Orm og Tyr (Serpent and Bull)

[Indadvendt stranding, version I, by the Danish sculptor Claus Ørntoft.  “Introverted Stranding lies on the shore of Dødemandsbukten (Skærgård Island, Norway), pent up between life and death.  It is stretched out between two points, the powers of chaos and the cosmos, the conscious and the unconscious, dynamic inertia.”  Ørntoft says he has read the book highlighted in this post multiple times and has drawn inspiration from it.]

[One of the books I purchased as part of my annual book splurge this year was Orm og Tyr (Serpent and Bull).  Its author was the Danish writer Martin A. Hansen (1909–55).  In an earlier post I quoted a brief passage from Hansen’s best-known work of fiction, Løgneren (The Liar).  The latter was translated into English and I recently read the translation (by John Jepson Egglishaw) and enjoyed it very much.  But Orm og Tyr, which was published in 1952, has not been translated into English, which is too bad, because many consider it Hansen’s greatest work.  I am now beginning to read it in Danish.  Orm og Tyr is a nonfictional book but is said to be otherwise unclassifiable.  At its root it attempts to fathom the long, slow transformation of the Danish people from paganism to Christianity, which occurred roughly between the years 800 and 1200, by taking the reader on a tour of the Danish countryside to examine the traces of this long-ago change that are still discoverable.  But it is also said to be a wide-ranging and even metaphysical book.  In this post I translate Hansen’s preface to Orm og Tyr.]


The book tells about the ancestors’ beliefs.

But not about everything.  The religions and outlooks on life of those times can remind us of primeval forest.  There are great trees, and there are twining plants that entwine high up; there are bushes and, down below, a bottom growth of all kinds of seedlings.  At a field boundary not far from here I have seen anemones in bloom, wild.  A patch of woodland was there once – it was a long time ago – but the anemones have remained.  The ground flora of the religions is made up of primitive religious customs and all sorts of magic, and it outlasts the great trees.  Within this low mass the individual customs may change but, imprinted, are alike through millennia, during which relics from changing higher religions are taken up in the magic practices and blunted in the ideas.  Still, in the poor form the cultic customs and mystical ideas have lived here, they have hardly been dominant in any era.

Even though we may occasionally cherry-pick among these herbs, not all of which are as lovely as anemones, here we will generally prefer the great trees, the more characterful sides of the ancestral outlooks.  Our natures have changed like the woods in our past forests, so it is a dramatic story.

The portrayal is, so far as possible, tied to the great ancient monuments that preserve ideas of long ago, from dolmens to Romanesque churches.  The tale would like to brighten up the gray memories so that they both draw the reader closer and become more remarkable.  At times, the narrator must rely entirely on his own vision and go outspokenly forward.

[A passage grave at the Tustrup dolmens, Jutland, Denmark, built ca. 3200 BCE.  Note: the photos in this post are not in Hansen’s book which is, however, beautifully illustrated with numerous woodcuts by Sven Havsteen-Mikkelsen.]

[Østerlars Church on the Danish island of Bornholm, built ca. 1160.]

The book begins in the times of the hunter-gatherers and goes up through the following periods.  The first part ends with the skalds’ thoughts about the gods and their visions of Ragnarok.  Poetry from that time is a clearer witness than other memorials and for this reason we linger over it.  The second part tells of the Christianizing and the great work of church-building, in which a new era breaks through.  The account does not go beyond the Romanesque period, which finishes up between 1200 and 1300.  The book concludes with Denmark proper and the pervasive church legend here about the battle between the dragon and the bull.

This legend is related to Ragnarok poetry of pagan times, but when one Old Norse poem is excluded, the most considerable of them, the medieval legend has another meaning.

In the proper sense of the word it is a myth, after all, to suppose that the populace did not become noted and cherished until late in the Romanesque period.  The days of a flourishing life-theme were by then coming to an end, and giving birth to a simple but high wisdom.  It was also perhaps the last time anonymous folk poetry, without borrowing from an ecclesiastical style, raised a magnificent symbol of life.

As well, the dying pagan times had a great vision, more beautifully expressed, in the poem “The Völva’s Prophecy.”  It was created by a pagan genius who was completely solitary.  His dream reaches forward a quarter of a thousand years to unite with the bull myth, which belonged to everybody.  The Christianizing and the great epochal shift lay between them; nevertheless, the pagan poem and the Christian folk legend belong together.  And because the meaning of the myth of serpent and bull, the struggle between life’s powers, was part of Romanesque folk Christianity, the dramatic in this theme reaches further back in time than just to the days of the Völva poet.


