Gaahl: A Norwegian Shaman?

Until recently, I was unaware of the fact that Norway plays host to several of the most extreme metal bands in the world.  These guys do not just play unbearable music while wearing hellish costumes; unlike most dark metal bands, they take their ideas seriously and live accordingly.  They have burned many churches in Norway to express their contempt for Christianity, and engaged in all manner of crimes involving mayhem and violence.  Many of them have served prison terms.

Perhaps the most famous Norwegian black metalist is Gaahl, the front man for the band Gorgoroth.  I normally would be uninterested in anything having to do with metal, an insipid and banal musical genre that appeals mainly to people hopelessly adrift in a sea of nihilistic anger.  But I caught a snippet of an interview with Gaahl the other night and must say there is something intense, gripping, and fascinating about this guy.  You can sense it just by looking at a still photo:

While many metalists in Norway and elsewhere consider themselves to be Satanists (yawn), Gaahl is not one of them — he appears to be a serious practitioner of Norse shamanism, which is not the same as Norse paganism.  Norse shamanism is an earlier form of supernaturalism than Norse paganism.  The former is associated with ancient hunter-gatherers in Norway, and over time it was incorporated into the richly developed myths (Odin, Thor, Beowulf, etc.) and supernaturalism of the Neolithic farmers who settled in Norway.  These farmers, of course, came to be known as the Vikings.

You can get a vague sense for Norse neo-shamanism by watching “True Norwegian Black Metal,” a thirty minute documentary and interview with Gaahl that took place over several days at his home in an isolated, beautiful, and eerie valley.  I don’t think I have ever seen a “set” (i.e., Espedal, Norway) more appropriate for the subject matter of a film.  At a minimum, you should watch the last few minutes — the interviewer asks the “wrong kinds of questions” (i.e., obviously does not understand Gaahl or what he is saying) and is given a chilling non-verbal response.

Aside from some of the things which Gaahl has to say (and not say), which are interesting in their own right and bring Nietzsche to mind, the film is worth watching simply for the jaw dropping scenery.  Watch it and you will quickly come to appreciate what it is about the raw Scandinavian landscape that gave rise to the various forms of Norse paganism and Viking culture.

Life in such a setting obviously was harsh, brutal, and unforgiving — all qualities that are refracted through the many lenses of ancient Norse beliefs.  One gets the sense that even today, Christianity sits rather uncomfortably on top of something unruly in the Norwegian psyche.  The Scandinavian countries were, after all, the last pagan holdouts in what eventually became a Christian Europe.  It is a good thing Norway is an oil rich petro-state; otherwise, Norwegians might be marauding through Europe in search of spoils.

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13 thoughts on “Gaahl: A Norwegian Shaman?

  1. John

    Your description of metal music is horribly uneducated. Black Metal is a massively diverse genre with up to 10 subgenres, many of which sound nothing like Gorgoroth. I’d also like to add that not many Black Metal musicians are Satanists and if they are it simply means they are anti Christian, nothing else.

    I understand you have probably watched TV, seen what people refer to as “metal” and drawn your conclusions. The fact is modern metal gets absolutely no air time practically, forget what you have heard nothing you see in the media is metal music. At the most you will see some Metalcore or Deathcore which are bastardisations of two good genres. These bands are mostly influenced by hardcore which is all about being macho, loud, jumping around like a moron and screaming your lungs out.

    The fact is metal in actuality is the most diverse and original genre out there and is one of the few genres pushing any boundries. Most of the musicians are as good as any classically trained guitarist and don’t market their songs to appeal the masses.

  2. admin Post author

    I am sorry to have offended your fondness for multiple genres and subgenres of metal. The point of my post really was not to comment on metal, but rather to comment on what appears to be a modern manifestation of some rather archaic forms of supernaturalism.

    That major issue aside, I have friends and family who are deeply into all types of metal and have been for decades. I have been exposed to more genres and subgenres of metal than I care to know or list, and in my estimation nearly all of it sucks. I simply find it unbearable.

    But musical preferences are highly personal, so to each his or her own. I am glad to know that metal is diverse and thriving and that some people find it fulfilling. And I am not being sarcastic about that.

    If you have a band or track or two in mind that I might give a listen, let me know.

  3. Walton

    I agree with John that your comments about metal are highly offensive and ignorant. It’s fine that you don’t like it, it’s not fine to be prejudiced against people who do.

    I like metal (as well as neo folk, sacred minimalism, alt country and a number of other genres), and I’m not hopelessly adrift in a sea of nihilistic anger.

    What is appealing to me about metal is precisely its shamanic qualities. In its elemental extremity, it is an antidote to the emptiness of modern consumer societies.

