"To the Unknown God", Friedrich Nietzsche (1864)

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Once more, before I move on
and set my sights ahead,
in loneliness I lift my hands up to you,
you to whom I flee,
to whom I, in the deepmost depth of my heart,
solemnly consecrated altars
so that ever
your voice may summon me again.

Deeply graved into those altars
glows the phrase: To The Unknown God.
I am his, although I have, until now,
also lingered amid the unholy mob;
I am his—and I feel the snares
that pull me down in the struggle and,
if I would flee,
compel me yet into his service.

I want to know you, Unknown One,
Who reaches deep into my soul,
Who roams through my life like a storm—
You Unfathomable One, akin to me!
I want to know you, even serve you.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864

Published with kind permission from the translator, Michael Moynihan. Drawn from Alain de Benoist, On Being a Pagan. Arcana Europa, 2018.

Let the Bodies Hit the Bog! (Wetland Sacrifice pt. II): The Brute Norse Podcast ep. 12

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In this thrilling conclusion to our wetland venture, Aksel and Eirik take an up close and personal look at some of our favorite bog bodies. We sink knee deep in the mysterious Roman and Migration Era weapon sacrifices, and dive into bog butter, bog milk, and bog cheese, exploring the wonders of ancient refrigeration and self-tanning (turning your face into leather over the course of generations).

Listen to it on soundcloud, or subscribe using only the finest podcasting apps. If you enjoy Brute Norse, do consider pledging to the Patreon, buying a shirt, or even just sharing content with likeminded friends. Play it to your dog, mention us in your prayers and incantations, or invest in the future by partitioning the episode onto floppy disks and hiding them under the floorboards of your local church. ANYTHING helps.

Summers Are For Mead Spritzers: A Scandifuturist Cocktail Manifesto

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A cornerstone of the Scandifuturist way of life is the normalization of anything and all that belongs in the uncanny valley of archaism. Whenever the modern Scandinavian looks at him or herself in the mirror, I see it as the role of the Scandifuturist to be that exact mirror image they are observing, but one that reaches out of the mirror and grabs the viewer by the collar of their shirt. It is the role of the Scandifuturist to play the role of the vengeful ancestor that never died or went away, but stepped into the modern world as if returning from a long and slothful holiday, invigorated and drunk on life.

Cultural elements that are broadly recognized as part of the Nordic heritage, yet are somehow still neglected (or even avoided), drop effortlessly from the trashcan of history and into the shopping basket of the Scandifuturist, who is not afraid of seeming out of step with his time. On the contrary! Scandifuturism, in a sense, represents a left-handed approach to intangible heritage. In the secular nation of Norway, a Scandifuturist goes to church with glee, though he sold his soul at the crossroads years ago. For like their pagan ancestors, Scandifuturists want life to live.

Case in point: Puritan heretics against a more primordial Nordic self-image, as well as the cheaper-or-exotic-is-better mentality of the Industrial Era has long since laid waste to much of the drinking culture that was. I for one lament the loss of a time when not drinking in front of the freshly deceased was an offense towards their living relatives. Don't even get me started on communal drinking bowls and village doctors.

Let's cut to the chase: It is only reasonable that mead, once the drink of kings, is restored to its former position as the house god of the drinking cabinet. Yet the mere mention of this golden beverage will make the modern-minded Norwegian recoil in chronophobic disgust, as I have seen for myself on many occasions, and why so? In reality it is a versatile and tasteful drink, well suited for a number of foods and culinary experiments. None the less, mead today is served as a spectacle, a carnevalesque test of valor. Pot-bellied executives drink it with a grimace in viking themed team-building exercises, where it is served up for the sake of entertainment ridiculing the rustic delights of a more primitive age. In short: Only in the bizarro world of Scandinavian pilsner tyranny could mead be envisioned as an inferior product.

While it is tempting to say that all of these idiots should be drowned in vats of mead, like the mythic king Fjǫlnir before them, Scandifuturism is not a vengeful philosophy, but holds that there is hope for all who keep an open mind and maintain a curious disposition, and so it would be better to send them of to re-education camps. Ones where they are taught to enjoy the manifold delights of an obscure and insulted ancestral beverage, and beyond this there should be room for reinvention not only in the serving of mead, but also farmhouse ales, akevit, berry wine, ciders, and moonshine! For now this simple, but tasteful recipe will suffice.

Scandifuturist Mead Spritzer

You'll need:
1 part mead
2 parts seltzer
3-8 violent dashes of orange bitters
lemon wedge

1. Fill a glass with ice. For the true experience, the glass should be slightly too small for comfort. This drink will sooner be finished, but you will keep making cold ones.
2. By measure of eye, add your "one parts" mead, whispering underbreath a silent prayer to a god blind and deaf.
3. Run the lemon wedge along the rim of the tiny glass and give it a good squeeze for the sake of acidity.
4. Ample dashes of bitters.
5. Add your two parts of seltzer, drink and repeat.

Pairs well with saltine crackers and hot mustard as you gaze into the midnight sun.
And don't forget to tip your server.

By the way, have you ever noticed the abundance of runes in the video for Q Lazzarus' Goodbye Horses?

July 18th and the Myth of Harold Fairhair: Some brief reflections on national mythology

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Heyrði í Hafrsfirði,
hvé hizug barðisk
konungr enn kynstóri
við Kjǫtva enn auðlagða;
knerrir kómu austan,
kapps of lystir,
með gínǫndum hǫfðum
ok grǫfnum tinglum.

 

Did you hear in Hafrsfjord
how fiercely they clashed?
The highborn king
against Kjotvi the rich,
ships came from the east,
eager to compete,
with gaping heads
and carved prows!

 

Thus spake the poet Þorbjǫrn Hornklófi in Haraldskvæði, a praise poem in honor of Norways first and unifying king. July 18th celebrates the day of king Haraldr Hárfagri's victory at the Battle of Harfsfjorð and consequently the first (but certainly not the last) unification of the Norwegian Kingdom, traditionally held to have happened in 872. This event is interesting for a number of surprising reasons.

First of all, we don't know when the battle actually happened, or even if it happened at all, so why July 18th? The mundane answer is that July 18th was chosen because this was the only vacant date in the Swedish crown-prince Oscar II's schedule when it came to unveiling of the Haraldshaugen National Monument ("Harold's Barrow") for the 1000 year anniversary of Norway's unification (we were still in union at the time). Surrounded by 28 granite stones, all sourced from the equal number of districts of Harold's conquest, Haraldshaugen's centerpiece consists of a 17 meter obelisk raised on top of king Harold's alleged burial mound. The occasion was a national holiday, and 20.000 visitors descended upon Haugesund to participate, a sizeable crowd for town of only 4000 people at the time.

A plaque at the pillar's base translates:
"Harold Fairhair was buried here in this mound, 933"

But this laconic statement is not true.

The first source to comment upon Harold's burial site is Ágrip, a short royal saga from the turn of the 13th century, whose author identifies the original unifier's barrow on the farm of Hauge by Hasseløysund. Drawing from what seems to be the same tradition, Snorri gives a detailed description of what he considered to be Harold's grave in Heimskringla. He probably visited the site during his tour of Norway in 1218, which would make him an eye-witness to a local historical tradition. The problem is that Snorri seems describe a stone cyst grave, which is not a Viking Period custom. Barring an archaeological anomaly, Snorri must be mistaken.

Snorri's description was picked up by the Icelandic historian Thormod Thorfæus in the 18th century, who was exiled to Norway after a drunken tavern slaying. Thormod, who was no wiser than Snorri in terms of archaeological theory, found no grave at Hauge, but claimed he found the lid of Harold's tomb on the neighboring farm of Gard, where it was used as a threshold, and sometimes a floor for village dances.

Later antiquarians were not so sure, and frequently argued for and against various locations of the burial, including a "Harold's Mound" on the aforementioned farm Hauge, which had been turned into a root cellar by the local peasants. Though archaeological evidence on Gard was lacking, the identification of a Medieval church site was taken to confirm Snorri's account, and a series of vague exchanges, with ample help from a popular poem by Ivar Aasen, cemented the notion that Gard was indeed the site of of Harold's burial. Among the barely discernible graves on the site, none of which fit Snorri's original description, the monument was raised in part thanks to a populist appeal by prominent local citizens, on what seems to be a Bronze Age cairn with no evidence of a secondary, Viking Age, burial.

This isn't the only scrutiny poor Harold has suffered. Many historians have questioned the narrative of national unification presented by Snorri and other Medieval chroniclers, and some have even gone so far as to question whether Harold ever lived at all, or if he is simply a figment of political propaganda. For all intents and measures, a Medieval PSYOP. This extreme reductionist stance inadvertently highlights an interesting point: What does "being real" mean in the context of a legend? Whether or not Harold lived as his saga describes, the man only set the ball rolling: the myth far outshines the human being.

