My visit to the land of the midnight sun was during early autumn, so that night was slowly creeping back into ascendancy over day. I was far north of the Arctic Circle at Alta in Norway, one of the finest rock-carving sites in the world. The images there date from all periods of prehistory but I went to see those carved during the Bronze Age, when the ancient precursors of the indigenous Sámi people left signs of their shamanic beliefs etched into the rock.
As I walked down to the shoreline rocks, where most images occur, I was struck at how appropriate it is that the designs occur on the boundary between land and sea. For many shamanic people, water provides the gateway to another reality – the otherworld. To cross to the otherworld, shamans first put themselves in trance but Bronze Age people probably recognised the rocks on the shore at Alta as a location where the two realities came together; even a place where transition between them was possible. The rapid lowering of sea levels in this region during the Bronze Age – and the resulting exposure of much new ground – probably heightened the belief that the shore provided access to different realms.
At first, the images I saw at Alta were of domestic scenes: hunting elk, corralling reindeer, and catching fish. A predatory bear also put in the odd appearance and one panel showed a hunt at its lair. In among these images, however, were others that seemed to denote magical practices and I was quickly reminded that the people who created the carvings did not separate ritual and domestic life as we do. Hunting a bear was both sacred and profane. This became particularly pertinent when I viewed the many images of boats. People were using some in ordinary fishing expeditions, or as platforms for hunting, whereas others seemed to have a very different role altogether. Just as the boatman Charon ferried the dead to the afterlife in Greek myth, so shamans utilise spirit boats to reach the otherworld. Of the images of boats on the rocks at Alta, the most curious were those depicted upside-down.
Shamans often report that the otherworld is a mirror image of this world, so that objects that are upside-down in this world are the right way up in the otherworld. The upside-down boats at Alta may have been travelling between the worlds.
At other sites in Scandinavia, people not only carved upside-down boats but also took advantage of the natural surface of the rock to make it appear as if the boats passed through its membrane and into a world on the other side. People also positioned the boat images so that the rising and setting sun fleetingly illuminated particular vessels before plunging them back into gloom. It seems that people deliberately emphasised the transient, ephemeral quality of the boats, possibly mirroring their journey into the otherworld.
Back at Alta, picking my way even closer to the shore, I noticed that a number of boats contained figures that were dancing or drumming. I knew that Sámi shamans listened to the repetitive beat of the drum to enter trance (and so journey to the otherworld) but the dancing required a different explanation. Further south, in Denmark, bronze razors carry designs etched onto their surfaces showing large mushrooms carried in boats. A close look at these images reveals that the mushrooms are fly agaric, the archetypal red-and-white toadstools that grow in the birch woods of the region. The mushrooms provoke trance states when eaten and a person can heighten this if they are prepared to drink their urine afterwards. Historical studies show that shamans in the region readily did this in order to fuel their journeys to the otherworld. Interestingly, one of the symptoms of ingesting fly agaric is excessive movement. Perhaps this explains why people in the boats at Alta appeared to be dancing; they were allowing the drug they had taken to course through their bodies.
Like ancient Greeks, the people who engraved the rocks believed that boats not only transported shamans to the otherworld but also the dead to the afterlife. During earlier periods, people buried their dead in coffins fashioned from hollowed out oak trees. Since they made boats in exactly the same way, people effectively buried their dead in boats; a fitting symbol given their beliefs. Even after coffins fell out of use, people surrounded graves with stones mimicking the keel of a boat. Some burial cairns even have images of boats beneath or around them and many of these boats contain no crew, as if the vessel were for the sole (and soul) use of the occupant.
Many burial cairns overlook the sea, as if people expected the dead to rise from their graves and head towards the water in their journey to the afterlife. In fact, sometimes people gave them a helpful steer by engraving footprints between cairn and sea that pointed in the right direction. These often cross a line of boat carvings, as if the wandering soul picked up its transport on its way to the shore.
Some of the figures in the boats I saw at Alta had drums and these individuals may have been shamans. I thought of the classic image of Siberian shamans, and, indeed, of the Sámi shamans, beating their drums and journeying to the otherworld. Intriguingly, Sámi shamans sometimes refer to their drums as boats, vessels that carry them to other realms; an echo, perhaps, of the Bronze Age beliefs that are evident on the rocks.
Sámi drums contain images on the surface of their skins, painted in red alder sap, which represent a map of the entire cosmos, including this world and the otherworld. The carvings on the rocks may have had a similar function. At Alta, I found one design that showed a boat full of people dancing and drumming. Above them was an individual with arms outstretched, a shaman perhaps, on his or her way to the otherworld. The design was at the base of a rock that sloped upwards, with footprints helpfully pointing out the upward direction of travel. I followed after them, taking care not to step onto the rock, and before long I passed the flying shaman again, confirming that this was definitely the route I should take. When I reached the top of the incline, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the fjord, all the way beyond the headland and out to the shimmering sea. Was this the route to the otherworld that the ancient shamans followed?
The gathering gloom eventually fell on my time at Alta and I reluctantly had to leave the images and head away from the shore. As I did so, I noticed the ball of the sun descend across the sea, heading towards the realm of the otherworld. I thought of the Bronze Age shamans watching a similar scene, deep in trance from eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, and waiting to board the boat that would ferry them into that alternative existence. In this place of age-old ritual and magic, it even felt like I might join them, peeling back the veil of millennia to enter their world: the realm of the ancient shamans.