Friday, December 20, 2013

Art Contest – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2013

We received a very large number of very impressive entries in the adult division of the second art contest at The Norse Mythology Blog. Talented artists sent in wonderful works from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the UK and the USA. The theme of the contest was midwinter, and there was an amazing variety of approaches that incorporated Norse mythology and folklore in very creative ways.

There were so many pieces that were so good, ranking was quite difficult for the judging panel – myself, Anker Eli Petersen (internationally known for his wonderful Faroe Islands postage stamps based on the Norse myths) and Erik Evensen (author/artist of the wonderful Gods of Asgard graphic novel). Each of the judges ranked the submissions individually, without knowing how the other two judges had ordered the works. The winners were determined by the adding the scores from all three judges.

Since there was such a great number of strong entries, I decided to do something a little different in the adult category. I am posting not only the three winners, but also the three pieces with the next highest scores. These works are so good, everyone really should see them!

If you haven't checked out the winners in the other age divisions, click here for the kid winners and here for the teen winners. Congratulations to all who won, thanks to everyone who entered, and hails to the judges for their work. Stay tuned for the Midsummer Art Contest in 2014!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Kamil Jadczak
Age 22
Bydgoszcz, Poland

Kamil writes, "I have portrayed Odin taking a break from travel to Midgard. A giant Yule Goat shelters him from snow and wind. The god is smoking a long pipe looking at the flames of a crackling fire on a thick log (Yule log). I have also included a group of curious huldufólk (dwarves or elves) lured in by fire or jingling bells."

Anker Eli calls this "a fantastic picture." Erik writes, "I love the firelight on this and the design of the goat, and the aurora in the sky is a nice touch." I am hypnotized by Kamil's work. Everything about it is magical – the warm light from the fire, the peacefulness of Odin, the curiosity of the Yule Goat, the sneakiness of the dwarves, the coldness of the snow, and the glow of the Northern Lights. This is such a beautiful representation of the midwinter moment!

First Place: Kamil Jadczak

Eleanor Dawn Schnarr
Age 24
Berkeley, California, USA

Eleanor explains her work: "This painting is one of a polyptych of nine panels. They are all large scale (4'x 4') and done in oil on wooden boards; they depict various scenes from the Norse myths. The specific one I would like to enter is an image of the Allfather in his guise as the wanderer. The paintings are meant to symbolize a cycle of death and life. With my depiction of Odin, I wanted to evoke the energy of midwinter and Yule, of darkness and mystery and midnight. He is flanked by Huginn and Muninn and carries in his hand a goblet full of sparkling mead; the dead branches around him are that of the Ash tree and he draws in the ground the rune Isa which is associated with stillness, balance and cold."

Anker Eli says that this is "a wonderful presentation of Odin and his features," and Erik says that the "creepy looking Odin" is "well rendered and composed." I love the look on Odin's face. What exactly is the raven whispering in his ear? In the Icelandic sagas, midwinter can be a very spooky time. Eleanor has perfectly captured the dark secrets of the longest nights of the year.

Second Place: Eleanor Dawn Schnarr 

Tokubi Ka
Age 22
Farmington Hills, Michigan, USA

Tokubi describes his painting: "The jotun-goddess Skaði brings winter to a city. In the distance, a storm is brewing."

Erik says, "I love the concept of the arrow casting winter over a landscape." Anker Eli says, "I can relate to this depiction of Skaði shooting the winter in." I absolutely love Tokubi's characterization of Skaði; the strong-willed ice-maiden is the symbol of my website, after all! The image of her arrow's path turning into snow is both delicately beautiful and wonderfully mystical.

Third Place: Tokubi Ka

Susanne Beneš
Age 42
Berlin, Germany

Susanne writes that this piece is of "the Yule-Goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr as an allegory for the vanishing darkness and incoming light."

Erik says, "Susanne's piece has some beautifully rendered goat heads full of mood and character, with a textural, abstract expressionistic composition." What an original and creative approach! The connection of Thor's goats with the Yule Goat is very interesting, as is the imagery of darkness and light. I love the haunting, otherworldly quality of the character design, and the background perfectly evokes the short, snowy days of midwinter while hearkening to the monumental work of the great German artist Anselm Kiefer. This is a work of great power and weight.

First Runner-Up: Susanne Beneš

Sam Flegal
Age 33
Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Sam describes his painting: "The spirits of Yule gather to discuss how the town will be treated. Odin and Holle observe that the town has set up the Yule Goat and follows the old ways. They warn Krampus to not be too harsh on the town, as they plan to give it a proper Yule blessing."

Anker Eli calls this "a great picture" and Erik says it is "beautifully rendered; it looks like a book cover." In this technically accomplished work, Sam manages to bring together characters and imagery from a wide range of sources into an interesting (and clever) narrative moment. Wonderful!

Second Runner-Up: Sam Flegal

Carl Olsen
Age 35
Oakland, California, USA

Carl gives a detailed background for his entry: "I gave a paper in 2011 on a version of this myth as a harvest poem, rather than a midwinter poem, but all the reasons that the skald Þjóðólfr found the myth productive for a harvest poem also recommend it for a Midwinter poem, as the theft of the fertility goddess Iðunn brings youth and springtime bounty to the giants, while the gods are left to grow old and grey. Given that, I decided that my Midwinter picture would also draw on the myth of the abduction of Iðunn as a way of dramatizing the coming of winter – the land of the giants, behind our giant-transmographied-to-eagle, is cold and snowy, typical given the association of the giants with inhospitable rocks and mountains in many of the myths, but the cold of those mountain tops (a giantish association that is hit on a few times in the poem) will soon be transferred to the land of the gods, behind their imposing wall (shown on the right with Loki in the shadows), as Iðunn’s powers and her life-giving apples (here shown golden[-ish], as seems to be indicated elsewhere in the mythic corpus) transform those wintry mountaintops into eternal Spring."

Anker Eli was very impressed by the thought behind this work: "Carl has captured what I think is one of the most important features about Midwinter – the transition from one year-cycle to the next, the myth about Iðunn's apples and the kidnapping of Iðunn (the cosmic order) by the giant in shape of an eagle (the moment of chaos between to cosmic cycles)." Erik says, "This is one of my favorite myths! I dig the character design of Idunn and Loki." I was actually present when Carl gave the paper he mentions at the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study conference in Chicago. The paper was brilliant, and I absolutely love how Carl is able to transform his deep academic work into wonderfully charming visual imagery. He's a gifted scholar and artist; check out his writing and artwork at his fantastic website, Vikings, Books, Etc. Norse mythologists of the world, unite!

Third Runner-Up: Carl Olsen

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Art Contest – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2013

We have a truly international group of winners in the teen division of the second art contest at The Norse Mythology Blog. I'm very happy that young adults from around the world are not only deeply interested in Norse mythology but are able to visually interpret the meanings of myths in such creative ways. The theme of the competition was midwinter, and these three talented artists managed to evoke this time of the year in very different ways. Congratulations to all three!

I would like to again thank the two wonderful artists who joined me on the judging panel, Anker Eli Petersen and Erik Evensen. With all the wonderful entries this year, it was very difficult for us to choose the winners! If you haven’t seen them yet, you can check out the winning entries in the 12 & under division by clicking here.

