Monday, 1 March 2010

Island Worship

Upernavik reminds me of another island, which I lived on a decade ago, Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Lindisfarne was one of the earliest Christian communities in Britain, famous for its sanctity and the production of exquisite devotional objects such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and mead. It could not have been more unholy while I was there, but all islands draw lost souls eventually. I was working as a barmaid - perhaps had I been polishing the church brass I would have seen life from a better angle.

Upernavik has nothing like Lindisfarne's claims to sanctity - quite the opposite. I read in the history books that it was the last place in Greenland where the population could be persuaded into baptism. The last heathen soul was saved in 1864, and even afterwards, it is recorded that Christianity was pursued in a desultory manner while belief in the shaman and pantheistic spirits persisted. Finally, the catechist tried to exert his authority by burning all the drums on the island, as these were used in shamanic trances to summon spirits.

The relationship between the fifth-century Brendan, abbot of Clonfert in Galway, and the church in Rome was not quite so critical. Nevertheless, faced with pressure to bring his spiritual practice into line with Christian orthodoxy, Brendan rowed off into the "desert of the ocean" in a wicker carraugh to find a freer contemplative space. An epic account of his seven-year journey exists, an ecstatic work describing incredible spiritual and natural wonders. Brendan was a beguiling traveller who appeared to lack any sense of fear in the Arctic waters. When he encountered an iceberg so huge that it could been seen for three days before he reached it, he decided to row though a tiny hole in it, which in the evening light appeared to be "like the eye of God."

Strangely, even with these two noble religious traditions before me on the island, it is not shamanism or Christianity I turn to in order to make sense of this small place on the edge of the physical world. I'm impelled by the brightness and closeness of the constellations to reread the Greek myths. I find particular resonance in the figure of blind Orion, who appears in November, the season of pomegranates and sea storms, the hunter who walks on water. But that's another story...

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