Midgard Calling: The Role of Norse Culture in Metal

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Norse; adjective, relating to ancient or medieval Norway or Scandinavia group.

Vikingnoun, any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders who raided and settled in many parts of NW Europe in the 8th-11th centuries. From Old Norse víkingr, from vík ‘creek’ or Old English wīc ‘camp, dwelling place’.

Pardon me this dry, linguistic prelude, but the language here is important. As ever, it, or rather its usage, points towards the ideas the words represent and the ways in which ideas are conflated, interchanged and intertwined. Case in point, the two words above. Think; when was the last time someone said “norse” to you? Let alone “Norse culture”. Instead, the term used to describe a specific medieval people has been subsumed by a wholly different term, one which, at best, relates to a specific kind of occupation or state of life (very few vikings were actual, professional vikings). Viking has come to be the Norse experience, the only mode in which a diverse and complex people have come to be remembered. The word (as always) carries it with a specific image, a singular idea of what that experience was. Worse, that image is of a violent barbarian, a cold, ruthless invader come to do nothing but pillage and rape.

Metal has, sadly, played a distinct and central role in this conflation of ideas between “viking” and “norse”. By endlessly drawing from a single pool of images to describe these historical people, the same pool available to all of popular culture, it has reinforced, elaborated and cemented the image of the Norse as the ironclad marauder. The viking, in actuality a probably destitute and desperate person pushed from the liminal spaces of their society, forced to risk their life in order to sustain themselves, is depicted as a blood-hungry savage, intent on killing. In reality, vikings prefered quick sojourns on land with as much loot as possible while minimizing combat. Regardless, metal has chosen to view them as some omnipresent, ever threatening and efficient mercenary force, intent on as much damage as possible while holding a certain aloof and superior view towards mainland Europeans, hunting them like dogs.

“Kneel before my sword! No mercy! Your time has come to die! This is the ride for vengeance!”

When it turned its eyes to Norse mythology, a rich and expressive body of literary work, metal did even worse. It chose to emphasize its violent aspects without putting them into the social context in which they were written. By doing so, it has created the perception that violence is all: not only is it the actual face of the Norse, it is also the figurative and cultural virtue by which they lived and died. It also inherited from popular culture the fixation with the concept of Valhalla and the warrior’s death, ideas that, while important, encompassed only a small part in how a person should live within Norse culture. It certainly had nothing to do with deliverance, salvation or honor as metal so often insists that it does. By cutting down Norse culture to size, metal has crafted a monolithic society where a complex one actually existed.

“Valhalla – Deliverance. Why have you ever forgotten me?”

Although raiding and violence were of course a dominant part of life in medieval times, it was far from the only aspect of Norse culture, although to downplay its role in said culture would also be a mistake. Put simply, categorizing the Norse exclusively as barbarian warriors simplifies what is, perhaps, the most impressive and influential European culture of medieval times. The Norse peoples, from the mid-8th century to the early 12th (e.g., the pre-Christianized vikings), were excellent traders and explorers – they are the only Europeans at that point who would have known the existence of the cultures of North America (who in their language were called skraelings), who amassed incredible amounts of coinage, both from the Islamic empire of the Middle East, and other European nations, and traveled the world with their incredibly advanced shipbuilding technology. What many people don’t realize about the Norse economy at the time is that being a reputable trader, one known for being shrewd and intelligent in their business dealings, could garner one just as much praise and renown as being a commanding and intimidating warrior.

Although their literature was lacking in the early medieval period, due to their use of a Runic alphabet, we have been able to glean a large amount of information from the sagas of the 13th and 14th century on their pagan traditions. These are robust and omnipresent in viking life. Perhaps most telling in their relationship with their deities is the way they viewed them as people, best exemplified in a paraphrased quote from one of the most famous of viking warriors, the savage rogue Egil Skallagrimsson. He decries Odin almost to the point of mocking him, and says he only worships Odin for a very telling reason: the god has given Egil the gift of poetry. Poetry was a very important aspect of Norse culture, and one of the signs of a truly great man was his ability to compose verse. One man is given the gift by Thor to “compose as fast as he can speak,” an amazing virtue and a phenomenal gift to these people.

odinCover to “The Illuminated Edda” by Andrew Valkauskas, depicting Odin hanging from Yggdrasil for nine days to gain knowledge of the runes.
There’s a price for everything in Norse mythology.

