Brute Norse Podcast Ep.1: The Archaeology of Emotion with Leszek Gardeła


It is my supreme pleasure to reveal the next chapter in the Brute Norse saga, namely the spanking new Brute Norse Podcast. Keeping up with the public can be a difficult task. I guess it's all about meeting your audience where they are at. While articles have their charm, they lack the versatility and perks of the podcast format. My readers have been suggesting I try it out for some time, and I admit that I've shied away from certain topics in the past, thinking they deserved something more sparkly than my usual article format. With the recent revamp of the blog I think the time is ripe to try something fresh and new.

A podcast allows me to let someone else do the talking for a change, and lets me invite people with talents and knowledge I may not possess. This episode was a treat to produce for that exact reason. I the had pleasure of meeting up with Leszek Gardeła, who is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Rzeszów, Poland. A rising star of viking scholarship, his vast body of work includes magical staffs, ritual specialists, the viking diaspora in Poland, and the spooky world of "atypical burials". We sat down for a discussion about the ambiguity of magic, morbid viking burials, and the ethics of studying the dead. He recently published his doctoral thesis about magic staffs in the viking era. I've featured his work previously in my article on the magical practice of seiðr.

Leszek frequently works with the Polish artist and illustrator Mirosław Kuźma to reconstruct the various graves he studies, adding imagination and color to the dark past. I highly recommend you check out his work.

As for the podcast itself: It is now available through Soundcloud, iTunes, and any podcast app worth it's salt, so be sure to subscribe!

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Ninjas of the North: Royal assassins in medieval Norway


On the fifth day of Christmas in the year 1181, an angry, drunken mob took to arms and stormed the palace of king Magnús Erlingsson in Bergen, Norway. The assailants were called guests, but they were not visitors. The title of guest was actually a rank within the royal guard. And they served a function comparable to that of secret police or special forces units. As one source puts it, they lent their name from the fact that they “pay visits to the homes of many men, though it is not always friendly.” In short, the guests often served as spies and assassins doing the king's dirty work.

Now they were rebelling, killing servants and vandalizing royal property, breaking their way into the hall, door by door, and catching the king's retainers unarmed and off-guard, who relied on a few armed guardsmen and hot stones from the fire to keep their assailants at bay. Before long the town guard rushed to their aid and the attack was finally suppressed. The king seized the conspirators in the ensuing aftermath, executing the worst aggressors and made examples of the rest by amputating feet and hands. The reason for the uprising? The king had merely served them beer and confined them to drink in a separate building, reserving mead and the best quarters for the higher ranks of his bodyguard. But who were these “guests”, exactly?

Knock knock, who's there?

The key to understanding their title lies in the society they belonged to. As mentioned in the King's Mirror – a 13th century book of noble customs, the guests were named because of their habit of stalking the king's enemies. It is easy forgotten in the relative peace of the 21th century that visitors aren't always wanted, and medieval Scandinavia could certainly be a volatile and dangerous place. The warrior ethos of the Viking era was still alive and well, and strangers should well be treated with equal measures of hospitality and caution.

The guests were oath-sworn members of the king's retinue, or hirð in Old Norse. But unlike his other retainers, who were nobles, the guests were low-born. They earned only half a hirdman's pay, and though they were considered second in rank to them, they were formally above some of the lesser ranks of the retinue. However, noble birth meant that these could hope to rise in status, something that the low-born guests could not. They were held separate and, apart from Christmas day and Easter day, were not allowed to eat and drink at the king's table like the noble retainers.

The hirðskrá – literally the Book of the Retinue – was a law code compiled in the 1270's regulating the Norwegian royal guard. It states a great deal about the guests, who seemed to serve as the king's eyes and ears around the country. Often they were sent to complete specific clandestine tasks. In practice this could be anything from assasinating opponents to delivering letters. It is stated that the king should refrain from sending the guests out on impossible missions, as well as those that would «displease God». Meaning there must have been some ethical concern associated with their function, at least officially, which would serve to explain why the guests could not be nobles. This might also imply that the guests had been involved in past atrocities, and that kings might have been too unscrupulous in their deployment, perhaps even sending them on outright suicide missions. The law code also encouraged the guests to understand, and carefully consider their contracts, as to make sure there were no misunderstandings. They were allowed to question their missions to some degree. Still, the task of the guest was to do the king's bidding, even when the task was grim.

