Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag

Culture

Heathens against hate: Exclusive interview with the high priest of the Icelandic Pagan Association

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • The Allsherjargoði Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (in the centre), the high priest of the Icelandic Pagan Association argues that those who see Ásatrú as a religion of militarism, bloodshed and hero worship are seeing it through the prism of 19th century German nationalism, not the Poetic Edda. Photo/Stefán Karlsson.

The Icelandic Pagan Association, Ásatrúarfélagið, is the fastest-growing religious congregation in Iceland. With close to 3,000 members, it is the sixth largest religious group in Iceland, and by far the largest non-Christian group. Since 2000, it has grown by 657%. This year the congregation started the construction of its temple in Reykjavík, which it plans to consecrate late next year. It will be the first central pagan temple constructed in the Nordic countries in over a thousand years.

 

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, ásatrú, alsherjargoði, ástatrúarfélag

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson ​“It is a religion which teaches you how to live in harmony with your surroundings and yourself." Photo/Stefán Karlsson

A religion of respect and harmony
Whatever the reason for the growth of the Ásatrúarfélag might be, it is not aggressive heathen proselytizing. Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the high priest or Allsherjargoði of the Ásatrúarfélag, tells us that neither he nor any other member of the congregation has engaged in missionary work. 

“We do not go around trying to recruit new members. People come to us because they see something they like, they witness our ceremonies, whether it is a wedding or a funeral, and they see that these are beautiful ceremonies, and they feel that Ásatrú might have something to offer them.”

Hilmar Örn stresses that Ásatrú is a religion of peace and respect. “It is a religion which teaches you how to live in harmony with your surroundings and yourself, and how to deal with the different phases of your life. How to become of age and then how to age.” True to this, the Ásatrú, as it is practiced in Iceland, is a religion of respect and tolerance. “We reflect Icelandic society and Icelandic values,” Hilmar tells us.

However, while the emphasis on respect and tolerance has contributed to the growth of the congregation in Iceland, it does not sit well with some foreign practitioners of the faith. Hilmar tells us that Ásatrúarfélagið has received “disturbing” messages and hate mail from conservative pagans in other countries.

Among other things, the emphasis Ásatrúarfélagið places upon equality and respect for human rights, especially LGBT rights, has angered some reactionary heathens abroad.

Ásatrú vs 19th-century German militaristic nationalism

“Ásatrú is not a religion which celebrates machismo, militarism, or bloodshed, contrary to what many seem to believe. Quite the contrary. There is a lot of that stuff in the Dróttkvæði [the ancient heroic poetry preserved in the Sagas], where the poets were spinning verses of heroic deeds they had perhaps not even done. But there is very little of that kind of boasting and bombastic heroism in the Poetic Edda, which are the primary texts revered in Icelandic Ásatrú.”

Hilmar argues that the basis of this mistaken view of Ásatrú, as a religion obsessed with glorifying heroism, battles, and blood, is to be found in the 19th century.

“This misreading of Ásatrú comes from the fact that many seem to view it through the lens of 19th-century German nationalism. In the 19th century, German nationalists, artists, poets, and composers looked to the Poetic Edda for artistic inspiration and read into it the kind of militarism, hero-worship, and warrior deification that dominated the German zeitgeist at the time.”

Hilmar has also come under fire from what he calls heathen “fundamentalists“ for having proclaimed that he does not take the stories of the gods literally.

“I have said I do not believe in a one-eyed man, riding an eight-legged horse, and some consider this blasphemy. There are always people who want things to be set in stone. But the Poetic Edda is fundamentally about how life changes, and how you must be prepared to respond to the changes it brings.”

Homophobia and gender-bending gods
Odin, of course, was one-eyed, having sacrificed his eye to Mimir, at the well of Urdur at the root of the world-tree Yggdrasill. His horse, Sleipnir, is the child of the god Loki (in the form of a mare) and Svaðilfari, a giant of the race of Hrimthurs, who built the walls of the gods’ realm, Asgard. This is a story which should remind us that the gods can engage in quite dramatic gender-bending.

