Surtr: The Swarthy
Posted on May 31, 2013
Surtr: The Swarthy
Author’s Note: There has been some question, years later, of the intention I had in writing this piece. Ultimately it was driven as an early intellectualist exercise which enabled me to articulate my feelings and to explore alternative interpretations of this enigmatic figure. This is especially depreciated now, since in the intervening years I’ve dispensed near-entirely with Norse lore save in the most comparative and academic sense. I stand by my words, and will not be altering them (save the one or two egregious typos I have since noticed), in the hope that other people can find their way to this piece and perhaps reconsider some attitudes towards it.
I’m going to pause from writing some commentary on the community. I do this to avoid getting embroiled in certain debates that are still raging, as well as to further my personal mandate in the reactivation of my blog. It is amusing that sometime after I publicly state that I am not a practitioner of Jotun worship, I come out and make one of my first “real substance” posts about one of the big name giants.
I am doing this because I have affinity towards the embodiment of Surtr, even if I have admittedly not been within direct contact of the deity. This post deals with the academic basis for Surtr, in the Lore and in other scholarship
In The Lore and Academia
To many Heathens, especially American Heathens, the role of Surtr (or Surt) is pretty straight forward: He is demonized as a maleficent antagonist to the gods, positioning himself against the world as a whole. He is fated to do battle with Freyr and might possibly kill him (Faulkes 1995: 54). In this act there is some confusion, most probably due to the vagaries of translation, as to whether or not he simply “defeats” or “kills” Freyr. Regardless of the outcome, it is accepted that Surtr survives the engagement with the Vanir and goes on to burn the world.
In reading the Lore, Surtr is mentioned only fleetingly. I find this to be both interesting and odd, given the importance of the event of Ragnarök and the foretelling that Surtr would become a major figure in those encounters. He is basically mentioned in four poems that make up part of the Poetic Eddas (The Völuspá, the Vafþrúðnismál, the Fáfnismál, and the Fjölsvinnsmál), and in two books from the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál).
The six or so works that contain direct mention of him consists of such lines as:
“Surtr travels from the south with the stick-destroyer (fire). Shines from his sword the sun of the gods of the slain. Rock cliffs crash and troll-wives are abroad, heroes tread the road of Hel and heaven splits.” – Gylfaginning (Faulkes 1995: 10).
“Surtr will ride in front and, both before and behind him, there will be burning fire. His sword will be very fine. Light will shine from it, more brightly than from the sun.” – Gylfaginning (Faulkes 1995: 53)
Simply lines of these types. There is little to nothing else is known about the etin being in the Lore other than:
1. His name translates as “black”, in reference to his appearance and being wreathed in the soot and smoke from his realm. In most romantic-era (19th century, as above) art, he is depicted in the style that was common at the time: a well-muscled human paragon, a pinnacle of neoclassical art, save with black hair instead of fair. John Lindow associates his name with his appearance, referencing a charred, craggy, and swarthy visage instead of something more neoclassical (Lindow 1997: 282).
2. He is an old figure in Nordic mythology. Several place names are mentioned with the appellation of “Surt” earlier than in Snorri’s compilation, such as in the Landnámabók (Rögnvaldssyni 1998). It can be argued that the figure of Surtr was, at the very least, a local figure given over to Iceland’s relatively tumultuous volcanic geography that was incorporated in part into the larger Nordic cycle by Icelandic-born writers, although this is pure supposition on my part.
3. He is associated with the southerly realms, Múspellsheimr in particular, where he either reigns as lord over the fire etins or, at the very least, stands as a guardian over that realm to prevent interlopers and visitors from interfering within the day-to-day of that place.
The confusion for Surtr’s role comes from an annotation by Bellows about line 42 of the Völuspá, in which he states that, “Eggther: this giant, who seems to be the watchman of the giants, as Heimdall is that of the gods and Surt of the dwellers in the fire-world” is not mentioned elsewhere in the poems (Bellows, 1938: 19).
