Rekindling the Varangian Flame (Part 2)
Rekindling the Varangian Flame is a two-part article about the pioneering musical journey of Varjagikaarti, the first Viking metal band to ever abandon their mock longship on stage and literally attempt to go a-Viking. Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off and focuses on the band’s voyage through Russia and eventual arrival at their final destination in Miklagård. Also covered are the band members’ dismay at not being eaten alive by a bear, their sense of awe at the architectural wonders of Miklagård and subsequent, unintentional provocation of a violent mob, and their ignominious return home to Finland. You may download a PDF of Part 2 here if you prefer.
“So we continued onwards, you know,” Tuomas, the bald but chipper drummer of Varjagikaarti, resumed his story about the band’s suidical Viking death-wish journey to Miklagård. “We headed down the Neva River along the eastern trail, following the wind in our sails and the rhythm of our oars until we reached Lake Ladoga which lies deep in the land of the Rus and from there we steered towards Aldeigjuborg.”
“There was no shelter in that hostile land.” The comment by the band’s morose frontman, Alexi, sounded eerily familiar.
“Yes, quite so, we were constantly on guard, and needed to appeal to the gods to safeguard us—”
“Or kill us,” Alexi interjected.
“—since we were in foreign territory now and all. And naturally, we figured, maybe we should include one of the local gods in our prayers in this frightful, new land. So we decided to pray to Perun in addition to Ukko and the White Christ this time around. Perun is the Slavic god of lightning, fire, and war, and we thought, eh, you know maybe he could help us out. We also thought the time was right to—how do you say? Up the ante? Yes?”
He looked at me and I just shrugged. I didn’t know where he was going with this.
“So anyway, we made depictions of Perun in his honor,” the drummer continued. “‘Cause you know, we thought maybe it’d be a good idea to take it a step further than we did before, to really show this guy how much we honored him. He didn’t know us from before, so a little extra effort made sense, you know. Like maybe he’d pay more attention to us that way. So we had these pictures we made, they were mostly really bad because we’re all pretty terrible artists, except for Jari there.”
Jari burped confusedly at the sound of his name.
“And it’s the idea that counts, right?” Tuomas resumed. “But just to be on the safe side, we wrote ‘Perun’ next to the pictures just so he’d know it was him we’d tried to draw since our drawings were such shit. And then we offered them up as ritualistic effigies. We were like, ‘Hey Perun! How’s it going, buddy? You see these nice pictures we made of you? We tried really hard even though we aren’t so good as artists and we really want to ask you, would you please protect us on our journey? Maybe give us a glorious defeat over the Magyars if we come across any? That would be nice.’”
“Or send the Magyars to slaughter us all in our sleep,” expounded Alexi. “Slit our throats, trample our bodies, and string us up to dangle, windblown and decaying from the nearest tree.”
“Yeah, so Alexi didn’t participate in our ritual,” Tuomas continued. “He just went off and performed another one of his own Satanic rituals by himself instead.”
“Little good it did,” Alexi muttered.
“I like to think that Perun listened to us, just like the other gods we had prayed to before, because we never even came close to dying. We made it all the way down the Varangian way with no injuries or mishaps at the different countries’ borders. We just sailed to Holmgård and beyond, to Kiev, and the Black Sea.”
Alexi sighed again, “Not even the murderous rapids of the Dnieper slowed down our progress to that sprawling cesspool of humanity and air pollution, Miklagård.”
“Yeah, you know, honestly, you’d think those rapids would’ve gotten at least one of us, right?” Tuomas added. “Not that any of us besides Alexi actually wanted that, but those rapids, they’ve killed all sorts of people over the years. All you got to do is fall overboard and you hit your head on a rock and then—BAM! You’re dead, you know, and then your body floats away to wherever it goes and then it washes up on some shore and then some bear probably comes along and eats it and you make that bear happy even though you’re dead but at least the bear, you know, he gets something out of it ‘cause, you know, now he’s got a full belly and he can go and take a nap before he gets hungry again if no hunter comes along and kills him first which would be sad since he’s a nice bear and he never hurt anyone right? But you know, we got through the rapids all fine, no one even got hurt.”
“And not only were we cursed to continue living our hollow shells of lives,” Alexi said. “But now the bear’s going to go hungry.”
Just then Ville launched into an imprumptu riff. We all turned to watch while his fingers throttled the bejesus out of his instrument as he snarled, “Fodder for the bear!”
