Lyonel Perabo holds an M.A. in Old Norse Religion from the University of Iceland and resides in the cold, Arctic city of Tromsø in Northern-Norway (69° North) where he works in the tourism industry, principally as a tour-guide, as well as a writer. His personal research focuses on local history from Northern Fenno-Scandinavia, the Viking Age and Circumpolar Religions among others.
From the point of view of many global onlookers, most of Western and Northern Europe might seem an oddly secular, even religion-less place. Despite a history of (ofttimes violent) religious upheaval during the Christian era and a relative growth of Islam in the present day, there is no denying that religion, and more specifically the expression of religious sentiment, has little to no place in the public sphere in many European nations. As such, even simply discussing religion, and especially Pagan and magical ones, isn’t something nearly as self-evident as in other regions, like North America, where a similar degree of religious freedom is the law of the land. In such a context, the experiences of individuals who might want to experiment with various spiritual paths are rarely if ever publicized or talked about. Yet under this veneer of secularism lies a dynamic and ever-changing religious landscape that has much to offer to those willing to get real with religion.
For over a hundred years, from the middle of the 19th century to the postwar period, the indigenous Sámi minority of Norway was the target of an official policy of forced assimilation, essentially an attempt at ethnocide, which brought the Sámi language, way of life, and society to its knees. The painful process, very similar in many ways to the boarding school system of Canada, was however fiercely challenged by a new generation of young Sámi activists that ultimately brought the government to acknowledge the rights of the Sámi nation and the need for official representation. This liberation movement, which arose in the ’60s and ’70s, ultimately lead to a dynamic revival of Sámi culture that can still be experienced today: from summer arts festivals to academic representation and the spread of traditional crafts, contemporary Sámi culture, despite still facing numerous challenges, is more vigorous than ever before. In this teeming milieu of cultural development, numerous young Sámi figures have sprouted up in the past couple of years to showcase the intersection of their unique artistic vision and their traditional background. It is in this context that Elin Kåven, a singer, artist, and dancer from Karasjok in Arctic Norway has grown and developed her artistry, all the way from the frozen expanses of her hometown to the country’s most famed stages.
In the history of European Paganism and Polytheism, it is known that numerous Pagan concepts, gods, spirits, and ideas remained part of the people’s psyche even long after the beginning of the conversion process. While these figures did not necessarily retain their original religious place and spiritual function over the centuries, many managed to nevertheless survive by being carried on, if not through religious traditions, then through popular culture. The Norse-Icelandic sagas are a good example of this phenomenon. Even though there likely weren’t any Pagan Icelanders around after the 11th century, their descendants kept on compiling, adapting, and writing down tales of Þórr, Óðinn, and countless Pagan heroes all the way to the 20th century. While these figures had left the purely religious sphere of the Icelanders’ worldview, they nevertheless remained latent characters about which tales were told, and even created, until being finally spiritually and religiously brought back in the late 20th century.
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. 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.
The time is a few minutes past midnight, on the night between the seventeenth and the eighteenth of August; the place, Svinøya, an outlying island close to the town of Svolvær, the unofficial capital and most populous locale of the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten in northern Norway. I am standing by a bench on the tip of a breakwater, facing the city’s waterfront. Next to me is my colleague Heinrich, a South African who, by a succession of unlikely events has ended up, like me, working in the tourism industry of this Scandinavian nation. Tomorrow isn’t just a normal day at work, it is the season’s last cruise ship and our employer sent us from our home of Tromsø all the way down to Lofoten; an eight hour car ride through some of the most stunning vistas there are which I have done too many time to count, but not enough not to be amazed — every single time — by the wild majesty of its landscape. The ride was in and of itself uneventful, and we got into town early, ate well (codfish pizzas, a local specialty) and looked forward to the next day’s tour.