These are just a few aspects of Norse life, and they certainly aren’t the signs of a barbaric people whose existence is rooted in violence as much as they are facets of a nuanced, rich culture, one that is criminally misunderstood in the modern day, especially in metal circles, because of the fixation on the “big blond barbarian” stereotype. Bands like those previously mentioned have (excuse the crude expression) drunk the lake of Norse culture and pissed out a cup, filtering out unnecessarily complex views of the vikings to proliferate the image that helps them sell their concept.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. There exist several artists and bands within metal and its adjacent genres that work not only to represent Norse culture correctly but also to disseminate it to people around the world. These acts draw on the myriad atmospheres, influences and themes found in Norse texts to create a different image. While it is still decidedly dark and brooding, as Norse creations tend to be, it’s also enchanting, deep and beautiful. It remarks on life and death, on law, love, family and fear. It is a mythology in the full sense of the word, stories and images meant to comment on and make sense of impossible aspects of human existence. As a result, these artists are able to create something much richer and more convincing, a whole world which thought about life differently from ours. With their music, they manage to partially get across these perceptions and ideas, echoing what is often their own heritage.

It’s not possible to review all of these excellent artists here as, gladly, there are many of them. However, there’s one major act that’s currently in operation which we’d like to delay on, exploring what it is that makes them great in general and in relation to Norse culture. We’ve spoken about this project in the past and it’s called Skuggsjá. It’s comprised of Ivar Bjørnson (Enslaved) & Einar Selvik (Wardruna) and has etched on its flagstaff the intention to reeducate and reinform people on the various subtleties of Norse mythology and culture. Through its music, live shows and workshops, Skuggsjá shines a light on forgotten tales and elements of what it meant to be Norse, sifting from the popular image the core of truth, of a more varied way of life. Themes revolve around memory, agriculture, justice, death, love and existence itself.

The musical style combines the progressive black metal antics of Enslaved, with the distinct high pitched growling of Grutle Kjellson (Enslaved) comprising a backing vocals role, and the traditional tools of Wardruna, themselves influenced by Norse music. These add an epic and emotional vibe to the black metal trappings, perhaps echoing the beginning of this oft-misunderstood genre. The album also dips into darker places with tracks like “Bøn Om Ending Bøn om Byrjing” or “Tore Hund”, digging deeper into the folk roots of the music. Overall, it’s an enchanting and challenging journey, mimicking an oral tale from the sagas, as it begins with primordial god Ull’s appearance and ends with his departure. However, and perhaps most important for our needs, the lyrics often steal the show. We’ve been more than privileged to receive English translations from the band themselves, as the lyrics on the album itself are in Norwegian:

Mirror (Skuggsjá)
time to be silent
the stillness to confine
in the mirror ask
in the mirror seek
high we have climbed – in a rootless tree
high we have built – on baseless grounds
The foggy mist thickens – all is white
The foggy mist thickens – all is black
Mirror I see you in me
the path becomes clearer
by echoes – you show the way
silence speaks
Mirror I see you in me
the will awakens
in echoes – you show the way
the mind remembers
It´s time to speak
step out of the foggy mist
fight for the truth
stand up for truth
remember he who forced his beliefs
with cross and blade
remember he who forced beliefs
with sword and deceit
with strength of one thousand years – I say
with strength of one thousand years – I sing
Mirror I see you in me
REST IN BELITTLEMENT
In echoes you show the way
REST IN BELITTLEMENT

So many great elements are contained within this one track. First, the importance of memory. In Norse mythology, Memory (one of Odin’s ravens) is more than just the act of reflection but one of the basic forces which create the world. To remember something and retell it, is to reinforce its existence and reality. Think about that: your memory is a fickle thing and so, mirroring it, is reality. When we speak the truth, we step out of fog, out of unreality (or the “gap of Ginnunga”, the yawning gap, the void) and into firmness, into reality. That’s why Norse culture placed so much emphasis on direct speech and memorization. Not because they were simple, brutal and gruff but because truth was of utmost importance to them.

