Sacred Imagery on Dish Rags

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Some time ago I received a gift from my aunt, bought at the County Museum of Gotland, a limestone island in the Baltic with an extremely rich archaeological record. The gift was a sponge-fabric dish rag, and I found its decoration slightly astonishing.

In the 5th through the 12th centuries, Gotland was home to a unique tradition of commemorative picture stones, comparable only to those of Pictland, with which they do not appear to have had any actual connection. The early stones are dominated by abstract imagery that has been compared to Visigothic Christian art in Spain, and may hint at an early influence of Arianic Christianity on the island. It is highly likely that the symbolism of these stones was strongly religious. And there, on my dish rag, was one of these sacred designs! Now, I'm a materialistic atheist, but I'd still find it in pretty poor taste if someone started to make dish rags with a picture of the Crucifixion or calligraphy of the Islamic creed. And the picture-stone dish rag is pretty much comparable to that.

Today I received a letter from my friend Howard Williams, who had visited the same museum shop and found another version of the dish rag.


I have just returned from my first trip to Gotland where I enjoyed a stimulating visit to Gotland's county museum in Visby where I saw, among other things, some of the famous Picture Stones. A great museum and some interesting displays.

On the way out, I scanned the shop for souvenirs. As you know, it is quite common now for museums to have souvenirs inspired by archaeological finds as well as replicas for tourists to buy. These often vary considerably in quality and accuracy. Sometimes with an air of smug academic superiority, I chuckle to myself at the ridiculously un-authentic nature of some of these artefacts, and other times I just scowl at the prices. Others I like, usually if they are cheap, make not attempt at being authentic, and have a function of some kind. [...]

However, there was one souvenir in the landsmuseet in Gotland that made me laugh out loud. Among the many picture stones on Gotland, there are reasonably frequent representations of women, and when they appear, they are as stylised 'valkyries', holding a cup, or driving wagons, presumably associated with afterlife beliefs. An exception is the 'snake-witch' from the picture stone from När. This is a rare and unique depiction of a supposed-female, legs apart, with elaborate hair or headdress and holding two snakes. Just the kind of image for discussions of empowered female ritual specialists in late Iron Age Scandinavia by gender archaeologists! I am surely right?

So what object was selected by the lansmuseet for this striking image to be adorned upon for tourists?

A dish-cloth.

At the time, this really amused me, so my question is this. Is this a classic example of marketing people making a hilarious un-PC gender-blooper? ("yeah, let's tick a female image on a dish-cloth, that will sell!"). Is it an example of entrenched chauvinism in Swedish society (stick a female image on a domestic item) or a deliberate tongue-in-cheek post-modern joke by a museum archaeologist for those 'in-the-know' to smile at? In any case, it made me laugh and I thought it would amuse/annoy/interest you guys! It is one of many aspects of Swedish museums that I have seen recently where I have thought, is this a joke or is this serious, or is this just plain thoughtless and bad? Or is it just me!

I would love to hear your views and mean no disrespect to the very interesting museum. Martin: you know I am not a blogger myself, but if you think it is blog item, please do state how much I liked the museum itself...

The picture stone from Smiss in När dates from the 6th century and is extremely difficult to interpret because it is unique. The statuettes of snake-handling women from Minoan Crete cannot be relevant here because of the distance in time and space. If the Smiss snake handler is interpreted as a male with horns, then you can compare him to Romanised depictions of the Celtic god Herne/Cernunnos, but it's still quite a stretch to look for parallels in Gaul of the first few centuries. Nothing in Norse mythology offers any explanation.

I believe that the Smiss person is actually a very rare frontal depiction of a woman with looped braids. This hair style is commonly depicted in profile in later art -- such as the Kaga gold foil figure die. And there is one or two later profile depictions of women handling snakey things.

But anyway, to reply to Howard's question: this is a blooper, not a symptom of patriarchal misogyny. The museum people have probably looked for interesting motifs on the picture stones and taken whatever caught their fancy. There are many women on the stones, and the typical version has not to my knowledge been put on a dish rag.

