by Niklas Göransson
With their conceptual trilogy coming to an end, Wardruna now face Ragnarok – a reminder that for there to be rebirth, something will first have to perish. Einar Selvik speaks of seeking solace in darkness and pondering riddles of the written past.
– Starting the “Runaljod” album trilogy was a lot about sowing seeds and promoting growth. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a revival, but it’s about remembering things that are still relevant to this day.
WARDRUNA’s debut, the 2009 “Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga”, focused on concepts pertaining to creation and starting anew.
– “Runaljod – Yggdrasil” (2013), the second album, is about strengthening roots and cementing the foundations of what I started four years earlier. The new record celebrates change, transformation of the seed – the death and rebirth. The album is very much about Ragnarok.
Thus, the aptly named “Runaljod – Ragnarok” was released in October 2016. Einar notes that to most people, the title is likely to have connotations reminiscent of the Christian Armageddon; scenes of war, final battles, and murder.
– I thought that would be an uninteresting approach, and not a particularly nuanced one. Rather than endings in fire, I wanted to portray new beginnings; a gentle reminder that in order for there to be resurrection, something must first die. It’s about that which has given up space, and what’s filled the void it left behind.
This sacred reciprocity is what the children’s choir on the track “Wunjo” gives praise to; gratitude and consideration for those who relinquished their place to leave room for others.
– I feel that we live in an age of change. Humans of all epochs have always sought meaning to their existence but now it’s reached extremes. With contemporary society so completely devoid of substance, I believe people in the West are searching to a greater extent than ever before – they long for nature.
Einar adds that it doesn’t have to be a spiritual pursuit but might as well be something of historical or cultural orientation.
– I believe this to be one of the reasons why people react so strongly to our music in the live setting. WARDRUNA is an exploration of human consciousness and its relationship with nature. My music is a reminder of that connectedness – songs about matters larger than life. Folks who don’t attend any places of worship or have other means of accessing temple sanctity are unlikely to ever have experienced this holy sensation of belonging that’s so important to the mortal psyche. This is of prime importance in our work and the manner in which we perform; creating a neutral space where there’s room for everybody. I’d like to think that people can sense this, which is a big part of the appeal.
The world according to Einar Selvik is processed through what he describes as a shamanic perspective.
– It’s an animistic outlook where everything has a… call it personality, spirit, frequency, or even value. You can of course apply cosmology to this but there are no eternal truths etched in stone.
One practical avenue where Einar implements this philosophy lies in the very vessels of his nature praise; some of WARDRUNA’s instrumentation was built by his own hands, drawing from both flora and fauna. The skin on his drums, for instance, once adorned a white-tail deer.
– I feel her presence when we go on stage. Whether or not it’s perceived consciously, she’s there – I would’ve felt the difference, I’m one hundred percent sure of it. It adds a lot to the entirety, it’s the same with horns; they become living instruments. There is definitely life to it.
How much of this process were you personally involved in?
– A hunter shot the animal but I handled everything else, skinned the carcass and tanned the hide. Building a drum from scratch in the old way is a meticulous and tedious process. It’s smelly and you must exert great patience but, at some point, you realise that what you’re doing in a sense is bringing the animal back to life and that’s a beautiful thing.
Shamans generally don’t bother explaining what lurks in the unknown, nor how one should relate to it. Rather, they provide the means of seeing for oneself and then making do as one sees fit with what whatever’s found. This sort of faith-through-empiricism appeals to Einar.
– I dislike preaching and don’t care much for chiselled truths. Your path is your own and will never be the same as mine, your gateway is yours alone and how you code the world is basically… if we had a shared vision where we both saw the same thing, your impression would be filtered through an entirely different lens than mine. Processing reality through a framework of decrees and dogma renders people stupid. It gives them an excuse to not assume responsibility for their lives, their own actions, or their growth as human beings. That’s the most important thing in life; you need to ask questions, be inquisitive, and constantly expand your knowledge. That’s why I find the study of runes really interesting, they’re somewhat veiled, highly thought-provoking – like riddles. You’re basically left with more questions than what you started out with.
So you think it’s important to regularly challenge yourself?
