Stav is a very rare Norwegian Martial Art, which dates back to the Vikings. Along with numerous weapons and unarmed combat, it also has a very deep philosophical, spiritual and self development side to it, which is very different to anything that most of us would usually associate with the Vikings.
One of the World’s leading authority’s on this rare and ancient martial art is international Stav instructor and author, Graham Butcher; who has kindly agreed to do this interview.
Graham has a lot of insights to share which will be of benefit to any martial artists, regardless of style. This is despite the fact that it was developed in North Europe’s, whilst most martial arts have their origins in the Far East. In fact in some ways it gives a fresh perspective, whilst at the same time still having a lot in common.
So, on to the interview:
CW: Graham, I believe you practiced other martial arts before you found and focused on Stav. Can you tell us which other styles you trained in?
GB: As a teenager I started with Kyushindo Karate under Sensi George Mayo. I followed that with Feng Sau Wu Shu where my teacher was Graham Horwood. I also trained in Shotokan Karate in Southgate before I took up Kick boxing with Joe Holmes and the last style I trained in before I took up Stav was Nambudo which I practised for a couple of years before moving to Humberside where I met Ivar Hafskjold.
CW: Stav is a very rare martial art. How did you come across it?
GB: Sometime in October or November 1992 I was scanning the magazine stand in a Hull newsagent and I felt compelled to purchase the current edition of Fighting Arts International, a publication belonging to Terry O’Neill. I hadn’t bought a martial arts magazine in a long time so it was strange. I got it home and read it an there was an article called the Viking and the Samurai by Harry Cook. The piece was an interview with Ivar Hafskjold who had recently returned to Europe from Japan and settled in the UK. Over four pages the article covered Ivar’s experiences in Japan and Stav, the family system. It also turned out that Ivar lived only a few miles away in Beverley and he was interested in finding students to teach. At the time I was teaching a self defence class and I felt that getting in contact with Ivar Hafskjold was the right thing to do. I wrote him a letter and received a phone call in return. We met up and talked and I was shown some of the training Ivar had received in Japan. Not having done Japanese weapon arts let along seen Stav before it all seemed a bit strange but something made me think it would be a good idea to learn from Ivar. He was holding a class in Driffield at the time so I joined that and began training with him.
CW: Having practiced other martial arts, what was it about Stav as a fighting art that appealed and made you want to stay with it?
GB: Difficult to say really but I think it was two things. Firstly it was realising that Ivar could teach me stuff I didn’t already know and I wanted to learn from him. Secondly it was the emphasis on realising one’s own potential rather than having to attain an arbitrary external standard. That’s really it, I have learned stuff from Ivar which I am sure no one else could have taught me, and I anticipate that there will be new insights to gain from him when I train with him on the summer camp in July. And I continue to explore and develop my own potential using the practice and principles of Stav as a framework and guide.
CW: Tell us a little bit about Stav as there’s a lot more to it than just a fighting system isn’t there?
GB: It is very dangerous making a comparison like this but I will risk suggesting that Stav can be compared to, say, Taoism in the sense that Tai Chi may be a Taoist art but Taoism is not Tai Chi alone. Stav may be learned, practised and expressed through martial training but there are many other aspects to it. Stav literally means “knowledge of the rune stav/e/s” . The runes have a roughly comparable place in European culture as the Iching does in China. (I know these are very imperfect comparisons but they may be helpful). The runes are symbols for learning traditional wisdom and accessing the intuition. The runes
also provide the inspiration for the stances which are rather like a Chi gung form. Doing the stances daily promotes a good posture, maintains a full range of movement, develops deep and natural breathing, encourages the flow of Megin (vital energy) and induces a relaxed and focused mindset.
Stav also teaches an awareness of environment including plants, trees and animals as well as the seasons, weather and topography. Socially Stav is concerned with self-reliance and being able to take care of yourself while also understanding how society works and how human beings interact. The five principles of Stav help us with this.
Then there is learning to see the Web of Orlog which is about understanding how things are made and connected to one another. This is about seeing the underlying reality of any situation rather than just the surface impression. This applies to all aspects of life, relationships, business, health and making and creating things.
CW: With all these different facets to the art, do you practice them all equally, or is there any aspect that you specialise in?
GB: I do the stances daily and I have a particular interest in martial arts and martial training so I give time to that. I also work at making, building and fixing things in my Handyman business. I am interested in marketing, teaching and communication generally. I use these to promote my Stav teaching and the Handyman business. I sometimes work with runes directly and they are effective tools for developing self knowledge but I don’t give a huge amount of time to that aspect at the moment.
