About two years ago I wrote an article in Swedish about the philosophy and system behind the martial art within Stav. It became a massive article, which I planned to translate to English. But my understanding has somewhat deepened since then. So instead, I decided to write a new article that is more in line with my current perspective. However, if you read Swedish there is nothing wrong with the old article.
I would like to clarify that this article is based on my
understanding, and my perspective! I firstly discovered Stav in the 1990´s, and this article is the result of
many hours of studies. I have done my best to understand, and stay true to,
Stavs core. But still, this is my personal understanding and interpretation;
which I hope will benefit both those who are new, and those who has studied
Stav for a longer period.
Most people who has heard about Stav labels it as a martial art, but Stav is better described as an esoteric educational system. The martial art in Stav are a tool to practically teach the philosophy within Stav. To become proficient in martial arts is one step on the road, but it is not the end goal of the studies.
Stav is highly systemized, even the martial art is systematized, the reason is that Stav is a “cult” devoted to the Norse deity Heimdall. Within the tradition Heimdall is understood as the god of logic; education, systematization, mathematics and so on. If we must relate Heimdall to a deity of another pantheon, the Greek deity Hermes Trismegistus would be a good comparison.
As within many similar traditions geometry plays an important role in the philosophy. But compared with the southern European philosophical schools, Stav has a different perspective. The geometrical understanding is related to the runes, the pre-Christian alphabet of northern Europe.
Within Stav there is a mythological concept that the runes
represent essential building blocks of the universe, comparable with the Greek
understanding of the Platonic solids. This thought has support in the literary
sources of Norse mythology. Odin hung himself on the world tree for nine
nights, and sacrificed himself to himself; which enabled him to call out and
collect the runes. The knowledge of the runes was later passed down to humanity
The runes within Stav is a variation of the younger futhark, the alphabet used in Scandinavia during the Viking age and into the medieval period.
The geometry within Stav is not taught with the aid of a pen and a compass as within many other schools, it is taught by the aid of one’s own body and the martial art within the system. Stavs ambition is to teach the student how to apply the principles of the universe as a martial art.
modern standardization, measurements were based on body measures, such as foot,
hand, finger or the ancient measure of a cubit; the tip of the middle finger to
the bottom of the elbow. Before the standardization, geometry played a very
important role, instead of standard measures they relied on proportions when
constructing or doing art. The specific measures would differentiate from one
project to the other, or between one individual and the next.
Within Stav the seventh rune Hagl is associated with Heimdall, if we stack the seventh rune seven times; we get an image that consists of nine lines. Both seven and nine are very important numbers within Stavs numerology. From this illustration, all the other runes can be extracted. The image also illustrates the web of Urd.; the cosmological web, that connects all humans to each other and the universe. Simplified we can say that the web of Urd contains all our fates.
The illustration of the web is also regarded as a map of the
human body, and it shows us cutting lines and points of balance or attack. The
martial art is a way to manifest the underlaying philosophy of Stav. The
illustration of the web correlates to sacred geometry and classical mysticism,
and mathematics in many ways. Anyone who really wants to learn to understand Stav,
needs to spend some time working with this geometric composition.
The rune stances – the basics of stavs martial art
The first method to internalize the knowledge of the runes within ourselves is the rune stances, simply put we form the runes with our own body. This is done in a ritualized way, and we coordinate our breath and our movements. There are many layers of knowledge transferred through this routine, in its most mundane form it teaches us to read and write runes without pen and paper. The ritual also teaches us the movements and body postures utilized within the martial art of Stav. Furthermore, these postures and movements are regarded as essential in any genuine martial art; a Stav practitioner will systemise whatever martial art he encounters with the aid of these basic components.
Each of the sixteen runes correlate to deities within Stavs variety of the Norse pantheon. In some cases, there is a key understanding of the mythological function of the deity encoded within the specific stance. For instance, the stance of the deity of fishing is a rowing position, and the deity of skiing has a position used in skiing.
The rune stances are constructed in such a way that both our
left and right side will be leading, which develops ambidexterity. With the aid
of the stances we learn the basics of the martial art within Stav. By performing
the ritual daily, we slowly program our body to follow the principles taught by
the system, principles encoded within the runes. The runes and our own body are
the manual that allows us to teach ourselves.