In the context of myth, a narrative is true: The myth was real enough to Norse monarchs, who attached actions with very real and tangible results to the idea. As myth, Harold is the founding father of not one, but two nations: Iceland and Norway, who interpret his role divergenly as either a manifestation of Norwegian ethnolinguistic integrity, or a catalyst for an apparently innate Icelandic desire to serve no masters, and suffer no tyrants.

The transition of Harold from a man of flesh and blood into a larger than life entity began with the skaldic poetry celebrating him, and he has been a symbol and a tool ever since. It laid the foundation for a myth of origin, which Norway could cling to on the path to independence in the very far removed historical context of the nation state. In that regard, Haraldshaugen remains an anachronism, but one that demonstrates the continuity of a heroic and legendary figure whose real personality eludes us. Above all, it highlights the power of stories.


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"Viking Word of Wisdom": a letter to the Norwegian-American newspaper Nordisk Tidende, April 15th 1982

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How often in daily life have we found ourselves shaping our actions according to a little truism, or a certain small sentence packed with life's wisdom? A couple which come to mind are, «A stitch in time saves nine», and «A fool and his money are soon parted». Possibly you have your own collection of sayings which you incorporate into your daily life.

The Viking Age Scandinavians were little different from ourselves in this respect, and fortunately many of these Nordic bits of wisdom wee preserved in writing. Within the set of poetry known as the Poetic Edda, and there, chiefly in the Håvamål, or Sayings of the High One, (i.e. Odinn), we can find the proverbs of early 10th century Norway and Iceland.

Gwyn Jones, writing in A History of the Vikings (Oxford, 1968), defined the central life question for the early Norsemen as being: «How shall a man conduct himself so that his life may be reasonably happy and reasonably successful, reasonably useful to the community, and reasonably free of harmful entanglements?

Within the Håvamål, which wasn't committed to vellum until the thirteenth century, we are offered a glimpse into everyday Norse thoughts on proper conduct, but not necessarily Norse virtue. This was the work of realists, it spoke to a man at the bar of public opinion, with a verdict from a jury of his neighbors. The following are a number of these bits of Viking wisdom.

Before proceeding up the hall, study all the doorways. You never know when an enemy will be present. [Stanza 1]

A guest needs water, towel, and a welcome, a warm word if he can get it, and the right sort of entertainment. [St. 4]

There is no better load a man can carry than much commonsense, no worse than too much drink. [St. 14]

A man of mark should be reticent, thoughtful, and brave in battle. Everyone should be happy and cheerful till he reaches the end. [St. 15]

Only a fool thinks all who smile with him are friends. He will find when he reaches the law-court how few real backers he has. [St. 25]

Only a fool lies awake all night and broods over his problems. When morning comes he is worn out, and his troubles the same as before. [St. 23]

Better a house you own, however small it be. Everyone is somebody at home. Two goats and a poor-roofed cot are better than begging. [St. 36]

Out in the fields a man should never be parted from his weapons. No one knows when a man in the open has need of a spear. [St. 38]

A man should not be grudging of the money he makes. Often what we intend for those we love is laid up for those we dislike. Matters often turn out worse than we expect. [St. 40]

Be a friend to your friend, match gift with gift. Meet smiles with smiles, and lies with dissimulation. [St. 42]

I was young once and walked by myself, and lost my way. I knew myself rich when I found a comrade. Man's joy is in man. [St. 47]

Generous and brave men get the best out of life; they seldom bring harassments on themselves. But a coward fears everything, and a miser groans at a gift. [St. 48]

Out in the fields I gave my clothes to two scarecrows. They thought themselves champions once they had trappings. A naked man is shorn of confidence. [St. 49]

A big gift is not necessary. Esteem can often be bought on the cheap. With half a loaf and a tilted bottle I have gained a companion. [St. 52]

A man should be moderately wise, never too wise. He who does not know his fate in advance is freest of care. [St. 56]

A man with few helpers must rise early and look to his work. A late-morning sleeper carries a heavy handicap. Keenness is halfway to riches. [St. 59]

Confide in one, never two. Confide in three and the whole world knows. [St. 63]

The lame can ride a horse, a man without hands herd sheep, the deaf can fight and prevail, it is better to be blind than burn (i.e. be cremated because of death). A corpse is useless to everyone. [St. 71]

Cattle die, kinsfolk die, we ourselves must die. One thing I know will never die – the dead man's reputation. [St. 76-77]

Praise no day until evening, no wife before her cremation, no sword till tested, no maid before marriage, no ice till crossed, no ale till it's drunk. [St. 81]

No one should trust the words of a girl or what a married woman says. Their hearts have been shaped on a turning wheel, and inconstancy dwells in their breasts. [St. 84]

He who would win a woman's love must speak her fair and offer presents, praise the lovely lady's figure. It is the flatterer who carries the day. [St. 92]

Great love turns the sons of men from wise men into fools. [St. 94]

Be cautious, but not too cautious. Above all be cautious with ale or another man's wife. And third, watch out that thieves don't make a fool out of you. [St. 131]

And finally a curious injunction as to the gods:
Better no prayers than excessive offerings: a gift always seeks a recompense. Better no offerings than excessive sacrifice. So declared Thurdr [sic] (Odinn) before man's memory began. [Corr. Þunðr. St. 145]

Author: Gary M Turnquist
Grassy Creek, N. Car.
[Annotations by Brute Norse]


Nordisk Tidende was a newspaper for Norwegian-Americans based in New York from 1891 to 1983. It often featured news from "the old country" along with a variety of advertisements and content relevant to Norwegian interests in the New World. Though initially a fully Norwegian newspaper, English gradually became the main language of the newspaper as the diaspora assimilated.

To read these and other stanzas from Hávamál in the original Old Norse, check out our friends at Heimskringla.no

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Brute Norse Podcast ep. 11: Battle Axes & Cranium Cults (Wetland Sacrifice pt.I)

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In this episode, Eirik and Aksel begin their journey into the bogs of Northern Europe. Along the way we stop to look at:

  • Water symbolism in:

Norse mythology

Viking Era burial practices

Northern European Folklore

  • Water depositions from:

The Northern Mesolithic,

their Bronze Age development,

and mentally prepare for the grim reality of Iron Age human sacrifice.

If you want to subscribe to your favorite non-entry-level podcast of Ancient Scandinavian apocrypha, then rest assured that you will find the Brute Norse Podcast on any podcast app or service provider, as far as I know.

 

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Sacred White Stones: Echoes of an Ancient Scandinavian Fertility Cult

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The sacred white stones ("hellige hvite steiner"), as they are often referred to in Norwegian archaeological lingo, are a semi-rare kind of religious sculpture hailing from the mid-to-late Nordic Iron Age, and are particularly interesting as possible indicators of pre-Christian religious centers, where they were probably highly revered objects of cult and religious veneration. They are generally phallic, and though there are many Freudian things to be said about standing stones, I am not talking about any old rock defiantly erected against the sky, but quite literal stone erections. Though they are strictly found in certain areas of Norway, they are closely related to the so-called grave orbs ("gravklot") of middle Sweden.

Let's kick off with a proper non-story. A number of years ago, word reached my ear about a man in inner Rogaland who claimed to have a particular kind of rare archaeological artifact in his keeping: "A stone phallus", it was claimed. It should come as no surprise that sacred white stones qualify for bragging rights amongst private collectors, who acquire and keep them quite illegally, storing them in barns and cellars away from the prying eyes of museum conservationists and Johnny Law.

The excuses people resort to to avoid handing such items over range from humble to cynical. Among the formers we find farmers who are likely to stray upon them on their land, or acquire them as heirlooms from ancestors that did. Though there is rarely anything to fear, many express concern that reporting their findings will do them more harm than good. On the flipside, some are driven by contempt for central authorities, which is obviously misguided when museums - and hence the population as a whole - are the real victims. Sometimes there is an aspect of personal greed. Sometimes it's all of these things.

I have hunch that many people who keep contraband artifacts are proud by nature. Their secrets hinge on their ability keep their mouth shut, but where's the glory in that? If you are a pragmatic soul with countryside connections, finding artifacts in captivity is very achievable if you play your cards right. They are often hidden in the open, and usually where you least expect it. In this case, the owner and I shared a close, mutural acquaintance, and he thought that simply sitting on the stone (not literally) was the most hassle-free alternative.

When I established contact, I was very upfront about my desire to see, and possibly record the stone. Through feigned annoyance, the owner gladly blabbered on about the "the finest god damned phallus" he'd ever laid eyes on. I knew the area well, and I thought it looked extremely promising: The farmer lived closely to burial mounds, a minor cave containing finds of votive offerings, standing stones, and sacred place names. It also didn't hurt that the county of Rogaland is known for its abundance of sacred white stones. With a forecast like this, I naturally scheduled to visit as soon as possible.

A week later, I was drinking coffee in his living room, staring down at a wrinkly chanterell shaped rock. An irregular, bent, mopy, brown thing curled up by my feet, scarcely the mineral embodiment of masculine potency I'd been promised. The owner told vividly about his personal talismanic use of the stone, and the wonders it did for his virility. A little rub before a party, a small pat before a date, and he was all set to go. In his eyes it belonged to the farm, having been yanked out of the soil by his old pa, and beyond that, it served as a relic of the dark and confusing plane of existence called the past, but in my eyes it seemed laughably obvious that this was no stone shaped by human hands, and certainly nothing like the stones I've seen in museums. 