Hrafninn Flýgur (1984), Dir: Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.

Hrafninn Flýgur (1984), Dir: Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.

For king and country

Judging from the sources, their assignments were as varied as they were dangerous. Ranging from downright political assassination to sabotage, the confiscation of property, kidnapping and espionage. The sagas paint a picture of gritty shock troops with license to kill, going behind enemy lines to exterminate strategic targets, even in the midst of an army, which must have required tremendous military skill. They existed all over the realm, and were required to be on the lookout for any military or political threats to the king. Wherever such enemies were spied, they ought to try and kill them, or so the King's Mirror says. 

The Book of the Retinue, however, gives the impression of a more organized force, and being the younger of the two texts, it might point towards a formal development to regulate the guests' behavior more strictly. For example, instead of outright executions, guests should ideally abduct their targets and bring them before a priest to perform their last rites, before ultimately taking them to an executioner. Several accounts reveal that this wasn't always carried out, and many a man's political ambitions must have ended with their guts spilling across the business end of a guest's blade, or dangling from a tree in the forest, as is purported to have been the fate of one particular band of Swedish interlopers.

The guests enjoyed many perks otherwise out of reach to people of low birth. As the king's men they qualified for tax exemption, and crimes against them punished more harshly. They were probably rewarded with properties and special services exclusive to veterans in the king's service. This, along with the brotherly security that came with being part of Norway's elite licensed killers, must have earned them some notoriety.

Loot to kill

Despite being representatives of the king, these professional party crashers didn't always have the best intentions. The aforementioned law code expressly states that the guests couldn't confiscate anything that wasn't directly relevant to their mission. It seems likely that this amendment was a reaction to the guests being a bit too eager to loot and kill. Some thirty years earlier, the King's Mirror claimed that the guests were allowed to keep all the loot they could carry from assassinations (apart from gold, which was forfeited to the king). Such abuse of their position was evidently not acceptable from the 1270's on. Thus we might speculate that guests were using their license to kill to line their pockets.

Like other agents of some majesty's secret service, ill treatment of women is also an issue here. The law code takes special concern for guests on the subject of robberies and women's safety, suggesting a history of sexual assault and larceny within their ranks. All in all, the guests had a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous.

This leads us to the other ethical conundrums of being a contract killer in Norse culture: The guests could only do as they did because they acted on behalf of the highest authority in the country, namely the king. Otherwise, Norse culture frowned upon clandestine activities of any kind, and the deeds of the guests could easily have been condemned as cowardly and unmanly, had they been performed by any other member of society. The mere act of accusing someone of being unmanly was a defamation that could legally get you killed, so this was no small matter. Norwegian society in the 13th century was a transparent one, centered around family ties and a strict code of honor/shame ethics. Between the viking era and the better part of the high middle ages, killing someone was somewhat excusable as long as you openly admitted to it and accepted penalty. Covert killing was, at least in most cases, considered dishonorable, and would qualify a person to outlawry by default. This was effectively a death sentence back then. The fact that guests sometimes had to resort to such methods may explain why this position was reserved for low-born people, as it seems out of step with the chivalric ideals of 13th century nobility. Despite all this, the guests seem to have been highly respected and trusted confidants of the king.

As a guest you might be torching a political opponents house one day and delivering mail the next, with all the immunity of a government agent. Not much has changed in 800 years, has it? 



  • Flugeim, Morgan. 2006. Gjestene i kongens hird. Ein samla gjennomgang av deira virke. The Faculty of Humanities: The University of Bergen
  • Imsen, Steinar. 2000. Hirdloven til Norges konge og hans håndgangne menn. Riksarkivet: Oslo
  • Kongsspegelen. 1976. Translated by Alf Hellevik. Norrøne bokverk. Samlaget: Oslo

Checklist: Are You Living in a Norse Heroic Legend?


