Sunday, 29 June 2014

Why Barbarians Won’t Go Away

Myths are fluid, they change and grow and are adapted to suit contemporary tastes. Only the archetypes are consistent. While we place many of our modern myths in medieval settings, the issues raised in them reflect modern concerns. So does Game of Thrones owe its success to escapism or to the fact that audiences relate to the dynastic power struggles and political deceptions of Westeros? I suspect it’s a bit of both.
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Published June 29, 2014

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Why Did the English Stop Eating Horse in Medieval Times?

The recent horse meat scandal involving tescos burgers has got people wondering why the English don't eat horses anyway. I covered this subject in my recent dissertation. The answer is to do with paganism.  The Catholic church realised that eating horse meat was connected to pagan rites in the North of Europe, rites associated with gods like Odin, Thor and Freyr and so they banned it.


In order to establish the role of horses in the pre-Christian religions of Anglo-Saxon England, Viking-Age Scandinavia and other Germanic regions in mainland Europe, this dissertation will look for evidence of burial, sacrifice and other rituals involving horses in both archaeological and literary sources. In the ideology which is reconstructed in this essay, the horse serves as a status symbol to Christian and pagan alike as well as an efficient means of transport. To pagans it was also a source of food and was connected to religious rites involving decapitation and ritual consumption. The analysis shows that the numerous examples of horse burials in north-western Europe serve a variety of functions: From status symbol in grave-goods, sacrifice to gods or ancestors and a means of posthumous transportation to another world.

By comparing the literary with archaeological ways in which horses are represented in Norse mythology and accounts of pagan rituals, I identify two main categories of divine function for the horse in this era. Firstly, high status, warrior burials, accompanied by horses, which are most identifiable with the cult of Óðinn. In these cases the horse functions both as status symbol and as a means of transportation in the afterlife, probably to Valhǫll. Secondly, other burials mainly involve the cremation of horses, sometimes accompanied by harnesses and bridles in which case they were also intended as transport in the afterlife and most seem to have spiritual significance related to the cult of the Vanir. Horses that were sacrificed and eaten may have been dedicated to the fertility god Freyr, just like living horses in Hrafnkels saga. Tacitus provides older evidence of the horse as a divine medium and I believe this rite is an earlier manifestation of the same one described by Adam of Bremen, and that this rite was also related to a Vanir horse-cult.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hakon Sigurdsson and other Heathen Characters in Viking Age Literature

Hakon Sigurdsson was a unique figure in Icelandic literature during the Viking age. He spear-headed a new type of state-paganism intended to validate his authority and appease the Norwegian population. As the last heathen leader before Olaf Tryggvason assumed power in Norway, he features heavily in saga literature and many examples of heathen ritual and custom are associated with him. In this essay I will attempt to understand the motives behind the portrayals of Hakon jarl and other heathen characters in several sagas and to decipher the symbolic meaning of some literary depictions of heathen ritual.

The rituals involving gods in sagas are complex and difficult to decipher, due in part to the fact that they are filtered through the mind-set of Christian Icelanders, centuries after paganism had been replaced and also because the sources containing information about paganism, to which they may be compared, such as the Prose Edda, are equally as problematic for the same reasons. I will briefly examine theories that attribute symbolic significance to Hakon Jarl, drawing parallels with the Gods Freyr and Oðinn. I will also compare the representation of Hakon Jarl and other heathen heroes in Færeyinga Saga, Heimskringla, Egil’s Saga and Njáls Saga and examine the representation of pre-Christian rituals and themes depicted in these sagas.

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Against the Heathen: Saints and martyrs in late Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon England suffered two Viking ages; both well documented in Anglo-Saxon literature. The arrival of the heathen raiders had political and religious significance for the history of the Anglo-Saxons and the clerical writing of the time reflects this. Vikings targeted monasteries and churches where wealth was to be found, monks responded through literature; demonising the Scandinavians and glorifying the martyred Christians who fought to defend their nation.
The second Viking age began under the reign of Æthelred II (d. 1016). Although it is during this time that Denmark was Christianised, it is also a time when heathens were arriving on the shores of the long since Christianised land of Anglo-Saxon England. It is during Æthelred’s reign that the battle of Maldon occurred in 991, and within a century of the composition of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which strangely depicts a Viking victory over defending Saxons. Scragg identifies the literary devices of the poem which serve to “contribute to the valour of the English and our contempt and mistrust of the Vikings.”1 Yet it is uncertain why the poet uses such a humiliating defeat as a means to glorify the Saxons who are depicted fleeing from battle. The poet’s task may be seen as to use Christian ideology to portray defeat as victory; the victory belongs to the Christian God. J.R.R. Tolkien argued that the defeat at Maldon is depicted as divine punishment for the East Saxon leader, Bryhtnoth’s ofermod, “pride” which is used as a pejorative.2 Pride is a deadly sin, but is also a common trait of many Germanic societies, whether Christian or heathen. Anglo-Saxon Christianity had not imposed the ideal of passive resistance on the warrior aristocracy; to fight and kill the heathen in the manner of Charlemagne and Ælfred was the natural way for a warrior king to demonstrate his allegiance to the church. But this poet is depicting a new kind of warfare that the English may employ by imitating the martyrdom of Christ and differentiating themselves from their heathen enemies. Despite the sin of ofermod, Bryhtnoth dies at the hands of the heathen, repeating the name of God, fighting for the Catholic cause and is thus glorified in his defeat. This literary device is also employed in Anglo-Saxon hagiography where martyrs and saints, though defeated in the physical sense, remain eternally triumphant through spiritual resolve and determination

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

NON Interview - Back to Mono

Ex-head of the church of satan, friend of Charles Manson, mentor of Marilyn Manson, descendant of Jesus Christ, social darwinist, neo-pagan, founder of noise core, electronic pioneer; Boyd Rice’s CV is as impressive as it is controversial.

