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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Vegvísir, or "Runic Compass"

Wikipedia version of the symbol. What does it mean? Apparently Blogger doesn't want you to know for sure!

What happened to the Vegvísir post?  Censorship in the name of “copyright”.

If you are looking for information on the Vegvísir or "runic compass", I must inform you that for the second time the information I has compiled was deleted, and I am not going to attempt to put it up a third time. I will only give the clue that it indeed contains some runic symbolism, but that this was heavily modified with curved lines and such to appear to the medieval Church as a harmless drawing rather than a runic magickal stave. I believe that the claims of "copyright infringement" against both my original and rewritten posts on this symbol are frivolous as I did my own research into the symbol and credited all the images of the symbol that I used (and even gave their makers some free publicity). However Blogger still saw fit so censor the entire thing AGAIN without specifying which part they had a problem with. 

Last summer, I had to completely delete and rewrite everything in this post, offline and from scratch, due to repeated harassment and frivolous “copyright” claims. Since the claims made no specific references, I changed much of the post numerous times inasmuch as I could without losing its substance, hoping whatever the harasser perceived as “infringement” would be gone. Rather than agreeing to such an amicable solution, they filed a DCMA complaint aimed at silencing the now heavily altered post. Then blogger support desk sent me this email (abridged here for brevity):

Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content in your blog is alleged to infringe upon the copyrights of others. As a result, we have reset the post(s) to "draft" status. (If we did not do so, we would be subject to a claim of copyright infringement, regardless of its merits. The URL(s) of the allegedly infringing post(s) may be found at the end of this message.) This means your post - and any images, links or other content - is not gone. You may edit the post to remove the offending content and republish, at which point the post in question will be visible to your readers again.


If it is brought to our attention that you have republished the post without removing the content/link in question, then we will delete your post and count it as a violation on your account. Repeated violations to our Terms of Service may result in further remedial action taken against your Blogger account including deleting your blog and/or terminating your account. DMCA notices concerning content on your blog may also result in action taken against any associated AdSense accounts. If you have legal questions about this notification, you should retain your own legal counsel.

So essentially the deal was, if you remove the “offending content” then re-posting the rest is okay. I wrote to Blogger Support asking them to show which material constituted infringement... and getting no response for several days, I slowly began to realize that this complaint was not some well-meaning cautious attempt to comply with copyright law, or even a matter of a misguided vigilante who somehow imagined I may have copied their material, but rather a game of “who blinks first”. Support Desk did not respond to my emails at all, so it appears they have no interest in explaining themselves, and are simply waiting for me to take the bait. Hence why I deleted and rewrote the entire post instead.

UPDATE as of January 23, 2017, Blogger once AGAIN took down the post, even though it was completely rewritten from scratch. They send the exact same email again and claim there is another DMCA complaint. However on a quick search of the "Lumen database" where these things are recorded, I only found the same two old complaints from summer of last year. There is no new complaint regarding the rewritten version of the post at all. Blogger unilaterally took down the new post without any actual complaint being filed. They still did not respond to my initial inquiry so I don't see much point in asking them the same questions again.

Remember, this was a completely redone-from-scratch post that they took down. It contained NONE of the content of the previous post which was taken down, and there have been NO new complaints against it since the rewrite. 

Now that particular post probably wasn't all that significant. But freedom of speech has been violated, ironically in the name of “legality” itself, so the threat is real. In earlier times, people with independent beliefs or who honored the old ways would simply be burned. Today it seems, they are digitally censored on a rumor and threatened with bankruptcy. Take it down and you're fine. But the community of runers, Odinists and Ásatrúars is ultimately poorer for it.

What's more disturbing here is that this sort of action fits into a pattern of behavior by various groups and individuals I have noticed attempting to control the expression of alternative beliefs, symbols, and cultures that do not fit into the “mainstream” consumer mindset being pushed by the media, politicians and other “good shepherds”. Essentially using the law to bully those who refuse to bleat with the sheep. After reading Richard's excellent post on HonorTheRoots regarding social media censorship of the Black Sun, another Germanic symbol worthy of exploration, I realized that his experience and mine are not very different. Particularly telling is his following insight: 

While it is clear that the church has lost its power over society, somewhere we have enemies who want to control the revival of our ancient religion. What I learned from posting the Black Sun was that the people in charge consider it a dangerous symbol. But the story is much deeper than that. It was a realization I came to slowly, but whole heartedly. The people in charge want to control the revival of our ancient religion.

This is ultimately what this sort of harassment comes down to: censorship. There are some people who want to control the revival of primal Indo-European spiritual paths. Not to destroy or squash it, no – they are more subtle than that – but rather to mold the revival into ignoble or feeble-minded directions, into an artificial “orthodoxy” of blind repetition without knowledge, much as has happened to other religions or philosophies that began by ruffling too many feathers. And to do that, they have to censor independent voices and promote only groups and speakers who will toe their line and not think too much.

Do I absolutely know for sure that this second takedown was due to censorship? Can I prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Blogger purely intended to prevent me from posting anything about the Vegvísir at all, when other people have done so without incident? Can I prove that there is someone particularly malicious at Blogger Support who takes down blog posts without there even existing a new DMCA notice in the past couple of months or at least pertinent to the latest version of the post?

No, unfortunately I cannot. But you see, this is what makes the situation so perverse. They don't respond to my questions and don't leave any paper trail; There is no way to "prove" it in court, and to contest their takedown at all would take an agreement to arbitration by a court, with far more legal and financial resources than your average blogger has. I think it is stupid that DMCA entails procedures that require you to give out your personal information and retain an attorney merely to overturn one frivolous takedown notice and get a single blog post unlocked - this is a non-commercial blog, I don't make a dime from it. They take down a post written from scratch, cite the same old outdated and now-irrelevant complaints that they used on the old post, and once again threaten to delete my blog. Do I know why they chose to target the Vegvísir instead of some other symbol? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do know that they removed a totally rewritten post with no offending material (and indeed it is doubtful if there was any in the old post either).

