In this part, Aksel and Eirik get into the actual timeline of Scandinavian prehistory with an emphasis on the Bronze and Iron Ages, including the Viking Age. We talk about the materiality of these periods, the language, and regional variation, before we segway drunkenly into our own snobbery.
Between the late 60's and early 70's, the California Bay Area was haunted by one of the most cryptic serial killers of the 20th century. Though only seven victims have been conclusively tied to the case, the Zodiac killer orchestrated much of his own notoriety through a series of letters – frequently containing codes and ciphers – which he would send to various newspapers in and around San Francisco.
The case is cold as the grave, but whoever he was, he put a lot of thought into his image. Unlike most serial killers, Zodiac was quite talkative. He chose his own nom the guerre, and signed his letters with a crossed circle, resembling a Celtic cross or, rather, the wheel of the zodiac. The likeness to the crosshairs of gun scope is quite obvious, and surely deliberate. This symbol served as his personal logogram throughout his letters, which often contained intertextual references, and sometimes more famous passages of symbol-ciphers, of which only one has been successfully deciphered.
It's difficult to make a non-speculative assessment based on the limited information revealed in these letters. Besides, it would not be unfair to characterize the Zodiac as an unreliable narrator, as he often distorted or embellished the facts surrounding his crimes. Almost every letter he wrote is a cornucopia of spelling errors and mistakes, which might suggest that the killer suffered from severe dyslexia. If he really did is anybody's guess, but reading the notes I can't help but feel that many of the typos seem a tad too deliberate, down to over-obvious, childlike mistakes such as inverted characters. This seems incongruous with the more or less fluent diction and clevernes of some of his other alleged letters, if these are authentic, and not penned by copy cats and impersonators. I would not put it past him to plant such ruses, and that Zodiac was gaslighting the police with layers of conflicting information and red herrings.
If his strategy was to spawn a cacophony of speculations, his efforts were clearly a huge success: The references, as well as the playful, even creative contents of the letters, have lead some to think that he might have been an artist, graphic designer, musician, or other such cultured person. Then again, if he's not the evil genius he's made out to be, he could simply be reaching far and wide for symbolism he knew would give him a chime of mystery. He wouldn't be the first person with a kinda-sorta creative knack to be lauded as a genius, despite being about as deep as a puddle. Guesswork about the Zodiac's identity has made him a modern day Jack the Ripper, and the chaotic tangle of imaginative theories far outgrow the facts we know about the actual personality behind the crimes. While not exactly a fully developed armchair theory, I have come across some things myself that have left me wondering if the Zodiac killer might have been interested in the Viking Age.
Exhibit A: A letter to the San Francisco Chronicle
The above letter was received by the the San Francisco Chronicle on February 14th 1974, and is assumed to be one of the many letters penned by the Zodiac killer to various newspapers during his active years. The Symbionese Liberation Army was a shortlived far-left terrorist group, and some speculate that their activities, and subsequent media notoriety following the kidnapping and recruitment of Patty Hearst – the daughter of a senator – might have left Zodiac feeling that the SLA was stealing his thunder. It's possible that the SLA roused Zodiac's jealousy, but again there is nothing but the letter to support the assumption. Though a minor detail in a complex narrative, my eyes remain glued to the last phrase of the letter. I find it odd that Zodiac should have any interest (or knowledge) about Old Norse as a (presumably) non-academic American living in the 1970's. It could be an example of him reaching for obscurity in an attempt to seem creepy, but it seems like a far-fetched and unnecessary reference.
The one thing we do know, is that the Zodiac seemed to mention things that interest him, such as movies he liked, or criminal cases he followed. It might be that he felt some sort of affinity to a perceived Norse brutality, so common in outward depictions of the culture, especially in those days. Though this is the only example of him making an unveiled reference to Old Norse, it does exhibit a highly specific sort of know how, even if he was in fact wrong about the etymology: The Old Norse verb slá does not specifically mean "to kill", but "to strike". Conversely, the verb drepa can mean "to kill" but also "to strike, knock, beat". I don't think he would have been aware of these nuances (he did, after all, mispell slá. Anybody with a background in Old Norse would hardly have left out the diacritic). It seems safe to suggest that he was a better graphic designer than he was a linguist.
Constructing a theory
While we won't get more definite answers from the Zodiac's vocabulary, the postcard above features a peculiar monogram or symbol, speculated by some to be a runic ligature. If so, it could be the runes lǫgr ᛚ, or týr ᛐ, and áss ᚨ. In any case you'll be hard pressed to find a meaningful message drawing on that piece of evidence alone, but since it's impossible to muddy the waters more than armchair detectives already have across half a century's worth of digging, I'm going to entertain this idea a little further. The symbol (or whatever it is) sort of resembles the runic ciphers from the early 9th century Rök stone, though these ciphers are constructed differently (each rune runs along one axis, and they criss-cross. They don't turn 90 degrees like in the postcard above). If the Zodiac killer was familiar with runes, perhaps we might expect to find some rune-like symbols in his other ciphers? There are none as far as I can see. If there is any deliberate model for the Zodiac's coded letters, then Greek seems to be a more likely candidate.
In fact, the Zodiac's other ciphers have quite a striking resemblance to the so-called Oak Island inscription which, of course, some bozos think was carved by the vikings. Admittedly, that is not the most popular theory, but it does seem to be yet another one of the many inscription-based hoaxes endemic to North America. Any similarities to Zodiac's writing could be coincidental, but apparently the inscription has only been in circulation since the mid-20th century, so who knows what Mr.Z might have picked up along the way:
Now compare it to one of Zodiac's ciphers below:
Another point addressed by many interested in the Zodiac case, is the fact that his main symbol of choice is also extremely similar to the Celtic cross, popular among American white supremacists. However, I've found no evidence to support that Zodiac's “interest” in Old Norse was influenced by a neo-nazi or otherwise far-right movement. All of his victims were pale as the driven snow, so there seems to be no white nationalist angle to the killings, and he certainly doesn't mention it in his letters. Besides, the Celtic cross does not seem to have been widely used in a white pride context at the time, though The Minutemen, a 1960's anti-communist paramilitary group had a logo not dissimilar. In this case it's clearly a gunsight, rather than a Celtic cross. If nothing else, I do believe Zodiac intended his signature reminded people of a gunsight, given that one of his ciphered letters stated:
While there seems to be no political motivation for the crimes, it's not impossible that Zodiac was a man with casual counter-cultural affiliations, perhaps associated with some of the many subcultures thriving in 60's and 70's California. Again, the evidence for this is spurious. True to the theatrical marketing of his crimes, it should come to nobody's surprise that people have tried to frame the Zodiac as everything from a satanist, to a victim of government mind control experiments. But when all is said and done, I don't think we need to buy into media hype to think there might be something to the Zodiac's alleged fringe interests, the time and place of the murders considered. One of the more interesting subjects among the countless suspected Zodiacs out there is Earl Van Best, who was supposedly friends of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and allegedly jammed with Kenneth Anger's crush/Manson Family affiliate Bobby Beausoleil. One would suppose that such a character had a passing fascination with norseness, at a time when anything remotely Teutonic had a spooky spectre hovering around it. However, there seems to be nothing but guilt by association tying Van Best to the case.
Slaves in Valhalla, or: How deep was the Zodiac?
If I may allow myself to wade deeper yet into these waters of speculative insanity, I'm going to pretend that not only is the apparent “runic cipher” hypothesis completely true, but I will also entertain the notion that the Zodiac killer was actually a full fledged Old Norse nerd, possibly with academic credentials. Of course, we may have to assume that he was playing dumb when he penned the SLA letter for this hypothesis to work.
In several of his letters, Zodiac refers to a belief that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife. Even if I'm not convinced that Zodiac actually believed this himself, I have to wonder where on Earth he got the idea from. Continuing down the road with our Norse goose chase, we may state that if he had read the 10th century Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan's account the so-called Rus on the Volga river, he would have found a vivid description of dead chieftain's cremation in great detail. The exact ethnicity of the Rus in Ibn Fadlan's description is debated, but it suffices to say that most scholars assume they were Scandinavian. If Zodiac was an academic specializing in the viking age at the time, he probably wouldn't have doubted it either. Most famous of all is the passage where a slave girl is killed in order to serve the dead chieftain in the afterlife, which is also indicated in Viking Age burial practices more broadly.
It doesn't quite add up if we presume that Zodiac's belief in otherworldly servitude was governed by academic rationality. If indeed he was a scholar he was probably pedantic enough to notice that there is a certain difference in terms of social dynamic between a slave being buried with their master (their relationship is continued, not established, in the afterlife), and gunning down heavy-petting teenagers on Lover's Lane. But let's imagine Zodiac as a man who knew his comparative sources. If so, he might have come across Leo the Deacon, who was a chronicler employed at the imperial Byzantine court in the second half of the 10th century. Being an eye-witness to some of the empire's many run-ins with the Rus (He called them Tauroscythians), Leo mentions a practice of martial suicide among them, through which they believed they could avoid becoming their killer's slave in the afterlife:
One possible parallel to this belief is found in the Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, who rightfully earned the name “Hunding's bane” by becoming a guy named Hunding's bane. It is in stanza 39, after Helgi himself has given up the ghost, that he finds Hunding waiting for him in Valhalla. Helgi immediately tells him:
Þú skalt, Hundingr,
ok funa kynda,
gefa svínum soð,
áðr sofa gangir.
You shall, Hunding,
wash the feet
of every man,
and kindle fires;
before you go to sleep.
Long story short, Hunding is Helgi's bitch in paradise. Is it possible, even likely, that Zodiac acted on convictions handed to him by Byzantine historians and Norse poetry? Before we start taking the names of every medievalist active in 60's and 70's California, I'd wager it's about as realistic as him being an MK Ultra lab rat, satanist, kabbalist nerd, a government psy-op, a Mossad agent, the Unabomber, or whatever else people have taken him for over the years. In other words, it's pretty damn unlikely. If nothing else, it proves how easy it is to craft a theory.
If you are interested in the Zodiac case, check out www.zodiackillerfacts.com for an impressive archive of articles, pictures, and newspaper clippings dedicated to exploring one of the most confusing serial killers of the 20th century.
It is integral to Brute Norse's vision to try and present novel contexts and uses for intangible heritage and Norse literature. This includes presenting Norse art and mythology beyond the rampant "viking kitsch" aesthetic commonly seen in, well, just about any popular depiction of Norse culture. On the baseline, this is certainly a question of aesthetic preference. I am personally not very interested in most modern manifestations of artistic "norseness", beyond my role as a commentator or observer.
Imitations of viking era aesthetics rarely pay a fitting tribute to the quality of the Norse originals. When I curated the art show Coincidence of Opposites in 2016, the basis for the exhibitoin was thoroughly based on Norse mythology and poetics, but I was also inspired by the symbolism of alchemy and ancient mystery cults to create a participatory mystical experience for the audience.
Throughout the creative process I put a lot of stress on the fact that me and the other artists involved should avoid giving in to the laziest expectations of what a "viking" inspired art show should look like. The whole point was to put create a more dynamic and symbolic expression of Norse myth, entirely detached from the surface-level expectations. Admittedly, this was made a little easier by headhunting artists who were already working independently involved with subjects I considered fitting. For example, a sound piece about entropy, the heat-death of the universe, served as a fitting meditation on Norse eschatology and Ragnarok.
