Elevenses with Princess Cake

It’s Princess Cake week and we are celebrating Amy’s engagement!

Amy’s engagement ring

Swedes love this cake so much, there is a whole week devoted to it. The fourth week in September is known as the week of the Prinsesstårta. During this week in Sweden, sales of Princess Cakes more than double – and all cakes are decorated with a little crown to celebrate.

Can we have cake too?

You have to wear a tiara!


Amy loves being a princess 🙂


We’ll go to Vete-Katten in Stockholm, it’s the best place for a Swedish fika experience!

Princess Cake at Vete-Katten, Stockholm

Vikings and the Sunstone Crystal

The sunstone crystal has been one of the most widely debated topics by historians about the drama Vikings. Long before History Channel released the series, historians had been debating whether Vikings used a common calcite crystal, also known as an Icelandic spar, to find the sun in the high latitudes where they would have had to navigate despite long twilights and cloudy, overcast skies. “The Vikings could have discovered this, simply by choosing a transparent crystal and looking through it through a small hole in a screen,” wrote Guy Ropars. “The understanding of the complete mechanism and the knowledge of the polarization of light is not necessary.”

Ragnar uses a “sunstone” for ship navigation in the show, a piece of seemingly magical rock that will light up with the sun’s rays even on a cloudy day (the “sunstone” allows for the use of his sundial-compass even on long voyages, allowing him to eventually plunder England).

A Viking legend tells of a glowing “sunstone” that, when held up to the sky, revealed the position of the sun even on a cloudy day. It sounds like magic, but scientists measuring the properties of light in the sky say that polarizing crystals – which function in the same way as the mythical sunstone – could have helped ancient sailors to cross the northern Atlantic. A review of their evidence was published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (31 January 2011).

The Vikings, seafarers from Scandinavia (today’s Norway, Sweden & Denmark) who travelled widely and settled in swathes of Northern Europe, the British Isles and the northern Atlantic from around 750 to 1050, were skilled navigators, able to cross thousands of kilometres of open sea between Norway, Iceland and Greenland. Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season in the far north would have prevented them from using the stars as a guide to their positions, and the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe – in any case, it would have been of limited use so close to the North Pole.

But Viking legends, including an Icelandic saga centring on the hero Sigurd, hint that these sailors had another navigational aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sunstone.

The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the sun. To check Sigurd’s answer, Olaf “grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible sun”. In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.

Light consists of electromagnetic waves that oscillate perpendicular to the direction of the light’s travel. When the oscillations all point in the same direction, the light is polarized. A polarizing crystal such as calcite allows only light polarized in certain directions to pass through it, and can appear bright or dark depending on how it is oriented with respect to the light.

Scattering by air molecules in the atmosphere causes sunlight to become polarized, with the line of polarization tangential to circles centred on the sun. So Ramskou argued that by holding a crystal such as calcite up to the sky and rotating it to check the direction of polarization of the light passing through it, the Vikings could have deduced the position of the sun, even when it was hidden behind clouds or fog, or was just beneath the horizon.

Historians have debated the possibility ever since, with some arguing that the technique would have been pointless, because it would only work if the crystal was pointed at patches of clear sky, and in such conditions it would be possible to estimate the position of the sun with the naked eye, for example from the bright lining of cloud tops.

Gábor Horváth, an optics researcher at Eötvös University in Budapest, and Susanne Åkesson, a migration ecologist from Lund University, Sweden, have been testing these assumptions since 2005. The special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B in which their review appears is dedicated to biological research on polarized light.

In one study, the researchers took photographs of partly cloudy or twilight skies in northern Finland through a 180-degree fisheye lens, and asked test subjects to estimate the position of the sun. Errors of up to 99 degrees led the researchers to conclude that the Vikings could not have relied on naked-eye guesses of the sun’s position.

To check whether sunstones would work better, they measured the polarization pattern of the entire sky under a range of weather conditions during a crossing of the Arctic Ocean on the Swedish icebreaker Oden.

The researchers were surprised to find that in foggy or totally overcast conditions the pattern of light polarization was similar to that of clear skies. The polarization was not as strong, but Åkesson believes that it could still have provided Viking navigators with useful information.

“I tried such a crystal on a rainy overcast day in Sweden,” she says. “The light pattern varied depending on the orientation of the stone.”

She and Horváth planned further experiments to determine whether volunteers can accurately work out the sun’s position using crystals in various weather conditions.

