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.

ICELAND: THE COUNTRY OF FIRE AND ICE

By Natasha Azevedo
Contributing Writer

This is the first article in our 2015 Week of Photo Journals: Changing Perspectives. Check back each day this week to see more beautiful photography and travel accounts from UC San Diego students. Click on the images in the article to view the photos up close.

One week after my arrival in Iceland, I had already: jumped off a 30-foot cliff into Iceland’s most dangerous river; rafted through the rapids of Hvíta; caught a geyser erupting near Þingvellir National Park; rode an Icelandic horse through lava fields; and photographed three separate waterfalls on the south coast. For two months I was fortunate enough to work as a photojournalist and marketing intern for Arctic Adventures, one of Iceland’s main tourism companies. I’m still quite confused on how I ended up there, but my penchant for hopping on planes alone gave me another summer of incredible solo adventures, making Iceland one of my favorite countries thus far.

Þórsmörk Valley

Þórsmörk Valley

As the company’s summer photographer, I primarily conducted my work across Iceland’s incredible landscapes, shooting out in the field about four times per week. This first photo was taken on a nine-hour hike through Þórsmörk, known as the Valley of Thor (as in Thor from Marvel’s Avengers). Rightfully named, there was nothing but thunder and hail for a six-hour vertical climb until the skies cleared for 10 magical minutes and this rainbow emerged.

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

One of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls for international tourists, Skogafoss is truly a sight to see. Iceland doesn’t believe in fencing off the wilderness, partly due to the constant shifts in the environment. You’ll catch glimpses of Icelanders and tourists alike swimming in nearby pools, or even jumping off the smaller waterfalls in the north.

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar

Easily one of my favorite places in Iceland, Landmannalaugar is a jewel of the highlands. This photograph captures the natural hot springs that emerge in the region, where geothermal activity makes springs like these a Jacuzzi for hikers taking day trips.

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon

Skaftafell Glacier Beach

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon and Beach

Skaftafell is a key location for volcanic activity in Iceland, largely situated near Vatnajökull Glacier. After hiking Skaftafell’s glaciers for a few hours with a group of Japanese tourists, I accompanied a guide to the famous glacier lagoon. As glacier chunks melt, a small river carries the pieces to a beach on the opposite side of the lagoon. With only 20 minutes left before I had to board a ship, I sprinted over to the beach to capture the beautiful simplicity of these giant glacier pieces.

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

One week of my stay was dedicated to embarking on one of National Geographic’s Dream Treks: the Laugavegur trail. The 36-mile trek was brutally breathtaking: my legs turned orange and green from crossing glacial rivers on foot, several hours were characterized by thick fog and hail, and the ground constantly changed from snow to ice to mud. While the trek transported me into a different world, where herds of horses galloped by and picturesque valleys emerged at every turn, travelers should be cautioned to take a guide, as memorials dot the landscape to remember solo nature enthusiasts who could not prevail against the harsh weather conditions.

Gulfoss Flows

Gulfoss Flows

Day trips to famous waterfalls were some of my favorite days throughout the summer, when I could stare at beautiful falls such as Gulfoss. Gulfoss is the iconic destination in Iceland’s Golden Circle, the most popular area for tourists each summer.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

If you’ve ever searched “Iceland” on Google Images, Seljalandsfoss will be the first waterfall to appear. One can walk all the way around the waterfall, as a cave lets you go beneath the falls. Icelandic parents often tell their young children that trolls are in the cave in order to deter them from getting too close; mythical legends of trolls and fairies are fun tales that Icelanders enjoy. Seljalandsfoss is one of hundreds of waterfalls that scatter the south coast. As you drive along the main highway, one can easily observe six waterfalls cascading from the cliffs along the road in merely 10 minutes.

Skaftafell’s Glacier

Skaftafell’s Glacier

Throughout my internship, I was able to photograph and pursue a myriad of activities including cliff jumping, ATV-ing, snowmobiling, whale watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and one of my ultimate favorites: glacier climbing. I spent four hours on this particular glacier, yet had the opportunity to get comfortable in crampons on a few other glaciers across the country. Towards the end of my stay, I helped photograph a music video for the Icelandic band Árstíðir on top of Langjökull, making some of my favorite memories of Iceland on glaciers.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir is an almost reverent spot for many Icelanders, as the first parliament was established here. One can also find Silfra in the park, a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates where I snorkeled in melted glacial water. Very cold.

Harpa

Harpa

I spent an inordinate amount of time in Iceland’s wilderness, feeling kind of like the female version of the film “Into the Wild”. It can get pretty lonely in lava fields and volcanic valleys, so occasionally checking in with civilization was nice. Because my apartment was based in Reykjavik, I spent a few evenings per week exploring the city. One of my favorite locations? Harpa, the famous concert hall along the shore. The building is a bit controversial as the government used taxpayer’s money to finish the hall during the recession, but the staff at Harpa is wonderful: you can roam the hallways in a wedding gown or muddy boots and a filthy jacket… all visitors are welcome.

Guido Van Helten's Graffiti

Guido Van Helten’s Graffiti

One of the best aspects of Reykjavik, besides its eclectic collection of cafes, colorful rooftops, or constant music festivals, is the way in which you can stumble upon beautiful street art at any corner. This particular photo captures the graffiti of Guido Van Helten, an Australian artist who was constantly arrested for tagging in Melbourne before pursuing a visual arts degree in Brisbane and re-defining graffiti through commissioned works throughout the world.

All images by Natasha Azevedo, Prospect Contributing Writer