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The time is a few minutes past midnight, on the night between the seventeenth and the eighteenth of August; the place, Svinøya, an outlying island close to the town of Svolvær, the unofficial capital and most populous locale of the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten in northern Norway. I am standing by a bench on the tip of a breakwater, facing the city’s waterfront. Next to me is my colleague Heinrich, a South African who, by a succession of unlikely events has ended up, like me, working in the tourism industry of this Scandinavian nation.

Tomorrow isn’t just a normal day at work, it is the season’s last cruise ship and our employer sent us from our home of Tromsø all the way down to Lofoten; an eight hour car ride through some of the most stunning vistas there are which I have done too many time to count, but not enough not to be amazed — every single time — by the wild majesty of its landscape. The ride was in and of itself uneventful, and we got into town early, ate well (codfish pizzas, a local specialty) and looked forward to the next day’s tour. With the forecast promising fiery temperatures (21° Celsius/ 70° Fahrenheit) and continued clear skies for tomorrow, we both waited in anticipation, not only for the fat paycheck that comes with such assignments, but also to see if this beautiful summer weather might make our wealthy North American patrons loosen their purses further than usual when tipping. But until then and before going to bed, Heinrich and I have some time to kill, and we decide to go to Svinøya to hunt for the northern lights.

[Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

A late summer evening in arctic Norway [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, have held a very special place in both my worldview and my day-to-day life all the way since I moved from the scorching shores of the Mediterranean to their comparatively more frigid Arctic counterparts. While prior to this move I certainly knew about their existence, I wasn’t especially interested in them or even really enthused about soon being able to stare at their luminous, heavenly shapes. Still, I do clearly remember the very first time I saw them, seven years or so ago.

While riding the bus back home one evening, I unaffectedly directed my gaze at the sky, to discover, to my great surprise, where grayish clouds would normally stand, a green arrow of light pierced the horizon. Upon realizing that what I was seeing wasn’t an arrow cast by Apollo’s mighty silver bow but the aurora borealis, I threw myself out of the bus and ran to a friend’s house  where we spent a good hour silently gazing at greenish arches, spikes and other moving figures morphing into each other, illuminating the eastern sky.

Over the following couple of years, I became more and more involved with the northern lights, not only regularly seeing them in the winter night, but actively seeking them, informing others about the phenomena and, since 2011, professionally guiding guests to see what, in the northern lights hunter jargon we simply call, “the lights.”

As a northern lights guide, I am generally expected to, well, talk about the aurora. Most often tourists get very quickly down to business and want to know all about the practical aspects of the lights: What are they? How can we find them? Where and when is the best place/time to see them? How to photograph them, etc., but when one is expected to guide a six- to seven-hour-long tour, researching and finding extra information (“ammunition,” in the guiding jargon) can always be useful; this is how I started to look more closely into the folklore and mythology of the northern lights.

After going through the relatively limited pool of sources on the subject (an area which would benefit from further research), it appears that in many mythologies and folk belief systems, the northern lights were associated with the ancestors, the gods, and the hereafter. In the Inuit homelands, for example, the aurora was most often seen as an aerial ball game played by the spirits of the dead either with a walrus head, a human head or even stillborns’ afterbirths! In medieval Russian chronicles, the lights were described as heavenly armies fighting each other, an image that can be traced back all the way to the Roman Empire and the fourth century writer Julius Obsequies. To go back to the Arctic, the people of the Tlingit nation of southern Alaska believed that the aurora was the light of torches lit by the fallen dwelling in the heaven of Kee-wa-kow-anne to guide the souls of those who died a violent death.

The Aurora over the Whale Island near Tromsø [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

The aurora over the Whale Island near Tromsø [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

There is no doubt that Pagan and Polytheist peoples hold or held the northern lights in high esteem, regardless of what they believed them to be. Such a sacralization of what is, according to modern science, a chemical reaction between solar and gas particles in the high atmosphere is remarkable and even extends in some cases to Christian philosophy and mysticism. The author and Christian minister Harald Falck-Ytter, for instance, saw in the aurora a symbolic reflection of the Holy Spirit, whose at first unfathomable, yet very corporeal nature is gradually revealed to humankind as it progresses towards its destiny.

Even for non-religious people the aurora remains not just a sight to behold, but often the symbol of something greater. How many times have I witnessed guests literally losing all composure at the view of particularly well-defined northern lights? Most people, I have noticed, react to such lights in a similar manner: a mixture of awe, excitement, hysteria and frostbite.

“The northern lights are killing me,” an American tourist of mine once stated, a feeling that I can confirm, is shared by others. Indeed, every winter, thousands upon thousands of travelers are starting to head to our Arctic wasteland to pay up to several hundreds of dollars (the Norwegian industry rate amounts to about 120 dollars per person per tour) in what is increasingly referred to as a modern-day pilgrimage.

