115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Nordic Culture and Identity in Contemporary Scandinavian Music

Heather Lusty, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This paper explores how contemporary Scandinavian musicians have crafted subgenres (Viking and folk metal) that draw from Nordic mythologies and languages, both by adapting the Eddas into narrative and lyrical themes, and by singing in Old Norse, Icelandic, and Faroese (among other languages). 


Viking and folk metal (not to be conflated with pagan or symphonic metal) are intrinsically entwined with northern and Celtic literature, history and landscape. While Northern literature and mythology have enjoyed eras of popularity in the public imagination (e.g., the 19th Century’s Romantics’ intellectual interest in lore and national identity), the emergence of rock ’n’ roll in the late 1960s renewed an interest in the sagas of the north.


In part, this interest coincided with the popularity of literature like J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Several prominent bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath drew on the themes, scenery, and lore of the books in their music. Yet in Scandinavia, the Death and Black Metal bands of the late 1980s took up the mantle of Nordic heritage more seriously. While heavy metal bands’ interest in the Vikings has been dismissed as superficially centered on hyper-masculine anti-authoritarian role models, this presentation explores how Viking and folk metal bands embrace their cultural heritage by drawing on the lore and landscape to both connect to the past and to tell new stories of struggle and triumph.


This presentation explores lyrics, language, and narrative themes from a selection of bands from Scandinavian countries, and connects literary/epic themes from the Eddas to the narrative structure and content of the music. In addition to lyrical content, language itself plays an important role in cultural and national identity. This is evident in most Viking and folk metal bands recording in multiple languages—often their native languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian) in addition to their medieval antecedents (Faroese, Old Norse, Icelandic). I argue this revival of old languages in music is both active participation in culture and tradition, and a unique reclamation of identity. Additionally, some musicians incorporate folk instruments into their compositions, and write pieces/albums influenced by local topography, evoking Nordic heritage in a third way – by rediscovering and preserving a distinct type of musical arts.


The value of this practice is understood and appreciated by Scandinavians. I include an examination of local perceptions of these bands as preservers of cultural heritage. Indeed, most Danes, Faroese, and Swedes are familiar with Viking and folk metal bands that represent their local traditions and myths, and appreciate the engagement with mythology and national/regional identity by their countrymen as an important part of their culture and heritage.