Moltke Moe's "Rejuvenation Tonic" - An Invigorating Mulled Tobacco Beer That Will Absolutely Kill You

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Let’s start with a flippin’ disclaimer: I do not recommend that anybody follow the recipe stated in this article. Nicotine is hazardous and any unorthodox method of administration should be carried out with caution. I take no responsibility for any dim ideas that might arise from this article.

Now, is this a trip report or a review? I honestly don’t know. Nothing makes sense anymore. Beer and liquor and smokes are suddenly all the same. There is no separation, no up nor down. Today I question all my life’s decisions that led me down this path of sin and misery.

But first of all, let me explain: It was way back Brute Norse’s infancy, when I went by the name Tulen and ran myself off the bend doing Norse related Q&As, that my old friend Rudi Endresen challenged me to recreate a beverage described by the Norwegian folklorist Moltke Moe, the lesser known (but still brilliant) son of the legendary compiler of fairy tales Jørgen Moe, on an expedition to Bø in Telemark. A bizarre concoction consisting of beer, spirits, and tobacco, intended to grease the throats of his sources. The tale was recounted by Knut Liestøl in his biography of Moe the younger, and in Norwegian it goes like this:


Ein gong ville han få til et lag sjølv. Han hadde høyrt av gamlingane i Bø at i ungdomen sin hadde dei hatt så svær ein oppkveikingsdrykk. Det var øl og brennevin saman, som vart oppvermt og hatt litegrand tobakk i. Så kom Moe på at dersom han no laga ein slik drykk til dei og fekk dei saman, så ville minnet friskna og tungebandet losna, og han ville få høyra mykje gamalt som dei elles ikkje kom i hug. Ja, laget kom i stand, og drykken var der, og stemninga steig fort i taket. Men det vart ein fiasko, for gamlingane tolde ikkje retteleg den drykken dei hadde hadd slik glede av i ungdomen. Dei sovna om eit lite bel, og noko gamalt fekk han ikkje.

Now in English, my emphasis added:

One time he wanted to organize an assembly himself. He had heard from the old folks in Bø that in their youth, they used to have this great rejuvenation drink. This was beer and liquor together, which was heated with a small bit of tobacco added. Moe had this idea that if he could make such a drink for them and get them all together, then their memory would be refreshed and their tongues loosened, and he would hear lots of old things they otherwise failed to remember. Indeed, the assembly happened and the drink was there, and the mood grew quickly intense. But it was a fiasco, because the old people no longer tolerated as well the drink they had enjoyed so much in their youth. They fell asleep soon after, and nothing old was gained for him.

And so I set out to recreate this particular little crap nugget from the cozy outhouse of Norwegian folk culture. Screw all that wine after beer nonsense.

The Grim Reaper (or is it Kittelsen’s “Pesta”?) entertains Moltke Moe with fairytales, in Bø, Telemark. The scene of the crime.

The Grim Reaper (or is it Kittelsen’s “Pesta”?) entertains Moltke Moe with fairytales, in Bø, Telemark. The scene of the crime.

A translation rarely flows well when it’s literal. The same principle applies to reconstructing Moltke Moe’s mnemonic elixir, as the specifics elude us. I haven’t got a clue whether he used local farmhouse beer or some commercial alternative, or from whence he sourced his liquor, so rather than giving in to speculation I decided it was best to opt for a solution based on somewhat common ingredients, for eased consumption and guzzability (?).

In the former incarnation of this recipe I used rolling tobacco, which was convenient. I believe I only used a pinch last time around — admittedly a path I should never have strayed from — but my concept of measurement when it comes to tobacco is shaky. I’m no smoking man and I don’t know a living soul on this side of the Atlantic, so I resorted to bum an American Spirit from a co-worker. As for the remaining ingredients I went for a malt-forward Belgian dubbel and a standard Norwegian aquavit. I threw the ingredients in a pot and heated them to right below boiling temperature, then transferred the concoction into a coffee press to separate the solids. In yonder past, tobaccer was a relatively expensive luxury. You seen the size of clay pipes and whatnot? People smoked a small pinch at a time. Had this moment of historical clarity come to me sooner, I would have severely cut down on the tobacco content. But this is a modernized recipe, and what is more modern than short-sighted, wholesale idiocy?

Drunk warm, it was immediately clear that liquor and beer alone would make for a tasty winter warmer, and slowly other effects began to manifest as well. It didn’t take long before I started feeling excited and spirited, courtesy of the double buzz of alcohol and the unfamiliar nicotine rush. Alert like a motherfucker! I listened to some devilish fiddle jigs and rocked back and forth as I punched the air. In my dipsomania they flashed before my mind’s eye; the infamous brawls of peasant dances past. It all made sense now. I felt like kicking hats off long sticks and brandishing knives, to do ill deeds, throw rocks in the ocean and strike bargains with the devil.

I hear you, brother

I hear you, brother

That all sounds cool and all, but it went downhill fast from there. This was the point of no return. I recall similar, albeit weaker effects at the time of the first reconstruction several years back, but this time I was flying way too close to the sun. I began to sweat profusely. One whole cig per tankard was obviously too much. My nicotine extraction method was too efficient for my own good.

My innards loosener from their place and began to wander my wretched body. For the sake of the article I’m pretending this all happened in the past, but this is happening at the time of writing. Or should I say times of writing, because I had to take multiple breaks to finish this short piece. First to pace around the room, but nausea forced me back on my ass. This is a nonlinear article. The sickness encroached upon me like a bridge troll, and I ended up vomiting multiple times before finally crawling to bed, where I took an hour long nap before I returned to finish this mess of a review. I found the half-full (!) tankard mocking me from the corner of the table, so I poured the fucker out. I’ll let you believe that parts of this very text was written with my left hand as my right hand kept the toilet seat from dunking my head into the bowl. Did I damn near assassinate myself for the sake of immersive anthropology? True to the original account this was a total fiasco, and now, several hours later, I still feel like shit.

So to sum things up: So basically Moltke Moe (1859-1913) was a Norwegian folklorist who once got a bunch of old folks so drunk they passed out by lacing their beer with liquor and tobacco. It was a disaster then, and it was a disaster now. Would I do it again? A nice mulled beer I would not mind, but leave the nicotine out of it.

Recipe: Moltke Moe’s “rejuvenation tonic“ à la Brute Norse aka. Scandinavian ayahuasca

  • 0.33 l of dark Belgian abbey ale (8% alcohol)

  • 4 cl of Norwegian aquavit (40% alcohol)

  • 1 cigarette, but maybe just one third of this if you are sane

    1. Unroll cigarette, mix all ingredients in a suitably sized pot.
    2. Heat slowly on a stove top, do not boil.
    3. Transfer concoction to a coffee press, or pour it through a tea strainer to filter out the tobacco.
    4. Serve in a solid mug or tankard, then pour it straight down the drain. Or, if you are prone to self-harm, drink slowly while it’s still warm.

    Pair with warm sheets in a well ventilated room, or some devilish Nordic jams.

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From Bog Myrtle to Hops: Ethnobotanical fragments from the history of Nordic beer brewing

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Jag haver så ont i huvud,
jag gitter ej lemman rört,
jag haver druckit det starke porsöl,
som är ifrån Dalarna fört.

I’ve such a pain my head,
I can’t bother the limbs to move,
I’ve drunk the strong bog myrtle ale
that the Dalecarlians brew.

Gustav Vasa och dalkarlarna, Swedish folk song

If you’ve ever walked a crooked mile along the beaches and lakes of Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the Baltic, and found that the air around you seemed saturated with a peculiar spiced, gassy herbal fragrance, then chances are you’ve had the joy of stumbling across the myrica gale, a green leafed shrub that thrives in wet, sandy, and acidic soils along the shores and marshes of Northern Europe.

Many know it by one of its English names, bog myrtle or sweet gale, while Scandinavians tend to know it by some variant of the same name as the vikings knew it, which was pors. Bog myrtle has a number of wonderful uses. Not only has it lent its sweet and distinct bitter flavor to distilled spirits for centuries, it was a common sight in the farmer’s brewing kettle for millennia before that. It is among the oldest documented additives of European prehistoric beer brewing, and is widely assumed to have been the most popular flavoring agent in beer before hops rose to prominence in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. It has antiseptic properties, and apparently works as a repellent against mosquitoes, moths, and other pests. It is useful for plant dyeing, where it leaves a wonderful shade of yellow. It makes a bitter tea, and a wonderful scent when used as incense. A sprig can be used much like a bay leaf, and a pinch of leaves works well in gravy and game stew.

I used to have a nice little bog myrtle patch right below my house. People might often see me stalking the marsh in the morning dew of the early summer, cutting myrtle by the shrub, sometimes rubbing leaves in my face when the gnats got too nosy, huffing its gaseous bouquet as I went. On infrequent, but usually spontaneous nature hikes I would make it my express goal to seek out places where the bog myrtle might grow. Finding a new “porsbrot” (Old Norse, “bog myrtle foraging spot” - literally “bog myrtle quarry”) was always a great delight.

My enthusiasm for this plant is so unbridled that I had to downsize my foraging not to de-shrub that patch beneath my house. Hurt by past losses I always tried to forage from different sites, ever since vandals from a local charity razed my oldest foraging spot to make room for an eyesore of a gazebo. Apparently to facilitate public access to “nature experiences” as Norwegians like to call their glorified dog walks. Luckily it’s so abundant that irreverence and ignorance are its main concern. That does not hurt the bog myrtle, but the many who pass it by without realizing the ancient treasure it represents. Many are unaware, some keep their distance. It remains a dangerous outlaw of a plant among some individuals. Not because it’s a weed, either. It is in fact very picky about its turf, wild and resistant to domestication.

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Jeg vandrer opad den mosgrå stenvei
Hvor veien slutter, begynder lyngen.
Og her gror brisken, og her dufter porsen.
Her hører jeg til, og her har jeg hjemme,
og hjertet blir stille som sundet mod kveld.

Og intetsteds længes mit sind tilbage,
og intet menneske her jeg savner."

I wander along the moss grey stone path.

Where way ends begins the heather,
and here grows the juniper, and whiffs the sweet gale.
Here I belong, and here is my home,
the heart grows silent as the strait at dusk.



And nowhere does my mind yearn back,
and no person here do I miss.

— Vilhelm Krag, Yachten. Sange fra min ø (1918).

Under various vernacular names, myrica gale was the king of beer additives Northern European prehistory up until at least the middle ages, and in certain areas much later. It has fallen quite from grace during the past couple of hundred years until it vanished more or less completely in recent generations. Today, bog myrtle is a rather obscure plant used only by a small niche of revivalists paying homage to Northern Europe’s brewing heritage, but was often actively avoided in the near past. Mysteriously, it also attracted a low key cult following within Scandinavia’s peasantry, probably for the exact same reasons as others shunned it. But the rise and fall of bog myrtle is a long winded saga that cannot be explained in absence of a multitude of other factors. In a way, the demise of bog myrtle is found in the foundations of the modern beer industry itself.

Bog myrtle is subject to a widely held belief that the plant is dangerous to one’s health. The claims and superstitions range from it being mildly narcotic, to being an abortifacient, outright poisonous herb that spews deadly fumes that are prone to kill any man who strays too far into its territory. True, the sweet scent of myrica gale makes my heart race, my mouth water, my pupils dilate, my feet stumble, and my loins swell, though I am sad to report that none of this is to be blamed on some narcotic high, but my enthusiasm, nostrils and taste buds, alone.

Beyond its reputation as the crystal meth of the old Norwegian peasantry, another common myth holds that those who drink bog myrtle beer suffer hangovers most severe, inhumane even. I will not deny that I have suffered gruesome, crippling, day-long ailments after drinking bog myrtle beer and mead, but no more than other homebrew projects of diverse quality and unreasonable quantity (My first homebrew was some sort of cauliflower-based kilju, so I’ll use this opportunity to appeal to authority). All evidence to the contrary are purely anecdotal, and several scientific studies have failed to identify anything fishy about the chemical composition of the plant. History will vindicate it! Suspicion sticks, though, and notions about its toxicity have arguably made the plant a bigger novelty than it otherwise would have been. Hence, some scholars who ought to know better still reproduce the same unproven narrative about myrica gale, which serves to exhaggerate the unwise ways and habits of our less civilized, pre-urban ancestors.

Beer bowl displaying some of the dualities of drinking culture. Photo: Norsk Folkemuseum

Beer bowl displaying some of the dualities of drinking culture. Photo: Norsk Folkemuseum

Like a shared meal, drinking culture is partially about establishing and confirming who is in and who is out. The loss of self-control and inhibitions that come with intoxication also reveals something about our character we don’t always express, whether by accident or design. Drinking often forms a cornerstone of initiations, diplomacy, bonding exercises, weddings, business deals, and sundry rites and ceremonies across the ages. Drinking reveals, in a sense, who we really are. A lot of the stigmas and problems attached to drinking in the modern world can be traced back to the idea that drinking is only about fun and revelry, recreation, or rather the loss of one half of the culture and concept that was very much respected in the past; namely that drinking was serious business.

In Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway (1969), Odd Nordland provides ample examples of how the old and new beer culture clashed with one another, and how the ritual and solemnity of beer drinking perished with the demise of local farmhouse brewing. In the past, to be buried without proper beer for the funeral feast was considered a shame, to the point where some farmers even oversaw the malt production from their death bed to ensure they would at least leave behind the legacy of a good funeral beer. Burials were even postponed until the funeral beer was ready. It was natural to brew beer for any monumental or important occasion. Lighter beer for work, strong beer for the big occasions, whether to celebrate the birth of a new family member, or mourn the death of a loved one. But around 1900 or so, these ideas and practices were already starting to get marginalized, and eventually the concept of the funeral beer itself became absurd in the eyes of people now attuned to think of beer in terms of recreation, sensory gratification, and even sin (Nordland 1969: 9-13).