Another important story from the Edda involves Thor (Þór), the god of thunder and the embodiment of manliness, impersonating the goddess Freyja. The Jötun king Þrymr had stolen Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, and demanded the hand of Freyja in exchange for the hammer. By dressing up in drag and marrying the king, Thor was able to recover the hammer.

Indeed, Hilmar argues that the Viking Age inhabitants of the Nordic countries and Iceland were free of the kind of homophobia that has become standard among cultural conservatives today.

“They base their interpretation of Ásatrú upon Tacitus’s Germania, a Roman treatise written in AD 70. Germania was written to influence domestic debates in Rome. Tacitus portrayed the Germanic tribes as noble savages who could teach the Romans how to return to a path he felt they had left. It should not be read as an accurate description of how the Germanic people practiced their religion, and it certainly does not describe how the settlers of Iceland practiced their religion, some 800 years later.”

Cut all ties with foreign heathen groups
The Ásatrúarfélag cut all formal ties with foreign heathen congregations in the 1980s, after Hilmar Örn and his predecessor as the high priest, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, became alarmed at the politics of some of the foreign groups who visited the Ásatrúarfélag.

“These people seemed to view Iceland as some kind of Rome of the North, and sought out Sveinbjörn for a sort of papal blessing. Most were very nice in person, but once we started to look into what they were saying at home we encountered things we found extremely disturbing, so in the end we decided to cut all ties to foreign groups. We didn’t want to participate in extremist politics.”

Unfortunately, nationalists and racist elements have found their way into many foreign pagan and heathen congregations, Hilmar tells us. “There have never been such elements within the Ásatrúarfélag. Only one former member that I can think of has expressed such views. Otherwise we have been fortunate to be completely free of such elements.”

Foreign hate mail
After news of the planned construction of the pagan temple broke in the international media in early 2015, Ásatrúarfélagið again became the center of international attention.

“The building of the temple had been discussed here in Iceland since 2006, but it was only in 2015 that foreign media became interested. And following that, we started to receive more criticism from people who felt we were practicing our faith the wrong way, that we were somehow desecrating Ásatrú by being too tolerant. At first I didn’t take this very seriously, but then we were told that the temple and the Ásatrúarfélag were being discussed in closed groups, where people were planning to visit the temple to ‘re-consecrate’ it with some blood ceremonies, to ‘correct’ what these people feel is our perversion of Ásatrú. Some of what we read was extremely disturbing.”

As a consequence, the temple of Ásatrúarfélagið will not be as open to the public as originally planned. “We don’t have deep coffers and all our work is done by volunteers, so we won’t be able to maintain guards. As a result, we will not be able to have the kind of open door policy we had planned.”

Read more: The Icelandic Pagan Association receives hate-mail from reactionary pagans abroad

“Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!”
But not all of the foreign attention has been negative. After Iceland Magazine published a story on its website about the hate mail the Ásatrúarfélag has received, the congregation and Hilmar have been showered with support from foreign heathens. A Facebook event was created by a group of European heathens to assure Hilmar and the Ásatrúarfélag that “Icelandic heathens are not alone in this matter and that the signers of this statement fully and truly support your cause. ... We will not let some people with reactionary and bigoted views determine the essence of our religious approach!”.

Hilmar has been deeply moved by this support. “I was pleasantly surprised. The loudmouths and the yappers always drown out the voices of sanity and reason, so you end up noticing them more. They start to dominate.“

Read more: Icelandic Pagan Association high priest moved by the outpouring international support

No matter what such reactionary pagans—the “crazies and trolls of the internet”—might say, Hilmar asserts, the Ásatrúarfélag will not change how it practices the ancient religion.

“The Poetic Edda and these traditions were preserved here in Iceland, and we will not tolerate some foreign reactionaries coming here to tell us how to practice our faith.”

Hilmar reminds us that the Ásatrúarfélag is an Icelandic congregation, that it represents its Icelandic members, and that it is responsible only to them.

“But if foreigners wish to look to us as a model, they are welcome to do so. We will continue to be ourselves, and we won’t change how we do things to satisfy the views and beliefs of racists or nationalists.”

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