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

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In traditional Norwegian society, like absolutely anywhere else, there was only one way to become a master musician, and that was through meticulous practice and dedication, preferably under the guidance of a master. For many fortunate souls the teacher came in the form of a close relative, if not the father, then perhaps an uncle, and while most performers were probably born into such a tradition, folklore purports that alternative, and far more sinister educations existed. Particularly ambitious fiddlers sold their souls to the devil, while others sought guidance from the spirits of nature. For the best fiddlers, their craft may be described as a shaman-like path of initiation that made him a vessel of otherworldly, and often dangerous, musical experiences.

Folk music 101

In its authentic and original form, folk music is always a form of Gebrauchsmusik. In other words: music with a specific and functional purpose, as opposed to the art music most of us are accustomed to, in which musical expression itself, a music for music's sake, becomes the main driving force. As utility music, folk tunes often come in the form of lullabies, herding calls, wedding marches, or dance melodies played to rouse an audience already familiar with its conventions and nuances. This is underlined by the fact that, to many listeners, old style Nordic folk music sounds a tad out of tune, mainly due to its off-the-beaten track microtonal ideal. Conversely, I've met fiddlers who claim that overexposure to traditional tuning has rendered them unable to appreciate “normal” music. Obviously, this makes Nordic fiddle, but especially jaw harp music, an acquired taste, though some might find it oddly addictive.

Since both audience and performers are mostly born into the tradtion, and the quality is judged based on authority rather than personal taste, folk music is more or less detached from modern conventions of artistic individuality. In the case of the Nordic fiddle tunes, most melodies do not have a proper name attached to them in the form of a “song title”. Rather, they were named according to their type and origin. Essentially, many are dances or marches, and since fiddle music was intrinsically connected these, the terminology associated with a certain dance, and it's associated tune, was the same.

A gangar for example, literally means “walker” or “strider”, and describes the pace of the dance and melody. A gangar from Setesdal might simply be called “gangar from Setesdal” with no other outwardly distinguishing feature to its name. If the jig is associated with a particular fiddler, then “gangar from Setesdal after Johnny Everyman” would suffice. However, authorship is often vague, if not entirely anonymous.

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

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

A fiddler is called a spelmann (plural: spelmenn) in Norwegian, literally “play(ing) man”, and though the tradition is exemplified by the hardanger fiddle, the tunes extend to other folk instruments as well, chiefly as dulcimers and jaw harps. Spelmenn did not live off their vocation. They were working men, farmers, carpenters, and loggers with rough, leathery hands. A fiddle tune is called a slått (plural: slåtter), from the verb slå meaning “to strike”. Slått can also mean “reaping”, which resembles the movement of a fiddler bowing his instrument, though the terminology goes back to Norse culture, and even precedes local adoption of bowed instruments.

If a personal name is attached to a slått, it needn't be the composer. Since the origin of many tunes range from clouded to mythological, it may simply signify the earliest fiddler known to have played it. Sometimes this attribution serves as a legend in itself, as there are many tales and stories connected to particular spelmenn. Like swords, some tunes are given more personal names of their own. Whether they tie in with the slått's myth of origin, or describe how it goes, names are often evocative: Myllargutens bruremarsj (“Myllarguten's Bridal March”) is a fine example of the sensuality and emotional stress characteristic of Norwegian fiddle music. Opposite of what the name implies, it is a sad and yearning lament composed by the infamous fiddler Myllarguten to protest the wedding of a lost love. Though, ironically, the song is commonly requested for weddings (One must suppose the backstory eludes them). I'm not aware of an origin story for the famous halling (single dance) Dolkaren, literally “the stabber”, but the rhythm may be suggestive of numerous clandestine activities.

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

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

Village dances were mating games and courtship rituals, and as they also marked a rare occasion for heavy and widespread alcohol consumption, dances frequently broke into fights. This was certainly an expected, deliberate, and more or less ritual occurrence: Dancers often had to be fighters, and vice versa. Being capable of both was an essential survival skill for many young men in Norwegian peasant society. Stabbings were not unheard of (knives were always carried anyway), and it's even reported that young men of certain regions would habitually take partially dulled knives to dances, graduating from the occasional stabbings to more common slashings. The chance of murdering your opponent was probably less, but the tension that came with the constant presence of weapons, we must imagine, significantly lowered the bar to draw one.

