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Old September 14th, 2011, 11:52 AM   #1 (permalink)
AshtheViking
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Post "Breathing History, Veiled in Mystery"; Turisas' The Varangian Way and Saga Traditio

Here is the essay I presented in May at a conference for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada that I promised Mathias I'd post ages ago.

I was limited greatly because of time and ideally I would have gone through a detailed song-by- song breakdown instead of the summary that is included. At the beginning of my presentation I also included a very brief description of the history of "viking metal" and its roots in black metal to provide context for a non-metal audience. Let me know what you think.

"Breathing History, Veiled in Mystery": Turisas' The Varangian Way and Saga Tradition. by Ashley Walsh

Viking metal is a dynamic musical genre of burgeoning popularity. It is typically a blend of folk, black, and symphonic metal genres but it is defined more by lyrical content of Viking history and Norse mythology than musical style. Most bands use the stereotypical popular mold of the Vikings as fierce barbarian warriors. The Finnish band Turisas surpasses this expectation and stresses historical authenticity (in lyrics not in costume). Their second album The Varangian Way is a concept album that follows the personal journey of a bastard named Haakon as well as the physical journey of he and 500 men as they traverse the Russian river routes from the Baltic coast, through Kiev, and finally to Miklagard- the Viking name for Constantinople. In terms of content the songs are similar to the medieval Icelandic travel þaettir. Songwriter and lyricist Mathias Nygård re-imagines the voyages of the Varangians drawing on medieval source material; he makes comments on history and development of historiography while demonstrating history’s relevancy to a modern audience.

Each song on the album corresponds to a geographical location on the austrvegr or the Way to the East. The album commences with ‘To Holmgard and Beyond’ at the Baltic coast where the listener is introduced to Haakon and a couple of the crew and their motivation for travelling.

Holmgard and beyond
That’s where the winds will us guide
For fame and for gold
Set sails for those lands unknown

The song ‘A Portage to the Unknown’ tells of the necessary portage at the end of the river Lovat in which their longships had to be dragged ashore and gradually pulled over land on a rolling bed of tree trunks. The fact that they are heading into the unknown is stressed in these first two songs, despite having vague goals in mind they have no definite purpose in their journey. The songs ‘Cursed Be Iron’ and ‘Fields of Gold’ somewhat depart from the direct concept of the album of the journey- one is a story from the Finnish Kalevala and the other about modern day Ukraine. ‘In the Court of Jarisleif’ is a typical fun drinking song that takes place in Kiev where the voyagers are being feasted in the home of Yaroslav the Wise who was ruler of the Rus from 1015-1054. The next song is ‘Five Hundred and One’ in which they have to deal with the aftermath of the previous nights’ partying while seriously contemplating the offers made during the night. It is a time of decision of if they want to turn back, continue with their quest, or depart in a different direction. It is at this time they develop a real sense of a purpose and destination. ‘The Dnieper Rapids’ is located on the seven locks in a short stretch of the Dnieper river. This particular stretch of the route is described in De Administrando Imperio which was a foreign and domestic policy manual written by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Both the medieval document and song detail how to traverse the locks, the particular difficulty of the fourth rapid given the name Insatiable One by the Vikings, and the attacks of the nomadic Pechenegs. The album comes to a conclusion with the song ‘Miklagard Overture’ where Haakon reaches his goal and experiences the same awe that is described in medieval documents of visitors of the overwhelming majesty of the city and its crowning glory- Hagia Sophia. Embodied within this conclusion is the possibility of continuation; that the completion of one accomplishment can lead to another.

