Nattväsen

In the fall of 1989, in the quiet Swedish town of Hälsingfors by the Tiveden forest, children began to disappear.

Within a span of five weeks, eight children, all under the age of seven, went missing while playing by themselves outdoors at night. After fruitless investigations within the community, the local police organized search parties into the adjacent forest. Immediately, they found clothing and toys among the underbrush, which they followed as far into the woods as the dense growth would allow. But no child was ever found, nor ever any evidence of violence or struggle.

As the weeks passed, the well-educated community began to recall, in private whispers lest they be ridiculed, a forgotten local folklore: the story of the nattväsen, the night creatures. In the old days, grandmothers would tell stories of the animal-entities of the forest to curb the curious child from venturing close to the woods. The stories never described these creatures, but spoke of them emerging at nightfall from the Tiveden, forest of the gods, to visit imaginative, adventurous children that were no older than seven, play with them, then lead them into their forest.

The eight children were never found, but as the community hastily tightened security, no more went missing. And in a few years, the incident had all but faded from the collective memory.

In 2017, the Swedish ambient music duo Carbon Based Lifeforms added a new track to their European tour, called Nattväsen. It contained an audio recording of the Hälsingfors Chief Inspector de-briefing after a failed search party, and the words of a dementia-afflicted local old lady who claimed to have been taken and returned in her childhood by the night creatures.

The unfamiliar narrative was regarded by the concert crowds as meaningless space-filler in an otherwise instrumental format, and drew scant attention.

But one night, in a small EDM den in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn club district, Namio Takaki, a Japanese anthropology exchange student who had grown up near the Aokigahara suicide forest, found himself unable to ignore the lyrics. As the band kept playing, first disbelief, then years of near-extinguished trauma broke forth and rose steadily upward through his chest, until he had to scramble his way out through the crowd to the parking lot to be able to breathe again.

 

The following pages contain an account of my personal journey into this mystery, of how I flew too close to the sun in my three years of travel and investigation to unravel a global enigma, and came back from the edge of human reason and the natural laws that purportedly hold this world together.

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Dear God

Our school prayer, recited together every morning before the beginning of classes and often fondly remembered by me and my schoolmates now, went like this:

Dear God,
Thank you for everything;
Bless me and help me to be good,
And to do my studies well.

I stopped believing in god when I was very small. I don’t even remember how far back that was; I was probably about eight or nine then. I faintly remember that I used to harbour a mild irritation for this prayer as a reaction from this atheism. Along with some other funny stuff I used to do. Like I remember that in all my essays and elsewhere I never capitalized the word ‘god’ or pronouns referring to god, as is the norm (I still stick to that). One of my aunts, very religious, used to give me on my exam days a little paper-wrapped bundle of flowers from her puja, for luck. My schoolmates who brought these used to brush them over all the pages of their answer scripts. I remember throwing it out the window once, and then feeling crap about it because my aunt had only wished me well.

Where many of my friends had pictures of gods and goddesses on the inside of their pencil-boxes, I had pasted pictures of Einstein and Donald Duck.

On visits to temples, I used to refuse to toll the bell. I was very little then. I was forced to do it once, “just to be nice”, by another aunt. Although I remember faintly, and this is one of my oldest memories, that I used to enjoy vigorously tolling the bell at a nearby temple when I was very small and before I stopped believing in god. But I guess at that age I had no clue what it was about.

I don’t remember at all why I stopped believing in god; it happened a long time back when memory starts failing. But it has stood for that long. Right now I won’t offhand say that I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in organized religion. But god, well, it’s complicated, I’m not sure, and I don’t have very good arguments for whatever little ideas I have. I haven’t thought about it as much as I should. But yeah, for all practical purposes (which includes praying, visiting temples, fear of sin, trust on god etc) I am an atheist.

Coming back to that school prayer. Some friends were circulating it on facebook as a way to reminisce fond memories, and it suddenly struck me how wrong that prayer was in a way.

In an educational institute such as a school where the very foundations of a great many characters are laid, why would you put that prayer in everyone’s mouth? Educators need to know that theism is an opinion, that too without substantial arguments and a lot of bad past. Furthermore, thanking this elusive god character for ‘everything’ is so demeaning of oneself and one’s achievements and all other good things that happen in one’s life. And that ‘help me to be good’ really drives home the point that morality must be attained with assistance from this character. In the early constructive stages of so many children’s lives, this reiterated appointment of an absent character as the overseer of their lives to whom all credit for good things, good academic performance and morality must be channelled, suddenly seems very wrong to me now.

Is it part of an enforcement of conduct, this repeated chanting every morning of god as the controller of tidiness and goodness in oneself? If this is just an aid to discipline students, it was a bad choice. A dangerous, careless, morally incorrect choice.

I am no child psychologist, but attributing the credit for good behaviour to the one who exhibits it makes more sense to me. By Occam’s razor, there’s no need for an invention of an intermediate god to take over that credit. More important, it emphasizes that the ultimate person responsible for one’s actions is oneself, just as all things to be thankful for originate from life itself, from the doings of oneself and others. No divine assistance or intervention is needed to ‘be good’. Children are capable of goodness that comes from their own self. Isn’t that something important to let them realize instead of this ritual? Later on in their lives their spiritual and religious beliefs could grow independently from their experiences and thoughts; there’s no need to so crudely enforce that so early via a daily prayer.

But then, theism is expected to manifest in just such things.