CW: Stav includes a number of weapons. Obviously knife defence is as applicable today as it was centuries ago when Stav was first created. What other weapons do you teach that are still directly applicable in today’s world?
GB: Firstly we teach basics with the staff because it is a very effective way of learning how to use the body. Techniques done with a long two handed weapon give very clear feedback on the positioning and alignment of the body. An almost imperceptible movement of the hand becomes a displacement of several inches at the end of a staff which the hand is holding. Not only can the teacher see this but the student quickly becomes aware of this for themselves and the staff in a sense becomes their teacher. When doing two person drills working with the staff breaks down the difference in size and strength between those training. So the principle can be explored and seen more clearly than if all contact is body to body. So we would regard weapons primarily as teaching devices to build knowledge, awareness and confidence. Once these qualities are developed they will easily transfer to unarmed training.
Secondly we have to realise that human beings are tool using animals and weapons are just tools with a specific function. Unarmed self-defence is only relevant in the very artificial situation which exists in current western society. Does anyone teach tool free DIY or implement free gardening? The idea would be ridiculous and in reality so is unarmed self-defence. However present social conditions make it difficult to carry a weapon on a regular basis so we do need unarmed self-defence skills although we would do well to remember that however good we may be a weapon can confer a massive advantage to an opponent of even mediocre skills. You may obey the law in not carrying an “offensive weapon” but you can be reasonably sure that someone who is determined to hurt you for some reason may not be so deterred. The weapons which are most accessible to us (and least likely to be considered “offensive weapons” by those whose job it is to regulate, sorry, protect us are tool handles, walking sticks, walking staffs, martial arts “training” equipment etc. The humble stick in whatever form will never be obsolete as a weapon so teaching staff (broomstick) axe (pick handle, baseball bat, golf club) and cudgel (walking stick etc) will never be irrelevant.
CW: How relevant do you feel it is to practice ancient weapons such as axe and spear in today’s world?
GB: Personally I use an axe and its smaller cousin the sax (a heavy bladed machete) on a regular basis. My work often involves clearing overgrown vegetation including trees. Cutting wood and other plant material is a great way of learning to handle an axe or sax, building strength, learning to see the web line needed for an effective cut and earning money all at the same time. Stav is a totally practical art.
Another reason for working with the axe is that to develop good defences you need a very good attack to defend against and the axe, in the hands of a competent person is a very good attacking weapon, so once again it is a teaching tool. And as stated above in extremes the axe is as good a weapon for self-defence today as it ever was for a Viking and you can have a perfectly legitimate reason for owning it.
A spear is essentially a longer staff so training with it adds some variety to practice of basics. That is the main reason. Of course if necessary a spear is very easy to improvise and in skilled hands it is the ultimate close quarter weapon.
I certainly have reservations about martial training systems which are technology based. By that I mean that they train with particular kinds of swords and everything is really geared to exploring the potential of the sabre, or rapier or broadsword or whatever. In Stav training we essentially with four sticks; long, staff or spear, medium, axe or two handed club, short, cudgel, walking stick or possibly one handed sword and tein, which can be a short baton or represent a knife or dagger. Each of these enables you to train for a “real weapon” but each is highly effective for self-defence in exactly the same form as you train with if
you know what you are doing with it.
CW: I note that your website and other Stav websites use the title “Ice and Fire”. Clearly opposites! Is that the Viking equivalent of Yin and Yang? Does the Stav philosophy have a lot in common with the philosophies of Eastern martial arts?
GB: The Ice and Fire name comes from the Norse creation myth which describes how the world came into existence in the Gunning Gap a place between fire and ice and in the vapour that formed life developed. I suppose it is a similar concept to Ying and Yang but I think the Vikings were a bit more literal in their thinking, Ying and Yang are abstract concepts, Ice and Fire are everyday realities. All human beings have to engage with the same fundamental issues so there will be parallels in martial arts philosophies too. However it would take a long time to
unpick them all.
CW: Are there any areas where Stav philosophy is significantly different to the Eastern martial arts?
GB: Another tricky one to try and unpick in a few lines. There is a major Confucian influence on Eastern martial arts hence the seniority of the teacher and submission to that seniority becomes an overriding imperative in the practice of the art. Whereas with Stav as a western system the emphasis is on the development of the individual. There is a lot more to be said than this about superficial differences but ultimately they are just different paths to the top of the same mountain.
