An Interview with Abby Helasdottir of Gydja
Accomplished musician, artist, writer, and esotericist Abby Helasdottir has devoted her vibrant artistic career to exploring the darker occult realms of Northern European mythology. The New Zealand based mastermind behind the immersive magickal dark ambient of Gydja, the militant industrial of Clear Stream Temple, and the sacrasexual performance art of Torture by Roses speaks candidly to guest writer and dark ambient devotee Danica Swanson about artistic work as devotional and spiritual practice, her many-faceted appreciation for Bandcamp, post-industrial music as a boys’ club, her upcoming album with Edgar Kerval of Emme Ya, and the Rökkr or shadow-dwellers of Germanic and Norse cosmology.
Heathen Harvest: Gydja, the musical project for which you are best known, has been described as “dark ambient for dark goddesses.” Is there a story behind your selection of the Old Norse word for “priestess” as the name of the project? In what ways do dark goddesses influence your work?
Abby Helasdottir: Gydja has always had a Germanic and Norse focus as it was intended to be devotional music for the goddess Hela. While that focus has shifted over the years to include other goddesses and other matters both magickal, and not so magickal, at its core and despite my penchant for Latin titles, that is what it remains: music for Hela. As such, a name reflecting this aspect was always the best option. I’ve never felt comfortable with artists and musicians (or magickians for that matter) choosing the names of deities as their own, which smacks too much of hubris at best, and blasphemy at worst. Using the name gydja is not intended to be a boast about having a religious title (which is ultimately meaningless) but rather about the way in which occupying a spiritual office can be a devotional act, with music being the manifestation that this devotion takes. The same is true of writing and visual arts, which is why against all the artist codes of practice, I’ve sometimes donated artwork to projects with no or minimal charge if sufficiently moved to do so.
HH: Torture by Roses, your musical and performance art project with The Magdalene (Mary MacGregor-Reid), released “Sebastian-Salome” in 2001 to shed light on queer and transgressive sexual undercurrents in the legends of Salome and St. Sebastian, two figures from Christian traditions. The album has been described as “sacrasexual dark ambient and industrial” and compared to “Zamia Lehmanni”-era SPK. Photos from the project’s performance archives feature veiled dancers. What is the story behind this project, and is it still active? What were your intentions with it? Does dance still play a role in your work?
AH: Torture by Roses was started as a way of addressing my abiding interest in fin de siècle and decadent imagery, and in particular how it relates to queer themes. As the name suggests, it is informed in part by the life and work of Yukio Mishima and so shares some of the same pedigree, if not a similar sound, as Death in June and Coil. I’ve always found that despite being a Pagan, there’s so much rich material in Christianity, particularly in those less travelled areas in which an intersection is made with pre-Christian analogues and where an allowance has been made for less orthodox interpretations and readings. I haven’t created anything as Torture by Roses in a while, but I still consider it active as it’s just a matter of finding time to work on it and there are still themes to be explored.
I always consider dance, or some other visual accompaniment, as an important aspect of my work. When you’re creating music that lacks conventional song structure or intelligible vocals, it’s always good to combine other elements, even if you would of course hope that what’s there is strong enough on its own.
HH: You are known in Pagan circles and via the writings on your Shadowlight website as the person who coined the word “Rökkatru.” What does this term mean to you, and how did you come up with it? Who are the Rökkr? Do you consider Rökkatru to be a form of Heathenry or Paganism?
AH: To be pedantic, I don’t think that I, as far as I can recall, coined the specific term Rökkatru. It was something that evolved organically on an email list many years ago as a way to identify people of a particular, how shall we say, metaphysical leaning. The term Rökkr, meaning shadow or twilight, came into use in the mid-to-late-90s as a way to refer to those beings from Germanic cosmology who exist on the boundaries, in the margins, in what is described in myth as Útgarðar, the outlands. I first used it in the Rökkrbok, which considered the septet of Hela, Fenrir, Loki, the World Serpent, Angrboda, Surtr, and Níðhöggr; and whose content would eventually be the basis of the Shadowlight website. These beings are often referred to as giants, jötnar, thurs, and a whole range of other names that still keep scholars writing dissertations to this day, so Rökkr was used as a broad way to describe all these beings without worrying about etymological interpretations, as well as the limitations imposed on these beings by folktale readings. It’s a term that seemed more numinous and representative of these deities than, say, the disputed derivation of the word Jötun as “great eater.” It is also a useful word as it suggests a kinship with themes such as the Nightside (as most famously explored by the idiosyncratic Kenneth Grant), and other, shall we say, darker or wayward expressions of occultism.
