Friday, November 30, 2012

Ancient Burial Mounds of Sweden: My Visit to the Mounds of Solleron

On more than one level, I'm still processing the trip I took to my ancestral homeland of Sweden this past summer. It was beautiful, mysterious, intriguing, expansive. This is, perhaps, why I have been slow to write of it. Quick to post photos, (click here to view the album), slow to write of it. My father's entire family hails from Russia, but my mother's father's family came over from Sweden, and her mother's family came over from Finland, thus making me 50% Scandinavian. People often ask me about my name - Signe is in fact, a Scandinavian name.

So when the opportunity came up to visit our good friends Brad and Cecilia in Stockholm, we jumped at it. Top on my list was to sleep or hike near some ancient burial mounds, and lucky for me, Eric is as interested in ancient places as I am, so we planned a 3 day side trip up to the area of Dalarna, and more specifically, to a tiny island called Solleron. The true writing of the experience isn't done justice in the time I can allot to a blog entry, but I do hope to tell the whole tale in a proper way someday.

Road trip!
Swedish countryside
I'd come across Solleron on our Lonely Planet guidebook. Two different sites on the island together accounted for somewhere between 100 and 150 different viking graves - the graves themselves date from 800 -1050 AD. Historians believe that the place name (Solleron) indicates that the place was perhaps dedicated to sun worship of some kind. For over 250 years, Solleron was an incredibly holy, sacred place where the dead were laid to rest.  Farmers living in the area had discovered the graves quite accidentally when clearing land for farming, and had come together to preserve them - many of the goods discovered, swords, jewelry, ended up in Swedish museums. But there are still several mounds that have not yet been excavated. And there was a 3 km trail that wound through the sites we could hardly wait to visit.

The trip from Stockholm to Solleron on lake Siljan, was only about four hours or so, and the scenery was all fields and grey skies and brick red painted farm houses, green, green trees and pools of water where river met land. At long last, the road narrowed and we found ourselves pulling up to the open air museum where the walk began. Pamphlets in 3 languages were stocked nearby, and we grabbed one, changed into our hiking shoes to combat the muddy fields, and took off on our journey. The humps in the land instantly reminded me of was the strange raises I'd noticed near Stone Henge in England - many of which, according to tour guide Peter Knight, were grave sites themselves.

The museum wasn't open, but we explored the 18th & 19th century farmstead buildings, complete with a replica of a Viking Long Boat that had been discovered nearby in an archeological dig.
Exploring the open air museum

As we started our walk, I spotted the 1st grave site right away. "Eric, look! That's a mound!"
"I don't think so," he said. What a Doubting Thomas. We looked at our map, and sure enough, I was right. (I love you, Eric, but..IN your FACE!) I have a sixth sense when it comes to details of ancient places, and I have yet to be wrong. To his credit, if you haven't seen burial mounds before, it looks like a clump of trees on a pile of earth and rocks. This is because it is very, very old. And you have to remember that the actual hight of the mound would have been much taller - much soil has deposited on top of it in the passing centuries.

The first mound. Rock cairns nearly make it
 look like little more than field rubble to an untrained eye. 
 I was a kid on Christmas morning spotting the next site, this one with an undeniably atmospheric evergreen sprouting from it. I couldn't brush aside the feeling that the tree was somehow another manifestation of the person who had been buried there, names and identities long lost in the annals of history. Somewhere along the way, my blood line had mingled with theirs, and here I was, a walking manifestation in my own way, too, of who they had been and who had come before. We moved from site to site, the mystery of it all so overwhelmingly intoxicating. Who had been buried there? Who had laid them to rest? How had they lived their life? How had they died? What goods had they been buried with to accompany them into the next world? What deeds had they done? Had their death been mourned or secretly celebrated? Most of all, what had they looked like, what things did they hate about life and who had they loved?
A much clearer mound.
Note the gorgeous tree that's grown on it.
Another mound, with the edge of a second
in the left foreground. 

The forests of birch on Solleron
 We walked for a few hours. I soaked it all in. I saw stands of birch trees that reminded me of my childhood in Enfield, New York. There was a subtle feeling of home, though my feet had never before touched these foreign shores. But there would be no answers to my questions.