Sean McGrail, who studied ancient seafaring at the University of Oxford, UK, before retiring, says that the studies are interesting but there is no real evidence to indicate that the Vikings actually used such crystals. “You can show how they could be used, but that isn’t proof,” he says. “People were navigating long before this without any instruments.”

Surviving written records indicate that Viking and early medieval sailors crossed the north Atlantic using the sun’s position on clear days as a guide, in combination with the positions of coastlines, flight patterns of birds, migration paths of whales and distant clouds over islands, says Christian Keller, a specialist in North Atlantic archaeology at the University of Oslo. “You don’t need to be a wizard,” he says. “But you do need to combine a lot of different sorts of observations.”

Keller says he is “totally open” to the idea that the Vikings also used sunstones, but is waiting for archaeological evidence. “If we find a shipwreck with a crystal on board, then I would be happy,” he says.

One of these crystals has yet to be discovered in any Viking settlements, however one was discovered in an Elizabethan shipwreck from 1592 in the English Channel. Historians and researchers are currently trying to confirm whether or not this crystal could have been used to find the sun when it was out of sight, which they think might be true; as a large cannon on board the ship would have interfered with a magnetic compass. Regardless of whether or not the Vikings used such stones, it is clear that other nearby cultures used them to navigate the seas.

Original article on Scientific American

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok

The drama Vikings is historical fiction but it’s easier to watch than reading the sagas! And it’s quite funny. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok is a patchwork of literary styles, genres and stories. Add a lot of names and genealogies and a rather wordy translation, and it’s not the easiest read. No amount of doughnuts will get little bears through the reading 🙂

The series has gathered quite a following and various blogs and social media sites are a buzz with all things Vikings related. The show is well cast and the acting is well done which has given the series much praise. There has also been a lot of gruff given to the series by historians who have issue with some of the accuracies — or inaccuracies — that the television show presents. Seriously! The series doesn’t pass itself as a documentary or historically accurate, it’s just a good show. That took us about four years to get into… But that has nothing to do with the quality of the show! Little bears are very busy and getting them to sit still long enough to watch the series is quite a feat 🙂

It’s not like the sagas are historically accurate. The stories were part of the oral tradition, no doubt each story-teller adding more flourishes in the telling. They were also written about 400 years after the events were said to have happened. They tell stories of hate, vengeance, rivalry, murder of brothers, husband and children, incestuous relations, friendship, deceit, loyalty and everlasting love. They don’t miss much 🙂 It is in these fornaldersagas (literally, tales of times past) that we find the roots of modern fantasy and the world of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok tell the story of how Ragnar got his epithet “Lodbrok” (meaning hairy breeches), how Ragnar killed the snake and got his first wife Thora (who hasn’t appeared in the series). They tell Aslaug’s story; how she came to Ragnar “neither clad nor unclad, neither sated nor hungry, not alone yet with one coming with her”. Aslaug is daughter of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild (told of in The Saga of the Volsungs), even if there are three or four centuries between Sigurd and Ragnar (or their quasi-historical figures). But this is legend and everything is possible. The Icelanders sometimes referred to legendary sagas as lying sagas.

Aslaug makes her debut on Vikings at the end of season 1 with a netted gown, an onion and a dog

The sagas give the heroic legends of Ragnar and his sons: Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Hvitserk, Ubbe and a few more! The sagas tell of Ragnar and his sons’ heroic battles, their plundering and terror, of how Ivar the Boneless conquered Northumbria, of the shirt that made Ragnar invulnerable, and of how he nevertheless ended his life in King Ælle’s snake pit while he, as the snakes bite in on him, makes the poem Krákumál. (The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok contains tree sagas, a list of Swedish kings, and a long poem, Krákumál – The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok; The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons & Sögubrot.)

We meet dragons, enormous serpents, holy and powerful cows, talking birds and flying horses. Some people, the shape-shifters, have the ability to turn into animals or birds, and the berserkers turn into wolfs and raging bears. There are giants, dwarfs, elves, spirits, and all kinds of magic; people who can foretell the future and visit the other worlds. In these sagas we meet Odin, the all-father, and Loki, the trickster, meddling and interfering with human fate, we meet soothsayers, seid-woman, shield-maidens, Valkyries and all kinds of rune magic and sorcery, charms, spell, cursed golden rings and magical swords. But first of all we meet human tragedy.

