Measuring The Circle:

Armed only with a Ring of Confidence, Bob looks towards the Fortean future.


EAGLE & BABY 1 - The Svanhild Hartvigsen Story

It was nearly 30 years ago that John Michell and I first wrote about accounts of young children snatched away by large eagles. In our 1982 book Living Wonders - which was subsumed into Unexplained Phenomena (2000 and 2007) - they constituted a chapter we called ‘Avian Abductions' in which we compiled nearly 20 cases with varying degrees of credibility. I would like to take this opportunity to correct and expand one of them - the story of Svanhild Hansen, kidnapped by a sea eagle on the 5th June 1932 from a farmyard on a Norwegian island. Unlike the many hapless children in our accounts, ‘the eagle-girl of Leka' was recovered alive. 

Svanhild with her torn childhood clothing, her husband and a stuffed eagle. Apx 1969s.

Svanhild became a living testament to her strange experience. "Over the years I have heard many stories about children and animals that have been taken by eagles. But I'm probably the only one who has come out of it alive. I'm grateful," she told the Dagbladet Magazine in 2007. [1]

The occasion for revisiting this topic was the news of Svanhild's death in November 2010. [2 + 3] I was alerted to this by FT's veteran Swedish correspondent Sven Rosén, who also pointed out that the death notices in Norwegian newspapers contained significant differences to some of the details given in Living Wonders (LW) and Unexplained Phenomena.

In my research to write her obituary (see ‘Necrolog', FT272, pp.24-5), I was able to use tools that were not available thirty years ago; instead of old books and our own collections of newsclippings, we can now search foreign news archives on the Internet translate them online. This enabled me to expand on the account we had summarised from earlier English-language writers and include corrections of the salient details. For example: most of the accounts in English (including our own) referred to her as Svanhild Hansen. This was her maiden name; to her Norwegian countrymen, she was better known by her married name, Svanhild Hartvigsen. Indeed, LW included a photo of her in her 30s, beside her husband, staring warily at a stuffed eagle.

She was born Svanhild Aminda Hansen, sometime in 1929, in a small fishing village on one of the many small islands in the Hortavær complex, some 12 km NNW off the larger island (not a town) of Leka, off the coast of central Norway's North Trøndelag county (not Trøndheim, which is a city). After marrying, Svanhild moved south to the port of Rørvik and, for 40 years, worked quietly in a seafood factory. She retired when she reached 75, and died on 12 November 2010 in Rørvik, aged 81.

location of Nord-Trondelag

Early in June 1932 - when she was aged between three and four years old (one source notes that she was four months short of her fourth birthday) - Svanhild's family came to stay with relations on Leka island, at the Soeraa farm at Kvaløy, so that her little brother could have a church christening, there being no churches on Hortavær. On Sunday, June 5th, after the service, they went back to the farm. After dinner the adults rested and the children went out to play. Sometime after three o'clock, the bigger boys went down to the sea shore leaving her playing alone in a grassy yard. At around 3:30pm, the family noticed she was missing.

More than 200 people - including the male choir - were mobilised to search the environs; as people had gathered for Sunday services, most of the scattered population was conveniently available. The shore and sea were scanned; as hours passed with no news, some people began muttering that the devil must have taken her. Towards evening, someone found a shoe near the Haga mountains [4], towards the centre of the island and several miles away from the farm; it was Svanhild's. Someone else mentioned that, in the morning, they had noticed unusual activity there by eagles in the vicinity of an eyrie.

Three young men with knowledge of the mountains - Karl Haug, Jentoft Svensson and Leif Andersen - set off immediately to investigate. Haug later gave a filmed interview describing the difficult climb. "We were not prepared at all. We still had church clothes on and had no food, but we were determined to get up to the nest. It seemed unlikely that the eagle should have taken the child, but we saw no other solution." [10]

Finding her handkerchief on the way, they pressed on up the steep and sharp crags of the Hagafjellet. As they came up below the eyrie, an eagle swooped on them defensively, with claws extended. Ironicly, this classic bird of prey stoop was adopted for the coat of arms by the municipality of Leka in the 1980s, partly inspired by the Svanhild incident. Above them, and below the nesting place, was small ledge. On a hunch Svendsen decided to investigate it ... and there she was, tucked under a shallow overhang. Some reports describe the shelf as "inaccessible"; certainly in Haug's account, Svendsen had to stand on the others' shoulders to peer over its lip.

