Old Norse cosmology, Paradise, and a new mooring technique

Hagar, my elder brother, throws another log onto the fire in the middle of the room. The sparks fly upward and I shut my eyes against the swirling smoke. Outside, the snow falls gently in the long night, as it has been doing for the last two days now. But we are inside our hall, and have the fire to keep us warm and comfortable.

“Tell us again of the creation of the world, grandfather”, I say after we have eaten. “I never tire of hearing it.”

We gather round the fireplace in rapt anticipation.

“Well, the world was born out of the ice and snow of Nilfheim and the fire of Muspell, the two realms connected by Yggdrasil, the world tree”, intones the old man. “Where these two realms met, giants were formed. Two of these giants married and had three sons, whom they called Odin, Vili and Ve. First these three brothers created a home for themselves to live, which they call Asgard, the Home of the Gods, for they themselves were the first Gods, the Æsir and Vanir. When they had finished that, they created another land with flowing streams, fertile meadows, and many cattle, which they called Midgard. But they soon realised that there was something missing that could take care of this new land.”

“People”, interjects Hagar. “People were needed to look after it.”

“Yes, Hagar”, responds the old man. “People were needed. Then one day, Odin spotted two logs on the beach. He took them and stood them upright and breathed life into them. His brother Vili gave each log will and intelligence, while Ve gave them a shape. They had created the first humans, a man called Ask and a woman called Embla. At last Midgard had someone to care for it. All people are descended from them.”

“But aren’t there also other lands besides Asgard and Midgard?”, pipes in Helga, my sister.

“You are quite right, Helga”, says our grandfather. “There is Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants, Alfheim, the home of the elves, Nidavellir, where the dwarves lived, Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir, another tribe of Gods, and Hel, where people go if they don’t die bravely in battle. Those who do die bravely in battle are borne by the Valkyries to Valhalla, Odin’s hall in Asgard.”

“Don’t forget to tell them about Ragnarök”, calls our father Harald from the other side of the smoky room, where he is skinning a deer he had hunted earlier in the day.

“Ah, Ragnarök”, whispers the old man. “Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods. In times to come, when the World Serpent Jörmungandr releases its own tail from its mouth, there will be a mighty war between the Gods and the Frost Giants, the world will be destroyed by fire, then it will be covered by water, and all will die. Then, after some time, the Earth will be reborn.”

The fire dies down. Everyone is quiet, alone in their own thoughts of the doom to come. Perhaps we are already living through the last days. I shiver, then pull the furs around me tighter to keep warm and drift off into a deep sleep.

I am jolted back to the present by the sounds of children jostling to push buttons and parents trying to control their unruly offspring, while other adults look at the exhibits pensively and attendants maintain a watchful eye. I am in the Viking Room of the Swedish History Museum, and had let my mind drift trying to make sense of the complicated cosmology of the Old Norse religion. When we were growing up, our mother had brought a book on Norse myths and legends home from the library, and I had immersed myself in the world of Odin, Freya, Tyr, Thor and his hammer Mjollnir, Loki and the other gods – a terrifying world, yet rich in imagery from a people living in an environment very different to my own.

A graphic illustrating Norse cosmology in the Swedish History Museum.

I cycle back to the boat. We had sailed from Slagsta marina and Lake Mälaren the day before, and had travelled through the Hammarby canal and locks, and had tied up in Wasahamnen marina in the centre of Stockholm where we had stayed last year. It was nice to be back in the city again, this time with far fewer tourists.

Passing under the Danviksbron on the way to central Stockholm.

“How was the museum?”, asks Spencer that evening. “You were there most of the afternoon.”

“Great”, I say. “It was a trip back into the world view of the Vikings. It is fascinating how their concept of a god was quite different to that of Christianity here in the West. The old Norse gods were very human in many of their characteristics – they were born, they married, they had children, they farmed, they drank, they fought with each other, they tricked and lied, and eventually they died or were killed. They even kept cattle, fished and mined precious metals. In a sense, they were just more extreme Norsemen, with a few magical powers thrown in.”

