In the history of European Paganism and Polytheism, it is known that numerous Pagan concepts, gods, spirits, and ideas remained part of the people’s psyche even long after the beginning of the conversion process. While these figures did not necessarily retain their original religious place and spiritual function over the centuries, many managed to nevertheless survive by being carried on, if not through religious traditions, then through popular culture.
The Norse-Iceland sagas are a good example of this phenomenon. Even though there likely weren’t any Pagan Icelanders around after the 11th century, their descendants kept on compiling, adapting, and writing down tales of Þórr, Óðinn, and countless Pagan heroes all the way to the 20th century. While these figures had left the purely religious sphere of the Icelanders’ worldview, they nevertheless remained latent characters about which tales were told, and even created, until being finally spiritually and religiously brought back in the late 20th century.While the gods, the old ways, and everything surrounding them have indeed been brought back to their earlier status by some, there is no doubt that many more individuals still know of them not in a spiritual-religious sense but rather in a cultural one. Nearly anyone in the West can name at least half a dozen deities from the classical Graeco-Roman pantheon, Scandinavians know what a Jötun is, and every Frenchman who read Asterix as a child can name the Gaulish god of thunder, Toutatis.
This underlying Pagan presence within the Western worldview has become increasingly noticeable in the past couple of decades as the global entertainment industry has continued to grow and influence popular culture. While this process is maybe most apparent within visual media such as movies, series, comics, or video games due to the colorful and diverse imagery of the ancient pagan world, one could wonder if a similar process is also taking place within other media such as music.
After all, music has always explored a rich variety of topics, and masterful works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Wagner’s Ring Cycle have managed to sublimate ancient myths and concepts. Yet such examples do not really fit into what one could be called popular culture per se. They cater instead more to the intellectual and cultural elites of their times. Those songs represent a learned tradition that, even given time, will likely not slip back into the general culture to an extant similar to “genuinely” popular music designed by and for the general public.
To illustrate this point, one could compare Stravinsky’s and Wagner’s works with highly introspective and hermetic contemporary cinema such as the movies directed by acclaimed, yet largely unknown, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov. While on the opposite of the cinematographic spectrum, one can also find blockbuster pictures such as Marvel’s Thor, or Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson.
How can one explain the dearth of similarly popular Pagan-inspired art within the realm of music? One could rightly point out specific sub-genres, such as Pagan folk or Pagan metal, but those still remain rather niche for the most part. And while some pop stars do not mind utilizing witchy aesthetics for promo shots or music videos, it remains unlikely there will ever come a day when Ariana Grande or Drake pen songs about Aphrodite or Veles.I had been pondering this rather complex question for awhile when, perchance, two Pagan-themed musical events took place, mere weeks apart in my hometown of Tromsø in Arctic Norway. The first one, named Tir-Alu, was a commissioned work conducted by composer Ragnar Rasmussen for the town’s classical music festival Northern Lights. The second, Fra skapelse til Ragnarok (“from the creation to Ragnarok”) was another commissioned work celebrating the centenary of the Norwegian composers’ union, coordinated by the writer Tor Åge Bringsværd and the violinist Henning Kraggerud from the North-Norwegian Symphony Orchestra. Experiencing the two Norse-inspired events within just ten days gave me some useful fodder to ponder how, why, and to which extent Pagan religions and myths might be conveyed through music in our modern age.
Tir-Alu, which took place on Jan. 29, was promoted through press releases as a commentary and celebration of the old Norse values of hospitality and solidarity, especially in the light of the recent humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. From the get-go, the Pagan-Norse elements seemed to have formed the core of the work’s message, rather than simply being shoehorned in merely for aesthetic reasons.
The evening’s performance was not lacking in the form department either: for the occasion, Rasmussen had invited the two masterminds of the musical ensemble Klang av Oldtid, Jens Christian Kloster and Gaute Vikdal, to play parts of the score with reconstructed Bronze Age lures. These instruments are the only modern reconstructions of the original bronze lures which were once used between 1200 and 500 B.C.E. throughout Scandinavia, probably for cultic purposes. It was by a combined blow of these horns that the concert started.
At first, it can be hard to comprehend how such “primitive” instruments can create so much sound, seemingly without effort; Kloster and Vikdal filled the venue with one of the most strident, yet melodic, sounds I’ve ever heard. If such lures were indeed used during pagan rituals and ceremonies in millennia past, one can wager that the attendees must have been literally blow away by the cultists’ performance. Yet, this is not 1000 B.C.E., it is 2017, and the sound of these horns did not resonate in a grassy glade. They rang in the concert venue, which surprisingly enough was the town’s Protestant cathedral.
Considering this rather unusual location (at least when keeping in mind the event in question), it was therefore unsurprising that besides the overtly Norse-inspired pieces, Christian hymns and works were also performed, mostly through the voice of the local university choir Mimas. Quite obviously, the performance’s central concept of hospitality was thought from the beginning as encompassing both the Pagan and Christian spheres of ideas, and while such a rapprochement could be said to be rather natural, I personally found that it somewhat appeared to dilute the symbolism of extolling and attempting to connect with age-old values and ideals.