Therefore, I regret to inform my viewers that I may be posting less often than I previously did. This is not a given, but it is looking more and more likely as Blogger seems determined to censor certain topics with these frivolous copyright claims. One day I may write another, far more concise explanation of the Vegvísir but for now this is apparently a symbol that Blogger believes I am not allowed to touch or explain the esoteric meanings of. Perhaps in a hidden way, this may be for the best. I do not want to reveal all I know of runelore publicly, only that which I believe cannot be used for harmful purposes - for a fuller understanding of it, one really must learn face-to-face from a teacher as in the old days. That said, I am not planning to take down this blog, I believe there is still much useful information to be explored and recorded. However I am seriously considering moving this blog to another platform that is less draconian in its actions. We all know that Blogger is now the property of Google, whose owners don't exactly have the greatest track record of respecting the religious freedom of Indo-European traditions. Be mindful, and if you see this post disappear too, know that it is for reasons that have nothing to do with “infringement”.

May the wisdom of Odin, light of Freyr, strength of Thor, and justice of Tyr be with you.

*As a side note, when I tried looking at the offender's own website to see what the heck they claimed I had “infringed” from them, it turned out the site contains malware, it set off my antivirus on a “red alert” so it blocked their URL and my browser won't touch it - which means I could not even view their material, let alone “infringe” on it, except at great and foolish risk to my own computer and data.

So the person who accused me of copyright infringement is themselves apparently running a hacking/malware site... why am I not surprised?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who should learn Rune Magick? Beware, and question yourself.

Many curious people are out there, who have come across runes and perhaps even heard of their magickal uses in ancient times.

Some are into astrology, or casual horoscope readers. Some are new-age or general spiritual types with an environmental bent. Others are deep into self-help, positive energy, hypnosis, NLP, and so forth. Some are Christians with an interest in old European ways. Others have other religions or no religion. And others yet are "alternative paths", pagans, wiccans, Asatru, Rodnovery, Druids, or other heathen revivalists.

Which of them should learn rune magick?

Leaving out any personal agendas, the answer should be clear - ANYONE can learn it, and theoretically anyone should be allowed to learn it, so long as they can be trusted to use it responsibly. It's a very powerful and stand-alone system, without any need to learn other types of magick to practice it. It can affect vast changes in your life.

That said, there are those who would use any system to harm or spite others unprovoked, so inevitably it follows that there are some people who should never learn rune magick.

1. Those with evil or malign intentions towards other individuals or humanity as a whole. People addicted to their own rage, desiring to take it out on anyone who crosses their path. Humanity will not benefit in any way if those learning the runes are the same ones who only seek to use them to curse and negatively influence their environment. It's true you can take that path, but the result is not pretty for anyone. Many times did the Norns weave a sad fate for an aggressor without crying upon the person - think not that the fruits of your negative karma and tainted wyrd will be any more apologetically delivered to your doorstep.

2. Those who wish to use magick to exploit or harm others for personal gain. There is no shortage of scammers and con artists out there. Aside from creating "runic" orders and societies to entrap and exploit people, they may simply be looking to rune magick as a means to step on others and steal what is not rightfully theirs. While using runes for personal success is not necessarily bad, it must be remembered that the balanced runenmeister must be looking out for the benefit of more than just himself. Pure greed will tarnish the name of runemagick just as it has tarnished most religions and spiritualities. And the karmic debt will only breed revenge.

3. Racist or hate-oriented groups and individuals. This should be an obvious reason why someone should not learn runes. Leaving aside the debates on the merits of Volkisch thinking and national revival/solidarity among commonly related peoples, the real undesirable tendencies are those of the blind bigots who end up co-opting runic symbols to promote the crudest form of racist politics and mob violence, combined ironically with unfathomable willful ignorance, even of one's own culture and history, and the most degenerate of music (we use the term loosely here). Frankly all runers who truly love their folk (however you define that) should not want to be associated with criminal blind hate of others or with common brainless street thugs, whatever the race or color. Such is not the way of Hávamál, nor is it the way of the rune sagas. And none of the Lore ever posits that one extant race of humans is collectively above another in any way - rather it distinguishes the heroic and honest from the fools, cowards and oath-breakers. Heritable noble traits of primal Arya are another matter altogether, but even then, no modern ethnicity has a monopoly on these.

4. Extreme feminists (oddly, there are quite a few of these in modern magickal circles). This attitude is especially common in certain "pagan" groups comprised mostly of angry middle-aged divorced women who by some means have come to believe that every one of their sufferings was due to a man in their life, or simply all men in general, rather than their own choices. The desire there is not for wisdom but for "revenge" on men by any means, physical or psychic, perversion of the lore included. While women per se have always had a very important and welcome role in Norse magick and ritual, this sort of insane anti-male hate was completely unknown to the ancient Norse - such bigotry completely flies in the face of Nodh, or karmic need for every man and woman to accept responsibility for their own actions and reality, and also implies blatant disrespect for the sacred Nordic concepts of Orlog and Wyrd (natural law and cause-effect flow). Prone to abuse runes to construct unprovoked malevolent curses against men or "captive women" (i.e. any normal woman who doesn't ascribe to their bigotry), this vile lot should never be taught the runelore under any circumstances once identified.

5. Coercive "cults" and groupthink societies. Beware of groups that call themselves "brotherhoods" and "holy orders" and claim to be the only ones to possess the secrets of the runes. Beware groups with contracts and excessive fees, or which claim that you need to pay a great deal of money before learning any of the "mysteries". Learning the mysteries primarily depends on the person's mind and soul state, not on the size of their wallet. And while fees and donations can go a long way toward helping make instructors more feasible and better-trained, at the end of the day it takes time and study on your part, not merely cash. How much result you get depends on how much time and practice you put in. In fact those who cough up the most at once, often end up learning the least, due to expecting a "quick fix" which always disappoints.

6. Expropriators, profiteers, and bowdlerizers of lore (i.e. Ralph Blum, pop-Theosophists, pseudo-Qabalists, many Wiccan authors, Sweat-lodgers, Bahais, pop-psychologists, pop-astrologers, various watered-down western "Reiki" and "Tao" schools, etc). Obviously people exploiting and stealing from various esoteric traditions worldwide to sell a shallow, empty book or DVD are not the sort of folks you want to go to for rune knowledge. Likewise, rune masters should not take such people as students in the first place! Everything which is fed to them disappears down a black hole, and what comes out instead is meaningless trash designed to sucker the next... well, sucker.

