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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Riddance to Viking bogus

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hear it for the primary sources

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

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

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

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

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

The Gök Stone, Sö327

The Gök Stone, Sö327

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

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

Iceland’s occult revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Um Rúnir

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

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

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

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

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

Malachim Script, same manuscript.

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

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

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

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

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

Die in battle, go to Valhalla

A Norse-Satanic Axis of Evil

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

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

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

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

Translation:

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


I for one find that rather interesting.

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

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

Cited publications:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Flying Rowan, Some Ethnobotanical Notes on a Magical Tree

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I am holding in my hand shavings of a rowan tree that has never touched the ground. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. These trees, called “flying rowans” (or in Norwegian: flogrogn) were sought after materials in common Nordic folk magic. With power comes taboo, of course, and this regulated its use. It was considered unsafe to make axe shafts from flying rowan, for example, but they were often used in horse tack, where it was supposed to both protect the horse as well as increase speed and mileage. Skis from flying rowan drove themselves, and it worked well against toothache, witchcraft, and sundry supernatural threats.

Notions about the flying rowan are heterogeneous, and any two regions may have had very different ideas about its uses. Sometimes regular rowan and flying rowan even had opposite magical properties. Some regions had taboos against bringing any rowan material to sea, while in others, flying rowan tied to the line was sure to make fish bite when even the best bait failed. Used as feed it made animals lusty and fertile.


Billhooks have changed little since they first appeared in Scandinavia during the Merovingian Period. Photo: Ragnar H. Albertsen / Stiftelsen Nordmøre Museum

Billhooks have changed little since they first appeared in Scandinavia during the Merovingian Period. Photo: Ragnar H. Albertsen / Stiftelsen Nordmøre Museum

But flying rowan is scarce. It’s rare to find anything larger than a sapling (flying rowan skis sounds like a tall tale to me), and they are even rarer today than they were in the past due to differences in how forestry is practiced. Throughout most of Nordic agricultural history it was common to pollard trees to secure winter feed for animals. Since the middle of the Nordic Iron Age, this was usually done with machete-like billhooks that often left scars in the trees. Over time as the tree got gnarlier it could create a little cleft where the odd rowan seed could get stuck, usually after the berry had been digested by a bird. And ever so often a seed would sprout, and occasionally become a tree growing in a tree. A small one, but still.

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.

Sacred White Stones: Echoes of an Ancient Scandinavian Fertility Cult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pale Stone Phalli of Western Scandinavia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objects of fertility, eros, and power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fertility stones in recent Scandinavian folk religion

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

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

fister, uis 2.jpg

Attributes of an unknown god?

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

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

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

Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

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

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

Summary

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


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Literature:

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006. Gand, seid og åndevind. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Preben Meulengracht Sørensen. 1983. The unmanly man: Concepts of sexual defamation in early Northern society. Odense University Press: Odense
  • Mundal, Else. 2001. Holdninga til erotikk i norrøn dikting. In Einar Ådland, Kirsten Bang (ed.): Kjønn - erotikk - religion. Bergen Museums Skrifter nr. 9. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Myhre, Bjørn. 2006. Fra fallos til kors - fra horg og hov til kirke? Viking - norsk arkeologisk årbok, 69, 2006. Norsk arkeologisk selskap: Oslo.
  • Petersen, Theodor. 1905.  Nogle Bemerknnger om de saakaldte "hellige hvide stene". Det kgl. norske videnskabers selskabs skrifter No. 8: Christiania
  • Samdal, Magne. 2000. Amuletter: Gjenstander med amulettkarakter i vestnorske graver i tidsrommer 350-1000 e.kr. Hovedfagsoppkave i arkeologi med vekt på Norden. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer: Woodbridge
  • Solberg, Bergljot. 2001. Hellige hvite steiner - spor av fruktbarhetskult i Norge. In Einar Ådland, Kirsten Bang (ed.): Kjønn - erotikk - religion. Bergen Museums Skrifter nr. 9. The University of Bergen: Bergen
  • Steinsland, Gro. 1994. Eros og død - de to hovedkomponenter i norrøn kongeideologi. Studien Zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Heinrich Beck. Walter de Gruiter: Berlin & New York
  • Storesund, Eirik. 2013. Þrunginn Móði: Studier i den norrøne tordengudens ambivalens. Masteroppgave i norrøn filologi. The University of Bergen: Bergen.
  • Sundqvist, Olof. 2015. An Arena for Higher Powers: Ceremonial Buildings and Religious Strategies for Rulership in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Brill: Leiden & Boston
  • Wille, Hans Jacob. 1956 [1786]. Beskrivelse over Sillejords Præstegield i Øvre-Tellemarken i Norge: tilligemed et geographisk Chart over samme. Halvorsen & Børsum: Oslo


 

 

 

Galdrastafabók: "A Book of Staves" by Jesse Bransford (Review)

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To pick up your first mail order is an unspoken pleasure of moving house. It may be the last thing you need at a point where you are living out of bags and boxes, but there is truly no better inauguration for a new home than to once again sink into such habits of quotidian life.

This rings particularly true when you go to pick up the things that make a house a home. A good chair, a book, a piece of art. I found two out of three waiting for me recently, in the form of Jesse Bransfords' latest monograph A Book of Staves, or Galdrastafabók, released this year through the UK based esoteric publisher Fulgur. I didn't know too much about the author in advance, but I did know he was an artist and co-organizer of the biennial Occult Humanities Conference. Though a vague point of reference, it was a promising start. I landed in town just too late for the release party, which coincided with Bransford's solo exhibit The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. Luckily the show was still ongoing by the time I had settled down and come to my senses, and I was fortunate enough to catch a lecture by the artist in question and Elizabeth Insogna, mediated by another Occult Humanities Conference organizer, Pam Grossman. All in all a great occasion to see some of the book's eponymous staves up close.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

Certain expectations follow the Fulgur catalog. As the common ground of art and magic forms their main scope of interest, Fulgur's books and journals seem to burst with pictures, poetry, and colorful illustrations. In the case of their often oversized volumes, they are a far cry from the ubiquitous pocket format fodder found in the new age section of your local bookstore, and truly worthy of rare hours of retreat and contemplation. Their artsy and bookish alibi recalls the old times when it was self-evident that art, magic, and academia were parts of the same trinity.

A Book of Staves does not diverge from this esoteric art book tradition. Nicely bound in its coffee table format, a debossed visual palindrome in the form of a charm hides beneath the dust jacket. With its 120 pages it is not a dense book by any means. The word count is front heavy: The book begins with a statement from the artist, superseded by an introductory essay by the British archaeologist and art historian Robert J. Wallis. Both supplied with a parallel Icelandic translation. From there on, most of the text consists of titles and quotes from the Hávamál in Old Norse besides Carolyne Larrington's popular English translation. This is intended to complement the artwork.

As for the artwork itself, it would be more fitting to refer to the individual images – like the artist does – as spells. For all intents and purposes, A Book of Staves is not a typical "art book", but a neatly curated series of visual charms: It contains 39 individual galdrastafir, 18 of which are based on the equal number of magical charms reckoned by Odin in the ljóðatal section of the eddic poem Hávamál (stanzas 146 through 163). Then, under his “Moon Rituals” follows nine astrological staves, then eight non-sequential “Small Staves” on various magical themes, and finally four staves for the elements.

I was immediately surprised at how well the “songs” of ljóðatal worked with Bransford's visual re-imaginings. In hindsight, Odin's secretive charms sound exactly like the sort of things you'll find in many books of magic, whether in continental grimoires, or the Scandinavian “black books” and Icelandic staves the early modern era. His “Small Staves” come across as faithful developments of this tradition as well. Yet his is no sterile contribution. The artist's playful signature, whether by his use of watercolor, or the sketchwork revealing the underlying geometry of the charms, removes the usual anonymity of his source material. Though unsaid, Icelandic staves work excellently as abstract art.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice,&nbsp;Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

The Mahavidyas and Fields of Ice, Jesse BRansford (2018). Photo by Janelle Vladimir.

This wouldn't be a true review without some critical remarks: While I found myself nodding along to the opening essays, there were one or two points where terminological inaccuracies and anachronisms eased my initial groove. Such as the seeming use of seiðr as an umbrella term for "Icelandic magic". Strictly speaking, seiðr and galdr aren't necessarily associated with one another at all, but the book does seem to make this association somewhat by default. As I have pointed out in previous entries, though, this is a common misunderstanding of Old Norse magic (read: generalizing the particular), so Bransford can definitely be excused. Besides, the author's reason for mentioning seiðr in the first place seems to serve the purpose of contextualizing magic as an example of the transgressive in-between. I can hardly argue with that, even if I disagree with the terminology.

