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Iceland’s unruly terrain and hidden inhabitants

When people first learn about my travels to Iceland, the response I most often hear goes something like: “Iceland! That’s on my bucket list.” I understand. It’s hard to resist an arctic wonderland littered with flaming volcanoes and thundering waterfalls, where for months on end the sun barely sets on moss-crazed mountains and whale-infested waters. Maybe you’ve already been there, adding your own drop to a rising sea of tourists, estimated at nearly two million in 2016, a veritable flood for an island whose population hovers around 330,000.

Yet numbers can be deceiving, as not all inhabitants of the island are so easily accounted for. Take spirits for instance. For those who participate in andleg mál, or “spirit work,” spirits are a part of everyday life. It also seems they’re making a comeback, a curious trend in modern Europe. When I ask Icelanders about this, “Why Iceland?” they unfailingly gesture toward the same terrain that entices tourists. Andleg mál practitioners often surmise that geothermal forces have an effect on people’s perceptions; religious leaders suspect that wide-open spaces expand spiritual inclinations; and most everyone agrees that the earth’s unruliness cultivates certain dispositions. As Valgerður, a social worker, described it: “the very, very alive land that we live in that is sometimes fire, sometimes ice, sometimes green and lush, and sometimes hard and cold; I think this creates a sense of humility toward energy we cannot understand.”

Svínafellsjökkull Glacier sliding past a mossy mountain by Corinne G. Dempsey. Used with permission of photographer.
Svínafellsjökkull Glacier sliding past a mossy mountain by Corinne G. Dempsey. Used with permission of photographer.

Since these conversations take place in the “northern capital” of Akureyri (population: 17,000), far from Reykjavík (metro population: 200,000), people’s impressions of the landscape’s impact make a certain sense. Digging deeper, it seems Iceland’s unruly earth does more than boost spirit populations; it drives the nature of these populations, as well. Like the fire-and-ice terrain that gives as well as takes, its residing spirits nurture as well as trouble, engaging humanity in reciprocal ways.

We see this reciprocity in andleg mál’s primary practices of healing and trance that serve the living and the dead, where human healers team up with spirits to treat earthly ailments and entranced bodies make room for anguished spirits to engage in therapeutic conversations. Spirits partners join earthly practitioners once their practices are launched or help to launch them from the start.

From an earthly standpoint, initial attempts to make contact often feel like harassment. It begins with a benign childhood “gift” of perceiving spirits that, typically waning during adolescence, returns with a vengeance in early adulthood. Fearing for their sanity, people usually try to ignore their “gift” and, if unsuccessful, enlist andleg mál mediums to close it down. Ever persistent, spirits find a “back door” to enter, making themselves known in different, yet no less disquieting, ways.

According to andleg mál hindsight, spirit disruption isn’t spurred by ill intent but by altruism. Upon finding a potential partner who registers their presence, they simply hammer harder because work is waiting to be done. Once the human target relents and agrees to a working andleg mál relationship, troubles abate. In part, this is because spirits must keep up their end of the deal as well. As Ásdís, a healer, explained, nodding toward her kitchen window, “I don’t want them to pop over when I’m in the store or when I’m out there. Only if they want something important. So [my healing sessions] are the times I give them.’”

Consider by contrast andleg mál’s closest cousin, Spiritualism, that arrived in Reykjavík around 1905, boomed countrywide, then fizzled by mid-century. Founded as a rebuttal to late 19th-century scientific discoveries that challenged religious beliefs, Spiritualism has always taken the scientific high road, playing down deep trance practices aimed at aiding angst-ridden spirits. Working to rein in the uncanny, its mediums are encouraged to stay awake and in control. Yet Spiritualism never institutionalized in Iceland and, as a result, when spirit work regained its footing in the 1990s, it had drifted from traditional aims such as offering proof of life after death.

Turf church of Hof in Örfæli by Corinne G. Dempsey. Used with permission of author.
Turf church of Hof in Örfæli by Corinne G. Dempsey. Used with permission of author.

Andleg mál’s departure from Spiritualism, reflected in earth-spirit reciprocity, necessarily engages the unruly. Meanwhile, Icelanders engage, and necessarily so, with unruly terrain. Despite dramatic standard-of-living improvements since the 1970s, regular run-ins with active volcanoes, earthquakes, and avalanches continue to keep people on their toes. It’s worth noting that in Reykjavík, where urban life buffers inhabitants from nature’s unwieldiness, conventional Spiritualism doesn’t lag far behind. Here, mediums tend to work more traditionally, delivering messages of reassurance from a waking state.

Not to be forgotten are Iceland’s other, better known, hidden inhabitants: elves, fairies, and huldufólk (hidden folk). While researching huldufólk traditions last summer, Swarthmore undergraduate Sadie Rittman often asked, as did I, “Why Iceland?” and received, again, a unanimous nod to the landscape. Yet vital differences remain. Huldufólk authorities—those who lead habitat tours and found elf schools—portray them as interacting helpfully, if not therapeutically, with non-hidden humanity. By contrast, if we scroll back to centuries-old folklore, huldufólk are downright demanding, and often frighteningly so. Crucial to this shift is that today’s attractions, although led by Icelanders, appeal almost entirely to tourists. Served well by this therapeutic flow, visitors flocking to Iceland arrive en masse during summertime, when the living is easy and spectacular landscapes, like the huldufólk, confer happy magic in abundance.

A pattern emerges: Iceland’s feisty spirits and hidden folk face off against monochromatic versions of themselves, rendered by Spiritualism and tourism respectively. It’s a feistiness that thrives on less-than-tameable terrain that, as Valgerður puts it, cultivates humility. After all, science, to which Spiritualism is indebted, cannot domesticate all that bewilders us. Light-filled touristic magic likewise cannot be sustained when one’s earthly existence involves periods of pitch darkness, deadly avalanches, and iceberg-punctured ships. As andleg mál’s reciprocal practices suggest, by quieting the harassment and blunting the dark, we could very well end up compromising the light, as well.

Featured image credit: The “northern capital” of Akureyri in winter. Photo by Svavar Alfreð Jónsson. Used with permission. 

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