When the “hunting season” finally arrives, various plans and schemes are devised, friendly rivalry between guides flares up anew and new recruits are introduced to the bizarre ritual of northern lights-hunting in which individuals compete to find the best frostbitten night spot to gaze at illuminated winter skies. Because it is impossible to know if such a “hunt” will be successful on the grounds of weather, solar activity, and ultimately, plain old luck, one simply must surrender to fate, a fate that can sometimes be cruel, but which is much more often than not generous beyond comprehension. I can barely count the number of times when I was dead certain that the aurora would snub us, only to be proven wrong when in the middle of the woods, on an isolated mountain pass, and even in cases of severe snowstorm the lights finally appeared in all of their glory.

While not every auroral display qualifies as a life changing experience, a moderately strong northern lights storm is enough to bring sheer happiness and life-warmth to any onlooker. Most northern lights hunters, especially in the lower echelons of the industry, are people driven by a sheer passion that is generally referred to as the “green-fever,” a moniker perfectly fitting for the frenzy inhabiting many of us during the aurora season; every opportunity to watch, photograph or experience the northern lights in any way possible becomes more of a duty than a mere obsession, and missing a especially beautiful display feels more like a fault than just a missed opportunity. Even for the casual onlooker, such a devotion would appear as rather peculiar.

A strong Aurora display over an Icelandic lava-field [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

A strong aurora display over an Icelandic lava-field [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

As far as I am concerned, I personally know how much I am indebted to the lights. For now five winters, chasing the elusive aurora has been my main, and sometimes sole, source of income. When I moved to Iceland back in 2013, my only plan for survival was to find work as a northern lights hunter. Discard that, and I would probably not have been able to live there anymore and continue my studies in old Norse religion. A class comrade of mine, Josh Rood, editor of the Óðroerir Heathen journal, whom I took with me on a few tours once joked that the northern lights were the very source of my life force, considering that without them, I could not even afford to eat, let alone pay the rent.

Not that the job pays fantastically, mind you; most northern lights hunters, myself included, make barely enough to survive and could only compete, at best, with grocery store clerks and waiters if one’s employer is honest or competent enough. Yet there is still something that keeps me, and I can only guess, others, going back, year after year, winter after winter. Could it be an age-old remembrance of our once Pagan beliefs and worldview, in which not only the aurora, but various natural phenomena and nature itself were viewed as sacred by all? What pushes so many to reach the end of the world to simply look at the skies?

Back in Svinøya, Heinrich and I were certainly not engaging in such a deeply philosophical conversation. Waiting like sitting ducks for an aurora that clearly was not going to show herself, we passed the time by drinking some locally-produced brews and jeering at the drunken teenagers enjoying one of the very few warm evenings of the year sitting just a few yards away. At midnight, theoretically the darkest moment of the night, the northern half of the sky was still milky white and its darker, southern counterpart was illuminated by the brightest of full moons. Only in the uppermost edge of the sky was the sky dark enough to reveal a handful of stars and thus possibly and in theory, northern lights as well; but, as nothing happened and the beer supplies inevitably dwindled into oblivion, we made the decision to leave.

Mere moments afterwards, Heinrich, whose superior eyesight enables him to engage with the outside world without the help of glasses, stops and points to the jet-black southern sky. Far away on the horizon, a subtle arch appears, soon heading closer to us and taking the form of a downward spiral of pale-green color: the aurora has shown herself at last, almost two months before the beginning of the season. Ecstatic, we grab our DSLR cameras and start shooting, our hearts pumping with excitement and raw, unaltered joy. Finally we, Heinrich, the anti-theist existentialist and I, the ever-questioning Pagan, agree that this is a good sign for the coming season and head back to the hotel. The super-rich Americans will have one more story to hear in the tour bus tomorrow.

The first Northern Lights of the season over Svolvær [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

The first northern lights of the season over Svolvær [Photo Credit: L. Perabo]

After half a decade of hunting for the elusive lights, and likely hundreds of sightings, I came to the conclusion that the main reason people from all walks of life, over the whole world head towards the far north to experience the shimmering spectacle of the aurora borealis stems from a desire to reconnect with nature and the primordial wilderness. As a more and more significant proportion of the world’s population moves to large cities in which engaging with nature is all but a romantic and sadly, futile dream, our psyche somehow calls us back away from this sterile modernity and exhorts us to look back at what was ours, and what we once were a part of.

Not only are the northern lights a potent reminder of our pre-modern and pre-monotheist past in the form of the gods, the ancestors and the afterlife, they can only be adequately experienced in the wild, where the artificial city lights are nowhere to be seen and cannot stop us from focusing our sights beyond our immediate and bustling environment. Around this potent, almost mystical attraction has developed not only a multimillion-dollar industry but a whole subculture; a stiflingly dynamic subculture; a sky-gazing subculture; a nature-worshiping subculture; a Pagan subculture? Mayhaps, depending on who you ask, but in my aurora-drenched eyes at least, nothing is more certain.

[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.

Picture_IV_Lyonel_Perabo_Article_Norwegian_Shamanic_Union_April_2016

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.

PRAQUE – On March 16, a Norwegian-based online news site, Local NO, published an article titled, “Norwegian ‘witch’ books stolen by Nazis found.” This story was quickly picked up by international media and expounded upon. The Local NO was covering a March 16 conference hosted by a project called “Books Discovered Once Again.” The conference topic was, in fact, the recovery of these confiscated books. However, according to one of the program organizers “no occult books” have been found.