The Devil's Ditty

One tune called Fanitullen, or “The Devil's Ditty”, has grown to such popularity that tired fiddlers will refer to it simply as “the tourist jig”. It comes with the following legend: A fight broke out, as is wont to do, at a wedding in Hol in Buskerud county in 1724. Given that fights were welcome occurrences, perhaps even better understood as spontaneous brawling tournaments, rather than fits of blind violence, the toastmaster went to the cellar to draw a prize of beer for the winner. When he came down, he spied a strange fellow sitting on the beer barrel, playing a tune he had never heard before. The technique was new to him as well: He played the fiddle upside down with the neck against his chest, and tapped the rhythm against the side of the barrel – not with a human heel, but a hoof, like a horse. The toastmaster, now realizing he was front row and center to an audience with the devil himself, turned and ran like a bat out of hell, only to find that one of the two brawlers lay dead in the courtyard. Both the fight and the death, by the way, is apparently true and attested by legal documents. Make what you will of the rest.

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

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

The spelmann's bargain

There are numerous other instances of supernatural intervention in the folklore surrounding Nordic fiddle music. From the European grimoire tradition to voodoo, to the tales of the blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the crossroads represents a place between worlds where one may strike bargains with spirits and devils. Spelmenn could also go to the crossroads, but in the native, Nordic tradition, this liminal space is more often articulated as a stream or waterfall. The water sprite called nøkken, or the nix, was reputedly an adept fiddler, and for a price he would teach you all there was to know about mastering the instrument.

The simplest way to pay tuition was by approaching a waterfall with a nice leg of meat for the spirit. A more elaborate recipe calls for three haunches of stolen meat, delivered on three consecutive Thursday nights. Such threefold rites, in a certain place, on a certain time (always on Thursday nights), are also described in Scandinavian spellbooks, particularly on the matter of pacts with the devil. There is actually a general overlap between the interests of the Christian devil, and other supernatural beings in Scandinavian folk belief, the nix in particular. This presumably owes to both to the pagan connotations of Nordic superstitions, and their appropriation into Christian mythology. I've previously referred to this quite literal demonization of native beliefs as a “Norse-Satanic axis of evil”. Either way, the nix often mutilates his students' fingers. Whether by breaking them or severing their veins, this is supposed to enhance their playing technique, but also leaves a visible testament to the bargain. In the latter case also a blood pact.

Some legends are tied to named historical personalities. When the young apprentice Ola Åsgjelten turned to the nix in frustration, he was told to go practice beneath a bridge three Thursday nights in a row. In other words, he was to sit and fiddle himself from dusk 'till dawn, and then return a fourth night for further instructions. When the fourth night finally came, Ola was approached by a tiny man, no taller than the length of an elbow. He said he could make him the best fiddler in all of Norway in exchange for his soul, but Ola refused. The nix then stated he could still become a skillful spelmann if he killed a black cat and left it under the bridge for him. This offer pleased Ola more, but seeing that nobody in the village would keep a black cat, this alternative seemed too unrealistic. The nix said there was hope even yet: If he could rip the tongue out of a live adder's mouth and drop it in the fiddle, that would also do some good, as long as he released the serpent after. If not that, the right eye of a live squirrel served the same function. Ola figured it was worth a shot, and started climbing trees, and chasing the wildlife, though in the end he decided it was too difficult, and simply abandoned the whole project.

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

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

Folk art subversion

In a previous essay, The Trollish Theory of Art, I described how the love triangle between the nix, art, and paganism reaches back to at least the 13th century, when Snorri Sturlusson tied it to Old Norse poetic theory. He describes a poetic style of aesthetics called nykrat, characterized by multi-layered, dissonant, mutant metaphors, arguably more similar to modern surrealist art than so-called “traditional” poetic metaphors. It was seen by medieval Norse as an ugly relic of paganism, something confusing and irrational. Something to be shunned in favor of the claritas ("clarity") exhibited by Christian as well as classical art. By extension, the old ideal could be seen as “devilish”. While there is no direct continuity between the poetic aesthetics of Norse paganism, and post-medieval fiddle music, we find that in either case, expressions of true performative folk art is regarded with suspicion, and treated to critiques labeling it as anything from simply bad taste, to elaborately sinister. When much later puritanical revivals swept the country in the 19th century, fiddlers were a prime target, and some were even convinced to burn their instruments voluntarily. I wager that few cultural movements have gone as many extra miles to damage Norwegian folk culture to the extent that these pietists certainly did.

