History of Witchcraft in Norway
by Stein Jarving
The first Norwegian Coven was scarcely two years old, in 1992, with only ten members initiated in a basically Gardnerian tradition, the Whitecroft, when we were asked to host a gathering of European Covens; possibly in excess of 100 witches coming from 10 countries. We accepted with trepidation; neither of us had any prior experience in arranging large events, most of us lived far apart, we were relatively poor, had jobs and families to care for, and a gathering of witches was an awesome prospect for our tiny group. But we accepted the honour, determined to make it happen - the Norwegian way.
Previous gatherings I had been to had been held at beautiful, well-appointed venues, small chalets in the woods, with modern kitchens and hot showers. We decided that the Norwegian one, in a country where privacy is more easily come by, should emphasise experiencing the powers of nature, close up, in a setting where the elements would be most tangible in their presence. If only we had known how!
We selected for our venue a couple of tiny mountain farms, in a shallow valley with a lake, close by a cliffside, dropping 800 feet into a wide, deep fjord. There were fields and woods there, with some enclosed, very private glades in the forest below, were it slanted down towards the fjord. In the lake there was trout and beavers, in the woods moose were encountered daily. But the lodgings were run down farm buildings, basic really, with forty beds, only five showers for a hundred people, and as many toilets. It would be a test for that Craft spirit of closeness to nature, treading softly on Her skin, recycling and composting, sharing and walking with the woodland inhabitants. Oh yes, we had it all set up for the perfect event, naively trusting the weather to be perfect. And then it rained - and rained.
It was in my second year as an initiated witch when I first heard of others who possibly practised the Craft in Norway. True, Starhawk had been in Norway in the Seventies, and some groups of women had been inspired to work her tradition for a while. But they have either kept very much to themselves, or they had ceased practising after only a few years. It was the British witch Leonora, in fact, who told me another story. She had made contact with a Norwegian witch at a previous occasion, in the early Eighties, and some time later, during a visit to our capitol Oslo, they collected her at her Oslo hotel and drove her to a secret Sabbath in a private house. They were a group of quite elderly witches, carrying drinking horns in their cords, not connected to any known tradition of the Craft. She was sworn to secrecy about them, never given their true names or house addresses, and the old witches of Oslo were never heard of again, which is a great pity.
The kind of Craft known as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca came to Norway in 1989. It all started a couple of years before that, when two practising magicians, Berit and I, met and found that we were both on a quest to discover witchcraft. I had had a 'visitation' a year before, urging me to search for and serve the Moon Goddess. I knew but little of Moon magic, none at all about contemporary witchcraft, so I was set on a quest. Both of us believed that witches did exist, but possibly only as single traditional practitioners, hard to find and even harder to entice into teaching outsiders. We were certain that we would have to rediscover the Old Craft by themselves. Not long after, however, we found the first contemporary book: Loïs Bourne's Autobiography of a Witch, but this was not much of a help. Then we found, nearly in the same week, both Janet & Stewart Farrar's Eight Sabbaths for Witches and, by the way of British friends, Vivianne's book Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age. Then we knew we were certainly not alone.
Getting hold of these books alerted us of the fact that there were other people doing Craft in this day and age; much to our amazement and joy. And also, not only were they doing it, they were also initiating people who could claim neither a Traditional nor a Bloodline connection to the Craft - and they provided training.
Now two processes started simultaneously. Since Berit and I lived hours apart, by bus and aeroplane, we followed different routes to the next step. Berit gathered together a small, select group of women, and started to practice the Craft, as described by the Farrars and Vivianne. I, on the other hand, went deep into Moon rituals, while also starting a correspondence with Vivianne in London, having been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. I also, briefly, became a member of the Temple of Isis in Ireland, but my aim was mainly to become a Gardnerian initiate and receive the proper training.
That did not take too long: After a few visits to London, in the fall of 1989, being looked over and tested for suitability, I became the first Norwegian to get initiation into the Gardnerian line of the Craft, by the hand of Vivianne. And, when returning to Norway, I was asked by Berit and her group if I would serve as their HP, to which I happily agreed. Thus was the first Coven of modern witchcraft formed in Norway, a Coven still very active as the Mother Coven of the Craft in this country, Berit now being our first 3rd degree.
From then on Norwegian Wicca expanded, slowly but surely. In 1990, and again in 1991, Vivianne and Chris, and their Coven member Paul, came over from England to stay for a week, teaching, training and initiating others of us into the Craft, thus making the first Norwegian Coven into a proper initiated Coven. That same summer of 1990, some of us newly initiated were also introduced to the European Craft community, at PEWC in Germany, where witches from all over Europe met for a week of teaching, networking and ritual work. It was a glorious experience, doing circle in the dark German woods, with over a hundred experienced witches, under the full Moon. And meeting members of the still active Coven created by Gerald Gardner, telling us tales about 'The Old Days' of Wicca, in London of the Fifties.
