Helvegen: An Analysis

Helvegen: An Analysis

Kalandra recently covered Wardruna’s song “Helvegen,” and damn near surpassed the original in quality.

I had been planning on writing about this song for a while, but the discovery of this particular cover felt like a good enough reason to finally get around to it.

In most cases, I have to listen to a new or unfamiliar artist for a while before I come to a strong opinion on them. I disliked System of a Down for years before I finally developed a taste for them. I didn’t really have a strong affinity for Tool until my early twenties, despite having heard them many times before. On the other hand, there are a number of songs (usually not artists) which I like immediately upon hearing, but only for a brief period, and then the song just fades from interest — “Sleepwalking Elite” by Chevelle, for instance.

For me, Helvegen was different. I loved it the first time I heard it, and it continues to grows on me with time.

There are many different reasons to like a song. There is the purity of well-composed melody and song composition — for me, Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto no. 5” comes to mind. There is lyrical complexity and depth — among my own favorites, Tool’s “The Pot” wins in this dimension.

But there is also a quality in certain music that can’t be graphed in a Jay Evans Prichard, PhD.-style “greatness graph.” Some music just speaks to us — resonates with us, in ways that defy our immediate comprehension or analytical understanding. I would call such music “magical,” but I would be getting ahead of myself.

For me, Helvegen is such a song. It is my favorite song, bar none. I cannot do it proper justice with analysis, but I hope to share at least part of why I love this song so much.

Hvem skal synge meg
— (Who will sing me)
i daudsvevna slynge meg
— (into the death-sleep sling me)
når eg på Helvegen går
— (when I walk on the path of death)
og dei spora eg trår er kalda, så kalda
— (and the tracks I tread are cold, so cold)

The song begins with an implicit depiction of a circle — the artist (Einar Selvik) is currently singing, and asking who will continue the circle once they themselves are dead. There is fear here — not just of death of self (which pagans treat as an inevitable but a hateful thing), but death of the song.

There is also an association building here between song and something else, which will be illuminated in a few stanzas. But within both Greek and Nordic paganism, song isn’t just a memory of life, but in a sense the substance of life. In this way, singing is the passing on of life, and each generation must pick up the burden passed on by those who are on their way to death.

Eg songane søkte
— (I sought the songs)
Eg songane sende
— (I sent the songs)
då den djupaste brunni
— (when the deepest well)
gav meg dråper så ramme
— (gave me the drops so touched)
av Valfaders pant
— (of Death-father’s wager)

What does it mean to “seek the songs?”

To understand what the singer means, we have to go down a few lines: “when the deepest well // gave me the drops so touched // of Death-father’s wager.” This is a reference to Odin’s sacrifice; at Mimir’s well, Odin gave up an eye in exchange for knowledge of the runes, and also had to hang from a tree, pierced with a spear, for nine nights. The road to knowledge of the runes — which is not merely a knowledge of language, but of magic… perhaps especially, the magic associated with language. This includes — among other things — music.

When the artist sings “I sought the songs, I sent the songs,” they are testifying to their own difficult journey, in emulation of Odin’s sacrifice for this great gift of music — which is also life.

Alt veit eg, Odin
— (I know it all, Odin)
var du gjømde ditt auge
— (where you hid your eye)

Some translations of “var du gjømde ditt auge” interpret it as “to whom you gave your eye.” In either case, the sacrifice is to Mimir — a god of wisdom and knowledge — and after this sacrifice, Odin learned nine magical songs (Havamal 142), emphasizing the association between the knowledge of Mimir (the magical runes) and song. To say “I know where you hid your eye” is to say “I know what you sacrificed your eye to.” His eye was sacrificed to wisdom itself; knowledge in song.

The musician who has devoted himself — sacrificed himself — to this path, knows.

Hvem skal synge meg
— (Who will sing me)
i daudsvevna slynge meg
— (into the death-sleep sling me)
når eg på Helvegen går
— (when I walk on the path of death)
og dei spora eg trår er kalda, så kalda
— (and the tracks I tread are cold, so cold)

I want to flag the peculiar phrase daudvevna — “death-sleep” — to return to later. There is more going on here than just wondering who will carry the torch after the singer has died, but we have not gotten there yet.

