The Modern Heritage and Mythology of Pagan Viking Metal

Irina Manea

Irina Manea

Popular music, here extreme metal, can construct mythologies based on heritage narratives. Heritage has lately become a very fluid concept and can be seen as an aggregation of Mythologies, values and inheritances determined and defined by the needs of societies in the present.

No heritage is ever inert, as people engage with it and appropriate or contest it when they build collective memories. We are dealing mostly with cultural symbols that are interpreted according to specific media and contexts.

Memory in its turn has a processual and negotiated nature, moreover, people can have no personal attachment to memory and then seek to reenact them so as to feel closer to their ancestors.

The selective use of the past and conflation or embellishment of memory shapes senses of selfhood and community, as we look for order and patterns in times of change.

Heritage narratives and the mythologies of history present the potential for the authentication of a collective and in doing so legitimise the symbolic boundaries of belonging through exclusionary practices, and popular culture can invent histories and versions of heritage as well, using the past to define itself and consuming historical narratives as perhaps collective entertainment.

We can play with identities and concoct symbolic communities based on rereadings of history since it might be, as Dr Daniel Brett suggests, “not a fixed entity but an activity. The story that we tell ourselves is a form of self-definition.”

We produce imaginative histories and many times choose the obscure ancient pasts that we then synthesise as tradition and produce a narrative of, i.e. attempt to organise it in a meaningful manner.

The results gain in consequence more of a storytelling dimension than a factual one, because the information always resist the coherency of the image which we are trying to fashion of them. Histories created within metal cultures retain the process of creation: the choice of an object of perception, its conceptualization in a mode of employment, its ideological implications and metamorphosis into a rhetorical structure.

Popular histories and heritage narratives symbolically create collectivities by expressing shared memories, identities or experiences. Furthermore, as Karl Spracklen notices, there has recently been a focus on the significance of the intangible aspects of heritage, citing L. Smith who states that “the real moment of heritage when our emotions and sense of the self are truly engaged is the act of passing on and receiving memories and knowledge to help us make sense of not only who we are but also whom we want to be.”

In this sense, metal musicians construct their own symbolic communities and understanding of cultural identity, by using some ancient material as a code of communication.

Part of the metal scene expresses “a desire to tell histories that have been forgotten in a globalising world — heritage narratives associated with the North.” It is within this context of invented traditions and symbolic boundaries that I am attempting to explore the reception and uses of Norse mythology to construct a form of cultural identity in the broader metal scene, in the sense of self-representation bound to an aestheticization of history.

As I will move on to the content analysis, I will also add more details to the theoretical framework. The cultural phenomenon known as Pagan metal, with its relative Viking metal, proposes a cultural identity at the intersection of music, heritage and myth.

Both Viking and Pagan metal might share some themes with earlier bands like Iron Maiden or Manowar, or even pioneers like Bathory, yet it differentiates itself in one important aspect.

Unlike their mystical pastiche of historical and occult filled with incongruities, these groups articulate very specific mythology which controls not only textual choices but also the imagery used on albums and frequently the kind of music composed, constructing with it a cultural identity based on a fanciful Northernness.

Like Black metal, Viking is back-looking. Lyrics and visuals utilize Nordic sources like the Edda’s, but we must remember the hypertextual nature of Norse mythology, that is its many receptions that already built up a collective memory. The main question, as partly discussed so far, would be how bands construct present identities by recycling history and myth.

I would suggest exploring Viking metal in terms of mythopoesis, a narrative reimagining of the more “traditional” Eddic Mythology, and aesthetic Neopaganism.

We can think of mythology in two ways: First, in a narrow perspective, as a collection of tales with gods and heroes that belong to a static and immemorial past, however and in a broader perspective, every reception can lead to new myth-making, so we can speak of “intertextual archetypes,” i.e. symbols that function in a collective culture or cultural trend. In the latter sense, mythology is more of an ongoing process rather than something ancient merely to be referenced.

