Iceland is officially worshiping Norse gods again
For the first time since the Vikings sailed, the Icelandic public are worshiping classical Norse gods like Odin, Thor, and Frigg at a public temple built in their honor. “The worship of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods of the old Norse pantheon became an officially recognized religion exactly 973 years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity.”
An Icelandic association called Asatruarfelagid, which promotes faith in the Norse gods and is headed by high-priest Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, raised sufficient funds and received permission from the government to construct the first such temple in 1,000 years. Observers wonder how the rise of neo-pagan traditions will affect the reception of Christianity.
High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson has had a lot on his plate lately. He is the leader of Ásatrúarfélagið, Iceland’s largest association of followers of Ásatrú, the Norse neopagan religion, and ever since news hit the international press that his association would soon be breaking ground on the first temple to the Norse gods in 1000 years, his inbox has been flooded with inquiries from foreign journalists. Ásatrú ceremonies have been disturbed by curious tourists.
This current notoriety is a far cry from the humble beginnings of Ásatrúarfélagið. Founded in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a sheep farmer and writer of rímur, a form of epic poetry (here he is, chanting the poetic Edda), the original congregation numbered just about a dozen souls. Nonetheless, in 1973 the association applied for, and received, official recognition as a faith-based organization with the right to perform marriages and funerals as well as to collect congregation tax. The worship of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods of the old Norse pantheon became an officially recognized religion exactly 973 years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity. This conversion was agreed upon at the Althing in 1000 AD; consensus was reached, with characteristic Scandinavian pragmatism, with the help of three compromises: the new Christians would still be allowed to eat horsemeat, abandon unwanted infants in the wilderness and worship the old gods in the privacy of their homes.
In recent decades, membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has grown to about 2,400 — a not insignificant sum in a country of only 330,000 — and has become the largest non-Christian religious community in Iceland. Ásatrú movements in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are more modest, with members numbering a few hundred in each country, but they are growing steadily.
It should come as no surprise that the news of a new temple to the Norse gods has drawn such attention: Along with progressive politics and the Nordic welfare model, narratives of the pillaging Vikings and their gods are arguably what make up the total of people’s associations with Scandinavia in much of the world. It’s enough to take a stroll down the main streets of Stockholm’s Old Town — or similar tourist traps in Oslo, or Reykjavik — to realize that Vikings are good for business: Norse-themed dolls, t-shirts, and costumes are for sale at every souvenir store. Horned Viking helmets, sometimes completed with a fringe of blonde hair glued to the rim, are particularly popular. (There is no evidence that the Vikings ever attached horns to their helmets.)
And it’s not just for the tourists: Every summer thousands of vacationing Swedes, Danes and Norwegians flock to that Scandinavian version of the Renaissance Faire, the Viking market. Norse mythology and the Viking esthetic have provided plenty of fodder for kitsch souvenirs and ideas that we not only sell to tourists but also, to a large extent, buy into ourselves.
whatever floats your boat eh?
“his association would soon be breaking ground on the first temple to the Norse gods in 1000 years,”