An Interview with Heathen Harnow
Heathen Harnow has come forth from the dark forests of Scandinavia to bring the world soundtracks for Heathen ceremonies and stories of elves and trolls. Here is an individual who has danced with the forest creatures in the dark of the night, felt with his own hands the carving of ancient Rune stones, and heard the raven’s cry. Heathen Harnow is one person’s gift to the world, a proverbial Heimdall’s horn that announces not Ragnarok, but the end of this world where we have lost our connection with the natural spirits of the lands we inhabit. Originally known for his photographs of scenery from the Scandinavian countryside and its surrounding forests, in time he has added music and more to his repertoire. Here are a few words from the one behind the photos and the songs, who resides behind the elven mask of our ancient dreams.
HH: What does the name Heathen Harnow mean to you, and what does it mean to be a Heathen?
Heathen Harnow: I started to use the name Heathen Harnow some years ago when I got on Tumblr for the very first time. Over the years, I have thought about possibly changing the word Heathen into the Swedish or Icelandic form, but yet so far the English version has remained, and I guess it will stay like that in the future as well because that is how people know me now.
In regards to the first part of your question: I have always been interested in the history, religion and culture of my home, Scandinavia, and as I have also lived my life surrounded by runestones, by typical Scandinavian landscape and far away from modern cities, I have also been interested in learning more about it. And so I have, and I have to say that since I started to do that, I have come to understand life better and to see it in a very different light. For example, destiny: I believe that everything that happens in my life, whether it’s good or bad, has a meaning and a purpose. Something that is beyond my power to control. This has also helped me in “darker times”, to just understand that there is a purpose to why bad things happen as well, that you should see it as a lesson instead of something that is entirely negative. If you look to Christianity on this they tend to see the world in black and white, that all the good things are made by God, and that the evil things that happen are caused by Satan, but I don’t believe in a world where everything has just two sides.
So to say it more straightforward, to believe in destiny is something that gives me strength and which helps me overcome the adverse things in my life more quickly. Overall, I also use the Hávamál and the Asatro-stories as a sort of guidance through my life, but just like with all stories bound to religion you have to look deeper within them to understand what they really say. I could go on for days and days about how the Asatro have helped me to understand and find meaning in my life, but I guess this sums up the meaning of “Heathen” within the name. The second part of the name, Harnow, is a name which was created by a Danish ancestor as a family name. I don’t know if there is a meaning behind it, if it is a combination of different words, but I have fallen in love with it, also because of the originality and the knowledge that only people within my family tree carry this name. These two names together sum up who I am and I guess that is why I chose it in the very first place. Although I have to admit that back when it was chosen it was mostly out of an interest for heathen things, but over time it has grown to have a deeper meaning.
Many today associate heathenism with Vikings and such things, but what we must not forget is that heathen is also a word that associates the person with being close to nature as it originally means “Heath dweller”. I also think those words fit very well with me, as most of my art is of the nature and the surroundings of my home. I would also consider myself an anti-modernist, and there is nothing that makes me more depressed and uninspired than to be in a large modern city. Everything is just so cold, so dead, filled with concrete and asphalt.
However, I think that the first thing most people think of today when they hear the word heathen is “One who worships the old gods”, but that doesn’t necessarily have to do with Vikings either; rather it is to just believe in the old folklore, to believe in nature spirits and never really abandon them or the old Asatro. I guess that these two things are the kinds of heathenism that my art is mostly about and also, in my opinion, what it means to be a heathen.
HH: What does Asatro (here it is usually spelled Asatru) mean to you?
Heathen Harnow: You know, when it comes to Asatru or “forn sed” as it also is known, you can’t say today that you worship the old gods and then make it exactly like they did thousands of years ago. In order to survive, traditions change and so does religion. I can look in the Edda, the Hávamál, and all of the stories and books and still see similar things to today and how good it fits.
I don’t really know if I can say that I sit down and worship the old gods in that manner, although I have to confess it has happened on occasion. However, I guess I’ve sacrificed a lot of myself and I guess that is the kind of sacrifice that the gods want to see the most.