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Hynek Šnajdr
Age 16
Olomouc, Czech Republic

Hynek writes, "I paint goddess Frigg when she found that her lovely son Baldr was murdered. I choose this myth because I feel a little winter feelings, like sadness, in it. I draw a lot of details and other ornaments that came to mind if I was thinking about her and her sad story, to suggest a chaos in her mind – and I use cold colours to express a mood."

I knew that this piece would be the winner from the moment that I first saw it. This is one of the most beautiful images inspired by the Norse myths that I have ever seen, from an artist of any age. It is truly haunting and heartbreaking. Be sure to click to the picture and view the full size version, so you can see all the detail and read the words that Hynek included in this gorgeous work. Anker Eli says this is "a good interpretation to connect the Baldr myth to the year's end." Erik says, "Hynek's piece is both mythologically sound and skillfully rendered. The graphic detailing in the background is a nice touch."

First Place: Hynek Šnajdr

Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler
Age 15
Korsberga, Sweden

Nordhild writes, "I took inspiration from my absolute favorite celebration of the year – Krampus Night. I always loved it as a child and wanted to take this chance to turn it into a piece of art. It portrays a girl, that has not been so nice this year, teasing the Krampus until the dawn of day. She is not alone, though, but has help from a good friend of hers, the Yule Goat – another beloved child-memory. As the days are getting longer again, she will finally be rid of those demons, at least until next year. We have goats ourselves, and I used our own billy-goat as a model. He was more than happy to be of assistance. I call it A Midnight Ride."

I think that Nordhild has created a work that really captures the magic that it is at the heart of midwinter. Her picture manages to be both joyful and haunting at the same time. Erik says, "Nordhild drew a very cool goat, and her anatomy is quite good. I really enjoyed the concept and connection to Krampusnacht." Anker Eli enjoyed the juxtaposition of folklore figures, calling Nordhild's inclusion of both Krampus and Yule Goat "a funny blend of the same element. Escaping from the Krampus-troll riding the Yule-goat, which are probably the same phenomenon, just originated from different regions."

Second Place: Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler

Erik Teittinen
Age 14
Pieksämäki, Finland

Erik describes his work: "My drawing is of Odin riding with Sleipnir on a Yule night in the light of a full moon, carrying a bag of gifts with Gungnir. I also drew a spruce tree covered with snow on the left side. I used charcoal pencils and a 5b pencil to draw it."

Erik Evensen admired the technical aspects of the work: "Erik put a lot of energy into his charcoal drawing. His piece is moody and dramatic." Anker Eli commented on the mythic elements, writing that "Santa sure has some mythical and even shamanistic features, and I do sometimes think that the figure originates from Odin." The Norse gods live on, in many forms!

Third Place: Erik Teittinen

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Art Contest – Kid Winners, Midwinter 2013

We received a large number of entries from the 12 & under crowd for the second art contest at The Norse Mythology Blog. There are a lot of very talented young artists around the world who share an interest in the Norse myths! Since so many of the pieces submitted were so good, I had a very hard time ranking the entries – as did the two celebrity artists who joined me on the judging panel. Special thanks to both Anker Eli Petersen (originally from the Faroe Islands) and Erik Evensen (USA) for the time they spent carefully considering all the entries and sharing their thoughts.

Congratulations to our three winners! The assignment was to create a piece that was on the theme of midwinter and contained at least one element from Norse mythology. These three young artists took very different approaches to the material and came up with very unique designs. I hope that they (and all the other talented artists who entered) continue to create such wonderful works. These kids really give me hope for the future!

Two of the three winners in this group are from Cathy Yeoman’s group of Class 4 kids in Victoria, Australia. Her students made a clean sweep of the kids category in the Midsummer 2013 Art Contest, and they again made a very strong showing. Cathy has been teaching Norse mythology to her class throughout the past school year, and her ability to inspire young people shines through her students' work. I would like to personally thank her for her work in keeping the myths alive. Skál!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Rani K.
Age 10
Briar Hill, Victoria, Australia

Rani writes, "In my picture there is a young girl coming home on her sled with her dog and her horse while All-father Odin rides Sleipnir through the sky."

I think that Rani has really managed to capture a sense of joy in her picture, and I love the way that the image of the horse on the ground is paralleled by Sleipnir in the sky. The composition of the work is quite dynamic, and Rani is very good at drawing horses! Erik agrees and says that "Rani has some excellent attention to detail on her horses and a very cool Sleipnir in the background!"

First Place: Rani K.

Alyssa Broadwater
Age 12
Pennsylania, United States

Alyssa wrote a detailed description of her entry: "This illustration portrays Odin and his spectral horse Sleipnir taking a slight moment to unwind during Yule. They’re exceptionally determined to have a brilliant hunt with their accomplices this Midwinter. Diligently they hunt for goblins and trolls that sneak about reeking of mischief for the townsfolk. Sleipnir takes a moment to feed from the hay left by generous children for their gods while Odin takes watch."

Anker Eli says that Alyssa's work shows "a quite sophisticated understanding and blend of mythological and folklorish elements. She even includes the Scandinavian Yule tradition with the feeding of Odin's horse." Erik thinks her "technical grasp of digital media is quite impressive. Her depiction of Odin is stylish and dynamic."

Second Place: Alyssa Broadwater

Asha D.
Age 11
Briar Hill, Victoria, Australia

Asha writes that her picture "is of Hugin and Munin, the ravens of Odin, flying around Midgard, watching the Yule log burn."

Erik says, "Asha has created a wide-reaching landscape with a lot of interesting details." Please note the scary troll-cave at top left, the purple mountain majesties at top center, and (my favorite) the Rainbow Bridge with a very sensible guard rail at top right. You wouldn't want any of the gods to fall off while they're riding down to Midgard, would you?

Third Place: Asha D.

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Thor Movies and Norse Mythology

Wired Magazine almost ran a feature on heathen theology. Almost.

Devon Maloney of Wired Magazine contacted me in early November about Marvel’s new movie, Thor: The Dark World. She wrote that “one of [her] big things at Wired is writing about the sociocultural causes and effects of entertainment” and that she was interested in interviewing me about “how the myth has been updated to this most recent iteration.” Ms. Maloney asked me several questions via email, and I wrote detailed replies.

Unfortunately, the Wired editors decided to kill the feature a week after I submitted my answers. This was completely unsurprising. I was fairly skeptical from the beginning about the likelihood of my comments on ancient heathen worldview appearing in a magazine about “the future of business, culture, innovation and science.” Such is life in the modern world.

With Ms. Maloney’s permission, I am posting her questions (in bold) and my answers. I hope this article will help put the Marvel films in perspective for readers who may not be familiar with the original mythology.

Thor, Odin, and Loki – as portrayed in the first Thor movie

I’m curious about how the dude Asgardians (Thor, Loki, Odin) perform their “godliness” (well, they’re not gods in the Marvel version of the myth) as opposed to how Norse myth portrays them. There’s an awful lot of “what it means to be a leader,” lots of humanism and very humble, ungodly affection in this version of Thor. What did Thor, Loki and Odin represent to the Vikings in terms of their masculinity and godliness?

Norse mythology, as it survives in the written record, presents the gods as very complicated individuals. Reducing each of them to a single epithet (“god of thunder,” for example) really oversimplifies things.

