Cities / Towns Visited: 45
Countries Visited: 14
Steps Taken Today: 11,946
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,557,773
Although it was to be our first day in Stockholm, we would be leaving the capital for our day’s adventure. Thus after breakfast, and handing our washing over to the reception of the hostel for them to clean, as for some ridiculous reason you can only do washing yourself between 9am and 4pm there (you know, exactly when people are out exploring), we wandered off to the station. A train and a bus ride later and we arrived at out destination; Uppsala. This town isn’t in and of itself that interesting but it is home to Gamla Uppsala; a series of old viking burial mounds, and this was what we had travelled all this way to see.
Starting in the visitor centre, we were set up for the main event by learning about the history of the site. Uppsala had previously been the capital of the country back when Vikings ruled the land, and it had been the residence of many of the countries ancient kings. In the last century, a number of excavations had been carried out on the mounds to discover who was buried there, and more about the burial ritual itself. After the research was finished the mounds were restored to their original glory. It was fascinating to learn that although the term burial mound seemingly denoted the burial of a body, the graves instead held the remains of the interred persons ashes, along with a number of personal items like jewellery, weapons, and everyday goods; things they might be thought to need in the afterlife (although only fragments are left). The entirety of the ashes are not even buried, with the remains seemingly being sorted and selected, although archaeologists are unsure as to why, or what happened to the rest of the remains. Although originally it was thought that the three largest mounds must have been for male chieftains as the amount of effort and man power needed to create one of these mounds was extensive, they have since discovered that it is likely that one of the deceased was in fact a woman; although she must have still been a member of the viking nobility to have earned such a lavish memorial.
The centre displays a large array of artefacts they unearthed in the mounds and in the ground around the entire area of Uppsala. From old viking weapons, to pieces of ceramic and pottery, to jewellery and small statues, including a number of pieces depicting the old Norse gods, like Thor (or just his hammer) and Odin. It was interesting to also see some Christian artefacts, as it really reiterates the fact that Scandinavia, especially Norway and Sweden, was one of the last areas of Europe to be reached by Christianity, with it not planting roots in the region until the 11th century. This isn’t too surprising though, especially considering its secluded nature and harsh environment; there was certainly many easier places to violently convert to your belief system before venturing there. Although it is sad to that the old gods were set aside.
I must say I did chortle a little when I read about the fact that the old church, which still stands close to the mounds, appears to have been not only constructed on the site of an old pagan temple, but actually incorporates the old walls of the temple into its construction. I found it somewhat poetic to think about, as it is not the only apparently Christian thing that still blatantly shows its attempted cover up of Pagan religions. Take the Christmas tree, I think we all know that that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and is actually based on an old pagan ritual when evergreen trees were used in winter solstice celebrations. Or how about Easter, yeah that seems to line up a little too uncannily with the pagan festival celebrating the spring equinox and the celebration of the rebirth of the sun after winter; a celebration which also used the rabbit and eggs as symbols for fertility in this time of year when most animals give birth to their young. Or look at the days of the week Monday was named after the Norse god Máni, the god of the moon; Tuesday takes its name from Tiw, the one handed Norse god of dueling; Wednesday was actually Wōden’s day (the English bastardisation of Odin’s Day); Thursday, yep that right, Thor’s day; Friday, well that was Frigg’s (Odin’s wife) day; all of them named after Norse gods. Even Saturday comes from Saturn, and Sunday is named after the Pagan day of the Sun. Any basic study of the origin of all religions will show you that there are a plethora of ideas, rituals, and images which have been taken, recycled, and repurposed by the newer ones. The many old gods and goddesses have matching equivalents in other places, there are Greek, Roman, and Norse versions which almost all line up. The single god religions tend to have wrapped all of the godly traits into one singular being. If believing in a higher power helps you get through the day I’m all for it, but don’t tell other people that your god is the only one, and that theirs is a lie. Me, I’m going to just stick to science.
Finally it was time to venture outside and see the graves for ourselves. Stepping out into the sun we walked toward them, these grassy mounds which could easily be mistaken for undulating downs; you know, if they didn’t look so organised and the rest of the landscape wasn’t so flat. I must say, I kind of like the idea; there is something about them that connects the people to the earth, it seems almost natural, but at the same time abstractly displays the fact that the world would not look the same without them in it. We took some time to wander around and between these ancient memorials, basking in the sunlight and trying to imagine how this land must have looked back when these Vikings were first interred; without the roads, or the wires; back when these mounds would have been the tallest thing within view.
Meandering along, we stumbled upon the church, with its small collection of churchyard graves. Stepping inside we were surprised to notice that instead of intricate adornments or frescoes, the ceilings are instead handpainted with delicate floral motives and rather less than grandiose depictions of saints. There was something humble about the interior of this small, rural house of God.
Eventually it was time for us to make our way back to the city, and before too long we were tucking into a home cooked meal and relaxing in bed. As I reflected on the day I pondered once more the Norse gods. I will admit I have always enjoyed the mythology around these northern gods (and I’m talking the actual mythology, not the Marvel movie version where Thor is, incorrectly, Odin’s son) . Like many other old religions, I like the idea that there are multiple gods; that not one single being is in charge of caring for everything. Community and teamwork trumps omnipotence on my scale of pros and cons. In times when we did not have science and research to explain why we were having another poor harvest, or why our people were all dying of a fever, or why we are unable to carry a pregnancy to term, it seems comforting to me that you could speak to specific gods and goddesses, who are understanding to the plight, as oppose to a singular being who has a million other problems to deal with.
The fact that we made up superior beings in our own image who depict all of our best, and worst, traits and convinced ourselves that they are the alpha and omega of why things do or do not happen, seems surprisingly sensible when you need a way to explain problems and give hope to those who may not have any. I understand the concept of religion, I do, but I understand it a concept, and a concept alone. I understand it’s strategic and cruel uses in the past; it’s ability to control the masses; its ability to build a patriarchy and assert power over the female sex, and other races; it ability to justify cruel actions to its followers; its ability to elicit funds out of the devout. But by the same token I can see its ability to guide people to be a better version of themselves by promoting compassion and kindness, and it’s ability to provide hope and positivity to those who are struggling. I honestly believe that if believing in God or many gods helps you get through the day and provides you comfort (provided you’re not oppressing you beliefs onto others), then all the power to you.
Many people believe that religious followers are automatically good people, but going to church does not make you a good person; your morality and humanity is not to be found in a building or in a book, but instead within oneself. Many religious people do good deeds because they believe it will earn them favour in the eyes of their god, but I can’t help but admire the good deeds of atheists more. Non-believers are compassionate and kind, not because it offers some post death reward, but because it is the right thing to do; because we only succeed as a race if we are all succeeding; and because, as Martin Luther King jr. said ‘An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. I am a good person because my moral compass is calibrated towards altruism, not towards a book written by man claiming to be the words of our creator, with a million ways to interpret it. You can be spiritual without religion, and my spirit is alive and well.