Column: The Candle

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Tjörnin at midnight. Photo by the author.

Tjörnin at midnight.
Photo by the author.

Part three of my columns on Iceland. Previously: Oxararfoss and Njord.

This candle has traveled further in its short life than I traveled in the first twenty-two years of mine. I bought it at my favorite metaphysical shoppe back home.1 It came with me from Missouri to Minneapolis, and from there, to Reykjavík, where it sat on the hard plastic desk bolted to the wall of my dorm room for the first week of my stay. Now we are sitting at a picnic table hidden in a copse of trees next to Tjörnin, a lake in downtown Reykjavík, my candle and I. I am looking at it in the half-light, running my fingers along its surface. It is ten inches tall, with a white wick. Anywhere else in the world, I would describe it as midnight blue, but “midnight” is such a variable color in Iceland.

This boot knife came from a dealer’s booth at the Heartland Pagan Festival near Kansas City, long enough ago that I do not remember the exact year it came into my life. Its handle and sheath might have been gold, once, but that color has faded, in parts to silver and in parts to rust. Its blade has never been sharp. The unsheathed knife now rests in my right hand; I press its dull blade into the blue wax of the candle, cutting deep, straight lines into its surface.

This cup came from a ceramics department sale held in 2006 at the university I attended then. Its bare clay is the color of wet sand, the glaze closer to brick. There is a runic message drawn around the stem of the cup in blue acrylic paint: ODRAIZ. I found the formula in an Edred Thorsson book years ago and copied it without bothering to take notes; I have no idea what it is actually supposed to mean. The cup sits before me on the picnic table, full of a pilsner named for Egill Skallagrimsson, the priciest beverage sold at the 1011 convenience store near the dormitory. I believe the sculptor intended for it to be used as a flower vase.

This hammer came from a hardware store in south St. Louis; it has no further story, and is clearly the least sentimental of the tools arrayed in front of me.

It is the middle of the shortest night of the year, and I am sitting in a public park with a lit candle, a dull knife, a cup, and a sledgehammer. Clearly, the time is right for magick2.

MIDSUMMER, I carve into the wax. If I were more clever, I would have thought to look up phrases in Icelandic for this purpose before I left for Tjörnin, but it was too late for that now. I had to settle for English words, in letters that predated either of the languages that currently make up my world, the language of my birth (the language of power, comfort, ignorance, colonialism) and the language of this land (the language of frustration, error, isolation, faith.) ICELAND, MIDSUMMER 2014 I carve, along with three other words, and I set the candle to burning, to release my spell into the night.

I lean back on my elbows and watch people – mostly young, mostly drunk – pass by on the sidewalk that rings the lake. If any of them noticed me, the large, bearded man in a cloak burning candles at midnight, none of them said anything. I feel invisible and safe in that invisibility. I go back to my ritual – eating bread I had consecrated earlier, along with another draught of Egil’s Gull – and see someone approaching, walking down the path into the woods. It is an old woman with white hair and a lavender tracksuit.

(Even as I write this memory, I remember it in darkness: a deeper night, denser trees, and no light except for my little candle. I remember the woman entering into the light cast by my candle. But that is absurd; the lack of true darkness was my impetus for doing my Midsummer ritual at midnight in the first place.)

The woman comes over to my table and says goða kvöldið, good evening. I respond: Gott kvöld. She sits down at the picnic table, not seeming to notice all of the ritual paraphernalia that I had laid out in front of me, except for the candle, which she warns me I need to be careful about. She had been afraid that I was vandalizing the picnic table; I am not sure where I could have done so, since carvings and words written in thick black Sharpie already covered the entire surface of the table.

We talk for an hour or more, about language (the declension of Icelandic numbers), travel (the years she spent abroad in France and the other Nordic countries), and tourists (they had completely ruined Gullfoss, she claimed.) After we had been talking for a while, she eyed the table, taking in the knife and the hammer and the cup. “Are you practicing Ásatrú?” she asks. I nod and explain that I had come here in part because of Ásatrú. “I think that it is very beautiful,” she says. English words came slowly to her; she had to consider every sentence before she spoke.3 But when she got the words put together, they came out in a pleasant, musical rhythm. “They have such respect for nature. It is very beautiful.”

We do not go to parks in the middle of the night where I come from; the only people to find there are drug users and drug pushers, and I would have been taking my life in my hands to do this. (Or so I had been told all my life, anyway – whether experience would bear that out is another question.) Here, old women in tracksuits were perfectly happy to go jogging at one AM and stop for long talks with cloaked Americans when the opportunity presented itself. While I had several moments where I encountered the sublime in Iceland, this might have been the most genuinely otherworldly point of my visit.

The old woman leaves eventually, with no more explanation than she gave when she sat down, and I am still bemused by the encounter. I begin the process of closing up my ritual. It is, by now, three AM; I had, at one point, considered going to a nightclub after the ritual with some of my twenty-year-old classmates, but the bars had long since closed by now. I gather up my tools and stuff them into my pack, ready to go home.

The candle is the last to go. I run my thumb across the grooves of the three words I had carved earlier in the night. I will return.

 

Notes:

1. Pathways New Age Books and Music, in lovely South County, St. Louis. Tell ’em they owe me twenty bucks.
2. Yes, I use a k. Spell it however you want.
3. Though of course, her English was better than my Icelandic. In English, we had a long and engaging conversation about life, language, and religion; in Icelandic, I might have managed to ask her for directions to the post office.