However, it recalled the famous dictum of the renowned historian of religions, and should I say, connoisseur of sacred stones, Mircea Eliade, that an object becomes sacred the moment a religious mind decides so. This particular stone had been found by a stream on their land,  and a geologist might concur that that's exactly how it looked. He already had my vow of silence, but there was nothing to report. The secret of his sacred brown stone was safe.

 Sacred White stones relaxing in Stavanger, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger / UIS

Sacred White stones relaxing in Stavanger, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger / UIS

The Pale Stone Phalli of Western Scandinavia

There seems to be no consensus on how many sacred white stones exist within the Kingdom of Norway. Certainly more than 60, and possibly less than 100, mostly concentrated along the West Coast. The archaeologist Franz-Arne Stylegar claims to be aware of 90 or so specimens, but that relies on the question of morphology, and if rough, even entirely natural, less phallic examples are to be included - as some argue they should. I have no overview of the number of Swedish grave orbs, but as the name implies they often differ from the Norwegian stones by their lack of the latter's pronounced "mushroom" shape. The ideal, or "archetypical", sacred white stones have certain recurring elements. A characteristic, explicitly phallic appearance, a flat base so it may stand, a double groove below the head, as if to imitate pulled back foreskin. The head is generally wider than the base shaft, as if swollen. Sometimes there is a cup mark/bowl, v-shaped grooves, or natural gashes. They are usually between 20 and 50 centimeters tall, though the largest can be up to about a meter tall.

The Swedish grave orbs are mostly found around Närke, the Mälar Valley, and on Gotland. They tend to be more round or lenticular, as well as a characteristic pillbox shape. However, Swedish examples are often carved with beautiful patterns and ornaments. As if by a rule, the Norwegian ones are not that elaborately ornamented. Instead, the finest Norwegian specimens were clearly sculpted for their luridly phallic shape. Usually carved from marble, granite, limestone or quartzite, the property of paleness was certainly an important consideration, and it's worth noting that all things white and fair have positive connotations in Norse mythology.

 Sacred white stone from Dønna. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone from Dønna. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Though I will be focusing on the Norwegian "archetypical shape", no two stones look exactly the same. Their apparent relation to the Swedish grave orbs, which are more often interpreted as stylized loaves or baskets of votive offerings, may raise some questions about the symbolism behind the variants. Some Norwegian examples look more like the Swedish grave orbs than dongs, and vice versa. None the less, the overtly phallic, sculpted examples of sacred white stones are numerious, similar, and distinct enough that they may be recognized as the ideal shape of a religious trend.

 A Swedish specimen currently displayed in the Stockholm Historical Museum is about the same size as a large truck tire, and was apparently found by the king/amateur archaeologist Gustav VI Adolf, which must have been a sign of his divine right to rule, or an ingenious piece of retrospective propaganda. Either way, great job, Adolf!

There is also a disclaimer to make about the dating: Though typically ascribed to the Migration Era and its neighboring centuries (say, 300-600 AD), the Norwegian archaeologist Bjørn Myhre argues that the grounds for placing them all in this narrow timeframe is tentative at best because we often lack dependable contexts. Instead, he suggests that the vast morphological variations of sacred white stones are best explained as a long-term development, stretching from the Late Roman to the Viking Era (Myhre 2006: 223). I would even entertain the possibility that some of the Gotlandic picture stones represent a local innovation in the sacred white stone/grave orb complex, for the sake of their material and shape.

 Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

 National antiquarian Nils Sundquist presenting grave orbs to an enthusiastic crowd in Uppsala, 1940. Photo: PAul Sandberg/ Upplandsmuseet

National antiquarian Nils Sundquist presenting grave orbs to an enthusiastic crowd in Uppsala, 1940. Photo: PAul Sandberg/ Upplandsmuseet

 Sacred white stone from  Lillebøen, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone from  Lillebøen, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

What's in a name?

Before we move on to their cultic and symbolic significance, we must take a look at the term sacred white stone itself. In Nordic archaeology, it's extremely rare that we can attach specific historical terms to cult objects. We find metal figurines, wooden idols, rattles, and highly decorated tools and implements. Constructions in stone and wood are tentatively called hǫrgr, stallr, hof, and so on, but as soon as we are faced with carvings depicting figures, characters, and symbols, we are left with nothing but an educated guess to make sense of their purpose, let alone pinpoint a mythological identity. Sometimes, as in the case of the "valknut", the terminology is pulled straight out of a researcher's ass. This is sometimes necessary, but can result in very unfortunate consequences, especially when the terms are unleashed upon the uncritical but enthusiastic masses, who might be better off playing with sharp knives than playing telephone with their etymologies, or writing hate mail to Brute Norse.

These phallic stones and orbs, amazingly, could be one possible exception. The name "sacred white stone", at least, is taken directly from Old Norse literature. Specifically, it appears the eddic poem Guðrúnarkviða III, where the eponymous Guðrún is accused of making a cuckold of Atilla the Hun. Responding to the piquant accusation, Guðrún declares to swear her innocence "by the sacred white stone" (at inum hvíta helga steini). However, there's an issue: The poem goes on to describe a trial by boiling water, in which the defendant must pick a stone out of a sizzling hot cauldron. This form of ordeal is thought to have arrived in the Nordic area only after the Christianization. If Guðrún's "sacred white stone" is the same as the one in the trial by water, a medieval poet must either have muddled his motifs, or the term does not refer these stones. Though the application might have been a little strained, the name still sticks with many archaeologists. Indeed the stones are frequently white, they were probably considered sacred, and they are indisputably stones. Let's roll with it.

 Sacred white stone with cupmark. Stjørdal, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Sacred white stone with cupmark. Stjørdal, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Helgakviða Hundingsbana II makes a similar referance to an oath sworn upon a stone, only this time the oath is broken, and it's made upon "the drizzle-cold stone of Unnr" (úrsvǫlum Unnarsteini), and it is clearly no trial like the one described in Guðrúnarkviða III. It's not clear who the namedropped Unnr is, or what sort of stone the author imagines. Unnr ("wave") is the name of one of Ægir's nine raughters with the giantess Rán, who personifies the dangerous sea. It's also one of Óðinn's numerous aliases (ironically, a great swindler if ever there was). It may either reflect his property as a god of storms, which is often alluded to in his names, or it could be related to the ON verb unna "to love, confide". Whether the name should be read as simply "the love stone", or attributed or a deity tied to eros or maritime weather, is really anybody's guess. Norse sagas are dead silent about the veneration of phallic stones, though Landnámabók makes brief mention of a certain Eyvindr Lo­­­ðinsson, an early Icelandic settler, who set up a cult site called Gunnsteinar (literally "battle stones") by Flateyjardalr in northern Iceland. However, no sacred white stones have ever been found on Iceland, where the majority of Old Norse literature was composed and compiled. In all likelyhood, these medieval scribes were oblivious to their existence.

Seeing that Guðrúnarkviða III is commonly argued to have been composed no earlier than the 11th century, partially based on the motif of trial by saucepan, there is an obvious problem in relying too much on the eddic poems. The stones are not generally small enough that you may pick them up easily, either. However, some stones have made their way into Scandinavian folk tradition as "lifting stones", carried by adolescent men to test their manliness, and thus their relative worth on the marriage market, as Franz-Arne Stylegar talks about on his Norwegian blog.

 Grave orb at Inglinge Hög, Sweden. Photo: Smålands Museum

Grave orb at Inglinge Hög, Sweden. Photo: Smålands Museum

Even if we graciously suspend any disbelief and opt for a mid-Viking Era dating for the heroic lays, it remains unclear whether these stones were actively venerated at the time. If the sacred white stones belong in the 4th to 6th centuries, they would still predate the poems by hundreds of years. The poems can't be earlier than the Viking Era on grounds of linguistic and metrical criteria. On the other hand, the heroic lays are rife with archaisms, and this provides a small window of understanding. If not fully developed pieces of ancient poetry, they represent an amalgamation of myth, historical events, folk tales, and poems of varying antiquity (often appealing to the seductive idea of antiquity itself), circulating and developing across the generations. It's impressive enough that the legendary king Kíarr ("Caesar") and Atli ("Atilla") are even mentioned in Norse poetry given that, by then, more than half a millennium had passed since the Huns made rodeo clowns out of the Romans. That there might be some continuity of beliefs or topoi attached to the veneration of stones is no far-fetched idea. In fact it seems to be supported by their find contexts, as well as the later folk beliefs associated with them.

