Ancestral Grief and My Future Pilgrimage to Sweden
A notable not-coincidence took place at the Hermitage today: I stumbled upon a video of Jonna Jinton practicing kulning — an ancient Swedish herding call — in the forests of Sweden.
This beautiful video moved me so deeply that it reduced me to shivers and full-body sobs within the first 30 seconds. It stirred something I can only call ancestral grief. Something that lives in my bones and flesh. Something that makes me yearn — stronger than ever before — to set foot on the lands of my maternal Swedish ancestors before I leave this Earth, and learn to practice witchcraft amidst those northern forests and mountains. Something that has ancient spiritual and cultural roots that I managed to inherit somehow, despite the fact that I was raised in Hawai’i and was not consciously aware of any such presence until I moved to Oregon, discovered Heathenry, and began to take an interest in learning about the land-based practices of my pre-Christian indigenous ancestors. (Wardruna’s “Helvegen” and the clip “Ragnarök” also stir these deep visceral yearnings in me, as does the Nordic Chants album by Magna.)
The magnitude of what’s been lost to me — culturally, linguistically, spiritually — as a polytheist and animist of Swedish and German ancestry who was born in Illinois, raised in Hawai’i, now lives in Oregon, and has never traveled to her ancestors’ native lands…I can’t even begin to comprehend it.
It certainly doesn’t surprise me that a not-coincidence like this would happen on a day when the mercury here in Portland reached a stifling, oppressive 100 F (38 C). I am well known for my love of cold, overcast weather, and my seething hatred of summer heat and sun. Summer is always a time of deep Earth grief for me, and a depressing reminder that climate change is already past the tipping point. I’ve often said that, if I could get away with it, I’d hide out in a cool, dark cave all summer long. But…it’s not even summer yet! We used to have “June-uary” here in Portland, and I loved it. It seems to be gone now. I miss it greatly.
My allergies, too, always flare up in spring and summer, which makes things even worse. This is partly because of the pollens in the air (a.k.a. “tree sex”), and partly because I encounter more allergy triggers in the form of animal dander. Yesterday, just as I was stepping out of a car and about to meet some new people, their unleashed dog headed straight for me, and I retreated back into the car, knowing that dog dander always causes the worst allergy flare-ups for me. I explained that I’m severely allergic to animal dander, and need to avoid dogs as much as possible. Though they tried to accommodate my needs, I think they were annoyed. Not a good first impression.
That got me thinking about how much my health is negatively affected by the fact that I am stuck in the US — land of insane work culture, a terrifying and exorbitantly expensive health “care” system that keeps many people poor, non-nourishing food for poor people, etc. I have a US-based friend who is on a pilgrimage in France right now, and she reports impressive improvements in her health and joie de vivre. She mused that one aspect of this improved health has to do with “being on the land of our ancestors instead of a land haunted by the angry spirits of those that our ancestors committed genocide against.”
When I read that, I got chills. I know that this is part of what my future pilgrimage to Sweden will be about — experiencing the land of my ancestors. I’ve never been to Europe at all. All my life I have lived on lands haunted by the angry spirits of indigenous peoples, and the genocide continues to this day. But I have never had a chance to get to know the lands where my own ancestors lived. My ancestry is half Swedish and half German. I have long felt that if I could “return” to Europe, I would do so in a heartbeat. I’ve spent years researching and trying to hatch a plan to carry this out. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to Americans moving to Sweden — barriers that may well be insurmountable for someone of my age and financial circumstances. I even spent 1.5 years studying web development, in the hopes that I might take up an in-demand career that would provide a potential inroad to Sweden one day. That plan? Completely failed. Eventually I came to the depressing conclusion that the only way I’d ever be able to move there legally is to marry a Swede. Not bloody likely, to say the least.