The first thing Svendsen noticed was that Svanhild was lying still in the crevice. "He shouted down to us that she is here, but that she was dead," Karl Haug recalled. On closer examination, one foot was shoeless, her hands were bloody and there were rips in her clothing, but she was alive, sleeping, perhaps from exhaustion. Seven hours had elapsed since she went missing and here she was, relatively unharmed, nearly two kilometres away from the farm and 180 metres up.

Svanhild said later, "I was quiet as a mouse in my Sunday dress, playing with some stones, when suddenly I saw the eagle coming towards me. The next thing I remember is that I'm lying on a ledge, and then I see the eagle dive toward me. I remember how she came at me with those big claws. It was horrible!" After coming-to on the shelf, she crawled under the overhang for protection and threw stones at the eagle whenever it lunged at her. "I was only three years, but I had an instinct to fight, to survive [..] It would probably have torn me to pieces and carried me up to the nest to feed its kids," she said. When the men roused her, she screamed in terror at being surprised by strangers; then relief took over and she was carried once more, this time to safety. At some point on the way back, she was reunited with her father who carried her for the rest of the way. [5]

newsphoto - svanhild reunited with parents

She was examined by a Dr K. Fossum, the district medic. He noted that she had on only one shoe, but there was nothing about the sock still on the other foot that drew his attention. He weighed her on the only device available at short notice, a scale (bismervekt) used for weighing soil, and estimated her weight at 19kg. She was wearing four layers of clothing and a long scarf that crossed over her chest and was tied in a knot behind her back. Large perforations and tears pierced all layers of the clothing but her skin beneath them was intact. Except for a graze on her forehead she had no other marks of violence.

As there were no witnesses to the avian abduction, the story was, inevitably, questioned by sceptics over the years, especially by experienced ornithologists. In 2006, the established publishers, Damms, brought out a book, Sea Eagle Kidnap, a rehash of Svanhild's story by Bente Roestad. [6] As the only other book about the case - by Steinar Hunnerstad [7] - had been published about 45 years earlier, Roestad wrote that the story deserved to be updated and retold "as part of our heritage". It was "an extremely rare anomaly [..] Haga Mountain is a special mountain; the winds that day were unusual and we have a superb eagle, a Muhammed Ali among eagles".

The book, however, provoked a strong reaction from Norwegian ornithologists. Morten Ree, for example, writing in Birdlife (the eponymous publication of the international partnership of bird conservation organisations), represented the dismay of the Norwegian Ornithological Society that in lifting the story out of "its rightful place alongside tales of goblins, gnomes and trolls," the publisher was spreading "an unfounded fear of large birds of prey among children and parents".

More outspoken was Alv Ottar Folkestad in a letter to Dagbladet. As the newly elected president of the Norwegian Ornithological Society [8], and head of the Sea Eagles Project, he wrote: "I really thought we were done with this story, so I was disappointed when I saw the book." He said that, now, he was being contacted by parents worried that eagles will carry away their children." He doubted that Svanhild's experience actually happened as she believed. "I have researched eagles for thirty years and have never seen eagles lifting much over 3.2 kilograms. [..] I will not accuse anyone of lying, but no one can repeal the laws of physics. In my eyes there is no doubt: this [eagle snatch] never happened."

The revived public debate also drew out another local doctor, Jan Åke Dinesson, who, with a colleague, had been interested in Svanhild's experience since 1993. In particular, he said he was surprised no one had questioned the estimated weight of the girl given on old Dr Fossum's report. "It is an unfair myth that Svanhild weighed 19kg, as sceptics would have it." Svanhild was slight as an adult, and growth studies show that small adults begin as small children. Deducing Svanhild's stature from a careful measurement of her ripped clothes and a study of a standard chart of child age-weight percentiles, Dr Dinesson suggested the girl was small for her age and "not heavier than 10 to 12 kg when she disappeared." He also argued that Dr Fossum had not been familiar with the weighing machine and might well have read 19kg (41.8 lbs) instead of 19 pounds (8.64 kg) ... which some reports rounded up to 10kg. Folkestad was not persuaded; it was still way above a maximum lift of around 3.2 kg or 8 lbs. If her weight at the time was nearer 8.64 kg, some think Svanhild could, indeed, have been carried with the help of a good lifting wind.

