Bridges Between Worlds

Spirits and Spirit Work in Northern Iceland

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Corinne G. Dempsey
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2016.
     256 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190625030.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

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.

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 Associate 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).

Comments

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: https://blog.oup.com/2017/02/iceland-unruly-terrain-spirits/

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