I also wish the book made a clearer statement about the kinship between the galdrastafir and the solomonic magic of the wider European tradition, which much of the Icelandic tradition is directly descended from in form and content. Though the essays refer to the Western mystery tradition and hermeticism here and there, it feels as if the alignment is treated as somewhat of a coincidence or artistic quirk. In fact, the galdrastafir have a closer relation to classic Western esotericism, than they have to historical viking era sorcery. Not to even mention the conjecture and antiquarian tricks involved in the original galdrastafir,  which many people are either unaware of, or reluctant to admit. But when all is said and done it is not Branford's responsibility as an artist to correct the wrongs of how Icelandic magic is sold to the wider audience. Perhaps I can put this on the wishlist for future editions?

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Some nerds may raise an eyebrow at the disregard for runic chronology displayed between the covers of the book, but I see no issue here. The book does not pose as a source of historical magic, as so many modern books on Nordic magic quite fraudulently do. Instead, Bransford's book represents a successful attempt at demonstrating the common ground of past and present, as well as different traditions. I think that to the majority of people, it can be difficult to understand what magic has to offer in such a materialist and disenchanted society as our own. Icelandic magic, actually all forms of folk magic, could introduce them to the idea that magic exists even in the most mundane expressions of the human condition. Jesse Bransford has created a playful and worthy contemporary contribution to the Icelandic magical tradition, which I will heartily recommend to anyone interested in the long-term artistic and cultural legacy of the North Atlantic.


Verdict:

FIVE FROTHY HORNS

Buy Jesse Bransford's A Book of Staves here.

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GINNUNGAGAP, The Boundless Enclosure: An Animated Scandinavian Art Creation Myth

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It is integral to Brute Norse's vision to try and present novel contexts and uses for intangible heritage and Norse literature. This includes presenting Norse art and mythology beyond the rampant "viking kitsch" aesthetic commonly seen in, well, just about any popular depiction of Norse culture. On the baseline, this is certainly a question of aesthetic preference. I am personally not very interested in most modern manifestations of artistic "norseness", beyond my role as a commentator or observer.

Imitations of viking era aesthetics rarely pay a fitting tribute to the quality of the Norse originals. When I curated the art show Coincidence of Opposites in 2016, the basis for the exhibition was thoroughly based on Norse mythology and poetics, but I was also inspired by the symbolism of alchemy and ancient mystery cults to create a participatory mystical experience for the audience.

Throughout the creative process I put a lot of stress on the fact that me and the other artists involved should avoid giving in to the laziest expectations of what a "viking" inspired art show should look like. The whole point was to put create a more dynamic and symbolic expression of Norse myth, entirely detached from the surface-level expectations. Admittedly, this was made a little easier by headhunting artists who were already working independently involved with subjects I considered fitting. For example, a sound piece about entropy, the heat-death of the universe, served as a fitting meditation on Norse eschatology and Ragnarok.

Continuing in that same vein, I attempted to make this video relatable to a modern audience. I set out to demonstrate a synchronized interpretation of Norse cosmogony. A sort of contemporary creation myth within the metaphorical framework of an ancient, pagan past. Listeners of the Brute Norse podcast will recognize the narration from episode 6, which is ultimately adapted from my essay The Trollish Theory of Art, where I outline some of my key perspectives on art and society.

Credits:
Written, narrated, and animated by Eirik Storesund
Sounds by Eirik Storesund, Helge Taksdal, and KB Hus

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.


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:

Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)

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Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.

How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.

To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their si­ðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces. 

The spirit in a concrete world

One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.

Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".

The sensual world and the spirit world

Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of  "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.

Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.

It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.

Breath, wind, spirit, mind

Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin  , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.

Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates. 

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).

There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213). 

The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners

In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.

There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.

There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).

In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.

Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.

In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.

It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2). 

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway.  See the whole thing here

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway. See the whole thing here

The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.

I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.

There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.

Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros

The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)

When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"

Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.

Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians. 

What does a spirit "look" like?

Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.

Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.

However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.

There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn. 

Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.

If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse Metaphysics pt. 2)

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh 
  • Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
  • Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
  • Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
  • Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
  • Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen

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

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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.

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 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. 

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Literature:

No Better Than The Gods: Divine Incompetence in Norse Mythology and the Shortcomings of Humanity

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The gods have made terrible mistakes, it's nothing short of a divine tragedy. We came late in the movie, but the story goes, that by the time man entered the world scene, whether it was as a corrective measure, a supplement to the divine plan, or an act of cosmic love, the world had already started its downward tumble. You see, Norse cosmology describes a world plunged into a dramatic, continuous crisis that will outlast the universe.

As the senile resembles a newborn child, the end must necessarily reflect the beginning. Before the world that you and I live in, there was something else – a non-ambitious chaotic expanse where the giant Ymir lived. But he had to die to accommodate creation. And though the gods were happy for a while, it could not last. The golden age came and went. A world must end for things to return to what they were. A process nobody would survive. The gods of Norse mythology are flawed, like us. And like us they struggle to come to terms with things beyond their control. Incompetent beyond their talents, predestined to fail, doomed to drop cosmic turds where they eat.

It's frequently said that the gods of polytheistic ethnic religions have human qualities. But within the internal logic of these belief systems, it's really the other way around. It's mankind that resembles the gods. What does that imply about us in the context of Norse cosmology, where the gods are aware of future outcomes, yet try and fail to change them? I believe there are indeed a few profound philosophical takeaways.

It seems a certain wistfulness and ambiguity permeated the latter stages of the pre-Christian worldview. It could also be that these sources were curated by medieval Christian scholars who took the introspective, self-critical implications of pagan cosmology as a sign of weakness. We don't know why some eddic poems survived, and others did not, but in many of them the ghost of future doom looms, while ironic tragedy sits at the root of all. Then again, I am prone to sentimental gloom. I have my biases.

The Norse physical cosmos was imperfect, but unlike transcendent religions such as Christianity, there was no heaven, no immaculate and immaterial plane of existence beyond. Instead, the layer cake model of Norse cosmology worked in accordance with the axiom that whatever goes up must also come down. The afterlife, if anything, is like a waiting room for the cosmic reset.

These imperfections were not quite the result of any original sin. It makes more sense to think of them as engineering errors in the supporting structure of reality. The sandy soil that swallows the cathedral. Throughout the sources, the gods appear to make regular mistakes, and it probably goes back to the fact that they lacked the skills or means to make a singular, self-supporting cosmos. Certain things are always out of reach, even to gods.

Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

 

Ár var alda

In the beginning there was the death blow. In Norse mythology, the killing of the cosmic giant Ymir marks the first act of creation. Ymir becomes the first victim, the first product, and the first artifice. The dismemberment of the victim was equal to the parting of earth and sky. The body parts and fluids of the cosmic being were the raw materials of all creation, laid out across the periodic table of the elements. The act of killing as primary creative act, though mythological, is probably telling for how Norse polytheists perceived ontological reality, and I think the metaphor works still: No pain, no gain.

Take a step back and cast one glance at the greater picture, or reach for your nearest physics book. You'll see that perpetuity and permanence are not of this world. Nothing lasts forever. The gods gave their permanence for The World, which is defined by agency and eternal conflict between biological, chemical and geological processes. The world is entirely reliant on competitive balance and antagonism. The gods created the world not as an act of love, but to express their ambition, to spite nature and chaos, represented by the jǫtnar – the giants.

How can there be reconciliation. Gods and giants keep each other in check, like yin and yang. One cannot, should not, defeat the other. The cosmos would not survive as we know it. The world must seem bittersweet to the gods, who are doomed to maintain their creation – yet, the biggest threat is the very ground their creation rests on, as the sinkhole grows ever wider. In the tragic irony of it all, they themselves threaten creation. The world is a twofold and ambivalent place, without the luxury of a clear distinction between good and evil: The gods themselves carry double-edged swords.

Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

 

The age of man

The most common cosmic denominator in Old Norse is heimr, meaning «home, where something belongs». The universe of Norse mythology is full of such homeworlds. But there is also verǫld – which is a cognate of English world. The etymology concerns us here because it literally means «age of man». Perhaps it is a vestige of a prehistoric, non-linear view of history, where time was cyclical. The latter phase of Norse paganism as we see through our sources, is uncharacteristically eschatological for a polytheistic ethnic religion. It gives the impression that the Vikings were obsessed with the end of the world. They did not believe the world would go on forever, but come to a halt soon enough.