7. The deranged or suicidal. Inevitably, as with the racists and hate-criminals, every time one of these "useful idiots" of organized Churchdom commits a shocking violent act, it's not the actual person, or their childhood tormentors, but rather their private interests that get blamed, whether it's a video game, a certain novel, a particular music band, "goth-culture", the Occult, or even Runes. We sadly live in a scapegoat society of dilettantes posing as experts, warm fuzzy conformity, flight from accountability, and self-medication, where people always blame neutral things for inspiring an act of violence against innocents, rather than the poor judgment of the person abusing them - as if people are no longer in control of their actions. Well, in the special case of the mentally insane, this may actually be true. Which further should drive home the point that runes should not be taught to people mentally incapable of acting responsibly. Such people are incapable of fulfilling even the most basic of oaths and will sooner or later drag rune-magick (and even Germanic spirituality itself) through the mud if given the chance.

These are, of course, not by any means the only people who should not learn rune magick, this is far from an exhaustive list. However keep in mind that if you truly want to get something good out of it, you have to put something good in. And if you are willing to accept that, and take pleasure in affecting positive change in those around you, even in the most subtle and seemingly insignificant ways, beyond their notice, then you have the makings of a true runer.

Keep in mind, this does not mean being some sort of wishy-washy wiccan/hippie fluffbunny, or that you can never construct negative bindrunes or curses against those who have betrayed or harmed you - sometimes you may need to - but rather, that this should never be your primary purpose for being a student of the runes. Runers are not expected to always "turn the other cheek" or "harm ye none", as we accept the reality that conflict is an inevitable part of life - but at the same time there still is a baseline ethic a true runenmeister must follow (whether it be from the nine noble virtues or some other Germanic system) of honor, nobility, and not going out of your way to cause undue grief to others.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ægishjálmur: The Helm of Awe - what does it truly mean?

One common runic symbol seen in runic or northern occult circles (not a rune itself, but a derivative of runes) is the Ægishjálmur, or Helm of Awe. Some people even go so far as to get it tattooed on their arm, without really understanding what it is about.

What is it? Basically the Helm of Awe is an 8-branched radial symbol, known commonly as a "stave-rune". There are actually a number of different radial stave-runes or "Helms of Awe", each being an 8-fold repetition of a single rune. The most common one seen today (largely thanks to the survival of the Icelandic Sagas) is an 8-fold repetition of the Elder Futhark Algiz rune, with triple crossbars on each of the 8 copies. Since Algiz is basically a rune of protection (the branching prongs of the symbolic elk-horn keeping danger at bay), repeating the rune 8 times in all directions serves the purpose of blocking or evading attacks from all directions, both the obvious and the concealed. In this sense it may also be used by runenmeisteren as a powerful esoteric charm against malevolent psychic attacks.

What does it mean?

The name of this symbol is ægishjálmr, or Ægishjálmur, which literally means "helm of awe". An alternate translation is "helm of terror" in the sense of striking terror into one's attackers. It it mentioned in the sagas often in the context of a "shield of terror" or the "mask of  dread". Traditionally it was painted on the foreheads (some say it was even carved) of warriors to either confuse or strike fear into the hearts of foes.

The term Ægishjálmur may translate as a "helm" (Norse root Hjalmar, similar to German Helm or Helmut) but in all likelihood it did not refer to an actual helmet. It does not have the recognizable shape of a helmet, but rather a radial design like a spider web, or more accurately, like a pine tree viewed from the top, with the branches sorting out into a radial pattern.

The description of this object or symbol as a "helm" most likely originated in one of two ways: (1) first, as a bind-rune painted on circular wooden shields, with a radial pattern of symmetric Algiz runes arrayed around the central bushing, and (2) second, as a largely sorcery-based metaphysical protection for one's head (and thus one's life) rooted in the mysterious shamanic type of Norse magick known as seiðr  which also had analogues in Scythian and Getic traditions. Both theories have merit, and it is possible that the real history of this symbol took some input from both realms of Germanic magick. The rune-origin and seiðr -origin theories are here explored.

The Runic Theory

One of the most obvious ways to arrive at the construction of the Ægishjálmur  is to use runes. In this case, the rune in question is suggested by most scholars to be the "Elder" Futhark rune Algiz or Algir, representing either an Elk due to its pronged antler-like shape, or the obscure legendary plant known as "elk-sedge" which was rumored to be similarly spiky. The stave of the Algiz rune is then extended and adorned with three cross-bars, signifying augmentation or amplification of a particular energy in Icelandic Galdrastafir magick. Originally the angular straight branches of Algiz may have been retained in the Ægishjálmur as they are in a couple of simpler "guarding staves". However by the time this stave was written down in the late medieval Grimoires of Iceland's Christian era, the "forks" had become curved like a pitchfork. The angular "pitchfork" staves in other symbols like the Vegvísir may have evolved from these.

Algiz rune

The shape of Algiz, as you may already know, also resembles the Maðr rune in the Younger Futhark, as well as the Armanen Man rune, both of which refer to man, masculinity, strength, vitality, augmentation of self, and increase in magickal powers. Though none of these meanings are necessarily "military" in the same sense as Algiz being symbolic of a weapon, the Elk's antlers, they do reflect a similar concern with strength, courage, and a good defense, whether magickal or physical. Though not the same rune as Algiz (their "Elder" Futhark equivalent is, oddly enough, the twin-staved Mannaz), they do have the same symbol-shape and thus point to a similar upward or outward-expanding assertive nature.

"Primitive" form of the symbol with straight branches,
commonly seen printed on heathen T-shirts

Interestingly, the Ægishjálmur  appears in one of the oldest Norse sagas, the Volsunga saga, whose settings are based not in Iceland or Denmark, but deep in Continental Germanic lands, which in Bronze Age times extended far east of Germanic regions today. The entire realms of the Goths, Rugii, and Teutons once extended out past modern Poland into the regions today part of Ukraine and Russia, and their neolithic ancestors even had links with the Caspian Sea and Greater Iranid peoples, millennia before Magyars, Avars, and Khazar Turks intruded into the Volga region and violently wrenched the North and South solar cultures apart. The early generations of the Volsung clan lived in this region of Dacia or Dahaea, traversing modern Ukraine and Romania, which was inevitably retconned to "Hun-land" in later re-tellings of the saga before it was written down.

