Over the last decade or so, several groups and schools have appeared, invoking the imagery of ancient Europe, and teaching or practicing some form of martial arts or, in the very least, some form of aggressive physical exercise.
I should say at the outset that I’m not affiliated with, and nor am I endorsing, any of these groups or schools. There is, without a doubt, a range in regard to quality, purpose, and ambitions, among them. Some are undoubtedly more legitimate than others. But as someone who has long studied, and written about, the history of spiritual culture in Europe and elsewhere, and who practices traditional Chinese Kung Fu, this phenomenon interests me.
We hope to look at some individual schools and traditions in greater depth (as well as at Asian and Middle Eastern martial arts systems), in the future, but here I want to give a general overview of the revival of European martial arts and look at why this phenomenon is occurring today.
“English Martial Arts”:
The first time I heard of the phenomenon I came across an advert for Terry Brown’s book English Martial Arts. Brown writes on his website that, “contemporary literature and archeological evidence suggest that martial arts skills were regarded very highly throughout Western Europe centuries before [1180 AD].”
The question of legitimacy is one, I think, that haunts anyone interested in ancient European religion and tradition. A century ago, author and Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton criticized the practice of paganism in his own time, not because he thought it immoral, but because he thought that the “new paganism” was not, as was claimed, very ancient. The rituals of paganism, Chesterton noted, had no continual lineage from antiquity to modern times, except as they had been incorporated into Christianity (where they were altered). “If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas” — a somewhat ignominious end to the pagan tradition, surely.
Brown himself follows the changing tradition of English martial arts from the folcwiga (warrior) of the Anglo-Saxon period, through the Tudor era with its “Art Militaire and its civilian relative the Science of Defence.” Later, in “the Stuart era the latter was often called the Noble Science of Defence or the Noble Art of Defence,” says Brown, who notes that “these titles [were] later inherited by boxing,” they way Christianity inherited something from paganism.
The problem for English and European martial arts is the same one for English and European paganism. That is, is there a continuous lineage from antiquity to today? If not, how authentic is it? Is the system effective? And does authenticity matter if it is?
As he discusses on his site, Brown practiced Kung Fu before teaching English martial arts. I believe that he considers himself to have resurrected ancient English martial arts, from his own martial experiences and from examining ancient texts and artifacts. And, of course, it is undoubtedly true that, once fully developed, the practice of fighting with a long staff, for example, will probably look very similar in ancient China and ancient Britain, simply because it will become clear to practitioners what works, and how it is most effectively used, and what doesn’t work, when using the staff. This might also hold true, to some degree, with punching, kicking, and so on. But there will surely also be strong dissimilarities, as there are even between relatively closely related systems as Chinese Kung Fu and Japanese Karate, or even between Karate and Aikido (both Japanese arts).
One martial art that does claim to have a lineage back to ancient Europe is Stav. “Stav is a Nordic style of martial arts based upon runic postures, using the 16 runes of the Younger Futhark [an ancient European “alphabet” that begins with the letters F, U, Th, A, R, and K].” “It has been maintained and developed for over 44 generations by the Norwegian Hafskjold family,” according to representatives of the school today.
(Below: Stav training session and introduction.)
(Below: Stav runic stances.)
However, Ivar Hafskjold, the founder of the contemporary training system of Stav also, by his own account, “stayed for 14 years in […] Japan. [There he] studied Japanese Martial Arts, mainly Shintō Musō-ryū Jō-jutsu and Takeda-ryū Aiki-jutsu.” This, and discussions with Shinto priests, “taught me,” says Hafskjold “a deeper understanding of what I had learnt from my family in my childhood.”
By his own account, “from an early age” in his home country of Norway, Hafskjold was taught “rune stances,” as well as weapons, such as the staff, and various Norwegian folk traditions such as herbal medicine.
It is not impossible that there is a longer history of rune stances, though the practice, as it is otherwise understood, emerged in occultism in Germany and Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was known as “runic gymnastics” (later renamed “rune yoga”). In the case of Stav, the rune stances are meant for fighting (as are stances in other systems, of course), though it seems that the school also uses them in a more meditational or yogic sense as well.
Founded in the USA, Operation Werewolf is an attempt to rediscover in the modern age something absolutely primordial. Aesthetically, the group draws on the runes and ancient European symbols — which can be regarded as controversial, even by some contemporary “pagans” — but there is also an element of a defiant Punk Rock attitude (hence for example a photo, on its website, of an Operation Werewolf jacket flung over a fence, partly covering a military “keep out” sign).
Masculinity and extreme physical strength are valued. Skulls, bones, blood, iron weights, tattoos and war paint, are part of it. And all of this puts Operation Werewolf beyond the pale of the contemporary spiritual scene and the niceties of modern society.
I recently came across Operation Werewolf: The Complete Transmissions by Paul Waggener. His book lays out the attitude, ideals and practices of the group that he founded, and that describes itself as “equal parts fight club, strength regimen, motorcycle club and esoteric order.”
According to Waggener, Operation Werewolf “is not a political statement, but a bloody fist shaken in the face of all institutions of control — a furious bite to the hands that seek to leash or enslave. It is not right or left, but free of these shackles of modern dualistic thinking.”