Following his guitarist’s lead, Alexi immediately changed the countenance of his somber disposition, straightening his back where he sat on the cold stone wall, and pumped his fist into the air, singly cleanly and clearly in his deep baritone:
“Awash in agony,
Injuries aggravated beyond repair—“
“Fodder for the bear!” Ville growled his refrain.
“Skimming the surface,
Floating like flotsom towards the lair—“
“Dreaming of drowning,
Claws cleave and carve, your deepest despair—“
“Fodder for the bear!”
Ville struck his final chord and we all leaned back, nodding at one another with approval, except for Jari who was too deeply enraptured by the bottle of vodka that was still glued to his face to have even noticed.
“Well, hey, that sounded pretty good, guys,” I said. “It was brutal, but catchy. I think you guys might be onto something with this one.”
Alexi answered, “Words of encouragement only highlight the infinite futility of our trite and feeble existance.”
“But hey, you know, we did finally make it to Miklagård,” Tuomas took up the conversational reins once more. “It is a beautiful city, and the view from the water as you approach is quite stunning. But as you get closer, you begin to notice more and more, the city, it doesn’t have very good air quality.”
Alexi suddenly leaned back and roared straight upwards into the cool evening sky. Startled, the birds on the nearest trees immediately flew away and I heard a small child in the distance start crying.
“Alexi, what the fuck, man?” Tuomas stared in disbelief. Apparently, he was just as surprised as both myself and the unseen frightened child at Alexi’s sudden outburst.
“Shit…” Alexi actually looked slightly embarrassed. “I apologize for the worthlessness of my being. If I had the nerve, I’d kill myself here and now.”
“So anyway, we docked the boat and we were all like, ‘Hey guys, we made it! We can join up with the Varangian Guard now,” Tuomas continued. “So we get off the boat and we’re walking around but it’s very hard to find your way, like where was the emperor’s palace? We didn’t know. I thought there would be guys out there to greet us or something you know, but there weren’t, and it was kind of dirty. Up here in Finland, you know, everything’s clean.”
Alexi, composed once again, elaborated, “Miklagård’s fumes were thick with factory filth and the exhaust of countless combustible engines. The overwhelming density of infernal airborne particulate matter filtered through my inadequate nasal hairs, brutally wrecking chaos on my olfactory sensory neurons. The stench tightened its death-grip deep within the inner reaches of my sinus, choking me, permeating my frail cellular membranes, and draining my soul of its meager essence as it slid deeper into a dark and squalid pit of despair from which there could never be any hope of return. I could barely walk and I wanted only to kill myself before I had even reached the emperor’s court.”
“But even though the air wasn’t clean, we of course didn’t kill ourselves and instead we
thought, hey, maybe we should just take a taxi,” Tuomas stated. He looked particularly chipper at
the moment, which was probably artificially heightened by Alexi’s sulking, silent presence beside
him. “So we got in this taxi and we said, ‘Hey guy, can you take us to the emperor’s palace?’ And
he just gave us this weird look and said there is no emperor’s palace.’ So we said, ‘Hey, what?’
Because really, that’s our final destination, you know. So we explained how we really, really needed
to get there so we could enlist in the Varangian Guard and he just kind of nodded and started driving
and then awhile later he let us out in front of this amazing religious building. I swear, this was the
most amazing temple I had ever seen. It was so ornate with this huge dome and these six giant pointy towers all around it. It makes our big cathedral here look like a clumsy Lego building in comparison and it even puts the old temple in Uppsala to shame for sure, big time.”
I assumed Tuomas was talking about the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, the city’s iconic seventeenth century house of worship that stands near the famous Hagia Sophia and on the former grounds of the Great Palace of Constantinople. The palace had been plundered and abandoned during the Crusades before eventually being demolished a couple of centuries later by the conquering Ottomans, but I chose not to relate this to the members of Varjagikaarti. As obvious die- hard historical revisionists, any debate on the legitimacy of their version of the historical record would be like trying to convince a cock-rocking 80’s glam metal musician that the emergence of grunge was a positive step in the evolution of heavy music. I did believe that Tuomas had a point about the Helsinki Cathedral and the old Uppsala pagan temple, though. While impressive in its own right, I seriously doubted anyone would ever be more architecturally impressed by the Finnish Lutheran church than the Ottoman mosque, and no one really knows what the old Uppsala temple looked like. It was probably made out of wood and was known to have served as a significant pagan sacrificial center of great importance throughout Scandinavia during the original Viking era.