If this is the case, as the myths seem to strongly indicate, then not only are the trappings of Germanic culture likely older than a "Germanic" identity, they may well have primal Aryan origins. Indeed, the motif of the Ægishjálmur 's simpler "cousin", the four-spoked Korshjálmur or "cross-helm", is almost identical to elements of solar patterns seen on Persian, Armenian and Kurdish woven dreamcatchers and some village rugs, which indicates a common cultural origin. This symbol is also a sunwheel or sun-cross variant, which links it to even more powerful and more misunderstood solar symbols, all of which long predate Christianity.

Similar pattern in Armenian or Persian rug

In that case, the Ægishjálmur being a runic-derived symbol is not only likely - it may actually be the other way around - that some runic symbols like Algiz were derived from the Ægishjálmur  or at least shared a common origin! Remember, while the runes themselves - the energies and magickal principles embodied in the various runic symbols - are held to be Odin's discovery in times "before men had the ability to reason", nevertheless the actual symbols themselves that we call "runes" today have evolved, and some may indeed have been derived from older solar symbols. We are not dogmatists about the precise "originality" or "continuity" of the outer symbols themselves (though they do tell us much about the "runes" or secret powers they represent even by their shape). Maybe they predate the Ægishjálmur , or maybe it predates them. Either way, the ultimate root-nature of the transcendent runes themselves, that is, the creative energies behind the symbols, is not in doubt, and our wisdom and skill in magick is not diminished in the slightest.

The idea of Ægishjálmur being a combination of 8 radially arranged Algiz runes with amplifying triple-cross lines and a central circle, is not far-fetched at all - and being essentially a magickal symbol for invincibility in battle, it is definitely related in purpose to the reported nature of Algiz, since the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, which renders Algiz as Eolh, or the Elk,  indicates this rune represents a prickly and dangerous thing never to be touched:

The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in marshes;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.

Quite a terrible "sedge" indeed. And the Elk-sedge is thus a primally appropriate motif for the basic units of the Helm of Awe, such that composing the symbol from these Algiz or Eolh runes will strike fear into all foes, such that their wounds in battle will be ghastly and they will flee in fear of massive blood loss.

A person carving this symbol into any sort of sacred object in ancient times, or even into their own flesh, would have to be a warrior or at least on in severe need of a warding-spell to drive away all who approached them. Of course today there are millions of cheap mass-produced amulets for sale on the internet featuring the Ægishjálmur or the Algiz rune, not carved or Galdr-enchanted, but simply cast in pewter or some nameless "white metal", which show no respect for this deadly-serious martial past. But merely buying and wearing one of these, does not make one a master of either the rune or the Ægishjálmur's power, just like buying and wearing a Valknut medallion does not make one either an Odinist, a warrior, or even one who is prepared to become a warrior, face death and go to Valhalla to fulfill their honor.

It could theoretically be possible to also construct an Ægishjálmur from Maðr  or Man runes, though the distinction would be moot to all but the carver or painter of the symbol who chanted the name of Man rather than Algiz, as their original angular forms are visually identical. 

The Seiðr Theory

If the "Helm of Awe" referred to a metaphysical "helmet" of invisible magick, anchored to the physical world by the radial symbol, it would indeed be appropriate for this to be a seiðr construction. As in the Sagas, the Helm is typically painted in the center of the forehead, in the spot where many old Aryan traditions, both northern and southern, tend to depict the Third Eye in their mystical iconography. In that sense, it can be said to tap into some of the most primal energies of the universe through one's Third Eye, and then project an activation of pure living force (which come call the Od or Odic force) to either form a healing aura, or one of pure terror, depending on the intent and emotion channeled.

The precise workings of seiðr are largely lost to time, though there are reports of modern magickal groups attempting a reconstruction of the practice, after some members' long years of study in related Indo-European disciplines.

Seiðr  itself, however, had many different uses. It could be used to both help and harm. Traditionally among Viking-age warriors and rune-masters however, it was feared and even despised as a "dark art" used by malevolent witches to possess the target's mind and trap them in webs of forgetfulness, delusion, or terror. they were alleged to create illusions of wraiths or visions of disaster so terrifying that the victim often became insane, suicidal, or simply lost the will to live.


Ráðumk þér Loddfáfnir
en þú ráð nemir
njóta mundu ef þú nemr
þér munu góð ef þú getr
fjölkunnigri konu
skalattu í faðmi sofa
svá at hon lyki þik liðum

I advise you, Loddfafnir,
to take my advice;
you would benefit, it you took it,
good will come to you, if you get it:
the woman skilled in magic,

in her embrace you must not sleep
such that she locks you in her limbs -
Hon svá gørir
at þú gáir eigi
þings né þjóðans máls
mat þú villat
né mannskis gaman
ferr þú sorgafullr at sofa

- she will make sure
that you heed not
Thing's nor king's words;
food you will not desire
nor mankind's joys;
you fall sorrowfully to sleep.

However, not all applications of seiðr  were harmful or malevolent to the subject.  Ægishjálmur  in particular was intended as a sacred stave or protection for the warrior, to strike terror into his enemies and make him utterly fearless of the possibility of his own death, thus all but guaranteeing him absolute victory. Nevertheless, Ægishjálmur is, like nearly all effective magick, very much a "dual-use technology". It can be used to protect a loved one from harm, but it can also be used to cause great harm to others in an unprovoked attack. Much like the honor-combat tradition of Holmganga was intended to prevent the decay of society through dishonor, slander and tribal feuds, but could also be abused by thuggish individuals to "legally" steal land and possessions from elderly or poor farmers. Eventually, much like this led to Holmganga being banned in Norway, the abuse of seiðr apparently led to its instruction being highly restricted by the Viking age, aside from its later suppression by Christianity - and very little of it was passed down beyond the 13th century CE.