Continuing in that same vein, I attempted to make this video relatable to a modern audience. I set out to demonstrate a synchronized interpretation of Norse cosmogony. A sort of contemporary creation myth within the metaphorical framework of an ancient, pagan past. Listeners of the Brute Norse podcast will recognize the narration from episode 6, which is ultimately adapted from my essay The Trollish Theory of Art, where I outline some of my key perspectives on art and society.
Written, narrated, and animated by Eirik Storesund
Sounds by Eirik Storesund, Helge Taksdal, and KB Hus
In traditional Norwegian society, like absolutely anywhere else, there was only one way to become a master musician, and that was through meticulous practice and dedication, preferably under the guidance of a master. For many fortunate souls the teacher came in the form of a close relative, if not the father, then perhaps an uncle, and while most performers were probably born into such a tradition, folklore purports that alternative, and far more sinister educations existed. Particularly ambitious fiddlers sold their souls to the devil, while others sought guidance from the spirits of nature. For the best fiddlers, their craft may be described as a shaman-like path of initiation that made him a vessel of otherworldly, and often dangerous, musical experiences.
Folk music 101
In its authentic and original form, folk music is always a form of Gebrauchsmusik. In other words: music with a specific and functional purpose, as opposed to the art music most of us are accustomed to, in which musical expression itself, a music for music's sake, becomes the main driving force. As utility music, folk tunes often come in the form of lullabies, herding calls, wedding marches, or dance melodies played to rouse an audience already familiar with its conventions and nuances. This is underlined by the fact that, to many listeners, old style Nordic folk music sounds a tad out of tune, mainly due to its off-the-beaten track microtonal ideal. Conversely, I've met fiddlers who claim that overexposure to traditional tuning has rendered them unable to appreciate “normal” music. Obviously, this makes Nordic fiddle, but especially jaw harp music, an acquired taste, though some might find it oddly addictive.
Since both audience and performers are mostly born into the tradtion, and the quality is judged based on authority rather than personal taste, folk music is more or less detached from modern conventions of artistic individuality. In the case of the Nordic fiddle tunes, most melodies do not have a proper name attached to them in the form of a “song title”. Rather, they were named according to their type and origin. Essentially, many are dances or marches, and since fiddle music was intrinsically connected these, the terminology associated with a certain dance, and it's associated tune, was the same.
A gangar for example, literally means “walker” or “strider”, and describes the pace of the dance and melody. A gangar from Setesdal might simply be called “gangar from Setesdal” with no other outwardly distinguishing feature to its name. If the jig is associated with a particular fiddler, then “gangar from Setesdal after Johnny Everyman” would suffice. However, authorship is often vague, if not entirely anonymous.
A fiddler is called a spelmann (plural: spelmenn) in Norwegian, literally “play(ing) man”, and though the tradition is exemplified by the hardanger fiddle, the tunes extend to other folk instruments as well, chiefly as dulcimers and jaw harps. Spelmenn did not live off their vocation. They were working men, farmers, carpenters, and loggers with rough, leathery hands. A fiddle tune is called a slått (plural: slåtter), from the verb slå meaning “to strike”. Slått can also mean “reaping”, which resembles the movement of a fiddler bowing his instrument, though the terminology goes back to Norse culture, and even precedes local adoption of bowed instruments.
If a personal name is attached to a slått, it needn't be the composer. Since the origin of many tunes range from clouded to mythological, it may simply signify the earliest fiddler known to have played it. Sometimes this attribution serves as a legend in itself, as there are many tales and stories connected to particular spelmenn. Like swords, some tunes are given more personal names of their own. Whether they tie in with the slått's myth of origin, or describe how it goes, names are often evocative: Myllargutens bruremarsj (“Myllarguten's Bridal March”) is a fine example of the sensuality and emotional stress characteristic of Norwegian fiddle music. Opposite of what the name implies, it is a sad and yearning lament composed by the infamous fiddler Myllarguten to protest the wedding of a lost love. Though, ironically, the song is commonly requested for weddings (One must suppose the backstory eludes them). I'm not aware of an origin story for the famous halling (single dance) Dolkaren, literally “the stabber”, but the rhythm may be suggestive of numerous clandestine activities.
Village dances were mating games and courtship rituals, and as they also marked a rare occasion for heavy and widespread alcohol consumption, dances frequently broke into fights. This was certainly an expected, deliberate, and more or less ritual occurrence: Dancers often had to be fighters, and vice versa. Being capable of both was an essential survival skill for many young men in Norwegian peasant society. Stabbings were not unheard of (knives were always carried anyway), and it's even reported that young men of certain regions would habitually take partially dulled knives to dances, graduating from the occasional stabbings to more common slashings. The chance of murdering your opponent was probably less, but the tension that came with the constant presence of weapons, we must imagine, significantly lowered the bar to draw one.
The Devil's Ditty
One tune called Fanitullen, or “The Devil's Ditty”, has grown to such popularity that tired fiddlers will refer to it simply as “the tourist jig”. It comes with the following legend: A fight broke out, as is wont to do, at a wedding in Hol in Buskerud county in 1724. Given that fights were welcome occurrences, perhaps even better understood as spontaneous brawling tournaments, rather than fits of blind violence, the toastmaster went to the cellar to draw a prize of beer for the winner. When he came down, he spied a strange fellow sitting on the beer barrel, playing a tune he had never heard before. The technique was new to him as well: He played the fiddle upside down with the neck against his chest, and tapped the rhythm against the side of the barrel – not with a human heel, but a hoof, like a horse. The toastmaster, now realizing he was front row and center to an audience with the devil himself, turned and ran like a bat out of hell, only to find that one of the two brawlers lay dead in the courtyard. Both the fight and the death, by the way, is apparently true and attested by legal documents. Make what you will of the rest.
The spelmann's bargain
There are numerous other instances of supernatural intervention in the folklore surrounding Nordic fiddle music. From the European grimoire tradition to voodoo, to the tales of the blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the crossroads represents a place between worlds where one may strike bargains with spirits and devils. Spelmenn could also go to the crossroads, but in the native, Nordic tradition, this liminal space is more often articulated as a stream or waterfall. The water sprite called nøkken, or the nix, was reputedly an adept fiddler, and for a price he would teach you all there was to know about mastering the instrument.
The simplest way to pay tuition was by approaching a waterfall with a nice leg of meat for the spirit. A more elaborate recipe calls for three haunches of stolen meat, delivered on three consecutive Thursday nights. Such threefold rites, in a certain place, on a certain time (always on Thursday nights), are also described in Scandinavian spellbooks, particularly on the matter of pacts with the devil. There is actually a general overlap between the interests of the Christian devil, and other supernatural beings in Scandinavian folk belief, the nix in particular. This presumably owes to both to the pagan connotations of Nordic superstitions, and their appropriation into Christian mythology. I've previously referred to this quite literal demonization of native beliefs as a “Norse-Satanic axis of evil”. Either way, the nix often mutilates his students' fingers. Whether by breaking them or severing their veins, this is supposed to enhance their playing technique, but also leaves a visible testament to the bargain. In the latter case also a blood pact.
Some legends are tied to named historical personalities. When the young apprentice Ola Åsgjelten turned to the nix in frustration, he was told to go practice beneath a bridge three Thursday nights in a row. In other words, he was to sit and fiddle himself from dusk 'till dawn, and then return a fourth night for further instructions. When the fourth night finally came, Ola was approached by a tiny man, no taller than the length of an elbow. He said he could make him the best fiddler in all of Norway in exchange for his soul, but Ola refused. The nix then stated he could still become a skillful spelmann if he killed a black cat and left it under the bridge for him. This offer pleased Ola more, but seeing that nobody in the village would keep a black cat, this alternative seemed too unrealistic. The nix said there was hope even yet: If he could rip the tongue out of a live adder's mouth and drop it in the fiddle, that would also do some good, as long as he released the serpent after. If not that, the right eye of a live squirrel served the same function. Ola figured it was worth a shot, and started climbing trees, and chasing the wildlife, though in the end he decided it was too difficult, and simply abandoned the whole project.
Folk art subversion
In a previous essay, The Trollish Theory of Art, I described how the love triangle between the nix, art, and paganism reaches back to at least the 13th century, when Snorri Sturlusson tied it to Old Norse poetic theory. He describes a poetic style of aesthetics called nykrat, characterized by multi-layered, dissonant, mutant metaphors, arguably more similar to modern surrealist art than so-called “traditional” poetic metaphors. It was seen by medieval Norse as an ugly relic of paganism, something confusing and irrational. Something to be shunned in favor of the claritas ("clarity") exhibited by Christian as well as classical art. By extension, the old ideal could be seen as “devilish”. While there is no direct continuity between the poetic aesthetics of Norse paganism, and post-medieval fiddle music, we find that in either case, expressions of true performative folk art is regarded with suspicion, and treated to critiques labeling it as anything from simply bad taste, to elaborately sinister. When much later puritanical revivals swept the country in the 19th century, fiddlers were a prime target, and some were even convinced to burn their instruments voluntarily. I wager that few cultural movements have gone as many extra miles to damage Norwegian folk culture to the extent that these pietists certainly did.
Then again, you can see why folk culture made such an easy target: Though people generally saw themselves as good Christians, their worldview and lifestyle prompted many questions not easily answered by preachers and church authorities – especially in post-reformation Norway, where there are no saints to turn to. There were many ideas and practices that didn't belong in Church, but weren't directly at odds with a Christian religion either, especially out of the vicar's sight. Norwegian folklore finds life in the dark and gloomy, and humanity must by necessity – and often reluctantly – negotiate with all sorts of invisible beings in their daily lives, which lead to an undecided and pragmatic relationship with beings and powers beyond the monopoly of Christian theology. Trance and ecstasy has a long, yet obscure history in the more esoteric aspects of Norwegian folk religion, forming an odd conglomerate of visionary Christianity and veiled quasi-pagan practices. Among the traditional folk musicians I have known, I think it's safe to say that most of them have had some level of mystic sensual inclination related to their tradition. Among them, at least a couple have been self-professed esoteric Christians of a variety I can only term "folkloric".
Tunes of power and possession
One particular group of slåtter sticks out in the dangerous mania of the spelmann-tradition: The rammeslåtter, or, “the powerful tunes”. A cycle of four melodies are all that remains of them, but what they lack in number they easily make up for in terms of intensity. The undertone is serious: Ramm comes from Old Norse rammr, meaning “powerful, highly concentrated”. Usually in the sense of either supernatural power, excessive strength, or bitter taste. They are also referred to by the term gorrlaus, which only refers to their specific tuning. These power tunes are believed to come from the legendary spelmann Olav Faremo in Setesdal, often held to be the founder of the tradition there. Otherwise, the rammeslåtter were allegedly handed down from “the evil one” himself, or alternately the nix.
A rammeslått was seen to possess a supernatural ability to bring both dancer and spelmann into a state of trance. Oddly, the rammeslått is sometimes described as a sudden, involuntary phenomenon: In Setesdal, they say the fiddler will “komme på rammeslåtten”, which can mean either “to be reminded of the rammeslått” or “come across the rammeslått”. As such, these jigs were perceived as just as much channeled through the medium of the gifted spelmann, as they were musical compositions. Listening to a rammeslått, it is easy to see why someone would consider them a primal force. Their heavy and repetitive, hypnotic bounce is prone to give you goosebumps, and I find myself rocking back and forth even at the time of writing.
