A peculiar pietist sect* — sometimes referred to as ‘the strangers’ — took up residence in a rural district south-east of Stockholm in the 1740s. The congregation had originated in Finland (which was then a part of Sweden) in the 1720s but after a court process they were forced to go into exile. By then, some of them had already spent some time in Stockholm while waiting for the verdict. In 1934, around 90 members from Finland and Stockholm left for Copenhagen, and once there, they bought a ship and subsequently spent 11 years going from place to place, finding no refuge and nowhere to settle permanently. They travelled to various locations in Europe — in Denmark, Holland, and Germany — but were constantly driven away, forced to flee again and again. Eventually, in 1745, 25 remaining members of the sect returned to Sweden. Since they had left, 11 years earlier, the regulations on religious practices had been liberalized to some albeit rather small extent, and they now allowed for the estranged sect to settle down again.
Upon returning, they first stayed year or so in Stockholm, but then had the opportunity settle more permanently at the court of Skevik, Värmdö (see small picture, to the left, borrowed from wikipedia). This is how they got the name by which they are still known: ‘Skeviksborna’ (that is, ‘the dwellers of Skevik’), or simply ‘Skevikarna’. While living at Skevik, the small esoteric society wrote and published the ‘Skevik tracts’ which were subsequently banned. But over all, they were now left alone, left to practice their beliefs as they chose. Their sanctuary at Skevik allowed them to live without much contact with the rest of the world and, curiously, without having to work very hard. One interesting aspect of this sect was that, by this point in time, it had succeeded fairly well at gaining support among some affluent and influential people. This was how they ended up living at Skevik, and in addition they also received gifts and financial support from some Swedish noblemen.
The two founders of the sect were the brothers Eriksson, who were originally from Finland (that is, as their name suggests, they were not Finns, but spoke Swedish). They were christian pietists, and thus harshly critical of the protestant church, with which they had severed the ties. In the 1720s, the leaders had read the pietist and mystic Gottfried Arnold, and they also studied the English priest, alchemist and christian mystic John Pordage, who, in turn, was a follower of the German mystic Jacob Böhme (or Boehme in English). During their time at Skevik, they not only wrote their own tracts, they also translated texts by Böhme and Arnold, of whom the latter in particular may have been a major source of inspiration to the Skevik group.
Faith meant everything to them; church orthodoxy nothing. They wished to emphasize feeling and commitment at heart over formalism and intellectualism; their appearance was austere, they dressed in very simple garments, used no unnecessary ornaments; they were stern, spoke little; they didn’t believe in private property and owned all their belongings communally. Self-abnegation was paramount, and they strived towards the extinction or at least denial of bodily desires.
The inhabitants of Skevik took exception to organised churches and church ritual, instead they regarded religion as a matter between the individual and god; they rejected ordinary sermons, psalms, prayers, and ceremonies; they disapproved of church traditions like child baptism and communion, considering them, in their present shape, to have deviated too far from the original implementation among the early christians. Prayer was something to engage in inwardly — preferably without words — and not through exoteric rituals. Their conception of god resembled, this source tells us, that of Böhme; they also believed that Adam was, from the beginning, both man and woman. Marriage was eschewed; it was considered both sinful and harmful. They didn’t have a church building; these were thought of as irrelvant to true faith. But, at Skevik, they may have had something else, something almost as impressive and with as much sacred feeling as any cathedral.
Skevik cave, Värmdö: reflections in a puddle of water — and a tiny glimpse of sky between rocks and tree trunks!
Close to Skevik court, at the foot of a hill called Klosterberget, or The Cloister Hill (likely accorded this name after the sect of ‘strangers’ who resided close by!), there’s a cave. Well, it isn’t a proper cave — rather a magnificent gap opening up between the steep wall of the hill (about 30 meters high) on the one side and very large rocks on the other. Tradition has it that the Skevik sect used the cave for religious or spiritual practices, meetings and meditation. This may or may not be the case; I’m not aware of any solid reference for this. Apparently, the connection of the cave with the Skevik people is the subject of some kind of folk belief, possibly originating in actual practices among the very odd and deeply religious men and women who lived there back then. But they didn’t have many contacts with surrounding society, they were barely noticed by anyone (according to at least one contemporary source, the local vicar), and the last adherent of the Skevik cult perished very long ago. If they used the cave, and, if so, what exactly they used it for, may remain a mystery (at least I don’t know more). The cave is a stunning site, and I would say it doesn’t strike me as particularly weird if they used it, considering they made do without church buildings and such. The place has an air of solemnity. It’s silent, serene, very tranquil. Another interesting fact is that the cave provided the location for shooting parts of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece The Seventh Seal!
