The unusual hat of the King of Atlantis – from a sculpture by Einar Jonsson
Stephanie and I have just left Iceland, having spent four days there. I gave a talk at the Theosophical Society in Reykjavik, and we took the opportunity to explore the city and countryside.
America and Europe slide apart, a sense of impermanence takes hold, and the alchemical opposition of fire and ice hints at the potential for transformation in this land of volcanic rubble, glowering skies and very expensive everything.
There are only 350,000 souls on this island that sits atop two tectonic plates, the American and Eurasian, moving a few millimetres a year away from each other, and I made the mistake of reading an article on the plane entitled ‘Volcanic Apocalypse Now – the ever present risk of death’. In 1789 a volcanic eruption on the island killed 25% of the population, and apparently at any moment ‘it is an inevitability that a similar event will occur.’ Oh great! But it does force you to adopt an Eckhart Tolle-like focus on the Now. One of the reasons we are in a mess is because we cling to the illusion of permanence, so to be reminded that in reality we are only here by ‘the grace of the gods’ is perhaps good for the soul. A visit to a hospital can have the same effect: sad but salutary – tempering any sense of omnipotent invulnerability that might be lurking in the ego.
But as well as that part-scarey, part-exhilirating frisson of danger that accompanies a visit if you know the facts, there is something else going on. Spiritual teachings throughout the ages have talked about the power of bringing opposites together. Daoism, Tantra, and Alchemy all encourage a contemplation of opposing forces, and here in Iceland fire and ice live perilously side by side. No wonder a belief in Otherworldy beings is so prevalent. An OBOD member from the US happened to be in town at the same time, and when we met at the Theosophical Society he explained that he and his wife had just come from a seminar on Elves. The country’s most renowned landscape painter, Johannes Kjarval, peoples his images with hints of faces and figures of Otherworldly beings. See how many you can spot in his pictures here:
The. Work of Johannes Kjarval
Everyone, it seems, was a Theosophist or a Mason (a massive lodge is in the centre of the city) and beside the beautiful Hallgrimskirkja church, home to a font carved from a single huge crystal, stands the home and studio, and now museum, of Theosophist sculptor Einar Jonsson whose work is shot through with esoteric symbolism, unsettling resonances with Fascist art and the sentimentality of Victorian funerary sculpture, but also a powerful sense of life and death and the sheer force of the elements. Look at his ‘Earth’ sculpture for instance:
‘Earth’ by Einar Jonsson
And since you’ve seen the splendid mane and pyramid crown of the King of Atlantis, here he is viewed from the front:
Einar Jonsson’s ‘King of Atlantis’
Iceland is unique – strangely stirring, even unsettling. The ‘Hermit Island’, as it’s been called, almost seems to mock its latest source of income – the stopover tourists who fill the sightseeing buses and the bars and restaurants of downtown Reykjavik. Everyone we spoke to told the same story: the situation is unsustainable. It’s a once in a lifetime destination. The majority of visitors will never return, because the tourists are being fleeced with meals at £100 and a two hour trip to see whales or puffins £100 too. The shadow cast by Airbnb means blocks of apartments are built, not to house citizens, but to rent out on Airbnb, while the contingent of many thousands of mainly Polish workers who service the ‘hospitality’ industry are forced to pay sky-high rents or even sleep in tents.
But when you live in a land so volatile, when the reality of impermanence is so present, why not take advantage of whatever comes your way? So runs the thinking, no doubt, of the few fat cats who are milking the situation, but everyone knows it’s wrong. Psychology departments around the world should be prioritising research into the question we most urgently need to solve: Why are humans so greedy? Why does wealth, generally, breed the desire for more wealth rather than the desire to be a force for good in the world?
Despite the exploitation, though, there is a beauty here in this land, and an extraordinary history. In the darkness of its nights the Northern Lights can be seen, and rather like this single block of polished crystal in the Hallgrimskirkja, this place is hard and yet strangely transparent. The ancestors gather… and the time I felt most in tune with the audience during my talk, was when I spoke of Samhain, and how as Druids we honour the Departed.
The. Crystal font in Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland