From Iceland — What A Long Strange Trip

What A Long Strange Trip

Published July 28, 2023

What A Long Strange Trip
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Maria Gudjohnsen
Art Bicnick
Sunna Ben
Maya Pushnaya

Down the rabbit hole of traditional and new age spirituality in Iceland

The earth recently cracked open again and a new volcano is erupting near Fagradalsfjall for the third year in a row. The noxious volcanic gasses that have wafted and settled over the city are making me dizzy, nauseated and bewildered, much like having dived deep into the tumultuous waters of Paganism and new age spirituality in Iceland. In many ways, what lies beneath the soil and bedrock of these traditional and imported beliefs and practices is as heated and unhinged as the lava that sputters and flows out of our island, wreaking havoc and beauty. It can be just as deceptive as well.

Iceland has long attracted the spiritually inclined, and over the past decade there has been a steady rise of new age retreats and services, both hosted by Icelanders and marketed to tourists, and vice versa. Cacao ceremonies, ecstatic dance gatherings, breathwork training, and all things “shamanic” have become commonplace to the point of near mundanity. One needs no more than a quick scroll through the Spiritual Events Iceland group on Facebook to find their next psychic-led soul healing or other opaque esoteric offering.

Standing out amongst all of these is Wild Love Festival Iceland 2023, a retreat taking place over the final weekend of July at Sólsetrið, a new age spiritual centre on a former farm near Esja that hosts many such events and has become widely known within local spiritual communities. When the algorithm decided I was the target demographic for the event, I could only fathom what that event would entail and I couldn’t resist the shiny bait. I reached out to the Wild Love Festival team and the owner of Sólsetrið, Linda Mjöll Stefánsdóttir, to learn more about the event. It took a long time and many efforts to receive a response.

The search for understanding

To begin to understand why Iceland has become a hotbed for this new age trend, I turned to Albert Björn Shiell, who has been studying and practicing British and Nordic pagan folklore, witchcraft and herbal medicine for 17 years. He’s the author and publisher of the book Icelandic Plant Magic: Folk Herbalism of the North, and uses the title “witch” as a means to narrow down the broader definitions of his practice. 

“Using shamanism to broadly describe Native American traditions is not accurate. This word is based more in Mongolian, and further into Sami traditions, which spread from Siberia. People are very clearly using these buzzwords to get a lot of income.”

“‘Witch’ wouldn’t be the most accurate, it’s just the most commonly used term,” he explains. “I would say rather a folk magician or cunning man. When you don’t understand the context, it sounds quite arrogant to say about yourself, but what I do is sort of the same as the random guy in the village who knows about charms and herbs, who you would call to break curses.”

Albert has been publicly outspoken about unethical new age activity in Iceland. On social media, he routinely shares and calls out event posts, unpacking the language and legitimacy of those claiming to be shamans, lightworkers and other such appropriative or altogether invented titles. Most of the events that Albert chooses to call out are based in practices imported from distant lands and far removed cultural traditions, led by people with no physical connection or heritage to them. Often promising forms of healing involving “plant medicine” (a term commonly used to refer to psychedelics), such events are frequently offered by people with no qualifications and cost exorbitant amounts of money in a completely unregulated and unsupervised marketplace.

“Iceland is a very wealthy country, obviously, and the resources of people with money who are also maybe not so culturally aware of other places in the world seems to me like a perfect recipe for cons,” says Albert. “The [service providers’] intentions may not be ‘I’m gonna scam you out of this money,’ but if you’re doing stuff that’s not ethical or culturally appropriate, it’s not good.” 

Appropriate or appropriation

Such bad faith actors have been branded “plastic shamans” by Native American and First Nations activists who accuse them of misappropriation, colonialist exploitation and misrepresentation of indigenous cultures, contributing to their deterioration. In his 1976 essay The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism, Native American scholar Geary Hobson described the use of the term “shamanic” in new age movements as a form of cultural appropriation by White people who distance themselves from their own cultural heritage and histories.

“It’s the way I see things marketed as traditional knowledge and the cost of these things,” says Albert. “Maybe it’s traditional knowledge within other countries but it’s not really appropriate knowledge to be putting into practice in Iceland, because there’s so much here already. It’s also taking quite a lot of stuff from South America and North American so-called shamanic things. Using shamanism to broadly describe Native American traditions is not accurate. This word is based more in Mongolian, and further into Sami traditions, which spread from Siberia. People are very clearly using these buzzwords to get a lot of income. You can’t really use this word to describe all these things accurately and a lot of academics are making this more apparent now.”