[Courtesy of Books Discovered Once Again]

[Courtesy of Books Discovered Once Again]

Historian and project manager Marcela Strouhalová of the National Library of the Czech Republic called the news reports “Not only exaggeration, but nonsense.” She told The Wild Hunt, “We have small pieces of many masonic libraries […] but we haven´t found any occult literature in them.”

Strouhalová went on to explain that the majority of the books found are from Germany with “3 exceptions of which one of them is Norwegian lodge and includes 7 volumes.” She added that the current 12,000 found volumes had 2,000 different owners, most of whom resided in the Czech Republic. This substantial historical collection was not owned by Himmler or by any single member of the Nazi party.

When asked how the rumor got started, Strouhalová said that she was not entirely sure, but she believes it came out of a misunderstanding of the presentations given by academics during the final seminar held at Stiftelsen Arkivet in Kristiansand, Norway. The title of the seminar was, “The ideological background for confiscation of books in an European and Norwegian perspective.” The corresponding website includes summaries and data from the seminar itself, and some background behind the discovery of the books.

Strouhalová said, “For me the story starts in the moment when the books were found in four Czech castles in 1945.” According to historians and not surprising to most, the Nazis confiscated thousands of documents, art and books from around Europe as part of their attempts to control cultural ideology as well as to study their enemies. These confiscated items were considered dangerous to the Third Reich or, in the case of art, termed “degenerate.”

While the confiscated items were stored in a variety of places, more than a half-million were found in these “four North Bohemian castles – Houska, Mimoň, Nový Berštejn and Nový Falkenburg” in 1945, as noted earlier by Strouhalová. The Czech National Library, after being partially closed during Nazi occupation, was given the task of sorting through and processing these found documents. At the time, many items were returned to their owners, with the exception of those owned by “enemies of the [Czech] state.” This included all German or Hungarian-owned items, and those owned by “national unreliable persons.” National unreliable persons included “everyone who at any time after 1929 as a Czechoslovak citizen had claimed German or Hungarian nationality in the census or had become a member of a group, unit or political party associating persons of German or Hungarian origin.” The large number of held items were then placed in storage, and have remained there until recently.

American GI looks at Nazi storage of confiscated material [Public Domain]

American GI looks at Nazi storage of confiscated material [Public Domain]

The “Books Rediscovered Once Again” project, sponsored by the National Library of the Czech Republic, the Norwegian institution Stiftelsen Arkivet, the European Economic Area (EEA) funds and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, launched a discovery project of those remaining confiscated and stored books. While many were German-owned, some were not. And part of the new project, along with cleaning and preserving documents, is the identification of ownership in consideration of all legalities.

As noted in the project’s legal report:

Given the course of confiscations on the spot (and given the rather disorganised activities of the National Committees and the Administration Councils in particular in 1945) and the condition of records and archive documents, it is not possible to positively identify the provenance (original owner) of all confiscated books and thus completely rule out individual, specific situations.

Due to this fact, many are being returned to museums, libraries and organizations, rather than specific people. As noted, “600 volumes of confiscated books were returned to the Jewish Museum in Prague.”

According to Strouhalová, they are processing over 12,000 books, many of which were taken from Masonic lodges across Europe. The Freemasons were considered an enemy of the Third Reich and, as such, needed to be studied. Helge Bjørn Horrisland, a researcher and member of the Norwegian Freemason society, has been working on various projects to help recover confiscated Masonic documents. He is closely involved with the “Books Discovered Once Again” project. Horissland said:

The Nazis confiscated whole collections from the different lodges, and sent these books, documents and other material, to Germany first to get them examined. The intention was to use these books for scientific research as the Nazis looked upon the Freemasons as a Jewish conspiracy, and had a plan to reveal what the freemasonry was about. To some extent this was done, but when the war intensified, these scholars had to participate in the warfare and could no longer be spared to do research on the Freemason societies. The confiscated Freemason books were therefore transported to various storages, also in what was then Czechoslovakia.

In our interview, Strouhalová agreed, saying that that the findings include “common philosophic literature, yearbooks of lodges, some Masonic poems collection and so on.” Again, she emphasized that there was nothing found in the collection, to date, that is considered occult or Witchcraft related.

But, once again, the question arises, how did the rumor begin?

It is very common to conflate all things Masonic with all things occult. The two are western cultural bedfellows as the term occult is used very broadly, and the two often overlap. Included in that broad definition of occult is ‘Witchcraft.’  And, the history of these practices, ideologies and beliefs have circled around each other for centuries, in fiction and in reality. The connection is not a stretch.

However, it is also commonly believed that the Nazi party and its leaders were interested in “the occult,” and that Heidrich Himmler was particularly fascinated with Witchcraft. Some speculate that Aleister Crowley and other well-known occultists had regular audiences with Hitler, and that Hitler’s suicide on Walpurgisnacht (April 30) was magically prophetic. There are speculations that Himmler was staging Witchcraft rituals in his famous Wewelsburg Castle, and that he believed that the “Burning Times” was really a strategic attempt to destroy German culture.