– Yes, constantly. I’m not the same as I was ten minutes ago, I’m a different person than I was yesterday. Adopt a present and conscious approach to life and the person you become will be moulded by whatever it experiences. I try to always learn and strive for betterment each and every day.
Einar used to be a metal drummer, playing in GORGOROTH at one point. As such, I’m curious if he’s ever worked with ritualistic percussion – repetitive simple beats with the intention of inducing a trance state.
– Yes, drums are definitely one of the most common ways to reach a higher state of being, one I’ve practised extensively.
If memory serves me correctly, shamanism also has an element of communing with nature through sacred vegetation.
– It is indeed interesting, not a necessity but definitely one of the tried and true techniques of attaining heightened senses. There have been periods of my life devoted to exploring such matters and, after a while, one realises that these plants are relics; they’re here for a reason. This is especially apparent when performing entheogen work in a group setting. My introduction to this field came through people who were into a form of core shamanism – this Michael Harner thing – which is a rather generic form which basically takes bits and pieces from all corners of the globe and makes a bland fusion out of it. This is something I find a bit contradictory as mixing shamanistic traditions removes everything unique and genuine about them. Even though the application can be similar, the most important aspect of any nature-oriented practice is the nature in which it’s performed. Taking techniques from South America, for instance, this lore has developed in synergy with a certain terrain. Their forests have different lakes, trees, and mountains from what we have here. Once you remove parts of what makes it unique, significant power is lost. I wanted to do what my ancestors did.
Einar suggests the practice of útiseta as a Scandinavian vision-quest that’s still available to us today. It entails finding a spot in nature one resonates with, then remaining there whilst trying to blend in with the surroundings.
– When you’ve stood in a river for a whole day, you know that river. When you’ve sat underneath a waterfall for a full night, when the sound becomes like blades slicing through your every cell – then you know the waterfall. One source we have on how they did this is old law books, in the paragraphs concerning forbidden pagan practices such as blot, conjuring spirits, and stuff like that.
Let’s say I’d like to try this – how would I go about it?
– I’d suggest heading out before the sun sets. If there’s a burial mound in your area, go visit that. Otherwise, just walk into the forest with the intention of finding a location that feels right. Once you find it, state your intention out loud and simply be there. All that’s required at this point is to sit down without moving anything besides the eyes, attempting to simply remain in the moment. At some point you will notice patterns in your perception because what you’re actually doing is finding your own intuitive language, how you code the world. Don’t expect profound magical experiences on your first attempt, that will come after perhaps a year’s practice. Merely getting past fears of the dark is a good start, learning to be alone with one’s thoughts – sitting there until the sun rises again. The whole darkness thing could even be the intention in itself. Eventually one goes from seeing the blackness as some hidden and unknown scary thing to embracing it as a comforting veil, or a shelter. Light and dark speak a symbolic language with great energy; the power of aesthetics, relating to what you saw in concert last night.
This conversation took place in November 2016, during a weekend when Einar performed in Stockholm three days in a row. He explains that once these trance states have been attained – regardless if induced by dwelling in or consuming nature – it becomes easier to find one’s way back there without the aid of exterior agents.
– Today, I find using my voice to be a most efficient way. Once you’ve found that switch… you basically only need yourself.
As outlined in my conversations with roving ceremonial ensemble PHURPA, one spiritually efficient voice application is throat chanting. This is a style of singing where the practitioner creates a melody by manipulating the exhaled flow of air with the vocal chords; it produces a truly otherworldly rumbling. Einar has a uniquely sounding approach to the technique, which he performs in WARDRUNA.
– My use of it is a bit intuitive, going back to the principle of what works and what doesn’t. That is what resonates with me. If forced to make a comparison I’d say my style is more related to the Tuvan way, rather than the Tibetan.
The Tuvan tradition is what’s practiced in areas of Mongolia, Tuva and Siberia.
– Going back to intention and relating this to the practice of galdr, where you howl with your whole being – and I mean your entire essence. With this throat chanting technique I can actually do that in a controlled form; when singing I channel the full power of my voice.
