The Flying Rowan, Some Ethnobotanical Notes on a Magical Tree

flogrogn.jpg

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.

flogrogn2.jpg

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

vanishingisles.png

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:

560.jpg


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.

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

waterdep.png

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.

If you want to subscribe to your favorite non-entry-level podcast of Ancient Scandinavian apocrypha, then rest assured that you will find the Brute Norse Podcast on any podcast app or service provider, as far as I know.

 

If you would like to   

Support Brute Norse                  you can        

 check out   

 either/or/and

my Patreon            these sweet hirts

                                 

                if not you can:

                        

       Relax and have a nice day!
(But do share it with your friends)

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

nøkken2.png

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.


If you enjoyed this article feel free to share it, and kindly consider supporting me on
Patreon, and be sure to have a listen to the possessive tunes of the artist and spelmann Kenneth Lien below:

Sources and suggested reading:

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

solstice.png

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

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

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

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

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

Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Yule - a feast of the sun?

Take a moment to take a long, hard stare at the sun (proverbially of course). Is it not radiant? The tempting assumption that the solstices (and equinoxes) formed the basis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious feasts, is prevalent not only in modern Heathenry and Ásatrú, but is also reproduced in countless popular media articles on the ancient origins (no pun intended) of Yule in Northern Europe. This view was also widely held by scholars of the field up until the turn of the last century, and though fewer think so today, it has somehow stuck. Even if many have changed their opinion in recent years, this has hardly seeped into the public consciousness.

It doesn't seem too idiotic at face value: The Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place. It's not exactly the fertile crescent. We'll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you'll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year. It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast.

As you must have guessed by now, it's quite more complicated than that, and it rests on a massive jump to conclusions with no direct support in any of the primary sources. And it’s not as if Old Norse texts never said anything about exactly when the yuletide sacrifices should commence, because they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever. But that’s good news, because if you are like me, that’s a good excuse to celebrate the season not one or two, but three times properly.

None the less, you will find no shortage people who insist that the opposite is true, refusing to let the evidence speak for itself. To paraphrase the Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg (cf. 2006: 102): Those who insist on refering to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.

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

Given the solar bias of yuletide speculation, there is a lot of hot talk about the solar characteristics of this or that Norse deity. I won’t say that all of it isn’t worth considering, but you’ll be wise to maintain a critical eye. The god Freyr is subject to a lot of discussion, probably above all, as Snorri places him in control of sunshine and rain (Gylfaginning 24). Whichever solar features Freyr may have had, he is never described as the sun itself, and to be fair, this is seldom claimed in modern discourse, either. I wouldn't bother including him in this discussion, were it not for the fact that celestial bodies are so important to the Norse perception of time. However, Sól (“Sun” - personified as female, rather idiosyncratically in Norse mythology) and Máni (“Moon”. Male, likewise) are not deities per se but personifications in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. There was no proper cult attached to them as far anybody can tell. This sets Nordic religion apart from several other old timey religions. Rather, they to do cosmological tasks in subordination to the gods (Simek 2007: 297), like servants (or tools). This seems laid out in stanzas 4 through 6 of the eddic poem Vǫluspá, describing an early phase of the universe where the celestial bodies were unaware of their purpose, and how it was given to them when the gods first divided the days. This enabled the reckoning of time, and time - it turns out - is important in Norse religion.

In Alvíssmál, another eddic poem, the moon is even referred to by the name Ártali, roughly translatable as “He-Who-Counts-The-Year”. While the life-affirming properties of the sun could hardly have been lost on pre-Christian Scandinavians, they seem to have regarded the sun as a cosmic feature, rather than an object of direct worship. It’s a service, somewhat simplified. The sun moves in accordance with divine intent.

1280px-StonehengeSunrise1980s.jpg

 Hǫkunótt - a Norse pagan Yule feast

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

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

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

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

Dísablót by August Malmström

Dísablót by August Malmström

The Norse lunisolar calendar

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

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

This system was also in place in Scandinavia. As the name implies, months were determined by lunar phases, from new (nýr) to waning () moon. There are 12 months in a solar year, which lasts 365 days. However, it takes only 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Therefore, a certain new moon will occur 11 days earlier than it did in the previous year. A lunar calendar won’t “stay still”, but actually rotate backwards. Every month will seem to start 11 days earlier than the previous year, unless there is a system in place to stop it. In some systems, such as the Islamic calendar, the months change from year to year. Muslims might observe the holy month of Ramadan in the middle of the summer one year, and late autumn a dozen or so years later.

