A Time for Wolves
The Wolves of Vinland are Building a Tribe Outside the SystemBrothers will battle to bloody end, and sisters’ sons their sib betray; woe’s in the world, much wantonness; axe-age, sword-age — sundered are shields — wind-age, wolf-age, ere the world crumbled; will the spear of no man spare the other. — “Völuspá”
Grimnir moved barefoot through the dirt at Ulfheim like he didn’t know he wasn’t wearing cowboy boots.
He rolled his shoulders, shook out his neck, and called out to Frejulf. This would be Grimnir’s third match of the day, and it wouldn’t be his last.
Frejulf seemed chipper for a kid who knew was about to get his face fucked up. He was a junior patch member of the Wolves, and this was going to be a disciplinary beatdown. Grimnir, leader of the Lynchburg chapter, had promised that if Frejulf didn’t get some extracurricular mixed martial arts training within a few months, he would show him why he needed it. Frejulf knew his time was up.
A red bearded patch with an algiz ᛉ rune tattoo on his freckled shoulder started picking out a tune on the banjo.
Grimnir and Frejulf touched their MMA gloves. Then hoots, hollers and brawling.
The fight was over in less than a minute.
Frejulf had blood on his face when he got up. He looked a little dazed, but he was smiling. He’d taken his medicine like a man, and hadn’t made too bad of showing — all things considered.
Paul Waggener, who you know as Grimnir, gave him a quick hug and a pat on the back.
There’s this video making the rounds designed to convince people that the worst thing you can tell a young male to do is “man up.”
It’s far worse to let a young men luxuriate in his own tears and fears and fantasize that he’s something special for doing nothing special. That’s a degradation of his spirit and a waste of a perfectly good Y chromosome.
A fat lip is just a fat lip.
Grimnir grabbed a wifebeater, cleaned the mud off his face and called out for a prospect to bring him a beer. He looked on as the fights continued. A few more serious matches, and a lot of light sparring. Another bloodied smile, a mild concussion and some vomiting. All in good fun.
Grimnir told me that the fighting was just a warmup for the main event at dusk. His brother, Jarn-nefr, who runs the Wyoming chapter, added later that the greatest achievement of the Wolves has been their ritual practice.
The Wolves of Vinland officially identify themselves as “a tribe of folkish heathens.”
About seven years ago, Grimnir and Jarn-nefr were running a black metal venue in the Lynchburg, Virginia area, and they decided to start a regular Viking theme night. They drank beer, played Icelandic folk music, and started reading the Eddas. As more of their friends became interested, they decided to move things outside. The Wolves started holding regular sumbels in a National Park.
The sumbel is a common practice in Germanic paganism, derived from ancient texts like Beowulf, Lokasenna and Heimskringla. Sumbel loosely means “feast” or “gathering” and often involves “boasting” or “toasting” with drinking horns filled with mead.
As the Wolves entered their second year, the guys started wrestling at sumbel, and some of the members started wearing motorcycle gang style “battle jackets.” From the initial “come one, come all” approach, a natural hierarchy and sense of collective identity emerged. The men felt the need to determine who was “in” and who was “out.” Oaths of loyalty were taken, and new members were filtered through a prospecting system. As Grimnir said to me, “why hang out with just anyone?”
By the end of the third year, the current system was more or less in place, and all new members had to be voted in unanimously at the Lynchburg group at Ulfhiem. The Wolves have members in eleven states and a handful of international prospects. They’ve been denounced as “luckless bastards” by some more “settled” heathen organizations, so they decided to make a joke of it. Several of the Wolves wear “luckless bastard” patches on their battle jackets.
Ulfhiem is a 12-acre property owned by the Wolves. There’s a small cabin, a tool shed, and a structure for smaller fires where music is played. In 2013, the group crowd-funded the construction of a massive longhall, which is almost finished. The majority of the group’s activities, however, are funded by dues.
The afternoon of fighting was part of the Wolves’ monthly “moot” — a word with deep Indo-European roots that means “meeting” or “gathering.” It’s where “moot point” comes from. Originally, “moot point” meant an issue that needed to be resolved by an assembly of a people, but has come to indicate an issue already resolved and therefore irrelevant. Part of the moot’s purpose is for patched members of the Wolves to discuss official business. At some point during the afternoon, Grimnir called them over and they disappeared to vote on patching in a new member — and other subjects unknown to outsiders.
