I remember, it was snowing, I stood under a streetlamp, head tilted back, looking up into the snow falling from the darkness above, tiny specks of snow, little dots, flakes like stars, falling – yet I felt I was climbing, lifted, drawn through these star-flakes, as though caught up and carried into another world, another place.
Before I was born my parents moved to the North of Norway, to Finnmark, where I and my brothers grew up. As you approach Finnmark, Norway’s rugged landscape flattens out into a vast arctic plateau, and as you go further East, there are no trees, no boundaries, nothing but an endless expanse that stretches in all directions, slipping seamlessly out and over into the sea.
From ancient times this has been the land of the Sami, a territory that stretched across the far North of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula. They lived from the land, herding reindeer, hunting and fishing. To this day three languages are spoken in Tana: Samisk, Norwegian and Finnish.
On the winter solstice, December the 21st, the sun turns. This is the darkest day of the year. In Finnmark, North of the Arctic Circle, the sun will already have disappeared on November the 21st, and will not return until late January.
The light vanishes and darkness rules. When Jesus is dying and calls out from the cross My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? the world goes dark. In Norse mythology, the sun is devoured by Fenris, the wolf. Then too, the sun dies. In Sami folklore, the winter solstice is the most dangerous time of the year. We know this from their stories, words and images spawned from the imagination, the landscape, the sky, and the people, set down only in drawings on the ritual drums used by the Noiades, the Sami shamans. These pictures tell us of the Sami cosmos, with its three realms, the upper and middle world and the underworld – inhabited by the dead. And each world is ordered in the same way, and they are interconnected, reaching into one another.
The northern lights can reach down from the sky and grab us, or so the other children, the Sami children, told me. In the summer the playground was a barren stretch of gravel with a sandpit and some swings, stunted birch trees in the corner, moss and heather. But in the winter it turned into a white expanse, an open field – and there, up high, when it was cold and clear, were the Northern Lights. They rolled and shifted across the dark sky, and the Sami children – the children whose families had lived there for generations – said we mustn’t shout or whistle or wave. We mustn’t challenge the Northern Lights, for they are the dead who dance across the sky. If we offended them they’d steal us away, they said, and we would never come back.
In Sami folklore the dead are not separate from the living. The darkness is not separate from the light. They are intertwined. Multiple threads and branches, openings and paths connect them, allowing passage from one to the other.
But it is the winter solstice that brings the most fear. The light is gone. The light is no longer a reliable mother on whom we can depend – who will protect us. There is no protection. Darkness has taken over. All we can turn to now is an inner, inverted light.
In these dark times when the sun disappears, rituals are necessary to maintain order. Instead of the light from without, the people themselves must find the will and determination to create and sustain an inner light. In the darkness magic is let loose, unruly and ambiguous forces set free. Each ritual must be performed with precision, if not, who can tell what dreadful things may happen. Rituals offer protection, but also a way to rein in the power, to make it manageable and thereby gain access to it, turning it to our own use, so as not to be conquered by it, crushed or destroyed.
As children we too create magic rituals. I remember sitting in the backseat of the white Vauxhall station wagon, my two brothers beside me, Mum in front, Dad beside her, driving, and Tanja, our English Setter, on my lap – that mass of hot breath and pumping blood, that would run ahead of my father, zigzagging through the heather across the plateau when they went on their autumn hunting trips – from which she’d return scraggy and tired – but she’d soon fill out again and grow soft and round, and the winter would come, and the snow fall, and she’d lie on my lap in the backseat of the car, mile after mile of snow, bare trees, no houses, no people, just the white snow and grey sky. Where did we go? I don’t remember. Just that I’d sit there, gazing out at the banks of snow, at the snow poles, warning markers for the snowplows, topped with reflective paint like ribbons of silver, and I remember that I had this obsession – every time we came to a pole I’d secretly lift my toes to let it pass under my feet, and then hold it there, finally lifting my heals to let it slip out behind me, when we’d driven past. This was something I had to do. I could collect a few poles at a time, but not too many, and I’d finally have to let them all go, and release them behind me. If I didn’t, someone would be tortured. It was vital I perform this ritual. And I mustn’t slack – I had to do it properly. It was my duty, my responsibility – if I failed someone would suffer, perhaps die, and it would be my fault.
