ÁSATRÚARFÉLAGIÐ: A NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT IN ICELAND

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

I’ve always been fascinated with Vikings since I was little. It was the Norse mythology and religion that piqued my curiosity. The Norse polytheistic religion was widespread throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries. Afterwards, the religion died out and was replaced by Christianity. Recently, the Norse religion has abruptly seen a resurgence in Iceland. This is due to the efforts of the organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which promotes Asatru, or Norse pantheism.

A Brief History
Of course, it’s essential to ascertain some context and discuss a brief saga of the Vikings and their religion. The Norse religion was a polytheistic religion with numerous deities and the vikings were a seafaring people who lived in what is now modern day Scandinavia. There are stories of gods such as Thor and Odin who fought battles with demons and monsters and legendary heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside who conquered neighboring kingdoms. The Sagas illuminate the history of the creation of the Norse kingdoms.

While it is debatable whether heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside actually existed, no one can deny the ferocity of the myths and legends that portrayed them. Later Sagas extrapolate the exploits of real life individuals such as explorers Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson who were were the first Europeans to venture to the Americas. Erik the Red founded the first Norse Settlement on the American continent by establishing a colony on modern-day Greenland. His son, Leif Eriksson, reached as far south as Canada and established minor settlements there although none of them were permanent. The Vikings were efficacious seafaring voyagers.

However, it wasn’t until modern times that history books finally attributed Leif Eriksson with the distinction of the first European to reach the Americas. Until then, most people believed that it was Christopher Columbus who traversed to the Americas before any other European. Nonetheless, religion and mythology played a huge defining rule in the culture of the Vikings. In fact, the decline of the Norse religion is generally considered to be the end of the Viking era as that was when the Scandinavian kingdoms formally adopted Christianity. Despite this, I was astounded and intrigued to learn that recently in Iceland, there has been a sudden revival in the Norse religion coupled with a marked decline in Christianity.

Ásatrúarfélagið Today
Iceland, for the first time in centuries, is now officially worshipping Norse gods again. The last time Norse gods such as Odin, Thor and Frigg were worshipped was 973 years ago when Iceland formally converted to Christianity. Ásatrúarfélagið, an Icelandic religious organization promoting faith and belief in the Norse gods, is the association behind the sudden rise in worship of these deities. It’s high priest, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, was able to raise sufficient funds and permission from the Icelandic government to construct the first Norse worshipping temple in over a 1000 years. As many people in Iceland are turning away from organized religions such as Christianity and are instead approaching atheism or embracing non-Abrahamic faiths such as Buddhism, the Norse religion is expected to see a rise in membership as people leave the Christian church.

I’ve often wondered what the early interactions between the polytheistic Vikings and the monotheistic Christians were. Movies, literature, and media forms have regularly illustrated such interactions between the two groups as violent and gory based on differences in principle. While we can only speculate what exactly occurred during their encounters, some professors believe that misunderstandings and confusions were common and rather the root cause of conflict instead of simply a difference in belief being the catalyst for violence. Indeed, it’s likely that early Christian missionaries and officials who first confronted the Norse religion aptly interpreted the Norse gods as demonic beings and deemed the Vikings as people that needed to be saved.

Professor of Theology from Emory University, Luke Timothy Johnson, highlighted his viewpoints regarding relations between Christians and the Vikings in a statement to the news forum, Big Think.

Christian mission has always positioned itself as a rescue operation, that people were in desperate straits, were indeed under the influence of demons. … It is impossible to read the reflections of Marcus Aurelius … and not recognize a profound mode of religious expression. … It is impossible … not to recognize that [paganism] is the furthest thing possible from the demonic. It is indeed a form of religious expression from which we can learn much, and at the very least we need to respect,” Johnson argued.

Although there is some credence to his argument, I respectfully disagree with some of his points. First, I don’t necessarily agree that Christian mission was always a rescue operation. If you don’t believe me, you can easily flip through a standardized history textbook and discover numerous instances of Christian conquerors forcibly mass converting thousands of native peoples, such as the Native Americans, to Christianity under the pretense that they were being saved. However, I do agree that the Norse religion, or paganism as he refers to it, was not demonic. If we are to believe his statements, it makes sense that some people who witnessed another group of people practicing an ideology that they thought was morally wrong, would try to save them, even though their idea of saving them is drastically and divergently different from our definition today.