But the the who, what, and whens of drinking go far beyond the rural Norway’s ghost of brewing past. The Romans scoffed at the drinking customs of so-called barbarians, and ancient Germanic societies developed complex social hierarchies glued together by the prestige of parties where extravagant and expensive beverages flowed. Before the rise of microbreweries, beer drinking wallowed in the gutters below the ivory towers of “wine culture”, and in many cases still does. English ale drinkers superstitiously believe that lagers turn men into monsters, and I’ve personally witnessed a Cambridge bartender who refused to serve snake-bites to women, specifically for the same reason. As we will see, similar sentiments also came to influence the consumption of bog myrtle beer.

In the past there was never really a standardized method of beer brewing as there is in the modern industrial brewery, which conforms to a completely different set of standards and philosophies. There were some recurring tools and implements, and a general outline of the grand process, but on a more specific level, people repeated time tested techniques and customs they had observed since childhood, handed down through generations.

An overlooked factor of traditional, rural cultures is that they are often suspicious and intolerant of changes that challenge their identity and ways. While it is true that all is flowing in the world of culture, the river seems to flow a lot slower beyond the reaches of urban centers. The farmers of Norway held conformity in high regard, but brewing beer provided an opportunity for self-assertion. Brewing good, strong beer according to the traditions and expectations of their village, was a great source of pride among farmers. Until the village doctor became a common feature of the Norwegian countryside, peasants were still drinking from communal feasting vessels as they did in the Bronze Age, though technological, cultural, and economic factors changed the style and contents of the beer bowl. Farmers looked on practices that deviated from their own with suspicion, and often didn’t consider the malted slop of neighboring areas to be “true beer” at all. When beer was served it was important to judge or praise it as the context demanded. Many did not even boil their wort (so-called “raw ale”), and disbelieved the proven and honored techniques of other areas where they might instead pour boiling water straight on the malt. But both often drank their beer so fresh that it was still fizzing and foaming at the table! Horror stories both, at least to the ears of the modern brewer, with his temperature controlled equipment, chemical sanitizers, and lab engineered yeast. These are techniques that go against conventional brewing wisdom one way or another, not least the myth that beer is safe to drink because it demanded that water was boiled, which isn’t true: Many people fermented their beer unboiled, which might have been the case throughout much of Scandinavian prehistory as well. Mashing itself effectively sterilizes beer, which is keeps due to alcoholic fermentation and PH value.

Three marinated men, one beer bowl. Photo: Hardanger og Voss Museum

Three marinated men, one beer bowl. Photo: Hardanger og Voss Museum

A history of hops in Scandinavia

In the following paragraphs, we will try to make sense of how a once obscure herb came to run botanical beers into extinction through a combinations of economic factors, health scares, and social stigma. Beer without humulus lupulus, or hops, remains unthinkable to most people currently alive. Yet, that would have been the norm in many beer guzzling parts of the world until just a few hundred years ago. You can thank the slimy tendrils of the 16th century Bavarian reinheitsgebot (“purity law”) for that, which is the totalitarian ideology that confines beer to the narrow definition of “water, malt, hops (and yeast)”. I have no issue with such beer per se. It is fascinating how much variation you can achieve from those four ingredients alone. But it’s plain to see that the purity law was the very detonator behind the implosion of certain native brewing practices not only in Scandinavia, but across the globe.

At the peak of the Roman Era, hops are virtually unseen in the archaeological record across the European continent. At this time, hops were likely picked in the wild, and there is no mention or evidence tying it to beer or any other fermented beverage. This apparently changed in the Early Middle Ages, with evidence of hop cultivation in Bavaria from the mid 9th century onward, which soon spread to France, and notable intensification of hop cultivation in the 11th century. It seems exceedingly likely that this was, at least in part, due to a new trend among continental brewers.

There are other possible explanations, though, and initially it seems that hopped beer was a curiosity confined to certain regions and areas of Europe where myrica gale wasn’t available (cf. Behre 1999). Beer was probably an afterthought from its primary use in cooking and medicine, apparently hop shoots can be eaten like asparagus. Another possibility is its use in cordage and textile production. It has been suggested that monasteries, which dabbled in the production of all sorts of alcoholic beverages, experimented with several kinds of herbs before finally popularizing hops as a beer additive (Nelson 2005: 105). While beer was traditionally drunk fresh in the farmhouse brewing tradition, the addition of hops would have increased the beer’s shelf life, which in turn must have revolutionized beer as a traded commodity.

Trace amounts of hops have been identified in several Scandinavian central places as early as the Viking Era. This includes Kaupang, Birka, Ribe, and Hedeby (Behre 1999: 40; Nelson 2005: 107). Given the apparent obscurity of hopped beer even on the continent at the time, it may seem far-fetched that Scandinavians used it for brewing. Lacking evidence for cultivation, the hops may have been imported. Though it is not immediately clear whether Scandinavia has indigenous, ancient hop varietals, or if the hops currently found in the Scandinavian wild are descended from imported rhizomes from the Middle Ages and later. It doesn’t make it easier that hop pollen is hard to differentiate in archaeobotanical contexts from its famous relative, cannabis sativa (hemp) which was certainly used for textiles since at least the 3rd century onward, making pollen analysis difficult. Hops must have been a common sight in medieval monastic yards, as well as the ornamental gardens of Baroque era estates. Halfway a useful herb, halfway garden ornament, hops eventually grew to become a taxable commodity, and official decrees to intensify hop cultivation in the 17th century indicate that hopped beer was certainly commonplace by then, though the same text reveal that there were still significant gaps in the emerging “hop curtain” where older, traditional beer additives were still preferred.

The very first mention of humli, or hops, in any Old Norse text comes from the Frostaþingslǫg, a Medieval Norwegian law code with Viking Era origins, establishing set fines for hop theft. This is often taken as evidence for Viking Era hop cultivation, and among those who have put this argument forward is the Norwegian pharmacist Frederik Grøn, who attempted to contrast hops against bog myrtle, its most obvious competitor (at least retrospectively), in his book Om kostholdet i Norge indtil 1500 (“On the Norwegian Diet until 1500”) in 1927. There he argues with some futility that hopped beer was an ancient Scandinavian product, and even stakes the claim that it predates the use of bog myrtle in Norwegian brewing. His argument is based on the idea that Snorri Sturlusson attributes the code to king Hákon the good, who ruled in the mid 10th century, ignoring that the law in its surviving form dates to 1260 and the rule of Hákon Hákonarson. We can most reasonably assume that this was a Medieval amendment, which gives us a terminus ante quem for Norwegian hop cultivation of the 13th centory or so. Either way, it doesn’t help Grøn’s argument that we have archaeological evidence for bog myrtle in alcoholic beverages as far back as Bronze and Iron Age Denmark, and with new cases of bog myrtle identified in Viking Era brewing sites emerging since he published his book in 1927. To date I am aware of no examples of hops in such a context.

Bog myrtle and malt. Both leaves and cones may be used, but the latter was often preferred. Photo: Eirik Storesund

Bog myrtle and malt. Both leaves and cones may be used, but the latter was often preferred. Photo: Eirik Storesund

However, Grøn had some reason to be suspicious, given that the literary sources don’t exactly overflow with references to bog myrtle beer, either. Then again, if bog myrtle was a standard ingredient, initially without much competition, I see no reason why saga authors ought to point out their presence. Besides, bog myrtle doesn’t grow on Iceland, where the majority of our surviving corpus was written. Medieval Icelanders probably didn’t drink much bog myrtle beer at all, and if so, it must have been imported. We know from legal manuscripts that bog myrtle was traded, and from medical manuscripts that is was used medicinally on Iceland.

Thus, most of our sources to the importance of bog myrtle ale in Old Norse texts come from legal documents, and is often indirect. For example, in Norway, bog myrtle beer was subject to protective legislation in the face of German imports, implying that bog myrtle was not only economically important, but possibly seen as a native cultural institution of sorts. Deposits of bog myrtle and malt from Bryggen in Bergen, as well as the medieval arch bishop’s estate in Trondheim dated 1300-1500 indicate that bog myrtle beer was being brewed at these sites with some intensity for generations (Sandvik 2016: 228). Bog myrtle is also mentioned as a general trading item alongside russet, cloth, and hops, the latter certainly implying the presence of local hopped beer as well. Property rent could even be paid in bog myrtle, and farmers who owned marshes where it grew had the same rights to these sites as farmers with coastal properties to fishing waters (Nordland 1969: 216).

While the first Scandinavian meetings with hopped beer were in all likelihood imported, hopped beer isn’t mentioned at all prior to the 14th century, though it had probably been drunk for quite some time before then. The source, the will of a cleric in Stavanger dated 1355, refers to it by the term humlamungát. In medieval law as well as the wider cultural connotations seen in Norse literature, mungát seems to refer to beer brewed in the household, or at the very least domestically. Therefore, it seems fairly certain that the beer in question was a locally brewed product, and that hops had begun to take root among urban Norwegian brewers in the 14th century.

While hopped beer must have been popular on the continent for centuries already, it is not until the aforementioned Bavarian purity law, and similar decrees (before and after) in other German states, that we can conclusively say that humulus lupulus was well on its way towards global domination, beginning with the suppression and extinction of several local German beer styles using herbs and fruit, or even other kinds of grain than malted barley. Olaus Magnus mentions in the 1500’s that the citizens of Bergen drank beer in great quantities, and believed himself that this was partially due to the hop content of foreign import beer, which made it suitable for overseas export (Nordland 1969: 225). This doesn’t really say anything about the extent of hop use in Norwegian brewing, but it may suggest that hoppiness still was a quality associated with foreign beer. This may over time have developed into a preference in favor of hops.

I addressed the likelihood that hopped beer was primarily a phenomenon tied to urban centers and coastal marketplaces. There must have been a great deal of cultural pressure from the south, as several German states continued to enforce limitations on beer brewing in the 16th through 18th centuries, abolishing so-called gruit beers, and making it a criminal offense for brewers to even have bog myrtle in their house (Nordland 1969: 221). This legislation still lives on in the legal definitions of “beer” in some countries, chiefly Germany, and even some American states, which prohibits the sale of non-hopped or herbal beverages under the term “beer”.

In the resulting paradigm shift, herbal ales that had once been ascribed beneficial medical properties, were now entirely outlawed, feared, and despised, with the result that the tradition surrounding them died out in Central Europe. While the same legal pressure was not applied to Scandinavian farmers, this certainly affected the market as well as cultural perceptions about beer and brewing among the elies, as well as commoners living in the cities, which was obviously bound to trickle down into the general populace. In the following centuries, hops gradually took over as the main additive of traditional brewing also in Norway, failing only in certain regions, probably in part due to climatic limitations that yielded hop growing unprofitable, and these regions are well known to have made bog myrtle beer up until modern times (Nordland 1969: 220).

Juniper is another common farmhouse beer additive commonly believed to have ancient origins. There seems to be no evidence for this in pre-modern literary sources, and only scant archaeological evidence. The best argument for archaic and ancient use of juniper in farmhouse brewing is made by pointing to how widespread it is across the Nordic area, and the conservatism of available brewing technology and methods, where juniper twigs were used as filters.

Though bog myrtle had fallen from grace by the 20th century, Nordland attests that the plant was still widely known as a beer additive. Infamous and ill reputed, not everybody was willing to openly disclose whether they used or enjoyed it. This demonstrates a problem with certain ethnological questionnaires: Informants might be reluctant to hand out information that make them seem backwards and unmodern, or have their customs scrutinized as curiosities. Noting a discrepancy in eyewitness accounts versus self-reported accounts from brewers themselves, Nordland speculated that bog myrtle beer was more widely brewed than people were willing to admit as late as the 1960’s.

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Hops as ‘war on drugs’

In terms of preservative qualities, bog myrtle simply cannot compete with hops. As far as my own anecdotes have any value, bog myrtle beer does seem to have a shorter shelf life than its hopped counterparts. And while hops are fairly easy to cultivate, the same cannot be said for bog myrtle - though isolated pockets of the plant in otherwise bog myrtle deprived areas have been suggested to stem from prehistoric attempts at domestication. Economically, hops are flat out better suited for a modern, global industry than indigenous, wild botanicals. But these factors alone do not explain the marginalization, and often enough the extinction, of herbal farmhouse ale traditions. While the purity laws of the continent had no direct legal power over Nordic brewing, the impact of the health scares and fashions that arose from them must have affected Scandinavia as well, particularly with the emergence of urban communities, industrialization, and adoption of continental habitus.

The real or imagined chemical properties of these herbs were important the latter stages of hop dominance. While the logistics, agriculture, and economics of hops might have been the backbone, their sole monopoly is better explained by their status as the only legal bittering agent in significant portions of the continent, and especially the properties attributed to bog myrtle and other herbs in this time frame.

While it certainly true that a wide variety of harmful plants have occasionally been used in beer, it seems that the hop plant’s reputation as harmless ingredient had the often intended side-effect of painting native alternatives as outright poisons. This seems to have had the inadvertent effect that many people sought out these plants for their apparent special effects, assuming that these poisons could be harnessed for their narcotic effects. Locally foraged herbs like hypericum, yarrow, and bog myrtle are described in Nordic folk tradition as the ones to look for if you desire a beer to have an extra kick, or, as one informant put it in the context of a wedding beer: “to that the guests become crazy“. Some areas stuck to using bog myrtle for seasonal beers (say, Christmas ales and thirst quenchers for haymaking), but the main motivations for using it were primarily taste, head, and above all potency. Peculiarly, Nordland accounts that bog myrtle beers were often considered too bitter for most people. Considering that the bittering agents of bog myrtle are far milder than most hop varietals (not even considering the alpha acid juggernauts of the modern brewery), at least in my experience, they must have been using a lot of bog myrtle to make it significantly bitter, though traditional ales are generally less bitter than their modern counterparts. High alcohol strength was highly desired, and such beers tend to be more heavy in the residual sugars.

