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Iceland Mag

Culture

Ásatrú: The old Norse religion practised by Iceland´s early Viking settlers

  • A sacred place This is the Almannagjá canyon in Þingvellir National Park in South Iceland. Þingvellir is probably the most sacred place of the Ásatrú religion. It was the venue for the original Alþingi, Iceland's parliament, that was established in 930. Photo/GVA

The old Nordic heathen Ásatrú has much to recommend it. First off it´s non-authoritarian and decentralized. There´s no founder, no dusty old book whose interpretation people fiercely contest. There´s no charter, no hierarchy and no dogma. It´s non-racist, practises gender equality and is open to all.

 

By Neil McMahon

One pre-Christian religion that has been rapidly growing in popularity in Iceland in recent decades is the Ásatrú or Germanic neopaganism, at the same time numbers in the State Lutheran Church have been steadily declining. Ásatrú translates literally as faith in the gods and has as its foundation the system of the Old Norse religion practised by Iceland´s early Viking settlers. It´s a polytheistic religion meaning there´s a pantheon of deities including both Gods and Goddesses, the most famous one being the one-eyed Odin.

Iceland became Christian in 1000 AD when the pagan lawspeaker of the day in a most generous gesture of conciliation agreed to the Christians´ demands. In so doing he saved the nation from being plunged into a bloody civil war. All the pagans asked in return was that they be allowed to practise their religion privately. However once Christianity had established itself paganism was quickly suppressed.

Ideas and inspiration

Hardly a day goes by without the media presenting some grim new findings as to how the world´s ecological environment is on the brink of imploding and that if there isn´t a radical and immediate change in how we think and live our lives on this planet then Doomsday is a mere few decades down the road.

Two major contributing factors as to why we seem so complacent about these constant warnings are firstly how divorced an ever-growing urbanized world has become from the natural environment and secondly our increasing failure to nurture an inner spiritual self.

For centuries Christianity preached that Man was the supreme ruler and the earth´s resources were his for the taking. This Christian worldview encouraged Europe´s aggressive drive to dominate and exploit nature in a spirit of complete indifference. With the bible in one hand and a sword or gun in the other, indigenous peoples were conquered, empires built and the Western world rode the wave of the Industrial Revolution and so-called progress. Granted, industrialization brought many advances, but it all came at a terrible price, both to the environment and that existentialist sense of soullessness that so often haunts us in the first world.

Science and technology alone are not going to get us out of the present ecological mess, we need to reconnect spiritually with the larger whole of reality. Unfortunately mainstream institutionalized religions seem incapable of offering such a holistic perspective; however many ancient indigenous religions do and we should be looking to them for ideas and inspiration. As the Yale scholar John Grim states: Indigenous peoples are ecologists and purveyors of an environmental wisdom absent in the technologically developed, industrialized “first world.”

Here and now

The Ásatrú has much to recommend it. First off it´s non-authoritarian and decentralized. There´s no founder and no dusty old book whose interpretation people fiercely contest. There´s no charter, no hierarchy and no dogma. It´s non-racist, practises gender equality and is open to all. The Ásatrú does not overly concern itself with the after life. Ásatrú focuses on the here and now. If you do it well, the next life will take care of itself. End of discussion.

Essentially it´s a philosophy emphasizing tolerance and individual liberty. Ásatrúar never seek to convert others and contrary to what we might think the Vikings didn´t belittle other people´s gods.Theirs was a policy of live and let live. A refreshing and enlightened attitude in the light of the religious intolerance and extremism sweeping the world today.

On a personal basis Ásatrú core values include honour, duty, courage and honesty. It recommends that you live a worthwhile and useful life and stresses the value of family and kinship. High on the list are the qualities of self reliance and perseverence, traits that are still deeply embedded in the Icelandic psyche and no doubt have helped this hardy isolated people in their struggle to survive in a harsh and often cruel environment.

In tune with seasonal changes

Like other natural religions the Ásatrú believes the natural world is sacred and living. It sees an interconnection between all things, so living close to and in harmory with nature is essential. As one Ásatrú follower put it: Experience nature. Experience the Gods. Do not "think about" them or project your own images and definitions onto them. Let them speak for themselves. Get off the road, get out of your car, get away from the clamour of your fellow man! Feel the world. This is the way of Ásatrú.

The Icelandic Vikings were farmers and sailors, a people who were in tune with seasonal changes and respected the forces of nature. Battling the high seas of the Atlantic you called upon the ocean giant Ægir for protection, and when cultivating the land you invoked the favour of the fertility goddess Freyja.

So maybe it´s high time for us Westerners to quit being so culturally and intellectually arrogant and with an open mind explore some of these natural religions, like the Ásatrú, which have been suppressed, ridiculed and marginalized over time. We might be very surprised indeed as to the answers they offer. 

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