If we are going to take this material seriously, we need to ask: what is the function of the god? If we say Thor is “god of thunder,” then the question becomes: what function does thunder perform for a society of worshipers? I would argue that thunder itself performs no function. In Thor’s case, it is a manifestation of his function – a sign of his presence.

In the 11th century, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen described Swedish religious ritual and belief: “Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops.” In this view, thunder is an audible sign of Thor’s fertility function. The hammer itself can be seen as a phallic symbol with which the god of the skies impregnates the goddess of the earth, as lightning crashes down from on high.

In the Icelandic version of the mythology – written down in the 13th century – Thor’s fertility function has become obscured. The emphasis is placed squarely on his role as defender of gods and humans from the giants, who themselves represent the threatening forces of nature – flood, avalanche, wildfire and so on. In this version, Thor’s hammer is clearly described as the treasure most valued by the gods, since it is the weapon that “provided the greatest defense against frost-giants.”

The movie version of Thor seems to have hammer troubles.

Interestingly enough, Adam of Bremen also tells us that “the people [in Uppsala, Sweden] worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan [Odin] and Frikko [Frey] have places on either side.” In the particular time and place Adam is describing, Thor is the main god of the people, and Odin is off to the side.

In the Icelandic myths, Odin is arguably the most prominent of the gods. He’s also the most complicated, and it seems that centuries of greatly varied beliefs have coalesced into an incredibly dense figure. His domains include death, inspiration, language, magic, poetry, war and wisdom. Scholars have argued that Odin’s role grew over time, to the detriment of the god Tyr – who may have originally stood next to him on the top level of godhood, but who barely appears in the myths that have survived.

The two foundational aspects of Odin’s godhood in the myths are his quest for wisdom and his relationship to human heroes. He travels the world, disguised as a gray-bearded old wanderer. Note that he is disguised as such. The gods are referred to as powers, as forces beyond materiality. They take different shapes as the situation calls for. Even Thor is able to change his appearance and size.

Odin disguised as an old wanderer – Art by Willy Pogany (1920)

The Roman author Tacitus, discussing the beliefs of the Germanic tribes in the 1st century, writes that they “do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance.” We do know of artistic representations of the gods from various periods, but it’s interesting that Tacitus records a belief that lines up with the conception of the gods as immaterial forces. The physical manifestation of Odin as an old wanderer is just an appearance or disguise that he puts on when on the road.

In the surviving mythology, Odin wanders through the worlds to gain knowledge of the past, present and future. He sacrifices an eye to gain mystic wisdom. He sacrifices himself to himself (to whom else would the Allfather sacrifice?) in order to bring knowledge of the runes back from the Other World. He willingly goes into the halls of hostile giants and into the land of death to gain knowledge of future events. He goes into the mountain stronghold of a giant to steal the mead that inspires creativity. Over and over again, he makes sacrifices and takes great risks to gain knowledge that he then shares with humanity.

Odin has a special relationship to human heroes. He chooses individuals for greatness and provides them with wondrous weapons and horses. He guides their lives, periodically appearing to offer wisdom and help. Inevitably, he also causes their deaths. In his role as the god of war, he is repeatedly referred to as untrustworthy. He is steadfastly on your side until the moment when he turns against you and brings about your death. Such was the conception of heroic life in ancient times; you never know when Odin will step in and gather you to join the army of slain heroes in his hall – the army he is gathering for the final battle with the forces of chaos at the end of time.

Loki’s role is quite different from that of Thor and Odin. For one thing, he is not a god – he is merely “reckoned among” the gods and is actually a giant that the gods have suffered to live among them. Although he’s a colorful and humorous figure in some of his appearances in Icelandic myth, it seems that the oldest conception of Loki is as a bound giant tied up under the earth, angrily waiting until the end of time to break free and destroy the world. This is, for example, how he appears in the Danish version of the mythology recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century.

The Punishment of Loki (Greenaway & Evans, 1882)

In the Icelandic myths written down by Snorri Sturluson over two centuries after the nation converted to Christianity, Loki has become much more of a comic character. Snorri tells tales of Loki’s adventures that portray him as a mischievous and clever fellow who “was always getting the Æsir [the gods] into a complete fix and often got them out of it by trickery.” However, Snorri first introduces Loki by saying that some call him “the Æsir’s calumniator [slanderer] and originator of deceits and the disgrace of all gods and men.” That last idea seems to be the key to understanding Loki.

As we asked of Thor, we need to ask of Loki: what is his function? There is no such thing as a “god of mischief.” How would mischief play a positive role in a society that placed such an emphasis on proper behavior within the community? In any case, the question is moot: the major scholars agree that Loki was never worshiped as a god in ancient times. The myths back this up: Loki is a visitor among the gods, and is finally revealed as their greatest enemy when he leads the forces that will destroy the world at the final battle of Ragnarök [“doom of the powers”].

The role that Loki plays in the ancient worldview is as a representation of all that is harmful to the community. His antics in the world of the gods provide a mythic version of all that someone could do in the human world to break the codes of conduct. In a society that placed great value on masculinity, he is a male who embodies ergi – a complicated word that suggests all kinds of unmanly behavior.

In one Icelandic poem, Odin describes Loki’s behavior as “the hallmark of a pervert.” Loki spends eight years as a woman doing woman’s work – bearing children and milking cows. He becomes a female horse, seduces a male horse and bears a foal. He eats the heart of a witch and becomes pregnant. He eagerly dresses in drag.

Two ways to dress in drag: angry (Thor) and giddy (Loki)
Art by Carl Larsson (1893)

However, Loki’s unmanly behavior goes beyond these obvious gender-bendings. He regularly breaks his word to gods, giants and dwarves. He repeatedly behaves in a cowardly manner when faced with physical harm. He is very willing to place women in danger in order to save himself. He is driven by jealousy to murder a servant and bring about the death of Odin’s son Balder.

Loki’s monstrous children are symbolic representations of threats to society. The giant wolf Fenrir represents the destructive nature of those who break society’s rules and threaten the community from within. Fenrir is raised among the gods, but must eventually be bound when his threat becomes too large. In Old Norse, “wolf” was used as a term for those who had committed a killing outside the bounds of societal norms and had to be removed from the community in order to protect it. The giant Midgard Serpent who lies at the bottom of the ocean represents the destructive forces of the seas – forces that could smash fishing boats and threaten the survival of the community. Loki’s daughter Hel watches over the deceased who have died of sickness or old age – in other words, the cowardly, unheroic and unmanly dead who do not fight for the survival of the community.

Of course, we can question the values that these characters represented. We can question what “manly” means in our own society. However, I think we really need to be careful about projecting our own values backwards in time and reading Loki – as many today seem to do – as the charismatic and misunderstood antihero of the myths.

How would the Vikings perceive this iteration — not details-wise, but qualitatively?

The version of the Norse gods presented in the two Thor films would be, to a large extent, puzzling to those who actually belonged to the culture from which these gods came.

In the new movie, Odin tells Loki that the “Asgardians” (the Æsir, the Norse gods) are not really gods. His reason? They can be killed; they do not have an eternal existence. As with much of the Marvel version, this is reading Norse mythology from an Abrahamic perspective. The god of the Judeo-Christian mythology exists outside of time; he is eternal, unchanging. The Germanic conception of godhood is different from this on a very fundamental level. The gods are of the world; they exist in time. They can be seen as humanity writ large or as the forces of nature given corporeal form, but they are in no sense omnipotent. Marvel’s Odin is actually espousing a conception of godhood that only arrived in the North with the conversion to Christianity.

