Ásatrú Society, how may I help you?”
This was neither the voice of a gruff metalhead nor the voice of a wizened mystic, interrupted in his esoteric ponderings by the phone. To be frank, I was surprised.
Over the next few weeks, missed phone calls, travel, and unread emails all began to pile up, turning what I thought was a simple interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the allsherjagoði (chief priest) of the Ásatrú Society into something rather more involved. Perhaps this organisation was more shadowy than I thought. Was this the wariness of a hermetic society, or just a series of misunderstandings?
Finally, a call came through, and I was off to meet the chief priest of Icelandic paganism.
My GPS led me to the graveyard by Öskjuhlíð, the hillside underneath Perlan. As I went to turn behind the graveyard, a gate barred the way. This was turning out to be more involved than I had anticipated.
“One of the first laws established in the Ásatrú Society was against proselytising,” Hilmar later told me. “The Ásatrú Society does not seek people out, does not convert, does not convince. The community consists only of those with the interest and desire to join.” Accepting the weight of my spiritual task, I parked my car and continued on foot past the gate.
The temple first announced itself as a construction site ringed with wire fences, just metres from the familiar path I so often take with my wife, but never noticed. Pressing through the brush and trees, I stood above a circular area ringed with concrete, wooden pallets, and plastic caution tape. It occurred to me that I may even be trespassing. At every stage of this small journey, I encountered resistance somehow. In a kind of initiation, I push past it.
There was no Viking longhouse with smouldering peat hearth. Instead, I was confronted by a piece of modernist architecture, with stark concrete slabs arranged in geometrical forms. The temple is both primitive and futuristic, in the way that the Standing Stones of Stenness appear simultaneously as neolithic constructs and alien monoliths.
“Rituals in Ásatrú are a celebration of life–we are more joyous than others.”
As I sip my coffee, waiting on Hilmar, I peruse the shelves of the Ásatrú Society’s library. Far from a single-minded interest in the Germanic and Wagnerian, the books here are cosmopolitan and academic, belonging perhaps to a 19th-century gentleman with an esoteric bent. Among the many titles I see are books on Coptic Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Jewish mysticism, Islamic feminism, and a smattering of New Age classics like Carlos Castaneda. “It’s my personal library,” Hilmar tells me when he arrives. “don’t read too much into it.”
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is the fourth allsherjagoði of the Ásatrú Society. Its founder, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, lived nearly all his life on his farm in Borgarfjörður, but Hilmar has had a rather more adventurous and international life, being part of the UK experimental industrial group Psychic TV for much of the 1980s. It was around bands like Psychic TV and adjacent acts Throbbing Gristle and Coil that the first wave of UK industrial music formed. In an irony of history, it was out of this scene, whose screeching and aggressively experimental style stood at odds with traditional notions of folk music, that the neofolk music scene emerged. Neofolk, with Hilmar at its periphery as well, took the dark and experimental attitude of first-wave industrial and married it to the countercultural spirituality of the ’60s. Since Hilmar’s time in the industrial and neofolk scenes, he has been active in Icelandic music as well, both as an independent artist and as a frequent collaborator with the likes of Björk, Sígur Rós, and others.
His musical career captures something important about the religious organisation he represents, a split between the native and foreign influences. On the one hand, it is undeniable that Ásatrú has a claim to be the original religion of the Icelanders. Rejecting the notion that the old gods ever went away, Hilmar tells me a story of how when Iceland gained its new constitution under Denmark in 1874, one of the first ways this was celebrated was a pagan ceremony in North Iceland. I imagine dark figures whooping around fires in forgotten heaths, but as I later witness, the way the modern Ásatrú Society celebrates is rather more reserved. Likewise, Icelandic students in Copenhagen, on the basis of a tentative connection between bjór and Þór, spontaneously rediscovered their pagan past in celebration. According to Hilmar, this tradition has always been alive, if maybe in hiding. But on the other hand, the Ásatrú Society arose just as much out of an international, countercultural background, beginning all the way back in the 19th century with German romantics like Herder, Wagner, and the brothers Grimm, and more recent influences in experimental music, theosophy, occultism, hippie culture, environmentalism, and so on.
But the man I sit down to talk to, both a pioneering experimental musician and chief priest of Icelandic heathenry, is a soft-spoken figure, wearing what I assume is a homemade lopapeysa.
“People want to make sense of their existence, and they also don’t want their existence to be too sombre.”
“The biggest difference between us and the Christians,” Hilmar tells me, “is that the monotheistic religions are revealed religions. There is one God, there is one truth, and that truth is eternal and unchanging.” It may come as a surprise to those from monotheistic traditions, but paganism does not, for example, have one canonical text; there is no “Bible” of Norse heathenry. There are of course poems and literary sources that are important in reconstructing the belief system, but the idea that truth comes from one source, and can be contained in one definitive volume, is a rather modern idea, specific to monotheism. As Hilmar puts it, monotheistic faiths provide “one truth for many,” whereas Ásatrú offers “many truths for the individual.”
