The Last Viking: A Conversation with Lars Magnar Enoksen, musician, artist, author and Glima master

Lars Magnar Enoksen is an internationally acclaimed Glima master based in Norway, where he teaches what some describe as traditional ‘Viking’ martial arts. But to those who know him as “The Last Viking” he is much more.

Photo courtesy of Lars Magnar Enoksen

Lars Magnar Enoksen is an internationally acclaimed Glima master based in Norway, where he teaches what some describe as traditional ‘Viking’ martial arts. For those unfamiliar with Glima, it is an ancient form of ‘folk wrestling’ that was introduced to Iceland by Norwegian settlers in the 9th century and, according to the Jónsbók law book from 1280, it was a combat system that was continually practiced by the population there for centuries following the Vikings arrival.

In 2016, Enoksen’s prolific fighting career earned him the ‘Traditional Martial Artist of the Year’ award from the Swedish Budo & Martial Arts Federation. He is also an educator specializing in the use of runes and galdr. He has published 30 books in at least eight languages focusing on runes, galdrs, glima, Norse mythology and Viking history, all while working as a story-writer for Walt Disney’s worldwide comics. In addition to his work in ‘Viking’ arts, he is also a visual artist and musician who has collaborated with the renowned band Wardruna. In the midst of his hectic schedule, the day after his 60th birthday, Lars agreed to sit for an interview with The Midgardian in November 2020 where he describes what it means to be a Viking in the 21st century.

JDT: You’ve been called one of the last Vikings, what does it mean to you to be a Viking? What does being a Viking mean?

LARS: Oooh, well, if I am the last Viking then there are not so many of us left (laughs). I hope still that there are many more than me. I should say that I have not called myself ‘the last Viking,’ it is others who like to say that. I think that they are referring to me being very interested in the Viking Age. If we use the terminology that we have on the rune stones, we have the expression “to go Viking” which means to travel as a Viking.

So being a Viking is somebody who travels away from his homeland, most likely on a ship because that was the best means of transportation in those days. These travels can be for trading, they can be for looting, and they can be for exploring. So, those three components combine to make the old definition—you know the definition that the Vikings themselves had for the expression “Viking.” But now in the modern society there are some people that are so interested in the old ways that they utilize the old ways in their attitude, in their work, and in their private and social life. That might be the reason some have called me ‘The Last Viking,’ but there are more: many more.

JDT: You mentioned that many people are now trying to live in accordance with the “old ways.” What does that mean to you, to live in accordance with the old ways? Is it a set of principles or is it a set of beliefs or is it both?

LARS: I would say both. Yes, there is a set of principles, but those principles are common in many cultures. The old ways, the old Nordic ways that is, placed emphasis on the importance of laws for how you should act in society. You should not kill, you should not steal, and there will be consequences for offenses. For instance, if you go to a party you should not beat up a guest. That is not proper behavior, and the utmost consequence was that people who did not behave according to the laws of the community were outlawed—abandoned from society and anybody could kill an outlaw without being prosecuted. So, it is based on what I would call a high moral standard. If your society is going to work, there should be some rules on how people should interact. Or, at least, the Vikings thought so.

JDT: There seems to be a lot of people in the English-speaking world that are interested in Vikings but many of them seem to have this idea (probably from pop culture) that the Vikings were just lawless barbarians. It seems there are some people that like that idea.

LARS: That is so stupid because if you go back to the Viking age, which is said to have started in the middle of the 700s, but really there is of course no fixed date. It is popular to say that it all started with the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793, but we know from the culture, the art, the runes, that it started somewhere in the middle of the 700s. And it ends sometime around 1100, around the Battle of Hastings. It is from this time that we see the Viking Age as something connected with warfare—which it was, but that was not all.

The Vikings were famous for being very efficient warriors but that has to do with their culture and their laws because in their laws dueling and blood revenge were legal rights you had. If some family has killed someone in your family, you were allowed to take out anyone in the other family—any male person over twelve years old. So, if you couldn’t get the one who did the act, you could still do harm, equalizing it.

That meant every male person over twelve years old could be a living target if some relative committed an offense against someone else. That is why everyone needed to know how to fight and defend themselves otherwise their family or their tribe would just go downhill. So, they had a lot of games, sports, and agility exercises to make them very well-trained in how to fight. Then, when they would travel, they also found out that people outside Scandinavia are not as good at fighting as them. So, when you do trade and business you say, if you have these goods I’ll give you something in return. But once you realize the others are not good fighters you can say, I don’t want to pay you, so I will take your goods. What do you say now? (Laughs) So, it has something to do with their society but really it was the laws that made them good fighters and it was their laws that proved they were not ‘barbarians.’

For instance, the Chronicle of Nestor was written in Russian around 1100 and it starts with history from around the 800s where a delegation is sent to Sweden and they said, “You in Sweden have such just laws. Can you please teach your laws and come to our area?” And so three kings or chieftains traveled back with them to teach the laws. They eventually made the foundation of what we call Russia now because it comes from ‘Rus,’ an area east of Sweden. So, Russia is a name that comes from a native Swedish expression.

The Nordic laws of Sweden were very well-known outside Scandinavia and people wanted to learn them because they were regarded as democratic. The same thing can be seen in Britain during the 800s or 900s. There they had accepted the Dane Law. It was called this because the people there called the Vikings “Danes” since many of them, although not all, came from Denmark.

So, Dane Law means the Nordic law and the Nordic law is the basis of the jury system which people saw as much fairer than the Roman law. The Dane Law was very democratic because the ‘Danes’ didn’t see any difference between the king and a normal person. That distinction came with Christianity whereas before, say we had a legal dispute and we decided to settle it ourselves, I could tell you: “I will pay one ox to you” or something else of value and the matter would be settled. But then, after Scandinavia became Christianized, the churches said they also wanted a cut. So now if I was going to pay you an ox, the church also wants to have an ox. And then the king said I also want a cut, so it quickly became that there were two other parties involved that you had to pay tribute to. That was when the laws became less democratic.

So, this is the way that history developed, but the people who lived according to the old ways were not barbarians at all. They simply had a different form of law that the Christian kings did not like and so the Christians called them barbarians and that reputation remains today, but it is false.

Photo courtesy of Lars Magnar Enoksen.

JDT: I see. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding, at least in much of the English-speaking world that laws always lead to oppression, but you’re saying that the old pre-Christian laws were actually the basis of the people’s freedom.

LARS: Yes! If we know the real history, we know that laws were originally created to protect the people. The English language even has gotten the word law from Scandinavia. So, you are right, many people today see laws and government only as oppression but that is not how it was in the beginning. Law was a way for us to all be equal. For instance, in the 1200s, people in Ireland – after they were conquered by the Normans – took the Roman law, and that is not democratic. Still, in the 1200s, if you were an Irish peasant and you had legal trouble, if you could prove you were of Viking descent then you could demand that that you wanted to use the Nordic laws. So even then they knew it was more democratic than their new Norman or ‘British’ laws.

JDT: Interesting. I think it’s fascinating when you really start to study the minutia and the fine details of the history, you see that the laws were actually designed to keep the people free and equal, not to oppress the people.

LARS: Yes exactly. So that was the basis for many centuries but then the Christian kings adopted a sort of Roman law that was not so good for the people. According to the old Nordic religion a king was only the person who was going to arrange their heathen festivals. The king was supposed to have contact with the gods and create these big festivals. To make these festivals he of course had to get some people in the area to pay taxes, but that was because he was arranging the big annual party that everybody could join.

Interestingly enough, the Vikings never enforced their religion on the people any place they settled. So, if they came to a Christian place they never said, “Okay, now you are all heathens instead!” The Vikings thought that your beliefs were a personal thing, but not their laws. The laws are something that everybody has to work for so that society can thrive. So, I may not believe in a god, I may believe in the old tree that I think is really powerful and these big spectacular stones. It didn’t matter. What you believe in is nobody else’s business, but not the laws. Good laws made by strong people is what made them free.

We have the same thing in the ‘Viking’ martial art, glima. If somebody willingly tries to hurt the other person while training for fun, they are instantly chased away. We beat them up and they are not allowed to play with us (laughs). That is the small version of how kids learn what it is like in real life. Because if you act badly to other people when you are a grown-up, people will chase you out from society and maybe they will kill you in the process, so you have to learn this at a young age. Otherwise we have no use for you.

For instance, I am direct and I say what I think. I can be convinced that I am right but through discussion I can learn I was wrong and then change my mind. But until that happens I will act like I am right. You must have an open mind. The concept that you could be wrong must exist. So that maybe says how I can be regarded as the last Viking too. I believe in the old ways, in hearing the people, and following the old law.

JDT: I hope that there are a lot more following in your steps.

LARS: Yeah, there are. There are, of course!

JDT: One of the things I was curious about, since you are a musician and an artist having this really diverse background, what is the interconnection between arts and literature and history and Glima, this martial tradition? Do you see a common thread that binds it all together?

LARS: Yes, I would say that there is the creative aspect in each, and most of these things you mentioned demand creativity, but you must work with it. Even literature, the more you read the wider your view becomes, and then you can discern the quality of sources. In art, you can of course be a natural talent—I know people who are naturally talented in art, music, and fighting. But the thing is, if you don’t have the endurance, many people that have great talent, they are not as good when things go against them. Suddenly they get some opposition and the creativity can stop, or in fighting you might hit a plateau. That can be difficult to handle for someone who is just born with it. There are many talents like that. But if you do music and singing, training, art, fighting and you really have to work hard for it then you have a much stronger foundation to build on.

I do not have a natural talent in the things I do. Of course, I had some talent and creativity; otherwise I would not be interested. But it is the hard work that matters.

Photo courtesy of Lars Magnar Enoksen.

JDT: So, it is similar to other martial traditions. For example, like Miyamoto Musashi says in The Book of Five Rings, if you want to learn to fight with a sword, learn to play the guitar. If you want to learn to play the guitar, study calligraphy. Musashi emphasizes that there is a sort of Way, or Tao. Is there an idea like that in the Norse faith?

LARS: Okay, when you say it like that, you have to remember Musashi lived in the 1600s so now we are talking about a person who lives in what we call in the early modern age. So, if we take him as an example, his way was not the usual way. He was a free thinker. At that time in Japan you could not do calligraphy art if you weren’t an official calligrapher, but he did it. So no I don’t think this applies because Japan was a very strict society. I of course love Musashi, but I don’t apply that to my own life.

JDT: I suppose what I mean is that Musashi recognized a common thread or approach to perfecting one’s chosen art, whether it is visual art, music, or fighting.

LARS: Okay, but I don’t see things in the Asian way, you know. I don’t believe that there are any chakras in my body. I don’t force my mind so it should fit into an Asian way of thinking.

JDT: Yes, of course. I guess what I am really asking is if you draw on a single source of inspiration in your art, your music, and your fighting.

LARS: Ohhh, that. Okay, okay (laughs). Now that was a better way to ask the question. Yes, my source is of course inspiration, curiosity, and happiness. I am a person that is curious. I always think to myself, why are things like this or like that? What can this mean? If it is something about the gods or the myths, I am very curious, but it can also be about Glima technique.

I think, okay, if I get into a situation where my opponent constantly overpowers me, there must be instances where I could have stopped this. So, in my mind I go back and see where I should have evaded it, and then I think, I should have reacted quicker before the other person got a great advantage. So, then I have many more possibilities to go in different directions and move the balance. I just have to be more aware of moving very quickly when I feel like it is going into a dangerous situation.

That is part of the skill – having the curiosity in changing the situation so you can be better. And I am also only interested about things where I am able to find out things.

Many people now in the modern age do the opposite: they only go for the things we cannot find out, since that’s what they think is fascinating. For example, if we take the sagas and compare them to the galdr and the runes, we can see that the knowledge of the runes and the galdr never died out. So, those are things you can actually learn from an unbroken tradition. No problem at all. Well, of course you actually have to make some effort. Nobody says that it is easy.

But for instance, with seidr – that knowledge died out many centuries ago—probably extinct for at least seven centuries. But there are still those who focus on seidr, but nobody knows nowadays what it is really. It just sounds really cool. According to Snorri Sturluson, seidr is the most powerful form of sorcery. So modern people become interested in that, but they cannot know what it truly was, so they can invent anything they like. They take from other rituals and practices, and call it “seidr.” And many people are so stupid that they are willing to believe in those charlatans.