HH: You say that you are anti-modernist, yet Tumblr has been the major mode of expression for your various art forms, and as I recall your music is mainly created using computers. How do you balance this with your views?
Heathen Harnow: The final recording is made by computers yes, but all the songs are composed and written at my piano. Maybe anti-modernist was the wrong phrase to use, I didn’t really know what kind of word to describe it, as I am not against any kind of art form, whether it is electronic or with computers or the like. What I mean, however, is that I feel really bad when visiting larger cities, and now I don’t mean any city at all, I mean the larger ones (London, NYC, etc.). I guess it’s maybe a bit hard for an American to imagine as most cities there are quite large, but what I mean is cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. So many people and so much stress. I like it better among the trees, I have to say, and I also hate how modern cities are built with stone and concrete.
Like I said, I think anti-modernist may have been the wrong word, as what I am against is the large cities overall, and I also hate the society we live in today, where everyone is so much in need of each other. I mean, it is like the state is controlling your every move, and if you look deeper into it, you are not free, especially if you live in a city because then there are places you can’t go to and roads you can’t go down. It is like a huge living jail, at least if you ask me, but in the forest I find solitude, and there I find freedom.
My future dream is actually to live here at this farm, or gård as it is known in Swedish, and then crop my own vegetables, have my own animals, and just survive by myself and then make some extra money out of my art.
HH: Are you mainly a hermit, or do you have some close friends or family to share this dream with?
Heathen Harnow: I would consider myself a hermit, yes. My studies have taken over most of my time lately. The last time I went to see my friends in Norrköping was in December 2013.
I’d love to start up a real farm. It’s just a large step, to get away from everything, so I guess everything should be prepared and worked towards with a slow process, but eventually I hope it will be so.
HH: Do you care to go into more detail over how your music is created? You mention first it starts with piano, is this an upright or a keyboard or anything of the sort? Do you record your piano tracks directly then master them? What other processes do you use to create your music?
Heathen Harnow: Usually all my songs come out of a little melody in my head, and I usually have little melodies in my head every time I come home from the outside. Sometimes, if I think I can make something out of them, or if they are simply stuck there, then I sit down by my upright acoustic piano and record it all in low quality on my phone. This is just to keep for myself to remember this melody and maybe keep on working with it some other time. It might happen that I sit down again and try to write further on it, it all depends on what kind of song it is. However, I’ve been sitting very much at the piano writing songs for this coming album, which I also think can be heard as it will be much more melodic than the previous EP, Flykt. I often wait a little before going to my little mini-studio to write down the song there, but once I’m there, I often add little melodies and such which couldn’t have been possible to play on the piano, or that I’ve simply just had in my mind during that time.
In general, I try to not listen to so many known bands anymore, and those which I do actually listen to are old ones which I have been listening to for a long time. But no, I’m not trying to look for new bands for inspiration. Something that I feel very inspired from, however, is a lot of classical musicians. I’ve grown up with classical music as my father plays cello and we often listened to all of those classical composers who played with so much passion. So yes, I think that is the main musical inspiration now when it comes to new ideas and such; mainly I try to find myself in the silence of the forest and the fields, to search within myself for what kinds of melodies come to my mind.
HH: Your Tumblr account is fairly well-known, both for your photographs and your writing. Do you consider yourself a writer first, a musician first, or a photographer first, or are all of these different mediums equal forms of expression? How did you get started with Tumblr, and at what point did the music happen? Is the music essentially a soundtrack for your words and pictures?
Heathen Harnow: It’s actually difficult to decide whether I’m a writer, musician, or photographer. So I would just summarize all of that up into the term “artist”. The only thing that I actually am educated in with regards to these subjects is music. I also used to play in a metal band, but I guess we all just had very different ideas, and in the end I didn’t feel like it was my kind of music anymore. I have always been very interested in atmosphere and not so much heaviness, speed, etc. However, while I was still in the band, I remember getting one of those newer smartphones. I actually have never been the kind of person who cares for such things, but as my old phone broke, it became necessary to get a new one and I thought “why not get one of those smart phones”. So I did, and I also really enjoyed the little camera in it. As I was already walking often in the forest at this point, I began to take pictures. The reason why I opened a Tumblr account was actually that I was sitting home by my friend and he had just signed up for it himself. That said, some weeks before that, another friend had shown me this website and I really liked the idea of it, but then I forgot the name. As soon as I came home later that evening I created a Tumblr account, and that is also–as I said previously–the moment when the name “Heathen Harnow” first came to me.
