My deep fascination with Viking culture and the Norse gods began with a peculiar experience I had in a Viking graveyard, Lindholm Høje, on a trip to Denmark 15 years ago. Standing at the top of the slope looking down over the site, I was repeatedly drawn to a specific set of the gravestones, one of the many Viking longboat shaped configurations. Wandering through the graveyard I was both curiously drawn to and yet disturbingly unsettled by them. I found myself slowly snaking my way through the graveyard, both trying to ignore, and yet simultaneously get closer to, the stones which had so captured my attention.
As I finally stood in front of the tallest funerary stone in the grouping, loud rock music abruptly emerged through the forest alongside the graveyard. The first band of a music festival was kicking off their evening performance, and the opening lyrics of the band TV2 blasting through the trees sent the hairs on the back of my neck straight up.
“Hello, hello, what are you waiting for? There is something you forgot, yes, what do you know? Hello, hello. There stands a woman, and she looks just like the one you love, and she would die for just one chance to hear you say, hello hello! The whole world waits, but where are you? The whole of eternity, begins right now, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
As someone who makes meaning of patterns and synchronicities, I pay attention to signs and this felt like a sign of high magnitude! The experience spurred me into an investigation of Viking mythology and artwork, culminating with a University of Victoria continuing studies trip to Iceland in 2014, accompanied by a Viking archeologist and a geologist.
I initially learned how to ‘draw like a Viking’ by copying the designs from each of the various Viking periods. I quickly found my signature method of ‘drawing’ with a Dremel drill into the surface of wooden cradle panels before adding layers of oil paint and gold leaf to the designs. A far cry from carving in stone and wood with chisels and awls, this ease of production has allowed me to freely experiment with design and subject matter. In 2020, seeking a feeling of protection in the early days of the pandemic, I began producing shields on round wood panels, complete with iron shield bosses at their center and runic inscriptions for strength and defence.
The art of the Vikings shows the influence of their interactions with the Celts, particularly in their adoption of woven knot work. I was intrigued to see how the Vikings, beginning within the geometric formality of the Celts, then deviated by maintaining the weaving while freeing the forms from their containment. Over time, the coiling woven tendrils became the bodies and limbs of fantastical beasts and creatures. This release and progressive refinement culminated in the Urnes style which ended with the Vikings demise in the early 12th century.
An early piece of Viking artwork, uncharacteristically signed by the artist, is an intricately woven cross, created by Gaut on the Isle of Man. Gaut was a Scandinavian artist whose production around 900 AD, inspired both Viking and Manx (a Celtic nation on the Isle of Man) artists alike. The humorous antics of the Vikings can be seen in their depiction of ‘gripping beasts’.
A self-deprecating image of a fool throttling himself suggests the paradoxical nature of the Viking god Loki, who convincingly both creates problems, and solves the problems he creates, in true trickster form. Shapeshifting is also common to the Viking gods, with many of them able to transform themselves to meet the challenges in front of them, to deceive, and to travel undetected. Battles of strength and wit are common in the Viking myths, and the brute strength of the warrior is often shown to be overly simplistic, while cleverness and ingenuity rule.
The Norse pantheon has gods and goddesses of home and hearth, fertility and plenitude, underworlds, battlegrounds, safe travel, and honourable living. Interestingly, the stories of Odin and Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) share some similarities, such as their connection to the Tree of Life and its importance in their path to enlightenment. While the Buddha quietly sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated for 49 days, Odin first plucked out one of his eyes, threw it into Mimir’s well for a drink of cosmic knowledge, and then speared himself before hanging from the tree Yggdrasil for 9 long days and night…but that’s a Viking for you! The ‘Aesir', a group of the Norse gods of which Odin is the All-Father, translated means ‘Asian’. Theories abound as to the origin of Odin arising from the legends of an ancient Asian traveller to what is now Northern Europe.
These beliefs are also reflected in my counselling practice, where I propose that the many aspects of human experience are to be understood as aspects of ourselves and that each aspect can bring us both grief and joy. By using images and metaphors, I believe we can loosen our defensiveness and regain access to lost, disconnected or unused parts of ourselves. The various gods in each cultural pantheon embody the qualities and personal attributes of all humankind. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, argues that these commonalities arise from the collective unconscious, and that the similarities of stories across so many mythologies is evidence of a shared human experience, creating archetypes which can be useful to know and explore aspects of ourselves.
Joseph Campbell, an American writer and professor of comparative mythology, asks us to use our creative, poetic minds to explore what is intuitive and unconscious. He believes important life lessons are contained within common and cross-cultural myth and metaphor. Our rational minds are not especially good at accessing universal knowledge and our fascination with thinking is often more concerned about being right as we seek truth. The language of mythopoetics is an invitation into a softer, flexible world, invigorated by nature. Joseph Campbell encourages us to know our stealthy animal within -- to walk barefoot while we encounter our dark depths in the forest at night.
I utilize both Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell as guides in my thinking about the intersections of art, creativity, and mental health. These aspects of my life, artist and counsellor, have become increasingly integrated; each adding to my understanding of the powerful role of creativity in healing. Someone wise pointed out that creativity is both the source and the end result. Without imagination there is no access to the language of myth or poetry, and I believe it is through immersing ourselves in myth and poetry that we grow our imaginations and creative capacity.
And sometimes, I get to have some wild dreams too! About five years ago, I woke up chanting, “Remember Constantinople! Remember Constantinople!” In the dream, I was the wife of a Viking warrior I thought was making a very bad decision to trust someone I was certain was deceiving us. Pleading with him to reconsider, I was reminding him of how we had been similarly betrayed in Constantinople. As I awoke, I lay in bed trying to make sense of what had transpired in this dream.
First, I had to look up Constantinople, I didn’t even know where it was. Modern day Istanbul.
In 2020, they found a Viking neighbourhood during the Bathonea excavations, outside Istanbul. The Vikings, part of the Varangian guard together with the Russians, had come as merchants and mercenaries. Only allowed in the city by daylight, and in small groups, they had lived in a settlement outside the city walls. Oh, how I wish I could time travel!
Instead, I get to commune with the Norse gods and learn from Viking artists how to transform beasts, bury treasure under trees where magical serpents protect it, and gossip with Odin’s ravens over my morning coffee.