Brute Norse Podcast ep.10: Talking Living History and UFC 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 kickboxing
- 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.

Poetry: 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, 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.

"Gilbert's Stone God", an Excerpt from Rosa by Knut Hamsun (1908)

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I peer further in towards the wall of thickets, and a chill runs down my spine. There is a stone image right in front of me, an old god. Oh how small and grim it is, lacking arms down from his shoulders, and with nothing but feeble grooves in the face for eyes, nose, and mouth. The gap between the legs is also simply a carved line, and there are no feet. To stand, the image must be propped up with stones.
Then I thought that this was what God had wanted tonight. To use me to topple this little idol man, and toss him in the pond. Yet when I moved my hand to do it there was no strength in it, but contradictory, a strange exhaustion.

I looked at my hand, what was wrong with it? It ran like a wilting across the skin. Filled with horror, I looked away from my hand, towards the little stone man again. Oh, it was a disgrace against God to be humiliated by this creature! It looked just as though it had been greater once, long ago, but now it had gone into childhood with dementia. It had become nothing, that's how shriveled it was, standing there with the supports around itself.

I raised my other hand against it, but the hand falls, the same thing repeats itself. The skin turns gray and withered on my left hand. Then I jump back across the pond, and crawl back out of the thickets. Big drops of rain begin to fall from the sky.

From «Rosa» (1908) by Knut Hamsun. Translated by Eirik Storesund, February 2018.   

Olde English Malt Liquor (Review): 24 Ounces of Anglo-Saxon glory

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America doesn't have much viking related stuff to see besides runestone-based hoaxes and the odd statue of Leif Erikson. That's cool enough on their own terms, though I haven't had the chance to see any during my trips. Not that it matters. There's enough to see and do in my base camp in New York, which is chock full of beautiful museums and great art. Luckily, I'm bestowed with other fascinations as well. For example, I'm extremely interested in the sociology of drinking culture. Or really just drinking culture in general. Or maybe I just like drinking? Who knows.

I'll read a demographic report on national alcohol consumption with childlike curiosity, so I've spent hours hauling my girlfriend from liquor store to liquor store. I hardly ever bought anything, though: For the most part I was really just comparing booze selections in various parts of the city, which lead me to conclude that Americans of all social classes really love their IPAs.

It was in some sticky-floored bodega I saw it. A bronze can winking at me from the refrigerator at midnight. The label stated Olde English "800" malt liquor. The holy grail and envy of post-ironic Medievalists across the Western hemisphere. This is what Beowulf would have drunk were he a hobo in Detroit. What does the "800" stand for? I have no idea, but 800 was a year in the early viking era, which must mean I'll take any excuse to write an article. Being somewhat of a historian of human and animal alcohol abuse, as well as an expert in certain cultures long since dead, I was pretty stoked to try it out. I took out of the fridge and carried it to the counter with both hands and gave a cheery nod to the proprietor – an unenthusiastic Asian man. I paid in cash and carried it home in a brown paper bag.

What is malt liquor? Let me tell you: Malt liquor is basically potent beer, often sold dirt cheap in large containers. Why don't they just call it beer, then, you might ask. They don't, because that would be illegal in several states, that's why. Instead malt liquor is an umbrella term used for various alcoholic beverages made with malted barley, but usually contains various industrial grade non-standard ingredients to cheaply boost the alcohol level as well. Malt liquor, malt liquor, how it rolls off the tongue.

For context: The Norwegian welfare state is very concerned with the health of its citizens, which means it's prone to nanny-state lawmaking. We have a restrictive alcohol policy, and hard alcohol is only available through a government-run chain of liquor stores. It's not all bad: Two benefits to this is a monstrously huge selection and a thoroughly educated staff. It also means that everything they sell is curated by a board of specialists. This so-called Wine Monopoly does provide both higher and lower quality booze. But they don't offer gut-rot products such as what Americans call bum wine, which tastes like a chemical spill and allegedly makes your tongue turn black, so it's probably for the better. American malt liquor is rarely exported as well, and demand will never be large enough for the Norwegian Wine Monopoly to care. This combined with a general counter-cultural interest, may explain why these beverages hold an almost mythical status to me. Make no mistake, however: Produced by MillerCoors, one of Americas highest grossing brewing companies, Olde English "800" is no underdog by any means. The international beverage industry is cynical and deceptive.

Back in the apartment I sat down, wondering whether I should have a meal or a snack, but in the end I could come up with no better pairing for Olde English "800" than Anglo-Saxon Books' parallel translation of Beowulf. Luckily, a copy happened to be within arms reach. I politely tapped the can to warn the contents of my arrival, put my finger to the tab, cracked it open and had a sip. I halfway expected it to be really awful. It's certainly no taste explosion, but I can't honestly say it was in any way lesser in quality to cheap macro lagers such as Budweiser (so-called " " "king" " " of beers) or Pabst Blue Ribbon (hipster soma). In fact, I found the morning-urine-hued, Anglo-Saxon themed drink to be richer in taste than both of them despite a rather low hop profile. Then again, this is probably carried by the comparatively hearty alcohol content of at 5.9% AB. It is what it is.

 

Verdict:

Three cleft skulls.

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Best paired with poetry in a dead Germanic tongue and bitter musings on the Norman invasion.

 

[First published March 22nd 2017]

Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)

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Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.

How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.

To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their si­ðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces. 

The spirit in a concrete world

One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.

Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".

The sensual world and the spirit world

Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of  "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.

Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.

It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.

Breath, wind, spirit, mind

Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin  , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.

Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates. 

 ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).

There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213). 

The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners

In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.

There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.

There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).

In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.

Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.

In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.

It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2). 

 Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway.  See the whole thing here

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway. See the whole thing here

The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.

I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.

There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.

Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros

The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)

When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"

Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.

Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians. 

What does a spirit "look" like?

Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.

Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.

However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.

There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn. 

Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.

If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse Metaphysics pt. 2)

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh 
  • Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
  • Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
  • Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
  • Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
  • Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen

5 Viking Hairstyles Proving Scandinavians Were Lightyears Ahead of Everybody Else

As a Norse educator with nearly 30 years of life experience, and a Scandinavian, I am well aware that Iron Age, and Viking Era Scandinavia was home to the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. You don't need to tell me, I'm here to tell you, that the 6th century Byzantine historian Jordanes hit the nail right on the head when he described Scandinavia as, and I quote, the womb of nations. I dare even say this womb doubled as a cradle to all civilizations, who, like all children, are misguided ingrates. This is certainly more than what we can say in terms of contributions from, say, the Mediterranean (what a shithole), to not even speak of the near East.

Of course, like all true aristocrats of the soul, the denizens of my ancestral lands were famed for their impeccable style. It should suprise nobody, for they were forward thinking pagans all, who lived and died with honor, unheard of among the unwashed dunces of Christian nations. Your god was nailed to the cross? Well mine has a hammer, just saying ;)

Iconography harvested from a wide range of Ancient Origins suggests that Vikings and their (and mine) ancestors mastered, not only sailing, but also the noble craft of cutting hair. This proves beyond the shadow of a doubt what the Vatican has been trying to hide for a thousand years: That Vikings were the most technologically (and aesthetically) advanced culture the world has ever seen. Other Viking innovations include interstellar travel (some say our gods came from space), total equality of the sexes, and social democracy, but that's a digression.

Today we shall look at how they used their supreme seafaring skills to impress and outcompete the fashions of every people they encountered, as demonstrated in five hairstyles. Prepare to be inspired!

1. The Golden Boy Curtained Bowl Cut

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15 square millimeters of pure heartthrob. These gullgubber sport a timeless curtained mushroom bowl cut that is sure to singe the loins of even the iciest chieftain's daughter. Don't forget to ask her father's permission, and be on the watch! With that smooth chin, not even he might be able to resist your boyish charm. Just don't find yourself on the receiving end of any tomfoolery, because that would be unmanly. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Though not as prevalant today, this ancient hairdo can still be seen on the noggins of Joe & The Juice employees, Korean stage performers, and Australian backpackers the world over.

2. The Berserker Flattop

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Swept off the cliff like a Faeroese toddler, this dude hails from the isle of Bornholm, mustard capitol of the North. Usually these gold foils are portrayed in profile, but that would hardly give credit to his chiseled bog iron frame, no sir, this bad boy is depicted en face (as in: en your face).

This hairdo offers ample servings of absolutely no fucks given, suggestive of a personality prone to swinging roundhouse kicks at the longhouse wall, continuously flexing and/or kissing his magnificent biceps, all the while crunching drinking horn after drinking horn with his free hand while he takes your mom's maiden name. Hung like Odin on the windy tree, this dude would look just as home harrassing an Estonian fishing village as he would lifting truck tires in the woods.

3. The Norman Yoke

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The hairdo that destroyed Anglo-Saxon England! You may think it is a stretch to include the Bayeux Tapestry on the list, but you're wrong. The relevancy of the Bayeux tapestry is absolutely non-negotiable. This equestrian fringe (that means it looks like a horse) is one of Norse culture's greatest contributions to continental society, as proven by its adoption by the Norman elites, as well as contemporary Dutch gabber culture. It takes some self-esteem to pull off this look, and that, my friends, will get the knees to buckle and quiver on your enemies and lovers alike.

Sure, your dad might not approve, but don't worry, neither did countless Anglo-Saxon parents either, as the scribe Ælfric wrote around the year 1000: «I also say to you, brother Edward, now that you have asked me for this, that you do wrong in that you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of the heathen people who did not give life to you and by doing so you reveal that you despise your kindred and your ancestors by such evil customs when you dress in insult to them in Danish fashion, with bared necks and blinded eyes

So let there be no question of the ancient roots, and provenance of this equine haircut. Let it also stand as the final answer to the question of whether or not the vikings got high, because judging from this, they must have been raving and pillaging every drug cabinet between Dorestad and al-Andalus.

4. The West Fold

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It is famous and true that North America was discovered by Norse exiles, but few are aware that they were actually just trying to find avocado toast. Oseberg or Williamsburg, I can't tell the difference. Besides, we can thank Brooklyn for finding the Oseberg ship in the first place, and its residents are as unwanted in their homeland as the original Norse settlers were. Exactly how deep does this rabbithole go? Either way, the west fold cut in any variation is only complete with a thin, neatly kept mustache in the style of the Trønder ethnic minority of Middle Norway. This is my style at the time of writing, and I can only conclude that Norway should contest the USA's territorial claim on this bank of the East River.

