Thursday, June 23, 2011

Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið, Part One

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson joined Iceland's Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) at age sixteen, shortly after its founding in 1972. Since 2003, he has served as allsherjargoði (very roughly translated as "high priest") for the pagan religious organization, which was officially recognized by the Icelandic government in 1973. In this role, he has led interfaith services with Tibet's Dalai Lama and with the Reykjavík Free Church.

Hilmarsson & Seigfried in Reykjavík - July 5, 2010

During Hilmarsson's tenure as allsherjargoði, the Ásatrúarfélagið has engaged in a number of progressive projects - including fighting for the right to marry gay couples. The group has also focused on ecological action, such as working on forest reclamation with the Icelandic Forestry Association; in 2003, Hilmarsson erected a níðstöng (“scorn-pole”) against the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project. In 2011, he has joined other religious leaders in calling for an amendment to the Icelandic constitution that will end the special status of the National Church of Iceland.

Hilmarsson's career as a professional musician dates back to the early 1970s, when he performed in various bands on drums and synthesizer. Over the decades, he has worked with Björk Guðmundsdóttir, Current 93, Grindverk, Psychic TV, Sigur Rós, Þeyr and many others. He has composed soundtracks for more than twenty-five films, including the award-winning score for the Oscar-nominated Children of Nature (1991) and the intensely powerful music for Beowulf and Grendel (2005). Since 2007, he has taught composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried of the Norse Mythology Blog interviewed Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson in Reykjavík on June 23, 2010. This is Hilmarsson's first English-language interview on Norse mythology and religion.

KS - In 2002, you composed and performed a work with the band Sigur Rós called Hrafngaldr Óðins (“Odin’s Raven-Magic”). Can you describe the piece?

HÖH - Hrafngaldr Óðins is a poem that was part of the Eddas until 1864, when the Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge decided that it was a latter-day forgery. This was shortly after the whole big thing with the poems of Ossian, when MacPherson was found out to have forged the whole Ossianic Cyle. I think Bugge was trying to do a similar thing. All his reasoning [was based on the fact that] it only existed in latter-day paper manuscripts, which of course can be suspect - but a lot of the older poems do, as well. They’re not all part of the Codex Regius and Flateyjarbók. Basically, if you look at it from a linguistic point of view, it’s much older than Bugge thought. Possibly, it’s from the 12th century - somewhere between 1000 and 1200 and something.

If it’s a forgery, it’s a very strange forgery, because it’s alluding to myths that only exist in this poem. It’s building on older material, and it’s very interesting. I think it’s missing the beginning and the end, because it ends very abruptly. The poem is absolutely beautiful. Its language is wonderful. It’s got this incredible imagery. Everything is falling - going down. It’s always using these beautiful metaphors and imagery, saying things are in decline. The world is starting to freeze over from north to south. The gods are partying and just too drunk to notice, but something really bad is going on.

I’ve been totally in love with this poem for over thirty years. Ten years ago, I just decided that I would sell this idea to Reykjavík Festival of the Arts and do something with it. This is when I was starting to work with Sigur Rós, so I decided, “Okay, let’s do a joint project using Steindór [Andersen], using an orchestra and a choir.” We took it from there.

KS - The poem isn’t included in any modern translations of the Eddas.

HÖH - Only in East German editions, because it never got thrown out in Germany. After [Bugge’s pronouncement of forgery], nobody in Scandinavia or the rest of the world has used it.

I was also doing this in ’02 to out one of our scholars, Jónas Kristjánsson. In our wonderful Icelandic department at the Árni Magnússon Institute, the old scholars have a monopoly on certain things, and the young scholars wait until they have finished. Jónas said in 1962 that he was researching the poem, which meant that it’s just been off-limits for everybody else. Jónas, at that time [2002], was retired and well into his eighties - and hadn’t published a single word. I was using this as a whip on him, saying, “Jónas, just come out with it!”

KS - There was nothing since 1962?

HÖH - Yes. Ha! So he finally published something. He just did a short thing, but now we have one Danish scholar who is actually coming to more radical conclusions. She actually thinks it’s a very old poem. There’s an Italian scholar who is studying it, as well. There are a lot of people now looking into it. As Jónas told me - we have what we call Eddica Minora, the Lesser Edda, which is poems from the heroic sagas - next time, when that is published, Hrafngaldr will certainly be a part of it.

KS - I’ve read that you have an interest in Aleister Crowley. Do you think there is any relationship between his ideas and contemporary Ásatrú ("Æsir Faith")?

