Column: Bergtatt and the Mountainborne Faith

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While I may live in a relatively tiny city by most standards, my Norwegian hometown of Tromsø, with just over 70,000 inhabitants, still has all the characteristics of a much larger metropolis, including a unique architectural heritage. While some of the town’s most famed constructions are old wooden wharfs and shoddy fishermen’s cabins, the one building that is maybe the most closely associated with the image of the city is, as it is often the case with other cities in Europe, its church: the Arctic Cathedral.

Theodor Kittelsen, Eko (Echo), 1888 [Wikimedia Commons]

Theodor Kittelsen, Eko (Echo), 1888 [Wikimedia Commons]

Designed and built in 1965 by the Norwegian architect Jon Inge Hovig, the church, which is in fact not a cathedral but a “mere” parish church, was thought of from the start as a symbolic focal point for the town. Located across the bridge leading to the mainland, the church, which can be seen from any point in the city center, attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year who come to gaze at its inspired architecture or attend one of the numerous concerts organized daily in its main hall.

The Arctic Cathedral is, by all means, a beautiful building. I have myself taken thousands of tourists there and only ever gotten one negative response; this was from an 85-year-old Belgian guest who claimed not to like structures that were younger that him. Still, the Arctic Cathedral, besides being a welcome addition to the urban landscape of the city, is also a potent reminder of the state of the religious landscape in the country and, to some extent, Europe.

Modern Norway was conceived as a Christian — more precisely Protestant — state, as per the second paragraph of the constitution adopted in 1814. The country had switched from Catholicism to Lutheranism back in 1537 when Christian III, king of the joint kingdom of Denmark-Norway, took control of both countries’ churches. Five centuries prior, it was Catholicism that 11th-century kings pushed for in order to take control of the country. With almost a millennium of Christian history celebrated, among other things, through buildings as magnificent as the Arctic Cathedral, one could expect Norwegians to cherish their now almost-ancient faith and revel in their triumphant Christian identity.

Yet, that is far from the case.

The Arctic Cathedral in winter [Lyonel Perabo 2016]

The Arctic Cathedral in winter [Photo Credit: Lyonel Perabo 2016]

While Norway can still boast of a National Lutheran Church gathering more than 70% of the country’s inhabitants within its single denomination, it doesn’t take much scratching on the surface to discover a much less glamorous truth. Last year, a nationwide opinion poll revealed that church members who identified as Christians amounted to less than half (40%) of all the respondents. The number of atheists was almost as high (39%), with the remaining 20% consisted mostly of agnostics or deists.

Why such a low number? One cannot accuse the Norwegian National Church of lagging behind the country’s rather modern and progressive values; the church has ordained female priests since the sixties, female bishops since the nineties and has, just a few months ago, agreed to officiate gay wedding ceremonies. While the church itself has a certain institutional presence nationwide, most of their public works have little to do with faith and theology, and more to do with charity, culture and social contact.

By some measure, one could say that the Norwegian church might very well be counted among the least “pushy” churches to exist; yet fewer and fewer people choose the associate with it. Consequently, would it be true to say that Norway has, at large, become a godless society in which religion, spirituality, and faith have all lost their charm? Based on my experiences, this vision of Norway as a post-Christian religious wasteland — as it has been described by some — could not be further from the truth, as long as one is willing to look beyond the type of religiosity most commonly displayed within Abrahamic monotheistic faiths.

To illustrate this fact, let’s go back to our case study of the Arctic Cathedral. Within its walls, one can expect to see maybe 150-200 worshipers on any given Sunday. Yet, by simply strolling past the church and walking a mere mile toward the end of the asphalt road, it becomes possible to meet many more people, taking the path to the mountains.

The Himmeltinden (heaven's peak) mountain in Lofoten [Lyonel Perabo, 2016]

The Himmeltinden mountain in Lofoten [Photo Credit: Lyonel Perabo, 2016]

In Norway, mountaineering and hiking are much more popular Sunday activities than going to church to attend mass. In the summer, eight out of ten Norwegians go on at least one hike, or tur as it called, per week; many more than the mere two percent who attend mass weekly. In a country where more than three-quarters of the territory consists of stone formations, bare rock, and mountaintops (more than 13,000 of which higher than 100 meters) it would indeed seem natural that locals would end up developing a certain affinity with their mountainous landscape. The way it is so often expressed and experienced, it could be argued, is much closer to a spiritual experience than a stroll in the park.

That fact that mountains occupy a central place in numerous Pagan worldviews is well known. Mount Olympus and Parnassus are central sacred places for countless followers of Hellenism, while the Puy de Dôme in southern France was for centuries the seat of the Gallo-Roman temple of Mercury, sacred to the Arverni people.

To an extent, early Christianity embraced the idea that mountains could be seen as sacred spaces, or at least as a link to the divine, as witnessed by the monasteries found atop mounts such as Athos or Saint-Michel. In Viking Age Scandinavia, mountains were also likely to be seen as the dwelling places of gods, ancestors, and other spirits.

In the early 13th-century Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga, the Norwegian settler and follower of Þórr Þórolfr Mostrarskegg is said to have taken possession of the Snæfellsnes area in Western Iceland. He established his household in Hofsvágr, not far from a large hill he named Helgafell, the “holy mountain,” and declared that he would enter the mountain upon his death. Years later, Þórlofr’s son, Þorsteinn, assembled a crew for a fishing expedition, but due to a violent storm the ship capsized, taking all of its crew with it. Shortly thereafter, a servant of Þorsteinn’s household who was in the vicinity of Helgafell claimed to have witnessed the mountain opening up, and heard the sounds of merry celebration and voices welcoming the young Þorsteinn and his crew within the mountain’s halls.

