A couple of months ago there was a tiny stir in the ‘social world’ about a Norwegian book about “Freemasonry In Viking Times” by the Freemason Arvid Ystad. I tried to gather information, wrote a little text, tried to get a copy of the book and got in contact with the publisher. According to the publisher there are no plans for an edition in another language than Norwegian, so I figured I would just have a stab at the book as it is, so I got myself a copy.
I have worked through a book in a language that I do not master. Since Norwegian is a Germanic language like my own, some words are recognisable from my own language, other words from another language that I do master. Sometimes the words looked like nothing and I used Google translator which I installed on my phone. I figured that if I would understand a few words from every sentence, I would have a rough idea of what it is all about. I am familiar with both subjects in the book, so recognising a few names and keywords would give an idea of the context. I made notes of points that seemed interesting enough to look at better and after finishing the initial reading I have been typing over passages in translation software. I am sure I missed many nuances, subtleties or even interesting information that did not seem groundbreaking when seeing them written in Norwegian, but I think I got enough to be able to give you an idea of the book. Too many points for a book review even, so I have turned this into an article.
In this book I will launch an entirely different theory of the origin of Freemasonry, namely that it is of Norse origin and “free” in “Freemason”, as we will see, can be linked to the Norse goddess Freyja. (p. 26) (1)
As regular visitors of this website will know, Arvid Ystad is not the first investigator to look into the subject of the heathen origins of Freemasonry. He does not seem to be aware of the other investigators though (Franz Farwerck, Koenraad Logghe and -to a lesser extent- Henning Klövekorn). This is too bad in some regards, but good in other. Building on the information that the other authors have gathered, Ystad could have made his book better on some points. For example, he uses images of Teutonic statues to make comparisons to elements of Freemasonry, but Farwerck has found many, many more (and sometimes better) examples.
On the other hand, now that Ystad did not use information that was already available, he sometimes comes up with a wholly different angle.
When writing about Freemasonry, the author mostly refers to the York Rite. This is not the Rite that he works with himself. Here and there he mentions Scandinavian Freemasonry, but most details are from the York Rite. Quite specific details too I might add, with images, parts from the texts, etc. It looks like he used the old exposure literature, perhaps in order to only having to use information that was already publicly available.
Even more so as with Farwerck’s work, Ystad’s book seems to be a collection of ‘lucky similarities’ between prechristian and Masonic imaginary roughly structured around a ‘base theory’. Farwerck (in short) has the theory that the essence of prechristian mysteries survived in guilds and then in Freemasony. His work in roughly chronological order collecting his examples. Farwerck’s proof is not always entirely convincing and his examples come from a variety of sources and cultures, but I understand where he is going.
Ystad has a few ‘Leitmotiven’ as well. In the beginning of the book he describes how Norsemen settled in other parts of Europe in quite some detail. One of these lines runs from Scandinavia to the Orkney Islands (Northern Scotland) where the builder of the famous Rosslyn Chapel has his roots. An interesting theory.
Another ‘Leitmotiv’ is more eye-catching. However Ystad refers to Georges Dumézil and he uses Dumézils tripartite division to compare Northern myths with “blue Freemasonry” (the first three degrees), he somehow came to the conclusion that Freyja is to be connected to the first degree of Freemasonry (that of Entered Apprentice), Odin to the second (Fellowcraft) and Thor to the third (Master Mason). His reasoning is a bit odd. Thor compares to “Zevs” and Jupiter who are the highest Gods of their pantheons, so Thor is the highest of the Norse pantheon(2). Did he miss Tyr as sky-God? Did he miss that Dumézil has Freyja on the third “function”, Thor on the second and Odin on the first? Be that as it may, Ystad set out to find similarities between the rites of the three functions connected with the three degrees of “blue Freemasonry”.
Ystad roughly divides his book in an introductory part about the history of the prechristian Norsemen in their own countries and in Europe. Then follow parts about the rites of “Frøya” (Freyja) and then the first degree of Freemasonry; a part about the rites of Odin and the second degree and the rites of Thor and the third degree. I think he would have benefited if Ystad had known the work of Farwerck which is more detailed and has more examples for some elements.
Ystad found some thought-provoking elements himself though. What is also interesting is that he used pretty current archaeological information, also findings that were apparently not groundbreaking enough to reach the news outside Norway. I even had a pretty hard time to find information about these findings on several occasions, but it is nice to find some new and interesting findings.
The book is almost 350 pages, so it it impossible to make note of each and every similarity that Ystad found. Still my aim is to do more justice to the book with the examples that I chose than the newspaper articles that only mentioned a shoe and two pillars.
