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Helene dies again

Denne historie om en myte blev præsenteret på MEGA, antropologernes faglige biennale, i august 2021. Fortællende etnografi flyder over i det billedlige og digtende.

Published onSep 18, 2021
Helene dies again

During fieldwork in Denmark, in Tisvilde, a myth has come to fascinate me, a myth about a woman, Helene, who sailed on a stone and performed other miracles. On land, a holy spring appeared, and since then, through centuries, pilgrims have been cured for their sicknesses and ailments. 

When I asked around in Tisvilde, most people did not really know the myth. And if they did, they did not understand it, they said it was a nonsense fairytale. But I also met some who quite liked it, and a few who loved to retell it and to keep the story alive. 

Since then, sometimes with the storytellers, I have worked with this myth through the archives. I have written a book chapter, too, on its many versions and how it, through centuries, has fascinated and provoked the sick, the kings, the villagers, the scientists, the bishops and many more.

Somehow, along the way, as myths can do, it has slowly taken over my thoughts, behind the scenes, as it were.

Here I have have tried to work with visuals in order to show how the story sits on me and how we somehow, the living and the dying, can be ingrained in the doings of the landscapes.

Karl-Erik told a story about Helene. He sat in chair with a broken foot in a storyteller tent on the local market place. I was one of the listeners. 

“A midsummer day in King Arild's time, strangely, a body of a young beautiful woman drifted ashore. Then as now, people headed to the slopes to watch the sun set. Just as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind Hesselø, a small island in the horizon, they saw the contour of a strange vessel without sails and oars. Farmers, fishermen and monks made their way down to the beach when the vessel came ashore. Here they saw the body of a young woman on a boulder. Bodies washed ashore were usually buried on the beach, but this woman looked very pious, so she had to be buried in the cemetery. Then the first miracle happened. Shoulder, hips, legs and hair had a clear imprint on the stone. When they laid down the stretcher another miracle happened. A spring erupted from the ground and the whole earth began to rumble. A big sand cloud emanated and a gorge made an opening in the hillside. The bearers prayed and sang beautiful songs, but at one point one of the them spoke rudely. We do not know what said. But it was so inappropriate that the stretcher slipped out of the hands. It happened at the place where you find Helene's grave today. Since then, at Midsummer time, Tisvilde has been hunted up by people from near and far. And because of that, the city has emerged.”

In his short introduction, Karl-Erik bemoaned the authorities’ poor maintenance of the town’s Helene monuments. The place was once a motive of the finest painters. Now, Helene’s grave is squeezed in between up-market summer houses and marked by an unreadable signpost. 

At the beach, two stone jars, formerly the centerpieces of Helene spring is half-filled with a green algea soup. The hillside is severely eroding, the next storm will problably finalize the maltreatment of too many houses, raods and parking lots. The front of the hillside will collapse and the jars will tumble down. The boulder is out of sight, but you can plunge into the water and see it by yourself.

A local patriot writes in the village news that the miserable maintenance seems to indicate that the attractive Helenekildevej and Sankt Helene Vej, the Sankt Helene School and the super-posh Helenekilde Seaside Hotel has become more important than Helenekilde and the grave, and the name more important than its history.

Karl-Erik, the storyteller, maintained that even if the monuments crumble, the story can be passed on. “Bear it in mind”, he said in the tent. He had for long collected Helene-stories. 

In one version, Helene was a pious hermit in Sweden. Evil people murdered her and threw her body into the sea.

In other versions Helene was a Scanian princess, famous for her beauty. A king fell in love with her and he decided to use his force against her. She plunged into the sea. However, she did not perish.

Or it was monks from Asserbo Abby who saw the body of a young woman drifting onto the shore on a large rock. Without knowing who she was, they carried her ashore.

Or she was Saint Lene, a holy woman, who had been killed in Sweden and thrown into the sea and came on a large rock floating to Zealand. The traces of her hair, hands and feet can still be seen.

Though centuries Helene has died time and again.

She is a saint, a princess or a hermit or just a woman. 

She is persecuted by evil people, a king, or she just drifted ashore. 

She is plunging into or thrown into the water.

She is almost always sailing on a heavy stone.

She comes ashore, almost always dead, but in one version she lives for long in Tisvilde and is visited as a holy woman. 

She is found by monks, fishermen or peasants or all of them or by unnamed people at the shore.

The ground, cliff, slope, hillside opens up, when she touches the ground with her foot, or when she is carried inland on a stretcher, or when she is put to the ground for a while.

A spring, known today as Helenekilde appears. Sometimes the spring appears first, and then the hill is cracking, bursting, opening. Sometimes it is the other way around.

When she is carried by men or horses, often in the direction of the church, she is too heavy for them, because the men are swearing or simply because she is so heavy.

Save a few versions she sinks into the ground.

Though centuries Helene has died time and again.

Though centuries the water has been alive, and healing.

Scores of sick and crippled have travelled to Tisvilde to drink the water, to wash away the ailments, to put op crosses, tie rags and thankgivings onto them, and to rest on the grave. It is reported that the sick sometimes take with them spoons of the soil and keep it close to the body.

Some historians argue that it is highly unlikely that the cult of water predates the 17th Century, since no written sources lead in that direction.

The written sources begin with a ban: A strictly lutheran king prohibits superstitious belief in the saintly power of the well spring. Any power in the water should be ascribed to God. The monks had been chased away.

Other historians argue that the tradition harks back to ancient worship of Mother Earth before Christianity took over. Her womb was revered as a fountain of fertility, they say.

She makes people sing, they come from afar, they sit on the grave, they pray, they fall asleep, they come back next year, they want her to open the sore eyes, they want to sail on a stone.

The water is splashing from the sea and the land.

She is water, she is a stone, she lies in the sand, she opens the land and sinks into the soil.

She is almost gone, she dies, she is sailing on a stone.

Sinks into the soil, she is soil.

She is almost forgotten.

The water is splashing from the sea and the land.

“Bear it in mind.”

She is water, she is a stone, she lies in the sand, she opens the land, sinks into the soil.

She is almost gone, she dies, she is sailing on a stone.

Sinks into the soil.

The visuals are based on old photographs, mixed with my own recordings and drawings.

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