There are five varieties of doing the stances, each connected to one of the five classes within Stav. Each version teaches the perspective of the specific class. Some people have misunderstood the five classes, and believe they are some sort of grading system, they are not. It is five different archetypes that has a different spiritual and psychological perspective of the world. All the classes are essential to enable the society to work optimally. Most of us will naturally belong to one of these classes.
I will give a very short and simplified description of the classes, since it is necessary later in this article.
The first class is the trell, a person without knowledge or mental capacity to take responsibility for himself. Few are fixated in this mental state, but all of us can get caught in this state due to situations we encounter in our life. The rune stances of the trell simply teaches us the basic shape of the runes and to breath properly. As a Stav instructor I have noticed that a lot of people find it hard to do deep breathing these days. Correct breathing are essential when learning martial arts, but also within spiritual work.
The next class is the karl class, this is the free person who provides for himself, traditionally a farmer or a fisherman who worked with his hands. The bulk of the society are made up of this class. The karl version of the stances are a bit more advanced compared to the version of the trell, this is the first “galder” form of the stances, were we use our voice to enhance the effect.
The third class is the herse, or the warrior. The warrior can be either an intellectual or spiritual warrior, a soldier or a guardian. The herse version of the stances focus on martial art, and breathing patterns needed in a combat situation. This version also develops a mental capacity for combat, and it is highly efficient; not suitable to do too often.
The fourth class is the jarl, which is the priest or the philosopher, the thinker or the healer. The jarl version of the stances teaches a meditative and spiritual perspective. This version of the stances could be regarded as a sort of prayer.
The fifth class is the king, but this is not the same concept as the modern monarchy. This is a person who is achieved and has insights that most of us lacks. The variety of these stances basically goes full circle and returns to the beginning, the trell and the king are in many ways regarded as each other’s flipsides.
Practicing the rune stances correlates to concepts such as mindfulness and meditation, with a focus on here and now. When doing the stances, we enter a mental place that is free of the stress of everyday life. The stances help us to focus ourselves and connect with the world around us on a spiritual level.
Meditation and mindfulness may not sound as martial art to
some, but in war and conflict a focused mind will be most helpful.
The cuts and the weapons
Even though the rune stances teach us movements, they are somewhat two-dimensional, what we strive to get is a three-dimensional understanding of ourselves in relation to the universe. To achieve this, we do our basic cuts with the weapons used within Stav. Simply described we move from one of the basic runic positions to the next, the cut happens in the transition. The difference compared to the rune stances is that when we move; the body are forced to adapt in relation to the weapon and the foot work. The more we practice the cuts, the more precise they will become.
When we move from one position to the other we will also learn the guards automatically, we move from one safe position to the next, trying to be covered as much as possible. The attack, or defence, happens in the transition.
There are basically two main weapons within Stav, the staff and the stick. The staff represent any two-handed weapon, such as a spear or an axe or a two-handed sword. The stick represents any weapon with a one-handed grip, such as a walking stick, or a one-handed sword. Stav works with principles, when we understand the basic principle of one-handed or two-handed weapons we can adapt to the specifics of various weapons. As I wrote before, Stav is highly systemized, and the smallest common dominator between different weapons is their length and grip.
It is also more practical to train with wooden weapons compared to sharp weapons, if you can handle a walking stick or a staff, you can handle a bladed weapon. The attacking weapon in Stav was traditionally an axe, which up until modern times was a common practical tool in Scandinavia, that most people had access to and experience of using. I was personally a young boy when I was taught to use an axe to cut wood, an axe was a completely natural thing for a kid to learn to use.
Initially I always teach the new student how to do the cuts
with the two-handed staff, because it is so obvious how these cuts relate to
the postures of the rune stances. Once the student is comfortable with those he
will learn the cuts with one-handed stick. The practical difference is that the
student will have to perform the one-handed cuts with both left and right arm, just
as the rune stances are done with both the left and the fight hand leading.
Within Stav we strive to develop a degree of ambidexterity; that will make sure
that we are not incapacitated if our dominant side is injured during combat.
The two man drills
When we know the stances and the cuts it is time to work on the two man drills. One person will attack, and the other one will defend himself. Each weapon and class has a prepared and unprepared response to the attack; the difference is if we attack into, and defend from, a guard or not. This enhances our understanding of personal web in relation to other people.