King Athelstan (Æthelstan) is mentioned in some of the legendary myths of origin of Freemasonry. He supposedly organised the existing rites of operative masonry into a code around the year 926. Ystad mentions “Adelstein” on page 38 of his book, calling his court a “smeltedigelen der de norrøne ritene ble til et tidlig engelsk frimureri”, a melting pot of Norse rites which became early English Freemasonry in York and Northumberland (would that be why the author likes to refer to the York Rite, even though this rite has little to do with the town of the same name?) He also describes “Adalstein” connections to Scandinavia.
A few centuries later there are still Norse kings ruling in Scotland and one chapter is called “Traces of Norse myths and rites in Scotland” (page 43-45). In this chapter Ystad also says how the famous apprentice pillar in the Rosslyn Chapel got it Norse symbolism and he found Norse mysteries on stones found in Scotland.
In chapter 4 “From heathen to Christian ritual” Ystad reminds of Farwerck when he describes how ancient Norse customs (such as “blot” or ‘toasting’) reached Freemasonry through the old Norse gildi or guilds.
After a few pages about the poems collectively known under the name Salomo and Saturn, the author has a few things to say about the early masonic texts such as the Halliwell Manuscript and the Cooke Manuscript. This leads to the following summery:
Upon the conversion of initiation rites which I believe was started by King Adelstein in England, King Solomon came to the foreground, while God-names such as Freyja, Odin and Thor were removed. These god-names might not have been acceptable for the new, Christian members of Freemasonry. So even though rites to Freya, Odin and Thor disappeared, most of the original meaning of the rites for the brothers remained.
Masonic Rites in Britain did not, I think however, change names. They were just referred to as “degrees”, the first degree (formerly Freyja’s rite and the degree today Freemasons say has to do with birth), the second degree (formerly Odin’s rite, the degree Freemasons say has to do with life) and third degree (formerly Thor’s rite, which Freemasons say has to do with death). (p. 60/1)
After this the author continues with chapters about fertility rites from ancient Scandinavia, which, as we saw, he connects to Freyja and the first degree of Freemasonry.
I am not going to try to make a summery of this chapter, but I will only note a few noteworthy remarks, such as the link which Ystad lays between offering priests for “Njård”, “Frøy” and “Frøya” to the three officers of a Masonic lodge.
Then follow a few Farwerck-like pages with images from the old North that the author connects both to rites to Freyja and Freemasonry, not always convincingly though, but these are images I do not remember seeing in the works of Farwerck, so that could be something to look into further.
Ystad has some things about circumambulations , bloodbrothership, a statue found in Frøyhov with what could be seen as a second-century apron, stave churches (he will come back to that subject later), a village that was dug up near Ranheim in 2010 where they found what Ystad suggests to be a temple to Freyja, the Överhogdal tapestries on which he found rites to Freyja (and later in the book he will return to this tapestry for other subjects), 500 BCE footprints in a rock, squares on a jewel, Berserkr and as knock-out, the theory that the Masonic dark room (‘room of contemplation’) is a reference to the uterus.
Then follows a chapter about the first degree of Freemasonry with images and references ‘backwards’ (from Freemasonry to ‘rites to Freyja’) such as the rope, rune-like symbols that appear on the tracing board (in Scandinavia I guess, I have not been able to find an image of this on the internet), the Tyler in Freyja’s rites, the signs of this degree, the punishments of this degree, the “free” part of the word “Freemasonry” which the author links to Freyja, a sort of wedding tradition in which the clothing reminds of aprons (here is an example), the square and compass which Ystad links to the Ing-rune and to Freyr (square, phallus) and Freyja (compass, female genitals). You guessed it, too much to go into any depth.
Next up is Odin whom Ystad links to the second degree. Rites to Odin are relatively well-documented with (rune-)stones with images that more scholars connect to Odin. The author mentions some examples and gives an idea of the rites to Odin. He connects the Valknutr to the 3 and 9 symbolism in Freemasonry and uses Mircea Eliade to make to connections to Shamanic rites and initiations. On page 165 and after, Ystad makes a connection between York Rite Freemasonry and Beowulf, but the details of this unfortunately elude me.
Not unheard of is the story of Starkad and king Vikar. Trying to make a pledge to Odin, Starkad binds cow-intestines around the neck of Vikar as a surrogate hanging and he will stab Vikar with a piece of reed; both of which are ways of offering to Odin (Ystad also connects the intestines to a navel cord and thus to Freyja). When the time comes, Vikar is actually, and not virtually, hung and stabbed. Both elements (hanging and stabbing) can be found in Freemasonry, but (of course) as virtual as Starkad intended. Then again, Ystad found an image of an actual Masonic hanging, but not with the rope around the neck.
An interesting part of the chapter about the second degree is about Odin bracteates, some of which I do not remember I saw before.
Of course the second degree signs are written about which are linked to many arm/hand images of times past and the second degree punishment Ystad oddly enough connects to the Viking punishment of the ‘blood eagle’.
