.:.MYTH, METAL, AND METAPOLITICS.:.
A Discussion with Atlantean Kodex
by Dan Capp
Heavy metal owes a large part of the fanaticism it inspires to its themes of escapism and fantasy, providing refuge from mundane reality for legions of adventurous souls (often forced to lead disappointingly unadventurous lives). Whilst a good number of bands touch upon folk mythologies with an impressive level of understanding, it seems somewhat verboten to apply ancient wisdom within a modern context—as though to do so links pure fantasy to the mundane, destroying the metal fan’s uncorrupted sanctum away from politics and the senselessness of modern life.
I’ve been following Atlantean Kodex since the release of their first album, The Golden Bough. At that time, I was unfamiliar with the album’s namesake—the classic work of comparative mythology by Sir James George Frazer—and I was drawn in by the music alone (though, admittedly, there was an enticing mystique to the band’s name). In April of this year, I finally caught Atlantean Kodex live at Keep It True festival in their German homeland. Even among a profoundly strong billing, their performance stood out. And in the moment, it occurred to me: Atlantean Kodex are one of the few metal bands to have built an authentic bridge between ancient wisdom and modern affairs (history with a purpose, if you like). Where else could you hear a hall full of people making an anthem of such obscure and lengthy lines as these:
On a strong white bull, the goddess rides
In the darkest night twelve stars will rise
Daughter of the east with an azure gown
Our new Jerusalem found
Let us begin our discussion with Manuel Trummer, lyricist and guitarist of Atlantean Kodex, on that note.
Heathen Harvest: Manuel, hello and thanks for your time. The song ‘Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown’, which features the above lyrics, is about the myth of Europa—a goddess abducted by Zeus who is disguised as a bull. There seems to be a message of European unity and salvation in the song. When you wrote it, do you recall whether you were looking for a myth to carry your message, or whether you simply wanted to celebrate this fascinating legend and found that the message was unavoidable? Do you care to elaborate on the moral of the song? As a Doctor of Comparative Cultural Studies, you have an in-depth knowledge of European mythology. Is your intention with Atlantean Kodex simply to bring ancient culture to life, or do you see it as a way of conveying sociopolitical concerns?
Manuel Trummer: Actually, ‘Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown’ was written by our bass player Florian (Kreuzer), who is a brilliant lyricist as well. I think what he had in mind was a sort of memorandum of unity amidst a time of crisis. The song was written during a high point of the economic crisis in Greece, and at that time, one could already tell that Europe was starting to come apart at the seams. A huge part of the crisis, as we perceive it, basically comes down to the way a big part of the media are reporting. A lot of media, especially the ones which are owned by private persons and funded by advertisements, are scandalizing the crisis and thus building walls by propagandising a ‘we against them‘ narrative. Problem is, it never was ‘Germany vs. Greece‘ or ‘Europe vs the refugees‘. It never was a horizontal conflict, as they’re trying to make us believe. It always was and is a vertical conflict of the ruling international capitalist class versus the common people. I guess, in a time, when this ‘we against the lazy Greeks, Italians, etc.’ attitude was very prevalent in the public discourse in Germany and the economically strong northern European countries, we wanted to send a message of unity against the rising tide of petty nationalistic fear mongering. We wanted to write a reminder that Europe is not just an anonymous bureaucratic behemoth of political institutions, but a living tradition rooted in a shared history, way of life and culture, and shared values.
By choosing a mythological allegory, we were trying to keep it as adaptable as possible. The story of Europa riding the bull (which is a highly complex metaphor by itself, dealing with the arrival of the first complex civilizations in Crete from Asia) is a pan-European myth. Everyone can relate to it, everyone can decode it. But still we can leave it to the listener whether he prefers a pure mythological reading or a political reading. That’s the amazing thing about mythology: It’s a very fluid, easy-to-adapt language with an almost uncanny universal, timeless grammar. On the one hand, it gives us the opportunity to comment on current political topics which move us without pointing the finger directly into the faces of the listeners. On the other hand, it allows us to link the past to today, to make the past come alive in 2017, thus creating a sort of identity by tapping into a tradition—maybe even by ‘updating‘ a tradition. Damn, I hope you get what I mean. My English has become really rusty.
