Ancient Lake Vättern

The Östergötland is rich in Sweden’s most fascinating history, that of the early Bronze Age settlers, the Vikings and the Medieval Church.

The clear waters of Lake Vättern, the second largest lake in a country full of sparkling waterways, proved enticing to early settlers and later, the Vikings. The lake allowed for fishing but also trading as men in long ships headed out to barter and sometimes make war for furs, weapons, precious metals and wine.

Men rowing in a ship

The shoreline and small hamlets inland of the waters are peppered with memories of the days of heroic sagas, dynastic wars, overseas pillage and comely living in fortified halls and homesteads.

Most striking are the numbers of runestones. Sweden has more than 2,500 of the monoliths carved in runic (and to us completely unreadable) language telling tales of heroism, remembering the dead and sometimes marking places of human sacrifice.

Living with the past

Rök boasts the best example of a poetic inscription, written in high-sounding phrases that recount legends ancient even at the time of its carving, thought to be around the year 800. It is significant in that its runic characters represent the first piece of written Swedish literature.

It is the longest extant pre-Christian runic inscription and its words invoke battlefields, kings, princes, booty, sacrifice, a giant, the Norse God Thor and the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great.

The stone was erected by Varinn, father of a dead son whom he wished to commemorate. Runestones were memorials, and rather than used as grave markers they were typically positioned alongside major routes where they would be seen by many.

The Rök stone stands alongside the Eriksgaten, the most important route which was taken by the newly-crowned Swedish Kings who toured along it collecting tithes and dispensing justice amongst their subjects.

One tiny section has been unearthed and re-laid and fortuitously we found ourselves parked on top of it.

Wide open landscape

There are many early churches in the area which date from the 1100s, a time of intense Christianisation in Sweden.

The architecture mostly features a small squat limestone building, decorated with Romanesque arches and columns and topped with a tiered tower. Most of the churches were elaborately decorated during the Medieval period and then enlarged from the 17th and 18th centuries but their interiors kept faith with the original designs.

Inside, they are beguilingly beautiful. Typically, we entered through an ancient wooden door usually covered in decorative metal work of figures, animals and fish. Boxed and painted pews lead down the aisles to a central nave which is columned on both sides.

All the churches’ deep and thick-plastered walls are painted in muted colours, often with medieval motifs and patterns tracing the curves of their cross vaulted ceilings. Vaversunda Church has particularly fine murals dating from the 13th centuries.

The woodwork everywhere is outstanding. Brightly carved pulpits, altarpieces and triptychs dating from the 1200s – 1500s are still housed in their original settings and burst with pretty colours of gold, apricot, green, pink and blue.

Original Medieval baptismal fonts of enormous granite tend to sit separately, sometimes in a candlelit corner chapel.

Herrestad Church is thought to be the oldest in Sweden, as its nave and chancel have been carbon dated back to 1112. The tower and vestry were added around 1200. Its tranquil setting, in open farmland under big, wide skies is peaceful and its graveyard is full of stones commemorating generations of lost Magnussons, Erikssons, Amundssons and Fredrikssons.

Its extremely pretty pulpit of saints and apostles seems reminiscent of an ornate French carousel, but was installed in 1685 and believed to be the work of a local artist. Its large wooden church doors, which hang on the walls of the interior porch, have been dated back to its very earliest days.

Heda Church interior

At Heda, a larger church boasts the familiar, tiered tower and Romanesque decoration. Unusually, set in two of its deep walls are large rune stones with lettering, and crosses.

Heda’s pink granite font is guarded by a particularly remarkable figure, carved in stone and set on the wall. An elegant and long-limbed man sits on a rudimentary throne, cross-legged over his longsword, with his hair trained in a long plait down his back. There is no clue to his identity. Perhaps an early Christian King, and maybe a politically expedient conversion given the weapon. Norse history is rife with warring chieftains that embraced the Medieval Church to secure their kingdoms and further their expansion. His thoughtful eyes gaze out, at the future or the past? A mystery.

At Alvasta we saw the romantic ruins of a former monastery, built by Cistercian Monks from France who were invited to settle by the Swedish King in 1123.

The impressive granite complex had an Abbey, cloisters, Abbot’s House, dormitory and refectory as well as an orchard, kitchen garden and fish pool. Today the arable fields surrounding it are pockmarked with mounds topped with rocks and stones that identify pre-Christian burial sites. It must have been an inspiring setting.

Alvasta Monestery ruins

Christianisation of previously pagan communities was often a brutal and, in any case, a challenging undertaking.

The runestones became absorbed into new churches (in the case of Heda Church, quite literally into its walls) and used as foundation stones for new buildings, thus denying their temporal powers.  Pre-dating the runestones, primitive paintings and symbols from the Bronze Age are also freely scattered throughout Sweden.

We saw a series of extraordinary rock paintings on the smooth flat surfaces of granite stones at Lake Vättern.

Images of men rowing boats singly or in groups, indeterminate herds of animals and strange sun-like symbols are carved into the rocks above the pretty lakeside village of Hästholmen.

Painted red, presumably to better show their imagery, the Bronze Age art is contemporary to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tanum.

We were directed to it by an enthusiastic local and spent a mesmerising hour just before sunset peering at the rudimentary, and in many ways charming, paintings.

The landscape of this ancient part of Sweden, and indeed Europe, is mysterious and compelling.