But whether or not this was an indigenous feature of pagan Scandinavia, or a sneaking realization that came to them like a thief in the night, it must refelct how many pagans felt at the threshold of conversion, when the temples were razed, and the idols smashed. The world we see, the Age of Man, is an intermediate phase. It's not the first nor the last. If the mythical poem Vǫluspá, The Prophecy of the Seeress, in its most popular redaction is representative of a pre-Christian timeline of mythical and cosmic events, then man did not even exist during the Golden Age. Mankind is a later invention, perhaps even a trick of the gods, who struggled to maintain their work. As someone to stirr the pot as they tended to business. Whatever their reasoning, the gods were invested in man:

Vǫluspá says the gods were loving – ástgir – when they gave us life. It is noteworthy that this is the only instance in the eddic literature where the gods express love towards mankind. According to mythic time, man has experienced only a glimpse, a mere few frames of the grand cosmic display. Yet if man wasn't present when the world was young, the myths state he will live to see Ragnarǫk. He will witness the end of creation, and the end of the gods. Ragnarǫk comes from regin «the gods», literally «those who keep council» and rǫk, which can mean «something that belongs», or «development, destiny, verdict». This divine verdict is the natural result of the carefully balanced, yet delicate cosmic order. 

Acting against the inevitable

Thor's greatest enemy is Jǫrmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. It's imperative that he fights against it, even though it's coiled around the world, and keeps it from falling apart. Pre-Christian skaldic poets associate the creature with much dread, but Thor is locked in an impossible situation: He has the task of carrying out preemptive strikes against monsters and giants, but this protective function is itself a great threat to cosmic stability. When Odin seeks wisdom and advantage, he does so through self-mutilation and vulnerability. He gives up an eye, commits suicide, starves, and lets himself be taken captive.

Freyr gives up his sword out of love-sickness towards the giantess Gerdr. A compromise that later proves deadly when the giants carry it to the final battle against the gods. The gods sacrifice power, body parts, and technology for the vain hope of an upper hand against the giants. The protector destroys! The god of sexual fertility and social status makes himself and impotent! They are merely stalling. Ironically, it may even seem that all their efforts only serve to enable the coming disaster.

The wisdom they accumulate doesn't help them in the long run. The formula doesn't add up, the norns are drunk behind the spinning wheel. Any Norse and Germanic hero knows that is useless to fight one's forlǫg – the predetermined premise of every life: fate! Surely Odin, who sees everything, must understand that his battle can't be won. He sees everything, yet he is blind to the vanity of effort. He is doomed, yet he tries. How telling, how inspirational. This is wisdom we may draw from the poems Hymiskviða, Vǫluspá, and Skírnismál: All that exists does so at the expense of something else, and must be absorbed by something else once it ceases to be. The world clock ticks ever on towards the hour of entropy. The existence of the subject affects the existence of the object. There is no such thing as free lunch – everything has its price.

Thermodynamics and mythical reality

The root of this sad state runs deep. It goes all the way back to the Bronze Age, when Proto-Indo-European pastoral nomads scattered across Eurasia on horseback. Not wholly unlike the gods, these riders were armed not only with superior technology, but with martial ideologies and a will to power unlike anything else. A culture that realized that nothing comes from nothing, that nothing is forever, and that destruction is a sibling of creation. Though harsh as it first may seem, the thought is actually a beautiful one. An undivided theory of nature, a holistic space of equal parts joy and sorrow. Birth, death, and rebirth were allies then. Subjectively speaking, and this is a subjective essay, I believe there are truths in these ideas. Some less comfortable than others. To live includes the anguish of choice. And it is a recognizable feature to many Western cultures still. In many Western democracies, not voting is presented as an immoral lack of action. It is an expression of this line of reasining, that you should prefer the terror of choice over the comfort of inaction. Norse religious practice itself was not overtly speculative, but based around cult, ritual and sacrifice. Do ut des, something for something. I give so you may give in return.

The above view of reality, which I associate with a certain existential wistfulness, is not dreadful but conductive of a certain drive of longing. Action is a consequence of the natural order of things, and the view seems supported not by the Eddas, but also in the concept of prakṛti in Hindu philosophy. Prakṛti means «nature», and states that all things stand in relation to creation, preservation, and destruction. By analogy my mind drifts to the Norse concept of eðli, which may be translated as any living creature's innate nature, essential traits and tendencies, individually and categorically. The word is related to the contemporary Scandinavian word 'edel' (Old Norse aðal) meaning «noble, pure». It is the eagle's eðli that it flies higher than many other birds, to take a real example of its use in the sources. It would also apply to the fact that humans dream, create artifacts, and speak.

When the gods bound the Fenris wolf, they first needed to exhaust something – his fetters were fashioned from the breath of fish, women's beards and the roots of the mountains. These things are depleted, they no longer exist. But even this was ultimately not enough to contain the beast. There is still no such thing as a free lunch.

Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Ragnarok as inner struggle

As I've already gone into, man appears as a theomorphic being. That is to say, we resemble the gods, with all their faults and humiliations. We cannot naturally exceed our blueprints, or their faults and merits. We have our own demons to battle, and World Serpents to lift. We suffer in the crossfire of a deadly battlefield, wedged between the un-nature of lofty, self-righteous gods on the one hand, and the non-culture of cruel, venomous giants. This is the field of reality. If there feral meadowlands were kept in check, they would strangle the cultivated field. But a field unchained, which is a notion belonging in myths of bygone golden ages, where wheat fields sowed themselves (not unlike wild flora), would do equal harm to nature. In this day and age, the question is not whether or not such a field can exist, but how to keep GMOs from destroying ecosystems. This is far from a golden age.

If man derives from the gods, then we should recall that the gods themselves have giant ancestry. Reptile brains that betray the so-called better angels of our nature, grappling with the selfish gene of civilization. It's revealing that when Thor first raised his hammer to crush the serpent's head, their eyes met in symmetrical opposition – like mirror images of each other. The gazer into the abyss and the abyss that gazes back. Thor would finally kill the serpent at Ragnarǫk. In Vǫluspá it is in fact the very last thing that happens before the sun extinguishes, and the earth sinks into the ocean. Stars drop from the collapsing, flaming heavens.

The final blow that ends the universe as we know it, was dealt by its alleged protector. On a microcosmic level, Cultured Man raises the hammer against his own head. He hopes to smash the reptile brain contained within himself, where his urges and most primal, savage, troll instincts dwell. Seeking to beat the life out of the giant of Natural Man, the pre-human hominid, or troll man, in the heat of the moment unable to realize that he would only be killing himself. Man is himself ambiguous. He always struggles with the real and ideal, against the healthy and the unhealthy.

He struggles to balance the beautiful, true, and good, against that equal portion of his self that pertains to the ugly, false, and bad. That which unites beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the good and the bad, that is truly sacred.

The Faustian eddas

A common feature of many old cultures is that the world was perceived through the lens of biological processes. The German philosopher and speculative historian Oswald Spengler was inspired by this sort of thought when he published his magnum opus, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), in 1918. He suggested that human society mirrored the cycle of life and death, very much like we may perceive it in nature. Like a flower, cultures grow, bloom, then ultimately; they die.

Spengler considered civilization to be the final stage before a culture dies. Western civilization would be no different, though it might be too vain to realize it. In the eyes of Spengler, cultural decline is like a body that withers in old age. The ruins of the modern West will sooner or later adorn the museums alongside Assyrian bas-reliefs. A melancholy, but beautiful idea in its own way.

Spengler asserts that the tragic soul of each culture is embedded its archetypes, in their folk heroes and the beings they communicate with in their popular narratives. In his gallery of civilizational archetypes, the spirit of the West belongs to the archetype of doctor Faustus, the misguided alchemist who met his demise in accordance with the same methods through which he tried to achieve greatness. To Spenglers credit, it would seem that the Western world does tend adopt a can-do sentiment where whatever problem and obstacle is simply a symptom of transition, a childhood illness, that everything will work out if we just keep on trucking. Thereby not realizing that the transition is not temporary, all is flowing, all the time.

Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Like the audience of a play, we observe that Odin and the good doctor Faustus should know better, yet the ironic fruit of their actions is lost on them. But we might realize that we are not so different. That the story is really our own. Laugh or cry, the means by which we survive in our day-to-day lives, and as a society, triangulate our ultimate ends.

