Varg Vikernes was born on the 11th of February 1973, at 21:58, in Bergen Norway. Some might have preferred it to be at 6 o'clock on the 6th day of the 6th month; others might see the 8th day of the 8th month as more fitting. Either way, the date remains something concrete in a life that would become steeped in mythology, legend and indeed modern folklore.
There are many things that can be said about Varg and his band, Burzum. I could use this section simply to tell you the basic 'facts', but – dramatic as they may be – they wouldn't come close to giving you a full picture of what Burzum truly represents. It is because of the fact that Burzum needs to be considered holistically that it is Varg is so often misunderstood. There are endless stories and anecdotes to tell, but unless you have heard them all – or none – you can't begin to understand it. As Varg himself often says, Fama Crescit Eundo, the rumour grows as it travels.
In some ways it might be suggested that Burzum has gained a momentum beyond even its progenitor's control. But whatever I might be able to portray in these words, no one can really begin to comprehend Burzum without having heard the music. As dramatic as his story may be, it is intrinsically linked to the soundtrack it has been played out against. Listening to the music will tell you more about the entity that is Burzum than 10,000 words here ever would.
I do not want this piece to become a particularly detailed biography, because most of you reading this will already be aware of many details of Varg's saga. For those who know little about him, I will present a brief history here, and for a more comprehensive version I recommend people obtain the book Lords of Chaos, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. Though far from perfect, it presents a more accurate overview of the events than you are likely to get from the mainstream music magazines. Instead I will use this section to focus primarily on why Burzum is important and to whom.
Except during a year in Iraq (while his father was on business), Varg grew up in Bergen, Norway. Without a hint of sentimentality, he describes it to me: "If you like forests and Wilderness you would love Bergen. We have a lot of Urwälder, wild animals, grim mountains and wilderness. Some places the forest is so dense you have to crawl to get anywhere. Some places the best – if not only – way to move around is to find a brook, and move along its course, jumping from rock to rock". This conjures up almost an image of the Golden Age, a literary concept dreamt up by Greek and Latin poets, of an ancient pastoral haven of nature before men went to live in cities and lost their sight of Mother Earth. Such idyllic settings seem almost unrealistic, but they are a very real part of life in Bergen, if you look for it. Of course the truth is that not many people do look for it these days, and whilst it was early industrialisation that finally put an end to the poets' dreams of the Golden Age, it was the arrival of Christianity that pulled the pagan Norwegians away from nature. Thus perhaps it should not be so surprising that such a peaceful setting was the environment that forged Varg's ideology.
Many years later, Varg commented in an interview that people who seek to understand him should "take a walk in the middle of a winter night in a forest all alone, and you will understand what I mean: it actually speaks."
If the forest could speak, the setting might not seem so peaceful, because a forest in Norway represents a force of nature that has been robbed – Christianity deserted it of its people 1000 years ago. Only recently, with the advance of Black Metal and heathenism, have the forests begun to be re-populated with people who seek their power.
Right from the beginning Varg seems to have had this sublime link with the nature around him. I do not mean this in a metaphysical sense, rather in a very practical way: Varg had (and always will have) a powerful imagination, and where others see just 'trees' he sees a landscape steeped in saga, with trolls and elves dancing between the shadows. The last Norwegian who saw this was the artist Theodor Kittelsen, who painted fantastical images of the Norway in his mind's eye, of the wondrous nature which ignited the powder keg of his imagination. After Kittelsen people succumbed totally to the Judeo-Christian focus on subservience and materialism, so they stopped looking and so the elves have long since disappeared. It is no coincidence that Varg chose to use Kittelsen paintings for a number of his album covers.
As a teenager the late 80's, Varg became interested in metal music, and certainly a part of that attraction was the element of rebellion that is associated with "metal". The idea of rebelling against the status quo is still very much a part of Burzum and Black metal and Heathen beliefs, simply because Judeo-Christianity is currently in power, and so the onus is on us to instigate its upheaval with a revolution of some sort. Of course there are many bands which represent 'rebellion' (to varying degrees), but there is no use decrying the current state of society unless you can present an alternative. Metal music is an abundance of creative energy, but unless it is focussed it can easily be manipulated by society at large. What makes Burzum special – and what elevates it above mere 'rebel' status – is that Varg has a very definite vision of a new society and has very real aims (backed up by very real actions). If you walk down a street wearing an Anal Cunt shirt, you might get the message across to certain people that you hate them, hate society and hate its values. If you wear a Burzum shirt, you get the message across that you hate society and its values and you are working to create a new society with new values.
