Queer Amusements: Searching for the places ‘haunted by monsters and gods’

Photo by Paul Berry via Unsplash
Investigating Viking history and myth, local lore and Norse sorcery, Queer Amusements writer-in-residence Jane Claire Bradley returns to share some of her research so far

Hot tip: researching material about the Viking heritage of Blackpool and the surrounding area will initially turn up tons of search results about the Viking Hotel and Valhalla, the Pleasure Beach’s award-winning dark ride log flume, named for the great hall in Norse mythology where the warrior dead congregate after being killed in battle.

I’m no expert, and until now I’ve never explored the Norse myths in depth, but a few concepts like Valhalla are familiar. Some of these stories I’ve been told all my life, thanks to a family member who’d claim we were directly descended from Vikings. Even if he was still with us, I’m not sure there would be a way to verify this assertion, not when the Vikings lived more than a millennium ago. But even years after this relative’s death, I remember his repeated, adamant claim to this aspect of his identity, and his reverential retelling of Viking folklore, even if I couldn’t recall the details.

That’s one thread that was bubbling in my brain when I started research for my Queer Amusements writing residency, using the vaguest of all possible starting points: words like place, identity, heritage, ancestors and home.

A lot of my writing has an uncanny element, and I was already somewhat familiar with the local legends about the drowned villages and forests in the nearby area. But I didn’t know that Kilgrimol (for which the local heritage craft group gets its name) may have originally been a Norse settlement, or that there’s a story that on certain nights you can still hear the church bells tolling from under the waves. I didn’t know that only half an hour away in Preston is where the largest ever hoard of lost Viking treasure was discovered.

In learning about these local links, I realised how little I knew. The Vikings have been by turns mythologised, fetishised and demonised ever since they came to these shores, and much of what we think we know about them has been disputed over time.

Finding the truth in among the folklore is a complicated undertaking, but I started with diving into Viking Britain by Thomas Williams, a book which weaves together academic sources and research to chronicle the Vikings’ history and their influence and legacy right down to today.

I always knew place was going to be an important part of this project, so I was curious about the relationship the Vikings had with their physical environment, and it’s recurring theme throughout Viking Britain.

Pits and ditches, barrows and ruins, mountains, rivers and forests: all could be home to the dead, the divine and the diabolical, haunted by monsters and gods

“In travel, art and literature, landscape became a way to commune with the people of the Viking Age – people who had seen the same red sun rising, felt the same cold wind on their necks, touched the same fissures in the smooth grey rock. This has in turn become a way to explore the mentality and world-view of a people with an intimate and profoundly imaginative relationship with the environment. For people living in the latter centuries of the first millennium, the landscape was teeming with unseen inhabitants and riddled with gateways to other worlds. Pits and ditches, barrows and ruins, mountains, rivers and forests: all could be home to the dead, the divine and the diabolical, haunted by monsters and gods.”

The dead. The divine. The diabolical. Those words alone were enough to have me hooked. These spiritual, otherworldly elements are fascinating to me – in my mind, the dividing line between divine and diabolical is personal, subjective, and a matter of perspective. And while I’m already familiar with a range of pagan belief systems and practices, my knowledge of the Norse pantheon of deities leaves a lot to be desired.

So, since it already had a home on my bookshelves, I dug out my partner’s copy of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland, a gorgeously-illustrated collection of stories featuring the nine worlds and cast of gods, goddesses and other forces and entities that populate Viking lore.

we are caught up in the see-sawing battle for power between the gods and the giants, a struggle punctuated by surprising love-matches,thrilling journeys, thefts and recoveries, and dazzling magic

As the author explains in the book’s introduction: “The Norse myths are brilliant, fast-moving, ice-bright stories. The first tells how the world was created and the last is an incredible description of how it will be destroyed – only to begin again. And in between, we are caught up in the see-sawing battle for power between the gods and the giants, a struggle punctuated by surprising love-matches, riddle-duels, thrilling journeys, thefts and recoveries, running and eating and drinking and wrestling contests, and dazzling magic […] in the myths, the gods and supernatural beings are exaggerations of the Vikings who created and worshipped them. They try to explore how humans are, and how things came to be. They tell us about ourselves and our world not as modern scientists would, but through the lens of imaginative storytelling, coloured by the beauty and expanse and extremes of the icy, fiery landscape where they originated.”

When I mentioned my research to a couple of mates, one of them – so deep into Viking lore themselves that they’re writing a novel set in that time and world – signposted me towards seidr, a shamanistic Norse form of trance and divination magick that I’ve been reading more about while listening to a constant, atmospheric soundtrack of musicians like Wardruna, Dreyma and Danheim.

I’m not sure yet where following these threads will take me. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’ll be back soon to share more about the ideas I’m exploring as writer-in-residence, along with details about the performance that they’ll hopefully evolve into. In the meantime, you can find out more about what’s coming up at Queer Amusements or sign up to my newsletter for more updates from me.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Jane Claire Bradley is an award-winning author, performer, therapist and educator. She is Blackpool Social Club's writer in residence for Queer Amusements 2024.

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