This sort of journey is similar to the ones described in travel Þættir. Þættir are independent short stories interspersed within the Icelandic sagas. A type of þaettr, the ùtfararsaga are “accounts of a journey abroad” in which Icelanders travel for fame, wealth, and social position before returning home. The Varangian Way fits the typical travel pattern as described by Lonnroth as it follows the adventures of a single hero and a unified group of heroes as opposed to the grander scope of the sagas that can follow an entire lineage of a family or history of a district.(1) Þaettir and a modern song structure both “must be content merely to suggest complexity of motive with a subtle outline,” but this does not preclude the ability to achieve the same profundity and insight into the character that can be achieved on the larger scale.(2) Modern songs are limited to a basic song structure of chorus and verse and lyrics may take secondary importance to rhythm.

Þaettir are most concerned with the portrayal and development of character and the album The Varangian Way delves deeply into the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.(3) Haakon is a bastard in a society that, while is accepting of bastards, also places high importance on kinship and patrilineal relations. It is recorded in the Norwegian Frostathing law that every child must have a father and that if the mother is unwilling or unable to reveal the child’s father then the decision of infanticide rests with her male relatives.(4) While bastards are regularly named in saga material, the fathers are known and acknowledged. Haakon’s fatherlessness is a source of insecurity and self-doubt. A number of lyrics focus on origins of self:

Who is “I” without a past?
A river without a source?
An event without a cause?

And later:
The rug has been pulled from under my feet
All my life made of lies and deceit
All I have left is a symbol on my chest
My only lead on my desperate quest.

Haakon was branded at birth with the sign of Perun who is a thunder god similar to Thor but is the highest god in Slavonic mythology. The brand is described in The Portage to the Unknown:
Six regular edges and six vertices
Six equilateral triangles
Six square faces in another dimension
Plato’s earth transparent

This description matches with the Gromoviti znaci or thunder marks that are ancient symbols of Perun and are regularly found engraved in roof beams of rural houses and believed to protect them from lightening. This brand is his one source of connection to his lost father and so is part of his motivation to explore Eastern Europe. The choice of using a Slavic god instead of Thor, another of the Norse pantheon, or even the Finnish god Ukko is an interesting one that removes much of the Scandinavian or personal claim to the character. It is also interesting because it is generally said that only Swedish Vikings went east but Sweden at the time could be said to include Finland and numerous Baltic states. The term Varangian is a difficult one as it was a name given to any foreigner as the southern Rus would not differentiate between men from Sweden, Finland, north Russia, or the Baltic. It is apparent that Nygård is aware of the troublesome debate between Scandinavian and Russian historians involving the level of Scandinavian involvement in the origins of the Russian state and he (perhaps wisely) chooses to bypass the controversy.

The term þaettr originally meant “a strand of rope” as in a single strand that made up a part of a larger rope as a þaettir does in a larger narrative. Nygård draws upon this rope imagery when describing fate:

Threads of different lengths
Some longer , some shorter
So many of them spun together

The crones keep on weaving
the algorithm of our lives
Cause and effect, the fates of men.

Fate plays a large role in all Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old English texts as can be revealed in the gravity of prophecy and it was paramount in the lives and faiths of the medieval people. The Vikings believed they were going to Valhalla if they achieved an honourable death in battle and that the gods and the Norns had control over whether they achieved this fate. This predetermination allows for recklessness of behaviour that could be described as the “Varangian Way” of life.

Many dangers lie ahead
Some of us may never return
Rather sold as a slave to the Saracens
Than chained to your bed, chained by your life!

These lyrics acknowledge that they have chosen a difficult and dangerous path that may cost their lives but the risk is worth it because the thrill and outcome of adventure is better than a sedate and calm existence. Those that risk nothing have nothing to gain.

Despite the acknowledgement of risk, one thing that is conspicuously absent from the album are battles. Unlike their first album entitled Battle Metal and their followup Stand Up and Fight, The Varangian Way is completely devoid of war-songs which is ironic because it is their album most faithful to Viking history. I can only hypothesize that this is in order to distance themselves from the typical portrayal of Vikings as bloodthirsty warriors and to stress the personal and emotional journeys of the characters rather than the martial accomplishments. This complies with the evolution of Viking historiography, particularly when it faced a romanticization in the Victorian Era. Influential in this romanticization was the Swede Erik Gustaf Geijer who in his poem “The Viking”, describes an ideal heroic seafarer as opposed to the previously popular image of the pillaging barbarian. That story is also about a young man (and likely bastard) who leaves his mother’s home to find adventure and fame.