Secondly, this track speaks of the introspection which is so important to Norse culture. The entire dialogue is between a man and his reflection and from this discourse, he derives morality, meaning and purpose. This is true for the rest of the album as well, where inward journeys lead to exterior knowledge. In general, knowledge was something that Norse culture held in high regard, with many of the figures in the sagas being lawyers, scholars and wise rulers. The gods themselves are often depicted as sitting in council, like in the first poem from the Poetic Edda (one of the most important collections of Norse mythology, this time from Iceland), a poem called “Völuspá” and translated here into song:

Vitkispa
For silence I pray
all sacred children,
great and small,
sons of Heimdall,
they will that I Valfather’s
deeds recount,
men’s ancient saws,
those that I best remember
Then went the reigning powers
to their governing-seats,
the all-holy gods,
and thereon held council
The sun darkens,
earth in ocean sinks,
fall from heaven
the bright stars,
fire’s breath assails
the all-nourishing tree,
towering fire plays
against heaven itself.
Then went the reigning powers
to their governing-seats,
the all-holy gods,
and thereon held council
Loud bays Garm
before the Gnipa-cave,
his bonds he rends asunder;
and the wolf runs.
Further forward I see,
much can I say
of Ragnarök
and the gods’ conflict
Brothers shall fight,
and slay each other;
cousins shall
kinship violate.
Trembles Yggdrasil’s
ash yet standing;
groans that aged tree,
and the jötun is loosed
She sees arise,
a second time,
earth from ocean,
beauteously green,
waterfalls descending;
the eagle flying over,
which in the fell
captures fish.

Here we see another event which is often twisted by modern culture, Ragnarok, the end times as envisioned in the Norse mythology. Contrast this to Amon Amarth‘s work on Twilight of the Gods: gods do battle and only battle, washing the seas and land red with blood on top of a background that wouldn’t shame a Michael Bay movie. In reality, Ragnarok is a time of decline, of opposites and of chaos. There is battle to be certain, but there are also great speeches, confusion, duels of poetry, art and thought. Portrayed well in the song above, this can seen as indicative of the interesting and complex background which informed Norse perceptions of combat: it’s not about combat itself, it’s about victory, truthfulness and justice. If combat can lead to any of these then by all means let it take place but it is not the only way to reach those things and often, it is the least efficient.

When it comes down it, A Piece for Mind and Mirror accomplishes not accuracy of Norse culture but a vivid and engaging representation of it. We’re not asking artists to write academic tracts instead of music but we are asking for that music to be ingrained in the actual instruments, methods and images that the Norse used. We believe that by adhering closer to these elements, or at least by drawing from the common pool created by this rich culture, the music can in turn be enlivened and inspired, becoming more than monochrome iterations of tired concepts and tried and true formulas.

There’s a lot more that can be said here; this is by no means an exhaustive study. Norse culture is too complex to address accurately in a post, or even two. However, we hope we have been able to shed some light on the intricate role it plays within metal and how it is often misrepresented. There are plenty of other bands out there who do it well: Enslaved or Myrkur come to mind but I’m sure that there are more that can be listed. The important thing here is that we remember that cultures are tricky things to pin point and none of them were ever monolithic: there doesn’t exist a single culture out there that can be reduced to one trait, one occupation or one world view. When we force them into these templates, we lose a lot of the beauty and richness that they can provide us, lose a lot of the ways in which they can teach us to be different. In order to study other ways of seeing the world, different paths on which we can walk, one must needs first look at the cultural maps with as unbiased an eye as possible. Metal can either obscure those maps or elucidate them with its words and music. Just like a Norse skald could.

-EK&SH

Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.






3 thoughts on “Midgard Calling: The Role of Norse Culture in Metal

  1. Colin Stensrud Reply

    Great article! That’s Grutle Kjellson from Enslaved on harsh vocals however, Ivar enlisted him and Cato Bekkevold to help him with the album

    • Eden Reply

      Interesting, thanks for the correction!

  2. Daniel Parkins Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. Very well written and researched. I’ve always enjoyed how you guys here delve a little more into the background of certain music. As someone with an interest in norse culture and their mythology I’ve had a hard time finding music that coincides with how I picture their society. Definitely will be checking out the album.

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