“Every present-day architect should kill him or herself,” Alexi spoke again, with clear resolution stamped across his face. “When one gazes upon a temple of such magnificence, the temple gazes back into you, and the artistry of earlier civilizations overwhelms you—even the unrelenting air pollution that suffocates your ever-shriveling esophagus is forgotten in that brief, fleeting moment. There was a meaning and a grandeur that was imbued in those designs that no longer exists in the constructions that are built today. It has all deteriorated into a relentless onslaught of vapid and pointless glass and conrete boxes, and it makes me want to kill myself.”
“So we’re standing there, looking at this thing right,” Tuomas resumed. “And we’re thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the imperial palace after all and so then why’d the driver let us out here? But we’ve never seen anything like this before so maybe we can put off enlisting in the Varangian Guard for a few minutes to go inside and check this thing out.’”
“Perhaps spiritual salvation could be found within its hallowed walls,” Alexi added. “Perhaps we could find a cleaner, quicker route to death and redemption through eternal damnation on a mission of the Varangian Guard if we offered up our prayers to the reigning Lord of Hell in this opulant house of worship.”
“Oh, yeah, we were like—whoever the god is that looks over this place, we need him on our side for sure,” Tuomas took over again. “So we go up to the door to go in, and once we got up there, they made us take our boots off.”
While he said this, Alexi lifted his leg and pointed at his steel-tipped, ultra-masculine black leather boot. Tuomas simply nodded and continued, “And then also, we had to wear these little hats on our heads too.” He gesticulated awkwardly around his shiny domed skull. “But then we got in and we were blown away. The inside of that place was so fucking metal, man, I mean, it was crazy how metal is was.”
I’d never heard a mosque described as “metal” before. Normally when I think of mosques or other religious buildings, the adjectives that tend to come to mind are words such as “divine,” “peaceful,” and “sacred,” if contemplating the higher powers at work, or “magnificent,” “imposing,” and “ornate” if contemplating the architecture. But a word that conjures up mental images of warm bat’s blood dripping from Ozzy’s mouth or black-leather clad, facepainted, guitar- wielding sons of northern darkness is not one that I typically associate with the houses of the holy. But then again, the members of Varjagikaarti did not become innovators of Viking-inspired Scandinavian melodic death blackened folk metal by doing things as everyone else does them and thus I stood corrected as I sat unspeaking and staring at my feet while Tuomas rambled on about the architectural virtues of the Blue Mosque.
“So there we were, in this amazing place,” Tuomas continued. “And it’s like, hey you know, we definitely can’t leave without getting the blessings from the local god for the continuation of our journey.”
“Or not,” added Alexi. “I stayed with Satan and found a nice spot in the corner and began to draw a pentagram on the floor.”
Tuomas then proceeded to explain how Alexi’s desecration of the mosque’s floor caused a minor uproar within the walls of the house of worship. As Miklagård’s devout faithful rushed towards Alexi to make him stop his profane act of vandalism, the other band members lost track of the drunkard Jari, who simply wandered off unnoticed during the commotion. “So we got the situation with Alexi diffused you know, and I smacked him hard on the back of the head and told him not to embarass us again as clearly these people don’t like having Satanic symbols drawn in their fancy temple. So like maybe the rest of us should just offer up verbal prayers this time around, you know? The locals had clued us in to who the local god and his prophet are, so we could make our prayers to them in a more proper way now and Alexi could just keep his devil worship to himself till we left. We didn’t need to go pissing off the locals before we even found the place where you sign up to be in the Varangian Guard. It was right around then that Alexi and Ville and me all at the same time were like, ‘Hey, where’s Jari?’”
He stopped speaking and we all turned to look at Jari who was completely hammered and just staring out into space, oblivious to the discussion taking place about him.
“So we’re looking around and we don’t see Jari, so we’re just kinda like, ‘Eh, fuck it.’ You know?” Tuomas said. “We figured that drunk moron could find his way back out to the main room
eventually from wherever he had gone off to. So we started looking more at the nice details on the walls and tiles and saying quiet, little prayers to ourselves and all and then Ville decided to go look for the bathroom and then a few minutes later he comes back and he’s like, ‘Hey, guys I found Jari, he’s drawing on a wall by the bathroom.’”
