Chapter  5


The Wagtail Religious Society (Linerle-selskapet)


I wrote that I do not believe in the supernatural. But I have to admit that I’m a bit superstitious.


            This morning, on Friday 11th of April, was a sunny morning. While looking out of the window towards the garden, I saw a familiar bird on the lawn. The sight filled my heart with joy. The bird was a wagtail, or a white wagtail (”linerle” in Norwegian). There are many species of wagtails, which come in different colours. In Norway I have never seen any other species than the white wagtail. It is not really white, but greyish in overall colour. The breast has a significant, large black spot. The tail has grey, white an black feathers. The English name must have been given to the bird because it wags the tail in a characteristical manner when it moves through the grass to pick whatever there is to eat.


            It is a migratory bird. The wagtail I observed was the first I have seen this spring. It is a true sign of spring. But what overjoyed me, was that I saw the little bird from behind. I saw its wagging tail. That is a good omen. The first sighting of the wagtail in spring is an important event to some people, including me. If one on the first sighting observes the black front of the bird, it is an ill omen, a warning of coming disasters, illness and death, no less.


            I was told about the omens of the wagtail by my grandmother on my mother’s side when I was a little child. What she told me, has stuck to me ever since.


          I grew up in the house of my grandparents, the house where I live today after i bought it from two of my cousins in 1986. My mother and father moved from Oslo to the house at Larkollen during The Scond World War to live with her parents. A reason for the move was that the big garden around the house was well suited for growing potatoes, vegetables, strawberries – and tobacco. In the meagre years of the war, gardens all over Norway were taken into use to grow food and tobacco. We also had a pig or two and a hundred hens, of the sort called white Italians. I was born in the neighbouring town Moss, on July 14th 1944. I lived quite happily in the house, until our little family of three moved to Oslo when I was seven years old.


         Our home at Larkollen was not a religious one. We never said prayers. There was no picture of Jesus on the wall of the living room. My beloved grandmother Ellen told me many things about nature, the flowers and the birds. I do not think she was more superstitious than most people. But she instructed me to cross my fingers, to knock on wood and to say ”seven, nine, thirteen” and spit three times when a black cat crossed the road in front of us. I still do these things. They are habits deeply rooted in me from childhood. Had our family been believers in Jesus, I would probably have had other habits and maybe have been a religious person. Religion thought you in childhood gets a firm grip on you.


          I do not really believe in the omens of the wagtail. I have a rational mind. But still I was extremely pleased to see the first wagtail of spring from behind. It happened just a few days before I am to get a conclusive test result at Ullevål Hospital. ”Very well, wagtail!” I exclaimed.


         There is of course no rational connection between what is in my blood sample and the spotting of a bird. If the test result is good for me, I’ll not praise to bird, and if it’s bad, I’ll not blame the wagtail for giving me a wrong signal.


            The thought struck me that belief in the omens of the wagtail in the years after the World War might have grown beyond  superstition and into a religious movement. That’s a crazy thought. But I need to joke with serious matters, and in my rumbling mind I developed a story about The Wagtail Religious Society.


            After the war many people were dissatisfied with the Christian faith. My father once said to me that in his opinion Christian faith had failed during the war, and destruction of countries and humans become the result. The nations who fought each other in Western Europe were Christian nations. The soldiers in the German occpation army in Norway all had ”Gott Mit Uns” engraved on their belt buckles.


            In the aftermath of war, why not find a more simple faith in something innocent like a little bird?


            The movement started during a cardplaying evening in Larkollen in April 1946. Four women were playing bridge, and one of them was my mother, Fredy. She mentioned that she had seen the first wagtail of the season. The sighting had given her no clear omen because she had seen the bird from the side. A woman called Anne Olsen from Sildebaugen (Herring Bay) said that she had sighted her first wagtail from behind. She was expecting some good luck. Petra Nilsen and Olga Larsen said that they had seen the front of their first wagtails this spring.


            A week after the bridge party, Anne Olsen was digging in her garden. She found a ceramic pot containing more than a hundred old coins. She had the coins checked by a local numismatist who found that they were gold and silver coins from the period of the Roman iron age in Norway. The coins were delivered to the Historical Museum in Oslo, and Anne Olsen got a handsome reward.


            At the same time, Olga Larsen was hit by a truck on the Larkollen road, got her scull smashed and died. Misfortune also hit Petra Nilsen who fell off a slippery cliff by the sea and



            The seamstress and golddigger Anne Olsen then was interviewed by the local newspaper, Moss Avis. She said that the three incidents – her good luck and the two other women’s bad luck -  had to be related to the omen of the wagtail. The story was published by Norsk Telegrambyrå and picked up by newspapers abroad, like Dagens Nyheter in Sweden,  Politiken in Denmark, Daily Telegraph in Great Britain and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany. Anne Olsen received letters from all over Europe. She suddenly found herself famous. Her sudden fame went to her head, as we say in Norwegain, ”det gikk til hodet på henne”.