Another account, this time from the mid-12th-century Norwegian Passio Olavi, tells the tale of a young lad from northern Norway who, upon leaving his home to fetch firewood, is lured by beautiful women who invite him to a feast organized inside a deep mountainside cave. There he is offered food and drink and, upon realizing that these celebrants are by no means humans but rather supernatural beings, he refuses. While the boy is ultimately saved from the creatures’ clutches by a divine apparition of Saint Ólafr, the moral of the story remains clear as day: the mountains are not the dwelling places of mortals, but of ancient powers beyond one’s control.

The foggy mountains of Einangen in Lofoten [Lyonel Perabo, 2015]

The foggy mountains of Einangen in Lofoten [Photo Credit: Lyonel Perabo, 2015]

This age-old image did not disappear when Norway was converted to Christianity. Instead it took on a new life, so to speak, within popular folklore and became known as one of the most uniquely Norwegian concepts to exist, bergtatt: “mountain-taken” (and later, by extension, fascinated or obsessed).

Tales of bergtaking can be found all across the country, wherever there are mountains. From the suburban villages near Oslo and all the way to isolated coastal settlements in the far north, the idea of the mountains as a supernatural otherworld seemed to have been a widespread belief until fairly recently. In one well-known folk tale from the mountainous region of Telemark, Margjit Hjukse leaves her homestead in Sauherad to go to church, but instead of staying on the path, her feet take her to the mountain. There she discovers and enters the hall of the mountain king, who makes her his queen.

After fourteen years of a luxurious and happy life in the mountains, Margjit hears the sounds of the church bells and is reminded of her family and her old life in the human world. She decides to go back to the human world, promising her husband to be back within the hour. Upon finally meeting with her father again, she is interrupted by the arriving mountain king, who takes her back to her children in the mountains. Following this episode, nothing is ever heard of Margjit again. She had been bergtatt, for good.

Similar tales can be found by the dozens all over the country, and new ones were continually being told until the 19th century, when folklore collectors such as Asbjørnsen and Moe — inspired by the likes of the Grimm brothers — started to gather and publish them en masse. Since these times, tales of bergtaking have become much rarer, but the people’s fascination with the mountains did not disappear; it evolved.

As mountaineering, with its origins in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, was introduced to Scandinavia, and skiing started to be developed as both a sport and a hobby, Norwegians started to engage with their territory in a more practical way. Inspired by adventurers and sportsmen such as Fridtjof Nansen and Sondre Norheim, Norwegians could soon be seen hiking to gaze at colossal ice-water lakes, skiing down azure-colored glaciers, and conquering peaks towering well over 2,000 meters. This dynamic meant that the national age-old fascination for the mountains was not merely expressed through folk tales and songs anymore but in the flesh.

How does one explain such a strong and unique appeal if not spiritually? Despite perhaps not being quite as common as in Norway, mountaineering can be found today in every mountainous country and among every nation. What pushes some of us to invest large amounts of time, energy, and often money, to an activity that ,in practice, gives very few rewards and can at times be dangerous and even deadly?

It is not fame. Most hikers won’t be hailed as explorers or heroes like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and won’t get recognition from anyone but themselves and maybe their loved ones. Could it be instead that by heading to the mountains we unwittingly seek to reconnect with a sacred that we cannot find in man-made constructions and institutions, if we ever truly did in the first place?

The Norwegian geologist and avid mountaineer Henrik Svensen touched upon the subject when he posited that entering the realm of the mountains was in and of itself akin to a religious ritual:

Also today, the mountains act as natural meeting points between the world of men and something undefinably large, and even obstinate atheists turn to devotees when they consider the world from the top of of a mountain. The weariness stemming from coming up is almost like a purification, something that one must fight through to make it worthwhile. The mountaintops themselves become paradise, and the impression that one gets from up there is something that is remembered- maybe even for ever. The melancholy on the way down stems from the inescapable realization that we are but visitors of the mountains, we simply don’t belong there […] The mountain becomes a scale to measure eternity and a symbol for Mother Earth.” (Henrik Svensen (2015). Bergtatt, Fjellenes historie og fascinasjonen for det opphøyde. Oslo: Aschehoug. Page 38. Translation mine.)

As someone who has been fortunate enough to experience the mountainous landscape of Norway for close to a decade, I can say that this statement could not be more true. Since the very first day I laid my eyes on the rugged landscape, with its jagged, snow-covered peaks shooting up from the deep grey fjords, I knew I was hearing a call, perceiving another reality that had to be acknowledged somehow.

In a world that strives to become more urban and to change as fast as possible, and where individuals are ever-dependent on technology, it is becoming increasingly easy to forget about that little part of the ancient sacredness that most everyone knows still exists. The fascination for the Old Religion is in many ways similar to the fascination one can experience with the mountains; finding ways to engage with such massive, yet seemingly unreachable entities can be daunting, and even terrifying at times. However, it is only through these trials that one can truly gain insight on the world one inhabits.

I believe that what Norway has been experiencing for the past few decades is nothing but a modern expression of this age-old religious worship of the world of the mountains, the world of the gods, the world of the ancestors. As Svensen wrote, most might not realize it, because in their post-Christian minds, being religious equals going to church to pray to the Abrahamic god, but in practice, the true faith of this land isn’t that of Jesus of Yahweh, but the primordial enchantment of the heights, the mountainborne faith.

Larsbergfjelletin in Lyngenfjord [Lyonel Perabo, 2016]

 Larsbergfjelletin in Lyngenfjord [Photo Credit: Lyonel Perabo, 2016]

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.