Still, I do find it weird for the Gotlanders to put the most potent imagery of their cultural heritage on something so close to toilet paper. This is not a case of WASP museum curators treating Native American or Australian Aboriginal religious art in a ham-fisted way -- this is Gotlanders using their own archaeological record in a strange fashion.

My friend Ing-Marie Back Danielsson comments,

Unfortunately, I am used to seeing representations of female bodies -- modern as well as pre- or post-modern in their excecution -- in a variety of contexts. That does not mean I like them all.

About the dish-cloth with the Smiss woman. I do not know about the UK but in Sweden dish-cloths have become popular gifts: you can buy them, for instance, at trendy design centres with different kinds of motifs. I have seen Christmas trees with the text "Happy Holidays", Marilyn Monroe etc. I do not think I have seen a supposedly cool dude appear on a dish cloth. In this particular case it is the thought of pressing the female crotch against whatever dirty materials that need to be cleaned that could be seen as upsetting. Adding to that is the fact that the stone could once have been a kind of grave monument. Would you like to have a tomb stone (of a relative perhaps) on your dish-cloth? I know I wouldn't.

The female crotch is used in other contexts as well. I have seen plenty of shoe removers (they come in metal and you use them to take off your shoes) where you put the heel of the foot/shoe in a woman's crotch who has her legs far apart. And the breasts of women are used for key rings (anti-stress-press thing available at the store Teknikmagasinet), and they are also sold as table decorations in rough cement -- for the handy man not too interested in light/smooth materials?

I guess the museum tries to be trendy by selling dish cloths. Period. It would be nice -- for a change -- to see and experience a museum not being a typical proponent of our society (you all know the -isms I am referring to). Some brains to the museums please. Do they have dish cloths with male genitalia? How about using the Rällinge figurine as a model? No? It appears to have been rubbed quite enthusiastically already judging by its gigantic phallus. Do I dare mention the drawings of Mohammed in Danish newspapers?

Representations in diverse forms, shapes, and executions seemingly always generate emotions of different kinds. Is it always the privilege of the modern middle-aged Western male heterocentric, so keen to defend democratic values, to be the one upsetting instead of being upset?

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Hello Martin , the dish rag motif is fascinating , could you tell me where I could see some other examples of the picture stones ? The one shown ,I would suggest is stylistically closer to the megalithic art of the Boyne than pictish if only because of the use of the spiral and chevrons the four main motifs have some resemblance to "crook " like figures found in Atlantic rock art but I can't recall anything with that symmetry .


By George Currie (not verified) on 29 May 2008 #permalink

On-line, I have no idea. On paper, I recommend Nylen & Lamm's book.

You do realise that it's more than 3500 years between the Boyne tombs and the picture stones...

Oh, for crying out loud. That pretzel-like symbol was/is commonly imprinted on Finnish cheese so a dishcloth isn't much more shocking. (that link also has a small image of the picture stone) And here's Burt Reynolds on a dishcloth.

It was for Ing-Marie, who was talking about cool dudes on dishrags in general.

George, I would recommend It's in Swedish, but if you click on the links under the picture of the stone itself, it'll show you other examples. There are some 400 known picture stones. The swirl patterns and such are often vey similar or even identical to the ones you're after, despite the big time difference, as Martin pointed out. What's more interesting, really, is to look at some of the Swedish megalithic tombs, and how they are decorated, and how that symbology relates to the one you're talking about. But that, as they say, is another ball of wax.

By Christina (not verified) on 29 May 2008 #permalink

The swirl pattern has to be completely inoffensive. We use that pattern for pastries and for lussekatter (yellow sweet buns eaten around midwinter); also, it's the symbol for archeological site used on maps and in tourist handbooks. If there's any symbol a historical or archaeological museum could use with abandon it would be this one.