Odin the Living Omnipotence
Marvel Comics art by Jack Kirby (1968)

As portrayed in the films, there is really nothing left of Odin’s role and function from the mythology. The Norse elements have been almost completely removed. In large part, Odin has been rewritten as the god of the Old Testament. In the films, there is no suggestion of the defining aspects of Odin-of-the-myths: his search for wisdom and his relationship with humanity. Instead, he is portrayed as a Biblical patriarch. While the gods and goddesses of the myths gather in council to debate and reach decisions, the Marvel Odin proclaims from his kingly throne like God the Father.

In the myths, Odin willingly sacrifices an eye as a pledge to gain a drink from the well of wisdom. The myth reflects the sacrifices necessary to gain knowledge, and it underscores what lengths Odin goes to in order to gain knowledge. In the first Thor film, Odin is shown losing his eye in battle with the giants. This completely changes the nature of the character and makes him seem more like the wrathful Old Testament god than the Gandalf-like Wanderer of the myths; the individual quest for wisdom has been replaced by a tribal battle to protect the homeland of the chosen ones. I’d argue that – even in the hands of Peter Jackson – Gandalf provides a better cinematic realization of Odin than does the Allfather of the Marvel films.

Ancient poetry refers to Odin as “the sacrifice for men,” referring to his self-sacrifice in order to gain knowledge of the runes – knowledge which he then shared with humanity. The special relationship between Odin and poets, between Odin and human heroes – so fundamental to the mythology – is literally inverted in the Marvel films. Odin, who spends so much time in the myths wandering the world of men, punishes Thor in the first film by sending him to Earth. Odin, who sires heroes on various women, denounces Thor in the second film for wanting to mate with a mere mortal.

The film portrayal of both Odin and Thor owes more to Judeo-Christian mythology than it does to Norse mythology. The first Thor film has a Christian storyline: God the Father sends his son down to Earth to live as a mortal, to gather a small group of followers and convince them of his godhood, to prove his worthiness by sacrificing himself to save humanity.

Thor taketh away the sin of the world: "These people are innocent.
Taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine and end this."

This overt recasting of Thor as Christ goes directly against the Norse myths. There is self-sacrifice in the myths, but it is Odin who offers himself up. Tellingly, Odin does so in a heroic (and successful) attempt to gain wisdom – the very antithesis of the myth of Adam and the Tree of Knowledge. Thor’s self-sacrifice, as portrayed in the first film, goes completely against the portrayal of Thor in the mythology.

In the Icelandic myths, Thor is – in many ways – the idealized self-image of the free farmer. He is quick to anger and quick to forgiveness. He is honest and hardworking. He has no patience for unmanly behavior of any sort. This attitude brings him into direct conflict with Odin, the god who uses magic and deception to accomplish his goals. Thor can’t stand magic, since it involves trickery and dishonesty. If Odin wants to attack an enemy, he hides his intentions and works his will with spells and incantations. If Thor wants to attack you, he tells you that he’s going to hit you with his hammer, and then he hits you with his hammer. He’s a pretty direct guy.

The angsty Thor of the movies – worried about his worthiness, pining over Jane Foster, repentant for his overly-confident attack on the giants – would have been an object of ridicule for the Vikings. The mythic Thor was a big drinker, a big eater, a big boaster, and a big fighter. He is always away in Giantland, smashing trolls. The only worry he has is that people won’t think he is manly enough. His solution to every problem is to hit it in the face with his hammer. Marvel’s romance-movie Thor would have been just as off-putting to the Vikings as DC’s romance-movie Superman in Superman Returns was to fans of the Man of Steel.

The major way in which the Marvel Thor intersects with the mythic Thor is in his role as protector of humanity. Dating back to Bronze Age carvings in Scandinavia, the hammer or axe is used as a symbol of blessing, of protection, of community. This symbolism is consistent for four thousand years – from the earliest carvings, through the Viking age and into modern iterations of Norse religion. One of Thor’s defining roles – if not the defining role – is as the protector of the community. The movie Thor’s obsession with protecting our planet, then, actually does line up with the myths. It’s the other stuff – the Christ-symbolism, the tearfulness – that is really goofy.

Swedish Thor's hammer pendant from the 10th century

There are also elements of the Marvel Loki that do connect him to the mythic original. The movie Loki fits the description in Snorri’s Edda: “Loki is pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior. He possessed to a greater degree than others the kind of learning that is called cunning, and tricks for every purpose.” In the myths, he is Thor’s companion on some of his main adventures. As in the films, he is seductive and untrustworthy.

However, the version of Loki preserved by Snorri in 13th-century Iceland does seem to be a very late, literary version of the character. The Loki of the older poetry is darker and less attractive. He is more clearly a wicked giant, a murderous foe whom the gods have brought into their community and who will eventually destroy the world. The original conception of Loki seems to be as the bound giant, waiting to break free and bring destruction.

The fundamental change the films make to Loki is by having him be a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero. This is alien to the Norse conception of Loki as the embodiment of all that is harmful to society. Loki may bring comic relief to some of the myths (as told by Snorri), but he is, fundamentally, someone who breaks all the codes of community and kinship. There is no sense of sympathy for him in the myths. If anything, there is a fierce joy at his torture and punishment as rightfully deserved.

What purpose did the gods Thor, Loki and Odin serve for the Vikings? Sure, it was their religion – but what did these stories provide for their culture and them as individuals just living their lives?

When speaking of this era, I don’t think we can make a distinction between “religion” and “living their lives.” Before the conversion to Christianity, there is little sense of “religion” being something that existed outside of daily life.

Thor is still a big part of our daily lives.

Today, the word Ásatrú [“Æsir faith”] is used to designate the modern iteration of the Norse religion. However, the term is a modern neologism. The ancient Germanic tribes seem to have had no word that distinguished religion as something distinct from everyday life. Only when Christianity came to the North did such an idea appear; during the clash of religions, the heathen practice was called “the Old Way” to distinguish it from “the New Way” of Christianity. I think it’s telling that it was referred to as a way – a way of doing things – because that’s what it was: a means of interacting with life and everything in it.

What then, was the function of the myths? I would argue that they provide the same function as the myths of any culture, including the myths of modern Christianity. The stories embody the values of a culture – its worldview. The telling and retelling of the stories bind together the members of a community. Interestingly, bonds is another word used in the sources to refer to the gods themselves.

As a person grows older, that person’s understanding of myth grows. A child reading kiddie versions of the life of Jesus will likely focus on the events of the story – the narrative. An adult reading the New Testament will likely be attracted to deeper contemplation of meanings expressed in the parables – the myths that provide teachings and reflect on the values of the faith. As the individual becomes a mature adult, focus will shift from events and stories to meditation on the meanings and values implicit in those events.

Unfortunately, modern appreciation of Norse mythology is largely stuck at the childish level. We focus almost exclusively on the narrative – on the exciting and seemingly fantastical adventures they portray. We divorce the stories from the culture that surrounded them and brush aside the fact that these stories embody an ancient worldview. Reading the myths as simple adventure stories means that we are reading them with a simpleminded level of understanding.

