No Gender Neutral God


In the steady stream of bullshit news about Sweden, you might have seen the one about the Swedish church banning the use of “he” to refer to God.

IT NOT TRUE. I know; shocker. It seems there have been theologically interesting amendments – in places, not throughout – in order to agree with original Hebrew texts on the one hand, and the nature of the Trinity on the other.

It’s also not a news story here in Sweden, but it’s been widely circulated by spittle-flecked English-speaking Scandi-bashers. Farage (tell me why that doesn’t rhyme with English ‘garage’, again?), O’Reilly, et cetera ad nauseum.

No, it’s not been on the radar here. Not to say that Sweden doesn’t have its traditionalists. The gender neutral pronoun “hen” has become reasonably well established (created 1960’s, popularised this century, dictionarised 2015), but it still attracts flack.

Most of the ire seems to stem from fear of hen’s magical gender-warping properties as also evinced in this – of all places – Slate article from 2012. No, even the most right-on Swedes are not trying to “banish gender”. In my experience of Swedish TV news, I’ve more often heard hen deployed when gender is unknown – say, discussing what a hypothetical future minister might do.

At least no-one really objects to hen on grammatical grounds, it avoids the prescriptivist nonsense that English singular pronoun “they” attracts. As I noted re: the snopp/snippa phenomenon, these linguistic adaptations have been absorbed by modern Swedish without great friction. Which is perhaps more an indication of the small, contained nature of the linguistic group than any testament to the open-minded fairness of the Swedes, though that’s surely a factor too.

Anyway, the Lord God is still a He, here, though the Trinity is sometimes God instead of He, and the Holy Ghost, yes is Hen, but was the Ghost ever a He anyway? Excuse me, I’m exhausted. That stream of negative propaganda about Sweden is likely to turn into a flood in the coming year, with an election on the horizon.


The Long Ships and Viking Textiles


In which the hero, Red Orm, adventures and swashbuckles through assorted lands, returning home to cement his legacy. The Long Ships is the English collected version of Frans G Bengtsson’s Röde Orm sagas, the first volume of which was published in Sweden in 1941.

I first read this in 2013, but have been thinking about it recently because of the brouhaha over the supposed Viking “Allah” textile. Earlier this month, a mildly interesting news story broke of research claiming that Viking burial clothes unearthed in Birka, Sweden, which supposedly had the name of Allah woven into the fabric. (The altright and their far right chums went nuts: “how dare you say all Vikings were Muslims” etc.)

The research was debunked in an illuminating tweet thread by Stephennie Mulder, a Professor of Islamic Art. (Again, the altright/far right went nuts: “see, this proves there were no Muslim Vikings” etc.)

So, Red Orm. In the early part of the saga, as a youth in Skania, he’s captured by Vikings, who are in turn captured by Andalusian Muslims. After a few gruelling years as galley slaves the Vikings eventually become bodyguards to Almansur, the de facto ruler of the Cordovan Caliphate.

During this time, Orm assumes leadership of the Norsemen largely due to the fact that he’s the first to learn the Arabic spoken by their masters, and thus the conduit of all communication between the groups:

Orm always afterwards used to say that, after good luck, strength, and skill at arms, nothing was so useful to a man who found himself among foreigners as the ability to learn a language.
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

When Almansur asks if Orm and his men will worship Allah, the Skanian responds with calm practicality. In the gloss given to his men, Orm adds that conversion will earn them better treatment, that going against their lord’s wishes wouldn’t be a smart move, and that that they can quit worshipping the foreign god when they return home. He puts a different slant on it for Almansur, but one that’s equally pragmatic and no less honest:

“We men of the north do not worship our gods except in time of necessity, for we think it foolish to weary them with babbling… Perchance it may be that our gods wield but little power in this land; therefore, lord, I for my part shall willingly obey your command and worship your God while I am your servant.”
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

Later in the saga, Red Orm converts to Christianity, again for practical reasons. But it takes a while to win him over. The process starts in the first volume and isn’t concluded until the second:

“St. Finian’s bell helped you, too,” said the monk; “and now that you have seen what the saints can do, even for heathens, would it not be a wise thing for you to start believing in God and become Christians?”
Orm said that he had not given the matter much consideration and that he did not think there was any urgency about deciding.
– I. The Long Voyage, p99

So at different times, Red Orm is a Norse pagan, a Muslim, and a Christian. (Noah Harari notes in Sapiens how polytheists have no issue with incorporating monotheistic deities into their worship, believing every situation calls for its own god.) Certainly the reader always feels that Orm treats these religions with a non-nonsense cynicism, and in every case he approaches his worship in a fair dealing spirit. When he converts to Christianity, he gives “a large sum for the protection and luck that I expect to receive”.