“Yes, it is interesting how you humans manage to anthropomorphise your gods by attributing your own qualities and values to them”, he replies. “The Norsemen were basically farmers who engaged in a bit of raping and pillaging on the side, so their gods did all these things too, only more so. In fact it wasn’t really a religion in the sense that you think of it today – it was just part of their culture, totally integrated with all aspects of their lives.”

Spencer expresses his views on Norse cosmology.

“Yes, you can imagine how it would have developed”, he continues, warming to the theme. “Long boring winter nights, people huddled around fires in their long-houses, they must have loved to hear stories about beings like themselves who had experiences they could relate to, but were also stronger, faster, cleverer or nastier than themselves. It would have helped them to make sense of their universe. And then having the aspiration of reaching Valhalla by dying bravely in battle would have given them the mental attitude and sense of purpose to go out and pillage other lands during the long summer days. ”

“It must have required quite a change in mindset when Christianity came along”, I say. “A single eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and all-powerful God that transcends human limitations, instead of the line-up of imperfect, roistering, and sometimes unlikable, Norse gods that they had. Love one another, don’t kill, give all you have to the poor, that kind of thing. Quite different concepts.”

“I am not so sure about that”, says Spencer. “In many places the conversion to Christianity in Scandinavia was quite bloodthirsty in its own right. In the 1080s, for example, Inge the Elder, a king of Sweden, set fire to a hall where pagan rituals were being practised and killed anyone who managed to escape from it, including his own brother. That doesn’t sound to me to be a very ‘Christian’ thing to do. Or perhaps it was.”

He does have a point, I think afterwards.

We cast off the next morning, heading out of Stockholm to the archipelago. We need to be in the Åland Islands in a couple of weeks’ time, so our plan is to find some nice anchorages to chill out in after the pressures in the last couple of weeks of getting Ruby Tuesday back into the water.

“Our neighbours at the marina said that there is a beautiful place to visit called Paradiset”, the First Mate had said over breakfast. “It’s a large lagoon between the islands of Ingmarsö and Finnhamn, and means Paradise in English. During the summer season, it is supposed to be one of the most popular sailing stopovers, sometimes so full that boats arriving late have no chance of finding anywhere to anchor. But at this time of year it should be almost empty.”

On the way to Paradiset.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, but there isn’t a lot of wind, so we have to motor for the first hour. Then a light breeze starts, just enough to fill the sails on a close reach, and we make a sedate two knots, relishing the quietness without the engine. But not for long. Eventually we have to change course to pass between two islands, and head directly into the wind, little that it is. On with the engine again.

We arrive in Paradiset to find only two boats moored to the small jetty and no-one anchoring. We drop anchor in the southern bay, open a bottle of wine, and survey our surroundings.

We arrive in Paradiset.

It is indeed a beautiful place. In the centre of the lagoon is a small island with a red-painted holiday cottage partially hidden by trees. The story goes that the old woman who lives there over the summer will shout out angrily to chase off any boat who has the temerity to anchor too close to her island and intrude on her privacy. At the moment the house looks unoccupied. Not that we are close to the island anyway.

“Did you notice that that dead tree over there looks like a lizard creature trying to climb out of the water?”, says the First Mate.


One of the other boats leaves, and a peace descends. We cook dinner, finish our wine, and sleep the sleep of the innocent.

In the morning, I wake early, make a cup of tea, and sit in the cockpit. No-one else is up; I might be the only human in existence. The sun begins its rise above the trees behind me, casting a warm glow over the old woman’s island in front of me and the forest behind. The water is completely still, not a ripple disturbs its surface. The lizard hasn’t made much progress.

Paradiset lagoon.

It takes my mind back to my schooldays – Mr Empson, our English teacher, bringing Wordsworth to life with his deep, rich baritone – lines about the city of London, but somehow they seem apt for this beautiful corner of the natural world.

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

There is a sudden splash off to my left, and a few seconds later a grebe emerges triumphantly from the water, a small fish in its mouth, and shakes its head dry. Two swans fly overhead, their wings wheezing at every beat like a machine in need of oil. They make a turn over the little bay on the far side of the lagoon and come into land, their feet angled upwards to brake their speed on the water’s surface like a barefoot water-skier. They settle gracefully into the water, their tails bobbing and elegant necks turning from side to side as if seeking applause for a perfect landing. Two swimming scoter ducks oblige them by looking at them in awe.