HH: I understand exactly what you mean, Manuel. Myths should be seen as ‘timeless’ rather than ‘historical’, meaning that they have a relevance in all times, whatever the sociopolitical context. It is also the case that conveying these truths through the medium of mythology enables one to get the point across without seeming to ‘preach’. Heavy metal fans undoubtedly prefer this more metaphorical approach as opposed to, say, a punk rock crowd. It seems to me that your (or Florian’s) intention with ‘Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown’ was to remind people that culture and tradition are far more important than the economy.
MT: Yes, exactly: culture and tradition as transcendental European values versus modernist concepts such as nationalism or capitalism. I guess that’s what we were trying to convey.
HH: With that in mind, if I may: I’d like to stay on the topic of the Europa myth a little longer. Various European Union buildings are flanked by statues or depictions of the goddess Europa and the Bull. In the myth, Zeus as the Bull can either be seen as a benevolent aid in the founding of Europe, or as having abducted her. Do you have any thoughts as to what the founders of the European Union represent or see in this allegory?
MT: I think by tapping into that ancient Greek myth on the one hand they tried to create a line of tradition back to the origins of democracy on European soil, the cities of Attica. In this reading, the myth of Europa serves to legitimize the EU as a democratic institution representing the citizens of Europe. On the other, they also used it as a founding myth to emphasize the historical importance of the founding of the EU after twenty centuries of permanent war in middle and western Europe.
HH: To me, the European Union seems to focus on economic concerns more than cultural ones—perhaps leading our goddess astray. Has a once-innocent European culture been abducted, or gifted with greener pastures? What are the biggest problems faced by Europe today, and do you think part of the solution is to remind people of its rich and ancient tradition?
MT: Well, I don’t think ‘innocence‘ is fit to describe such a fluid and abstract system as culture. Other than that, I always find it a bit romantic—or naive, to use a more negative word—to lament about a lost mythical golden past. Let’s not forget that despite all social inequality and flaws in the system, we’re living in the best of times, in terms of freedom, safety, general wealth, medical care, hygienic standards, scientific progress, and so on. We can travel from Finland to Portugal without having to show our passports or changing money once—these are achievements our war-torn grandparents or great grandparents were dreaming of. As for the main problems, the biggest problems for Europe are global ones: climate change and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. All conflicts we’re experiencing right now have their roots in one of these two problems. On a smaller level, the growing lack of education and the popularity of authoritarian regimes in the younger generation are worrying me. Maybe the single most dangerous threat to our way of living are the social media though.
HH: Interesting insights there, Manuel, though I’m personally not so sure that many EU leaders have the same benevolent vision for Europe that you and I do.
MT: I agree. The crisis of Europe is mainly a crisis of its political class. There are far too few politicians with a true vision or a convincing concept for the shared future of the continent. Europe needs leaders who command the skills and personality to fill the bureaucratic vessel that is the EU with a shared soul, a shared spirit, shared ideas, and a shared identity. Simply spoken, we need politicians who make the European idea come alive in the hearts of its citizens and to overcome the—in part, legitimate and understandable—mistrust towards its institutions. But you don’t do that by getting lost in petty bureaucratic squabbles.
HH: Interestingly, I’ve heard of people with a more nationalist or authoritarian mindset refer to your lyrics—particularly on The White Goddess—as being in line with their thinking. A quotation by Winston Churchill can, seemingly, be taken either way. Here in Britain, for example, Churchill is often viewed as a symbol of ‘Fascism’, despite being the Prime Minister during WWII. It’s refreshing to me that a band such as yourself—clearly opposed to injustice and Authoritarianism—are unafraid to flirt with characters, concepts, and myths which have previously been associated with right-wing ideology; correcting the misinterpretations many have of these matters.
