Pilgrimage to Iceland

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Iceland, I couldn’t stop thinking about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s been my favorite book ever since an amazing friend loaned it to me in the fall of 2001, and it was heavy on my mind as I prepared for my excursion to the glaciers and the lagoons. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it muses about the effect that America has on the gods of the old world. It tells tales of immigrants who brave the colonies and the young new country, and the gods and spirits they brought with them. In the modern era, the focus is on a war between these Americanized old gods and the new gods created by society: Media, Technology, etc.

The epilogue stood out in my mind these last few weeks: after the war, the protagonist Shadow goes to Iceland. While in America, he knew Wednesday; in the old world, he meets Odhinn. It’s a powerful and poignant scene in which the reader gets to see the disparity between a god who has changed and adapted to a new world and new society and the old god, the original being, the god of the mythos who still draws power from his native soil.

The month before the trip, my mom asked me what I was looking forward to the most: the Blue Lagoon, glacier hiking, ice cave exploration, wandering around Reykjavik? No, I was most eager for the feel of the land itself. I grew up in West Germany, and my childhood was spent traveling around western and northern Europe. The land feels heavy there, weighted with history and ghosts and inhuman spirits, while in the United States, the land feels a bit sterile, if not jumbled and confused. Thankfully, my mom knew exactly what I was talking about; she’d started traveling when she was in high school, and the first time she went to France, she noticed the difference in the air and the land and became obsessed with it, chasing it every time she traveled. I warned her, my formerly Catholic mother, that this trip would really bring out the crazy obsessed heathen in me. This was akin to a journey to Mecca for me. She reassured me that she figured as much when she suggested the trip in the first place. She’s used to crazy heathen talk as she’s been listening to it for longer than I’ve been alive. My grandfather was heathen, as was my father, to a degree. She made sure I grew up knowing the myths and folklore of my paternal family, and she has always embraced my spiritual path, even though she doesn’t practice herself. I think she was a little curious about what she’d experience or witness in Iceland.

Spoiler alert: she saw just how deep my relationships with the gods run, and she saw that the interactions go both ways. The gods seek me out just as I seek them, and communication is very much, very obviously a two way street. She even echoed my awestruck “Hail Loki!” when we saw the incredible 2 floor hotel suite given to me at Hotel Odinsve upon our return from the south coast expedition. She’d teased a little bit our first day there, when a raven dipped down low above my head while we soaked up the geothermal glory of the Blue Lagoon. “The gods are welcoming you, they knew you were coming,” she said.

Bifrost spotted at Seljalandsfoss

A few days later, on the morning of our glacier hike, I stood alone in the hotel parking lot to have my morning smoke and enjoy the sunrise. A pair of ravens flew overhead, and one of them dipped down over my head close enough that I could see its eye. “Get ready for the glacier,” they seemed to say. “We’re waiting for you.” I told my mom about this when she came out, and she smiled. A few hours later, on the glacier itself, the guide told us the only wildlife living up there was a pair of ravens who nest on the peak a few hundred feet from where we stood. Could be a coincidence, but I got goosebumps, and my mom’s eyes nearly popped out of her skull as she looked at me. “Well, that’s not very subtle,” she whispered. We were stalked by a pair of ravens for the rest of the day, and it wasn’t until late afternoon that I’d realized that it was Wednesday. Of course.

The glacier the ravens call home

The week before the trip, I’d done a little online browsing of Reykjavik’s shops, and I’d discovered a jewelry designer who had a raven-inspired series of pieces. There was a silver necklace with two delicate silver raven’s feathers, and after the expedition, I told Mom I’d like to find that necklace somewhere to honor the little stalkers who’d followed us on Wednesday. I hadn’t thought to Google which stores carried Aurum Jewelry Design pieces, so we were wandering blind. But I found it, and I gladly wear the little silver raven feathers to remember the ravens who kept dive-bombing me.

One of my major goals for the trip was to find a bowl for Sigyn. Not only did I want one for the altar she shares with her husband in my house, but I needed one for her Ve at ECT. Because offerings left for Loki won’t be included in the main ritual, I don’t plan on including offerings to Sigyn in the main ritual, either. Since she is the representative of loyalty and steadfast love, it’s not right for her to “leave” her husband behind. Of course, any offerings left for her will be given to her, I’ll make sure of that, just not in the big shindig. Instead, I intend to ask that instead of physical offerings, people offer time by holding the bowl at her Ve, to ease the burden so she may rest for a moment. So finding the perfect bowl in Iceland was imperative, and boy, did she deliver.