Regardless of his associated role, he is fated to co-lead the combined armies of the giants against the Aesir at the end of the world.
4. Because he is associated with the south, Surtr is then associated with the idea of fire, which is common in Icelandic Norse mythology. I am not so personally inclined to appropriate classical elemental properties with many of the Germanic figures (eg: the application of one elemental type to a specific god, simply because they have common traits associated with each other), but in this case Surtr holds commonality with other “fire-beings”. Logi, as one, and Loki as another.
5. He has a consort. There is a brief mention in the Fjölsvinnsmál where he is attested to having a wife or consort by the name of Sinmara/Sinmora (Bellows 1938: 167). It has been suggested by Hjalmar Falk that Sinmara is Hela, based on superficial description of her being pale and correlation with Roman deific poetry (Falk 1894: 51). Less is known of this figure than Surtr himself, save she possesses/is the guardian of the legendary sword Lævateinn.
Simply that. If there are other influences or mentions of Surtr, they’re deeper than I can presently go with the current access I have. With that foundation laid I wish to explore Surtr from my own perspective, as well as possibly from the perspectives of a few individuals which I hold correspondence.
On the Fire Etin
With the relative lack of Lore and academic resources to form a larger fundamental foundation for Surtr, there really is not much to go on other than personal involvement and exploration. Because so much of the Lore is fleeting, those that wish to explore the mythology deeper have to rely on what is known as unverified personal gnosis (UPG), regardless of the somewhat inappropriate meaning of the terminology. UPG, of course, is something that must be treated in moderation, for a blanket acceptance of anything is detrimental to a logical understanding.
The following is my personal take on Surtr, with correlating statements from other workers.
I have a unique attraction to Surtr, despite the innate danger that the etin possesses. It is a poorly known fact that, when I first realigned myself to a Pagan path in 2005, I was on the road to becoming a Freysman. Ultimately, I did not, simply because I realized I was relying on the viewpoints of others to dictate my spiritual progress. But Freyr holds a very important place within my worship. In light of that tidbit of information, it might seem odd that I would hold any kind of affinity to the being that is fated to slay such an important god.
The interactions of the two deities is largely what provided the gateway to my interest in Surtr. I would not go so far as to say they are diametrically opposed to each other, but they interact to me in a way that some of the other gods and giants simply do not. I will do my best to elaborate on this without losing my focus. I feel that their interactions in energy and personality (despite having no direct contact prior to Ragnarök) could be the basis for a future article.
I want to dispense with the idea, immediately, that Surtr is inherently demonic or otherwise evil. I cannot emphasize this enough.
I do not ascribe to the good-evil binary that Snorri Sturluson and other post-convert Christians interjected into their retelling of the Eddas and Sagas. Any scholar who has done even a scrap of translation will understand that it is very easy to apply to the material a contextual filter based on their own experiences, preferences, and interpretations. To assume that Sturluson’s or Óttarsson’s viewpoints are inherently “more truthful” or “right” in regards to their interpretation, simply because they were native writers, is fundamentally flawed. They had already been colonized by a dominating monotheistic mindset and, in the case of Óttarsson, he wrote poetry quite clearly declaring his conceived “hatred of Frigg’s husband” (Whaley, 557). Assuming that what they wrote in the Lore is the truth is close to, as far as I am aware, falling for the genetic fallacy. I believe Andy Orchard has a theory that some of the image of Surtr is inspired by biblical precedents and influences, although I have not read that scholarship.
I’ve written before how I do not view the Northern myths along a Good-Evil alignment spectrum, at all. I do not try to interject modern Western morality into the Lore, because it was written during a time that we’re contextually unable to understand on some fundamental level. Dispensing with the idea of Surtr as a demonic entity who is naturally evil simply because he goes to war with the Aesir, another tribe of gods is an important facet of the decolonization of the Christian mindset for me.