The folklore of the Setesdal tradition holds, that once a spelmann starts to play such a tune, he will only stop when the fiddle is taken away from him, repeating the magical pattern again and again. In one case, the fiddle was ripped from the spelmann's embrace, but the audience were shocked to see (and hear) that the instrument kept playing without him. There were occasions where the fiddler had to warn his audience in advance, asking them to look out for any odd behavior, and to stop him if the melody grew too intense. If for any reason they couldn't take the fiddle away, cutting the strings was sure to shut it up. It seems common for the spelmann to break into tears as soon as the spell is broken, perhaps indicating the immense emotional impulse and loss of control implied in the tradition overall. The language by which the traditional music was described and lauded may seem oddly backwards as well. The “worse”, “uglier”, or more “ungodly” the performance, the more intense and skilled it was.
A medieval origin to the rammeslått tradition?
Some have argued for a medieval origin of the rammeslåtter, in part due to their apparent tonal similarity to the 13th century hymn of Saint Magnus. A much weirder piece of evidence comes from the Norse legendary saga Bosa saga ok Herrauðs from ca. 1300, in which we are treated to a royal wedding scene where a harper by the name of Sigurðr performs a set of magical, individually named melodies to accompany a series of toasts honoring the gods. The various melodies compel the listeners (and even inanimate objects) to dance ever more wildly. Shawls fly euphemistically off the house-viwes, cutlery, crockery, and all sorts of househould objects join in. Every single man and woman in the hall are driven to dance by an uncontrollable urge as Sigurðr plays one tune after the other. But when he plays the tune called Rammaslag, one arriving guest is immediately sucked into the dancefloor, walks up to the king, and straight up punches his lights out, sending three of his teeth flying across the room while blood spurts out of his mouth and nose before he sinks, unconscious, to the floor.
Etymologically, the rammeslått of Setesdal and Bosa saga's Rammaslag are one and the same, and the other similarities can hardly be coincidental. Both are associated with the ecstatic compulsion to dance, but also danger and violence, and even the animation of objects: Walls tremble and squeak when these jigs are played, and good fiddlers are said to do their craft so well that even pots and pans must dance on the tables. Admittedly, Bosa saga makes no mention of a bowed instrument, and despite any archaic features to the musicology of the rammeslåtter, it would seem quite far-fetched to argue for a direct musical lineage. The motifs, however, line up nicely, and there is a certain sensual vitalism amongst all the terror in either case.
Olav Faremo, the fiddler wizard of Setesdal
The four preserved rammeslåtter are all ascribed the 19th century fiddler Olav Faremo, who enjoys a near mythical status in Norwegian folk music tradition. Whether or not he is their real “composer” remains uncertain, though there are a number colorful accounts describing how he received these, as well as other dancing tunes. The nix initiated him into fiddler's craft: In the first lesson he twisted his left little finger until it dislocated, allowing Olav to “swing it around as he wanted”. In the second he twisted his hands and curled his fingers, giving him superior grip, and mastery over bow and strings. Both lessons happened in his sleep, and one rammeslått came to him in a dream he had while sleeping next to a waterfall.
In another instance, Olav played a wedding when the rammeslått came over him. Bad news for the newlyweds: It foreshadowed death. Olav was crying when they pried the fiddle from his hands. But for all the grip the fiddle had on him, it matched the grip he had on his audience. It was a magic power much coveted by entertainers and playboys of all ages, compelling girls to chase him, and hosts to pour his drinks heavy. One time when his fiddle refused to make a sound, he furiously told it “you're going out!” and stabbed it with an awl.
Olav had a rival spelmann. A traveler by the name of Peter Strømsing, who often fell into trance “fiddling like a madman”. They resorted to all sorts of tricks when they competed against one another. One time, Peter's fiddle went mute because Olav blew on it. During a wedding, Peter played so well that the brandy danced out of the serving bucket and flowed up along his arm and shoulder, but just as the spelmann turned his head and pursed his lips to drink, Olav played so well that the brandy changed its mind, turned, poured up his arm, and between Olav's lips instead.
Olav Faremo has since become the forebear of many prominent fiddlers in Setesdal. It's alleged that when his nephew, the dancing champion Hallvor Bergsmo was on his deathbed, he told people to play the rammeslått called Nordafjells for him after his death, for then he would surely “kick himself back out of the grave”. There is no mention of Bergsmo ever returning from the dead, so presuming they honored his final wish, it must not have worked.
The spelmann and the trance-like state
Sundry scholars have studied the rammeslått-phenomenon in light of meditation, shamanistic practice, and states of trance and ecstasy. One contributor of recent years is the musicologist Ingunn Sørli Øksnes, with her thesis on trance within the Norwegian folk music tradition in light of the philosophy of the modern master spelmann and eccentric Hallvard T. Bjørgum. Bjørgum is a devoted tradition-bearer and educator in the service of the Setesdal tradition, including its more mystical aspects. Leaning on the works of ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget, Øksnes explains that trance experiences are marked by movement, noise, company (in our case, an audience), crisis, sensory overstimulation, amnesia, and, unlike the ecstatic state, no hallucinations. The rammeslått mythology ticks all the boxes, and she points out that above all, the rammeslått performance is most closely tied to the phenomenon of possession, as the most legendary performances are involuntary. Otherwise, there is one shamanistic trait present in the fact that the spelmann plays the instrument through which his trance is induced.
The master spelmann Bjørgum, on the other hand, considers the angle of possession as partially a misunderstanding of what he calls “capability of devotion”, in which the spelmann allows himself to be fully immersed. As he describes it, it's all about submitting and fully dedicating yourself in order to get carried away. In that regard it becomes the transient realization of a willful intent, comparable to contemporary esoteric discourse on magic. Many modern spelmenn stress the quality of getting “carried away”, which is often followed by a state of amnesia, recognized by many musical performers in times of great concentration. From her interviews with Bjørgum, Øksnes notes his stress on "the power of repetition", and rhythmic intensity, though which the capability of devotion initiates the state of trance. All in all, though the trance seems like a welcome, and often desired result of performance, we may perhaps designate it a by-product of the spelmann's craft, rather the main goal, or a shamanistic technique.
Sources and suggested reading:
- Nergaard, Sigurd. 1925. Hulder og trollskap: folkeminne fraa Østerdalen IV. Norsk folkeminnelag: Kristiania
- Skar, Johannes. 1961. Gamalt or Sætesdal: I. Det Norske Samlaget: Oslo
- Levy, Morten.1974: Den stærke slått. Wormianum: Højbjerg
- Øksnes, Ingunn Sørli. 2011. Tradisjon og transe: i lys av folkemusikeren Hallvard Torleivsson Bjørgums filosofi og praksis. NTNU: Trondheim
The Norwegian Directorate for Education are chipping in for a shallower, more intellectually flaccid world, as a panel tasked with proposing revisions to the school curriculum recently suggested cuts to older linguistic and literary history from the Norwegian subject curriculum. This is part of the Ministry of Education and Research's newfound doctrine of renewal, intended to pave way for what they think will be a more contemplative and considerate educational platform, to the abandonment of "irrelevant" subjects.
Schools barely touch upon Old Norse in the first place, so we may rightfully ask what there is left to cut before these lifelines are entirely severed. Downsizing whatever remains of a cultural historical perspective would no doubt have the opposite effect, if the goal is to encourage the intellectual development and independence of the students.
Awareness of our linguistic heritage is essential to understand, not only the basis for the immense regional richness of our language, but also how Icelandic and Norwegian developed into two distinct languages. Such things are relevant to any society wishing to understand itself and its surroundings in a long-term perspective. Never has this been more important than today.
I am not alone in my conviction that Old Norse is doomed. I don't think Norwegian universities will teach Old Norse in 40 years. With no institutions to speak its case, recruiting students will be harder than ever. It's true that there's been some resurgent interest in vikings and Norse mythology, in part thanks to popular culture, but what good is this to an academic field that hinges on a more long-term historical awareness. If I hadn't been introduced to Norse literature at a tender age, it is very unlikely that I would have ended up pursuing my degree. That spark was, at least in part, lit by the school system. One I thought was founded on principles of encyclopedic wisdom.
Now, it's abundantly clear that the government has limited enthusiasm for people pursuing the liberal arts. But when my generation was younger, we were actively encouraged on grounds that, whichever direction we chose, the system assured it would all pay off. Now that the oil age has long since peaked, politicians want no liability for the precariat they gave birth to. But regardless of our perceived "relevance" to the Social Democratic Kingdom of Norway, the fact remains that people like us are necessary for the sake of our cultural memory, which in turn is an asset to the cultural flora of the world.
What sort of society are we aiming for, if we do not nurture our culture, alienating future generations from literature we are internationally famous and celebrated for. There is a real possibility that soon, generations will grow up entirely unaware, and consequentially uncurious, about their own native tongue. Who should introduce them, if not the schools. Old Norse is the mythic language that articulates our origins. Norse culture is popularly perceived as the ethnogenesis not only of Norway, but all of Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands. It provides context to how and why, exactly, the Nordic countries manifested in past and present. Our ups, and our downs. We are not incidental, but the result of a plastic development across generations. Here we are, a thousand years later. Politicians, of all people, should see the worth of a great myth.
The agency has expressed their desire to increase cross-cultural understanding. These chronophobes ignore the aspect of time. Whether by intent or accident, the result of their proposal is that the school system will embrace amnesia. When I thought Old Norse was threatened, they are telling me it's not threatened enough.
If the past is another country, then there is obviously a need for understanding between past and present man. History provides examples that we may seen in ourselves, and the lesson it teaches is different than what we get from observing our neighbors. Norse literature and language offers a window into a different world. It is a mirror through which we may see the other in ourselves, and reminds us that our own reality could have been much different. Because it was.
Tick tock, friends and foes. In the next few episodes we're tackling time itself, or rather our tendency to divide the fourth dimension into eras!
Aksel joins the podcast once again to help unravel the dense issue of Scandinavian chronology. We start off softly with a primer on the origin and development of the ages themselves, from the Greek concept of the Golden Age, to the timeline of modern archaeology, before we get into how the Norsemen developed their own system of ages based on surprisingly scientific criteria.
I peer further in towards the wall of thickets, and a chill runs down my spine. There is a stone image right in front of me, an old god. Oh how small and grim it is, lacking arms down from his shoulders, and with nothing but feeble grooves in the face for eyes, nose, and mouth. The gap between the legs is also simply a carved line, and there are no feet. To stand, the image must be propped up with stones.
Then I thought that this was what God had wanted tonight. To use me to topple this little idol man, and toss him in the pond. Yet when I moved my hand to do it there was no strength in it, but contradictory, a strange exhaustion.
I looked at my hand, what was wrong with it? It ran like a wilting across the skin. Filled with horror, I looked away from my hand, towards the little stone man again. Oh, it was a disgrace against God to be humiliated by this creature! It looked just as though it had been greater once, long ago, but now it had gone into childhood with dementia. It had become nothing, that's how shriveled it was, standing there with the supports around itself.
I raised my other hand against it, but the hand falls, the same thing repeats itself. The skin turns gray and withered on my left hand. Then I jump back across the pond, and crawl back out of the thickets. Big drops of rain begin to fall from the sky.
From «Rosa» (1908) by Knut Hamsun. Translated by Eirik Storesund, February 2018.
America doesn't have much viking related stuff to see besides runestone-based hoaxes and the odd statue of Leif Erikson. That's cool enough on their own terms, though I haven't had the chance to see any during my trips. Not that it matters. There's enough to see and do in my base camp in New York, which is chock full of beautiful museums and great art. Luckily, I'm bestowed with other fascinations as well. For example, I'm extremely interested in the sociology of drinking culture. Or really just drinking culture in general. Or maybe I just like drinking? Who knows.
