[This issue, we sit down with Imelda Almqvist. Here. she discusses her new book North Sea Water in My Veins; the history of the European conversion to Christianity; and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: North Sea Water in My Veins: The Pre-Christian Spirituality of the Low Countries is being released by Moon Books in late June. Congratulations! How did this book come about? Why focus on the pre-Christian practices and faith of the Low Countries?
Imelda Almqvist: I am Dutch and I grew up in the Netherlands but have now lived overseas for over 30 years. I am an international teacher of Seiðr and Old Norse spirituality (Northern Tradition material). I am married to a Swede and I have my own school in a remote forest location in Sweden. People fly in from all over the world to do courses with me and I receive invitations to teach in many locations. I have students from the Netherlands as well and (unsurprisingly) they often ask questions about the indigenous or pre-Christian spirituality of the Low Countries and surroundings. I have always answered those questions as well as I could.
Some years ago a Dutchman drove all the way to London to do a course with me. He took me aside and said: “Imelda, what does not yet exist but is badly needed (because people are looking for it) is a book that brings together everything that is known about the pre-Christian spirituality of the Netherlands. You have written other books before. You have demonstrated the ability to do research in many European languages. Many spiritual Dutch people now practice something they call shamanism, which usually consists of a collection of borrowed Native American practices which do not reflect the landscape, traditions, flora or fauna of their native land. I prefer to stay of clear of that. I try to practice an ancestral spirituality which honours my country of birth and the land I live on. So… would you please write that book?!”
ev0ke: What sort of research went into North Sea Water in My Veins? Long hours online? Consultations with scholars and modern practitioners?
IA: I gave my student a non-committal answer at the time: “Hmm, I don’t know, maybe one day…” But a seed had been planted and the question preyed on my mind. All my work is spirit-led and the spirits whispered that people make such suggestions for a good reason! My own initial burning question was: “Will there even be anything to write about?” Dutch culture is so progressive and secular that perhaps the material is long lost? However, my research phase unearthed a treasure trove of information.
The bulk of the research was done by reading books, primarily in Dutch but also in the languages of surrounding countries (and even Scandinavian languages. After all there was a lively trade route between Frisians and Vikings!) I soon discovered that there is a lot of excellent work being done in the Netherlands but there are two issues: nearly all material is written and published in Dutch (meaning it remains inaccessible to the rest of the world, especially people with Dutch ancestry) and many authors will specialise in just one specific topic: only the ancient gods and goddesses, or only geomantic work with land, or only the history of witch trials in the Netherlands etc.
For my book I have translated key material into English. Perhaps I should have called it a compendium instead! I did receive help with translations of Frisian texts (my childhood dialect was West Frisian, which is not identical to Frisian, so some unusual words mystified me).
I also read academic papers and, yes, I spoke to some people engaged in reconstruction work, about their personal discoveries. However, my overall impression is that most spiritual people in the Netherlands work with material from other cultures and traditions, as explained.
The prominent Dutch teacher Linda Wormhoudt says “Ask the land what it needs”. Excellent advice! (Linda Wormhoudt — Leaves of Lien)
ev0ke: You list quite a few indigenous Gods and Goddesses, but there is not much information about them. How can someone who is interested get to know the old Deities of the Low Countries? How can they be honored?
IA: To my mind that is one the most important questions of our time (and I do try to answer it in the book)! The situation resembles the one we face in Scandinavia, where we have the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda (and other texts) but there are many gaps and inconsistencies. I tell all my students that the material comes from a large area, where there were many regional differences. The written material we have was based on earlier oral traditions etc.
The situation is best summed up as “the glass is half full”: yes, much is lost and may never be retrieved or reconstructed but as a spiritual teacher I also know very well that traditions where much more was preserved can become riddled with dogma (there is then only correct way of interpreting the material or performing spiritual acts).
