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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

Fire & Ice, Drifting Continents and the Problem of Greed

September 6th, 2017

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

6 Responses to “Fire & Ice, Drifting Continents and the Problem of Greed”

  1. Feelings running after reading this piece. Sorrow & sadness at what is happening to the area, anger at big business & tourist exploitation. Moved to awe by the paintings & sculptures. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I have friends who have been there & they say it is a beautiful place. Thanks for sharing the experiences that you & Stephanie had there.

  2. What a privilege to meet those incredible people, to appreciate the land and skies and spiritual ambiance of the area. The older I become, the more I appreciate the planet and her tasks which are becoming more and more a struggle. It is no wonder we are experiencing, albeit regular weather systems at this time of the year, surges which are are more violent than ever. If I were able to view that exquisite green curtain, I would dance with her. If we are to trust our future here, we must speak, sing and dance with Nature as a matter of a course in our daily lives. Live, move, speak from the right hemisphere. Blessings and Love, Margaret.

  3. It is important to see beyond the gloom and doom. This planet of the Fae, Faeries and the Sidhe is alive. She fights on balancing the imbalances we humans create.
    But we are not the first race to live here in this beautiful and forever inspiring Earth. Nor we will be the last if we keep ignoring our very necessary relationship with the planet.
    She can heal humanity and guide us out of this apocalypses we are creating with our own hands.
    There is hope but it is up to us.

  4. I sent some characters to Iceland in one of my books, and due to researching for that, I’ve wanted to go there myself ever since. Thanks for your impressions, Phillip. As to greed, sometimes i think some people have a part missing in their brain: The part that sees beauty and worth in things other than money. I hope it’s is that. I’d hate to think that they see beauty and worth and still choose to destroy it.

  5. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for twenty years but there has always been something about it that unnerves me. Your post has helped me to identify these unsettling yet exciting aspects of this interesting country. I hope to get there soon! Thank you for this lovely post.

  6. I’m reading a novel set in Iceland at the moment. (Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). A very hard life for those who farmed there back in the day. I didn’t know about the exploitative tourism and was sad to read of it. But I loved the sculptures you show and enjoyed this blog very much.

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