In light of their most recent album, Runaljod – Ragnarok, Wardruna went on a European tour, playing two sold-out shows at Tivoli Vreedenburg in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Ghost Cult journalists Suzanne A. Maathuis and Lorraine Lysen went to Utrecht on Sunday the 30th of November to find out more about the latest album and some of the academic background of the project from Einar Selvik of Wardruna. He is also participating in this weekend’s New York By Norse event in partnership with Enslaved’s 25th year celebration. Einar talked with us about songwriting, the Rune Trilogy, Norse history and lore, the next Wardruna album, and much more.
Let’s start at the beginning of an album. How do you start your composing process?
It can be many different things, but of course in this trilogy there is a creative concept behind it, which is basically to try to interpret these themes I am working with, as much as possible, on their own premises. That is the key element in the creative process. That means that I use relevant sounds, relevant instruments, relevant words, relevant language and poetry, and record in relevant environments, placements, and even on specific dates or periods of the year, etc. So a lot of things are given, and sometimes those things can be what I start with. For instance, for the song ‘Isa,’ which means ice, we got hold of ice that was basically tuned like a marimba that we sounded off; ancient ice, because it needs to be frozen very slowly to be able to create a proper sound. And of course, when you are working with a song like that, then it makes sense to start off with the sound of ice and build on that, let the song take you where it wants to take you. This trilogy is about giving voice to runes, and the most important sources we have of a symbolic value, and even the names of the runes, is this small selection of poetry that we have, so sometimes it can start with that. So it can be many things. I write a lot of music when I am out walking. It is a bit difficult to say when I actually started working on this album, because in many ways you could say I started working on this album fifteen years ago, when I started working on the trilogy. All of the ideas for this trilogy were sort of noted and put in a drawer until later, so some of the songs on this album were started on ten to fifteen years ago.
So it’s an intuitive process, the music takes you where it wants to go?
I’d say it’s a bit of both, as the runes are very specific in what they are and what they are not, even though a lot of modern approaches to them tend to start with the intuitive part and forget the factual part. You should always start with the factual part; then you can go into the intuitive, esoteric approach. But in terms of being intuitive, you might even call the music progressive. When you listen to Wardruna you hear quickly that we don’t follow the verse-refrain system. I don’t try to squeeze my song in any direction. When I am working with material, it very often starts with something I can hear or see in my head, often when I am out walking as that’s when I write most of my music. And then it does go into basically daring to let the song take you where it wants to take you, rather than forcing it into any direction. In that sense it’s very much about intuition, feeling, and *laughs* bravery, daring.
So how do you go about a rune such as Pertho, about which there is very little academic concensus?
That is a very good question because that is one of the definitive, most challenging runs, because I don’t want to make things up. I don’t want to pretend it’s something or something else. I have conferred with some of the foremost experts on both Anglo-Saxon linguistics, Germanic linguistics, and with runologists all across the globe, both that have written theses on Pertho in particular, but everybody agrees that we don’t have a sufficient answer to it. *laughs* Everybody agrees that we don’t know. They all told me that I just had to make a decision. So my decision was to take the poem itself and make a new version of it and elaborate it. It talks about amusement; it talks about what you do cheerfully, how warriors sit cheerfully within the beerhall, the longhouse, and there are many interesting things about the longhouse. Looking at the different parts and the names of different parts of the longhouse you can almost perceive it as being some sort of microcosm. So I implemented small parts of that into the poetry, like what a beerhall is, what happens there, and thus elaborate a bit on the poetry that we have and also drop a few really vague hints on the different interpretations of the rune. I don’t want to make things up, I have too much respect for the subject to do that.
From what we know of Norse spiritualism it’s quite a personal and private affair. What brought you to share yours with the world?
My beliefs are personal; my practice is personal; a lot of things I still keep to myself. Even though my music is also personal, I try not to bombard it with my personal stuff. I think that is also one of the reasons people are able to connect to it in a personal sense, because there is room for that. I don’t serve any truth, it’s not dogmatic preaching. It’s really important to me to not personally colour it too much, I’d rather just hint and give direction, and basically keep room for the listener to be able to make their own story out of it. Of course, when you work with runes the rune is one thing, but whatever the word means can also take you on this trip and you can find more meaning. The funny thing with these runic poems for instance is that they also definitely don’t serve you any truths. They are very though-invoking, in that they leave you with questions. I think that’s the best way of growing as a human being, to ask questions and to throw questions at people, because it’s you who needs to figure it out. *grins* Nobody died for your sins in my book, you have to take responsibility yourself.
