Astrological humours and sailing ships: The Vasa Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

The Vasa Museet attempts to show what life was like in Sweden, ca. 1628. Belief in astrology as a science was at its height.

I get to go to some extremely interesting places, I guess, in the pursuit of things to write about here. Now, you’re not going to see the obvious connection between the Vasa Museum and the subject I was pursuing until life became slightly more interesting than writing this blog. However, I will explain the connection, I promise, but first I must do what I do best, which is wander all over the place before I get to the point.

One side of the warship, with openings for its 300 cannons

The Vasa (pronounced “Wasa,” which, we discovered, is an ancient, almost forgotten, Swedish word for “sheaf of corn”)  is a warship built by the ambitious Swedish king Gustav Adolf II in the 1620s to cement his power against the Poles, who kept trying to invade Sweden for political reasons that are sort of lost to history, since, honestly, so few people can visualise Poland as an important war power these days, that the idea of Poland having a powerful navy (which they once did) seems entirely laughable.

I am sorry to sound so snide, but it’s true. Anyway, on its maiden voyage, the Vasa literally sailed 1300 metres away from its mooring and promptly sank. Gustav’s ego was as large as his ship, which was overburdened with firepower in the form of heavy bronze cannons which contributed to its sinking.

An impressive but overloaded and unstable ship sinks minutes after it leaves its dock

Now, the Vasa is an important and beautiful archaeological discovery. It sank in pristine condition, since there was nothing wrong with it other than its overall lack of seaworthiness. It sank in low-oxygen silt, and so it was preserved in such a way that the wood of the ship was only partially compromised (a somewhat complicated chemical process turned parts of the wood into iron, which made it much easier to preserve the ship once it was raised to the surface in the 1960s). If you are a lover of ships and shipping, as I am, then you will be interested in this ship for its own sake. It was and is an incredible find, for it recreates the sociopolitical values of an emerging European superpower (Sweden was in that role in the 1600s).

So anyway, back to the idea of astrology and humours. It should not surprise those of you who follow astrology and history that the 1620s was a time when Europe relied heavily on astrology and on the idea that the human body was controlled by humours.

And so we come to the Vasa Museum, which attempts to explain what was going on during the time the ship was built. In fact, what the museum shows is that the astrological metaphor, as well as humours (sanguine, choleric, etc.) were interwoven in virtually every image created for the ship. The Vasa Museet (Swedish for ‘museum’) is a time capsule of the era in which belief in the astrological metaphor was at its height in Europe. I was astounded at how there was literally no carved surface of the ship that did not in some way pay homage to the traditions of astrology, including the astrology of the Romans. Since Sweden desired to emulate the power that was Rome, they borrowed a great deal of imagery from Roman culture.

Sculpture representing the sanguine temperament. This is one of over 700 sculptures carved to decorate the ship.

Equally influential to the Swedes who carved this ship were the ways in which humours influenced human psychology and behavior, so there is sculpture after sculpture dedicated to one of the gods (Neptune, Hades, and Mars), as well as engraved images of people representing the various humours. For me, the timing of seeing this exhibit right when I was most interested in discussing the humours as they were used in astrology could not have been more precise.

So the Vasa, lost to history for hundreds of years as it lay in a semi-preserved state in the muck of Stockholm harbour, represented in symbolic form the values of the society of its time, including Europe’s prevailing attitude toward the science and mythology of astrology. These images were carved into the impressive warship’s structure, which lay on the sea floor for hundreds of years, waiting for science to find a way to protect and preserve it. The Vasa’s preservation is an ongoing task, which is documented on the museum’s website.

Might I suggest you download Google’s Chrome browser, my browser of choice, which can be set up to automatically interpret text in foreign languages.