If you ever find yourself in a longship, about to participate in a raid of a small coastal village, let me suggest a soundtrack: Viking Metal. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, this music sounds like Richard Wagner accidentally hired a metal band to perform The Ring of the Nibelung. Heavy kick drums and sick guitar shredding combine with epic lyrics and scenes of ancient battles. Most of the songs glorify warrior culture and the pagans of pre-Christian Europe. In this way, viking metal is the pagan counterpart to Satanic black metal. Both genres heavily criticize contemporary Christian culture. But, where black metal finds an answer in anti-religion through Satanism, viking metal idolizes a proud pagan past of battle-lust and primal emotion.
The spirit of viking metal is summed up in these lyrics form “Into Battle” by Ensiferum:
“Into battle we ride with gods by our side,
We are strong and not afraid to die,
We have an urge to kill and our lust for blood
Has to be fulfilled. We’ll fight til the end
And send our enemies straight to hell.”
Certainly these bands don’t believe in the Norse deities in the same way as their pagan forebears. And I doubt they’re actually quite as eager to slay their enemies as these lyrics might suggest. But they do seem to at least admire the berserker rage and stoic worldview of their pagan ancestors. It would be easy to write off all of this as machismo or silly fantasy. But I think there’s more to this longing for the past.
For one thing, Viking metal enthusiasts aren’t alone in their sense that something is wrong with modern Western society. For the most part, we live sedentary lives of comfort. We sit inside all day watching a screen only to return home to sit inside and stare at a wider screen. Yet, all this convenience and entertainment has not made us happy. Anxiety, depression, and purposelessness have become the norm in many of our countries. In light of this, it’s easy to understand the appeal of vigorous, impassioned warriors. As someone who spends most of his day in an office chair, I can attest to the intense desire to want to do SOMETHING active.
But why Vikings in particular? For one thing, the “action” in these songs isn’t the unchanneled rage or violence against the weak that often accompanies black metal. Instead, Viking metal bands sing of battle and warfare. One of my favorite metal bands, Turisas, even named an album Battle Metal. Often, the warfare is described in terms of good versus evil, as in the Ensiferum lyrics I quoted above. So, there’s a sense of purpose in many of these songs. That purpose is felt so keenly that, as Ensiferum claims, they are willing to die for it. This concept of self-sacrifice is certainly at home in Viking culture. Norse mythology culminates in a cataclysmic event called Ragnarok where most of the gods will die in a great apocalyptic battle against frost giants and other evil beings.
This glorification of self-sacrifice isn’t simply an element of Norse mythology but an ideal upheld for every warrior. Death in battle was the only way to be chosen by the Valkyries to be carried away to Valhalla, where one would feast the gods in wait for the final battle. In comparison to this proud warrior culture, our own self-indulgent, passive, and materialistic culture seems in desperate need of rejuvenation through a little heavy metal.
However, much of the criticism some Viking metal bands level against Christianity is misplaced. Western culture may be nominally Christian but the features of modern society these groups criticize are actually the result of Enlightenment thinking. In fact, Christianity shares many elements with the pagan philosophies it supplanted. To borrow an idea from the Inklings, northern European paganism held many truths that needed to be clarified and fulfilled by Christ.
One beautiful depiction of this completion of pagan culture is in the Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” One of the oldest pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature (you can read a modern translation here or buy a copy here), the poet describes a vision in which the “rood” (Old English for rod or cross) tells him of the mighty deeds of the “young hero,” Jesus. The rood, who speaks for most of the poem, is both adorned with gold and jewels and stained with blood. These seemingly incongruous attributes are not out of place in a work which stands at the meeting place between Christianity and paganism while explaining the paradoxes which define the Christian faith.
The poem is distinctly pagan in tone and feel. Kennings describe the cross as a “doom-beacon” and the Roman soldiers as “war-wolves.” Jesus is depicted as a heroic Lord with thanes to protect. As God, he is also said to “hold the power of doom.” The cross is also portrayed as a participant, standing with the young warrior through his fight, serving, in a spiritual sense, as a kind of retainer in battle. This all would have made perfect sense to any pagan hearing the dream.
Yet the poem is explicitly Christian, chronicling the story of the crucifixion and resurrection and explaining how salvation can be obtained. Ragnarok is replaced with the final victory of Christ and a Christian depiction of heaven.
Standing between these worlds is the cross. Loyal retainer, steadfast battle companion, the cross suffers the wounds of Christ and also participates in his his resurrection. Recounting the harrowing experience, the cross sings:
“Then dared I not against the Lord’s word
bend or break, when I saw earth’s
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
This depiction of the crucifixion from the perspective of the cross is, to use the common phrase, “totally metal.” The Holy Rood calls us to fight in this battle as well, to suffer with Christ, share His wounds, and rise with Him to glory. This call would have been felt keenly by pagans who, like the band Ensiferum, wished to ride into battle with the gods. Unfortunately, over the centuries, our loyalty has waned. We’ve become complacent and easily satisfied by earthly pleasures. Viking metal bands are right to disdain this culture and call us to epic battle. But the fulfillment of this pagan longing is on the rood where Christ won battle-glory and victory over even death.