This aspect is what 'the powers that be' fear most about Burzum. Just being angry at society does nothing, you are filling the vital sociological role as the voice of dissent and are in fact strengthening current society as a whole. To change the fabric of society you need to have a vision, a new set of beliefs for people to adopt. This is what makes Burzum a movement in its own right.
Back to the late 80's though, and Varg was still in the formative stages of his political and musical vision. He played sporadically in a number of bands (such as Satanel and Old Funeral), but none of them really excited his imagination – and indeed by being "typical death metal" they actually represented the kind of conformity he had sought to avoid.
Instead he focused on making his own music, inspired by Tolkienesque landscapes populated by his rich imagination. At the start of the decade this turned into his solo band, Burzum. Though he once allowed a session musician to record bass tracks, Burzum has always been the sole responsibility of Varg Vikernes, and the music is so dependent on his personal brand of genius that it is hard to imagine how anyone else could be involved, how anyone else could tap into the same creative and imaginative resource. In many ways it is essential that this so, because Varg's own vision shapes his music just as his musical vision shapes him; the special equilibrium which results is Burzum, and it is hard to see how anyone else could fit into that.
The first, self-titled, Burzum album was released in 1992 by Deathlike Silence Production, the record company of Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous), front man for Mayhem. Mayhem, like Burzum, was one of the original 'Black Metal' bands, a new genre which sort to fuse some of the themes of Death metal with haunting atmospheres and Pagan lyrics. What followed was a roller-coaster ride of events, that left many of Norway's most famous churches burned to the ground, Euronymous (amongst others) dead, and Varg jailed (albeit with his new status of social revolutionary).
I will not describe all of this here since there are many interpretations of the facts and you will find the various details elsewhere on this webpage. Instead I will examine a few specific incidents.
Fantoft Kirke, a Stave church five miles south of Bergen, had stood since the 12th century (even having being dismantled and rebuilt in 1883), regarded as one of the most prestigious churches in Norway. In the early hours of June 6th 1992 it was burnt to the ground by a member of the neo-Heathen army which had emerged from the Norwegian black metal scene. Just as Varg forged the musical direction of the scene, he also led the militant side of the movement (though the Norwegian police never did find much genuine evidence in his trial). By this time Varg had long identified Judeo-Christianity as the 'spiritual plague' which had destroyed Norway's heathen roots – and had resolved to do something about it.
To understand the symbolism behind the church arsons we need to stop and think for a moment. Clearly there is the obvious implication – by burning Christianity's temples one wages a war against it. Then there is the theme of revenge. A thousand years ago the Christians desecrated heathen temples in Norway, and burnt heathens at the stake. Varg has always declared himself a soldier of Odin, and the pagan religions have much to be avenged for.
A church like Fantoft Kirke stands surrounded by nature. As Varg would point out, that does not mean it is part of nature. Indeed, the fact that it stands in nature is even more of an afront to Paganism than if it were hidden away in a city. We have already discussed how modern Judeo-Christianity dragged people to the cities away from nature. Having churches standing in the forests represents not just an abandonment of nature but also an invasion. Thus to someone like Varg burning a church is removing a blemish from the pagan landscape, freeing nature from its Judeo-Christian chastity belt.
Varg (using his nom de guerre Count Grishnackh) and Euronymous were the two most prominent figures in the Black metal scene, and despite a considerable degree of co-operation early on they quickly fell out with each other. Whereas Euronymous wanted to pursue a more "Satanic" image (both musically and ideologically), Varg felt that "Satan" was just another component in the Judeo-Christian mythology and that the Judeo-Christian mode of thought needed to be dropped entirely. His vision had instead developed toward a revival of the Norse Gods and a rediscovery of the true Norwegian race and culture. The two had also fallen out on various other issues, and before long their dispute became public.
On the 10th of August 1993 Varg drove to Euronymous' Oslo flat. A fight developed, and Euronymous was stabbed to death. I will not go into long detail about the killing here, but to say that Varg believed Euronymous was planning to kill him (as Euronymous' posthumous tribute album confirmed).
Mayhem (these days signed to Burzum's record label) recently said that Euronymous had visited a fortuneteller some weeks before he was killed, and was told that Varg would soon be in jail for murder. Reasoning that he could well be the one killed, Euronymous made plans to pre-empt the event and kill Varg first – thus precipitating his own death and fulfilling the prophecy.
Such a sense of fatalism and indeed self-imposed notion of saga is more reminiscent of the fables of Greek Gods than of musicians. Perhaps without even realising it Varg had a way to ignite the imagination of the people – quite simply he was playing out a true Norse saga in the late 20th century.