I have always been a musician, but maybe just not in regards to the music I’m making today, but by that time I was very much an individual as well, I have to say, but as I have learned to avoid the things that make me angry, I have also grown tired of the music that is fueled by that anger. Instead, I have fallen in love with more calm and atmospheric things, and the idea of making music as well came when I was watching this dark ambient band called Draugurinn at Arosian Black Mass in Västerås, Sweden back in 2012. I felt this impression of “Ahh, this is really my kind of music”. I had heard Wardruna before, but it was not until this moment where I really felt that this was the kind of music I wanted to do–although I have to agree that the music later came to sound more like Wardruna. I know a more traditional “Heathen Harnow” sound can be heard on the songs of the new album, but yes, Wardruna and Draugurinn have been huge influences. Not, of course, when it comes to the subject of the songs, but for the very sound of the music itself.
Eventually I decided to get a mac computer as this was the kind of computer we used during my music education, and then I started to write. I have to say, it was a bit hard in the beginning, as it was a whole new genre, so in the beginning I also felt very doubtful as to whether this really was the music I wanted to create, or if I had all the possibilities to express different feelings, but I have grown better with time and still I know that there is a lot left to learn and many more directions towards which to develop. It feels good to work on my own project and not have four others around me all the time. Surely you can develop great things then as well, but it also slows the process a bit, as you all have to agree on the way forward.
My music is in a way a soundtrack for my photographs, but at the same time it is in a class of its own. There are indeed different things which I try to say with all three art forms, and today I wouldn’t say that any is more important the other.
HH: What are the different things you are trying to express?
Heathen Harnow: The differences are quite small, but if I do music, I can choose for the theme of a song to be about something which I would never be able to take a photograph of. It’s hard to explain, but all of my creations work with each other, and the very best thing is when I take a photo, write a text about it, and later that text becomes the inspiration for a song.
HH: What was the name of your metal band?
Heathen Harnow: The name of the metal band was Eingana.
HH: What kinds of instrumentation will be featured on the new album?
Heathen Harnow: Overall the instrumentation will be the same, but I still think that the listeners will hear a big difference compared to previous releases. To just say a few things, it will be with a bit of a faster tempo, and much more melodic than it was before. But there will of course also be some calmer and more atmospheric songs as well.
HH: Do you have any label interest for the new album?
Heathen Harnow: No, I don’t have a label for it. This is something I think of often because I don’t want to bind with some label too fast, and if I am about to get a label I want them to help me with everything I need and all the visions about my art which I have in mind.
I am not interested at all to sign with a label which will help me with nothing but those things I can do myself. I am open to all kinds of suggestions, but one must remember that I am a person who actually likes to work on my own, and if the label can’t help me with more than that, then I’m just not interested.
I have been talking with a few, but I have told them to wait until the next release before they contact me again.
HH: You mentioned that you take all of these photographs using only the camera on your phone? That is quite inspiring.
Heathen Harnow: I did use my phone until late April / early May of 2013 when I got my SLR camera. This was coincidentally also around the same time which I started to make my own music, so no, I don’t take photos with my phone anymore. Although I can say that with today’s phones, you can take quite awesome pictures. That is of course so long as you don’t edit it with Instragram or something, but rather just leave them in their original state on the computer.
HH: What does your bindrune/symbol mean? It looks like a Life and Death Rune (Algiz and Algiz merkstave) over Othala.
Heathen Harnow: The symbol of mine is a bindrune just like you say, but it is also my own construction with a personal meaning. First of all, we have the Hagalaz runes on the sides, representing Heathen Harnow, then we have the life and death rune like you said. Then there is the othilaz rune, and this is meant to represent Oden, as he is the one who is the messenger in Den Höges Sång. That is the text which has inspired and helped me the most throughout my life, but the reason why the othilaz rune is at such a low range here is because the life and death rune, and the othilaz together are meant to picture a tree, where the life rune is what you see from above, and then this little square in the othilaz rune is the ground itself, and below that is all of the roots. As you can see they are also many. This also gives a message to how to see my art, to reflect on what you see and not only see things as simple pictures, but that they all have some deeper purpose, and if you can see the roots, you will also get an even wider perspective of my art.