The fact that many of these herbs were rumored to cause terrible hangovers was no deal-breaker, but taken as evidence that these plants had powerful intoxicating properties. In a way, hangovers are obviously associated with the strength of the beverage. As Nordland points out: “Hangover was a good advertisement for the strength of one's ale. As a result, the 'victim' was constantly reminded of the alleged quality of the ale he had drunk. Thus it could be of social importance to produce ale that became noted for its special effects.” Chemical analysis has debunked the notion that bog myrtle contains any harmful or narcotic agents, despite all accounts and reports to the contrary. Whether there is anything in bog myrtle that reacts with alcohol to produce some kind of reaction (like increased hangovers) is a more complicated question, but it seems easier to accept that people, believing they were going to get extraordinarily drunk on bog myrtle ale, drank more bog myrtle ale, and hence got extraordinarily drunk. Of course, hangovers are subjective and tremendously difficult to quantify.

In all matters intoxicating, the placebic power of suggestion shouldn’t be underestimated. Conversely, I have never been convinced that bog myrtle had any special properties beyond pleasant flavor and aroma, and hence I never experienced anything I would describe as out of the ordinary. I have, however, taken a larger dose of bog myrtle extract that resulted in profuse sweating and frequent urination, which is in line with its reputation as a diuretic. Then again, it seems there is hardly a herb that doesn’t do the same when taken in heroic doses.

Whilebelief in the power of bog myrtle might have earned it a cult following, we should also take into account the presence and motivations of local traditionalists who kept it old school, who might genuinely have enjoyed the refreshing taste, and the sweet fragrance of a bog myrtle marsh in the early summer, as I have on many occasions. Cheers!



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Literature

  • Behre, Karl-Ernst (1999). A History fo beer additives in Europe - a review. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. Springer-Verlag

  • Grøn, Fredrik (1927). OM kostholdet i Norge indtil aar 1500. I kommisjon hos Jacob Dybwad: Oslo

  • Nelson, Max (2005). The Barbarian's Beverage - a History of Beer in Ancient Europe. Routledge: London and New York

  • Nordland, Odd (1969). Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo

  • Sandvik, Paula Utigard (2006). Frå Nidarosen til Nidarneset: Ein integrert naturvitskapleg - arkeologisk - historisk rekonstruksjon av framveksten av Trondheim. NTNU: Trondheim




Brute Norse Podcast ep. 16: Kinky Runestones from Outer Space

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Ouff, it’s time once again for a new episode of the Brute Norse podcast. This time we’re in for a round with special emphasis on the weird legacy of ancient Scandinavia.

Join Eirik for a counter-cultural walk on the wild side as he looks at some of his favorite pieces of bogus and fringe literature on the subject of pre-Christian Scandinavia, from Kjell Aartun's runic sex cults to the seedy, folk-etymological mysteries of the so-called Bock Saga, before finally landing on the forgotten, acid drenched sci-fi works of Norway's favorite outlaw, the infamous Black Metal musician Varg Vikernes.

Available on Soundcloud, iTunes, and the podcast provider of your choice.

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The Alchemy of Fire: Cremating the Dead in Ancient Scandinavia

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Being a so-called “medievalist” living in America, not everybody can really relate to the niche of my academic background, and that requires me to resort to a few simplifications beyond what was required of me back home. Though prone to yapping, I keep it as my mantra to try to avoid what Nassim Taleb might call nerdery, that is information without charm. If people ask me what I "do" I usually just tell them I write about “Vikings”, and that’s usually enough to gauge their interest. To some the Viking is just a word in the dictionary, or a face on a TV-screen.
If you don’t know and don’t care too much about the prehistories of exotic nations, you can well be excused for finding it all a little too abstract. Scandinavia isn’t exactly the navel of the world. But I made an interesting observation that I’ll pretend surprised me more than it did, about the go-to image Americans tend to evoke when reminded that the Viking Age exists: The so-called Viking funeral.


Chuck another on the fire

You probably already know what I’m talking about: A dragon ship bobbing in the open ocean. The cold body of a chieftain resting atop a stack of treasure, dressed in his finest garments. Armed, armored even. A carefully meditated shot sends a single flaming arrow hurling towards it in an elegant arch, setting the scene ablaze. A delicately planned stage drama in its essence.

It will generally pop up in introductory social chit-chat situations. What’s new is that I never really reflected on how big of a meme this is, having surrendered it to the big pile of peculiar notions people have about Early Norse society that I stopped thinking about years ago. I don’t know how this became the distinguishing mark of Old Norse culture, but let’s entertain how this pop-culture saturated scenario would work in real life: To the untrained eye, it might appear to be off to an exciting start as the more combustible parts of the funeral vessel catches fire. Fabrics, straw, and other plant materials may give off intense, but short lived flames. Presuming the cremation platform was constructed by an expert, that it is ventilated, dry, the fire may well continue burning for a while.

The emerging issue is that there is a great likelihood that the vessel would begin taking in water long before the body is finished cremating. Especially if the vessel in question is a boat rather than a full ship, which seems statistically likely and economically reasonable, if not exactly pyrotechnically sound.

Imagine the horrified faces of loved ones and old allies as the magnificent vessel begins to heel starboard, spewing smoke as the proud warrior's bloated body rolls off the pyre. The ballast might pull parts of the ship to the bottom of the ocean, while scattered pieces of wreckage, coal, charred straw, and indeed most if not all of the dead guy himself, would be bobbing in the surf soon after. I think it's safe to say that water does not provide ideal crematory conditions.

But the idea isn’t half bad. Though the mental image of the floating funeral pyre is an awkard one, we find most of its elements in Old Norse funerary practice and beliefs. Ship burials were in vogue in Early Norse culture, and by “Early Norse” I mean the Viking Era, the final stage of the Nordic Iron Age, before the start of the Nordic Middle Ages. They also practiced cremation, among other things. Sometimes in combination with boat and ship burials, but physically at sea? Beyond mythological sources, the evidence ain’t too inclined.

What is a “burial” anyway?

The ship was but one of many symbols associated with the afterlife in pre-Christian Scandinavia. And though this makes sense for a seafaring culture, boat and ship burials were still comparatively rare. In reality, Scandinavian burial practices were amazingly diverse. Some people were afforded expensive burials with lavish grave goods, and complex, laboriously constructed monuments. This was partly dependent on social status, presumably, but but there must also have been other conditions and circumstances governing how a the dead were treated in any given year or location.

By the Viking Era, Scandinavians had already been building burial mounds for thousands of years, yielding innumerable burial mounds scattered across Scandinavia. A counterpoint to the international myth of the Viking buried at sea is the popular Scandinavian misconception that barrows typified how the dead were treated in the Viking Era, forgetting that these represent an accumulation of dead aristocrats across thousands of years. In reality, burial mounds are tremendously hard work, and only few important individuals were afforded such an honor, though old burial mounds were often reused, sometimes several times across everything from a few generations to thousands of years.

Monumental grave markers speak of power. Archaeologists assume that burial mounds followed times of conflict and political assertion. Iron Age burial mounds came with and without seafaring vessels, some were buried in wagons, or just the wagon box. Many were laid in flat ground, with or without (surviving) funerary monuments, while some were buried by or between standing stones. Some were even placed in small wooden structures, or laid under cliff overhangs. Some sat upright in their burial chambers, other lay down in their coffins. Some on their back, some prone. Some graves face east-west, others north-south. Some dead were laid down whole, others burned to ashes and scooped into a serving bowl. There are instances where people have been posthumously decapitated, crushed by heavy stones, or had their jaw removed and swapped for that of an animal. Due to the oftentimes extreme variation in burial practices in prehistoric Scandinavia, some archaeologists have argued whether we can talk about “typical” burials at all.

Its not uncommon to see neopagans fantasizing about elaborately furnished burials, but there’s every reason to believe that most people enjoyed simple burials that left few (if any) material traces for the distant future to observe. Through much of Scandinavian prehistory, cremation was practiced alongside inhumation (the more conventional meaning of “burial”). We know very little about how these cremations were organized and how they actually happened, but charred human remains in funerary contexts reveal that Iron Age, and even Bronze Age Scandinavians certainly weren’t one-trick ponies in that department. Evidence suggests they could choose between a range of different cremation techniques, which finally leads us to the main focus of this article.

Before the second half of the first millennium, the dead were usually cremated before their bones deposited somewhere else, while in the Viking Age, pyre and burial are often in the very same spot. Cremation may have been a practical way of dealing with the remains of people who died abroad, but they were also commonplace locally. It could be as simple as being cremated in some designated public or ritual space before being movied to a local cemetery or appropriate burial site, sometimes only a few yards away. In the first half of the Iron Age, they were often buried in an urn, pot or some other kind of vessel. As with all archaeological contexts, burials leave a lot to the imagination. But this is even more so the case with cremations. First and foremost because prehistoric Scandinavian cremation graves hardly contain any bones at all. What the fuck?

Bones from a modern cremation prior to grinding at møllendal crematorium. credits: Terje østigård

Bones from a modern cremation prior to grinding at møllendal crematorium. credits: Terje østigård

Migration period funerary urn, Sørbø, Rogaland, Norway. Note the small amount of burnt bones to the right. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger

Migration period funerary urn, Sørbø, Rogaland, Norway. Note the small amount of burnt bones to the right. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger

A modern cremation yields, on average, 3037 grams of bones (3375 grams for men, 2625 grams for women), amounting to a volume of 7,8 liters before they are ground to ashes. But these are not the figures we see in archaeological contexts. In Scandinavian cremation burials, the total weight of remains usually ranges between a few grams up to 100. One study of 1082 separate cremation contexts recovered only a handful of burials where the total mass of bones exceeded 1000 grams, which is still less than a third of the post-cremation bone weight of an average grown man. In only two cases did the bones amount to more than 3000 grams (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 77).

This appears to have been fairly consistent feature of Scandinavian burial practice back to the Late Bronze Age. In excavations of a cult and burial site in Ringeby in Östegötland, Sweden, active from 1000 BCE up until 350 BCE, archaeologists identified the remains of 44 separate individuals. The excavation yielded a total of 7000 grams of bones, but only 823 grams of these bones were human. Less than one third the weight of one complete, average male skeleton divided among 44 different people (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 78). Migration Era funerary urns in Norway hold about 1,5 liters on average, so if these were made with a funerary purpose, they were intentionally made to only fit a fragment of a person’s skeleton (Østigård 2007: 52)

In contrast to inhumations, where the complete body is buried, it must have been extremely rare to bury the full remains of any given cremated individual. That the burial formed only one symbolic piece in a bigger eschatological puzzle. In other words, something else was consistently happening in the middle phase between cremation and burial, since only a small fragment of the actual bones usually made it into the burials, so where the hell did the rest go? To offer a possible answer to this riddle need to take a deeper look at cremation itself.

Experimental funeral pyre, The Iron Age Farm at Ullandhaug. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger

Experimental funeral pyre, The Iron Age Farm at Ullandhaug. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger

To burn a body

Who were given the task of cremating the dead in Iron Age Scandinavia, and how did they do it? These are some of the questions the Norwegian archaeologist Terje Østigård has asked in his comparative work on fire, ritual, and transformation in prehistoric Scandinavia, who is also the main source and inspiration for this article.

You may or may not be surprised to hear that there’s much more to burning a body than lighting it on fire. It’s actually quite hard. There is a range of factors the budding crematory worker must consider, temperature obviously being the most important. Modern cremation ovens are usually preheated to around  650-700 °C, and this temperature may often rise to 1000-1200 °C once the body catches fire. Temperatures in the latter range are generally not possible on an open air funeral pyre due to heat loss. Furthermore, the temperature of any given fire is never completely evenly distributed (Østigård 2007: 33). If a pyre burns cold and unevenly, the body may only be partially cremated.

On a pyre, fat people are harder to burn than skinny people, while the opposite is true if you are cremating in an oven, since the closed environment allows for a greater build up of temperatures to the point where an obese corpse essentially fuels itself. In an outside environment, the struggle is not only about getting the fire burning (and people generally don't burn very well), but also maintaining temperature. If you didn’t guess it already, if you are being roasted on a DIY pyre built and tended by inexperienced cremators (read: family members) the results can be both messy and inefficient. A modern oven cremation can be over in as soon as an hour. In modern Nepal, a professional pyre cremator can get the job done in two or three hours, while families doing it themselves may spend up 5 hours (Østigård 2007 : 21).

Bones subjected to lower temperatures look different from bones treated to higher ones, and hence be qualitatively graded. Østigård refers to four distinct qualities of cremated remains:

  • Grade 0: Unburnt bones without visible traces of fire, but have been affected by heat. Maximum temperature probably didn't exceed 200 °C.

  • Grade 1: Sooty bones. Maximum exposed temperature probably didn't exceed 400 °C.

  • Grade 2: Lightly burnt bones. Maximum temperature probably no higher than 700-800 °C.

  • Grade 3: Moderately burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1000-1100 °C.

  • Grade 4: Heavily burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1200-1300 °C.

Mind you, different fragments from a single cremation may yield varying grades because the temperature distribution in any given fire is never even. Remains in the scale of 3,73 would reflect a job well done, while 0,70 would probably have been very sloppy. The grading of the bones allows us to say something about the skill and experience level of whoever performed the cremation.

As you probably realize, there are many good reasons for getting professional help: During cremation, fat and flesh will be sizzling and roasting. Tendons and muscles contract, causing limbs to move and twist, and even make the body sit up or raise its arms and legs, and heads tend to explode with an audible bang above a certain temperature. A specialist would know how to spare onlookers from such grim displays, the family may not even be aware of the issue. But there are also reasons why a family might choose to do it themselves: They may not have the financial resources to hire a specialist, or desire to do it themselves under a sense of social obligation, and so on. In the Indian subcontinent, many cremations are handled this way, or under the supervision of a specialist.

In these cases, if we presume that the cremation is overseen by a male member of the family, such as a brother, uncle, or the oldest son, there is a limit to the experience this person will normally have when it comes to dealing with the dead. Hindu priest specializing in cremations may oversee thousands of cremations within the first ten years of his career. As Østigård says, an amateur cremates differently than someone who has cremated 15000 people.

