Category Archives: Denmark

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

Astrid, Ingrid and Pippi

Astrid Lindgren (14.11.1907 – 28.01.2002) revolutionized the world of children’s books.
(Photo taken 04 April 1977)

Astrid Lindgren is the eighteenth most translated author in the world (and now we know that UNESCO publishes the top 50 list), and one of the most well-known Swedish authors. She became an author relatively late in life, and an influential voice on everyday issues even later. In 1958, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the most distinguished prize in children’s literature and in 1999 she was voted the most popular Swede of the 20th century.

Karin with her mother Astrid Lindgren

Her daughter Karin remembers the night Pippi Longstocking was conceived.

I was ill in bed for a long period in 1941, my first school year. I was bored, and kept begging my mother to tell me stories. One evening she said, exhausted: “But what more can I tell you?” An answer came bursting forth, in an attempt to keep her by me: “Tell me about Pippi Longstocking!” It was a name out of the blue, only a child’s play on words. But it did the trick. She started to tell me a completely new story.

“I didn’t ask her who Pippi Longstocking was,” Astrid Lindgren told The New Yorker in 1983. “I just began the story, and since it was a strange name it turned out to be a strange girl as well.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking was indeed a strange girl. Her firey hair stuck straight out from either side of her head in two tight braids. She wore one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. Her mother was long dead; her sailor father had been lost at sea, though Pippi was confident he had fetched up on a South Sea island, where “he had become king of all the cannibals”. She had a horse and a monkey named Mr. Nilsson for company, and a trunkful of gold pieces to provide for her wants.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

For the next several years Pippi flourished in the oral culture of the Lindgren family. Then in March 1944 Mrs. Lindgren slipped on the ice and sprained her ankle. Propped up in bed and writing in secretarial shorthand — the working method she would use for the first drafts of all her subsequent books — she set Pippi’s adventures on paper as a present for Karin’s 10th birthday. Afterward, with considerable trepidation, she sent the manuscript to a Swedish publisher, signing the accompanying letter, “In the hope that you won’t notify the Child Welfare Committee.”

“I had two children of my own, and what kind of mother had they who wrote such books!” Mrs. Lindgren later explained.

The publisher rejected the book, but meanwhile Mrs. Lindgren sent a different manuscript to the Swedish publisher Raben & Sjogren, which was sponsoring a contest for girls’ books.

Her book, Britt-Mari Opens Her Heart, which featured a much more conventional heroine and which has never been translated into English, won second prize and was published in Sweden in 1944. For the following year’s contest, Mrs. Lindgren dusted off the Pippi manuscript and sent it in. It was awarded first prize.

When Lindgren published Pippi Longstocking in 1945, shortly after the end of the war, it was a sensation: A book with a heroine who can eat an entire cake at once, hangs unpleasant boys over tree branches and, in the circus, defeats the “Mighty Adolf, the strongest man in the world”. “Dideldibum und dideldidei.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Sometimes a book is published and its impact is like a thunderbolt. Pippi Longstocking turned the established order upside-down, because it had a girl as a heroine, a girl stronger and many times smarter than any adult, and because the anarchy in the book triumphs over middle-class decency.

Like many heroes of traditional Scandinavian lore, Pippi was fearless, ageless and endowed with superhuman strength: when she wanted to ride her horse, who passed his days on Villa Villekulla’s front porch, she picked him up with one hand and set him gently on the ground.

Above all, Pippi was rude — deeply, outrageously, satisfyingly rude. She lived, as the critic Jonathan Cott observed, “completely outside bourgeois conventions.” Invited to a fancy coffee party, she devoured an entire cream cake before the assembled guests. “Now you mustn’t feel bad about such a little accident,” Pippi told the horrified neighbor ladies. “The main thing is that we have our health.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

While Pippi Langstrump was embraced by young readers on its publication, some adults in the tradition-bound, conformist Sweden of the 1940’s were unsettled by a children’s heroine who never went to school, stayed up until all hours and was openly ill-mannered in front of her elders. “No normal child sleeps with her feet on the pillow or eats up a whole cake at a coffee party,” one indignant reader wrote.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

“No normal child,” Mrs. Lindgren replied, “lifts a horse straight up in the air either.”

