“Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia” by Varg Vikernes

Varg Vikernes studying or praying

Over the years, it’s become abundantly clear that black metal began as a movement for paganism. The more history that comes to light, i.e., the more Varg Vikernes gives interviews, the more black metal emerges as a right-wing neo-heathen response to European neo-liberalism – despite the satanic obsessions of Euronymous and everyone who came after Mayhem [i]. If Mr. Vikernes happened to come across my review, he probably stopped reading at the phrase black metal. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia has absolutely nothing to do with black metal. For fans of the music like me, it can serve as a glimpse into the genre’s zeitgeist, but the book is made specifically by its author to “only be interesting to those with an interest in Norse mythology and ancient European history […] It has nothing to do with Burzum, music, politics or anything else for that matter” (Burzum.org)[ii]. Indeed, Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia really is designed to only be a primer for Norse religious theories as developed by Varg Vikernes. At times, the text borders on the poetic; at others, it approaches the boringly pedantic, and still others, the mystical and overwhelmingly speculative.

It seems as if Mr. Vikernes has mulled over the nuances of pagan mythology for most of his life. The text is a bundle of re-hashed and personalized Norse myths. It reads as if those stories were internally recited, prayed through, and fantastically imagined ad infinitum. Often, the writing creates near poetic prose. To give just one example, there’s the tale of a bersrkr sorcerer:

This sorcerer, most commonly known as bersrkr (“bear-skins”) or ulfheioinin (“wolf leathers”), stored his own life force in an egg, a box, a tree, an animal or somewhere else, and used the life force of the animal instead, or he wore the life force of the animal outside his own, as protection, leaving himself virtually invulnerable […] We know of this totemic idea from the myth about the death of Baldr, but also from fairy tales, for example in an egg, in a duck, in a well on an island far, far away. Before the hero can kill the protagonist and save the princess, he must find the egg and crush it [iii].

For fans of his music, the gripping descriptions will hark back to the amazing re-telling of Baldr and Hadnur’s tragic arrow included as a text alongside the release of 1999’s Hliðskjálf [iv]. It’s also worth

Stylized portrayal of a sorcerer

noting that near the end of Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia, there’s a great rendition of the Völuspá stanzas from the Edda. It’s of a similar poetic ilk in that Vikernes uses his literary imagination to reshape the runes. Varg skillfully connects each stanza to runes and burial mound secret societies. In many ways, his theory about the Völuspá is the main idea of the entire book. While he claims he spent “no time trying to make the English translation of these verses poetic,” the result is the same: it’s surrealistically powerful, almost reminiscent of Ezra Pound [v]. The translation was also used for a recent Burzum album entitled Umskiptar, but I’m missing the point now by discussing music.

A similar poetic effect occurs through a literary trope Vikernes often uses. In the text, a god’s name is immediately followed by that name’s literal translation in quotes and parentheses. Suttungr becomes (“new concerns,” “young sickness”), Freya (“spare,“ “free,” “love”), Bolporn (“bad shoot,” “bad branch,” “painful thorn”), and Vali (“chosen,” “fallen”)[vi]. These lengthy parenthetic titles are frequent throughout the book; there are even multiple instances in single paragraphs. What this does, whether knowingly or subconsciously by Varg, is provide another avenue into understanding the god and the story, and to create a brief moment where that religious aspect is suspended in time through the power of a phrase.

Unfortunately, the purpose of Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia is not to write prose based on mythology. Its aim seems to be an encyclopedic intro to one man’s vision of a religion. However, that isn’t the purpose Vikernes gives. In the prologue, he says, “my hypotheses in this book are based on the claim that all the tribes of Ancient Europe originally had the same religion, whether they lived in Europe or had emigrated to North-Africa or different parts of Asia”[vii]. Now, maybe I’m misinterpreting the author. Perhaps he just means his book depends upon the theory that all Ancient Europeans had the same religion. Or maybe he intends his book’s hypotheses to be tested and proved in order to validate the claim of a single origin-point of European spirituality. In any case, the claim is never again discussed – for whatever reason.

And it is quite wise the author never returns to the subject. It is a fact that Ancient European tribes and races traveled extensively throughout the world. The biggest – and popish – recent example comes to us from China’s Tarim mummies or the so-called Chinese Celtic mummies [viii]. These were Bronze Age Celts circa 1000 BC discovered in a Western China desert. Now imagine how far into Asia – and elsewhere – Scandinavian tribes could have traveled around the time, especially since Celts managed to make it to China’s Tarim Basin. Similarly, there’s the whole issue of Europeans originally populating North America and South America by crossing the Bering Land Bridge in roughly 20,000 BC. I wonder at what point one says a race is strictly Scandinavian and European as opposed to Indo-Aryan, North American, Caucasian, or Chinese – let alone recognize the fact that their religions must have crossed paths and evolved.