Then again, you can see why folk culture made such an easy target: Though people generally saw themselves as good Christians, their worldview and lifestyle prompted many questions not easily answered by preachers and church authorities – especially in post-reformation Norway, where there are no saints to turn to. There were many ideas and practices that didn't belong in Church, but weren't directly at odds with a Christian religion either, especially out of the vicar's sight. Norwegian folklore finds life in the dark and gloomy, and humanity must by necessity – and often reluctantly – negotiate with all sorts of invisible beings in their daily lives, which lead to an undecided and pragmatic relationship with beings and powers beyond the monopoly of Christian theology. Trance and ecstasy has a long, yet obscure history in the more esoteric aspects of Norwegian folk religion, forming an odd conglomerate of visionary Christianity and veiled quasi-pagan practices. Among the traditional folk musicians I have known, I think it's safe to say that most of them have had some level of mystic sensual inclination related to their tradition. Among them, at least a couple have been self-professed esoteric Christians of a variety I can only term "folkloric".

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

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

Tunes of power and possession

One particular group of slåtter sticks out in the dangerous mania of the spelmann-tradition: The rammeslåtter, or, “the powerful tunes”. A cycle of four melodies are all that remains of them, but what they lack in number they easily make up for in terms of intensity. The undertone is serious: Ramm comes from Old Norse rammr, meaning “powerful, highly concentrated”. Usually in the sense of either supernatural power, excessive strength, or bitter taste. They are also referred to by the term gorrlaus, which only refers to their specific tuning. These power tunes are believed to come from the legendary spelmann Olav Faremo in Setesdal, often held to be the founder of the tradition there. Otherwise, the rammeslåtter were allegedly handed down from “the evil one” himself, or alternately the nix.

A rammeslått was seen to possess a supernatural ability to bring both dancer and spelmann into a state of trance. Oddly, the rammeslått is sometimes described as a sudden, involuntary phenomenon: In Setesdal, they say the fiddler will “komme på rammeslåtten”, which can mean either “to be reminded of the rammeslått” or “come across the rammeslått”. As such, these jigs were perceived as just as much channeled through the medium of the gifted spelmann, as they were musical compositions. Listening to a rammeslått, it is easy to see why someone would consider them a primal force. Their heavy and repetitive, hypnotic bounce is prone to give you goosebumps, and I find myself rocking back and forth even at the time of writing.

The folklore of the Setesdal tradition holds, that once a spelmann starts to play such a tune, he will only stop when the fiddle is taken away from him, repeating the magical pattern again and again. In one case, the fiddle was ripped from the spelmann's embrace, but the audience were shocked to see (and hear) that the instrument kept playing without him. There were occasions where the fiddler had to warn his audience in advance, asking them to look out for any odd behavior, and to stop him if the melody grew too intense. If for any reason they couldn't take the fiddle away, cutting the strings was sure to shut it up. It seems common for the spelmann to break into tears as soon as the spell is broken, perhaps indicating the immense emotional impulse and loss of control implied in the tradition overall. The language by which the traditional music was described and lauded may seem oddly backwards as well. The “worse”, “uglier”, or more “ungodly” the performance, the more intense and skilled it was.

A medieval origin to the rammeslått tradition?

Some have argued for a medieval origin of the rammeslåtter, in part due to their apparent tonal similarity to the 13th century hymn of Saint Magnus. A much weirder piece of evidence comes from the Norse legendary saga Bosa saga ok Herrauðs from ca. 1300, in which we are treated to a royal wedding scene where a harper by the name of Sigurðr performs a set of magical, individually named melodies to accompany a series of toasts honoring the gods. The various melodies compel the listeners (and even inanimate objects) to dance ever more wildly. Shawls fly euphemistically off the house-viwes, cutlery, crockery, and all sorts of househould objects join in. Every single man and woman in the hall are driven to dance by an uncontrollable urge as Sigurðr plays one tune after the other. But when he plays the tune called Rammaslag, one arriving guest is immediately sucked into the dancefloor, walks up to the king, and straight up punches his lights out, sending three of his teeth flying across the room while blood spurts out of his mouth and nose before he sinks, unconscious, to the floor.

