Wardruna have just released the final part of their Runaljod trilogy, an epic musical journey through the Norse runic alphabet known as the Elder Futhark. The final album is called Ragnarok and we caught up with main man Einar Selvik to discuss his approach to the runes and the incredible success of his project that has taken nearly fifteen years from inception to completion. You can read our review of the album here.
The album has achieved top billing in the US and Canadian World Music charts, as well as high album chart placings around the world, Did you imagine that the reception to the trilogy of albums would be so positive?
It’s quite amazing, I never really gave how it would be perceived much thought and it has been quite surprising really to see how people have connected to it, and how broad the appeal has been, I expected it to only really have a narrow appeal.
This was an incredible undertaking, to tackle the 24 Norse Elder Futhark Runes, but it isn’t just about the esoteric meaning of the runes as Einar’s home country of Norway itself is brought into the songs and recordings, you hear the landscape in them.
I think if you boil it down to essence the thematic of the whole trilogy in one word is ‘nature’. Either human nature or nature itself. The runes are good images of these aspects, you know any nature based or ethnic religion is a product of its surroundings and the people living there. So too is art which is entwined with that so it is only natural that you get a sense of where I live through my music, also so many of the themes are about nature.
You have stepped away from the traditional order of the runes, was that framework set up for the trilogy from the very beginning?
The order was set before any recordings were done, I see and understand that there are many people who are curious about this because it doesn’t follow the same order, but it does follow a system with logic behind it. I guess it comes down to the story we wanted to tell and the goal behind it, this made more sense. The first album was very much about creation, about sowing a seed. Then the next was about growth and strengthening the roots, then this one is all about transformation, death and rebirth.
It struck me that it was a bold thing to do, there has been so much rubbish written about the runes for countless years, it’s hard to get back to the just what the runes really are. I think that is what you have done, stripped it back to basics and looked at it afresh. it is also a very serious project, hopefully one that can shed some light on the deeper meaning of the runes.
Yes, the modern rune tradition only vaguely resembles its origins, and we also have to be quite honest when working with runes that there is still an enormous number of things that we still don’t know. If you study the history of runology you see that very clearly, and for me it’s been important to keep that honesty and humbleness in it. It has in many ways been very simple for me, I start off with an academic approach so I am standing on solid ground before venturing into the intuitive aspects. I feel that a lot of people fail there because they move into the difficult stuff straight away, starting off my trying to be wizards or whatever, and not even knowing how the runes work as a language or relate in a written form. Because that is a really important thing to know, how they interact when used in language. If you go to older esoteric use of them much of it is actually words and repetitions and writing. So I hope to have contributed to inspiring people to dig deeper and not settle for these rune books that combined the runes with tarot, kabbalah and numerology – it’s easy to see why they have done this as the proto-scandinavian runes are the one set of runes that we know the least about, giving it a lot of room for interpretation.
I have to say though that I feel it is the more complete system, even though it is the more obscure, and that is why I chose to use it – but I wouldn’t recommend it! In all truthfulness they are much more difficult than the Viking Age Runes (also called the Younger Futhark) that we know more and have much more material on each of the runes in terms of their symbolic meaning.
How has your understanding and approach to the runes changed having worked with them on the Runaljod trilogy for around fifteen years?
It changes all the time I guess but I guess to boil it down to essence I guess that the more I learn about them, the more I understand how little I know about them. But I also understand how differently magic was perceived in earlier ages than it is today, and how our expectations of what is and isn’t magic is different today. You have to remember the power of words, and power of poetry, that were incredibly important and had profound effect. For me it has become perfectly clear that a single rune isn’t necessarily to be perceived as a magical symbol on its own. When you look back at the sources it they are rarely used on their own, often when there is a single rune it is repeated.
Isn’t it also true that those original sources were meant to be read aloud, did you find that approaching them as a musician allowed you to find neglected dimensions to the Runes?
That’s a very good question really because you have to remember that all of these poems that were written down were not meant to be read at all. They were just written recordings of oral traditions, and I have found that even academics are finding my approach interesting because in terms of finding out how these things were performed when it was a living tradition. The sources hint at various techniques and ways they were performed, but they will only take you so far and then its about finding out what works and what doesn’t – that is a universal relationship between the performer and audience.
I’ve been lucky enough to speak this Summer at Oxford University about performance in Norse poetry (link is http://oldnorsepoetryinperformance.com)
One of the oldest non-nordic sources describing the runes is the Abbot of Fulda (in the present-day German state of Hesse) that ‘the Northerners used their writings for three things; to write down poetry, write incantations and also to tell fortunes’. So the correlation between the graphic and the oral meanings are linked, you see it in the tradition of Galdr that is a tradition of magic that has an oral poetic structure as well as a written one.
I guess it could be argued that a modern live music concert is a ceremony, how do you retain the integrity of the pieces from recording to stage, especially as you have so many elements recorded in nature?
It’s an interpretation, some elements will be samples but then again you expand on it by adapting to the space being performed in, plus of course there is the visual aspect. It is very much about creating a space, I believe that performance is about communication, every room is different, every crowd is different, that makes it into a unique experience every time.
Talking about performance as being a form of ceremony and ritual, you have hand made many of the instruments from scratch, such as animal hide drums, was there a ritual aspect to that exercise?
