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]

Vikings: hearts of darkness?

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake. In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever. But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas. The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.


Viking Age slave chain and collar from iron slave chain and collar found in Ardakillen Lake, Co. Roscommon, Ireland (© NMI)

[originally posted on the British Museum website in April 2014]

Journeys in the dark

When I was a small boy – probably I was eight years old – my grand-father produced for my birthday a board game. This was no ordinary board game, however; this was Heroquest. Opening the box was like opening a portal into another world, like lifting the lid of the Box of Delights. One of the most powerful and evocative smells I know, a smell familiar to anyone who has bought an expensive boxed game over the last twenty-five years, is the unique aroma of plastic and freshly cut card that I first experienced on entering that case of wonders.

heroquest-imageFor those who are unfortunate enough to have missed this foundational monument of modern western culture, Heroquest was a game produced jointly by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop. It is what, in the ugly jargon of the console age, would now be called a dungeon-crawler. And, like many who encountered it at roughly the same age, it profoundly and permanently altered the chemistry of my brain. To be fair, I was already precociously steeped in fantasy. My first literary memories (of books without pictures) are of my mother reading The Hobbit to me at the age of 5, and the first books I read alone were the Chronicles of Narnia. Around the same time, my father revealed to me the complete radio series of The Lord of the Rings which he had kept secreted in some arcane vault since recording it when first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1981 (these tapes – which still survive – were complete with the original synopses, cut from The Radio Times and inserted into the cassette boxes).

This, of course, was fundamental and I was soon at home amongst dwarves and orcs and adventures undertaken in caverns deep beneath the mountains. It inspired a love of landscape, myth and fantasy which has endured to the present. What was different about Heroquest was that it opened doors that hitherto had been closed – it was sensory, tactile, inhabitable. It hinted at expansive worlds beyond the confines of the game, worlds populated by tangible sculptural representations of their myriad denizens. It affected me so profoundly at the time that I can still remember seeing the faces of weird creatures in the dark spaces between the trees. The night became alive with ideas that existed just beyond the limits of the real world and to me they seemed at the point of breaking through.

Sadly, modern fantasy has lost a great deal of its charm thanks to mass market commodification through online computer games, the rise of Games Worskhop as an aggressive share-holder owned business, and mega-budget Hollywood franchises. Back then, fantasy was weird and underground, unregulated and uncodified: spontaneous, creative and free. It is ironic that the success of Heroquest was partly responsible for that mass-marketisation of fantasy and the demise of the independent model shop. I often mourn those dark caves of mystery, their cabinets crammed with dusty miniatures whose obscure forms and inexplicable origins spoke to unfettered recesses of the imagination.

For many people, the love of archaeology was sparked by Indiana Jones or Time Team. For me and, I suspect, a surprising number of others, it was fantasy that first offered me my first glimpse of the inside of a hoary tomb, a ruined city, a forgotten mine shaft leading into the deep places of the world, a rusted blade, a mouldy manuscript.

Whether the mines of Moria or the Bastion of Chaos, these were the paths that led me down into the dark.

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.