Something wonderful is happening in Iceland this year. Toward the end of 2018, the first heathen temple built in Nordic countries in over 1000 years will be dedicated and begin its service to the Ásatrú faithful.
Iceland has seen an amazing resurgence of the old Nordic faith, especially considering how little time has passed since its re-emergence. Ásatrú was recognized as an official, permitted religion in Iceland in 1973, and the Pagan Association (Ásatrúarfélagiđ) at its heart was formally founded in 1992.
Since its recognition, Ásatrú has increased by over 244%, according to one figure that I read, and it is now the largest non-Christian creed in the country.
So, what is Ásatrú, anyway?
Ásatrú is the belief in the old Nordic gods and goddesses who were worshipped by the Vikings and the Norse people, resurrected and reclaimed in much the same way that Celtic Wicca has been. Its roots are deep, based on mythology and folklore that was preserved in the Poetic and Prose Eddas of Snorri Sturluson (great name, that).
The gods and goddesses of Ásatrú are divided into two groups, almost like two families: the Æsir and the Vanir. The Norse universe is divided into the Nine Worlds, which are contained within the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
These worlds are: Midgard, the realm of humans; Asgard, the home of the Æsir; Vanaheim, where the Vanir live; Jotunheim, the home of the giants; Niflheim, the realm of ice; Muspelheim, the realm of fire; Alfheim, where the elves live; and Hel, named for the goddess who owns and occupies it, which is the realm of the dead.
The roll call of the gods is full of familiar names, some of them made popular by the Marvel movie franchise (Thor and Loki, anyone?). The gods and goddesses are:
- Odin – god of war, sovereignty, wisdom, magic and shamanism
- Thor – god of war, thunder, agriculture
- Frigg – wife of Odin; she knows the fate of all humans and can change your fate if she so chooses
- Tyr – god of war, law and justice
- Loki – god of mischief and lies
- Baldur – god of beauty, light and radiance
- Heimdall – godly guardian of Asgard
- Idun – goddess whose apples grant immortality
- Bragi – god of poetry, the bard of the court of Odin
- Freya – goddess of love, shamanism, fertility, beauty and sex (adopted by the Æsir)
- Freyr – god of sex, fertility, wealth, success and peace (also adopted by the Æsir)
- Njord – god of wealth, fertility and the bounty of the sea (also adopted by the Æsir)
- Nerthus – “Mother Earth”
Ásatrú has no holy writ and no dogma. However you relate to the gods, that’s perfectly fine. It’s between you and them, because the gods aren’t really superior to humans in the sense that they wield absolute control, perfect and judgment.
In Ásatrú, the gods are treated more like friends or family members who can be called upon for help or companionship. That’s a reflection of how important family bonds and the bonds of loyalty are to this faith.
The Ásatrúarfélagiđ is based on the way history tells us that the priestly class among the Icelandic Norse was organized. The highest position in the religion is the Allsherjargođi, which means “Priest of All.”
Next in the hierarchy is the Kjalnesignagođi, “Priest of Kjalarnesþing.” This refers to the area of the country that was settled and held by the descendants of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland.
Ultimately, Iceland’s Norse population was an extended clan, and that family feeling is reflected in their expression of religion. Other geographical areas are served by nine different “gođi”, or priests.
Every week, worshippers gather in meetings that are open to the public, which are called þings (“Things”). These gatherings are used to discuss matters of material import, sort of like town meetings, but conducted within the sight and control of the gods. That means that every word said and every action taken during þing is sacred.
The actual celebrations of Ásatrú are called blóts, a word that harkens back to the blood of animal sacrifices that was once offered to their deities. Sacrifices were central to each blót, but this is not done any longer. There may still be an offering, but it’s not in the form of goats or sheep anymore. A blót is a feast and celebration.
In Ásatrú generally, the holidays are:
Disfest or Disting (Disblót), which is on January 31st. This blót honors the Disir, the female ancestral spirits who protect family members and communities. These spirits include the Norns, who weave the skein of fate, and the Valkyries. It also honors the Land Wights, or spirits of the land, and traditionally featured candlelight, markets and prayers for peace and for the king. It is also known as the Blessing of the Plow and is roughly analogous to Imbolc in Wicca.
Ostara is on March 21st and is a ritual that would be familiar to pagans everywhere. It’s one of the four great blóts of the year. It’s the spring equinox, a fertility festival, and celebrated the awakening of the earth for another growing season.
May Eve (Valpurgis) called on May 30th, and it’s equivalent to Beltaine. The veil between worlds is thin on the night before Beltaine, just as it is on the night before Samhain, and just like with that holiday, spirits of the dead roam freely. Valpurgis is also the day when fairies, elementals, shapeshifters and witches run amok. Bonfires are central to Valpurgis, as they are to the other three great blóts and the main four Fire Festivals of Wicca.
Midsummer (Midsumarsblót) falls on June 21st, and it’s analogous to the celebration of Litha in the Wiccan faith. It’s the celebration of the summer solstice and is the day when Sunna, the goddess of the sun, rides her chariot to its highest point in the sky. It’s the longest day of the year and cause for great merriment.
It’s also at about this time that Baldur, the god of light, was slain, bringing on the dark half of the year. Remember, though this is the longest day and the shortest night of the year, this is the start of the shortening of days. Among the Vikings, Midsumarblót marked the start of the summer raiding season.
Freysfest (Freysblót) is on August 1, and it’s the kissing cousin of Lughnasadh or Lammas. It is dedicated to the god Frey, who is brings fertility to crops and plants. He is honored with a blót and feast with the first fruits of the fields and gardens, and it’s the beginning of the harvest season.
