by Niklas Göransson
With a core unbroken under ancestral guidance, Norwegian black metal veterans Helheim brace for their tenth album. Bass player and vocalist V’gandr discusses Kufic scripts and hidden runes, as well as the Nordic death cult and its customs.
– Norse spirituality has been a life-long study of mine, reading its literature and writing lyrics is my way of delving further into the ancestral and philosophical. Mind you, my music contains no messages for others to follow or anything like that, it’s more like a vehicle that I’m both the driver and passenger of. I look upon Håvamål primarily as guidelines for proper conduct and morals. In many ways, people today are too busy with mundane distractions to dig deeper into the more spiritual aspects of life.
When I upon recommendation listened to HELHEIM’s 2017 album “landawarijaR”, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The record of theirs I was most familiar with would’ve been the 1997 “Av norrøn ætt”, which I purchased on impulse after mistaking them for HELHEIM from Sarpsborg. While there’s clearly been plenty of musical evolution underway, they’ve retained many of the distinguishing features such as non-metal instrumentation and clean vocals. It’s clearly recognisable as the same band, despite the twenty years that’s passed between releases – one would have to attribute this to their rather impressive feat of keeping the core trio together since 1992. What’s equally notable is that album number seven, twenty-five years into their career, has been named their best work by both critics and fans.
– This caught us by surprise as well. Even though we agree with the critics, one tends to go blind on one’s own thoughts around an album. Quite some time has passed already so I don’t really think about “landawarijaR” much these days, but right after its release we were pleasantly surprised by the sheer joy people were expressing over it – wasn’t expecting that. In hindsight we’re of course proud of it but as of now, all focus lies on our next release; we’re entering the studio later this summer.
Will this be a new full-length record?
– Yes, a concept album of sorts where we deal with different Norwegian weather conditions, especially ones occurring during the fall and winter, neatly tied together with elements of the Norse. Furthermore, it’s all written in ljodahattr – a Skaldic poetic way of writing, definitely my most intricate lyrics thus far. The album will be called “Rignir” and all titles will be single Nordic names linked to various weather-related phenomena. Musically, we’ve taken a step further into new territories and, as always, I guess people will be either positively or negatively surprised.
Something that occurred to me while preparing for this interview was how heathen themes among nineties Norwegian black metal were far more prevalent in Bergen than local scenes from metropolitan areas such as Oslo, which were drawn more towards the satanic.
– Well, I obviously can’t speak for anyone else but my reason for choosing the pagan was two-sided. One because of BATHORY and the other, perhaps more importantly, was because I personally felt that devilish and satanic black metal should be founded in people’s personal belief systems and neither myself nor my band mates had any such inclinations. We were all fascinated by the Norse, so this concept came naturally. As a person grows, so does his mind and HELHEIM is an entity developing along these lines. I guess that’s pretty evident. The Norse is my own way but I acknowledge other outlooks as well. It’s easy to get drawn into theological debates but that’s a path I tread with uttermost caution – I don’t see myself as a religious person at all. I’d rather look upon the Nordic cosmology and its runes as a philosophy more than anything else. That said, I absolutely detest modern pseudo-intellectual bullshit literature about Norse mythology.
There was a bit of commotion here in Sweden back in October 2017 when the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University announced the discovery of the word ’Allah’ inscribed into a 10th century Viking burial fabric. Of course, this sensational revelation made immediate headlines in major news outlets all across the globe. ’The unexpected discovery’ declared Sweden’s biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet, ’the Vikings called upon Allah: “as a prayer”’. ’Were Vikings Muslim?’ asked UK newspaper Metro. The researcher who identified these astonishing Kufic scripts, Annika Larsson, explained how this further cemented her hitherto unproven conviction that the seafaring archaic Scandinavians brought back not only cultural values but even residents from the Islamic world. She went so far as to suggest that notions of an afterlife, ’the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death’, were ‘presumably’ drawn from the Quran. After a week or so, once sane experts had reviewed her evidence, media interest seemingly died down. Some sceptics noted how these conclusions, which in the university’s press release were presented as if they were peer-reviewed, were in fact ’preliminary results’ – meaning, self-reported finds. Stephennie Mulder, professor of Medieval Islamic art and archaeology at the University of Texas in Austin, pointed out how the square Kufic letters Annika Larsson claims to have found were devised five hundred years after the funereal garment. This leads us to her identification methodology which, upon closer scrutiny, leaves a fair bit to be desired – especially since it became known that research approaches ‘beyond the prevailing theoretical’ had been employed. In order to form the word in the ribbon’s decorative pattern she had first cut out, turned around, and recombined two separate geometric elements… then held up her ragtag patchwork in front of a mirror and read it inverted. Voilà: Allah, in all his glory. Or, ‘lllah’ to be precise, a non-sensical word in Arabic but close enough for Uppsala University. ’The scripts on the ribbons are like secret messages’, Ms. Larsson explained when questioned, ’patterns in the ribbons are like a puzzle or a rebus to read.’ Undeterred by the fact that there’s no precedent for anything remotely similar in any known Islamic art, she instead referred to Muslims she’d conversed with socially. Needless to say, this latter development went almost entirely unreported in domestic media. I’m curious if this goes on in Norway as well.
