Dala Horse of Sweden | From Devil's Toy to National Symbol
The Dala Horse of Sweden is hugely significant in Swedish culture and identity. Known in Swedish as "Dalahäst", it embodies a shared history of man and beast in the Scandinavian landscape that has endured for more than two millennia. While much beloved, the Dala Horse is not a living, breathing breed, but a traditional carved, painted wooden horse statuette originating in the Swedish province Dalarna, about four hours northwest of Stockholm.
Around 1700, a bible was published in Sweden for the illiterate. It was essentially a picture book, which the artists illustrated with typical designs from the culture of the time and place. The classic Dala Horse form known today emerged from these images in the early 1800s.
The Dala Horse has had many uses over the centuries— it was worshipped as sacred by pagan cults and considered a prestigious partner by Medieval knights; it played a role as a giant ambassador on the world stage; and has been the subject of artwork created by generations of artisans. Centuries later, in the 1980s, there was a renaissance in folk art, and artists rediscovered the old patterns, using them anew in textiles and carved wooden horses.
Many do not know the checkered history of the Dalahäst, and would be surprised to know that it was once considered a devil's toy and used as rationale by the bishop in Vasteras to condemn pagans. Today, the Dala Horse plays a much different role and has been integrated into modern meanings and traditions.
History of the Swedish Dalahäst Horse
And in an ancient building located on Stockholm’s oldest public square, the Wooden Horse Museum pays homage to this beloved Swedish symbol. Just 100 meters from Sweden’s Royal Palace in Gamla Stan, or “Old Town, the museum is owned by Chintana and Bill Odell.
Chintana gave me an education on the Dalahäst, a tradition she has been sharing with others for more than two decades.
"The Dalahäst Horse is the most Swedish artifact created," Chintana said. "It has such a strong identity and connection with Sweden that a Swede would feel at home anywhere in the world once she or he sees a Dala horse. It is almost sacred."
Chintana explained that during the Stone Age, Scandinavia was invaded by axe-wielding, horse-riding people. The oldest known horse figurines are from this time period and made of bone. A horse could be the difference between life and death in a wild and fierce country without roads and long distances between settlements. Not surprisingly, the horse became highly-valued.
Horses were later sculpted in bronze, silver, gold and wood—and cut into cliff walls. Today’s wooden horses derive their heritage from those found in ancient graves and bogs.
From the Bronze Age on there were horse cults and the horse was an important symbol in the Norse religion, from the god Odin atop his grey eight-legged Slepnir to the black hell-fire horses of Nifelheim of the shadowy underworld.
In the Middle Ages, the horse became a symbol for power and wealth, cherished by kings, knights and farmers. A horse is not only valued property but a working partner, trusted friend—and magical character in art, poetry, song and legend.
At around this same time, the wooden horse changed from being a votive symbol to become a decorative item and toy. Horse pictures were often used in heraldic patterns and carved into church doors.
The Swedish Dala Horse as a Devil’s Toy
But in 1624, the bishop in Vasteras furiously told his flock that the wooden horses were the devil’s toys and evil for children to play with. There was a dual rationale for his outrage—wooden horses were sometimes used as magic by witches and shamans and the church’s hold on Swedish souls was sometimes weak. Officially, Sweden had been Christian since the Viking period, but secretly, pagan religious practices survived well into the 19th century, which threatened Christianity’s power. The horse was a symbol for both Christians and pagans—representing purity, innocence, truth, nobility, fertility and the power of nature.
Around 1700, a bible was published in Sweden for the illiterate—essentially a picture book, which the artists illustrated with typical designs from the culture of the times and place. The classic Dalahäst Horse form known today emerged from these images in the early 1800s. Centuries later, in the 1980s, there was a renaissance in folk art, and artists rediscovered the old patterns, using them anew in textiles and carved wooden horses.
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Dala Horse | Where The Story Begins
The carving of Dalahästs as a livelihood is thought to have started in the village of Bergkarlås in central Sweden, though the nearby “horse” villages of Risa, Vattnäs, and Nusnäs were also centres of horse-making. The villages were involved in the art of furniture and clock-making, and it is likely the leftover scraps of wood were put to use in the production of Dala horses. Many early Swedish horses were not painted at all, but at the beginning of the 19th century painting them in a single color, white or red, became common practice.
The decoration of the Dala horse has its roots in Swedish furniture painting in the kurbits style, which is an elaborate ornamental design based on organic fertility. Very popular between 1720 and 1870, kurbits furniture painting was done mainly by itinerant painters, mostly from Dalarna.
One hundred years ago, many artists mixed their own colors and paints. The Dalahäst Horse makers lived close to one of the largest sources of pigment in Europe, the Falun copper mine. Falun presented a wealth of earthen and mineral pigments: white, yellow, green, red, black, brown—raw, oxidized or burnt. The pigments were ground on a stone or glass plate with some linseed oil, then filtered and mixed with more oil and turpentine. Brushes were made with squirrel’s tails or hairs from a cow’s ear.
Many of the old horses were signed not with letters but with secret marks, dots or lines that only the initiated could understand. Fortunately, each artist had his style so it is still possible to determine the maker of antique wooden horses.