I'll read a demographic report on national alcohol consumption with childlike curiosity, so I've spent hours hauling my girlfriend from liquor store to liquor store. I hardly ever bought anything, though: For the most part I was really just comparing booze selections in various parts of the city, which lead me to conclude that Americans of all social classes really love their IPAs.
It was in some sticky-floored bodega I saw it. A bronze can winking at me from the refrigerator at midnight. The label stated Olde English "800" malt liquor. The holy grail and envy of post-ironic Medievalists across the Western hemisphere. This is what Beowulf would have drunk were he a hobo in Detroit. What does the "800" stand for? I have no idea, but 800 was a year in the early viking era, which must mean I'll take any excuse to write an article. Being somewhat of a historian of human and animal alcohol abuse, as well as an expert in certain cultures long since dead, I was pretty stoked to try it out. I took out of the fridge and carried it to the counter with both hands and gave a cheery nod to the proprietor – an unenthusiastic Asian man. I paid in cash and carried it home in a brown paper bag.
What is malt liquor? Let me tell you: Malt liquor is basically potent beer, often sold dirt cheap in large containers. Why don't they just call it beer, then, you might ask. They don't, because that would be illegal in several states, that's why. Instead malt liquor is an umbrella term used for various alcoholic beverages made with malted barley, but usually contains various industrial grade non-standard ingredients to cheaply boost the alcohol level as well. Malt liquor, malt liquor, how it rolls off the tongue.
For context: The Norwegian welfare state is very concerned with the health of its citizens, which means it's prone to nanny-state lawmaking. We have a restrictive alcohol policy, and hard alcohol is only available through a government-run chain of liquor stores. It's not all bad: Two benefits to this is a monstrously huge selection and a thoroughly educated staff. It also means that everything they sell is curated by a board of specialists. This so-called Wine Monopoly does provide both higher and lower quality booze. But they don't offer gut-rot products such as what Americans call bum wine, which tastes like a chemical spill and allegedly makes your tongue turn black, so it's probably for the better. American malt liquor is rarely exported as well, and demand will never be large enough for the Norwegian Wine Monopoly to care. This combined with a general counter-cultural interest, may explain why these beverages hold an almost mythical status to me. Make no mistake, however: Produced by MillerCoors, one of Americas highest grossing brewing companies, Olde English "800" is no underdog by any means. The international beverage industry is cynical and deceptive.
Back in the apartment I sat down, wondering whether I should have a meal or a snack, but in the end I could come up with no better pairing for Olde English "800" than Anglo-Saxon Books' parallel translation of Beowulf. Luckily, a copy happened to be within arms reach. I politely tapped the can to warn the contents of my arrival, put my finger to the tab, cracked it open and had a sip. I halfway expected it to be really awful. It's certainly no taste explosion, but I can't honestly say it was in any way lesser in quality to cheap macro lagers such as Budweiser (so-called " " "king" " " of beers) or Pabst Blue Ribbon (hipster soma). In fact, I found the morning-urine-hued, Anglo-Saxon themed drink to be richer in taste than both of them despite a rather low hop profile. Then again, this is probably carried by the comparatively hearty alcohol content of at 5.9% AB. It is what it is.
Three cleft skulls.
Best paired with poetry in a dead Germanic tongue and bitter musings on the Norman invasion.
[First published March 22nd 2017]
Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.
How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.
To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their siðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces.
The spirit in a concrete world
One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.
Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.
Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".
The sensual world and the spirit world
Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.
In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.
Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.
It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.
Breath, wind, spirit, mind
Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.
Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates.
The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.
Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).
There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213).
The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners
In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.
There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.
There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).
In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.
Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.
In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.
It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2).
The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.
I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.
There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.
Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros
The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)
When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"
Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians.
What does a spirit "look" like?
Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.
Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.
However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.
There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn.
Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.
If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:
Sources and suggested reading:
- Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh
- Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
- Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
- Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
- Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
- Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
- Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen
As a Norse educator with nearly 30 years of life experience, and a Scandinavian, I am well aware that Iron Age, and Viking Era Scandinavia was home to the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. You don't need to tell me, I'm here to tell you, that the 6th century Byzantine historian Jordanes hit the nail right on the head when he described Scandinavia as, and I quote, the womb of nations. I dare even say this womb doubled as a cradle to all civilizations, who, like all children, are misguided ingrates. This is certainly more than what we can say in terms of contributions from, say, the Mediterranean (what a shithole), to not even speak of the near East.
Of course, like all true aristocrats of the soul, the denizens of my ancestral lands were famed for their impeccable style. It should suprise nobody, for they were forward thinking pagans all, who lived and died with honor, unheard of among the unwashed dunces of Christian nations. Your god was nailed to the cross? Well mine has a hammer, just saying ;)
Iconography harvested from a wide range of Ancient Origins suggests that Vikings and their (and mine) ancestors mastered, not only sailing, but also the noble craft of cutting hair. This proves beyond the shadow of a doubt what the Vatican has been trying to hide for a thousand years: That Vikings were the most technologically (and aesthetically) advanced culture the world has ever seen. Other Viking innovations include interstellar travel (some say our gods came from space), total equality of the sexes, and social democracy, but that's a digression.
Today we shall look at how they used their supreme seafaring skills to impress and outcompete the fashions of every people they encountered, as demonstrated in five hairstyles. Prepare to be inspired!
1. The Golden Boy Curtained Bowl Cut
15 square millimeters of pure heartthrob. These gullgubber sport a timeless curtained mushroom bowl cut that is sure to singe the loins of even the iciest chieftain's daughter. Don't forget to ask her father's permission, and be on the watch! With that smooth chin, not even he might be able to resist your boyish charm. Just don't find yourself on the receiving end of any tomfoolery, because that would be unmanly. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Though not as prevalant today, this ancient hairdo can still be seen on the noggins of Joe & The Juice employees, Korean stage performers, and Australian backpackers the world over.
2. The Berserker Flattop
Swept off the cliff like a Faeroese toddler, this dude hails from the isle of Bornholm, mustard capitol of the North. Usually these gold foils are portrayed in profile, but that would hardly give credit to his chiseled bog iron frame, no sir, this bad boy is depicted en face (as in: en your face).
This hairdo offers ample servings of absolutely no fucks given, suggestive of a personality prone to swinging roundhouse kicks at the longhouse wall, continuously flexing and/or kissing his magnificent biceps, all the while crunching drinking horn after drinking horn with his free hand while he takes your mom's maiden name. Hung like Odin on the windy tree, this dude would look just as home harrassing an Estonian fishing village as he would lifting truck tires in the woods.
3. The Norman Yoke
The hairdo that destroyed Anglo-Saxon England! You may think it is a stretch to include the Bayeux Tapestry on the list, but you're wrong. The relevancy of the Bayeux tapestry is absolutely non-negotiable. This equestrian fringe (that means it looks like a horse) is one of Norse culture's greatest contributions to continental society, as proven by its adoption by the Norman elites, as well as contemporary Dutch gabber culture. It takes some self-esteem to pull off this look, and that, my friends, will get the knees to buckle and quiver on your enemies and lovers alike.
Sure, your dad might not approve, but don't worry, neither did countless Anglo-Saxon parents either, as the scribe Ælfric wrote around the year 1000: «I also say to you, brother Edward, now that you have asked me for this, that you do wrong in that you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of the heathen people who did not give life to you and by doing so you reveal that you despise your kindred and your ancestors by such evil customs when you dress in insult to them in Danish fashion, with bared necks and blinded eyes.»
So let there be no question of the ancient roots, and provenance of this equine haircut. Let it also stand as the final answer to the question of whether or not the vikings got high, because judging from this, they must have been raving and pillaging every drug cabinet between Dorestad and al-Andalus.
4. The West Fold
It is famous and true that North America was discovered by Norse exiles, but few are aware that they were actually just trying to find avocado toast. Oseberg or Williamsburg, I can't tell the difference. Besides, we can thank Brooklyn for finding the Oseberg ship in the first place, and its residents are as unwanted in their homeland as the original Norse settlers were. Exactly how deep does this rabbithole go? Either way, the west fold cut in any variation is only complete with a thin, neatly kept mustache in the style of the Trønder ethnic minority of Middle Norway. This is my style at the time of writing, and I can only conclude that Norway should contest the USA's territorial claim on this bank of the East River.
5. The Heathen Visionary
Last but not least: Always be yourself, even if you are a total nutter. No matter how you style yourself, Norse culture valued total individualism, second only to the value they put on total submission to one's extended family. Admittedly, this overtly casual style requires the least maintenance and preparation, but it will certainly give you a characteristic, sage-like look without trying to impress anybody. Whether you are chucking hoarded gold in the swamp
, pondering the endless intellectual depth of neanderthals (the only race that
with the Norse), sitting in a cave while you pray for
, or any other and equally noble pursuit, a full beard and greasy hair is sure to earn you friends according to the principle of quality over quantity. If they can't handle you at your worst, they don't deserve you at your best!
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In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
– Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Yule lads roasting on an open fire, spirits of the ancestral dead nipping at your nose. It's the most wonderfully strange time of the year. You know, that time when the sun proverbially turns, prying the coming spring from the cold dead hands of winter darkness. Where we spend all our money on symbolic trinkets, and open our hearts and doors to friends, family, and fire hazard in great abundance.
Oh yes, my friends, Christmas is here again, though we don't call it that in Scandinavia. We call it jul. It's an old word, handed down across the generations from the Old Norse jól, which in turn has cognates in several other Germanic languages. The occasion, or so it appears, was also referred to by other terms, such as miðsvetrarblót (midwinter sacrifice), and Hǫkunótt (etymology uncertain). I'll generally stick to Yule and jól for the duration of the article.
As sure as some birds fly South in the winter, so come the articles about the apparent continuity of certain Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and every festive dinner food on the Scandinavian table (though some of them are hardly a century old). I will save my heart the strain of going down that rabbit hole of disinformation and misconception today, but I will give you a fairly comprehensive run-down of one of the most popular misconceptions about pre-Christian yuletide celebrations: The time and date.
Time is an important aspect of ritual, whether you approach the subject with personal investment, or academic distance. I wrote this article with a varied audience in mind, and as always, my iconoclasm is motivated by a wish to raise awareness, and impose a minimal sense quality and critical thought on a scene that tends to be severely gullible (you know it's true). For the reconstructionists and perennialists among you, the virtues of exploring this subject should be self-evident: The ritual year, and its calendrical rites, are tremendously important to understanding the practical religious mind of archaic societies. Not to mention how these societies regarded time, even on a mundane level. Now that I've made this disclaimer, we can move on.
Yule - a feast of the sun?
Take a moment to take long, hard stare at the sun (proverbially of course). Is it not radiant? The tempting assumption that the solstices (and equinoxes) formed the basis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious feasts, is prevalent not only in modern Heathenry and Asatru (cf. Schnurbein 2016: 111), but is also reproduced in countless popular media articles on the ancient origins (excuse my French) of Yule in Northern Europe. This view was also widely held by scholars of the field up until the turn of the last century, and though fewer think so today, it has somehow stuck. Since scholars in general are either too overworked (or too lazy) to address the public, not a whole lot has been done to correct this assumption.
It doesn't seem too idiotic at face value: The Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place. It's not exactly the fertile crescent. We'll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you'll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year.
