Archives For Luke Babb

Column: Utiseta

Luke Babb —  October 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

Pagan Perspectives


Most places in Iceland pipe their hot water up from springs deep below the ground, the water still smelling strongly of sulfur.

It isn’t until almost a week into my trip that I realize sulfur interacts with the metal of my wedding ring.

I send my wife a picture. “What a souvenir,” she says.

“I don’t think it’ll last. It’s already wearing off,” I respond, climbing up toward the waterfall. “I don’t know how I feel about it.”

[L. Babb.]

*                      *                      *

I don’t know how I feel about any of this. I am not, honestly, sure why am in Iceland at all. I woke up six months ago from a dream half remembered, knowing I needed to come. Three months ago, a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me an unexpected package containing two Raidho runes – souvenirs of a trip that I did not know they were taking.

Now here I am, halfway through my own trip. It will take me the length of the Ring Road in just about nine nights. Enough time, I think, to do whatever it is that I need to do.

*                      *                      *

At the top of the ridge overlooking the falls the ground is surprisingly wet. Not just damp; there are standing puddles too deep for me to trust as I pick my way from rock to rock. I can’t figure it out – the waterfall is still yards away, and flowing in a different direction.

Then I look over the edge of a boulder and see the secondary fall, just under my feet.

Oh, I think. There is probably a lesson here.

I am standing on Goðafoss. Once I return to the states, my best friend will ask me what my favorite part of the trip was. I will say it was this moment, surrounded by tourists and flowing water, looking down into a plunge pool that seems unimaginably deep.

They will ask me why, and I will not know how to explain it to them.

Goðafoss will be my favorite part of this trip, but unlike so many other places I do not enjoy the experience of being here. I take pictures, and in each my expression falters, smile falling flat, twisting at the edges. I do not cry, but it is a similar feeling – that hollow ribcage belling of loss.

The author, standing in front of Goðafoss [L. Babb].

Goðafoss is famous in its own right as a natural wonder. It should be. To someone who has never seen a waterfall before this week, it is unimaginably vast. From the bottom of the canyon the people above look like accidental embellishments on a nearly finished painting – splatters that will be cleaned off before the work is done.

Goðafoss is historical – or mythic, at the least – because it is supposedly the place where, in 1000 C.E., Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson stood at the top of the falls and threw our gods into the water below.

Standing here, I try to imagine what a millennia of erosion has done, how much further out the falls would have come then, how much taller they might have stood. Paths take me along the edge of the canyon and up the other side, and I walk those paths as though I might find the exact point where he would have stood, the place where the wooden idols would have hit the water.

They have disintegrated long ago, have been carried downstream, become the dirt of the land itself. Still, I half expect to look into the water and see them – maybe a little mossy, but whole and waiting to be pulled back out.

I do not know if I would be up to the task. I do not think it is my task to undertake.

*                      *                      *

Days later, I will speak to a local, and she will point out that people in Iceland have a very practical understanding of the spirits around them. They exist, they are unquestioned, and they are immanent in the land, in the people. I get the impression that statues are nice, can be attractive, but are deeply unnecessary to her practice.

I have always pictured the statues Þorgeir sacrificed as massive things, carved out of trees – statues like those that led Ingólfr Arnarson to settle in Iceland.  Maybe losing them was more symbolic than anything else. Maybe Þorgeir’s practice continued on without them.

Þorgeir changed the history of Iceland through something called útiseta (“sitting out”) – a divinatory practice in which the priest retreats, pulls his cloak over his head, and listens for the gods. When he came back from a night of this, Þorgeir said that keeping the old beliefs would still be legal, but only if done in secret and the privacy of one’s own home. He delivered this news to the Alþing of Iceland, changing the entire country’s religious practice, and then returned home.

In the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, there is a model of Þorgeir, just after he emerged from under the cloak. I stood with him a while, thinking about how tired, how sad, how prematurely old he looked, knowing what he must do.

