The Alchemy of Fire: Cremating the Dead in Ancient Scandinavia

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


Chuck another on the fire

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

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

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

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

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

What is a “burial” anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To burn a body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who cremated the dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The riddle of steel

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

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

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Where did the rest of the bones go?

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

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

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

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

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Sources

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Riddance to Viking bogus

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hear it for the primary sources

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

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

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

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

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

The Gök Stone, Sö327

The Gök Stone, Sö327

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

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

Iceland’s occult revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

huld.png

Um Rúnir

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

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

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

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

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

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

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

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

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

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

A Norse-Satanic Axis of Evil

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

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

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

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

Translation:

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


I for one find that rather interesting.

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

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

Cited publications:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

thor lifts.png

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Support Brute Norse on Patreon.

Associated reading:

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

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

unknown god.png

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

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

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

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864

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

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

nordiske tidende april 15 1982.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Brute Norse does not run itself. If you want to support, please consider making a pledge on Patreon or buying a shirt, if not you can still support the site by sharing links and spreading it among like-minded people.


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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"Gilbert's Stone God", an Excerpt from Rosa by Knut Hamsun (1908)

røiselandsguden.png
I peer further in towards the wall of thickets, and a chill runs down my spine. There is a stone image right in front of me, an old god. Oh how small and grim it is, lacking arms down from his shoulders, and with nothing but feeble grooves in the face for eyes, nose, and mouth. The gap between the legs is also simply a carved line, and there are no feet. To stand, the image must be propped up with stones.
Then I thought that this was what God had wanted tonight. To use me to topple this little idol man, and toss him in the pond. Yet when I moved my hand to do it there was no strength in it, but contradictory, a strange exhaustion.

I looked at my hand, what was wrong with it? It ran like a wilting across the skin. Filled with horror, I looked away from my hand, towards the little stone man again. Oh, it was a disgrace against God to be humiliated by this creature! It looked just as though it had been greater once, long ago, but now it had gone into childhood with dementia. It had become nothing, that's how shriveled it was, standing there with the supports around itself.

I raised my other hand against it, but the hand falls, the same thing repeats itself. The skin turns gray and withered on my left hand. Then I jump back across the pond, and crawl back out of the thickets. Big drops of rain begin to fall from the sky.

From «Rosa» (1908) by Knut Hamsun. Translated by Eirik Storesund, February 2018.