“The most important thing is to treat the ritual with respect,” explains Laila, ceremony leader of the sweat lodge at Sacred Seed near the Golden Circle. As I approach the dome-shaped tent clad with towels and rope, flames from the fire pull me in. Fire is at the heart of the sweat lodge ceremony, which has been performed in Iceland for over twenty years.
Traditionally, the ceremony has its roots in Native American culture, but communal sweating dates back thousands of years. The practise, accompanied by chant and song, can last for hours in complete darkness to purge body and mind. But just like yoga, Western society has placed it on a pedestal. New Agers describe feeling “cleansed and euphoric” as visions dance atop blazing stones. I had to try it out for myself. I stare at the fire to calm my mind and banish presumption.
Appropriation or appreciation
I shed a few layers of clothing and join the start of the ceremony. In 1991, Iceland’s love affair with the sweat lodge began. “Somp Noh Noh, a Native American spiritual leader, came to Iceland to share the gift of the ceremony. It was then I learnt the practise,” Laila recalls. “A few years later, people in Iceland started to recognise what the sweat lodge was.” There are now a handful of sweat lodges in Iceland, and Laila tells me that demand means that the lodge here operates at least once a week.
“We don’t just pray for ourselves. We pray for those around us and honour Mother Earth by giving thanks for all she provides.” Around the fire, Laila explains every detail with humility. We then enter the sweat lodge, into absolute darkness—something so rare in the Icelandic summer.
The darkness is illuminated by burning stones, red with heat. I am mesmerised. Each stone in the ritual has its significance, and is treated as though a living creature by the fire keeper before being placed in the centre to forge the sweat. Waves of anxiety flit over me: I don’t do well in heat.
Gimmick or gesture
Four rounds of song and sweat proceed. Towards the climax, my body feels like it’s propelled over a kettle. My mind feels tethered to the tent. I didn’t trip balls, but I was close. Somehow I survived.
Laila recalls her first time. “Some people see people, others just try to survive the heat. I was so afraid the first time—many have asked why I continued with the practise. It’s because I felt new afterwards. With each visit comes a different experience. I feel blessed that we in Iceland have been gifted the practise.”
Would I do it again? Yes. Throughout the experience, Laila and the majority showed absolute respect and didn’t attempt to claim rights over culture. Whatever your view, you’ll be left with lasting memories.
Find out more about the Scared Seed Sweat Lodge here.
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