Sacred white stones were interpreted as cult objects long before they received any noteworthy scholarly attention. An interesting legend of cult continuity from Södermanland in Sweden mentions, that when Christianity came, the locals used an untamed pair of twin oxen to haul a grave orb down from the tallest barrow in the village, to the site that would become the 12th century Ytterselö church, where a monk read scripture over it, and thus "took the heathendom out of it". The stone is apparently still present in the church, where it was used as a baptismal font for some time. Intriguingly, the Ytterselö grave orb is hollowed out and decorated with Urnes-style ornaments. Since this is an art style foremost associated with the early Christian era in Scandinavia, it suggests that the orb made a transition from ancient pagan relic to a tool of Christian liturgy as early as the late 11th or early 12th centuries. Its pagan origins were clearly no deal-breaker to early Swedish Christians, who were probably pragmatic in their approach to powers both old and new. In Norway, a handful are known from medieval church sites, which could be taken as an indication that the churches in question were established on known pagan sacred sites. It heavily suggests that pre-Viking Era phallic stones still were still venerated and respected in the later phases of Scandinavian paganism.

Despite the frequent lack of dependable contexts, a pattern emerges from witness accounts and a handful of digs, suggesting that they were often placed on top of burial mounds, and even inside the graves themselves. It's been argued that some stones are related to the practice of depositing blocks, chips, and smaller orbs of white quartz in burials. This practice is primarily associated with the Migration Era, but apparently continues into Viking Era. It is also documented in Anglo-Saxon burials roughly within the same timeframe. Overall, quartz and quartzite seems to have had a special ritual or apotropaic significance in pre-Christian Northern Europe. They are useful for fire striking, and they are thermoluminescent: Rubbing two against one another can emit a faint glow in a dark environment (Samdal 2000: 54).

 Medieval stone cross and Sacred white stone, Sandeid, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger / UiS

Medieval stone cross and Sacred white stone, Sandeid, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger / UiS

Objects of fertility, eros, and power

As you probably already guessed, sacred white stones are commonly interpreted as objects of fertility. Other aspects may have been power, and aristocratic authority. These categories might seem incompatible to a modern audience, but were deeply intertwined in pre-Christian Scandinavian society, where military ethos saturated the culture, priestly functions followed social standing, and communal sacred sites were controlled and financed by ruling elites (Sundqvist 2015: 505). Human, animal, and vegetable fertility was not irrelevant to social ideology, taboos, and customs: Religion was truly everywhere. Court poets would frequently evoke erotic imagery to demonstrate the excellency and prowess of a king, and sexual metaphors extend well even into the military sphere. Nowhere is this as clear, perhaps, as it is with the 10th century ruler and pagan provocateur Hákon jarl, who seems to have kept a particularly keen eye for the potential of religion and poetry as tools of propaganda, drawing from a rich Norse tradition of seeing the world through metaphors of sex and gender.

His praise poems frequently cite the apparent fertility and prosperity of the realm to demonstrate his divine favor and right to rule. Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld, one of his court poets, describes the ruler in the poem Hákonardrápa as a divinely inspired heroic figure, eager to lay "Odin's pine-needle covered wife" beneath him. The tree-clad woman is none other than the giantess Jǫrð ("Earth"), representing the landscape itself. His military campaign becomes an erotic conquest, at least in metaphor (Mundal 2001: 31), which parallels how Norse mythology uses pre-Christian gender roles to explain cosmological principles. The untamed, more primordial and natural world of giants is often conceptualized as feminine, while the domesticated and cultured existence of gods and humans appears as masculine counterpart (cf. Mundal 2001; Steinsland 1994; Heide 2006: 279). In other words, there are many layers to what we may consider the "ideology" of the sacred white stones. Placing a symbol of virility on top of (and sometimes inside) an earthen mound commemorating the dead would evoke layer upon layer of symbolism in the gendered and eros soaked world of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Though often thought of as grave markers, Myhre argues that many could have stood in outdoor shrines and sacred enclosures. Since some stones are short, looking almost like the glans of a penis without a shaft to speak of, he proposed that these could have been propped on top of cult pillars. The stubby, "glans-shaped" sacred white stone from Skatval in Nord-Trøndelag was found deposited in a pit on a secluded ridge, believed to be a cult site. It was hewn from white marble, had a bowl in its base, and had apparently been deposited with several blocks of untreated white marble, along with the remains of a 30cm wide, raised pole wedged into a crevice in the ditch. Could the stone have rested on top of it? If so, what was the symbolism of raising the phallus in the bottom of a wet ditch filled with white stones?

 Sacred White Stone with hidden cup mark under the base. Skatval, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Sacred White Stone with hidden cup mark under the base. Skatval, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Some stones bear a so-called cup mark. These are a category of rock carvings in the form of a round, concave depression in the stone, reminiscent of a bowl. Cup marks are known from the neolithic and all the way to the middle ages, and are therefore notoriously hard to date unless they appear in a clearly defined context. While their function remains largely a mystery, they are often interpreted in light of feminine reproductive, or solar symbolism (interestingly, Germanic mythologies personified the sun as female). As Solberg points out, this questions whether the sacred white stones can be seen as purely masculine attributes. Besides the fact that they are often attributed to female burials, some stones also have natural or carved grooves and clefts in them. These can either be on top, on the side, or hidden beneath the base itself, suggesting that these particular stones embody male and female sexuality within the same object, representing the "sacred wedding" of a divine couple, or even a hermaphroditic deity. In the cases where the bowl is carved on the bottom, the point could be made that it served to keep the stone locked in place when propped on top of a wooden pillar. However, this could hardly be the case where the cup mark is on the very tip of the phallus, where it seems more likely that it would have been filled with some kind of substance (more about that later). Because a sculptor could have avoided or smoothed out natural creases relatively easily, their inclusion in the material must often have been deliberate. Some stones even seem to have a sculpted vulva on its base.

If the stones were not grave markers first and foremost, we can speculate if the people buried in association with sacred white stones served a priestly function. Since they tend to be associated with women, another example of a phallic cult object is warrants attention. Vǫlsa þáttr is a short Medieval satire of pagan domestic cult, in which the lady of the house functions as priestess in an autumn sacrifice involving the adoration of Vǫlsi, a house god who is really the penis of the farm's old draft horse, embalmed in flax and leek. In the ritual, the cured phallus is passed between the members of the household. The men and women formulaically express their respective scorn or lewd admiration for the member, but both plead that an obscure collective called the Mǫrnir (singular mǫrn) receive the sacrifice. Mǫrn is used in skaldic poetry as a heiti meaning "giantess" in general, and as a name for the giantess Skaði especially. According to the Prose Edda, she arrives at the court of the Æsir in full war gear, demanding a husband in compensation for the gods killing her father, the giant Þjazi - this scene represents a total inversion of Norse gender roles, and a momentary burlesque upheaval of the regular social order. Upon the condition that Skaði may only choose her partner by the appearance of his, ahem, feet, the male gods all line up, and she points out the most beautiful pair of feet she can spy, falsely assuming she has chosen the fair god Baldr, when in fact the feet belong to Njǫrðr.

 Stone from Ullensvang, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Stone from Ullensvang, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Since the Mǫrnir appear in the plural, Gro Steinsland has argued that they represent an ensemble of female ogresses, effectively making Vǫlsa þáttr a rare depiction of a Norse cthonic ritual. Others have argued that the Mǫrnir form a Scandinavian complement to the continental Matronae of antiquity. Etymologically, Mǫrnir may mean "those who crush", or alternately "those who make tender", which would be highly interesting in the context of a phallus cult. The singular masculine form mǫrnir also occurs as a poetic metaphor meaning "sword", which is often translated simply as "phallus". Surely, "he who makes tender [=impotent]" would be a more fitting interpretation of such an etymology, and falls straight in line with standard inter-masculine sexual defamation in the sagas, which dictates that one opponent must be a proverbial bitch to the other, resulting in a syntax error of masculinity, so to speak. This is central to Preben Meulengracht Sørensen's (1983) concept of "phallic aggression", which somewhat accurately describes the male half of Norse gender asymmetry: Soft and moist was a praised quality of women, and though women were allowed bend this expectation to some extent, the same qualities were heavily criticized in men to the point of social rejection (the Old Norse boy's name Úblauðr "Unmoist" speaks volumes). The role of "softener", in some regards, is a metaphysical role one could expect from a collective of giantesses. This might explain why the adult men of Vǫlsa þáttr perform the rite with an almost an almsot ritualized reluctance, while the wives act with enthusiasm. But Norse gender roles also developed with age: In the case of the adolescent son and daughter, the roles are diametrically opposite to those of the adults. The boy swings the member around and prompts his sister ("the bride") to "wetten the wobbler", while the girl shyly appeals to the virgin goddess Gefjon. The general pattern seems to be, that men go from active to passive as they age, while women go from passive to active. If the scene reflects a pagan attitudes to a phallus cult, even if it does so through satirical hyperbole, it suggests that it was an extremely rocky and taboo-ridden area, in which the men had to expressly avoid suspicions of ergi ("unmanliness, lewd conduct"). A possible allusion to phallic stones is also made in the text, as the Vǫlsi is referred to as a beytill, or "little jabber". For comparisson, a standing stone is a bautasteinn, which literally means "jabbing-stone".

