Searching for the good spirits of Europe

Cederberg, Aki: PYHÄ EUROOPPA

Release year: 2020
Publisher: Basam Books

I know, I know: I’m woefully late to the party – or lamentably early, depending on how you look at things. Aki Cederberg‘s Pyhä Eurooppa (Holy Europe) was released already in 2020, and has been reviewed and discussed at length already, in Finnish at least, and has gone through three Finnish editions. But the English translation is still in the works and, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t even have a release date yet.

But, even so, my two cents.

Pyhä Eurooppa is a book that is difficult to accurately describe or pin down. Partly, it is a travelogue – perhaps inspired by the classic travelogues of the Romantic era mentioned in the book. Partly, it is a book describing the pagan traditions and sites in Europe. Partly, it is a semi-autobiographical, philosophical book on the role and nature of European traditional religions and spiritual beliefs in the modern age. But above all, it is a call for people to awaken from the dreamless sleep we have fallen into: an invitation to rediscover our roots, our ancestral spiritual heritage and ourselves, as individuals, as peoples, as communities and as a continent. A call to rediscover Holy Europa.

On the surface, the book describes Cederberg’s travels – I suppose you could as well call them pilgrimages – to various holy sites of pre-christian religions (as well as heretical and gnostic sects of christianity such as sites related to the legends of the Holy Grail). Through the nordic countries, through the Baltic, through Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Cederberg travels and documents the remnants of European spiritual traditions, some living and some dead.

But each chapter is much more than that, too. In describing the locations he visits, the still-practiced ceremonies and rituals he takes part in, the traditions they are linked to and the people past and present behind them, he seeks out that eternal continuity, which echoes from the past into our day. The book describes a quest to find the good spirits of Europe, not as relics but as something still alive and, where dead, as something that can again be awoken: that they still have relevance and a role in this day and age.

By visiting 19th and 20th century buildings intended to serve as both temples of the European spirit and buildings of modern functionality, Cederberg describes how the traditions have been adapted in more modern times, and how they can continuously take on a new form, relevant to each age, when championed by people with a heroic attitude and unyielding will. Of course, not all of us can build or commision vast villas or elaborate mansions: especially through intimate descriptions of his personal life and how he himself applies ancient tradition, Cederberg illustrates how these can be a guiding principle in everyone’s own life regardless of material means or immediate surroundings.

The Algiz rune, recurring frequently in the book

One of the core ideas put forth by the book is basically as simple as it is against the spirit of the modern age: that much of what is wrong with our society and our world today is because people have become so detached from their traditional ways and spiritual ancestry; that we live in an age of dissolution because we have lost our connection to the eternal tradition (or should it be Tradition with a capital T in the Evolian sense?). Cederberg openly challenges the materialist worldview based on ever-increasing consumerism, and calls for a conscious return to a mythopoetic, traditionalist view of the world, where we can actively see the ancestral forces at work in our day-to-day lives, and through them find a quintessential connection to our environs.

The book does not demand a literal interpretation of ancient myths; that what is written in the Edda or the Kalevala or Greek myths should necessarily be taken as a literal truth – as a belief in that once the world was populated by Marvel-like superheroes and mutants – but a more abstract representation of inner principles, a genuine connection to the past in the form of an eternal present, and as a fundamental connection to the universe around us. The book does not try to tell the reader what is the correct form of implementing traditional European spirituality, but does stress the importance of finding this lost connection. As such, the book contains no tutorials, keys or easy instant solutions.

The book argues that if people feel they have lost the connection to their ancestors and their ways, they feel no connection to the world. And certainly, rootlessness, feelings of not belonging, of being lost in a world perceived as alien and/or hostile, are very real among people today. Cederberg argues quite rightly that if people don’t feel like they belong, then it is very hard to take responsibility, to care about and care for our surroundings, our environment, the people around us – our planet. Though Cederberg speaks in terms of Europe, European traditions and European cultures, there is much that can be extrapolated beyond that: the argument that knowing the traditions of one’s community and people, of partaking in them and thus joining in on a long, cross-generational unity, and finding a sense of belonging and a role in the world, is universal.

It is true that in its dismissal of the modern world, the book sometimes turns to turns of phrase and expressions that can lend themselves to controversial, potentially problematic interpretations. It speaks negatively of multiculturalism, questions how Icelandic Ásatrú can combine “modern concepts” such as feminism and tolerance with ancient traditions, and unashamedly speaks of the local, ethnic nature of European traditions. Some of the expressions used bear more than a passing similarity to those used in odious far-right rhetorics. It is of course up to the reader to decide how much to read into this, and I did personally find some of the turns of phrase somewhat distasteful, but it is hard to find any extremist agenda in the book without taking things out of context, as it also quite explicitly condemns the harnessing of pagan traditions and symbolism for extremist ideologies.

In a nutshell, Cederberg suggests that it is the local, ethnic if you will, nature of the European traditions that makes them so potent – for Europeans. In other words, that as members of the nations, peoples, societies and communities from where these traditions have sprung, we have a particular affinity to them that is inherently local. These traditions, he writes, embody eternal and universal truths, but take a unique symbolic and mythical form representing the unique aspects of the regions, communities and peoples they have evolved in. He argues that their locality is one of their essential strengths, and forcibly transforming them into something universal robs them of this potency.

