A pilgrimage home
Author Lori Erickson dives into her genealogical history
St. Paul, Minn.
Genetic DNA tests can tell a person a lot about where they come from. The results provide deeper contexts of personal history and can even fill in gaps of information where they have been lost. But what percentages can’t tell you are the cultural details like what food ancestors had on their tables, or how they celebrated holidays.
Lori Erickson, author The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit (2021), grew up in Decorah, Iowa, in the center of Midwestern Norwegian-American culture. Her career revolved around travel writing but in the last five years, Erickson has pivoted toward her true passion, the intersection of traveling and spirituality. In this book she looks into her own past, following a journey of genealogical travel.
Erickson presented at Minnesota’s Norway House on Oct. 9, 2021, and in the talk, she spoke about how she found her own holy sites to make pilgrimages to, and what she learned about her identity along the way.
Beyond Decorah, there is a long history of Scandinavians coming to America. To open her talk, Erickson confessed that, when she was growing up, she claimed to be a relative of Leif Erikson (the event was held on national Leif Erikson Day), the famous explorer from Greenland. What began as a joke, led her to eventually travel to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, for this book.
Erickson took her pilgrimage far past her immediate family, in Iowa, to this archaeological site in Canada. She explained, “L’Anse aux Meadows tells a fascinating story about the Viking Age and about the people who lived there, maybe 100 people at most. This story became enshrined in a body of literature called the Icelandic Sagas, which were written down in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries. They were based on oral traditions from the Viking Age. And one of those sets of stories is about the colony in North America settled by Leif Erickson, which was called Vinland.”
Oral history is a large part of Scandinavian lore and myth, another subject Erickson explores in her book. There is a deep connection between Norse mythology and spirituality. Erickson met with Kari Tauring, a Norse cultural educator, folk musician, spiritual leader, and healer in Minneapolis, to learn more about modern Viking spirituality. One concept that Erickson was introduced to is the Viking Age’s “Web of Wyrd.” The word “weird” as we know it, comes from the Old Norse wyrd, which to the Vikings meant destiny, in a way similar to karma. This web is a central theme in The Soul of the Family Tree.
The Vikings used the Web of Wyrd to explain why things happened. In Erickson’s words, “It can be thought of as an energetic matrix that connects everything in the past and the present and the future. Because of the Web of Wyrd, it’s possible to send healing back into the past and also to re-knit the threads that you’ve been given by your ancestors.” Erickson liked this idea and its relationship to studying family history, which for some is a fun hobby and others a darker or more mysterious place to venture. She continued, “It acknowledges the fact that for many people, families are not always sweetness and light. A lot of people have difficulty relating to their families. The Web of Wyrd acknowledges that maybe there’s some mending that needs to be done in your family, and that it’s possible to do that.”
Today’s Christianity is far from the paganism of the Viking age. Leif Erikson’s sister-in-law, Gudrid the Far Traveler, played a critical role in Lori Erickson’s genealogical journey, as a spiritual figure. Gudrid lived in the first North American colony settled by Leif Erikson but eventually had to return to Greenland. She became a Christian but remained connected to the mythological traditions of her past. Erickson identified with Gudrid, as a traveler and a woman seeking higher meaning. “She’s such a fascinating character who straddled worlds, straddled continents, straddled religions and cultures…We both live in times of tremendous religious ferment and also creativity,” Erickson said.
Erickson’s book, The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit, and the voyage she took into her family history has one message at the core: we are all connected to our genealogy in a deep way that can affect our personal identities. She went on to say, “I hope one of the things that people will take from my book is a renewed motivation to try to save the stories of people while you still have them. Because once they die, you lose their stories. And when you lose their stories, you lose part of your past as well as theirs.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.