Etymologically, the rammeslått of Setesdal and Bosa saga's Rammaslag are one and the same, and the other similarities can hardly be coincidental. Both are associated with the ecstatic compulsion to dance, but also danger and violence, and even the animation of objects: Walls tremble and squeak when these jigs are played, and good fiddlers are said to do their craft so well that even pots and pans must dance on the tables. Admittedly, Bosa saga makes no mention of a bowed instrument, and despite any archaic features to the musicology of the rammeslåtter, it would seem quite far-fetched to argue for a direct musical lineage. The motifs, however, line up nicely, and there is a certain sensual vitalism amongst all the terror in either case.

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

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

Olav Faremo, the fiddler wizard of Setesdal

The four preserved rammeslåtter are all ascribed the 19th century fiddler Olav Faremo, who enjoys a near mythical status in Norwegian folk music tradition. Whether or not he is their real “composer” remains uncertain, though there are a number colorful accounts describing how he received these, as well as other dancing tunes. The nix initiated him into fiddler's craft: In the first lesson he twisted his left little finger until it dislocated, allowing Olav to “swing it around as he wanted”. In the second he twisted his hands and curled his fingers, giving him superior grip, and mastery over bow and strings. Both lessons happened in his sleep, and one rammeslått came to him in a dream he had while sleeping next to a waterfall.

In another instance, Olav played a wedding when the rammeslått came over him. Bad news for the newlyweds: It foreshadowed death. Olav was crying when they pried the fiddle from his hands. But for all the grip the fiddle had on him, it matched the grip he had on his audience. It was a magic power much coveted by entertainers and playboys of all ages, compelling girls to chase him, and hosts to pour his drinks heavy. One time when his fiddle refused to make a sound, he furiously told it “you're going out!” and stabbed it with an awl.

Olav had a rival spelmann. A traveler by the name of Peter Strømsing, who often fell into trance “fiddling like a madman”. They resorted to all sorts of tricks when they competed against one another. One time, Peter's fiddle went mute because Olav blew on it. During a wedding, Peter played so well that the brandy danced out of the serving bucket and flowed up along his arm and shoulder, but just as the spelmann turned his head and pursed his lips to drink, Olav played so well that the brandy changed its mind, turned, poured up his arm, and between Olav's lips instead.

Olav Faremo has since become the forebear of many prominent fiddlers in Setesdal. It's alleged that when his nephew, the dancing champion Hallvor Bergsmo was on his deathbed, he told people to play the rammeslått called Nordafjells for him after his death, for then he would surely “kick himself back out of the grave”. There is no mention of Bergsmo ever returning from the dead, so presuming they honored his final wish, it must not have worked.

 Hand in glove. Photo: Eirik Storesund

Hand in glove. Photo: Eirik Storesund

The spelmann and the trance-like state

Sundry scholars have studied the rammeslått-phenomenon in light of meditation, shamanistic practice, and states of trance and ecstasy. One contributor of recent years is the musicologist Ingunn Sørli Øksnes, with her thesis on trance within the Norwegian folk music tradition in light of the philosophy of the modern master spelmann and eccentric Hallvard T. Bjørgum. Bjørgum is a devoted tradition-bearer and educator in the service of the Setesdal tradition, including its more mystical aspects. Leaning on the works of ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget, Øksnes explains that trance experiences are marked by movement, noise, company (in our case, an audience), crisis, sensory overstimulation, amnesia, and, unlike the ecstatic state, no hallucinations. The rammeslått mythology ticks all the boxes, and she points out that above all, the rammeslått performance is most closely tied to the phenomenon of possession, as the most legendary performances are involuntary. Otherwise, there is one shamanistic trait present in the fact that the spelmann plays the instrument through which his trance is induced.

The master spelmann Bjørgum, on the other hand, considers the angle of possession as partially a misunderstanding of what he calls “capability of devotion”, in which the spelmann allows himself to be fully immersed. As he describes it, it's all about submitting and fully dedicating yourself in order to get carried away. In that regard it becomes the transient realization of a willful intent, comparable to contemporary esoteric discourse on magic. Many modern spelmenn stress the quality of getting “carried away”, which is often followed by a state of amnesia, recognized by many musical performers in times of great concentration. From her interviews with Bjørgum, Øksnes notes his stress on "the power of repetition", and rhythmic intensity, though which the capability of devotion initiates the state of trance. All in all, though the trance seems like a welcome, and often desired result of performance, we may perhaps designate it a by-product of the spelmann's craft, rather the main goal, or a shamanistic technique.

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