Becoming a Global Celebrity
The New York 1939 World Exhibition made the Dala horse a global celebrity. Sweden’s exhibition architect had the idea of erecting a giant Dala horse outside Swedish pavilion. The public fell in love with the stocky symbol of the Swedish kingdom—in the following year, the studio of Swedish carver Grannas Anders Olsson made 20,000 figures to meet the demand.
Grannas was the oldest of nine siblings and learned early to take responsibility and help support the family. In 1922, at 26 years of age, he made his first Dala horse and founded the company that today is the oldest wooden horse manufacturer. Still a family business, Grannas A. Olsson is run by the third and fourth generation Olsson's nowadays, the workshop produces about 100,000 pieces per year.
Chintana of the Wooden Horse Museum is a self-taught first-generation Dalahäst Horse aficionado—but passionate about keeping the tradition alive, and sharing the Swedish symbol with the world.
“Since childhood, I have always been interested in folk art and handicraft; it’s an interest that my husband Bill and I share,” Chintana said. “Tradition, as well as culture and religion, is an important factor in a human’s upbringing and way of life. Tradition binds individuals with similar thoughts and values together. Feelings of belonging have an effect on people’s self-confidence and pride. Nations with strong traditions have also strong identities.”
“Over 20 years ago while we were running an antique store in Gamla Stan, one of our neighbors had a shop selling old Dala horses,” Chintana said. “One day he asked if we wanted to trade some porcelains with his horses valued at Sek 15 000. Since his horses were so expensive, we only got a couple of them, while he was able to get a whole pile of our bowls, pots and plates. That was a fun start.”
“The horses got me hooked!” she exclaimed. “I kept going back to buy more horses. Once I sold my gold bracelet and spent the money buying another Dalahäst Horse. The goal from the beginning was to own a hundred horses, but, of course, that promise was broken a long time ago. The most expensive horse I have is about a hundred years old, 20 cm tall, which I sacrificed my vacation for.”
“Many years later that same neighbor asked if we wanted to buy the rest of his stock – a couple of hundred horses, both new and old,” she explained. “He was retiring. We could not say no.”
“After having learnt more about this old tradition of craftsmanship, getting to know more and more people behind it, our interest has been deepened year by year,” Chintana continued. “We meet with artisans and local craftsmen and painters, and are inspired by the stories of their families, their creations and their devotion.”
“After having been working closely together with these artisans for many years, they have become our family whom we care deeply about,” she said. “Most of them are elderly. The oldest one who is still working is 86 years old. Some have passed away, one of them in 2014 at the age of 98.”
Chintana said she and her husband have asked the artisans to continue with the old styles, and also encouraged them to create new varieties in different styles and colors.
Master Artisan, Bosse Kristenson
“The horse is a beautiful animal in itself and the wood has been a part of our culture since the dawn of history,” Bosse said. “The horse was very important in ancient peasant society and lived in his stall closest to man. He was an important colleague both on the field during the summer and in the forest in winter.”
“My earliest memory of a Dala horse is from a holiday with my parents and sister in 1956,” he recalled. “I was 11 years and we children were very excited when we got a Dala horse from Nusnäs. The horse is still a fond memory. At that time I did not know that I later in life I myself would be a horse- producer in Dalarna.”
“I was 25 years when my wife Eva and our two oldest children moved to Dalarna and to the farm where we still live,” Bosse explained. “Eva is connected with the farm and the village on her father’s side.”
“I come from western Sweden and the province of Halland,” he said. “Falkenberg is my hometown–there was no affiliation from my area and the wooden horse. But to remember the landscape I come from, I have created a Halland horse named Sea Wind as goes ashore on a sandy beach with the Sun and the wind in the mane.”
Becoming Fond of the Craft
“I officially started my business June 1977 but I have worked with wood throughout my life,” he said. “I love wood as a material and see it as my job to lure out the soul in it. Especially I like handiwork but also the painting. I use a thin bottom color so that one experiences the wood underneath and I use no varnishes so you can feel the wood. It is mainly the old peasant artists ‘palette I use.”
“I became particularly fond of horses made in the late 1800s by a man named Nises Per,” he said. “I have developed my technique for many years and have met many knowledgeable and inspiring people: Edvin Holén, Ivar Britz and Lars Painter have been influences on my woodworking, and Hurtig’s Anna, Kerstin Sipilä and Monica Ollas on my painting. Visits to old historic farms and museums have also meant a lot.”
“I make a number of different horses, each with its special history and background,” Bosse explained. “I do them in different sizes from small foals to really big horses. I also do special horses in one or a few copies and make commissioned horses for weddings, christenings and birthdays.”
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Bosse Takes Inspiration From His Everyday Life in Dalarna
“Blenda the white Shetland pony was a wonderful horse that we had the joy of sharing life with for about 10 years,” he said. “She lived in our stables and was like one of our family. My Blenda Dalahäst Horse has three heart shapes on the saddle to symbolize our love for her.”
"Wild Rose” is a romantic horse with roses and a heart on his chest," he explained.”This horse has come about because of my interest in roses, which we grow here on the farm–some 50 different varieties, many of which are old historic roses.”