A fern covered mound in the backyard of a home on Solleron.
The man who owned the house (now deceased) was one of the
biggest advocates of protecting the area. 

Three more graves (and many more) lie un-excavated. 
I didn't want our time on Solleron to end. As it always does, civilization called, with its necessities of food, and a dry place to camp away from the clouds of mosquitoes that were starting to track us like the blood thirsty savages they are. But we saved the best for last.
At the end of the trail, an ancient pagan holy well. Votive offerings of gold, silver, and other prized possessions had been found there. I stared into its waters longing to feel that ancient ancestral magic and realized for the first time that there was nothing more to feel on Solleron except for a feeling of peace, peace, peace. Subtle, quiet, cloaked in peace.

The ancient well on Solleron 
There would be no answers to my questions on that day, but I hoped that answers will unveil themselves on another. I've come to think that perhaps it's the being in places that matters most. If we're lucky, a connection is forged between us and the spirit of a place. From that moment on, exploration can continue from just about anywhere. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of being a lover of antiquity is to let the past rest peacefully, even when you are longing more than anything, to unearth it. This year on Samhain, I did a small ceremony to honor my ancestors. (Courtesy of Raven Keyes. I posted it on my Facebook page.) As I called in the four directions, when I came to the North, I felt the undeniable presence of my Scandinavian ancestors, going back to the beginning of their time. I asked for their help and guidance in days to come, as I moved forward with life and my work and career. I asked to come to know them, in whatever ways I could. I left an apple out, cut into slices, and some honey, in remembrance of those who had come before. And all that I felt was peace, peace, peace.

Looking into the ancient well. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

I'm Not Oprah But I Also Have Favorite Things

Every year, my big fat holiday issue of O Magazine arrives and I'm always curious to see what Oprah's picks will be for the year. I love me some Oprah Winfrey, please don't get me wrong. But listen. The woman is, what, the richest woman in the world? Let's allow her the fact that she has fallen unavoidably out of touch with reality. I'm certain I will never have to worry about having enough money to lose touch with reality, but in this year's Oprah's Favorite Things issue I saw an item she listed and officially found my gauge. If I ever start thinking, "Who doesn't need a pink scooter for schlepping around the winding roads of St. Tropez?" That's when I'll know I must be officially part of the 1%.

I hope you'll find some ideas on this list of something to get for your loved ones, and that I've provided a good balance of items in relation to cost. Some are things I buy just for me, and others are yearly go-to's for friends and family.

When compiling the list I realized that all the things I love have a connection to a part of my life, and thus, have their own wee stories. So feel free to skip right to the list if you don't want to read all my background blathering below.

I am a bit of a closet product junkie. As a little girl, I saved my allowance to buy candy (you will remember my candy obsession from the book, I bet!) and, of all things, makeup. So while I may only be 32 years old, please know that my recommendations are pretty legitimate: I have been learning about and experimenting with makeup since I was nine, so technically I have 23 years of experience with it. (I no longer apply lipstick to my forehead.) Living in New York City and working in publishing, you learn some good secrets to scrape by financially. If I ever had to go to an afterwork function, or when I was single, on a date after work, I would swoop into SEPHORA, spritz on perfume and redo my makeup there, all for f-r-e-e. I rationalized that since I bought all my cosmetics there anyway, they were still the true winners of the arrangement. Besides, they love when people come in to play. I now order from them online, since we don't have a store in Charleston. They offer free shipping on orders over $50, free returns, even if a product is used, (say, you break out from it, etc.) and with every order you get to pick from a selection of 3 samples.

It wasn't long after I moved to the city that I had to get a second job just to be able to afford rent and scrape by on credit card bills and groceries. I landed a part time position working at Sabon, an up-market Israeli bath product store that had just opened a block from my apartment. I'd always loved soaps and shower products. Sabon has now become a favorite gift of family and friends alike. (My mother is obsessed with their Grass scented glycerine soap, and we get it for her every year.) Sabon uses salt from the Dead Sea in many of their products, which is known for its healing properties. I got hooked on a few of their products while there, and wanted to share with you.