It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia, and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast. As you must have guessed by now, it's quite more complicated than that, and it rests on a massive jump to conclusions with no direct support in any of our sources. It would have been easier to undestand if Norse texts never said anything about the time of the yuletide sacrifices, but they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever. None the less, you will find no shortage people who insist that the opposite is true, refusing to let the evidence speak for itself. To paraphrase the Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg (cf. 2006: 102), those who insist on refering to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.
His interpretation will get the final word here, as his much lauded publication Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning (2006) remains the most comprehensive, and academically sound exploration of the Nordic pre-Christian calendars. This classic has been out of print since the world was young, but luckily a PDF has since been released officially (you can find it at the bottom of the page, and it includes a lengthy English step-by-step summary).
Given the solar bias of yuletide speculation, there is a lot of hot talk about the solar characteristics of this or that Norse deity. Freyr above all, is subject to a lot of discussion, as Snorri places him in control of sunshine and rain (Gylfaginning 24). Whichever solar features Freyr may have had, he is never described as the sun itself, and to be fair, this is seldom claimed in modern discourse, either. I wouldn't bother including him in this discussion, were it not for the fact that celestial bodies are so important to the Norse perception of time. Norse mythology is one example of a mythology where the sun (Sól) is personified as female. Something which is rarely taken into account outside of academic discussion. Her counterpart, the moon (Máni), is personified as male, which is also counter to many other mythologies (and our assumptions about their uniformity). However, neither the sun nor the moon are gods per se (certainly not æsir, anyway), which does set Norse religion apart from certain other old timey religions. Rather, they seem to do cosmological tasks in subortination to the gods (Simek 2007: 297), like servants (or tools). This is clearly laid out in stanzas 4 through 6 of the eddic poem Vǫluspá, describing an early phase of the universe where the celestial bodies were unaware of their purpose, and how it was given to them when the gods first divided the days. This enabled the reckoning of time.
In Alvíssmál, another eddic poem, the moon is even referred to by the name Ártali, roughly translatable as He-Who-Counts-The-Year. While the life-affirming properties of the sun mustn't have been lost on pre-Christian Scandinavians, they seem to have regarded the sun as a cosmic feature, rather than an object of direct worship, serving a practical purpose. The sun moves in accordance with divine intention - not as the movement of a god itself.
Hǫkunótt - a Norse pagan Yule feast
The oldest evidence we have for a possible Scandinavian yuletide feast, was described by the 6th century Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who mentioned that the inhabitants of Scandinavia (Thule) celebrated a feast for the returning sun, some time after the winter solstice (Nordberg 2006: 156). The earliest Norse reference to jól, however, comes from the 9th century Haraldskvæði, which is a praise poem composed in honor of Harold Fairhair's victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, and the following unification of the kingdom of Norway. To boast the king's unpretentiousness, and disregard for soft comforts, the poet declares the king's intent to drink jól (jól drekka) at sea, rather than in the padded comfort of a heated house. Though it says nothing beyond that it happened in winter, it reveals that jól, like many other Norse religious and social events, revolved around conspicuous consumption of alcohol.
In the saga of Olaf the holy, Snorri mentions a blót at midwinter (miðsvetrarblót), refering to it also as jólaboð and jólaveizla, both meaning Yule feast. Again implying that the main pagan religious event of jól occured later than Christmas, several weeks after the solstice. The saga of Hervor goes so far as to place jól in February, further yet from the winter solstice. The chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg, who died in 1018, claimed that the great blót in Lejre, Denmark was celebrated in January, some time after the Epiphany (cf. Nordberg 2006: 106).
Snorri states, in the Saga of Hákon the good, that jól was a three-day event starting at a night called Hǫkunótt, which he perceived as the midwinter night. It's a common misconception that midwinter and the astronomical winter solstice are one and the same, but in Scandinavian tradition - in which the year is divided into four quarters, such seasonal milestones started roughly a month later than the solstices and equinoxes. This is probably due to the climatical conditions of the North, so that midwinter and midsummer occured at more or less at the peak of the seasons. According to the Julian calendar, and conventions of Snorri's time, this would be around January 14th. According to our modern, Gregorian calendar, it would be January 20th (Nordberg 2006: 150).
In other words the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st or the 22nd in the Gregorian calendar, would actually have taken place on December 14th through 15th when the Julian calendar came to Scandinavia. So to Snorri Sturlusson, the astronomical winter solstice would have roughly coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, which would have occured a roughly a week before Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was only replaced by our current, Gregorian calendar in the 18th century (Nordberg 2006: 148). This also explains why the eve of St. Lucy is still considered the longest and darkest night in Scandinavian folklore.
The Norse lunisolar calendar
While there's a time and place for everything, it seems decidedly safe to say that yuletide sacrifice did not occur at the solstice. So far, all of these sources place the event between January and February, but we have no yet come to explain the flaky and inconsistent dating of jól itself. Why do the sources give varying dates for the festival, within such a discrepant timeframe as January through February? This is where the pre-Christian calendar comes in.
The festival of jól took place within a certain timeframe in the Norse calendar, which contained no less than two months of Yule, called Ýlir and Jólmánuðr respectively. Yule is a common Germanic holiday, and the tradition of two Yule months are attested as far back as 4th century Gothic texts, and supported by by Anglo-Saxon sources, where the 8th century chronicler Bede writes that the pagan Angles followed a calendar based on the lunar cycles, but that this lunar year was determined on the terms of the solar year: It was lunisolar.
Such a system was also in place in Scandinavia. Natually, months were determined by lunar phases, from new (nýr) to waning (né) moon. There are 12 months in a solar year, which lasts 365 days. However, it takes only 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Therefore, a certain new moon will occur 11 days earlier than it did in the previous year. A lunar calendar will therefore always move from one point to another, and will actually rotate unless there is a system in place to correct it. In some systems, such as the Islamic calendar, the months change from year to year. Muslims might observe the holy month of Ramadan in the middle of the summer one year, and late autumn another (though such a shift will take dozens of years).
Obviously, such a system would never work within the agricultural year of Northern Europe. The months reserved for harvest and slaughter needed to occur at roughly the same point in every solar cycle, when the climate allows for it. One way to make sure the months weren't spinning backwards, was to make an exception in the lunar calendar, where the winter solstice always marks the point where the first month of Yule ends, so that the second Yule month starts with the next new moon, no matter what. Consequently, the lunar phases would slide back and forth within an interval of 28 days.
Still with me? Good. To make up for the 11 days lost in the lunar year, the Germanic lunisolar calendar seems to have inserted an extra summer month every three years to make up for the 11 day shift. Interestingly, this seems to recall the great blóts held at Uppsala and Lejre, which occured every ninth year. This is probably no coincidence (Nordberg 2006: 154). Old Norse religion is famously hung up on multiplications of the number three. Here it seems that this was also incorporated into cultic practices through the observance of sacred time.
Vocabulary shows that Norse peoples were well aware of the astronomical solstices and equinoxes, but the main pagan religious festivals seem to have been celebrated to mark each quarter of the calendrical year. These did, as previously mentioned, not directly coincide with the solstices and equinoxes, and seem to have been determined by the lunar phases. Because the solar and lunar year met at the winter solstice, the months of the year would bounce back and forth between two points within a certain, ~28 day interval. As Snorri, as well as other sources place the winter blót a month (or more) after the solstice, it seems most likely that jól was celebrated on the full moon of the second Yule month. That is to say the full moon after the new moon following the winter solstice. Then it would always occur no earlier than January 5th and February 2nd in the modern Gregorian calendar, well inside the interval stated by Norse texts.
So why the full moon, one may ask? In Nordic folk traditions, a remnant of this system seems crystalized in the concept of the Yule moon. The term is attested in Old Norse as jóla tungl, and in various derivatives in later Scandinavian folklore: Swedish 'jultungel', Norwegian 'jultangel' and 'julemaane', Danish 'jule mae', and Finnish 'joulukuu', all refer to the full moon around the time of the Epiphany, on January 6th in the Gregorian calendar, but later in the Julian. In other words, the first full moon of the new moon after the solstice. The association with the Epiphany, Nordberg adds, appears to be a Christian approximation from the older, pagan, calendrical system described above. Similarly, the Dísting market in Uppsala - which seems to have emerged from the pre-Christian dísablót to (from dísir, "goddesses") was indeed determined by the full moon. Nordberg argues that the Yule moon represents a pan-Scandinavian rule of thumb used to determine the time of the Yule blót in the pre-Christian lunisolar calendar, and that such a system of determining religious festivals would apply to the other quarters of the year as well, equating to roughly the next month of the equinoxes and solstices, in the full moon of the new moon succeeding them. The vætrnætr "winter nights", which marked transition from autumn to winter, and the corresponding dísablót, would have been celebrated on the full moon of the new moon, following the autumn equinox.
As for 2018, readers would be wise to pick your finest ram and sharpen your sacrificial dagger. Mark your calendars for January 31st: It's the new moon of the full moon, following the winter solstice. Personally, I'll gladly celebrate Yule twice.
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- Nordberg, Andreas. 2006. Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur: Uppsal
- Schnurbein, Stephanie von. 2016. Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism. Brill: Leiden, Boston.
- Simek, Rudolf. 2007. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D. S. Brewer: Cambridge.
Studying Nordic folklore, one gets the sense that the performing arts were communicated and taught by dark, subterranean powers. The recent ancestors of contemporary Scandinavians lived in a world where the devil was a fiddler and the malicious water spirit known as nøkken, or the nix in English, could be heard playing sweet and seductive jigs from waterfalls and streams. It was said that he offered apprenticeships to those who dared bring him a sacrificial meal. But these entities do not represent creative independence and freedom without compromise: The devil is unable to perform his devilish deeds single-handedly – he is powerless without the initial consent of either god or man – and the nix possesses, like most goblins, wights and trolls, a murderously ill disposition towards mankind. Trolls and their ilk are not known for their innovation, and are in fact utterly passive creatures that must be coaxed or driven to action. Then, one might ask, what do wights and devils have to offer us? The answer is nature. They illustrate that man in one way or another must approach and confront nature if he is to realize culture. And since nature is rather suspicious, poisonous, capricious, etc., it is represented by such clandestine, anti-cultural agents.
Since trolls first and foremost are beings of nature, they are not motivated by cultural concerns. But though they are anti-cultural, they don’t thereby exist in a culture-less vacuum. Nature and culture reside in a mutually destructive relationship to each other, and one could say that the culture of the troll, as it were, is a reactionary necessity. They coil around one another. Norse poetic theory reveals that the shape-shifting nix was originally perceived as a mutant: a creature that was half one thing, half something else, as addressed in Kunstforum 1/2017. The medieval Icelandic poet and chronicler Snorri Sturlusson thus referred to the aesthetic ideal of pagan poetry as nýkrat: “nixy”, because its metaphors were constructed out of opposed elements – poetic, anti-naturalist mutants.
The perception of art in Nordic folk tradition up until the industrial revolution – the era Norwegians refer to as Det store hamskiftet (literally “The Great Shape-shift”) – may be considered an off-shoot of one we see even in Old Norse and Viking Age sources, and can still be traced in language today. This might seem like a bold statement. But languages reveal metaphors and deep psychological concepts and ideas that are often difficult to identify directly, but can be unveiled in etymology and euphemisms. We usually apply negative connotations to the word “darkness”. To most of us, these lean towards uncomfortable, more or less anxiety-provoking subjects. Many of us are afraid of the dark, but darkness is also associated with seductive moods, instincts and subconscious pulls. The Norse realm of the dead, Hel, has the same etymological root as huldra, a seductive and dangerous subterranean spirit in Nordic folklore. Both words mean “the hidden”. It is precisely to the blackest underworld that gods and men alike must journey to retrieve knowledge and inspiration in Norse mythology.
