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Iceland Mag

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10 interesting facts about the old pagan Ásatrú

  • A celebratory feast Jóhanna Harðardóttir and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson are two of nine Ásatrú goðar (priests) in Iceland. Four are women and five men. Photo/Stefán Karlsson

By Neil McMahon

It´s a crispy-cold morning in late January as I drive out of Reykjavik and into the beautiful Icelandic countryside. The past few weeks have been tough in Iceland weatherwise, with the country getting more than its seasonal share of snow and regularly being buffeted by severe storms. But this particular morning one can sense a definite change; not that it´s no longer snowing, but the fact that it´s descernibly brighter. Finally the long hours of darkness are on the wain.

It´s a good feeling and you understand why the pagan Viking people of Iceland and other northerly countries celebrated the winter solstice or Yule. For them it marked the return of the god Baldur from the realm of Hel and the loosening of winter´s grip on the frozen Earth.

Which brings me to the matter of who I´m on my way to meet and why. Lunch is with Jóhanna Harðardóttir, a goði or priestess in the old Norse religion, Ásatrú. Jóhanna has kindly agreed to tell me all about Ásatrú and answer any questions I might have. Here is a list of just some of the interesting facts that came up in our discussion:

1. Ásatrú literally means "having faith in the gods" and membership has grown from a mere 12 in 1972 to around 3,000 today. It became an officially recognized religion in Iceland in 1973.

2. Its source is the old Norse religion practised by Iceland´s early pagan settlers.

3 It´s a polytheistic religion, meaning it has a range of gods and goddesses. In Icleand the most popular god and goddess are Þór and Freyja.

4. There´s no prescribed dogma or scripture. You are however encouraged to read the Poetic and Prose Eddas written by the 13th-century chieftain and scholar, Snorri Sturluson.

5. Ásatrú´s structure is highly democratic with members always getting to choose the society´s board and who becomes a goði, i.e. a priest or priestess. Today there are nine goðar, four women and five men. 

Read more: Construction of a heathen temple to begin in Reykjavík next month

 6. The three core principles are to cultivate a respect and responsibility for yourself and nature and to be honest and honourable in your dealings with others.

7. No one actually prays to the gods and how you might ask their intercession is entirely up to you. The gods are imperfect and not divine. They are seen more as friends and don´t judge us humans.

8. It costs nothing to join and is open to all, irrespective of race, cultural background, gender or sexual orientation. Ásatrú does not proseletize and people of any religious persuasion are welcome to their meetings or feasts.

9. Throughout the year there are regular celebratory feasts or blót all over the country. Foremost are the four major blót of the summer and winter soltices and the two equinoxes. Anyone is welcome to get married or have a naming ceremony for their child in the Ásatrú.

10. As a natural religion the Ásatrú stresses the interconnection of all things and especially a respect for nature. Members are environmentally aware and know that for Mother Earth to be be bountiful she must be cared for and nurtured. In 2006 Europe´s largest dam was built in Iceland to generate electricity for an aluminium smelter. In the process large tracts of pristine wilderness were flooded. Ásatrú was the only religious group to protest and beg that the environment be spared.

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