Funeral pyre on the bank of the bagmati river, Nepal. Credits: Gregor Younger

Funeral pyre on the bank of the bagmati river, Nepal. Credits: Gregor Younger

Who cremated the dead?

Simply judging from Germanic and Old Norse social norms, we might expect that Scandinavians relied heavily on family members to perform funerals. Reasonably the main heir, the oldest son, might have been responsible for burying his parents, which is the case in contemporary Hindu tradition. On average, it is unusual to have any previous experience cremating people before the death of either parent. This means only one son would have first hand experience doing so, and only the really unfortunate would be required to cremate more than two people in the course of their lives (Østigård 2007: 14). Most would certainly have witnessed more cremations before then, and be familiar with some of the more obvious principles and religious symbolism associated with building a pyre, such as its proportions and general construction, roughly how much wood is needed, and so on. Even though some Nepalese families may choose to do much or all of the work themselves, specialist and overseers are readily available for those who can afford it.

The question is, did pre-Christian Scandinavian society have local access to such specialists? There is no evidence pointing directly to the existence of a specific priestly caste in Scandinavian Germanic society. Priesthood was a role performed in specific situations, rather than a full time job, delegated in accordance with social, economical and political status. It is also probable that specific vocations opened for specialized ritual functions.

But is there even any evidence they utilized or needed such specialists? If we can determine the quality of burnt bones in archaeological contexts, we would certainly know, and we do. So how effective were Scandinavian cremation practices, exactly? Barring a few exceptions where we might imagine a burnt lasagna sort of situation, the botched final journey as conducted by a mourning son completely without prior experience, it turns out that quite often, Scandinavian Iron Age cremation methods were extremely effective.

By “effective” I don’t just mean that the bodies were evenly and neatly burned. Østigård coughs up some fascinating numbers that point towards a possibility few of us, and certainly myself, would once have imagined. On account of previously addressed grading system for cremated bones, the majority of bones in Scandinavian Iron Age contexts meet the grades 3 and 4, on the very top of the scale. That means they were subjected to temperatures between 1000-1300 °C, well within the standard of modern crematoriums, or higher, which suggests that people had access to specialists mastering the element of fire. The obvious candidate at this time, in this culture, is the smith.

These temperatures can only be achieved with a very large and properly constructed pyre, but while remains of such pyres are also represented in the archaeological material, these temperature ranges are also consistent with smelting ovens and furnaces, opening for the very real possibility that ancient Scandinavian smiths doubled as ritual specialists whose workshops doubled as crematoriums, human bone fragments in Bronze Age smelting ovens seem to confirm this purpose (Østigård 54:). It is also worth pointing out, as Østigård does, what a strange and marginal figure the smith is in many pre-urban societies, including Scandinavia. Sometimes an untouchable, impure or sacred. In Scandinavia he was often a dangerous, sorcerous figure who tended to an immense variety of local tasks, from shoeing horses to performing surgery, to judging local courts and, not insignificantly, tending the dead. Essential, and simultaneously exiled to the margins, either for the sake of fire-safety or superstition, or even enslaved (consider the myth of Vǫlundr). A mediator between Earth, Heaven, and Hell.

The Iron Forge Viewed from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby (1773)

The Iron Forge Viewed from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby (1773)

The riddle of steel

Not only did the Iron Age smith possess the means, know-how, and probably also the religious authority to properly cremate the dead, he had a wealth of esoteric technical knowledge out of reach to many members of society (Østigård 2007: 42), and among the wonders at his fingertips we find the transformation of iron into steel. A process beginning at 720 °C with molecular changes to the structure of iron when a source of carbon is added. In the Iron Age, coal produced from animal bones were probably an indispensable source, and with all of the above considered, it seems more than likely that blacksmiths made use of human bones for the same purpose, a resource they would have had ample access to, allowing him to transfer not only the carbon contents — but perhaps the properties or the spirit, or identity of animals and humans into the metal itself, imbuing objects with supernatural properties.

But there are key differences between cremating bodies and turning bones into coal. Coal is produced at lower temperatures in oxygen deprived environments. This could be achieved in ways that might yield quantities of lower grade cremated bones, which can easily be misinterpreted as badly executed cremations, some of which are possible to reinterpret as parts of a complex technological process in a workshop context. It is also possible that smiths dismembered the dead, cremated certain body parts, and turned the rest into coal. This may explain why human remains have also been found in earth ovens, which are normally understood as cooking pits (Østigård 2007: 55)

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Where did the rest of the bones go?

If cremations were just burial rituals we could have expected more complete sets of bones. As Østigård points out, we must consider the extant fragments “complete” in the sense that people only buried trace amounts of the cremated dead on purpose. But this doesn’t explain where the rest of the bones went. While some bones might have ended up as raw materials for the mystical transformation of iron into steel in blacksmiths workshops, it seems unlikely that this fate was shared by the majority of the bones absent from prehistoric Scandinavian cremation burials.

In pre-Christian Scandinavia, death was never just an ending, but a transfer. An affirmation of continuity, of up- and re-rooting, of breaking apart and building anew. It might make sense, then, why the end of a life would be followed by the obliteration of the body, and the reassembling of constituents into something new. A motif that echoes into Old Norse and Indo-European symbolism and religiosity on too many levels to touch upon here, but that you will find several other examples of on this blog.

Human bone fragments pop up in a wide array contexts. Østigård lists ceramics, post holes, fire pits, earth ovens, deposits of fire-cracked stones, altar-like structures, boundaries between properties, and fields, arguing that the primary destination of cremated remains were not in fact the grave itself, but places such as these. Bones were likely distributed among family members or spread out in religious rites. Even a form of ritualized, endocannibalistic consumption has been suggested as a form of ancestor worship.

Whatever they did, it seems that burial was literally just a fragment of a greater religious funerary concept, expressed through the disintegration of the physical body, and the transformative properties of fire.

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Writing is slow work. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it among like-minded people, support my work on Patreon, or buy some shirts.

Sources

  • Kaliff, Anders & Terje Østigård (2013). Kremation och kosmologi – en komparativ arkeologisk introduktion. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 56. Uppsala University: Uppsala

  • Østigård, Terje (2007). Transformatøren – ildens mester i jernalderen. Rituelle spesialister i bronse- og jernalderen. Gotar Serie C. Arkeologiska Skrifter No 65. Gothenburg University: Gothenburg






Brute Norse Podcast ep. 15: Pagan Christmas

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Woe is me, it’s the ghost of Brute Norse podcasts. In this episode Eirik shares what the holidays mean to him as a homesick barbarian/contrarian, and covers some of the many yuletide horrors past folks had to put up with. And concerning the paganism of Christmas: Norse religious festivals were determined according to a lunisolar calendar, so when exactly did the vikings celebrate jól, what exactly is its relationship to the winter solstice, and why does any of that matter to you and me?

Admittedly, a lot of the material in this podcast has been covered in this article, now available to your listening pleasure due to popular demand! Happy Yule!

Check out the Brute Norse Yuletide playlist here.


Support Brute Norse on Patreon or buy a shirt, maðrlover

Barbarian Beverages: The Bitter Viking

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A little known fact about Brute Norse is that I also take submissions for cocktail recipes according to a set of vague, cultural historical criteria. Basically, anything goes as long as it combines old and new in accordance with my idiosyncratic Scandifuturist ethos.

The following concoction, the “Bitter Viking”, comes to me from M. N. Walker of Thrym & Ellen via my pal Michael. This is essentially a Nordic spin on the classic gin and tonic, but swaps the gin for akvavit, and the lime wedge for a more ethereal grapefruit presence. Akvavit is a muscular category of liquor often associated with holidays in Scandinavia, and yuletide in particular. But, you know, I’m a card carrying lobbyist for the year-round consumption of akvavit, so they didn’t exactly have to ask me twice about passing on the recipe. Besides, it’s rather refreshing!

Bitter Viking

1.5 oz. traditional Akvavit (with caraway)
9 drops of grapefruit bitters

Add ice, Fever Tree tonic and zest of grapefruit


As for food pairings, I don’t know - a wedge of strong cheese, maybe? I had it with some fancy sardines straight out of the can, but “recommend” is a loaded word. As for music pairings, distant gunshots, or anything with a jaw harp or a fiddle in it goes without saying. But the real listening combo is obviously episode 14 of the Brute Norse Podcast, which just happened to be released this week!

If you liked this piece you might also enjoy:
Summers are for Mead Spritzers: A Scandifuturist cocktail manifesto
Olde English Malt Liquor: 24 Ounces of Anglo Saxon Glory
Barbarian Beverages: The Noble Savage - a simple cocktail with an archaeological twist
Seaweed: An Authentic Viking Age Beer Snack

Got a good recipe? Why don’t you drop me a line and I just might try it out.
And as always, support Brute Norse on
Patreon or treat yourself to some berserker themed power-socks.

Brute Norse Podcast Ep. 14: The Archaeology of Evil Dead

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Archaeologists have recently stumbled upon a never before heard 14th episode of the Brute Norse Podcast, so without further ado: It’s another episode of the Brute Norse Podcast!

In this episode, Eirik and Aksel catch up after several months of disconnect and get up to speed with some of their favorite archaeological news of 2018. They speculate on the contents of prehistoric alcoholic beverages, muse on recent incidents on North Sentinel Island, analyze Danish gang wars in light of warlike honor-shame societies and Norse sexual defamation, look at the so-called Staffordshire hoard helmet, and find some odd historical parallels to the Evil Dead franchise.

Other topics more-or-less covered:
- The Jellestad Viking Ship
- Hot tips for budding criminals who hate the past
- The oriental black market
- Norse dilemmas: Which is worse - Being flakey, or being a murderer?
- Dwarf children?!
- Prostitution in the legendary sagas
- Digital chess in the legendary sagas
- Body horror in the legendary sagas
- Exciting new research on the guldgubber

Like the skaldic poets of old, Brute Norse endures and prospers at the generous mercy of warlords and kleptocrats such as yourself, so why not have peek at the Brute Norse Patreon page? And while we’re at it, check out some of the rad new additions to the Teespring store.
And don’t forget to subscribe to Brute Norse on the podcast provider of your choice!




Clubbing Solomon’s Seal: The Occult Roots of the Ægishjálmur

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No subject is too sacred to be spared from the Brute Norse fatwa against disinformation. Vets to the blog may recall my rough-handed, but no doubt justified assault against the so-called *valknútr and the anachronisms surrounding it. Now, time is long overdue to raise the banner once more and declare hunting season on yet another sacred calf of the misguided and opportunistic: The ægishjálmur.

The ægishjálmur is certainly one of the most recognizable symbols from the corpus of Early Modern Icelandic magic, collectively refered to as “galdrastafir”, or “magical staves”. Though often spoken of as a charm to daze or instil fear in enemies, the stave’s exact purpose varies from manuscript to manuscript. In some cases it helps you get laid, in others it makes your angry boss chill out. The symbol itself takes a variety of forms, though usually depicted as a cruciform or radial sign with either four or eight spokes and fork-like protrusions that bear a passing resemblance to runes.

For the convenience of more impatient readers readers I’ll summarize my point right now: The ægishjálmur is not a Viking Age symbol under any reasonable definition, but a post-Medieval magical appropriation of an older concept, which I’ll be referring to by its Old Norse name. The tradition comes in two main forms:

1. A magical helmet called ægishjalmr, mentioned in Old Norse legendary literature.
2. A symbol by the name of ægishjálmur, depicted in Icelandic occult literature from the Early Modern Era.

For clarity, the first will be referred to in italics by its Old Norse form ægishjalmr, while I will reserve the modern Icelandic form ægishjálmur for the symbol. The two are different and distinct, but not totally unrelated.

What ties them together is a retrospective antiquarianism by authors of Icelandic magical texts, popularly referred to as “galdrabækur” (sg. galdrabók). These fellows must often have been antiquarians and book collectors, and as Icelanders they had a unique access Old Norse literature through widely circulated paper manuscripts, as well as continental occult literature pertaining to what is more commonly called “ceremonial magic”. The result was a distinctly accultured vernacular magical tradition, retaining elements of practical folk magic, kabbalah, Christian mysticism, demonology, and Norse fakelore. Though this is essentially the work of well-read and learned men, Icelandic magic is often portrayed as the magic of shit-kicking peasants with limited means, which makes the galdrabók-tradition seem more ancient, isolated, and local than it truly is.

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Good Riddance to Viking bogus

If my intent was to simply debunk the ægishjálmur as a Viking Era symbol, this article would have been significantly shorter. However, the history of the ægishjálmur is a rather interesting and often unspoken one, so consider this a sort of lecture in the strange saga of Nordic magic. While I have singled out the ægishjálmur for this study, it’s important to understand that the same critique applies to all the galdrastafir more generally, especially other radial symbols like the Vegvísir. This article is deemed necessary due to the extreme influx of ægishjálmur nonsense polluting portrayals of Norse culture either by reenactors, or in popular culture. Secondly there are many misconceptions about the symbol in esoteric and Neopagan communities as well, and hopefully this will serve to clear a lot of it up. For the sake of historical accuracy, the galdrastafir should not be permitted in any Viking Era context. If you see a reenactor sporting one at an event, make them eat it, whatever the material is.

No graffiti, no artifacts, no depictions in textiles or metal, absolutely nada, nothing even remotely similar to the symbol has ever been attested in Norse art. None the less, the ægishjálmur is persistently tied to Viking Age spirituality and aesthetics in an impressive range of anachronistic combinations. It only takes a quick google search reveal the extent of this conspiracy of ignorance, with a tide of ghastly crimes of fashion and historical falsehoods, perpetrated by craftsmen, designers, and sellers across the Western Hemisphere, who are either oblivious or willfully lying about the actual historical context of the symbol.