While modern historians have largely debunked most of these theories, the stories do remain, to one extent or another, in our western collective cultural imagination. They are not just limited to conspiracy theorists, Indiana Jones’ films and Dan Brown novels. Additionally, as the Third Reich and its leaders have become, ideologically-speaking, the western world’s symbol for ultimate evil, they have also been aligned with other cultural archetypes of evil – including Witchcraft.

Strouhalová added, “These libraries (masonic collections) were in the holdings of RSHA (Amt VII),” which she believes may have also initially caused the confusion, she said, “Because this organisation was created by Himmler in 1939.” The RSHA (Amt VII), or Reichssicherheitshauptamt, was the Nazi main security office, and Amt VII was the department in charge of “Ideological Research and Evaluation.” This included the confiscation of all “degenerate” works, and the monitoring and dissemination of propaganda. The entire security office, including Amt VII, was controlled by Himmler.

In summary, as explained by the historians, the 12,000 recently discovered documents and books, of which many were of Masonic origin, were originally confiscated by an ideological department found by Himmler.

[Photo Credit: Lin Kristensen / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Lin Kristensen / Wikimedia]

Whether any aspect of the Third Reich was derived from true occult practice and theory, of any kind, and whether or not Hitler and Himmler were interested in Witchcraft is irrelevant to this particular story. Will the researchers one day find Witchcraft books or other actual occult material? Perhaps. But it hasn’t happened yet. If there is a connection between the Nazi leaders and occult practice, it still remains shrouded in mystery. It is left to speculation, the imagination and a modern collective mythology that still rests heavily on medieval Catholic religiosity.

As for the “Books Discovered Once Again” project, the missions statement and explanation of the recent discoveries are described online. Researchers are currently working on providing digital access to many of the found historical documents, as that is one of the aims of the program. When asked how and if the public can view any of the materials, we did not get a response. However, we will update our readers when that information becomes available.

[Today we welcome guest writer Lyonel Perabo joining us from Northern Europe. The Wild Hunt is always seeking new voices and welcomes guests nearly every month. By doing so, we expand our ability to share the many diverse experiences found within the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist communities worldwide. Submissions are always accepted. If you enjoy reading these guest pieces, consider donating to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive. We are completely reader-funded, and all your donations go directly back to a writers, including guests, and to bringing you their stories! Donate today. Thank You.]

In 2009, the Isogaisa festival was established by Ronald Kvernmo, a Sámi from the Norwegian side with a long interest in his people’s culture and spirituality and, more specifically, shamanism. Until the modern era, the Sámi people were, for the most part, Pagans whose complex religious beliefs and concepts were often embodied by their ´noaidi´ (´shamans´). Even after the effective colonization and conversion of Sápmi (´Sami-land´), elements from this Pagan culture were passed on in some form or another until the present day.

The festival takes place on the shores of the idyllic Lavangen Fjord situated at 68 degrees latitude North in Northern Norway.

The festival takes place on the shores of the idyllic Lavangen Fjord situated at 68 degrees latitude North in Northern Norway. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

According to Kvernmo, the Sámi pietist movement known as Læstadianism, which became prominent among Sámis in the later half of the 19th century, has some similarity to Shamanism. In many ways, the Isogaisa festival can be considered a manifestation of the desires of a new generation of Sámis looking to reconnect to their traditional culture and spirituality. For Kvernmo, the festival should also be considered within a wider context. It is part of a recent revitalization that Sámi culture has been experiencing, in general, after generations of colonization and systematic oppression. He said:

In Sámi society we have lost a lot of our culture, in part due to Norwegianization and state-sponsored racism, but now we have come, in the last twenty, thirty years, to a new time where Sámi culture is advancing and people can feel proud of their heritage. 

The concept behind Isogaisa is unique in the sense that it is the only festival focusing on Sámi traditional religion. Other Sámi festivals promoting Sámi culture are widespread in the Northern corners of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but none are as resolutely Pagan as Isogaisa. While Sámi traditional practices and religion are the main focus of the festival, Isogaisa has grown to welcome representatives and practitioners of other cultures as well. For Kvernmo, it is a token of hospitality and friendship and it is both natural and practical. He said:

It is important for Sámi people to have opportunities to advance their culture, however, we have lost a few things along the way. In order to recover those practices, we have to borrow them back from our neighbors. Our culture isn’t stagnant, it’s dynamic and we have been working closely for a time with some of our Northern neighbors like the Nenets and Kidlin Sàmi from Russia.

Sharing Faiths

At this year’s festival, another group in the spotlight were Latvians. A dozen Pagan Latvians, including members of the Baltic musical group Tai Tai, were invited to give workshops and presentations about their ancestral religion, crafts and music. During one such event, the members of Tai Tai performed a number of traditional songs, games, and dances. They explained their origins in front of a group of festival-goers who had were visiting from Russia, Norway, Finland and the U.K.

Latvian guests dyed yarn in a traditional way, using wild herbs. The festival serves as a way to share knowledge about traditional crafts.