The Norwegian PEWC
It was two years later, in the summer of 1992, that the Norwegian Coven had gathered enough strength and momentum to serve as host to a PEWC in Norway, and thus firmly getting established as a 'place of power' within the European Craft. Also, connections other than networking was afoot, as couples started to form between European and Norwegian witches, bringing highly experienced witches to Norway on a permanent basis, through handfasting. As half the Norwegian witches have by now formed couples, intermarriage seems to have become a tradition, quite befitting a religion venerating both the Goddess and the God.
The Norwegian PEWC was set for Lammas of 1992, and it fell to the host to arrange the main ritual of the event. As many of us by now had developed a natural interest in the Nordic pantheon, and the Vanir gods in particular, we naturally wanted a ritual of Nordic significance for such an event. As I had studied the history of the Vanir for my recent book, Volvehekser og Valkyrjer (see our contacts page for publication data), I took it on myself to write a Nerthus & Njord ritual for the occasion, possibly the first such ritual in many hundreds of years.
The ritual started when, out of the woods, a trumpet of the long, Norse variety sounded, and a varde, a calling fire, was lit on a hilltop nearby. To the sound of the trumpet, flanked by four women with torches, then came Nerthus and Njord out of the woods, to enter the magic circle and bless the land. It was a touching and powerful event.
As it was a Lammas ritual, I had Gullveig and Tarannis opening it. Then Freya took over, calling her parents to bless the produce of the fields. Then her brother, their son Frey, was sacrificed, the power of growth now waning, and the harvest would begin. To aid in the calling of the gods, Freya had the assistance of a chorus of four maidens, singing the old vardlokkur songs, trance songs, in a modern form.
Prior to the ritual, for three days, it had been raining, not much, but enough to make people quite wet and miserable, and the sky had been leaden with dark clouds all day. But during the ritual, amazingly, the sky cleared, it only took about half an hour from overcast to clear, and the sky was suddenly ablaze with stars, and with shooting stars everywhere! It was a cheerful night, with much drumming and wine. I am positive the drumming itself must have gotten the attention of old gods, had the ritual not.
And the next day we had the first glorious, hot summer day of the gathering - but on the day of departure, Thorr came for a visit, and lightning struck three times within the area! It was then we discovered that the group of people who had just arrived, to have a gathering here after we had left, were a Christian Bible society.
Another role taken on by the Norwegians, as we speak nearly the same language, was to help train and initiate budding witches in Sweden and Denmark. It came as a surprise to us that so few seemed to work Craft in the other Scandinavian countries as well. Both Sweden and Denmark used to have a lot of contact with the rest of Europe, and Denmark has always been the most radical of European countries, maybe sharing that honour with Holland. But even to this day, we have not yet located anyone there who were initiates in our tradition of the Craft, except for those we initiated ourselves. We knew that Starhawk had been visiting Scandinavia, but little remained of her inspiration, that we could find. In the last few years this too has changed, and both countries now have Covens, even if Denmark still is short of a High Priest.
For several years I also published a Pagan magazine, Gaia, but few of those who contacted me through this had had any prior experience with or particular interest in Wicca in any form, other than a certain curiosity. Part of the reason for this may be that, although all Norwegians learn English at school, not many enjoy reading books in English. And as we're a country of only four million people, no books on witchcraft have yet been published in Norwegian. Thus, the Craft revived by Gerald B. Gardner, and later popularised by Alex and Maxine Sanders and the Farrars, is known here only to a few, at least in its true form and up until recently.
Inspired by the gathering in Norway in 1992, and by the Pagan Federation in UK, we also decided to start a front organisation in 1992, calling it the Nordic Pagan Federation, with co-operation from pagans in Finland, Sweden and Denmark as well as Norway. This was partly in order to have a formal front for meeting with the media, partly a source of information about paganism in general, partly a membership organisation for people who were not yet ready for commitment to Wicca or Asatru beliefs. The other countries have since gone their own ways, and NPF is now mainly a Norwegian organisation. Yet we organise a Nordic gathering of pagans every second year, week long events of teaching and workshops, with emphasis on closeness to nature and healing craft. As most of the participants are Wiccans, the activity of these gatherings reflects this, with Nordic-enhanced Wiccan rituals, but we also include things like sweat-lodges, fire-walks and Asar-blot. The last one, held this year, was quite a success, with nearly 50 participants from northern Europe.
Pagan practices in Norway
Several Pagan practices have survived in Norway, from the ancient times and until this day, even though some have even been given a Christian context. Beginning with the Yule celebrations, in which many of the old practices, like serving a hot spiced alcoholic drink, setting out a serving of ale and porridge for the farm gnome, the Nisse, celebrating the tree as a symbol of plenty and several others, have been kept alive. And, of course, the Yule tree and the gift giving are also pagan in origin.