5. The Heathen Visionary

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Last but not least: Always be yourself, even if you are a total nutter. No matter how you style yourself, Norse culture valued total individualism, second only to the value they put on total submission to one's extended family. Admittedly, this overtly casual style requires the least maintenance and preparation, but it will certainly give you a characteristic, sage-like look without trying to impress anybody. Whether you are chucking hoarded gold in the swamp

to save yourself from the Justinian plague

, pondering the endless intellectual depth of neanderthals (the only race that

could ever compete

with the Norse), sitting in a cave while you pray for

nuclear strikes to decimate the global population

, or any other and equally noble pursuit, a full beard and greasy hair is sure to earn you friends according to the principle of quality over quantity. If they can't handle you at your worst, they don't deserve you at your best!

... 

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Norse Yuletide Sacrifices Had (Almost) Nothing To Do With The Winter Solstice

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In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
– Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

Yule lads roasting on an open fire, spirits of the ancestral dead nipping at your nose. It's the most wonderfully strange time of the year. You know, that time when the sun proverbially turns, prying the coming spring from the cold dead hands of winter darkness. Where we spend all our money on symbolic trinkets, and open our hearts and doors to friends, family, and fire hazard in great abundance.

Oh yes, my friends, Christmas is here again, though we don't call it that in Scandinavia. We call it jul. It's an old word, handed down across the generations from the Old Norse jól, which in turn has cognates in several other Germanic languages. The occasion, or so it appears, was also referred to by other terms, such as miðsvetrarblót (midwinter sacrifice), and Hǫkunótt (etymology uncertain). I'll generally stick to Yule and jól for the duration of the article.

As sure as some birds fly South in the winter, so come the articles about the apparent continuity of certain Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and every festive dinner food on the Scandinavian table (though some of them are hardly a century old). I will save my heart the strain of going down that rabbit hole of disinformation and misconception today, but I will give you a fairly comprehensive run-down of one of the most popular misconceptions about pre-Christian yuletide celebrations: The time and date.

Time is an important aspect of ritual, whether you approach the subject with personal investment, or academic distance. I wrote this article with a varied audience in mind, and as always, my iconoclasm is motivated by a wish to raise awareness, and impose a minimal sense quality and critical thought on a scene that tends to be severely gullible (you know it's true). For the reconstructionists and perennialists among you, the virtues of exploring this subject should be self-evident: The ritual year, and its calendrical rites, are tremendously important to understanding the practical religious mind of archaic societies. Not to mention how these societies regarded time, even on a mundane level. Now that I've made this disclaimer, we can move on.

 Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Yule - a feast of the sun?

Take a moment to take long, hard stare at the sun (proverbially of course). Is it not radiant? The tempting assumption that the solstices (and equinoxes) formed the basis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious feasts, is prevalent not only in modern Heathenry and Asatru (cf. Schnurbein 2016: 111), but is also reproduced in countless popular media articles on the ancient origins (excuse my French) of Yule in Northern Europe. This view was also widely held by scholars of the field up until the turn of the last century, and though fewer think so today, it has somehow stuck. Since scholars in general are either too overworked (or too lazy) to address the public, not a whole lot has been done to correct this assumption.

It doesn't seem too idiotic at face value: The Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place. It's not exactly the fertile crescent. We'll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you'll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year. 

It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia, and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast. As you must have guessed by now, it's quite more complicated than that, and it rests on a massive jump to conclusions with no direct support in any of our sources. It would have been easier to undestand if Norse texts never said anything about the time of the yuletide sacrifices, but they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever. None the less, you will find no shortage people who insist that the opposite is true, refusing to let the evidence speak for itself. To paraphrase the Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg (cf. 2006: 102), those who insist on refering to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.

His interpretation will get the final word here, as his much lauded publication Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning (2006) remains the most comprehensive, and academically sound exploration of the Nordic pre-Christian calendars. This classic has been out of print since the world was young, but luckily a PDF has since been released officially (you can find it at the bottom of the page, and it includes a lengthy English step-by-step summary).

Given the solar bias of yuletide speculation, there is a lot of hot talk about the solar characteristics of this or that Norse deity. Freyr above all, is subject to a lot of discussion, as Snorri places him in control of sunshine and rain (Gylfaginning 24). Whichever solar features Freyr may have had, he is never described as the sun itself, and to be fair, this is seldom claimed in modern discourse, either. I wouldn't bother including him in this discussion, were it not for the fact that celestial bodies are so important to the Norse perception of time. Norse mythology is one example of a mythology where the sun (Sól) is personified as female. Something which is rarely taken into account outside of academic discussion. Her counterpart, the moon (Máni), is personified as male, which is also counter to many other mythologies (and our assumptions about their uniformity). However, neither the sun nor the moon are gods per se (certainly not æsir, anyway), which does set Norse religion apart from certain other old timey religions. Rather, they seem to do cosmological tasks in subortination to the gods (Simek 2007: 297), like servants (or tools). This is clearly laid out in stanzas 4 through 6 of the eddic poem Vǫluspá, describing an early phase of the universe where the celestial bodies were unaware of their purpose, and how it was given to them when the gods first divided the days. This enabled the reckoning of time.

 In Alvíssmál, another eddic poem, the moon is even referred to by the name Ártali, roughly translatable as He-Who-Counts-The-Year. While the life-affirming properties of the sun mustn't have been lost on pre-Christian Scandinavians, they seem to have regarded the sun as a cosmic feature, rather than an object of direct worship, serving a practical purpose. The sun moves in accordance with divine intention - not as the movement of a god itself. 