The Ægishjálmur belongs to a special type of seiðr practice known to the Vikings-age Norse as sjónhverfing, a colorful term which translates as "sight-deceiving" or illusion charms. In this method, the seiðr -practitioner warps the mind of their target so that they believe illusions to be real, or fail to see things for what they are. This art was used to create lifelike illusions and hide one thing behind an illusion of something else, particularly in hiding a hunted man from his pursuers. In Iceland, unlike in mainland Scandinavia, this art would have had to be especially potent if practiced outdoors, due to the lack of tree cover making concealment in the guise of nearby objects very problematic. The art of "sight-deceiving" doe not so much make one invisible as it hides them in plain sight, in the guise of various easily overlooked objects - a bit like how Frodo's cloak in The Lord of the Rings does not actually make him invisible, but rather takes on the mottled and worn appearance of a typical rock when used to hide its wearer, thus making him impossible for foes to tell him apart from any of the millions of small boulders in the area. The base-structure of this magickal ability may have been a sort of hypnosis, an art that was already understood and practiced for thousands of years. Indeed, much like hypnosis, it was possible to counteract the silent spells of a seiðr-witch by depriving her of her sight, or at least separate her sufficiently from the subject of her spell that she was not able to see him, due to natural barriers and terrain and such. Also, the effect of this illusion-based form of seiðr  faded when the subject (or the victim, depending on the usage of seiðr  bring practiced) was out of sight of the seiðr-practitioner.

The Eyrbyggja saga, which was likely compiled and evolved over several centuries, mentions this usage of seiðr for deception (chapter 20). Katla, one of the most renowned seiðr -women in all of Iceland's history, wished to rescue her son Oddur, who had gotten involved in some underhanded quarrels over a neighbor's property, and fled the murderous wrath of a band of armed men. As the men surrounded her house, Katla told Oddur to sit beside her motionless, while she sat working her spinning wheel. The men searched the house high and low, but saw nothing near Katla but her spinning wheel and weaver's distaff. After going off to look elsewhere, they returned again to find Katla outside on her porch; she was actually combing Oddur's hair, but her seiðr  gave them the illusion  that she was merely grooming her goat. They returned a third time and then Oddur was collapsed in a pile of ashes by the home's fire pit, and their eyes deceived them that Katla's boar was sleeping there. Each time they left the house, they realized that what they had just seen - the distaff, the goat, the boar - had not been present in the house, or at least in the same spot, the previous time they had paid her a visit, and they began to suspect that they had been duped. They also suspected that Katla was wise to their realizations, since she was resorting to a different sort of deception each time. Finally the men brought along Geirríðr, another skilled seiðr-woman whom Katla despised and described as a troll, to aid them in uncovering the deceptions and finding Oddur. When Katla saw Geirríðr through her window, she knew that sjónhverfing or "deceiving the sight" would not be an effective defense any longer. Geirríðr popped a seal-skin bag over Katla's head, covering her eyes and immediately disabling her magick. They found and hanged Oddur, and Katla was also accused of property damage to their lands and stoned to death.

A similar magickal technique, and one that may be directly related to the Ægishjálmur, was the spell called the huliðshjálmur, the Helm of hiding, which made one invisible to enemies. The ritual for the huliðshjálmur could vary, from putting your hands on top of the subject's head as if putting a helmet on their head, to throwing possibly psychoactive powders over them to slow down their heart rate and movement, and there may have been a variety of other means. Though not referred to as a helmet even in a mystical sense, the Vatnsdoela saga (chapter 44) mentions that the special pointed hood worn by the seið-master or mistress, resembling the pointed caps of the Scythians and Sarmatians, was said to have the power to make others invisible while the seið-master was wearing it.

Therefore, the usage of the Ægishjálmur symbol may have been as a protective "sigil" painted on a person's head as a magickal "helmet" to strike dread into his foes and make their hands and weapon strikes unsteady so that they miss his head, without the spell needing to actually function as deflective armor. Much like the huliðshjálmur spell which uses "deception of sight" to make the user invisible, the Ægishjálmur can be used to activate illusions which make them appear mighty and terrifying to all that view them, commanding the immediate loyalty of friends and causing foes to cower or run.

The most famous appearance of the Ægishjálmur is in the legendaryVolsunga saga, chapter 18:

Enn mælti Fáfnir: "Ek bar ægishjálm yfir öllu fólki, síðan ek lá á arfi míns bróður, ok svá fnyýta ek eitri alla vega frá mér í brott, at engi þorði at koma i nánd mér, ok engi vánm hræddumst ek, ok aldri fann ek svá margan mann fyrir mér, at ek þættumst eigi miklu sterkari, en allir váru hræddir við mik."

Sigurðr mælti: "Sá ægishjálmr, er þú sagðir frá, gefr fám sigr, því at hverr sá, er með mörgum kemr, má þat finna eitthvert sinn, at engi er einna hvatastr."

[And Fáfnir said, "An 
ægishjálm I bore up before all folk, after that I brooded over the heritage of my brother, and on every side did I spout out poison, so that none dared come near me, and of no weapon was I afraid, nor had I ever seen so many men before me, and yet deemed myself stronger than them all; for all men were greatly afraid of me."

Sigurd said, "Such an 
ægishjálmr, few will by means of it gain a likewise victory, for whoever comes among many shall one day find that no one man is by so far in excess the mightiest of all."]

Some believe that Fáfnir, the legendary warrior who transformed into a dragon due to the curse of Andvari's gold, as a young man had worn the Ægishjálmur symbol on his forehead, between his eyes.

