Column: Voices from Ice and Snow

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There is no denying that the north has always played an important role in the worldview of Europe and the Western world in general. From the Romantics that sung the praise of the wild, Nordic nature at the turn of the 19th century to the current popular entertainment craze spawned by media franchises such as Frozen, Vikings and the like, the north is as relevant as it has ever been. This influence is even more noticeable in regards to the world of contemporary Paganism. Not only has Heathenism experienced a noticeable revival and growth in the past couple decades, but Nordic deities, practices and iconography are routinely found within more eclectic movements as well.

The Icelandic waterfall of Gullfoss [Lyonel Perabo].

However, all things considered, the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and the Faroe Islands) are all relatively small and somewhat isolated. With a total population just north of 26 millions (a few millions less than that of Texas) and a territory of 1,2 million square kilometers (close to twice that of the Lone Star state), the Nordic region is characterized by a a closely interconnected history and a strong sense of cultural proximity. In this context, it is not surprising that the religious landscape of the Nordics significantly differs from that of other countries or regions such as North America.

As for contemporary Nordic Paganism, one has to keep in mind this long history of interrelatedness all the while acknowledging the differences and diversity at play. And if Nordic countries are often commented and talked about when it comes to Pagan and alternative religions, the voices of the people who make up this scene are rarely heard in the wider world. To remedy to this, the Wild Hunt has gotten in touch with followers of Pagan and alternative faiths from each Nordic country and questioned them about their outlook on their religion: Jens Peder Magnussen (32), from Norway; Mykines Dánjalsson (35), from the Faroe Islands; Linn Alice Nova Wilhelmsson (29), from Finland; Zara Waldebäck (50) from Sweden; Freja Joy Blinn (21), from Denmark; and Teresa Dröfn Freysdóttir Njarðvík (26), from Iceland. Each of them has a different story to tell when it comes to their journey in faith, starting from the time they were exposed to it.

If the Nordics essentially remained Pagan until about the 11th century, as with the rest of Europe, the old ways ultimately became outlawed. Nevertheless, elements of pre-Christian heritage survived, both in the folklore and in some cases, the literature, and were later subject to much scrutiny and enthusiasm. As a result, there is a general degree of awareness among the general population when it comes to their nations’ Pagan past. According to Dánjalsson, in the Faroe Islands, “people are very proud of their heritage. The time period the Faroese are the most proud of I would say is from 800 to 1100 where strong and fierce people ruled the lands.”

This feeling of “Viking pride” indeed appears to be relatively widespread in the Nordic lands, almost as a semi-nostalgic reminiscence of a time when their nations had a more meaningful place in the concert of nations. As Blinn puts it: “with Denmark being so tiny and seemingly insignificant now, it helps a little to know that we used to be able to intimidate people.”

Freja Joy Blinn [courtesy].

Building on this, one could ask whether this general familiarity with the past necessarily translates to knowledge about the Pagan past, but also the Pagan present. Overall, the answer appears to be negative. According to Waldebäck, while to an extent Paganism and nature-based practices might have “become more popular and visible” in the past couple of years, “a greater awareness does not mean there is any knowledge and understanding of it.”

Njarðvík concurs, saying that “people don‘t think about it much, don‘t understand what it is about and think it‘s comparable to viking re-enactment groups or something along these lines.”

According to Magnussen, the general level of knowledge about historical Paganism is very limited as well: “people don’t know that the Pagan heritage of the viking society they are proud of go back maybe 1,000 years before the time of the Vikings.”

This apparent ignorance and lack of interest for the Pagan past and present should, however, not be understood as outright hostility to Pagan, nature-based or alternative faiths especially but rather as a more general social phenomena. According to Waldebäck, “in the last few decades, many Scandinavian people have come to be very removed from any spiritual practice. The church is not that popular and the way I experience it, the main religion in Sweden is rational thought. Anything spiritual or religious is often viewed with some degree of suspicion.”

As studies have shown, the influence of the mainstream national Lutheran Nordic churches has been on the wane for several decades while non-Christian faiths have been experiencing an increasingly dynamic growth. As the religious landscape of the Nordics is shifting, so is the faith and practices of is peoples: how the respondents ended up discovering their faiths should be understood in this context. The story of how Dánjalsson discovered his religion, Ásatrú, is quite emblematic in this respect.

As with every Nordic nation, the majority of the population of the Faroe Islands is member of the local national Lutheran church and most, as was the case with Dánjalsson, are registered into the church at birth. While the majority of people generally chose to remain within their respective national churches despite the lack of a strong faith and because of convenience, Dánjalsson had different feelings: “I didn’t find a spiritual path when I followed the Lutheran church, I have always been a very nature based guy and have always been looking towards nature, forests, mountains, highlands, skies, that is where is found the gods. When I finally left to find my new path I didn’t feel sadness, but I was happy. The only way I can explain it is, say you have two people in a relationship, they are not in love anymore and haven’t been for a long time. They are just together because that is what they are used to. And when they finally decide to go separate ways there isn’t much sadness because the feelings don’t exist anymore.”