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Hǫkunótt - a Norse pagan Yule feast

The oldest evidence we have for a possible Scandinavian yuletide feast, was described by the 6th century Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who mentioned that the inhabitants of Scandinavia (Thule) celebrated a feast for the returning sun, some time after the winter solstice (Nordberg 2006: 156). The earliest Norse reference to jól, however, comes from the 9th century Haraldskvæði, which is a praise poem composed in honor of Harold Fairhair's victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, and the following unification of the kingdom of Norway. To boast the king's unpretentiousness, and disregard for soft comforts, the poet declares the king's intent to drink jól (jól drekka) at sea, rather than in the padded comfort of a heated house. Though it says nothing beyond that it happened in winter, it reveals that jól, like many other Norse religious and social events, revolved around conspicuous consumption of alcohol.

In the saga of Olaf the holy, Snorri mentions a blót at midwinter (miðsvetrarblót), refering to it also as jólaboð and jólaveizla, both meaning Yule feast. Again implying that the main pagan religious event of jól occured later than Christmas, several weeks after the solstice. The saga of Hervor goes so far as to place jól in February, further yet from the winter solstice. The chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg, who died in 1018, claimed that the great blót in Lejre, Denmark was celebrated in January, some time after the Epiphany (cf. Nordberg 2006: 106).

Snorri states, in the Saga of Hákon the good, that jól  was a three-day event starting at a night called Hǫkunótt, which he perceived as the midwinter night. It's a common misconception that midwinter and the astronomical winter solstice are one and the same, but in Scandinavian tradition - in which the year is divided into four quarters, such seasonal milestones started roughly a month later than the solstices and equinoxes. This is probably due to the climatical conditions of the North, so that midwinter and midsummer occured at more or less at the peak of the seasons. According to the Julian calendar, and conventions of  Snorri's time, this would be around January 14th. According to our modern, Gregorian calendar, it would be January 20th (Nordberg 2006: 150).

In other words the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st or the 22nd in the Gregorian calendar, would actually have taken place on December 14th through 15th when the Julian calendar came to Scandinavia. So to Snorri Sturlusson, the astronomical winter solstice would have roughly coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, which would have occured a roughly a week before Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was only replaced by our current, Gregorian calendar in the 18th century (Nordberg 2006: 148). This also explains why the eve of St. Lucy is still considered the longest and darkest night in Scandinavian folklore.

 Dísablót by August Malmström

Dísablót by August Malmström

The Norse lunisolar calendar

While there's a time and place for everything, it seems decidedly safe to say that yuletide sacrifice did not occur at the solstice. So far, all of these sources place the event between January and February, but we have no yet come to explain the flaky and inconsistent dating of jól itself. Why do the sources give varying dates for the festival, within such a discrepant timeframe as January through February? This is where the pre-Christian calendar comes in.

The festival of jól took place within a certain timeframe in the Norse calendar, which contained no less than two months of Yule, called Ýlir and Jólmánuðr respectively. Yule is a common Germanic holiday, and the tradition of two Yule months are attested as far back as 4th century Gothic texts, and supported by by Anglo-Saxon sources, where the 8th century chronicler Bede writes that the pagan Angles followed a calendar based on the lunar cycles, but that this lunar year was determined on the terms of the solar year: It was lunisolar.

Such a system was also in place in Scandinavia. Natually, months were determined by lunar phases, from new (nýr) to waning () moon. There are 12 months in a solar year, which lasts 365 days. However, it takes only 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Therefore, a certain new moon will occur 11 days earlier than it did in the previous year. A lunar calendar will therefore always move from one point to another, and will actually rotate unless there is a system in place to correct it. In some systems, such as the Islamic calendar, the months change from year to year. Muslims might observe the holy month of Ramadan in the middle of the summer one year, and late autumn another (though such a shift will take dozens of years).

Obviously, such a system would never work within the agricultural year of Northern Europe. The months reserved for harvest and slaughter needed to occur at roughly the same point in every solar cycle, when the climate allows for it. One way to make sure the months weren't spinning backwards, was to make an exception in the lunar calendar, where the winter solstice always marks the point where the first month of Yule ends, so that the second Yule month starts with the next new moon, no matter what. Consequently, the lunar phases would slide back and forth within an interval of 28 days. 

Still with me? Good. To make up for the 11 days lost in the lunar year, the Germanic lunisolar calendar seems to have inserted an extra summer month every three years to make up for the 11 day shift. Interestingly, this seems to recall the great blóts held at Uppsala and Lejre, which occured every ninth year. This is probably no coincidence (Nordberg 2006: 154). Old Norse religion is famously hung up on multiplications of the number three. Here it seems that this was also incorporated into cultic practices through the observance of sacred time. 

Vocabulary shows that Norse peoples were well aware of the astronomical solstices and equinoxes, but the main pagan religious festivals seem to have been celebrated to mark each quarter of the calendrical year. These did, as previously mentioned, not directly coincide with the solstices and equinoxes, and seem to have been determined by the lunar phases. Because the solar and lunar year met at the winter solstice, the months of the year would bounce back and forth between two points within a certain, ~28 day interval. As Snorri, as well as other sources place the winter blót a month (or more) after the solstice, it seems most likely that jól was celebrated on the full moon of the second Yule month. That is to say the full moon after the new moon following the winter solstice. Then it would always occur no earlier than January 5th and February 2nd in the modern Gregorian calendar, well inside the interval stated by Norse texts.

 Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

So why the full moon, one may ask? In Nordic folk traditions, a remnant of this system seems crystalized in the concept of the Yule moon. The term is attested in Old Norse as jóla tungl, and in various derivatives in later Scandinavian folklore: Swedish 'jultungel', Norwegian 'jultangel' and 'julemaane', Danish 'jule mae', and Finnish 'joulukuu', all refer to the full moon around the time of the Epiphany, on January 6th in the Gregorian calendar, but later in the Julian. In other words, the first full moon of the new moon after the solstice. The association with the Epiphany, Nordberg adds, appears to be a Christian approximation from the older, pagan, calendrical system described above. Similarly, the Dísting market in Uppsala - which seems to have emerged from the pre-Christian dísablót to (from dísir, "goddesses") was indeed determined by the full moon. Nordberg argues that the Yule moon represents a pan-Scandinavian rule of thumb used to determine the time of the Yule blót in the pre-Christian lunisolar calendar, and that such a system of determining religious festivals would apply to the other quarters of the year as well, equating to roughly the next month of the equinoxes and solstices, in the full moon of the new moon succeeding them. The vætrnætr "winter nights", which marked transition from autumn to winter, and the corresponding dísablót, would have been celebrated on the full moon of the new moon, following the autumn equinox. 

As for 2018, readers would be wise to pick your finest ram and sharpen your sacrificial dagger. Mark your calendars for January 31st: It's the new moon of the full moon, following the winter solstice. Personally, I'll gladly celebrate Yule twice. 

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The Trollish Theory of Art: A scandifuturist art creation myth

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Studying Nordic folklore, one gets the sense that the performing arts were communicated and taught by dark, subterranean powers. The recent ancestors of contemporary Scandinavians lived in a world where the devil was a fiddler and the malicious water spirit known as nøkken, or the nix in English, could be heard playing sweet and seductive jigs from waterfalls and streams. It was said that he offered apprenticeships to those who dared bring him a sacrificial meal. But these entities do not represent creative independence and freedom without compromise: The devil is unable to perform his devilish deeds single-handedly – he is powerless without the initial consent of either god or man – and the nix possesses, like most goblins, wights and trolls, a murderously ill disposition towards mankind. Trolls and their ilk are not known for their innovation, and are in fact utterly passive creatures that must be coaxed or driven to action. Then, one might ask, what do wights and devils have to offer us? The answer is nature. They illustrate that man in one way or another must approach and confront nature if he is to realize culture. And since nature is rather suspicious, poisonous, capricious, etc., it is represented by such clandestine, anti-cultural agents.

Since trolls first and foremost are beings of nature, they are not motivated by cultural concerns. But though they are anti-cultural, they don’t thereby exist in a culture-less vacuum. Nature and culture reside in a mutually destructive relationship to each other, and one could say that the culture of the troll, as it were, is a reactionary necessity. They coil around one another. Norse poetic theory reveals that the shape-shifting nix was originally perceived as a mutant: a creature that was half one thing, half something else, as addressed in Kunstforum 1/2017. The medieval Icelandic poet and chronicler Snorri Sturlusson thus referred to the aesthetic ideal of pagan poetry as nýkrat: “nixy”, because its metaphors were constructed out of opposed elements – poetic, anti-naturalist mutants.

The perception of art in Nordic folk tradition up until the industrial revolution – the era Norwegians refer to as Det store hamskiftet (literally “The Great Shape-shift”) – may be considered an off-shoot of one we see even in Old Norse and Viking Age sources, and can still be traced in language today. This might seem like a bold statement. But languages reveal metaphors and deep psychological concepts and ideas that are often difficult to identify directly, but can be unveiled in etymology and euphemisms. We usually apply negative connotations to the word “darkness”. To most of us, these lean towards uncomfortable, more or less anxiety-provoking subjects. Many of us are afraid of the dark, but darkness is also associated with seductive moods, instincts and subconscious pulls. The Norse realm of the dead, Hel, has the same etymological root as huldra, a seductive and dangerous subterranean spirit in Nordic folklore. Both words mean “the hidden”. It is precisely to the blackest underworld that gods and men alike must journey to retrieve knowledge and inspiration in Norse mythology.

“That trolls dwell in men is a fact known by all who have an eye for such matters,” wrote Jonas Lie in the introduction to his anthology of supernatural stories, Trold (“Trolls”) in 1891. To whichever end we may ascribe human personality traits to wights and trolls, it will more often than not appeal to our worst natures. The things we would rather hide. Greed, laziness, envy, exploitation or seduction. Any behavior Christianity considers sinful, comes naturally to the troll. Pursuing these metaphors, we may begin to discuss subterranean characteristics. The subterranean is where the trollish has its roots. The trollish doesn’t necessarily reside in the underworld itself, but relates to it much like the Sicilian mafia does to America. And nature is trollish in itself. Thus we may consider trollish personality traits, deeds, impulses, and patterns of thought. And, not least, we may consider trollish aesthetics. A trollish paradigm, not only for understanding art, but also mankind’s masochist struggle between order and chaos, nature and un-nature...

READ THE REST OF MY ESSAY ON THE TROLLISH THEORY OF ART HERE

Augvald Granbane: Confessions of a Reluctant Archaeo-Activist and Spruce Murderer (Interview)

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Driving along the Norwegian coast, you're bound to pass some the many spruce forests dotting the countryside. You'd be excused for thinking that these are naturally occuring features, but in fact they are the wild remnants of man-made plantations. Spruce gardens for the lumber industry. Imported from Canada, it is estimated that some 500.000 acres worth of sikta spruce were planted in the 20th century. Much of it in the years following the second world war, when the rebuilding of the nation raised demand for timber to new heights.

