Iceland: legends of the north


NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.


Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler


The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]

Væsen and the Golden Age of Illustration

I have wanted to share this superb animation for a while. Released in Denmark in 2012, Væsen is a wonderful homage to the Golden Age of illustration and animation, including the early work of the Disney studio – Snow White and Pinnochio in particular. Those films pulled in influences from a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrators. One artist who worked for the studio in those days, the talented and versatile artist Gustaf Tenggren (1896 – 1970), developed a style that drew heavily on the work of artists like John Bauer and Arthur Rackham (he in fact succeeded John Bauer as the illustrator of Bland tomtar och troll, the Swedish fairy-tale annual). It is a tragedy that he would later destroy many of his fabulous early paintings and go on to pioneer a flat and sterile approach that would dominate in children’s illustration for several decades.

Gustaf Tenggren

 [An example of Gustaf Tenggren’s early style]

Væsen was made for the Animation Workshop, a Danish institute dedicated to film animation and related industries. It is all the more remarkable for being the work of a group of third-year undergraduate students (for detail about the making of the film and its creators, click here). The quality of the artwork is fabulous, but what is most arresting is the weird atmosphere and myth-allegorical sub-text of the film paired with influences pulled from a number of golden age illustrators – most notably Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, John Bauer and Ivan Bilibin. This era of illustration, perhaps more than anything else, solidified the visual language of European folklore: dark forests, radiant spirits gathered by dark reflective pools in mossy groves, eyes and hands peeping and creeping from the boles of rime-scoured trees, mushrooms sprouting from every crevice. Sarah Maitland tried in Gossip from the Forest to make a case for the forest as the womb of the fairy tale, suggesting that the origins of fantastical story-telling are bound up – ‘tangled’, as she would put it – with the arboreal experience. It is a seductive idea, and feels instinctively true. But I wonder whether this association has rather more to do with the enduring popularity of Rackham’s ink and watercolour evocations of Grimm’s tales than with any real relationship between trees and the genesis of fairy tale in Britain; a brief survey of Katherine Briggs’ Folk Tales of Britain reveals a surprising scarcity of woodland settings in our own domestic story-telling. It may well be that this imagery of fairy tale, mediated to a large extent through the pervasive influence of Disney in childhood, has become foundational for the western imagination; it is bound up with the powerful emotional conductors of childhood nostalgia and a longing for a natural world that probably never was.

I’ve collected a handful of images that represent a group of the most famous illustrators of the Golden Age. Their influence is most obviously felt in the work of a small number of contemporary illustrators who keep the spirit of the tradition alive – Ian Miller, Alan Lee, Tomislav Tomic, Julek Heller. Tomic’s art in particular, with its clear allusions to Dürer and Brueghel, is a reminder that the genealogy of this sort of illustration is a long one, running back beyond the origin of the printed book to the fantastical marginalia of the medieval calligraphers.

The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.


Medieval Warfare III.5


Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).

Atlantean Kodex – The White Goddess

WhiteGoddessIt is rare to encounter an album that has the potential to alter the trajectory of a genre.

The previous full-length release from Atlantean Kodex The Golden Bough – was remarkable for its intellectual depth. The title of that record refers to Sir James Frazer’s monumental work of comparative mythology and anthropology of the same name. Published between 1890 and 1915, the final edition ran to twelve volumes. Frazer’s work is a remarkable compilation that – alongside the theories of Marija Gimbutas and Margaret Murray – laid the groundwork for the modern pagan movement, the tropes of folk horror and much of the public understanding of the roots of ancient folk practice. Any time that reference is made to sacrificial kings or ancient fertility rites, the ghost of Frazer is hovering somewhere nearby. It is also true that Frazer’s theories have been utterly discredited by several generations of scholars. As long ago as 1970, William Chaney’s book Sacral Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England – a work that drew heavy inspiration from Frazerian ideas – was generally ridiculed (unfairly in many cases; it contains a number of fascinating ideas even though the overall thesis is undoubtedly incredible).

Atlantean Kodex acknowledged this sullied academic legacy in the sleeve notes to The Golden Bough, but asked the listener to accept the Frazerian legend as a thought-experiment; by leaving rational objections behind, and embracing the dark dream of Europe’s mythic past, the listener was offered the opportunity to reconnect with some of the magic that saturates the heritage of the West. Most interestingly, AK began to weave into this the rich fabric the threads of Christian theology and superstition that have to a great extent defined European culture. The song Temple of Katholic Magic was the first concrete expression of this idea and evokes to extraordinary effect the smell of incense in dark crypts and the splash of coloured light through stained glass windows. This theme is elaborated on with The White Goddess, an album which builds in every way on the foundations of its predecessor.