Let me close this part about Odin and the second degree with a quote:
The original rites to Odin must have taken place in the forest, presumably near a tree that symbolised the world tree and Odin’s tree Yggdrasil, with the famous eagle at the top and worm at the roots. Later Norse Freemasonry moved indoors, and again later, when Freemasonry had to appear Christian, Odin’s tree Yggdrasil was replaced by King Solomon’s Temple. Now the temple been “center of the world” where the initiation was to be held. (p.223) (4)
You guess it, this part is going to be about Thor. Ystad starts with returning to the stave church, connecting the pillars that can be found in the construction of such a church to the two pillars inside the Masonic temple. These pillars in the churches were decorated and so the author makes a link to the “high seat pillars” that can be found in several sagas and which are usually connected to Thor.
Then follows a bit of an odd part. Ystad starts writing about Indo-European twin-God theories and even though Georges Dumézil has two Gods on the first and third “function” (Tyr and Odin on the first, Freyr and Freyja on the third) and just one on the second (Thor), Ystad has set out to find Thor’s twin and found it in “Tjalve”.
Ystad ‘needs’ the twin-Gods, because he connects them to the two pillars about which he has some other strange prechristian connections (such as the “Notfyr” installation), the double axe (of Thor) and a rock formation. A better example is an image of two pillars at the entrance of a village on page 239. There are also some interesting thoughts about double-axe and swastika figures which which the authors sees initiates to Thor and symbols referring to them.
In chapter 11 Ystad starts citing York Rite texts of the third degree and directly making ‘heathen links’. He even found a Northern variant to the acacia branch and Thor hitting “Rungne” is a reference to the third degree ritual (p.273). People with “Thor” in their names are initiates to Thor (p. 279) and Ystad found Norse candidates to be the original three “opprørske brødrene” (p. 279/280).
More interesting it becomes when Ystad writes about “byggmester” (building master) stories, his connecting the “primstav” (runic calendar) to the 24-inch gauge and reading a Masonic ritual in the story of Gangleri.
Ystad also writes about Masonic tools and other symbolism, but the end does not make the final convincing remarks. There is not really a conclusion or summery and unfortunately the book has no index.
I am glad that I took the effort to get this book and just started to try to read it. It does not seem that this book has ‘the ultimate proof’ or has the convincing amount of information that will make more people see the logic of the idea of the Northern origins of (parts of) Masonic symbolism.
Ystad has presented some things that were new to me, some things that I have to look into some more and he finally added something to the way too scarce literature about this subject.
I certainly hope the book will get enough attention from abroad that Ystad will consider translating it to English, so it will be easier to properly understand.
(1) “I denna boka vil jeg lansere en helt annen teori om frimureriets tilblivelse, nemlig at det er av norrøn opprinsselse og at fri i frimurer som vi vil se, kan være knyttet til den norrøne gudinnen Frøya.” (p. 26)
(2) “I dag tenker vi nok ofte på Odin som den øverste guden i den norrøne gudeverdenen. Men i samtiden var det sannsynligvis Tor som var den gjeveste guden, med en posisjon som tilsvarte den treske Zevs eller den romerkse Jupiter. Disse var også regn- og tordenguder.” (p. 260)
“Today we often see Odin as the chief god of the Norse pantheon. But at the time there were probably Tor who was the most noble god, with a position corresponding to the threshing Zevs or the Roman Jupiter. These were also rain and thunder gods.”
(3) “Ved den omdannelsen av innvielsesritene som jeg mener ble startet av kong Adelstein i England, trådte altså kong Salomo i forgrunnen mens gudenavnene Frøya, Odin og Tor ble fjernet. Disse gudenavnene kan ikke ha vært akseptable for de nye, kristne medlemmer i frimureriet. Så selv om ritene til Frøya, Odin og Tor bestod, forsvant det meste av den opprinnelige meningen med ritene for brødrene.
Frimurerritene i Storbritannia fikk imidlertid ikke nye navn, som jeg kjenner til. Etter hvert ble de kun benevnt som “grader”, første grad (tidligere Frøyas rite og den graden dagens frimurere sier har med fødsel å gjøre), annen grad (tidligere Odins rite, den graden frimurere sier har med livet å gjøre) og tredje grad (tidligere Tors rite som frimurer sier har med døden å gjøre).
(4) De opprinnelige Odins-ritene må ha foregått i skogen, antagelig ved et tre som symboliserte verdenstreet og Odin tre Yggdrasil, med den kjente ørnen i toppen og ormen ved roten. Senere flyttet det norrøne frimureriet innendørs, og enda senere, da frimureriet måtte fremstå som kristent, ble odins tre Yggdrasil erstattet med kong Salomos tempel. Nå var tempelet blitt “senteret i verden” hvor innvielsen skulle holdes.