In Dreamtime with the Ancestors by Carol P. Christ

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2The last few days I have been living in dreamtime with my Swedish ancestors, most especially with my great-great-grandmother Ingrid, about whom I have learned a great deal over the past year. Through a distant cousin Thomas Sievertsson, who has been researching the part of Sweden from which she came, I have discovered details about the kind of life she lived in the old country that few descendants of immigrants are lucky enough to know. Here are a few of them.

Ytterhogdal on a summer night
Ytterhogdal on a summer night

Ingrid Mattsdottor was born in 1829 in Jämtlands län in north central Sweden, in a mountainous wooded region where a river divides the small farming villages of Överhogdal and Ytterhogdal. Ingrid, the oldest of seven children, was only thirteen when her father died. From the age of seventeen she worked as a servant on a family farm in a distant village, returning at the age of twenty-three to take up the same occupation on a farm in her own village. From twenty-five to twenty-nine, she lived and worked with her mother and stepfather on their farm in Överhogdal.

At the age of twenty-nine (most Swedish women at that time married in their early twenties), Ingrid married Olof Olofsson and moved to his farm in Ytterhogdal. Over the next decade she gave birth to five daughters and no sons.

1867 and 1868 were known as the yeas of the crop failures in Sweden. As Ingrid’s brothers could not all inherit a single farm, three of them turned to trades: tailor, shoemaker, and blacksmith. The youngest looked after the homestead. In the years of the crop failures, no one bought new clothes, shoes, or tools. Ingrid’s family did not have enough to eat. Two of Ingrid’s brothers lost small sons in 1868. Two brothers and a sister left in 1868. Ingrid and husband with five daughters, aged eight, five, four, two, and six weeks, followed in 1869. They emigrated in order to survive.

They did not all survive. Within a year after their arrival, one of Ingrid’s brothers, his wife, and their small child and new baby son died. The other lost his wife soon after. One of Ingrid and Olof’s daughters died. The six adults who emigrated became three; the once ten children were reduced to five. Then the children were four: Ingrid and Olof gave one of their daughters into the care of a childless couple.

As I was thinking about this, for a time, Ingrid’s life became more vivid than my own. Writing late into the night, I found myself asking questions of Ingrid as I fell asleep. I wanted to know how she felt during the difficult years when so many members of her family died. I wanted to know how she was able to give her daughter up for adoption. I wondered how she found the courage to go on.

Ingrid did survive. A decade later she was a single mother supporting herself and her three daughters by running a boarding house. Her husband had returned to Sweden. I wondered if their relationship had been troubled all along. Had she ever loved him? Was he angry that she could give birth only to daughters? Was he the one who arranged the adoption? Did she resent him for that?

I did not get answers in words to my questions, but I got very strong feelings. One of them was of the deep depression that overtook Ingrid and her whole the family in the years of the deaths. Another had to do with how the resentment Ingrid and her daughters felt when Olof returned to Sweden was transformed into the knowledge that they could make it on their own: he simply stopped being important to them.

The Australian Aboriginal concept of contacting the ancestors in the dreamtime began to take on meaning. Even though I was addressing my questions to Ingrid, I did not feel like I was contacting a ghost living in another world. It felt more like I was contacting the part of Ingrid who lives in me as her story takes root in my body. The feelings I have are not solely her feelings: they are my feelings too as I am the one who is dreaming the story.

Fjällko mountain cow
Fjällko mountain cow

Ancestor connection in the dreamtime feels exactly right.

Some of my friends ask me why I undertake this journey. I answer that whereas once I felt ungrounded, now I am firmly planted in this world, because I know from where and from whom I come.

In Jämtlands län there is a small sure-footed breed of cow called  fjällko or mountain cow. The women took the cows up the mountain in the summer and lived apart from the men during the midsummer days when the sun never set. I can’t wait to meet one of those cows.


Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

8 thoughts on “In Dreamtime with the Ancestors by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thank you for sharing the rich story of your ancestors and the gorgeous photos of Sweden and Fjallkos.

    I can’t help but wonder whether the midsommer retreat was a form of reducing infant mortality. Perhaps babies born in late winter/early spring (conceived in summer) had a lower survival rate than babies born at other times of the year?


    1. Apparently babies were conceived, often out of wedlock. According to cousin Thomas, the men were engaged in other tasks including felling wood. It was the “suitors” who had the energy to climb the mountain after a full day’s work. Animals always have to been taken to high ground up in midsummer where there is still grass. Often it is the men who do it, but in this case it was the women. I like that because it shows that the women from this part of Sweden were not kept under strict control of the men. There are three recorded “illegitimate” children among the near relatives of my grandfather’s parents and quite a few more born less than nine months after the marriage.


  2. Thanks for sharing the story of Ingrid and your ancestors from that time, Carol, and your new connections with your roots. I don’t know you that well personally, but from what I do know, there is a lot of Ingrid’s strength, intelligence and creativity in you. I hope your connection with her continues to deepen.


  3. Thanks Carol, fascinating post regards your ancestors, thanks. I put in a search for Ytterhogdal and found a whole lot of exquisite photos online!! So I’m wondering, how is the name pronounced?


    1. Yes the landscape appears to be incredibly beautiful, esp. in the summer of course. I have read that the Swedes had a great longing for the landscape of their homeland. Ingrid’s husband went back home. We don’t know why, but one of the reasons must have been that he longed for that beauty.


  4. I love this, Carol. Our ritual tracing our matrilineal line during the pilgrimage is one of my favorites, and, like you I’m inspired to go back in time and imagine “dream” connections to these women, find them in myself.


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