“That trolls dwell in men is a fact known by all who have an eye for such matters,” wrote Jonas Lie in the introduction to his anthology of supernatural stories, Trold (“Trolls”) in 1891. To whichever end we may ascribe human personality traits to wights and trolls, it will more often than not appeal to our worst natures. The things we would rather hide. Greed, laziness, envy, exploitation or seduction. Any behavior Christianity considers sinful, comes naturally to the troll. Pursuing these metaphors, we may begin to discuss subterranean characteristics. The subterranean is where the trollish has its roots. The trollish doesn’t necessarily reside in the underworld itself, but relates to it much like the Sicilian mafia does to America. And nature is trollish in itself. Thus we may consider trollish personality traits, deeds, impulses, and patterns of thought. And, not least, we may consider trollish aesthetics. A trollish paradigm, not only for understanding art, but also mankind’s masochist struggle between order and chaos, nature and un-nature...
READ THE REST OF MY ESSAY ON THE TROLLISH THEORY OF ART HERE
Driving along the Norwegian coast, you're bound to pass some the many spruce forests dotting the countryside. You'd be excused for thinking that these are naturally occuring features, but in fact they are the wild remnants of man-made plantations. Spruce gardens for the lumber industry. Imported from Canada, it is estimated that some 500.000 acres worth of sikta spruce were planted in the 20th century. Much of it in the years following the second world war, when the rebuilding of the nation raised demand for timber to new heights.
For this, the sitka spruce was a well suited material: It grows fast, straight, and tall. It has excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and more importantly, it thrives in Norway's thin, nutrion deprived coastal soil. There is a sad irony to this, but also a familiar pattern seen wherever the short-sighted decission is made to introduce a new species to a foreign environment.
In a sense, you could say that sitka forests have quite a literal dark side. As anyone who ever set foot in their forests will know, they tend to be dark and lifeless places. The sunless forest floor, though it makes for excellent mushrooming ground, is invariably covered in nothing but spruce needles and cones. If the sitka spruce demands little, it strangles all competition. Considering that most of these plantations are abandoned, they are allowed to spread without regulation. The qualities that made the sitka such a desirable source of timber, have turned it into a monster, and the scheme to meet lumber demands became a sort pact with the devil.
A new threat to an ancient landscape
Conservationism comes in many forms. In the past, overgrowth was kept in check by traditional livelihoods. A flock of sheep or goats was all you needed to keep the landscape open. With the decline of subsistence farming and rural lifestyles, saplings that would have ended as treats for livestock, now live well into maturity. With landowners uneager to finish the work their grandparents left behind, you can imagine the result. Trees are left as they are, even if they ripe beyond their years for logging. Sooner or later, a gust of wind will tip them over, and their shallow root systems will rip up the soil. This leaves an ugly crater or bare mountain. If a tree grows on a burial mound tips over, which is certainly a realistic scenario, it can ruin the mound forever. And since they they tend to grow in dense concentrations, they'll often take their neighbors with them when they fall. It's not unusual to see huge clusters of fallen trees after winter storms. Sometimes eradicating old pathways.
Landscapes that would have been just as familiar to an Bronze Age sheep herder as they would have been to a 19th century fisherman, are quickly disappearing. Ancient shrublands and pastures are dwindling away in the shadow of an invasive species. It outcompetes local flora, and rips through the innumerable ancient sites along the Norwegian coast.
Today, the sitka spruce is a recognized ecological threat, an unwanted species. It should have happened much sooner, but the fact that it made the national blacklist at all, is probably thanks to a national awareness that has come over time, much through the effort of a few individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty to save our pastures, moors, meadows, and monuments from the sitka's sprawl.
Enter Augvald, vigilante spruce killer
Arguably, the most infamous character in the saga of the sitka spruce, is the mysterious rebel activist going by the name of Augvald Granbane - the spruce bane. Nobody knows who the person behind the name is, only that he (or she) has haunted the ancient landscape of Avaldsnes, on the West Norwegian island of Karmøy, since 2003. His mission? To completely rid the heritage site and its vicinity of the hooligan spruce, as he calls it.
Avaldsnes itself was allegedly the main estate of Harold Fairhair, Norway's first, Viking Age unifier, and forms part of one of the most find dense archaeological areas in the entire country. Including two ship burials from the 8th century, several massive Bronze Age mounds, standing stones, hill forts, and the 3rd century princely burial of Flaghaug, which contained a 600g solid gold torque, among other things. It is also a recurring, important area in the kings' sagas, and was mentioned in mythological Eddic poetry.
Taking his title from the mythical king that gave Avaldsnes its name, Augvald's nom de plume is not a random choice. In a sense he has written himself into the rich mythology of Karmøy's history soaked moors and mires, taking as his emblem a sketch of a lost, local bronze artifact. Coming and going, issuing updates on his latest activities, leaving a trail of mutilated sitkas in his wake. Emerging every now and then to make statements remniscent of a guerilla leader taking responsibility for an assasination or kidnapping.
But Augvald's intent is not to instil fear or subvert the law. If anything, he seems see himself as a necessary evil against bureacratic passivity. Killing spruce trees at night, and writing by day. His resin stained hands elegantly steering his pen, loaded with literary wit and sarcastic remarks. Demonstrating passion, interest, and understanding of the unique value of Avaldsnes and its surroundings as an archaeological smörgåsbord, which covers the entirety of Norwegian history, from the Ice Age to the Oil Age. Having absolutely no mercy for local politicians without skin in the game, it is hard not to see this anonymous rebel as an example of the great Norwegian archetype of the subversive underdog who sticks it to the big man. As you can expect, not everybody is too thrilled about his vigilante conservationism. Even in the local history scene, he remains a controversial figure.
This is close and familiar ground to me. I grew up around the area, where I spent my formative youth reenacting the Iron Age, eventually working as a seasonal educator and guide at the Viking Farm open air museum, and the Nordvegen History Centre on Avaldsnes. Which in turn led me down the path I find myself on to this day. Augvald had a sort of spectral presence there, I recall, as I would spend the hours after drinking and walking from burial mound to burial mound with my friend Aksel, musing and meditating on the mysteries of the past. Very often, Augvald's signature cutmarks adorned the overgrowth around us.
It was obviously just a matter of time before I reached out to Augvald Granbane for an interview. The rest of the article, I dedicate to our conversation.
Confessions of a reluctant archaeo-activist: Augvald Granbane
Brute Norse: It's not every day one gets the honor of questioning a living, local legend. I think it would be most prudent to let you describe yourself in your own words. Who exactly are you, Augvald?
Augvald: Living legend is a flattering exaggeration. Shady instigator with a narrow, and local agenda is, perhaps, a better description. I've arranged civilly disobedient operations on Avaldsnes since 2003. This is done to demonstrate my severe dismay with a situation where the invasive sitka spruce was allowed to dominate – exceedingly – a cultural landscape, one that has always been clear and wide open, ever since people first began to keep pastures along Karmsund [That is, a narrow strait between the isle of Karmøy and the Norwegian mainland]. I've done this anonymously, and as an eye-catcher for websites where I have published my thoughts and observations under the pen name Augvald Granbane.
Brute Norse: The core of your activism seems rooted in the fact that spruce forests are an anachronistic and destructive element, unfitting in a protected historical landscape such as Avaldsnes. Reading your statements, it seems the spruce has become somewhat of a symbol of some overarching bureaucratic tendency. Perhaps you could you elaborate on that?
Augvald: First of all, sitka spruce is a concrete and obvious foreign element on Avaldsnes. That these trees were allowed to grow in peace for half a century is bad and difficult to comprehend. Personally, this situation became unbearable when the trees were still standing a decade after this mistake was pointed out, loudly and clearly. And all while the spruces kept growing, vast resources were spent on building a reconstructed viking farm in the middle of the spruce forest on nearby Bukkøy, and a history center up on Avaldsnes itself. For my own part, the invading trees became an increasingly potent symbol of a nonchalant, restricted, and embarrassing display of historical ignorance among those people whose responsibility it was to take action.
Brute Norse: The sitka spruce is a blacklisted, invasive species, and is considered a terrible nuisance in other parts of the country as well. Is Granbane's mission primarily cultural historical, or is there an element of ecological conservationism as well?
Augvald: My actions were motivated by cultural history from the start. Eventually, the WWF and other environmental organizations have also begun to combat the «hooligan-spruce». Their methods are clearly more effective than mine. In some places along the coast, there's a real ongoing struggle against these invasive forests, which were planted in the post-war era. But unsurprisingly, this trend has not reached our local backwater.
Brute Norse: You've become somewhat infamous for your weapon of choice: So-called girdling, in which you cut a groove along the circumference of the tree, thereby severing the tree's access to water and nutrients, which slowly kills it. I have to admit it's been a bit eerie stumbling across these girdled trees over the years. This has been a sort of trademark and signature of your presence, but I understand you went through a more experimental phase in your early days, when you used poison. Beyond visibility, are there any other perks to girdling that a budding tree-killer should take note of?
Augvald: Girdling, also known as ring-barking, requires patience, but it's simple and effective if you do it right. In the growing season, poisoning the tree with glyphosate will do the trick in about two weeks. Girdling on the other hand won't take effect until the end of the second growth season. With my long-term perspective, it's okay to wait two years. Besides, if you're going to put down another man's spruce, you might as well do it in a way where you cannot be accused of hurting the environment.
Brute Norse: Absolutely, I imagine pesticides would be somewhat counter-productive to your image in the long run. Do you think your ghostly presence has had an impact on local development, say, in terms of environmental intervention?
Augvald: That's hard for me to determine, but anybody can go there and see for themselves that not even a single spruce remains on Avaldsnes itself. Those involved would of course claim that the trees were due to be removed anyway. That may be partly correct, but obviously they've been forced to deal with a somewhat unpredictable, anonymous figure. A recurring fly in the ointment.
Brute Norse: That's for sure! I know one mutual friend of ours reached for his saw and lopper to clear up a Migration Era hillfort outside of Åkra [a small town South on the island], certainly inspired by your own efforts. Do you hope to inspire others to do similar acts in their own local area?
Augvald: Absolutely! But the fact of the matter is, that there is rarely a reason to do this anonymously and illicitly anymore. On the contrary: Combating «hooligan-spruce» and other examples of overgrowth has by far become accepted as a necessity. There's a lot you can do, and today it's even possible to apply for public funding.
Brute Norse: There must be room for some hope with that sort of development. I think it's fundamental that we teach the public to see these sitka forests as the run-amok plantations they are, and not as natural occurring forests. How do you think the situation is a hundred years from now?
I hope the sitka spruce is gone from the entire North and West Norwegian coast, but I am a realist. I expect it will continue to be very dominant in the landscape. Keeping it away from selected areas is a realistic goal, and Avaldsnes is obviously one such area, but it seems it's certainly here to stay. The hope of eradicating this foreign element must necessarily lie in some (bio)technological solution, and that doesn't exist as of today.
