Our Wretched Little Lives: Paganism and Christianity in THE VIRGIN SPRING
SPOILER WARNING: I cover every significant beat of The Virgin Spring.
Among rich troves of Scandinavian folklore exists the ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge”. Composed in medieval Sweden, the ballad tells the legend of Kärna församling, a church originally constructed in the 12th century. As the story goes, the three unnamed daughters of Pehr Tyrsson and his wife, Karin, meet three bandits on the road to church and are beheaded after the bandits give them the choice to become their “wives” or be killed. After the young women are murdered, the bandits steal the silk dresses they are wearing and unwittingly attempt to sell the dresses to the girls’ parents. Pehr Tyrsson then exacts revenge on the men and pledges to build a church where his daughters were slain. Centuries later, this legend served as the inspiration for The Virgin Spring, the classic 1960 Academy Award winning film directed by Ingmar Bergman and written by Ulla Isaksson.
Far and away the most prominent theme of the film is the conflict between Pagan and Christian worldviews, both of which Bergman seems to hold in low regard. Within the opening minutes of The Virgin Spring, we are presented with a deliberate juxtaposition of Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), the devout matriarch of the central family, and Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a servant who worships Odin in secret. As prim Märeta burns herself in solidarity with the agony of Christ, a disheveled and heavily pregnant Ingeri is chastised by another servant for her “savage” lifestyle.
Bergman’s environment of contrasts continues when we are first made aware of Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), daughter of Töre (Max von Sydow) and Märeta. Karin does not appear at first, because she is “fond of sleeping away the morning” and her father is loath to discipline her. As Karin is a virgin, she is to take candles to church as an offering to the Virgin Mary. Ingeri is awake and working with the rest of the family as Karin sleeps and is tasked with preparing Karin’s lunch and escorting her to the church to perform her duties. Though the family demeans Ingeri for her lifestyle, she is presented as the hardest working among them even as she is several months pregnant, while the pampered Karin is allowed to do nothing.
As Karin and Ingeri are on horseback following the path to the church, they pass a cawing raven before coming upon a lonely cottage in the woods inhabited by an old man with one functioning eye. Clearly the raven here is Huginn or Muninn, one of the mythical ravens appearing in Grímnismál of the Poetic Edda that travels throughout Midgard to bring Odin information. The one-eyed man, of course, is Odin. Interestingly, Bergman chooses to present a literal, personified Odin in this reality. Within The Virgin Spring, Odin is as real as the characters and is engaged in the happenings of the world. When Ingeri enters his shack, he tells her he “hears what [he] wants to hear and sees what [he] wants to see.” He implies he knows what Ingeri has whispered to him in her solitude and forebodingly declares the pounding she hears outside is that of “three dead men riding north.”
Odin actively listens to the prayers he chooses to listen to, seemingly drawn to prayers of a damaging or evil nature. Ingeri, as his servant, is also depicted as “immoral” and later, cruel. We learn Odin asks “taking human blood” as an offering and he assures Ingeri he will give her strength so she may fulfill this requirement. The three dead men he is referring to are men who have yet to die. Odin is already aware of the events that will soon unfold and has perhaps set these events in motion himself.
As Ingeri runs from Odin’s shack, Karin meets three bandits in the woods who entice her with music from a “funny mouth harp” and a woeful tale of being orphaned and in the case of one brother, having his tongue cut out by cruel men. Karin, in her innocence, agrees to eat with them, and prays to Jesus to bless the bread they are to eat and save her soul from eternal death. Karin never understands the danger she is in until she cannot escape being brutally raped as Ingeri looks on, once picking up a rock to throw at them, then allowing it to fall. The bandits then murder Karin, tear her clothes from her body, and trample the Virgin’s candles. After the bandits arrive at Karin’s family home and offer her clothing to her mother, Ingeri begs Töre to kill her, as she willed Odin to possess the bandits. Töre then flagellates himself as penance for abandonment of Christian principles in order to murder the men who violated and killed his daughter.
The actions taken by Ingeri in this sequence could perhaps be viewed as her well of Mimir. As Odin sacrificed his eye to the well to gain wisdom, Ingeri sacrifices Karin and gains an understanding of herself, as well as the nature of her deity for which, she was not prepared.
After the bandits are dead, Ingeri leads the family to Karin’s body. Upon seeing his daughter, Töre walks away and falls to the ground. We watch his sorrow from afar, and then draw in close as he makes a promise to god to build a church as penance for his sin. Upon moving Karin, a spring bursts forth, and Ingeri begins washing her face with its water to absolve herself. Around her, others begin praying, and the film fades to black.
One of the major characters of The Virgin Spring is the Christian god, yet unlike Odin, he neither appears nor provides any assistance or answers to his followers. There is a bonus feature on the Criterion edition of the film in which director, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) discusses how unusual the camera angle is as Töre is vowing to build his church. The camera watches Töre from behind rather than in front of him or above him. Perhaps this is because the Christian god is always present throughout The Virgin Spring—he is just far away, uncaring. God is the camera, always passively watching as Märeta burns her hands in his name or as Karin is raped and murdered on her way to make an offering to him. He is omnipresent and omniscient, but at best, his attitude towards humanity is laissez-faire. At worst, god is a voyeur, seeking gratification from worship, but making no effort to reward the same. Töre will build a church of mortar and stone, and God will watch him do so from afar. He is like Odin in a way, but rather than commit acts of cruelty, he simply allows them to happen.
But we humans are frail. We “quiver like leaves in the storm, afraid of what we know and what we do not know.” We cling to some form of god, for like Töre, we know no other way to live.
 "Kärna kyrka." Svenska kyrkan. Accessed June 13, 2017. https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/karna/defaultaspxid641080.
 "GRIMNISMOL." The Poetic Edda: Grimnismol. Accessed June 16, 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe06.htm.