 Stone exhibiting both phallic and vulvic traits. Tu, Rogaland, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger / UiS

Stone exhibiting both phallic and vulvic traits. Tu, Rogaland, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger / UiS

Fertility stones in recent Scandinavian folk religion

To this day, the sacred white stones of Norway are sometimes approached by couples looking to conceive, but it's hard to determine if this a modern revival, or based in older folk tradition. Rituals of filling and smearing cup marks with grease or tallow, as well as sacrificing coins and trinkets in them, are well documented in rural Sweden as late as the 1930's (Henning 1982: 87). It's a seductive thought that the sacred white stones might have been venerated in a similar way.

Among the other doubtfully canonical rites from the pre-industrial Scandinavian countryside, the 18th century cleric Hans Jacob Wille provides a vivid description of such grease-smeared idolatry in the parish of Seljord in Telemark, Norway, where local farmers kept "twain stones of moderate size" which "until recently" had been venerated as gods. The stones were washed on Thursday nights (the most auspicious weekday for magic and witchery in Nordic folklore), greased up with butter and ointments by the fire of the hearth, and put in the high seats of the house. On the farm Kvålseth in Kviteseid, there were also two stones called Tussesteinene ("Tuss" <  is a sort of dangerous nature spirit, effectively "The Troll Stones") which according to the account were "shaped like sourdough loaves". They were treated to sit on good hay in the high seat of the house, were washed with buttermilk, and afforded a shower of fresh beer at Yuletide, but a drunk man of a more puritan disposition apparently broke the rocks into pieces and threw them away (Wille 1786: 46-47). Stylegar argues that they probably looked like another orb-like stone still kept in a nearby medieval church in Kviteseid. In a more innocent time the farmers would move it around potato patches for a more bountiful harvest, and was even claimed to heal the sick. It was aptly named the Tearstone ("Tåresteinen"), as the fun soon ended when the stone rolled off a dresser and crushed a child to death.

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Attributes of an unknown god?

We haven't directly addressed the question of attaching a specific mythological identity to the stones. Scholars differ greatly on this issue. Freyr is commonly pointed out as a likely contender, though I do not necessarily agree with this reasoning. He is certainly imagined as a phallic deity, which goes back to his description in the temple of Uppsala according to Adam of Bremen. However, there are a lot of phallic depictions from all across the pre-Christian Germanic world. The penis makes an appearance far and wide in the pre-Christian North. I assert that the symbol is simply too far reaching that we can narrow it down to one single god by virtue of erection alone. In various contexts, we can imagine that the phallus could have worked as an attribute for just about any male deity. The fact that Freyr that captures the modern imagination seems incidental. Óðinn would not be an unlikely candidate either, or even the hypermasculine Þórr, as some mythological sources directly allude to an affiliation between his thunder-weapon and his manhood (Storesund 2013: 70).

While it is tempting to imagine the stones as an aniconic depiction of a male deity (cf. the lingam in Hinduism), we may also consider other interpretations. Perhaps they could have been used in the veneration of a goddess, represent a more abstract religious principle, or the power and influence of local dynastic bloodlines? In the case where the stones exhibit combined female and male sexual attributes, the aforementioned case could be made that they represent a divine couple. If so, perhaps Freyr and and the giantess Ger­­ðr, or even a union with his sister Freyja. Such an incestuous union is brought up in Lokasenna, and it would not be preposterous for a divine pair representing prosperity, love, and animal fertility. Going with the angle of a hermaphrodite god, Solberg argues for an association between sacred white stones, not with Freyr and Freyja, but their father Njǫr­ðr. Though Njǫr­ðr is a fairly obscure figure in surviving Old Norse literature, place names attest to his widespread popularity and importance in certain parts of Scandinavia. It turns out that the distribution of the sacred white stones and grave orbs roughly corresponds with the distribution of cultic place names related to the god Njǫr­ðr, mostly concentrated along the Norwegian west coast, and central parts of Sweden. While the eddic texts emphasize his role as a sea god, this is unlikely to have been representative in inland Sweden, where an agricultural function would make more sense. It is a useful reminder that Icelandic scribes did not possess the full overview of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion.

So what does this have to do with hermaphrodites? In the 1st century AD, the roman ethnographer Tacitus describes the cult of a Germanic goddess named Nerthus, who was venerated as a Terra Mater figure by a number of Germanic tribes. The Proto-Germanic form *Nerþus should be etymologically identical to the Old Norse counterpart Njǫr­ðr, which poses an obvious problem since the former is female, while the latter is male. Did Nerthus go through a sex change? It's difficult to imagine how. Because the gender of u-stem nouns merge, it eventually became impossible to distinguish grammatically between feminine and masculine forms of the name, which might explain some - but not all - of this mythological development. Some conjecture that Nerthus/Njǫr­ðr, in the early days, was an intermediately sexed deity who possessed a femine and a masculine aspect, in which case Tacitus, or rather his second or third hand sources (he never set foot on Germania Libera his entire life), must have misunderstood. He also mentions a divine ancestor to the Germanic peoples, Tuisto, speculated to come from Proto-Germanic *twis, meaning "double", which may or may not refer to a set of divine twins, or alternately, hermaphroditism (Simek 2007: 230, 336). Make of it what you will.

 Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Another, and possibly more reasonable interpretation states that Njǫr­ðr, like his children Freyr and Freyja, originated as one half of a divine couple: A male Njǫr­ðr, and a female form *Njǫr­ð, who would have been difficult to distinguish from one another in retrospect. This may explain why only the masculine remains in Medieval mythological prose, where he is most certainly a man, and also why Njǫr­ðr is sometimes referred to in the plural in Viking Era skaldic poetry, as if there were several of him. In Lokasenna (36), an obscure reference is made to Njǫr­ðr having an incestuous relationship to an unnamed sister, which resulted in the birth of Freyr. Otherwise, Njǫr­ðr is the consort of the giantess Skaði, who is not biologically related to him in any source. However, she may be associated with a phallus cult via her epithet Mǫrn, and Vǫlsa þáttr. Skaði may originally have been a personification of the landscape, parallelling Óðinn's coupling with Jǫr­ðr. This seems in the proposed etymology of Scandinavia itself, going back to Proto-Germanic *Skaðinawjō - "The Harmful Isle", or alternately "Skaði's Isle" (the name Skaði means "harm"). If so, I can offer no explanation for how this connects to the motif of divine twinship, or the goddess Nerthus - unless Skaði and Nerthus were originally one and same, which would have to mean that the feminine *Njǫr­ð is actually Skaði, and that her separate Jǫtunn-lineage, as well as the marriage myth are later developments. However, this would be hard to reconcile with the culture god + nature ogress motif, unless these seemingly divergent perspectives co-existed as local religious variations, or by some pre-Christian bizarro logic that eludes us. It would, on the other hand, fit with Tacitus' assertion that Nerthus was perceived as an "Earth Mother" figure, seeing that the Earth is personified ambivalently as a giantess - a cosmological antagonist the gods must keep in check to retain cosmic balance. Not entirely bad, and actually quite necessary.

A possible eastern Scandianvian goddess form, Old Swedish *Niærdh(er) is attested in place names such as Nærthastaff (today Nälsta) - literally *Niærdh's staff - which could relate to the formerly discussed practice of raising cult pillars or stones to the deity (Sundqvist 2015: 269). While the common concentration phallic stones, orbs, and cultic place names tied to Njǫr­ðr seems the most compelling evidence to connect them so far, the possibly dual sexual imagery of certain examples may be worth considering in light of the divine couple-motif.

Summary

Though the terminology has not gone uncontested, sacred white stones are a fascinating and regionally distinct category of artifact. They are chiefly associated with the Late Roman and Migration Periods, but seem to have circulated and developed as objects of cult into the Viking Period, after which they were sometimes appropriated by Medieval Christianity, included in rural folk customs, and kept as highly revered ancient objects. They may or may not be tied to specific deities, but an early manifestation of Njǫr­ðr is a reasonable candidate. They were placed on top of burial monuments and likely other sacred sites, sanctuaries and enclosures, where they served as ritual objects, and were seen as multivalent symbols of fertility, vitality and power, with possible ties to the female aristocratic sphere.