“How many I make in a year depends on the horse’s size, but it is a production on a small scale, which is how I like it,” he said.“It takes a long time even for a skilled man, in terms of both the carving and painting. Sharp tools and good brushes are essential!
“I also do building joinery, rose gardening and sheep farming,” he continued. “Eva and I have retired but as we have our health, and think it’s fun, we want to keep on.”
Meet Ase Larsjos, a Dala Horse Artisan
Ase Larsjos is another well-known Dala horse artisan—but her connection with the beloved Swedish folk art is strictly as a decorative painter.
“I was born in Lima, a little country village in the west of Dalarna,” Ase said. “My family moved from Dalarna to a town called Gävle on the Swedish east coast. My parents always kept our roots in Dalarna alive throughout my whole childhood. Every summer holiday we visited our relatives in Dalarna. Now as adult I am back in Dalarna again.”
“My first memory of a Dala horse was a small painted souvenir I got from my parents when I was a child,” she recalled. “They bought it in Nusnäs, a well-known place in the middle of Dalarna. Even today, tourists can visit this shop and see how the Dala horse souvenirs are carved and decorated by the carvers and the painters.”
“When I was in my teens I became interested in painting and was lucky to have parents who encouraged me,” she said. “One of my aunts in Dalarna was a self-taught decorative painter of kurbits on canvas and furniture. She noticed my interest and curiosity and gave me a paintbrush and some of her knowledge about how to paint with traditional techniques of folk-art painting. Her simple way of decorations impressed on me, and I began to teach myself.”
“I was often critical of my own work,” Ase said. “I started to search for the simplicity and tried to take a step away from my “troublesome carefulness”. I found my way to make more simple brush strokes and this technique was the key for me.”
“As a decorative painter I mostly decorate furniture, walls, interiors and door crowns,” she explained. “I always strive in my work to unite traditional techniques and form with a more modern expression. The beauty of simple brushstrokes and with an impression of lightness is always my goal. I love to compose my own patterns, and to put simple brushstrokes together into various shapes and colors.”
In 1995, Ase started her own business of folk art painting on furniture, and also began teaching classes. Little did she know that within a decade her students would include royalty!
“In 2004 the Swedish organization for entrepreneurs contacted me—they were organizing a trip by Swedish crown princess Victoria to Dalarna to visit and study with a handful of “solo entrepreneurs.” I had a short workshop with them in my studio. It was a nice experience for me to have a nice, calm and talented crown princess Victoria in my studio!”
In 2011, Ase taught a kurbits class in Stockholm, where she met Chintana, who was one of the participants. When the class ended, Chintana invited Ase to the Wooden Horse Museum.
“When I later visited her beautiful shop and saw all new and old painted wooden horses, I understood that we two had something common,” Ase said.“We stayed in touch and at the end of that year Chintana contacted me. She wanted me to paint a limited edition of a Dala horse to celebrate the birth of Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel´s first child–that horse is called “The Little Star.” And so we started our collaboration!”
“When I paint horses, it´s only for the Limited Edition of the ”The Little Star” and a few special horses commissioned for Chintana,” Ase said. “I take my time to paint these horses, with some soft classical music around me.”
Bright Lights, Big City
Ase’s talents have brought her from her serene studio in Dalarna into the bright lights of the big city.
“I was invited to the Nordic Museum in Stockholm to have a short event when they had their preview of an exhibition ”Heavy Retro” for specially invited guests the evening before the public opening,” she explained. “It is an exhibition about antique furniture in the folk art-style from 1750-1850. It is a very beautiful exhibition, which can be seen through September 2016.”
“Many of the vernacular furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries on the exhibition is painted with the same old techniques and materials as I work with when I paint furniture,” she said. “So it was a pleasure and honor for me to be chosen for this event. I did my best to represent a modern decorative painter who encourages the traditions to be preserved, and to be passed on to future generations.”
“The creative power of our strong traditions live on in the contemporary forms of today,” Ase observed. “Dalarna is a culture province of high standing that offers visitors an insight into Sweden’s history in an artistic format. Our folk art is an invaluable treasure.”
Thankful for Dalarna
“I'm thankful for living in Dalarna, which has a beautiful varying landscape all year round,” she said. “Small mountains, some highly situated with a beautiful view, deep forests where you can find hiking trails, open fields and splendid meadows in the summertime. Midsummer is, of course, a special experience, when the night is at its lightest and we decorate with meadow flowers, dress the maypole and dance, some wearing national costumes, and we celebrate the light for several days.”
“I love outdoor activities like kayaking in glittering lakes and in the Dala River, or take bicycle trails through small villages to idyllic locations,” she continued. “It gives me a feeling of space and calm. Dalarna is a never-ending source of inspiration for me!”
“I'm proud of our cultural heritage and we welcome visitors to Dalarna–perhaps to return again and again!” Ase declared.
I know this visitor is delighted to have discovered the Dala horse through Chintana’s Wooden Horse Museum–and now that I know the history, I look forward to visiting the cherished folk symbol at its “source” in Dalarna!
Header Photo: Holger Ellgaard, Creative Commons
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