I think that the only way ancestral wisdom teachings can stay relevant and evolve is by people from different eras making it their own and making it work for them. I feel that we are fortunate to have directories of ancient gods and goddesses (and related beings such as the Matronae or mother goddesses) and the best way of working with them is starting with what is known (educating ourselves) but then working directly with some of these deities and keeping records of what both individuals and groups discover. (This is commonly done in the Northern Tradition). People are keeping journals, getting together, sharing ceremonies on social media, writing blogs dedicated to particular deities etc. I have had some interesting exchanges with people about our personal relationship with Dutch goddesses, especially about details which are not in found in the sources.
We currently live in a time where borrowing spirituality from another culture, or even continent, has become a questionable practice. The issue of counter-cultural appropriation looms large and features in many contemporary discussions. It is really a good idea for Dutch people to run sweat lodge ceremonies? The Scandinavian (and Slavic) countries had many similar traditions based around the sauna or bathhouse (which in Russia was called the House of the Ancestors). In other words: Europe has its own traditions and they are rich and meaningful!
It is my hope that my book will help people in exploring the native path. That it will reassure them that there is enough material to work with, that we have other options available to us than borrowing spiritual teachings from elsewhere.
It is my deep-held belief that gods and goddesses continue to evolve, just as we human beings evolve. The highest outcome is for that process to happen in partnership, where the deities (and other powerful spirits) themselves become our teacher and partners in developing a spirituality which honours the ancestors but also meets the needs and concerns of the time we live in. Based on my own practices and work with students I would say this is perfectly possible!
ev0ke: Many contemporary Pagans/polytheists point to the destruction of Donar’s Oak as a turning point in the conversion of Europe to Christianity. Do you agree? Do you think there is more to the story than most people realize?
IA: Human beings are natural born story-tellers. We use stories to make sense of the world around us and also to develop and maintain a sense of self: identity, continuity, a sense of ourselves as the same person living through many life-changing events over decades.
My understanding is that the story was a “set-up”. The Oak had been prepared in advance to fall, for greatest dramatic effect. The groundwork had been done for a myth to arise which appeared to support the large-scale conversion to Christianity.
I do not think that this event literally marks a turning point. What my research did teach me was how the church fathers and priests of (early) Christianity deliberately wrote stories (often featuring saints) which were superimposed on earlier beliefs and traditions. Most parts of these stories were deliberately kept familiar so people would relate to them and believe the Christian filter. And maybe in some cases that meant only a change in name. For instance in Scandinavia many flowers were named for the goddess Freyja but after Christianization those flowers carry names related to the Virgin Mary.
I make a point of focussing on historical accuracy in all the material I teach, because there is a lot of popular material circulating on the internet which is way off the mark (and misconceptions then get quoted and repeated ad infinitum). Having said that, I also think there are situations where the mythological or cosmological message is more important than the historical event.
In this case a foundation myth was deliberately created in which the profound respect our ancestors had for trees and trees spirits was erased and replaced by “an authority figure hacking away”. It indicates the rise of a new worldview, which is also reflected in the Bible:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” — Genesis 1:26
However, let me counter that by pointing out that Revelation 11:18 says that:
The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small— and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (My italics)
I think that it is extremely important to acknowledge other forces too. With secularization (eventually, after the Industrial Revolution) came capitalism, consumerism, global warming, large scale pollution and extinction of animal species etc. I think that, at this point, there is no point in blaming anyone or anything long past. We are the ones alive today so we are the ones who hold the responsibility for changing the paradigm in the Here and Now. The period that we now call The Enlightenment ushered in much destruction and darkness. Perhaps it is time for “real” enlightenment and a True Age of Reason? Destroying the Earth is neither reasonable nor viable. We will destroy ourselves and all we hold dear.
ev0ke: You devote a chapter to Sinterklaas. How does Sinterklaas differ from the Christian Saint Nicholas and the secular Santa Claus?
IA: In the Netherlands “Sinterklaas” (the informal Dutch name for St Nicholas) is based on the figure of the Christian Saint, but over the centuries he has been turned into a jovial figure who arrives in early December to deliver presents for children (and to punish children who have misbehaved). This traditionally happens on the eve of his birthday, on December 5th.
