The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

‘Pingis’ in Sweden

Today is International Table Tennis Day, or Ping Pong as it is also called – a name originating from the Mandarin Ping Pang Qiu. In Sweden, table tennis has the nickname ‘pingis’. Table tennis is a popular sport in Sweden, from sport centers, to community centers, offices, games rooms, and on an international level of competition. The game was first played in the 1890’s, with the first Swedish championship organised in 1925.

Although elite table tennis is dominated by the Chinese, Sweden has had some success over the years. Probably the best Swedish player through history is Jan-Ove Waldner. Known as ‘The Evergreen Tree’ in China, Waldner had an extraordinary successful and long career. He won a total of 20 Gold, 17 Silver and 9 Bronze medals in the Olympics, World and European Championships. Jörgen Persson, Kjell Johansson, Marie Svensson and Stellan Bengtsson are other successful ping pong athletes.

On a non-elite level, the game of ‘rundpingis’ is popular in Sweden. This is knock-out ping pong played in large groups where people run around the table and hit one shot each. Another popular pastime is outside table tennis, with many parks building tables and nets out of weather-proof iron.

So, today’s the day to grab a racket and play a round of table tennis. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the next pingis star in pingis heaven!

Swedish icons 15: Anna Q Nilsson

In 1907, Anna Q Nilsson was named the most beautiful woman in America. Born in 1888 in Ystad, Southern Sweden, Anna Quirentia Nilsson emigrated to the USA and became one of the most famous actresses of her time.

Her era was the golden era of the silent movies. During her career, she appeared in almost 200 films, but she didn’t successfully make the transition into the talkies. Her most important films are considered to be Adam’s Rib, They Died with their Boots On, The Luck of the Irish and The Thirteenth Commandment. A qualified pilot, she was well known for being daring and she carried out her stunts herself. Consequently she was burned, broken and bruised throughout her career. She was also the first woman to smoke and wear trousers on camera.

She broke the record in fan mail, and was the first Swedish actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared opposite legendary actors such as John Barrymore, Loretta Young, Errol Flynn and a young Elisabeth Taylor.

Her final credited appearance was with Buster Keaton and other contemporaries playing themselves in cameo parts in the classic ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ After this, she appeared uncredited in movies such as Showboat, An American in Paris and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her final movie appearance was in 1954.

Aged 85, Anna Q Nilsson died in 1974 in Sun City, California. When she died, tv channels in the US interrupted their broadcasting to make the announcement. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

‘Long’ Friday in Sweden

Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.

Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.

In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.

Tricking Sweden – April Fool

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Playing April Fool’s jokes on each other on the first of April is a tradition in many countries – Sweden included. In fact it is an old tradition – the oldest written reference being in 1392 in Chaucer’s ‘The Cantebury Tales’.

In Sweden, when someone is tricked, the tradition is to say ‘April, April din dumma sill!‘. This translates as ‘April, April you stupid herring!’. This is however not as weird as it might sound. In many countries, such as Italy, France and Holland, April 1st is known as “April fish”. On this day, people try to attach paper fish onto the backs of their victims.

April Fool’s pranks are common in newspapers, with classics such as:

  • IKEA is getting into the airline business. Furnishing all the flights with Ikea furniture, the name of the airline is FLYKEA.
  • Swedish supermarket chain ICA introduced toothpaste with the taste of chocolate. It might be brown, but it makes your teeth white.
  • Burger King introduced a new burger for left-handed people where ingredients were rotated 180 degrees.

I had a look this morning to see if I could identify any April Fools tricks but I failed. The papers were just full of misery – Covid, murders, shootings and death. Maybe the seriousness of our current times renders silly jokes redundant. If you manage to find one, please share here!

 

Sweden’s Clean Thursday

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Today is ‘Skärtorsdag’ – meaning Clean Thursday. So, why ‘clean’? Is it to do with spring cleaning? Or window cleaning? Or the art of Swedish death cleaning? No, it has a much more biblical relevance.

If you know your bible stories, today is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper. On this day, he introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, condemned to death on the cross and ultimately resurrected. Prior to the Last Supper, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.

In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning of the feet is known an The Maundy. The word ‘maundy’ is said to come from the Latin word ‘mondatum’ which means commandment. During the Last Supper, Jesus issued a new commandment – ‘to love each other as I have loved you.’

