Today’s offering is by columnist Luke Babb. Luke is a storyteller and eclectic polytheist who primarily works with the Norse and Hellenic pantheons. They live in Chicago with their wife and a small jungle of houseplants, where they are studying magic and community building – sometimes even on purpose.
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I don’t really work with my ancestors. Never felt particularly called to do so. When I tell other Pagans this, I get one of three responses.
“It is important,” says Pagan One, whose name has been changed to protect the innocent, “for you to interact with your ancestors before trying to interact with any other spirits. Ancestors are way more invested in you, and less likely to be busy or uninterested when something awful happens to you than the gods. Some gods will even sacrifice you to achieve their own ends. Ancestors have your back.”
“Oh,” says Pagan Two, whose name has been changed because I’m still kind of angry. “Well, it’s important to know that ancestors don’t have to be blood ancestors. It can be other kinds of ancestors too. I know some people have problems with their blood ancestors.” Then they clear their throat in a specific way that means, “I hear The Queers don’t have good family relationships, so here is your opportunity to talk about your trauma if you want.”
“Me neither,” says Pagan Three, whose name has been changed because they already know who they are. “Never have felt particularly called to do so.” Then we each clear our throats simultaneously and proceed to never speak about it again.
The thing is, that while Pagan Three is by far my favorite, the other two have quite a bit more to say. Regardless of my ambivalence about the dead in my personal practice, the actual status of relationship with my family, or my deep and considered lack of self-preservation with regards to deity, I have been told repeatedly that an ancestor altar is an important and missing staple in my magical and religious practice.
Eventually, when enough voices say something, it starts to stick.
I am not pleased with my own impulse to tell this story. It feels like trying to prove something, like trying to get Pagans One and Two to take me seriously as a practitioner, even if what I do doesn’t look quite the same. But it’s also a story I tell for myself, because I can’t make any sense out of it.
* * *
The first time I was allowed to take my bike out on my own, I went down to the local cemetery. It was a mile outside of my little town on a gravel road that, if I went just a little further, went downhill into a valley with wooden bridge that crossed a small creek, shaded by trees. That creek was a perfect place for a country kid to play, secluded and filled with all manner of natural wonders. I never made it that far.
Instead, I biked up the main path of the cemetery. It was small; most of the inhabitants were from the times before the railroad had rerouted and taken all the industry to the next town on the line. The cemetery was just a big sunny patch of grass, bounded on all sides by soy fields connected to Mr. Coover’s house down the road. In my memory it doesn’t have much shade, or any interesting headstones besides the big, cracking, unmarked block that formed the only above-ground resting place. I didn’t go there for the view – I went there because it was quiet, and private, and somehow it felt safe. I went there a lot.
I’ve spent time in many other cemeteries since. In college it was the old-fashioned boneyard that overlooked the cinema and the hospital, the one where I might have died. Now that I live in Chicago there are several – the quiet one that doesn’t like to be visited, the one by the water where I watched the eclipse, the fancy one that always feels too quiet. I do not go to these places to do magic, or to communicate with their inhabitants. I just go.For a while I went to one particular cemetery regularly, my favorite one, the one where I cut my wand, the one where the deer always come to greet me. I would bring food enough to share, and I would meditate, and I would try to figure out why I was there. Perhaps, I thought, it was a devotional act for Hermes. Perhaps it was a calling toward psychopomp work. Perhaps it was a connection to another sort of ancestor, an ancestor of place.
No answer presented itself – and then I moved across town, and traveled even further away.
* * *
The day I meant to visit the Hof Ásatrúarfélagsins í Öskjuhlíð (“The Ásatrú Fellowship’s Temple at Öskjuhlíð”) was sunny and warmer than most of my time in Iceland. I started it by driving into the middle of an older neighborhood to park on a tight street next to a major construction site. Some high rise, I thought, locking the car behind me. I was there for the museum down the street.
“You’re standing in the oldest cemetery in Reykjavik,” a voice said, and I spun quick enough that the nearest tourist gave me an odd look before turning back to their guide. “This square is the site of what we believe might be the first settlement of Iceland. When we started to dig the foundations for this building, we found more than just houses.” They moved on, and I, taking the hint, dug into my bag for the collection of polished stones I had brought from home in case I needed small, site-specific offerings. I left one at the edge of the construction site, pleased at the thought that I had connected, briefly, to the people whose religion had inspired my own.