Stephennie Mulder started her epic ‘Allah textile’ debunkening by noting that the Vikings had “rich contacts w/Arab world”. Later – it’s an x/60 thread, folks – she underlines the importance of getting such a story, however niche, correct in the current policitical climate. The Islamophobes hopping onto the thread, obviously, crowed about “lies” and “propaganda” from those famous bedfellows/co-conspirators, academia and the mainstream media.

Because the knowledge and painstaking research of specialist professors is nothing compared to the unshakeable certainty of one who has watched Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings” (and who will no doubt simply rewatch “Spartacus” if they ever need to dismiss Mary Beard’s in-depth knowledge of the Roman Empire).

The Long Ships has long been praised for its historical and indeed historiographical (um wait while I look that up) accuracy. And since it was published in 1941, I think we can safely discount the possibility of it being a propaganda ploy of the SJWs. The knowledge of Viking ties to the Arab world, and even the notion of Vikings converting to Islam (#notallvikings) is old news.

Old news or not, The Long Ships is a blast. Röde Orm (orm = serpent) himself is an enduring hero: canny, witty, and wise, his bravery never outstripping his common sense or ship-smarts. It’s a fun, wry read, with the worst of its scorn reserved for literary folk, Orm knowing enough about men not to argue with poets concerning their respective merits.

He would have hated Twitter.


Mysteries of the Dragon Gate


Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.


Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.


In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

42+1 Songs and Answer Songs

Here’s a playlist of 42+1 songs and their notable answer song counterparts. A few knock-offs, a couple of pastiches, and a bunch of well-crafted tunes that take a more considered and artistic approach to their inspiration.

Spotify web / Spotify app

Answer songs, or response songs. A phenomenon that’s surely always been with us, but which in pop terms reached a peak in the quick-fix, production-line hits of the 1950s-60s, with dialogues like Tell Laura I love Her / Tell Tommy I Need Him and Are You Lonesome Tonight? / Yes I’m Lonesome Tonight. Even Carole King served up more than her fair share, with Short Mort answering a hit titled Tall Paul, and Oh Neil! replying to Neil Sedaka’s Oh! Carol.

None of those are on this list, BTW.

I said these are “notable” songs, not great ones, because reasons. To wit:

  1. There’s often a disparity in quality here. No Pigeons doesn’t pack the same punch as No Scrubs, but it was a bona fide hit in its own right. It’s not always the answer that doesn’t measure up to the original though – Lennon’s How Do You Sleep? has the edge over McCartney’s Too Many People, and Althea & Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking is far more of a classic cut than the Three Piece Suit that it’s heavily based on.
  2. Some of these tunes are, umm, let’s say lyrically problematic. There’s a reason you don’t hear He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) around the place so much. Nas’s Ether and Ice Cube’s No Vaseline are both solid responses to diss tracks, while also leaning way too heavily on the homophobic slurs, if you ask me.

I was perversely unable to remove the Spokesmen’s nauseating Dawn of Correction, a riposte to Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, and that rare thing: a right-wing protest song. The songwriters have the audacity to applaud the nuclear stand-off between USA and USSR because it encourages diplomacy, and hey, who’d be so nuts as to press the button anyway? Hard to say if that’s worse than the part where they say the struggles of the civil rights movement are no big deal because voter registration has improved. Actually, they’re both worse.

It wouldn’t have worked to sit songs and answers next to each other – some are just too damn close for that. Instead it’s an onion of a playlist (if you will), with the Rolling Stones in second position being answered by Liz Phair in second-to-last. The list pivots around Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man, which he recorded in response to the opening track, Muddy Waters’s (I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man. Waters returned the favour, answering Bo Diddley’s own answer song with the immortal Mannish Boy

42+1 Songs & Answer Songs:

  • (I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man (1) – I’m a Man (22) – Mannish Boy (43)
  • Tumbling Dice (2) – Never Said (42)
  • My Guy (3) – My Girl (41)
  • Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? (4) – Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken (40)
  • Cry Me a River (5) – Sweet Dreams My LA Ex (39)
  • Three Piece Suit (6) – Uptown Top Ranking (38)
  • The Girl Is Mine (7) – The Boy Is Mine (37)
  • Takeover (8) – Ether (36)
  • Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth (9) – Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth (35)
  • Maneater (10) – Maneater (34)
  • Oh, the Divorces! (11) – Become Someone Else’s (33)
  • Too Many People (12) – How Do You Sleep? (32)
  • Judge Dread (13) – Set Them Free (31)
  • No Scrubs (14) – No Pigeons (30)
  • Eat for Two (15) – Me in Honey (29)
  • Eve of Destruction (16) – Dawn of Correction (28)
  • 100 Miles and Runnin’ (17) – No Vaseline (27)
  • He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) (18) – And Then You Kissed Me (26)
  • Empty Chairs (19) – Killing Me Softly with His Song (25)
  • New York (20) – London Boys (24)
  • Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag Pt.1 (21) – Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (23)