Vikings follows Ragnar Lothbrok as he rises from a being farmer to becoming a powerful warrior king.

The show is brimming with tough female characters – from warriors like Lagertha, to the steely, conniving Queen Aslaug and Frankish warrior princess Gisla. Unlike a lot of medieval-themed shows, the women in Vikings don’t take a backseat to the men. The shieldmaidens are based on the old Norse sagas, and women regularly fought in the frontlines of Viking raids.

Lagertha, a shieldmaiden, Ragnar’s first wife in Vikings

Gisla, daughter of Emperor Charles of Frankia, throwing a drink into Rollo’s face (her Viking husband)

Vikings has some of the largest and most complex battle scenes filmed for TV, choreographed by large teams of experts and based on a mix of historical facts, weaponry and well-trained actors.

The battle scenes are consistently well-choreographed and thrilling, with haunting music and well-timed pauses to check in with each character to ensure that the viewer never gets lost among the action. Creator Michael Hirst says the fighting is for real. The actors turn up several weeks before shooting starts so they can go through the choreography, because it’s actually quite dangerous. They use real weapons and hundreds of people are fighting. It’s not recreational!

Little Puffles is using rose-coloured glasses to watch the battle scenes 🙂

The Paris siege sequence is a nail-biter and the first time we’ve really seen the Vikings get their asses kicked. There’s a lot going in the siege — Rollo’s berserker antics on top of the walls and that spiked wheel; Kalf’s surprising move to save Lagertha; Floki’s impassioned invocation to the gods as he burns in the tower; Bjorn and Ragnar’s injuries, and through it all, we’re waiting in vain to see things turn around for the Vikings. That finally comes in the second Paris attack. Although it’s not as epic in scope as the first attack, the story includes character development as Bjorn Ironside takes up the mantle of leadership, balls of steel in Ragnar’s death fake-out (even Honey and Isabelle opened their eyes wide when Ragnar jumped out of his coffin 🙂 ) and improbable odds. Even when they breach the walls, the Vikings are still outnumbered and facing a technologically advanced enemy.

Little bears are still waiting for Build A Bear to make Vikings costumes 🙂 The hairstyles in the series are famous and turning into fashion statements. From braids and mullets to faux-hawks, shaved heads and beards of all shapes and sizes, Vikings has it all. Many of the looks – though they appear to be pulled from a recent underground gig, are based on historical fact. Vikings were the original punks.

Ragnar Lodbrok

Little Isabelle has taken a liking to ponytails and decided to get some 🙂

As for the eyeliner, it turns out to be historically accurate! Ibrahim Al-Tartushi, an Arab traveller who visited the Viking trading hub of Hedeby in 950 wrote: “there is also an artificial make-up for the eyes, when they use it beauty never fades, on the contrary it increases in men and women as well.”


Vikings used a type of eyeliner known as kohl which was a dark-coloured powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla. It helped keep the harsh glare of the sun from damaging one’s eyesight while also increasing the dramatic sex appeal of the wearer.

Rollo has a special message for Puffles and Honey 🙂

The Bear aka Rolf The Ganger aka Rollo Sigurdsson aka Clive James Standen


It’s here, it’s here!

It’s the beginning of astronomical spring! Even if it doesn’t feel like it…

We may celebrate the equinox as a day, but it’s actually just one moment. And it’s just gone! It’s really not when the day and the night are of equal length, although that’s what we think of – it’s the moment when the sun is on the equator at local noon. The equinox occurs when the sun crosses the celestial equator (an imaginary line above the Earth’s equator), and the Earth is perpendicular to the sun’s rays.

Today’s equinox is one of only two days each year when the sun can be seen directly overhead along Earth’s equator. It’s also one of only two days each year when all points on Earth — apart from the polar regions — see the sun rise due east and set due west along the horizon.

That is, today the sun rises precisely due east and sets precisely due west.

Doesn’t it do that everyday, you might ask? No. Sometimes the sun rises a bit northeast, sometimes a bit southeast, depending on the season. East and west are defined by features of the earth rather than the sun, like the positions of the North Pole and South Pole.

The celestial equator is a circle drawn around the sky, above Earth’s equator. The ecliptic is the sun’s apparent yearly path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac. The ecliptic and celestial equator intersect at the spring and autumn equinox points.

An equinox occurs when the sun crosses the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at due east and due west.