I was waiting, somewhat cinematically, for my contact – a friend of a friend who had offered to show me the temple being built by the Icelandic Heathen community. He was going to be busy until lunch, so I crossed a few things off my Reykjavík to-do list: the Settlement Center, the National Museum. Then I scanned the map. I was well outside of downtown, but there was a modern cemetery where I could spend time and pay my respects while I waited for the call.
Hólavallagarður was beautiful, and, like most of Iceland, seemed to not mind me being there, which was a strange feeling in and of itself. This place was just – pleasant. I didn’t have any good reason to be there, but I felt I was being polite enough. It felt like walking through a stranger’s front lawn. I was not an imposition unless I stayed too long.
I had just left when my contact called to cancel. We might be able to meet up another day, but he would not be able to show me the way to the temple, one of the things I was most determined to see. I couldn’t find any specific directions listed, but nonetheless, I decided to go there on my own. I had been overseas for three days at that point and had not encountered any problems so far with navigating Reykjavik. I knew that the temple would be somewhere on Öskjuhlíð, the big hill that featured on the edge of my city map. It didn’t look like too much was out there. How hard could it be to find a temple?
This is the sort of decision making that my wife despairs of.
Öskjuhlíð is very large. I did not realize how large until I had been walking for an hour. In my defense I was being very logical about it. After driving to the top, I found a hiking trail and began the descent through the remnants of the Second World War bunkers that cover the hill, looking for – well, I wasn’t sure, really. The temple had been scheduled to finish at about the time I was there, but all of the pictures online were of construction. I had seen the sketches of the design. I was sure I’d know it when I saw it.
When I reached the bottom of the hill, I started to circumnavigate the base. When a path branched off, I followed it for a ways up the hill. If it didn’t seem to lead anywhere, I doubled back. I passed a preschool, a college, and what seemed like a mixed martial arts ring – and then I started to follow the paths into the forest.
I don’t know if they were meant to be paths. Most of the roads were paved and well marked, and these were more like trails leading off the main road and into huge wooded clearings that I realize now were probably hiking trails. In the light of the afternoon they were cool and abandoned, with shafts of light coming through the trees. One of them, to my wonder, had a great woven house inside of it, taller than I am and to all appearances recently inhabited. No wonder, I thought, this was where the temple would be built. Surely people worshipped here already. It felt like the sort of place that was alive and amused and waiting to be recognized. I left a stone in each clearing and kept on, grateful for having seen them. Even if I didn’t find the temple, I thought, these places would have been worth it.
I needn’t have worried. Eventually, I found the temple.I’m not the only person to travel a long way and find nothing waiting. I was aware before I set out that there had been delays in construction, albeit not to this degree. I knew that my footsore, hungry, tired self was entirely to blame for my own problems. Nothing I couldn’t have a sense of good humor about – but I had gone so far already. Surely it would be easier to finish circling the hill than go back?
When I saw the sign that said Fossvogskirkjugarður I was relieved. Kirk I knew meant “church” and garður was “yard” – did the Icelandic Church have monks? Maybe it was a monastery. Not exactly how I wanted to spend my super special solo Pagan temple trip, but maybe they’d have a glass of water.
This is how I came to spend the last leg of a very long walk hustling double-time through a truly huge cemetery, my third one of the day.
* * *
I do not have an easy end for this story. I don’t know what lesson to take from this series of circumstances, or the way I continued to find myself in cemeteries as I traveled, resting beside markers and on the stone walls that surrounded other “churchyards” in Þingvellir, Borg, and Hólmavík.
Today I have a small ancestor altar, centered on three jars of dirt and otherwise nearly barren. I keep the water fresh, and I offer baked goods as often as I make them, and otherwise I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if that answer will present itself. Schedules and weather have kept me from my local graveyard for a while, and I miss it.
Right now, my theory is that cemeteries are the closest thing I have to holy places, places where my almost-country city-living self can feel safe in nature. I find them beautiful and peaceful – and what is worship but communing with those things we find solace in? I don’t know what that means, not for my practice or my theology, but when spring comes I’ll bake something and head out to pay my respects to the locals.
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