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.


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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

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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
UNIMUS.

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

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

  • Water symbolism in:

Norse mythology

Viking Era burial practices

Northern European Folklore

  • Water depositions from:

The Northern Mesolithic,

their Bronze Age development,

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

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Sacred White Stones: Echoes of an Ancient Scandinavian Fertility Cult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pale Stone Phalli of Western Scandinavia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objects of fertility, eros, and power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fertility stones in recent Scandinavian folk religion

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

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

fister, uis 2.jpg

Attributes of an unknown god?

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

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

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

 Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

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

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

Summary

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


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  • Solberg, Bergljot. 2001. Hellige hvite steiner - spor av fruktbarhetskult i Norge. In Einar Ådland, Kirsten Bang (ed.): Kjønn - erotikk - religion. Bergen Museums Skrifter nr. 9. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Steinsland, Gro. 1994. Eros og død - de to hovedkomponenter i norrøn kongeideologi. Studien Zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Heinrich Beck. Walter de Gruiter: Berlin & New York
  • Storesund, Eirik. 2013. Þrunginn Móði: Studier i den norrøne tordengudens ambivalens. Masteroppgave i norrøn filologi. The University of Bergen: Bergen.
  • Sundqvist, Olof. 2015. An Arena for Higher Powers: Ceremonial Buildings and Religious Strategies for Rulership in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Brill: Leiden & Boston
  • Wille, Hans Jacob. 1956 [1786]. Beskrivelse over Sillejords Præstegield i Øvre-Tellemarken i Norge: tilligemed et geographisk Chart over samme. Halvorsen & Børsum: Oslo


 

 

 

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

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

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

"Wodwo", Ted Hughes (1967)

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

 

Related:
Wild men and bearded women of the Medieval North