Just as Geijer’s poem departed from the popular usage and portrayal of Vikings so does Turisas’. Most other Viking metal bands thrive on the outdated scholarship of the barbarian Viking horde and use them as representations of unbridled masculinity and many use them for nationalistic, anti-religious, and racial purposes. Turisas separates themselves from this tradition by aligning more closely with the updated historiography that focuses on the vibrant cultural practices and lifestyles of the medieval Scandinavians.

The lyrics I have chosen to include in my title, “Breathing history, Veiled in mystery” acknowledge the key difficulty in working with medieval source material. Nygård obviously conducted extensive research in order to write this album and so it is apparent he knows the debates and issues surrounding the notoriously difficult usage of certain materials. He delves into actual history while numerous other bands partake in pseudohistorical exploits. The Icelandic and Norse sagas are our main sources of information about northern European society in the Viking age from a somewhat contemporary perspective. Their use as historical sources is difficult because history is veiled in layers of personal stories and bias, mythology, legend, and exaggeration. He displays familiarity with the fact that the study of history can be obscured by various nationalistic purposes and that the study of non-literate cultures must be undertaken carefully and interdisciplinarily.
The events described in the songs take place in the 11th century, yet despite the enormous gap in time the band focuses on issues and problems that are still highly relevant in today’s society and this can explain much of their appeal beyond their musicianship. While a fan may not be able to relate to a Viking risking life and limb for adventure they do relate to the feeling that risk is worth the reward and that it is better to push oneself out of one’s comfort zone to avoid being trapped in a mediocre life. While they would never make the physical journey, young fans find it easy to relate to the journey of self-discovery and constructions of selfhood while facing alienation. Lyrics such as:

Out in the open sea I’ve swum without a sight
A sight of an opposite shore, a sight of some light
Turning back, staying here, my strength is running out
Forward, or I drown.

In which an individual must make the difficult choice of moving forward despite not knowing what the outcome will be. This sort of material in which one must continue even without hope or drown without trying, has according to fans on message boards, helped them through bouts of depression and has been an encouragement in difficult times. The popular imagery of the Vikings is imbued with a sort of indomitable spirit that some people can draw a great deal of strength from.

This type of medievalism reaches fans on numerous levels. On the most basic level is the simple entertainment value of fantastically written and entertainingly bombastic music, and there is enjoyment on further levels for those willing to delve into the history behind the songs. Music like this has an educational value because listeners who do not know much about history seek out the answers and communicate with other fans regarding interpretation and meaning of lyrics. Studying Viking metal can reveal issues about how modern day Scandinavians reinterpret their cultural past. The loyal and growing fanbase for Viking metal shows that interest in medieval Scandinavian history is alive and well.

Notes
1 Byock, Jesse. “Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context”.
2 Anthony Faulkes Two Icelandic Sagas, 3.
3 Faulkes, 4
4 Jochens, Jenny, Women in Old Norse Society,81-93


Ashley Walsh is a first year Masters student at the University of Oslo in Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture.
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Old September 15th, 2011, 03:08 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Wow. This is great. I hope the people you presented this to appreciated it as much as I did.
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Old October 10th, 2011, 05:59 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Thanks for posting this!
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Old October 11th, 2011, 05:53 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Nice read. Very interesting.
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Old October 14th, 2011, 01:36 AM   #5 (permalink)
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That was bad ass. Thanks for sharing.
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5 2011 albums I really dig
1. Devin Townsend - Deconstruction
2. Turisas - Stand up and fight
3. Norther - Circle Regenerated
4. Symphony X - Iconoclast
5. Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising
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