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Literature:

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006. Gand, seid og åndevind. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Preben Meulengracht Sørensen. 1983. The unmanly man: Concepts of sexual defamation in early Northern society. Odense University Press: Odense
  • Mundal, Else. 2001. Holdninga til erotikk i norrøn dikting. In Einar Ådland, Kirsten Bang (ed.): Kjønn - erotikk - religion. Bergen Museums Skrifter nr. 9. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Myhre, Bjørn. 2006. Fra fallos til kors - fra horg og hov til kirke? Viking - norsk arkeologisk årbok, 69, 2006. Norsk arkeologisk selskap: Oslo.
  • Petersen, Theodor. 1905.  Nogle Bemerknnger om de saakaldte "hellige hvide stene". Det kgl. norske videnskabers selskabs skrifter No. 8: Christiania
  • Samdal, Magne. 2000. Amuletter: Gjenstander med amulettkarakter i vestnorske graver i tidsrommer 350-1000 e.kr. Hovedfagsoppkave i arkeologi med vekt på Norden. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer: Woodbridge
  • Solberg, Bergljot. 2001. Hellige hvite steiner - spor av fruktbarhetskult i Norge. In Einar Ådland, Kirsten Bang (ed.): Kjønn - erotikk - religion. Bergen Museums Skrifter nr. 9. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Steinsland, Gro. 1994. Eros og død - de to hovedkomponenter i norrøn kongeideologi. Studien Zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Heinrich Beck. Walter de Gruiter: Berlin & New York
  • Storesund, Eirik. 2013. Þrunginn Móði: Studier i den norrøne tordengudens ambivalens. Masteroppgave i norrøn filologi. The University of Bergen: Bergen.
  • Sundqvist, Olof. 2015. An Arena for Higher Powers: Ceremonial Buildings and Religious Strategies for Rulership in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Brill: Leiden & Boston
  • Wille, Hans Jacob. 1956 [1786]. Beskrivelse over Sillejords Præstegield i Øvre-Tellemarken i Norge: tilligemed et geographisk Chart over samme. Halvorsen & Børsum: Oslo


 

 

 

Brute Norse Podcast ep.10: Talking Living History and Brutality with Dieter Huggins

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In this episode I am joined by Wulfheodenas founding member, archaeologist/cage fighter Dieter Huggins. Beyond him spouting wisdom from his life on the forefront of living history, here are some of the things you'll find in this veritable smörgåsbord of an interview:
- The current state of Dark Age living history.
- Funerary pageantry among early Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons.
- The regulation of violence past and present, from warbands to the UFC, and the ambivalence of warrior ethos.
- Fair doses of camp life nostalgia.

Subscribe using any podcast app that runs at all. If you dig it, here are some of many ways you can support Brute Norse. Share the episode with your friends, bring it up on a blind date, or if you want to walk the extra mile: Subscribe to Brute Norse on Patreon, or buy a shirt. Whatever you do, your support will not go unappreciated. Until next time, ves þú heill.

"Wodwo", Ted Hughes (1967)

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river's edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I've no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it's no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that's touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there's all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here's the water
again very queer but I'll go on looking

 

Related:
Wild men and bearded women of the Medieval North

Hyperboreans in Hyperspace: Postcards from the Noöspherics Conference in Bergen

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Radio waves, catastrophe survivalism, rave culture, extended mind theory, UFOs, time travel, hyperdimensional geometry, ritual, ecstasy, divine communication, Norse myths, ancient monuments, religion as technology, and technology as religion. I have struggled to put into words the full spectrum covered by the Noöspherics conference and club night, hosted and orchestrated by the Canadian-born artist Erin Sexton at Lydgalleriet in Bergen, April 23-24, 2018. On this rainy spring weekend, one of the most eclectic line-ups I have ever seen came together for two days of art and speculation, a two-stage rocket arranged as a follow up to Erin's 2017 exhibit NOÖSPHERE in the same space. With these two events, Erin had pieced together a project exploring communication, crisis, and implicitly humanity's place in the universe, heavily based in the medium of supposedly "reduntant" radio technology, warning of the perils of putting too much trust in the promises of ever more complex, high-maintenance technologies. She set up a rudimentary radio transmitter by Svartediket in Bergen, and established communications with a local radio tower, where the brainwaves of two artists were scanned and broadcast over the city of Bergen. The signal bounced off the ionosphere and darted into space at the speed of light. Somewhere in outer space their brainwaves are travelling still, and will be for lightyears to come.

 Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

The noösphere is a term meaning "sphere of mind". Interestingly, this term was born by the joint intelligence of Pierre Chardin, Edouard Le Roy, and Vladimir Vernadsky in the early 20th century, in an attempt to describe how the conscious human mind engages in reciprocal information exchange with the world around it. Just like humanity is not merely a collection of individuals, but a sprawling blob, that through its cognition imparts massive footprints upon the physical world, the noösphere is not so much a collection of minds as it is the sum of mind itself. A consciousness index.

 Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Owing to the over-obvious fact that humans are organisms, noösphere seems presupposed by biosphere - the sphere of organic life. In turn, the biosphere owes much of its existence to the geosphere - the sphere of inanimate matter. It is only natural that there should be a term covering the sphere of conscious information exchange. Turned on its head, however, there is no apparent reason why an organism should develop sentience as it is normally understood, and when we look to the stars it is quite apparent that even organisms do not logically follow in the footsteps of geology. So far, the only example is us. This invites us to question the absolute relationship between life and inanimate matter, and if consciousness can't be detached from our physical bodies. If not by some spiritual technique, as our ancestors believed (and really, many still do), then perhaps through some technological solution.

 Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

So what does any of this have to do with Norse culture? As we have previously covered here on Brute Norse, the Norse were just some of many archaic societies operating under the general suspicion that the mind is, at the very least, semi-detatchable from the body. Norse culture assumed that unseen things existed all around us, and it operated with a cosmological model that allowed its gods and heroes to dive through portals to the otherworld, sometimes open, sometimes closed, as if space-time itself was being folded. If there is even as much as a symbolic truth to this, as one might argue, the future technologies may encourage humans to catch up with the metaphors of their ancestors.

I was asked to write the opening essay for the gem that is the Noöspherics conference book (Topos Bokforlag 2018), called "The Antenna on the Holy Mountain: Noöspheric meditations on the Norse Cargo cult". This was no easy task, but I used the opportunity to explore the oftentimes wistful inadequacies of scholarship, when faced with penetrating the mind and experiences of humans long since dead. Other subjects included the wastefully short attention span of contemporary society, and the chronopobia it exhibits when comparing its own achievements to those of our technologically "primitive" ancestors, without whom none of this would have been possible.

 Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

The conference began with a brief presentation by Erin, our aforementioned hostess, before she passed the microphone to a delegation from Bergen Kringkaster. They are an association of radio amateurs volunteering to maintain a local radio transmitter, who besides explaining their history and efforts, broadcast the entire conference live on FM radio. Next up was the musicologist and neuroscientist Dr. Maria Witek with an interesting presentation about extended mind theory in the context of rave culture, which seemed to spark quite an interest with the audience, leading to discussions on everything from musical subcultures, to the "hive mind" observed in in colonies of certain insects. This in turn was followed by the Japanese independent brainwave researcher Masahiro Kahata, who shared the history of his work, and the development of his own open-source brainwave interface, while also touching upon his research on hyperdimensional intelligences and UFOs. This was certainly one of the more extraordinary contributions to an already extraordinary conference.

Finally, I had the pleasure of giving the closing presentation, which was a brief lament on ironies and frustrations that fuel my work, using radio as a metaphor in the context of pre-Christian sacred sites, finding my main example in the 3000 year old bronze age mound at Tjernagel in West Norway, destroyed in 1983 to facilitate a short wave transmitter, which in turn was torn down two decades later. Looking back, I can hardly think of a time where the term "interdisciplinary" was more appropriately applied.

 Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

Photo: Rasmus Hungnes

I was rather winded by the time I stepped up to talk, something I can partially attribute to the party of the evening before, where I performed poetic recital based on the rúnatals þáttr section of the Hávamál, wearing a noose necktie, and performing rites, strapped up with electrodes that scanned my brain like some scandifuturist hypostasis of Hangatýr himself. Mr. Kahata was the star of the show, as the attached exhibit represented his artistic debut, displaying alongside Erin Sexton various installations on the theme of communication and hyperdimensionality. Remarkably a prismatic laser sculpture in the form of a double pentagram, which was apparently a symbol for planet Earth in some xenoculture, revealed to one of his test subjects in dialogue with a hyperdimensional being. The dancefloor was issued contraptions of his own making, electrode headgear was handed out to clubbers, who eagerly passed them around to see their brainwaves visualized and projected on the walls, strobes flashing like a David Cronenberg movie. Because this was an open event in a venue known to switch seamlessly between art space and techno club, most of the audience had no idea what they were walking in to, and seemed genuinely perplexed. I hope it stuck with them. It certainly did to me.

...
A video of my presentation is available to my patrons.
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Brute Norse Podcast ep.9: The Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia pt.3 - Pillaging the Past

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In the final segment of the Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia, Eirik and Aksel tackle the slippery slope of commodification of viking heritage, its uses and abuses. Topics raised include, but are not limited to:
- Are meaderies the devil?
- Are viking re-enactors destroying traditional crafts?
- Is the Society for Creative Anachronism a totalitarian organization?
- Is Greco-Roman heritage a threat to democracy?
- Is human sacrifice as bad as they say?
- Can our admiration for the thieving, hyperviolent, cheating, and overall sinful ways of our ancestors be morally justified?

We even find some time to talk about the chronology! Subscribe using any podcasting service, share to your hearts content, and definitely do consider supporting Brute Norse on Patreon. Also check out the Brute Norse teespring store for some rad shirts.

