Edda, axes, extreme metal: A study of Norse themes in Norwegian metal music

by Imke von Helden

Old Norse literature, various kinds of weapons and untamed music are indeed main ingredients when it comes to Viking metal, or, as it is referred to in this study, ‘Norse-themed metal music’. Imke von Helden, the author of Norwegian Native Art – Cultural Identity in Norwegian Metal Music, focuses on the relevance of Norse themes for identity construction in a qualitative analysis by drawing upon lyrical, visual and sonic aspects in the work of Norwegian bands in a globalised context. In five qualitative interviews, the author asks Enslaved (as one of the most well-known bands within this frame) and other bands about their motivation, intentions and sources in order to draw conclusions concerning the expression and performance of cultural identity. Furthermore, the author provides an overview of the relevance of Norse themes throughout Norwegian history.

There is a tradition of considering the Vikings’ achievements, archaeological findings, mythical characters and Nordic nature as a source for identity creation: In an upswing of national consciousness, the reception of Norse themes peaked during 18th and 19th century Romantic Nationalism, when they were adapted by authors, painters and school teachers. This was particularly prominent in Norway, which was then striving for independence. Throughout the period of National Socialism, the Vikings and mythical characters were incorporated into the nationalist ideal of tough and loyal warriors. In contemporary Norwegian society, however, Norse themes seem to have lost their appeal as an element of identity construction – even though they are almost omnipresent, for instance in tourist advertisement, films, comics and video games. Chainsaws, rubber boots and hockey clubs claim to be ‘Viking’, associating the figure with power, freedom and the braving of the elements. However, in metal culture, the Viking and Norse themes have gained significance.

Norse-themed metal music became popular in Europe and North America during the early 2000s, when metal bands from Scandinavian countries gained huge numbers of fans. However, use of the Norse concept is said to have started prior to this, for example when Bathory (among others) in 1988 included Norse references in their album Blood Fire Death. Many Scandinavian bands and musicians worldwide followed their lead, with the consequence that Norse-themed metal has gained an international success. This success rests on two factors: one, Scandinavia, especially Norway and Sweden, are famous within the metal community. Swedish death metal bands are Europe’s best-selling, rivalled for influence and status only by the USA (more precisely Florida), while Norway gained fame in the metal community during the early 1990s, when adolescents burned down many of Norway’s century-old stave churches and others were convicted of murder. These incidents were connected to Norway’s nascent black metal-scene. For its Norwegian adherents, black metal meant differentiating themselves from the colourful, supposedly fun-loving North American death metalers by adopting a grim, satanic lifestyle. On the other hand, for many Norwegian musicians the attitude was difficult to identify with, leading some to turn back to the ancient Gods of Old Norse mythology, the heroes of the sagas and the Viking Age that fitted metal aesthetics seemingly perfectly and, being Scandinavian, suggested authenticity. Furthermore, ideas of barbaric Vikings, fighting and pillaging, fantastical stories of the gods’ deeds and horrific mythical beasts, all fit well with the aesthetics of metal culture and music.

Recurrent reference to Norse heritage and its corresponding aesthetics when combined with martial metal sound have lead to musicians and fans facing frequent accusations of promoting extreme right wing and other extremist positions. There has therefore been a need to confront ideological issues. Use of Norse themes and symbols during National Socialism, lingering references by many historical and contemporary neo-Pagan and neo-Nazi groups, and Breivik’s manifesto (in which he emphasises his Viking heritage), all provide the theme complex and the metal phenomenon with negative connotations; surely, though, this is one of its potentials. This aspect of metal has been thoroughly researched. However, the focus of such studies has been on groups that more or less overtly support right wing extremist and racist causes. This study intends to look further and to focus on bands that defend themselves against such accusations and claim other motives.

Norwegian Native Art, the title of this project, is also the name of the third album by the Norwegian metal band Einherjer. Its components serve as indicators for the themes discussed in the book in that the title as such embraces several ideas and questions that have been seminal for this project: Most obviously, there is the question of what does the word ‘native’ points to? Does it encompass the idea of depicting a particular work of a Norwegian metal band as ‘original’ or ‘authentic’, or does it rather refer to the contents being of ‘original’ nature? If so, why is it written in English rather than Norwegian? Are there any ideological implications in the title? What particular time in Norwegian history does it allude to – an ‘immaculate’ Norway in the national Romanticist sense, i.e. Norway before the Danish reign or, in the sense of the (Norwegian) metal community, blaming the Christianisation of what is geographically Norway today for eradicating a rich culture? Does the title express a look at a past time, or is it referring to a present state of art in Norway? Could it point to an amalgamation of authentic Norwegian material from a past with newly authentic Norwegian material (i.e. metal music) of the present?

The scope of the analysis covers the discourse(s) relating to Norse themes where the metal community and cultural community of Norway meet. Norway serves as an example here, since the country only gained independence in 1905 and was occupied during the Second World War. Thus, it is assumed that the relatively small nation continues to experience the results of modernisation processes, immigration and cultural heritage development in order to (re-)define its own national identity between ‘family farm and oil rig’, as the Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen puts it. Furthermore, this study is to be understood as a contribution to the ongoing debate on globalisation, nationalism and cultural identity. The author seeks to analyse the functions of Norse themes as they are applied in Norwegian metal music. It is her assumption that the thematic constellation of Viking Age, Norse mythology and nature are being used for cultural positioning, thereby resulting in both the construction and experience of cultural identity. Even though the history of identity formation in Norway has previously relied heavily on Viking heritage, more recently bands have positioned themselves culturally as somewhat different from their fellow Norwegians, those outside of the metal community. The author assumes that referring to cultural heritage helps members of the metal community to find their place and to define their identity in a world that is perceived as increasingly homogenous. She argues that the motivations and intentions of dealing with Norse themes within this context are varied, as are potential ideological implications.

While metal as such is not among the most accepted styles of music worldwide, it clearly belongs to mainstream popular culture in Norway (and most other Nordic countries): There is a ‘metal’ category in famous cultural awards, e.g. the annual spellemannprisen, the Norwegian Grammy. Black metal in Norway, though infamous in its beginnings of arson and murder, has gained a global reputation and is a global export good, and the Norwegian public is aware of this. Thus, black and Viking metal are on the Norwegian ambassadors’ agendas. What is more, metal creates a form of belonging among its fans, no matter what the locale. A comparatively recent form of smaller identity units in globalised societies that the German sociologist Ronald Hitzler labels posttraditionale Gemeinschaften (post-traditional communities), metal culture renders a relevant field of contemporary identity construction.

Von Helden, Imke: Norwegian Native Art – Cultural Identity in Norwegian Metal Music. Münster: LIT-Verlag, 2017 (ISBN 978-3-643-90880-3).