It was very muddy in the area, when we visited yesterday, mr Dog and I. Typical for spring, I suppose. I don’t know whether the cave floor is usually this damp; the human presence, i e, waste — empty bottles and other unseemly objects left behind –, suggests otherwise (this, sadly, detracts from the serenity of the place). As it turned out, the presence of water in the cave was very fortunate, though: I hadn’t prepared myself with the proper equipment, of course (am I ever properly prepared?) — and had to use the water puddle’s surface as a ‘wide-angle lens’!
One pretty bizarre and remarkable thing about the strangers at Skevik was how they handled their dead. They wanted nothing to do with the established church, and didn’t recognize any formal burial rituals. But, somehow, they had to get rid of deceased adherents. When they lived in cities, they couldn’t continue their habit of leaving their dead in the forests. And, as a condition for being allowed to take up residence at Skevik, they had to make a concession: that they would not leave their dead lying about in the Värmdö forests.
This is actually how I first became familiar with them — as a kid I had a book about places in Stockholm that were supposedly haunted by ghosts and other similar spiritual entities. Actually, I still have this book in a storage room in the basement, and I went down to collect it for this post. It was when I happened to catch a glance in one of my parents’ books about Stockholm — a book wherein Skevik was mentioned — that I suddenly remembered the weird sect and remembered having read about them years earlier, and I also realized I could go and visit the cave. Anyway, the ghost book dealt with the alleged ghosts of the Johannes Church (i e, the church of S:t John); or rather its burial site, which predates the present church, whose construction was begun in the 1780s, Before this, there was only a small chapel, built in 1671. (This steeple which predates the present church, and belonged to the chapel, still remains today.) The work on the new church was later discontinued, and resumed (and finished) only in the late 19th century. The present church, thus, is a modern building, which didn’t exist in the time of the Skevik dwellers. But the location had been used as a burial ground for centuries by then, possibly as early as the 13th century.
You see, what is supposed to have happened is this: when somebody died at Skevik, the body was transported to the graveyard at Johannes, and, during the dark hours of night, the body was dumped over the graveyard walls. The bodies were found in the morning, and were interred without religious ritual by the grave-digger. This according to the church’s website. Apparently, many myths surround both this burial site and the habits of the Skevik sect. For example, the place is supposed to be haunted. In any case, it seems clear that in the 18th century, several cult members were buried in a corner of this graveyard; a stele, erected in 1934, reminds us of them. It reads: ‘To the memory of the Skevik dwellers — 1746-1788 — In this place the homeless were given rest’.
The Skevik stele, graveyard at Johannes, Stockholm
This is where the ghosts enter the story. According to my book, you can hear the voices of the dead from Skevik, if you put one ear to the ground and listen carefully; they, the story says, were unable to attain rest and peace (contrary to the claim made on the monument!). I wouldn’t bet on it though. Could be any old ghost. After all, this place has harboured thousands of dead for many centuries.
Eventually the sect began to fall apart, and although Skevik had never housed more than approximately 30 members, membership numbers continued to dwindle. One of the Eriksson brothers had died during the group’s exile, the other died at Skevik in 1761. His remaining followers were left without a powerful leader, and the group ended up fraught with schisms and conflict. They wasted their resources, among these a large inheritance left to them by the owner of Skevik court. The congregation ceased to exist in the 1830s, when only a few adherents were still alive. Where the last ones were buried, I don’t know. The Johannes stele indicates a time span for burials between 1746 and 1788, but several members of the group must have died during half a century thereafter.
And, no, I have to disappiont you — I didn’t hear any voices or see any ghosts, neither in the cave, nor while visiting the churchyard. Then again, I’ve learnt (from anthroposophists, among others) that spiritual entities don’t address or show themselves to people who don’t believe in them. They’re very clever that way.
*Excuse my linking to wikipedia. I will repeatedly sin in this blog post. The wikipedia entry seems largely identical to this excerpt from an old book on the history of the church of Sweden. The ghost book mentioned is this one: Linell, S. Stockholms spökhus och andra ruskiga ställen, 1993.
Several more photos below the fold!
More puddle reflections!
The cave glimpsed from the outside