Årle ell i dagars hell
— (early in the days end)
enn veit ravnen om eg fell
— (still the raven knows if I fall)

In Germanic paganism, Odin is accompanied by two ravens: Mumin (“memory”) and Thumin (“thought”). Through song, others will remember you — the raven will know — even if you die.

Når du ved Helgrindi står
— (When you stand by the Gate of Death)
og når du laus deg må riva
— (and you have to tear free)
skal eg fylgje deg
— (I shall follow you)
over Gjallarbrua med min song
— (across the Resounding Bridge with my song)

This is where the song gets emotionally intense, at least for me and, I imagine, for others who have some background in pre-Christian Germanic literature. A classical feature of such literature is the horribly-translated “boast,” which is not a brag in the modern sense of the term, but a promise. It is something that the speaker says that they will do, or die trying.

This stanza is that formal boast. The singer is making a promise to the listener — “when you face death, I will follow you; I will remember you with song, and your name will never be forgotten.” It is serious, and it is personal.

Du blir løyst frå banda som bind deg!
— (You will be free from the bonds that bind you!)
Du er løyst frå banda som batt deg!
— (You are free from the bonds that bound that you!)

There is no other way to interpret this pair of lines other than as a magic spell.

Musically, it is the climax, and the lines are identical, except that the first line is in the future tense, and the second is in the present/past, implying that something has happened to the listener between the lines. In the same way that a couple is married when the priest says “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the listener is freed from the bonds of fear of death when the singer says “you are free from the bonds that bound you!”

They have promised to keep your memory alive, to follow you across the bridge into Hell itself. You no longer need live bound by fear.

The heroic thing to do would be to try to live a beautiful, glorious life, worthy of such a song. Perhaps the singer is making this promise in the hopes that the only thing holding back the listener from such heroism was that very risk.

The only question that remains is this: if one’s own immortality hinges upon the immortality of the song, then who will sing the singer into immortal death?

Døyr fe, døyr frender
— (Cattle die, kinsmen die)
Døyr sjølv det sama
— (You yourself will also die)
men ordet om deg aldreg døyr
— (but the word about you will never die)
vinn du et gjetord gjevt
— (if you win a good reputation)
Døyr fe, døyr frender
— (Cattle die, kinsmen die)
Døyr sjølv det sama
— (You yourself will also die)
Eg veit et som aldreg døyr
— (I know one that never dies)
dom om daudan kvar
— (the reputation of those who died)

This seemingly out-of-place, spoken part is actually from the Havamal (76, 77). It is, in a way, the basis for the rest of the song: immortality of a kind for those doomed to die, achieved in song, which is itself achieved through great sacrifice for the requisite knowledge and skill in the art of language and music. But this Havamal verse clarifies that it isn’t just magic at work; it is the deeds themselves, the life and the reputation which permit the magic to work. Odin and others who have followed his cold path have made great sacrifices for this ability. Will we be worthy subjects of their art?

I don’t have much else to say, except to briefly return to this subject of “death-sleep.” We have this understanding of music as life, along with the inescapable fact that we are all doomed to death — the wolf comes for us all. But there is something interesting in the choice of verb: to “sling” into the death sleep. Sling is not just what one does to a rock, but also what one does to a child as you are putting them down to bed, often accompanied with music.

Paradoxically, sleep is not just death, but life. We cannot function without sleep. We cannot survive without sleep. To help someone to sleep is a simulacrum of death, it is true, but it is more literally an aid to life. To put a child to sleep with song is to give life in two senses: the regeneration of sleep, and the life inherent in the music.

Combine this with the distinctively heart-beat like sound of the double drum-beat in the song, and Helvegen seems to be — of all things — a lullaby.

…and from personal experience, I will say that it is not just a beautiful lullaby, but an effective one.

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