I especially found the inclusion of biblical passages within a recitation of the Eddic poem Grímnismál rather gauche; it made me feel as if the performance’s Pagan elements might have merely been thought as subservient to purely Christian ones and only allowed in because they could thus be understood without Pagan referent. Nevertheless, hearing passage from various Eddic poems in modern Norwegian accompanied by the potent sound of Bronze Age horns within a Christian house of worship was certainly a sight to behold, even if in some ways it could have been handled maybe more appropriately.
The second Pagan-inspired performance I was able to attend took place just ten days after the one in the cathedral, and proposed a very different take on making use of Pagan mythology and ideas through art. Fra skapelse til Ragnarok was, to start with, a much more collaborative effort. It stemmed from a collaboration between violinist Henning Kraggerud and the author Tor Åge Bringsværd. The idea behind the project was a celebration of Norway’s pagan roots to be expressed both musically and literally.
Bringsværd’s role was to write and recite eight short narratives retelling the main events found within Norse myth, with a string orchestra performing eight instrumental pieces illustrating said passages. It was Kraggerud’s work to conduct (while performing, no less) the orchestra and coordinate the adaptation of the commissioned eight pieces, which were each written by a different composer, including himself.
From a mythological standpoint, Bringsværd’s short texts mostly drew from the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson while borrowing a few figures from other texts. While short, it was a rather well-rounded summary of these tales which wasn’t devoid of poetry or even at times, humor. Often speaking in the guise of specific characters such as, notably enough, the boar Sæhrímnir who jokingly complaining about how cumbersome and tiring it was for him to have to be slaughtered every evening to feed Óðinn’s einherjar.
This at first unexpected narrative device created an atmosphere not unlike that found in mid-20th century French dramas such as those of Camus or Giraudoux. In addition, the fact that every monologue was followed by a thematic piece of music only increased the impression of attending a theater piece, as if Bringsværd acted as the coryphaeus of a voiceless, instrumental choir, enunciating their woes and aspirations in an abstract and symbolic manner.
Regarding the music itself, the eight pieces varied from intricate, dissonant modernist works to more Romantic-inspired melodious ones, and all managed to work in concert with each other to further strengthen the underlying, unifying theme of the performance. In many ways, the fact that such a heterogeneous multimedia project could even be conceived, let alone this masterfully executed, is probably what the public appreciated the most, an appreciation they very publicly expressed through long minutes of a heartfelt standing ovation for this singular work about Pagan gods and heroes.
The concertgoers of Tir-Alu did express much satisfaction following that performance as well but, at the end of the day, how and why did these works differ in the way they conveyed their ideas stemming directly from Old Norse myth?I believe that both projects were conceived with a similar and most appropriate idea, namely appealing to the public’s feelings of connection to ideals, beliefs, and the world of the past. After all, if art is anything, mustn’t it be the media used to express intricate feelings and sentiments to others? Another similarity between the two projects was that they were both composite works in their own right and made use of literature and music to strengthen their overall message, a message that was, in both cases, said to be grounded in Scandinavia’s pre-Christian past. Interestingly enough, it is through their approach to the written word that Tir-Alu and Fra skapelse til Ragnarok differ the most.
The former indeed included passages of poetry that were possibly composed and chanted by pagan Norsemen a thousand years ago, while the latter opted for a rephrasing of the same myths. While one could say that Tir-Alu might have had somewhat less directly to do with the actual myths, it is nevertheless notable that a lot of thought and planning has gone into presenting and interpreting the age-old tales of the pagan gods in a fitting way.
In both cases, expressing the message of the pagan myths was not only the impetus for the whole project, but was used as the main selling point of the events. Even if Tir-Alu indeed wasn’t quite an entirely pagan affair, it is telling that it was these pagan aspects that were marketed to the public, and not the Christian ones. Despite the fact that I wrote mere paragraphs ago that one could see this intermingling of pagan and Christian words and ideas as witness to what the pagan world owes to Christianity, the simple fact that this event was not publicized as a Biblical parable about hospitality with a few side-references to similar Norse ideals shows how much the appeal for Europe’s pre-Christian past has grown in living memory.
The overall feeling I got from witnessing these rare artistic showcases of Pagan tales was indeed one of respect, as if even in the alleged areligious kingdom of Norway, both onlookers and creators understood the distant echo of sacredness emanating from these tales. The fact that the spoken or chanted word (with or without accompanying bronze horns) was by most standards the media these honored stories were told and passed on through in the pagan age of old might be another reason why such a deference for the pagan past seems so singularly restricted to the musical world.
Could it be that we today still somehow feel, or understand, even unwittingly, the significance of chanting the tales of the gods and the sacredness behind it? After all, even the multitudes that do not, and likely will never identify as Pagan, can comprehend the importance of looking back to the reality and the ideals of our ancestors to comprehend more than just their world, or ours. This allure of ages past, in itself simultaneously a pivotal element of the revival of the old ways and a seemingly undying feature of our human condition was so eloquently expressed by Tor Åge Bringsværd in his introduction of Fra skapelse til Ragnarok that there could be no more fitting words to close the present piece:
It happened a long time ago…during the time the gods wandered around the earth, and the humans still had the abilities to see them. The old stories about Odin, Thor, Balder, Freyja and Loki are an essential part of our cultural heritage. They deserve to be kept alive. It is a question of having roots. In addition, myths and fairy tales never become irrelevant. Because they do not concern only “that moment” and “that time.” They can also well tell about “every moment” and “every time.” But every generation must nevertheless seize them anew. Retell them again. In their own way. Bring them towards the light of their own time.
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