Another key difference in worldview is the notion of time. Monotheistic religions, like Christianity, have a progressive and linear notion of time, Hilmar says. The world was created at some point, humanity fell out of paradise, and we await the coming of another messianic moment: the end of history. Such theological ideas combined in recent times with Enlightenment rationality to create a worldview that things are always improving, and importantly, moving towards something. What was important for modern Christians and secular rationalists alike was the idea that history had an overarching narrative, whether it be comedic or tragic in nature.
“Such a notion of history would have been foreign to the heathen mind,” Hilmar says. The pre-Christian religions, not just Norse paganism, all share a notion of cyclical history: “It means that things are always moving in a cycle. We see that in the 24 hours of the day, we see it in the seasons of the year. We are born, we mature, we decline, and then we perish. And then it starts again. And you find this in the ideas of the afterlife and the world described in the cosmological poems like Völuspá.”
It is useful to compare the sense of the English word religion with the Icelandic word siður, which can be rendered alternatively as religion, custom, habit, or tradition. Religion, in the sense that those raised in a monotheistic or secular society would understand it, has something to do with the relationship between an individual and a creator god. But the word siður in Icelandic has less to do with the beliefs of an individual, and more to do with the accreted way of life of a community. Custom, after all, is inherently about other people. It is simply “what one does.” If you had asked an Icelandic settler whether they “believed” in Þór, I do not expect they would have understood the question.
But Ásatrú, a form of siður, and not religion, has a different relationship to historical and cultural identity than other belief systems. In reviving Ásatrú, its practitioners have needed to reconstruct aspects both of the worldview more generally, and also of the practical aspects of rituals and worship.
The problem with the sagas, Iceland’s most prominent medieval literature, is that they depict events that occurred centuries before their writing. Though the general historicity of the sagas is (mostly) undisputed, the medieval mind had a rather flexible conception of truth, leaving many historical details to be desired. A further dimension is added to the question of the historical authenticity of the Icelandic sagas when the religious conversion is taken into account. Although The Poetic Edda is an invaluable source for pre-Christian mythology, it is, like all medieval Icelandic literature, a post-Christian text about a pre-Christian world. How does the Ásatrú Society grapple with these problems?
“This is a big argument,” Hilmar says. “Some scholars think there’s nothing of value in the sagas in regards to belief. But then you have people like Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson who had the opposite theory.” Hilmar here refers to his former professor and mentor, who was one of the first Icelanders to take folkloristics seriously as an academic discipline. “You have oral traditions stretching back for hundreds of years,” Hilmar explains. “In the Balkans, scholars found oral poems and epics that have been transmitted throughout generations practically unchanged. In some of these poems, the rhyme and metre are so complicated that the language doesn’t evolve at all, it stays frozen through centuries. We have gotten used to the idea that writing is the most trustworthy form of transmission, but that isn’t always the case.”
Some Icelandic sagas, for example, contain excerpts of skaldic poetry that can pre-date the written manuscript by centuries. We know this because of the systematic way in which language changes. Given the rigid, complex nature of skaldic poetry, individual words cannot change without breaking the structure of the poem. This allows both scholars and Ásatrú practitioners to identify some of the oldest passages in the sagas.
“One of the things we had to learn in the beginning of Ásatrú was how to find which passages were the oldest ones in the sources,” Hilmar explains. “There are some passages that scream out that they were part of a ritual, like the opening of Sigrdrífumál,” a poem fragment found in the Codex Regius, by far the most important manuscript for Eddic material. The poem relates events found in the mythic Völsunga saga, describing the meeting of the hero Sigurður and the valkyrie Brynhildur. The poem, according to Hilmar, “has this wonderful blessing in the beginning which is quite obviously related to the cardinal directions. We see this in other cultures’ religious rituals, where they begin by blessing the things to our left, to our right, behind and in front of us, above and below us.”
Another source that has proved especially interesting to scholars, and useful to the Ásatrú Society, is Eyrbyggja saga, an Icelandic saga concerning the settlement of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Where many of the Icelandic sagas prove scarce on details of the pre-Christian religion, Eyrbyggja saga gives the only account of the construction of a pagan temple, though it still leaves much to the imagination. According to the saga, one of Iceland’s settlers brings with him the dirt from underneath the altar of his temple. He deconstructs his temple to Þór plank by plank and brings it with him to Iceland. Features of the temple mentioned in the saga include an altar of sorts and an iron ring, traditionally the symbol of the power of the goði, both a chieftain and priest.
These days, the Ásatrú Society are also in the midst of building their temple. The temple, complete with a community area for reading groups and arts and crafts circles, is still very much a construction site. Originally granted a plot of land by the City of Reykjavík in 2008, the banking collapse in Iceland hurt the society’s finances. Construction finally began in 2015, but technical problems and other delays have left the temple incomplete to this day.