MT: Actually, I wasn’t really aware of this reading of Churchill’s politics in England. It’s interesting, and I wonder who and on which grounds one could interpret his Zürich speech in such a manner. But to be honest, Atlantean Kodex as a band is not really interested in everyday politics. Spirituality, mythology, the world of tradition, nostalgia, a romantic longing, the soul and culture of Europe is what moves us. Sure, we tried to kindle a flame and make a case for European unity with ‘Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown‘, which was an unusual comment on current political issues. But in the greater picture, Atlantean Kodex have no interest in correcting misinterpretations, giving the listeners lessons in party politics or telling them to vote Labour by throwing dumb political slogans in their faces. Our kingdom is not of this world.
HH: You’re clearly quite opposed to political ideologies such as Nationalism, yet you are simultaneously concerned with preserving Europe’s heritage. Most nationalists would say that this is precisely what they are seeking to do also. Is it your position that you do not believe it is the State’s prerogative to define or defend a timeless culture, or is it rather that you would be more in favour of a European federation as opposed to a multitude of nations?
MT: Both, in a way. What nationalists in their disregard for historical realities fail to understand is that our culture has always been changing and evolving, diffusing from one region to another, migrating with travellers from one place to another. Why can we find the same customs, traditions, folklore, religious and ethical values from Portugal to Estonia, from Greece to Iceland, from Andalusia to Persia? People have been exchanging and communicating ideas, goods, values, and lifestyles for ages. It has been like that for two thousand years or longer, long before politicians randomly divided the European regions into nations in the nineteenth century. Crippling this shared heritage with a modern, nationalistic reading is like a child trying to catch a river with a sifter. We’re well aware that trying to preserve our shared cultural heritage with our little songs is a utopian struggle. If traditions are truly vital, they do not need safeguarding; if they are almost dead, safeguarding will not help. Nevertheless, maybe because of a feeling of profound nostalgia, a spiritual longing for the world of yesterday, we try to preserve—or perhaps more fitting, to honour—the lore and customs of our ancestors by updating them for our generation in our lyrics and songs. In the end, we won’t change anything, the river will flow on. Yet, still we will have the flame of our childhood memories and our grandparents’ tales treasured in our hearts. And maybe we can even pass that flame and inspiration on.
HH: When you talk of ‘nostalgia’, I think of something very integral to the general mindset of heavy metal bands and listeners. And in this sense, Atlantean Kodex is—with all due respect—not so different from other bands. Whether it is a nostalgia for the eighties, of early contemporary fantasy literature, or of the ancient ways as imagined in the modern mind, we tend to be drawn to bygone eras. However, I will maintain that Atlantean Kodex does this with a greater authenticity than most, due to your knowledge of the underlying themes of mythology.
MT: Well, thank you. I’m very glad you feel that way. I think ‘authenticity‘ might describe our approach pretty well. I don’t want to state at all that other bands don’t really know what they are singing about—quite the opposite, in fact. There are a lot of artists nowadays who really know a lot about history and mythology, but the thing is, for us it’s not show. We’re not doing it as reenactment, we’re not wearing ‘historical’ costumes to make a point, and we’re also not constructing a ’spiritual system’ or a ‘cult‘ around it to sell it to an impressionable black metal crowd. It’s just who we are, it’s just what we’re doing in our daily lives and what moves us on a very profound level. Maybe one can feel that there’s no off-stage/on-stage-personas involved with Atlantean Kodex. I agree, though: ‘nostalgia’ seems to be more important in heavy metal than in any other musical genre. One might get the impression that heavy metal is obsessed with the past. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, but I can’t offer a really satisfying explanation. It almost seems the scene functions as a sort of temporary refuge from the consequences of modernisation, globalisation, and individualisation. Of course, the scene is very diverse today, consisting of quite different movements and ideologies—one shouldn’t generalise too much. But still, I feel that the longing for a point of orientation in the assumed well-known and therefore ‘safe’ past—in contrast to an unstable and therefore unsafe future—is a key aspect in heavy metal today. You can find this nostalgia both on a very playful, carnivalistic level as in many so-called ‘pagan‘ metal bands, you can find it in the utopian narrative of the ‘homogenous‘ global metal scene/family, but you can also find it on a more serious note in the turn towards conservative and extreme right-wing policies the scene is taking at the moment.
