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Making a primstav of today

As part of our local communication and engagement work, we developed a creative exercise centered on the traditional Norwegian calendar stick, the primstav.

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working in a art workstead
CNC machine in process
Photo:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen
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working in a art workstead
Wood being prepared for the CNC machine
Photo:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen
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working in a art workstead
Digitalization of drawings
Photo:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen
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primstav stick of wood with symbols
Winter side of primstav starting October 14th and ending April 13th. Here we have, from left to right, a globe for the UN day, a woollen sock for colder weather, a witches hat for Halloween, a studded tyre for November 1st , a person being inside for November, a sheep for mutton season, a candle light for December 1st , a beer for the feast of Saint Thomas, a tree and present for Christmas Eve, fireworks for New Year’s, a cloud and wind symbol for the New Year’s storms in January, skis, a frost symbol in February, a person on a mountain symbolizing hiking, a crocus for spring in late March and a Kit Kat and orange symbolizing Easter in April (this is a traditional snack when skiing on Easter holiday at the cabin).
Photo:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen
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primstav stick of wood with symbols
Summer side of primstav, starting April 14th running to October 13th. It starts with a bicycle wheel, then a wild garlic leaf, a boat, a Ferris wheel and flags for the 17th of May (National Day), a sun with a musical note inside for the spring cultural festivals in late May /early June, a barrel on fire for St. Johns day, a school bell ringing for the end for the school year in mid-June, ice cream and sea for summer, blueberries, a book for the start of the school semester in mid-August, a film frame with an autumn leaf symbolizing the autumn cultural festivals and a bottle and a carrot for the autumn produce.
Photo:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen
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This was a creative way to start conversations about seasons and seasonal markers in an early and exploratory phase of the project. We have on three different occasions introduced different groups to the historic Norwegian primstav calendar and invited them to create their own primstav, for their own lives, and through this, engaged them in thinking and conversation about the rhythms’ of their year and seasonal adaptation.

The primstav, interesting in itself as an expression of local cultural history and traditional handicraft, is also an object “good to think with” for our project as it shows how activities varied through the year in olden times; how small village societies adapted to the different seasons, and how this permeated also cultural and religious life (Levi-Strauss 1962:89). It is like a filled-out almanac from another time, keeping track of religious days to be observant of, necessary preparations for the more mundane necessities for food and shelter with seasonal variation, and rules of thumb predictions for the weather. While the main or overt purpose of the primstav was to keep track of the religious celebrations, in practical use and interpretation it was a tool giving note of seasonal shifts, expectations and preparations in connection with these, rules of thumb for predicting the weather, when to start or end different types of work, especially in farming, and some older heathen and local celebrations and traditions. In a sense our project is about finding out what a primstav for today might look like, and that is exactly what we have done!

The traditional primstav is made of wood and marked with one line for each day and normally a larger line every seventh day, and engraved with images and symbols. An oblong or sword like shape like in the photograph above was the most common shape.  The symbols depict the different nonmoving religious holidays connected with the catholic cult of saints. The primstav has a summer side, and a winter side. This division of the year into two seasons, summer starting April 14th and winter starting October 14th, goes back to heathen times in Norway, and traditionally there were celebrations with sacrifices and feast connected to the change of season or in mid-season. Some of these old traditions mixed in with the new Christian celebrations. For instance, St. Johns day, June 24th, fell on the traditional midsummer’s day, which still to this day is celebrated with big bonfires on the eve before, as in heathen times.

Making a primstav for Bergen today

In collaboration with a local artist Magnhild Øen Nordahl and Aldea - Center for Contemporary Art, Design and Technology we hosted a one-day workshop June 27th 2020 at Aldea in Bergen, for seven participants. After having introduced the group to the traditional primstav, we spent two hours discussing and agreeing on things and days to mark on our modern primstav for Bergen and how to symbolize these. The participants drew the different days and phenomena they agreed on including and then the drawings were digitalized. On the second half of our day the materials gathered from the city mountains were prepared and then the agreed upon design was cut out with an CNC- machine. The group was recruited by e-mail and Facebook from different networks, and the seven participants made up a varied group with regards to age, sex and occupational background.

draft on paper

The group had to agree on the symbols to include, which created quite a lot of discussion. The group finally agreed on 28 different icons that marked the passing of the year for them. We find holidays and special days like May 17th (National Day), Easter, Christmas eve, New Years, The UN day, St. John’s Day and Halloween, and the school cycle and vacations.

Foto/ill.:
Elisabeth Schøyen Jensen

References to weather and nature were included, like wild garlic and crocus for spring, blueberries for summer, New year’s storms in January, and a snow crystal for February as this was seen as the month that might have snow.  As this was a group endeavour, we find fewer specific hobbies and past times as when we did a similar individual exercise with younger children, but we still find lots of symbols related to past time activities like skiing in February and hiking in March, and a symbol for the springtime cultural festivals and another one for the autumn cultural festivals. November was noted as “inside time”, December as a time with candle lights and eating and drinking (sheep and beer) and July as ice cream and sea. On a more practical note, in early April we find a bicycle wheel and a boat, this is the time to get the bike ready and get the boat back on water, and November 1st is time to change to winter tyre on your car.

References:

Alver, Brynjulf (1981). Dag og merke – Folkeleg tidrekning og merkedagstradisjon, Universitetsforlaget, Bergen.
Kimsul, Hrald (1979). Primstaven. Bergen Faktorforening.
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1964). Totemism. Merlin Press, London.