Column: Shamanistic Echoes in the Arctic North

Lyonel Perabo —  April 29, 2016 — 8 Comments

[Today we welcome guest writer Lyonel Perabo joining us from Northern Europe. He is a MA student currently enrolled in the Old Norse Religion program at the University of Iceland. He has written for various news websites, blogs and student magazines in the Nordic countries Lyonel is currently working on his Master’s thesis, which seeks to analyze the way North-Scandinavian populations were perceived in Saga Literature and works as a tourist guide and local History blogger in the town of Tromsø in North-Norway.]

The Sjamanistisk Forbund, or Shamanic Union, was established in 2012 in the city of Tromsø located in the far north of Norway. It was founded by Kyrre Gram Franck, a native of the region. Since then, the organization, which aims to rejuvenate the age-old shamanic traditions of Northern Europe, has experienced a steady growth and now has members over the whole country. I was able to meet with Franck, who assumes the role of regional chairman and vision-leader in the organization, to discuss the group’s spiritual vision, challenges, and role in the 21st-century Norwegian religious landscape.

The coast of the island of Kvaløya near Tromsø, North-Norway. [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

The coast of the island of Kvaløya near Tromsø, North-Norway. [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

The Northern edge of Norway was historically the country’s last Pagan stronghold. While the Christianization process, kickstarted by kings Ólafr Trygvasson and Ólafr digri, met with little resistance in the south, the inhabitants of Norway’s northernmost constituency Hálogaland resisted the longest. They were even able to successfully defeat and slay Ólafr digri, who would later be made a Saint for this martyrdom. While the Church progressively became increasingly influential among the Norse population of Arctic Norway throughout the Middle-Ages, the indigenous Sámi people were, for the most part, able to retain their traditional religious beliefs and practices, most of which revolved around the figure of the noaidi, or the shaman.

Considering this rich and complex history, it is understandable that lately, natives of the region have been willing to engage with their pre-Christian roots and heritage while keeping an eye on other traditions and practices for help and inspiration. While the Sámi shamans Eirik Myrhaug and Ailo Gaup started to develop their practices in the 1980s and 1990s, there were no organizations gathering those interested in shamanism until fairly recently when Kyrre Gram Franck established the Sjamanistisk Forbund.

Franck had a spiritual connection with Nordic nature and its spirits since childhood, and had been engaged in discovering and researching shamanism since his late teens. He developed his practice over the years through personal meetings with shamans of various traditions. However, it was only after a rather singular spiritual experience that he came to establish an organized group centered around the practice. Franck explained:

One night in 2009 a vision came to me in my dreams that showed a lot of people sharing what they had of knowledge with each other. The spirits showed me that the tradition we once had could be revived, through sharing. There were men and women from all continents there, who showed us things while we showed them others. Since I am an empath a lot of emotions also came to me then beyond just the information. Right before I woke up there was a clear voice that told me to start something called the Norwegian shamanic Federation

Shortly thereafter, Franck had a talk with Ronald Kvernmo, the organizer of the Isogaisa Shamanic Festival and decided to drop the “Norwegian” from the name of the organization in order to display a greater acceptance of shamanic cultures beyond Norway or even Scandinavia. In 2012, The Sjamanistisk Forbund was registered as an official religious organization in Norway.

Kyrre Gram Franck drumming in Southern Norway in 2014 using a drum and hammer made and offered to him by the Hungarian shaman Regös Sziránszki József [Courtesy Photo]

Kyrre Gram Franck drumming in Southern Norway in 2014 using a drum and hammer made and offered to him by the Hungarian shaman Regös Sziránszki József [Courtesy Photo]

From the beginning, Franck had the idea to develop Sjamanistisk Forbund around both Sámi and Norse shamanism. As exemplified in the Medieval Norse-Icelandic sagas and later folkloristic material, Norse and Sámi Pagan practices and beliefs have indeed likely influenced each other for centuries, thus mirroring the close relationship the Sámi and the Norse populations have had since the late Iron Age. However, according to Franck, the organization focuses on reconstructing shamanic practices from much further back in time when the boundaries between the future proto-Sámi and proto-Norse cultures were at best dim, if existent at all.