As Sköll chased the sun across the sky, I joined some of the prospects at the top of a hill. They were cutting themselves and using their own blood to draw runes and sigls on a large piece of white fabric. It was the sail for a fifteen or twenty foot long mock wooden ship they’d built earlier. I helped them fill the hull with branches for the night’s ritual — a yearly celebration of Baldr’s funeral.
The women of the tribe prepared food and we ate as home-brewed mead and beer were passed around. Grimnir joined a few of the other musicians and played country music. A couple of kids had their own wrestling matches. Everyone was restlessly waiting for dusk. As golden hour approached, a tall guy with several runic brands on his lanky frame came over to talk to me about the ritual. His name was Finnulfr, and he’d given a workshop on sigils earlier in the afternoon. He invited me to come down and “get crazy” with the guys in their ritual pre-funk.
Grimnir handed me the end of a bottle of home-brewed mead and told me to kill it. It was deliciously dry compared to the sugary meads I’d tasted in the past. I followed him and a few others into the woods and down a hill to a place called the Ve. There was already a small fire going, and Finnulfr and the others were busy preparing for the ritual. It was almost dark, and the failing light beyond the crackling fire of the Ve seemed cold and blue. Three black, rune-painted drums were beaten in a steady, ominous rhythm. The men took off their cuts and shirts and passed around a bowl full of black ash, blood and mead. Each Wolf smeared it on his face, chest and arms. One of them asked me to draw algiz ᛉ on his forehead. I wasn’t sure how much I should participate as an outsider, but I was glad when he smeared the black goop across my face in some unknowable configuration.
After they’d all anointed themselves, they gathered around one of the drums and started a group death drone that sounded a bit like low Mongolian throat singing. Different men picked up different registers, adding growls and howls to an otherworldly mix of primal sounds.
This is the point where you decide whether you want to remain a smug “objective” outsider, or allow yourself to be moved by the experience and become part of it. You decide whether the movie is good enough to lose yourself in it.
I wanted this experience. I traveled across the country for it. I closed my eyes for a while and let go.
Somewhere between the drums and the hums and wild throat singing, out here in the darkness, we folded into the headspace of our barbarian fathers. Men, magic and nature were all the same thing, and the world was alive again.
After a few more minutes, the drumming reached a climax and stopped. The men got up and there were embraces and pats on the back and shoulder and the hand-to-forearm handshake the Wolves favor. There was some joking and quiet laughter, but the Wolves reminded each other to keep the mood.
I was seated beside an eight foot wooden stretcher covered in black cloth that symbolized Baldr’s corpse. Grimnir came over and handed me a plastic milk jug full of wormwood-infused homebrew.
“This should get you in the mood.”
I took a few pulls, but Grimnir and Lyðulfr insisted that I keep chugging it until I’d swallowed what I’d guess was at least a full pint. I drank until they were satisfied and joked about being an old man, but the truth was that I wanted to make sure I’d be able to remember the night.
It was whispered that we had about twenty minutes before the actual faining would begin. Finnulfr explained later that it was called a faining instead of a blot because no sacrificial blood would be spilled during this particular ritual. Some of the guys relaxed, and some of them focused on final preparations. Grimnir, Jarn-nefr, Finnulfr and Lyðulfr had each prepared readings for Baldr’s funeral and they quietly coordinated them.
The story of Baldr’s death, harrowing and rebirth comes from the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda, was developed in the Gylfaginning in Sturluson’s Prose Edda, and was retold by poet Matthew Arnold in 1855.
Baldr was the son of Odin and brother of Thor. As the god of light and purity, he was known as the most beautiful of all the gods. He and his mother, Frigg, dreamed of his death, so Frigg asked all of the plants and animals and stones to swear they’d never hurt him. She overlooked the mistletoe, because it seemed harmless and too young to swear. Because nothing could hurt him, he became invincible, and the gods made a game of hurling things at Baldr — knowing he’d be unharmed. Loki, ever mischievous, made an arrow (or a spear) of the mistletoe, and gave it to the blind god Höðr to shoot at Baldr. When he shot the arrow, Baldr fell dead.