It adds dimension and spirit for sure because what you are actually doing is giving the animal new life, it’s transformation that definitely adds personality and spirit. It is also a learning experience and I believe Wardruna has never been better live than we are now, and also the new album has a greater dimension and balance to it. I am also more confident in my own craft, all of these albums have been a journey, a long process of do it yourself mentality. The first Wardruna album was the first album that I recorded and produced, so there have been a lot of things to learn, and every album has new instruments that I’m using for the first time. Of course now there is a lot more interest for historical instruments than there was even just five or six years ago, let alone fifteen years ago when there was hardly anyone doing it, so in a way I was forced to play the instruments myself.
It must have taken a considerable strength of vision to keep the consistency through the three albums for that stretch of time. It must have helped that Warduna became involved in the Vikings TV series?
Well of course that fuels it, but in all honesty I have to say that I would have done it anyway it’s not dependent on whether people like it or not, that is basically just an enormous bonus.
It must have also done a lot to promote Norway and its history.
I think it has been a contribution in terms of gathering interest for history and historic music in a healthy way, because there are a lot of shadows clinging to these symbols since WWII and neo-nazi use of this imagery. After WWII all references to Norse history in art and literature just disappeared. On top of that we relive our history through the eyes of British and German Christian monks from the medieval period – it doesn’t give you a very nuanced view of our history. Luckily these stereotypes are breaking up and the information we teach our children is better, it’s moving in the right way and I think we have been a contributor to that. People notice how serious we are when they see the live performance, it’s not about rock and roll, it’s more solemn and sacred than that, not in a preaching way but just an open space, people who don’t go to a church, mosque or whatever don’t get to experience those kind of settings as much anymore. I think there is a lack of, for want of a better word, ritual spaces where there is room for everyone to just get lost in. It’s a reminder that you are just a part of this planet, that seems the part that people connect with in the music.
How did you go about composing these songs?
The songs can be very different in how they are made, sometimes it can be from a sound or the rune itself if it is very clear or visual in the way it would sound. I write a lot of music when I’m out walking, it’s my preferred technique and a lot of it comes from Rhythm, I’m an old drummer so that’s sort of my curse! but I guess it is more about daring to let the song lead the way and following it rather than trying to squeeze it into the normal structure of modern popular music – that has been my mantra with these albums. Sometimes I have to admit I’ve been standing in my studio and thought ‘what the hell, can I release this?!’, so it is daring to do the unexpected
Did you concentrate on one rune at a time?
I can’t work on too many at the same time, if I get an idea about another one then it’s just about getting that down quickly as notes or into a dictaphone and putting it in a drawer for when the time is right. working on the rune songs is all consuming, in dreams and everything, it was interesting working on the new album revisiting notes and themes that were put in a drawer ten or fifteen years ago. some of them fit perfectly as if it was meant to be. This album has been a more straightforward process as I have had more time, although now I have a family!
Your children sing on one of the tracks?
Yes, the creative concept has been to get as close as possible to the theme of the rune itself, it’s own strengths. the song Odal is about family, heritage, ancestral land and inheritance so it made a lot of sense to have my own children on it, and it was great.
What is your personal highlight from the album?
It is hard to say, I don’t really have one yet although I am really fond of having my children on it, the child’s voice is a very strong expression of purity, so I am very pleased with how that turned out.
You have also turned expectations of what ‘Ragnarok’ would be about on it’s head, rather than apocalyptic it is full of hope.
It feels very good to tackle some of these stereotypes, there are not many howling wolves, clashing of shields and death and destruction that I think a lot of people were expecting. I don’t think that would be very interesting, and for me viewing the trilogy the sun was swallowed in the last part of Yggdrasil, so this album is about what will rise from the ashes in a new beginning. I have to admit I smiled a lot when I made the design for one of the new Ragnarok T Shirts, it is just the image of a sprouting seed with ‘Ragnarok’ beneath it, it’s a lovely contrast to most images.
Surely that is the best testament to the trilogy that you have challenged and changed perceptions of the runes and the mythology that they encapsulate.
Many people are locked into a christian monotheistic way of viewing the pagan ways, it is fascinating how christian a lot of pagans are, just changing the names of some of the characters. So it feels good to stir up some thoughts and hopefully some questions. The runes are difficult, very challenging, even though they are very specific. It’s not a task that I took lightly but it feels very good and I feel proud that I stuck to it throughout and managed to do it.
What kind of challenges did it throw up for you?
Well how do you go about working with runes with which we really don’t have an exact meaning for? Some of them can mean almost anything, the hardest for me was Pertho, if you open a book on runes it will tell you anything from being a dice cup, an apple, fate or to communicate – The thing is we don’t really have the word anymore, in Germanic language words starting with the letter ‘p’ are rare. The rune poems are vague as well as they describe warriors having amusement in the beer hall. So I didn’t want to bullshit, there are a lot of quite serious theories on what the rune might mean and I consulted many experts that all agreed that we don’t have an explanation that feels sufficient or believable. So I basically chose to rewrite and elaborate the poem with some hints of other interpretations between the lines.
Yet that is something that is special, many of the rune poems and proverbs leave you with questions and challenges, which I love as it’s so fruitful, I don’t want truths served on a silver platter!
Our Wardruna coverage:
Summoning the Old Gods with Wardruna
Some background on the Runaljod trilogy and the Runes