Latvian guests dyed yarn in a traditional way, using wild herbs. The festival serves as a way to share knowledge about traditional crafts. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

If Isogaisa stands for something it is most definitely cultural sharing, a process which assists in fixing the tainted inter-ethnic relationships in Northern Fenno-Scandinavia. For more than 250 years, Norway, Sweden, and Russia have been hard at work erasing Sámi culture, traditions and ways of life. This is reminiscent to what indigenous peoples in North America and Australia have experienced over the same time period.

As a result, and even taking into consideration the recent Sámi cultural renewal of the past few years, age-old prejudice is sometimes still present in these regions. In Finland, for example, it is still common for non-Sámis to dress in (often poor-quality) Sámi traditional costumes when dealing with foreign tourists. The dichotomy between state-enforced discrimination and the packaging of a consumer-friendly Sámi culture represents the official ´Sámi policy´ of the Fenno-Scandinavian states during most of the 20th century.

Eva and Peter Armstrand represent one shining illustration of the way the festival works toward the sharing and celebrating of different cultures. While both of them are Swedish citizens, Peter is a Sámi with roots in the northern part of the country and Eva is an ethnic Swede from the south. They have been a couple and a team for several years now and have been practicing spirit-working, healing and traditional crafts together under the name Team Fourbears. In between a ceremony and a workshop, Eva was able to explain how they have been able to, quite literally, marry two distinct traditions:

In the beginning, these really were just one single tradition. Over time, we developed different names for the Gods and spirits but deep down, they really are the same figures. For us, it doesn’t feel strange, to blend these two traditions, on the contrary, it feels quite natural.

 

Will Rubach, Heidi Kim and Eva and Peter Armstrand perform at closing ceremony. Festival leader, Ronald Kvernmo watches from the stage.

Will Rubach, Heidi Kim and Eva and Peter Armstrand perform at closing ceremony. Festival leader, Ronald Kvernmo watches from the stage. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

Constructive Communion

During the four days of the Isogaisa festival, shamans, Pagans and other spirit-workers, coming from Northern Europe and beyond, gathered, exchanged, and worked together. Due to its collaboration with various alternative religious associations, Isogaisa has reached a certain prominence within the European alternative religion scene. Situated in the breathtakingly scenic Lavangen fjord, not far from the Norwegian-Swedish border in the Northern county of Troms, the festival is uniquely situated to be a meeting place with an international dimension. A good deal of participants and attendees are Sámi attempting to reconnect with their ancient traditions. Others are clearly closer to the New Age movement, and some could even be considered Reconstructionists.

What’s important though isn’t what sets the diverse Isogaisa crowd apart, but what brings them all together: a genuine desire to listen and learn from others. In a way, the festival could almost be considered a global networking event where people, who would otherwise never have the opportunity to meet, can hang out and build bonds. For example, members of the Latvian and Russian Sámi delegations spent most of the festival together communicating in Russian and ended-up professing brotherhood during the festival’s closing ceremony. Such genuine and beneficial outcomes are aided by the fact that the festival’s strict no-alcohol and no-drug policy.

The main ceremonies took place in the festival’s main Lavvu, a type of traditional Sámi tent. Most, if not all the courses, workshops and concerts take place within such Lavvus, which also make ideal shelter in case of bad weather. The festival central Lavvu is a massive structure, connecting no less than four such tents thus creating a central meeting space where hundreds can gather. This is also where the festival’s closing ceremony took place.

Tara LeAnn Eriksson and Tobias Kramp make an offering to the Holy Fire during the festival's closing ceremony.

Tara LeAnn Eriksson and Tobias Kramp make an offering to the Holy Fire during the festival’s closing ceremony. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

The various Shamans, speakers and artists who were part of this year’s line-up all took turns making speeches, performing songs and cordially paying their respects to each other. The general mood was positive, and no one received more praise than the festival elders, more specifically the female elders.

Among all the performers, Russian Sámi dancer Semen Bolshunov probably made the strongest impression. Outfitted in various animal skins, he performed a dance inspired by the shamanic traditions of his people, running around the festival sacred fire before collapsing on a pile of reindeer skins. Another highlight of the ceremony was the birthday celebration for Danish Shamanic Union member Per Søager. After being presented with a cake, he ended up being serenaded by no less than a dozen versions of ´Happy Birthday´ sung in many languages.

The closing ceremony ended with the performance of Eirik Myrhaug, a respected Sámi Shaman who led a final blessing of the festival grounds. And, when he finished, the 6th annual Isogaisa festival came to an end. All in all, Isogaisa lived up to its reputation, providing a fertile ground for those interested or involved with the Shamanistic and Pagan practices from Northern Europe and beyond.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

The festival grounds, situated among some of North Norway’s most beautiful landscapes, added to the feeling of spiritual and metaphysical yearning, which was so present among attendees and performers alike. The fact that drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited at the festival made it ideal for families, as witnessed by the countless children constantly running around the festival grounds. More than any other festival in this corner of the world, Isogaisa fosters a truly welcoming and homely atmosphere, making people feel like they come back, year after year, to their own family and people. With such an appeal, one doesn’t need to be clairvoyant to predict a bright future for Isogaisa.  