HÖH - There are certain parallel ideas, but I think - in a way - he was looking for the wrong gods. He was ending up in Egypt and doing things in Pidgin Egyptian and, of course, with the Greek and the Roman sources. At some stage, he seems to have stopped reading the old Scandinavian mythology, although you can see that he was doing it when he was doing his first edition of 777. Also, there are echoes - “As brothers fight ye!” in The Book of the Law, which is something like “Brœðr muno beriaz oc at bönum verðaz” [“brother shall fight brother and both fall”] from Völuspá ["Prophecy of the Seeress"].

Probably there is a subconscious influence of Aleister. I was interested in him because he wrote most clearly about ritual ideas, and he was a person who was trying to fuse together the use of oriental systems and the western systems. I think, in a way, he can be a great source of inspiration. Also, last but not least, he was a rather failed teacher. It’s very good to learn from his mistakes. He was very honest about writing about his mistakes. It’s a nice way of [learning], “Don’t go down that road, because it will end in tears.” Ha!

KS - I first learned about Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theories from the Robert Calvert song “Orgone Accumulator” (recorded by Hawkwind in 1972) and from the scene in On the Road when Jack Kerouac visits William S. Burroughs, who has actually built an orgone accumulator. What was your organization Miðgarður, and how was it related to Reich’s ideas?

HÖH - It was actually an informal thing. I got to know this really nice person called David Boadella who was a psychotherapist who wrote a biography of William Reich. We became great friends. He wanted to set up a training system here in Iceland, so we set up this thing where we set up courses and he got some interesting people from England - and from all over the world, really - to come and lecture and do some teaching.

I went through a very Reichian phase in my teens and my early twenties. I thought these ideas were really interesting. He’s another madman, which I really like from afar. Ha!

KS - You had a band in the 1980s called Nyarlathotep’s Idiot Flute Players. The name references H.P. Lovecraft, whose writings blend the traditional folklore of New England and the progressive science of his time with a nostalgia for days long gone and for older ways of living. His work seems like a forward echo of the Ásatrúarfélagið, with its ecological concerns and its combination of a modern worldview with a very ancient system.

HÖH - Lovecraft was a strange character, really - another sad madman. Ha! He’s really interesting, and his correspondence is really interesting. His correspondence with Robert E. Howard is interesting. I think if Howard had lived today - and managed to move out from his mother - he would probably be an Ásatrúar. Ha! I think Howard did research, but of course some of it was crazy stuff. It’s obvious that he’s been reading Blavatsky, and some of her ideas [appear in his works]. Hyperborea is Blavatsky’s.

KS - Do you see contemporary Ásatrú in Iceland as a continuation of a living tradition that goes back to ancient times, as a recreation and revival of a practice that had ended, as a descendent of 19th century nationalist romantic mysticism, as a post-war rejection of modernity, or as a post-1960s counterculture movement?

HÖH - I think, probably, I would say “yes” to all those things. The influence of this seems to resonate with Icelanders. The poems never really went away, and they’ve been treasured ever since they were handed down orally and written down. I’m pretty certain that the people in the learned places of Oddi and Reykholt and [elsewhere] were reading Ovid and Roman mythology, and they realized, “My god, we have this thing here which is a living and vibrant thing, and this is what my great-grandfather believed in,” and stuff like that. I think it never really went away.

It was said - after the conversion in 1000 or 999 - that you could not worship the old gods except in secrecy. That was part of the truce. People carried on secret worship for at least two centuries. I don’t think it ever really went away. To illustrate that, I met this old man in the shop yesterday. He came up to me and shook my hand, and he told me that - when he was confirmed in the early 1920s - his grandmother came to him and gave him a book with the Eddic poems and said, “You should read that, because this is what we also believe.” She thought, “Christianity is okay, but you should not forget your roots.” Ha! I think that’s really a telling story.

That’s, in a way, how I was brought up. My father caught me reading a Superman magazine, and he just gave me Grettis Saga and said, “Okay, this is the real Superman.” We have 380 bon mots or sayings from this saga which are still used in modern language. A lot of the saga material is still part of everyday language. We have things from Hávamál [“Sayings of the High One”] written on headstones in Christian cemeteries. It’s so culturally ingrained. We can’t really escape it.

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson memorial in Reykjavík - June 26, 2010

I’m certain that a lot of people - like Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson [Ásatrúarfélagið allsherjargoði from 1972 to 1993] - were brought up with what he called “mild Christianity.” They were told to respect nature in a way that has gone from generation to generation for centuries.