Ville rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything.
“So we rush over to where Jari was and by this point he’s drawn pretty much all the gods on the wall,” Tuomas sounded a bit exasperated. “I mean, it was good artwork and all since Jari can really draw, but it’s like, I don’t know, maybe he shouldn’t have drawn Jesus, Ukko, Perun, Rán, and Muhammad altogether on this wall in the foreign temple, and now he’s doing decor like vines and Norse dragons and shit winding around between all their faces. So we’re just looking at it and thinking, hey you know, maybe this is a good time to leave. So we try and get Jari to stop drawing and come outside with us, but he just kinda pushes us away and starts being loud and that only gets other people to come over and check out what’s going on, and they clearly do not think this is cool and so they’re getting all angry and cursing at us and whatnot and we’re trying to get Jari to stop but we can’t and so the locals are now getting even more angry and we’re trying to say that Jari’s just a drunk fool and he means no harm. He thinks what he is doing is an honor to their prophet, and doesn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but they don’t care and then tempers start to flare up and these people are starting to get downright hostile.”
“I collapsed out of despair,” Alexi said. “And then I began to pray to Satan once again. For death.”
Tuomas paid him no heed and continued, “I mean, I think people have never really liked Varangian graffiti so that hasn’t changed any over the years, but I’m not sure it ever pissed them off quite so much in the past, you know?”
I assumed Tuomas was refering to the graffiti left behind by the original Varangians during stints of boredom in the emperor’s service 1000 years ago. Istanbul’s own iconic building Hagia Sophia contains two well known examples of runes that had been carved into its walls when it was still a Christian cathedral 500 years before the Ottomons converted it to a mosque. These runes provide exhilirating commentary on the lives and times of Scandinavian Varangians in Emperor Constantine’s court: “Halfdan carved these runes” and “Ari made these runes.” The most famous piece of Varangian graffiti was carved onto the statue of a lion in Greece which was much later pillaged by the Venetians.
“So now all these guys have surrounded us and they’re getting real agitated and then they start pushing us,” Tuomas resumed. “And then one of them punched Jari in the face, which was pretty effective at getting him to stop drawing but by then it was already too late to tame the crowd and before we knew what was going on they were dragging all of us through the temple and back to the main door and then they shoved us outside onto the street, but they didn’t go back inside themselves. Instead they just keep being angry and shouting loud stuff to the other people outside who then started coming over and getting riled up themselves and pretty soon they started spitting on us and more and more people are coming over and this mob is getting really hostile now and even starting to throw rocks at us!”
“It was the essence of true, pure, unbridled human rage that could only be quenched with death,” said Alexi. “And it was truly a beautiful thing….but it was all too much to bear, and with the complete and utter inability to breath clean air, I was heaving and coughing and growing weaker by the second. My strength and perseverence was waning. All of ours was. I thought only of the sweet and silent embrace that death would bring us then and there and I fell to my knees, waiting to embrace the inevitable.”
“I was the next to fall,” admitted Tuomas. “Even though I didn’t want to die like Alexi here, it’s just like, you know, we don’t realize sometimes how clean our air is here in Finland till we go to some other part of the world and then we can’t breathe good and then someone throws a rock that hits you in the head.”
While inherently misguided through their own ignorance of cultures and belief systems other than their own, Jari’s sketching of the image of Muhammad on a holy wall in Istanbul constituted just one of the many colorful episodes that comprise a surprisingly rich tapestry of the collective neutral Nordic nations’ provocations aimed at the religion of peace. In 2007 Swedish artist Lars Vilks’ depiction of Muhammad as a dog sparked outrage, eventual assassination attempts on his life, and a standing $150,000 ransom for his murder by ISIS. More famously, the cartoons of the prophet published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005 incited violent protests and caused large swaths of the Islamic world to essentially boycott the right of Denmark to exist as a sovereign nation. Varjagikaarti’s transgression never received a similar level of attention, partly due to its relatively low-key nature and partly due to the fact that news of its occurrance never really spread beyond short-lived word-of-mouth near its epicenter. So the band got off lucky, or unlucky as Alexi would say, since they’re all still alive today.
