A Norse Pagan Look at “Midsommar” (And yes, there are spoilers)

This is a very overdue article I’ve been meaning to write about the newest Ari Aster movie “Midsommar”, which just had a digital release this September. As a horror genre and Ari Aster fan, I wanted to contribute a look at the movie from the perspective of a modern worshipper of the Norse gods and someone who’s interested in Germanic myth and magic in general. Much of this article will be my own interpretations of the ritual and magical elements of the movie, and the sources where I suspect those elements derived from.

When the movie begins, we go through a harrowing scene introducing the protagonist Dani Ardor. Dani’s bipolar sister Terri kills herself and their parents by attaching hoses to the running cars in the garage: one leading under the closed door of their parents bedroom, the other taped over Terri’s mouth to gruesome effect. The death of Dani’s family initiates her own death and rebirth saga, unbeknownst to Dani herself. The loss of one’s old family and identity to clear the way for rebirth into a new family and identity is a common theme in many spiritual initiation ceremonies, both past and present. Though it may be a stretch, the death by asphyxiation at the beginning of the film also puts me in mind of Óðinn’s own death and rebirth initiation on the world tree Yggdrasil as described in Hávamál, which he hung from in order to gain the mysteries of the runes. Perhaps Ari has traded a rope for a hose here?

138. I know that I hung on that windy tree, 
spear-wounded, nine full nights, 
given to Odin, myself to myself, 
on that tree that rose from roots 
that no man ever knows.

During this first scene, we also are introduced to the dysfunctional relationship between Dani and her boyfriend of 4 years, Christian Hughes. While Christian seems to want out of the relationship, he seems to be too cowardly to pull the trigger himself. The death of Dani’s family seals them back together for a time. Out of what seems to be a sense of guilt, Christian invites Dani to go with he and his three cohorts in the Anthropology department (Mark, Josh, and Pelle) when they go to visit Pelle’s family commune in Sweden for a Midsummer celebration.

When they reach Hårga, we learn that this particular Midsummer ritual is a special one which takes place only once every 90 years. For anybody with a knowledge of Pagan Swedish history, this 90 year ritual should ring a bell, as it seems to mirror a similar sacrificial festival that was said to take place in Uppsala. According to the account by Adam of Bremen:

“It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted. Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, whet is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, the offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously.”

Too bad none of the students were in Medieval Studies!

When they travelers reach the commune, they also meet Pelle’s commune brother Ingemar, who has brought a young couple from England called Simon and Connie to join the festivities as well. Midsummer in Pagan European culture marks the summer solstice: the longest day of the year when the sun is in its full power. This sun imagery is the first thing we see entering the commune, as the travelers walk through a beautiful wooden archway in the shape of the sun.

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The residents of the Hårga commune are all dressed in white, and an older elder named Odd who is wearing a frock introduces himself. He explains that he’s wearing the frock out of respect for Ymir and the hermaphroditic quality of nature. Ymir is the name of the primordial, hermaphroditic giant at the beginning of time, who spawned the first frost giants and whose body was torn apart by Óðinn and his brothers in order to shape the world. This account is described by Snorri Sturluson in his Younger Edda:

“Gangleri answered, ‘What did Bor’s sons do next, if you believe they are gods?’
High said, ‘It is no small matter to be told. They took Ymir and they moved him into the middle of Ginnungagap and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and the mountain cliffs from the bones. They made stones and gravel from the teeth, the molars and those bones that were broken.'” 

In the background of these scenes, we also see the Midsommarstången (“Midsummer Pole”, which the movie translates as “May Pole” after the English Tradition), which holds two Elder Futhark Runes: Fehu and Raido. Fehu (Fé or Feoh as said in Old Norse and Old English respectively) is a name that generally translates to “wealth” or “cattle”, as cattle were an important marker of mobile wealth in ancient Germanic culture. Raido (Reið or Rad) translates to mean “riding” but also (and notably) “wagon”.

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Wagons were recorded as the special mode of transportation of cultic images of earth deities in Germanic culture, and most notably the German goddess Nerthus and the Scandinavian Vanic deity Freyr (more on this later). My own interpretation of these runes being chosen for the Midsummer Pole is the wealth of fertility of Fehu being carried out across the land through the Vehicle of the goddess of the earth in her wagon. Fehu being the first rune followed by Raido may also signify the beginning of a journey. The pole itself has often been interpreted as a type of Axis Mundi: A world tree that connects the heavens, the world of men, and the underworld together and which spirits can use as a ladder to join us in the waking world.