By the late Viking Age, with the increasing presence of organized Christianity, the awe-inspiring spells of seiðr  had been driven far underground. But certain types of magick were still practiced by Icelandic vitkar or wizards, and this was often considered less "foul" by churchmen than the supposed abomination of a woman practicing magick, for the Christian doctrine of fear towards spiritually powerful women as "evil temptresses" were already infamous in Europe. The male vitkar, on the other hand, gradually became amalgamated with the figures the Church syncretistically painted as "good wizards" to make itself more palatable to a magickal culture, such as Santa Claus and Jesus Christ himself. However the belief in the Ægishjálmur lived on, being reinterpreted as a Galdr-stave and hence a runic symbol, thus less obviously seiðr-related and more akin to the indigenous scripts of Nordic countries, and thus far harder to excise from the cultural soul of the people. The Viking vitkar believed that the symbol should be cut into lead or copper, stained, and then pressed between one's eyebrows (in which case it would need to be rather small), then the user would recite the words "Ægishjalm eg ber milli bruna mjer," ("Ægishjalm I carry between my brows"). Victory in battle, or at least a severe demoralizing blow to the enemy, was then assured.

One interesting fact is that the "helm of awe" came to be understood as representing a physical object, a helmet worn on the head - while not an actual helmet, it was likely either worn on the head with a sort of woven chain-coif, as one sees some of the elves wear in The Lord of The Rings, or simply used as a "stamp" of sorts to press a temporary impression hard into one's forehead. It also may have been painted on shields, as a "helm" could also mean a shelter or a shield against the blows of hostile forces. In this guise, the Ægishjálmur was sometimes rumored to bestow not just awe, but also depending on the usage, invisibility (and therefore invincibility) upon the wearer. Rather than literal invisibility, it might mean invisibility or untrackability of one's movements, making your enemy unable to see, predict, or understand your fighting moves and react to them until it is too late.

Richard Wagner borrowed the idea of the "Helm of Awe" as well. In his Ring Cycle, which was heavily influenced by the Volsunga saga, the Ægishjálmur appears in the guise of an actual helmet, the Tarnhelm, and it not only makes the wearer feared in battle and invisible, but also enables him to shape-shift into terrifying creatures as Fáfnir did, and even to travel great distances in an instant - indicating that Wagner may have been one of the first modern people to depict teleportation in his art. Whether the ancient Norse believed the Ægishjálmur (or something similar) conferred any such instant-travel ability is unknown, though it is possible that such abilities, or at least their illusion, were within the real of highly advanced seiðr  masters.

It must be emphasized, however, that the  Ægishjálmur  is primarily for defense or war. While one tends to see many online listings of cheap pewter Ægishjálmur talismans for sale, labeled "irresistibility in battle", I must emphasize the "battle" part here. Ægishjálmur is not is a magickal symbol for making one irresistible in any other sense, such as the oft-mistaken assumption that is also makes you irresistible in love (there are runes and bind-runes for that however, though I do not teach them freely to just anyone as they are very dangerous if abused). Also, while many online sellers offer "cute" chrome-plated pendants with an Ægishjálmur  surrounded by a ring of "Elder" Futhark runes, there is no evidence that they were ever used together historically (though given its simple symmetric design, the Ægishjálmur may indeed be that old), and there is also no proof that Ægishjálmur was worn around the neck as a necklace. In any case, the Ægishjálmur is a spell to make one irresistible in battle, not in the bedroom.

There is the question of whether the Helm of Awe was actually worn as a talisman on the forehead at all, or whether it was actually tattooed. While there are no archaeological hints of tattooing this symbol, no "bog bodies" and such with Ægishjálmur tattoos on their skin, there is also nothing to indicate that this idea was in any way shunned or disregarded by Norse warriors. So if you want to get one tattooed, that is your call. In our time it's probably not the best idea to put it on your forehead though, unless you want to be striking fear (or just uneasiness) into everyone that looks at you.

If you do get this symbol tattooed on your skin, or take the easier step of buying one of the many different styles of "Helm of Awe" pendants or talismans out there on ebay, etsy and so forth, don't panic - even though this is the "Helm of Terror", it's mainly a protective symbol against enemies and is not known to have any directly harmful effects of symbolism towards non-belligerents. It's not strictly a warrior symbol, as in the Lore it was used in other contexts too, such as Katla protecting her son. However it is a sign that you are not afraid to fight for what is yours. The equally popular Valknut, on the other hand, should probably be avoided as a tattoo design for the vast majority of people. It was carved into the chests of slain warriors as a mark of Odin and of their journey to Valhalla to train and fight in his army of heroes against the destructive forces of chaos when Ragnarok comes- a noble fate only reserved for those who fell in battle, rather than dying of natural causes. However it follows as a corollary that warriors who used this symbol in life, considering themselves followers of the way of Einherjar, the most difficult of the Odinic paths, and they fully accepted and indeed perhaps welcomed the possibility of dying a very violent and painful death. 


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Top 10 Myths about Vikings

In the old days, you needed to know who your friends and enemies were. Tribes often distinguished each other by local or foreign hairstyles, types of clothing, or weapons. So for the real people its characters were based on, the world of History Channel's Vikings was no joke. Not only did Saxons and Vikings need to be able to tell each other apart (both used runes and spoke similar languages), but in many cases, Scandinavians of different locales often fought each other, twisted treaties, and switched sides. And plenty of them did not consider themselves "Vikings" and in fact viewed the term as an insult. If you made one mistake in telling who was who, you could find yourself disgraced, disowned, or with an axe buried in your face. Or perhaps even find your livestock and your entire family ill from a powerful runic curse.

In fact,  most of what you think you know about "vikings" is wrong. A few common myths follow (in the sense of modern superficial urban "myths", not actual metaphorical Norse myths).

Myth #10: Vikings were a single race, tribe, or nation.
We often hear about "vikings" as a single specific ethnic group or culture, descending on Europe, plundering, pillaging, drinking themselves silly, wenching and partying like animals, smashing everything in sight in the process. But the reality is quite a bit different. "Vikings" were not the mindless beasts portrayed in medieval Christian propaganda - they were highly organized and bound by oaths to one another and to the Gods, and what damage they did cause was often minuscule compared to the massive persecutions and mass-murders committed against their Heathen kin over centuries by Christian kings like Clovis and Charlemagne. And they were not a single group. The Vikings were ethnically Scandinavians for the most part: Norwegians, Swedes and Danes. But they were not a closed or static group; they did sometimes accept people of other backgrounds into their raiding parties and tribes. And the vast majority of Scandinavian people were not Vikings, and in fact may have despised the Viking way of life. To go Viking, or vikking, meant literally to go raiding. Scandinavians were originally farmers, and due to growing populations, lack of resources, local feuds, and hostility in Germany and Denmark sparked by Charlemagne's bloody wars of forced conversion, a small number decided to go raiding and seeking fortunes in foreign lands. Those people who stayed as farmers in Scandinavia often looked down upon career raiders or Vikings as mere criminals, and the last thing they would have wanted was to be labeled basically as "smash-and-grab pirates" - yet they did benefit from their "rogue" Viking kin in one big way - the Norsemen who left their homeland to raid mainland Europe often sent back great wealth, or at the very least, left for good and freed up more valuable farmland from unnecessary feuding.

