Horse Meat in Sweden. Its Troubled Past.

Feb, 2019

Dead horses hang from a giant tree. Blood drips from their lacerated flesh. Below, hooded figures tend to cauldrons, the air putrid from boiling meat. Did I dream it? Or did I hear about it as a child in Sweden? Perhaps I read about it in the family encyclopedia, those ponderous volumes that were my gateway to the world. Or was I too young to read and only saw an illustration? For all my searching, I cannot find it now. Still, I do remember, men and women cloaked in gray, blood splattered on autumn leaves, the huge tree groaning.

Adam of Bremen, a monk who traveled to Sweden in the 11thcentury, heard about it too. He wrote about a sacred grove outside Uppsala, not far from what is now Stockholm. Every nine years people from all the provinces would arrive to attend a great sacrificial feast. One of his informants, a heathen turned Christian, claimed to have seen no less than seventy-two corpses hanging in a grove, horses and other animals too, “among them corpses of men.” The celebrants had been eating and drinking, the songs “so many and disgusting that it is best to pass them over in silence.” Of course, Adam was a monk. Unlike the Vikings, he saw the profane and the sacred as opposites, not aspects of the same.

As Sweden converted to Christianity, the Vatican banned the consumption of horse meat, linking it more closely to pagan worship than that of other animals. Through the centuries the taboo gained in strength, even though its alleged origin became increasingly obscure. The very act of killing a horse was shameful in itself, carried out by rackare, a shunned breed of men, who also assisted in human executions, quartering and disemboweling the condemned.

As for how the rackare treated horses, I can only hope that the killing itself was swift. Little went to waste. Shoes were ripped off and sold to farriers, hooves boiled for glue. Hacked close to the root, tails and manes reappeared in upholstery, paint brushes, and the bows of musical instruments. But the meat itself remained tainted, fit only for prisoners and dogs. That is, if the horse was lucky enough to be killed at all. Several methods existed to make an old horse look young, such as stuffing its anus with tobacco, or filling the hollows of its teeth with tar, likely to dupe the most experienced trader. Was the old gelding lame? Make him limp on the other leg too, and no one would know.

Then, in 1784, at a manor house not far from Uppsala, Baron Adam Germund Cederhielm slaughtered his own horse. Assisting him were 18 of his farmers, dour men in coarse, dark wool. At least some of them had been promised tax relief for their services that day. Crops had failed, beggars wandered the road. Nödbröd was common fare, bread baked on chaff and bark, even mosses. For some time Cederhielm had written letters to people of influence, in both the countryside and Stockholm, advocating horse meat as a healthy and flavorful food. The response had been cautious, privately positive but rarely public. Aside from the 18 farmers, close to 400 people, all of them living and working on the estate, attended the slaughter. Cederhielm was known to take care of his own. A philanthropist of note, he preferred to stay at his manor house, unlike his brother, who was drawn to Stockholm, where his vitriolic wit, as exercised in his polemic journalism, led to his exclusion from the House of Nobility, a disgraceful conclusion to his political career.

Brunta, the horse, was accustomed to crowds. Cederhielm used to ride her in parades, amidst drums and flags, the colonel saluting as they passed. Now, standing in the courtyard, she likely remained calm. After a clergyman offered a prayer, Cederhielm rammed the knife into Brunta’s throat, the most common method to kill a horse, supposedly also the one that caused the least pain. Still, she would have taken her time to die. The knife still stuck in her throat, she might have circled the courtyard, nosing the ground, spread with meal and salt to soak up her blood. Once she went down, Cederhielm pulled the knife and waited while her eyes clouded over and stilled. As he slit her coat from head to tail, the farmers stepped up to help, one after the next, a pool of roiling intestines at their feet. The meat, dark red with murmurs of blue, sizzled on the glowing coal. Cederhielm, the first to eat, pronounced it good. A shudder ran through the crowd, mixed with disbelief. Still, Cederhielm’s matter-of-fact-ness won out, and what was not consumed was cured in vinegar and stored away.

Serving Horse à la Cederhielm became the fashion of the day. After all, it was the Age of Reason, and all manners of prejudice were under attack. Concerns for animal welfare were also on the rise and employed in the cause. Their meat valued, as that of a cow or an ox, horses would be well treated for as long as they lived, not die in harness, half-starved and flogged, which was not an uncommon sight. I envision elegant coaches drawing up in front of marble steps, roses scattered on a table cloth, footmen along the walls, menu cards beside each plate. Cederhielm sent steaks to King Gustav III himself. An enlightened despot and admirer of Voltaire, the king was embroiled in a battle of his own, caught as he was between the warring factions of his noblemen. In view of “certain considerations,” he did not officially endorse horse meat as human food, not even to ease the privations of the poor. Nor did he oppose it. Certain is that the name Cederhielm was again on everyone’s lips, although the king at times found it difficult to tell the two brothers apart, as in “the one who eats people, or the one who eats horse?”

Reason did not prevail. When the old idols collapse, new ones are born, or so Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Horses have been a large part of my life, and even now, I never miss an opportunity to press my face to their necks and draw in their musty, grassy scent. Eating their meat, for that reason alone, strikes me as repulsive, akin to eating a friend. But what if there’s more? Carl Jung suggested that ancestral memories are embedded in our collective unconscious, a theory that scientists today continue to pursue. That prayer before Brunta’s death, what was it really about? A plea for forgiveness? A plea for better crops? Could it have been a throwback to those pagan times, when carcasses hung from a tree, and the cries of animals carried in the wind? What if deep within us, that savage place still lives? What if Nietzsche was wrong? What if the gods are the same?

I wonder.

Portrait of King Gustav III (1746-1792), by Lorens Pasch the Younger

My main source was Hästslakt och rackarskam, by Brita Egardt (Nordiska museets handlingar 57, 1962)




by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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