This doesn’t matter so much in climates close to the equator, where there are several harvests in one solar year. It’s a big problem in Northern Europe, where the calendar helps determine the one time in the year where harvest is expected, requiring the calendar to bounce back to roughly the same point in the astronomical year every cycle. One way to make sure the months weren't spinning backwards was to make an exception in the lunar calendar, where the winter solstice always marks the point where the first month of Yule ends, so that the second Yule month starts with the next new moon, no matter what. In other words the Norse month ýlir always contained the solstice, but the second month contained the yule moon, which occurs on the first full moon following the new moon past the solstice. This, my friends, was probably when the actual and main feasts would have taken place. A consequence of this system is the fact that the lunar phases would “bounce” back and forth within a certain interval, but at least it was fixed and not rotating backwards ad infinitum.

Still with me? Good. To make up for the 11 days lost in the lunar year, the Germanic lunisolar calendar seems to have used a leap year system where a thirteenth intercalary month was added to the summer. Why the summer, of all things? Nobody really knows. And how do we know when it’s a leap year if we’re just getting started? Well, Nordberg provides a great rule of thumb: If the new moon occurs 11 days or less after the solstice, the intercalary month is inserted around the time of the summer solstice (for whatever reason) to stop the second yule month from starting before the solstice next year. In this regard, the solstice serves as a regulator, if not an object of celebration in itself.

Interestingly, this seems to recall the great blóts held at Uppsala and Lejre, which occured every ninth year. This is probably no coincidence (Nordberg 2006: 154). Old Norse religion is famously hung up on multiplications of the number three. Here it seems that this was also incorporated into cultic practices through the observance of sacred time. This cycle seems to have been based in an “inclusive” count in which the last year is also the first year of the cycle, so every eighth year according to our conventional way of thinking numbers. The fascinating part about this is that you can easily do the math yourself and actually tie on to the “nine year cycle” of the great blóts, more on this below.

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

Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

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

The beauty of this system is that not only does this open up a whole new paradigm towards understanding the religious life of pre-Christian Scandinavians, but it allows for a new level of celebration alongside more recent established traditions. Why not do both? As mentioned, we can actually tie ourselves onto the tradition of the great blóts at Lejre and Uppsala through a close, source-critical reading of primary sources. The last “great blót” was apparently celebrated in Uppsala in 1078, so you can easily pull out your calculator and determine when the next one will be. Last year in that cycle, I personally held a great feast where I almost burned myself alive, and a child was even born as a result (not of me setting myself on fire, but the mania of the occasion, presumably). This work cannot be underestimated!

Yearly update for 2019:

As for 2019, readers would be wise to brew their beer strong and stock up for a solid feast, because January 21st holds not only the Yule Moon but a lunar eclipse! Remember: It’s always the new moon of the full moon, following the winter solstice. Personally, I'll gladly celebrate Yule twice. 

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting Brute Norse on Patreon
You can also help by sharing it among like-minded individuals.

Literature:

The Trollish Theory of Art: A scandifuturist art creation myth

kittelsen_2-1000x696.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Wild men and bearded women of the medieval North

wildman.png

 

Struggling to keep up with the ethnographic trends of the time, medieval Norsemen were also familiar with such creatures. Icelandic and Norwegian scholars demonstrated their access to continental thought by writing books such as Konungs skuggsjá, or "The King's Mirror" if you prefer it by its English title. Which is a 13th century Norwegian handbook in courtly customs (smile a lot, don't pull a knife on the king), street-smartness (don't get drunk, don't be a horndog, rise early), and natural wonders (there's a hot spring in Iceland that tastes like beer). Needless to say it is one of my favorite works of medieval literature.