As a top design choice for peddlers of souvenirs and other cheap horseshit, there are painted shields, leather goods, graphic tees, jewelry, weapons, wristwatches, duvet covers, flip flops, passport covers, and all that jazz. Not always claiming historical authenticity of course, but always marketed as a “Viking symbol”. Another popular claim holds that it is a bind rune, and so it is popularly depicted inside a circle of Elder Futhark runes that predate any known depictions of the ægishjálmur by damn near a thousand years. This insult to runology is self-evidently bogus.

If you see somebody with this passport, make sure they find their way home. Source: Allpassportcover.net

If you see somebody with this passport, make sure they find their way home. Source: Allpassportcover.net

Let’s hear it for the primary sources

So we’ve established that there is an object in Old Norse literature called ægishjalmr, as I’m sure you knew already. The eddic poems Regins- and Fáfnismál are probably the most cited sources for the term, but it is actually mentioned in a few different norse texts. The first compound ægis- is conventionally translated as “of terror, horror, awe” while -hjalmr simply means “helmet”, and I’ll be accepting this reading for the remainder of the text.

As the author of The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimiore (1989), the esoteric scholar Stephen Flowers was probably among the prime movers in terms of bringing the ægishjálmur to international attention, at least in the counter-culture. This is a commendable early bird effort even though I don’t share all of his convictions. Particularly that hjalmr should be read as “covering”, because this was the original meaning of the word etymologically. I don’t find this reading acceptable for the Old Norse material at hand, and have some general disagreements with his interpretations (cf. Flowers 1989: 122; 1987: 48. In an earlier draft of this article I was overly dismissive of some passages in Flowers’ books, and I realize in retrospect that this was based on a faulty reading. It also detracted the main message of the article, and therefore I have cut those pieces out of the current version).

My point is that there is hardly any leverage to support the claim that this “helm of awe”, or however one would prefer to translate it, is to be understood as anything but a helmet in the original sources. In Fáfnismál, the dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir merely states he “wore the terror-helmet” to keep people away from his treasure. There is never any reason to resort to an exotic reading, unless we assume that 13th century audiences were familiar with obscure occult discourse from the times between the birth of Johan Sebastian Bach and the death of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is never suggested to be a sigil, a drawn figure, or anything more abstract than a piece of magical armor worn by a fantastic creature. And why not? Dwarves are renowned smiths, not graphic designers.

In the prose interlude between stanzas 14-15 of Reginsmál we are none the wiser: “Fáfnir lay on Gnita-Heath in the shape of a worm. He owned the terror-helmet, which all living things are afraid of” ([…] Hann átti ægishjalm, er öll kvikendi hræðast við). In Vǫlsunga saga, the helmet in question is referred to both as ægishjalmr, “a helmet”, and “Fáfnir’s helmet” (hjálm Fáfnis). Significantly, when Snorri Sturlusson gave his prose version of the myth in Skáldskaparmál he remarks that “Fáfnir had then taken that helmet that Hreiðmarr had owned, which is called Ægishjalmr, and put it on his head, which all living beings are afraid of” (Fáfnir hafði þá tekit hjálm, er Hreiðmarr hafði átt, ok setti á hǫfuð sér, er kallaðr var ægishjalmr, er ǫll kvikendi hræðast). If there was any tradition of a magical symbol called ægishjalmr in Snorri’s time, he clearly didn’t get the memo. He’s certainly not too shy to make similar connections in other cases.

In the 14th century s̶c̶h̶l̶o̶c̶k̶f̶e̶s̶t̶ knightly romance Konráðs saga keisarasonar (or, "The Saga of Konrad Emperorson” if you insist), the motif of a helmet-wearing wyrm is recycled in an odd heroic pastiche, where it also appears to be a literal helmet perched on the beast’s head.

The Gök Stone, Sö327

The Gök Stone, Sö327

But there is also a second, proverbial use of the term ægishjalmr, which appears in the context of strong political and military leaders who are able to easily conquer and crush opposition. In this context the idiomatic phrase “to carry/wear the helm of terror before (someone)” (bera ægishjalm yfir) means “to subdue”. In Laxdæla Saga (ch.33) it occurs when one of the main characters, Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, recalls a dream in which she wears a gold helmet with inlaid gemstones that is too heavy for her. She is told the helmet symbolizes a fourth future husband who will prove domineering and curb her manipulative ways. Even in the Biblical translation Stjórn we encounter bera ægishjalmr as a metaphor for a zealous and oppressive personality. This kind of phrasing is fairly common in Old Norse, cf. sitja á friðstóli which literally means “to sit in the peace-chair” but is really a proverbial way of saying “not causing a ruckus”.

Right before that start of the 15th century, the motif of the ægishjalmr appears to have developed into an even more abstract concept. Sǫrla þáttr, a legendary tale accounting for Flateyjarbók’s depiction of the perpetual battle called Hjaðningavíg, the medieval author(s) refer to the character of Hǫgni as having “helm of terror in the eyes” (hafa ægishjalm í augom). The idiomatic phrase hafa ægishjalm í augum when referring to the warrior’s piercing and dangerous gaze fits right in with Icelandic literary convention, but more importantly it bridges two similar motifs in Norse legendary literature: One is the the magical, fear-inducing artifact adorning the powerful monster or warrior. The other is the paralyzing, disarming, or otherwise weaponized gaze possessed by particularly powerful saga heroes and mythological figures. This attraction of motifs may have set the course for later developments of the ægishjálmur in Icelandic magic.

Iceland’s occult revival

Quick recap: The ægishjalmr first appeared on the map as a legendary magical artifact, then it gradually developed as a metaphor for particularly domineering and aggressive personal traits in the High and Late Middle Ages. But it is not until about 1500 that we first see the word in contexts detached from its original meaning, and it begins to appear in the Icelandic magical vocabulary. The very oldest Icelandic book of magic comes down to us as the Icelandic Leech-Book, or Lækningakver preserved in the manuscript AM 434 a 12mo. This is essentially medical manual with significant magical elements.

By now, Nordic magic had been under the spell of Christian mysticism and continental magic for several centuries. Among the hundreds of runic inscriptions acquired from medieval Scandinavia, a number of them display knowledge of charms we might sooner associate with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn than Norse culture. We find versions of the magical phrases AGLA, Abracadabra, and several Sator-squares all written in runes. There may be many reasons for why runes were preferred in this context. Most obvious was the lack of Latin literacy in the wider populace, and so runes were a necessary technology to resort to when communicating written magic intended to be read aloud. Rune sticks with Latin language prayers were essentially “prayer apparatuses” for the uneducated, all of that stuff is pretty quotidian in Medieval Scandinavia (It’s often overlooked that the vast majority of runic inscriptions are post-Viking Era). However, the Christian era also brought an increased mystification of the runes that only increased when it came into contact with other magical traditions (Davies 2009: 31), and as the runes faded into obscurity as the writing system of the common folk, we might expect that they rose to magical prominence.

Bottom of a 14th century coopered vessel with sator-inscription. Örebro, Sweden (Nä Fv1979;234)

Bottom of a 14th century coopered vessel with sator-inscription. Örebro, Sweden (Nä Fv1979;234)

The only mention of ægishjalmr in Lækningakvær comes from a washing spell intended to rid the spellcaster of hatred, wrath and persecution: “[…]May God and good men look at me with mild eyes, the ægishjalmr I carry between my brows […]”. The full spell, which includes saying the lord’s prayer three times, makes no references to the pre-Christian world save for the term ægishjalmr. The same can be said for the vast majority of the later galdrastafir as well, but this particular spell does not instruct us to draw any symbols.

However, the manuscript features a couple of early examples of galdrastafir, including what look like a primitive cruciform variant of the ægishjálmur in a spell intended to stem a chieftain’s anger. It is but one of several spells in the book displaying knowledge of continental magic, and demands that the magician draws the symbol (interestingly, it is referred to as a “cross”) on his forehead using yarrow drenched in their own blood. Then he should go before his master and invoke a series of names and phrases such as AGLA (One of the “secret names of God”, and a magical acronym corresponding to the phrase Atah Gibor Le-olam Adonai, "You, O Lord, are mighty forever”). It also invokes the angelic order of the ophanim, drawn directly from Judaeo-Christian mysticism and Kabbalah. Many contemporary magical practitioners will no doubt recognize the term, for example in the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. The two must obviously not be conflated, but their common historical influence shows.

Early magical stave from Lækningakver ( AM 434 a 12mo ). Last quarter of the 15th century.

Early magical stave from Lækningakver (AM 434 a 12mo). Last quarter of the 15th century.

It’s no coincidence. The striking diversity of galdrastafir in the galdrabækur owes less to local traditions and more to scholarly occult treatises of Latin and Greek origin that often claim to have Hebrew sources, and are demonstrably older than any of the surviving Icelandic material. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, magic associated with the biblical king Solomon began circulating around Europe, and from the 1400’s onward we find full-fledged pseudoepigraphical grimoires attributed to his name. That may sound very lofty, but the purpose of their spells are often the achievement of mundane everyday desires such as punishing enemies, identifying thieves, winning lovers, and so on (Davies 2009: 15). The same was the case for mainland Scandinavian “black books”, as well as the Icelandic galdrabækur. This is because continental grimoires were a direct influence on both of them. Sigils are rather absent in much of the Scandinavian material, but got significant traction on Iceland. As I already mentioned, what the ægishjálmur looks like varies from one manuscript to the next, and there are many sigils that grant the exact same magical results, but are variously described with names such as “The Seal of Solomon”. Overall, the vast majority of ægishjálmur-like symbols in the Icelandic corpus are not referred to by that name at all.

A collection of ægishjálmar in  Lbs 2413 8vo , 31v. Iceland, ca. 1800.

A collection of ægishjálmar in Lbs 2413 8vo, 31v. Iceland, ca. 1800.

Interestingly, there are several examples in some of the original Solomonic grimoires that are more or less identical to these later Icelandic staves. Have a look at some of the following seals from this 15th century Greek manuscript of the The Magical Treatise of Solomon (Harley MS. 5596), and tell me with a straight face they don’t remind us of Icelandic galdrastafir.

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This is quite frankly because the typological origin of the Icelandic galdrastafir lie in Solomonic magic more than anything else, and the occurrence of galdrastafir seems to grow exponentially with the popularity of such traditions in Europe. Many of the more famous forms of the ægishjálmur or other galdrastafir aren’t attested on Iceland until the late 18th century, and often later, peaking around the Victorian Era. Admittedly, a lot of earlier manuscripts must be lost. Mentions of magical manuscripts much predate most of the surviving material, but their development from absent or primitive sigils to more complicated ones must also be considered in this equation.

I started this article with a wee trap. I’m sure many saw the top picture and immediately thought it was an ægishjálmur, but it isn’t. It’s a sigil cooked up by some anonymous wizard in 15th century Byzantium, who was appealing to the allure of Hebrew mysticism. Among the great tropes of the Western Esoteric Tradition are the attempts at creating ties to respected ancient mystical traditions. Ordo Templi Orientis was founded in the 19th century, but associates with the mythology of the Holy Grail. The Golden Dawn and other Hermetic groups allege a tradition going back to Egypt, and of course there have been numerous obscure Neopagan philosophies that allege a secret doctrine handed down to them since pre-Christian times. This is just part of the jargon of Esotericism.

Likewise, Iceland has always been very conscious of its own history for obvious reasons. Among them the fact that it remembered its own settlement, and was a comparatively literate culture. Nordic countries in general have sought to compare themselves with the larger continental cultures since at least the Christianization. It’s not surprising that this would resonate with Icelandic esotericists, who had the motives and means to make Iceland measure up to the mysteries ascribed to the Greeks, Egyptians, and Hebrews. It is easy to compare the attempts made by Snorri Sturlusson et al. to tie the origin of Norse culture to the fall of Troy, thereby writing Iceland into the same honorable narrative as the Romans. These are hardly even that far-fetched as far as the esoteric North goes: The Renaissance spawned a variety of philosophies such as Gothicism, alleging that Scandinavia was nothing less than the cradle of civilization, and placed Old Scandinavian language in the mouth of God himself.

Anyway, the following stave comes from a the early 19th century manuscript JS 375 8vo. First it identifies the sigil as “The Greater Ægishjálmur” (it provides several different examples of them in other parts) before it goes on to say: “This is the seal of Moses”. A double whammy!

“Þetta er ægirs hiálm n stóre [...] Þetta er Móises innsigle” JS 375 8vo, 46v

“Þetta er ægirs hiálm n stóre [...] Þetta er Móises innsigle” JS 375 8vo, 46v

While we’re at it, have a gander at the seals of Solomon and David from Huld (ÍB 383 4to), a very beautiful Icelandic manuscript from around 1860. Note the addition of runes in the latter.

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Um Rúnir

The galdrabækur get really psychedelic when it comes to the subject of runes, and some contain vast compilations of runic alphabets. As you know by now, collecting old books was seen a prestigious hobby among wealthier Icelandic peasants from the Middle Ages onward, and some of these certainly contained antiquarian errata of the runic kind. This must have helped keeping knowledge about them somewhat alive. Iceland, being mostly populated by starving fishermen and nerds, was fertile ground for keeping some knowledge of the runes alive. With some exceptions, this was certainly not the case for the rest of the Nordic area, where runes only survived in a few isolated pockets, or were revived by scholarly weirdos - usually with impressive libraries and noble titles. However, a lot of the runic material in the later galdrabækur appears to be sourced straight from the work of the Danish antiquarian Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), who was very much a pioneer in the study of runes. Some alphabets might have been cooked up by the authors themselves, and yet a few others aren’t runic alphabets at all. Galdrabækur with runes are fine examples of just how willing their authors were to mix and match magical traditions.