Our first indication that not everything is going to go as expected in Hårga is when the travelers are invited to watch a ritual called Ättestupa (“family cliff”). Pelle explains to us that when elders turn 72, they consider this to be the end of their Hårga life-cycle. The number 72 may have come from the time that it appears in the account of Uppsala I mentioned above (which Ari Aster most certainly must have read about), but it also may have been chosen because 7+2 = 9, one of the most significant and holy numbers in Germanic Spirituality. There are 9 worlds in Norse mythology, 9 is often used as a number that signifies a descent into the underworld, and it is significant to the god Óðinn: who hung on Yggdrasil for 9 days and 9 nights according to Hávamál.

Two 72-year-old elders are honored at a feast at the beginning of this ritual, with everyone seated at a table in the shape of the rune Othala (Óðal or Éþel) which translates to “Inherited Property” and carries connotations of homeland, tribe, and ancestry. This could indicate that the elders are preparing themselves to join the legion of the ancestors. The two elders, unlike the other celebrants in white, are wearing blue, and are carried away in two large chairs by eight celebrants also wearing blue and wearing wide brimmed hats. Blue seems to reoccur in the film as a color connected to death and sacrifice. The train of 8 assistants may be symbolic of the 8 legs of Óðinn’s magical horse Sleipnir: The only creature that can journey in and out of the 9 worlds at will and who can ride in and out of the underworld. The garb of the assistants is somewhat Óðinnic in nature, as Óðinn himself is often portrayed wearing grey and dark blue and wearing a broad brimmed hat. Aside from being a god of wisdom, Óðinn possesses many underworld elements to his nature, and as a god who chooses dead warriors to enter his hall Valhöll has been interpreted as a death deity in part.

The Elders are carried to the top of a tall cliff, where their hands are cut and their blood is wiped onto two Rune-stones. The Runes on the stones are the Younger Futhark rune Ýr (“yew”), Raido, and Perthro (also called Peorð and possibly meaning “game piece”) down the center. On either side of Raido is a second Raido on the left and Teiwaz (Týr or Tir, after the Germanic deity Týr or Tiw).

The yew tree is significant in Germanic mythology, as it has been interpreted as candidate for the world tree Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil is often called an ash tree, but the yew itself was also called the “needle-ash” (barraskr) in Old Norse. It also has strong connotations to death and the underworld: they were planted in English graveyards as symbols of eternal life, while at the same time their poisonous berries and pollen tie them to the world of the dead. Perthro has been interpreted by modern Rune esotericists (especially with its interpretation as a game piece) as a symbol of chance, with its shape being suggestive of the well of Wyrd and the mysteries of fate. I therefore have interpreted the central row as, “Death is the Journey into the Mystery”. Reading horizontally, we might see two Raido runes as symbolic of the Hårga sacred text, the Rubi Radr (“Ruby Journey/Road= blood sacrifice”?), while the Teiwaz rune may symbolize the gods, the heavens, or natural law (as Týr has been interpreted as a sky deity and a god of justice and law).

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The actual history of Ättestupa is much blurrier in real life than it is in Midsommar. It seems that the only attestation of this kind of senicide taking place is in the Icelandic Gautreks Saga:

“‘I’m called Snotra, because I’m the most intelligent. My sisters are called Hjotra and Fjotra,’ she said. ‘There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The drop’s so great there’s not a living creature could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff simply because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens, and in this way our elders are allowed to die straight off without having to suffer any illnesses. And then they can go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care of them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by the cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with other misfortunes that might happen to us.

‘I hope you realize, my father thinks it quite extraordinary, your coming to our house. It would have been remarkable enough for any stranger to take a meal with us, but this really is a marvel, that a king, cold and naked, should have been to our house. There’s no precedent for it, so my father and mother have decided to share out the inheritance tomorrow between me and my brothers and sisters. After that they’re going to take the slave with them and pass on over Family Cliff on the way to Valhalla. My father feels that’s the least reward he could give the slave for trying to bar your way into the house, to let the fellow share this bliss with him. Besides, he’s quite sure Odin won’t ever receive the slave unless he goes with him.'”

While this episode of the saga makes for some colorful story telling (and good horror), there doesn’t seem to be any evidence outside of this saga that this was a real practice that took place in Pagan Scandinavia (though human sacrifice through hanging and drowning most certainly existed). That small historical technicality doesn’t matter much to the movie, which uses this ritual death of the two elders in a shockingly effective way. Óðinn’s involvement in the original saga seems to solidify the ‘Oðinnic imagery that Ari Aster chose leading up to the climax of the ritual. When the death of the male elder is botched, it’s also significant that three celebrants come forward to finish his death with a large mallet, hitting him a total of three times. Three is of course an important multiple of nine (3×3 = 9) driving home the ‘Oðinnic theme.

