Bridges Between Worlds

Spirits and Spirit Work in Northern Iceland

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Corinne G. Dempsey
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


**see interview with the author of this book following the review**

Bridges between Worlds is an ethnography of mediums and the spirits that they work with in Akureyri, a small city of close to 20,000 inhabitants in northern Iceland. It is based on nearly a decade of research and three periods of fieldwork. Corinne G. Dempsey’s work is exceptional in its “attempt to steer close to Icelandic experiences and understandings” (11). This is a well-written, engaging, and rewarding book.

The focus is on anecdotes by and about mediums and spirits—with both sets of figures helpfully listed in a “Directory of Characters” (xvii–xx). Dempsey’s own presence as an observer, conversation partner, and participant is consistent throughout this book, reflecting her desire “to focus on people’s stories, stories told by those I meet, as well as stories of my own” (17). The core chapters discuss a fascinating range of issues dealing with mediums and their relations to spirits: “trance work,” “trance motivations,” “trance sensations,” and “trance training” (105, 110, 112, 120); the biographical trajectories that led mediums to “the gift of skyggnigáfa”—“an openness to the spirit world that can be experienced in a variety of ways” (75); “the question of responsibility and control” or “who is in charge?” which underlines the agency and the sometimes inscrutable agendas of the spirits (128, 144); “the paradox of trance ... in which spirits aiming to break loose from earthly attachments do so by connecting to the earth” (131–132); and various cases of healers and healing. Dempsey suggests—though only in passing— the interesting concept of “trance formations” to underline the plurality of forms of practice and experience that she encountered (174).

To set the context, this book also covers cultural and historical background: aspects of Icelandic culture; Christian, folk, and Spiritualist influences; important early mediums; tensions between belief and skepticism and between spiritual healing and conventional medicine—something less prominent today—“since the 1990s, skeptics and believers, pastors and practitioners, are less absolute than they were” (74); and feedback from Icelandic emigration to North America by linking to one of the book’s more interesting findings, “the surge of [North American] Indian spirits over the past two decades” (168). This context is important given that this European tradition of spirit work “bridges past and present, mixing old Icelandic and folk traditions, early twentieth-century Spiritualism and New Age influences” (19).

This book’s terminology and even organization reflect the advice of spirits (12, 30). In consultation with the people she studied, Dempsey settled on the termandleg mál” (“spiritual stuff” or “spirit work”) to describe her subject matter. The only existing comparable study used the term “Spiritualism,” a label that remains prominent in Iceland (William H. Swatos, Jr. and Loftur Gissurarson, Icelandic Spiritualism: Mediumship and Modernity in Iceland, Transaction Publishers, 1997). Dempsey herself called her subject “Icelandic Spiritualism” in an earlier book (Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth: Adventures in Comparative Religion, Oxford UP, 2012). This choice to reject “Spiritualism” in favor of “an informal term that people use when referring to spirit-related activities” (12) reflects the fact that the Icelandic “practices have strayed from the global movement” (45). Dempsey highlights several dimensions of this divergence (40–41, 45–47): the less institutionalized nature of early Spiritualism in Iceland; “ready acceptance of alternative healing methods such as reiki, reflexology, and cranial sacral therapy” (46); belief in reincarnation; and a lesser emphasis on waking mediumship and public readings.

This book is largely descriptive with very little explanatory or interpretive work: “This task of humanizing the unfamiliar is still not the same as explanation. I am emboldened—if not beholden—to stop short of explanation by practitioners who, as a matter of course, do the same” (10). Some readers would wish for explanation/interpretation, but the book is coherent, satisfying, and valuable on its own terms.

That said more focus on relations to Western esoteric traditions might have been rewarding. The few mentions of New Age beliefs and practices are largely confined to endnotes, with the relation limited to prima facie similarities. In her earlier book, Dempsey made Theosophy the basis of comparative work, insofar as it grounded “the intertwined roots of Neo-Vedanta and Icelandic Spiritualism” (Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth, 120); but here Theosophy is relegated to a single endnote which suggests that Icelandic “belief in reincarnation could partly be due” to its influence (193n50). There is no mention of Kardecist Spiritism, the distinct French tradition—for which reincarnation is basic doctrine—and which, having spread throughout Latin America, emphasizes healing and enters into a complex set of hybridizations with various esoteric traditions, including New Age sensu lato. Perhaps there is little to say here in terms of influence, but the question remains unasked and unanswered, and the comparison could have been useful at points. For example, Dempsey notes in passing that healing is more prominent among mediums working in the north than in the south of Iceland, and—in one of her rare explanatory moments—she cites a medium who “felt that the northern focus on healing was fueled by its surrounding lush landscapes whereas Reykjavík’s more traditional emphasis on delivering spirit messages had to do with the ‘energy’ of an urban setting” (3). This explanation rings hollow if we recognize that forms of Kardecist Spiritism vary in their emphasis on healing, but with no correlated urban-rural difference. Broader contextualization with respect to Western esoteric traditions could potentially have provided an even greater appreciation of andleg mál, without disrespect for its practitioners.


At the AAR annual meeting in Boston in November 2017, I had the opportunity to sit down with Corinne Dempsey, author of Bridges Between Worlds: Spirits and Spirit Work in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2017). Here is what she had to share about her work. –Lisa Haygood, Managing Editor

LH: How did you get interested in this area of inquiry?

CD: Most of my scholarly work has been done in India, looking at Christianity in Kerala and its relationship to Hinduism, and then more recently with a diaspora Hindu temple in upstate New York. Iceland was never on my radar. But I have a good friend from graduate school who is from Iceland. And in 2006, when she was visiting me in the United States, we joked about how I should come to Iceland and study Icelanders. This didn't sound very promising to me, frankly, because Icelanders tend to be Lutheran in name and don't really go to church. So it remained a joke for us until one day it struck her that I should come and talk to—as she put it—“the people who talk to dead people.” She told me about a community of people in her northern Icelandic town who claim to communicate with spirits, many of whom do healing work. This sounded more promising than non-church-going Lutherans but then again mediums were never really an interest of mine. I’d always suspected that people who claim to deliver messages from the dead were on some level  manipulative and, worse yet, preying on people's grief. But by then I was working on a comparative project that ended up as a book, Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth, and realized the Icelandic context would work well for one of its chapters. So I scheduled four months of my sabbatical in Akureyri, in northern Iceland, figuring that would be enough. But soon after I got there, I found this community of “people who talked to dead people” to be very genuine. They had day jobs mostly, and weren't making money off their work. I became fascinated with their worlds and their stories, and decided to return to do more research. This book is the result of that research.

LH:  How long did you spend in Iceland doing our fieldwork?

CD:  A total of about nine months. The first time was during my sabbatical in the fall and winter of 2009, and the following two trips were the summers of 2012 and 2015. 

LH: What was the most interesting thing you learned?

CD: It's broadened my worldview in some significant ways that have been humbling, and also fun. At first, when I would tell people that I'm writing about Icelanders who claim this capacity to engage with spirits, I mostly expected a kind of detached amusement. But what has been really surprising to me is that so many people— random people, friends, acquaintances, people I sit next to on planes—launch into stories about their own experiences with spirits. I don't claim to understand the mechanisms, but it seems to be part of the human experience, these perceptions of people who've passed on.

To a large extent, what has motivated me to write the book in the way it’s written has to do with my exchanges with Icelanders who have trusted me with things that are very deep and important to them. My hope is to normalize their stories by telling them within the context of their real life worlds and emotions, to work against the stereotype that people who claim to engage with spirits are necessarily mentally ill or manipulative. In fact, most of the people I spoke with adamantly did not want to have this ability and often described how they tried to ignore or get rid of it. Those who end up doing healing or trance work are usually those who find it impossible to shut down their perceptions so they deal with them by joining a community of support and by putting their “gifts” to good use.

LH: Do you have any plans to follow up on this research?

CD:  Yes. Right now I'm doing research that brings my work in Kerala, India and Iceland together, adding in northern California, where my mom lives. I’m interviewing older women about their spiritual upbringings and evolutions, asking them about memories that stick from childhood and what they now consider to be life’s most important lessons. The women are all over eighty years old. Icelandic women of this generation have, for the most part, grown up in incredible poverty—for example, tuberculosis was a major factor in their lives up through the 1970s—so that adds a particular angle to their stories. They also haven’t, for the most part, grown up with conventional religion. So rather than talking about God, they’re much more comfortable describing a sense of the sacred, something most of them find in nature in powerful and sometimes mystical ways. I imagine that the Hindu and Christian women I’ll interview in Kerala over winter break will see things more according to tradition. In northern California the women tend to be very unorthodox in their spirituality and are all over the map. The process of sitting with them and listening to their stories has been really been rich. It’s been an honor.

LH: Do any of the Icelandic women talk about spirits?

CD: Some do and some don’t. This is a good point to raise. One of my book chapters addresses this issue that, despite Iceland’s lively tradition of spirit work, many Icelanders find it questionable if not ridiculous. I would never want to, as my good friend puts it, “cutify” Iceland. The tourist industry and the international media do enough of this when they feature fairies and elves, it seems, at every turn.

But I do think that Iceland’s startling surroundings offer an important point of overlap. Given everyday life includes active volcanoes and geothermal energy that heats people’s homes, sporadic earthquakes and avalanches, and in-your-face mountains and northern lights, the terrain does have an impact. Out of the twenty elderly Icelandic women I interviewed, I think only one didn’t mention nature when describing her sense of the sacred. And when I was forever asking people—believers as well as doubters—why they thought spirit experiences loomed so large in Iceland today, all made some sort of reference to the terrain. Most mentioned the psychological impact of unwieldy terrain that inclines people toward the supernatural. Some felt the very alive land impacted people energetically, somehow opening them to further realms. Regardless, all agreed that the landscape, both terrifying and wondrous, is force to be reckoned with.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Corinne G. Dempsey is Professor of Religious Studies, Director of International and Global Studies, and Rose Marie Beston Chair for International Studies at Nazareth College. She is author of Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth: Adventures in Comparative Religion (OUP 2011), The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple (OUP 2005), and Kerala Christian Sainthood: Collisions of Culture and Worldview in South India (OUP 2001).


Corinne Dempsey

For further thoughts on the correlation between the sometimes unwieldy spirits of northern Iceland and their surrounding unwieldy landscape, see my OUP blog post:

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