Even more fascinating is the inclusion of foreign magical alphabets in these compilations of “runic letters”. They often include Hebrew or Greek, and even fraktur. But these are far from the strangest examples. Several galdrabækur reproduce the magical scripts invented by prominent Western Occultists! I was able to identify the Theban, Malachim, and Crossing the River scripts from Agrippas De Occulta Philosophia (1531), as well as Theophrastus Bombastus’ Alphabet of the Magi, sometimes referred to as “Chaldean runes” in the Icelandic books. Some manuscripts contain certain “Adalrúnir”, which might be a cameo of Johannes Bureus through his runic system “Adalruna”. Bureus was a mystic tied to the 17th century Swedish court, who was greatly inspired by the Enochian probject of John Dee (Karlsson 2009: 195), the court astronomer of queen Elizabeth I. Bureus had some rather trippy ideas about Norse mythology, which he reconciled with his Hermetic and Kabbalistic philosophy through an idiosyncratic reading of the younger futhark. The main issue here is that the “adalrúnir” of Icelandic magic do not resemble Bureus’ runes at all, so I will refrain from commenting further on any influence he may or may not have had on Icelandic tradition.

Parts of Agrippa’s Theban Script. Iceland, Late 19th century. Lbs 2294 4to, 195r

Parts of Agrippa’s Theban Script. Iceland, Late 19th century. Lbs 2294 4to, 195r

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

“adalrunir” from the Huld Manuscript. ÍB 383 4to, 10v

“adalrunir” from the Huld Manuscript. ÍB 383 4to, 10v

There’s no shortage of imaginative theories stating that the galdrastafir are in fact elaborate “bind runes”. There is, to put it short, no evidence to support this though the galdrabækir are full of runes and runic cryptography. However, one could make the case that runes were on the interpretational horizon of Icelandic audiences, though in a rather corrupt form (Flowers 1989: 45). I’ll let Christopher Alan Smith, author of Icelandic Magic: Aims, tools and techniques of the Icelandic sorcerers, have the final word regarding the question of galdrastafir as runic:

Working from the a priori assumption that the Icelandic magical staves must be complex binds [...] in a process similar to the ‘sigilization’ developed by modern Chaos magicians, [authors] then twist and bend the facts to suit the theory. The results, predictably, are unconvincing. Even a brief scan of the most extensive grimoire that is available as a translated and published work, Lbs 2413 8vo, shows that there is too much variation for this to be the case. Often, very different staves are prescribed in separate spells for exactly the same purpose. Sometimes, identical staves are used for very different purposes. In short, there is no consistency of the kind one would expect to emerge if an underlying system based on the Futhark runes existed.

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

A Norse-Satanic Axis of Evil

I should probably say something about one of the greatest misconceptions about Icelandic magic, which is that it is somehow Pagan in content. It is not, at least not in any true pre-Christian sense. There is little talk about Odin and the other Norse deities, and a whole lot of talk about Jesus. Undoubtedly, there were periods in Icelandic history where the galdrabækur were highly illegal, being deeply heretical from a mainstream theological point of view. That doesn’t take away from the fact this is Christian magic through and through, and that many books might have been owned by clergy - as the case often was in Scandinavia.

The spells all assume a Christian magical universe in the classic grimoire tradition, where devils can be haggled with or forced to do your bidding, you can invoke power and grace of the angels, and manipulate the world through the emanations of God. It is a form of Christian hacking more than anything else.

If and when the charms mention Norse gods at all, which is rare, they are usually treated as they would in demonology, punching the point across that the old gods are simply devils in Icelandic folk costume (Macleod & Mees 2006: 32). That was the Christian explanation for why anyone would worship idols in the first place, and the church didn’t necessarily deny their existence flat-out. If it weren’t for such demons and other syntax errors of human spirituality, there would be no alternative to salvation. People were lured away from God after he zapped the Tower of Babel. And so there is no reason why the Norse gods shouldn’t be included among the dukes and devils of Hell in Icelandic magic, as this had been the attitude of Icelanders for hundreds of years. The galdrabækur are only taking the Christian critique of Paganism to its logical conclusion. It’s nicely illustrated in the a charm “to make women silent” from ATA, Ämb 2, F 16:26, ca. 1600:

Til þessa hjálpi mér allir guðir, Þór, Óðinn, Frigg, Freyja, Satan, Belsebupp og allir þeir og þær sem Valhöll byggja. Í þínu megtugasta nafni, Óðinn!

Translation:

To this end help me all gods, Thor, Odin, Frigg, Freyja, Satan, Beelzebub, and all of them and those that dwell in Valhalla. In your mightiest name, Odin!


I for one find that rather interesting.

So to all the sorcerers out there with ægishjálmur tattoos:
HAIL THE ÆSIR! HAIL SATAN!

A lot of work went into writing this article. If you enjoyed it please pass it on, and do consider supporting my work on Patreon, or by buying some berserker-themed socks, or something.

Cited publications:

  • Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius. 1533. De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres.

  • Alan Smith, Christopher. 2015. Icelandic Magic: Aims, tools and techniques of the Icelandic sorcerers. Avalonia Books: London

  • Davies, Owen. 2009. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Oxford University Press: Oxford & New York

  • Flowers, Stephen [as Edred Thorsson]. 1986. Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology. Weiser Books: Boston

  • Flowers, Stephen. 1989. The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimoire. Samuel Weiser: York Beach

  • Karlsson, Thomas. 2009. Götisk kabbala och runisk alkemi. Stockholms universitet, Religionhistoriska avdelingen: Stockholm

  • Macleod, Mindy & Bernard Mees. 2006. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press: Woodbridge

  • Mathias Viðar Sæmundsson. 1996. Galdur á brennuöld. Storð: Reykjavík


Fårikål: An Edible Cultural History of Norway

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Fårikål, or “sheep in cabbage”, is popularly regarded as Norway’s national dish. Whether or not this most arid half of the Scandinavian peninsula actually requires a national dish is up for debate, but I will not spill blood to contest the claim.

To the untrained and unappreciative eye, fårikål may seem just like any other desaturated slop that emerges from kitchens across the North, which in spite of due popularity in the gourmet restaurant market, isn’t particularly famous for its traditional home cooking. A problem of marketing, certainly, but ask anyone who was ever brace enough to try. They will testify that Scandinavian comfort foods are as hearty as they are delicious. Who needs color anyway.

Fårikål’s main constituents, lamb and cabbage, are both products of the autumn season. So naturally, autumn’s return marks the season of fårikål. Unpretentious, simple, and emblematic of the landscape and its people. It demonstrates a rustic refinement unseen in most modern kitchens. Simply put: It’s great folk culture.

Every bowl of fårikål is in its own little way a cultural history of Norway. The country has over a million sheep, that’s one for every sixth person, and more than an equal number of lambs are slaughtered every year. For comparison our country has less than a hundred thousand pigs, which are historically challenging to raise. Sheep are more than suitable for our steep, saline shrublands, and even help fight overgrowth, doing their part in maintaining a cultural landscape slowly carved out by millennia of agriculture. As our staple livestock since the Neolithic, sheep are quite literally as old as the hills.

Sau, the Norwegian word for sheep comes from the Old Norse sauðr, and is etymologically tied to the verb sjóða, meaning “to boil, simmer”. Initially, sauðr may have meant something along the lines of “the animal we cook”. If that doesn’t speak volumes about how important these woolly critters have been to our survival, I don’t know what does. Sheep have filled the bellies and dressed the bodies of uncounted generations. Hold a leg of lamb alongside a map of Norway and you will realize that the two even look alike.

Kål (Old Norse kál), is an umbrella term reflecting both English kale, cabbage, and various other cultivars of Brassica oleracea. If not as ancient as domestic sheep, it is still an old Nordic staple crop attested in Old Norse texts. It is mentioned alongside angelica (hvǫnn) and onion or leek (laukr) in the Bjarkeyjarréttr. This is a 13th century law regulating centers of commerce, so it must have been important. But it wasn’t exactly a luxury item, as some interesting Old Norse proverbs attest to: At drepa fleski í kál - "to put bacon in the cabbage” means to turn a sorry situation into something nicer (Egils saga einhenda ch. 8). We obviously can’t live on cabbage alone, not today, and not in Norse times either.

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As in later peasant culture, the most common way to prepare fresh meat was by boiling stews and broths (Old Norse soð, a more general term than later Norwegian “sodd”), and to most people it was an occasional and greatly appreciated delicacy. While no *fær í kál is mentioned in any Old Norse texts, broth of lamb is. With the seasonal overlap of slaughter and harvest, it is certainly likely that a bowl of mutton and cabbage provided warmth and comfort to a cold and tired Norseman on more than a few occasions.

The only additional and more recent ingredients, by some considered essential, are whole black peppercorns (for a nice little sting), and a side of boiled potatoes. Pepper, by the way, is probably the most popular spice of the Norwegian larder, while the potato remains an essential vegetable that has saved our starving asses through many bitter seasons.

With its ancient roots and modest selection of ingredients, fårikål is a due reminder of Norway’s humble rural past. I hold that within the Scandifuturist philosophy every bowl is to be regarded at least equal in symbolic value to Tolstoy’s shirt and Heidegger’s lederhosen. Of course, this article would not have been complete without a recipe, which you will find below. Newcomers will find it surprisingly fragrant, and the smell only grows as the dish simmers, and is prone to linger for quite some time after. It should simmer for no less than three hours. If you have a slow cooker, that’s ideal, but it will still fill your house with its distinct bouquet. Loved by many, loathed by some. It can be cheaply and easily be scaled up and down, so why not invite some friends and make it a banquet? This is a two-stage experience meant to be drawn out over at least two days, so plan enough for leftovers. “Second-day fårikål” is widely regarded as the best.

Fårikål

fårikål.png

Essentials:
- 1.5 kg cabbage
- 1.5 kg lamb, diced in large chunks (shoulder or leg, with bones)
salt to taste

Pot with lid.

Optionals:
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
as many potatoes as you expect to eat
2 tbsp of wheat flour (I usually skip this)

Directions:

1. Cut the cabbage into large pieces. Many choose to discard the core.
2. Brown the lamb pieces in butter on all sides, bone and all.
3. Starting with lamb, stack meat and cabbage in layers in the pot (add peppercorns as you go along).
4. Fill with water, but not too much: Cabbage itself contains a lot of liquid and will sink down as it simmers.

Heat it slowly, cover and let simmer on low-to-medium heat for three hours, or as long as you can stand waiting. Remember: The longer the better! Pairs well with white wine, lager beer, or a nice rustic cider. Preferably around a sturdy hardwood table with family or good friends. And always keep good salt and freshly crushed pepper close at hand.

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A Migration Era Puzzle from Evebø in Norway

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This is a striking example of how many strange things may have been put in the graves. But how many things have been lost to the fragility of the material, or the indiscretion of the excavation!
— archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson, 1890

The purpose of archaeology is the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the human past by studying studying artifacts and their contexts. Through the accumulation of such data, as well as applied interdisciplinary methods, archaeology has allowed us to decipher languages and make tangible societies that would have been only footsteps in the sands of time, destined for erasure if it weren't for the academic, retroactive battle against our collective forgetfulness. Effectively, this makes archaeology almost a kind gnostic pursuit, if you’ll excuse such an unorthodox use of the term.

Though the modern approach to history, and even the modern human’s conception of time itself, differs from the mythic and legendary perspectives of the vast majority of our ancestors, I believe that ever since the dawn of our sentience, humanity has always been entranced and perplexed, and curious about its origins. It is only recently that the historicist approach, though a long time coming, resulted in the commonplace chronologies and methodologies of today.

I don't think that the two approaches to time are mutually exclusive. Not entirely at least. In terms of making sense of what and who we are, and finding meaning in our origins and development, the antiquarian sciences are indispensable, even if the interpretative hoarding of artifacts and data can only take us to the proverbial so far. Then there is the trite cliché saying, though entirely true, that the more we know, the greater becomes our understanding of how much we don't understand. For those of us dreaming of this "understanding", the study of the past is distinguished by a certain dissatisfaction that fills us with both with both wonder and frustration. Yearning for an "Eternal Return” in spite of our separation, towards a realization that, in the words of the poet Tor Ulven, "you, too, belong in a Stone Age". As we know we can only move forward, if time is a circle we must necessarily return. If so, there would actually be no escape. But I have hedged my bets just in case, on this god forsaken antiquarian vocation, and my obsessions with the past.

The dimensions and allignment of the "Evebø chieftain's" burial chamber from Gustavson (1890a: 4)

The dimensions and allignment of the "Evebø chieftain's" burial chamber from Gustavson (1890a: 4)

One find that exemplifies, to me, all of the above is the princely burial at Evebø in Gloppen, Norway. It ranks among the finest archaeological sites of all Scandinavian prehistory (though as always, criminally overlooked outside of its niche field). At its excavation in 1889, the barrow was 25 meters across and 2 meters tall. It was built around a long and narrow stone chamber sealed with birch bark, where a man was laid to rest on a bear skin in the final quarter of the 5th century. His body was dressed in the finest garments available to the upper crust of Migration Era Scandinavia. A red tunic with gilt metal clasps, and a rectangular cloak with tassels (a so-called prachtmantel), both of which included richly dyed zoomorphic brocade bands.  On his waist was an eye-catcher of a belt covered in bronze fittings and an inlaid fire-striking stone (a popular status symbol of male dignitaries at the time). His trousers were probably tightly tailored. He was buried with a sword with a beautiful but functional wooden hilt, in a scabbard decorated with gilt fittings. A shield covered his lap. Then there was a lance, an angon (a Germanic harpoon-style javelin). In other words, a complete set of weapons suitable for a regional warrior king, no doubt part of an influential dynasty. This must have been quite a time to be alive, with Germanic kleptocrats basking in the Roman collapse, setting the scene for history yet to be made, and blissfully unaware of the climate crisis and Justinian Plague coming right around the corner.