            She had never been a very religious person. Now she saw the light. The wagtail had to be a saviour for some people, and a bird of doom for others. Thus, in Anne Olsens opinion, the wagtail combined the two aspects of a deity.

 Always clever with money, the seamstress Anne found that her new insight may give her an extra income. She founded what she called Linerle-selskapet. A teacher at the Larkollen school, Tore Moen, who was considered a language genius, helped her to find a proper  English name for the association, which became the The Wagtail Religious Society. In German the society was called after the little bird’s German name, Wippstertz, Bund des Wippsterzers. Mr Moen also helped Miss Olsen to write replies to the letters she had got in foreign languages.


            The Wagtail Religious Society had a very short preamble: Have faith in the saving power of the wagtail when seen from the right direction. Worhsip the wagtail and save yourself from bad luck!


           The memebership fee for beleivers in the new faith was not too expensive. 10 kroner for Norwegians, a pound sterling for British members and members from the British Empire, twenty deutsche mark for German members. Money should be trasmitted to the Society’s bank account in Moss. Miss Olsen appointed herself chief pastor of the movment, while Tore Moen was appointed president of the Society.


            The president wrote the pamphlet ”Have Faith in the Wagtail”, which was translated into the major European languages and sent out to alle the people who had written to pastor Olsen. With Anne Olsen he co-edited the booklet ”How to Become a Wagtailer”.


      Money started to pour in from the corners of Europe, especially from Germany. The Society of wagtailers grew fast, if not explosively. Olsen and Moen did not become millionaires, but got an income much better than what they had had as seamstress and teacher.  


            In April 1947 the pastor and the president while passing a meadow saw the tail of the first wagtail of spring. Two weeks later they were engaged to marry!


            This small miracle of love was widely published in wagtailer circles. Reports of similar events in the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland strengthened the movment.


           The Italian branch of the Wagtail Society managed to have a law passed in parliament that prohibited the eating of wagtails in Italy, where migrating wagtails had been caught in nets on hilltops, to be consumed by humans.


             In 1948 the first pilgrimage of wagtailers from Norway to Denmark began. Eager worshippers wanted to meet the first wagtail of spring as early possible. And it was well known that the wagtails land in Denmark before they fly to Norway. During this pilgrimage a phenomenon occured that further strengthened the movement. Of the hundred participants in the pilgrimage to the landscape around Helsinore castle in Denmark, 99 saw their first wagtail of spring from behind. This was taken as proof  of the positive results belief can give you.


           The one man who saw the front of his first wagtail of course was unlucky. But the case was not worse than that he was burnt on his behinds when falling into a bonfire the Norwegian wagtailers had lit to celebrate their journey.


          The unlucky man wrote a report about this incident in the first edition of a new publication, The Wagtailers Magazine. He admitted that his belief had not been strong enough. But as a believer he had been saved from real bad luck. For example, he had not been run over by a Danish train, or fallen off the walls of the Helsinore castle.


            The year 1949 saw a steady growth in the movement. In 1950, however, The Wagtail Religious Society experienced its first discord. It happened in Munich, Germany. The local branch of the Bund des Wippstertzers demanded a more scientific approach to the worship of the wagtail. The behaviour of the bird was by the Munich branch thought to be too erratic.


          Munich’s suggestion was that wagtails should be caught and trained to always show their behind to believers. The head of the Munich branch, Herr Adolf Gruber, then invented a catching appartus, and the animal psycholgist Frau Irmelin Hochstein published a training programme for wagtails.


            Chief pastor Anne Olsen had to travel several times from Larkollen to Munich to try to end the dissention and convince the dissenters that they were mistaken. In a heated discussion in the Wippstertzers favourite bierstube, Bachstelze, she called Gruber a heathen and Hochstein a scheming, pagan cleavage maker. She had herself been accused of heresy by The Church of Norway, the state church. Now she flung accusations of heresy against the German dissenters. But the schism was inevitable. The diversion of Munich was a bitter fact. The majority of the local adorers followed Gruber and Hochstein, while the minority withered and gave up. Luckily, the schism did not spread outside Bavaria.


            A year after, in 1951, a Paris adherent to wagtail faith, Monsieur Michel Leclerc, invented the mechanical wagtail, which was intended to be used by city dwellers who did not see any real wagtails in spring. The rotating mechanical wagtail was constructed in such a manner that it would give a 50/50 chance to show either rear or front to the observer.

Grudgingly, the Norwegian leadership of the movement had to accept the mechanical wagtail.  Soon, in Paris, fake mechanical wagtails appeared on the market. They were constructed to always show the observer the tail.


            I have given my readers some glimpses of the early history of The Wagtail Religious Society. I think we better stop here, before we reach the story of the cyberspace wagtails.



       Chapter  4

Chapter  6