After the death of the elders, their bodies are cremated (cremation being an important ritual in Pagan Scandinavia, especially in the bronze age). Their ashes are then strewn across the roots of a dead, fallen tree in the commune which seems to be reserved for this purpose. Placing the ashes at the roots of the tree makes sense in a symbolic sense, as in Norse Myth the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil are located in the underworld. A major episode that leads to the demise of Mark, who bumblingly takes a piss on the sacred tree, much to the dismay of the natives. Interestingly, even this “pissing on sacred ground” episode has its roots in the Icelandic sagas, and a similar episode occurs in the Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga. Þórolf, an early Icelandic settler, names a particular headland as a holy place, because it’s where his holy image of the god Þórr washed ashore when he was trying to divine a place where he should land his boat. The site is so holy to him that he won’t allow anyone to desecrate it with bloodshed or excrement. So of course, this becomes a point of conflict later in the saga:

“One spring at the Thor’s Ness Assembly, Thorgrim Kjallasksson and his brother-in-law Asgeir of Eyr declared publicly that they would no loner tolerate the arrogance of the Throsnessings and meant to ease themselves there on the grass just as they would at any other meeting, even though the Thorsnessings, so full of their own importance, thought their land more sacred than any other in Breidafjord. The Kjalleklings let it be knwon that they were planning to waste no more shoe-leather on trips to any off-shore skerry whenever they felt the demands of nature. When Thorstein Cod-Biter heard about this, having no intention of allowing them to desecrate the field of his father Thorolf held sacred above all his land, he gathered his friends around him with the idea of barring the Kjalleklings from the Assembly Ground b force should they attempt to desecrate it.”

This leads to a bloody battle ensuing over the rights to pee and poop on the sacred land, in which many die and the Kjalleklings are driven away and barred from the assembly ground. So it would seem that in the ancient Pagan world, there is a simple bit of advice to take from this: If something seems sacred, don’t pee on it!

Predictably, Dani and Christian’s friends keep systematically “going missing”, until they are the only two left. Josh’s death at the hands of a man wearing Mark’s skin implicates Mark as the loser (or maybe winner?!) of a game Aster has created for the movie called “Skin the Fool”. “Skin the Fool” could possibly have been inspired by an interesting Icelandic magical relic called the Nábrók (“necro-pants”), especially since only Mark’s face and lower half seem to be worn by Josh’s assailant.

Later, Dani is swept up by the women of the community, and wins a dance competition around the Midsummer Pole, earning herself the title of “May Queen”. While there is no “May Queen” in the Swedish celebration of Midsummer (which takes place in June), it is a tradition within English May Day Celebrations (which take place on May 1 and include a May Pole). Ari Aster uses the English and Swedish elements interchangeably in his movie, which may in itself be a nod to the 1973 folk horror movie The Wicker Man, which was certainly an influence for Midsommar. The beautiful spiral dancing in the movie also hardly resembles the actual Midsummer Pole dance in Sweden: which is more of a silly hop and accompanies a song about frogs called Små grodorna (“the little frogs”). For the sake of the film’s tone this was probably a wise adaptation!

With Dani winning the competition, she is placed in a wagon where she is ferried by a team of 13 women (perhaps symbolizing the 13 lunar months and the traditional witches coven of 13, in either case very feminine symbols) who carry her across the land to perform a series of land-blessing rituals. The women hold torches, probably symbolic of the life force that fire represents. They also fill a hole with grain, meat, and eggs, symbolically feeding the earth and returning some of the gifts of the earth in reciprocity. This act of ferrying a fertility goddess across the land in a wagon made me think of Tacitus’s description of the worship of the goddess Nerthus in his Germanica:

“There is nothing especially noteworthy about these states individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believe that she intervenes in human affairs and rites through their peoples. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with a cloth, which the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she deigns to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple.”

Another ritual which seems to resemble Dani’s fertilization of the earth is the Saxon Æcerbot charm, which was used to bless and cleanse a field. This ritual included “feeding” the earth with honey, milk, yeast, bread, and other things growing on the land and a prayer urging it to produce.