You did do one very personal thing on this album: you had your children sing on it. What was it like for you to have them included in this project and taken into this side of your life?
They really wanted to do it, I would never have pushed it on them. It actually comes back to the creative concept. The word Odal still has the exact same meaning in contemporary Norwegian; today Odal means your heritage or inheritance, birthright, ancestral land, it is related to these things. It goes back to that concept of using things that enhance the quality of what it is I’m interpreting. So in Odal what makes more sense than using my family? I am really proud of them, and I am proud that they actually dare to step on stage with us now. They have performed the song with us three times, and they are both quite shy, so they are very brave.
That was one thing we were wondering about, if they would actually appear on stage at all, because of course it’s difficult when it concerns children. So it’s only near home or on very special occasions that they come out to perform with you?
Yes, we did two concerts in Bergen where they joined us, and a festival in Norway. I would definitely love to have them on stage every night, of course, but that’s not possible.
It seems like in current academia there is a great deal of opposition to any notions of spirituality involved with the runes. Is this something you experience and how do you deal with this?
It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I can understand it, people tend to want to study what they understand. But there is so much evidence of there being correlation with the esoteric use of runes and other facets of the Norse tradition; the combination of oral and graphic magical use is very much present. What is considered a very good source, the first non-Scandinavian source on that, is of course Hrabanus Maurus from the abbey of Fulda who describes the northerners’ written language: they use their writings for incantations, for writing down poetry, and for divination, which is esoteric use of runes. This is a Christian priest in the abbey of Fulda writing in the 800s. We have several examples of the esoteric use of runes within the sagas, within Egils saga, within Hávamál, within Sígrdrifumál. But it’s complicated, I think the resistance also comes from the New Age traditions, which tend to treat the runes in a way that is very far from the original esoteric use of runes. It is very far from it, and I agree as little as the academics with modern rune-lore. It’s rubbish. It’s this combination of Kabbalah and astrology and numerology, tarot. My view on it is similar to that of the academics, I want sources for my studies as well. And in Scandinavia something happened when Finnur Magnússon was sort of the rockstar or ethnology and Nordic studies. He of course did this great blunder in the 1800s where he managed to publish this thick book on the Runamo inscription, which turned out to be just natural cracks in the stone. This destroyed his career and he died shortly after, but after that something also happened in terms of mixing ethnology and folkloristics with runology; Runology became linguistics. Back then they had to change to survive as a profession. Now I think they need to change back to survive, because *laughing* I am probably one of five who reads their crap. No, but they don’t focus on context anymore, they don’t know about context anymore, thus they discard it. They only focus on language. I understand why they say it, but still I think they are very wrong. They need to do more than just preserve their salary for another year. Because that’s how it works. I know a lot of scholars, and many of them are friends, and I know what they’re up to. *laughs again.*
We’ve noticed that in recent years, perhaps due to the television, Norse culture and Viking culture in particular have become very popular. As someone who has studied these cultures for years and actively uses them, what do you think about this development?
I think it has a lot of positive effects, actually. In terms of Wardruna, we were quite established before that, and if you’re part of the metal world, the notion that Norse history is big is not a new thing, it’s only new to popular culture. But I think that’s a good thing, there are a lot of ghosts that are clinging to our old heritage, sadly. For instance due to World War II but also, if you go further back, because as a people we relive our history through the eyes of Christian monks from the medieval times, which do not give a very nuanced image of our history. Nor a correct one, focussing only on rape and pillage and stuff like that, which was only a little part of a culture. The very end of a culture, actually, when the whole culture was going down, it was changing. It was this huge migration period, as you could call it. It was about so many other things, like trade and politics, you could see it in all of Europe. And this came north, with the whole switch of religion, to be able to centralise power and get rid of the democracy that we had. My point is, now, for instance in opposition to the right-wing use of these symbols, we are modern-day and we are taking back our history. Even in Norway people are realising that hey, maybe it’s quite cool to have this Norse history. So I think it’s a positive development that we are now getting a more nuanced view of the time. We were left alone by the Vatican, up here in the north, for almost a thousand years longer than the rest of Europe. So we were able to keep our culture, and to cultivate our culture, for a much longer time, and I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people from other parts of the world find it so fascinating, because it’s something very ancient, but it’s also something very close. And you only find it here. So I am happy that things are becoming more nuanced.
