A Swedish Island, Witchcraft Folklore, and Stone Age Excavations

An illustration of the Swedish island of Öland and some of its neighboring shores from Olaus Magnus's Historia de gentiles septentrionalibus (1555). To the top right of the island is a small island with a crown upon it, representing Blå Jungfrun.

Off the southeastern coast of Sweden is a small island once known as Blåkulla (Swedish ‘blue hill’). Today the island is known as Blå Jungfrun (Swedish ‘blue maiden/blue virgin’) and is home to a Swedish National Park. In Swedish folklore, the island has had an association with witchcraft since at least the mid-16th century, yet the island may have had a particular folk associations of peculiar danger long prior (a location called “Blaakulla” is referenced in such a manner in 1410—for more on this, see, for example, Stephen Mitchell’s 1997 “Blåkulla and its Antecedents: Transvection and Conventicles in Nordic Witchcraft” in Alvíssmál 7 pp. 81-100).

With that background in mind, a team of archaeologists that have been excavating the site since 2014 have made some interesting assessments of the site, including that the site may have attracted particular religious activity during the Stone Age. According to a recent Livescience article on the topic:

“The results are astonishing and reveal extensive human activities on the island in the Mesolithic Stone Age,” the archaeologists wrote.

People who travelled to the island may have practiced various rituals inside the two caves, archaeologists say. One cave contains what may be an altar where offerings could have been made to deities. Meanwhile another cave has an area that could have been used like a "theater" or "stage."

"In two caves, distinct ritual features were identified," wrote the team members, who hail from Kalmar County Museum and Linnaeus University, both in Sweden.

An Eventful March: Bald's Leechbook and MRSA, Anglo-Saxon England and Genetics, and Modern Folk Belief and the Huldufólk in Iceland

I. Bald's Leechbook and MRSA
In an interesting development for Old English scholars, numerous Western outlets report that an Old English remedy for an eye-sty recorded in Bald's Leechbook (compiled in the 9th century and surviving in a single manuscript) has shown to be effective in treating Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), bacterium that have become immune to beta-lactam antibiotics. NewScientist.com reports:

"The medieval medics might have been on to something. A modern-day recreation of this remedy seems to alleviate infections caused by the bacteria that are usually responsible for styes. The work might ultimately help create drugs for hard-to-treat skin infections.

The project was born when Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald's Leechbook, housed in the British Library.

Some of the ingredients, such as copper from the brass vessel, kill bacteria grown in a dish – but it was unknown if they would work on a real infection or how they would combine."

This particular remedy has been tested before but with negative results by Brennessel, Drout, and Gravel in 2005 (see their results here). Michael Drout has subsequently responded to Harrison's and Lee's 2015 results on Drout's blog here.

II. Anglo-Saxon England and Genetics
A genetic study out of the University of Oxford published in March in Nature has received media attention from outlets such as the BBC and The Guardian. The study has implications on what we know about Anglo-Saxon England, the Migration Period, the Celtic peoples as an ethnic group, and subsequent migrations in the era. Peter Donnelly comments:

"According to Prof Peter Donnelly who co-led the study, the results show that although there is not a single Celtic group, there is a genetic basis for regional identities in the UK.

'Many of the genetic clusters we see in the west and north are similar to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around, and just after, the time of the Saxon invasion, suggesting these kingdoms maintained a regional identity for many years,' he told BBC News."

III. Modern Folk Belief and the Huldufólk in Iceland
A feature on the influence of modern Icelandic folk belief in the huldufólk ('hidden people') in Iceland was recently published in The Guardian (and definitely look at the fascinating accompanying pictorial!). A sample from the article:

"Road-builders are used to seeing their plans scuppered by the protected habitats of bats and newts, or sites of special scientific interest and outstanding natural beauty. But in Iceland, there is another hindrance: the world of the huldufólk, as they call them, the hidden people.

The rock, known as Ófeigskirkja, has been at the centre of an eight-year battle to stop a road being built through this 8,000-year-old landscape, a spectacularly barren and evocative terrain a little to the north of Reykjavík, which some believe is a site of supernatural forces. In a country of such desolate stony expanses, haunted by howling winds, bubbling geysers and fiery eruptions, it’s not hard to see why more than half of the population entertains the possibility that a parallel community of elves, dwarves and ghosts might exist – a statistic repeated in tourist brochures since a landmark 1975 survey. But few, like Jónsdóttir, claim to have a direct line to them, allowing her to hear their cries for help ..."

While modern Icelandic folklore is an area which I intend to delve further into he future, readers may be interested in similar folk beliefs surrounding the Landdísir recorded in 18th and 19th century Iceland (but probably reaching back into at least the Old Norse period).