For this, the sitka spruce was a well suited material: It grows fast, straight, and tall. It has excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and more importantly, it thrives in Norway's thin, nutrion deprived coastal soil. There is a sad irony to this, but also a familiar pattern seen wherever the short-sighted decission is made to introduce a new species to a foreign environment.

In a sense, you could say that sitka forests have quite a literal dark side. As anyone who ever set foot in their forests will know, they tend to be dark and lifeless places. The sunless forest floor, though it makes for excellent mushrooming ground, is invariably covered in nothing but spruce needles and cones. If the sitka spruce demands little, it strangles all competition. Considering that most of these plantations are abandoned, they are allowed to spread without regulation. The qualities that made the sitka such a desirable source of timber, have turned it into a monster, and the scheme to meet lumber demands became a sort pact with the devil.

 «Guttorm's Mound» (Also called The Prince's Mound), Karmøy. Photo: UiS

«Guttorm's Mound» (Also called The Prince's Mound), Karmøy. Photo: UiS

A new threat to an ancient landscape

Conservationism comes in many forms. In the past, overgrowth was kept in check by traditional livelihoods. A flock of sheep or goats was all you needed to keep the landscape open. With the decline of subsistence farming and rural lifestyles, saplings that would have ended as treats for livestock, now live well into maturity. With landowners uneager to finish the work their grandparents left behind, you can imagine the result. Trees are left as they are, even if they ripe beyond their years for logging. Sooner or later, a gust of wind will tip them over, and their shallow root systems will rip up the soil. This leaves an ugly crater or bare mountain. If a tree grows on a burial mound tips over, which is certainly a realistic scenario, it can ruin the mound forever. And since they they tend to grow in dense concentrations, they'll often take their neighbors with them when they fall. It's not unusual to see huge clusters of fallen trees after winter storms. Sometimes eradicating old pathways.

Landscapes that would have been just as familiar to an Bronze Age sheep herder as they would have been to a 19th century fisherman, are quickly disappearing. Ancient shrublands and pastures are dwindling away in the shadow of an invasive species. It outcompetes local flora, and rips through the innumerable ancient sites along the Norwegian coast.

Today, the sitka spruce is a recognized ecological threat, an unwanted species. It should have happened much sooner, but the fact that it made the national blacklist at all, is probably thanks to a national awareness that has come over time, much through the effort of a few individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty to save our pastures, moors, meadows, and monuments from the sitka's sprawl.

Enter Augvald, vigilante spruce killer

Arguably, the most infamous character in the saga of the sitka spruce, is the mysterious rebel activist going by the name of Augvald Granbane - the spruce bane. Nobody knows who the person behind the name is, only that he (or she) has haunted the ancient landscape of Avaldsnes, on the West Norwegian island of Karmøy, since 2003. His mission? To completely rid the heritage site and its vicinity of the hooligan spruce, as he calls it.

Avaldsnes itself was allegedly the main estate of Harold Fairhair, Norway's first, Viking Age unifier, and forms part of one of the most find dense archaeological areas in the entire country. Including two ship burials from the 8th century, several massive Bronze Age mounds, standing stones, hill forts, and the 3rd century princely burial of Flaghaug, which contained a 600g solid gold torque, among other things. It is also a recurring, important area in the kings' sagas, and was mentioned in mythological Eddic poetry. 

Taking his title from the mythical king that gave Avaldsnes its name, Augvald's nom de plume is not a random choice. In a sense he has written himself into the rich mythology of Karmøy's history soaked moors and mires, taking as his emblem a sketch of a lost, local bronze artifact. Coming and going, issuing updates on his latest activities, leaving a trail of mutilated sitkas in his wake. Emerging every now and then to make statements remniscent of a guerilla leader taking responsibility for an assasination or kidnapping.

But Augvald's intent is not to instil fear or subvert the law. If anything, he seems see himself as a necessary evil against bureacratic passivity. Killing spruce trees at night, and writing by day. His resin stained hands elegantly steering his pen, loaded with literary wit and sarcastic remarks. Demonstrating passion, interest, and understanding of the unique value of Avaldsnes and its surroundings as an archaeological smörgåsbord, which covers the entirety of Norwegian history, from the Ice Age to the Oil Age. Having absolutely no mercy for local politicians without skin in the game, it is hard not to see this anonymous rebel as an example of the great Norwegian archetype of the subversive underdog who sticks it to the big man. As you can expect, not everybody is too thrilled about his vigilante conservationism. Even in the local history scene, he remains a controversial figure.

 The Viking Farm by Avaldsnes. Hidden in the sitka jungle. Photo: Eirik Storesund.

The Viking Farm by Avaldsnes. Hidden in the sitka jungle. Photo: Eirik Storesund.

This is close and familiar ground to me. I grew up around the area, where I spent my formative youth reenacting the Iron Age, eventually working as a seasonal educator and guide at the Viking Farm open air museum, and the Nordvegen History Centre on Avaldsnes. Which in turn led me down the path I find myself on to this day. Augvald had a sort of spectral presence there, I recall, as I would spend the hours after drinking and walking from burial mound to burial mound with my friend Aksel, musing and meditating on the mysteries of the past. Very often, Augvald's signature cutmarks adorned the overgrowth around us. 

It was obviously just a matter of time before I reached out to Augvald Granbane for an interview. The rest of the article, I dedicate to our conversation. 