 *   *   *

[Lyonel Perabo 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.]

There are lots of articles and news of interest to modern Pagans out there – more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

vice logoOn May 1, VICE Media published an article titled, “How a Thor Worshipping Religion Turned Racist.” Writer Rick Paulas writes, “Together, Odinism and Asatru constitute the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, officially recognized by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. It’s gaining steam in America, too, where Thor’s Hammer is now allowed to be carved onto military gravestones and prisoners are granted special accommodations to carry out rituals … But there’s a dark side, too.” He goes on to discuss “the way that [Odinism] became a religion entangled with racism, exclusion, and American prison culture.”

Within hours of publication, the article triggered responses from a number of Heathen individuals and organizations. For example, in the article’s comments, Steven T Abell, steersman of The Troth, called the piece “poorly-researched, poorly-written.” Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project, agreed, saying, “There is so much wrong in this article.” He also pointed out that interviewee Josh Rood was misquoted.

Rood himself confirmed Heath’s assertion. In a Facebook post, Rood said, “There are a few huge things that I want to publicly make as clear as possible….and this is the only venue I really have to do that. I do not ‘teach an Old Norse Religion MA program’ … I am a student…” Rood also added that he had tried to be as clear as possible in the interview, suggesting that some of his words were used out of context.

Heathens United Against Racism voiced its own objections through an open letter to VICE, which was published and shared over social media and sent directly to the news outlet. The letter asks the editors to retool the article because “the problem is much more complicated” than expressed. HUAR has not yet received a response.

In other news…

  • In 2011, the Queen of Norway unveiled The Steilneset Memorial located in the small town of Vardø. The monument was erected to honor the 91 witches who were killed “nearly 400 years ago” in the town’s notorious witch trials. Although built and opened four years ago, the town’s history and news of the monument have once again captured media interest and generated a few news stories.
  • The Indian Network reported last month that more than a dozen Native actors and actresses walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six. They felt that “the satirical western’s script repeatedly insulted native women and elders and grossly misrepresented Apache culture.” Over the past two weeks, the story gained momentum and hit many major news outlets. The Indian Network continued to follow story. On May 1, it published an interview with Apache Culture Consultant Bruce Klinekole, who “was one of the key dissenters.” Klinekole explains why he joined the walk-out. In another article, The Indian Network reports that Native actor Ricky Lee called the entire controversy “overblown.” Additionally, a Care2 petition was started by protestor Allie Young, asking Sandler to change the script. It’s goal is 56,000 signatures of which it has already earned has 55, 611. Sandler has not made any public comment on the issue.
  • On April 15, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled “that a small town in Quebec may not open its council meetings with prayer.” In direct contrast to last year’s ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, Canadian law now prohibits any prayer or invocation before a state body. According to the RNS report, the Canadian Supreme Court explained that “the country’s social mores have ‘given rise to a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard. This neutrality requires that the state neither favor nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non belief.'”
  • In other religious freedom news, Tennessee lawmakers have attempted to push through HB615, which would designate the Bible as the state’s official book. On April 15, the House approved the bill 55-38, advancing it to the Senate. Despite a strong show of support, the bill was then sent back to committee, putting it on-hold for at least another year. According to the local Knoxville News-Sentinel, Senator Majority Leader Mark Norris said to his fellow committee members during the debates, “For God’s sake, think about where you’re headed.”
  • Continuing on the religious freedom theme, a Missouri woman is attempting to use RFRA laws to be exempted from the state’s abortion regulations. “Mary,” as she is publicly known, is a member of the St. Louis branch of the The Satanic Temple, and reached out to the national organization for help. In a press release, the organization explained,”that [Mary’s] deeply held beliefs would be violated if she is forced to receive inaccurate information as required by the State, and if she is forced to endure a mandated 72 hour waiting period.” The Temple is also raising funds to help Mary through the process.
  • Choreographer and dancer Keith Hennessey has been travelling with a new exhibition called Bear/Skin, which confronts recent social and political problems in the United States. In this piece, Hennessey uses his own Pagan and feminist beliefs to construct the performance’s narrative. He also uses parts of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” to which he said that he had “to reconcile his relationship” through his spiritual beliefs. The next and final performance will be in Toronto as part of a trio of dance exhibitions titled, “Capitalism, Sex and Magic.”
  • During spring, many small towns engage in, what the media often label, “ancient Pagan rituals.” These are regional and traditional folk celebrations that typically mark the changing of the seasons. Two that were recently featured include Germany’s “Osterraederlauf” in Luegde and Poland’s ‘Smigus-Dyngus‘ festival. Both are annual festivals that have been, reportedly, celebrated for centuries. During Osterraederlauf, locals set fire to six large wooden wheels and roll them down a hill. The wheels and fire are said to bless the farmers with good luck. For Smigus-Dyngus, or Watery Monday, locals dress in festive clothing, while young boys throw water on young girls and spank them with willow branches in hopes of increasing their marriage chances.
  • In Florida, Rollins College Provost Carol Bresnahan  has developed a continuing education class on “the history of witchcraft and magic.” The course, taught for the Rollins College Center of Lifelong Learning at the Hamilton Holt School, has no grades or homework. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, “During class, [for example] they talk about how people believed witches slept with the devil. They read through a 15th-century witch-hunting manual [Malleus Maleficarum] …” The class has been very popular, which initially surprised Bresnahan. One student is quoted as saying, “I’ve always been interested in witches, and I don’t know why.” On its site, the Sentinel published a short video interview with the provost.
  • And, the Beltane celebrations are well-underway. The Grove of Gaia Fest was held last weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with record levels of attendance. In addition to its traditional May Pole dance, festival goers happily participated in a wild color toss to welcome the Merry Month of May.
Grove of Gaia Fest