Human cultures have a habit of demonizing the opposition they face. It is part of our society, and has a long history. From everything to sports, belligerent cultures, politicians, and everything in between. This happens in pop culture and has been written about at length. Animals have been reviled, leading to inordinate human reactions that have threatened entire species. It takes years, if ever, to reverse the damage of this phenomenon. Again, I am only going to give a brief overview of this situation. I feel that there has been a long history of this in regards to Surtr, which has influenced both historic and modern conceptions of him.
It is a lot easier to fight against someone who you have little understanding about, but a great deal of hatred for.
Is Surtr innately violent? Not necessarily. Is he a dangerous being? I would argue an emphatic yes. Does that make him evil? Most assuredly not. I’m not saying that because I do not believe he is evil that he is full of sunshine and can (or should be) easily approached. Simply because he is fated to go to war with the Aesir doesn’t mean that he is an evil man.
If we associate Surtr with the Icelandic writers, an etin with an affinity towards fire and the volcanic landscape of their homeland, then it is easy to see how they could put a greater derogatory emphasis of the being. After all, fire is well attested to being both a savior and a potential threat to civilization, and fire is not nearly the whole of Surtr’s essence and being.
Surtr is the lord of Múspellsheimr and the leader of that realm. This is my view, as well as the most common one that I have found. I actually did not know about the argument that he is a gate-warden and guardian until I did the research to do this article. Muspell, the primordial world of fire, was the primary impetus for the creation of the universe. The interactions between Muspell and Niflheim, within the great void of Ginnungagap was what birthed the universe (Faulkes 1995: 10).
This is a serious feature that often gets overlooked when blanket statements like “Surtr is associated with fire” are made. As we do not know the age of these beings, other than the implicit assumption that they are largely – and effectively – immortal until slain (with some caveats, such as the Aesir must feast on the apples of youth), Surtr must then be old. We also do not know when he became the lord of Múspellsheimr, so it is fair to assume that he has always been. He might even be a remnant from a previous creation, or a facilitator of that one. I do not want to ask to find out.
That would make him “older than the universe which sprung out of the void of Ginnungagap” old. Older than Midgard. Older than Asgard. Older than reality.
“Surtr is associated with fire” doesn’t even cover it. It is such a simplistic statement. It can honestly boggle me that such an immense being can be reduced to a five-word statement.
Surtr is the fierce tumult within a star, the explosions of those stellar bodies which create nebulae that end up seeding space with the materials for cosmological creation. He is the swath of a solar flare which tosses belts of radiation out to strike unsuspecting planets. He is the power of the Earth’s tectonic process, spewing forth the heated magma which creates new lands, raising these grounds from the sea, and coats the world in a layer of choking soot and ash. He is the sooty heart of a raging, uncontrolled wildfire. He is also the transitioning flame, associated with the torch which ignites a pyre or lord’s longship.
Surtr is a creator deity in the sense that the creation he has control over is both inevitable as well as inherently violent, especially to such fragile creatures as we are. He is not just a creator in the sense that he gives a small spark of creation, the spark of a hearth or a spark which ignites the forge. He works on massive levels. In many ways, he is beyond the concept of many human beings. We might be able to understand the process of stellar creation, but I daresay that few among us could actually fathom it in progress. Without the destruction we cannot have new creation, but it is not just a simple replenishing of the fields or landscape.
He is said to be staid and courtly, especially in comparison to some of the younger, hot-tempered fire etins. I feel that this is probably a byproduct more of his immense age than his personal inclination or agenda. He rages, he burns, but not with an uncontrollable drive that cannot be quenched or smothered. He is awful and terrifying – in the same way that a fire is awful and terrifying as it devours the countryside – and is not at all pleasant to interlopers and trespassers. He’s been there since the beginning and he will be there through the end.
He is a universal constant.
In Rune working, fire runes can be utilized for communication and usage, both for Surtr and Múspellsheimr. In the standard 24-Rune futhark, Kenaz is the most obvious choice. However, I utilize the 33 rune set derived from Northumbrian/Anglo-Saxon runes, which includes the rune of Cweorth. Unlike Kenaz, which stands for the fires of learning, education, small scale creation, and is represented by a torch, Cweorth is the rune of the pyre and is interchangeably described as both a fire-twirl (Kaldera, 2004). Cweorth is written as a purification and destruction rune, the fire that sheds the souls of their mortal coil, and returns the carbon and essences into the cycle of the worlds.