Prior to moving to New York, I had worked on the island of Nantucket for John Harding of Nantucket Natural Oils, a perfume maker for the stars with a "Nose," capital N. He is a true perfume master, and also was the person who first got me excited about aromatherapy and using essential oils in holistic medicine. While there, I developed my own scent as a gift for my sister. It's a delicate, green, floral and fresh scent. Because we share a love for the mountains, I crafted it to smell like you're standing in a field of wild flowers after a rain storm. I named it "KAIPEI" and KP we both still wear it. He still has my 'recipe' on file and if you like, you can order it too.** Note: You'll probably have to mention my name. The recipe is on my personal card file with him. He keeps track of what customers order on a file because when you buy 4 (whether it be over 1 year or 6 years time) you get 1 free. This way, if you create your own scent, as I did, he also has it on file so he can make it for you again when you run out.

John's perfumes are all in oil form, they don't contain alcohol. A $45 size, the smallest you can buy, will truly last you 1-2 years, and unlike department store perfumes, because there's no alcohol, the scent doesn't evaporate off your body in half an hour either (all the while nearly knocking people unconscious as you pass). It's a softer smell, and it lasts on your skin up to 8 hours. John also offers pretty much any designer scent you can imagine without the alcohol. Right now he's having a "buy 2 get 1 free" special. It's an amazing shop.

My love for single malt whiskey was developed in Scotland, and if you're just getting started, you can never go wrong with Macallan 12 or Glenlivet 12. Subtle notes of caramel in both=delicious. If you want to try something smokey, try Laphroaig. It's like drinking a campfire. (I personally don't enjoy it much. I like the smoother, less peaty single malts)

Lastly, my favorite gifts to give or receive can often be found or made things. My father was known for this. For one of my birthdays, my father gifted me a fossilized trilobite that he found on a gorge walk in Ithaca. In a letter when I was living in Cape Cod for a summer, he sent me a small stick that was naturally formed in the shape of a duck head. Another year he gave me a small piece of granite he'd found in the perfect shape of a heart. These things I treasure.

I'm Not Oprah But I Also Have Favorite Things Guide 

1. Sabon Bath & Body Products:  Sabon Shower Oil ($18) is a creamy shower gel that leaves you smelling like a slice of heaven. Sabon's Body Gel Polisher ($17) makes a great gift for sloughing away dry winter skin. It's a shower gel with beads of Dead Sea Salt so it cleans while it softens. I love both in Patchouli Lavender Vanilla. Not a fan of Patchouli? This scent has made a convert out of more than a few former Patchouli haters, including myself! But they do have bountiful other gorgeous scents. Mom's favorite product is the Glycerine Grass Soap and KP loves the Carrot Body Lotion.

2. Nantucket Natural Oil Perfumes: John Harding offers pretty much any designer scent you can think of, only without the yucky chemicals and alcohol. The scent I crafted is called "KAIPEI" (you'll have to request it and tell him the recipe is on my card, but he can make it) and I also love the Ralph Lauren Romance they offer. The quarter ounce size will truly last you about a year, and it's $45. I buy the .50 oz. size, and it lasts me 2 years. Great for people with allergies who can't wear regular perfumes. The carrier oil is Almond Oil.

3. Maps: Maps as art make an amazing gift. They are also in general one of my favorite things. I framed a 1960's topographic map of Ithaca that I found in my father's desk and it now hangs above our bed. They not only look great, they remind us of all the special places we've been, or places we'd like to go. and local bookstores are great places to look.

4. Single Malt Scotch: A great gift any time of the year. A good single malt will cost between $40 and $50 or more, but you can often find smaller bottles of certain brands and gift them together, too. In fact, why has no one in my family yet thought to make me a "Single Malt Medley"?!

5. Found Things: The price? Free. The value? Priceless. The trilobite my father gifted me was wrapped in this tiny box he'd once received a gift in from one of his students at Cornell. Beautiful shells, stones, or even pressed leaves can make truly special presents. Just remember to "ask permission" before you take something from its place in nature.

6. Made Things: I make mobiles out of painted sticks, fishing wire and shells I find with natural holes. It's a beautiful way to bring the outside indoors. My sister-law Cameron has one of my creations on her screened porch, we have three in our house, and I think I've promised one to my writer friend Mary Alice Monroe so I'd better get cracking! Note: These don't travel well. 