Grove of Gaia Fest 2015 – Color Toss

 

Top Story: Indian Country Today reports on a new documentary, “Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White,” that looks at the case of a Lakota medicine man who was accused of abusing his two grandchildren. Jennifer Jessum and Simon Joseph, a husband and wife duo who produced and directed the film, knew White through a member of his family, and were shocked to hear about the charges made against him. After White was convicted and sentenced to prison, they investigated the matter and uncovered several “holes” in the prosecution, and eventually, saw one of the grandchildren recant his testimony.

[Roy Helper Jr.] met the film crew at a hotel in Rapid City, and he confessed on film that he had lied about the alleged abuse. He said that he and his brother, Lloyd, were under tremendous pressure from lawyers, judges and “people in suits,” and he said the experience was frightening. He also indicated that they were coaxed to say certain things. In return, they were told they would get money, toys, even a horse. (They received none of those things.) “We were just little, dumb, stupid Indian kids, being tossed around,” Helper says in Holy Man, his voice choked with emotion. “Eventually it’s going to come out. Like today.”

Despite a cascading series of events that proved White’s innocence, the U.S. Attorney’s office engaged in stalling and delaying tactics, and White died in prison in 2009 before he could be exonerated. There is now a petition to have President Obama posthumously exonerate Douglas White, apologize for his wrongful conviction, make reparations to White’s family, and initiate an investigation into the agents who pursued the case against White. The filmmakers are now working on issues of Tribal sovereignty, and the epidemic of teen suicide in Indian country. DVDs of the film are expected to be available this Summer.

In Other News:

  • Actress Lynn Collins, one of the stars of the new Disney film “John Carter,” tells an Irish reporter that she studied “mysticism, paganism, everything” and that ultimately “they’re all the same thing.”
  • Pagan and political scientist Gus diZerega has a new article published in The Independent Review entitled “Spontaneous Order and Liberalism’s Complex Relation to Democracy.” Here’s the abstract: “American and European liberalism began to take different paths in the nineteenth century, particularly with respect to their views on democracy. This divergence stems in part from the fact that liberal principles give rise to different types of spontaneous order, each of which generates unique patterns of social coordination.” You can download the article for free. For diZerega’s Pagan work, check out his column at Patheos, and his blog at Beliefnet.
  • Archaeologists in Norway have apparently uncovered a “unique” and “unparalleled” pre-Christian temple site. It is believed the temple was built around 400AD and that “the last people who used it over 1,000 years ago did their utmost to hide the entire system with an unusually thick layer of soil.” Despite the historic nature of the site, the land is scheduled to be cleared for a housing development. Applications are currently being made to have the site preserved.
  • Rev. G. Jude Geiger, a Unitarian Universalist minister, writes about the concept of religious freedom in our highly polarized political atmosphere. Quote: “By requiring citizens to follow the religious teachings of certain faith traditions, we in essence are asking our country to follow and abide by those particular traditions.”
  • The Supreme Court of the United States has refused to hear an appeal to a 9th Circuit Court decision that upheld a California state universities policy requiring all student groups, including religious groups, to not discriminate in membership on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. More on this, here. You’ll be hearing a LOT about this decision in the coming weeks, and I expect I’ll put in my two cents sooner rather than later.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

If you were going to make a major motion picture that casts the modern Pagan impulse in the worst possible light, you couldn’t do much better than picking Varg Vikernes as the subject. Vikernes, founder of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Burzum, was convicted of the arson of a string of Christian churches (which he described as “revenge” for the desecration of heathen graves), and the murder of guitarist Oystein Aarseth. Vikernes also subscribes to racialist form of Heathenry, and has claimed in the past to be a Nazi. So we’re talking about a figure who personally fulfilled all the hysterical extremist Christian stereotypes about what modern Pagans are. Naturally, this means his story is being made into a movie that will be starring one of the teen heartthrobs from the movie “Twilight”.


Jackson Rathbone and Varg Vikernes

“Jackson Rathbone, the teen heartthrob from “Twilight”, has reportedly agreed to play Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnackh) — the former BURZUM mastermind who is currently serving a Norwegian prison term for the August 1993 murder of MAYHEM guitarist Oystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous) and setting fire to three churches — in the upcoming movie “Lords Of Chaos”. Based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s book of the same name, the film depicts true events and revolves around the black metal sub-culture that spawned a wave of murders and church arsons across Norway in the early 1990s. Making his English-language debut with “Lords Of Chaos” will be hot Japanese director Sion Sono.”