However, for most people in Sweden, today isn’t about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! This is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. This tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulle. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey easier – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.

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So if you dress up as a witch and eat candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!

Transgender Sweden

Today is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. The day is dedicated to honouring the victories and contributions of the transgender and non binary communities while also bringing awareness to the work that is still needed to protect trans lives. In the USA during 2020, 45 trans and gender nonconforming individuals were murdered. So far in 2021, the figure is 11.

Transgender in Sweden: It has been a long and rocky road for the transgender population to receive legal protection in Sweden. This road has been lined with demands on enforced divorce and enforced sterilization. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the requirements to be sterilized and undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to change gender became unconstitutional. Sterilization had been in effect since 1972, and enforced on 500 to 800 transgender people.

Today, the transgender community is protected under the Anti-Discrimination Law of 2009. Additionally, in 2018, “transgender identity and expression” was added to the hate crime legislation.

It would however be naive to believe that this has eradicated this type of discrimination and crime in Sweden. In fact, many transgender people report a constant feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in society. Around 12% of the reported hate crime in Sweden has a homophobic or transphobic motive. Who knows how much happens that isn’t reported?

Days like International Day of Transgender Visibility are hugely important for breaking the negative cycle of hate. If you would like some input on how to support the trans and non binary people in your life, go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org and look under Resources.

Sweden’s Easter tree – wiping, witching or whipping?

In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees. This Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?

This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with brightly-coloured feathers attached to the ends. Sometimes people put water in the vase, so that the twigs can bud and open. Påskris often includes painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens. Sometimes people replace the feathers, which can be seen as unethical, with colored wool, or paper.

The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.

So, what about its origin?

Wiping: One theory is that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom – and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Witching: Another, more mystical, theory is that the ‘påskris’ represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This theory is aligned with the tradition of Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

In the middle of Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’

Did you know that today is ‘Dymmelonsdag’ – Clapper Wednesday? It is part of Sweden’s ‘Stilla Veckan’, which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’. It is historically intended to be a week of reflection and melancholy leading up to Easter. In English this week is known as Holy Week and every day has a special name.

Last Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.

The Monday before Easter is commonly called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday – although it can have other names. The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally four weeks before Easter. At some point in history, they were moved to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. Since White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, it probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

That takes us to today – the Wednesday before Easter – ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued, mournful sound during Easter weekend.

The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.

The Friday is called Good Friday in English – from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.

And finally, the weekend arrives consisting of Holy Saturday which is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish – Easter Eve. Then comes ‘Påskdagen’ – Easter Sunday, and ‘Annandag påsk’ (literally second day Easter) – Easter Monday in English.

So Clapper Wednesday is not about fervent clapping, or going like the clappers, or getting the clap. Instead, take a moment of quiet reflection on this, the most holy of Wednesdays.

A Swedish walk in the park

Today, 30 March, is International ‘Take a walk in the park’ Day. While some residents in some locked down countries might not appreciate the irony of it, here in Sweden it is fully possible to celebrate today by stepping out into one of the many green areas.

Take a Walk in the Park Day was founded to celebrate small excursions and the difference they can make to our mental, physical and emotional health.

In Sweden, there are thousands of parks and 30 official National Parks. What kind of park you prefer is of course a matter of taste. However, according to our friends on the internet, the three most beautiful parks in the country are Sofiero slottsträdgårdar in Helsingborg, Hagaparken in Stockholm and Boulognerskogen in Gävle. I’m sure there are a lot of people with other opinions.

Sweden also has a tradition of the ‘Folkpark’ which is a place for entertainment, cabaret, theatre, relaxation and enjoying the great outdoors. Folkpark’s had their heydey in the 1940’s-1960’s where artists would play on the stages and there would be party party and dance. The first Folkpark was built in Hällefors in 1796. Today they still exist, but have faced a lot of competition from festivals, arenas and other outdoor entertainment spaces.

For most urban dwellers around the world, the parks are the lungs of the city. And it’s the same in Sweden’s built up regions. Living in Stockholm, I am so lucky to have many parks and green areas within easy walking distance.

So, depending on where you live, and your time zone, it might not be too late. Put on your shoes and step out into your street, and go take a walk in the park. After all, today is ‘Take a Walk in the Park Day’.