Scandinavia, it seems significant that, on an obelisk in Nineveh dated at about 1850 BC … the following text is found… “on the sea of changing winds my merchants fish pears, and on the sea where the North Star culminates they fish yellow amber”. The first sea must refer to the Gulf of Persia, and the second is likely to refer to the Baltic (because only there is the North Star high to the north, and the shores full of yellow amber…)”
Really? The bronze for the razors came from the Mediterranean?
“The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area.“
And the Sun Cult is thought to have travelled north with the bronze.
The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult, 2013, Nils-Axel Mörner, Bob Lind
I knew the Vikings traded from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, but this is far earlier.
And even more remarkable because bronze is an alloy of copper and tin: there were Bronze Age copper mines in the Mediterranean, in Cyprus, Turkey and possibly Crete, but the tin often came from Cornwall in the southwestern UK. Tin from Cornwall alloyed with copper on Cyprus, then shipped north to Sweden. Where great ships are carved into the granite, and the jewellery found in graves has the same quadruple spiral ornamentation as the gravegoods in Mycenaean Greece.
I wonder if you share the sense of wonder I feel when I try to imagine some aspects of the lives of these people. We fly across oceans, we travel across the land at speeds unimaginable to them. And yet their work speaks to us, we try to understand them. We invent and reinvent and tell their stories to ourselves, all of us understanding the importance of the sun.