The secular Santa Claus can also be traced back to St. Nicholas, believed to have been born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was reported to have given away all his possessions and to have travelled around the countryside, helping the poor and the sick. He inspired many legends and remains one of the most popular saints of all time.
In spiritual lore he is often linked to the Wild Hunt. To my great surprise I discovered that, in origin, Sinterklaas is the great psycho pomp (soul conductor) who arrives at the time of year when winter storms rage and the veil between the worlds is thin. The central idea is that the ethers (the space between the worlds) need to be swept clean before the Winter Solstice, to make space for a new year and new beginnings. This includes gathering up the souls of people who have died but not crossed over properly (meaning that they are still “between the worlds”, exerting pressure on the realm of the living).
In that role Sinterklaas becomes a more sinister (or at least feared) figure, even linked to the Devil (the complete flip or shadow side of a jovial child-friendly elderly man!) Here again, we find a Christian filter and demonization. In pre-Christian times people understood the need for psycho pomp work.
A Dutch author, called Louis Janssen, wrote an excellent book on the topic: “Nicolaas, de duivel en de doden”. (Nicholas, the deceased and the devil). There is no English translation available but I recommend the book to any readers who speak Dutch and want to understand the deeper spiritual history of the Sinterklaas celebrations! (For the rare Dutch-speaking reader I also highly recommend the following website: www.abedeverteller.nl).
The English name Santa Claus actually evolved from the Dutch name Sinterklaas. Dutch immigrants continued their Sinterklaas celebrations in the US and Sinterklaas eventually became “Santa Claus”.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
IA: I am currently writing a handbook for rune magicians and a rune compendium (requested by my students).
I am also working on more picture books for children in series of books about The Green Bear. Every book aims to offer a new teaching or spiritual tool for young children, encouraging them to navigate the cosmos and keep their sense of magic alive.
I am currently teaching a course in Old Norse Astronomy, which has been very well-received, so I may do a follow-up series of webinars.
Our youngest son is starting university and leaving home, which will allow me to spend more time in Scandinavia. I am currently planning to teach more courses in my forest school, including sacred art retreats. One day I may even teach a course dedicated to being or becoming a Forest Witch!
The feedback I have received about my upcoming book (North Sea Water in My Veins) so far indicates that most people want a well-structured learning experience and connecting with other people who share the same cultural and ancestral background. As an author and teacher both, I know very well that reading a book does not, necessarily, translate into long-term learning and acting on what is absorbed (which is why all the chapters in all my books have chapter activities!)
For that reason I may consider teaching courses for groups interested exploring the indigenous and non-Christian spirituality of the Low Countries. And who knows, maybe one day there will be another book about what we (a larger group of people) collectively discover, especially when it comes to the deities in the directories in my book!
Biography: Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of Sacred Art and Seiðr/Old Norse Traditions (the ancestral wisdom teachings of Northern Europe). So far she has written four non-fiction books and two picture books for children. Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) in 2016, Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) in 2019, Medicine of the Imagination – Dwelling in Possibility (an impassioned plea for fearless imagination) in 2020 and North Sea Water In My Veins (The Pre-Christian spirituality of the Low Countries) will be published in June 2022.
The Green Bear is a series of picture book for children, aged 3 – 8 years. The stories and vibrant artwork, set in Scandinavia, invite children to explore enchanting parallel worlds and to keep their sense of magic alive as they grow up.
Imelda has presented her work on both The Shift Network and Sounds True. She appears in a TV program, titled Ice Age Shaman, made for the Smithsonian Museum, in the series Mystic Britain, talking about Mesolithic arctic deer shamanism.
Imelda is currently working on a handbook for rune magicians (about the runes of the Elder Futhark) and on more books in the Green Bear Series. Imelda runs an on-line school calledPregnant Hag Teachings, where all classes she teaches remain available as recordings which can be watched any time!
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pB5iiXMSrY
Online School: https://pregnant-hag-teachings.teachable.com/courses/