Andreas Kornevall grew up in South America, Sweden and Switzerland. He spent several years volunteering with charities around the world, after which he co-founded Working Abroad – a non-profit volunteering and travelling site. He now directs the Earth Restoration Service Charity, which aims to enhance ecological integrity by planting new woodlands around the world. And in response to the sixth mass extinction, he co-founded the Life Cairn movement: memorials for species rendered extinct at human hands. As a storyteller, he works with old myths and fairy tales which shine a torchlight on life’s journey; his stories tend to gravitate around the Northern and Greek mythological landscapes. I spoke to him about his love of myth, and the role it plays in life today.
Sharon Blackie: You are Swedish; how big a part did Scandinavian myth and folklore play in your early life, if at all?
Andreas Kornevall: The greatest part. The personification of Sweden is the Valkyrie, Svea, a powerful female warrior. To be a Swede means to ‘be of Svea’. You are already part of a myth by being born there. When she is not wielding a sword or filling a horn with brimming, inspiring ale, she is also a forest and a Mother, filled with endless glimmering lakes. In Sweden, each person today has the right to roam in her forests; the state, or the ownership of a rich man is always secondary. To roam there and to be able to build a small fire at dusk is a human right, and it is as important to a person’s life as access to a library or school. We share this ancient law with both Norway and Finland. When you are free to camp, run and explore, the old forest transforms into a living miracle, filled with possibility. For children, this is a gift from the Goddess. Today, when I bring my daughters there, we see elves, river sprites, knuckers, gods and trolls; the winds in the trees tell stories under every arched leaf and limb. All the stories that I carry are from that forest. The forest knows the correct pronunciation of every rune in the book, especially when the wind blows high in the leaves. All sacred texts and books come from the pulp of Yggdrasil, the world tree.
SB: What led you to a revived interest in the old stories as an adult?
AK: As I grew older, I recognised that the old stories were not there to merely entertain; instead, these stories contained codes and revelations of what it is like to live as a human being. They teach what it means to grapple with issues that we have to confront as adults, such as grief, love, illness, betrayal, innocence, inspiration, conflict or fatherhood/motherhood, to name a few.
As an adult today I am interested in the question of ‘inspiration’, and as we grow older, this is an essential component of being alive. Searching for the ‘Mead of Inspiration’ is central to the life of the gods and is one of the main stories of Odin. Hearing this story told as a child was surely entertaining and I loved it then – but now, through the eyes of an adult, it offers insight to important questions in my own life. For example, we hear that whoever drinks the mead receives inspiration, and therefore the gift of poetry. I think that we all taste a little from this liquid when we start new projects, or when we get out the door in our twenties to see the world. Suddenly there it is: the Water of Life is flowing through our veins, as important to us as it is for the gods. This experience is something precious, but once we find it, we need to protect it. And that can cause trouble. We start to build an infrastructure around the flowing Water of Life, around our muse. The musician becomes an events manager, the therapist a marketing manager, the teacher a champion of health and safety, and the eco-warrior transforms into a fundraiser. I am seeing many friends around me working as administrators to their muse. But once we build these infrastructures of protection, then what happens to the Mead of Inspiration? Can it dry up?
Are we happy to carry on working within this infrastructure that we seem to have to create to keep our dreams alive? There comes a time when you need to go and seek for the Water of Life again, when change comes knocking. If we stay rigid, do we not risk losing our inspiration? A later version of Odin’s story tells us that we have to seek the Water of Life when our viewpoints and perspectives no longer support us, or offer us meaning.
When Odin goes in search for the Mead of Inspiration, we have a fascinating journey with symbols as rich as a tarot deck, taking us through betrayal, hard work, seduction, transformation and courage. And it is all part of this quest, to taste a little of the gift of poetry and to find our inspiration.
SB: Why do you think the old stories are useful/ relevant/ necessary today?
AK: There seems to be very little evidence to indicate that we have evolved psychologically. Whether we have a rocket or a primitive club in our hands, our psychology and motives still seem to be the same. Which means that the old stories do not become redundant. In fact, they seem to be getting more relevant than ever. For example, Scandinavia owes a lot to the myths for its top gender-egalitarian society. The goddess Freyja is a feminist icon, and respected in battle and in decision-making. She receives half the share of the dead, and Odin the one-eyed takes the other half. When the dead only go to a father, you know that’s when we have a patriarchal problem.
But the old stories also tell that Freyja was mistreated: she spoke about her magic, and was burnt three times in the halls as a witch. But each time, she came back to life – stronger and golden, singing her spell-songs. She was the first witch to be put to the fire, and this led to war between the Sky Gods and the Spirits of Nature. Freyja belonged to a tribe of Gods we call the Vanir, who are associated with fertility, nature, and magic. None can win such a war, and so a reconciliation ritual had to be prepared. I know of no more poignant contemporary story at the moment, and I am developing this ritual of reconciliation with a dance choreographer. We learn that out of this ritual comes a very holy name from the Norse pantheon: Kvasir, which means, wisdom. This wisdom can only be gained when the Sky Gods and the Nature Spirits reconcile.
SB: Tell me something about the Forn Sed, a Scandinavian organisation focused around keeping folk traditions alive, of which I believe you’re a member?
AK: Forn Sed simply means ‘ancient custom’. I think that there are a few thousand of us that work in different areas of the pre-Christian Northern Tradition. We research and practice ceremonies, dances, handicrafts, clothing, languages, folklore and spirituality. People bring their creativity, inspiration and educated guesses whenever customs or traditions have been fractured or broken throughout history. The combination of an inquisitive mind, with some inspiration and will power, makes magic happen. For example, the Forn Sed community brought back an ancient spring-blessing ceremony (a Blot ritual) that happens in Uppsala now every year. It is a massive ritual, happening right next to the graves of old pagan kings, and everyone is invited regardless of background or belief. Through its work and respect for what it does, Forn Sed has become a society which is recognised by the government to conduct marriages and celebrations which honour the old gods and ancient customs. This is not re-enactment, but the continuation of an ancestral tradition that goes back for thousands of years. I know such words are always met with suspicion, but we use the allegory of the old knife story: ‘My knife is four thousand years old and it has passed down the generations.’ The person listening would be sceptical at first. ‘Over time, this knife may have needed some adjustment, a change of the handle, or a replaced blade when it had gone rusty – but it’s still the same knife!’ Yes, the customs have changed over history, but we still give offerings, we still dance, we still sing, we still remember parts of the old languages and the names of the gods – in that sense, it’s an unbroken tradition.
One thing that stands out from Forn Sed is that it’s not something you have to believe in. Always the main questions are: Do you know your old languages? Do you remember the dances? Can you spin the felt? Can you read the runes? Do you know how to give a blessing?
I went to see the San peoples in Namibia a few years ago, and they asked me the same questions. They didn’t want to know whether I believed in my gods or in theirs. To them, that is a infantile notion. Instead, they wanted to know which dance I remembered from my culture? Which song? I was happy to show them the frog dance, which is a powerful fertility dance around the midsummer solstice pole. You have to jump around and quack like a frog. Although our cultures were vast in our differences, suddenly at that moment we were joined by our shared aboriginal soul. They understood the dance instantly. We also traded beads.
SB: Tell me about a story/ character that particularly resonates with you.
AK: I am currently translating a story in which a troll born thousands of years ago, who still lives in the world of humankind, befriends one sunbeam. This little sunbeam dances through a hole in his dark cave and he has never seen anything so beautiful or alluring. When she goes away, he searches all over the nine worlds; he even builds a magical sickle full of runes that can attach itself to the moon, and he keeps swinging himself towards the moon for hundred of years – until one day finally he appears in the right part of the woods. This story resonated with me because it is showing us the spiritual quest of a dark troll, as he goes out there searching for one sunbeam. The sun would hurt him – the stakes are higher for a troll, as the light can also turn him into stone. That is why I love his character. I am working on this story for the Oxford Storytelling Festival in the summer. I love translating old folktales such as this, and I am always delighted to share them.
SB: How do you use myth and story in your own work?
AK: On a day-to-day basis I am an ecologist, as I direct an environmental restoration charity here in the UK. I am often invited to speak at schools about woodlands and the ecosystem around us. It was through this that storytelling revealed itself to me as a more professional practice. Now when I go to schools or colleges I tell Norse myths or folkloric tree stories. I have begun to use myths in my approach to teaching. I had such a positive response that just last week I ended up telling myths in a yurt to children from 9am to 3pm straight! Exhausting but nourishing work. Loki the trickster is always the favourite with the kids. I tried to coax them out of their screen obsessions by telling them that Loki lives in their iPhones – but that went the other way: they loved him even more! What a trickster indeed.
Storytelling or myth-telling has now become part of my ecological work; they are joined together. I am also working with a teacher in Old English and Old Norse, and both languages have been revelations to me in my studies of the mythic material. Due to the work with ancient languages, I have been invited to universities to speak about the various theories that exist when we look at runic talismans or rune-stones. The research I am doing right now with the runes is to work through their rich non-linguistic meanings. When we look at old rune stones, or talismans, we can witness moments when the runes are pointing to an object, a reality or concept, just as symbols do for us today. The runes are also rich in hair-raising numerological revelations, similar to the Hebrew and the classical Greek alphabets. I have discovered, through numerology, a pattern of numbers that rune carvers share with the mystical numbers of Mithras. This work has been enabled by translating the works of Professor Sigurd Argell, who I regard as the world’s most exciting runologist. He was a symbolist poet and runologist who lived in the 1930s. He spent his life uncovering the occult notions of the runes, and his findings are staggering. Much of it has never seen the light in the English language, and translating it feels like a sacred undertaking.
Image by Vicky Kornevall