The subject could have another name: the Romanesque churches and their Nordic Old Testament.  The Christian ideas and traditions, which in their historical garments stood at the North’s doorstep in the run-up to the year 1000, are interesting, and they are important, but more has been very readably written about them, than about what it was people primarily did, why they did it, and what their assumptions were.  Here, this side of the story is told most fully.

The idea to write about the past out of the churches came from abroad, but was only unexpected like a friend who suddenly arrives.  When you think about it in this way, distant past emerges.  But not that of the church house.  This house is so old that it does not age in a person’s lifetime.

By mother’s hand one came there, the first time that is remembered.  Look, look! it said in the church porch.  It was our heels against the stone floor.  A heavy door was straight ahead, it was dim here, and mother took the latch.  It is God’s house we go into, she said.  Is it? I said, although one had been given to know it before.  Then we descended into God’s house, for you know one always steps down into churches.  Familiar people sat in rows and so made for an odd sight.  They turned not their heads at us, but only their eyes.  There was a broad aisle open through.  Above was a large vault.  At the back, the strange beautiful pictures, burning candles, yes it was beautiful.  It was God’s chamber, one understood.  And then came this never forgotten smell of dying chrysanthemums.

It was probably not long thereafter that my grandfather died, it seemed the same afternoon.  His casket was as high as a coach, as it stood among the pews.  There were flowers and white sheets with black borders and many solemn people.  They sang, much happened, and then the six strongest men in the family bore him out.  They lowered grandfather down into the ground, and he disappeared.  He ought to sleep near the church.  So they sang, and afterwards the men put their hats on and left contented.  They went down to the village hall and ate banquet food, all the people.  They were merry, and it was a shame grandfather himself was not along, as he was fond of telling stories when it was full around the table.  One understood, however, that they were not glad, and neither was it an old duty, which many others no longer understood.

A wedding in the family was the big to-do.  In came grand young women with veils down their backs and greenery in their hair, such delightful and pure eyes.  A tall, ugly fellow stood up in the choir.  He’s sweating! was whispered then, always by a woman.  A boy found him ugly on all occasions: You know he stole from his family.  In the wedding house one saw that which was a little crazy in the eyes of all the grown-ups, and since children were in the way, they got tired and came to rest in high, white beds in the quiet end and heard the thundering feast hall sail out into the night’s sea.

Others vanished.  It goes quickly, coffins in and coffins out, great faces were gone forever, the town’s menhirs, which still stand upright in the memory.  Young, strong people disappeared, from the Spanish flu.  A little boy we knew well was lost, but about him only is remembered the sound of weeping once: a plaint from the one who is without destiny. People end up in the church, and there they begin, one saw that.  Infants were carried in in swaddling clothes and old, finely embroidered baptismal shifts, they were baptized, they were questioned, and the godmothers answered for them.  Below that, women took omens from whether they bawled or were silent.  Both portions were auspicious.

My father lifted me up in front of the small blackboard on the nave’s wall, and I spelled aloud the pale, curled letters that made up the names of the parishioners killed in the Schleswig wars.

Surely the church grew old, the one who remembers what others forget.  And I was there with my teacher.  He pointed with his walking stick to an odd change of stone in the choir’s bare limestone wall.  Herringbone stonework, he said, it shows it is very old and lay here before Absalom was born.  It was here in the days when the Wends came in from the bay.  He was himself born here, knew everybody, and he fabulized.  But the stones up there, which stood inclined against each other and bore witness to immensely far-off times, resembled a large ear of corn.

We went to the pastor, who was white-haired, delicate and absentminded.  He showed and explained the church to us, and from there two things were remembered, worth preserving.  He stood by the big, swelling, granite boulder font.  Isn’t it remarkable, remarkable? he said, and forgot to explain it.  It went on being remarkable.  He played for us on the organ, was perhaps not good at it, but then he played something delightful I would willingly hear once again.  It sounded like he had a cold – he sniffled.  He was a delicate and solitary man, who understood little, but among these was the soul heavier and troubled.  After him stands a small stone and an inscription he, after months of pondering, composed to the church.  Grace beyond grace, appears there.

But the intellect increased, it flourished, and the fifteen-year-old asked grandmother: Do you understand what you read?  She sat mumbling and read psalms, for which she really did not need the book, because she knew them by heart.  Father harnessed and drove her to church, and when she came home, she read again.  I believe I understand it, she said.  Can you explain it to me? I asked.  I’m afraid I cannot, she said.  If you understand something, you can also explain it! said the newly sprouted intellect.  Well, my boy, she said, I only know that when I read, then the Holy Spirit turns to me, and then I understand it.