Aspects of sacred geometry and the golden ratio can be seen, and other special numbers have also been integrated into the design, such as 9 and 432,000, a number derived from the 540 doors of Valhalla and 800 einherjar (fallen warriors) mentioned in the poem Grímnismál. This number, Hilmar mentions, is also sacred in the Hindu tradition. Instead of shipping their timber from Norway, this time, the Ásatrú Society is using local Icelandic material. It is only in the last few years, the first time in Icelandic history since the deforestation that accompanied settlement, that trees suitable for construction grow in Iceland, with timber now being sourced from Hallormstaður in East Iceland.
Some rituals are totally absent from the saga material, such as coming-of-age ceremonies. “We did have to improvise some things,” Hilmar tells me. “But we know there had to be one. We do it in a very historical context. The children go through Hávamál (“The Sayings of the High One,” an Eddic poem and a central text for Ásatrú) and learn about the ethics it contains. But there’s no commitment, no expectation that they make this the rest of their life.” Funnily, he tells me that in the early days of the Ásatrú Society that there were no funerals. The community was still young and new enough that it was only after the passing of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, the first allsherjagoði, that the Ásatrú Society had to devise their funeral rites.
Ásatrú ceremonies are humble affairs. “A wedding, for example, is a simple thing,” the goði explains. “The idea is that the couple, as individuals, are marrying themselves. My role, the role of the priest, is to sanctify time and space.” There is no set liturgy within the Ásatrú Society, and Hilmar tells me that Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson would compose each ceremony from scratch, just like a poem, incorporating the occasion, individuals, and landscape.
While rooted in history, with more than a whiff of historical reenactment, the modern-day goðar aren’t afraid to admit that in some cases, they’re making it up as they go along. The changes aren’t considered a threat, but an integral part of the experience.
Despite the changing forms of Ásatrú, when they consult the sources, they are nevertheless interested in the oldest sources. Presumably this is because they perceive them as more authentic. So how does the Ásatrú Society balance their more historical approach, with, for lack of a better term, making it up as they go?
“Oh, but it does change, and it always has,” Hilmar tells me. “We know through archaeology and history that the practice has always changed, the location has always changed. A poem like Völuspá could not have been written in Denmark; it’s flat, there are no mountains or volcanoes.”
Hilmar is referencing one of the most important mythic poems, Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress), preserved in Eddukvæði. It deals with the beginning and end of the world and tells of fimbulvetur, the terrible winter that precedes ragnarök, the end of the world cycle in Norse mythology. The poem describes clouds blotting out the sun, which scholars have widely interpreted as an influence from the Icelandic environment: a volcano. In fact, Hilmar says, many of the most essential features of what we call Norse mythology were likely absent before the settlement of Iceland. What we take as the canonical version, in other words, would have appeared as an innovation to, say, an 8th-century Dane.
For Hilmar, keeping Ásatrú alive is not a matter of mindlessly reiterating the past. Just as Icelandic settlers adapted a cosmology and ethical system to their new environment, so too must modern heathens find ways of preserving the essence of this tradition, while letting its forms evolve.
Hilmar goes so far as to say there are some who feel too strongly the need to practice the original form of the religion. People are drawn to everything that’s old, and the archaic often presents itself as somehow more real than the modern, he says. Many may feel, for instance, that the runic alphabet known as the “Elder Futhark” is somehow more authentic than that which is known as the “Younger Futhark.” But the fact is that very few runic inscriptions from Elder Futhark survive, and when we think of the Age of the Vikings, these inscriptions are all in Younger Futhark and its regional dialects.
It is much the same with Ásatrú, and Hilmar points especially to some North American Ásatrú practitioners as taking the wrong stance towards the relationship between tradition and evolution. “These people,” he says, “they want to hit you over the head with the Eddas. They quote the poetry like scripture.”
These people, those who want to worship a frozen past, are also generally those on the political fringes. Hilmar does not have much to say about them except that “they run around and speak pidgin Icelandic. This idea, that it has to be in your bloodstream, that it’s ethnic or genetic, it’s ridiculous.”
ÁSATRÚ AT A GLANCE
Völuspá, or the Prophecy of the Seeress, is an eddic poem in which a seeress narrates to the god Óðinn the beginning and end of the world.
The name Ásatrú might simply be rendered as “belief in the gods,” a combination of trú, (faith), and ás, (god). Many may recognise the plural form of this word, Æsir, the dominant clan of gods in Norse mythology.
The Ásatrú Society also benefits from Iceland’s church tax, with increasing numbers of citizens preferring their contribution go to the Ásatrú Society than the Church of Iceland.
Norse paganism, or Ásatrú, is one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Iceland.
Hávamál, or Sayings of the High One, is another eddic poem. It can be described as wisdom literature, with Óðinn giving advice on such topics as friendship, being a good host, love, and drinking in moderation.
Eddukvæði, or the Poetic Edda, is a body mythological poems best preserved in the manuscript known as Codex Regius.
The Ásatrú Society was founded in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a farmer and master
of the traditional poetic form of rímur.
Ásatrú is a legally recognized religion in Iceland, meaning that it can perform legal ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals.