The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.

9 thoughts on “The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

  1. Great writing as always, and I appreciate your insightful probing into what our interests in Viking culture say about post-industrial society. I, for one, can’t help but think of the capitalistic mentality of ‘to the victor go the spoils’ as present in both epochs.

    I also can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s distinction between master morality and slave morality as separating our two epochs: we are of the slave morality and the Vikings seem to embody the master morality, according to Nietzsche’s concepts. The master morality was marked by a binary of good and bad, and the masters were superior to the slaves because they exercised their human drives of passion to flourish as they saw fit. They were thus justified in their actions because they had the courage to do what was good for them, such that they affirmed their actions as good. Yet as it was their brave and violent acts that made them good, the simple and common acts of the slaves made those persons bad. Slave morality comes into the world when the slaves declare that the actions of the masters make them evil, and as the slaves do not act in this way, they themselves are the good ones.

    This is a constructivist view of morality, implying that humans create morality, and it does not exist independently of us. Given that most persons subscribe to some sort of relativism/constructivism because of a belief that moral objectivity doesn’t fit into a scientific worldview, it seems possible that many people are entertained by what they think could have been, if morality had been constructed differently, or never changed. (For the record, I’m a moral realist, and don’t accept Nietzsche’s view, but I think many people accept something like it.)

    • Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.

      Nietzsche’s distinction certainly was lurking in the background of my post, although I think his distinction is a bit overly simplistic, even as far as moral constructivist views go. I too am a moral realist of a certain variety.

      Interestingly enough the “to the victor go the spoils” mentality which is shared both by capitalist morality and viking morality raises an interesting issue. Montesquieu makes the comment that commerce corrupts perfect mores, but softens barbaric ones, and in doing so he is endorsing commerce as a positive path for Europe in the 18th century. This suggests that capitalist morality may be less of a “slave morality” and more of a softened version of the honour ethic. Whereas battle used to determine victory and who was due honour, success over economic competitors does now. Sometimes I think we overstate how egalitarian capitalism is and lose sight of its relation to honour, prestige and recognition which are traditional hallmarks of the ethic of the honourable warrior.

  2. A couple of points, I mean its a good article, but the assertions are somewhat blunt: “Viking ethic”, “Capitalist ethic”? I am sure we speak more in terms of ideology, and hence a Viking “ideology” would become the term of choice, and that within itself is a stretch – if not – you need to “define” Viking morality.

    As “to the victor the spoils”, well you would have to account for philanthropy (within capitalism) there: Buffett, The Gates Foundation and what not, because this clearly is a cultural space created by the capitalist ideology, which enables individuals to do good (what would be termed “weakness” in Slave Morality – and yet these are the “victors” you speak of).

    Additionally I don’t think Nietzsche would have liked his work being read “down” so much, there would have been those in Viking society who were of a “Slave morality” too, and additionally the Slave and Master morality is more attributable (in my pitiful understanding) to individuals (as Nietzsche was obsessed with personal development – Uberman, Zarathustra) and did not write as either a macro/micro-sociologist.

    Capitalism arose out of very different historical circumstances to Viking society – assuming that you, as the author draw the same line as to the development of capitalism: the Enlightenment. You cannot “lump” an ideology that is effectively (as you say) egalitarian, and then “define it as a warrior/Master culture/morality” when they are so inherently unrelated to each other.

    If Vikings were “moral constructivists”, then what is Seidr? If we are moral constructivists – then why are there such vicious debates around the separation of ethics from religion and the role of religion? And if the Vikings were really of the “Master morality”, surely they would not have “lost a war to a Danish Christian King”?

    I mean this would account for the delayed cultural reaction of black metal? And possibly the violence the scene portrays against Christianity? The showing up of the Viking “Master morality” by the Christian conquerors. Now we do have a mess don’t we?

    “Master-Christians, who espouse Slave morality values – who conquered those espousing Master morality values, and forced them, to submit to a Master/Slave (at the same time) morality?”

    I would guess this accounts for the move to Viking metal, a desire to “forget the connotations of black metal”, and to propose a view of a “Master Morality” in a fresh music scene, cut free of the spectres of the old scene. As I said, I am more of an Emperor fan.

    Have a good day dude.

    • I think I may have been unclear when I said “Nietzsche’s distinction was certainly lurking in the background…” as I was not really relying on the distinction between Master and Slave morality, as I find that account unconvincing as an an account of the genealogy of egalitarian morality. What I was trying to get at with that comment was that I was trying to draw some distinction between the warrior ethic and liberal morality.

      You are right that philanthropy has a place in capitalism, and I did not deny this by saying that to the victors go the spoils. The typical argument would be that while the spoils go to the victors; the victors have a right to use what they have taken as they see fit. And this is where the Nietzschean notion of master morality splits ways with the warrior honour ethic. As the warrior ethic is perfectly compatible with the generosity of those who have taken spoils in battle, whereas master morality may have a narrower meaning.

      The warrior ethic is all about honour. Those who refuse to fight dishonour themselves, and those who win in battle by showing their excellence deserve glory. Any ethic of honour is all about being seen and remembered in particular ways. Likewise capitalism often is about honour. I agree capitalism is egalitarian in ways that a warrior ethic are not, but my point was rather that there are some connections in the way that we honour people who win in economic competition much in the same way that victorious warriors were honoured. Likewise I think the motivation of both warriors and members of a capitalist society are deeply tied to the desire for prestige, recognition and honour.

      You are right that capitalism originates with the enlightenment, but there are certain elements of humanity that continually resurface, and one of those is the desire for honour/recognition. This drive is present in differing forms in both warrior cultures and capitalist ones. So we can map out the historical continuity between warrior cultures and capitalist ones in terms of their ability to harness the honour loving part of the human psyche.

      I did not say that Vikings were moral constructivists. They quite clearly are not. Although Nietzsche certainly was.

      With regard to being more clear with my terms you are probably correct. I try to avoid being overly academic in these posts, but perhaps I need to be more clear with regard to the concepts I am working with.

      Thanks for the comments, and I hope this clarifies my perspective.

      Have a great day.

      • Excellent response. My questions were answered, and a tip of the hat to you, I shall continue to follow you’re blog good sir, you are clearly an articulate person who can actually articulate their views. Good form.

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