HH: Professor Neil Price said in a lecture at Cornell University that the ancient people did not see the Gods so much as living deities, essentially they did not expect to run into Odin at the village market (his words paraphrased). To them, the Gods/Goddesses were personifications of Nature, they were rocks and streams and rain and lighting. What are your thoughts on that and would you agree or disagree?
Heathen Harnow: I do agree with this professor, but I also think that we can see these gods within people. To just give an example, to see Loke in the treacherous ones. So yes, I do agree with that they are personifications of nature, but also personifications of a mental framework.
HH: You mentioned Asatru, are you officially a member or is this a term you find adequately describes your beliefs but does not identify you? Do you celebrate Blots with others in the area or are you part of any Kindred?
Heathen Harnow: Yes, I did mention Asatru, but I am no member of any kind of fellowship, kindred, etc., and I don’t want to be part of one either. When I look at my beliefs, I see it foremost as a way to see the world, to understand it, and to also inspire myself, and as this part of my life is mostly a thing for myself, I have no need to bind a connection with other people with the same vision.
HH: I also see a picture where you are playing violin, is this or will this be on any songs?
Heathen Harnow: It has no strings and could best be described as broken, although the wooden box itself is intact, so it is able to be repaired if I should ever want this. However, I will not play violin on some of the future songs, although I can say that it sounds a lot more realistic in the coming album. Much of this is because I’ve got myself a master keyboard, so instead of just working with samples for the songs, I am now recording every instrument by hand, even if it is with keys, and it might sound like this doesn’t do so much, but it truly does. The sound of the violin in my songs has also changed for the better. My father has been playing cello since he was seven years old, and I have been thinking for some time to record him instead of the violin, but at the same time, I’m worried that this will also make the whole process of writing and recording a song much slower. He is also busy with so many other things, so I will keep on using midi violin until I have found a better alternative. Right now, the only things in my music that are real are the vocals and all kinds of drums, but yes, most instruments will feel much more alive now that I actually am playing them in some way.
HH: I found this on your blog, do you care to go into any detail about this?
“The sun turns black, light escapes, The day darkens, Forest moans
Elves dance no more, Beasts mourn, what is happening?
Around me, I see only corpses But still in the air; their screams.
The blood runs down my body empty thoughts in my mind
Brothers and sisters in my realm let my fate be like yours”
Heathen Harnow: The text that you found on my blog is a (bad) English translation of the Swedish lyrics for the song “När Alvkungens Rike Faller Samman”. The character “Alvkungen” (the elven king)–which I’ve been pictured as in some of my photos–is meant to be the physical spirit of the forest. When he sees how his kingdom and his friends have been torn apart by the hands of men, he also loses his will to live. The main inspiration for this song was some photos I took in the forest with the elvenking bleeding as he is standing among the dead trees, but with this song and this series of pictures, I also wanted to show the brutality of men–that today’s people have no respect for nature at all. With that comes this wider perspective which I was referring to in regards to my symbol. This doesn’t mean that I am against all kinds of growing and cutting down of forests, but what I refer to is just this fact, that people today have absolutely no respect for nature. They throw trash in the middle of the woods, and they don’t seem to care about any the animals or their ecosystem, or how it all suffers from their apathy.
HH: Were you raised with the old myths around you, perhaps read bedtime stories by your grandmother?
Heathen Harnow: Yes, I was raised with stories of trolls and folklore tales, so my interest for those things has been there much longer than my awareness of it, or the heathen things themselves. I also think it’s important that we keep on reading these kinds of books to our children. So many today are just leaving their children in front of a television or by a computer or some sort of tablet, and then they just let them sit there and play video games, but this takes even more away from their imaginations and the very mystery and beauty of nature.