Brute Norse: As one would expect, there's no shortage of speculation surrounding your identity. Personally, I think the power of Augvald Granbane's activism lies in all the uncertainty, which seems to give it an element of folklore. Like some sort of modern outlaw, shrouded in hearsay and legend. For example, the story of Augvald ties in with the occasion where Olaf Tryggvason, by many considered one of Norway's great tyrants, was subverted by the god Odin. In a sense, the old taking back from the new.
Do you think Augvald would have made the same impact without the evocative imagery, and the mythology surrounding his name? Is he just a mask for you to hide behind, or do you consider him a being with ambitions of his own? I can imagine such a character taking on a life of his own.
Augvald: The pseudonym was, originally, a purely practical device, and it's served this purpose well. But regarding both the name and means of expression, this was a conscious strategy I chose in order to make the message I wanted to convey a topic of discussion, questions, rumors, and at best even jokes among a local audience. I had a pretty concrete and longstanding plan at the base of it, but it took a while before I came to realize that Augvald Granbane also had a more mythological potential. On a day to day basis, Granbane plays only a marginal and passive role in my real life, but after 14 years it's safe to say he's left his mark on me. Maybe I've even contracted something of a personality disorder? At least he's certainly developed a few stances and values that somewhat differ from my own, and I've grown strangely capable of distinguishing between his opinions and those of mine.
Brute Norse: Speaking of which, the name Augvald Granbane is frequently uttered in the same breath as the terms «vandal» and «eco-terrorist», but many consider you a kind of folk hero. I suppose I am guilty of this line of thinking, too. Do you keep track of all the speculations and characteristics projected onto you?
Augvald: No... Well, I've obviously heard a variety of more or less puzzling guesses and peculiar commentaries, but for the most part I just let Granbane's reputation go wherever it pleases. But I found an exception relatively early on in his career, when there was an overabundance of rumors about my identity, and some of them were quite unfair. I found it best to contribute with some simple facts to dispel a few of the most imaginative and paranoid theories. Hopefully, this served to clear the names of certain people who were unjustly accused, who may unfortunately have felt it as a burden.
Brute Norse: The area around Avaldsnes, actually the entire region, is unbelievably rich in ancient and historical monuments, yet, in the local branding, we see that it is the Viking Era and Harold Fairhair that steals the show. Hence the local slogan «Homeland of the Viking Kings», which is probably the first thing people see when they land at the local airport. What are your thoughts about this «viking circus», as you like to call it?
Augvald: «Homeland of the Viking Kings – Norway's Birthplace!» was the most outrageous version. An undocumented and obviously unreasonable claim. Made even more edgy by the fact that it was presented in English only - from the very beginning. As if it would become more true or trustworthy if one could avoid expressing this hollow nonsense in the native language of the primary audience.
Initially, I think it's absolutely great that the municipal council of Karmøy, and other local institutions want to shine a light on cultural heritage. My complaint is that this is done in a narrow, historically ignorant, short-sighted, clumsy, stale, and partly destructive way. All the while the cultural landscape and the real historical sites go for lye and cold water [a Norwegian expression: to suffer in neglect], get overgrown or outright ruined, unless antiquarian institutions or private forces intervene. Local politicians and municipal bureaucrats have barely any understanding of the fact that the landscape forms an entirely central part of cultural heritage. Their attitude seems to be, that only the Viking Age is worthy of interest, and that it is better to construct new and completely artificial Viking cultural sites, than it is to take care of the actual and far too dull monuments, for the simple fact that they too often belong to the wrong period. The remains of the amazing ship burial Storhaug [A late Merovingian/Vendel Era find, straight north of Avaldsnes] is perhaps the most depressing example of this. Not many years ago, Storhaug was conveniently «forgotten» by the local council, and almost ended up as an industrial site. Today, what remains of the mound is wedged up against, and probably partially within the industrial zone. Storhaug was by no measure a lesser mound than those which hid the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, neither in terms of content nor size. Some persons of influence should reserve a field trip to Vestfold and see how the ship-mounds are taken care of there. On the plane back home, it would be nice if they could find a moment to silently contemplate the state of things, and the verdict that will be passed on them by future generations. Do they think that our descendants will favour their efforts to fund construction of «real» viking houses in the spruce forest on Bukkøy, while at the same time letting actual historical sites – some of them world class – be destroyed by industry, roads, and real estate?
Sadly, it is my impression that the occasionally extreme commotion about the Viking Age locally, is a product of a collective inferiority complex, need for attention, awkward search for identity, and a dream of great economic profits when all the tourists start flooding in to experience these constructed delights. A proper mess, in other words. Let me tell you: Pointing this out won't make you popular...
Brute Norse: A firm statement. There are numerous other examples of such local hypocrisy. When they renewed the road to Saint Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes for its 700 year anniversary, they actually removed several burial mounds to save themselves a few extra truckloads of stone! In 1950! Anyway, I guess the last word is yours. Is there anything you want to add?
Augvald: On my homepage, I've explained the prelude to my actions in detail, as well as the development up until today. It's a long and winded saga about delays, narrow-mindedness, and hopeless ignorance of history. The angle is rather localized. Even to readers who understand Norwegian, but lack a local connection, it's probably difficult to pick up all the details. Google translate works badly for this text, and to a non-Norwegian reading audience I'm sorry to say that only the pictures offer some impression of its content.
Apart from this, I'll keep my action firm. Going in the same tempo, and with the same goal and strategy in mind as before.
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The giants called: They want their primeval chaos back! This episode features a cosmic horror reimagining of the Norse myth of creation, adapted from my essay "The Trollish Theory of Art: a scandifuturist art creation myth", published in the recent darkness-edition of
. Afterwards, I give a quick overview of Norse poetic morbidity, and I throw out a few thoughts on why a philosophy based on Nordic folklore and cosmology could bridge the gap between traditional and modern art forms.
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Storm-winds bellow, blackens heaven!
Comes the hour of melancholy;
Back is taken what was given,
Vanished is the relic holy.
~ A. Oehlenschläger, The Gold Horns
Here's a recap: On August 12th, 2017, the Historical Museum in Bergen became the scene of the most spectacular disaster ever to strike Norwegian museum history, as more than 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the site. The thieves had entered the museum storage through a window on the seventh floor, which they accessed from a shoddily secured scaffold.
Though the burglars triggered the alarm twice, they were left completely free to ravage the collections at their own pace. Initial reports claimed that the security guard had inspected the site, but noticed no signs of tampering. This claim smelled fishy from the start, and it was soon enough revealed that the guard never actually entered the museum, because it was windy, and he figured it was just the weather that had set the alarm off.
When the alarm sounded again, he didn't even bother to leave his office, some 300 meters away. Instead, he presumably reset the alarm from the comfort of his chair. Nobody noticed that anything was wrong until Monday morning, when employees at the museum came in to find their workplace ravaged.
The trail was cold. It bore several markings of a deliberate, planned heist - apart from the highly circumstantial, literal window through which the criminals could enter the museum, which would suggested that the thieves might have taken advantage of an immediate, short-lived opportunity. It was a confusing mix, and many, including myself, suspected the workings of an organized crime league.
After all, who would be stupid enough to commit theft on such a grand scale without the proper network, means, and market? It was one or the other: It was either a well calculated scheme by a bunch of well seasoned art theft veterans, or an impulsive act of idiocy executed by desperate imbeciles.
In light of recent events, it seems indeed that we may have given them more credit than they deserved. But if there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that we must never underestimate the malice born in the union of opportunity and short-sighted stupidity.
Some hell of a drug
In October, the Bergen police department was contacted by a 49 year old man who claimed to be affiliated with the burglary, citing remorse for his actions as the reason for turning himself in. On November 9th, the local newspaper BA reported on the breakthrough: Two men were now in police custody, and another two have been arrested since then, and somewhere along the lines of 300 out of the more than 400 artifacts have been returned. The police say that they will not rule out the possibility of additional arrests, with the common denominator being drug related crimes and theft.
One of them has already plead guilty on account of embezzlement, but claims he found the treasure in a bag by the Strax house - a local health center and clinic for drug addicts, right across the bridge from Bergen Museum. As a former neighbor of the clinic, I am hardly surprised. Has the Strax house made its neighborhood a rattier, dirtier, more dangerous place? I'll give that an unequivocal lol yes, but there's no point for us to unravel the ridiculous saga of how Bergen city council sweeps society's undesirables under the rug. Not here at least.
Several artifacts are still missing. Apparently some of these are also gold objects, which is alarming for a number of reasons. Some of the confiscated items have suffered severed damage, in part due to neglect, but also deliberate maltreatment. The arm-ring from Stranda, displayed at the top of the page, was sawed straight through, for instance, which is suggestive of every conservationist's worst nightmare: The perpetrators sought to re-melt and sell it for its silver value. An insult to the integrity of the artifact.
If any of the objects have suffered this fate, it is far worse than any black market transaction. They will never pop up in an online auction. They will never pop up in a police bust. They are gone forever.
A fitting punishment
Okay, so four junkies are now sweating away in the can. What next? For starters, I think we need to make examples of those responsible. I am not making this appeal out of bloodthirstiness, but because symbol laden actions demand a symbol laden response. This includes not only strict punishment for the burglars, but criminal persecution of the security guard as well, who failed - not once, but twice - to do his job. He twice enabled the crooks to help themselves.
And so he made himself complicit. His behavior represents a severe case of criminal neglect and infidelity towards his duties. The situation that followed was a direct result of his personal laziness and lack of commitment. He did everything short of waving them goodbye. I consider it a given that the security guard be stripped of his position if this hasn't been done already. He should not be trusted to work in the field again. I would not oppose a prison sentence, and at the very least he should be forced to pay compensation for the losses.
Obviously, no less of a burden should befall the burglars. It should be made abundantly, glitteringly, shiningly clear that they have done irreparable harm to our collective inheritance. It must be exceedingly obvious to all, that these crimes go beyond theft and vandalism. They should be dealt with harshly. Obviously, the one who turned himself in should be dealt a proportionately reduced sentence. Honesty should should pay, too, and if it leads one to turn them all in, then all the better. How does one even quantify compensation for the malicious theft of invaluable artifacts? It must go far beyond their matieral value, that's for certain. Harsh judgments have befallen people who did a lot less.
I am not a legal expert. I am not unbiased. I write under the conviction that any crime against cultural heritage is a crime against our ancestors, a crime against our future descendants, and and a crime against all of us. It's an insult to our inheritance, and we cannot sleep at night allowing such things things to happen.
If we give the security guard his part of the responsibility for this theft, we thereby set grounds for future and current security guards to be more diligent. If we do not send this signal, we invite it to happen again.
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In this Halloween special, we tackle the weird and mysterious case of the Oseberg ship, and the lesser known, but true, story of how a Brooklyn clairvoyant may have caused the discovery of the most extravagant Viking Age burial ever found.
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In this episode, archaeologist Aksel Klausen takes us deeper into the dank woods of Germania Libera, where we take a brief glance at Germanic, Hunnic, and Roman identity, and how the Post-Roman Germanic kingdoms began to look through the rubble of the empire to legitimize themselves, while other leaders looked to the gods.
On the way, we also find the time to consider Germanic animal ornament as an expression of surrealist art, asemic writing, and runes and writing in a non-written, storytelling culture.
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Speaking of barbarians; have you seen my Old Norse dub of Conan the Barbarian yet? DO IT NOW.
So it seems I've taken it upon myself to become a sort of cultural historical watchdog. It's a filthy job, but somebody has to do it. The latest piece of historical misery comes to us in the form of a bizarre retraction on part of Dale Garn who, among other things, designs and supplies knitting patterns used by the Norwegian Alpine Ski Team.