Albert emphasises that having physical access to the land of the spirit one is trying to invoke is crucial, and invoking spirits that are not of the land one is present on is practising poor spiritual hygiene. 

“Folklore is contextual,” Albert explains. “Icelandic trolls and their stories cannot be copied and pasted onto Peruvian landscapes, for example. Where there may be similarities and plenty of comparative mythology, things are not exactly the same from place to place. We recognise that higher spirits and deities are not bound to physical places in the same way, but to access the land-based spirits, one needs to be in that physical place.”

“For the land, it’s disrupting the spirits of the place, which people in Iceland know,” Albert speaks to what the harm is of practising this way. “You don’t move this rock, you don’t go pull up the moss. If people are invoking various different spirits in places they aren’t from it’s upsetting the natural flow – and it’s not fun to clean up other people’s shit.”

From pretenders to pagans

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, High Priest (Allsherjargoði) of the Ásatrú Pagan Association, holds a somewhat different view as to why this island seems to be a magnet for new age practitioners and events. “The land is alive, there is no way of escaping it,” he says. “So I think this is a place where people feel power, and I get that from a lot of people who come here, no matter their religious beliefs or their philosophical outlook. They feel that there is a special energy here.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Ásatrú is an Icelandic religious organisation formally established in 1972 with no fixed theology or dogma. Their beliefs are based on Icelandic and Nordic folklore, that derives much of its code of ethics from the Old Norse poem Hávamal, found in the Codex Regius. Hilmar has led the organisation since 2003. “We have a few rules or guidelines, which are to be an upright person, that you are truthful, that you are tolerant, and you respect nature and life around you,” says Hilmar. “It seems like a really wishy washy, new agey type of thing, but that was the main idea of the ethical system and you can still read it in Hávamal.”

“I think some people take energies from certain places or connect with certain places, which can be places of power and spiritual hotspots,” says Hilmar of the significance of being rooted in a specific land in order to carry out spiritual practice. “You have these all over the world, so that springs up when you come to a certain place. And it varies with the landscape. You feel certain energies if you’re on the coastline and you feel another when you’re up in the mountains. This informs the local belief systems and in a way the deities that you worship.”

As a spiritual leader and scholar, Hilmar’s openness to non-native spiritual traditions in Iceland is rather relaxed, but he is still wary of where to draw the line. “It can be disrespectful and I think there’s a difference between appropriating things and aligning yourself with thoughts,” says Hilmar. “This came up quite a lot in the beginning of the new age movement when you had people who were just making a quilt of ideas from different places, and trying to make them as a system that they either had invented or was very stupid. You had people who were selling ideas and all these wonderful con men.”

I ask Hilmar how to spot spiritual con artists. “The thing that is usually the giveaway is secrecy,” says Hilmar. “If people swear you to secrecy, if they talk about certain things that are only available for certain people who have gone to a certain place, that’s when bad things happen. When you encounter secrecy, it’s usually because there’s something else going on.”

Looking for love

On their website, the Wild Love Festival calls itself a “celebration of your natural sensuality, the beauty of connecting to your own primal being and the depth of the ecstasy that is life force.” Icons of psychedelic graphics highlight the festival’s activities, including yoga, breathwork, dance, music, lectures, intimacy communication and tantric ceremonies. Tickets to the event range from €320 to €710. 

More than 20 facilitators are listed as attending, many of whom are credited with links to the International School of Temple Arts (ISTA). ISTA is an organisation that offers workshops and training in “sexual shamanism.” Its founder, Baba Dez Nichols, has been reported to have abused people within this cadre and has been disavowed by many members. 

Wild Love’s schedule is composed of individual events with names like “Sensual Contact Improvisation,” “Flights to Ecstasy,” “Sexerbrate Desire Temple” and, simply, “Orgasmic.” Many of the workshop descriptions attached to the facilitators’ bios are presented in flowery, bypassing language that doesn’t give a clear idea of what will happen. Others offer yoni and lingam massages — neotantra terms for manual sex acts — and various sexual healing practices. The word “boundaries” is repeatedly peppered throughout, yet often in opposition to activities that do not seem to leave much room for stating them, such as being blindfolded and covered in coconut oil in a pit of bodies in the “Liquid Love Temple.”

When I finally reached the main organiser of Wild Love, Matilda Gregersdotter, she suggested that I speak with co-creator and Sólsetrið’s founder Linda. I explained that I had been reaching out to her and not receiving a reply. Then I got one. Linda expressed her hesitation to speak with me after what she called the media “witch hunt” around Sólsetrið last year. “Where does your heart sit with these energies?” she asked.