The first class is the trell, his only objective is to survive, and he has no obligations nor any honour. Usually he will retreat to gain distance which messes up the attack, so the trell may counterattack.
The karl has an obligation to his family, in his applications he will not retreat nor forcefully attack. He simply holds his ground and goes for a safe counterattack once the attacker commits. The karl utilizes small changes in position and balance to gain the advantage.
The third class is the herse; he is a skilled martial artist, that will simply go in and dominate the opponent and take control over him. Sometimes his ambition is to kill his opponent, sometimes his ambition is to incapacitate him; it depends if his objective is as a soldier or if he is upholding the law. The Herse often directs his response to weak areas such as the groin or the kidneys, and the herse attacks come from angles not expected.
The fourth class is the jarl. He understands that he does not have to be reactive just because someone goes after him with force. He reads the situation and the opponent and moves in such ways that he controls time and distances. This is a unique perspective for a martial art, I have not seen it anywhere else; it really takes someone comfortable in this mindset to pull it off. Most of us will react when attacked, even if it is just during a training season. The jarl is not reactive, he is proactive and uses psychology to control the situation. If the jarl kills or hurts the attacker it is not done with aggression, it is done with precision and a relaxed mindset.
The king acts brutal and proactive, he simply crushes his opponent before he has even committed to an attack, he breaks down the lines of the attacker. It is hard to train these applications, because they are often somewhat on the edge of safety.
There are prepared and unprepared drills for all five classes with both two-handed and one-handed weapons. Each drill teaches us techniques and tactics that we can apply in a martial situation. But the important thing is to learn to understand different mindsets. The same movement can be done with completely different objectives.
The aim with these drills is to learn to “take the line” and control the balance point of the opponent, which again is a geometrical understanding of martial arts. We work with three-dimensional lines, and by understanding both our own lines and the opponent’s lines we can control and manipulate the situation in our favour. Stav as a martial art is not just about hitting our opponent with brute force, it is about finesse.
Simply described; the stances are the perspective of the trell,
we know nothing and starts to learn the absolute basics. The cuts are the perspective
of the karl, we learn to practically use the weapons. The two man drills are
the perspective of the herse, now we are learning martial arts and tactics of
war. The two man drills also teach us the different perspectives of the classes
through martial arts.
The nineteen deities
At this level, the student is taught to manifest the deities within the system, which also gives a mythological and spiritual understanding of their character. This can be described as the perspective of the jarl class. It is still two man drills, but beyond the classes. Each deity is associated with a drill that consists of several attacks and counter attacks, that emphasis the use of the specific rune connected with each deity.
There are versions for both the one-handed stick and the two-handed staff. This is on a quite advanced level of weapon based martial arts, and there are very few Stav practitioners that fully knows the forms of the nineteen deities.
The work with the deities is the closest thing we come to sparring within Stav, but this is not free sparring, but sparring within controlled premises. The philosophy within Stav is that free sparring teaches us bad habits, while controlled drills will teach us to read the opponent and react appropriately to his intentions.
There are fencing techniques and footwork and tactics
encoded within the drills of the nineteen deities. But most importantly, it is
a practical way to use martial art to learn the essence of the Norse deities.
The knowledge transferred through Stavs system just flows over so many layers,
the runic postures in its simplest form teaches us how to read and write runes,
but the more advanced aspects teaches us philosophy and martial arts. The
martial arts on the other hand is a bridge between the spiritual world and our
The perspective of the king
When we have internalized the stances, the cuts, the drills and the deities, we have learned martial art through the perspectives of the first four classes. By learning to know which class we belong to, we will learn how to do the best of our given potential. By learning to know all the other classes we will also learn how to use their tactics against them. We will also be able to emulate the other classes and use them as tactics both in martial situations and in our daily life. The teachings elevate us to the level of a king within our own realm and class. At this level, the Stav practitioner has gained knowledge to see the lines of the web, and understands the underlaying principles of the human conditions in our world.
But the genuine king has a perspective completely beyond the classes, he moves naturally to where he needs to be. He can read the intentions of the opponent to such a degree that it may almost come across as he is attacking, when he actually is defending himself. Just as the highest deity of the Norse pantheon, Odin, the king can meet an armed opponent with just a staff. And just as Odin, he will be able to mess up the mind of the opponent to such a degree that the opponent loses the battle before it has even started.