However, having been in contact with shamans and Pagans from many cultures and traditions, Franck stresses the fact that individual members and affiliates are free to engage and develop their own practices. He said:

As a organization our focus is on Norse and Sámi shamanism and creating a living, vibrant culture for it in Norway, but we welcome all aspects of shamanism. A member’s own practice is between him and The Creator and and is not up to us to define as correct or not. The spirits showed me that it is important to emphasize the spiritual in tradition rather than the technical aspects.

As an organization, Sjamanistisk Forbund has over 250 members distributed all over Norway and many more sympathizers. For the moment, the group’s focus is on celebrating of the full-moons and the solstices as well as organizing weddings, funerals, coming of age and naming ceremonies. Franck also underscores the fact that by being an established organization, Sjamanistisk Forbund has many more opportunities to reach out to the public sphere. He said:

SF has served as a means to inspire others but also to create an understanding for both governmental organizations as well as people who have no previous experience with “Alternative” religions or shamanism. In addition, by creating public acceptance of shamanistic beliefs and faith we will also be able to create space  for the development of the individual. Together we will protect and create a vibrant culture, bringing life to what we have lost

There is no denying that the emergence of the organization has to be seen in the context of a shifting Norwegian religious landscape in which, according to Franck, being associated with and even engaged in “Alternative” or Pagan groups is much more accepted than before. Sjamanistisk Forbund has also had the opportunity to cooperate with some domestic Pagan organizations such as the Heathen congregations Bifrost and Forn Sed, as well as with a few international ones including the Ural–Altaic traditional culture festival Kurultaj in Hungary and the The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids in the United Kingdom.

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A meeting of the Sjamanistisk Forbundet. From left to right: Morten Storeider, Christoffer Skauge Eid, Louise Degotte, Kyrre Gram Franck, Gro Hilseth and Tone Johnsen. [Courtesy Photo]

Since its inception, Sjamanistisk Forbund has even had contact with the Norwegian Lutheran State Church, which used to behave in a mostly dismissive and antagonistic way toward non-Christian or non-Abrahamic congregations. Such a mitigating demeanor is a symptom of the dilemma the Church is faces when an increasing number of Norwegians no longer identify as Christians. Last month, the hierarchy of the Norwegian Church was shocked by a nation-wide poll published in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, which revealed that the majority of baptized members do not identify with the faith. While many commentators have interpreted this study as a sign of an increasingly secular and nonreligious civil society, Franck does not believe that spirituality is on the wane in the Kingdom. He said:

Most humans have a spiritual part in them, when we don’t express it we get sick or as I would say it, our Fylgja (Norse name for protective spirit) gets sick. We have tried to turn that part of us away for a long time. But people are rediscovering their spirituality at an increasingly rate. I cannot count the times that people have come to me, people I have never regarded as spiritual, and told me about their spiritual experiences. I foresee a revival age where shamanism isn’t just a belief but also a part of our proud heritage, a part of our culture.

Franck very much embodies this idea and does not see his spiritual practice as separated from his daily life and activities. He is a musician, a member of the ethnic-ambient band Bålfolket, and the World-Trance outfit Northern Lights Sound Project.

 

Both through his art and the organization he founded, Franck sees his spiritual engagement as a means to bring about a greater understanding of and acceptance for not only the Sjamanistisk Forbund but also for the greater Pagan and shamanic worldview in order to, according to him create a living, vibrant culture for it in Norway. May he, the organization, and all of its members and representatives, be successful in this endeavor.

Lyonel Perabo

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Lyonel Perabo holds an M.A. in Old Norse Religion from the University of Iceland and resides in the cold, Arctic city of Tromsø in Northern-Norway (69° North) where he works in the tourism industry, principally as a tour-guide, as well as a writer. His personal research focuses on local history from Northern Fenno-Scandinavia, the Viking Age and Circumpolar Religions among others.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I am impressed by the breadth of cross-cultural borrowing and the philosophy that supports it. Is “appropriation” ever an issue?

    • I could not quite fit it into the article, but Kyrre told me that whenever they perform a ritual or something of the like which is more linked to a specific tradition than their more “eclectic” usual practices they always have a dialog with representatives of said tradition to be sure not to be gauche.

    • Tauri1

      This whole issue of “appropriation” is a recent phenomenon post 2000 CE.