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Galdrastafabók: "A Book of Staves" by Jesse Bransford (Review)

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To pick up your first mail order is an unspoken pleasure of moving house. It may be the last thing you need at a point where you are living out of bags and boxes, but there is truly no better inauguration for a new home than to once again sink into such habits of quotidian life.

This rings particularly true when you go to pick up the things that make a house a home. A good chair, a book, a piece of art. I found two out of three waiting for me recently, in the form of Jesse Bransfords' latest monograph A Book of Staves, or Galdrastafabók, released this year through the UK based esoteric publisher Fulgur. I didn't know too much about the author in advance, but I did know he was an artist and co-organizer of the biennial Occult Humanities Conference. Though a vague point of reference, it was a promising start. I landed in town just too late for the release party, which coincided with Bransford's solo exhibit The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. Luckily the show was still ongoing by the time I had settled down and come to my senses, and I was fortunate enough to catch a lecture by the artist in question and Elizabeth Insogna, mediated by another Occult Humanities Conference organizer, Pam Grossman. All in all a great occasion to see some of the book's eponymous staves up close.

 The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

Certain expectations follow the Fulgur catalog. As the common ground of art and magic forms their main scope of interest, Fulgur's books and journals seem to burst with pictures, poetry, and colorful illustrations. In the case of their often oversized volumes, they are a far cry from the ubiquitous pocket format fodder found in the new age section of your local bookstore, and truly worthy of rare hours of retreat and contemplation. Their artsy and bookish alibi recalls the old times when it was self-evident that art, magic, and academia were parts of the same trinity.

A Book of Staves does not diverge from this esoteric art book tradition. Nicely bound in its coffee table format, a debossed visual palindrome in the form of a charm hides beneath the dust jacket. With its 120 pages it is not a dense book by any means. The word count is front heavy: The book begins with a statement from the artist, superseded by an introductory essay by the British archaeologist and art historian Robert J. Wallis. Both supplied with a parallel Icelandic translation. From there on, most of the text consists of titles and quotes from the Hávamál in Old Norse besides Carolyne Larrington's popular English translation. This is intended to complement the artwork.

As for the artwork itself, it would be more fitting to refer to the individual images – like the artist does – as spells. For all intents and purposes, A Book of Staves is not a typical "art book", but a neatly curated series of visual charms: It contains 39 individual galdrastafir, 18 of which are based on the equal number of magical charms reckoned by Odin in the ljóðatal section of the eddic poem Hávamál (stanzas 146 through 163). Then, under his “Moon Rituals” follows nine astrological staves, then eight non-sequential “Small Staves” on various magical themes, and finally four staves for the elements.

I was immediately surprised at how well the “songs” of ljóðatal worked with Bransford's visual re-imaginings. In hindsight, Odin's secretive charms sound exactly like the sort of things you'll find in many books of magic, whether in continental grimoires, or the Scandinavian “black books” and Icelandic staves the early modern era. His “Small Staves” come across as faithful developments of this tradition as well. Yet his is no sterile contribution. The artist's playful signature, whether by his use of watercolor, or the sketchwork revealing the underlying geometry of the charms, removes the usual anonymity of his source material. Though unsaid, Icelandic staves work excellently as abstract art.

 The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice,&nbsp;Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

This wouldn't be a true review without some critical remarks: While I found myself nodding along to the opening essays, there were one or two points where terminological inaccuracies and anachronisms eased my initial groove. Such as the seeming use of seiðr as an umbrella term for "Icelandic magic". Strictly speaking, seiðr and galdr aren't necessarily associated with one another at all, but the book does seem to make this association somewhat by default. As I have pointed out in previous entries, though, this is a common misunderstanding of Old Norse magic (read: generalizing the particular), so Bransford can definitely be excused. Besides, the author's reason for mentioning seiðr in the first place seems to serve the purpose of contextualizing magic as an example of the transgressive in-between. I can hardly argue with that, even if I disagree with the terminology.

I also wish the book made a clearer statement about the kinship between the galdrastafir and the solomonic magic of the wider European tradition, which much of the Icelandic tradition is directly descended from in form and content. Though the essays refer to the Western mystery tradition and hermeticism here and there, it feels as if the alignment is treated as somewhat of a coincidence or artistic quirk. In fact, the galdrastafir have a closer relation to classic Western esotericism, than they have to historical viking era sorcery. Not to even mention the conjecture and antiquarian tricks involved in the original galdrastafir,  which many people are either unaware of, or reluctant to admit. But when all is said and done it is not Branford's responsibility as an artist to correct the wrongs of how Icelandic magic is sold to the wider audience. Perhaps I can put this on the wishlist for future editions?

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Some nerds may raise an eyebrow at the disregard for runic chronology displayed between the covers of the book, but I see no issue here. The book does not pose as a source of historical magic, as so many modern books on Nordic magic quite fraudulently do. Instead, Bransford's book represents a successful attempt at demonstrating the common ground of past and present, as well as different traditions. I think that to the majority of people, it can be difficult to understand what magic has to offer in such a materialist and disenchanted society as our own. Icelandic magic, actually all forms of folk magic, could introduce them to the idea that magic exists even in the most mundane expressions of the human condition. Jesse Bransford has created a playful and worthy contemporary contribution to the Icelandic magical tradition, which I will heartily recommend to anyone interested in the long-term artistic and cultural legacy of the North Atlantic.


Verdict:

FIVE FROTHY HORNS

Buy Jesse Bransford's A Book of Staves here.

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"The Viking Factor": An Entry from the Personal Journal of Mircea Eliade

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Oslo, 23 August 1970

. . . we head towards the Viking Museum on the other side of the road. The spacious, well-lit rooms house boats dating from the ninth century and admirably decorated four-wheeled wagons. What to say about this head of a man from which emanates such an expression of suffering that one might believe he had just been tortured? Every time I try, for my own interest, to understand the Viking phenomenon, I can't help experiencing a feeling of frustration. There is in that phenomenon an enigma that no historian has yet succeeded in solving. But what is most serious is that this enigma resides in the Vikings' destiny. They loomed up in history at the end of the eighth century, went from conquest to conquest, pillaged, destroyed, founded dynasties, swarmed into Iceland and Greenland, and discovered North America.

The Viking era lasted for two centuries. Aboard ships similar to the one I am contemplating, they launched themselves into all the seas of the North, attacked England, Ireland, France, crushing the kings and princes who attempted to resist them, taking their places, establishing the kingdoms of Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. For a time they dominated England, carved out a fief in Normandy, extended as far as Spain, and made their way into the Mediterranean. Eventually, those in Normandy went as far as Sicily, where they encountered the descendants of other Vikings, the Varangians, who, having left the Baltic, headed toward the east, conquered a portion of the Slavs, established the kingdom of Gardarike with the two famous cities of Kiev and Novgorod, and then traveled down south on the great Russian rivers. Some of them reached as far as the Caspian Sea and had dealings with the caliphate of Baghdad. Others, in greater number, headed towards Constantinople, where they joined the armies of the Byzantine emperor. It was from there that they ventured as far as Sicily.

 Photo: UiO

Photo: UiO

Around the year 1000 all their leaders were converted to Christianity. Some of them returned to their respective lands, imposed the new religion on their subjects, reclaimed their thrones or devoted themselves to trade. By 1030, the Viking era had met its end.

Quite obviously, the spirit, the institutions, and all that the Vikings had brought about had a profound impact on all medieval Nordic culture, and the Viking era is an integral part of the history of all Nordic nations. This heroic and orgiastic exuberance, this debauchery of bloody violence, energy, and creative genius such as were known from 800 to 1000, never again reached such heights. After 1030, the "Viking factor" disappeared from history. Under the circumstances one can't help thinking of the Mongol era, except that the followers of Genghis Khan succeeded in remaining in the empire of the steppes that they had carved out for themselves, whereas the Vikings dissipated their efforts in multiple unique, disordered, or eccentric undertakings. Their adventure brings to mind that of the Polynesians, who in a few centuries swarmed onto all the islands of the Pacific, bringing their civilization with them.

 Photo: UiS

Photo: UiS

In the Viking adventure that stands out most clearly is the omnipresence and the weight of destiny. It is sufficient to recall that in the year 1002 the famous Leif Erikson discovered and colonized a territory he called Vinland, and which was most probably none other than the present-day Newfoundland, for recent archaeological digs there have brought to light vestiges of Viking establishments. Some of the colonists then traveled south and went as far as the region of Rhode Island. The connection between Vinland and Greenland persisted up until around the middle of the fourteenth century. What eventually happened, we don't know. The fact remains that at the end of the fifteenth century there was no longer any trace of Norwegians, descendants of the Vikings, on American shores.

It would be useless to wonder, or to imagine "what would have happened if...": If, for example, Leif Erikson had landed on the same shores, not between Labrador and Virginia, but several hundred kilometers further south and had thus discovered the rich territories that six or seven hundred years later would feed the dreams of thousands upon thousands of colonists from England. How would world history itself have evolved if the discovery and the colonization of North America had taken place before the discovery of firearms, and in an age, therefore, when it wouldn't have been as easy to get rid of the autochthonous populations by displacing or exterminating them, a confrontation and a symbiosis between the two civilizations still being possible.