I muse on what Mr Empson might be doing nowadays. He must be an old man by now – he was just fresh out from teacher training when he taught us. To how many other people over the years did he impart an appreciation of language, literature and ideas? Is he even still alive?

An angry buzzing sound wakes me from my reverie. Two bees have flown into the cockpit enclosure and are trying to find their way out again. I try to encourage them to leave with a towel, but it only serves to anger them more. Eventually they find their own way out and fly back to shore. But they are not the last – over the day many more arrive and duly leave, leaving us to wonder what it is about the boat or us that attracts them.

Later I Google Mr Empson and find that he died in 2013. Even though I have not seen or heard from him since my school days, somehow I feel sad. Another little piece of my own past has gone.

I spend the rest of the day doing boaty jobs that have accumulated. Out come the solar panels from the storeroom to be plugged into the cables to the voltage controller and batteries. It is another bright sunny day, and soon we are generating enough power to keep the fridge going and to charge the batteries.

Generating power.

Then the stern anchor. The practice in Scandinavia in remote anchorages is to nose the bow of the boat as close as possible to the rocks at the side, while paying out a webbing line from the stern which is attached to an anchor that has been dropped further back. The line is then tensioned to keep the bow just far enough away from the rocks to avoid damage. It is kept on a reel bolted to the rails of the boat, which allows it to be stored much more compactly than the same length of rope. Previously, we had always anchored off in deeper water which meant using the dinghy to go ashore, so hopefully this technique will allow us to step off the bow directly onto the land. At least that is the theory. We will see.

Fitting the stern anchor reel.

It is fiddly work as there are several small screws and fittings that would make life difficult if they were to fall overboard, but through the judicious use of buckets and towels I manage to prevent that from happening, and eventually the reel is attached. All we need to do now is to find somewhere to test it.

Tummy upsets, noisy brakes, and running out of fuel

“How do you feel?”, says the First Mate, holding a glass of water and looking down at me worriedly. “You don’t look too good.”

“Ggggrrrrrkkkcch”, I say to the bowl on the floor next to the bed. “Not bad. But I’ve been better.”

I give her my best spaniel eyes look, a careful mixture of pretending to be brave but needing compassion at the same time. On one of the branches of the copper beech tree outside the window, two wood-pigeons stop cooing over each other for a moment to look at me pityingly, then resume their love-making.

It is two days before we are due to leave to head over to Stockholm and re-join Ruby Tuesday for the next stage of our Baltic odyssey, but instead I am lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, dry retching every ten minutes. It must have been something I had eaten the night before, but as the First Mate had eaten much the same, we still haven’t pinpointed what it was.

“I hope you recover”, says the First Mate. “It would be terrible if we have to cancel everything.”

“Gggggrrrrrrkkkcch”, I say to the bowl again.

“Well, at least it’s one way to lose weight”, she says.

As it turns out, I feel much better later that day, and the next day I am more-or-less back to normal. Whatever it was seems to have worked its way through.

We have decided to drive over to Stockholm this year, as we want to stay a few days with the First Mate’s family in Germany on the way, and there are things that we need to take to and bring back from Ruby Tuesday. Even more importantly, our carbon emissions are about half of what they would have been if we had flown instead.

“It’ll be nice to have the car when we do our provisioning as well”, says the First Mate. “I was dreading getting all our food back from the supermarket to the boat on our bikes.”

“Ah yes”, I say. “The Big Shop we had in Flensburg. I’ll never forget it.”

On our way to Europe.

Not long after we leave, the car develops an intermittent rubbing noise in the port-side rear wheel.

“I didn’t realise that port and starboard could be used for cars as well”, says the First Mate. “I thought they are just for boats.”

“Well, they are really”, I say. “But I am just refreshing my boaty language again.”

When we get to Germany the man in the local garage looks at the wheel. We take him for a drive to show him what it sounds like, but true to form there is no noise.