HH: Another thing that is unique (and perhaps a little brave) of you is your willingness to sing about the concept of Christ, or biblical lore, even if indirectly. If you don’t mind me asking, are any members of the band religious in any sense, and either way, have you ever received criticism for this? It is quite clear that you discuss Christ in the sense that he represents a similar archetype to Mithras, Kalki, King Arthur, Aragorn, Víðarr, and many more; in essence, a returning King. A very Gnostic (and pagan) concept, of course. Do you believe there may be some literal truth to these prophecies, or does it represent a returning consciousness, or something else?
MT: Well, I don’t find that very surprising. One simply cannot talk about European heritage without Christian concepts. They are our strongest direct link to our past and the roots of our civilization. I know, it’s not politically correct from a ‘metal’ point-of-view to use Christian narratives and imagery in an affirmative fashion, but so far, we didn’t run into trouble with the scene police. Maybe it’s because our lyrics put these Christian concepts in the wider context of mythology, like in ‘Sol Invictus’, for example, which draws a line of tradition from Mithras to Jesus Christ, the sacrificed and reborn king-priest. One could even take it further back to Osiris. I think, the truth in these motives lies in mankind’s attempt to grasp and understand the powers of nature: the life-giving sun dying and returning, the corn growing from the womb of mother earth, and so on. This is what makes Christianity so fascinating for us. It adapted this really ancient tradition, probably going back to the neolithic era (maybe even earlier), and thus, in the shape of its own theology, continually kept it alive until today. These unbelievably old ‘pagan’ (for a lack of a better word) myths are the very vital substratum of many ecclesiastic rites. One can still vividly feel this archaic depth by joining a catholic Corpus Christi procession, for example.
HH: I share that same fascination for Christianity’s origins. It is often overlooked because, to the young and rebellious, Christianity represents restriction. But actually, conservative Christianity may owe itself more to a cultural climate than to the fundamental spiritual aspects of the religion which, as you say, reach into the distant mists of time. I recently watched the classic German film(s) Die Nibelungen, and that sense of ceremony and grandiosity aren’t dissimilar to what you’d find in a Catholic Cathedral.
MT: I agree. Christianity, when perceived only as a firm set of dogmas—or even worse, as an institution—will eventually lead to resistance, especially if you’re young and rebellious. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though; heavy metal needs to question institutions, ideologies, and dogmas. The power to stand defiant against authorities is perhaps the single most important aspect throughout heavy metal history. Of course, ignoring the vast cultural impact of Christianity on our arts, our values, our spirituality, eventually on European civilization as a whole, seems a bit short-sighted to me. As the philosopher Rudolf Otto stated, experiences of the Divine come with a great sense of fear and awe, but also wonder. The shivers that run down our spine when we gaze at the vaults of a Gothic cathedral, the hair that stands on the back of our necks when the first light fills the darkened church during the Easter mass—there’s a sense of grandiosity and a hint of the transcendent in the rituals and works of art of the Christian culture.
HH: Do you feel that heavy metal is the best form of music to summon this same sense of awe that we feel when staring, wide-eyed, up at the ceiling of a grand cathedral? Was there a conscious decision for you to express your theological/mythological interests with the type of music Atlantean Kodex plays, or was it less conscious than that?