At some point, adults need to move past the kids' version.

This leads to a serious problem. As adults, we do want our stories to contain meaning. When we remove all cultural context from the Norse myths, they are empty vessels. The Marvel films then pour Judeo-Christian values into these vessels and end up with, for example, versions of Thor and Odin that would have been largely alien to members of their root culture. The film producers sidestep issues of religion and culture by positing the “Asgardians” as literally alien – they are clearly stated to be space aliens and are in no way gods. Then, to artificially invest the characters with a fakey gravitas, Odin is recast as a wrathful Yahweh and Thor as a self-doubting Christ. American audiences are comfortable with these portrayals, because the Judeo-Christian worldview is hardwired into our society. You can see the problem: the gods of Norse myths are being used to tell stories that go directly against the values that they originally expressed.

There’s a decent amount of stuff about moms here. To what extent was motherhood important in Norse myth, with regard to Thor? If it wasn’t very important to the Vikings, why do you think this has been updated?

Lineage in Old Norse society was determined through the father. If Thor had been human, his name would have been Thor Odinsson. His mother is not Odin’s wife Frigg – as portrayed in the films – but Jörð, the Earth herself. Although she is named several times in connection to Thor, Jörð never actually appears in any surviving myths.

The Marvel movies really mess with the familial relationships. In the myths, Loki is not Thor’s adopted brother. He is a giant who has sworn blood-brotherhood with Odin and come to live with the gods in Asgard. Swearing blood-brotherhood was a very serious thing in Old Norse society. After performing the ritual – which was much more involved and intense than simply pricking your thumb – the two men were legally bound together as kin, with all the rights and responsibilities that relationship entailed.

Tom Hiddleston in a typical pose as Marvel's Loki

Marvel’s Loki comes across as a petulant child, as an ungrateful adoptee. However, Odin is portrayed as such a harsh and distant father that the audience is manipulated into having sympathy for the victimized Loki. This is opposite to the sense in the Icelandic myths, in which Loki is brought into the community, swears blood brotherhood, then betrays his responsibilities and works to destroy those he is oath-bound to protect. In the myths, there is no sense of sympathy for Loki. On the contrary, he is portrayed as having a fundamentally evil nature. His evil isn’t a result of mistreatment; it’s the very core of who he is.

The Marvel films fabricate an intense relationship between Odin and Frigg as parents of Thor and Loki, and they fill this relationship with pop-culture ideas of sibling rivalry, adoption and resentment. In the actual myths, Loki calls Frigg a slut and taunts her by bragging that he caused the death of her son Balder. This is a bit different from his tender love for her in the new movie! Since Frigg is the mother of neither Thor nor Loki in the myths, there is absolutely none of the sibling striving for attention of the film.

I think there are pretty clear reasons why these changes were made to the film relationships. First of all, Kenneth Branagh completely wasted Renee Russo in the first Thor movie, and it seems like there was some executive decision made to beef up her role in the new film. Second, the sibling rivalry idea is a simple and inoffensive modern concept that the average viewer can easily grasp. The worldview embedded in the Loki myths is much more complicated and problematic for modern audiences: parentage determines character, unmanly behavior deserves public ridicule, betrayal deserves torture, etc. Americans today are so obsessed with the concept of the anti-hero – with the problematic sympathetic victimized underdog – that they naturally gravitate towards the “complicated” Loki.

Tom Hiddleston and Rene Russo as Marvel's Loki and Frigga

I wouldn’t say that the concept of motherhood has been “updated.” I would say that the creation of these relationships in the films is part of the divorce of the myths from their original cultural and religious context and their tweaking with Abrahamic approaches to myth. Odin has been recast as the Angry Patriarch of the Old Testament, Thor has become Christ the Son (especially in the first film) and Frigg has become Mother Mary (especially in the second film). The movie Frigg plays the role of the sympathetic mother who visits Loki, hears his heartfelt pleas and offers her condolences. These are generic post-Christian roles that could have been placed on any fictional characters, and they have no root in the Norse myths themselves.

Besides the general “fantasy comic book character” thing, what are some of the most telling modifications of the Thor/Odin/Loki myth that make it palatable and relatable to a contemporary audience? Like, are there parts of the original Norse myths (not details, but in general) that are outdated and invalid, and that’s why they change?

I’m not sure how myths can possibly become outdated and invalid. Rituals can change, evolve, adapt or even be abandoned. Theological interpretations can also shift over time. What gives myths their power is that they survive through the long years and can be heard or read by succeeding generations, forever. It is this very durability that makes them so amazing.

We can approach the myths in many different ways. We can come to them with childlike wonder and simply enjoy them as tales of adventure. We can come to them with sophisticated understanding and use them as a means of coming to terms with our own place in the world. We can come to them as scholars and use them as a means of reconstructing the worldview of the culture that gave birth to them.

I wouldn’t say that the Norse myths have changed. I’d say that the producers of the films have used some elements from the myths and some from the Marvel comic books, then thrown in a heavy dose of Abrahamic mythology and generic tropes of Hollywood film. This says nothing about the myths themselves, but it says a lot about how the entertainment industry grinds up cultural artifacts to create works that are easily graspable by the widest possible demographic.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Art Contest – Midwinter 2013


The theme for the second Norse Mythology Blog art contest is midwinter. During the winter solstice on December 21, those of us living in the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year. This may seem pretty early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point onwards, the days will start getting longer as we slowly move back towards summertime.

The Yule Goat (1912) by Swedish artist John Bauer

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midwinter. Even though many have been subsumed into Christmas festivities, some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your goal with your original piece of visual art is to capture the spirit of both midwinter and Norse mythology. Will you draw dwarves sneaking into the house to taste the cooking when nobody’s looking? Odin riding Sleipnir through the snowy city streets while everyone’s asleep? Thor driving his goats through the starry skies at night? It’s up to you!

I strongly suggest doing some reading and research on midwinter celebrations in Northern Europe before you start working on your artwork. Do you know about the Yule Goat? The Yule Lads? Frau Holle? Krampus? Most importantly – can you think of a way to tie these traditions to Norse myth?

If you need some ideas about Norse mythology, browse The Norse Mythology Blog Archive. You can also check out the winners of the Midsummer 2013 Art Contest in the three categories: kid, teen and adult. Most importantly – be creative!


I am very proud to announce the judges for the art contest. Both of these wonderful artists create thoroughly modern works that show great respect for and understanding of the complicated issues in the original Norse myths. In my classes on Norse mythology and religion, I use works by both of these creative illustrators to show how artists who have a deep engagement with the myths can bring out subtleties from the source material in their visual interpretations. The three of us will judge the entries together.

Anker Eli Petersen is an artist and writer from the Faroe Islands who has lived and worked in Denmark for over two decades. He is known throughout the world for the brilliant images he has produced for several series of Faroese postage stamps based on Norse mythology, saga and history. He has translated many texts from Faroese into both Danish and English; his translations of Faroese poetry have reached an international audience through their appearance on albums by the Faroe Islands folk metal band Týr.

