By Minjie Su
What is it that you truly desire? How far are you prepared to go to get it? Would you, say, treasure it even more than your immortal soul? Apparently, for a woman who was believed to have lived in medieval Sweden, the answer is ‘yes’; and the object that she longed after is nothing but a pair of new shoes.
The story of Titta-Grå (Look-Grey), better known as Sko-Ella (Shoe-Ella), is recorded above the door to the antechamber or vapenhus in Viksta kyrka, a church in northern Uppsala commune that is dated to the 13th century. In the mural, a diabolical figure, standing on one side of the door, is holding a very long pole with a pair of red boots tied to the end. A woman on the other side is holding the boots with one hand; it seems that she is examining or admiring this offering. The tale itself is not particularly unfamiliar or unique: Stephen Mitchell in his book Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages has identified the motif as belonging to the international tale type AT1353, ‘The Old Woman as Troublemaker’. However, Sko-Ella did more than stir up some trouble. She has done something that even made the devil tremble.
Sko-Ella, as the (reconstructed) story goes, had been longing after a new pair of shoes for quite some time. In the meantime, the devil had been longing to create some trouble between a married couple. He employed Sko-Ella for that very purpose, in exchange of the shoes. It is unclear if they had any sexual relationship, as is customary in witch-devil pacts. To get the task done, Sko-Ella told the wife that her husband was having an affair; in order to once more possess his love, she must cut off a lock of his head in the dead of night. To the husband, however, Sko-Ella told a much darker story: his wife was planning to kill him, said the cunning woman, so he must remain awake during the night and be prepared. The husband heeded Sko-Ella’s words well, went to bed – quite alarmed, as can be expected – and feigned sleep. The wife approached with a knife. Believing that everything Sko-Ella said was about to come true, the husband jumped out of the bed and killed his wife on the spot. Ella demanded her reward, but her method was so cruel and bloody that even the devil became afraid – after all, all he wanted was just discord and perhaps the end of the marriage; but that end needed not to be death. Now realizing what kind of woman he was dealing with, the devil did not go anywhere near Sko-Ella. Instead, he handed her the shoes with a long pole, so he may keep her at more than an arm’s distance.
The story of Sko-Ella is essentially a moralising tale – that fact that it or similar motif, in Vikstad kyrka as well as a few other churches in Uppsala commune, tends to be depicted above the door strengthens its function. Sko-Ella’s tale serves as a warning; every time they went through the antechamber, the parishioners would be reminded of what harm gossip and slander could do. This location is important and not so randomly chosen, as Mitchell points out. Vapenhus or ‘weapon house’, is where men are expected to leave their weapons before entering the church. It represents ‘the transitional or liminal space between the outside secular world and the marked holy area of worship’. Whereas the walls of the interior tend to be covered with scenes from the Bible, in vapenhus we find secular images with religious teachings, as if to remind the worshipers – especially on their way out – that they must not deviate from the highway of virtue when they are out there in the temporal world.
What makes the temporal world so dangerous is that it is full of temptations, which in turn have their root in the devil. Sko-Ella, of course, is also an admonition against witchcraft, or associating oneself the devil in general. In Uppland in particular, church murals depicting scenes with the devil are the most commonly seen. In these depictions it is always women who are engaged as the devil’s helper, just like Sko-Ella, though the tasks of those women are less bloody: most of the time, they just steal milk and churn butter. The misogynistic message is plain: women, being of the weaker sex, are easy targets of the force of evil as well as of the world of men.
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