As a follow-up, there are a lot of people who are becoming more interested in Norse culture, and in the runes especially, to find more meaning in their life and make sense of both the world and themselves. Given the large amount of bad sources from for instance New Wave esotericism, what advice would you like to give to someone who is starting on this search?
I think the first thing you need to understand is that growing, or attaining anything in life that has any value, comes at a cost. You can’t just go to a weekend course or read a book and expect to grow as a human being, or to understand it all. Or that magic is this Harry Potter thing. Because Magic is something else, much more grounded and much more explainable. So you need to get rid of some of these modern popular expectations, and it comes at a cost. Growth always comes at a cost. In terms of learning, you should never start climbing in a tree without roots, so you need to find out how we know what think we know about the runes. If you want to learn about them you need to know how we know these things. When you know how we know them you also know how little we know, and you can also very easily separate the bullshit from the original thing. But that makes it harder: you can’t just read someone else’s wonderful interpretations of them, you have to actually do the interpretation yourself, and read the poetry, and ask yourself “what does this mean?” And study. That’s the only thing that will take you any deeper than just scratching a surface. Learn how to write with them, it’s a writing system. It’s a really important way to understand how they work, how they correlate, to understand the rules of writing with them. That’s the first step, really. People tend to want to jump to the esoteric part, which in reality is the difficult part, but they think it’s easy. It’s the part that would be passed on culturally, not in writing. The people who were experts at this, the seers and such, they were trained in these things since they were born, more or less. And when conversion came, the experts were obviously killed first, because they were dangerous. The people continued to do a lot of these things, but the knowledge on why they do it and why it works, that sort of disappeared. So the tradition continues, but people don’t know why they do it, or why it’s done exactly in that way, or why it works. That knowledge sort of dissolves slowly. But yes, study how we know what we think we know. That’s the basics. And I would suggest starting with the Viking Age runes, because we know much more about them. It’s somewhat paradoxical that most people use the Elder Futhark, when that is actually the one we know least about. We don’t even know their names, because those have been reconstructed from the Anglo-Saxon and the Wulfila bible. In any case, I think that some of them are obviously wrong.
We were wondering, what made you decide to use the pan-Germanic Elder Futhark, rather than the more specifically Scandinavian Younger Futhark?
*grins* It’s because I don’t find the Viking Age very fascinating. Perhaps surprising to some. I think the Viking Age represents the decline, where they lost their ways. Along with the whole migration part, so many things were changing and industrialising that they lost their way. And I think that, if you go back in time, to the proto-Norse and proto-Scandinavian traditions, even back to the Bronze Age which is the higher version of that and suddenly declined for unknown reasons, you will see a much more complete system. You see a much deeper connection to cyclic thinking, to the sun and to these ancient universal myths that I find much more fascinating and complete. I see them as a much more natural and complete system. So even though I knew that the task of handling them would be more difficult, I also know I am not handing a doctoral thesis, I am working with art and am actually free to express myself and come to personal conclusions, or even switch things to fit the grand story that I am telling. So I chose them because they are a more complete system, but for a doctoral thesis I would not, because they are very challenging. Some of the ones we only find in the Anglo-Saxon sources are really obscure, and the interpretations of a rune such as Pertho are diverse.
A lot of fans we’ve spoken to are worried that it is now over, that with the completion of the Runaljod trilogy we have come to the end of Wadruna.
Yes, of course. *laughs* No, for me a trilogy has only three albums. But Wardruna is much more than just this trilogy, so I sincerely feel that this is just the beginning. There are so many thing I want to continue to work with and bring to life. So there will be more.
Any ideas on what form that will take?
I definitely enjoy working with the solo format that I have been doing quite a lot the last couple of years. I am doing some recordings that have a more acoustic expression. But also I enjoy working with concepts, I like to tell a story where you can work in many layers, such as this trilogy where everything is connected to each other. All the songs are in some way connected, I mean if you listen really carefully you will hear these small hints here and there, crossing over on all the albums. Even though this one is called Ragnarok, it is in the previous album that Ragnarök happened, in the last part of the previous record is where the sun was swallowed. So this new one is very much about growth and what rises from the ashes. Transformation. Death and rebirth. Cyclic thinking, and we just start over. I am working on several things and there are ideas that are growing that I am inspired by and that I want to do. Next year I will probably start diving into the creative process, which is probably what I enjoy most about this whole thing.
INTERVIEW BY SUSANNE A. MAATHUIS AND LORRAINE LYSEN