7. My Favorite Cosmetics:  Smashbox Camera Ready BB Cream ($39) is a sunscreen, tinted moisturizer, primer and anti-aging treatment in one. It can be layered to create the look of a dewey foundation, and it is spectacular. Oh, and did I mention it also controls oil? I don't go anywhere without it. One tube lasts me about 6 months. Too Faced Shadow Insurance (Candelight $18) is what I wear instead of eye-shadow most days. It has a light golden sheen that can be worn alone or under another shadow, helps your eye makeup stay put all day. For blush, I'm infatuated with NARS. The shade is... oh please forgive me, but it's called Orgasm ($28). It's been a cult favorite among makeup gurus for a few years now because the shade looks good on nearly every woman's skin tone. After trying several blushes, this one is the only one I'll use. I absolutely love it. For zit coverage, I swear by Body Shop's Tea Tree Concealer ($9). It treats the blemish while covering, and helps it heal up in no time flat.

8. Uggs: They're big, they're fluffy, they're warm, they're made well, and they last forever. These are made to be a big, clunky, sasquatch of a boot and I love them for it. They're great for winter airport travel because they're easy on/off, and look great with leggings, yoga pants, jeans and even some knee-length casual dresses. Eric convinced me to relinquish my very old smelly pair, and I just got these beauties from him for early Christmas. I would sleep in them if I could. This pair is the Ugg Bailey Bomber Boot (Tall, Chocolate Natural $240). They're admittedly pricey, but if they're your thing, they're worth every penny. Especially if you travel often to chilly places or live in cold climates.

You can find both scrap book paper for wrapping and little charms
at Michael's or Hobby Lobby
9. Handmade Soaps: I'm learning how to craft my own from scratch, but you don't need to be experienced or deal with any chemicals like lye to create these beauties. All you need is an organic soap base (which you melt down easily via stove or microwave), a soap mold, your favorite essential oils (I get mine at Whole Foods) and any natural colorant you might want. I process and mix in my own herbs from the garden (rosemary is a nice one to include, chopped) and Ta-da! Beautiful soaps. Easy. You can order it all on my favorite website Bramble Berry is based in Washington state, and they are an incredible company. They offer many different melt and pour bases, from organic goat milk to aloe. You can buy a book of scrap book paper to wrap them, and yarn or raffia makes lovely bows. I made these for a recent baby shower and they were a huge hit!

I hope this sparks some ideas for you this holiday season, and I'd love to hear about your favorite things too!

With Warmest Holiday Wishes,

Thursday, November 22, 2012

An Iroquois Prayer in Honor of Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving friends. 
In honor of the holiday, I thought it would be fitting to post this beautiful Iroquois prayer, written down before the turn of the 20th century. 
Translated from the Iroquois language by Harriet Maxwell Converse 
b. 1836
(Elmira, New York) 

"We who are here present thank the Great Spirit that we
   are here to praise Him.
We thank Him that He has created men and women, 
   and ordered that these beings shall always be 
   living to multiply the earth.
We thank Him for making the earth and giving these 
   beings its products to live on.
We thank Him for the water that comes out of the earth 
   and runs for our lands.
We thank Him for all the animals on the earth.
We thank Him for certain timbers that grow and have 
   fluids coming from them for us all.
We thank Him for the branches of the trees that grow 
   shadows for our shelter.
We thank Him for the beings that come from the west, 
   the thunder and lightning that water the earth.
We thank Him for the light which we call our oldest 
   brother, the sun that works for our good.
We thank Him for all the fruits that grow on the trees 
   and vines.
We thank Him for his goodness in making the forests, 
   and thank all its trees.
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and 
   for the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, 
   the moon.
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give 
   us signs, the stars.
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge 
   of our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can 
   still be heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of 
   this pleasant occasion.
We give thanks for the persons who can sing the Great Spirit's music, and hope they will be privileged to 
   continue in his faith.
We thank the Great Spirit for all the persons who 
   perform the ceremonies on this occasion."