“So there we stood on the precipice of fate, nearing the end of our journey and falling one by one under the hail of stones in the soupy thickness of the infernal smog.” As he spoke about the nearness of approaching death, Alexi displayed a mildly more upbeat emotion than he had throughout the entire duration of our conversation up to this moment. “My sad desperation to enlist in the Varangian Guard vanished into the thickly polluted air and a new sensation took its place: joy, in all its boundless colors, leapt into my heart. For we understood then that the ferocity of battle would soon lead us to death’s eternal embrace in the streets of Miklagård. The battle-rage fell from the hazy skies above upon the ordinary people surrounding us as the assault accelerated.”
Jari mumbled something and drooled a bit. I couldn’t understand a word of what he said, but it sounded a bit like the Elvish language from Lord of the Rings.
“So what happened?” I asked. “Clearly, you guys didn’t die.”
“The battle-rage had grown to epic proportions among our adversaries,” Alexi answered. “We were staring death in the face, Ville had already been knocked unconscious by a stone that struck him in the face. Soon we would all be dead.”
Tuomas provided a more informative answer, “So you know, basically the authorities showed up and dispersed the mob. And then they gathered us up and took us away to some solitary holding cell since they didn’t trust the general prison population to be mixed with blasphemers like us. And then pretty soon after that the Finnish consulate found out about all this and so they came and got us and next thing we know we’re on a flight back to Helsinki like it’d never even happened. And we never did find the emperor’s palace.”
“So many opportunities to end it all, to go beyond the point of no return, to whither away into nothingness,” Alexi muttered. “How worthless are we that we can’t even succeed at death? Not even the plane went down in a flaming ball of carnage and destruction.”
Internally, I was glad for that, and the comment brought another thought to mind: “Well, what happened to your boat?”
“The mob torched it,” Tuomas answered. “There’s lots of videos of it happening on youtube if you ever want to check it out sometime.”
“And I take it you don’t plan to ever voyage down the Eastern Path again?”
“Yeah, you know honestly, we just kind of gave up at that point,” Tuomas answered. “We failed to find and enlist in the Varangian Guard, and Alexi failed to get himself killed. But we did something no other metal band had done before us, and we wrote some great songs in the process.”
“Nothing is great, nothing has meaning,” Alexi swallowed hard. “Everything has crumbled, all hope has long been lost and now we are left with no choice but to continue on, plotting a long course to nowhere, our despair-ridden hearts beating slower and slower as the rain comes falling down.”
“And also, we’ve been banned from ever entering certain countries again, so going a-Viking has become a whole lot harder. Maybe we could try again sometime, and pretend to be like a bunch of Norwegians and go west towards England or Iceland or something. I don’t know. I guess we still discuss that option from time to time but for now we’re just focusing on our music, and our first Viking voyage still has lots of inspiration left in it.”
“Yeah, I bet.” I figured this was true. “I mean you guys haven’t even touched on the fate of your boat in any of your songs off any of your albums yet.”
“Exactly, and hey, that’s a good point, maybe we should write a song about that poor boat.” Tuomas nodded his head and smiled a little. “But anyway for now we thought we’d at least perform one of our songs for you while you’re here. Well, Ville and Alexi will perform it since I don’t have my drums here and even if Jari had his acoustic bass, he’s too wasted at this point.”
Just as Tuomas said this, Jari leaned forward and projectile-vomited with vigor to confirm his inebriation, the foremost specks of barf landing a good ten feet away on a soon-to-be-wilted patch of damp, green grass.
“Ugh, Jari, man,” Tumoas grimaced as he shook his head.
As he said this, Alexi chuckled mildly in his deep tone while Ville remained completely expressionless.
“Anyway,” Tuomas turned away from Jari and looked back at me. “So this song, it’s one that was inspired by our misfortunes on the Eastern Path. It’s called, ‘Stoned to Death Under a Smog-Ridden Sky’ from our ‘Ice Cold Varangian Penetration’ album.”
Of course I knew the song. I knew all their songs, at least all the ones released since their Varangian expedition, and I was thrilled that they were going to give me an acoustic, individual live performance, even if I didn’t show it.
Ville began to play a high-speed riff and as he did so I looked up into the clear starry, night sky, glad to be alive and glad that all four members of Varjagikaarti had survived their maiden Viking voyage. The bottle of vodka made its way back to me and took a quick swig and listened as Alexi began the opening verse,
“Sweltering smog Hail of stones
You fall to your knees Unable to breathe…”