HH: In Jungian psychology, there is a term called Anima which can be defined as the feminine aspects of a male. Do you feel your work reflects this ideology, in this sense of connecting with the feminine, the sacred–essentially Romanticism?
Heathen Harnow: Hmm, I’m not sure if I have understood this question completely, but yes, I would say that my work truly reflects an ideology of the feminine aspects of the spirit itself. I think war is interesting, but even here it is actually not the war or the fighting that is of interest to me, but what is going through people’s minds. I also think that this is one of the reasons why I used the othilaz rune as a representation of Oden as well, as he learned about Sejd from the goddess Freja, even though this was something that was quite apart from the norm. By doing this, he also showed that he was the wisest one of all the gods because he understood that norms were nothing but an illusion to bind you into something. As Sejd was something useful, he didn’t care if this was something feminine to do. Now I am perhaps speaking of things that are hard to understand, but what I want to say is that as the thinking and the value of the mind and spirit was so important to the highest god Oden, I think this was also something that was considered very valuable to the Vikings as well. To see Vikings only connected with battle and brutality (which we must remember is written down out of a Christian perspective) is a very pale view of the greater whole.
HH: In some of the older pictures you are covered in blood. Was that your own blood?
Heathen Harnow: No, this blood is from a cow and you can find this in most supermarkets in Sweden, originally boxed for the making of traditional Swedish blood-dishes such as “blodpudding”. I bought this a long time ago though, and have it stored in my freezer ever since. It is always a bit tricky working all alone with blood, as it gets sticky quite quickly, and at the same time you don’t want to put all this blood on your photo equipment.
HH: You also have some pictures that have a noose in them, perhaps signifying Odin. What are your thoughts on the significance of the sacrificial hanging? Do you think it has any connection with suicide?
Heathen Harnow: This series is meant to signify the words written about how Odin hangs from Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, pierced by a spear, and while he did this it is written that he ate from himself and many other things. However, even if the picture looks like a suicide, I think this has nothing to do with suicide at all. What these words speak of is a refraction to how you should live your life, that you should be independent and how you should be to others.
HH: In another interview, you mentioned your love for horses, something I can certainly appreciate. Do you feel humanity has lost something sacred in our lack of connection with these animals in our modern world?
Heathen Harnow: I do love horses, and even though I don’t ride them anymore, I love these magnificent creatures still. Well yes, I do think so, but I still also think that there is a lot of idiots in the “horse society” as well. I’m speaking of people who buy horses only as a symbol of wealth and class, and also people who choose to torture their horses to make them do different kinds of things. I do think a certain connection to these creatures has become lost. Of course, this is hard to bind to time, as I can imagine that the torturing of horses to make them accomplish different feats has been a long tradition in some circles, but what I do love is the connection that you actually can experience with them only by giving them love. I never forced my old horse to do anything, and maybe that didn’t make me into some sort of elite rider back then, as I wouldn’t feel comfortable with hitting them or such. I do, however, know that we had a very strong friendly relation, even if this was a horse and I was a human. I think that humans in general are going into a time where we lose more and more senses and feelings towards nature, and much of that is because of the very cold modern society we live in. People today seem to think of themselves as the highest standing creature there is. That everything in the world is circulating around humans, and even if they sacrifice horses and other animals in the heathen blots, we must also remember that they sacrificed humans as well. It was not the egocentric human view that we have today.
HH: I also noticed a particular wit in your Tumblr, for example when someone complained about the picture of a woman cutting off your head, and the description being something about the “revenge of nature”.
Heathen Harnow: Yes, they took it the wrong way. I believe I said something like “so a woman can’t do the job?” in response. The series was simply depicting nature taking revenge on someone cutting down a tree. The person is my sister and her gender had nothing to do with it. It was funny though.
HH: Where are you currently located?
Heathen Harnow: I am currently located on a farm in Södermanland, Sweden.
HH: Have you ever thought about playing live?
Heathen Harnow: Yes, I have been thinking of playing live actually, and this is also maybe something that a possible label could help me with. That said, I’m not the kind of person who is desperate to play live, and when I do this, I want it to be at a good venue with people who understand the music.