Of course, I am interested in seidr but in another way that most modern people aren’t. I am more interested in the sexual aspects of the seidr, since the old sources associate it with these energies. Why do the sources say that seidr is dangerous for men? What is this? Can we find out?

Photo courtesy of Lars Magnar Enoksen.

JDT: So, you are obviously incredibly knowledgeable about all this and I wonder, do you think that there is a special value to an artist or even to a fighter to immerse oneself in his or her cultural heritage? Do you see special value in that?

LARS: Oh, yes. I was of course interested in my cultural heritage already as a kid. But then when I became a teenager I started traveling. Here in Scandinavia and Europe we have an Inter-rail system where you can go one month by train and travel all over the continent. So, I started doing that when I was sixteen. I would work one month during the summers and earn enough to travel the next month before school started again.

This was in the late 1970s and I loved to meet people from other cultures, but they were always asking about my country. I realized then when they asked things that I could not answer because I knew too little, so then I wanted to know more. At this time, I was making music and I also wrote story books like comics and started working as a professional writer at the age of 22 and of course I created avant-garde music, but nobody wanted that (laughs). When you are a creative person you can also be manic in your interests. I seldom think of the money, only what makes me happy. For example, when I start reading about fascinating subjects I will read it through and then quickly jump to the next cross reference, and then the brain is boiling. Then I am not so aware of this going on around me.

But to return to your question, the more experiences I had of the world, the more I realized the importance of understanding your own heritage as a way of understanding yourself.

JDT: So, one of the things you had just mentioned that I think is really interesting is that, for you, your pursuit of arts—and I think you would probably consider martial arts also an art—that it is not the money that interests you: it’s the happiness and the connections you make through your work. So, I wonder, in Hávamál for example, we are warned not to horde wealth. Tacitus also talks about how the ancient northern cultures were not that interested in wealth and I wonder: do you think that that continues in Scandinavian culture? I mean I know there are always exceptions, but as a rule?

LARS: Yes, I would say that. We have that with the youngsters of today. They want an easy world where they can earn a lot of money. That is of course the perfect utopia for them. But for me and for a lot of people, money is not so important. Many people want more money but why do they want it? Often they just want to have more free time. It all goes down to having time to do the things that we love. So, in a sense I am super wealthy because I only do the things I love. I am very rich since there are too few that can say that their love is also their work.

I write books because I enjoy doing it, but also because the internet mainly gives access to bad information. So, with my skills and wisdom I am able to specialize in things that are not so easily accessible, especially for people not living in Scandinavia—not having access to these manuscripts or these editions – because I believe these things belong to the family of humanity.

Nowadays there are a lot of people from abroad telling me that they have this or that heritage and all of them go back to the most famous Viking kings, and I ask them if they know how difficult this is to trace back. It is hard to trace back further than the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries in Scandinavia because the churches maintained these records, but they were made of wood and many burned down. They had these logs of the families so we have a lot of information from the later Viking age, the early medieval times and the modern times, but we also have this important gap in between and that is the same thing with traditions.

If you have a tradition, you know, like the galdrs, like the runes, like the glima, you must be able to trace them back through every century. We cannot just say they existed in the 9th and the 10th when really most of these ideas are from the 19th century. We must also have everything in between, which is the hard work. That is what I do since this knowledge is power. So, when I explain this and quickly point out those who know nothing, some don’t like to hear it.

However, there are many who are just making everything up and explaining it to people who also know nothing, but who want to believe and want to be fooled. So maybe that is also one of those aspects about the “last Viking” – I am infamous for spotting those who are charlatans, those who are fakes. It is not popular among those people (laughs). But if I only wanted money or fame as many of these people do, then I would say to myself, ‘Great, I’ll just make it all up.’ But that would be dishonorable and totally against the old ways.

JDT: I assume a lot of those people that are most guilty of making up history are from England and the United States?

LARS: Oh, no. There are people everywhere, even in Scandinavia, just not to the same extent because here people have better basic knowledge of their history and myths, so you cannot fool them as easily as people abroad.

For more information on Lars Magnar Enoksen, please visit his site linked below. There you will also find books on a variety of subjects on Scandinavian history, thought, and Norse magic.