Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The legend of saint Tora

S:t Thoras Sten
S:ta Thoras sten. Photo by Yabosid [via]. License: Creative Commons by-sa 2.0

On the pebbled beach in Torekov, you can see this boulder, a glacial erratic. It looks like many other boulder and it's not even impressively big. it does, however, has an interesting story attached to it. It's not a "jättekast" (a name for glacial erratics in general, but boulders said to have been thrown by a giant in particular -- compare with the Hov legend.), but a stone infused with a legend of saints.

Like with my last post on local lore, this is a tad long and requires a break. Be sure to click the "Read more" below for the whole story of the girl who became the symbol for the Bjäre peninsula.

When it comes to local legends, my favourite by far is the story about Drottninghall, but one of the best known legends from Bjäre is another one, the story of the young girl Tora, who would become a symbol and protector of the peninsula. Like many old tales, the story of Tora (also spelled Thora) can be found in many versions. There are even versions where it isn't a girl called Tora, but a boy called Tore. I'm going to tell the story the way I used to hear it.

This happen a long time ago, a time lost the mists of history and fairytales. Time immemorial, the english might call it.Back in those days, there was a danish king who had three children: Tora, Arild and Gille. Their mother died in childbed and some years later the king remarried. The stepmother, being the way stepmothers always are in fairytales, hated the children. One day, she managed to persuade a skipper to take the children out at sea and throw them overboard. Despite protests from the crew, the skipper went through with the diabolic plan and had the innocent children thrown into the sea.

But the bodies didn't disappear down into the sea. All three of them floated ashore: Tora on the coast of the Bjäre peninsula, Arild on the coast of the Kullen peninsula and Gille on the coast of Zealand in Denmark. Places that were named after them: Torekov, Arild and Gilleleje respectively.

Tora had been washed ashore on big boulder, the one you can see in the photo above. Being a special, holy being, her body and fingers had made marks in the stone, which can still be seen if you look carefully. Here, a blind man called Frenne found her. Feeling sad for her and believing in the importance of an honest, christian burial, he decided to have her buried at the nearest church, which was in Västra Karup. He -- with assistance according to some versions of the legend and alone according to others -- started walking to the church, carrying the dead girl. It was quite a long walk, Västra Karup's church being located inland. The longer he from the coast he got, the heavier did her body get. Soon, she was too heavy to carry and by a large stone there was nothing to do but to give up and go back to the village of Torekov again. Suddenly the body got light again and everyone understood that it was meant for the girl to be buried where she was found, even if it wasn't in hallowed ground. After she was buried in Torekov, Frenne and friends built a chapel over her grave and as a reward for what he had done for Tora, he got his eye sight back.

The chapel got the name Sankta Toras kapell (Saint Tora's chapel) and the boulder Sankta Toras sten (Saint Tora's stone). By the chapel or the stone depending on who you ask, a freshwater well sprung which was named Frennes källa, Frenne's spring, after the good samaritan. The water was said to have the power to cure, not least eye afflictions and skin diseases, and for centuries people would pilgrim to the well to get a sip of the magical water, creating a cult around the saint. As late as the 19th century, when Sweden had been reformist for centuries and thus had banned the saint cults, people still made pilgrimages to the chapel to seek the help of the saint. The stone where Frenne had to turn back is called Vännestenen ("the turning stone") or Sakta Toras vila ("Saint Tora's rest").

It is thought that the first chapel, sometimes called "Frennekojan", was built in the late 12th century. As Tora was proclaimed a patron saint of seafarers and pregnant women, the midsummer's eve pilgrimages began and the chapel had to be extended to meet the new demands, creating a -- for the size of the village -- very big church. In 1858 the church burned down and the cult of Tora disappeared. Instead of the old church of the saint, a new church was built on a different location. During WWII, there was an initiative to excavate the park where the church was said to have stood. It was at this time the long stone walls marking the old chapel were created. So unlike what it might look like, the low stone wall is a modern construction, not an ancient ruin. In the middle of the ruin, where the church choir had been situated, a statue of Sankta Tora was placed. The statue is modelled after the 1524 seal of Bjäre hundred, showing the saint with a crown on hear head, holding her chapel in one hand and a palm frond in the other.

You can find photos of the place, including the statue and a replica of a medieval wooden sculpture of Tora here.

Now, I should perhaps point out that Tora is said to have been declared a saint by a local bishop so she's not one of the official catholic saints canonized by the pope. There's an interesting history behind all these local saints you can find in countries like Sweden. It seems like many of them are characters from tales and legends created when pre-christian sacrificial springs where to be ridden of their heathen origin in order to be acceptable in a time when christianity was the only allowed religion. Some claim that Tora (Thora) replaced Tor (Thor) and that the spring around which the tales of the young girl were woven was originally a sacred place for people sacrificing to the god of thunder -- a god who was said to protect seafarers, just like Tora would. As the monks and clergymen had difficulties erasing the "heathen" practises of spring sacrifices, they began to weave them into the christian narrative. Eradicating the part they could -- the heathen origin -- and replace it with a more acceptable one. That way idolatry was turned into worship of saints. As coins where sacrificed, some claim that it was more cress motivations behind white washing the spring cults rather than the difficulty to make people seize their old habits: the church wanted the money!

Today, you can still see Tora being present on Bjäre, even though there are no longer any pilgrimages or sacrifices. I've already mentioned the statue in Torekov in the park that is always a popular place for children and families to gather, but there's also a wooden statue greeting visitors outside the former rectory at hembygdparken in Boarp. There's a local society that work to spread information about the local saint and keep the memory of her alive, Sankta Thoras Gille. There's also an annual race for adults and children named after her, S:ta Thoraloppet, and a hotel, Villa Thora.

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