HH: A lot of your thoughts seem akin not only with mine, but also with people in the world of Ecopsychology and spiritual ecology–Jim Nollman, David Abrahm, and Ralph Metzner, being some examples. Have you ever studied any of this or something in a similar field?
Heathen Harnow: Thank you for mentioning those people with similar thoughts. That is very interesting indeed. However, I have not been studying anything in that field. The only thing I’ve been studying so far is Swedish Ethnology/folklore, and this autumn I’m going to study history of religion.
HH: What are your other interests which may manifest in your expressions of art, such as film, certain kinds of literature or philosophy, etc.?
Heathen Harnow: My interest in film lies with this kind of darker artful side of drama. For example, a typical Lars Von Trier film, or perhaps a movie like Valhalla Rising. Although I have no interest at all in some other kinds of movies which are made just out of clear entertainment, to make money or something similar. I’m not sure in what way these kinds of movies affect my art, but yes, I’m sure they do it in some way.
HH: I can see you playing something like Thirst for Light, a new event here in the Northwest that one of your influences, Draugurinn, is playing. Outdoor events focused on the season are a big thing in the Pacific Northwest, where people gather in the woods and perform rituals. Do you have anything of the sort around you?
Heathen Harnow: No, I wouldn’t say we have any kind of smaller outdoor festival like Thirst for Light. Not that I know of, at least, but I might well be wrong about that.
HH: I have done a fair amount of studies on Norse Mythology, and doing so has challenged preconceived notions, such as Rudolph Simek‘s article stating that the Vanir were not a separate pantheon of deities. What are your thoughts on such things?
Heathen Harnow: I haven’t read this article myself, so I can’t really say anything about that. What I actually can say though is that there are dozens of beliefs about every kind of religion that there is today, and what you want to believe or what one might claim… well, that is up to them, but just because one person says one thing, it doesn’t mean it is correct. Like I think I said before, Norse mythology is an old religion with very few sources if you compare it to other religions. People should believe in what they want to believe in.
HH: Do you think it is appropriate to call this a religion, as for our ancestors it was more of traditional beliefs and stories handed down with no formal organization? It seems folk beliefs are quite separate from religion in that they changed from region to region. Have you found this in Scandinavia where perhaps local gods exist in a particular region, and beliefs differ elsewhere?
Heathen Harnow: You know, all through this interview I have asked myself this very question; whether or not one can really call this a religion as it is not really bound like Christianity, but consists of an array of beliefs. I also think that is why I am so open to other people’s thoughts on it, but that I may not share them. I guess you can’t really call it a religion on paper. I don’t really know if I have heard about something like that when it comes to gods really, like big differences between how they are seen, but when it comes to regular folklore and beliefs, I know that this differs very much in the whole country, or rather say the whole of Scandinavia.
HH: What gods or goddesses in particular do you focus on? Do you think a particular deity such as Freyr is more about farming, while Odin would be more philosophical?
Heathen Harnow: I focus most on Oden, but that is also as that is the area that I am most interested in. Yes, I think that every god has their own little area of knowledge.
HH: Do you do all the vocals on “Flykt”?
Heathen Harnow: Yes, I do all vocals on Flykt, and this is exactly what the coming video will be like–not like a motion picture, but pictures taken for this very song.
HH: What is the meaning behind the name “Flykt”? What concepts will you sing about on future albums? Will it have a sort of fantasy theme?
Heathen Harnow: The meaning of Flykt is “Escape”, and the song with the same name is about fleeing from a place that once used to be close to your heart, but that there now is nothing left of. I don’t think it will have a fantasy theme–actually, I would say that Flykt had more so, especially in songs like “Alvkungens…” and “Flykt”. It was fantasy, but at the same time very close to reality. That said, the future songs will be much more about folklore, history and Norse mythology.
HH: Do you have any final words?
Heathen Harnow: It’s funny that you ask that particular sentence–“Do you have any final words”–because the very last line in this song I am about to release is “Hennes sista ord var mörka, likt en spegel av hennes sinn… din död skall bli som min” (“Her last words were dark, like a mirror of her soul, your death shall be like mine”), but no, I have no special last words.
A little hint as to what this new song is about is the folklore creature Skogsrået!