The Lyrics Corner: Agalloch’s “Black Lake Niðstång”

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Let’s take a journey into a somber past of arcane tradition and sylvan reverence. Today in the lyrics corner, I’m highlighting the excellent and esoteric lyrics to Agalloch‘s timeless epic “Black Lake Niðstång.” Beware, for a curse lies in wait for those who corrupt these sacred woods and for those who taste this solemn water.

“Black Lake Niðstång” is one of the very best songs written by Agalloch. Clocking in at an impressive seventeen and a half minutes, it is a winding and emotionally wrenching examination of an ancient occult ritual. While the music provides the bulk of the song’s emotional heft, the structural nuances in the lyrics and the rich symbolism perfectly graft onto the sacred branches of this solemn, sprawling tale. I hope you’ll press play on the video below and join me as we examine the song’s contents.

Written in the waters…

“Our shadows seep into the dusk1
like cranes that melt into the pool;2
a black lake3 in which they descend
pale ghosts caress the Nidstång4 in the dark
its face5 scarred by the ages,
its curse sent with heathen6 breath
to poison7 the waters of the black lake
We are…we are the faces below the ripples
A deep sorrow travelled8 through the woods
And found a home in our humble grave9

“I’ve sent this peril…10
To the world; this peril shall spread all sorrows
And you are but gods11
watching from below at the base of the totem12
in the black temple of the Earth13
I am…I am the silence inside the tomb14
You15 created the stars
and gave birth to all the heavens;
the darkness of space and time
So go…go to the nightside end below16

Where have all the noble cranes gone?
Where have all the stags disappeared to?17
Piled below in the tomb of this burdened pool
a curse to those who corrupt these sacred woods
a curse to those who taste this solemn water

No unhallowed breath18 shall seal a fate before me
Join the drowned in the silence of the black lake’s womb
Accursed…written in the waters…19

1. It is often valuable when critiquing prose or poetry to examine binary oppositions present in the work. These can reveal the structure of the work and highlight the various struggles of the protagonists/antagonists. Although a number of contrasting images are used in this song, the lyrics immediately conjure an image of dusk, casting the remainder of the piece into a nebulous “grey area” that will develop as the arc unwinds. The opening use of dusk is mirrored by the samples at the beginning of the song of insects chirping in the twilight. The onset of darkness is fast approaching.

2. This first verse is spoken by the spirits in the waters, symbolized by the cranes diving into the lake. The souls of those cursed by the niðstång have reached their final resting place in the opaque twilight of the lake.

3. In Germanic paganism, wooded areas and glens were considered sacred. Spiritual rituals were often conducted in natural places, such as lakes or forest clearings, and the waters themselves may have been worshiped in certain traditions. Although it is unclear which particular pagan tradition this song follows, it is certain that the lake is considered a place of power. Interestingly, the fact that the clear waters of the lake are described as black reveals both the opposing spiritual forces characterized in the song as well as the moral middle-ground displayed through the dusk.

4. A niðstång, or nithing pole, was a totem used in Germanic paganism to send a curse against an adversary. It is attested in many myths to be used to strike enemies from afar for any number of reasons, dishonor or violation of sacred grounds often seen as a primary offense. The nithing pole was typically adorned with the skin of a horse, its tip crowned by the head of the slain beast. Animal sacrifice was often conducted in Germanic paganism to curry favors from supernatural powers and to hallow sacred areas.

5. The face here is likely that of a horse, as mentioned in the comment above. The “scarred” description seems to indicate a long tradition of use against enemies.

6. The personification of ascribing the niðstång with “heathen breath” is a dual metaphor. First, it is perhaps the first clear indication of the corrupting power of vengeful spiritual practice that seems to be at work in this piece. Second, it may be an epithet reflecting the perspective of pagan traditions after the Christianization of the Norse world. If the latter is the case, it would lend more credence to the dark vs. light opposition in these lyrics.

7. The corrupting nature of the niðstång’s curse is described as a poison upon what should be sacred ground.

8. The use of traveled here may be indicative of the way the nithing pole was used to curse someone from afar. Here, the spirits of those cursed by the totem are described as traveling to their fate in the dark, corrupted pool.

9. Several sepulchral phrases are repeated throughout the lyrics, revealing the finality and permanence of the curse and its corruption.

10. Again, the fact that the niðstång’s curse is flung at opponents from afar is highlighted. This second verse is actually told by the personification of the niðstång itself.

11. In Germanic pagan traditions, the gods, though mighty and nigh-immortal, could still perish. This knowledge is perhaps best preserved in the legend of Ragnarøkkr wherein the majority of the gods, including Odin and Thor, are slain by vengeful enemies. In this song, the indication seems to be that the hatred of the one that has sent the curse is more permanent than the gods themselves, and that the evil nature of the hatred at work is eternal.

12. Another structural opposition is constructed here. The height of the totem is contrasted to the lowly grave of the souls it torments, perhaps signifying the ultimate corrupting power of the curse.

13. In most mythologies, the Earth is seen as the place of the dead. Many mythological traditions involve some chthonic underworld wherein the spirits of the dead reside. In these lyrics, the gods themselves are brought low to the same place as the spirits of mortal men by the power of the curse.

14. Another sepulchral image revealing the permanence of the fate delivered unto the niðstång’s enemies.

15. The “you” here is unclear, but it is likely an insult flung at the gods. In Norse mythology, Odin slew the giant Ymir and used pieces of his body to craft the earth, the ocean, the hills, the trees, the clouds, the heavens, and all the realm of man. This line seems to indicate a mocking jibe at Odin who, despite his ability to construct the world of man, is still defeated by the reckless hate of this curse. If the binary oppositions between light and dark here are indicative of the pagan spirits versus the Christian God, this could be a mockery of YHWH who created the heavens and earth.

16. The “below” is yet another reference to the underworld beneath the earth, a place for holding the spirits of the dead, also described here by the lake.

17. Although animals were sacrificed as part of Germanic tradition, the reckless destruction of life that causes the disappearance of the stags and cranes again reveals the irreversible impact of the curse’s darkness.

18. If this line is from the perspective of the user of the niðstång, it could again be a mocking insult against the “holy” (or hallowed) ones destroyed by the hatred of the curse.

19. The lyrics end almost identically as they begin, seemingly indicating the recursive and cyclical nature of both myth and hatred and destruction. Considered in light of the grave language used to describe the nature of the niðstång’s curve, the cyclical way that hate and violence begets hate and violence seems to be in view. The cycle perpetuates into an endless black of vengeance and destruction.

So, did you learn anything? Did I miss anything? Have any suggestions for songs we should examine? Let me know in the comments below.

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