Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring is an adaptation of a thirteen century Swedish ballad. Christanity became a state religion in Sweden in the twelfth century, while the process of Christianization of Sweden began roughly in the ninth century. This means that the tale we witness on the screen, portrays an age in which Christianity is a rather new religion to the Swedes, and we can see the coexistence of the worship of the Nordic mythology and Christianity, although the latter is prevalent. At the very beginning, we see a maid, Ingeri, who is calling out for Odin in order to, as we find out later in the film, exact violence upon a pampered, yet innocent girl, the daughter of rich landowners she works for. She says: “Odin, come to my aid”, and this aid is nothing but harm done to the one she envies. In the next shot, we see wooden Christ on the cross and the father and mother praying to him. The girl’s mother says: “It’s Friday, the day of our Lord’s suffering“. We see the family worshipping the God who died on the cross, and suffered for mankind according to the Scriptures, a merciful and loving God. Although he is worshipped, Christ and the values he preached are practically non-existent in the film, mercifulness is replaced with violent vengeance.
Karin, a young maiden with blonde hair radiating with innocence, is sent by her parents to bring candles to church, on a horse, since the tradition entails that a virgin must bring them. Karin wants to wear the nicest clothes she owns, a luxurious yellow gown, which makes her glow with purity. The virtue of innocence can be attributed to her due to the naïve outlook on the world, and the purity which, more often than not, comes with uncorrupted youth. Nevertheless, she is also vane, and openly enjoys her privileges, as we can see in her encounter with goat herders she meets on her road to church. The pregnant maid Ingeri, who worships Odin, meets the Bridge Keeper, who represents Odin himself. He says: “I hear what I want and see what I want. I hear what mankind whispers in secret and sees what they think no one sees.” He says, laughingly: “The three dead men ride north.” When he is asked about his identity, he proclaims: “These days, I don’t have a name.“ The maid, horrified, realizes that human sacrifice has been made, to none other but the nameless god, who has lost Sweden as his province.
Yet, this is doubtful, since the character which represents Odin guards the bridge, and in a way, he is the one who guards the transitory space between the two worlds, of the living and the dead. This sacrifice of human blood is an ominous premonition of what is to come. When Karin crosses the bridge, she symbolically enters the domain of blood sacrifice, and the symbolism in her voyage to church, which represents the province of Christ, gains its full meaning when we see that she does not get there. The goat herdsmen, two adults, one of them mute, and a child, lure Karin to share food with them and she naïvely accepts. She brags about her estate, in the manner of a pampered child who likes fairy tales. Their sharing of bread almost seems like an imitation of The Last Supper, while the herdsmen are the one who betray the innocent girl’s trust, in the most brutal manner. The two herdsmen, after they share a meal, attack Karin, brutally rape and murder her. The rape is portrayed brutally, and there is absolutely no moral ambivalence in their act, it is presented as pure evil.
The story does have moral ambivalence woven into it, since a boy who is traveling with the two herdsmen tries to bury Karin’s body, and in a symbolical manner, throws some soil over Karin’s dead body. The snow starts falling. At this point, we must note Sven Nykvist’s abundant use of natural light in the first half of the film, and the characters seem as if they are radiating a bright glow. The whole screen radiates light, and for a moment, we can forget that we are not watching a miraculous fairy tale, but a brutal account of (preordained) violence and ultimately revenge. In the second part of the film, the atmosphere is dark and somber, and the characters’ bodies radiate a pale glow, in the darkness in which they reside. In a remarkable twist of fate, the herdsmen and the boy come to Karin’s parents’ estate, they are welcomed and offered food and drink. Karin’s mother says to the boy: “God is merciful, more merciful than you think.” This is a statement which derives from the New Testament, and Karin’s mother is the only one which promotes those ideals. This ends up to be a pure rhetoric, which proclaims the mercy of God, but not the mercy of men.
The Beggar, who resides on the estate, temporarily we may presume, says to the boy while he is in bed: “You, shall cross a narrow plank, so narrow you can’t find your footing. Below you roars a great river. It’s black and wants to swallow you up. But you pass over it unharmed. Before you lies a chasm so deep you can’t see the bottom. Hands grope for you, but they can’t reach you. At last you stand before a mountain of terror. It spews like a furnace, and vast abyss pens at its feet. A thousand colors blaze there: copper and iron, blue vitriol and yellow sulfur. Flames dazzle and flash at the rocks. And all about men leap and writhe, small as ants, for this is the furnace that swallows up murderers and evildoers. But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away… where evil no longer has power over you.“ The Beggar, in the manner of a prophet, elucidates the boy’s fate. He is the one surrounded by murderers, but he himself is not a murderer. He shall escape the chasm, and divine grace shall intervene to save him from the pit.
This moment of the film is immensely important since it shows that in this bleak, harsh world, there is justice which does not punish those who do not murder, the punishment escapes those, like the boy, who are as innocent as Karin. They are simply caught in the circle of evil which ends in their deaths, but divine punishment makes distinctions, so we are told. The Virgin Spring is a tale which is based on recognition, and two recognitions take place at the moment when the herdsman offers Karin’s robes, stained with blood, to her mother for sale. In this moment, she recognizes the garments as her daughters’, realizes that she had been murdered, and who the murderers are. She bars the doors of the house, and participates in the revenge which is about to occur. Karin’s father takes a butcher’s knife, not the sword, and this fact highlights his view on the murderers, they are simply animals who deserve to be slaughtered.
He murders both herdsmen, and the boy as well. He acts in accordance with lex talionis, the eye for an eye principle; his revenge is brutal and devestating, and he kills an innocent being in the process. He operates according to the principles of the Old Testament, and The Virgin Spring is a unique work of art since three different gods are taking part in it. Odin, who foretells the murder of the herdsmen, and demands the blood sacrifice – the murders are thus preordained by fate, the God of the Old Testament, a vengeful God who smites the evildoers, and in the final scenes of the film, Christ is called out, as Töre, Karin’s father, pleads for God’s mercy and wants to atone for the killings. One may be tempted to call this tale a tragedy, but apart from the commonplace usage of the word “tragedy”, it is not. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy, defines the world of tragedy as the one in which “all that exists is just and unjust and is equally justified in both respects.”
The Virgin Spring portrays the main characters as sinful, murderers who are simply unjust, and their acts can only be atoned in the eyes of God. The herdsmen represent pure evil, the ones who rape and murder, while Töre’s act, although more morally ambivalent, is in the end sinful as well, since he committed murder, and killed not only her daughter’s murderers, but the innocent child as well. When he comes for her daughter’s body, the water starts to flow nearby, a stream, and this can be read as the beginning of purification. He vows to build a church “of mortar and stone” to atone for his sins. In this story, the main characters are not equally unjust, but there is a gradation of their wrongdoing. The only element which belongs to the tragic age is the fact that the whole predicament was preordained from the beginning by Odin. It is debatable if he is just a being devoid of power, a nameless god with no actual influence, since in Ingeri’s mind, these acts have their meaning. The god willed it, the one who sees the future, which cannot be undone.