Myth #9: The Horned Helmet (and the winged helmet)
Ever since Wagner's operas first premiered, particularly the iconic 4-part cycle of The Ring of the Niebelungs, the idea has spread that Vikings wore big heavy horned helmets. The concept spans from helmets affixed with cow horns, to big heavy metal horns that would have weighed down any warrior needlessly. In reality, any sort of horns on a helmet were impractical, especially in a battle at close quarters where oddly shaped helmets can get knocked off or stuck, and their threatening appearance would have been outweighed by their cumbersome nature. There's actually just one authentic Viking helmet that's ever been located, and it lacks horns, as well as being relatively light.

However this helmet is incomplete, and while having nothing for horns to attach to, does appear to have once had some chain mail curtains on the sides for added protection. A modern reconstruction is on the right.
Interestingly, this type of simple helmet with chain mail (with or without eye guards) was also common in more southern Aryan cultures, specifically Persians...... some of whose helmets actually WERE horned: 


Note the "Celtic" crosses on last horned helmet. This is a relatively recent Islamic-era helmet, yet you see an ancient pan-Aryan motif in them. It is rumored that the horns referenced Rustam, the hero of the colossal epic Persian poem Shahnameh, who slew the horned Div-sepid (white troll) and used its horned skull as a helmet. This troll is usually described as a shaggy creature of mountain glaciers, something akin to a frost-giant. The troll's face is on the last two helmets. The first helmet on the far left has a miniature of Rustam fighting the troll. Note the "Saxon/Viking"-style partial eye guards on the second helmet from the left.

Also common in popular "viking" stage costumes are winged helmets, largely of Wagnerian inspiration. There is no evidence that any Norse warriors stuck eagle wings or raven wings (ravens being associated with Odin) into their helmets as depicted in some romantic paintings of Norse mythology, or even metal replicas of them for that matter. These are more mythical than a stereotype, but have little basis either way. They are almost certainly a pure invention of Wagner and the Romantic Era. They do make nice stage props though.

However it turns out the concept of winged helmets, like horned ones, is also more Persian than Scandinavian. One does see winged crowns on Persian monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty, and on their coinage.

On the left, an unnamed Sassanid king with a "gothic" crown, both winged and horned. Center, Bahram II with a crown topped with wings and a globe. Right, Khosro "The Victor" II with winged battle crown.

HERE you can find several real Sassanid-era coins showing kings with winged helmets, for sale! Evidently this winged headgear was real, not just iconography. Each king's crown was unique, and not inherited by his successor.

Myth #8: Vikings used massive double axes as their preferred weapon.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You often see pictures like this: very cheesy "RPG" vikings with both horned helmets and double axes (and impossibly huge amounts of thick spiky armor).

In reality Vikings did use battle axes, but they were much lighter, and never double headed. Furthermore, out of all the Viking artifacts so far uncovered across Europe, spears are far more common than axes.

Real Viking spear tips and axes found by archaeologists. Notice the axes are single-bladed and their blades are rather light and slim-rooted. These were light one-handed weapons, often thrown, which made them much faster and more dangerous than a clumsy giant two-sided axe.

Myth #7: Viking men had long braided hair.
This is yet another image cooked up by Wagnerian romantic performances, and further developed in the Dwarves of Peter Jackson in his interpretation of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Wow, this picture almost looks real. Slim single-bladed axes, simple helmets without horns or wings, and lots of spears. The artist got almost everything right..... But my goodness, that big knotty mess of hair! Can't they get the last part right?

Real Vikings, according to Anglo-Saxon eyewitnesses of their invasions, had their hair shaved in the back, and moderately long at the front and sides. But there isn't real proof of it being extremely long and multi-braided, let alone their beards. That was probably not very practical for a warrior.

Left: illustration of typical Viking man's hairstyle. Right: Ragnar Lodhbrok and his son Bjorn, as portrayed in Vikings, both with most of the back hair shaved off. Bjorn's haircut is more historically accurate, but Ragnar's may also be plausible.

Myth #6: Viking armies were huge, as numerous as plagues of locusts.
This is a common tall tale used by people who find themselves at was with a more powerful enemy. Everyone from the Spartans at Thermopylae to the Hungarians at Mohi, tended to try to justify their losses by greatly exaggerating the number of their enemy. The reality is both more mundane, and more frightening. The Viking armies, judging by the size of their ships and the numbers of ships reported by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, numbered only in the hundreds of men, not thousands. The largest Viking mass grave known so far is at Repton Church, England, which contains the remains of a extremely tall chieftain rumored to be Ivar the Boneless, and his infamous "great heathen army" who were eventually killed and mutilated by furious Anglo-Saxon locals. The Repton site contains no more than 500 bodies. This of course begs the question, what sort of intense and skilled warriors Vikings must have been, that so few of them could petrify an entire countryside with fear and leave it dumbfounded, pitifully trying to backwards-rationalize its loss with tall tales.

