Before Amon Amarth had a title or even much music for their eighth studio album, they had a cover image in mind: The epic battle between Norse pagan god Freya and the fire giant Surtur.
"The image just motivated us," frontman Johan Hegg says of the the record that the band would end up titling Surtur Rising (Metal Blade). "So we started working with the album from the viewpoint of the cover and it took less than three months to completely write the songs."
Amon Amarth have always drawn from Viking legends in their music, and Hegg has been fascinated with mythology since he was a 9 year old growing up in a small Swedish village. He was briefly introduced to Norse gods like Odin and Thor in a story he read at school, but since most of the people in his town were Christian, the educational institution had no interest in indoctrinating students in the Pagan ways of their Viking ancestors.
"All of these stories have been looked down upon because of they don't conform with Christian tradition," Hegg says from his home town about 12 miles outside Stockholm. "It's a shame because they're so powerful and they're filled with all these interesting characters who fight all these battles."
With the encouragement of his older sister, Hegg went to his local library and took out a copy of the Prose Edda, an Icelandic collection of Norse legends believed to be written around 1220 by Snorri Sturluson. Hegg was quickly consumed with the tales of confrontation and sacrifice. A few years later, he picked up the Poetic Edda, a manuscript of 35 poems about Pagan mythology written around the 13th Century, and reinterpreted by numerous poets over the centuries. He also cherished more modern adaptations of the tales in Danish comic books called Valhalla and soon became entranced by the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.
In 1992 Hegg joined Amon Amarth, whose moniker is an alternate name for Mount Doom in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Putting their frontman's mythological knowledge to use, they wrote about Viking gods with the kind of enthusiasm that only the likes of Manowar, Enslaved, and Bathory shared at the time. While some fans immediately latched onto Amon Amarth's thundering death metal and fantastical lyrics, the band was ridiculed by others in the Swedish heavy-music scene.
"There were some people who definitely didn't take us seriously so we've really had to prove ourselves," Hegg says. "It took us a while to get recognition and I guess it's only been in the past couple years that we've been able to make a living off this. But we're fortunate enough to do so; It's been a long road, but finally we made it."
Here, Hegg shares the story of Surtur at the battle of Ragnarok, as well as four of his other favorite Viking legends, which, over the years, have either inspired the lyrics or artwork of Amon Amarth and helped them find their current success.
In which the giant Surtur, who rules Muspelheim, the land of fire, rises to battle Freya, son of Njord and the bringer of sun and rain, and the world erupts in flame.
"One of the reasons we chose to have 'Surtur' as a song theme and album cover was because of the power and dramatic scenery that you get out of the legend. It's phenomenal. In Norse mythology, Surtur is one of the ancient forces of the universe and he's connected to volcanic activity. He's actually one of the giants who created the universe and he carries a big flaming sword. According to legend, when the world is in turmoil and everything is falling apart, he erupts from the Underworld and consumes everything. But Surtur is not a bad character. He's a very powerful and uncontrollable element and he has the power to create but also to destroy. So Surtur symbolizes the constructive and destructive power of the flame.
"At the time of Ragnarok, which is the end of the world, he arises again to destroy everything. The [major Gods of creation], the Ása Gods try to stop him, and the one who has to go against him is Freya, because the other gods are occupied with their own battles with their arch-rivals. In Ragnarok, Odin faces the Fenris wolf, and Thor has to fight the Midgard Serpent [see below]. So Freya and Surtur have this huge battle in which Surtur kills Freya, but in the process of doing so, he gets stabbed in the eye and the pain drives him insane. He releases all his fury and anger and violent fire over the world, consuming everything. At the end of this cataclysmic eruption of fire and flames, the oceans of the world come rushing in and swallow everything."
THOR VS. THE WORLD SERPENT
In which the mighty hammer god, who protects mankind, fights his final battle against the Snake of Midgard as the world comes to an end.
"On the last Amon Amarth album, Twilight of the Thunder God, we told the story of Thor's fight against the World Serpent, which is his nemesis. [The album cover depicts the final confrontation]. At the battle of Ragnarok when the ocean rises, the serpent, who has been tied down and hiding in the ocean circling the world, rises to fight Thor and they have a mighty battle.