So it was, with the Sami rituals of those dark days – they had to be performed with absolute precision, for fear of catastrophe.
I would have liked to know more. Sami folklore was never written down, and concrete examples are hard to come by. The important thing for us to understand, I think, is how strong these powers were. The fear was real. Danger was not some distant story in a dusty book. The Northern Lights could steal you away. If a raven tapped on your window, it was a warning that death would visit the house within the year. The danger was a reality. And perhaps the fact that this folklore was only ever passed from person to person, made it closer to everyday existence, to the real experience of fear and the quest for a solution.
Christmas has long been the important celebration for the Samis. The Sami writer Johan Turi, tells us in his book about the Sami in 1910, that the dead were believed to visit at Christmas, and it was then that shamans were initiated. Those who were well prepared and ready, could receive spiritual powers and become Noaidi. Christmas, along with the Winter Solstice, is a turning point, a time when the channels between realms open up, and worlds meet.
Samisk legend has it that one Christmas night a serving girl is chased by Stallo, the terrible man-eating ogre. She is driving a reindeer sledge, hurtling across the snowy plains. But the ogre comes after her. And she is at most risk, most vulnerable, where the moon’s position in the sky causes it to meet with a branch or twig on a tree, as she passes under it. Here the sky meets the earth, creating an opening by which Stallo can reach down and grab hold of her. But this time Stallo is beaten – the serving girl wears three hats, on top of one another, each tied under her chin, and whenever she sees the branches of a tree touch the moon, she loosens a hat, so that when Stallo tries to catch her, all he gets is a hat in his hands, while the girl speeds on.
But evil is not exclusively evil, the dark not exclusively dark. In Norse mythology Fenris the wolf may bring death and destruction when he devours the sun, but the sun will be reborn, the sun will have a daughter, and then the darkness of the winter solstice brings quiet, introspection, and nourishment, and cradled in that darkness the infant sun can swell and grow.
Carl Jung describes the sun’s bright light as being too harsh for fragile things to grow in, sometimes it is the moonlight – that indirect, reflected light – that we need spiritually. Before I wrote my last novel I knew only one thing: that it must take place on a terrace, somewhere on the warm Mediterranean coast. This terrace would overlook the sea in the late evening, but the light that shone on the water would not be the sharp steely sun of the day, but the soft and murmuring moonlight. For a long time that was the only image in my mind – the light on the dark water, a shimmering, bobbing light. It was a novel about the healing of a deep sorrow – a healing that could only take place in the gentle light of the moon. But I hadn’t known that until I began to write.
With the winter solstice we must enter the dark. We have no choice. The darkest night closes in, and then, somehow or other, we expect, we have faith that the light will return.
And while we wait, while the sun is absent, another unworldly, inverted, indirect light fills the sky from below. The Finnmark sky in the winter is drenched in luminous colour. The clearest and deepest purples and blues – red and orange and pink. The earth may be barren and white, but the sky is alive, sparkling and burning in the icy air. And with the ground so flat beneath it, the sky seems vast above. I lived in Finnmark until I was sixteen, then we moved to Oslo, to the capital city of Norway, nearly a thousand miles away. But these winter skies still live in me, their impact so strong, it was as if these skies were lit from below and from within, with a beauty so intense that it reached right into me, into this girl who aged eleven, twelve, thirteen, stood in that warm kitchen while outside it was viciously cold, and looked out over the broad Tana Valley. There was something about the light I saw out of that window, which filled me with a strength and power which I still feel and draw on. As if the light were a gift, a baptism, a promise I carry with me still.
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