Myth #5: Vikings were exceptionally cruel and vicious.
The reality is that Vikings were no more cruel than any other invading army of their times. Their supposed brutality was often cited by Christian monks and priests to denigrate pagan/heathen peoples as a whole. But Christian armies of the time were arguably far more cruel, and may have actually provoked the first Viking invasions. Charlemagne was notorious for forcing Germanic tribes to convert to the Cross at the point of a sword, destroying their holy sites, and ordered the genocide of the Avars and many other tribes for their refusal. The early French kings of the Albigenesian Crusade who slew the Cathars in the Pyrenees were equally bloodthirsty, besieging and hacking up thousands of innocents. Chinese emperors were often known to execute three generations of any political critic's family, and efface the graves and names of the preceding seven from history, exterminating whole clans in the process. And the cruelty of the Umayyad Arab empire in slaying everyone from former Sassanid royalty to famine-stricken peasants to the family of the Prophet himself, is notorious in Iran and Iraq to this very day. The Vikings' excessively bad reputation in Western history is due almost entirely to biased records written from a Christian point of view by monks and priests, who tended to overlook or justify the tortures and murders of their own kings and inquisitors. The fact is, the times the Vikings lived in were full of brutal and savage characters, all over the world, in pretty much every culture and society. In this context, their actions in war weren't all that exceptional.

Myth #4: Once abroad, Vikings did nothing but murder, rape, and pillage "civilized" societies.
Another stereotype popularized by tacky Hollywood movies and biased histories. It's true that Vikings did plunder - that, after all is the meaning of the word Viking itself. However they did far more - remember, they may have been pirates, but they were also Scandinavians, and did not abandon or forget the good points of their culture. They settled and unified the warring Slavs into what we now call Russia, they established the first international trade networks between northern Europe and the Middle East, trading peacefully with many peoples along the river routes. They were great navigators and explorers, who peacefully colonized Iceland, Greenland, and the Canadian coast. In Iceland, they founded the Althing, the first truly democratic parliament, and a society of direct votes with no kings or slaves. It survives to this day, as the only national government in the Western world to wrest itself free of the international finance crisis and the parasitic global conglomerate banks which perpetrated it. Iceland itself is (and has been since Viking times) one of the most literate societies on earth, producing thousands of poets and sagas over the centuries, and an unusually high percentage of the population are published authors.

Myth #3: Vikings used the skulls of their victims as drinking cups.
This myth actually has a single, traceable source. It goes back to a manuscript called Runer seu Danica Literatura Antiquissima (Runes of ancient Danish literature) by Ole Worm, published in 1636 and reprinted in 1651. There the expression that the pre-Christian era Danes drank ór bjúgviðum hausa ("from the curved branches of skulls" i.e. from horns made of cow horn) was mistranslated into Latin as ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt  ("from the skulls of those whom they had slain"). Clearly the author Mr. Worm was unaware that "branches" referred to horns from cow skulls - human skulls having neither branches nor horns. The Norsemen were well known for living a hard life with harsh winters and difficult soil for agriculture - they never wasted anything, including parts of a cow. Bone became tools such as needles and awls, skin became leather clothing, sinew became bowstrings, and horn sheaths nearly always became drinking horns. Cannibals, however, they were not.

Historical Viking drinking horns from York (Jorvik), England, and on the right, modern reenactment. 
Does this look even remotely like a human skull?

Myth #2: Vikings were unclean and didn't care for hygiene
This myth may be largely thanks to Arab diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's eyewitness account of the Rus, the Vikings who ruled what is now Russia - plus the general stereotype that all non-Romanized (i.e. "barbarian") European tribes were dirty, savage, and ignorant. Actually the opposite was the case. In England, because of their custom of bathing every Saturday, Vikings were considered unusually obsessed with cleanliness and were even described as "effeminate" by the locals for doing so (keep in mind this was a time where most Christian cultures in Europe hardly bathed at all, so once a week must have been a real pretty-boy shocker for them). Ibn Rustah, a 10th century Persian explorer, explicitly notes that the Rus were actually quite preoccupied with cleanliness when they weren't fighting (and remember, the Rus were primarily merchants who traded far more than they fought). Ibn Fadlan's more negative account has to be understood in context of his more xenophobic mindset - for Ibn Fadlan, the Vikings were "unclean" not because they didn't bathe, but because they bathed in tubs, not in running water (or kurr water) as is recommended practice in Islamic tradition. Splitting hairs, but apparently as an official emissary from Baghdad, Ibn Fadlan was more of a stickler for "my way or highway" than his Aryan counterpart. Islamic law is actually quite liberal on this point in any case: the Qur'an does allow one to even use sand or dust to remove impurities if no water is available, so Ibn Fadlan's obsession with it being running water seems a bit OCD. As for personal grooming, during excavations of Viking sites everywhere from England to Russia to Greenland, combs are often among the most common objects found, made of horn, bone, or walrus ivory. Vikings also used tweezers, razors, and little "ear spoons" to clean out their ears. They also produced soap, which is something that hot sweaty Romans never bothered to do.

Exceptionally well-preserved Viking combs from a site near Novgorod, Russia

Myth #1: Vikings were all Berserkers
This myth largely dates from Anglo-saxon accounts of Berserkers, Viking warriors who were apparently able to put on the skins of bears, wolves or other wild animals, and assume all of the animal's ferocity and superhuman power, going into a hyper-alert and hyper-strong state, becoming invincible in battle and immune to all pain. Popular propaganda among later Christian cultures spread the myth that all Vikings were Berserkers, and also that Berserkers, in turn, were savage, uncontrollable brutes who killed anyone and anything in sight. Actually most Vikings were very calculating military planners, with elected war chiefs and a great amount of political deal-making before and after every raid. Only a handful of actual Vikings are reported in the sagas and first-person histories as being Berserkers. And even in battle, their actions were more like those of professional special forces than chaotic and mindless brutes. The Viking Sagas show that Berserkers were organized into bands with a commander - something that markedly contrasts with the official Christian accounts of their supposed "mad rage against friend or foe". The behavior of these relatively few men outside of combat was apparently nothing to write home about in Viking society. Nonetheless it was also a lonely path to take in life, due to an innate bloodlust being a feature of the profession, and Berserkers often found themselves on the margins of Viking society (which itself was often already at the margins of Norse society in general). To be one meant to be a dedicated warrior, to love the fight for its own sake, rather than for gaining loot, land, or strategic objectives. It was a lifestyle with little social relevance outside of battle, and even less chance for advancement into leadership roles. Thus relatively few Vikings found the prospect of Berserks to be an attractive one.

Hey Olaf, ya think if we dress up like wolves, Sven will get spooked into finally returning all those horned helmets, double-headed axes, and human skull cups that I so foolishly let him borrow?