Another factor that plays into the grief triggered by the kulning video, I know, is envy. My mother and stepfather, who are financially comfortable and enjoying their retirement, are traveling to Stockholm as tourists this month. They’re going to see Swedish history museums, Gamla Stan (Old Town), and Drottningholm Palace, among other things. I can’t go with them, because I don’t have any money to travel, plain and simple — and it’s been the same story ever since my divorce, with no end in sight. For at least seven years now, my mother and I have been discussing the possibility of traveling to Sweden together, to visit some of the places our ancestors lived. I’ve studied and practiced enough Swedish to get me to an advanced beginner level with the language. I’ve done years of research about Sweden. Now, though, they’re going to Sweden without me. They can’t wait for me.
Perhaps it’ll be for the best in the long run that they go without me, as my intended Swedish travel itinerary differs vastly from theirs. My main reasons for going are for pilgrimage to the lands of my Swedish ancestors, to investigate Swedish Heathenry, and to visit some of my musician friends in Umeå and Linköping.
“I’m so glad he and I are doing this before we get any older,” wrote my mother in e-mail today. That made my envy dissipate. They are definitely getting on in years. My mother is 76 now; my stepfather is 80. None of us know how long we’ve got left on the Earth. Of course they want to travel before they can no longer do so.
My ancestral grief, though, continues unabated, and my desire to leave the US and live in Sweden someday only grows stronger with every passing day. About a year ago I put together a Pinterest board called Sweden: A Pagan Pilgrimage, and back in 2012 I wrote on my Shrines for Skadi page about the ways that some of the things I keep on my shrines help me feel connected to my Swedish heritage. I plan to do more in-depth research into place-names of labyrinths, groves, and cairns in Sweden that are linked to Skaði (She is also mentioned as “Skädja” in the labyrinth article I linked, and examples of place-names include Skadevi, Skädharg, and Skärike [Skädja‘s cairn]). I hope to model my future shrines for Her in ways that take into consideration the ways She was probably honored in pagan Sweden. In Hednagudar och hövdingadömen det gamla Skandinavien (Heathen Gods and Chiefdoms in Ancient Scandinavia), John Kraft writes that “The oldest place names are probably those containing a possible goddess Skädja (Skadevi, Skädharg, etc).” That sentence excites me so much.
It’s hard to describe the constellation of complex and fascinating emotions that overtake me when I see photos of Swedish runestones, cairns, and labyrinths in Småland, or the ruins of an abbey in Östergötland, knowing that some of these places may have connections to Skaði, and that my own maternal ancestors have been traced to rural Småland (in Backaby and Skepperstad) and Östergötland (possibly Hycklinge). When Skaði first came to me in 2004, I knew nothing about Sweden, Norse mythology, or Heathenry.
Norse roots educator Kari Tauring has some interesting things to say about inherited cultural grief. She writes:
“Earth is a planet in trauma, humans are a species in post-traumatic stress disorder. Core cultural values…are lost in the trauma of human grief and replaced with the rhetoric and marketing schemes of an over culture that makes money off of the unhealed human psyche.”
She also writes that she has developed “Northern European culturally specific healing modalities that rely on re-connecting to the pre-Christian mythos, such as alignment with the cosmic world tree, rune chant, and rhythmic breath.”
I’ve been doing my own version of something similar — on a very unstructured, occasional basis — for many years now. While the results are encouraging thus far, I also have the sense that there’s only so far I can go with this process as long as my feet continue to remain on lands so distant from those of my indigenous ancestors. Indigenous peoples’ relationships with land are based on a kind of deep reciprocity that is incompatible with the extractive economy of capitalism. And the US is the land of extreme capitalism.
Given that I’ve not yet set foot in Sweden in this lifetime, it’s difficult to explain how strongly I feel connected to the dwelling lands of my maternal Swedish ancestors. I do love the Cascadia bioregion, and Portland is my favorite city in the US.
Yet somehow, I still miss my “home” in Sweden.
Dear Skaði: If it be Your will, please help me find a way to go to Sweden in Your service when the time is right.
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(Thanks to Ilana Hamilton of Blackthorn Photography for the great photo.)
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