Just as the trell, few are fixed in the mental state of the
king, but most of us can experience this perspective if we find ourselves
extreme situations. A couple of the soldiers I have trained has described their
experience of being in this mental state.
The unarmed martial arts of Stav
Stav are primarily a weapon based martial art, and the philosophy states that if you are unarmed you are in a disadvantage. Unarmed combat is almost regarded as primitive, yet Stav is realistic and acknowledges that unarmed combat is a reality we may have to face.
Using weapons is regarded as the foundation that also
develops an understanding of how to do hand-to-hand combat efficiently. Within
Stav´s toolbox there are punches
and kicks, locks and throws and even headbutts; they are all taught through the
rune stances, and refined by practicing with weapons.
As with the armed attacks, any unarmed attack goes for the balance point of the attacker. It is not enough to hit him with brute force, we want to break his balance and take control of his lines. The throws are not dependant on the garments, instead we take control of the opponent’s balance points, to achieve this we can amongst other things go for their head, their waist or their legs.
Similarities to other schools of martial arts?
Stav is a martial art, it is not a sport and it is not about aesthetics, Stav has no concept similar to Bushido. Stav is combat and about winning, or at least doing the best of the fate you have been given.
Even though this text is just a brief introduction, I hope it is obvious that Stav has a unique perspective and philosophy regarding martial art. Stav has its own terminology to describe martial art. Primarily Stav does not work with techniques, but principles.
The concept within Stav is so different that it is quite clear to me that Stav has been separated from other schools over a long period of time. Still the traditional practitioners were in the military, and they were obviously taught traditional fencing and martial arts during their military training.
One of my students is a Swedish military instructor, who quickly noticed similarities between Stav and the Swedish bayonet fencing tradition. Just as Stav, Swedish bayonet fencing is a living tradition. Perhaps Stav and the Swedish weapon tradition are sprung from the same roots? Or perhaps Stav got influenced by Scandinavian military teachings?
Some people have claimed that Stav is HEMA, Historical
European martial arts that are based on preserved manuals. But even though
there are similarities, Stav is just too different to be regarded as a part of
the HEMA family. HEMA is based on written manuals, while Stav is a living
tradition, and the manual is encoded in its core. The foundation of Stav is the
rune stances, which can be taught in a day; but then the student has enough to
work with for himself for a long time. The rune stances are the only Stav
manual needed. It does not matter what background a practitioner has; when we
start to understand what we are doing based on the rune stances, we are doing
Stav – an esoteric educational system
Many martial artists talk about the philosophy within their schools, but when it comes to Stav the philosophy is really woven together with the practical applications. The more you understand Stavs philosophy, the more you will understand the martial art. The Stav philosophy does not encourage or disapprove of the use of violence, but it gives us capacity to know when it is called for and when it is better to avoid it. Studying the philosophy also develops us into responsible human beings.
The concept of the classes will allow the Stav student to start to explore his own style very soon. The student does not have to spend decades with a master trying to figure out the master’s style, before he can try to understand his own. The concept of the classes will also teach us the value of different perspectives, which develops a tolerance for others.
Stav is an education system, martial art is one of the courses within the coherent curriculum. Many seem to get hung up on the question of the age of the system, which really is irrelevant as a student. There is only one relevant question, do you believe that Stav will give you the knowledge you are looking for? I hope this text can help you to make a qualified choice. But Stav is not for everyone, so I cannot answer if Stav is the best path for you.
This text is just a brief introduction to things that needs to be practically explored and experienced. The strength of stav is that it is a living tradition, and I hope it will remain that way. If you decide that you want to learn Stav, you really need to find a qualified instructor. Make sure that the teacher is connected to the official lineage of stav. The international Stav community is not big, any qualified instructor will be known by the rest of the community.
The problem is that the qualified instructors are few and far
between. It is very unlikely that you can drop in at the local “Stav dojo” and get weekly training. You will probably have to travel
to meet an instructor, and most of your training will be done in solitary by
yourself. But this forces you to move away from the trell state were someone
else is responsible for your development. Another reward is that you are a
pioneer that will learn something very exclusive.