Here’s an article from Vice magazine on the Ásatrúarfélagið movement in Iceland that I meant to highlight a few weeks ago. I found myself agreeing with quite a few of the opinions given by the interviewees, unsurprisingly perhaps given my brief look at the Creideamh Sí tradition of Ireland, Scotland and Mann, a similar cultural rather than religious belief system.
“After floating their intentions in January, a group of pagans in Iceland earlier this week announced that they would break ground on a new temple to the old Nordic gods within the month. It will be the first such religious site built on the island since the nation’s legendary conversion to Christianity around 1000 AD.
The structure will be built into Öskjuhlíð Hill in Reykjavik. A half-buried dome sinking 13 feet into the slope, the circular temple will measure in at 3,767 square feet and accommodate up to 250 people. Designed by Magnús Jensson, a local architect, the temple will align with the sun and incorporate the golden ratio as well as the numbers 9 and 432,000, sacred in this pagan group’s rites. Its price tag will be around $975,000.
Rather than a space for any old schmoe with an interest in Viking deities via Chris Hemsworth’s Thor or Nordic death metal, the temple will be a headquarters for a particular set of pagans: the Ásatrúarfélagið.
People tend to lump all pagans together, but there are a vast array of groups and ideologies across the world, from druids to neo-shamans to Wiccans, with all sorts of idiosyncratic individual practitioners, spiritualists, and splinter groups in between. Some focus on paganism as a vehicle for new age beliefs, some for environmentalism, some for an escape from Christian mores, and some for rabid, far-right return-to-purity nationalism, but all have been increasing in numbers over the past century or so. Some groups literally believe in the old gods and practice ancient rituals, while others see them as metaphors.
Here’s how Ásatrúarfélagið fits into the squidgy mass of paganisms: They are reconstructionists, using ancient texts like the Icelandic Edda poems to rebuild lost traditions and worldviews rather than inventing new and nebulous mythologies piecemeal. Within reconstructionism, they practice heathenry, the belief in pre-Christian Northern European myths, worldviews, and rites, along with sects like Northern Tradition, Odinism, Forn Sed, and Germanic Pagan Reconstruction.
Technically Ásatrúarfélagið is just the Icelandic branch of the larger Ásatrú brand of heathenry. But after their founding in 1972 (and recognition by the Icelandic government in 1973 as an official faith), they broke off in the 1980s, believing that in many nations the ideology was being used as a backdoor for far-right, neo-Nazi activities, which they wanted nothing to do with.
As to their own beliefs, according to the group’s fourth Allsherjargoði (high priest—since 2003) and Sigur Rós collaborator Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who joined the movement at its inception when he was just 16, they’re a little bit of everything. They’re partially an attempt to purge Christian influence and revive a romantic-yet-progressive nationalist identity, partially anti-modern, counterculture environmentalists, and partially the living continuation of a series of ideas and beliefs they say never really died out as an undercurrent within Icelandic society. This identity revolves around fairly progressive politics and a healthy dose of pantheistic environmentalism—respecting one’s place as part of but not the master over the earth and finding some divinity within everything.
“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” Business Insider quoted Hilmarsson as saying of the actual deities involved. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.
However, some members of Ásatrúarfélagið do honestly believe in the gods, and others are agnostic—which is OK, because their movement is non-dogmatic. Beyond acknowledging some manner of hidden force in nature and respecting Icelandic culture, you can do whatever the hell you want.”
Which sounds good to me.