High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson has had a lot on his plate lately. He is the leader of Ásatrúarfélagið, Iceland’s largest association of followers of Ásatrú, the Norse neopagan religion, and ever since news hit the international press that his association would soon be breaking ground on the first temple to the Norse gods in 1000 years, his inbox has been flooded with inquiries from foreign journalists. Ásatrú ceremonies have been disturbed by curious tourists.
This current notoriety is a far cry from the humble beginnings of Ásatrúarfélagið. Founded in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a sheep farmer and writer of rímur, a form of epic poetry (here he is, chanting the poetic Edda), the original congregation numbered just about a dozen souls. Nonetheless, in 1973 the association applied for, and received, official recognition as a faith-based organization with the right to perform marriages and funerals as well as to collect congregation tax. The worship of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods of the old Norse pantheon became an officially recognized religion exactly 973 years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity. This conversion was agreed upon at the Althing in 1000 AD; consensus was reached, with characteristic Scandinavian pragmatism, with the help of three compromises: the new Christians would still be allowed to eat horsemeat, abandon unwanted infants in the wilderness and worship the old gods in the privacy of their homes.
In recent decades, membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has grown to about 2,400 — a not insignificant sum in a country of only 330,000 — and has become the largest non-Christian religious community in Iceland. Ásatrú movements in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are more modest, with members numbering a few hundred in each country, but they are growing steadily.
It should come as no surprise that the news of a new temple to the Norse gods has drawn such attention: Along with progressive politics and the Nordic welfare model, narratives of the pillaging Vikings and their gods are arguably what make up the total of people’s associations with Scandinavia in much of the world. It’s enough to take a stroll down the main streets of Stockholm’s Old Town — or similar tourist traps in Oslo, or Reykjavik — to realize that Vikings are good for business: Norse-themed dolls, t-shirts, and costumes are for sale at every souvenir store. Horned Viking helmets, sometimes completed with a fringe of blonde hair glued to the rim, are particularly popular. (There is no evidence that the Vikings ever attached horns to their helmets.)
And it’s not just for the tourists: Every summer thousands of vacationing Swedes, Danes and Norwegians flock to that Scandinavian version of the Renaissance Faire, the Viking market. Norse mythology and the Viking esthetic have provided plenty of fodder for kitsch souvenirs and ideas that we not only sell to tourists but also, to a large extent, buy into ourselves.
No other period in Scandinavian history has become so mythologized. Ideas about our Viking ancestors and our pagan past are inextricably tied to our understanding of our history, culture and national identity. Norse mythology and symbolism has a long history of being used and abused to suit the needs of the time. Interest first surged in the Scandinavian countries during the romantic nationalist period in the 19th century, when it was used in attempts to forge a unified nation and a common ethnic identity. Painters such as Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson explored Norse themes, as did writers such as Erik Gustaf Geijer and composers such as Edvard Grieg. To a large extent, the movement was successful: The imagery and narratives that were developed during this time remain in the popular imagination today.
No less kitsch but all the more troubling is the extensive use of Norse symbols and mythology by Neo-Nazi movements both in and outside Scandinavia. Runic letters and other symbols have become so tied to these groups that their use in any context has become suspect. Excessive interest in Norse mythology carries the whiff of fascism.
Of the Ásatrú movements that exist in Scandinavia today, however, none have any ties to Nazi groups or espouse racist ideologies. Ásatrú in its current form developed in the 1970’s, and has more in common with other alternative nature religions that sprang up at around the same time, such as Wicca and other forms of neoshamanism. They are largely apolitical, with a progressive, environmentalist bent. In the words of Samfundet Forn Sed, the largest Ásatrú association in Sweden, they acknowledge “all humans as equals regardless of gender, origin or sexual preference and shall also uphold religious tolerance in a multicultural society.” Contemporary Ásatrú seeks communion with nature, eschews religious dogma, does not proselytize and allows people of all faiths to partake in ceremonies. In Iceland, Ásatrúarfélagið was an early advocate for same-sex marriage.
As such, the modern Ásatrú followers have probably strayed quite far from the original beliefs and practices of the Norse pagans. The fact is, however, that very little is actually known about these pre-Christian religious belief and practices. What we know of Norse mythology has been gathered from a host of largely secondary sources. Even the Eddas, which remain the major source of knowledge on Norse mythology, were not written down until the 13th century, after couple of centuries of Christian cultural dominance. What we know is so fragmentary that it is not even certain that the different sources describe a single, uniform religion — it’s an open question whether there is an “original” belief at all.
High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson takes this substantial lack of evidence in stride, and is happy to admit that his faith is in large part a creative reimagining of an ancient religion, or “romantiquarianism,” as he calls it. It may well be this very dearth of any certainties is what gives Ásatrú its appeal: In an increasingly secularized and individualist society, it offers a comfortable middle ground. Followers are able to satisfy their spiritual needs within a framework that feels authentic, true to some kind of ancestral identity, but at the same time is empty and flexible enough to fit in with modern values and concerns.
In most of Scandinavia, Ásatrú followers have been largely dismissed, either as blood-obsessed Nazis, or as live action role-players who ended up taking their LARP a little too seriously. Only time will tell, but the Icelandic example suggests that there may be space for a more serious movement. Who knows — it may well be that a revival of Norse paganism is the most fitting religion for our time: The ruthless measures of strength and amoral intrigues of the Icelandic sagas a more perfect mirror for our constant competition under global capitalism; a sustainable life in tune with nature our only salvation; and a pantheon of imperfect gods for our fractured, willful selves.