Norse mythology or paganism, preserved in such Icelandic texts as Prose Edda and other similar sagas, is one of the oldest religious beliefs of the world. It has been abundantly expressed in literature, cinema, and other popular cultures. The one-eyed raven in The Game of Thrones, for instance, is one of many such expressions. In literature, among many others, Neil Gaiman’s works like Norse Mythology (2017) and American Gods (2007) are influenced by pagan ideas. Bergman’s Virgin Spring (1960) has also represented these traditions in some ways.
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is the high priest of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið or the Asatru Association which has been striving for the revival and promotion of the worship of pagan Norse gods like Thor, Odin, Freya, and others. He acquired government sanction and raised enough funds to be able to set up a shrine for pagan gods. Located on the Öskjuhlíð hill in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, the temple will be the first shrine in Iceland – dedicated to the pagan Norse gods – in more than a millennium. The shrine is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The Norse Revival in Iceland
As one might have already understood, Asatru is a neo-pagan religion in Iceland. The Asatru Association in question was established by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson as early as 1972. Beinteinsson was a sheep farmer and wrote a form of epic poetry known as rímur. The initial membership of the group was somewhere around 12 individuals. Anyway, in 1973, they were officially recognized by the state as a faith-based organization and were given the right to conduct marriages, funerals, and even to collect taxes from the members. Consequently, 973 years after Christianity took over all religious affairs in Iceland in 1000 AD, the pagan Norse deities like Thor, Odin and others began to be officially worshipped in Iceland.
Hilmarsson became the head priest of the association in 2003 and since then, its membership has grown six times, moving from roughly 500 to 3000. The significance of the number lies in the fact that Iceland’s total population is somewhere around 330,000. In 2006, the association filed an application to the government asking for land for their temple. In 2008, they were given the piece of land on which the temple is now being constructed. With a formidable area of 350 sq. meters, the temple is supposed to have a vaulted ceiling and the capacity to accommodate 250 people.
In his days as the high-priest, Hilmarsson has already conducted more than 200 marriages and the number is only expected to rise with time. Apart from these more obvious ceremonies, the pagan beliefs have very much survived in oral culture, even after it was officially ‘wiped’ out of the nation. The increase in the Asatru membership is quite formidable evidence of this fact.
The Christian Outlook
There have been many speculations about how this rise in neo-paganism is going to affect the reception towards Christianity. The apparent motive of the early Anglo-Saxon projects of Christianising the Germanic cultures was to ‘rescue’ these people from the influences of the demons. Demons, here, were, in fact, the pagan Norse gods. However, this conviction among the early Christians was nothing but a grave misapprehension. Paganism was anything else but demonic.
It is quite true that the images of the Norse pantheons, as presented in the early scriptures, were quite absurd and could indeed inspire fear, in many more than respect. Take for instance, the image of a one eyed man riding a horse with eight feet. Yet, it must be remembered that these are only the literal meanings of the texts.
Hilmarsson has himself pointed out that these are only to be taken as poetic metaphors. The core essence of paganism is the worship of nature and natural forces which shape our lives. Moreover, we are also guided by forces which function from within ourselves and in our minds. The figures of the Norse pantheon are nothing but representations and manifestations of these natural and psychological forces.
The idea of neo-paganism, as perceived by Hilmarsson, is not to oppose Christianity or any other religion for that matter, but is rather a way of reviving and celebrating the ancient spiritual history of Iceland.
Instead of deriding them as the cult of the demon and suppressing their beliefs into the realm of the forgotten past, the world would do good to learn from the richness of the pagan Norse culture. Who knows, it may well be the perfect answer to many religious perils that we are facing now.