The error in trying to find the one true religion is like the fallacy of the first cause or Zeno’s arrow paradox. There’s always another miniscule step back and when it comes to the history of peoples, attempting to find the primum movens of religion will necessarily be muddy, mixed up, and worthless. To understand this, one must ask a few rhetorical questions: if you found the religion of Europe in 1000 BC, then why not go back and find the one from 20,000 BC? And why not also include the religion of all those travelers scattered across the globe who were a part of Neolithic European tribes? Clearly, those travelers would have mixed their religion with local cultures at some point in time. After thousands of years of migration, spiritual information must have been passed to families back home and then mixed with native religions. Thus, the end result of such theorizing truly is muddy, mixed up, and worthless. On the other hand, when you’re confronted with an amateur writer and convicted murderer who’s fortunately devoted his life to studying a culture, the question of academic rigor doesn’t really matter much. While his background has no relation to the validity of his ideas and attacking any speaker is fallacious, one must recognize that scholarly research may not be an appropriate tool for such a man.

Yet, the methodology of Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia is mostly sound and proto-academic. One sees this in the way Vikernes analyzes sorcerers. Varg makes numerous simple assumptions about Norse magicians. He thinks

Olmec sculpture of a were-jaguar in mid-transformation

they made little distinction between physical-visible reality and spiritual-invisible realms; they thought they could undergo physical transformations into animals as well as divine entities; the sorcerer’s activities were influenced by contemporary religious beliefs of the time; and thus, we must today interpret sorcerers’ rituals based on myths that have been passed down to us through the ages [ix]. There is nothing speculative about such methods. In fact, this is what normal academics do when studying history. As an example, one should observe the way Olmecs are studied. Little is known about the 4,000 year-old Mesoamerican civilization. Instead, scholars will see a sculpture of a half-man, half-jaguar and conclude that Olmec shamans thought that they could turn into jaguars [x]. Indeed, such a hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that jaguar worship was passed down to later cultures that actually wrote down and inscribed their beliefs about jaguars, e.g., the Mayans [xi]. In some cases, Vikernes does nothing out of the ordinary in analyzing Scandinavian religion despite gentle interpretive leaps of faith.

But there are other points where his speculative nature gets out of hand. For example, when analyzing kings of Norse patriarchy, Vikernes states – not claims – that:

The king swore his oath, and with all his force cut a wooden idol with his sword. The scar in the idol would remind everybody of his promise, and if the sword got stuck in the idol and he could not get it out, he lost his title. The challenger with the second best record would then be allowed to pull out the sword, and if he succeeded he would become king instead […] We know this tradition vaguely from the British myth about King Arthur […] in the age of sorcery, the old king himself was killed by the new”[xii].

The statement cited above would certainly be shocking if true, but unfortunately, it cannot possibly be proven[xiii]. This isn’t the philosophizing of The Golden Bough or of Jungian archetypes; this is just arbitrarily assigning a random myth to explain a fantasy about the Norse state’s origins. Most historians would simply leave it at the fact that sacrifices occurred during Scandinavia’s Bronze Age and people performed rituals associated with female and male anthropomorphic beings as well as kings.

Despite the occasional foray into complete fantasy, there is much here that is ordinary and banal. In many ways, Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia functions like a basic coffee shop introduction to Norse mythology; it even goes so far as to list basic calendars, rituals, gods, and runes. I imagine that there are numerous bits of the book that would drive a typical historian mad, but for me, I recognize the essential myths and find the poetic vision and interpretive power of Vikernes invigorating. While he changes many deities’ names and has his own peculiar version of all things, Varg really does have a knack for making almost-forgotten tales come alive through reverence and awe. The height of his descriptive power is probably reached when discussing daily rituals or “The Mysteries.”[xiv] Portrayals of the everyday world and holidays become so vivid that every word is painful; one realizes through a vision of that joyous golden age just how much we’ve lost.

Perhaps, scholars will one day find a use for such a text – probably whenever they’re able to look beyond the violent background of its author. And now that we’re on the subject, the book does lack the bias one would expect from Count Grishnackh. His church burnings in the name of Vikings and activities associated with the Heathen Front once made him a bastion for radical right pagans – to the extent that he’s discussed in one of the few academic works on the subject, e.g., Nicolas Goodrick-Clarke’s 2003 Black Sun [xv]. There is one instance of Varg’s famous anti-Christian viewpoint on page 25: “when the early Christians failed to eradicate the European customs, holidays and symbols they simply Christianized them and made them their own” [xvi]. This is, of course, literally true, but fails to take into account the inevitable blending of religious ideas that would in turn crush the assumptions of the text. At the very least, Vikernes’ poetic prose makes Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia far superior to any run of the mill Norse mythology textbook.

