"It’s an attitude – the idea that nature is sacred."
© Arne Beck

Vikings: How ancient music is teaching the Norse code

Some people sing in the shower; this follower of ancient Nordic culture sings standing in a river. Why? Because the runes told him to.
Written by Tom Ward
Published on
Einar Selvik stands on a jetty in the Norwegian village of Kattegat and begins to sing in his native tongue, slowly beating a deerskin drum. On the cliffs, women and children gather solemnly as longboats set sail for distant lands. A close approximation of this event – as related in the Icelandic sagas of Ragnar Lothbrok – may have taken place, but this isn’t the ninth century, it’s 2015, and this is a film set in County Wicklow, Ireland.
The scene may only be staged – for the filming of the TV drama series Vikings – but Selvik’s words carry true meaning. Under the stage name Kvitrafn (‘White Raven’), he’s the frontman of Norwegian folk band Wardruna and, like the ancient Vikings, the 41-year-old musician is an adherent of animism, the belief that all objects possess a spiritual essence. As well as appearing in the show (credited as a ‘shaman’), Selvik has contributed to its soundtrack and that of the 2020 video game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. In February, he headlined That Jorvik Viking Thing – a ‘gathering of all things Viking’ – in York. In short, Selvik is about as Viking as it gets.
Wardruna’s fifth album, Kvitrafn, released in January this year, went top five on iTunes in Europe, Canada and Australia, and when we speak to Selvik from his home in Norway he’s planning a series of virtual shows. The musician is a strong believer in self-determination: “It’s one thing I like about several religions, including Old Norse. The responsibility is always with you. The gods help the ones who help themselves.”
Nature is sacred and we’re a part of it, not its rulers
Einar Selvik
Selvik, who was born on Osterøy, a small inland island on the west coast of Norway, became obsessed with pre-Christian Norse culture after discovering an old book on Nordic runes in his early teens. During the early 2000s, he was playing drums for Norwegian black metal pioneers Gorgoroth when the runes called to him. In 2003, Selvik – along with singer Lindy-Fay Hella and Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl – formed Wardruna, a project dedicated to musical interpretations of the Elder Futhark, the oldest of the runic alphabets.
The song Laukr, from Wardruna’s debut album, is named after the rune for water. To channel this, Selvik recorded his vocals standing in a river. He also employs ancient Norse instruments including the goat horn, Kravik lyre and tagelharpa (tail-hair harp), which archaeologists taught him to make. Finding solutions is the Old Norse way.
The Red Bulletin: How does one embrace traditional Nordic values?
Einar Selvik: History isn’t escapism; I’m not cultivating the idea that everything was better in the past. But I do believe there are many things from old animistic cultures worth remembering. It’s not a spiritual or religious thing, it’s an attitude – the idea that nature is sacred and we’re a part of it, rather than its rulers. I try to apply that to how I live. The most dangerous idea is that we’re all too small to make a difference.
How do you apply that to your life?
You need to reflect and grow as a human in all of the ways you can. By doing so, you create good ripples. It can be anything from planting flowers so bees can thrive, to supporting local farmers so food doesn’t have to travel so far. Nothing drastic. Remember, anything of true value has a cost – you have to give up certain things.
What drew you to Vikings and Assassin’s Creed?
Any modern take on a historical period will be a mixture of fact and fiction, but Vikings was a step in the right direction, nuancing the time period and moving past certain stereotypes. More so with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. They wanted to include as much historical detail as possible. My role was to give voice to the skalds, the poets. Oral tradition was at the heart of Old Norse society. It was important to me that they dealt with that.
In the modern world, phones have replaced oral tradition. Would we benefit from talking more?
Not only talking but singing; it’s meditative. We all sing too little, both on our own and with other people. It’s a way of bonding that we lack in modern society. It taps into something very old and universal. It’s impossible for us to imagine the impact of singing and the oral tradition [nowadays], because we’re so bombarded with entertainment, but people respond very strongly to performance in that format.
Do you feel a kinship with the Vikings before you go on stage?
It’s about becoming one with the words you’re singing. Festivals like Jorvik can be interesting as they allow me to try out performing in time-right conditions. It’s a place where you can learn about yourself and your history. You can compare it to going into battle, but also to any act where you need to be really present and focused. The premise of performing is timeless, whether it’s on the battlefield or as an athlete or a musician.
Wardruna’s latest album Kvitravn is out now; wardruna.com