To this shy peasant wisdom, which lies forgotten under glorious hills of recorded folk belief, threads are linked here.  And now we will surely turn from a past that ended with the young skeptic’s dispute with the old house, and keep to the latter’s past.


Perhaps brief particulars about the book’s creation can also give its character a certain basis.  It was prepared, written, illustrated and published as a labor of love.  Those who worked together on its preparation needed no other motive for that purpose than the passion for seeing, the cheerful desire for knowing more and catching up with the shadows of the fleeing life.  The things related being quite unexpected, they not infrequently ran counter to something we would have liked confirmed.  Some notions we began with were bleached on the way.

So there were notions, a kind of idea of things.  Underneath the years of debates about our own era and its crises are several concepts that have swelled up and grown tremendously disordered in content.  One of them is “the tradition.”  Rather than a new theoretical discussion, one can surely set one’s heart on describing a vigorous tradition or a vigorous life-theme in flesh and blood, in the life of an era.  Perhaps we can thereby discover something characteristic of our times’ relationship to its heritage.  But description, narrative, must be the main thing.  And it’s probably best to choose a theme that has been prevalent in a time that ours has inherited a great deal from, but which has not been one of the dominant general subjects in more recent times.  Such a past is not as easy to determine as it looks.  But chance came to the rescue, a request to write about our village churches and the popular life at them.  In the churches’ history there is bound to be something that is past in this way, such that guiding views in it are dead for our modern civilization, which nevertheless bears a great number of marks of it.  Some will locate this dividing line of the past at the Reformation, others at Pietism or perhaps the revivals that gathered momentum a century ago.  We have located the deeper dividing line much further back.

The village churches were the opening subject for examination and study.  The large churches we have left alone.  They lead to official church history and political history.  The small churches impel us towards cultural history, more concealed conditions, to the more intimate life in the past.  One is led towards that which was special to an Old Danish and wider Nordic attitude to life.  One is already on the way to pre-Christian times.

There followed many small journeys in this country, most often in the undressed seasons, winter and spring.  Even the monuments are seen most clearly in the landscape then.  The land is sharply defined, has remoteness throughout and room for the wind.  Around the dusky and red plowing patterns that stretch across the hills lie simple fields of color, quickened by cold showers.  Winter journeys give you a new country that seems bigger, nobler than the summer idyll.

The journeys went on through several years.  They stretched from the Eider to Trøndelag, from Jutland to Uppland and Iceland.  Many things had to be seen that were not included.  The studies applied primarily to our own country and the old landscapes it has lost.  But they were obliged to be farther out, went perhaps not far enough, even though each of us could supplement our impressions of the old with longer journeys.  Inevitably, Nordic subject matter was bound to come in.  Wreckage from common cultures is washed ashore richer on one coast than on another.  But it changes.  The book’s center of gravity lies in Danish pasts, but they may often work as Nordic perspectives.

On by far the greatest number of trips artist, writer and publisher went together.  It was fortuitous that others took part because it provided other points of view.  The one notices what the others overlook.  It revolves around things that are obscure, where interpretation can’t be helped, three pairs of eyes can see differently, and that is lastingly productive.  Many impressions are moderated thereby; some are strengthened.  The last, one surely dares better to regard as universal.  A critical and inspiring entourage, a prism in which the past’s weak light is refracted, several temperaments’ collective memories, it is valuable when the universal in bygone life is searched for, and that was the aim.  The latter was not, however, to jointly decide which images should be sketched, and what should be in the text.  Both portions have come into being in the usual isolated way.  The visual artist chose the motifs that said something to him, in particular, and the majority of woodcuts were carved before any finished text existed.  No one wanted the ancient things depicted as museum pieces, either, and an instructive, external drawing, which in detail renders the relic as relic, naturally had to be rejected here for that which looks towards the thing’s soul and, accordingly, also the ancient artist’s intentions.  That is why there are no woodcuts here from Romanesque painting, in which color is decisive for the psychic attitude.  The publisher, one of the travelers, has harmonized images and text from an artistic viewpoint, which could only become effective when the pieces of work were finished.  Images and text will often go together, shall not however be interchangeable with each other, but let the temperaments work freely.