Völuspá: The Norns & the World Tree
2003 Faroe Islands postage stamp
featuring art by Anker Eli Petersen

Anker Eli has also written song lyrics himself, including popular songs for children. His translations, articles, art and design are featured on the excellent Heimskringla website. He is gracious fellow, and has responded to my questions about Faroese culture with learned and thoughtful answers. What I particularly love about his art is his ability to render deep meanings from ancient myths in a very contemporary graphic style.

Erik Evensen is an American artist and author well-known to readers of The Norse Mythology Blog; his four-part interview was one of the first I ever did for the website. Erik’s Gods of Asgard graphic novel is a modern classic that presents the major Norse myths as an epic narrative while managing to completely avoid the visual and storytelling tropes established by Marvel’s Thor comic books. I have been known to use the cover’s lineup of Norse gods, goddesses and giants as an extra-credit question on midterm exams for my Norse religion class: one point for each character the students can identify!

The gods, goddesses & giants of Norse mythology – from cover of Erik Evensen's
Gods of Asgard graphic novel. How many can you name? Click image to enlarge. 
Erik’s The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay graphic novel takes a very different approach to ancient material; it retells the story of Beowulf in a modern science fiction setting. Erik’s art has been featured in titles by Image Comics, IDW Comics and many other publishers. He currently teaches in the Department of Design at University of Wisonsin-Stout. You can learn more about his work on his official website.


There will be three winners in each of the following categories:

Kids: Age 12 & under
Teens: Age 13-19
Adults: Age 20 & up


Your artwork entry must:

1. Be on the theme of midwinter.
2. Contain at least one element from Norse mythology.

Note: For the purposes of this contest, Marvel Comics characters are NOT considered part of Norse mythology. Any art with imagery from the Marvel comic books or movies will not be accepted. Please do some reading and research on celebrations of midwinter and the winter solstice, then base your imagery on what you discover about these holidays and Norse myth!

Bonfire from Moominland Midwinter
by Swedish-Finnish artist Tove Jansson


1. Art must be done with crayons, markers, paint, pen, pencil or digital materials.
2. Original art only; no photos or collage.
3. Art must be kid-friendly; no nudity or violence.
4. No copyrighted characters. Let’s leave the Marvel Comics to the professionals!
5. One entry per person, please.


Send an email to that includes the following:

1. Your full name (kids can give first name and last initial)
2. Your age (as of December 18, 2013)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork that explains how it portrays midwinter and what element(s) you have included from Norse mythology
5. Your artwork (as an attachment)

Seriously, don’t forget to include your art as an attachment!


Midnight (Chicago time) of December 13, 2013


Anker Eli, Erik and I will be judging the entries based on creativity and relation to Norse mythology. Do some reading, do some thinking and make something original!

Norse Mythology Online logo features Skaði the giantess
from Erik Evensen's Gods of Asgard

The three winners in each age group will be featured on The Norse Mythology Blog, The Norse Mythology Facebook Page, The Norse Mythology Google+ Page, The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page and The Norse Mythology Twitter Page. Your art and your description of it will be posted on all the many sites of Norse Mythology Online and will remain permanently in the The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

December 18: Kid winners announced
December 19: Teen winners announced
December 20: Adult winners announced

It’s time to sharpen your pencil and start drawing. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Interview with Heri Joensen of Týr, Part Three

Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of the interview.

Heri (second from left) and Týr pose with Thor's hammer pendants

KS – Growing up as a child in the Faroes, were you taught about the Faroe Islands’ conversion to Christianity?

HJ – Yeah, yeah! That’s the main theme of the Færeyinga Saga, the history of the Faroe Islanders. When we learned Faroese ancient history in school, at the same time you learn about the conversion. That is the main theme.

Historically, the guy who brings Christianity from Norway has been the good guy, but Tróndur í Gøtu – the one who’s the pagan and the resister of Christianity – is really the main character of the story. It starts with him and ends with him. It starts with his birth and youth and ends with his death, the whole story. Initially, he wins. He doesn’t kill Sigmund [the Christian], but he dies as a consequence of their fighting. It’s really ambiguous in that way.

What can you say? We are a country with a Christian constitution and have been for a very, very long time. There’s not many ways to tell a good pagan story.

Tróndur í Gøtu raises Thor's hammer against
the arrival of Christianity in the Faroe Islands
on a Faroese stamp by Anker Eli Petersen

KS – Were you raised Lutheran?

HJ – Yeah, yeah. Unless you have a very good reason, you get christened and confirmed and…

KS – Is it still an official state Lutheran Church today?

HJ – Yeah. Yeah, it is, unfortunately.

KS – “Sand in the Wind” really seems like an atheist anthem, and some of the mythic songs like “The Ride to Hel” may use the mythology, but there’s an atheistic worldview behind them.

HJ – Yeah.

KS – Would you describe yourself as an atheist?

HJ – Definitely. It’s very difficult to sell atheism through mythology, but… Ha! It’s confusing, but there you go.

I’m definitely an atheist. I used to be Christian, just because that was the way I was raised. As soon as I thought twice about it, I realized that I didn’t believe in it. Then I got into the mythology.

You know, once you have one reason to scrap one mythology, it’s very hard not to use the same reason to scrap the other one. How do you go from Christianity to pagan? I think it’s impossible, at least while being honest – intellectually honest.

But hey, you can be fascinated by mythology all you like. You don’t have to believe in it. I also find the Greek and Egyptian mythology very fascinating. That doesn’t mean you have to believe in it.

While I was interviewing Heri backstage at Paganfest,
this Týr t-shirt was being sold in the concert venue

KS – A couple of mutual acquaintances have suggested to me that you value Norse mythology more as cultural heritage than religious belief. Many of the Ásatrúar I know think that the tradition is about honoring and respecting the ancient worldview, not literally believing in magic spells and mystical creatures.

HJ – Exactly.

KS – However, some of them feel that you called them out as crazy people in past comments. How would you explain your views on Ásatrú to those who come from an approach built on tradition and culture?

HJ – Tradition and culture is all good, but I have a problem with believing in any of it literally. You don’t even have to go to spells and witchcraft. So long as you believe any of it literally – the mythology – I have a problem with it. I’m not gonna sweet-talk those people.

Týr's fans salute the band at Paganfest in Chicago – April 13, 2013

KS – What is the problem you have with it?

HJ – It’s obviously not true. Having to explain that to adults, I think, is [sighs dramatically] a waste of my good time. Ha!

There is no Odin out there, anywhere, any more than there is a Yahweh.

KS – I think a lot of people don’t believe that the mythology is literally true, but that it’s a metaphorical construct, a way of seeing the world, a worldview.

HJ – Fair enough. Then I don’t see why they want anything more from me. I don’t think I insulted those people in any way.

KS – The By the Light of the Northern Star album cover shows a Viking destroying a crucifix.

HJ – Mmm-hmm.

The cover of Týr's By the Light of the Northern Star

KS – The lyrics to “Hold the Heathen Hammer High” specifically talk about “pagan pride,” and the song’s video shows the band cutting down a cross, burning it and spitting on it. Some of the songs I mentioned earlier can be read metaphorically, but “Hear the Heathen Call” and these other songs – it’s a bit hard to interpret them metaphorically when you’re literally spitting on a crucifix in the video. What are you artistically trying to convey with this sort of language and imagery?