Perhaps subconciously planned obsolecence is part of the eðli, the essence, of sentience. Are we alone in the universe? Drake's equation states that space – according to statistics – should be teeming with life, so where is everybody? The Fermi paradox tries to address this one fundamental problem since, considering the age of the universe, it should be expected that several civilizations possess sufficient technology for interstellar travel. Yet such civilizations are nowhere to be seen. It could simply be that no such life-form has yet survived itself. That they failed some ultimate test, whether they depleted their resources, died in a nuclear holocaust, or otherwise went the way of the dodo.

If so, what are the chances of mankind surviving its own obsolescence? Is life itself Faustian? We may write empassioned transhumanist manifestos, and ceaselessly launch rocket phalluses towards the star-spangled womb of space, but perhaps we cannot escape the ambivalent seed within ourselves.

The gods themselves are not eternal, and man is not destined for immortality. The amoral hero of the epics and heroic lays becomes a hero the moment he goes full circle in realizing his own vanity.  Only in death may he be elevated into godhood, to sit in the high seat and drink with the gods, as the poems describe. And so the tragic hero often bends his head, allowing the blow to occur. If mankind's genealogy is divine, we are no better than the gods.

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How many dead warriors can you fit in Valhalla? Notes on Viking and Hindu numerology

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This is not a clown car joke. Neither is it a rhetorical question. This very subject is actually addressed in a particular stanza of the eddic lay Grímnismál, wedged in between other nuggets of cosmic knowledge. Never heard of it? Let me give you a quick run down.

Grímnismál - The Sayings of the Concealed One

Our story begins when Odin and his wife, the all wise goddess Frigg, were sitting in the high seat Hlíðskjálf, from whence they could observe the entire world. They noticed the brothers Agnar and Geirrǫd, whom they had kept in foster care when they were children. Look, says Odin; Agnar hasn't amounted to anything at all - he spends all his days boning an ogress! Sad. But look at my boy Geirrǫd here! He's a king, he's got his own country and everything! Now Frigg cast eyes on her husband, and told him that hardly had there ever lived a king more cruel: Geirrǫd is the worst host, she said, and he tortures his guests if he thinks the hall is too crowded. That's a damnable lie, Odin snapped back, rolling his eye, but Frigg insisted it was true. Then husband and wife decided to settle it with a wager to put Geirrǫd's hospitality to the test. Odin went to chieftain's hall disguised as a drifter and called himself Grímnir - the concealed one. But Frigg had sent her servant ahead to rig the game against him, and told the king to be weary of the incoming stranger.

As you can imagine, this only served to whet Geirrǫd's curiosity about the old hobo, but Grímnir revealed nothing but his name when asked. Soon enough the host's patience was exhausted. No more mister nice guy, he might have said, as he made a shibari display of Grímnir between two great fires. For eight full nights he was roasted, but still he revealed nothing. Then Geirrǫd's son, called Agnar after his uncle, thought it was too terrible to see an old man tormented like this. He filled a horn with drink and offered it to Grímnir, whose cape was now beginning to catch fire. The captive chugged down the horn's contents, and immediately started spilling some cosmic beans.

This is where the prologue ends and the actual poem Grímnismál starts, with Odin thanking the boy and giving a lengthy description of the structure of the universe, as well as various past and future events. He talks about the various estates of gods and superhuman entities, of divine animals, and how the various sectors of the cosmos connect through a system of rivers emanating from the cosmic spring Hvergelmir. He ends with a list of his miscellaneous identities, revealing himself as none other than the god Odin. Oh shi- Geirrǫd exclaimed as he got up from his chair, leaping to free the prisoner, but instead he tripped and fell on his sword - killing himself. It is said that Agnar lived a long and prosperous life.

The magic of numbers

But long before this, in stanza 23, Odin-Grímnir touches upon the spaciousness of Valhalla, which contains "five hundred and forty doors", and through each there are "eight hundred champions [Einherjar]" who shall pass through them when Ragnarǫk finally comes:

Fimm hundruð dura
ok umb fjórum t
ǫgum,
svá hygg ek á Valhǫllu vera;
átta hundruð Einherja
ganga senn ór einum durum,
þá er þeir fara við vitni at vega.

Five hundred doors
and then forty more
I think there are in Valhalla;
eight hundred champions
shall walk through each
when they go to battle the wolf.

I love how even Odin struggles to remember what his own house looks like. But what do these numbers really mean, and how many warriors can we actually fit in Valhalla according to this passage? There are two possible answers to this. First of all, the word hundred didn't always stand equal to the number 100 as it does today. In the viking age, as with the middle ages, the Norse number system conventionally thought of a hundred (hundruð) as the sum of twelve times ten. I.e. 120.

This is usually called a long hundred in current English, or alternately a great hundred (Norwegian: storhundre). I first stumbled across this discussion in Andreas Nordberg's influential PhD dissertation called Krigarna i Odins Sal ["The Warriors in Odin's Hall"], where he seems to mention it mostly as a curiosity. A minor detour to his academic road trip of discourse on the aristocratic warrior cult of Odin.

But as I was saying. If the composer of Grímnismál, when saying hundred, actually meant one hundred and twenty in accordance with the oldest convention, then the equation should go like this:

640×960 = 614,400

In other words, Valhalla should be able to fit just about half a million people. That's guests, mind you. I've not taken the waiting and kitchen staff into account, neither have I considered janitors or cleaning ladies. Odin leaves all of that to our imaginations. Never the less it beats the crap out of the Jehovah's Witnesses' measly claim to a full capacity of 144,000 souls in Paradise. However, if for some reason we assume that the author of Grímnismál had our current concept of hundred in mind, that is to say, that one hundred equals 100, then we get a different equation and a far more interesting sum:

540×800 = 432,000

There are a number of reasons why this number is interesting, so keep on reading. First of all we have a similar account of a troop tally in the first lay of Helgi Hundingsbana ("Helgi Hunding's Bane"), in which the hero states there are "twelve hundred trusty men, though in Hátúna ["The High Estate"] twice as many" (stanza 25). Let us do this calculation twice, like we did above, but this time we shall start with the numbers at face value, disregarding our expectation that the author understood "hundred" as the number 120, rather than 100:
 

1200 + 1200×2 = 3600

A very unassuming number indeed. But let's see what happens when we do it again with the archaic long hundred:

1440 + 1440×2 = 4320

That amounts to exactly 1/100 of the number of champions in Valhalla according to Grímnismál, which we saw could fit as many as 432,000 people! But as we recall, this was only when we used the opposite counting system, disregarding the long hundred altogether. So what does this mean? It could be that both poets intended to reach these numbers, but used differing numerical systems to reach them. But why?

432000, multiplications of three, and the Indo-European connection

If you thought this was trippy, you've got another thing coming. The number 432,000 occurs in another, more famous context, namely Hindu texts: 432,000 is the exact number of solar years in the Kali Yuga, which is the final epoch of the Hindu cosmic cycle before the world destroys itself and a new cycle and golde era begins. The entire cycle, by the way, lasts 4,320,000 years according to the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, which it equates to 12,000 "divine years" (120×100). Puranic literature alleges that the Kali Yuga began roughly 5000 years ago, in the year 3102 BC (corresponding roughly with the aegan bronze age), when the god Krishna left his earthly body, having been shot dead by a stray arrow in a hunting accident. Similarly, the Norse god Baldr was shot dead by the blind god Hǫðr, and this too may be considered a point of no return in Norse mythology, opening the path to Ragnarǫk itself.

Nordberg mentions (on page 230) that scholars have been hard pressed to find a plausible connection between these numerical phenomena. There is no evidence for any continuity between these beliefs back to a common Proto-Indo-European origin, apart from the fact that both may draw from a common Indo-European counting system. As for numbers in Indo-European cultures, that's a fascinating subject in itself.

Any fool that ever cast a quick glance at Norse mythology will be struck by the emphasis put on the number three, as well as its multiplications. Particularly the numbers nine and twelve. Gods and other divine beings often operate in units of three, and mythical events are frequently divided into three phases. The same applies to the number nine, like the cosmological concept of níu heimar – the nine worlds – cryptically alluded to in eddic poetry. In the legendary sagas, berserkers frequently appear in groups of twelve, a peculiar principle they share with outlaws and bandits in later Norwegian ballads and folk tales. It's probably no accident that our poem deals with Grímnir being tortured for eight whole nights: Necessarily, he finds respite on the beginning of the ninth day.