You see, Dale Garn - which is not to be confused with Dale of Norway, but is owned by House of Yarn, who is our main villain - decided to pull back a specific line of sweaters for the basic non-offense of having a runic design, in light of a recent spike in activity on part of a radical neo-nazi organization called The Nordic Resistance Movement. The sweaters would have been used as representational garments for the 2018 winter Olympics. Alas, no more, as Dale stated they did not want to support or be affiliated with a far-right organization. By doing so, that is exactly what happened.
By opting for a clumsy, cowardly approach they have done more than anybody else to give credence and monopoly to the organization they claim to detest. Fleeing with their tails between their legs, abandoning the heritage they claim to protect and cherish. Mind you, the popular sweater company Dale of Norway still sell the sweater (last time I checked, this sweater was even sold at Scandinavia House in NYC), and are as previously mentioned not to be confused with their sister company. All hail Dale of Norway.
The scandal was somewhat fueled by one of our nation's tabloids, VG, from whom I snatched the picture above (thank you Gisle Oddstad, VG / Terje Pedersen, NTB Scanpix, who own all rights to it etc.). VG's editor and the journalists Kristian Aaser and Martha Holmes demonstrate a worrying lack of source criticism and literacy when they refer to the algiz/maðr rune under the recent, anachronistic name "leben". 24 extra points for incompetency, VG, one for each rune in the elder futhark. You had one job. All in all, it's amazing that this piece of journalistic garbage made it past at least three people before it was published.
Associate professor Terje Spurkland, while being praiseworthy for his excellent and lively publications on the runes, also handled this in a way that disappointed more people than myself, as he was quoted by VG saying, ahem:
These runic letters should not have been on the sweaters. The Nazis used them in an unhistorical way, and today this is associated with Nazism.
Way to piss all over his own work and legacy. I would have expected something less ignorant from such an authority.
While it is certainly true that NRM applies the tiwaz/týr rune their emblem, it fails to explain Dale's decision, unless they are of the opinion that runes overall are too filfthy to be touched. I reckon they should do what everybody else does: They should rise above. At the very least they could have redone the design. Instead they issued a drastic statement, urging customers to delete, return, or destroy any promotional materials, books, pamphlets, posters, patterns and recipes associated with the sweater.
This means that if you happen to have the pattern for Dale Garn's Tor/Tora line of sweaters, you're probably in for a decent buck on ebay. Thank me later. I happened upon a short statement form House of Yarn, the owners of Dale Garn, who had this to say when confronted by a member of the public, translated by myself:
For House of Yarn it was an important and right decision to pull this design, back in August this year. The reason is easy to understand, and we do not wish to be taken in support of the dark forces that spread across the land, Europe, and the West in general. I'm sure you wouldn't knit a swastika pattern? It's the same issue with the tyr- and leben [sic] rune. We hope you find other designs and recipes with a much more positive message.
Well I'm glad we cleared that up. Dale Garn thinks that runes are not conductive to a positive message.
Here's a history lesson: Runes are an entirely unique epigraphic system of writing used since the 2nd century AD, which despite all odds survived in certain areas as far up as until the 19th century. Runes are a cherished cultural expression, and and invaluable keepsake of Nordic culture. Within their origins and development, there lies hidden a fascinating story of cultural innovation and adaption in our ancient past. National Socialist usage is a brief second in the history of the runes. A speck of dust, a footnote. It is also worth mentioning, because it is often overlooked, that while Hitler suckled at the teat of national revivalism, he looked to Rome, not Germania, as his favored model for the Third Reich. The Norwegian police still keep the fasces in their insignia, across New York it adorns everything from granite columns to door handles, and nobody seems to give a shit. Putting Norse heritage through this sort of scrutiny is a convenient scapegoat, and nothing else. It was always the odd man out, never quite accepted in polite society. Whoever might wish to marginalize our heritage further have a great ally in Dale Garn, who hands it to them on a silver platter.
I'm not going to tell you, dear reader, what to do or what to think in this matter. I'm an absolutist when it comes to freedom of thought. It's Dale's total lack of integrity, and disregard for heritage that bothers me. I don't even care about their tacky sweater. It's Dale's privilege to do as they please with their business, but it's our privilege to take our business elsewhere. Why not support a small, local yarn business that needs your money instead?
Dale Garn can afford to lose me as a customer. I don't even knit. What they cannot afford is their loss of reputation as an ambassador of Norwegian culture. They have demonstrated that they are undeserving of such an honor, by pissing all over the Dale legacy.
At the end of the day, Dale Garn's choice is all about making money and keeping customers. Let's see if they made the right decision.
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In 2013, I published a piece in Haugesunds Avis - my hometown's local newspaper, where I urged people to ask critical questions about the sincerity behind certain claims and intentions of a viking themed amusement park, which is planned to be built outside the village of Sveio in the Haugaland region, Southwest Norway. It was a futile attempt: Though I accused them of being opportunistic, and even dangerous profiteers posing as being genuinely interested in furthering local historical identity, none of the involved parties answered my calls.
Later, this park was named Thor's (sic) Rike, "Thor's Realm", which is an extremely awkward title insofar it contains no less than two typos (Tor is the name of the thundergod in Norwegian, and the apostrophe is not used like it is in English). Anyway, the debate died before it even began. Some people supported my critique, others saw no problem - though generally people seemed to think it was an ill-advised business idea overall. Seeing that West Norway hardly is a summer paradise, the stakes are pretty high.
Proponents of the theme park, which is simply referred to as "Vikingland" locally, claim that it will create much needed jobs in the region. Sure, manual labor is needed at least until it's finished. I bet guest workers will be queuing up for the opportunity to lay every single brick that comes after the mayor's customary first - as their privilege is. Besides, no carnival can do without two or three dozen teenagers to sell tickets and cotton candy for three or four months in the summer. Lastly, a handful of people who've studied something whimsical like, say, "leadership studies" are probably needed as well.
What do I worry about, people sometimes ask. Well, I do tend to worry about a whole lot of things, but I shall try to keep it snappy: Firstly, I'm not convinced that Tho'rs Rike is going to be the blessing they're promising. They'll have to live with my negativity, but after all, it's their duty to communicate with the public and explain to them, earnestly, what their intents are. Consequently I expect us - the public - to poke around ask some questions, as this is arguably of local community interest. As we should, wherever someone is hustling for coin. Especially, perhaps, when it's trying to get a piggy back ride from local history, and poses as an ally of ancient monuments.
I am worried about the long-term results, I'm gonna hide it. If this park ends up as a total fiasco, we don't go back to square one, but minus ten. As much as I love my native region, I would be lying if I didn't say that I believe it is a wretched hive of hollow materialism, profiteering and suspicious, nepotistic in-trading. A gang of fairly well to do folks shaking each others' dicks on a leased boat, pretending to be regional saints. But it's gotten better, it's getting somewhere.
Anyway, as I was saying: If the park is a fiasco, I don't think people will have the clarity to see this as a failure of bad business decision, but a confirmation that, ahem, "cultural heritage" isn't worth spending a dime on. When I gaze into my crystal ball of pessimism, I think that patrons will say: If we can't make this Disneyland wannabe work, then we sure as hell ain't going to bother investing in any more of his viking horseshit. I think, that when the theme park goes, it's gonna suck any monetary willingness in with it, like a black hole.
Yeah, I do believe that Th'ors Rike will be a burden - not a supplement - to the rich cultural heritage of the region. A Viking Age burial mound to the people behind it, is only really worth something to these people if they can squeeze a dollar out of it. If not, there's no reason this shouldn't be a car park as far as these people are concerned.
This region served as the main seat of Harold Fairhair, the national unifier of Norway back in the 9th century. Where no less than two viking ships have been found, which contains an unprecedented continuity and number of ancient monuments from all ages of our nation's history.
So I do believe that the park will do more harm than good. I struggle to see what it has to offer the soul of locals, who should be inspired to look to their heritage with admiration and pride. All the talk about of "infotainment" is hollow and baseless, judging from what we've seen so far. A disguise used to get through the door and sell us their ice cream and rides, making a soulless mockery of our intangible and invaluable cultural history. Killed by this ridiculous commercialization.
I'm telling you, friends, that if you wish to see a vision of the future of infotainment, then imagine a plush mascot stomping on a museum educator's face - forever.
The worst part is the fact that the committee behind T'hors Rike pretend to be genuinely interested in celebrating and fronting our cultural history, by publishing a bizarre series of local historical articles and fact sheets about the area, probably to serve as some sort of cultural alibi, though that hardly serves to explain why a theme park is a fitting supplement to the local landscape. "Get to know ancient Sviða!", "Did you know we're building it right up the road from Norways only national monument?". And if that wasn't perverse enough, the park is due to be wedged in between several ancient monuments, around the banks of Vidgarvatnet, meaning "the hallowed lake". One of them being the mysterious "Bridal Altar" (bruraalteret) tied in with local legends about a couple who drowned during their wedding procession. The park will also be right in the sight of the Iron Age burial mounds at Apeland.
Now, I am not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to build within proximity of ancient monuments. If so, the whole region would have been more or less uninhabitable. However, we may wonder what our ancestors would think about crumbling in their graves in the shadow of an amusement park.
Somebody's got to speak for the dead, a wise soul once said. This wouldn't be the first violation against Norwegian heritage in the region, or for that matter in the municipality of Sveio. When the 23 meters wide mound at Tjernagel was destroyed in 1983, it was already beyond 3000 years old. When it was around 2000 years old, in 1028, Þórarinn loftunga - who was one of the court poets of king Canute the Great - even described and named the mound in a skaldic poem. It is totally unique that a Viking Age source names a landmark of this kind. Nor can there be any doubt that the mound of Tjernagel served as a waypoint and beacon for seafarers over three millennia. And what a beautiful name it is: Tjernagel means "sword-nail", probably because its 400 cubic meters of rock shone brilliantly in the distances when viewed from the sea. Then, in 1983, some bureaucratic dwarves obliterated it. Why? To make room for a radio tower, a shortwave transmitter that was obsolete twenty years later. Twenty years it loomed in the crater of the 3000 year old Tjernagel mound, before they tore it down and turned it into nails. It's the sort of story that makes me wish ghosts exist, for the sole purpose of haunting the guilty parties.
Anyway. Short-sighted decisions leave permanent marks. If local moneymakers and the municipal council genuinely cares about the heritage they claim to celebrate, they can prove it by restoring the monumental burial mound at Tjernagel first, then they can go for rides.
This article is an extrapolated translation of an article I submitted to the regional newspaper, Haugesunds Avis. However, it was not printed. If you like what you're reading, you can support my voice by subscribing to the Brute Norse Patreon page, or by sharing this article.
Archaeologist Aksel Klausen came knocking to discuss the ecstacy of gold in the Nordic Iron Age, weapon sacrifices, and the emergence of ancient Germanic warrior kleptocrats. A royal mind germ that would only grow as Rome's power grew weaker, giving birth to powerful empires - and eventually the nation state. This is the first half of my two-part interview with a man who will no doubt visit us again in the future. The episode is available through Youtube, iTunes, Soundcloud, and any podcast app worth mentioning. If you want a head start on all future episodes, or hear Aksel and I yack on about ancient booze (recipes included), then pledge your support over at the Brute Norse Patreon page today. The gods will be most pleased.
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