Yggdrasil and the Överhogdal Tapestries
The tapestries of Överhogdal are without doubt one of the most impressive finds of the late Viking period. Their unusually good condition, the strong colours and the many figures and symbols depicted on them make them an invaluable testimony of that epoch. It is therefore all the more astonishing that the tapestries with their unique figurative imagery had been forgotten for centuries.
The history of its rediscovery begins in 1909 during a renovation in the small church of Överhogdal in Härjedalen, Sweden. In short, the 14-year-old son of the church keeper was detached to help in the clean-up of the church (which was apparently long overdue). He had the task of clearing out a firewood chest next to the fireplace. There, after digging through a mountain of rubbish, the boy came across a crumpled bundle of textiles. Without paying any further attention to the find, the dusty tissue was transported to a storage shed next to the church. Only the six-year-old daughter of a bricklayer who was working there showed interest in the textile and successfully asked for a piece that had detached itself from the rest.
If it hadn’t been for the artist Paul Jonze who visited Överhogdal the following year as part of an inventory trip, the tapestries would certainly have fallen into oblivion again or maybe even worse. But Jonze walked into the storage shed of the church with open eyes and next to all kinds of garbage he found a large blanket, roughly sewn together from several individual pieces lying carelessly on the floor: the Överhogdal tapestries. Jonze sensed the historical value of his discovery and reported it to his client, the Provincial Museum of Jämtland later known as Jamtli. Since there were obvious gaps in the tapestries, Helena Öberg set off for Överhogdal in the winter of the following year to search for the missing parts. And indeed, through great luck, she managed to find three of the pieces she thought had been lost. One of the parts still lay in the church, while another piece was in the possession of a worker involved in the renovation. He had unsuccessfully tried to polish a lamp with it and afterwards put the stiff material into his pocket. For the third piece, however, Öberg needed some persuasion skills: the tissue had become the doll’s blanket of a little girl who was only willing to release it in tears with the (later kept) promise to get a replacement.1
The Research of the Tapestries
This completed the history of discovery and the scientific investigation could began. There was no doubt among the researchers that the large blanket originally consisted of four individual tapestries, which were sewn together at a later date. Three of these tapestries have a quite similar imagery: they show a large number of people and (mostly equine) animals moving past a large tree symbol from right to left. The fourth tapestry, on the other hand, is a double weave in purple and red and is exclusively decorated with ornamental knot, cross and ship motifs (see Fig. 1). So much for the undisputed points, but the controversies begin with the interpretation: How is the imagery to be understood? And when and where were the tapestries produced?
Fig. 1: The four tapestries of Överhogdal.
Unfortunately, the question about the origin of the tapestries will probably never be answered. They may have originally adorned the walls of an early church or found themselves in the hall of an influential family of the Härjedalen region, which was a part of Norway until 1645. However, research was able to shed some light on their age. For a long time the fabrics were dated into the 13th century (i.e. the High Middle Ages) on the basis of design history. This changed in the early 1990s when the tapestries were examined using the radiocarbon method for the first time. The results were very surprising: The production of the tapestries must have happened between 800 and 1300 and thus probably much earlier than originally assumed. Yet, a potential production period of 500 years was still too imprecise for research. However, as the measurement accuracy of the radiocarbon method had improved considerably in the following years, it was decided to carry out a new analysis in 2005. This time the result was more promising: All four tapestries were produced between 1040 and 1170;2 exactly at the transition between the Viking Age and the Middle Ages – during the Christianization of Sweden.
A World in Upheaval
It is precisely in this area of conflict that the interpretations of the imagery are situated. Some believe the tapestries would depict the biblical apocalypse3 or even the Christianization of the Härjedalen region,4 while others link the depictions with Germanic heroic sagas5 and Ragnarök. Both sides are making good arguments; however, the pagan interpretation has gained more ground in recent years – not least due to the backdating of the tapestries.6
How different the interpretation of such images can be is illustrated by two details from Tapestry IA (see Fig. 2.). In the left part of the picture you can see a roofed room with several people inside. It has numerous pole-shaped objects on its top as well as an upside-down runic inscription under the floor. Directly to the right of this scenery is a person who seems to be lying on the floor of a hexagonal room, surrounded by several intertwined, band-like objects.7 This scenery has been interpreted very differently over the years. For some, the lying person is the bound devil,8 while others recognize Loki, who is tied up with the bowels of his own son.9 However, some recognize an episode from the Völsunga saga: namely the Burgundian king Gunnarr (also Gunther or Gundahar), who finds death in Atli’s (= Attila) snake pit.10 According to this interpretation the roofed room to the left is Atli’s feasting hall, which is set on fire by Gudrun.11 Furthermore there is also a Christian interpretation of this scenery according to which this room is the entrance gate of the city of Jerusalem. The somewhat messily executed runic script should therefore mean “Gudby” and refer to Jerusalem as the “City of God”.12 However, the majority of researchers interprets “Gudby” as the “dwelling of the gods”,13 which would be Asgard or maybe even a specific hall in Asgard.
Fig. 2: Two sections of tapestry IA.
For most authors, the interpretation of individual motifs ultimately depends on their basic perception of the entire imagery. And this leaves much room for speculation. But however different the interpretations may be, they resemble each other in one crucial point: they all draw a world in upheaval, a dark drama reaching its climax.
