With so many books on northern European pagan spirituality focused on the Norse, Germanic and Celtic paths, North Sea Water in My Veins is a unique look at Dutch Pre-Christian spirituality. Author Imelda Almquist was inspired to write this when she realized there weren’t other books available on this topic. She defines the Dutch geographical location historically rather than by current borders so this includes modern Belgian Flanders and the border areas with Germany. As a native Dutch speaker, she brings her personal insight into the work. Research is generally well-documented and the author also offers her own opinions and personal gnosis as a spiritual practitioner.
The review of Dutch history is extremely helpful. She really gives a feel for how the sea has shaped Dutch life for millenia. The brutality of the times comes across too through archeological sites with the remains of ancient human sacrifice to the medieval places where the condemned were displayed after death. The impact of successive military campaigns and occupations is also evident. The Dutch were never an isolated group. Germanic, Norse, Roman, Frisian and others left their mark on pre-Christian beliefs. It’s surprising just how much can be learned about the old Dutch ways from Latin inscriptions left during the Roman occupations when Roman soldiers adopted Dutch deities and Dutch deities were Romanized. There are even closer parallels to the Germanic and Norse deities but also many deities of local places such as forests, streams and hills.
The Christian era tried to eliminate knowledge of the older ways and so Almquist set out to figure out whether reconstruction of ancient pagan practices is possible. She found and lists deities that have been largely forgotten and suggests exercises for getting to know them. Sometimes, it’s clear that she expects most readers will have Dutch heritage as she asks us to connect with these ancestors. She found there is a lot that can still be known but there’s a Christian veneer over it. Be prepared to wade through Christian history as much as pagan history to get to the source. Almquist has laid the foundation to revive the possibility of a modern Dutch pagan practice but those taking the torch will need to build on it.
Overall, I recommend this book. I had a moment of pause in the section on Black Peter/Zwarte Piet. Almquist suggests that he is originally an ancient psychopomp that ferried the dead to the afterlife. Black Pete is known in modern times as a figure who dresses in blackface and renaissance clothes and is associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas. Supposedly he is based on the Dutch idea of the Moors. When I saw the pictures of white Dutch people in Black Face with big red lips, it was impossible to not as an American draw a straight line to the hurtful practice of blackface in the US. In another section of the book, the author discusses colonial history and facing this problematic past. She’s thinking about the right issues but I found this one paragraph about Black Pete being a psychopomp off-putting because she didn’t back up the idea of him being a psychopomp and it glosses over the hurt and controversy that this figure is causing in the Netherlands today. If she truly believes this figure has a more ancient, different past than his commonly attributed 1850s appearance, she needs to flesh this out enough and then ask whether the older version is important enough to revive.
The positive side of this book is that it is highly informative and the author has scoured the available research to give the most in depth view of the ancient practices that you can find outside of an obscure Dutch research paper. The drawback is sometimes it feels like a little more editing could have made this an easier read. It reminds me at moments of Reader’s Digest books with every piece of trivia you can find on a topic. Even so, I know far more about the Dutch thanks to this book and I have gained an understanding of how the Dutch fit in culturally and historically into the pre-Christian world. If you’re interested in Dutch pre-Christian beliefs, this is the only English language book that will answer your call.
~review by Larissa Carlson
Author: Imelda Almquist
Publisher: Moon Books, 2010, 2022
pp. 368, $ 24.95 paperback/ $11.99 e-book