The title derives from the poet Robert Graves’ famous book of the same name. Like Frazer, to whom Graves was enormously indebted, Graves’ ideas have been rejected as untenable fantasy – regardless of their value as poetry – by modern scholars. Once again, however, AK use the metaphor of the White Goddess as a means of entering into a semi-allegorical exploration of death and rebirth as the unifying European myth. In particular, the place of Christianity within the confluence of ancient European beliefs and practices is made prominent. Graves felt that he was building on what Frazer had left unsaid, stating explicitly that “[w]hat he [Frazer] was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus.” Atlantean Kodex draw on this idea more or less directly at various points throughout The White Goddess, particularly on Sol Invictus , a mighty hymn to the Winter Solstice:

It is particularly important and surprising because, despite the darker emphasis of this album compared to its precursor, it is an inherently optimistic and inclusive vision that AK set out here. Beauty, optimism, melancholy, death, glory, majesty and mystery all have their place on The White Goddess. It is an approach that reveals how myopic and creatively bankrupt much heavy metal that treats of mythological themes has become. It is a fact that the rich seams of myth, history and folklore that AK exploit have generally only been explored in any depth by Black Metal artists, some of whom have responded to this material in profound and sophisticated ways (Enslaved, Negura Bunget, Primordial). But it is also undeniable that Black Metal is defined by a negativity that is deeply limiting in its emotional range and, therefore, damaging to its artistic potential in the long-term. And it is also true that the subject matter has too easily been perverted by this negativity to a poisonous racial nationalism that has compromised otherwise outstanding musical projects (Burzum, Walknut, Nokturnal Mortem).

Consider these sentiments expressed by guitarist Manuel Trummer in 2010 in an interview for the website Metal Crypt:

“Sargon [Interviewer]: Your lyrics seem to promote a Pan-European Renaissance and revival. While obviously not specific, this theme does have a lot of resonance today, when many people feel European culture is threatened by immigration and cultural diffusion. Do you agree with that sentiment?

Manuel: No, I don’t. The history of Europe is a history of immigration. Starting with the stone-age tribes, the peoples of the bronze-age, the indo-european peoples like the Celts and later the Slavs and Teutons, the Romans of course – Europe has always been a melting pot of different peoples. So where do you draw the line? Immigration is nothing new, but something quite natural. Europe will only profit from immigration as its culture will become even more diverse, rich and plentiful. But: people may lose orientation in this new plurality. That’s why we need to look to our roots. We need traditions to stabilize our lives in these fast-moving times, something to cling to when all around you is on the move. And we need education, we need to teach the younger generation where there roots are. If we forget who we are and where we came from, we will have serious problems pretty soon. It’s not about which nation or which ethnic group is “superior”. It’s about accepting the differences between the various cultures living in Europe and learning how to live with them in a peaceful, civilized and tolerant manner. By heeding these classic virtues of Europe originating in the ancient Greek democracies, we can also make sure that there’s no space for religious fanaticism, stonings of young girls, discrimination or war-mongering like in other regions of the world.”

A Black Metal artist, constrained by the restrictive parameters of the genre, would rarely if ever feel able to express sentiments like these regardless of personal conviction. Those fiercely policed boundaries are one reason why, despite infantile claims to ‘trueness’, much of the Black Metal pose, as embodied by Euronymous and those who followed, is dishonest and self-deluding. To encounter a musician inspired by ancient European mythology and folklore who can speak intelligently and positively about immigration and tolerance is to hear a fresh breeze in the trees, a cool wind blowing from the Bavarian Alps.

I don’t wish to write a formal review of the contents of the record. Plenty of others have already done so, and a trailer for the album can be viewed here:

The points of reference are still evident (Manowar, Bathory, Solstice), but increased maturity and confidence mean that this release establishes the AK sound as unique and unfettered. Each of the five long songs is artistically distinct, each offering a different emotional perspective on the themes of the album. There is no superfluous material, not a second that has not been thought over and crafted to reflect the band’s vision. The same care extends to the visual presentation. Created by artist Ben Harff, the fully illuminated and hand-drawn booklet is a beautifully crafted artwork in its own right. This is artwork that enriches the music it illustrates in a way that is rarely attempted and almost never achieved.


The White Goddess redefines what traditional heavy metal – Epic Metal – can be. It has the potential to do for that genre what In the Nightside Eclipse did for Black Metal, resetting musical, lyrical, aesthetic, intellectual and emotional boundaries. And yet, in every one of these dimensions it remains inescapably and unmistakeably ‘Heavy Metal’. Unlike the post-black-metal phenomenon – whose pioneers have either systematically deconstructed their heavy metal identities out of existence (Alcest), or been left with a rump of heavy metal elements that are at best obsolete and at worst irritating (Agalloch) – Atlantean Kodex have managed with The White Goddess, just as Emperor did with Nightside, to up the atmospheric intensity without changing the game. This is not to say that this shift hasn’t been coming. Bands have been taking their inspiration from early Manowar and Bathory for some time, with increasingly sophisticated imagery – Doomsword, Wotan, Crom, Grand Magus. UK based Solstice have been particularly important for Atlantean Kodex both in sound and in thematic content. The album New Iron Age, in particular, is an overlooked classic that should be recognised as a seminal moment in defining a new Epic Metal. Newly released material is promising. Solstice, however, have proved themselves too erratic, too eccentric and too unproductive to claim the crown for themselves. It is their protégé – Atlantean Kodex – that have pulled together all the threads of this burgeoning scene and crafted an epoch-making release. It is, moreover, an eloquent response to all those who decry traditional heavy metal as crude, naive, laughable and riddled with pubescent fantasies of big muscly guys and their equally anatomically improbable women-folk.

This is Heavy Metal for grown-ups; the dawn of a New Iron Age is breaking.