As we've already seen, these numbers may be a feature inherited from a common Indo-European source. The study of numbers in comparative mythology recalls the work of the mythographical scholar Georges Dumézil, who alleged that tripartite socio-religious patterns were characteristic of all Indo-European religions, and consequently the Proto-Indo-European culture itself. This formed the basis for social stratification in Indo-European ideology, with a societal hierarchy of priest-rulers, warriors, and producers. To Dumézil, the trinity of Odin, Thor, and Freyr described by Adam of Bremen at the Temple of Uppsala, generally reflect the same ideas and origins as the Hindu caste system, for example.

While Dumézil might be on to something, his model works best if we choose to cherry pick and simplify our body of evidence. For example, the Hindu caste system operates with four rather than three distinct classes. Any overly rigid application of tripartite theory seems bound to fall apart when faced with the inconsistencies and variations of our evidence. Units of three seem universal, but the contents of these units are unstable. But that is a subject for another time.

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. 

Fimbulwinter 536 AD: Ragnarok, demographic collapse, and the end of Proto-Norse language

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The gods have abandoned you. The sun's rays are fainter than they used to be. Dim and barely discernible behind a misty veil that stretches across the sky in all directions, reaching far beyond the horizon. You are weak and sickly, your stomach grumbles but there is nothing eat. The pantry is empty and the crops won't grow. It should have been summer by now in this year of constant twilight, but the soil is still frozen. The year is 536, and in Byzantium the chronicler Procopius writes:

It came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

Crisis on a cosmic scale

Irish annals attest to famine, of crop failures and shortages of bread. A dense expanse of fog is described in both Europe and the Middle East. Summer snow is reported as far away as China, where witnesses claim to have heard a powerful boom emanating from the South the year before. In Scandinavia, researchers will later find evidence of severe retardation in tree growth at this point in time owing it to climactic instability, with tree rings bearing tell-tale signs of frost damage in the summer of 536. In the district of Jæren, South-West Norway – a comparatively fertile area by Norwegian standards, archaeologists see indications of agricultural collapse. There must have been famine, pestilence, social and political turmoil. Generations of accumulated power must have poured like sand between the fingers of ancient dynasties and prestigious families. Winter followed winter, without the pleasant respite of summer. Beneath the seemingly dying sun a wolf and axe age erupted. Brothers clashed against their brethren, spawning a militant reorganization of society.

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

We are not entirely sure what caused these terrible and cataclysmic events, or where it all started. Most scholars argue in favor of a super-volcanic eruption. Others suggest it could have been caused by a bombardment of meteorites, which would have flung dust high into the atmosphere, causing a global cooling event. There is also some evidence to suggest an unlucky combination of both. The eighteen kilometer wide Grendel crater, which lies at the bottom of the sea in Skagerrak, betwixt Norway, Sweden and Denmark, may have been created at this time. A meteorite this size would certainly have unleashed a massive tsunami as well, eradicating nearby coastal settlements. Whatever the origin, we may all agree on one single thing: This must have been a terrible time to be European.

But it didn't end there. Just when the North was getting back on its feet, Mother Nature threw another punch: Only five years later, between 541 and 542, the Justinian plague spreads across Europe, «by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated» Procopius states. Historians speculate it might have killed off just about 50% of the European population at the time. The bacterium in question was the dreaded Yersinia pestis, a pathogen of the same breed as the Black Death that swept across the world in the mid-1300's.

 

 

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

From the ashes came a new language

As grim as it must have been to live through these decades, it's an exciting period from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. We may identify and reconstruct ancient linguistic shifts, but we are often clueless about their exact causes. But the extreme conditions following the 536 crisis lead to one of the most prominent linguistic transitions in Scandinavian history, comparable only to the changes caused by the black death some 800 years later. The 6th century climate crisis coincides with the demise of the Proto-Norse language, which in turn gave rise to an early form of Old Norse.

Proto-Norse, originally a dialect of North Germanic, is the language of the oldest runic inscriptions, and you could say that Proto-Norse is the grandfather of all the North Germanic languages. This metaphor is striking for a somewhat bleak reason: Judging from runic inscriptions, the language developed so rapidly that the younger generation must have spoken a distinctly different language from their grandparents. But not due to an external linguistic influence. It's indicative of a demographic crisis: Vast portions of the population were dying, and they must have died young.

I'll use my name as an example: Had I been born around the middle of the 6th century, my Proto-Norse speaking parents would have known me as *Ainaríkiaʀ, or “Single Ruler” in modern English. Had I, on the other hand, been born in the second half of the 7th century, my name would have been something akin to *Ęinríkʀ, and Eiríkr not long after that. Easily recognizable in the modern variants Eirik, Erik, Eric, and so on. If I was proficient in runes, I mightstill discern the phonological content of centuries old inscriptions carved in the elder fuþark script, but their linguistic contents would have seemed as alien as any foreign language.

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

Ragnarok as collective trauma

1500 years later, historians would start using words like the late Antique little ice age and the crisis of the sixth century to describe these events. In Scandinavia a handful of researchers, notably the Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund, would begin to see these events in light of the Eddic poems and Norse mythology. Suddenly, the words Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok are featured in conference presentations about frost damaged growth rings, an increase in votive sacrifices in the late migration era, and extraterrestrial particles in Greenlandic ice cores.

It's been speculated that Ragnarok, the mythological end of the world, is a cultural recollection of the 6th century crisis. Sources forebode it by social conflict and ecological disaster, including three winters with no summer between them, stars falling from the heavens, societal collapse and extinction. The fact that Norse religion had such a prominent eschatological myth sets it apart from most other ethnic and polytheistic religions. Perhaps the story of Ragnarok was really a fossilized, metaphorical account of the traumatic experiences of their migration era ancestors.

I suppose we are all children of our time in one way or another, and this is mirrored in our interpretations of the sources. Many German philologists of the 1930's were obsessed with secret ocieties of ecstatic warrior-initiates, and cultic male bonding. The 1970's gave rise to eroticized readings of the myths, as well as feminist revisions that that say more about the effects of the sexual revolution, than they do about Norse religion. The study of Indo-European mythologies itself became a decidedly unsexy topic for decades in the post-war era. From this it should be clear that we always ought to stop and question the scope and agenda of current antiquarian sciences. Popular research topics may reveal as much about our own age as they may about the past. Ecology and pluralism are both strong features of public discussion today, and is inevitably reflected in archaeology and historiography. Climate change as a doomsday scenario affects our view of the world, therefore it provides a reasonable trigger of application to the soft sciences. Critics of this theory may think it a little far out, and I agree that the 536-event can't account for the entirety of Norse eschatology. Regardless, the disastrous events have left a significant mark on Scandinavian Iron Age society.

I wonder which myths will come of us.

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist

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It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.

This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.

At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.

Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.

I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.

 

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum


*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different

Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork. 

As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.

This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.

The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.

They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.

 

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.

A multivalent symbol

While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.

It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.

 

The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in  other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use. 

The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol. 

Conclusion

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.

I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.



Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse metaphysics pt. 2)

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In this second part of my series on Norse metaphysics, we're going to look at one of the most important, fascinating, and complicated terms in Norse magic: Seiðr (anglicized seid), a specific magical practice, closely associated with spinning and textile work, sexual taboos, and possibly trance and ritual ecstasy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misattributed terms in the study of pre-Christian magic. No wonder, though; the sources leave a lot to the imagination.

Magical misunderstandings 

We're dealing with two main misconceptions. Firstly, seiðr is often confused with siðr – mostly among non-scholars. Though similar in spelling, the two terms have widely different content and etymologies: Seiðr is restricted to a specific magical practice, while siðr refers to abstract notions of “tradition, paradigm, custom”. In short, siðr is the closest thing the Old Norse tongue had to a word for religion, before Christianity appeared with the concept of trú (faith). This goes back to the fact that Norse pagans did not see religion as something distinctly separate from society. The separation of religion and cultural custom was originally inconceivable, as it was an ethnic religion. In such a system one is born and raised according to a certain set of customs and beliefs particular to your family or ethnolinguistic group, but I digress.