A wax sculpture of Þorgeir Þorkelsson in the Saga Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland [L. Babb].

As I heard the story, he saved lives that day. The Christians were coming, as they always came to pagan lands, whether or not they were wanted. Because of the decision Þorgeir reached, Iceland avoided the bloody conversion process and political destabilization that often came to other lands. He must have seen that coming – either with his own political acumen or through the council of the gods – must have know that if he left space for it, the worship of old gods would continue on for centuries, behind closed doors.

But solitary practice is often lonely, and in a landscape where community is so vital to survival I can only imagine that isolation would be compounded. Eventually even the most devout need companionship.

He must have known what he was doing. Did he guess that, long after his priesthood faded and the religion fell away, a thousand years into the future, we would come back?

*                      *                      *

At home, my altar is a proper piece of furniture. When I travel it shrinks to a few items in a small bag that rides in my pocket, against my leg. Three rocks, two pieces of wood, a small brass ring with icons hanging from it – my reminders that the gods are with me, are the guidance on my path.

I climb down to the base of the river, downstream from the falls themselves. I am almost alone, here – a couple of photographers and me, and the easy slope that takes you to the water itself. It is the only place you can touch the river under Goðafoss, and I spotted it from the other bank, hiked down to the bridge and across and back up to reach it.

I sit on the edge of the water where my gods were sacrificed, and I take them out of my pocket. If I say any words they aren’t important. What is important is the action, the way I thrust my hand under the water, holding tight to make sure that nothing slips, nothing is lost in the current.

After a moment, I pull them back up and tuck them next to my heart.

*                      *                      *

“We have a lot of waterfalls,” I am told by a local. “So here, worshiping involves a lot of throwing things into water. I imagine it would be the same around the Great Lakes.”

I think back two years, to an Easter weekend when I was bed bound and feverish, desperate to be well enough to get to my new job. I remember pulling the sweat-sodden comforter over my head. “Anything. I’ll give you anything you want if you just make this pass.”

A week later I clambered down the rocks that separate Lake Michigan from the nearest road. Unsteady in the spray, with the remnants of a cough still giving me pause, I threw the head of a pig as far as I could. Payment asked and given.

“I’ve thrown things into water before,” I agree.

*                      *                      *

I leave when the rain tells me to leave.

It is this way throughout my trip. More often than not the rain is overwhelming, cutting the visibility in half as I take my car through mountain roads. Then, as I pull into the parking lot of some holy site, it will clear. Just long enough for me to pay my respects, mind, to climb down into the inevitable canyon and back up on steady ground. When the rain starts up again, I know it’s time to get back on the road.

I have walked both sides of Goðafoss and I do not want to be done. I am eyeing the head of the falls, the rocks that split the water. Maybe I could find a way up there, across the current. Dangerous, sure, and a long way to go for nothing if it doesn’t work – and then the gentle rain arrives to tell me off.

“Alright, cousin,” I mutter to myself. “I’ll leave.” Meaning, I realize, ‘I’ll come back.

*                      *                      *

“Why did you go?”

“Context,” I will tell them. “History. Lots of reasons.” As with so many conversations, I will consider how much I want to share, how far and how serious I want the topic to go.

“Call it religious reasons,” I will tell one friend and he, disinterested, will drift away.

“Was it as good as you thought it would be?”

“Better. Much better.” They will not have follow up questions, and I will be grateful for that. I would not know what to say if they did.

I spend almost a week in silence and solitude, driving through a foreign country in the shelter of my car, listening. When I return, I will still be seeking answers.

Why did I go? What did I bring back? What does it mean for me, now?

When I cross my threshold, I will be taken aback at my own altar. It will feel cluttered, crowded, imbalanced, and I will spend jet-lagged hours reorganizing and stripping it down, trying to articulate in practice something for which I do not yet have words.

*                      *                      *

I am home. My ring is silver again. Beneath my feet, there is rushing water.

*   *   *
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