The subject was clarified.  It had to close with the Romanesque period.  The Gothic which follows is not strictly speaking past; traditions from it are still very much alive.  And here there has been a line of demarcation for people: they are newly-brought-up Christian in the Gothic period.  Beforehand lies a singularly fertile folk culture, which may be the Scandinavians’ most original contribution to the early Middle Ages, and a folk Christianity with a different religious life-theme than later times.  It stood up unexpectedly from the grave; the literature has little of it.  The overgrown tracks to it passed first through memories of the villagers’ fatalistic views and unsentimental, shy piety, but the mighty work of church-raising in the Romanesque period is a stronger and more majestic reminder of it than the folklore.

The Middle Ages had an inheritance from the past, which had to be described.  But Nordic late antiquity was a motley, conflict-rich time, as motives of widely different origin clashed.  Some of them must have been immensely old even then.  Out of the monuments of remoter times, then, an account is given of the first flowering of remarkable themes on Nordic ground.

Several scholars have portrayed pre-Christian Nordic religion chiefly by using folklore as the main subject matter, the powerful assemblages that we collectively call “folk belief.”  This is true of works like Gudmund Schütte’s Hjemligt Hedenskab [Domestic Paganism] and Axel Olrik and Hans Ellekilde’s large Nordens Gudeverden [The North’s Mythology].  From both we have gratefully borrowed subject matter and references.  The evolutionary viewpoint, which invariably becomes predominant, I dare not share.  The majority of great religious themes must have come to the North from without.  For “folk belief” as a whole – not the sifted features in it that clearly correspond to more distant times’ own relics – one can have mistrust.  It won’t do to describe the people’s beliefs for the last 900 years.  Most material is gathered for a particular purpose: to rescue the “aboriginal,” supposedly dying pagan relics.  The substance of popular Christian tradition we generally left alone.  But it died along with the pagan low-religious practices, which perhaps reveals that these were dependent on the head religion’s shelter.  And apart from the fact that many pagan relics arguably are engendered by the Christian culture or adventive with it, in addition, the material is really missing not only the substance of Christian tradition, but what is particularly important, it illuminates only poorly the villagers’ own rank ordering of faith concepts.

Here, we take for granted that each of the great ancient monuments, the sacred memorials, in its time was a holy concentration of power in the cultural landscape, just like the churches afterwards.  They are not regarded in the same way as natural shrines, hills, lakes, springs, and bogs, places where nature in some inscrutable way collects and discharges its holy force.  They are works that defy nature, and whose powers were of a different kind than those that lived in the green twilight behind the woods’ edge.

After having learned of the works at first hand, knowledge was sought in archaeological and other historical reading, in ethnological and religious studies.  Guided from this we have made selections in the folklore.

The descriptions of the older times are thematic, not developmental-historical.  It is quite possible that the Iron Age’s death cult stems from the Late Stone Age’s, but only the thematic kinship is certain, so little can we here, as in several other matters, follow the inheritance’s secret life, after the theme’s first flowering, through obscure periods in between.  It is also an age’s chief motive that is portrayed, in the Neolithic period’s tomb cult, not the vaguer cultivation of water powers.  But the revival of shifting major themes may well give a fuller understanding of the many contradictions in the life-tradition of Scandinavians in the times up to and after the year 1000, when they tested the strengths of their souls against a vast, unfamiliar world.

Starting points for further peripatetic reading have been Johannes Brøndsted’s Danmarks Oldtid [Denmark’s Prehistory] and the ever-growing, gigantic work Danmarks Kirker [Denmark’s Churches].  Some of the other books and authors we have used are mentioned throughout the text.  A bibliography and other apparatus from salutary, learned practice were deemed to be inappropriate in this work, but I thank the proprietors of knowledge for glorious reading times.

As a boy I preferred Nordahl Rolfsen’s Verdenshistorie [World History] to everything else printed.  He was a dilettante in the profession, a real storyteller.  Without it diminishing my admiration, I shared it later on between him and another, younger Norwegian, Fredrik Paasche, who was both storyteller and scholar.  But the idea of here using Rolfsen’s method – reading among the scholars and then transposing it into a narrative style – had to be shelved.  The nature of the subject was to blame for it.  This historical material rarely contains essential narrative elements, glimpses of human forms; we have to evoke them ourselves.  And here where the branches of knowledge are crosscut, they often disagree, grope; the scholars must use their intuitions.  Certainly one must also use one’s own, if a storytelling viewpoint is to stamp the book’s text, which is dedicated to my mother and the memory of my father.

Martin A. Hansen

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