The burial reflects a man who made the most of his networks in an unprectiable time where overseas trade involved rowing across the ocean. A gold solidus minted under emperor Theodosius II converted into a medallion to be worn around the neck, a Roman glass beaker from today's Syria, a wooden feasting bucket plated with copper alloy, pottery, weights and scales, and several other items and trinkets. Among the latter is the focus of our article: A strange wooden object of uncertain significance and purpose, later dubbed "the mind ring". Here are some of the original fragments:

The object lay over the man's waist region, by the belt, and consisted of a warped and broken frame of  three barbed, interlocking pieces of wood. A fourth part had apparently rotted away. It became clear that the object, which was approximately 20 centimeters on each side, had formed a square carved from one single piece of wood. On further inspection it was also revealed that this was not fixed: Originally, the object could be shaped and reconfigured into a variety of geometric shapes, and folded into a rectangle, presumably for easy storage. It was decorated with simple incisions of geometric lines and patterns, as well as two Nydam style depictions, one of a beast (perhaps a dog or a wolf) and another figure more difficult to identify.

Sketch of "The mind ring" as it was found. From Gustafson (1890a: 12)

Sketch of "The mind ring" as it was found. From Gustafson (1890a: 12)

The object appears to be some sort of puzzle, toy, or tool. It was precisely carved from one single piece of wood without resorting glue or joins of any kind. It's obvious that whoever made it was a highly skilled woodcarver with access to very fine tools. The hand that carved its decoration seems less steady, and it might have been secondary addition. Gabriel Gustafson, the head archaeologist who supervised the excavation and stands as the prime scholar associated with the object, uses the technical term monoxylon to describe an item carved from one single piece of wood (Gustafson 1890a: 29).

It's worth mentioning that monoxylic objects were well regarded in later Scandinavian folk art. Associated techniques were often used to make courtship gifts (This blog post by my wife gives a few examples), as they demonstrated the great skill of the carver. As we can imagine, there might also have been an esoteric level to the concept of something that is completely made out of itself without breaking its structure, and to produce something that is entirely integral to, and indelibly linked to itself. We'll be returning to this subject later in the article.

Decorated fragments. From Johansen (1979).

Decorated fragments. From Johansen (1979).

The term "mind ring" (tankering) is foremost associated with the Gabriel Gustafson, as he wrote the bulk of the material dealing with the object. However, he attributes the coining of the name to Johan Sverdrup who felt reminded of popular wooden puzzle games. Gustafson makes it very clear that he did not quite agree with Sverdrup on the matter (hence he usually refers to the (so-called) "mind ring", or "the ring-puzzle" in quotation marks), because Nordic puzzles generally consist of several loose pieces. He could find no parallels to the object within Scandinavia beyond speculation, in the form of a few peculiar wood fragments reported from since disturbed burial contexts. Eventually he found a nearly identical artifact, apparently of Persian origin in London's South Kensington Museum (today Victoria and Albert Museum).

The "persian puzzle" of South Kensington Museum. From gustafson (1890b: 8).

The "persian puzzle" of South Kensington Museum. From gustafson (1890b: 8).

The similarity between these two artifacts lead Gustafson to pursue the idea that the Evebø object came from the orient. There are two issues with this: First of all the "Persian puzzle" was apparently produced in relative modernity, and as it turned out, the Evebø "mind ring" was carved from locally sourced birch, excluding the possibility of import. With the undeniable likeness between the Persian and Norwegian objects, many later scholars have postulated that the Evebø object was based on eastern counterparts (cf. Hatling 2009: 69), though no such ancient artifacts have come to light, as far as I know.

With more than a millennium and half a world separating the two, Gustafson failed to find any monoxylic counterparts in the orient, apart form certain Islamic Quran desks, and western Chinese pedestals and religious effigies with moving limbs produced with the same technique. He found it striking that many such monoxylons were intended for sacred or ceremonial use, which gave him confidence that that the "puzzle toy" from Evebø in fact had religious importance. If so, the underpinning concept might be expressed in symbols seen elsewhere in Scandinavian Iron Age ornaments. Perhaps, he argued, the object itself could be folded into a shape reminiscent of certain symbols in Migration Era art.

Let's pause for a semiotic meditation on the so-called thought ring. Being carved from a single piece of wood, the four parts that comprise the object are seamlessly and completely anchored to one another, or to itself. Are we to regard its constituents as separate, or same? The “limbs” mirror one another in perfect symmetry. Each share the same origin in the thing itself. No external material was added to produce the object. Though created, it was never built or assembled (though we might say the physical object was sculpted). You cannot take it apart without breaking it. It is self-contained. Complete, yet bound. Further, we may discern that the object appears to have an active aspect, and an inactive, passive, aspect. Active when manipulated or shaped into any desired form the object allows, and passive when folded, or closed to be put away and stored. We can note that the object was found in close proximity to the belt, an important attibute of his identity, power and status. It was laid on the deceased persons torso in an open - square - configuration in conjunction with the burial ceremony, which suggests an intimate relationship between the dead and the object. We may presume that this was an important public event with many witnesses. There is nothing random about the selection and placement of objects. They are statements, but what is being said, and what story were they trying to convey through these objects? Was it a treasured curiosity? A final gift from a loved one? Was it used in lithurgy? Did it work as some kind of divination tool? Was it used to illustrate principles of religious, philosophical or cultural importance? Or was it simply the fancy toy of a priviledged child?

To return to Gustafson, we can't expect to find the Evebø object depicted, but there are some symbols in Iron Age art that remind us of its various configurations. When fully opened there is a certain likeness to the "looped square" that came to popularity in the Migration Era, and is sometimes called a “valknute” in later Norwegian folk art (not to be mistaken for that other “valknut” symbol, which is a modern anachronism). Gustafson notes that the loops in the corners are sometimes minimally small, highlighting its square shape (1890b: 20). The roughly contemporary bracteate from Lyngby, Denmark is particularly interesting, as the symbol is enclosed by a ouroboros, which is a snake swallowing itself, and a symbol of unity and eternity through its own consumption and self-reproduction. Could the Evebø-object have conveyed a similar symbolism, of a totality is nothing without its own uncompromised self? In Norse mythology this idea is expressed in the Midgard Serpent: On the one hand a horrific monster and object of dread, but also a cosmic sustainer without which the physical world cannot continue to exist. It is both antagonist and counterpart to the god Þórr, a divine protector, who is also a wrathful deity constantly hovering on the verge of cosmic annihilation due to his ongoing conflict with the aforementioned serpent (Storesund 2013: 73), and they seem locked in a world-affirming, cosmic compromise or paradox.

Gold Bracteate from Lyngby

Gold Bracteate from Lyngby

It is also clear that Scandinavian society later developed an affinity with the symbolism of knots. This is typified in the Viking Era Borre style of art, with its elaborate knotwork, and the gaze of gripping beasts. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson hypothesizes that Borre style ornaments were ascribed apotropaic properties, and brings attention to the fact that Norse craftsmen seem to have avoided Borre style ornaments on offensive weapons (sword hilts, for example). On shields they would only be visible to the carrier (Hedenstierna-Johnson 2006: 321). Likewise, the the Lyngby amulet had the looped square on the adverse side, facing the wearer's body. Gustafson also compares the puzzle's cruciform to variants of a design known from occasional Iron Age and Early Medieval objects that appear to "represent two plates, which by means of a longitudinal groove in the middle are stuck into each other. If that is to be done in reality the whole must be wrought out of one single block" (Gustafson 1890b: 21). Though his main example is first and foremost found on early Christian runestones in Sweden, we may take note of the argument that a cross is not always the cross as far as Iron Age Scandinavia is concerned.
 

Gustafson's semotic toolchest (Gustafson 1890b: 17)

Gustafson's semotic toolchest (Gustafson 1890b: 17)

While we are likely unable to extract the intent, function or symbolism behind the Evebø object in any way that would finally satisfy our curiosity, it stands as a preciously unique contribution to our understanding of Iron Age culture and society. And while the range of information related to ancient Scandinavia accumulates, there is some safety in knowing that there is also wonder and mystery to be found even between the growing heaps of data for generations to come.


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See more pictures of the Evebø find via Bergen University Museum on
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The Fourth Spell: A Hymn to the God of Secrets

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The fourth spell i know:
If men bind my limbs,
I chant so I may walk.
Fetters spring off my ankles,
and chains off my wrists.

– Hávamál st. 148


The grit of life. Our foreheads strain, our fingers bleed, and kneecaps burst with obstacles and hindrances. But ask not for the source of this adversity. Since time began it’s all been fuss and misery. How often are you complicit in the bondage that ties you down. Standing idly by, writhing in the lashes of your own slave morality, fearing the reprisals of an unseen captor.


Listen! He is gone.
Why have not your fetters sprung, now that the door is wide open?

The coast is clear.
Leg it! Run!


And let every taste of blood in your mouth be a communion. And may every tear and drool roping from your lips be poured libations of the sweetest wine. Every gasp of air, fresh or stale, let it be an ode. From self to oneself.

Meditate upon Gagnráðr, lord of tricks and no excuses. Blindr, oh Blind One! Tvíblindi, the Twice Blind! Báleygr, fire-eyed cæsar! Once a serpent, soon an eagle, and often a man where least expected. Master of the blindest bats and sonars. Lord of uncounted secret names, flaneur of the heavens! Cheers to you Æsirian barman, king of the bums! Lord of hosts and feasts, and unwanted guests. Slithering as snake within the mountain, and as a man inside Gunnlǫð, full of deceit. And his lips did slither thrice over the rim of the richest Mead of Poetry, that wellspring of arts, stirrer of minds! Swiftly, then as an eagle across the ranges and canyons. Swift, while the giant Suttung lay chase, eager to repay an ill bargain.



I give that you may give:
A lie for a lie,
promise for promise.

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To the fool a king, and to kings a fool, Odin stalks lands far and wide! The Óðr, whose name is craze, wit, and poem. Negotiator of opposites, who knows every border like the back of his hand, and every stepping stone across the steam, and every secret passage, and every buried treasure, and every untold confession a human heart can hide. Pour one out for Odin, that chief transgressor who shamelessly moves across and conquers. To every secret lock there is a key, and to every key he holds a copy. For every hushed wisper is a secret told to him in confidence.

Among his animals are those that stalk. There are those that crawl below, and those that soar. Those that are blessed with grace, and those who delight and flourish in hunting. And just as much he is the master of bottom feeders, those who take to carrion and feast on the dead, his name is uttered through the lips human life itself. Fear and awe, and reserved contempt. Odin, ferret of the chicken coop, and the lord that hunts the ferret.

Most mistrusted wolverine god, small and narrow. Scarecrow, flexible and pliable, stepping seamlessly and elegant between rooms like a ghost. Olgr! Fizzing One! Master of leaders and idiots, and captives and captors. Patron of slayers and the slain, who swims with delight in Campbell's sea of madness, whose bottom is the drowned psychotic. Who knows those that do not know him. Who compels drowning to swim, and the sinking to float, the living to die and the dying to live.


The fetters have sprung.
The only way out, is the way out.
But of course it hurts when buds are breaking.


Art by Stig Kristiansen @makroverset
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Related:

The Trollish Theory of Art


The Flying Rowan, Some Ethnobotanical Notes on a Magical Tree

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I am holding in my hand shavings of a rowan tree that has never touched the ground. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. These trees, called “flying rowans” (or in Norwegian: flogrogn) were sought after materials in common Nordic folk magic. With power comes taboo, of course, and this regulated its use. It was considered unsafe to make axe shafts from flying rowan, for example, but they were often used in horse tack, where it was supposed to both protect the horse as well as increase speed and mileage. Skis from flying rowan drove themselves, and it worked well against toothache, witchcraft, and sundry supernatural threats.

Notions about the flying rowan are heterogeneous, and any two regions may have had very different ideas about its uses. Sometimes regular rowan and flying rowan even had opposite magical properties. Some regions had taboos against bringing any rowan material to sea, while in others, flying rowan tied to the line was sure to make fish bite when even the best bait failed. Used as feed it made animals lusty and fertile.


Billhooks have changed little since they first appeared in Scandinavia during the Merovingian Period. Photo: Ragnar H. Albertsen / Stiftelsen Nordmøre Museum

Billhooks have changed little since they first appeared in Scandinavia during the Merovingian Period. Photo: Ragnar H. Albertsen / Stiftelsen Nordmøre Museum

But flying rowan is scarce. It’s rare to find anything larger than a sapling (flying rowan skis sounds like a tall tale to me), and they are even rarer today than they were in the past due to differences in how forestry is practiced. Throughout most of Nordic agricultural history it was common to pollard trees to secure winter feed for animals. Since the middle of the Nordic Iron Age, this was usually done with machete-like billhooks that often left scars in the trees. Over time as the tree got gnarlier it could create a little cleft where the odd rowan seed could get stuck, usually after the berry had been digested by a bird. And ever so often a seed would sprout, and occasionally become a tree growing in a tree. A small one, but still.

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I was fortunate enough to find a very sizeable specimen growing in a tin fixture on the roof of an abandoned house when I lived in my forest cabin back in Norway, and I still haven’t used it all. The peculiarly modern circumstance to my find is a perk as far as I am concerned, in true Scandifuturist fashion. It is also said that those who carry flying rowan on their body are more likely to encounter The Hidden People, so for years I’ve made a habit out of giving away bits and pieces to friends and acquaintances with such cthonic leanings. I try to never let it touch the ground, though I’m not sure if this was ever believed to have an adverse effect on the material. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

In Norse myth, Þórr once rescued himself from drowning in a stream of an ogress’ urine by clutching a rowan tree. Hence the enigmatic saying goes, according to Snorri, that the rowan is Þórr’s savior. Rowan is also associated with Rávdna, consort of the Sámi thundergod Horagalles (literally “Thor-man”, or Mr. Thor if you will). When writing my MA I noticed from place names that groves of rowan may have been associated with the Viking Era cult to Þórr on Iceland, though I have not researched this connection at length. It may be noted that rowan bark was commonly used as goat feed in later times and goats, of course, are the beasts of the thunder god.

Brute Norse Podcast Ep. 13: Supernatural Islands and the Folks that Live There

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Vineyards and wheat fields forever! In this episode Eirik takes a long, hard look at the belief in supernatural isles in Northern Europe. Our fantastic odyssey begins with the Norse discovery of America and its peculiar ties to scholarly hearsay in the Middle Ages, before we go on to address the rampant abundance of vanishing isles along the Scandinavian coast.