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Confessions of a reluctant archaeo-activist: Augvald Granbane

Brute Norse: It's not every day one gets the honor of questioning a living, local legend. I think it would be most prudent to let you describe yourself in your own words. Who exactly are you, Augvald?

Augvald: Living legend is a flattering exaggeration. Shady instigator with a narrow, and local agenda is, perhaps, a better description. I've arranged civilly disobedient operations on Avaldsnes since 2003. This is done to demonstrate my severe dismay with a situation where the invasive sitka spruce was allowed to dominate – exceedingly – a cultural landscape, one that has always been clear and wide open, ever since people first began to keep pastures along Karmsund [That is, a narrow strait between the isle of Karmøy and the Norwegian mainland]. I've done this anonymously, and as an eye-catcher for websites where I have published my thoughts and observations under the pen name Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: The core of your activism seems rooted in the fact that spruce forests are an anachronistic and destructive element, unfitting in a protected historical landscape such as Avaldsnes. Reading your statements, it seems the spruce has become somewhat of a symbol of some overarching bureaucratic tendency. Perhaps you could you elaborate on that?

Augvald: First of all, sitka spruce is a concrete and obvious foreign element on Avaldsnes. That these trees were allowed to grow in peace for half a century is bad and difficult to comprehend. Personally, this situation became unbearable when the trees were still standing a decade after this mistake was pointed out, loudly and clearly. And all while the spruces kept growing, vast resources were spent on building a reconstructed viking farm in the middle of the spruce forest on nearby Bukkøy, and a history center up on Avaldsnes itself. For my own part, the invading trees became an increasingly potent symbol of a nonchalant, restricted, and embarrassing display of historical ignorance among those people whose responsibility it was to take action.

 Part of the Migration Era hillfort at Steinfjell, Karmøy, before and after clearing. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Part of the Migration Era hillfort at Steinfjell, Karmøy, before and after clearing. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Brute Norse: The sitka spruce is a blacklisted, invasive species, and is considered a terrible nuisance in other parts of the country as well. Is Granbane's mission primarily cultural historical, or is there an element of ecological conservationism as well?

Augvald: My actions were motivated by cultural history from the start. Eventually, the WWF and other environmental organizations have also begun to combat the «hooligan-spruce». Their methods are clearly more effective than mine. In some places along the coast, there's a real ongoing struggle against these invasive forests, which were planted in the post-war era. But unsurprisingly, this trend has not reached our local backwater. 

 Girdled sitka spruce. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Girdled sitka spruce. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: You've become somewhat infamous for your weapon of choice: So-called girdling, in which you cut a groove along the circumference of the tree, thereby severing the tree's access to water and nutrients, which slowly kills it. I have to admit it's been a bit eerie stumbling across these girdled trees over the years. This has been a sort of trademark and signature of your presence, but I understand you went through a more experimental phase in your early days, when you used poison. Beyond visibility, are there any other perks to girdling that a budding tree-killer should take note of?

Augvald: Girdling, also known as ring-barking, requires patience, but it's simple and effective if you do it right. In the growing season, poisoning the tree with glyphosate will do the trick in about two weeks. Girdling on the other hand won't take effect until the end of the second growth season. With my long-term perspective, it's okay to wait two years. Besides, if you're going to put down another man's spruce, you might as well do it in a way where you cannot be accused of hurting the environment.

Brute Norse: Absolutely, I imagine pesticides would be somewhat counter-productive to your image in the long run. Do you think your ghostly presence has had an impact on local development, say, in terms of environmental intervention?

Augvald: That's hard for me to determine, but anybody can go there and see for themselves that not even a single spruce remains on Avaldsnes itself. Those involved would of course claim that the trees were due to be removed anyway. That may be partly correct, but obviously they've been forced to deal with a somewhat unpredictable, anonymous figure. A recurring fly in the ointment.

Brute Norse: That's for sure! I know one mutual friend of ours reached for his saw and lopper to clear up a Migration Era hillfort outside of Åkra [a small town South on the island], certainly inspired by your own efforts. Do you hope to inspire others to do similar acts in their own local area?

Augvald: Absolutely! But the fact of the matter is, that there is rarely a reason to do this anonymously and illicitly anymore. On the contrary: Combating «hooligan-spruce» and other examples of overgrowth has by far become accepted as a necessity. There's a lot you can do, and today it's even possible to apply for public funding. 

 Hill fort site at Steinfjell, Karmøy. Note the girdled tree in the background. This was done with the landowner's permission. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Hill fort site at Steinfjell, Karmøy. Note the girdled tree in the background. This was done with the landowner's permission. Photo: Aksel Klausen.

Brute Norse: There must be room for some hope with that sort of development. I think it's fundamental that we teach the public to see these sitka forests as the run-amok plantations they are, and not as natural occurring forests. How do you think the situation is a hundred years from now?

Augvald:

I hope the sitka spruce is gone from the entire North and West Norwegian coast, but I am a realist. I expect it will continue to be very dominant in the landscape. Keeping it away from selected areas is a realistic goal, and Avaldsnes is obviously one such area, but it seems it's certainly here to stay. The hope of eradicating this foreign element must necessarily lie in some (bio)technological solution, and that doesn't exist as of today.

Brute Norse: As one would expect, there's no shortage of speculation surrounding your identity. Personally, I think the power of Augvald Granbane's activism lies in all the uncertainty, which seems to give it an element of folklore. Like some sort of modern outlaw, shrouded in hearsay and legend. For example, the story of Augvald ties in with the occasion where Olaf Tryggvason, by many considered one of Norway's great tyrants, was subverted by the god Odin. In a sense, the old taking back from the new.