Messrs Ree and Folkestad need not have worried unduly about any public hostility towards the eagles; if anything, the public interest proved greater than any anxiety. For the 2007 anniversary on Leka Island, they held a three-day celebration with guided visits to the site on Haga Mountain where Svanhild was found. Today, the ledge of the former eyrie is painted red, and a white spot indicates where Svanhild hid under the shelf. An easy route has been marked out for tourists that follows the natural terrain around the foot of the mountain, in the vicinity of Kvaløy. Dissidents were not welcome, said Annette Thorvik Pettersen, one of the Leka organisers. "We believe the eagle abduction was an actual event, not a 75-year-old myth." "Just because some experts think something is unlikely," added Arnfinn Holand, one of the guides, "doesn't mean it is impossible." Indeed, at least one zoologist, a Dr Hartvig Huitveldt-Kaas, visited the island in 1932, not long after the kidnap, spent a month researching the event and found it to be "completely reliable". [9]

In his interview for the film Ørnerovet (1975), Dr Fossum confirms the locations of the girl's disappearance and discovery. He thought the distance between them was too difficult for such a young girl and so he endorsed the eagle-kidnap theory. Those who could not accept that a sea eagle transported the girl had to propose an alternative theory for how she came to be on the crag. Some critics have suggested that the Haga terrain is not as daunting or dangerous as the story's proponents make out. Certainly, today, there is the less direct, route for tourists, but the Leka guides still point out the "impossibility" of such a young girl ascending the steeper, more direct approach taken by her rescuers.

views of Haga Mountain terrain

One ornithologist (called Bollingmo) claims she lured (with chocolate) her own three-year-old daughter up a mountain (I'm not sure where), to see if such a thing was possible. Ms Bollingmo's daughter had on two good shoes and an adult companion to guide and coax her; nor did she try this on the steep approach to the nesting ledge. It seems absurd to suppose that a girl - on her own and not yet four - made the long detour necessary if she followed an easier path than the steep direct route used by her rescuers; it presupposed, too, that she knew of a long way around. In addition, one of her rescuers, Karl Haug, testified that the rocks had been so sharp his Sunday shoes were ruined; yet we are to suppose that this girl managed with one shoe and sustained no damage to her other, socked foot.

view of the terrain on Haga

In an attempt to explain this last mystery, a weak argument arose that the three men might have had something to do with it; somehow engineering Svanhild's disappearance before transporting her to where they ‘found' her. Holand, the Leka guide, said "Some say she was put there, but why  would anyone do that?" No motive was ever suggested. Fortunately for the men, their characters were such that they were never called into question by the islanders and their account was trusted implicitly.

Flokestad seemed personally affronted that Damms labelled Roestad's book "non-fiction" when even their supposedly factual chapter on eagles contained so many errors, and his group's "painstaking" work for more than 30 years "to demystify this bird" has counted for nothing. He ends with criticism of Svanhild herself, clinging on to a belief that he knows can't be true. He questions how much the child remembered at the time, and how much she assimilated from what other people believed happened. He says that when she was in her 30s, Svanhild "did not remember anything of what happened", yet "in recent interviews there are details never before mentioned."

Svanhild held firm to her story. "I get annoyed at those who do not believe this was possible, I know myself what I experienced," she replied to her doubters. She said the experience left her anxious and afraid of being alone or out in the open. She won't fly in planes and the very sight of an eagle disturbs her. In 1971, at the age of 42, Svanhild was taken on a pilgrimage to the mountain site where she had been found. "It's the only time I've been there since," she said. "It was a terrible trip and very stressful. How could a three-year-old get up here alone?" She brought back a huge eagle wing-feather. "What happened will pursue me all my life, whether I like it or not ... so I thought I might as well bring back a souvenir." Svanhild returned again in 1975, to make a filmed reconstruction of her story. The documentary-makers Knut Vadseth and Skule Eriksen also interviewed her, her rescuers Karl Haug and Leif Andersen, and Dr Fossum. [10]

Svanhild and child from 1975 documentary.

In her 2007 interview with Haakon Barstad, he describes her "crying quietly" as she related her fight with the eagle on the ledge. Whether Flokestad was right or not about the way her story has been elaborated over the years, or even whether it happened at all, it was clear Svanhild believed sincerely and deeply that it had happened. In collating this account from different sources, another, stranger, explanation occurred to me. Could Svanhild's experience be interpreted in the light of worldwide stories of young shaman candidates kidnapped by magical animals?

John and I suggested something like this in Living Wonders, where I wrote: "In her study of Japanese shamanism, The Catalpa Bow (1975), Carmen Blacker refers to stories of children kidnapped by the tengu, mercurial beings, half hawks, half men, who haunt woods and mountain tops. The tengu take the form of golden eagles to carry off their chosen ones and rear them inside hollow trees until they are mysteriously returned to human society." We have stories from shamanic traditions (and even poltergeist cases) in a number of societies of children vanishing to be found again, after a baffling search, high in a tree or an inaccessible place. When woken from their trance-like state, they invariably have no recollection of where they are or how they got there. In an archaic society, Svanhild would have been honoured as a healer, seer, or somesuch, after her mysterious flight to a mountain ledge.