In their artistic instrumentalizations, bands create their own hyperreality, composed of myths such as the warrior, golden age, location or decline. A cultural product like Norse mythology can gain new dimensions through its reorganisation in popular culture.

One concept describing the inventive recovery of the past in modern creations is that of medievalism. As the name suggests, it deals with how the Middle Ages have been reconstructed by scholars, artists, ideologists etc. and one of its premises states that examining the relationship between the past and its modern reinterpretations in various times and places can uphold a better understanding of the present.

From another perspective, tracing back the sources of contemporary cultural products reveals the rich evolution of historical reception and brings to attention its potential to function as an identity space nowadays, as well as the fluid nature of historical consciousness.

Thinking of Viking metal as medievalism reminds us of the multiplicity of contexts, from historiography to gender, where Norse history and mythology were instrumented and recreated so as to elaborate meaningful discourses.

Reflections in contemporary culture continue the long tradition of Romantic, Wagnerian aesthetic reworkings that were so popular in the age of nationalisms and resurface in two important directions: the fantasy realms of literature, cinematography, computer games, on the one hand, and religious subcultures on the other hand.

What they all have in common is the employment of Norse mythology and its transformations in the creative process.

As a paradigm for such phenomena of popular culture, Stefanie von Schnurbein introduces the concept of Nordic art-religion, designating “conflations of art, poetry, myth and religion” that resurfaced today in the postmodern context of sacralizing religion and bringing spirituality and art together. Such connections are merely made to look archaic, yet they are not.

The Völkisch Bewegung attracted Norse mythology into its bricolage of Esotericism, New Age and right-wing thought, yet Norse Heathenism liberated itself to a great extent from rasiologic interpretations and evolved into a movement most concerned with alternative spiritualities.

In postmodernity, Asatru was involved in other discussions about identity and otherness, globalisation and localism, resulting in another bricolage of religion, ethnicity and culture, linked discursively into a creative and emotional narrative about heritage.

Von Schnurbein envisages spirituality as a creative process and popular culture as a manifestation of art-religion, drawing attention to the Romantic origins of this intertwinement — Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher attempted to define artistic creation as a religious act, and as for Eddic Mythology itself, it was integrated into the artificial religious representations of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Johann Gottfried Herder or Richard Wagner in their attempt to design a modern national mythology based on the organic unity of landscape, poetry, history.

Perhaps most of all Richard Wagner promoted the aesthetic reconception of Norse mythology and its potential to function as a pseudo-religion through his usage of the Scandinavian version of the Nibelungen story, while more recently John Ronald Reuel Tolkien shaped his own fantasy world following the direction of romanticized receptions as art-religion — personalized bricolages of historical, mythical and folklore bits — like Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm or Elias Lönnrot.

On the other hand, constellations of Nordic elements fill in Neopagan culture, where Asatru sympathizers can also express religiosity and mythological revivalism through art, as Diana Lucile Paxson (author of ‘Wodan’s Children’) and Stephen Scott Grundy do in their stories about gods, magic, humans and destiny, undertoned with organic metaphors about divine blood and sacred earth and prophetic visions about the return of the gods and their favours for heathens.

An aesthetic phenomenon like Viking metal could also be understood in these terms, as some kind of syncretic Neopagan masquerade that follows two traditions: one of the aesthetic transformations of Nordic antiquity and one of the provocative transgression in the cultural history of metal music.

We might say that Viking revival functions as an empathetic evocation of an aestheticized past.

Cornelia Klinger explains the creation of counter-worlds (‘Gegen Welt’) as the result of aesthetic attempts to reconcile notions of heritage with modern challenges and to adapt back-looking narratives to contemporary needs.

And indeed, Viking metal, for all its mythical sympathies, is still very much attached to the present, first of all, because the sonic codes of metal imply utilising technology at its best in all the needed equipment, and secondly, because of its escapist nature and cultural identity forged on aesthetic-spiritual quasi-elitist Pagan allegiances is constructed in opposition to a society perceived as oppressive via its capitalistic materialism or globalizing efforts and to popular music itself, as we have seen from the multiple transgressions operated in extreme metal.

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