I would advise caution when approaching Surtr, and would not encourage under-trained pathwalkers to seek to contact him. I would most definitely include myself in that warning. The sense that I get from Surtr is that he is so old that he is largely unconcerned with the comings and goings of shorter-lived, dimly lit beings, save when they directly interact with him. There are a few stories of him engaging modern spiritworkers of his own accord, uninvited, but those are more than likely a rarity. Failure to appease him (and he is noted as being an indelible perfectionist by other workers) could result in undue dangerous attention.
The same general warning goes for people simply wishing to travel to Múspellsheimr. This is a realm that is not conducive to human existence, even in an astral or spirit journey. Care, courtesy, and due honor must be kept at all times.
Despite being a primary figure in the later part of the Eddas and Sagas, Surtr remains an enigmatic figure. Very little is known about him, little is made mention in the Lore, and yet what is known constructs the entirety of what people believe about him. Part of the purpose of this post was to vent my own feelings and try to work through some of my interests about Surtr. There’s a deep attraction to many of the primordial deities of the Northern pantheons, despite my relative lack of interaction. Something about them speak to me in the ways in which some of the more “civilized” deities simply do not.
Perhaps it is the honesty. Surtr, especially, does not feel like he is a flowery, conniving being. Oh, I have no doubt in my mind that he could, can, and will, twist and turn someone around to suit his desires. A high majority of the “good” guys can and do the same, as well. But Surtr feels to be an honest, straightforward god. Be given the spark of creation, try not to burn yourself and everyone you love up with it, and create something.
I am not saying that Surtr is not a dangerous figure. Far from it. But all the gods are equally dangerous. Assuming one or another is not is a horrendous misconception which could open up a world of hardship.
I wanted to give something back to someone who I think is generally misinterpreted with political and religious agendas. I think I have settled on the creation of a post railing against the Christian colonization that is existent in the Lore, and how people interact with that inherent black-and-white dichotomy.
A lot of this is going to be information known to people who have already trod down the path. Since I am presently blocked with a lot of my own issues, I have had to take a far more general and far less personal approach than I would have otherwise desired. But I needed to write this down.
Raven Kaldera’s book The Jotunbok: Working with the Giants of the Northern Tradition, despite your personal proclivity in regards to his writing and theology, has a bit of new lore and personal interactions with Surtr that other spirit workers have authored, and I’m sure that there are many others that have been written since then. I recommend reading it if only for viewpoints and other interpretations. I did my best not to reiterate from it what I had read so long ago.
Thanks for reading.
Bellows, Henry Adams. The Poetic Edda. 1936. Electronic file: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe.pdf
Falk, Hjalmar “Om Svipdagsmál” in Arkiv för nordisk filologi 10, 1894. Retrieved:http://books.google.com/books/reader?id=jfI8AQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&pg=GBS.PP5
Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.). Edda. Everyman: London, 1995.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2001.
“Place-Names in Landnámabók”, Brian Scott, 2006-2010. Web. Location: http://my.stratos.net/~bmscott/Landnamabok_Place-Names.html
“Settlements (Sturlubok)”, translated through Google Chrome, Rögnvaldssyni , Eric, 1998. Web. Location: http://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/landnama.htm
“The Futhorc Runes” Raven Kaldera. 2004. Web. Location: http://www.northernshamanism.org/shamanic-techniques/runes/the-futhorc-runes.html
Whaley, Diana. Myth and Religion in the Poetry of a Reluctant Convert. University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Unknown date. Web. Location: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/medieval/saga/pdf/556-whaley.pdf
Thorpe, Benjamin and Blackwell, I.A., The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson. Norroena Society: London. 1906. Web. Location: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14726/14726-h/14726-h.htm