The second misconception relates specifically to the contents of seiðr in magical terminology. Namely the idea that seiðr originally referred to Norse magic in the broadest sense – that seiðr is any given kind magic in the Norse world – which is inaccurate, though some sources make such generalizations. For example, medieval translators may reach for seiðr when they need a convenient native word for magic when working with continental sources. It's a mistake commonly found in academic works, perhaps written by scholars who may not be specifically interested in the technical peculiarities of the history of magic. For example, Rudolf Simek – otherwise a true pillar of the academic community – writes in his highly influential Dictionary of Northern Mythology that galdr (“chant, incantation, spell”) is: “an element of the Old Scandinavian magical practices (seiðr)” (Simek 2007: 97). However the sources do not correlate these terms: Seiðr doesn't pretend to be “magic in general”. Moreover, there is no evidence or reason to consider galdr a practice tangibly subordinate to seiðr, though galdr occurs alongside seiðr in certain sources.

Swooping around secondary literature (or online), one may also encounter off-hand comparisons between seiðr and shamanism. I've even seen seiðr referred to as a kind of “Norse shamanism”. I think one should avoid applying this term to the Norse tradition, and please excuse my pedantry. The comparison itself is not helpful without further elaboration, given the large variety of ideas behind such a casually thrown about word. However, it is true that there are qualities to seiðr that are also found in certain traditions, that are conventionally referred to as “shamanistic”. Such as otherworldly visions and what we will call “spirit emissaries”.

Reconstructing seiðr from vocabulary and etymology

So far, we've focused on the things that seiðr is not. To recap, seiðr appears to have been a specific practice, and not all viking age magicians did it. From now on we'll be addressing method and its practitioners, starting with a tentative analysis of vocabulary. For example, one verb associated with performing seiðr is efla - “to prepare, perform, arrange”. In the context of ritual, this same verb is also associated with performing blót, or “sacrificial ceremony/feast”, which was the main expression of public religion in the viking era. From this we may assume that seiðr fell into the category of ceremony, consisting of a series of rituals and rites. In the study of religions, rites are the building blocks of ritual. A rite is any individual gesture, movement or action (for example: a prayer), which may join in a sequence to form a ritual. For example, a prayer may be followed by an offering of food or drink. When several rituals come together they form a ceremony. One may have a procession, followed by a petitioning of the gods, followed by sacrifice, followed by a feast – all with their individual minor rites. If this assumption is correct, it would seem that that the performance of seiðr took the shape of a prepared, sequential event. This also how it is described in Eiríks saga rauða, which gives an elaborate description of such a séance involving a vast number of items and gestures. It also suggests that the seeress was a respected specialists that traveled to offer her services. By the way: A supplement containing a translation of this passage is available to my patrons.

Practitioners and titles

Magic itself is commonly referred to as fjölkynngi which means something akin to “manifold wisdom”. Linguistically, it is associated with the folkloric concept of cunning folk, broadly an umbrella term for European folk magicians of all kinds. Those who possess fjölkynngi are sometimes described as versed in seiðr. There are also specific titles such as seiðkona (“seid-woman”) and seiðmaðr (“seid-man”). The late 12th century king's saga Ágrip recounts that king Harold Fairhair's 20th (!) son, Rögnvald, was a “seid-man, that is to say a seer” (seiðmaðr, þat er spámaðr). The female counterpart is commonly referred to as a spákona, and adds to the general impression that divination (spá) was one essential quality of seiðr. Ágrip also refers to Rögnvald as a skratti, a sorcerer/warlock, which is a common derogatory title for male practitioners, apparently related to Old English scritta “hermaphrodite” (see below for seiðr and sexual taboos).

The practice is further associated with a particular female ritual specialist called a völva (plural völur), conventionally translated as “seeress, oracle”, and is used interchangeably with spákona. The title seems to derive from völr, meaning “stick, staff, wand”. Staffs are also associated with the völur in described in Eiríks saga rauða and Laxdæla saga. With the former described as decorated with gems and brass fittings, and the latter referred to simply as a seiðstafr – “seid staff” (Heide 2006a: 251).

 

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Seiðr staffs? Photo: National Museum of Denmark

Incidentally, this may be tied to ornamented iron staffs found in several viking era female burials, which bear a striking resemblance to some varieties of traditional distaffs. Scholars generally agree that these may indeed have been magical wands associated with the völur and used for seiðr. This is a theory commonly associated with the work of Neil Price and Leszek Gardeła, with the latter having recently published an entire book on to this subject. These distaff-like staffs lead us to our next point, namely the practice of seiðr and its relationship to spinning and textile work.

Seiðr as magical textile work

Literally, seiðr appears to mean “thread, cord, snare, halter”, according to Eldar Heide. His 2006 doctoral thesis “Gand, seid og åndevind” [Gand, seid, and spirit-wind] is by far the most comprehensive linguistic and philological study on the subject of seiðr. His work is noteworthy not only for the heavy and technical use of etymology, and the pre-Christian traditions of the neighboring Sami people. He also uses later folklore to point out interesting analogies.

 

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Photo: Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

One of Heide's key points is that magicians were believed to send their mind forth in spirit form to do tasks outside of the body. In this he points to an apparent continuity of motifs from later folklore to pre-Christian times, which also includes a parallel notion of magic manifesting as wind – which associates the spirit with breath – which we shall get into later on. Both the will of the magician, and magical winds, could be visualized as something spun, such as a thread or a ball of yarn. For example: Witches in later times were believed to be able to steal milk from other peoples' cows by milking a rope (Heide 2006b: 165). It is significant to Heide's interpretation that the tugging motion involved in milking resembles the pulling of a rope or cord, since seiðr – as we shall see – seems primarily concerned with attracting or pulling things.

Moreover, Heide leans on the consensus that seiðr was a practice in which the magician used spinning to conjure spirits, for example to help her see geographically or temporally distant events. However, his main emphasis lies in the deployment of the magician's mind, or rather what he calls a “mind-in-shape emissary”, a spirit visualized as a cord or line, which may be sent forth to perform various tasks. It has been suggested, based on the meaning “snare”, that seiðr related to binding spells common throughout western magical traditions, but Heide considers this explanation too simple: “Binding is not very characteristic of seiðr. However, with a cord, one can not only bind, but also attract things, and this is characteristic of seiðr” (Heide 2006b:164). Heide seems to keeps a relatively strict emphasis on how words are contextualized in the primary sources. Based on this he asserts that: “Seiðr (initially) seems to be all about the spinning, and sending of, and attraction with, and manipulation by, a spirit-cord” (Heide 2006a: 237).

It should then make sense to us why the völva would carry a staff as an attribute, and why such wands take the shape of distaffs. Notably, this magic could be done on a dedicated platform, a seiðhjallr (hjallr means “platform, scaffold, loft”). Heide remarks: “When one is spinning, one would want to sit high above ground. Because this allows one to spin longer before one has to stop and wind the thread around the spindle” (Heide 2006a: 254).

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

The aforementioned mind-in-shape emissary, or “magic projectile”, is sometimes called gandr (anglicized gand). This is an extremely conflated term that literally means “staff, stick, wand”, but takes a wide array of forms and connotations in viking era, medieval, and also later sources. They may come in the form of not only a cord, but an animal such as a fly, a clawed beast, or even a “spirit-penis”, which may irritate or hook into the skin, or force its way through respiratory passages and bodily orifices. The emissary may also serve as a “supernatural spy drone” or manipulate objects. I must however be noted that such spirit emissaries, even when they attract and manipulate, needn't always be associated with seiðr or gandr. Rather, they may be features of the magical worldview of the pre-enlightenment Nordic area.

All in all, Heide points out two main properties of seiðr according to the primary sources:

  1. A spirit emissary that attracts resources or individuals, like a cord.

  2. Divination, which makes sense if fate was visualized linearly as a thread, which could be manipulated.

At first this may seem constricted, but seen collectively seiðr comes across as very versatile. It is ascribed to the conjuring of storms, making people vulnerable (or invincible), invisibility, killing, and even driving whole groups of people to suicide.

The gender norms and sexual taboos of Seiðr

In its apparent relation to spinning and textile work, it came to be associated mainly with women, as this was their domain within the Norse household. Textile work also had strong connotations to the concept of fate. As such, women are often ascribed strong intuition – and in the sagas it's not unusual for weaving to be associated with fateful events, and handling textiles sometimes foreshadows a character's death. This form of magic was not merely femininely charged; male practitioners were outright stigmatized, which has led to a lot of scholarly speculation regarding the apparent sexual and gendered content of the magical method.