As for the figure - well, I don't really see how it can be so offensive. It is an interesting historical motif first, and a woman second. If we reprinted that cave painting of an ox with arrows sticking out from him, we'd not be upset that it's promoting animal cruelty either.

Also, it's not printed on a _rag_ as such; it's a _decorative_ dish rag meant to hang in the kitchen and look good. You don't buy it just to throw it among the torn and dirty washcloths you use for cleaning after all. If that is offensive, then so is printing any human figure anywhere.

Hey, I'll have one with a sexy, half dressed male on, thanks... I wonder if having naked women on them would encourage my husband to wash the dishes more often?
I've never seen dish cloths with prints. In Aus the equivalent printed souvenir is a tea towel. AFAIK my rabidly Catholic mother in law doesn't have any with crucifixes, jesus faces, or other religious icons. I suspect that if she were given one, it would be hung on the wall rather than used.

What I find funnier it's the fact that the Gotland Museum seems to use the Hunninge in Klinte rider as a copyright mark... And by the way, it's not that big a thing to find drawings like these on such ridiculous ites, sice one may find the Last Supper on a carpet.
As for the second depiction, from Smiss in Nar, doesn't it resemble a Sheela-na-Gig?

Using the same criterion, those of us whose belief tends toward pantheism couldn't condone any picture at all on a dish cloth! :-( ...Although, we might get around it by saying the dish cloth too is an extension of the infinite divine, and thus is itself sacred: a sacred symbol upon a sacred object is entirely fitting.

Vladimir, yes, kind of like a Sheela, though they tend to grab their labia. But there's also a 4th century gold medallion from Gotland where an armed male is depicted in the same position as on the Smiss stone.

I remember that design from a Finnish coin I found as a child.

I lived for five years at Grand Canyon in Arizona. My classmates (elementary school). We had an intereting class: 12 anglos, 1 Latino, 1 Hopi, 1 Navajo and 1 Havasu.

I remember the Hopi kid (can't remember his name) got very upset when one of us anglo kids (not me) came to school with a Hopi Kachina on his shirt. After the teacher noticed the problem, he asked what was going on. Apparently, the Kachina on the shirt was a sacred symbol for his clan.

Each clan had very specific responsibilities during ceremonies. One of the Kachinas his clan represented during one of the ceremonies was a 'hidden' one (this was when we were in third grade, so my understanding is a little hazy) which could only be seen by clan members and Hope adults. Non-Hopis were (almost) never allowed to see this the physical representation of this particular spirit.

Anyway, this was in the 70s. I hope that everyone from t-shirt makers to museum shop buyers are a little more culturally sensitive.

Before the early 1970s (this was when the so-called Maori Renaissance got going) you could find souvenirs in ANZ that were truly offensive...portraits of 'King' (arikinui) Tawhiao
on dishtowels for instance (heads are extremely tapu (which was translated by English missionaries as 'sacred' but carries a more potent meaning than that) and *anything* to do with cooked food extremely 'noa' -the opposite of 'tapu'.) Early Maori activists were jeered & sniggered at for being publically angered by this kind of thing...I am an atheist but found
my hair standing up with shock when I was given a candle made as the head of a tattoo'd chief-

things are very different here now!

By Keri Hulme (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

If you don't fancy Burt Reynolds you can choose Dirty Harry on a dishcloth instead, they've been available at Designtorget for years. More recently they've added dishcloths with a series of "grumpy men" as they call them: Nietzsche, Strindberg, Dostojevskij and Shopenhauer. Fredrik Reinfeldt is also available. I don't know if he falls into the cool dude category or the grumpy man category, though.

The 4-cornered design, a cosmogram found in many places around the world, is used at Moundville, Alabama, in particular, for t-shirts, coffee cups, keyrings and i dont know what all else tourist trash. Perhaps in a slightly less profane measure, one of my homies, who used to work there, uses it as the logo for his archaeo company.

By M E Starr (not verified) on 12 Jul 2008 #permalink