The Land of My Foremothers
21 August 2013
Last year in The Land of My Forefathers I noted my connection to Norway through my father. Just as the unbroken genetic line of my Y chromosome goes directly back to Norway, so the unbroken genetic line of my mitochondrial DNA goes directly back to Sweden (Småland, to be specific), thus concentrating my genetic heritage entirely in the Scandinavian continent — before it came to there from sunnier, southern climes. Why would anyone choose to leave the sunny south for the cold north?
That branch of the human family that left Africa and made its way north over thousands of years to the farthest northern extreme of the Eurasian landmass must have been among the most peripatetic of human beings — like the peoples of Siberia who crossed over to the Western Hemisphere and made it all the way to the tip of South America, or the Polynesians who populated the islands of the South Pacific, as isolated in the vastness of the ocean as the stars are isolated in the vastness of space. These intrepid peoples, having placed themselves, like extremophiles, at the ends of the Earth, began the process of incipient speciation, until the advent of civilization preempted this incipient speciation by effectively abrogating the geographical barriers that, in the past, would have resulted in allopatric speciation. The Scandinavians went on later in their history to further demonstrate their wanderlust when they passed beyond the known limits of the world and during the medieval climatic optimum (when conditions were favorable) took their ships to the Western Hemisphere as well as throughout the Old World.
Hundreds of years later, during the Little Ice Age, when the Scandinavians had been domesticated and civilized by Christianity, and it must have been very cold indeed in Stockholm, a remarkable piece of sculpture was commissioned in Stockholm — Saint George and the Dragon as “re-imagined” by Berndt Notke (also spelled “Bernt Notke”), completed in 1489. I say “re-imagined” as this is the current Hollywood term for adapting an old story to new circumstances, or simply tampering with the narrative. Outside Hollywood, folklore is defined by the existence of variants of a story, and the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is folklore if anything is folklore. Most scholars doubt that the legend even has a basis in fact, but it has engendered some wonderful art, of which the sculpture in Stockholm is, to my mind, the most astonishing instance. While aspects of this sculpture are identifiably medieval — the impassivity of Saint George even in the moment he is killing the dragon (when he should be straining and sweating) reminds me of the Saint George and the Dragon sculpture in Prague — in other respects the sculpture is so fantastic as to exemplify every idea of medieval fantasy. While the greater part of the Middle Ages was nothing like this, it is possible that this is a fragment of that florid world, like the castles we see in the background of the paintings of the Brothers Limbourg.
The explanation of the legend accompanying the sculpture said that a dragon was demanding human sacrifices from the town of Selene, but when the day came that the king’s daughter was to be sacrificed, Saint George chanced by, and told the townsfolk that if they would all convert to Christianity he would slay the dragon and save the princess. They did, she lived, and the dragon was killed. Montaigne said that he would as like light a candle to the dragon as to Saint George (actually, now that I look up the reference, I see that it was Saint Michael, but the sentiment remains the same: “…I could easily for a neede bring a candle to Saint Michaell, and another to his Dragon…”), which is my attitude. One can see in this legend an explanation and a rationalization of Christian conversion (with its attendant abandonment of old gods, which had previously defined the identity of a people), and I think this is part of the currency of the legend throughout Christendom, but not all of it. Dragons are symbols of existential risk. A people faced by a dragon face a calamity for which there is no apparent mitigation but for the most drastic of measures, as in human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is, on one level, a catastrophic loss of identity, which is what communities faced in their conversion to Christianity, but also in the face of any existential threat. Under the extreme regionalism, if not localism, of medieval life, an entire community might be wiped out by a famine or a plague or a natural disaster; existential threat was never far. Dragons symbolized the unknown fear of a world that might turn against one at any time. The myth of Saint George and the Dragon gave elaborate detail and realism to the vague threat of unknown calamities, making them concrete and making it possible to weave the narrative of such existential threats into the history and thus the consciousness of the people.
Calamities of all kinds attend the human condition. I also visited the Vasa museum, which I might well say is the most impressive museum I have ever seen, containing the nearly pristine bulk of the warship Vasa — pristine because it sank on its maiden voyage of 1628, only to be raised 333 years later, re-floated, and installed in this enormous building. The building has to be enormous because the ship is enormous. If you stand near the back of the ship and look up at its bulk towering several stories above it is difficult to believe how such a construction could be undertaken in the 17th century, with wood and the most basic tools — no electricity, no CAD, no concrete drydock, no construction crane of steel, no modern capitalization or management. And still today in the 21st century the ship impresses, if not intimidates.
At the beginning of his television series Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clark stands in front of Notre Dame de Paris and says that he can’t define civilization, but that he knows it when he sees it. For Clark, Notre Dame exemplifies civilization. If I could “re-imagine” Clark’s television series — something, by the way, I would love to do — i might start here at the Vasa museum, and with the towering warship behind me say that I can’t yet define civilization (though I’m working on it) but I know it when I see it, and certainly the Vasa exemplifies civilization. And I would go on to add that everything that I admire about civilization — the art, the technology, the mastery of difficult tasks, and the human ambition it represents — as well as everything about civilization that makes me despair — the extremes of social hierarchy, entitlement and privilege for the few, routinely repressive societies, the horror of war, and, again, the human ambition and hubris that the Vasa represents — are all found together in the Vasa. Here we find a social embodiment of the home truth that the best and worst qualities of an individual are often precisely the same.
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