Stav: The Spiritual Side of A European Martial Art

scandinavian-martial-artAs a martial art, Stav was introduced to the wider martial community in 1992, when the current inheritor of the tradition, Ivar Hafskjold, was interviewed by the martial arts magazine Fighting Arts International. However, since fighting is just a small portion of Stav, I want to focus, here, on the philosophical and spiritual — as well as some historical — aspects of the tradition.

Let me give you some background: Until fairly recently in rural Scandinavia there were no public schools, and, to a large degree, families educated their children by themselves. The higher up in society your family, the greater the responsibility to educate your children. Knowledge and skills were important, and professions were sometimes kept within families, being passed from one generation to the next.

Although the runes (which had served as both letters for writing and symbols of the spiritual, natural forces, and cultural beliefs, etc.) were suppressed when the Roman alphabet was introduced, together with Christianity, the tradition of passing down knowledge through the families ensured the survival of runic wisdom. In one isolated area in Sweden it was still common knowledge to read and write runes into the 20th century. Within the tradition of Stav, however, the runes are essential, and when Ivar decided to share the tradition outside his own family, Stav was the natural name for it.

Ivar was born and raised in southern Norway, and, growing up, learned Stav from older relatives. However, there was no formal name for the tradition within the family, and a lot of its knowledge was transferred to him during daily life and activity.

In August 2000 Ivar published an article in which he described Stav as his family’s education system. He also described its purpose as learning to see reality. The martial arts and all the other techniques within the system are just tools to achieve this goal.

In the article, Ivar also expressed some concern that since Stav is connected to Norse mythology and the runes, people tend to associate it with the Viking age. Ivar differentiates the tradition from modern Asatru, and describes Stav as a living philosophical and educational system that has adapted and evolved over the last 1,500 years.

Ivar Hafskjold pictured in Sweden 2015 (left), and Ivar Hafskjold leading a group doing the rune stances in Sweden 2015; the stances are meditative ritual that is essential within Stav. The stances develop both spiritual and martial aspects (right). (Photo by Roland Zerpe, copyright 2015.)
Ivar Hafskjold pictured in Sweden 2015 (left), and Ivar Hafskjold leading a group doing the rune stances in Sweden 2015; the stances are meditative ritual that is essential within Stav. The stances develop both spiritual and martial aspects (right). (Photo by Roland Zerpe, copyright 2015.)

Traditionally, there were no differences between spiritual knowledge, practical knowledge, and academic knowledge. Within the Stav curriculum all three of these components are found, and often the teachings, based around the sixteen runes, flow between these areas of knowledge. And, of course, the runes themselves have many layers of meaning.

Within Stav’s philosophy, the concept of family is beyond here and now. The ancestors and those not yet born are seen as an important part of the family. What we do on this side will affect those on the other side. Since they are not able to look after their interests they have to trust the living to do so. Most of this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the patriarch of the family, who can be described as the family’s spiritual leader. One important aspect with the rituals of Stav is to keep the link between the living and those on the other side strong.

Today, most people view the world as one-dimensional. However, Scandinavia is fairly unpopulated, with widespread forests, mountains, and lakes. Before the urbanization and the computer age, most children spent a lot of time by themselves in the forests. This creates a special kind of mindset. One of the traditional rites of passage within Stav was to leave an adolescent boy alone on an island for several weeks, to fend for himself with just basic tools.

Rune stone and rune symbols within the martial art of Stav.
During the Viking age thousands of Rune stones (left) were raised, primarily in Sweden. Most of the stones are memorials that honor family members that has passed. Many mention bravery and honorable ways of dying in battle.
(Photo by Roland Zerpe, copyright 2015). Bind runes (center) are a tool to structure and transfer knowledge within Stav. They also teach the student a specific way to think, and analyze information and relations. (Right) a traditional way to illustrate the web of Urd within Stav. This geometric illustration can be used to teach various aspects of the tradition.

According to Scandinavian folklore the forests are full of different entities, such as trolls, elves and other spirits. Most are harmless, but some may cause you trouble if you do not act respectfully. These aspects of Scandinavian culture are alive within Stav, and one purpose of the rituals is to teach us awareness of the things around us. This will develop a responsible way to act within nature; we do not throw garbage around us, we do not chop down trees or make a mess for no reason. We do not take more fish than we can eat and we do not kill animals for sport. And we never throw boiling water on the ground, since it could burn the earthly spirits who live beneath us.

The wilderness is more than just a nice backdrop; it is the home of the animals and of things that most of us cannot perceive without training. With such an understanding we become very critical of how modern people often act in regard to nature.

Since the deities of the Norse pantheon are important to Stav, some people have wondered if it is a religion. The answer is that it may be, but we must not let the modern concept of religion cloud our understanding. There are no dictations from the gods on what we have to do, nor do we need to act in a certain way to be rewarded in the afterlife. We will not be judged either, but, as implied before, we may be held accountable by our ancestors.

The philosophy of Stav does not demand that we have to believe in the gods in the same way as the monotheistic religions do. We never have to doubt our faith; the gods are simply there and we just need to relate to them. One may perceive the gods as principles of the universe, or psychological archetypes, or simply as deities; often understanding differs depending on our own needs and perspective at the given moment. The gods are seen as our ancestors, yet they are not flawless and beyond criticism. The gods have their characteristics, with both positive aspects as well as negative aspects. They are neither good or evil. Simply, they follow their nature.

The Norse deities do not demand exclusive devotion, and they do not mind if someone has other gods besides them. From Stav’s perspective there is not a conflict with other religions; as a matter of fact, there are several Christian Stav practitioners.

Within Stav and Norse mythology there is a concept of fate. Our fate, it is believed, is woven by three female entities referred to as the Norns. The oldest one is called Urd, which is often translated as “the past.” The second one is called Verdandi, “the present.” The third one is called Skuld, her name relates to “the future.”

When we are born the Norns will weave our thread of life into the web of Urd. This will affect our destiny. The nature of how this thread is woven will create a fate that we have to relate to. Some things will be changeable but other things we just have to accept. Our personal fate and circumstances are referred to as Orlog, which could be translated as “primal law.”

The web of Urd connects the humans with each other, and to the gods and the universe; with this comes another philosophical understanding that we are not separated from the world around us. We are thin threads in a very large tapestry, but like the individual colored strands we are essential to it. How we act will affect the whole universe.

One important objective of the Stav practitioner is to learn to know our own fate or Orlog, and one piece in the puzzle is to make contact with our Følja — which could be translated as “follower”. The Følja is basically a spirit that is connected with us from the other side, often manifested in the form of an animal. When we learn to know our Følja our psychological and spiritual character will be revealed. When you understand your personality at a deep level, you can start to work with your Orlog, instead of fighting against it.

A person that understands his connection to his ancestors, his importance in the universe, and is aware of his Orlog, will not be prone to develop depression or anxiety. The rituals within the tradition help us to find balance and clear our mind of noise.

We once asked Ivar Hafskjold what he hoped that the students would learn trough the tradition. His answer was that he wanted us to see the bigger picture and to develop a long-term perspective. He also hoped that a few men would be able to rise up to the challenge of becoming patriarchs of their families, which, in effect, would be one of the highest initiations within Stav. Those who manage to reach that level are spiritual leaders that can make an important contribution to their community.

The tools and techniques to start to examine the philosophy are quite easy to learn, but to really understand the philosophy takes years of training. Most of us have been raised with a modern mindset, and it takes time to peel this imprint off since it has to be done one layer at the time. When we start to internalize the philosophy and other aspects of Stav, it will empower us as human beings, but it is not easy.

As human beings, we are often comfortable and feel safe where we are. It takes devotion and determination to transform ourselves. Our ego intervenes. As transformation begins to take effect we begin to feel afraid. Such experienced are not unique for Stav. It is the same in all genuine spiritual paths. But the more people that are willing to make the sacrifices and commit to changing themselves, the better. The world needs spiritual warriors.

Roland Zerpe has been fascinated by Norse spirituality since a teenager. Since 1998, he has been a devoted practitioner of Stav, studying directly under the inheritor of the tradition, and focusing especially on its spiritual and esoteric aspects. Roland is also the initiator of Sörmlands Stavhov, the only dedicated Stav “dojo” in Sweden. His personal blog is http://engblogg.angerboda.se
Roland Zerpe has been fascinated by Norse spirituality since a teenager. Since 1998, he has been a devoted practitioner of Stav, studying directly under the inheritor of the tradition, and focusing especially on its spiritual and esoteric aspects. Roland is also the initiator of Sörmlands Stavhov, the only dedicated Stav “dojo” in Sweden. His personal blog is http://engblogg.angerboda.se

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