Skeptical Viewpoints and Criticism Regarding Ásatrúarfélagið
Of course, as I heard more about this rise of this Norse religion in Iceland, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an actual religion actually being reestablished or if this was just a publicity stunt. I even wondered if it could have been something even worse, such as a cult. My suspicions were later put to rest when I further read that the Norse temple that was completed a few months ago, actually hosts wedding ceremonies and funerals. Additionally, Ásatrúarfélagið has been in existence since the 1970s. If you want more proof, then consider the fact that membership has tripled since its founding and now numbers a few thousand. While that may sound small, keep in mind that Iceland only has a population around 330,000. Furthermore, Ásatrúarfélagið is also a member of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions.[1]

Despite this, there have been sharp criticisms of this new religious movement. First, the religion lacks a fixed theology and dogma and many of the priests and religious officials active in the movement have adopted a pantheistic worldview. Moreover, there is no head religious official and members are not expected to follow any religious authority. Also, it has a checkered history. In the 1970s, some members held white supremacist beliefs and tried to incorporate elements of Nazism into this developing religious movement. One such member, Þorsteinn Guðjónsson, attempted to incorporate his beliefs of racial superiority and advance platforms of antiabortion and immigration reduction into the organization.[2] Additionally, literary folk scholar and Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Chicago, Stefanie von Schnurbein, characterized the group as a “mix of individualistic anarchists, atheistic church opponents, and racist spiritualists.”[3] Thus, one can lucidly see abundant negativities to this program.

Ásatrúarfélagið: A Progressive Movement?
In response to these criticisms, many members describe the organization as a movement with more of a spiritual focus than religious and that it doesn’t necessarily dispute other religious beliefs. The leader of the organization, Hilmarsson, explained in a statement to Reuters how the movement isn’t necessarily religious but rather focuses more on the elements of nature and the human mind instead.“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology,” Hilmarsson said.

Furthermore, in regards to racist individuals being present in this movement, I later found that Þorsteinn Guðjónsson and others like him were actually a minority in this organization and were unable to advance their racial theories and political beliefs in the movement so they subsequently left and formed reactionary far-rightwing fringe parties.[4] Finally, Icelandic anthropologist, María Erlendsdóttir, disputed and called into question Schnurbein’s claims by arguing that Schnurbein’s sample size was too small to reach any conclusion. According to Erlendsdóttir, Schnurbein only interviewed two members of this movement.[5] In her own book about Norse beliefs, she criticized Schnurbein’s conclusions arguing that “the heavy accusations of von Schnurbein contradict certain clues that Ásatrúarfélagið has an open mind to people of other cultures and races.”[6]

Erlendsdóttir does have a point about Ásatrúarfélagið being open minded. In fact, in a drastic contrast to most other organized forms of religion,  Ásatrúarfélagið has often supported and promoted progressive political issues. It has been instrumental in environmentalist protection clauses, has fought for same-sex marriage, and has argued for the separation of church and state. For instance, when Sigurjón Þórðarson, a member of this organization, was elected to the parliament in 2003, he stated his views that religion and state must be kept separate from each other.[7] Evidently, this movement is indeed openminded and progressive which makes it unique when contrasted with other religions.

Conclusion
After reading up on this religious movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ásatrúarfélagið carries more of a spiritual focus with a pantheistic worldview that honors the Norse gods rather than utilizing an organized doctrine and theology. Nevertheless, it is very enthralling since its membership increased in recent years, it has promoted progressive causes, has an interesting history, and renewed interest in the Viking sagas. While it is still early to tell whether this will be a lasting religious movement for a long time or just a loosely collected organization that will last only a few decades, it will be fascinating to see its course and progress in the future. Regardless of what path it takes, it has ensured that Norse mythology and Vikings will continue to live in our imaginations.

Photo by Artiom P

[1] Judith Schlehe and Evamaria Sandkuhler, Religion, Tradition and the Popular: Transcultural Views from Asia and Europe (Bielefeld: Verlag, 2014), 270.
[2] Pétur Pétursson, Asasamfundet på Island och massmedia. (Religionssociologiska institutet, 1985), 27.
[3] Stefanie von Schnurbein, Religion als Kulturkritik: Neugermanisches Heidentum im 20. (Jahrhundert: Winter, 1992), 181.
[4] Pétursson, Asasamfundet, 27
[5] María Erlendsdóttir. Pagan Beliefs in Modern Iceland. (University of Edinburgh, 2001), 27
[6] Erlendsdóttir, Pagan, 28
[7] Michael Strmiska, Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (Religion in Contemporary Cultures), (ABC-CLIO, 2003), 170.

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