However, my interpretation is that Cederberg also wishes to say that in embracing the differences between traditions, in accepting that a local tradition can be exclusive and have a meaning locally, for a certain people, whilst another tradition has for different people, we can find a key to understanding and co-operation, not only within Europe but on a larger scale. He describes how certain Baltic and Indian groups share a fond camaraderie: in accepting their differences, they see the similarities – and are able to act together in harmony.

It is of course true that European cultural and spiritual evolution and traditions cannot be isolated from a greater context, for example drawing influence from the cultures in the ancient mediterranean and beyond long before the advent of christianity. It is also equally true that European traditions have evolved into something distinctly European – interlinked and intertwined with each other, the ancient traditions of Europe have considerable similarities with each other, a distinctive European characteristic to them (this is not a qualitative statement, even if some would like to see it as one). As such, it would be futile to summarily deny the arguments of locality put forth by the book even if some of the phrases used feel objectionable.

Irminsul: world pillar or even the world tree?

Cederberg raises two principles as the highest truth in the book: love and beauty. It is through these that the book’s message is to be understood, as a love-filled message for the reader to rediscover his or her ancestral traditions, and a way to make them relevant in this materialistic age where especially Europe seems to be pathologically ashamed of its traditions and heritage – as if centuries of European hubris have, in mere decades, turned to shame and disdain of equal intensity, with poisonous results. We have turned the dagger we pointed at others for so long towards our own heart.

Pyhä Eurooppa implores us to live our life according to heroic standards, and throw off the yoke of ideologies, dogmas and doctrines which try to make everyone into the same gray mass under a singular world-truth where the only identity we have is through consumerism, materialism and conforming to what market-ruling authorities dictate. The book encourages us to find our own personal connection to the beliefs, traditions and ways of our ancestors, and in them, a way to survive the axe age we live in, and carry our unique, European spirit beyond the abyss looming before us.

But it’s not just an apocalyptic vision of downfall, dissolution and surviving it. The core of the book is not fatalist or pessimist. Pyhä Eurooppa speaks of the beauty and humble nobility in our ancestral, pre-christian traditions; of the inspiration, solace and inner truth to be found in them, and how our traditions not only connect us to our past as one link in an eternal chain, but how their power remains potent today. The book speaks of returning to a mythopoetic way to experience the world, where we do not summarily and absolutely dismiss instinctual, seemingly non-rational and non-objective experiences and interpretations, but allow our inner world to actualize itself more freely. The book tells us that the good spirits of Holy Europa are still out there, waiting for us to rediscover them.

The book itself, even the paperback edition, is a beautiful artifact. With big, heavy pages and plenty of full-color photos, it is a joy to read and keep on display. Cederberg’s writing is direct and unconvoluted, but has a strong poetic and romantic flair to it: it wishes to transcend the mundane, and imbue the pages with something ethereal, otherworldly.

It is true that there is a lot of repetition in the book – seems like on every other page, Cederberg and his friends are raising cups, horns or chalices, or sacrifice drink to this or that tree or stone, and are singing holy songs or reciting holy verses in some holy place or other. It’s not so much annoying as slightly comical, but I suppose it also highlights one of the important notions that the book itself mentions only in passing: that living according to the traditions need not be something complex, esoteric and obscure. The best truths can be simple, and an outward act of respecting the traditions can be something as simple as a sacrifice of wine, mead or beer – as long as it is done with the right spirit.

The book’s juxtaposition of a traditional, traditionalist worldview and the modern world feels a bit deliberately exaggerated at times, and Cederberg’s few longer tirades against the curses of modernism risk being counterproductive, and may well alienate some readers. However, when viewed against the larger context of the book, even if one objects to either their form or content, their role is relatively negligible. The focus is on the beauty of tradition, not the ugliness of modernism.

My only real complaint with this paperback edition is that virtually all of the photos have vertical lines of slight discoloration, as if they had been printed with an inkjet printer starting to run out of some color. This is more visible in some photos than others, but upon closer inspection it does appear in most if not all of them. It does not ruin the book or the beautiful pictures, but it is disappointing. Hopefully future editions of the book will not have this flaw. The book could also benefit from an index of the most important terms, if one were to look up what Cederberg writes about this or that in the book, as he frequently returns to discuss things or concepts already mentioned, but this is just wishful thinking, not criticism.

Pyhä Eurooppa is a remarkable book, one that touches and finds a connection within. It’s not a book that makes the reader throw his or her hands in the air and proclaim “Hallelujah, I have seen the light” – it doesn’t aspire to that – but will almost inevitably raise thoughts. It speaks with authority and passion of the potency of ancient European traditions, but does not deign to instruct the reader on how to correctly interpret the concepts, traditions and phenomena described in the book; it is an encouragement to seek and discover, not a manual.

Hopefully the English translation will be released sooner than later. Pyhä Eurooppa is an essential read for anyone interested in European spiritual traditions, pre-christian religions and in general the spiritual landscape of Europa. Whilst not providing any answers, the book does offer much inspiration to what spiritual traditionalism could be in this day and age

Summary: A thoroughly significant text on what traditional spiritualism can and should be in today’s Europe.

Väinämöinen: one of the main heroes of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala.

Visit Aki Cederberg’s official website or Facebook

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