Have you ever died so hard you laughed? In the legends of proud old Skaðinawjō, gruesome death was the privilege of the stupidly heroic. But c'mon, it's the current year: Why should divine genealogies, class, and the gap between myth and ontological reality keep you from dying like a semi-divine king?

Hold your horses, some heavily earned credit is due before we go on: I would probably never have written this article [originally in Norwegian] had it not been for me Stumbling across Samantha Finley's eminent guide How to Tell if You are in an Old English Poem, which inspired me to make one of my own, though from a Norse perspective. For the sake of cultivating my readers, I chose the Old Norse heroic lays as my springboard, because not every day can be Hávamál day. However, I won't rule out the possibility of abusing other genres or poetry or prose for similar purposes at some later point in time. There's no room for democracy on this blog, unless you're part of the priviledged caste of Brute Norse patrons, but I cordially invite you to throw me a comment or ninety-three.

The heroic lays are a somewhat overlooked genre of Norse literature. One gross oversimplification could be that that they comprise, basically, of those eddic poems that don't have gods as their main characters, but rather mortal men and women of legendary, semi-mythical stature (though the gods are certainly guilty in some of the tomfoolery going on in the background). On a more general level, Norse heroic poetry is part of a pan-Germanic cycle of legends, dealing with a magical and distant past of champions and supernatural intrigue. Interestingly, this age of legends does (to some degree) overlap with the historical era known as the migration period. Because of this, they often contain a zany conglomerate of historical and mythical characters, which is enough to drive a rabid barbarophile like myself utterly mad.

I'll avoid the complicated issue of determining the age of these poems, but it's abundantly clear that they were composed in a society dedicated to a radically different ethos from what most of us are accustomed to. The heroes are generally not what common folk would consider "good people". These dudes and dudettes are entirely beyond good and evil, and largely exhibit übermensch levels of amorality and vitalistic disregard for the health and safety of pretty much anybody. This, and certain other things, add up to a series of features that distinguish them from normal people, and are invariably woven from of a certain hardened fiber, that je ne sais pas (that is French for "I don't know what") that makes a true hero. Heroes like Starkad, Helgi, Gunnar, and last by not least: Sigmund, everybody's pan-Germanic bad boy!

Not this Sigmund.

Not this Sigmund.

None the less, superhuman strength and talent is worth nothing in the world of Germanic poetry, if the hero doesn't fulfill the one true criteria, the sine qua non (that is Latin for "without which there is nothing") of the amoral Germanic hero. Namely that he (or she) must die an impressive, spectacular, and oftentimes utterly needless death. The leaps of logic required to make this final condition come true are less important. What matters is the fact that these Norse kamikaze-by-epic-convention simply need to die, no matter how seemingly banal, brutal or ludicrous a reason it takes. The more inhumane the better, giving up the ghost with a heroic shrug.

Now that the lecture is over, I want to ask: Have you ever wondered if you are yourself the stuff of legends? Do you, or maybe your friends, or spouse, have what it takes to be part of an Old Norse heroic lay? Below I've compiled an inexhaustive checklist for you to print and put in your wallet, put on your fridge door, or hang by the toilet. Underline whichever statement fits your fate or lifestyle, and assess the results accordingly.

The result is not for you to judge, though; the gods shall have the final say:

  1. Your step-dad is a dwarf.
  2. Attila the Hun is your brother in law (or, alternately, the father of your children).
  3. You have some junk laying around that once belonged to Caesar.
  4. You're attending a party. All other guests are Huns.
  5. You're a Goth, but you don't know what a mall or eyeliner is.
  6. Your ale bowl is full of wine. An unseen narrator proclaims that is, in fact, a wine-heavy ale bowl. An unfathomable luxury.
  7. You are shocked to find that this very beer bowl is the skull of your own child.
  8. Somebody had to point this out to you, and it implies terrible things about your taste in tableware. Not to mention your parenting.
  9. You keep bumping into people from vastly different historical eras than your own.
  10. You consider dying to be the most reasonable #lifegoal.
  11. Someone is being kind to you. So kind, in fact, that you have reason to believe that they might be plotting to kill you.
  12. You confirm that there is indeed a plot to kill you. It's the opportunity of a lifetime!
  13. You consciously create a situation that increases their chance of success. 
  14. You either intend to acquire a hoard of gold, or you already possess one.
  15. You dump it in a body of water simply because you can. Only death is real.
  16. You would rather die than tell your abductors you dumped the treasure. You encourage them to torture you all they want.
  17. They offer merciful alternative, you insist that they torture you instead.
  18. You laugh as you die. Nobody can question it, because you loudly proclaim it in front of everyone within listening distance. Torturous death is but a game to you.
  19. You are too weak to see or stand upright, but your famous last words consist of a dozen or so stanzas of poetic autobiography.
  20. Your final words last longer than it took to torture you to death, but you still have a few stanzas to recite and laughing to do. Death must wait patiently.
  21. Though you are dead, your lifestyle is pretty much the same as before. You still go to parties and sleep with your girlfriend. Your only regret is that you can't die twice.
  22. When not searching for ways to die, your life/deathstyle consists of hoarding gold, impressing people with your high alcohol tolerance, and humiliating your enemies.
  23. You leave the land of the dead. You encounter a couple of living folks who believe: A) that they be tripping B) that Ragnarok is upon them. But you're just out to stretch your legs.
  24. If you're a man: You never shed as much as a single tear your entire life.
  25. If you're a woman: Inanimate objects and wild animals alike sob uncontrollably in the presence of your sadness, expressing genuine sympathy for you. Unlike every person you've ever met.
  26. Your boyfriend was a bit of a vegetable. In fact you like to compare him with some sort of allium, like a leek or onion. Those vegetables are amazing, they are to plants what gold is amongst the metals. Life without leek is tragic.
  27. Tired of life, you toss yourself in the sea. But not even the ocean wants you, you bitch.
  28. You could swear there were more warriors attending your feast yesterday, than there are ones attending your battle today.
  29. You own an incredibly ancient and beautiful sword. Sadly, a curse requires that someone must die whenever it is drawn. So much for a conversation piece.
  30. Luckily, your vanity is only contested by your pathological bloodthirstiness. If people want to see the sword, let them.
  31. If you follow the trail of clues, you'll see that this entire mess is the fault of a few incompetent fools.
  32. You know these fools simply as "the gods".
  33. The only drinking game you know consists of alternating between verbally humiliating others, and bragging about your own greatness.
  34. Uh-oh! The hostess is angry with her husband and is making a scene in front of the whole party! How embarrassing.
  35. Atli, put down that spoon. This isn't pork!
  36. That's your kids you're eating!
  37. The birds follow your life like they were watching Game of Thrones.
  38. Amazing! These birds actually talk!
  39. It's either very wise or extremely foolish to follow their advice.
  40. Follow their advice or do not follow their advice, you will regret it either way.
  41. Divorce is settled with the sword, by means of Freudian assasinations in the marital bed.
  42. Death does not hamper a healthy and active sex life. Your lover need only pass by your grave.
  43. You're in a complicated relationship with a valkyrie.
  44. She flew away, literally.
  45. Your lover uses you as a guinea pig for worrisome potions.
  46. The enemy says they've murdered your brother and tortured him in blood-curdling ways, but you don't buy what they are selling.
  47. You demand they stop messing around and do it for real.
  48. There can be no doubt that this is in fact your brother's heart, still beating as it was torn from his chest! Surely it must have trembled half as much when it lay inside him, greeting death!
  49. Having confirmed (and possibly caused) your brother's death, it's time for you to follow. They may throw you in the snake-pit now.
  50. You bring your musical instruments to play as you die the snake-venom death.
  51. Your soothing and/or boring melodies put the snakes to sleep, just so you can suffer for longer.

So, if you find yourself a true amoral hero after having checked the list above, there's little else to do but face your inescapable demise. Better to embrace it than flee the fate the Norns intended for you. But if you have to die, die cackling!