Do you think Augvald would have made the same impact without the evocative imagery, and the mythology surrounding his name? Is he just a mask for you to hide behind, or do you consider him a being with ambitions of his own? I can imagine such a character taking on a life of his own.

Augvald: The pseudonym was, originally, a purely practical device, and it's served this purpose well. But regarding both the name and means of expression, this was a conscious strategy I chose in order to make the message I wanted to convey a topic of discussion, questions, rumors, and at best even jokes among a local audience. I had a pretty concrete and longstanding plan at the base of it, but it took a while before I came to realize that Augvald Granbane also had a more mythological potential. On a day to day basis, Granbane plays only a marginal and passive role in my real life, but after 14 years it's safe to say he's left his mark on me. Maybe I've even contracted something of a personality disorder? At least he's certainly developed a few stances and values that somewhat differ from my own, and I've grown strangely capable of distinguishing between his opinions and those of mine.

 The 13th century St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2004. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

The 13th century St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2004. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: Speaking of which, the name Augvald Granbane is frequently uttered in the same breath as the terms «vandal» and «eco-terrorist», but many consider you a kind of folk hero. I suppose I am guilty of this line of thinking, too. Do you keep track of all the speculations and characteristics projected onto you?

Augvald: No... Well, I've obviously heard a variety of more or less puzzling guesses and peculiar commentaries, but for the most part I just let Granbane's reputation go wherever it pleases. But I found an exception relatively early on in his career, when there was an overabundance of rumors about my identity, and some of them were quite unfair. I found it best to contribute with some simple facts to dispel a few of the most imaginative and paranoid theories. Hopefully, this served to clear the names of certain people who were unjustly accused, who may unfortunately have felt it as a burden.

 St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2012. Not a spruce in sight. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

St. Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes in 2012. Not a spruce in sight. Photo: Augvald Granbane.

Brute Norse: The area around Avaldsnes, actually the entire region, is unbelievably rich in ancient and historical monuments, yet, in the local branding, we see that it is the Viking Era and Harold Fairhair that steals the show. Hence the local slogan «Homeland of the Viking Kings», which is probably the first thing people see when they land at the local airport. What are your thoughts about this «viking circus», as you like to call it?

Augvald: «Homeland of the Viking Kings – Norway's Birthplace!» was the most outrageous version. An undocumented and obviously unreasonable claim. Made even more edgy by the fact that it was presented in English only - from the very beginning. As if it would become more true or trustworthy if one could avoid expressing this hollow nonsense in the native language of the primary audience.

Initially, I think it's absolutely great that the municipal council of Karmøy, and other local institutions want to shine a light on cultural heritage. My complaint is that this is done in a narrow, historically ignorant, short-sighted, clumsy, stale, and partly destructive way. All the while the cultural landscape and the real historical sites go for lye and cold water [a Norwegian expression: to suffer in neglect], get overgrown or outright ruined, unless antiquarian institutions or private forces intervene. Local politicians and municipal bureaucrats have barely any understanding of the fact that the landscape forms an entirely central part of cultural heritage. Their attitude seems to be, that only the Viking Age is worthy of interest, and that it is better to construct new and completely artificial Viking cultural sites, than it is to take care of the actual and far too dull monuments, for the simple fact that they too often belong to the wrong period. The remains of the amazing ship burial Storhaug [A late Merovingian/Vendel Era find, straight north of Avaldsnes] is perhaps the most depressing example of this. Not many years ago, Storhaug was conveniently «forgotten» by the local council, and almost ended up as an industrial site. Today, what remains of the mound is wedged up against, and probably partially within the industrial zone. Storhaug was by no measure a lesser mound than those which hid the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, neither in terms of content nor size. Some persons of influence should reserve a field trip to Vestfold and see how the ship-mounds are taken care of there. On the plane back home, it would be nice if they could find a moment to silently contemplate the state of things, and the verdict that will be passed on them by future generations. Do they think that our descendants will favour their efforts to fund construction of «real» viking houses in the spruce forest on Bukkøy, while at the same time letting actual historical sites – some of them world class – be destroyed by industry, roads, and real estate?

Sadly, it is my impression that the occasionally extreme commotion about the Viking Age locally, is a product of a collective inferiority complex, need for attention, awkward search for identity, and a dream of great economic profits when all the tourists start flooding in to experience these constructed delights. A proper mess, in other words. Let me tell you: Pointing this out won't make you popular...

Brute Norse: A firm statement. There are numerous other examples of such local hypocrisy. When they renewed the road to Saint Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes for its 700 year anniversary, they actually removed several burial mounds to save themselves a few extra truckloads of stone! In 1950! Anyway, I guess the last word is yours. Is there anything you want to add?

Augvald: On my homepage, I've explained the prelude to my actions in detail, as well as the development up until today. It's a long and winded saga about delays, narrow-mindedness, and hopeless ignorance of history. The angle is rather localized. Even to readers who understand Norwegian, but lack a local connection, it's probably difficult to pick up all the details. Google translate works badly for this text, and to a non-Norwegian reading audience I'm sorry to say that only the pictures offer some impression of its content.

Apart from this, I'll keep my action firm. Going in the same tempo, and with the same goal and strategy in mind as before.

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http://avaldsnes.blogspot.com/

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