 

Among those aforementioned wonders, we find a number of curiosities and facts both true and false from all around the North Atlantic. In a chapter dedicated to the peculiarities of Ireland, the author relates an anecdote from the apprehension of a wild man:

It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking. (1917: 110)

One should say that woolly halfwits hardly make the weirdest entry in a book that eagerly encourages its readers to rub whale sperm in their eyes, but don't mind me: Such wild men occur in various cultures across Europe under various names, such as the Old High German schrato and English "woodwose", which likely originated from Old English *wudu-wāsa, or "wood-being". This might recall the Old Norse vættir "nature spirits, trolls", as both share a common Proto-Germanic etymology: *wihtiz meaning "thing, object, essence, creature". Perhaps a euphemism, a taboo name used to avoid naming the creatures directly, as was originally the case with the huldufólk ("hidden people") and hittfolk ("those people") of Nordic folklore.

 

Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Here as always, the world of monsters mirrors the world of men. While the author of Konungs skuggsjá did not doubt that wild men lived in the outskirts of other realms, I can't help but wonder whether he thought it possible that such a creature could be found in his own native Norway. The German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen offers answers. Adam, whose main claim to fame is his descriptions of the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden, also penned some fetching descriptions of the rest of the Nordic area in his Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. There he gave the following and rather unflattering account of the Northern Norwegian population in the 1070's:

I have heard, in the rugged mountains that exist up there, that there are women with beards, while the men live in the forests and rarely show themselves. They use the skins of wild beasts for clothing and when they speak, it supposedly resembles snarling rather than speech, so that they are hardly intelligible even to their closest neighbors. (1968: 282 [My own translation])

Interestingly, he goes on to describe the Sami next, or Stride-Finns as he calls them, who are easily the prime victims of literary dehumanization in the Nordic middle ages. Specifically he notes their inability to exist without snow - on which they rely to get around, and which also allows them to traverse the landscape "faster than the wild beasts" (read: skiing). Adam also refers to Scandinavian speech as snarling elsewhere. This could imply that he thought these bearded women belonged to Germanic Scandinavian stock, or at the very least were of some other ethnicity than the Sami, which is interesting insofar that Norse literature often refers to trolls and Sami as if they were entirely interchangeable.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Pardoning their overall gullibility and hyper-violent tendencies, Adam claims Norwegians make model Christians. None the less he describes a general problem of rampant witchcraft and heathendom across Scandinavia. No wonder: Adam refers to Norway as "the remotest country on Earth" (1968: 279). He considers Scandinavians half-civilized at best, and utter barbarians at worst. They are contested only by the barely human hybrids living further North and East of the Baltic Sea, or "Barbarian Sea" as Adam likes to call it. In line with his extravagant use of the word "barbarian", which he fits wherever he can.

Finland, he asserts, is populated exclusively by amazons who mate either with passing merchants or wild beasts, and isn't too shy to provide a theory of his own either: First of all it's extremely unlikely that any sailor would have sex with strange, allegedly gorgeous women. Besides, any male specimen of the amazonian race is born with the head of a beast, while the women are all bombshells. Whether or not you accept Adam's reasoning he makes a distinction between amazons, who sire offspring through bestiality, and the hound-faced people of Russia whom he implicitly equates to the Huns, based on the rock solid science of folk-etymology (Hun and hound sound similar, ergo there must be a connection).

Wild men are to a point what most people are not. They are uncanny, and their ambiguity is often underlined in the fact that some authors cannot decide whether or not they qualify as human. Which is to ask what a human is. Surely with no lack of poetic doubt and self-questioning, an existential level to the wild men which seems strengthened by the fact that the stories about them are shrouded in hearsay, as if the possibility of their existence is compelling, yet dreaded for its implications. They are recognized partly as kin, partly as a natural counterpart to man. Something that links him to savage and untamed nature on one side, and that which is unspoiled, raw and potent on the other. In case you couldn't tell, Adam was taking any argument he could to further his claim that Scandinavia needed some more of that Christian religion. Make of that what you will, but if you come to Norway looking for our bearded women I'm afraid you'll be severely disappointed.

Sources

  • Adam Bremensis. 1968. De hamburgske ærkebispers historie og nordens beskrivelse. Translated by Carsten L. Henrichsen. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen.
  • Larson, Laurence Marcellus (tr.). 1917. The King’s Mirror[Speculum regale - Konungs skuggsjá]. Scandinavian Monographs 3. The American-Scandinavian Foundation: New York.