The way in which the Rökkr act as the embodiment of liminality ties in well with my work as Gydja, in which themes of boundaries, borders, and transitioning between worlds occur with alarming frequency. One of the first pieces I ever recorded, back in the days of cassette tapes and rudimentary technology, was about Gjallarbrú, the bridge that spans the underworld river of Gjöll and provides access to Hela’s realm. The Rivers… suite took this theme of aquatic boundaries further; there are also elements in Umbilicus Maris (though, as the title implies, this is more concerned with the centre or point). And now I’ve recently returned to Gjallarbrú, creating a track called simply that for Drone Records‘ Mind/Drone series.
Whether people who connect with the Rökkr consider themselves Pagans or Heathens is up to them. Personally, I regard myself as Pagan and feel something of a disconnect with the modern Heathen movement; though the same could be said of elements of Pagan modernity as well.
HH: In addition to your corpus of musical work, you are a respected and sought-after writer, artist, illustrator, and graphic designer. Your art appears on albums for many well-known musical projects including Inade, Troum, Sleep Research Facility, Satori, MZ.412, and Schloss Tegal. Your Scriptus Recensera site features your erudite reviews of esoteric publications. Your writings and art are frequently featured in releases from other esoteric publishers as well. Given your many talents, how do you decide which projects to take on?
AH: I do whatever inspires me. If I get a sense of excitement at the prospect of working on a particular thing, I can’t turn it down and it becomes something of a myopic focus until it is done; or for my sins, neglected. I often think of things that creative people do as either an opportunity to learn or a form of devotion. And so composing an esoteric essay is often not about writing down something you already know, but rather going on a journey to make sense of the fragments that you’ve grasped. A chance to create is a chance to learn.
Passion is often so key in this, and this is why I write reviews on Scriptus Recensera. I’m an unrepentant bibliophile, so what’s more fun than writing about writing? And as something of a pragmatic esotericist, I like being able to put across a more critical view than the usual hyperbole and smoke-and-mirrors dissembling that is often associated with occult literature.
Sometimes it all comes down to pride. It’s an honour to have my writing or designs included in gorgeous esoteric journals such as Pillars, and it’s equally an honour to have worked for legendary artists like Troum, Tor Lundvall, MZ.412, Z’ev, and so many people that, when starting out, I would never have imagined I would end up creating artwork for.
HH: “Apsinthion,” your upcoming collaborative release with fellow esotericist Edgar Kerval of Emme Ya, is described as “nine tracks of Babalonian dark ambient.” Tell us about the album. How did this collaboration come about, and what has the creative process for it been like for you? Is there an expected release date?
AH: Edgar and I had talked about collaborating for a long time; so long, in fact, that when we started working on it, I had to check if we had discussed it before or if I had just imagined it. I always like to work to a theme and so we decided to base it around the life and art of Marjorie Cameron, one-time wife of Jack Parsons and a magickian and artist of considerable note herself. Cameron regarded herself as a living incarnation of the Thelemic goddess Babalon, so her story is rich in the kind of imagery that lends itself to dark ambient and ritual music.
We both created base tracks to which the other contributed layers and elements. I did a final mix and Frederic Arbour of Cyclic Law mastered it. This all worked out rather well as I was creating some pieces for an exhibition of esoteric art at the time and was able to use the same themes for that work, with three panels that represent three of the songs from the collaboration. At the time of writing, Apsinthion should be released within the next two months.
HH: What advice would you give to Pagans, Heathens, and other spiritual seekers out there who are drawn to the Rökkr?
AH: Just listen. Ultimately, it is the personal encounters with these entities that matter the most and can be the most profound. I’m reminded of Andrew Chumbley’s description of how being alone in nature taught him more than anything about witchcraft and I feel the same is true of any similar magickal path. There is a wealth of information available now on these subjects, whether it’s Raven Kaldera’s work or the slightly different route taken by Vexior/Ekortu, and this can act as a valuable corroboration of what you experience, but it is important first and foremost to have those experiences.