Zara Waldebäck [courtesy].

As opposed to a place like the United States, which is home to countless religious congregations of note but where church and state are constitutionally separate, the Nordic religious landscape has been dominated by powerful state-backed Lutheran churches since the early 16th century. Up to this day, Nordic children are exposed to Christian theology through religious education courses that disproportionally Christian-centric. Describing the situation in Finland, Wilhelmsson states that “we have a class called ‘religion’ for the first six years of school, where Christianity and the Bible is taught as fact. I don’t mind at all knowing about those things now, but I think it’s scary that it is never pointed out that it is mythology, not fact.”

As for non-Christian religions, these tend to be given very little attention. In Norway, according to Magnussen, “when I went too school we got Christianity class and one class a year was given to the five other major religions.” For children and teens who do not associate themselves with the Christian scripture, the experience of such religious classes can leave a sour taste in their mouths.

However, not all Nordic Pagans feel resentful towards the Christian establishment. Blinn, who is half-Canadian and never was a member of the Church of Denmark, mentions her grandfather’s career as a pastor within the Wesleyan Baptist Church (“a laid-back evangelical movement”) as factor that “has given me a big respect for certain aspects of Christianity.” Nevertheless, she does acknowledge that coming to Paganism probably was, in part, “some kind of rebellion against all the Sunday schooling and Bible summer camps from the Canadian side.”

Overall, it would seem that a number of Nordic Pagans simply found themselves little by little, by being exposed to tales of their nation’s Pagan past, by communing with nature, by not fitting in with the church, by researching on their own, or by reacting to some specific, life-changing events, as told by Waldebäck: “When I was a child, I felt very much that the world was alive and I would spend a lot of time talking to it. The most influential factor that lead me to engage with my path was a deep longing in my soul, that also showed me so clearly that I was “home” when I began to work with the spirits. On a more practical level, it was several illnesses and the time following my father’s death which opened the door to an active engagement with spirit matters and helped me find the right people to teach me.”

Soul-searching in a time of need was also what lead Magnussen to the old ways: “There was a time in my life that I did not see a way out. When I was sure that this would be the day, the hour of my death, I thought of the gods and there old stories, those stories made me carry on and I’m still here to this day.”

Jens Peder Magnussen [courtesy].

Another key factor that appears to inform the beliefs and practices of Nordic Pagans is the land itself. When asked whether the land and the nature play an important role in their religion, every single one of the interviewees answered positively. According to Dánjalsson, “the nature is everything, it is there you will find all the puzzles of the cosmos.”

A similar feeling is also expressed by Waldebäck, who states that “nature is my teacher, my source of inspiration, my life source. Nature is the world I live in and depend upon, whether I know it or not.”

This shared reverence for nature is not without caveats, however. Concepts of belonging, identity, and personal and spiritual connection with the land play a significant role in the religious life of Nordic followers of Pagan and alternative paths. Wilhelmsson, who identifies as a Wiccan and belongs to the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland, believes that her ancestry and language played no small part in her spiritual journey: “I’d say that my spiritual path is mostly tied to these ideas, the theology. I don’t identify very strongly with the Finnish mythos, so I searched westwards when I was growing up.”

The idea of engaging in nature-based religious worship in a land that could understood, to a degree, as foreign is conundrum that many people, in and out of the Nordic countries have had to face. For Waldebäck, who has lived in several countries and regions, this situation does have an importance: “I was not born here, so I do not have the strong root connection to a particular place which is so common in many other shamanic or animistic traditions around the world.”

Similarly Blinn, who now lives in Arctic Norway, has seen her spiritual practice being strongly affected since she left Denmark: “I don’t identify with this region spiritually. I try to pay my respects to this spiritual atmosphere, although I couldn’t imagine actively worshipping these gods.”

To come back to the question of spiritual practice, every single respondent, with one exception, described themselves as solitaries. While there indeed exist officially-recognized Pagan and other alternative networks in the Nordic countries, they generally tend to be centered around big, especially capital, cities, leaving districts mostly lacking in organization. In the Faroe Islands, a nation of just 50,000 people, the situation is even worse, as there is no such organizations of any kind. In the Nordics, many people try to cope with the lack of real-life structures by participating in online (chiefly Facebook) communities.

Sometimes, real-life and online communities do overlap to an extent as with Wilhelmsson’s Svenskfinlands wiccavänner (Wiccan friends of Swedish-Finland), a growing online community that was born from a now-disbanded coven. The only interviewee who declared being part of an organized group was Njarðvík, who is a member of the Ásatrúarfélagið, a well-known Ásatrú religious organization that boasts one percent of the whole population of Iceland as members. The Ásatrúarfélagið regularly organizes ceremonies (blót), meetings, and have an otherwise quite strong public presence within the country. (In regard to her position within the organization, Njarðvík states that her answers published in this article are solely hers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ásatrúarfélagið as a whole).