The gods wept and placed his funeral pyre on a ship to burn at sea, “for that is what the dead desire.” In death he went to the underworld, with Hel, and although his mother tried to broker his release, he was forced to remain there until Ragnarök, the end of the world. After the other gods die and the giant Surtr sets fire to the world with his flaming sword, Baldr will be released from the underworld and begin a new age with the survivors of the cataclysm.
The story of Baldr is a story of hope and the rebirth of beauty and purity following an age of darkness and despair.
We saw lights following the path down the hill. The drums started up again and everyone took their places. The women and other members of the tribe gathered above the Ve.
When everyone was settled, Finnulfr called out the directions with a spear — invoking the land spirits, gods and ancestors. Grimnir, Jarn-nefr and Lyðulfr gave fiery, nearly Nietzschean speeches about self-overcoming through discipline and will, and increasing the honor of the group by becoming a higher version of oneself. Grimnir reminded the assembled heathens that they were in a place “out of time,” consciously revolting against the modern world and becoming a different kind of man. He spoke about the evils of the encroaching world and concluded that it was a good time to be a wolf, because the future belongs to wolves. Lyðulfr spoke about the rebirth of Baldr and knowing that light will come from darkness. He ended his grim, pagan sermon by shouting “LONG LIVE DEATH!”
After all of the men had spoken, Jarn-nefr introduced a prospect who had travelled from Wyoming to moot. He was a tall, solid guy with white-blond hair. I’d watched him win a boxing match earlier that day. Jarn-nefr wrapped a wolf skin around his shoulders and directed him to a stone podium to read out his oath to all and become a full member of the Wolves of Vinland. His name was “Ref the Fox.”
At that point Finnulfr and the others “loaded” some mead with galdr, meaning that they sung sacred songs over it. The women of the tribe took the sacred mead around the group and filled each horn with enough for one toast to the gods. After drinking, we each spit in a bowl that was passed around, and the contents of the bowl was poured out onto the ground.
Jarn-nefr initiated the procession back up the hill, and told everyone to prepare their thoughts for sumbel and take a moment to be sure their words would be “worthy of the gods.”
The Wolves carried Baldr’s body carefully and somberly up the switchbacks, and laid him on his pyre.
We gathered in a circle around the ship, and sumbel was held, with toasts made by all to gods, heroes and ancestors followed by a round of more personal boasts and oaths. Some toasts were serious, some were grand, some were sad, and some were funny.
When we’d gone around the circle three times, someone placed a rune-painted plaque in front of Baldr’s corpse. Some words were spoken in his honor, and Jarn-nefr set the ship on fire. We watched the conflagration grow from a light crackling of hay bales and branches to a blazing bonfire with flames jumping fifteen or twenty feet in air.
The tribe dispersed, with folks going back to the smaller fire to check on children or to grab musical instruments or more booze. Several songs were sung in unison, including the Wolves’ own battle hymn, “I’m A Good Old Rebel” and some old seafaring tunes. I pulled out a pack of cigars, offered one to Grimnir and a couple of the other guys. We smoked them by the calmed fire, which still glowed in the outline of a ship. Grimnir put the moves on an unattached female and disappeared into the woods. Some of the Wolves retired to tents, some to cars and some just passed out in the dirt next to the glowing coals.
The Wolves wouldn’t want me to trivialize my experience by comparing it to something as bougie as a television show, but I have to admit that my time at Ulfheim felt like a cross between Sons of Anarchy and the Vikings.
The exception is that, unlike those shows, Ulfheim is not just a set up for another go-girl narrative or another hair-pulling drama between women. What happens at Ulfheim is designed to create authentic brotherhood between men. It’s about escaping to another world, not just for an hour or even a day, but for good. The Wolves of Vinland are becoming barbarians. They’re leaving behind attachments to the state, to enforced egalitarianism, to desperate commercialism, to this grotesque modern world of synthetic beauty and dead gods. They’re building an autonomous zone, a community defined by face-to-face and fist-to-face connections where manliness and honor matter again.
If they can do it, what’s stopping you?
Jack Donovan is the author of The Way of Men. His latest book is a collection of essays, titled A Sky Without Eagles. To read more of his work on masculinity and tribalism, visit www.jack-donovan.com/