HH: Post-industrial music has been called a boys’ club, and a very white and straight one at that. What are your thoughts on this?
AH: I wouldn’t say that it’s any more marked than most musical genres when it comes to issues of white male over-representation, and that’s, unfortunately, just the nature of the beast. On the other hand, I think both industrial and post-industrial have always had a profound and prominent queer stream running through them; admittedly that stream is usually a gay white male one. Coil, Cyclobe, and Death in June are the most obvious examples of this, but its roots are there in other things like Test Dept.’s gay constituents, and, of course, the membership of Throbbing Gristle, where you could argue that, retrospectively speaking, there was only one straight male member. These forms of music have always had a sense of alterity that is integral to their nature, and that’s why I’m a little disappointed when some of their offshoots go all rock-star, with its attendant casual misogyny and anti-intellectualism (and cowboy hats).
HH: How has living in New Zealand affected your creative career?
AH: As an influence, it’s very slight. I’ve never particularly considered myself a New Zealand artist, and my music or art very rarely explores New Zealand themes. Except when it comes to things that might actually require a physical presence, our modern connected life means you can create from anywhere in the world and reach people instantly.
HH: What are your thoughts on the role of digital music services such as Spotify and Bandcamp for artists in dark ambient and other underground music scenes?
AH: I’m a huge fan of Bandcamp. I remember when mp3.com and other similar services were the industry model and I feel Bandcamp have improved immensely on those first fumbling attempts. I love the way they appeal to so many of those little things that lock into what it means to be a passionate music fan: the nerdy building of collections, the little but not overwhelming social media elements, and the fact that you get to pay the artist directly. I love the way it allows you to show artists directly how much you appreciate their work, and there’s nothing better than getting that same vibe in return. I also love that artists are able to reissue releases that are out of print or were in limited and unobtainable editions; I’ve bought so many digital versions of vinyl-only Troum releases, for example. I’m less of a fan of services such as Spotify because I feel that it does the opposite of what Bandcamp does on so many levels: artists receive a mere pittance for their work and the ephemeral nature of streaming removes that sense of engagement that permanently owning a copy, if only in digital form, gives.
HH: Are there specific artists or musicians you’d like to collaborate with for future projects?
AH: I would love to work with someone like Byron Metcalf, a master percussionist who can bring something more than what programmed beats can provide. Otherwise, collaborations can be a strange beast: you really need to work with someone who brings something different than what you do, something you can’t do yourself.
HH: What have you been reading or listening to lately that you’ve enjoyed?
AH: Based on what Last.fm tells me I might like, it’s been almost nothing but dreamy Icelandic indie and folk; so many knitted jerseys and plinky plonky chimes. I particularly love Amiina’s album Puzzle, which has been getting, as the young people (from a while ago, no doubt) would say, a caning. Pascal Pimon’s Twosomeness is also lovely, as is Innra by Rökkurrö. Other than that, Aphex Twin’s Syro, Röyksopp’s The Inevitable End and Brian Parnham’s Mantle have been receiving higher-than-usual rotation.
Reading-wise, for work and for pleasure, I recently enjoyed Ármann Jakobsson’s Nine Saga Studies, a thoroughly entertaining collection of his papers. Entirely for distraction, I just finished Robert Rankin’s Brightonomicom, the first time I’ve read fiction in a while and the first time I’ve been back to Rankin’s occasionally groan-inducing oeuvre in a long while. A little further back, David Novak’s Japanoise was a welcome diversion too, with just the right mix of informed academia and a personal connection to the subject matter. On the go at the moment is the Hands of Apostasy witchcraft anthology from Three Hands Press, and a whole bunch of things from the pile of books next to this desk that never seems to get any smaller. S. Alexander Reed’s Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music keeps beckoning to me and I may have to answer that call soon.
HH: What’s next on the agenda for you?
AH: I am working on another collaboration with Edgar Kerval, this time joined by Jhon Longshaw of Black Seas of Infinity. At this very moment, music is taking something of a backseat to writing as I work on finishing a new version of The Rökkrbok, which also includes a musical component; that part, at least, is all but finished.
HH: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions so thoroughly! The final space is yours to speak your mind on anything you feel has been left unsaid.
AH: Thank you for this opportunity, Danica and Heathen Harvest.