“Well, without hearing it, I can’t really say what it is”, he says. “It’s probably just a bit of rust on the disk. Look, you can see it there. It’ll rub off shortly.”

I explain in my best German that we have already driven all the way from Scotland so it should have rubbed off my now, but he doesn’t seem to understand. I probably said something rude without meaning to.

That afternoon we visit some old friends of the First Mate, Peter and Katerina, for café und kuchen. The conversation turns to the war in Ukraine.

“Last year, there was a feeling in Germany that German support of Ukraine by supplying them with heavy weapons was wrong”, I say. “It was much better to all get round a table and sort out the issues diplomatically. Is that still the feeling?”

“I think that it has changed a bit since then”, says Peter. “Of course, we would all prefer the war to end and not escalate, but the feeling now is that Putin is so brutal that the only way forward is that he has to be beaten soundly.”

“But for that, Ukraine needs help from Germany and other western countries”, says Katerina. “So most people would agree now that supplying these weapons is necessary.”

“It’s hard to believe that people are thinking that way in Germany now”, says the First Mate. “When I was growing up, we were all taught that all problems could be solved diplomatically, and that there would never be a need for war in Europe again. How things have changed!”

Sorting out the world’s problems.

We push on the next day towards Stockholm. If anything, the rubbing noise seems to be getting worse. I am starting to worry if we will ever get there, let alone get back. She’s not a new car any more.

On the way, we stop off at Hans and Gisela in Denmark, friends we have known since our days in the Philippines. We had visited them two years ago when we had sailed Ruby Tuesday up the fjord where they live. Hans works in Hamburg in Germany while Gisela works from their home in Denmark. Their sons and our son were born around the same time, so it is always interesting to hear what they have got up to since. We sit outside in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and drink coffee.

Coffee in Denmark.

“We can’t make up our mind where to live when we retire”, says Gisela. ”I quite like it here in Denmark as I have a lot of friends here, but Hans is not so keen as his friends are mostly in Hamburg.”

“Perhaps you should find somewhere totally different to live”, say the First Mate. “Then you can both start afresh and make new friends together.”

“Maybe we should think about buying a boat and sailing around like you are doing”, say Hans. “Or a campervan, or something like that.”

“Why don’t you come and join us on the boat in Sweden this year?”, we say as we leave the next day. “We have plenty of room, and you would be most welcome. You can see whether you like the lifestyle or not.”

“It sounds like a good idea”, says Gisela. “We would love to. We’ll give it some serious thought.”

We catch the ferry at Helsingor in Denmark across to Helsingborg in Sweden and drive through miles and miles of endless forest. We find an AirBnB near Linköping and stop for the night.

Leaving Helsingor in Denmark.

“It’s funny”, says the First Mate. “I had this idea that southern Sweden was just farmland stretching off into the distance, but we’ve hardly seen any. It’s just trees, trees and more trees.”

“I think the north of the country is pretty much the same”, I say. “You’d better get to like them.”

We eventually arrive at the marina near Stockholm where we had left Ruby Tuesday. She looks in good shape, and the tarpaulins covering her against the snow are just as intact as when we put them on.

Arriving at the marina in Stockholm.

“Look, there’s Spencer”, I exclaim, as we take the covers off. “He looks happy to see us. I am looking forward to more deep meaningful conversations with him over the summer.”

Spencer says hello.

Rolf, who kept an eye on the boat over the winter for us, arrives along with his wife.

“She’s fine”, he says. “Your boat, that is. But you won’t believe that we had late snow just three weeks ago, and everything was covered to a depth of 80 cm. But your covers did the trick, except at the back where the snow tended to lie rather than sliding off. You need to make that bit steeper next time.”

The next day, I load the folding bike into the car and drive to the local garage. They take the car wheel off to see what they can find.

“Look, you can see that the brake shoes of the parking brake are not attached to the backing plate”, he explains to me. “The shoes are not positioned properly, so occasionally they rub against the brake drum when you are driving. Hence the intermittent rubbing noise. It probably happened if the car has been standing for a while with the handbrake on and was released suddenly. We’ll need to fix the attachment mechanism and replace the brake shoes as they are almost worn through. We’ll need it for a day.”