When Dani returns, she discovers Christian in the midsts of a sex ritual he’s been inducted into in order to impregnate the virgin Maja, also accompanied by a team of 12 chanting women (13 women total). Maja has gradually been working on Christian since he arrived at the commune: secretly feeding him her menstrual blood and pubic hair in his food (feeding your love interest some of your personal effects being a common element in the folk magic of many cultures), and also by carving a Wunjo rune (Wynn in Old English, translating to “Joy”) and hiding it under his bed to influence his affections. Hiding rune charms under someone’s bed to create a magical effect also has a history in the Icelandic Sagas, most notably in Egils saga:

“When Egil and his men sat down to eat, he saw a sick woman lying on the cross-bench. Egil asked Thorfinn who the woman was and why she was in such a poor state. 
Thorfinn said she was his daughter Helga – ‘She has been weak for a long time.’
She was suffering from a wasting sickness, and could not sleep at night because of some kind of delirium. 
‘Has anyone tried to find out the cause of her illness?’ Egil asked. 
‘We had some runes carved’, said Thorfinn. ‘The son of a farmer who lives close by did it, and since then she’s been much worse. Do you know any remedy, Egil?’ 
Egil said, ‘It might not do any harm if I try something.’ 
When Egil had eaten his fill he went to where the woman was lying and spoke to her. He ordered them to lift her out of her bed and place clean sheets underneath her, and this was done. Then he examined the bed she had been lying in, and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. He burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired. Then Egil spoke a verse: 

48. No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well; 
many a man goes astray 
around those dark letters. 
On the whalebone I saw
ten secret letters carved, 
From them the linden tree
Took her long harm. 

Egil cut some runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying. She felt as if she were waking from a deep sleep, and she said she was well again, but still very weak.” 

This final betrayal seals Christian’s fate, as Dani is given the responsibility of choosing the last of the 9 human sacrifices for the ritual.

Before Christian is immobilized by an herbal powder blown into this face (reminiscent of The Serpent and the Rainbow) and prepared for the final sacrifice, he stumbles across one of the missing visitors. Simon has had his lungs pulled out through his back. This is an obvious reference to the “blood eagle” execution, being mentioned in Heimskringla and Orkneyinga saga. The lungs pulled from the back are meant to represent the wings of an eagle, but like many pagan practices mentioned in the medieval sagas, it’s unsure whether or not these are accurate memories of real traditions or simply some color later writers used to spice their sagas up with for shock value.

Finally, after Dani has chosen Christian as the final sacrifice a bear is killed and Christian is dressed up in its carcass. He and the other sacrifices (two of which are volunteers and notably are given some kind of yew tincture to eat and either numb them or kill them) are placed in a yellow, triangular building. Yellow in the movie seems to be used in contrast with blue (which seems to be connected to death and sacrifice) as a color of fire, sun, and life. In fact, the last thing Christian wears before getting prepped for his sex-ritual is a blue shirt. On the inside of a building is a rune that other writers have interpreted as the rune Gebo, meaning “gift”. The rune in the yellow building is actually not Gebo, but the Saxon Rune Gar, meaning “spear”.

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Like many other aspects of this movie, this seems to carry an Óðinnic connotation, as Óðinn’s method of sacrifice seems to have included his famous spear Gungnir. It may be that spears were used kill sacrificial victims as they hung in trees, offering sacrifices to Óðinn in the same way he sacrifices himself to himself in Hávamál 138-39. Spears may also have been used to magically to dedicate those who were about to die in battle to Odin by throwing a spear over the battlefield. This seems to occur in Völuspá, when Óðinn throws his spear to initiate the battle between the Æsir and Vanir tribes of deities:

24. Odin flung his spear, cast it into the host, 
still that was teh war, the first in the world; 
The shield-wall was shattered of the 
fortress of the Æsir,
the Vanir with war-spells trampled the battlefield.

It therefore seems that the choice of Gar in the sacrifice room is meant to symbolize the sacrificial death promised by Óðinn’s spear. Óðinnic symbolism may also be implied by the triangular shape of the building, which resembles the Valknut: a symbol that due to its appearance in Old Norse artwork has been tied to the cult of Odin and possibly implying a sacrificial rite as well.

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While Christian’s role as the bear sacrifice is said to represent the banishing of the ill affects that threaten the community, it may be that this is yet another allusion to the cult of Óðinn, as the Berserkers (“bear shirts”) were a band of warriors that wore bear pelts and were tied to him specifically.

Runic Symbolism in the Movie 

Other commentators have noticed that each of the primary characters seem to have been assigned one or two runes that are symbolic of their role in the story. There does seem to be a logic to these choices if you’re paying attention.