During the Easter holidays, a great skiing holiday in Norway, we celebrate the coming of spring with painted eggs, remnants of a rite for the Goddess Oestre, also an ancient practice.
May 1 is a public holiday in Norway, more for socialist reasons now, but is still considered a day for joy and freedom. It is often the very beginning of our spring, and it is a great joy to see the last of 6-8 months of cold, snow and darkness, this far north. With the coming of the spring, naturally, also a certain licentiousness arrives.
Midsummer, too, is a time for great celebration in Norway, set a few days later (the Christians moved the celebration to the day of St. Hans, June 24, called St. John in the UK). It is celebrated with great big bonfires, with parties everywhere, often at the lake- or seaside, and is a much preferred day for getting married.
One particular practice of this celebration, more so in Sweden than in Norway, is the Maypole. Now, many people believe that a Maypoleshould be particular to the month of May, but that is not so. To 'Maje'is a verb, meaning to 'makepretty', or to sweep. A Maypole, for those who don't know, is a tall birch sapling, only the smaller leafy branches in the very top remaining, having been cut down the same day by a group of men, traditionally accompanied by a virgin. Meanwhile, a group of women would make a circle, about a few feet across, out of stripped saplings, woven with flowers and ribbons. The two would then be ritually 'mated', and the flower circle fastened, about 2/3 of the way up the birch. Then the birch would be planted firmly in the ground, and later young men and women would dance around the pole, weaving the ribbons around the birch tree. That this is an ancient rite of fertility and pair-bonding may have eluded many modern people, pagan it certainly is.
We have several more physically obvious pagan remains, of course, like stone circles, standing stones and rock mazes, called Troja-borgs, or Troytowns. Some of these remains are specifically Asar, others must have been shared with Vanir and Asar alike, it is often hard to tell. One phallic rock solidly planted on a promontory in southern Norway, said to have been there for 3000 years, is called the Vanir, and is claimed to be a menhir for the Vanir god Njord, venerated by sailors and fishermen up until this day and age.
Norwegian Wiccans of today often borrow extensively from ancient practices, but use it mostly in a basically Wiccan format, as none of our own old rituals have survived in any detail. Also, being modern people, many of us live in cities, were our craft must be adapted to fit our current reality, more than historical tales. And, the climate being as it is, we can only do so many rituals out of doors, when it is not deep snow, freezing cold or pouring down with rain. Which means, basically, that we may work outside from Beltaine until Autumn Equinox, with maybe the odd winter ritual under a starlit sky, heavily dressed against the cold. Our ancestors certainly did not take any such considerations, when seeking the aid or blessing from their gods, but then they were also, I would suppose, more used to braving the elements, in their daily survival.
Some of the changes we have tried to implement in our practice of Wicca are simple, practical ones, like replacing wine with mead and cakes with bread. Others are more like attempts to bring the Wheel of the Year more into accordance with our climate. As most of Norway is covered with deep snow and held in the grip of ice cold until Imbolc or Spring Equinox, Beltaine is the very beginning of the seeding and planting season here, and Lammas the very beginning of the harvest season. So we write our rituals to reflect this, rather than trying to conform to a mostly Welsh Celtic tradition. But there is no urge to change our Craft, just for the reason of changing: We do indeed respect and cherish the tradition into which we have been initiated. And this is the beauty of Wicca, that there are no set dogmas, other than the Wiccan Rede, and no 'Bible' or 'High Pontiff' to which authority we have to bough down and grovel. Wicca is a religion for people free in spirit and eager in mind.
Some people have asked, both from inside as well as outside of Wicca, why we have accepted a religious tradition brought to us from Great Britain, a religion with an emphasis on the Goddess, yet revived in our times by a man, and a religion which has a strong focus on Celtic and Greek myths and gods, rather than our Scandinavian ones. One answer to this is that it may be as relevant to ask why most of the other Norwegians have accepted a religious tradition brought to us from Palestine, in which no Goddess is venerated, and with a focus on Hebrew myths and a basically Roman state religion.
The important answer is, of course, that we come to our religions by a calling from inside, because that which a religion contains respond to our own deep needs and beliefs. Contrary to most men who have rediscovered or created religions, Gerald B. Gardner did not set himself up as the sole Prophet or High Pontiff of Wicca; he brought to us a belief based on love, trust and freedom from dogma, where each Coven could become independent and each practitioner her or his own priest(ess), in direct communion with the gods. And where each and all witches can still remain within the larger community of The Craft, even if the various traditions are proud of their differences.
Even traditional Sami shamans have come to Wicca in Norway, and found common ground with their own beliefs and practices. For the Gods may have many names and many aspects, but deep down the powers of the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, the Sea and the Woods are basically the same, and in the healing of what ails mankind and the land, we all work for the same aims: Physical and spiritual wholeness and a universal community of love, happiness, peace and understanding.
written by Stein Jarving, January 1999
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