A young woman, her skin intricately painted, lies on pine boughs and furs inside a smoky roundhouse, sunlight streaking through the wattle walls. She gives birth in the middle of a vast forest, attended by tattooed shamans. The woman weeps as she looks to the peak of her shelter, the very structure of its roof resembling a birth canal. The child promises to be something…different. Mother, daughter, home, and land are connected.
Is this a dramatic reconstruction in a documentary about the Stone Age? Guess again. This is the music video for Heilung’s widely-praised single release ‘Anoana’ from their 2022 album, Drif—a video which has had over 10 million views on YouTube since its release in June 2022. Composed during worldwide lockdowns in 2020-2021, Drif picks up on topical themes of environmental connectedness, gathering, rebirth, and healing. It urges listeners to consider past ways of understanding, and existing in the world.
IWA World Traditional Award-winning Nordic folk metal collective Heilung have, since 2014, challenged audiences in terms of how history and nature can be used as the raw material of culture-making. One reviewer tries to explain this phenomenon, commenting that “‘Anoana’ has a…presence that feels very much in the here and now of history”. Another, in a poetic turn of phrase, states that Heilung are “paving melodic paths to the past”. Such comments reveal that Heilung has succeeded in opening conversations among non-historians about where the present stands in relation to history, and expanding the public’s repertoire of means by which we engage with the past.
I had the pleasure of seeing Heilung in concert in London earlier this year, at the Hammersmith Apollo. The stage was transformed into a sacred grove ringed with trees, while birdsong and sage smoke filled the auditorium. Referred to as ‘rituals’, Heilung’s performances consciously tap into primal emotions and natural aesthetics. Their music is made on instruments of bone—including human bone—skin, wood and horn. Their stage costumes are dramatically shamanistic, drawing on elements of ritual dress discovered among archaeological finds from prehistoric, animist European cultures. Deer antler headdresses, for example, are fashioned like those found at the Mesolithic sites at Star Carr in North Yorkshire, and Bedburg-Königshoven, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Norwegian lead singer Maria Franz’s now-iconic look might take inspiration from the costume of the Bad Dürrenburg shaman while also consciously referencing analogous practices in other circumpolar shamanistic traditions, including the covering of the eyes as a form of spiritual protection.
Heilung describes itself as ‘amplified history’ and at no point have they suggested that they’re reconstructing actual sounds or imagery from prehistory. Rather, audiences are challenged to consider how Heilung uses historical elements in the context of the present, piecing together environmental and historically-inspired sounds and visuals. Heilung makes their observations of the past visible and audible to their audiences, not to present them with historical ‘truth’ but to forge an emotional, imaginative connection between past and present for the purpose of reflection and culture-making. At the heart of this work, consistently, is the natural world.
The lyrics of ‘Anoana’ are pieced together from runic inscriptions on gold bracteates: discs predominantly fashioned in the Germanic world from Roman coins during the Migration Period (300–700CE). The meanings of these Proto-Norse words have been all but lost. Only one, according to Franz, can be confidently translated: ‘landawariar’, meaning ‘land protector’.
Indeed, images of land and landscape linger with viewers. The five minute video was shot in epic wilderness locations in Norway. Antlered characters on screen signal a remove from the historical into a deep, land-based mythology. Such figures, reflecting prehistoric artistic representations of deity, are presented in ‘Anoana’ as sources of inspiration for ancient cultural practices depicted in other scenes. The antlered characters in the story reference horned deities belonging to pre-Christian, animist beliefs—suggested especially by the antlered child’s reverent interactions with nature.
Simultaneously, in this thought-provoking artistic endeavour, imagery of drumming and dancing around a bonfire, a lunar eclipse shining beyond the trees in the distance, draws on research that suggests Europe’s most ancient spiritualities referenced their observations of the sun, moon, and stars, evidenced by the positioning of megalithic structures and entrances to chambered burial mounds, and artefacts, such as the Nebra Sky Disc. Like the lyrics, such imagery speaks of longing for environmental connection, or rather, reconnection in a time when cultures in the West are largely removed from the natural landscape. Franz, regal as a striking figure of animist spirituality, arises from sea, sand, woodland, snow and mountain. She is literally depicted as a torch-bearer, stretching out her arms and welcoming listeners to follow her down a different path—one which promises ‘healing’—which of course is the name of the collective itself.
A traditional academic historian might find their efforts problematic. Heilung appears to pull together disparate fragments from across thousands of years of history, blended with, at best, educated guesswork and at worst, appropriated tribal cultural elements, purely to fit a provocative aesthetic for a modern audience looking to find legitimacy for their own subculture. As a fellow god in the Nordic Folk pantheon, Einar Selvik of Wardruna, is frequently found quoting: ‘Rotlaust tre fell’ (‘The rootless tree falls’). However, Heilung shows no sign of wood-rot. Published reviews make it clear that critical and popular audiences see their work as profound. Industry critics have responded with universal accolades.
In 2021, Heilung sat down with Nordic history academic Mathias Nordvig, to discuss issues of authenticity and appropriation relevant to their work. Emphasising that they’re artists, not academics, singer and writer Kai Uwe Faust referenced historical evidence of cross-cultural sharing, negotiation and interaction between ancient peoples, arguing that revitalisation of this mindset is key to tackling major social and environmental concerns today. The group is frequently heard emphasising their promotion of shared cultural practices which are embedded in environmental connectedness. It takes only a quick glance at comments for the video on YouTube to see that viewer responses are often deeply personal, emotional, and full of longing for just such connections. While not definitively free of ethical or historical questions, ‘Anoana’ hits right, for many people, of many cultural backgrounds.
Franz points out that the gold bracteates used to inform their lyrics had been pierced or looped to be worn, perhaps in a protective fashion or as a symbol of cultural expression. In the hands of Heilung, elements of European prehistory are pierced and strung together for a similar (re)purpose: the original meaning of these words is now less important than that they are being sung, and heard. Heilung is making something new out of something old. The album title, Drif means ‘Gathering’ and to my mind this is a perfect overarching theme. ‘Anoana’ is about the ancestors, yes, but more pointedly it’s for people today, responding to a yearning shared by many. ‘Anoana’ is an historical and lyrical quilt stitched together from precious fragments for the contemporary world, inspiring listeners to charge head on, down a path that leads against the forces of cultural division and environmental destruction.