The weird confluence of a hot teen-film star, a hugely popular avant-garde Japanese film-maker, and a notoriously influential member of the black metal underground almost guarantee “Lords of Chaos” instant cult status. The open question now is will the film be a critical examinaiton of the black metal scene and Vikernes’ life and mistakes, or will it turn him into a romantic anti-hero? Producer Stuart Pollock of Saltire Entertainment called the yet-to-be-shot film “a fun portrayal of Norway”, which doesn’t exactly reassure me that this will be some sort of arty morality play. As for Varg Vikernes, he’s just been released from prison after 16 years, so he’ll be able to see the film, and if he and the film’s producers are desperate enough for publicicty maybe help promote it as well. “Lords of Chaos” is set for a 2010 release, consider it the anti-“Agora” in terms of depicting paganism in a positive light. Oh, and if you’re looking for some more information on black metal, you might want to check out the book “Lords of Chaos” by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind. Vikernes calls the book “a pool of mud”, so you can’t get a better endorsement than that.

Four recent news reports tie into two larger stories, the first is the issue of Pagan burial space, a matter that will become more prominent as the Baby Boomers travel further into their retirement years. There are already dedicated spaces in Wisconsin and Washington in America, and an Asatru-dedicated space in Denmark. Now we can add at least two more, an Asatru space in Norway, and a Pagan-inclusive interfaith woodland burial park in the UK.

“Leaders of 11 faiths travelled to Beaconsfield to dedicate the largest woodland burial park in the country yesterday. Set in ancient woodlands off the A40, the £3.2 million Chilterns Woodland Burial Park at Potkiln Lane opened in October and so far around 40 people are buried there. By the time it is full around 2000 people will have been laid to rest there, as part of a growing trend away from traditional funerals. The service was opened by Bishop of Buckinghamshire Rev Allan Wilson who said he was struck by how much nicer it would be to attend a service in a woodland setting than in a crematorium “with terylene curtains.”  Also speaking were Father Francis Higgins of St Teresa’s Church Beaconsfield and Professor Ann Floyd of Jordans Quakers, along with a Rabbi from Harlow, a Hindu leader from Watford, a Pagan, a humanist, a Buddhist, and a Reverend from the Interfaith Ministry…”

This is certainly one of the better manifestations of interfaith efforts, it’s nice to see Pagans included in the dedication, moving away from the idea that the earth can only be hallowed by a certain faith (or that the earth needs “hallowing” at all). Of course this is just a start, two small spaces in America and one in the UK won’t be sufficient if a large percentage of modern Pagans end up wanting to be buried in a dedicated Pagan cemetery, and there are still many obstacles for those who want to engage in rituals and practices that are frowned upon by an overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian funeral industry. Still, this is a step in the right direction. No doubt as the Pagan community grows in size and influence, so too will the issue of Pagan (or Pagan-friendly) burial gain more attention.

Turning away from the issue of human mortality, we tackle the ongoing issue of animal sacrifice. While the Supreme Court ruled the animal sacrifice is indeed legal, court battles are still raging over what limits local governments can place on the activity. Meanwhile, in the resulting legal gray area, cops continue to arrest practitioners of Santeria, Vodou, and other faiths the practice animal sacrifice on grounds of “animal cruelty”. Recently police in Los Angeles, acting on an “anonymous tip”, arrested a man for animal cruelty, only to see the local DA drop the charges due to lack of evidence.

“Prosecutors dropped animal cruelty charges Thursday against a man who was sacrificing animals in his Lawndale home for religious purposes. However, the case against Rafael Giralt was dismissed not for any kind of freedom of religion issues, said Deputy District Attorney Paul Guthrie. “At some point we would have to prove that the animals suffered needlessly or excessively,” Guthrie said. “We didn’t have the proof.” Giralt, 58, was about to go to trial in Torrance Superior Court when the case was withdrawn.”

Then, two women were arrested in the Bay Area for animal cruelty.

“Two Bay Area women were arrested Thursday afternoon for felony animal cruelty in connection with the killing of four chickens in the Mill Valley area, Marin County Sheriff’s Office officials said.”

Of course police have no idea if the animals were actually slaughtered cruelly, and they too will no doubt see charges dropped or reduced once the matter comes to trial. Still the spectre of a possible three years in prison for engaging in what might have been a sacred rite is certainly chilling. The problem is that until a definitive SCOTUS decision absolutely declares that animal sacrifice is a protected religious activity (the previous SCOTUS ruling only said that Florida’s law unfairly suppressed a single group instead of being a neutral application for all) we will continue to see arrests and lower-court battles over the issue. Once legality is firmly established, we can start to have a sane set of regulations and guidelines for those who want to engage in animal sacrifice, avoiding (mostly) bogus arrests prompted by adversarial neighbors, prejudicial laws from biased city councils, and cops treating adherents of Santeria like terrorists.