Rating: 4/5
Written by Pomo Brian
Author Link: www.burzum.org
Publisher: Abstract Sounds Books Ltd.
Publisher City and Country: London, UK
Publisher Link: www.abstractsoundspublishing.com
Standard Edition Paperback: ABSB042
ISBN: 978-0-9566959-3-2
Format: Paperback
Year: 2011

i. Despite all the bashing he receives and his excessive exaggerations, I agree with Michael Moynihan’s main point that black metal was essentially a new Wild Hunt or “untempered form of resurgent atavism,” see Moynihan’s now infamous 1998 Lords of Chaos, p. 207
ii. Quote from the 2011 Burzum website page entitled “Paganism: Part XVII – Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia”
iii. Vikernes 2011, p. 17
iv. See Burzum.org, http://www.burzum.org/eng/discography/official/1999_hlidskjalf.shtml
v. Vikernes 2011, p. 60
vi. Vierknes 2011, pp. 32 – 34
vii. Vikernes 2011, p. 6
viii. Reference to the 2006 article on the Tarim mummies by The Independent entitled “A meeting of civilisations: The mystery of China’s celtic mummies”
ix. Vikernes 2011, pp. 10 – 14
x. See Peter Furst’s 1968 “The Olmec Were-Jaguar Motif in the Light of Ethnographic Reality” in Benson’s Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec
xi. See George E. Stuart and Gene S. Stuart’s 1977 The Mysterious Maya
xii. Vikernes 2011, p. 23
xiii. Despite having taught the legend of King Arthur and the Middle Ages, I have never come across such an explanation and if anyone can cite his sources, then I’ll humbly stand in error
xiv. Vierknes 2011, pp. 30 – 50
xv. See Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s 2003 Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity, p. 205.
xvi. Vikernes 2011, p. 25

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Categories: Books, Reviews

6 Comments on ““Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia” by Varg Vikernes”

  1. 17th May 2012 at 20:53 #

    Very interesting article. I haven’t bought the book (yet?) because I feel I don’t know enough about Old Norse universe – be it spiritual or cultural – to always judge Varg’s assessments. I’m not willing to be influenced by statements that would reveal to be unproven, if not wrong.
    However, I assume it is a book that should be read like many esoteric books (that’s why I’m buying few of them), i.e. like a point of view on a topic revealing self-experience, but which sometimes needs to me adjusted to fit other people’s mind.

  2. 16th June 2012 at 16:39 #

    Interesting article. However, I must point out one fallacy: the Tarim Mummies are in no way proven to be of Celtic origin. Rather, they are believed to be the remnants of another Indo-European culture, most likely the long extinct Tocharian one (whose language interestingly enough belong to the Centum-family of IE-languages, in other words languages that are otherwise found in western Eurasia, hence the likeness to “Celtic”).

    Concerning Varg, he is indeed very knowledgeable when it comes to European myths, but as always, he should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Cultures and groups of people have dispersed, migrated, intermingled and moved back and forth a whole lot since pre-historical times. Sadly enough, their more recent and historically recorded remains from antiquity are turned into spearheads for political endeavours.

  3. 21st December 2012 at 16:00 #

    The idea that black metal began as an attempt to resurrect paganism is sheer nonsense. BM existed long before Varg and Co. hit the scene. Even the over-rated Norsecore scene was pretty much a reaction to Bermuda shorts death and thrash metal ala Anthrax and had little to do with politics or religion other than exploiting them for their shock value (eg Euronymous and his love for Commie dictators etc.). The idea that these kids struggling so hard to be “evil” had any loftier purpose in mind is a total re-write of history.

  4. 28th December 2012 at 04:05 #

    didn’t Ross Bay precede all the pagan nonsense? Karen has the right idea.

  5. 5th January 2013 at 21:42 #

    Karen, then why burn down churches to explicitly negate their anti-heathen history? Why take potshots at McDonalds? Why support Commie dictators? Why the consistent alliance with the extreme right throughout numerous early BM bands? No. To say that there was no loftier purpose is nonsense. You should listen to them and read them more. If you want to talk about Swedish first wave trash, then fine. I personally only think of that as thrash. But I’m talking about the locus of Norwegian black metal in all its glory.

    Bjorn, you are absolutely right about the Tarim mummies. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Indo-European, Indo-Aryan ancestry is sadly lacking even though I have seen the mummies in person, but the point remains the same: ancient cultures obviously traveled extensively throughout the tens of thousands of years prior to the first civilizations and empires – essentially muddying Varg’s points.

  6. 16th August 2013 at 08:35 #

    Black metal did not began to elucidate European Paganism. That’s a crock of shit. You’re into what you’re into; fine. That’s your right as a human being first and an American second but always use your critical thinking when you can.

    An opener like this is no different from any other peddler trying to push something on those who know less.

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