Waggener’s book is both strange and fascinating, drawing a diverse range of influences. It encourages physical strength in men, and the ability to fight. It encourages mental, spiritual, and ruthless personal development, behaving toward oneself without pity or compromise. It espouses aspects of esotericism as well as visualization (particularly in regard to weightlifting and other challenges). It is raw, edgy, rebellious, and more genuinely “pagan” than many groups that describe themselves as such today.
The Centurion Method was devised by Craig and Lucy Fraser in the ancient city of Bath (called Aquae Suilis by the Romans) in Great Britain. According to Health Gauge dot com, Craig created a number of workouts that were, “loosely based on the feats and exploits of the Celtic warriors of ancient Britain, calling it the Cuchulainn or Conan Method.” This evolved into a more developed program of exercise, becoming the Centurion Method, which is designed to take even “a sedentary human being and turn them into a god.”
The Centurion Method eschews the niceties of gym activity for the natural or perhaps the post-apocalyptic environment. Exposure to the elements, mud, and gnarled roughness of nature is a part of it. Instead of weights, participants lift logs or rocks, wield an axe, or do pull-ups from branches. The method also involves Iron Body- and Iron Palm-type training associated with Kung Fu and Karate.
Blood and Iron Martial Arts:
At the other end of the spectrum is Canada’s Blood and Iron Martial Arts. Instead of lifting rocks and logs, students regularly practice such traditional European weapons as longsword, rapier, dussack (cutlass), and singlestick, and, once more advanced, learn some other weapons.
Blood and Iron is a “fusion of historical techniques and modern science,” and its “primary focus is producing quality fighters trained in Historical European Martial Arts.”
Named after the warrior heaven of Norse myth, Asgarda was founded in 2002 by Katerina Tarnouska, a world champion kickboxer and former gym teacher. Asgarda is a martial art community and movement for women only, based in the Ukraine.
Punching, kicking, self-defense, traditional weapons training (such as the sword), yoga and running are all part of the Asgarda curriculum.
While Western media tends to be interested in (and, frankly, a bit disappointed by) the movement as it relates to Western (and non-Ukrainian) ideas of feminism, as Orthodox Christians, Asgarda’s ethos is traditional, with traditional-inspired dress, practicing outside in nature, and a belief in traditional male-female relations and roles. Tarnouska told Vice media that Asgarda is “a way of restoring the caste of warriors in Ukraine.”
Frankly, I like what Asgarda is doing.
While there may be some debate as to whether Russia is part of Europe or distinct from it, it is clear that it is culturally linked to Europe and shares many traditions in common with it (not denying Asian and Islamic influence on parts of Russia as well). And, since Systema is one of the more advanced of the European martial arts, I believe it is well worth including here.
“When the Communists came to power in 1917, they suppressed all national traditions,” the Systema website Russian Martial Art dot com tells us. “Those practicing the old style of fighting could be severely punished. At the same time, the authorities quickly realized how viable and devastating the original combat system was and reserved it just for a few Special Operations Units.”
Systema (literally Russian for “system”) was founded by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev. Ryabko, a former Colonel of the Special Operations Unit with the Russian Military, “was trained from the age of five by one of Stalin’s personal bodyguards, and was inducted to Spetsnaz at the age of fifteen.” Vasiliev also served with the Russian Special Operations Unit, as well as with elite units and SWAT teams.
The system is designed to be practical, disarming and taking down opponents with a maximum of speed and minimum of effort. But, nevertheless, despite its applicability to the street, developing the spirit, physical strength, and combat skills of its members, Systema aims to create “true warriors.” Moreover, viewing spirituality as essential to the character of the individual, and to the Russian tradition, the movement draws on Orthodox Christianity.
As is emphasized in the short book Let Every Breath… Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters, about Systema, the system also emphasizes the importance of natural posture and different types of breathing in martial arts.
Much of this resembles Kung Fu and Chi Gong, though Systema also practices holding the breath (note: do not try this without an instructor). Here we see one element of the martial and the religious or spiritual together, since, according to Let Every Breath (p. 58) the founders of the system pray “Lord have mercy” in order to be able to calm themselves from the panic that naturally occurs in such moments, and to be able to push themselves on in such challenging circumstances.
As mentioned at the beginning, the revival of European martial arts and physical systems of exercise includes a range of groups and schools, some of which would undoubtedly not recognize each other as legitimate. A minority claim a mysterious and, I think, unprovable lineage back through the mists of time. Some draw from Orthodox Christianity, others from paganism. Some have drawn on Asian martial arts.
Most appear to be involved in creating communities as much as martial systems, especially — as with other martial arts schools — communities of people who believe they can push through normal limitations. They are, as such, in most cases, inherently practical — emphasizing self-defense and health — and yet deeply romantic, drawing from ancient culture, as well as modern ideas about ancient culture.
Such schools and communities may not be for everyone, but their emergence suggests that not only is there a growing dissatisfaction with modernity — and its atomism, individualism, unsatisfactory comforts and often seemingly pointless stresses — but that there is, increasingly, a realization that European and Western culture is not the same as modern culture — from its shopping malls to politics and interventions in other parts of the world, and from the hysteria of the Black Friday sales to the hysteria of election season. That there is, in other words, something archaic, spiritual, dark, primordial, and beautiful that lurks in Europe’s history, pre-history, and traditions, as it does in those of Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.
From my own perspective, such an awakening to the archaic can only be a positive change, and the fact that it is expressed through creative cultures that empower the body, mind, and spirit, and that exhibit an attitude of continual self-overcoming suggests that these groups will be around for a long while to come.