MT: I think these overwhelming sensations of fear, awe, and wonder—the feeling of despair in the face of the holy, but also the feelings of triumph and grandiosity that come with the holy—are what makes Christian themes so adaptable for heavy metal in all its overwhelming grandiosity. In the case of Atlantean Kodex, I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision. We started out with sword-and-sorcery lyrics. It sort of grew from there on; it just felt right to take a bigger lyrical approach as our music was growing.
HH: Have you ever abandoned musical ideas because you felt that they didn’t live up to the awesome scope of the lyrical themes, or do your epic compositions come to you as naturally as they seem to, to us listeners?
MT: Yes, of course there’s failure as well. One example is ‘Kodex Battalions’, which to me just doesn’t fit in Atlantean Kodex. It’s too mundane in a way, which is why we deleted it from The White Goddess shortly before its release.
HH: Are you familiar with the Oera Linda Book, and if so, what is your opinion on it? [Authors Note: For those who aren’t familiar, the Oera Linda Book is a manuscript written in Old Frisian which appeared in the 1860s and seemed to document Germanic history from thousands of years ago. It is generally considered to be a hoax.]
MT: Yes, of course! It’s absolutely fascinating, though I’m afraid I’m with the sceptics. The book would make a brilliant lyrical theme for Atlantean Kodex. In fact, it is a sort of Atlantean Kodex, with a Frisian perspective though.
HH: What do you want your music to be known for? Is drama something you strive for as a band? I gather you’re working on a new album currently—is there something you’re hoping to express with it, either thematically or musically?
MT: Wow, tough question. I think, the keyword for me when I think about our sound, is power. That’s what we want to transmit with our music. To overwhelm the listener through sheer power, to create a sense of awe and wonder that they can draw strength or inspiration from. If our songs manage to send shivers down your spine, if you can perceive the presence of something greater—that’s when we as a band have succeeded with what we’re trying to achieve.
The working title for the upcoming album is Abendland (The Course of Empire). The songwriting is done; we have around sixty minutes of brand-new material. Now we’re trying to find the time to record it properly. It’s always hard for me to compare new music to our other albums because I lack the distance to speak about them objectively. But I have the impression that the ‘Christian‘ component, the ecclesiastical aspect, is more prevalent both in the music and the lyrics than on our previous albums. A point of reference might be ‘Temple of Katholic Magick’ from our The Golden Bough album, albeit a bit more intricate and darker. But there are some fist-raising moments as well, classic headbanging anthems—think Dio-era Black Sabbath and old Manowar, of course.
HH: Music sending shivers down one’s spine is somewhat of a marker for me too—of truly profound art. Would you perhaps care to share with our readers some bands (from whatever genre and era) that currently move you in such a way? Furthermore, are there other bands whose approach to mythology and history, as lyrical themes, you admire?
MT: The last band that really managed to do this was MGLA with their last album. Although their artistic approach has nothing to do with mythology or religion—quite the opposite—they seem to have tapped into something greater. And they have the musicianship to channel this negative energy in a breathtaking way. It’s like staring into the void; it hits you on a physical level. Besides that, for me, old Manowar and Bathory’s Twilight of the Gods are always a safe bet regarding goosebumps and out-of-body-headbanging action. Twilight of the Gods is also my pick regarding its approach to mythology and history. The Nordic atmosphere is just overwhelming on this album. It’s a spiritual experience. But on the other hand, it’s outstandingly sublime. It’s just the song titles, which push you in that Nordic direction. But when reading the brilliant lyrics, you see that they’re perfectly adaptable to the current world. That’s what makes the album so great. Quorthon used the subliminal power of archaic Nordic mythology to delve into quite timeless, universal conflicts. He was definitely one of the biggest influences for our own way of updating mythology with Atlantean Kodex.
HH: Thank you so much for your time, Manuel. Rarely do a band’s lyrical themes fascinate me as much as Atlantean Kodex’s, and I hope those reading this have had their more academic, theological, and philosophical curiosities satisfied, as I have. As is the convention, I’d like to leave any final words to you.
MT: Train, say your prayers, and take your vitamins!