When we think superheros, do we think only of green and purple over-muscled figures?
If we say the word “mythology”, for many of us it is Greek and Roman gods who spring to mind. But of course all cultures have their own mythological figures. In Sweden, they are mostly red, and mostly beastly.
The southernmost Swedish province of Skane had a tradition of rich and colorful 17th- and 18th- century Flemish weaving. Skanian tapestries and flat woven pieces traditionally employed several different animal figures—almost all of them, a vivid red. Tapestries or flat woven pieces from the 18th century, made throughout this region, drew upon a store of standard images, including flowers, flower vases, houses, couples, and quite a few mythological animals— a cavorting red lion, often surrounded with flowers, a red deer with spiky horns, or a red horse.
The most frequently-used mythological animal in Swedish tapestry seems to be the Red River Horse, called in Swedish, the Bäckahäst. The red horse figure persists in weavings well into the 20st century, and even pops up today in contemporary work. Although this horse may be a cousin of the red wooden Dala horse known to many non-Swedes, the woven version is not the same horse. A supernatural figure, this red horse is shown with breath issuing fiercely from the nostrils, yet it is also surrounded with birds. The horse in these tapestries is wild rather than benign, a beast whom the stories say, would tempt women and children to ride on its back, and then plunge them into the water. As an image, the horse is frequently surrounded by a zigzag border, the traditional Skanian lightening motif. The horse is also marked by the whipping zig-zag tail, which itself evokes the lightening border.
Below are several woven images of traditional Skanian red (deer and?) horses. These were frequently woven as carriage cushions (called åkdyna or agedyna) and most have that narrow rectangular dimension, about 4 feet long and 18″ deep. I think that those figures which carry a unicorn-like horn with branches are meant to be deer rather than the red horse, but are worth looking at for comparison, and more information about the general format. Note that the deer seem to have scrawnier tails, but otherwise an identical posture of pawing at the air.
In the following image of an 18th century red horse weaving, there is an additional element: the letters IHS. IHS, is a Latin liturgical phrase, “in hoc signo,” meaning, “in this sign” (ie the sign of the cross), or –since I and J are essentially the same letter in Latin– “Iesus hominum salvator,” meaning, “Jesus the savior of men.” Perhaps the invocation of the church phrase was meant to neutralize superstition around the image of this mythological animal— essentially, to tame it?
I have not found similar images except a beautiful tapestry of three horses, with its weaver’s initials in the center, date of weaving on the left and the IHS woven on the right in Viveka Hansen’s magisterial book on Skanian marriage textiles. I can’t reproduce this, but this splendid example suggests that the combination of the red horse and the IHS invocation was not a rarity, but possibly was used more in finer or more complex examples of weaving.
Not surprisingly, Märta Måås-Fjetterström, who was born at the end of the 19th century, and who began her career working with traditional Scanian textiles, made a number of her own versions of the Red River Horse. In 1918, before she started her own workshop, and while still working with in Viitsjö with Lilli Zickerman, the tireless and renowned recorder of traditional textile patterns, she designed a rug based on these earlier carriage cushions. Any religious reference is gone, but Måås-Fjetterström found her own ways of domesticating the wild red horse. She first tamed his redness, coloring him green and blue, and setting him on lavender, blue and green fields with a broad red outer border.
Next, Måås-Fjetterström took the two-horse panel format of the carriage cushion and enlarged that, stacking stacking octagonal panels on top of octagonal panels. By so doing, she could also reference traditional Turkoman rugs with their repetitive octagonal “gul” elements (see image below).
Måås-Fjetterström gave her Bäkahästen rug other elements borrowed from Middle-eastern traditions: the repeated backward-S form, the multiple layers of borders, and she neatly kept the busy zigzag stripes for top, bottom, and corners of each horse panel. But she retained much of the traditional imagery: her horses are still pawing the ground on stick-like legs, still flicking their tails and still breathing fierce breaths, and each is ringed with a hexagonal frame decorated with birds.
In 1930, Måås-Fjetterström enlarged this pattern in a rug designed for an Alice Jonsson, giving it a width of three-, rather than two-horse- panels.
This rug is in the collection of the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm. The images available from the museum do not show the signatures completely, but they appear to be unusual. Instead of the familiar MMF signature in the lower left corner where the designer habitually placed her initials, there are the initials AJO, which is likely to be Alice Jonsson, a date inscription of 1930 in the center, and an M visible in the right corner, likely part of a MMF signature. In any case, the rug is also unusual for being a such large application of of the red horse motif— it looks to be at least double the size shown in the photograph, though no dimensions are given.
In 1930, Måås-Fjetterström returned to the image of the Skanian red horse. This time she designed a series of three different small tapestry panels, now often made into cushion covers. These show the red horse in quieter poses: lying in a field, trotting gently in a flower field, and —in a suprising transformation from fierce to maternal— with a foal. The horse is still red, but vibrant rather than wild. It stands -or prances- on legs with hooves, not the birdlike legs and claw-like feet of the original folk-art form. There is no alarming breath from its nostrils. Its mane and tail and the small banner-like flashes of colorful zigzag, and the corner details evoke the traditional lightening patterns, but they also have an stylized Art-Deco quality as well. Compared to the original Bäkahäst models from the 18th century, the overall design of these small panels is cleaner and more contemporary, with the purple blue octagon crisply balanced against the plain red surround.
Märta Måås-Fjetterström had an extraordinary grasp both of Skanian textile traditions and of middle-eastern carpet designs. From these emerged her own transformed versions of the traditional Bäkahäst motif in several new red river horse tropes. When mythological figures can be given such vigorous reinterpretation, is it any surprise that they continue to fascinate us?
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm
JP Willborg, Stockholm
Hansen, Viveka, Swedish Textile Art: Traditional Marriage Weavings from Scania (The Nasser D Khalili Collection of Swedish Textile Art), Khalili Collections, 1996.
Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm