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A winter tale

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

Winter on the island of Sylt can be a lonely affair. A far cry from the loud beaches of summer, the wanderer at the sea is alone – an almost Caspar David Friedrich-like figure in an uninhabited landscape of emptiness.

Literary Landscapes Indra Wussow Marian Hester Burning threshold 1
Marian Hester, Burning threshold 1, 2019. Charcoal, ash, chalk and graphite on paper. 42 x 29,7cm

When I was young, the winters seemed fiercer, the wind howled for days and nights on end, and the darkness penetrated the barren nature. There was no solace, no distraction from the blackness of melancholia. There were no tourists, and only some Sylt islanders remained but even they seemed to vanish in the thick cotton of fog. The little girl could stare into the mudflats for hours and in her fantasy, haggard and gaunt soldiers in rags rose out of the hermetic white to bring mystical revelations from their merciless battlefields. The fear as palpable as the smell of dead wood in the crisp air of winter.
     Biikebrennen is the ritual of chasing the winter out and it has been celebrated on 21 February every year for centuries. A huge pile of burning wood is a beacon against the eternal dark. The origin of it is unclear – maybe the fire was supposed to chase away bad spirits and save the new seedlings in medieval times. On the North Frisian Islands, the fires of Biikebrennen served as a farewell to the whalers. The women lit fires along the long beaches to offer their husbands a safe passage. There is a Sylt legend that claims that these fires were also lit to attract Danish men from the mainland as the women were now alone on their farmsteads. The start of the whaling season had always been 22 February, ever since 1403 when a resolution between the Hansa towns ordered a pause in the shipping season from November to February each year. Hence, 22 February marked the end of the winter break and therewith the beginning of spring.

To read more about Biikebrennen and South African artist Marian Hester’s experience of the fire festival on the island of Sylt, purchase the May 2019 issue of Creative Feel or, to continue supporting our role in the South African arts and culture sector, subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 to R365.00 per year! SUBSCRIBE HERE!

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