Dani:
On her Midsommar costume, Dani has the runes Dagaz (Also Dæg in Old English, meaning “day”) and Raido (“riding”). In modern Rune mysticism, Dagaz is often interpreted as a rune pertaining to transformation (such as the transition from night into day) and personal enlightenment. Raido, as I’ve already mentioned, signifies a journey and the journey of the earth goddess across the land her in wagon. One could interpret these runes appearing on Dani’s costume as a symbol of her own death/rebirth transformation. Dagaz is sewn onto her shoes, which seems to signify the she is walking a journey of transformation from darkness into light. It’s significant that she arrives in Hårga on her birthday, as this is where the death of her old life will conclude and her new life as a resident will soon begin.

Christian:
The robe that Christian wears before participating in Maja’s sex ritual has the runes Teiwaz (Týr or Tiw) and Elhaz (Eohlsecg in Old English) on it: both runes that could be interpreted as representing male virility. Teiwaz is related to the sky god Týr, and could be said to represent the pillar between the sky and the earth (an obviously phallic symbol). Likewise, Elhaz can be translated to mean “elk-sedge” or “elk”, the symbol of horned animals also relating to male virility and sedge relating to protection. It could also be that the Elhaz rune is actually meant to be the Younger Futhark version of Maðr (meaning “man”) which could also be interpreted as specifically male power in this case. The point seems to be that the community has one use and one use only for ol’ Christian (if you catch my drift).

Pelle:
Pelle’s Midsummer costume has the rune Fehu on it, which translates to “cattle” and “wealth”. Other commentators have pointed out how Fehu fits Pele’s role in the story as one who brings sacrifices (interpreted as wealth) to the ritual. I would also add to this that the Norwegian Fehu poem is one which also suggests betrayal and secret danger brewing beneath the surface:

“Wealth causes kinsmen’s strife; 
The wolf feeds itself in the wood.” 

Fehu may point to Pele’s role as a secret source of danger to the travelers.

Siv:
Siv seems the be the community’s holy woman, and therefore is paired with the rune Ansuz, which appears on her clothes and carved outside the entrance of her house. Ansuz (meaning “god”, “mouth”, and “estuary”) is a rune that is tied to the Æsir gods and Óðinn in particular. This rune seems to signify her role as an intermediary between the gods and the community, as well as a speaker of holy words.

Kenaz: 
Also Cen (“torch” in Old English) and Kaun (“sore” in Old Norse). This is a Rune I saw floating around on the dresses of a few women worshippers in the movie. As Kenaz is a rune that relates to fire, this could possibly be a bit of foreshadowing for the fire sacrifice at the end of the film.

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Final Thoughts 

It’s obvious that Ari Aster did quite a bit of digging into the world of Norse folklore and magic in order to shape his Hårga community and gives the astute watcher quite a few symbols to ponder. I can’t decide if it was a blessing or a missed opportunity that there wasn’t more talk about he Norse gods or worldview in the film, which on one hand spared the gods from being cast as barbaric figures of superstition, but whose absence made the community of Hårga feel a bit hollow to me and more like a New Age cult than the survival of an ancient religion. The masculinization of the sun in the movie also felt a bit like a missed opportunity to tie Dani’s role as the “May Queen” to that of Sunna: the sun goddess and an obvious player in the community’s sun rituals.  But aside from those small points, I greatly enjoyed the movie and Ari Aster’s obvious talent for synthesizing intriguing stories with some beautiful and deeply disturbing imagery.

Sources

The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Penguin Classics, 2010

Alu: An Advanced Guide to Operative Runeology,  Thorsson, Weiser Books, 2012

Rudiments of Runelore,  Pollington, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011

The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson and Byock, Penguin, 2005

The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, Orchard, Penguin Books, 2011

History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen,  Adam of Bremen and Tschan, Columbia University Press, 2002

Agricola and Germany, Tacitus and Birley, Oxford University Press, 2009

Eyrbyggja Saga, Pállson, Penguin Books, 1989

1 thought on “A Norse Pagan Look at “Midsommar” (And yes, there are spoilers)

  1. Thank you for this. I watched the movie and was left feeling… odd. I really could not decide if I even enjoyed it or not. The utilization of the Runes and the obvious references to the Sagas were great, and entirely barbaric. The use of Othala as the tables was a good addition, further binding the community together. Yet overall I kept having this underlying feeling as if something sacred was being taken and used to make money. The artistic merit of the film is without doubt, but the plot device of the Icelandic traditions; I have to agree that it seems so much more like a isolated New Age cult. On the flip I can also see a very STRONG example of showing the differences in not only religious but cultural morality across the world that are so very different from what we Americans are used to.

    Like

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