Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Torbjorn the Runecarver

There are apparently still a few people left out there that Coz and I haven't cornered to tell this story to, and who are therefore still wondering why the merest mention of Vikings sends us into fits of snickering in the corner.  But it takes a little while to tell properly, so I thought I'd write it down.

Back in 2012, we got to spend a month in Spain, Sweden, and Norway.  At the very end of our trip, we visited the town of Sigtuna, Sweden, which is famous for it's runestones.  "Famous" turns out to be correct; its close to Stockholm, and the place is jam-packed with bus tours full of Germans and midwesterners, strolling the strip in their Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, buying tacky souvenir horned hats.  Once you get off the main drag however, it's a lovely little medieval town with quite a nice museum.  And runestones.

The stones are scattered throughout the town - some whole, some broken up and re-purposed in churches or graveyards.  There's a map you get from the Tourist Info office, but some are fairly-well hidden, so you have to track them down.  Each is accompanied by a small plaque, written by some slightly-stuffy archeologist 20 years ago, explaining what they have translated of the writing on the stone, and what they know of its history.

I don't remember any exact text, but it went a bit like this:

"Stone of inferior workmanship, carved by Torbjorn in XXX to commemorate the building of a new bridge over the River Tun."

"Excellent example of twined knotwork or vines by Olaf Rolfsdottir."

"Crude piece without writing; attributed to Torbjorn."

"Beautiful interwoven dragon motif, carved by Hjarlmar Rockbiter on the tenth anniversary of his father's death, in his memory."

"The inscription reads: 'To honor his ancestors, Knut Erikkson had this stone carved by the hand of the Great Torbjorn' - poor spelling and bad penmanship."

A decorated "blank" (no writing) by the Great Torbjorn.
It was never explicitly mentioned in the signs, and yet slowly a picture started to form; every single time he was mentioned, Torbjorn the runecarver copped some fairly harsh criticism from our unknown archaeologist / art critic... and yet Torbjorn had clearly also carved about half of the stones in town.

At which point you may be thinking "Heh; that is mildly amusing."  But Coz and I had been on the road for over a month; despite having a fantastic time, we may have been a bit frayed around the edges.  Whatever the reason, this struck us as the most hilarious thing we'd ever seen in our lives.  Pretty soon we were rushing to the next sign and expounding pretentious critiques of his obviously inferior skills.  We're giving each other the Torbjorn used-runestone sales pitch:

"Oh yeah mate, I _could_ do you one of those twisty things like Olaf Dragoncarver, but it'd be 6 months, and it'd cost ya.  Now this baby here, this I did last year for Dave the Smith over in Uppsala, to honor his wife's father.  Only she ran off with a tinker and now he doesn't want it, does he?  Never put the names on; never had a day in the sun in its life.  Now for you mate, because I like you, I could do this baby signed and delivered by Tuesday for - I'm cutting me own throat here! - for a mere 20 gold Knuts.  Do you a mostly *cough* matched set if you like; put one on either end of a bridge and no one will be able to tell them apart.  I swear it to you by Odin's left testicle.  Praise your ancestors coming and going.  Wattaya say?  Only I'd move fast; had this guy up from Stockholm yesterday and he was very interested in this piece..."

By this point we're weeping tears of laughter, and having to hold ourselves upright on ancient historical artifacts to keep from falling over.  The few other tourists who made it out this far have brittle smiles and are backing away slowly, because we've obviously overdosed on history and cracked.  Which only makes us laugh harder, because we're imagining them as customers stunned by the full kilo-candle glare of the commercial juggernaut that is the Steve Jobs of runestones; Bloodeagle-Me-Own-Chest Torbjorn.

So there you have it; hundreds of years of proud heritage and culture, reduced by a pair of giggling Aus-Sceppos to a bad Used Car Salesman joke.  I think we escaped confinement for our own safety only because the town policemen were superstitious, and didn't want to touch crazy people.  If you mention vikings or runes and we lose it a bit, just smile and back away.  And for goodness sake don't let us sell you any runestones...