CW: Martial arts are different things to different people; sport, combat, self development, business, combination of things. Can you sum up what is your personal philosophy on martial arts?
GB: For me it is primarily self-development, I think self-defence is important but the best way to protect oneself is stay out of trouble. I enjoy teaching martial arts and would like to do it full time, but to achieve that it will have to be a reasonably successful business.
CW: You describe Stav as your “primary activity”. How does Stav affect your day to day life and what benefits do you feel you get from your daily practice?
GB: It keeps me fit and healthy which is obviously important. It also helps me see things clearly which is very helpful for solving problems which is basically what I do in my ‘day job’.
Despite being centuries old, Stav is still being developed to make it more relevant in today’s society.
CW: Can you tell us a little about your role in this development and what specifically you have brought into the mix?
GB: I have been working with Ivar since the beginning to make Stav into a system which could be taught as a public system rather than as a family tradition which is the way the Hafskjolds had passed it on for centuries. By learning the system myself and then seeking to teach it to as many people as possible I think we have got a little closer to having a teachable system than we had at the start. Ivar is an amazing teacher but he would admit that you have to be in the right place to start learning from him. I have focused on how to teach Stav from scratch to any one who is serious about learning.
CW: I note on your website that you have a particular interest in martial art training for older people. This is an area of interest for me too. Do you have any general advice for the more mature martial artist?
GB: Big subject, but very briefly I would recommend getting very focused in one’s training. Take an 80/20 approach where you concentrate on the few exercises and techniques which will bring the greatest benefits. Don’t over strain yourself or waste energy.
CW: You teach seminars in several UK cities as well as in Germany and the USA. Are there any other countries that you’ve taught in and how did this come about when so few people (even in the martial arts world) have even heard of Stav?
GB: I have taught a seminar in France a few years back and Ivar has taught in Australia and Scandinavia. It has been mainly people seeing the websites and getting interested enough to organise a seminar.
CW: You have written a book; Stav: The Fighting System of Northern Europe. How did this come about and is it the only book available on Stav?
GB: I wrote it when I had been doing Stav about three years. At that stage I felt I knew enough to produce a kind of manual. Quite recently I wrote a supplement to it which I provide to anyone who buys a copy. There are some booklets on other aspects of Stav available from my website. It is high time I wrote a new book but these days I feel like I don’t know enough, I just need to get over that and get on with it.
CW: You also run a blog about Stav at http://iceandfire.ca/stavblog which you post on regularly. Has this been well received and what type of issues do you focus on?
GB: I do get good feedback and I focus on any aspect of Stav and related issues, which pretty much means I can write about almost anything. I suggest readers have a look for themselves.
CW: You are currently doing Geoff Thompson’s Masterclass. How much of this do you find fits in directly with your Stav training and do you find any parts to be very different?
GB: The concept of the fence fits very well with our training in the five principles. Okay, I haven’t tested Stav in 300 fights but I do have some experience of violence. I find his teaching on fear and how to manage it very helpful and I am incorporating that into my teaching more than I used to. None of Geoff’s teaching seems alien but he certainly emphasises stuff I hadn’t always paid enough attention to.
CW: What are you future plans for your own training and for spreading Stav?
GB: I am looking more at the unarmed/self-defence aspects of Stav training, Geoff Thompson’s influence has been very helpful there. I am doing much more impact training than I have done for many years using punchbags etc and that is interesting. As far as spreading Stav generally is concerned I will be making more training dvds and writing more. I am also taking more opportunities to teach Stav at multi style events, these are always a good chance to spread the word.
CW: Do your Stav seminars have much to offer martial artists of other styles who are not looking to change style, but just want to explore the whole ethos of martial arts more deeply?
GB: Depends a bit on which one they come on. If I am focusing on five principles or working with the web training then these concepts are useful to someone doing any style. If I am teaching stances, or axe training or nine guards with staff or spear it is a bit more specifically Stav but it could still be of interest. I would suggest calling or emailing me first and saying what it is you are looking for and I can see whether or not that particular seminar is likely to be suitable for your needs.
CW: How should people contact you if they want to train with you, or to book you for seminars?
GB: They can reach me via my website http://www.iceandfire.org or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0771 358 5954.
CW: Graham, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview and for your insights. I wish you every success in your future projects and I’ll have to come and train on one of your seminars in the future.
For anybody interested in obtaining Graham’s book, you can get it from from his website at http://www.iceandfire.org/mabook.html