Monday, November 05, 2012

Inside The Book of Kells

I hope I never cease to be impressed by the wonders of synchronicity. I've often said it's when we're truly "in the flow" that things find their way to our doorstep. This weekend, the arrival of this stunning edition of The Book of Kells on my writing desk was no exception, and it offered some enchanted affirmation for me that I'm on the right path with Book #2. The Celts are an elusive people, and my research on them for the novel I'm working on at times seems insurmountable. This, dear friends, is exactly why I was so thrilled when my awesome husband Eric came across this book and thought of me.

The Book of Kells, which most agree was produced around 800 AD in Ireland, is a resplendently illustrated version of the Gospels, the original of which is now kept at Trinity College in Dublin. One of Ireland's National Treasures, it's one of the most beautiful of all the illuminated manuscripts that date the Middle Ages. What makes it fascinating (and so incredibly useful) to me, is the glimpse that it also provides us into the Celtic culture of a lost era. Turn the pages and you'll see beasts that look more far-Eastern than Celtic, severed heads that cap letters, snakes that resemble the legend of the Viking/Norse Mithras serpent, fire breathing monsters and more.  

Bernard Meehan's coffee-table-sized tome (Thames & Hudson, $95.00)
Those of you who read Faery Tale will remember that the history and religious practices of the pagan Celts was an oral tradition. The Druids, religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts, believed the word was sacred and contained great power. Vestiges of this can be found in the folk beliefs that have risen up surrounding faeries, oddly enough - it is believed that if you ever meet a member of the Fae, they would never deign give you their real name! (Think of the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin"...) To possess their name is to possess power over their spirit. This story has recorded what was a genuine cultural belief of the humans living in ancient eras.

For the Druids and the ancient Celts, to consign their religious practices, massive knowledge of the natural world and cultural secrets to paper was to risk losing everything should they be conquered by another nation. This of course, eventually happened anyway. And now all we have to provide us with information about the more mystical side of their nature are the burials we find, remnants of epic poetry, and of course, their art.
Jesus and his virgin mother, likely known in the Celtic world as Brigid.
 The Book of Kells
What excites me about it is the fact that The Book of Kells also serves as one of the only living documents that can provide us with a visceral and incredibly unique glimpse into the minds of the Celtic people at that time. We know very little about the state of Celtic life post Roman occupation throughout the British Isles, which is precisely the time period I'm writing about. The Celts themselves wrote nothing down, so I'm nothing short of grateful for the studious Celtic Christian monks who dedicated their lives to the writings of history, such as they heard it, and gave us this incredible work of faith/art. The book is filled with animistic representations that offer tantalizing glimpses of the Celtic people's close connection to the natural world. Dogs, lions, peacocks, cats, eagles, cows and more fill the pages, the Apostles themselves are even represented as winged creatures (see second caption below).   

Prior to its adoption in this text
the Stag was a common symbol found in the pagan Celtic world.

Early Celtic-Christian Symbolism:
Luke represented by a calf and John represented by an eagle, as found in The Book of Kells
And of course, it wasn't created in a vacuum. Early Christians converting the Celts needed to construct a religion that didn't exist too far outside the confines of Celtic belief in order to achieve success with conversion. Things had to be made relatable. (Thus we find innumerable translations of pagan deities into the Christian Celtic world view: the goddess Brigid became Brigid, Virgin Mother of Jesus, etc.) The stag, peacock and other creatures that must have held great meaning to the Celts, were all given roles to play in the stories of the gospels via illustration. Most importantly, the monks working on the Book of Kells were using the artistic styles of the time. Thus we can get a truly exhilarating peek into the imaginations and mystical symbolic imagery that held value to the culture as a whole, not just the Christian peoples of the time. Celtic Christianity was rife with requisitioned pagan symbolism. We can learn a great deal about the forgotten world of the pagan Celts by studying the symbolism recorded in this 9th century text.

The value of this particular edition is exponentially increased by it's author, too. Bernard Meehan is Head of Research Collections at Trinity in Dublin and has been studying the Book of Kells for over 30 years. His written insights on the symbolism and history of the book are among the best and most informed one could hope for.

You'd better believe I'll be using this book to build the religious world of the Celtic people you'll be meeting in book 2.

I have a feeling I'm going to need a magnifying glass.