The Native: The Dalahäst - 8 Questions Answered

2011-04-16. Published in Language & Culture
by Nils Pasi

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On the topic of 'made in Sweden', there is one thing you simply cannot keep from mentioning: the Dalahäst (Eng.: Dala Horse). Because there are already some great articles on the Dalahäst already out there, I decided that I would collect some interesting questions instead, and provide some insightful answers to those. Thus I have collected eight questions about the Dalahäst, and written eight enlightening answers.

1) "When I went to Dalarna, I saw 32 cows and no horse. What's up with that?"

While Dalarna is quite large, we rather suspect that you went to all the wrong places. But this does allow us to briefly touch upon the nature of the Dala Horse and its natural habitat, so to speak. You often find the Dala Horse in stores selling souvenirs. They are also common in family homes, having either been bought recently or passed down through generations within the family. The Dala Horse is a wooden horse, usually small, although there are larger ones as well. The painting, colours and pattern, has changed over the years, but the look of the modern Dala Horse (photo) has remained relatively unchanged for at least 150 years.

2) "My mother owns a farm with cows,  horses, sheep, pigs and one ostrich. We are very proud of them all. Therefore, I find it disturbing that animal equality in Sweden is so poor. What do you have against cows?"

While we would contest the claim that Sweden is a country with great animal inequality, the question of why it is a Dala Horse and not, say, a Dala Cow, sheep or moose is nonetheless very interesting. To explain this, we have to go back in time all the way to the 11th century when Christianity was spreading in Sweden.

Before Christianity, the Vikings in Sweden believed in the As religion (Sw.: Asatro), with Odin, Thor and all these mighty Viking Gods. In the As faith, the horse was a sacred animal. In fact, horses have been depicted in rock carvings as far back as 20.000 years ago, as we can see, for example, in rock art discovered in Lascaux.

The area around Mora in Dalarna shows evidence of several Viking communities and burial grounds. Thus it is clear that the As faith was clearly established there. Despite attempts by the Christian Church to make the horse into evil, devilish animal, the people in Dalarna retained their faith in the horse.

3) "I have read about turtles that can become 80 years old. How old is the oldest Dala Horse?"

While we're reasonably sure that turtles can become even older than that, we are completely sure that the Dala Horses are much older than 80 years. Around Mora, horses dating back to the 17th century have been found. In fact, there's a document dating back to the 17th century in which an astonishing trial is described. According to a statement made by the parish priest in Mora, witches used small, animal shaped wooden objects to carry out the Devil's work. The same document also contains a statement by the county constable, wherein it is made clear that the wooden objects were in the shape of horses distributed as toys among the children.

4) "I like DNA because it looks funny in Jurassic Park. When I grow up I want to be a DNA-ier [Editor: probably DNA researcher] and I don't want to create dinosaurs, and I want to create Dala Horses. How did the Dala Horse first come to be?"

While we feel that a Steven Speilberg movie should never be taken as a reliable source on the visual appearance and characteristics of DNA, we won't disclude the possibility of you becoming a woodcarver and toymaker. Yes, it was as toys the Dala Horse began. That, and as a "sign of appreciation for workmates in the field and forest" (Grannas).

5) "I was bit by a sheep yesterday. Is that dangerous?"

While we're amazed that you were bit by a sheep, we can assure you that the only danger a Dala Horse poses is if it is you doing the biting. This has to do with the water-based colours used on some Dala Horses. When biting the horse, some compounds that aren't healthy for you may enter through your mouth. We generally recommend that you shouldn't go around biting animals, though, whether wooden or otherwise.

6) "My horses are green, very green. Are yours?"

While we're slightly concerned about the health of your horses, we are happy to say that the Dala Horses are very environmentally friendly. The horses are made of wood from trees, and the colours we use nowadays are mostly water-based and very eco-friendly.

While on the subject of colour, we may also touch upon the fact that all horses do not look the same. Especially in the past, both shape and painting patterns sometimes differed. One major departure from the 'traditional' Dala Horse, if there is such a thing as a 'traditional' Dala Horse, is the candle carrying Dala Horse. These were candleholders, which gave the horses a more practical function. As for varying colouration and shape, there are some unique Dala Horses made even today. Head over here to see some variations.

7) "I read that the trees in Sweden are made of wood. Is that true?"

While we're amazed that you could doubt it, we're happy to tell you that our Dala Horses, too, are made of wood.

8) "I have noticed that you begin all you answers with the word 'while'."

While we praise your gift of observation, we feel the need to point out that what you wrote is a statement, not a question. But in case you're wondering, the Dala Horses never say 'while'. In fact, they don't speak at all.

And that wraps it up for this time. I trust this Questions & Answers session has answered some of your questions and helped spread some light as to the nature and history of the Dala Horse. If you want to read more, you can head over here for an excellent source on the Dala Horse.

Nota Bene:
While the questions are a work of fiction made up by the author of this article, the answers are based on facts.

/Nils, team 2010