      Since time immemorial human groups have borrowed from whatever culture they have come across in their wanderings around Mother Earth depending upon what parts of that other culture resonate with them. This is not “appropriation”; this is what humans do and how human cultures evolve and mutate.

      For example, the pipe ceremony is nowadays associated with the Lakota and plains tribal people, but the Hopewell were using pipes thousands of years prior. Do you think the descendants of the Hopewell people would have looked disapprovingly upon the Lakota using the pipe? Of course not.

      The article even mentions how the “Norse and Sámi Pagan practices and beliefs have indeed likely influenced each other for centuries, thus mirroring the close relationship the Sámi and the Norse populations have had since the late Iron Age.”

      This type of “influence” is common throughout history and prehistory. The only reason the “idea” of “appropriation” comes into existence is because of modern technology which enables many groups to now interact with each other, and, of course, the willingness of *some* unscrupulous people to try to make money off of traditional practices.

      I cannot see how anyone can consider people who are genuinely interested in learning the spiritual practices of another group to incorporate them into their own practice as “appropriating” that other groups practices, whether they have “permission” or not.

      Back in the 1980s, I was a participant at a Free Spirit Alliance event in which I met a woman of Italian descent who was heavily into the traditions of some Native American tribe. (I think it was the Lakota, but frankly that was 30 years ago and I don’t quite remember the name of the tribe she told me.) She had been begging them to teach her and the Medicine person kept putting her off and telling her to work with her own native culture, that that would be what is best for her, but she insisted. The reason was she felt far more comfortable and in tune with the Native American beliefs than that of her own ancestry. Finally, after a year or so of persistence, the Medicine person relented because, as he said, he realized she was serious about this particular path.

      For those who are serious about a specific path, or incorporating elements of another groups practices, I think that will actually increase respect for non-Abrahamic religious practices rather than decrease it. Of course, it is necessary for those practices to be learned properly and not superficially. I am reminded of something I read about 15 years ago where a group of Pagans tried to incorporate part of a rite from a Lithuanian pagan perspective and got it all wrong. The Lithuanian Pagan who complained about this pointed out that the group was singing daina (sacred songs) that were appropriate for one specific festival, but were not singing it at the right time. It was as though those Pagans were singing Yule songs at the summer solstice!

      So I guess if one’s going to incorporate another traditions practices, it’s better to get it right and understand WHY the practice is done the way it’s done or don’t bother at all.

    • Charles Cosimano

      Only for people who think it matters. No one else gives a damn.

  • Bekki

    A fascinating article. I studied with Ailo Gaup (mentioned in the article as one of the two Sami shamans who revived the practice in Norway) in the States in the 1990s, and sponsored workshops for him on several occasions during that time. Shamanism is a way of spirit-working that will connect one directly to the ancestors. I have been teaching a shamanic course on working with the ancestors since 1994. It was originally given me by my spirits in response to a deep grieving and a longing to be connected to the pagan practices of my ancestors that plunged me into a dark night of the soul. Though I found great comfort in that work, it wasn’t until 2 years later that I discovered the academic journal that “validated” my shamanic experiences with my Hungarian lineage. Since that time I have found that many of my students get information from the spirits about their ancestors and ancestral practice that is later verified. Shamanism is real, it works, it is in our blood and bones– that is why it has never died out.

    • That’s pretty neat ! I’ve myself never had the occasion of meeting the late Ailo Gaup but I’d curious to hear about how his US experience was!

      • Bekki

        I first met him in 1992, at a workshop he taught at a retreat center in the Adirondacks. Through a series of synchronicities I was able to work with him. He came to teach in the US through the auspices of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies several times, but also had a student in New England who was sponsoring him. I was able to take several of those workshops. Then I discovered that the sister of a friend– not connected at all to the Neoshamanic community– had a small publishing company in North Dakota, and she had published the English version of his book “In Search of the Drum”, a shamanic novel. We worked together to bring him there. I have huge respect for his teaching– not only what he taught, but how he taught. He was very interested in the experiences of his students and very open, a good listener who valued the teacher-student relationship.I know that when my own students studied with him they were very enthusiastic about their experiences.

        • That’s a neat story. Thanks for sharing !