    It evokes the same feeling in me as paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.

    With regard to shamanism, Cascadian Black Metal often concerns itself with issues of (deep) ecology and our connection to the natural world. Wolves in the Throne Room may be the best example of this.

    Also Sunn O)))’s low drones played at high volume have a hypnotic and transporting effect.

  4. admin Post author

    I admit it is unwise to generalize based on the 100 or so people who I have known in my lifetime who consider themselves as being deeply into metal. Anecdotal evidence, even if based on a fairly large sample, is not sufficient. I apologize for overgeneralizing. I’ve never met people like you or John.

  5. Tsutla


    i randomly stumbled on this site while searching through the web, and your fascination of Ghaal picked my interest. i would like to share a music project with you, one in which Ghaal participates. I hope you’ll enjoy it (before you ask, no. it’s not metal). I hope you’ll have great time listening to it, as it is simply overwhelming. here:

    greetings from beginning shamanism practicioner from europe.

  6. Robert

    I happened incidentally upon this blog/website, as well. Although I agree that Metal, & the subscribers of the genre, can not be categorically marginalised I will affirm that I am deep beneath “a sea of nihilistic [meaning antinomian] anger” & many other forms of anger, to boot, which does not depreciate intelligence, dignity, nor pride.

    “Satanism” has many adherents who propagate a variety of paradigms from inverted christianity to broader & more sophisticated views inclusive of both Scandinavian shamanistic & pagan elements, which, again, as many others noted in their comments, is best comprehended in context. The icon/deity represents liberation, which many artists in the aforementioned genre well understand.

    I, too, watched that documentary. Gaahl is a decidedly interesting charactre who seems now to be practising an erudite Norwegian shamanism, as admin highlights, with Wardruna, but when Gaahl was in Gorgoroth, perhaps, as with Trelldom & Gaahlskagg, the “god in man” [Sign of an Opened Eye] was central to their altar. I suspect he still is…

  7. Cris Post author

    I’m surprised that this post from so long ago is still generating commentary, and the commentary is on a level that is refreshing. What do you mean by “antinomian”?

  8. Robert

    Hello, Chris.

    I am pleased by your compliment; glad that my writing has not become stolid & generates interest.

    I first encountered the word antinomian in the text at the Dragon Rouge website, & in texts written by Thomas Karlsson. By antinomian I meant principally what I learned from the Oxford English Dictionary, which I am in philosophical congruence with:

    antinomian, adj. and n.
    A. adj. Opposed to the obligatoriness of the moral law; of or pertaining to the antinomians.

    In historical context the word appears to have referred to a category of christians, perhaps [B. n. One who maintains that the moral law is not binding upon Christians, under the ‘law of grace.’ spec. One of a sect which appeared in Germany in 1535, alleged to hold this opinion.].

    I am not a christian, but do readily uphold that there is no moral law, in truth, no morality whatsoever extant in the world/Universe save that, which humans devise intellectually for the presumed benefit, if control, of society; hence, antinomian: [more than disagreement] opposition to the eminence, relevance, or actuality of moral supposition.

    I referred back to your website to see whether you had included my post. Yet, if my email is visible to you—being a necessary requiste to enter a post—feel free to write directly if you wish.

  9. Cris Post author

    I asked because Antinomian is deployed most often in the context of Christianity and the way you used it didn’t quite fit that context. On moral issues, I am inclined to agree with Nietzsche that while there is no moral “law,” there are repertoires of social behavior — developed over millions of years of primate social evolution and human cultural evolution — that amount to something like “moral” behavior. Although the concept of morality was married to theistic religions during the Axial Age, there are many non-Axial societies which teach and promote behaviors that we would call “moral” but which aren’t linked to supernaturalism or religion. It seems there surely is a biological substrate of prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic behaviors that amount to something like “morality” (at least for members of your in-group), and these can elaborated by human social or cultural conventions. Do you deny this? If so, why?

  10. Gunnar

    Gaahl is also part of the band Wardruna, which performs incredible Norse-Heathen relate music.

  11. Sean Dee Ville Bell

    Love this little article..i too am a huge fan of both metal and norse paganism..or heathenry…Asatru….a lot of metal people can be as described, but I would never say that I’m into Nihilism. ….or a sea of despair…I’m a strong person and love life and music of all kinds….but yeah, we all generalize. Overall, good article.

  12. Sean Dee Ville Bell

    Oh, I almost forgot, Gaahl is in a Norwegian film, called Flukt (Escape) . He has few, if any lines in this medieval chase thriller, but he does a good job as a ruthless bow slinging henchman. Wardruna , is a new age band , with no metal ties, but is wonderful, nevertheless! Thanks, for leting me contribute to this post…..

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