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

Over the years Pippi has been translated into dozens of languages: she is Bibi Meia-Longa in Portugal, Bilbee Bat-Gerev in Israel and Nagakutsushita-No-Pippi in Japan. The Pippi books have also inspired numerous films in Sweden and several in the United States. Columbia Pictures’ live-action feature The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for which Mrs. Lindgren collaborated on the screenplay, was released in 1988.

It was Ingrid Vang Nyman who helped Astrid Lindgren immortalize the strongest girl in the world, Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraimsdotter Longstocking. The rebellious image of a bold, red-headed girl with plaits that stick out and an alternative dress sense was created by Danish illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman, herself a red-haired woman who broke with convention.

Drawing by Ingrid Vang Nyman

“Every author who has been fortunate enough to find a congenial illustrator for their books, would be eternally grateful to that artist”, Astrid Lindgren once said.

Ingrid Vang Nyman wasn’t a quiet girl. She wore pants, long before it was customary for girls, had unruly red hair, lost the sight in one eye in a sledging accident, and ran away from home as a 12-year-old to go to sea. Her plan was to go to South America, but she only got as far as Padborg before being brought back home.

Danish illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman (21.08.1916 – 13.12.1959)

Home economics school was of no interest to her and she instead attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1939, where she hung around in artist circles and met her future husband, Bohemian Swede Arne Nyman.

Her breakthrough as an illustrator came in 1945, when she was commissioned to illustrate Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi by Hans Rabén from publisher Rabén og Sjögren.

Both Lindgren and Nyman were relatively unknown at the time, but the book was a hit, and the wild, red-haired girl who lives alone and does whatever she wants became synonymous with Nyman’s drawings.

Ingrid Nyman as a young mother holding her son Peder, who eventually became an illustrator too.

Nyman drew children who were independent of adults. She was keen on a child’s right to freedom and Pippi was far removed from the frills and plastered-down hair that was otherwise compulsory for girls at a time when children were to be seen and not heard. Astrid Lindgren was also concerned throughout her work with the ways in which children struggle against loneliness and marginalization.

In 1978 Astrid Lindgren was awarded the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize. Her acceptance speech was titled Never Violence, and she had sent the speech to Frankfurt in advance of the event. She received a letter in return from a man she called the “Supreme Decider”, who suggested that it might be a good idea for her to accept the prize without giving a speech. It was not a good idea, she wrote back, and she made it clear that she would either give her speech or not travel to Frankfurt at all.

Astrid Lindgren in Frankfurt in 1978

On October 22, she stood in St. Paul’s Church, wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses, and talked about how aggression and war have their beginnings in nurseries. “Even the characters of future statesmen and politicians are formed before they reach the age of five – this is horrifying, but it’s true.” Her speech was a plea for raising children without violence. She talked to impressive effect about how children must feel when their parents deliberately hurt them. In 1978 Germany, and all other countries, parents still had the right to inflict corporal punishment. More than 30 years after the publication of Pippi Longstocking, the world was still not at all the kind of place children liked.

Sweden was the world’s first country to ban corporal punishment in 1979. Today, there are 51 countries that have enacted laws prohibiting violence against children in the home and school. The list is fascinating for both the countries that have made the list, and the ones that haven’t.

Nordic Sense of Humour

Sweden’s deputy prime minister and climate minister Isabella Lövin signing a climate bill surrounded by her closest female colleagues, apparently mocking you know who.
Photograph: Isabella Lövin

Sweden, a pioneer in women’s rights, is known for its high level of women in the workplace, including in parliament and government.

Nordic Prime Ministers: (L-R) Stefan Lofven of Sweden, Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, Erna Solberg of Norway, Juha Sipila of Finland and Bjarni Benediktsson of Iceland, in Bergen, Norway, apparently mocking you know who.

Norway holds the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2017, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg has hosted a meeting of her Nordic colleagues in Bergen on 29 and 30 May. The agenda items included: further development of the Nordic region to ensure that it remains the most integrated region in the world, the fight against extremism and the Nordic region in the world. The ball the PMs are holding in the photo has sustainability targets written on it. They hope they will be a roadmap for the future.

The Nordic Countries look like a very interesting place to visit!