– Not that I’m aware of but I don’t really pay too much attention to such bullshit, it only makes me frustrated. You could perhaps say that instead of turning my eyes away, I should address the ‘problem’ directly but I choose the first option; I simply have neither the time nor interest to concern myself with these people and their ignorant statements. Humans have agendas, hidden or transparent, and this is something we can never escape. I for one always try to play with open cards, as Odin has taught me.
The promo-sheet for “landawarijaR” states that HELHEIM emphasise the ‘importance, mystery and never-changing wonder’ of the runes.
– For me, the runes are timeless – signs of guidance but also a mystery. They are of the collective but also for the individual, a rune has power in the means if you allow it. This power has significant symbolic value but also serves as a lodestar. Runes are not just letters or numbers that grant you explicit truths; I don’t ask them for wisdom, I read about them and hence comes the wisdom. It might be difficult to fully grasp what I mean but this is my way of looking at it.
In my conversation with Ludvig Swärd of FORNDOM in Bardo Methodology #1, he argued that there’s no evidence for runes having held a central importance beyond that of writing and, as such, regarding them as part of the Old Norse religion to be an unsubstantiated theory. The perception he primarily opposes is that of single runes having been used as magical symbols, citing a lack of archaeological examples for this. Ludvig also noted that since the runes are based on the Latin alphabet, they are unlikely to have fallen from Yggdrasil’s crown.
– Well, Ludvig is of course in his full right to believe whatever he wants but that’s downright completely wrong. There are many writings, both scientific and historical, that go against such presumptions. Just look at the Eddas,for example, there are passages describing runes being carved on a sickbed to help heal a boy. Also, runes are far older so claiming them to be based on the Latin alphabet is another fallacy. The pre-Nordic runes were around long before any interaction with the originators of our modern alphabet. This old tongue also featured sounds like the ’R’ in landawarijaR – a phoneme which is a mix between an R and a Z, linguistic traditions that ’died out’ as our language became increasingly fragmented. I could go on and on about this but choose not to.
That would be a shame, it was just getting interesting. Ludvig also noted how runes remained in use during Christian times – we know for example that heathen burials were outlawed, as were numerous other local customs connected to religion. The argument here being that if runes held any kind of spiritual importance, they would surely have been prohibited by the church.
– This also falls on its own lack if logic. It was first and foremost an oral language and most people had no idea how to write in runic script. Those who did often tended to carve lønnrunes (coded runes), both for bragging but also concealing its true written meaning. Another factor was how the church was always trying to attract the populace to their side and total prohibition is never the smartest way for something like that. To keep people in line you take away the most important things standing in the way of something new but, at the same time, also ’give’ them something. This includes upholding certain rituals though re-writing their meaning to fit the Christian worldview. I’m not saying that keeping the runes more or less intact was a ’gift’ from the Christians, but I’m speaking in general terms here.
I read that HELHEIM’s 2006 album, “The Journeys and the Experiences of Death”, revolves around the topics of Nordic death cults and associated practices. I recently had a similar conversation with Ciarán Ó Críodáin of COSCRADH who spoke at length about Celtic sacrificial practices, so it’s interesting to get a Norse perspective as well. Whilst failed Irish monarchs would be ritually executed in a variety of inventive ways, ancient Scandinavian kings and chieftains would primarily be disposed of by hanging. As with the Gaelic customs, most of what we know has been pieced together from archaeological findings. While there’s no way of telling for sure, many scholars believe such offerings to have been voluntary rites of passage, that the regent would willingly face the noose – for the good of his people as well as rewards of knowledge on the other side.
– It’s such a selfless choice one can’t help but admire, it’s also one of many examples of the importance family and tribe held in those days. The whole idea for a concept album came to me while I was studying Norse religion at university – I read a book by an author whose name I can’t recall now. Mind you, this was almost seventeen years ago so I have regrettably lost the book and can’t remember much more than what I wrote about in the lyrics. What surprised me the most was how much they venerated the dead; it was also interesting to read how they believed the departed to still have a certain influence on the living, such as transference of negative powers which could bring harm.
In Scandinavian society, post-mortem remembrance among family and peers was thought to determine the quality of afterlife – souls were immortal as long they remained in earthly memory. Hence the solemn duty to keep alive memories of ancestors and their deeds while leading an existence inspiring one’s descendants to return the favour. Warriors who fell in battle were said to enter Valhalla, to fight and feast for as long as there was someone left in mortal life that could honour the kinsmen who placed themselves in harm’s way to defend their own. On the other end of the spectrum, those remembered in disgrace are believed to have washed up on Nastrand, the beach of corpses. These charnel shores were reserved for the vilest elements of society: the criminals, deceivers, traitors, and oath-breakers. I’m curious if V’gandr believes what we do during mortality to have any bearing on whatever lies next, and if this is something he takes into account in personal conduct.
– If the case would be that I believed life to have any impact on the ‘afterlife’, it would define me as religious in a very profound way – so the answer will be no. I lead my existence in accordance to what I find fruitful for myself and my kin. Moral principles are both individual as well as bound to certain socially-defined codes, but for me it’s important to both be defiant and opportunistic as well as following basic human ethics. I see this as a duality of life: light and darkness, sun and moon, love and hate… you get my point. Diversity is a virtue and one of many facets that make us human. This is also linked to human growth and the ability to develop one’s metacognition. Håvamål, which is filled with wisdom and moral guidelines, teaches that your memory remains behind when you die and, in many ways, it’s entirely up to you to define it.