HJ – I’m very aware that it’s very confusing to sell atheism through mythology like that, or to hack down one mythology with another mythology. That’s problematic already, to begin with – but here I am. Ha! What am I gonna do? Ha!

No, you’re absolutely right. It’s very complicated. I didn’t make it easy for myself. But that’s what it’s like.

KS – I was a bit shocked the first time I heard the lyrics to the title track on By the Light of the Northern Star:
May the mighty Mjølnir nail the bleeding
And naked Nazarene upon the pagan planks
Pound in the painful nails now and hang him high and dry
That’s very strong language! You’re a public figure, and this is your art that you’re putting out there. How do you reconcile an artistic statement like this with the fact that you were married in the Lutheran church and had your son baptized in the Lutheran church? Here in America, you have the option of a non-religious civil ceremony.

HJ – Yeah.

KS – Why did you choose to participate in the church as an adult?

HJ – Well, my wife at the time – ex-wife now – wanted to be married in the church. I know my mother also wanted that to happen. I had no problem with it.

I felt a bit of a hypocrite, but blasphemy is a victimless crime. Ha! There’s no problem for anyone but me maybe looking like a hyprocrite. I can take that. I’ve been a hypocrite before and probably will be again. Ha!

But with those two mythologies meeting like that, it’s also in a way putting Jesus at the same level as Thor. Suppose Thor was – ha! – on a short crusade or an errand in the Roman world and had to lend his hammer. “Maybe I won’t lend it. I’ll just go myself. What do you need it for anyway?” “Oh, there’s this guy we need to crucify.” Ha! I mean… Ha!

Church of Tvøroyri in the Faroe Islands

KS – I think By the Light of the Northern Star and The Lay of Thrym are very different albums. The newer one is very clearly metaphorical and obviously about political situations in the modern world.

HJ – Yes, yes. Northern Star is very mythological, whereas The Lay of Thrym is very political and more contemporary, in that way.

I just felt very angry about Christianity at the time, and I have no problem lumping it in with the Norse mythology like that. As I said, I see the problem. I see the problems it may create, but I take artistic liberty.

KS – You’ve said that the 1990 Black Sabbath album Tyr was an influence on your band’s name and logo. Were you a fan of that period of Sabbath – when the band was basically a Tony Iommi solo project?

HJ – No, not nearly as much as I did when it was Dio – Mob Rules, Heaven and Hell, Dehumanizer. When he sort of changed the lineup for every album, I was not that much of a fan of Black Sabbath. I loved the short turn into Nordic mythology, and there are a few songs on that album I think are really good. An album like Headless Cross, for example, that’s a really good one – but it’s nothing compared to when Dio was in the band, I think. No, that is not my favorite Sabbath period.

The cover of Black Sabbath's Tyr

This concludes The Norse Mythology Blog's interview with Heri Joensen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Interview with Heri Joensen of Týr, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

Heri Joensen of Týr

KS – Many of your favorite bands were ones I grew up listening to – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Pink Floyd and Uriah Heep. With Týr, you’ve definitely declared yourself as a group in the modern metal genre. How do you think that listening to prog and glam music from this older period has affected what you write and play today?

HJ – In many cases, I would think that – song-wise and musically – probably the greatest influence on me personally has been Judas Priest. I mean the way they use the guitar and the way put their songs together – not always power chords, but often very, very melodic playing and harmony by two guitars, which is the way I like to do it. I think that definitely comes through.

But then there are other bands, like Uriah Heep. They have so much experimental stuff that we never even tried. They have keyboards, and they also worked with symphonic orchestras and everything. We never went that way. Even though I like to listen to much of it, I can’t really say we took any of it into our music. Maybe some Deep Purple riffing and the heaviness of Black Sabbath and all that.

KS – I think your first two records have more elements from doom metal.

HJ – Yeah. That was actually unintentional. I had a completely different thing in mind, when I wrote the songs. It’s difficult, without having done it before, to see the connection between your original idea and the end result. When I got the album, I thought, “This is not what I had in mind!” With the second one, the process was more transparent to me, so it turned out more like what I want.

The cover of Týr's How Far to Asgaard

KS – The lyrics to “Regin Smiður” and “Gátu Ríma” are traditional Faroese, but based on passages in the Eddas and sagas. “Lokka Táttur” is an interesting case. It’s a late medieval tale of Odin, Hœnir and Loki – the same trio of gods as in the Eddic stories of Thjazi and Andvari – but it’s not based on a known Icelandic source. This type of folklore is often neglected by modern scholars, who tend to fixate on Iceland.

HJ – Yeah. Yes.

KS – I wish I could find a modern English translation of these old Faroese ballads. The only book I’ve found so far is Nora Kershaw’s collection from 1921 [available as a free eBook in The Norse Mythology Online Library].

HJ – I should put you into contact with a professor in Faroes, Poul Vestergaard, who I’ve spoken to about precisely this. There are some quite neglected, rather big stories. The stories also exist in different forms – with the same elements – in the Faroes. It’s not seen anywhere. It’s not wandering stories.

Lighthouse on Kalsoy in the Faroe Islands
Photograph by Alessio Mesiano for National Geographic

KS – Do you feel a responsibility to bring Faroese culture to the outside world?

HJ – If I do, I’m very glad – if I bring it to people’s attention. That was not the idea – ha! – the general idea, to begin with.

I have a different angle. I would be very glad to make Faroese people proud of their own nationality or heritage or culture. With a rock or metal band, you can only represent snippets of mythology or history or nationality. So little actually goes into an album. I can, in the best case, hope to bring the subject to someone’s attention. If you want to study it, you don’t want to do it in our albums. Ha! You can go somewhere else.

KS – “Ólavur Riddararós” tells a tale of a young man and an elf maiden. I’m fascinated by the similarities between Irish and Icelandic elf-belief. Even into the twentieth century, they are somewhat parallel. Is there a distinctive elf tradition in the Faroe Islands?

HJ – Oh, yeah. Yeah. I have to say, I’m not that familiar with it – but I know there it’s there, because my grandmother believed elves existed. She said they went away when a Christian came. Of course, you have light, you can see, “Oh, there’s nothing. After all, the elves must have gone away.” Ha! Even today, I’ve spoken to people who firmly believe in elves. Ha!

Elf-belief isn't rare. Even Icelandic Members of Parliament believe!
Click here to read about an "Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland"

KS – How is Faroese folklore unique and different from that of other Nordic countries? Do you think it has its own flavor?

HJ – I don’t know. It may have. Of course, it comes directly from the same source as the Icelandic people have done – from Norway. I just know about the existence of these beliefs lately, but I actually haven’t looked that deep into it – so I couldn’t really tell you the difference.

KS – The Norse mythology that is familiar to us today is mostly from the Eddas, which were written down in Iceland long after the conversion to Christianity. As a Faroese person, what sort of personal relationship do you feel with the Icelandic material?

HJ – If you compare it to – for example – Saxo in Denmark, it’s not the same at all. I guess you have to grant the Icelanders that it is probably mostly their version that everyone has today. But I still feel at home with it.

We have not nearly as much, but we have some ballads that are based on mythology, also. I think you have to give that to the Icelanders. It’s theirs, in a way.

Týr in costume: see below for Heri's views on Viking re-enactment

KS – Americans tend to be less familiar with Saxo’s History of the Danes, which presents very different versions of the Norse myths. Because of the special Faroese relationship to Denmark, do children in the Faroe Islands read Saxo in school?