Linda arrived to our meeting exuding an effusive familiarity that makes me wonder aloud whether we have actually met before, although I am certain we never have. As we settle into a quiet space to talk, Linda delivers a disclaimer.

“So Wild Love: that’s a whole energy that has not much to do with my story,” says Linda. “If Matilda was here, it would be purely Wild Love. She’s coming from life coaching. She’s got a very bright spectrum. I’ve got this spectrum. I’m down in the roots of the shamanic business.” 

We quickly touched on the main points of the festival. She calls Wild Love a “container” and an offer for human growth. She says that none of the workshops involve penetrative sex and it is a sober, drug-free environment. The facilitators are vetted through their personal network in the sexual shamanic communities, most of whom have met before and each have their own form of spiritual CV. They do not call it a tantra festival as such, though so-called tantric ceremonies and practices are listed in the event description. None of the workshops are mandatory and she emphasises that the entire event begins with boundary setting lectures to establish guidelines around consent.

I have become more interested in Linda’s story at this point anyway. Also known by the name Ýra, Linda was born in Iceland and spent much of her youth in the UK. She defines herself as a storyteller and gatekeeper, with “certification” (she herself puts the term in air-quotes) as an energy healer, light healer and in shamanic breathwork. She purchased Skrauthólar farm in Kjalarnes 10 years ago, where she founded Sólsetrið. 

“I have to reference this timeline again and again, because to me, timelines now are melting,” says Linda of Sólsetrið’s inception. “We’ve got so many timelines going on Earth, this is in my reality. I see many options. And I see that even Sólsetrið has been running on a few timelines.”

Over the course of the decade, the centre has become prominent for hosting gatherings, ceremonies and workshops across this new age spectrum of patchworked spiritual practices. Linda says her own lineage is from Peru, which she learned from the Four Winds Society.

“It’s something of a curious alignment being in Iceland but aligning to South America, but seeing as we’ve had all these lives, it’s actually not that unfamiliar to me.” says Linda. “I have been witness to and been sitting with Peruvians for the last ten years, so that’s also another nice cross-seeding culture. I have past lives in Peru, I have been married to a husband who grew up in Peru, but my physical body this time on earth has not been to Peru.”

I present the notion of cultural appropriation to her, and the validity of her claim to a particular lineage that she has no heritage from.

“I’m born to this land and this land is the primary speaker, through my bones, through my blood, through my waters,” replies Linda. “I get this as my cradle gift, is that the stones here, the mountain here, it speaks to me as its child. Freyja comes to me, I am sure. Even though all these things exist in the realm of the myth, potentially, she is more aligned to me because of that very genetic coding that I have from this land. It is appropriate that I hold space for them, to voice through me within me and be part of my living container, so that if I meet a dragon, he’s of this space, he’s of this realm. So when the wisdom of Peru comes and knocks on my door, I do not find it so curious that the wisdom of their elders want to come and talk to our mountains, and they look up at Esja and go ‘The elders of Peru have spoken of this.’ And for me, because I’m a curious storyteller, I say, ‘Tell me your stories, and I will see if it is not so far away from the story that the völva or Freyja speaks to me’.”

“If people swear you to secrecy, if they talk about certain things that are only available for certain people who have gone to a certain place, that’s when bad things happen. When you encounter secrecy, it’s usually because there’s something else going on.”

This convoluted response is somewhat of a signature move of plastic shamans, who circumvent questions they’d rather not address with indirect, inaccessible language. I reframe the question, trying to understand how a White Nordic European who has never once set foot on Peruvian soil claims to be of that spiritual lineage. She launches into an even more discombobulated tale about visitors she met from Peru feeling connected to Iceland. 

Aside from meditation, drumming, and ayahuasca ceremonies, Linda’s specific spiritual practices and training are difficult to deduce from our two and a half hour conversation. Linda’s way of speaking is an abstruse, mystical stream of consciousness that is as fascinating as it is hard to follow. How her lineage is Peruvian remains a mystery.

Revisiting the “witch hunt”

In 2022, Sólsetrið found itself the subject of media controversy when another event taking place there called “The Lovers – A Dance” seemingly advertised the exploration of erotic connections along with psilocybin mushrooms, while encouraging parents to bring their children. This set off alarm bells with many people within the spiritual community and the event was reported to the authorities. Among those who did so was Ísvöld Ljósbera Sigríðarbur, known as “the völva”, who previously had ties to the centre but later distanced themselves.