Monday was our first full day in Reykjavik, a day we designated for wandering and shopping. After an incredible breakfast of caramel pancakes with skyr at Cafe Loki, we dipped into a few shops. At the third shop we stepped into, I saw The Bowl. It’s handmade ceramic, black with volcanic ash and sand from the Black Sand Beach, and the interior has a partial glaze of greens that call to mind the Northern Lights or snake’s venom. There’s even a few splotches in the glaze, as if venom is dripping into the bowl. Sigyn led me right to this shop and to this bowl, and the chills and awe that washed over me the moment I picked it up and held it aloft nearly brought me to tears. Of course, for the rest of the week, I scoped out bowls in other shops, but there were no other volcanic ash/venom glaze bowls to be found; nothing I saw even came close to the perfection of The Bowl.

The tour along the southern coast was remarkable for reasons besides the extraordinary sights we saw. Our driver/guide reminded my mother and I so much of my Grandpa Svendsen that we ended the three day tour convinced that Frank had possessed our guide for a few days. He spoke just like my grandpa, in a low, mumbling way, and the stories he told were just as rambly and random as Frank’s, complete with the 20-minute expositions on bits that were irrelevant but forgetting key details and having to backtrack so the ending would make sense. He told stories of trolls that I’m very certain I’d heard before, and his delivery was dead-on for grandpa’s. Mom and I were delighted and enthralled to feel as though we were being driven around Iceland’s sacred places by my grandpa. The connection to my ancestors was just as strong and undeniable to my connection to the gods.

At each place we stopped along the tour, I quietly greeted and thanked the landvaettir, and as we drove past mountains and cliffs, I’d spot guardians in the stone and make mental acknowledgement of them as well. More than once, I’d get the strong sense of a quiet joy as a weary sigh would whisper, “We’re remembered.” My eyes filled with tears each time I “heard” that, or something like it, and I was left even more in awe of the land we explored.

At one point during the tour, our guide pulled off to a little farm so we could visit some Icelandic horses and feed “horse candy” to them. As a former competitive and trail rider, I was overjoyed and befriended all of the shaggy beasts. My mom was snapping candid shots of me playing with the horses, and there’s one shot in particular that I adore and gives me chills. I’d approached the ginger horse and being the smartass that I am, I whispered in his ear, “Tell me the truth: which one of you is Loki?” The ginger horse leaned his head against me in response, and I swear he’s smiling in the picture my mom captured in that exact moment.

There were many other profound, extraordinary experiences between me and the gods and the wights, things that left Mom in quiet awe and me in ecstasy, but I suppose not everything is meant to be shared. The bits I have shared may not sound like much, but there truly is no way for me to express the sensations and knowing the gods and landvaettir were there. I just have to assure you that it was enough, the feelings in our bones, to strike and amaze my Italian Catholic mother. I’m eternally grateful to my mom to bringing me to Iceland, and for her shared enthusiasm for Cafe Loki and Hotel Odinsve. I am well pleased, both humbled and exalted by the experiences I had, and it was a blessing indeed to meet the gods and wights in their native element and feel their raw power. They are not subtle beings by any stretch; you’ll come face to face with them whether or not you’re looking for them.

My experience, however, wasn’t quite like Shadow’s in the epilogue of American Gods. Yes, the energy was stronger, but Loki, Odhinn, and Sigyn were still themselves as I know them. I even communed with Frigg there, which was unusual as I almost never have interactions with her. Yet she was there, welcoming me, and it was beautiful beyond compare.

There wasn’t much disparity between the “Americanized” gods and the old world gods; they are who they are, regardless of where you meet them. But yes, without a doubt, they were all more “in my face” there, their energy so much more primal and raw, enough so that even my mom noticed them. The landvaettir were much stronger, too; in America, I hardly notice them, and it actually takes a concerted effort on my part to remember them when I’m not hiking or wandering around a forest. In Iceland, they were everywhere, and they were wonderful and welcoming. They were pleased with my gratitude for their protection of the land; the day we returned to Reykjavik, a massive storm hit the southern coast, closing the very roads we had driven and cancelling many of the activities we had enjoyed. We had been blessed with glorious weather and the opportunity to enjoy everything we had planned, including a few delightful extras. It was the most perfect trip, and we managed to achieve everything we’d hoped to do. We even tracked Baktus down and met him, and let me tell you, I’ve never been so starstruck as when I got to pet Reykjavik’s most famous cat. It was a beauty of a vacation, so much more than I could possibly have hoped for.

Truly, Iceland is a land of the gods. Hail!

P.S. When I returned home, I was startled to see the Loki statue on his altar had rotated and was facing the door, as if waiting for me to come home. Every inch of his altar is COVERED with gifts, and NOTHING else was moved or disturbed. Not even the fox pelt that curls around the base of the statue was moved. It was nice to open the door to the room with the altar and see Loki greeting me, but still, yikes? Little bit of yikes.

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