Seiðr has an element of sexual magic, and it would seem; even gender bending. I've already mentioned the connection between Old Norse skratti “warlock”, scritta meaning “hermaphrodite”, suggestive of gender transgression. However, our main source comes from the mythological poem Loksasenna. When Odin accuses Loki of unmanliness (he had spent eight years as a woman in the underworld, milking cows and making babies), Loki retorts by revealing that Odin himself practiced seiðr: “You struck charms as a seeress [völva], in the likeness of a sorceress [vitka] you traveled above mankind. I consider that the pervert's essence.”(st.24) The accusation here is one of ergi, which is yet another hard to translate term meaning “perversion, fornication, indecency, unmanliness”.

One might justifiably think that it is strange to portray the gods in such a demeaning and compromising way, referring to them as witches, perverts, and throwing accusations that could easily get one killed according to Norse legal conventions. But Norse mythology rarely ascribes moral superiority to the gods. Perhaps their divine nature allows them a double standard that humans may not indulge in. It may also underline the fact that the Odin is an ambivalent, and often untrustworthy god, who repeatedly uses subversive methods to further his gains. 

 

The seiðmaðr as “unmanly man”

The concept of ergi also comes in the form of an adjective, argr, which means “unmanly, dishonest, slothful, soft, cowardly”, and less obvious; “recipient of homosexual penetration”. That is to say, all the things a man was not supposed to be, according to Norse notions of gender. Surprisingly the feminine form örg, does not mean “lesbian”, but “nymphomaniac”. When women are accused of ergi, it is because of lacking sexual self-control or loyalty, not any apparent magical association – as the case is with men. It seems that argr/örg could be interpreted as along the lines of “a socially disruptive compulsion to be sexually penetrated”, due to a quirk in Norse gender norms. Obviously, this definition would at first seem to elude the non-sexual, antisocial aspects of the term. Then again, Norse people were essentialists who tended to work with broad, metaphorical generalizations.

Snarky, ludicrous accusations of sexual deviancy were a common means of defamation in viking society, even tough false allegations of unmanliness could legally get the accuser killed. Sometimes, such accusations are supernatural to underline the stigma. While Norse magic is loaded with the same rigid gender expectations as the rest of society, seiðr was considered explicitly unmanly. Male seiðr-practitioners were worthy of suspicion and contempt, and they tend to be presented as antagonists in the sagas, as if their competency in magic underlined their apparent wickedness, and they are often made examples of by means of humiliating and torturous execution. The culture, as we've already seen, applied different standards to male and female gender roles, and while literary sources tend to consider paganism and magic as generally misguided, female practitioners tend to be portrayed as less disruptive to the social order.

A handful of runic curses also attest to the taboo of male practice. Prominently the runestone DR83 from Sønder Vinge, Denmark, which threatens that whoever disturbs the monument shall be considered “a sodomite and a seiðr-warlock” (serði ok seiðhretti). Something like an occult gay bomb by the look of it, it is clearly meant to deter people from breaking the monument. If the prospect of magic sounds tempting to the modern reader, the inscription implies that male practitioners had an abhorrent status viking age Denmark. Similar curses of magicianship and perversion are attested on the Saleby-stone (VG67) in Sweden, and the Danish Glavendrup-stone (DR20). Suggesting that the power to perform certain forms of witchcraft and magic came at an unacceptable cost in the eyes of common society, or that their very presence was considered destructive. I'm reluctant to use the word superstition, but perhaps we can compare the seiðmaðr to the witches of Africa today, who appear to be more abundant in popular imagination than objective, physical reality, but none the less real to those who believe in them.

Then we are forced to ask why the male practitioner held such a strong position in the Norse imagination, or why there was such a strong element of taboo in seiðr. I recall discussing this with Eldar Heide back when I did my BA, and we came to an interesting analogy to human sexuality – which is full of taboos. That that which is forbidden or suppressed, often becomes an object of fetishization – its allure and power may be proportional to the negative pressure it receives in society. It's not a paradox. For example: Japanese society is famously very formal, and infamous for its double standard in terms of sexuality. A strong emphasis on shame appears to conjure a counterpart: That which has no shame is both powerful and terrifying. Obviously, this is not a complete theory of human sexuality or magic, but it might serve to explain why the seiðmaðr was such a vivid character in a society where the concept of homosexuality, to the extent that such a concept even existed, was very negatively charged.

Seiðr, trance and ecstasy

What is less clear is how (and if) seiðr involved trance-like states, though it is very tempting to think so, as this pertains to certain other forms of Norse magic, which we will return to in a future article about spirits and gandr. If the theory holds true that seiðr was connected to spinning, then we may consider that the act of spinning involves rotation, and is suggestive of movements which could well induce a trance. Spinning around, and walking backwards in circles around a fixed axis, are two attested methods of inducing trance – even shape-shifting – in later Nordic tradition (Heide 2006a: 250). We may indulge in this speculation, though it says nothing conclusive about viking era practices.

Seeresses in the sagas make the claim that they see things other people can not, thought it's not clear how this manifests. In Eiríks saga rauða, spirits appear before the seeress (völva) when a particular poem (kvæði) named Varðlokkur is sung. A trance is not suggested, as she seems mentally present during the entire séance. However, there seems to have been a general notion that spirits come and go through respiratory passages, carrying desired information. Trance could have been associated with the magician's own spirit or free-soul (sometimes referred as hugr, vörðr, or fylgja) leaving the body. In Hrólfs saga kráka, a seiðkona repeatedly yawns as she provides information to her client about the whereabouts of certain people, but the sequence suggests that spirits are are arriving through her respiratory passages through magical attraction, feeding her visions, rather than her personal spirit being engaged in extra-corporeal travel (Heide 2006a: 182). This is in line with the idea that seiðr functioned like an invisible snare or line. None the less, controlled breathing remains perhaps the simplest and most common means of provoking trance-like states all over the world.

 

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Seiðr and narcotic drugs

Finally there is the possibility of drug-induced ecstasy, which by the way is never suggested in any primary source. Its plausibility rests mainly on archaeological finds. Famously, a minute amount of cannabis seeds (less than a single dose, according to a friend) was recovered from the 9th century Oseberg burial, and apparently associated with the older of the two inhumated women who may or may not have been a seeress. Another exciting example comes from Denmark, specifically the Fyrkat grave IV, where a woman was buried with a number of peculiar items: An upcycled box brooch, serving as a container for toxic white lead which may have been used as face paint. Fragments of a decorated iron staff, possibly a wand – a seiðstafr. Pellets of rolled hair, fat and ashes – originally thought to be owl pellets. And finally: A small pouch of poisonous henbane seeds, which may be used both as an anesthetic and narcotic drug that produces “visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight” according to a friend by the name of Wikipedia. The peculiar assembly of items, particularly the fragmented staff, is suggestive of a ritual specialist at the very least.

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

Fyrkat IV, as envisioned by Þórhallur Þráinsson (from Price 2002)

A translation of the seiðr séance from Eiríks saga rauða is available as a supplement on my Patreon. Become a patron to access it.

 

Also in this series:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)
Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)
 

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006a: Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006b: “Spinning seiðr”. In Anders Andrén et. al. (eds.): Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Origins, changes, and interactions. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Vägar till Midgård 8. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. 164-70.

  • Heide, Eldar. 2006c. Manuscript: Seid-seansen i Eiriksoga / Eiríks saga rauða.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2016. (Magic) Staffs in the Viking Age. Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia, Band 27: Wien.

  • Gardeła, Leszek. 2009: A Biography of the Seiðr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions. In L. P. Słupecki, J. Morawiec (eds.), Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, Rzeszów: Rzeszów University, 190-219.

  • Price, Neil S. 2002: The Viking Way. Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. The Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007: Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge.

In Defense of Magic (Norse metaphysics pt.1)

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Hey kid, wanna hear about magic in Viking and medieval Scandinavia? This is the first article in what will eventually be a whole series on magic and metaphysics in the Viking and Norse world. In it, I'll offer explanations and explorations on key subjects and terms, such as galdr (chants and incantations), seiðr (let's just call it “textile-magic” for now) and gandr (spirit emissaries). There will be magical projectiles, incantations, sigils and symbols, voodoo doll-like effigies and fetishes, divination, supernatural sodomy, and the massive can of worms that is runic magic. Dear lord, I will most definitely step on a few toes, but hopefully I will give more than I take away.

The viking and medieval world was full of magic, for protection, harm, to predict future events and communicate with forces and spirits. Naturally, all was integrated into how they made sense of the world around them, which was full of unseen entities. A lot of the terms we'll get into have some level of overlap, and grants us a glimpse of the taboos, beliefs and symbols that shaped their day to day experiences.