The galdr are Old Norse spells, or incantations – part of the esoteric Scandinavian tradition of seidr. Not much is known about them, but going by older sources it appears that the practitioner was required to scream the words at the top of his or her lungs.
– My style sort of constrains the air so I don’t get weary. I can actually sing with full intention and power for extreme amounts of time. I can’t explain it in a different way but it just works, and feels right.
Whilst on the subject of northern magic, I’m curious if Einar has studied the Galdrabók – The Icelandic Book of Magic. Dating back to the 1600s, it’s a grimoire believed to have been compiled by three Icelanders and a Dane. Besides a number of spells in both runic and Latin writing, it contains various sigils, invocations to entities of both Abrahamic and Norse origin, and instructions on how to use herbs and other magical accessories.
– This symbiosis between verbal and graphic sorcery along with the whole give-and-take relationship is fascinating. A common misconception about galdrastafir – magical staves with runic inscriptions – is that people tend to think that symbols like aegishjalmur or vegvísir have magical qualities by their mere presence. Simply displaying these sigils won’t make them anything else but a few lines and dots; they require activation. This is why many of the designs appear in multiple contexts with entirely different meanings. Every galdr is crafted uniquely, charged by the individual making it. Every line must be drawn after directions based on intent. The same applies to runes, people have a tendency to think that a single rune has power on its own. It’s not automatically like that, or at least it wasn’t so traditionally. Runes have an activating nature. When you come across runic sorcery, it tends to be about repeated words. This is mirrored in the oral tradition of galdr, the only poetic metre that includes repetition.
Norse poetry is preposterously complex. There’s a whole craftsmanship behind the various structures, how many syllables to use, where to internal rhyme or end-rhyme – or when to alliterate, using words beginning with the same intonation.
– That’s one of the reasons we have kennings, which are basically synonyms – a skaldic application of figurative language used to navigate these rules. Kennings are especially useful in the most complicated metre; the dróttkvætt, which are so elaborate that poets could recite sophisticated insults to the king and have a day’s head-start before anyone realised it.
Dróttkvætt is Norse poetry that follows a particularly intricate set of rules with various rhyming and other forms of assonance. It’s a far more complex poetic system than anything else found in the Germanic language family, and has more in common with the Celts.
– That’s one of the reasons why this poetry remains debated to this day, people are still trying to make sense of them. Some of these kennings are so complicated that we have yet to figure out what they mean. I have the deepest respect for this craft and the master poets who spawned it.
As prime example he mentions the Lokasenna, one of the poems of the Poetic Edda, which essentially consists of the Norse god Loki berating his peers. When laying into Odin, he mocks him for unmanliness – implying that he has been dabbling with the magical arts, which was something reserved for the fairer sex. The women who practised seidr were called the völva.
– Loki is accusing Odin of having ‘draptu á vétt sem völur ‘– meaning, played on a lid like the völva. This is the key to a long-standing debate over whether or not drums were used when performing seidr.
Einar suggests that the logical word to use instead of ‘lid’ would have been ’drums’, but that would have deviated from the rule-set – an alliteration was required. This is why the Norse skalds had over one-hundred names just for Odin, it was a necessity of creative linguistics.
– In Völuspá, which is the part of the Poetic Edda poem detailing the Norse creation myth, they used a lot of sounds that accentuate the meaning. Early in the tale, they chose words with a lot of ’umm’, ’brr’, and these deep rumbling sounds. And later when there’s war and battle; harsher sounds and harder words. That’s something one should keep in mind when studying Norse poetry – words are taken out of context, not to mention how much is lost when the language is modernised or even translated. This poetry was never intended for reading; ours was an oral tradition meant to be recited in a setting catering to the story, perhaps there were even theatrical aspects to it. It’s important to keep the missing aspects in mind when examining these poems, you have to imagine the rest.
He explains that it’s when delving into them in their original language one notices the mind-blowing details; how they sound, and even what tempos they were written for.
– There’s much we don’t know about how our ancestors’ music sounded, but the interesting thing is that we can tell the rhythm. It’s quite similar to the oldest forms of Scandinavian folk music; a lot of uneven beats, very suggestive. I try to be inspired by this when I play.