Teresa Dröfn Freysdóttir Njarðvík [courtesy].

While Njarðvík has the opportunity to performs both private and public rituals and ceremonies, most Nordic Pagans are left to their own devices when it comes to communicating with the divine and living a spiritual life. For Magnussen, Ásatrú is “a set of rules to live life, how to behave and treat others. I also believe that the gods will judge you in all you do and you will not get away from your actions. My practices is giving sacrifices of food and drink too the gods and thanking them and speaking to them.”

Waldebäck, whose religious worldview is animistic and nature-based engages with different forces in her own ways: “I see the world around me as alive and as having spirit, which I am then able to connect with and communicate with, shift[ing] my consciousness through drums, song, rattle, dance and the power of intention and connection and I do not use plant medicine/hallucinogenics.”

Another way to engage with the gods, or, at the very least, with the idea of the divine is of course the written word. In particular the Eddas, which were mostly collected in Iceland in the 13th century are often regarded (especially by neophytes) as the sacred scripture of the north. However, none of the respondents gave the famed compilation quite that much credit. For Magnussen, “the Håvamál holds the concepts of how to live life, and works as a guidelines for my beliefs, but I would not say that they are sacred texts.”

When questioned about the Eddas, Njarðvík explains that she understands them as part of a wider Icelandic literary corpus which influences her religious views as a whole: “The Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, the skaldic poems, the rímur, and saga traditions are full of references, associations and ideas that comprise a sacred text to me, in their own sense. They make up a big part of how I see the world and understand it.”

For Wilhelmsson, who identifies with a different tradition altogether, the situation is different as well: “The core of my beliefs are Wiccan, and I believe in a dual divinity that goes beyond gender. I believe that any action we do comes back to us even stronger, and I believe in personal responsibility and personal freedom. I do hold strongly to the Wiccan rede (An it harm none, do what ye will) and the rule of three (what ever you put out will come back to you times three), but in a more ideological sense, and I don’t consider the writ holy.”

Linn Alice Nova Wilhelmsson [courtesy].

Finally, when asked about their personal opinion about the state of the Pagan, Heathen, and alternative religious landscape in their country and the what might lie ahead, the participants gave answers that truly reflect the diversity of ideas, the diversity of traditions, and the diversity of belief that can be found in the Nordics. While most expressed the idea that Paganism and other related alternative faiths might very well continue to grow and develop, some expressed doubts, and even fear about their faith’s future. According to Magnussen, the growth of Heathenism has been, and will continue to be, limited by the still-privileged position of the church: “Religious freedom in Norway is still in parts restricted by law, so many religions cannot practice freely or have ceremonies and rites done the way it should. Until those get changed, the Christian faith will have a monopoly on certain aspects of life and death that will force the minor religions and competing major religions on a separate position, on a lower step in society. Until that is fixed we, Heathens in Norway, will always be seen as a curiosity.”

When it comes to Heathenism in Iceland, Njarðvík sees other dangers ahead, dangers linked to political and foreign religious influences that could pose a threat to the nature of Icelandic Ásatrú: “I am worried about the future. The religion is becoming very politicized, with tendencies towards right-wing or left-wing movements. There is a certain international push for the religion to become universal, which will only lead to groups becoming more and more isolated. In my opinion Heathenism is not a universal religion, never was and never will be. There will, and need to be, local and geographical variations. I think the next few years will be an important turning-point, but in what direction it will grow I do not know.”

Dánjalsson, wondering on the future of Ásatrú and Paganism in his native Faroe Islands, is much more optimistic and describes a subtle and growing cultural shift regarding the religious landscape of the islands: “Overall, people are slowly losing interest in Christianity and turning to Ásatrú or Paganism. I am 35 years old and in that short amount of time, the Faroe Islands have gone from being a very Christian country to a state where people are now leaving the faith and accepting and joining Ásatrú. When I was about 10 I didn’t know one single Ásatrú. At the age of 15 I was the only Ásatrú I knew. At the age of 25 I knew of several others but never met them, and now, at the age of 35, I know of several and have actually randomly met some.”

Will Dánjalsson’s observations prove true in the future? Will the influence of Nordic state churches keep on waning as it has been doing for decades? Will the various organizations be brought closer together or diverge even more from each other, on national or theological grounds? Nothing is certain. Nevertheless, whatever the future may bring for the Pagan and alternative religions in the Nordic countries, there is no doubt that, just as today, those who crave for the old ways will simply find a way back, one way or another.

Mykines Dánjalsson and his grandfather [courtesy].

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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.