HS – No, we don’t. I had never heard of Saxo until I was twenty-five or so. I was in Denmark then, so I read them.

KS – Did you read the Eddas in school?

HJ – No. We had some parts. What did we have in school? I had Faroese history, like the Icelandic saga on the history of the Faroes. That we read, most of it. Then we had mythology, just the main stories. I remember particularly the one with the Fenris wolf and Týr. Sort of a general overview. It’s not like we actually read the Eddas. This was like third or fourth grade, so…

KS – Some of your lyrics – like “Hail to the Hammer,” “The Rune” and “Dreams” – have a great sense of longing for and connection to the distant past. How do you feel about Viking re-enactment and the desire to return to those times? How would you describe your emotional connection to this history?

HJ – I don’t do any re-enactment. I find it a little bit silly. I wouldn’t want to go back to those times, because I’m one thousand percent sure that we’re a lot better off today.

KS – We have eyeglasses.

HJ – Ha! Yes, for example! And fake teeth, some of us.

Heri Joensen (center, in Viking helmet) with Viking re-enactors
in video for Týr's "Regin Smiður" from the Eric the Red album

I don’t know. I find the history quite fascinating. I’m fairly sure one automatically glorifies it beyond reason. That’s just the way. You don’t have think further back than your great-grandparents, and you probably already glorified that beyond reason.

There’s also something about coming from such an isolated community. Some people came there twelve hundred years ago, and you’re still there. Probably not that much happened in between. It’s a pretty clean history, in a way. I guess if you’re a country like Switzerland, it’s hard to keep up with what happened when, because so much different crap happened all the time.

The simplicity of Faroes history, I think, makes it a bit fascinating. It’s a very straight line – long, long into the past. Of course, every one has it – it just goes in more crooked ways. Maybe that’s unjustified fascination, but that’s how I feel, at least.

KS – Do you have the ability – like the Icelanders – to trace your family history directly back?

HJ – No. We don’t have that good annals. Not nearly. I think, recently, everything has been digitalized. You can trace your family to the 1600s. You could also before, but it was not digitalized, so you had to go rummaging through papers written in very bad handwriting by priests who were very unqualified – and probably sent to the Faroes because they were unfit to be priests in Denmark, which was typical.

My mother went to genealogy studies. She made a family tree that goes back to, I don’t know, early 1500s – and I could see that my family’s been living in the same place for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.

KS – The same town?

HJ – The same town? Ha! A village – like three houses. Call that a town if you like. Ha!

The Faroe Islands village of Lamba, where Heri grew up

KS – I’m interested in your compositional process. When you’re writing an original song, how do you go about it? Do you do it on paper, on the piano, on the computer?

HJ – I used to do it in handwriting. I had a little paper, and I’d write the melody on. Then I’d put the chords on. Through the chords, I would get some sort of riff. Then I’d add the bass or whatever.

KS – So you’d actually write it out.

HJ – Yeah. I used to. Now I work on the computer. I use a program called Guitar Pro. It’s an old program. I could show you right now. I’ll be right back!

[gets laptop]

I have to finish some music here. I have this nice program. So here, I put in a traditional melody. That’s the chorus of it. And I harmonize it into four voices.

KS – Do you enter it with a keyboard?

HJ – No. I just put it in here, by shortcuts. I have the melody for the verse over here. I make a chord progression to that. I don’t actually write down the chord progression anywhere. I just harmonize the guitar to fit this chord progression.

KS – So you do it more contrapuntally than with chords.

HJ – Yeah. So then you have a riff, and you can just leave out the melody. You still have the riff based on the melody, which is what this part before the melody comes in here is. I had two rhythm parts here, and I made one of the rhythm parts into a melody. Here, you have the faster drums and the rhythm part – and the other part, played more like a melody than a rhythm.

So that goes down again to the rhythm playing, when the melody comes in. You see here? We’re back to the rhythm guitar, and here comes the singing melody.

KS – The voice.

HJ – Yeah. At the end of that comes the chorus again. So that’s mainly how I work.

Terji Skibenæs, Heri Joensen Kári Streymoy, and Gunnar H. Thomsen
Týr plays Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – How do you teach the other band members their parts? Do you print out parts for the band?

HJ – I send these tabs to them, and they can play it back. Here, you want to listen to it?

[plays demo]

You can hear. If you’re the bass player, for example, you can just put “solo” on the bass and listen to that – and you can have a metronome playing at the same time, so you know where you are and what you gotta do. This is a really easy program if you write songs, and you want other musicians to learn it.

KS – Do you work out all the vocal harmonies yourself, or do the band members come up with their own lines?

HJ – We all sing on the recordings.

Heri Joensen, Kári Streymoy, and Gunnar H. Thomsen harmonize
Týr plays Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – Is everything through-composed, or is there any element of improvisation in the studio or on stage?

HJ – Not really. I don’t improvise. I write the melody in the program…

KS – The actual guitar solos?

HJ – Yeah. Then I practice them, and then I record them. I’m not sure about Terji. Maybe he improvises a little bit, every now and then. But once it’s recorded, he plays it the same every time. There’s no jam element to this. It’s all pretty fixed.

KS – The solos are always the same length?

HJ – Yes, they are.

KS – How do you find the traditional Faroese ballads? Is this music still performed by everyday Faroese, or is something that you have to research and pull from academic sources?

HJ – Everyday people. There are some people who, of course, know more about them – and have become academics, in a way, about them. It’s still a very communal thing. There are some people who are more enthusiastic about it than others, but anyone is free to learn one and write the appropriate arrangements.

KS – Do you learn them from recordings, or do you just know them from growing up?

HJ – I’ve known some from growing up. You just hear them so many times that it’s hard not to know them. Others, I know the melody, and I get the texts. Learning the melody is really easy; learning the texts is extremely hard. I’ve memorized some texts from paper – and also some from recordings.

Recently, there have been some CD releases by a Faroese label of old recordings. I think the oldest recording I’ve heard is from 1902. A German scholar was traveling around, recording on wax cylinders. These are preserved in a museum in Berlin, somewhere. Someone went there and got permission to put it on CD and release it in the Faroes.

Faroe Islands stamp featuring a scene from "Ormurin Langi"
("The Long Serpent"), a ballad written in the 19th century
and covered by Týr on the How Far to Asgaard album

KS – The Faroese ballad tradition seems similar in some ways to the Icelandic rímur tradition. Can you explain a bit about the history of kvæði, the Faroese ballads? How old are they?

HJ – Some of them definitely go really far back. Most of them… That’s hard to say. You can see by some of the styles of the melodies that they’re pre-modern. No one who knew anything about music theory was ever involved with some. You can see that from the melody, I think. Also – by that means – you can sort out those that are definitely modern. Like, if it is a clean Ionian melody, it’s probably not very old. Then you have these Dorians that are mixed with harmonic minor and all sorts of stuff.

How old they are precisely is very difficult to tell, because there are no written or recorded resources. The text and melody, you can’t say how tightly bound they are. You may have a text that’s from the Viking Ages, but then you have a melody. When did that come in? Did it come with this history? I think it’s impossible to tell. I like to think some of the melodies were around all the way back then. Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to tell.

To be concluded in Part Three.
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