I presently aim to cover the most important bits of Viking and medieval magic over a span of several months, but I won't shy away from covering the zany world of contemporary spirituality and new religious movements either. Will there be Nazi occultism? Minoan runic sex cults?? Ancient aliens??? Who knows! It all depends on how far down the rabbit hole I decide to go.

The magic of magic

Now, magic is an extremely fascinating subject, but it is sadly misrepresented (and -understood) in public discourse. This warrants an introductory rant to kick us off, which will also serve to clarify my academic and philosophical stances and biases on the subject.

Firstly, I do not consider the notion of magic to be primitive in itself, but rather a feature of human psychology that may manifest itself in various forms of belief and behavior. The Vikings like any other pre-modern society, was not populated solely by superstitious twits who naively wasted their time and resources on self-deceptive practices that never actually worked. They wholeheartedly did believe in its existence, and they certainly felt that it granted them some benefit. Yet, perhaps not in the way people tend to think. Conversely, absence of witch trials is by no means evidence of a lack of magical thought in modern Western society. There's no need to turn to the occult: As an anthropologist might tell you, you'll find endless examples of pseudo-magical thoughts and practices by throwing a brief glance at the world of business and advertisement.

Fantastic and vivid descriptions of magical wonders, as well as their strange and wacky physical effects, are as old as the hills, and I'm sure that snake oil salesmen and quacks of all sizes have always thrived withi.n our ranks. This doesn't take away from the fact that magic has always encompassed a wide range of functions, ideas, and practices beyond whatever hocus pocus our minds might usually consider magic in a strictest sense. A magician may offer counseling and meditation therapy, strengthen social bonds, give pep-talks, and so on. Besides this, there may be many other culture-specific functions of magic that are difficult to pin down and properly discern. Even in the twilight realm of magic and medicine we find, at the very least, the time-tested and scientifically proven placebo effect. 

If we are to talk about naive magical notions, then basing one's entire perception of magic on, say, Lord of the Rings says more about the modern reader, than it tells us about the witch doctor.

Believers in magic: village idiots of popular histor

Magic is commonly used as a cheap trick to demonstrate a supposed lack of sense and logical thought, particularly in past societies. Contemporary cultures with strong magical traditions, especially the non-industrialized, are thought of as intellectually or philosophically deficient. There's no room for such nonsense, or so we're told, in the world of scientific materialism and Cartesian rationalism. 

Subjectively, I simply don't think this true. Rather, it shows the arrogance of Whig history at its very basest. That is to say: The idea that history is something akin to a bumpy train ride, ever rolling towards inevitable moral truths and intellectual progress. Every year is de facto better than the last, as we await a coming state of societal perfection. I'm no historian of ideas, but people guilty of such thoughts do tend to pity those poor souls unfortunate enough to be born in the horrid, dark chapter of human history colloquially known as the past

 

Such an attitude neither helps us understand how past man thought, nor does it bring us any closer to understanding ourselves (except, perhaps, for shedding light on intellectual snobbery). I am not about to unleash a crackpot narrative of a past paradise, but I will scoff and pass judgment on those who squarely pass water in the faces of the giants whose shoulders they stand on.

 

In my unrewarding struggle to defend past man against slander, the supposed mental simplicity of medieval and ancient people is probably what I hear the most, whether we are debating art, ethics, or religion. Mind you, this does not correlate with low education: There are many academically trained, talented individuals who treat anybody born before the 18th century as downright dumbasses. So it's not characteristic of lacking intelligence or education, by any means – but I do believe it is a distinguishing mark of someone lacking historical literacy, and perhaps a basic grasp of human psychology.

 

I hope I'm not too crass. It's obviously no crime to disagree with (or not care about) the beliefs of people who died ten centuries ago. But it is important to realize, despite any chronologically imbued misanthropy that, anatomically, their brains were no different than ours. It's unlikely that a random person born in the 10th century was any dumber than you, unless you are some kind of genius. Either way, the psychology of magic is probably as old as mankind itself. Irrational as it may seem, there are probably rationally justifiable, Darwinian reasons for its presence in the human brain. It won't ever disappear, but if it should I highly doubt its loss would be an enhancement to human life.

The academic study of the history of magic, it should be noted, is a fairly young and marginal discipline. Traditionally, Old Norse scholarship seemed more interested in how and when to distinguish magic from religion. When reading older works in particular, they often have an ethnographic tinge, and scholars seldom demonstrate any particular interest or competency in the history of magic proper. Luckily, a lot of great research has been published in recent years, which we shall dive into in future parts of this series!

 

The Norse saga of Gautama Buddha

gautama.png

Some time around the year 1250 AD, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonsson laid eyes on one of his court scribes' latest work: It was a brand new saga – or more accurately: an Old Norse retelling of a Latin story, handed down from Greek sources, describing events that happened in the distant land of India a long time ago. They named it Barlaams saga ok Jósafats.

The saga of Barlaam and Jósafat

The story begins with a conservative Indian king who fears that a hip, new spiritual trend will overthrow his authority. His paranoia grows even greater once he hears word of a prophecy foreshadowing the religious conversion of his one and only son. Hoping to secure his legacy, the king puts the young prince in a secluded fortress, hoping he will grow up totally ignorant of outside life. Meanwhile, the king does all he can to pursue hermits, holy men and other spiritual freaks in a futile attempt to drive them out of his realm. One day a hermit named Barlaam approaches the adolescent prince, whose name is Jósafat, and opens his eyes to the compassionate, anti-materialist teachings of Christianity. The prince is baptized in secret, and Barlaam returns to the desert from whence he came. The now infuriated king desperately tries to revert his heir back to the religion of their ancestors, but to no avail. Western spirituality is there to stay. Instead, Jósafat converts the king, accepting Christ on his deathbed. Finally inheriting the kingdom, Jósafat abdicates. He leaves not only his crown but his entire country behind. Preferring the simple life of an ascetic to the luxuries of a king. He wanders the desert to live with his old master Barlaam.

St. Buddha

If the story sounds familiar, it's probably because you've heard parts of it many times before, as the Buddhist story about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, whom most Westerners know simply as «The Buddha». To its Norse audience, the Saga of Barlaam and Jósafat served as a moral commentary on the vanity of material life, with the protagonist turning his back on his earthly kingdom to partake in the Kingdom of Heaven. Actually, the name Jósafat is a severe bastardization of bodhisattva – a title denoting a person who has experienced the enlightenment of Buddhahood, but has sworn to stay behind in the world in order to work for the salvation of all living things.

Nobody knows what medieval Norwegians might have thought about the saga's Buddhist roots. Their only knowledge of India came from fantastic medieval romances, where it was described as a magical place inhabited by monsters and elves. As for Buddhism, they were blissfully unaware of its existence. However, far Eastern Christianity was a staple of medieval folklore: From the Nestorian church in Asia to the legends of Prester John. It was a widely believed that the apostle Thomas had brought Christianity to India after Christ's death, which gave credence to the idea that isolated pockets of early Christians persisting throughout the uncharted East.

The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

From Bengal to Björgvin

Before becoming available to Norwegian audiences in the 13th century, the story had already undertaken an impressive journey: It was brought into Catholic circulation via Greece, who got it through Georgia where it was first adapted to Christianity from an Arabic version in the 10th century. This version had in turn come from Persia. The legend provides an amazing example of how stories can acquire new meanings outside their original contexts as they move across cultures.

The story is not the first Buddhist creation to reach Scandinavia though. In 1956 a small bronze statuette of the Buddha was found in a viking era settlement on the isle of Helgö in Sweden. Produced in North-East India, the figurine depicts him peacefully meditating on a lotus blossom. How did it get there? As far as the vikings are purported to have traveled, it's very unlikely they had any significant contact with Buddhists, if at all. The explanation is probably more mundane, but interesting none the less: Typologically the statue is dated to the 6th century AD, a time when Scandinavians by all accounts lacked sailing technology. Their rowing capabilities allowed them to trade across the North and Baltic seas, but direct contact with the middle east is pretty much out of the question. Of course, I cannot leave this without addressing the unfortunately named «Buddha bucket» of the Oseberg burial, as well as similar examples from various viking era burials. Don't let anybody fool you: they are Irish, not Indian in origin. The Helgö Buddha is a genuine example though, but it was likely a centuries old antique by the time it reached Sweden, having made its way North on a slow journey that took it generations to complete. Which is pretty impressive in itself. I wonder what they must have thought of it! 

Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.

Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.