Other subjects include:
- Minimally counterintuitive concepts
- The counter-factual Vinland wine industry
- Order from chaos 101
- Imperialist pigs and pyromaniac expansionism
- How to terrorize the huldufólk with every day objects
- Layered oceans
- Much, much, much more

Musical contribution: Sjóraust IV by Richard Moult.
Available through most, if not all, podcast services.


Já maðr, do you want to support the Brute Norse effort? Consider going that extra mile and pledge your support on Patreon/brutenorse, or buy a rad shirt in the Teespring store (all patrons get a 20% reduction!). Here’s the latest design:

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This episode would have been impossible without Jan E. Byberg's Dei lukkelege øyane i norsk folketradisjon (1970). Are you having trouble telling if you should drink, whore, and swindle, or rise early and avoid wenches at all cost? Check out The King’s Mirror and never wonder again.

Thor at the court of Utgarda-Loki: a lesson in Trollish tactics by Jens Bjørneboe (1955)

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Most of you have heard about Thor's journey to Utgard-Loki's fortress, when they were bid inside to prove their worth in the feats that each knew best. But they lost in all of them. For all their efforts, they managed so badly that Utgard-Loki's retinue laughed loudly at them. Everything went badly. They lost at everything, they did everything wrong. Even Thor, the strongest of the gods, turned out really badly, and when they left the Utgard fortress, they were were certain that they would never win over Loki's men.

It was only later that they came to know, that the results might have been different from how things seemed in there. When Thor failed the test of might that was to empty Utgarda-Loki's drinking horn, it was because the horn reached all the way down into the sea, and that it was the great oceans Thor had drunk from, and that he drank so much in the third sip that the ocean had sunk several inches across the whole world, and the people of Utgard were pale with fright.

When Thor had wrestled with the old wench Elli and only managed to force her to down on one knee, it was age itself he had been fighting. And when Thor only managed to lift Utgarda-Loki's cat so high that it barely raised a single paw from the floor, in reality it was none other than the Midgard Serpent he had lifted, and it was so that it almost lost the grip it has around the Earth. And the laughter the gods had heard from the Utgard people had not been laughter at all, but in reality it was Loki's people that screamed with fear.

So it happened that every time Thor's people won a victory, they believed for themselves that they had lost. And the Midgard Serpent is the biggest and last and most horrible of all dragons, and it has coiled itself tightly around the Earth.

Now it is the same way with humans when they try to do something that is good and right: Utgarda-Loki, the king of the Utgard fortress, uses his witchery to make us think that we have lost, or to believe that what a human can manage is so little that there nothing gained in doing it. Because Utgarda-Loki knows that if only humanity loses its courage, then he will be victorious.

But in reality it is so that when the humans lose without losing courage, then Utgarda-Loki's people scream with fear.


Excerpt from the novel Jonas (1955) by Jens Bjørneboe.
Translated and adapted by Eirik Storesund.
Wassail to Kulturverk for the reminder.

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Associated reading:

The Trollish Theory of Art
No Better than the Gods
Fimbulwinter 536 AD

"A Congo Village for Western Norwegians": Njardarheimr in Gudvangen

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It was a regular humid Saturday morning here in New Jorvik, USA, when I opened my browser hoping for news of the old country, so that just for a minute or two I could forget the dismal stank of the big city. Scrolling through my feed, I was swept to the edge of my seat at the sight of a letter to the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen from the day before. It seemed to be a merciless slaughter of the newly erected "viking village" of Vikingvalley - Njar­darheimr in Gudvangen, on the beautiful banks of Nærøyfjorden, incidently a UNESCO world heritage site (the landscape, not the village).

I leaned over to light a smoke from the perpetually burning miniature raven banner that stands on my desk and got to reading. The scathing critique was penned by a certain Aud Farstad, an author, and apparently some kind of healthcare historian. Below the subheading "Why do they want to present a ficticious Viking Age at the world heritage site?" the main title "Viking-Kitsch" beamed at my eyes, illustrated by an outdoor barbeque and a wooden statue of Georg Hansen standing at the prow of a viking ship. The visionary, the dear leader if you will, to Gudvangen's banana republic. As I went on I could hardly believe what I was reading. Lest it be unsaid: Farstad isn't pulling any punches. Like a reboot of Carpenter's They Live set to a Viking backdrop, she's donned her magic kitsch-ray glasses and revealed the sinister agenda hidden beneath the dragon heads. All out of bubblegum to chew, she proceeds to kick ass.

CONSUME

In her smörgåsbord of complaints, Farstad begins by alluding to the ongoing discussion of negative consequences of mass tourism in Norway. This ruse keeps the reader's attention long enough for her to slip us the real reason behind her letter: Let us for a minute, avert our eyes from the cruise lines lining their pockets with fjord murder, and take a look at what we are offering them by means of representation, she implores. She recently went to Gudvangen and was shocked by what she saw, she says. The UNESCO heritage badge is a confirmation that what we have in the fjords, and sites like Gudvangen in particular, is not only unique but fragile. Culturally and naturally distinct as this region is, it would be hard to disagree. Her critique directly attacks Njardarheimr's own illusion of authenticity which consists, according to her, of false representations, pseudo-historical architecture, and bizarre sales tactics consisting of attaching the prefix "viking" to everything. "Enjoy yourselves on the viking lawn!" as one caption hilariously reads. This mockery of history and our heritage reads almost like some sort of financial conspiracy with the tourist industry against the heritage site, she seems to claim, while also selling the tourists short with false representation.

All fair game if you ask me. But it doesn't take long before the letter takes a turn towards the counter-productively absurd. Much like the verbal scorn exibited by humiliated saga housewives, Farstad goes way overboard with her critique of Viking Age representation by staking the claim that the Viking Age possibly never actually existed(!). Citing some ghostlike and unnamed "historians", her complaint about "Viking activities", "Viking food" and so on, is not problematic just for the sake of obvious authenticity issues, but for the fact that "Viking food never existed". According to what seems to be be her line of reasoning, a "Viking hot dog" becomes a non-entity, not just because the so-called Vikings didn't eat hot dogs, but because there were no Vikings to eat hot dogs (!?). Is she being sincere? It is difficult to recognize her Viking Age revisionism in any history book I ever read. She is either splitting hairs on a subatomic level, a post-ironic genius, or she is insane. This is Poe's law in action.

They could haul a 10th century longhouse through a rift in time and space, and it wouldn't make a difference to Farstad, who claims she wouldn't mind such a circus anywhere else but the UNESCO site. She takes personal offense by the need to speak English in a nearby Hotel's souvenir shop, and is enraged by the fact that the menu of its attached restaurant is written in Bokmål, in the heartland of the Nynorsk norm of written Norwegian. Bokmål, as all Nynorsk writing Norwegians know, is the language of the enemy. The language of the regime.

She takes it as a personal insult that she, a red blooded Fjordwegian, whose ancestral blood saturates the land's vertical soils, for which the fathers fought and mothers wept, is subjected to this "Congo Village for West Norwegians". A term that recalls the controversial Congo Village displayed in the "amusement section" of the 1914 World Fair in Oslo, where people gawked at a staged ethnographic display of authentic negros doing authentic negro things (though presented as a Congo Village, the bulk of the participants were West African). A human menagerie of sorts. To stretch this analogy even further, she suspects that the "vikings" of Njardarheimr aren't even Norwegian, but - hold your breath - Eastern Europeans. " "Vikings" ", as she says in quotation marks. If she had paid to enter she might have found out, but apparently she refuses to do so.

Admitedly, some of Farstad's critics don't seem bright enough to get the point she is trying to make with the curious Congo Village analogy, which is by far the most original part of the text. Most obviously, I think she is trying to say that both are morbid displays that inspire no authentic respect for its apparent subject matter. It is only her clumsy delivery that leads denser readers to think she was assaulting African tribal culture as a whole, as if the mere act of being reminded of an embarrassing 104 year old ethnographic display is antithetical to current year discourse. That being said, Farstad's neurotic stance towards ethnography and cultural heritage is not without precedence. Rather, it finds itself in a fine tradition of inner struggles of the Norwegian self-image, constantly wrestling between chronophobic self-loathing and national pride, best exemplified by one time minister of justice Johan Castberg on the subject of Norwegian contributions to the World Fair in Paris, which I've translated below from the 1888 proceedings of the Norwegian Parliament:

 
"This has come to remind me of something a German told me many years ago. He said that in a market square down in Hamburg he had seen a man covered in feathers, sitting and ripping apart live hens and roosters with his teeth, spilling blood and feathers around him, and above this display it was written with big letters: "Ein Wilder von Norwegen", – a wild one from Norway, Mr. President!
I fear that something similar may happen to us if we allow ourselves to send to Paris, the cured hams and gamalost and fermented herring – and why not bring the fur pelt? We can afford it, we have enough of them left. But it would truthfully be sad if any of us present here today, should come to Paris and find the Norwegian people registered in some exhibition catalog as «Les Samojèdes de Norvège» – Samojeds from Norway, Mr. President!"
Johan Castberg

Johan Castberg

 

Mrs. Farstad ends her letter by asking rhetorically, as I know I have on many occasions, if people don't feel that real cultural heritage is worth presenting. I'd like to use the opportunity to point out to her that, at the very least, things can get a lot worse. One day we might well be begging for a place like Njardarheimr.

The author in Gudvangen. No complaints about the natural scenery.

The author in Gudvangen. No complaints about the natural scenery.

OBEY

As a complement to the swiftly aging and dying race of Norwegians who can't stand the sight of anything older than Martin Luther, there are those whose historical illiteracy is only rivaled by their burning passion for the past. Though this "past" is often limited to the narrow window between Harold Fairhair's conquest in the 9th century, and the moment Olaf the Holy quit smoking.

I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology, says the chronic sniffler and culture critic Slavoj Žižek in The Perverts Guide to Ideology (2012). In the context of Viking Age representation and cultural heritage, it would be more fitting to switch verbs. I would say that we are sleeping. Sleeping all the time in the warm pig sty of authenticity. And in terms of this, no small percentage of Viking Age re-enactors are famous for their lavish slumber parties. Everybody is too busy braiding each others' hair and playing telephone to notice that they are sitting in pig shit, and the concept of authenticity smudged by an inability to take their research beyond the level of monkey see, monkey do. What I am about to repeat below is an all too familiar example of that culture, which insists on its own efforts, while constantly making every excuse to never improve their essential quality, and hence their educational value, in an age where it's never been easier to access the latest research, acquire raw materials, or employ craftspeople.

"I've heard ignorant people comment on things before", retorted Njardarheimr's CEO Frode Aas Tufte when the national broadcasting agency NRK invited them to defend their honor against Farstad's media raid, and would not take the criticism seriously. He also said something similar to me, when I commented under a facsimile of the original article that Njardarheimr is fine if its sold as what it is, namely a set of bungalows with dragon heads attached. On Farstad's claim that the village represents historical fabrication, he says they have not made any false claims, and that the buildings are based on documented Viking Age building techniques, with necessary modifications due to building regulations. When asked by the reporter if something more authentic would have been suitable for the world heritage site, Tufte replied with the following cop-out: "How it was in that time is unbelievably complicated and based on a lot of guesswork."

He's not exactly lying, but even when we consider the many uncertainties of early Norse architecture, modern building regulations, and their intended use, none of it serves to explain why Njardarheimr looks more like a children's movie set than any open air museum I've seen. Turns out they have an excuse for that too. According to their homepage, the village is intended as a place where "captivating stories of the Vikings and their age will be retold without the rains of a museum".

While I can understand the desire to shield one's brainchild from being pissed all over by third parties, I find Tufte's chosen defense perplexing. Treating any voice that doesn't suit his hearing as the words of ignorant people who don't know what they are talking about, only makes him look like an idiot. Clearly anybody less than enthusiastic about Njardarheimr is such a person, because they are not mind readers. One minute they insist on the authenticity of the product, while denying any such responsibility the next, or saying that they were under time constraints, trying to run a business, and so on, and so on. Always returning to the fact that the public doesn't know what their intentions are. The last part is true: I don't think anybody knows what they are doing.

Since then, medieval historians have come to describe the houses in Njardarheimr with terms like "garages with runestone inspired decor". John McNicol from the University of Tromsø points out diplomatically how it seems apparent that commercial concerns came before authenticity, tailored to a commercialized "Viking experience", which there is nothing wrong with in itself.

I admit that by ways of the carpenter's trade (in Njardarheimr's case also a concrete finisher, electrician, and brick layer) I don't have much worthwhile to say. But you don't need to be a museum conservationist to see that the famous Spanish "Monkey Jesus" fresco was a botched restoration job, either. Speaking as an academic, as well as from fifteen or so years of experience with living history communities, tourism, and museum education in and out of a Viking Age setting, I will still say that in terms of authenticity Gudvangen get a C-. That's solely based on their effort, hard work, and dedication to getting things expensively wrong. If they can't handle such assessments, they should stop hiding behind their self-righteous indignation, denying their bullshit like it's the Emperor's New Clothes. Their automated response that "none of our critics have seen the site" would have made sense in a world without photography, and I can say as somebody who's stalked its gravel pathways after closing time, that it looks exactly like it does in the pictures. If all they wanted was a vikitsch money-maker they already have it. From the perspective of the business it's all good. If it's supposed to be a playful and noncommittal arena for infotainment, great. Just be honest about the fact. They could be LARPing for all I care.

Last thing I heard, Tufte still refuses to accept critique and states that Njardarheimr is neither a theme park nor a museum, but a workshop for the Viking and Iron Age. Fair enough.

As a concluding remark I would like to treat Mr. Tufte and Mrs. Farstad to one authentic Viking chair each:

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...

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

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

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

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

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864

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

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

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

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

Summers Are For Mead Spritzers: A Scandifuturist Cocktail Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

Scandifuturist Mead Spritzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

But this laconic statement is not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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