The Victory of
The tapestries were created in times of great social divisions and conflicts. The Christianization driven by the power of the aristocratic elite forced a sharp break with the millennia-old heathen traditions that only few people were willing or prepared to commit to. However, unlike Christian faith, paganism knows no dogma, no firm and irrefutable teachings. Therefore it was easily possible for the heathens of that time to absorb Christian elements and to mix them with their own traditions. For most people, this so-called syncretism was the only viable way to stay in touch with their ancestors and their cultural traditions. No clerical power in the world was able to prevent this intermixture. This syncretism found expression in countless forms, among which the rune stones of Central Sweden are an impressive example.14 Christianity was never able to completely suppress the deep-rooted pagan traditions, since at some point eventually the Christianization came to a halt in every part of the Germanic sphere before the conversion was completed thoroughly. The syncretism subsists to this day, so it’s fair to say that heathenism has actually never disappeared entirely.
In light of this context, one can look back at the tapestries and recognize elements from both worlds without contradiction. For example, the buildings in the left half of Tapestry II are strongly reminiscent of Christian churches, while many individual motifs as well as the entire procession scenery (which resembles the imagery of the much older textile fragments from the Oseberg ship burial)15 clearly point to pagan contents.
Under the Branches of Yggdrasil
In contrast to the many controversial interpretations, however, there is one motif that is interpreted in unison across all camps: The large tree symbol on the tapestries I, II and III is truly an image of the world tree Yggdrasil, also called Mímameiðr or Læraðr.16 This interpretation is supported not only by the size and central position of the tree, but also by a whole series of indications: Both on the tapestries IA and II a bird sits on the top of the tree, which can be clearly recognized as a bird of prey by its beak. This is very similar to the eagle known from Völuspá and Grímnismál, which sits on top of Yggdrasil. Furthermore, both tapestries feature deer close to the tree, for which there are also equivalents in Old Norse literature.17
Fig. 3: The tree scenery of tapestry IA.
Other interesting figures can be found in the immediate vicinity of the tree symbol on tapestry IA (see Fig. 3). On the lower left, for example, one recognizes an eight-legged horse that is supposed to represent Sleipnir,18 which is used by the Æsir for journeys into the various worlds linked by Yggdrasil, especially into the underworld.19 Directly to the right of the horse and below Yggdrasil one sees a group of persons (and a second bird) moving towards a rectangular object. Some researchers interpret this scenery as Woden’s/Oðinn’s visit to Mimir’s well.20 However, due to the figures’ extreme lack of detail, this can only remain a mere conjecture. Finally, to the upper left of the tree one recognizes a beast with a wide open jaw that most researchers unanimously interpret as Fenrir, who rages free of all shackles at the onset of Ragnarök.21
In light of these many indications, it is understandable that the vast majority of researchers recognize a representation of Yggdrasil in the tree symbol. It is thus one of the few historical images that are undoubtedly connected with the Tree of Life. Also, and this is a rarity, the tapestries and their imagery were certainly produced by women and thus give a rare insight into female cultural expression.22 In their geometric, almost hypnotic style, the Yggdrasil images of Överhogdal are certainly quite unique in the Germanic imagery.23
In order to make this special work of art better known and usable, I have created a vector graphic from the most beautiful variant of the three Yggdrasil images of Överhogdal. Under this link you can find the graphic in different sizes and file formats!
If you want to know more about the tapestries from Överhogdal, I can recommend the book “De gåtfulla Överhogdalsbonaderna” by Ulla Oscarsson (see Literature). Thankfully, all Swedish texts are translated directly into English and there are many appealing illustrations.
Fedir Androshchuk, En man i Osebergsgraven? Fornvännen 100, 2005, 115–128.
Branting u.a. 1928
A. Branting/A. Lindholm, Medeltida vävnader och broderier i Sverige (Stockholm 1928).
Christensen u.a. 2006
A. E. Christensen/M. Nockert, Osebergfunnet IV. Tekstilene (Oslo 2006).
Franzén u.a. 1992
A.-M. Franzén/M. Nockert, Bonaderna från Skog och Överhogdal och andra medeltida väggbeklädnader (Stockholm 1992).
E.-M. Göransson, Bilder av kvinnor och kvinnlighet. Genus och kroppsspråk under övergången till kristendomen. Stockholms Studies in Archaeology 18 (Stockholm 1999).
A. Guðmundsdóttir, Gunnarr Gjúkason and images of snake-pits. In: W. Heizmann/S. Oehrl (Hrsg.), Bilddenkmäler zur germanischen Götter- und Heldensage. RGA Ergbd. 91 (Berlin, Boston 2015) 351–373.
R. Horneij, Bonaderna från Överhogdal (Östersund 1991).
B. Magnus, Gruppenbilder mit Frauen (zwischen Völkerwanderungszeit und Hochmittelalter). In: S. Brather/D. Geuenich/Ch. Huth (Hrsg.), Historia archaeologica. RGA Ergbd. 70 (Berlin, New York 2009) 435–451.
S. Oehrl, Paganes und Christliches in der Vierbeinerikonographie der schwedischen Runensteine. In: W. Heizmann/S. Oehrl (Hrsg.), Bilddenkmäler zur germanischen Götter- und Heldensage. Ergänzungsbände RGA 91 (Berlin, Boston 2015) 463–534.
U. Oscarsson, De gåtfulla Överhogdalsbonaderna. The enigmatic Överhogdal tapestries (Östersund 2010).
Lena Peterson, Runorna på Överhogdalsbonaden I a. En snärjig historia med ett förslag till tolkning. In: L. Peterson et al. (Eds.), Namn och runor. Uppsalastudier i onomastik och runologi till Lennart Elmevik på 70-årsdagen 2 februari 2006 (Uppsala 2006) 147–162.
Jöran Sahlgren, Runinskriften på Överhogdalsbonaden. In: Festskrift tillägnad Hugo Pipping (Helsingfors 1924) 462–464.
Erik Salvén, Bonaden från Skog. Undersökning av en nordisk bildvävnad från tidig medeltid (Stockholm 1923).