At its highest point in your sky, the celestial equator appears high or low, depending on your latitude. The imaginary celestial equator is a great circle dividing the imaginary celestial sphere into its northern and southern hemispheres, so, from the equator, it’s directly overhead, for example, wrapping the sky directly above Earth’s equator.

For purposes of today’s visualization, though, the height of the celestial equator in your sky doesn’t matter. What matters are these two things. One, the sun is on the celestial equator at the equinox. Two, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at points due east and due west.

Voila. The sun rises due east and sets due west on the day of the equinox, as seen from around the globe.

Where does the celestial equator intersect your horizon? No matter where you are on Earth (unless you’re at a pole), the celestial equator meets your horizon at points due east and due west.
Why does the sun rises due east and set due west at the equinoxes? The blue line is the celestial equator (always at your due east and due west points). The purple line is the ecliptic, or sun’s path. At the equinox, these two lines intersect. Illustration via JCCC Astronomy.

And now we’re midway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in the sky.

The seasons result from the Earth’s rotational axis tilting 23.5 degrees out of perpendicular to the ecliptic – or Earth’s orbital plane

A few years ago the team at NASA’s Earth Observatory used observations from a EUMETSAT meteorological satellite to make the video below, which shows what the solstices and equinoxes look like from space.

It’s time to go back to sleep 🙂

Google doodle for the Southern Hemisphere spring equinox

Elevenses with Stories

It says here Aurora and the Moon were sisters.

This book pops!

It says Odin gave his eye for knowledge and wisdom…

I know that story!

In Jötunheim, the home of the giants, is Mimir’s well. It bubbles up from deep in the ground, and it feeds Yggdrasil, the world-tree. Mimir, the wise one, the guardian of the memory, knows many things. His well is wisdom, and when the world was young he would drink every morning from the well, by dipping the horn known as the Gjallarhorn into the water and draining it.

Long, long ago, when the worlds were young, Odin put on his long cloak and his hat, and in the guise of a wanderer he travelled through the land of the giants, risking his life to get to Mimir, to seek wisdom.

“One drink from the water of your well, Uncle Mimir,” said Odin. “That is all I ask for.”

Mimir shook his head. Nobody drank from the well but Mimir himself. He said nothing: seldom do those who are silent make mistakes.

“I am your nephew,” said Odin. “My mother, Bestla, was your sister.”

“That is not enough,” said Mimir.

“One drink. With a drink from your well, Mimir, I will be wise. Name your price.”

“Your eye is my price,” said Mimir. “Your eye in the pool.”

Odin did not ask if he was joking. The journey through giant country to get to Mimir’s well had been long and dangerous. Odin had been willing to risk his life to get there. He was willing to do more than that for the wisdom he sought.

Odin’s face was set.

“Give me a knife,” was all he said.

After he had done what was needful, he placed his eye carefully in the pool. It stared up at him through the water. Odin filled the Gjallarhorn with water from Mimir’s pool, and he lifted it to his lips. The water was cold. He drained it down. Wisdom flooded into him. He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two.

Thereafter Odin was given other names: Blindr, they called him, the blind god, and Hoarr, the one-eyed, and Baleyg, the flaming-eyed one.

Odin’s eye remains in Mimir’s well, preserved by the waters that feed the world ash, seeing nothing, seeing everything.

Time passed. When the war between the Aesir and the Vanir was ending and they were exchanging warriors and chiefs, Odin sent Mimir to the Vanir as an adviser to the Aesir god Hoenir, who would be the new chief of the Vanir.

Hoenir was tall and good-looking, and he looked like a king. When Mimir was with him to advise him, Hoenir also spoke like a king and made wise decisions. But when Mimir was not with him, Hoenir seemed unable to come to a decision, and the Vanir soon tired of this. They took their revenge, not on Hoenir but on Mimir: they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Odin.

Odin was not angry. He rubbed Mimir’s head with certain herbs to prevent it from rotting, and he chanted charms and incantations over it, for he did not wish Mimir’s knowledge to be lost. Soon enough Mimir opened his eyes and spoke to him. Mimir’s advice was good, as it was always good.

Odin took Mimir’s head back to the well beneath the world-tree, and he placed it there, beside his eye, in the waters of knowledge of the future and of the past.

Odin gave the Gjallarhorn to Heimdall, watchman of the gods. On the day the Gjallarhorn is blown, it will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.

Heimdall will blow the Gjallarhorn only once, at the end of all things, at Ragnarok.

There’s time for lots more adventures and stories before then 🙂