Even if the people had forgotten the tales of Odin, Balder and Thorr, their imaginations would soon be sparked by the modern-day tales of Count Grishnackh and Euronymous that confronted them on the front pages of Norwegian newspapers every morning.
To a large extent, this notion of a 'saga' explains the considerable number of Burzum fans who do not actually agree with many of Varg's ideas. When we read Shakespeare's Macbeth we are fascinated by the character, by his actions, by his poetry, even though we would not want to live under his rule. In the same way many people are fascinated by Varg's actions, his saga, his music, though do not agree with everything he says.
For them a Burzum record represents something that is above the mediocrity of everyday life, a small piece of a real life tale the likes of which is usually confined to the cinema screen or the pages of a novel. To many people the world of Varg Vikernes is so different to their own reality that it is like stepping into an alternate universe. To this end it is not important which character in that universe Varg represents – the Orc 'Grishnackh' in Tolkien's books (where Varg got the name) might be an 'evil' one, but he is no less important to a Tolkien reader than a 'good' character might be. The vital point is that for many people Burzum represents a living link to a world that can otherwise only be imagined. So to many people his actions are beyond scrutiny, they are simply part of the story, a chapter in the saga.
The fact that the phenomenal music acts almost as soundtrack to the events makes this alternative reality even more immersive. Whereas many 'rock' musicians have an 'image' that everyone knows is fake, Varg lives his life the way he plays his music – therein lies his charisma. It might even be said that his music is so powerful that it has shaped his life, almost like a creation that has grown beyond the creator's control.
Christianity dictates, Burzum describes. To a certain extent I do not think Varg expects – or needs – everyone to agree with him, because Burzum is more than just music and politics, it is a place "for mortals to dream". In awakening the largely dormant imagination of the people, Varg has his best chance of instigating a heathen revolution and overthrowing the current servile mode of life that dominates modern society.
Following the killing of Euronymous, the 20th century witnessed perhaps its last 'show trial', one Stalin might have been proud of. To ensure that the prosecution got the maximum sentence there was little chance of a fair trial; evidence was flawed, the jury was not sequestered and even those who gave testimony were later committed of perjury. But by this time Varg was the most famous person in Norway and there was frenzied coverage of the trial in the Norwegian media. Varg used this to his advantage; every newspaper headline quoted his views and in many ways even though he was not allowed to give evidence, the courtroom itself became a platform for him to reach out to all of Norway.
During the trial Burzum became known worldwide and England's Misanthropy Records was created for the express purpose of re-releasing the Burzum albums outside Norway.
In jail Varg set about educating himself further in the history of Scandinavia and Germany. He developed further his ideas the revival of the Pagan spirit, and set up the Norsk Hedensk Front (NHF) dedicated to saving the Germanic peoples from the clutches of Judeo-Christianity. There was also an increased focus on culture and race, though in much more considered way than Varg is sometimes given credit for. The subsequent musical development naturally paralleled the new ideological development, and Varg completed the progression away from 'metal' music to play only on keyboards (though still very much in the style of Burzum).
We have already spoken about one section of Burzum fans, who follow Varg for his saga. For those people progression is easier to handle because it simply represents the next chapter in the 'story'. The other group of Burzum fans identify very closely with Varg's precise beliefs, and so every development is more difficult to keep with. It has been suggested in Lords of Chaos that "in his role as modern day heretic" Varg has "pushed the line out so far in the distance that no one will ever catch up with it". The evidence does not support this. Burzum was the first Black metal band to use synth tracks and slow sections – today you could not find many black metal bands that don't. Varg recorded his first totally ambient album in late 1994 (in jail) – by the time it was released in 1997 the Pagan-ambient style had become a genre in itself.
Burzum has always been one step ahead, always evolving, but never losing sight of its fundamental one-eyed heathen vision.
Certainly as his views develop he is seen as more and more extreme, and people will find it increasingly difficult to keep up with him. Varg makes no apologies for this. He will not – can not – compromise his vision, the vision which created Burzum in the first place. His saga will continue, and there are more chapters to come.
In trying to assess Burzum people often try and separate the music from the man, and sometimes this can be useful. But perhaps the two are irrevocably linked – Varg Vikernes is so far still the only musician to have crossed the border from fantasy to reality and put into practice his beliefs in a bid to forge his own destiny. As to whether he succeeded is debatable, but for a short time at least he led a musical movement like none before it.
A blaze in the Northern sky, no less.