When I was young my friends and I had endless discussions on the fatality inherent in minor, provincial civilizations, a fatality which willed that their creative genius would be exercised to no purpose in rediscovering ideas or technical developments that had already been discovered and had been in use elsewhere for a long time. Just as if someone reinvented the bicycle twenty or thirty years after it had begun to be mass produced in the West. But even more tragic is the destiny of individuals or nations whose unique genius is wasted on creations and discoveries before their time, and much too early. Thus the apparent futility of the efforts, sacrifices, courage, and intelligence of a Leif Erikson, who only needed to discover America three or four centuries later and three or four hundred kilometers farther south...

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian author, philosopher and historian of religions. Though heavily criticized in recent decades, Eliade's theories and work on the nature and history of religions changed the face of religious studies. His books The Sacred and the Profane (1961) and The Myth of the Eternal Return (1971) remain classics in the field of comparative religion.

Work Cited:

  • Eliade, Mircea. 1989. Journal III, 1970-1978. Translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Migratory Meditations: Leaving a Homeland in the Hard Iron Age

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"It is sad to leave your homeland", an Afghan woman told me. Over the last nine months, I have had countless conversations with people about my intended migration from Norway to America. It is one of those things you can't help but mention. When every day is filled with soul-sucking bureaucracy, forms to fill, and the grueling uncertainty of the wait, the sum of obsession with all possible outcomes becomes an inevitable subject of conversation. You dream about it, and every waking hour it walks in on your trail of thought.

To her it seemed like an odd choice to make, that I would leave Norway. If she could, she would gladly sacrifice the saline shores of Norway to live with her loved ones in the valleys of Afghanistan.  War and persecution ruled that possibility out for the time being. No bombs have fallen over Norway since 1945, no mines haunt my childhood trails. The sad and happy difference, of course, is that I have a choice. My migration is a luxury, but that's not what she said. She said: It is sad to leave your homeland.

And I agree. Her statement stuck with me, not due to the contrast of our respective situations, but due to the skin in the game she displayed within it. She knew what she was talking about. Among the countless people who either cheered me on enthusiastically, or questioned my choice based on a general suspicion towards the American model, this comment came across as most sincere.

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Landscape is a core element of our identities. People are born, live, and die without ever leaving New York state. Many Americans have never seen the ocean. The landscape and traditions I was born into differ, sometimes drastically, from that of the big city in the New World. I was born in an ancestral homeland, with an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic affinity stretching back thousands of years. The single recorded instance of my line of descent ever migrating to or from Norway was a temporary stint in North Dakota that only lasted a generation, before my "squarehead" forebears - ethnic Norwegians both - married and decided, in spite of any promise of opportunity, to return to the old country.

Whenever I looked out the window, I have always felt backed up by countless generations of ancestors. People who changed only as slowly as the landscape, whose looks and traits I carry with me from cradle to grave, and that I may give to prospective children in the future. My paternal line of descent has not, at least to my knowledge, made any drastic choices in terms of landscape and identity since the Bronze Age. The Hindus place us in the dark Kali Yuga, the age of darkness and confusion. Hesiod might say we still live in the hard Iron Age of fuss and misery. To most Westerners it suffices to say the word "modernism" to conjure what seems to be an odd mix of alienation and prosperity. There is no shortage of either, but I believe it that even if all of the above is true, our age of cyberfuss is raised by the girders of some sardonic fate beyond direct control. The gods delight as much as they fear.

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My childhood landscape was filled with mysteries, vernacular traditions, and ancient sites, but if there is any truth and merit to what I have done in my work so far, the recipe should work also here. The Norse Vinland colony collapsed due to understimulation, starvation, and exposure. The cosmos they created in the wake of Leifr Eiríksson's landing collapsed under its own weight, and the Vinland landscape I look upon from my apartment is different. This is a strange world, and nobody really knows what the hell I am talking about if I mention my background. But then again, not everybody did in Norway either. I don't think I have ever been closer to what I believe to be the logical conclusions of the cosmology of the Eddas. When cosmogenitors of the legendary sagas break from society, it is never to live within nature itself, but to lay flat the forests, and to timber houses. Nowhere is the inevitable imbalance of the battle of culture versus nature better exemplified than in a metropolis like New York, a city with a population greater than the entirety of my home country. In a nation whose Norwegian diaspora outnumber the Norwegians of Norway itself.

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People talk about the lightning speed of the proverbial New York minute. Before I decided to move to New York I lived in a marshland cabin off the municipal water supply, often isolated during heavy snowfall or storms. It was fantastic, and I hope to live like that again. Time moves slow in that sort of scenery. A maturing experience for certain, but a life without hustle soon grows stale. In this swamplike landscape I was quite literally wallowing, waiting for the wind to blow in my direction, and it took some time for me to realize that nobody was waiting for me to be ready. I found my Will, and found my way. It only took me a while to realize.

It took only four days between my landing and my marriage to my wife, which was the object of my migration. Things move quickly when the ball starts rolling. Now I wake up in a landscape where every tree is planted by a human hand. Where the surface is peeled down to its granite bedrock, skyscrapers soar so high they go unnoticed on street level, and unsuspecting pedestrians walk on levels of surfaces hundreds of meters above the deepest tunnels and recesses of this Swiss cheese city. Trees are kept behind fences, like cages, and not even the wildlife behaves naturally, but in perfect accordance with the human compulsion towards order. Though the disorder of nature - naturally - oozes through the woodwork. Cruel Mother Nature always will. This is Moondog's city, the blind and visionary artist who never quite belonged in any urban center, yet could never have developed anywhere else. Where thousands like myself passed through, who walked up and down the old Brooklyn ghetto they affectionately called "Lapskaus Boulevard", where the psychic advised Johannes Hansen to return home to Oseberg, resulting in that famous ship find.

I don't know how this process will affect Brute Norse, but I will not be the first writer to leave that homeland.

These are speedy days, but so is the hard Iron Age.

The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.8: The Chronologies of Ancient Scandinavia pt.II

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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.

ᛊᚢᛈᛟᚱᛏ:ᛒᚱᚢᛏᛖ:ᚾᛟᚱᛊᛖ:ᛟᚾ:ᛈᚨᛏᚱᛖᛟᚾ

“An Old Norse Word Meaning Kill”: was the Zodiac killer into vikings?

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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

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Dear Mr. Editor,
Did you know that the initials SLAY (Symbionese Liberation Army) spell “sla,” an Old Norse word meaning “kill.”
a friend

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.
 

 Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

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.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

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 , or týr , and áss . 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.

 Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

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:

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Now compare it to one of Zodiac's ciphers below:

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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:

I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest [sic] because man is the most dangeroue [sic] anamal [sic] of all […]

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.

 A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

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.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

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:

This also is said about the Tauroscythians, that never up until now had they surrendered to the enemy when defeated; but when they lose hope of safety, they drive their swords into their vital parts, and thus kill themselves. And they do this because of the following belief: they say that if they are killed in battle by the enemy, then after their death and the separation of their souls from their bodies they will serve their slayers in Hades. And the Tauroscythians dread such servitude, and, hating to wait upon those who have killed them, inflict death upon themselves with their own hands.

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,
hverjum manni
fótlaug geta
ok funa kynda,
hunda binda,
hesta gæta,
gefa svínum soð,
áðr sofa gangir.

You shall, Hunding,
wash the feet
of every man,
and kindle fires;
bind dogs,
herd horses,
feed pigs,
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. 

GINNUNGAGAP, The Boundless Enclosure: An Animated Scandinavian Art Creation Myth

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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 exhibition 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.

Credits:
Written, narrated, and animated by Eirik Storesund
Sounds by Eirik Storesund, Helge Taksdal, and KB Hus

Dance, Trance, and Devil Pacts: The Fiddler and Norwegian Folk Mysticism

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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.

 Man with hardanger fiddle. Photo: Kristoffer Langsjøvoll / Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

Man with hardanger fiddle. Photo: Kristoffer Langsjøvoll / Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

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.

 Boxing match in Rena. Photo: Gerhard Gundersen / Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

Boxing match in Rena. Photo: Gerhard Gundersen / Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

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.

 Adolph Tidemand, Fight at a Country Wedding (Detail), 1861.

Adolph Tidemand, Fight at a Country Wedding (Detail), 1861.

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.

 Ola Åsgjelten, accomplished spelmann, failed occultist. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

Ola Åsgjelten, accomplished spelmann, failed occultist. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

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".

 The spelmann Otto Ryeng. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

The spelmann Otto Ryeng. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

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.

 Procession by horse and fiddle, Tynset. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

Procession by horse and fiddle, Tynset. Photo: Musea i Nord-Østerdalen

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.

 Hand in glove. Photo: Eirik Storesund

Hand in glove. Photo: Eirik Storesund

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:

Norse culture and language "irrelevant" to students, says Norwegian government agency. They are dead wrong

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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.

 

 

The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.7: The Chronology of Ancient Scandinavia pt.I

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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.