Summoning the Old Gods

Quite frankly it feels that Wardruna have tapped into some very ancient powers with their trilogy of albums exploring the deeper esoteric meanings of the ancient Norse runic alphabet. They use some of the oldest Nordic musical instruments , self-made frame drums and ceremonial drums, mouth harp, tagelharpe (‘viking fiddle’), flutes, goat horns, tongue horns and Hardanger fiddle. The song structures use Norse poetic metre and are sung in a mix of Norwegian, Old Norse and Proto Norse. The result is a mesmerising soundscape, sometimes trance like and at others powerfully uplifting. If you have watched the History Channel’s Vikings series (on Amazon Prime and iTunes) you will have heard Wardruna in the soundtrack.

The man behind all of this is the gifted Einar Selvik, a man who knows something about tradition. Have a watch of the video below filmed at the Dutch Archaeon festival, what he says about music needing something deep and powerful behind it is fascinating.

And what a tradition Norse mythology  is, everyone knows of Odin and Thor on some level (they have days of the week named after them – Wednesday is Odin’s Day and Thursday is Thor’s Day). Those notable Gods are just the tip of the iceberg however, as Norse Mythology is a richly detailed treasure trove of sagas about deities, giants, Elves, Dwarfs and heroes. From Asgard to Valhalla and Loki to Beowulf our modern popular culture is peppered with references and allusions to them.

Wardruna summon that spiritual pagan mythology in full force, Einar’s aim is to ‘search in the scattered ruins of Norse history and use the runes as a tool to understand and evoke the depths of the old nordic pagan beliefs. Musically, the main focus is on recreating the Norse cultic musical language and the near forgotten arts of galder and seidr, as well as the daily acts of life. This is mixed with impulses from Norwegian/Nordic folk music and music from other indigenous cultures’.

What are the runes?

The Runes are actually several related alphabets that were used in Northern Europe to write various Germanic languages. The Scandinavian versions are known by their first 6 letters as futhark, and there were two variants of this over time. The Elder Futhark was in use from 150 to 800 AD and the Younger Futhark from 800 to 1100 AD. There was also a variation in the Anglo Saxon world, the Futhorc, used from 400 to 1100 AD.

What gives them their iconic look is that they are mostly made of angular linear strokes, easy to carve into wood or stone. There are around 3,000 runestones  across Scandinavia alone, often as monuments to people or events. In the mythological sagas the runes have a divine origin and possess esoteric powers. Odin received the runes in a ritual that has shamanic overtones, the poem Hávamál describes his ordeal on the world tree Yggdrasil

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.

Down the ages there has been many attempts to reconstruct the magical meanings of the runes. Repeatedly in the sagas they have magical connotations, but there is frustratingly little evidence of just how they were used. That hasn’t stopped numerous modern authors coming up with detailed divinatory meanings and systems of use for them, something that stimulates debate and disagreement even now.

Einar wisely says ‘I would like to emphasize that in my songs it is not necessarily a goal for me to approach the respective rune from every conceivable angle, nor to unravel all the different aspects of it. My approach is both of runologic and mystic nature, but I concentrate on the core of each rune and the qualities that serve the whole concept and purpose of Wardruna best: sowing new seeds and strengthening old roots!’

The Wardruna Albums

Einar started his Runic trilogy in 2009 with Runaljod – gap var Ginnunga  it features eight songs that focus upon runes of the Elder Futhark amongst the twelve tracks. Einar says of the album ‘After many years of working with and studying runes and the ancient and ever young Norse pagan beliefs, the need for me to do a musical project like Wardruna became inevitable. In early 2003 I began doing the first recordings.’

In 2013 Runaljod – Yggdrasil was released, with eight more runes focused on amongst the eleven tracks, some of which were used in the Vikings TV programme soundtrack. The song below is Helvegen, essentially a funeral song, to sing a soul into the afterlife.

In 2016 they released the final album in the trilogy entitled Runaljod – Ragnarok.

So how does Ragnarok compare to the previous albums, gap var Ginnunga and Ygdrassil? Realistically this trilogy should be considered as a whole, as they all address the Norse runes, yet each can be taken as an entity in itself. Ragnarok feels somehow larger, tracks such as UruR and Tyr have horn sections that expand the dynamic range quite majestically. That range is exploited to great effect on the album opener Tyr, named after the one handed God of war and heroic deeds, his hand bitten off by the wolf Fenrir in the act of capturing the bringer of chaos and binding him, fenrir would remain bound until the day of Ragnarök. An ominous intro leads into blasting horns and drums worthy of a Norse god, layered vocals create a charged atmosphere and the stage is set for the most nuanced album in the trilogy.

It’s not all Gods, war and mythology however, Selvik has captured the connection to the earth and sky, drawing them into the arrangements by recording some tracks outdoors and using natural things as percussion and ambience. So on Isa we get ‘ice percussion’ by Eilif Gundersen, Steinar Mossige and Sigurd Ytre-Arne. Ragnarok equally paints a portrait of the staggering natural beauty of Norway, by turns awe inspiring and others tranquil and reflective

Do you need to know anything about the runes to enjoy them? Not really, but it would certainly help, we’ve put together an overview to give a basic introduction and further references. In the myths the runes are not just an alphabet but potent symbols that aid in the understanding of the mysteries of life, each one charged with layers of meaning and power. The Runaljod trilogy is a stunning testament to the fascination that we still have for the symbols and the wisdom of our pagan past, and present.

Iain Hazlewood