"They have met before, of course, and in one of their previous battles, Thor disguised himself and found a giant who owned a rowing boat. As they rowed out to fish together, Thor baited a hook with a bull's head and threw it into the ocean and got the snake to bite the head and he pulled it out of the water. But just as Thor was about to kill the serpent, the terrified giant with the rowing boat cut the line and the snake escaped. Thor got very angry and smashed the giant's head and threw him overboard. Then he got out of the boat and walked home.
"But at Ragnarok, the serpent doesn't get away. They battle each other and eventually Thor slays the serpent, but in doing so, he gets bitten and dies from the serpent's venom. There's a codependency theme there, which is common in a lot of Norse mythology: For Thor to survive, he needs his nemesis."
FENRIS BREAKS THE TIES THAT BIND
In which the Ása Gods restrain the wolf who bites the hand.
"Fenris is a giant wolf, and at the end of Ragnarok he breaks free and kills Odin. From the moment Fenris was born, the Ása Gods knew he was going to be a dangerous creature to them, so they wanted to tie him up. They had chains made that were very strong and they brought him in and told him they wanted to play a game with him by tying him up and seeing if he could break free. He broke free and the Ása Gods got very disturbed because that wasn't meant to happen. So they made another chain and tricked him again to bind him. But again he broke free. Now the gods were really terrified. So, for the third time, they hired dwarves to make a special bond that was very thin but unbreakable. But when they wanted to try the game again, Fenris grew suspicious. He demanded that one of the gods put his hand in his mouth, so if he couldn't break free than he would bite it off. Tyr was the only god who dared to do so. And, of course, Fenris couldn't break free, so he bit Tyr's hand off. [The chain kept Fenris captive for ages], but at the end of the world, Fenris finally got free and fought Odin and killed him. Then Odin's son Vidar avenged his father and slayed Fenris by running a sword into his throat."
ODIN'S QUEST FOR WISDOM
In which the chief Norse God, Odin, sacrifices himself for knowledge and communication.
"Odin is the chief god and the wisest of all gods in Norse mythology. They call him the Hangman's God because he hung himself in a tree and had himself pierced with a spear. As he was hanging there, he was able to gaze into the depths of nothingness, and from this nothingness, he brought back the power of the Runes, which are the Northern alphabet. They were considered to be magical. He sacrificed himself to bring back the Runes. He came back to life, of course, but this idea of self-sacrifice is a common theme in Norse mythology."
LOKI'S PIERCING ARROWS OF JEALOUSY
In which Hod is deceived into shooting the beloved Baldr.
"Baldr is the god of merriment, joy, and happiness, and Loki, who is the god of mischief, was always very jealous of him. But Baldr had terrible dreams about his death, so Odin got every creature in the world to promise not to hurt Baldr. The only one who couldn't promise was the Mistletoe Twig because he was too young. Loki found that out and devised a plan to kill Baldr. Because [they thought] nothing could hurt Baldr, the gods took turns shooting arrows at him for fun. But then Loki stepped in with an arrow made of the Mistletoe Twig and tricked another god Hod into shooting it at Baldr and it killed him.
"After he gets shot, Baldr is sent to the realm of death, where he would dwell forever, but the gods decide to save him, so they send a messenger to bring him back. Hel, who is the goddess who rules the realm of death, refuses to let him go unless everything in the world would cry for him. So the gods get everything in the world to cry for him, but when they get to a giantess called Töck, she refuses to cry. She says, 'Baldr doesn't mean anything to me. I don't care what happened to him, so I won't cry for him.' And because of this, Baldr can't return. But it turns out Töck is actually Loki in disguise. When the Ása Gods find out, they are furious with Loki so they tie him to a rock and put a snake over his head that drips venom into his eyes. Loki's wife holds a chalice under the snake, but when the chalice is full, she has to empty it and [in the meantime, venom driped into his eyes and] Loki twists and turns in pain. When he does, that the earth shakes—and that's how the Vikings explained earthquakes!"