Harvestfest (Haustblót) on September 21st marks the autumn equinox and the beginning of the end of the harvest. It is similar to Mabon, and like that Wiccan holiday, it’s celebrated with dancing, bonfires, and feasting. The harvest is being gathered in and the people are preparing their stores for winter. This is the Winter Finding, when all the food that will get the community through the harsh winter ahead is gathered and quantified and blessed.
Winter Night (Vetrnaetr) is on October 31st and is marked with the same scary fun as Samhain. The veil is thin, the ghosts of the dead are about, and the unwary can get into some very difficult trouble if they offend the wrong spirit or elemental.
On this date, the animals that were too old or too infirm to survive the winter were slaughtered and their meat prepared and smoked. The Wild Hunt chases over the land on this night, and in each field, the Last Sheaf is left in their honor. The roads and fields belong to Odin and his host of the dead during this time, so beware!
Yule (Jól) lasts from December 20th to January 1, and it’s the celebration of the winter solstice. The day and night are of equal length, but from this moment on, the days grow longer. This is the return of light to the land after the long, deep darkness that came before. The gods and goddesses are nearer to Asgard during Jól at this time than at any other, and elves, trolls, gnomes and other magical creatures roam freely. Significant oaths were sworn during the Yule feast, and often were part of a Sumbel.
A sumbel is a formalized and religious form of toasting or oath-making. During a blót, a horn of mead or ale is passed around the assembly, and everyone makes an oath, a boast or a toast when the horn reaches them. Everything said has deep significance, because it’s believed anything spoked during Sumbel echoes across the Nine Worlds. Say in the Sumbel, and you say it to the gods.
There are other days of import that are celebrated as well, including Alfablót and the Days of Remembrance.
Alfablót, or Elf-Sacrifice, is made at the end of autumn and is often a very private affair. It’s conducted by the woman of the family and is meant to affirm the respect that the family unit has for the elves and supernatural beings. Given as it is when the harvest has just been gathered, the animals are at their fattest, and the people are preparing for winter’s harshness, it could easily be seen as an occasion of appeasement meant to encourage the elves to protect and aid the family through the dark days ahead.
In late January or early February comes þorrablót, which is a festival in honor of the god Thor, the Thunderer, who brings fertility to the land with the rain and lightning of his storms.
The Troth, the Ásatrú assembly in the United States, observes Days of Remembrance that are dedicated to remembering and honoring the heroes of the Poetic and Prose Eddas, which are sagas and stories that make up the closest thing that Ásatrú has to sacred books.
These Days of Remembrance honor heroes from history, usually rulers and warriors who died in the fight to preserve the Old Ways in the face of the encroachment of Christianity.
Days of Remembrance:
- February 9th – Feast of Eyvindr Kinnrifi, a pagan martyr
- February 14th – Feast of Váli, a pagan martyr who died for love
- March 28th – Feast of Ragnar Lođbrok, a hero and ruler on whom the television series Vikings is based
- April 9th – Feast of Haakon Sigurdsson, or Haakon the Great, king of Norway and pagan stalwart from around 955
- May 9th – Feast of Guđröđr of Guđbrandsdál, another pagan martyr
- June 9th – Feast of Sigurd, the great hero of Norse myth
- July 9th – Feast of Aud the Deep-Minded, a female leader and warrior who helped to settle Iceland
- August 9th – Feast of Radbod, King of the Frisians, who defended his realm for paganism until his death
- September 9th – Feast of Herman the Charuscan, leader of the Germanic tribes who routed the Roman Empire at the Battle of Teutoborg Forest in 9 AD
- Mid-October – Feast of Leif Ericson and Freydís, his sister, who settled Iceland and Greenland
- October 9th – Feast of Erik the Red, father of Leif Ericson and Freydís, an explorer and mighty warrior
- November 9th – Feast of Sigrid the Haughty, a Queen of Sweden who led her people in resisting Christianity
- Late November – Feast of Wayland (Volündr) the Smith, a blacksmith who forged the magical sword Gram and the magic ring that Sigurd stole from Fafnir the Dragon, a tale on which Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas were based
- December 9th – Feast of Egill Skallagrimsson, a farmer who was also a talented poet and a gifted warrior
The Ásatrú faith, also known as heathenism, strongly encourages personal independence and integrity. Each man and woman is responsible for making his or her own path in life, and his or her own words and deeds are paramount in determining the value and worthiness of the human soul.
Ásatrú teaches that there are Nine Noble Virtues. (The number nine is very important in Ásatrú.)
- Courage – valor, and the ability to do what is difficult and to endure grief and pain
- Truth – being honest with yourself and others in action, word and character
- Honor – ethical conduct, worthiness and respectability
- Fidelity (Loyalty) – this is loyalty to a cause, belief, person or family
- Discipline – restraint and self-control
- Hospitality – reception, entertainment and protection of friends, guests and strangers
- Industriousness – working hard, being diligent and dedicated with a “work ethic”
- Self-Reliance – the ability to rely upon one’s self and not depend upon anyone else for help
- Persverance – to never give up no matter the obstacle or trial
There is a great deal to respect in Ásatrú, and it’s worth another look. If you ever go to Iceland, you’d be welcome to stop in at a blót. Hospitality is one of the Nine Noble Virtues, after all.
In my experience, heathens are some of the friendliest, merriest, and most easy-going of all pagans. Some racist idiots have tried to appropriate Ásatrú for their own white-power purposes, but the Ásatrú condemn them. It’s unfortunate that these fools have associated themselves with the Nordic faith, because the Ásatrúar actually want nothing to do with them. Hatred like that is a violation of the Noble Virtues.
Don’t be afraid of these modern-day Vikings. They might end up being the staunchest friends you’ll ever find. Be blessed on your path!