Given the complexity of the skaldic wording, Einar believes it stands to reason that their music would have been equally intricate.
– This is another factor that’s been hugely influential to WARDRUNA. It’s very multidimensional, there’s so much detail put into these compositions – so many layers the conscious mind will never notice. There really is no art form with the potential of carrying meaning in such a profound way as music or song.
Einar believes that understanding music is a good basis for comprehending how magic is something factual.
– Magic is actually quite explainable yet people tend to have this Harry Potter view of what it is. I can walk into a room and instantly change the emotion, energy, and general frequency in there – simply by performing my craft. That’s a magical gift, whether it’s making people feel scared, sad, or happy. The basic principle to abide by when blending sound with being is that one’s voice becomes an extension of the self. You are as big as your voice can reach, that’s sort of the idea. It also needs to be welded together with various emotions, forged in the fires of intention. Then you can add spirit, if that’s your thing, but it’s in this amalgamation that metaphysical change occurs. Magic has always been about two things: inducing some manner of alteration, or an acquisition of knowledge. Boiled down to essence, that’s often what it’s about. Sound and music are powerful tools when used consciously, with purpose. Directed inwards for example, it’s been proven scientifically that you’re physically stronger when finding notes that resonate with you.
I dare say anyone who has listened to music while lifting weights could attest to that.
– Precisely. If you address a crowd at a voice pitch that’s not beneficial for you – people won’t listen, and instead grow tired and distracted.
This is a science firmly rooted in Norse tradition, with the poets of old being well-aware of the power in words and sound. Einar mentions new ecological research as further examples of how modern academia crosses paths with ancient nature beliefs.
– I’m very excited now that science has actually proven what animists have known for thousands of years; that trees have feelings, that they have families.
Subterranean studies have shown forests to be entwined in a sort of woodland hive-mind, linked through networks of root fungus. The fungi absorb essential minerals from the soil and feed nutrients to the trees. Different species of trees, previously assumed to compete for sunlight, have instead been shown to share resources. They also communicate through this network, warning one another from hostile intrusion.
– For me … it was like, yeah – I know!
Pre-Christian religion is often viewed vastly differently by modern practitioners contra classical scholars. On the one hand, it does sound logical that empirical studies could grant insight inaccessible from books alone.
– Absolutely. That goes both ways though, it also applies to performance studies. I have a lot of scholar friends who enjoy my perspective because of my familiarity with both worlds. I was recently invited to Oxford University to speak before some of the world’s foremost experts on Norse poetry.
The reason being that Einar has one foot in each discipline. Not only has he studied the skaldic arts – he regularly performs them before large crowds, a boast few academics are likely to make.
– I play the same instruments, often in settings similar to what the living tradition would dictate. I sing in long-houses over crackling fires. The rules of performance are timeless; what works and what doesn’t work in communicating with a room full of people is relevant to any performer, in any time, from any culture. Despite being governed by the same set of premises, they’re not something that can be chiselled in stone because their application is different for every audience. Sometimes the scholar can help the practitioner and vice versa. It’s been stale from an academic perspective up until now, it’s been conformed to their own narrative and people have been scared. This is mostly due to all the unserious charlatans – those who climb in rootless trees, so to speak.
Stumbling blindly in the dark is not something Einar ever engages in; before venturing into intuitiveness, he prefers to rest on a basis of knowledge.
– I feel like academia is gradually opening that door now; seeing both sides. It’s important to take part of a practical perspective because written sources will indeed only take you so far.
Now that the trilogy is fulfilled, may I ask what the next concept will be?
– No. Not because it’s necessarily a big secret but because I haven’t quite decided yet. Before the trilogy was started, I had ideas for other areas I wanted to tap into. I can still see and hear them, but I stored everything in drawers of the mind. Up until now, the “Runaljod” cycle has been such an exhausting process that I haven’t been able to process much else. I’m currently revisiting a lot of old ideas, and of course exploring plenty of new ones. Going back to what I said earlier – I’m always growing, there’s constant change. Ideas and visions come all the time and some of them I feel strongly about bringing to life. I look forward to it, and in many ways the WARDRUNA project has just begun.