As a völva, Ísvöld says they practise an Old Norse form of magic called seiðr, which dates back to the late Scandinavian Iron Age and is described in the poetic Edda Völuspá. “It is being a seer, being prophetess and being in communication with the spirit world and human world,” says Ísvöld. “It’s not a title that I went for or I sought to get, it is kind of taboo to do so. It is more like a path that I feel home in, and just something I grew into. About 20 years ago, people started to say that I am the völva, and I’m old enough and mature enough to say I am what I’m called. As long as I am working in this way, a völva is always a völva. You don’t clock out.”

“In 2016 I just wanted to meet new friends and find a new community,” Ísvöld says of their time spent with Sólsetrið. “[Linda] was so open and into just going anywhere into nature to do ceremonies and I just really appreciated that. She was growing her spiritual community at Sólsetrið and I didn’t want to be in the community, but I said I would love to come do some ceremonies there myself.” 

They first signed up for a drum making event at Sólsetrið that devolved into something far beyond what they signed up for. “It became a whole ‘shamanic’ workshop for a weekend, not led by a shaman, involving cuddling and eye gazing and talking about the most dark sides of yourself,” says Ísvöld. “No heads up about it. Not a safe space. There were people there that shouldn’t be there.” 

They subsequently did a plant medicine ceremony at Sólsetrið which they say was fine but people were difficult to talk to or “get a hold of,” and were later invited to do a winter solstice ceremony, “which went apeshit,” they say. “After that I was like, ‘This place is fucking screwed’,” says Ísvöld. “They’re just flying high, doing whatever they want. They don’t consider other people, other traditions. And this land, under that mountain, is holding space for their bullshit. After that, it just started getting worse and worse.”

The 2022 event that drew controversy was organised by a woman known as Teja Doro. Linda says she was unaware of what Teja planned to say about the event, only that she was giving her a platform. “She’s a young sister on her path,” Linda explains. “She has her own reality and her own choice of words. She is a promoter of new ways, and when she asked to do this particular event, an ecstatic dance, I said beautiful. I’m away in the east. I’m journeying somewhere. So I don’t actually even see the event when it comes out.”

The event came to Ísvöld’s attention through an acquaintance and that’s when they broke their silence on Sólsetrið. “That’s where she opens the space for tantra erotic healing, and so it’s bring your children with you, and then emojis to indicate that they would have mushrooms,” Ísvöld recounts the description. “And that’s when I went off. Don’t fuck with the kids.”

“What a very huge alarm bell that should have been to anyone that would have read that reality into that particular post,” says Linda. “However, it was none of that. And what happened was a dance. It was for families, so of course, children were allowed.” Linda says that there was no use of psilocybin during the event and no sexual activities were involved.

After the event was reported to the authorities and Ísvöld spoke out publicly, Teja’s now deleted blog Devoted Sounds was uncovered, which included her writings seeming to support sexual relations between adults and children, namely those of Michael Jackson. The shit hit the proverbial fan, and Linda shut down all activities at Sólsetrið for about eight months to re-evaluate.

Shortly thereafter, a nithing pole (niðstöngur) — an ancient form of curse consisting of a long wooden pole with a recently removed horse’s head on top — was erected on Sólsetrið’s property. 

“Perhaps it was a blessing, perhaps something in the field needed to see a particular wounding that wanted to be witnessed,” says Linda. “Maybe in that very dramatic gesture that had me in tears and floods for some time, perhaps now I can see that as a show-and-tell of the very crisis going on within a part of my land and my community, for I am sure they may have been my sisters. The most common story is that a witch whispers upon another witch a spell.”

Ísvöld was accused of being behind niðstöngur, which they have strongly denied. “It was done in such a wonderful way,” says Ísvöld sarcastically. “I felt like I was in like an old saga. They said, ‘It couldn’t have been anybody else but the völva and her gang.’ No one has claimed it. I don’t think it matters who did it. It was the meanest níðstöngur since Egils saga and it made its point very clear.”

Out of the hole, remaining in a haze

As I crawl out of the hole I fell down to research this story and back into the volcanic gas cloud, nothing seems clear to me at all anymore. Hours of conversation with varying degrees of coherence, dozens of tabs of arcane, questionable cultish research material, and mapping it all out to connect the dots, I feel more confused and cynical than when I first began. 

Nearly everything in this world of new age spirituality seems like a grift, and the frustration of traditional folkloric practitioners seems inevitable. Bad faith actors will continue to bring their medicine shows to Iceland, charging the spiritually vulnerable for promises of healing, and the local witches will clean up their spiritual mess, like the chambermaids of the hidden folk.

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