I think there is an unbroken tradition of thought, because the poems have never gone away. They’ve always been treasured. If you look at the list of what people took with them to the New World when there was a mass emigration to America, people were taking their Eddas and their sagas with them. That’s most of the things on those lists of books that they took with them.

Of course, we really liked the attention in the late 19th century, when you had the Grimm Brothers trying to reinvent Germanic mythology - which is ninety-nine percent taken from the old Icelandic sources, even if they try to come up with some clever etymological things about Forseti being connected with Fosete and Foseteslant in Germany. Basically, all they have are spurious linguistics, and then the true kernel of the whole thing is the Icelandic sources. The same thing with Wagner, when he was doing his Ring Cycle. Eighty percent of what he used was the old Icelandic sources. The Nibelungenlied was only used for dressing.

KS - I remember being disappointed when I read a translation of the Nibelungenlied as a child. My father had told me the German stories about Siegfried bathing in the dragon’s blood and so on. Reading the Nibelungenlied, I kept waiting for Wotan and the dragon to appear, but it’s really a medieval Christian epic. There’s almost no actual German mythology in the Wagner operas.

HÖH - Yes. There’s a wonderful book by Árni Björnsson on Wagner and the Völsungar. He’s done some serious research into Wagner’s sources. Even pretty new Wagner biographies were pouring scorn on the idea that Wagner had actually studied the Icelandic sources, but you can see from his library that he’s annotated and gone through the Eddas really seriously.

Of course, this whole völkisch thing went too far, because Germany needed an identity, needed some unity. I think Jacob Grimm was actually a Romantic, but then you have all the lunatics - Lanz von Liebenfels and these people who took it to really nefarious ends and twisted and destroyed the whole thing.

KS - A lot of the material published these days on runes and rune-reading seems based on Guido von List . . .

HÖH - Yes.

KS - And other 19th century mystics . . .

HÖH - Yes.

KS - And it has very little connection to Eddic sources.

HÖH - No, it’s crap. I have some wonderful cranky German books like Baldur und Bibel ["Baldur and Bible"], which is basically "proving" that Christ is a rip-off from Baldur.

Of course, what they were doing - these so-called Ariosophists - they were saying, “We invented everything. We invented yoga.” So they came out with these really ridiculous runic postures [imitating rune-shapes]. Then of course, the Indians have their mantras, but we can go, “Fffffffff-feh, feh” and “Urrrrrrrrr.” They’re trying to prove that, of course, everything came from us. Ha!

You have these fanciful things. Now the latest gimmick is this so-called old Norwegian fighting tradition which they call stav - which is basically aikido dressed in Norwegian clothing. Ha!

KS - This week, I saw the architectural plans for the Ásatrúarfélagið hof ("temple"). When built, it will be the largest and most sophisticated Ásatrú temple in the world. The inevitable media coverage will definitely raise the visibility of the organization - locally, nationally and internationally. What do you think that this kind of attention will mean for the Ásatrúarfélagið?

HÖH - It will put us in a bit of a dilemma. We decided in the mid-‘80s - me and Sveinbjörn [Beinteinsson] - that we would cut all ties with foreign Ásatrú groups, because we’ve had rather sad experiences with a German group which seemed to be really good on the surface but were rampant nazis when you looked closer. Then we had one of our older members - a really nice man but with a strange chip on his shoulder when it came to race - he was corresponding in the name of Ásatrúarfélagið with some people and exchanging racist ideas. So we basically had to cut him off as well - sort of push him into the mountain. I really hated to do it, because he was a nice man, but this was a big problem. I don’t think we should be connected with racist politics in any way.

I think what we need to do is set a good example, like we did with Denmark. In Denmark, [the pagan church] got recognized. They took a lot of their ideas from us, because one of their founders was [Ásatrúarfélagið member] Óttar Ottósson, who was living in Denmark for twenty years. Óttar was a good influence there.

We’ve had Norwegian Ásatrú societies with a common goal, but they always end up with the right-wing extremists infiltrating and taking over - same thing with Sweden. The terrible thing with Norwegians . . . I think there is a certain lack of humor in the Norwegians. Ha! You have these young Norwegian death metal rockers who really think that Ozzy Osbourne is a satanist and that burning a stave church - which is probably the closest thing to a pagan hof you can get - is a very nice pagan act. Ha!

Click here for Part Two of the interview.


Anon said...

Great interview so far, really looking forward to part 2!

Jan A. Kozák said...

The same as my colleague above: Wonderful interview, but where is the rest?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


Click the black arrow pointing to the left for the next part (and then the part after that). It's below the comments on this page.


Next Post Previous Post Home