Svanhild with eagle feather

Also in Living Wonders, we told of five-year-old Marie Delex, snatched away by an eagle as she played with friends at Valais, a Swiss canton, in 1838. Plenty of witnesses there, Mr Flokestad! A search party followed her aerial cries until, at last, they found only a shoe. However, Marie was not as lucky as Svanhild; her remains, frightfully mutilated, were found about two and a half kilometres from where she had been playing. Not all eagle kidnaps end badly; we note other cases in which babies have been recovered and reunited with their grateful mothers. In earlier times, when poor or itinerant workers had to take their children with them, babies were often left on river banks or by hedges that bordered the fields being  harvested - an open invitation to a hungry eye in the sky.

It is interesting to note that Svanhild said many of her visitors would tell her of other eagle-baby stories. One of them must have been that of fellow-Norwegian Daniel Skjeggedal, who was abducted by a great eagle in 1847, from a field at Skjeggedal. While his parents worked the harvest, the baby was lying, wrapped in a blanket, at the edge of the field with two young girls watching over him. When the parents, suddenly, heard the girls' screams, they all looked up to see the eagle swooping and making off with the baby. There was nothing they could do. A huge search party was mobilized around Skjeggedal and the neighbouring parishes. Unlike Svanhild, the poor boy was never found.

Then the tale takes a curious turn, placing it comfortably parallel to shamanic tradition. At the time of the kidnap, the baby's mother was pregnant. She gave birth a few months later, but her tragic loss overshadowed her joy. Shortly before the new birth, her husband spotted the eagle and shot it. It fell to the ground but was still alive, so he took the wounded eagle home. The sight of it was too much of a shock for the poor woman who went into labour. Baby Daniel was said to have the look of a bird about him; he had a very small chin and a big, beak-like nose. Locally, he was nicknamed Skjeggedalsfuglen, the ‘bird of Skjeggedal'. He was, however, blessed with two talents: rowing and singing. He made a living rowing tourists on the Ringedalsvatnet - the lake by Skjeggedal - to see the Ringedalsfossen, the great waterfall at its eastern end, and sing to them on the way. He died in 1907. [11]

COMPILED FROM THE FOLLOWING SOURCES:

1) Interview - ‘Ørnerovet på Leka' (Sea Eagle kidnap at Leka), by Birger Emanuelsen in Dagbladet Magasinet (5 June 2007); URL: www.dagbladet.no/magasinet/2007/06/05/502604.html

2) Main obituary - ‘«Ørne-jenta» Svanhild Hartvigsen er død' (‘Eagle-girl' Svanhild Hartvigsen is dead), by Øystein Larsen-Vonstett in Verdens Gang (15  November 2010); URL: www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/artikkel.php?artid=10011259

3) Obituary - ‘Ørnejenta Svanhild Hartvigsen har gått bort' (Eagle-girl Svanhild Hartvigsen has passed away) by Lars Johan Wiker in Nationen (15 November 2010); http://www 

4) There is another Haga Mountain, also in Nord-Trondelag, but much further south on the mainland, in Nærøy municipality, at the head of Opløfjorden.

5) Interview - ‘Da Svanhild Hartvigsen ble tatt av havørn' (When Svanhild Hartvigsen was taken by sea eagle), by Haakon Barstad in Nationen (7 September 2007); URL: www.nationen.no/2010/11/15/rovdyr/svanhild_hartvigsen/havorn/6274004/

6) Bente Roestad, Ørnerovet på Leka (Sea Eagle Kidnap at Leka) (Damm, 2006)

7) Steinar Hunnestad, Ørnerovet (Sea Eagle Kidnap) (Lunde Forlag, 1960).

8) http://www.birdlife.no/organisasjonen/english.php

9) I draw on Mark Hall's Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds (Cosimo, 2007), the only substantially correct English version because he made his own translation of Hunnestad's writings, rather than, as we did, relying on indirect sources.

10) The short film - Ørnerovet (Sea Eagle Kidnap) (1975) - can be seen in three parts on YouTube:

pt1 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBhXGAxDdoo

pt2 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBg70YmiebE

pt3 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-7lCOUUVMo

11) http://www.nordic.uhi.ac.uk/?q=mimir&page=7

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