It’s exactly what had happened. About two years ago, the handbrake had seized over the winter, and had suddenly freed itself when I had reversed the car. I cycle back to the boat, and then back the next day to the garage to pick the car up.

“I think we have fixed it now”, says the man. “I took it for a run this morning, and there wasn’t a peep. It’ll be fine now. Just don’t leave the handbrake on if you are going to let the car stand for a while.”

We spend the next week preparing Ruby Tuesday for the voyage. We have arranged for the engineer at the marina to replace the rubber cutless bearing that the propeller shaft rotates in. There is a lot of play in the old one and we are worried that the propeller shaft vibration might damage the seal that prevents water from entering the boat. He’s had since October to work on it, but has allocated the last two days before we launch to do it.

“It’s cutting it pretty fine”, I say to the First Mate. “What if something goes wrong?”

As it turns out, something does go wrong. The zinc anode that attaches to the propeller has gone missing. I put a new one on last year, and was hardly worn, but the engineer says that they will fit a new one. The new one needs to be adapted, so we have to postpone the launch for four days.

Propeller with its new cutless bearing.

“At least it will give us a chance to wax and polish the boat”, says the First Mate.

We spend the next few days applying wax to the sides and polishing it with a machine. It does make a difference, but it is patchy.

Polishing and waxing.

One of our neighbours stops for a chat.

“I think that it needs a good clean first with a gel-coat restorer”, he says. “That will remove all the grime and grease and bring up the true colour again. Then you need to apply polish to seal the pores, and finally wax to give it a shine.”

There’s more science in cleaning a boat than either of us realised.

“Yours is looking good”, says the First Mate, admiring his hull that he has been working on for the last week. “But you have somehow managed to get some paint on your head. Here, let me try and get it off.”

Before he realises what is happening, she has a cleaning cloth soaked in white spirits and is rubbing his bald head furiously.

“There”, she says triumphantly. “That’s got it off.”

Cleaning up our neighbour.

He’s not sure whether to be happy that he can go home to his wife paint-free, or to be unhappy at the invasion of his personal space by an unknown woman. Luckily he goes for the former. The next day, he is still talking to us, but I notice that he is wearing a hat, and keeps a discrete distance from the First Mate.

The day for the launch arrives. We awake early and work our way through the list of small last-minute jobs that have to be done. The crane arrives, and Ruby Tuesday begins her ponderous journey to the slipway. I am reminded of the giant Saturn rockets moving to the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Well, sort of.

Slowly but surely.

She is lowered into the water, and I jump aboard to make sure that there is no water coming in anywhere it shouldn’t be. All shipshape so far. I start the engine, the First Mate jumps aboard, the lines are thrown to us, and we reverse slowly out into open water. We head for the temporary berth on the other side of there marina where we have arranged to stay for a couple of days to finish the preparation work in the water.

As we approach the entrance, the engine stops.

“That’s funny”, I say. “It’s never done that before.”

I start it again. We motor slowly into the marina and head for the berth. The engine stops again. There is a strong cross wind, and Ruby Tuesday begins to drift, powerless.

“What are you doing?” calls the First Mate from the bow. “You almost hit that boat. Keep the engine running.”

“I am not doing it on purpose”, I call back. “There’s something wrong with the engine. I hope that it wasn’t damaged with the cold temperatures over the winter.”

I manage to get it started one more time and enter the berth before it gives up completely. No amount of turning it over will start it again. But at least we are tied up safely.

Then it dawns on me. At the end of the previous season, I had turned the tap on the fuel tank off, and had forgotten to turn it on again this season. The engine had used all the fuel in the fuel line and filters, then had run out.

I need to use the manual fuel pump to bleed the system to get rid of any air that might have entered, and also to fill the filters and fuel lines back up again. Twenty minutes later the engine is running sweetly once more.

All engines need fuel.

“It’s lucky it didn’t run out a minute or two sooner than it did”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t fancy being blown all over the marina without any power. We didn’t even have the sails up.”

She has a point. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I make a mental note to add turning on the fuel tap to my ‘De-winterisation’ list. For some reason it wasn’t on there.