Since the mid 70’s he has produced some of the most challenging and original recorded music in history. The sheer emotion, untamed structure and raw, uncompromising sounds are made all the more intriguing by the accompaniment of fascistic imagery and occultist aesthetics.

NON is perhaps his most famous music project. NON’s last record, ‘Children of the black sun’ was released on Mute records in 2002 and tended toward the dark ambient sound of his other projects. The next record ‘Back to mono’ is a return to the abrasive noise of his early years and is to be released this Summer. I caught up with Boyd at the recent Short circuit festival in Camden to find out what we can expect from this most eccentric and enigmatic of performers in the future.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Short Circuit Festival Review

Essex boys, Niitzer Ebb are one of the first bands to play on the Friday, but they easily fill the larger venue with loyal fans, eager for their shouty brand of industrial punk. The sheer scale of the room, combined with the bombardment of communist imagery on the monitors brings to mind the political rallies of last century rather than a popular music concert. Though they and their fans have aged, their music remains vital and fizzing with the energy of youth.

Balanescu Quartet perform in the smaller room offering a more ambient alternative to Nitzer Ebb’s ferocious industrial noise, upstairs. The emotive pitch of a string quartet lends itself perfectly to the hypnotic melodies of Kraftwerk. The audience is transfixed and left unable to listen to Krautrock in the same way again.

Throbbing gristle’s own Chris and Cosey are next in the small venue. The room is packed and remains so for the rest of the evening. At this point anyone who goes to take a piss, risks missing both Chris and Cosey and NON. The couple break out some of their classic electronica; mesmerising bass grooves and synth melodies interspersed with sheer noise and finally ending with a rather boring dub jam.

The wolfsangel flashes on a huge screen accompanied by wailing sirens and blinding spotlights circling the venue as though during an air raid. It seems as though bombs will go off any second. Then one does as Boyd Rice marches onto the stage, the screen vomits a rapid succession of over-exposed shots of swastikas from obscure angles. Boyd is dressed entirely in black with a peaked cap, aviators and arms quivering from decades of hedonism. From this grand and theatrical introduction, one may expect the kind of powerful oration associated with Oswald Mosley, instead we hear a friendly and somewhat timid voice speaking calmly between the ferocious screams of “Total War” and “OUT OUT OUT!”

German fans scream their devoted adoration as Boyd breaks out a converted electric drill, and after calling on a well equipped member of the audience for repairs, uses it to brutally torture an electric bass guitar.

Though the Short circuit festival boasted a legendary lineup, it was let down by the limited capacity of the smaller venue in which many of the greatest acts were performing. Those who were lucky enough to get into the smaller venue were treated to seeing the old gods of electronica and noise in an intimate and crowded space, those who did not, had to make do with Moby.

Published: I-D Online, June, 2011

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Save May Day

The evocative site of young girls skipping around a maypole is one of ancient tradition and innocent celebration, but it is under attack. The Tories are attempting to abolish the bank holiday. The celebration is so old that we cannot be sure of its origin. The maypole itself is common to all Germanic countries; from Sweden to England, and so is thought to originate from Germanic paganism. The pole itself is most likely a phallic fertility symbol. The Celtic peoples of Great Britain and Ireland also celebrated 1st May, which is the day of their ancient pagan ceremony, Beltane. After they converted to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon people began celebrating Roodmas on 3rd May, a celebration of the holy cross itself. The disparate pagan and Christian May day ceremonies of the British Isles evolved over the centuries to become the secular celebration it is today.

When attending May day celebrations in modern Britain, one is less likely to encounter the quintessentially English customs of Morris dancing and maypoles than the sight of scores of communists, trade unionists and other activists marching through the streets with banners and whistles. May day’s association with revolutionary politics began in Chicago in 1886. Crowds of workers who were on general strike were fired upon by police after a demonstrator threw dynamite at them. Several policemen and demonstrators were killed at what was termed the Haymarket massacre. Left wing politicians used the massacre as a device to whip up support for the international workers movement. Further riots occurred on May day 1894 in Cleveland, Ohio, and by 1904 the International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam called for all leftist groups to demonstrate on the 1st of May.

The labour day demonstrations have traditionally been very important to communist nations such as the republic of China. European nations, particularly their conservative political parties, have tried to suppress such movements. But efforts to suppress dissent have sometimes led to restriction on celebration of traditional festivities. May Morning is an Oxford tradition that is over 500 years old. What began as a tradition of drunken students going out punting, evolved over the centuries into drunken townspeople tearing through the streets and jumping into the river. May morning was heavily policed under the New Labour government to the extent that anyone found in possession of so much as a can of shaving foam could find themselves being arrested.

David Cameron is now attempting to do away with the entire bank holiday completely. Centuries of history and heritage are to be discarded in an effort to attract tourists. Despite the fact the UK has less bank holidays than the rest of Europe, Cameron wants to scrap May day bank holiday and replace it with “UK day”, an ill-conceived and somewhat forced celebration of the national cultures that constitute the United Kingdom. UK day would be in October and is intended to extend the summer period thereby attracting tourists during the Autumn months.

Whether Mr. Cameron’s real motive was to suppress the left wing movements he is so afraid of or merely to create a new bank holiday, I don't know, but surely he could have achieved both without the need to destroy heritage and history that have survived centuries of cultural and political upheavals. A mob of Morris dancers must be dispatched to number 10, first thing on May morning. Hopefully the sounds of sticks clashing, bells jingling and the sight of middle aged men waving hankies around will bring him to his senses.