Thor and Freyja are my Copilots
Move over Jesus, Thor is back in the house. Thor along with Odin, Tyr, Frigga, Loki and Freyja are back in Iceland’s house of worship.
Part of Iceland’s magic is its living ties to Norse deities dating back to the BC era. When you walk the streets of Reykjavik many are named in celebration of the ancient gods. These gods are merely mythical movie and comic book super heroes for millions globally, but a growing number of Icelanders see them in a sacred way. Icelanders were never really sold on Christianity when it was forced on them 1,100 years ago by Norway’s king. Iceland’s heathen ancestors believed in their pantheon of bold ax-wielding gods leading to today’s growing Asatru religious movement. Asatrus believe these gods live within people helping them live well by working in harmony with nature.
Icelanders have always held these Scandinavian heroes as the oral and literary pillars on which the country was forged. These are not mythical gods for some, but real life exemplars on which to build a modern day belief system. That system has no concept of original sin and no need to be saved. Guilt is not part of the equation. Live well now, let the after-life take care of itself and be at peace with Mother Earth.
Iceland is one of the world’s least religious nations with a high rate of non-believers in traditional religion. No wonder Odin is back riding his chariot with eight legged horses and Freyja is riding her cart pulled by cats. VICE columnist Mark Hay, sums it succinctly enough, “Some members do believe in the gods, others are agnostic. The movement is non-dogmatic. Beyond acknowledging some manner of a hidden force in nature and respect for Icelandic culture, you can do whatever the hell you want.”
Thor Speaks, Politicians Listen
The Asatrus don’t see man as master of the earth, just part of it. Preserving the planet is more important than its exploitation and they are not bashful about saying so. The Asatrus were in the vanguard of the hydro-electric dam project protests in 2006.
They are also trying to avoid sexism as their gods are not solely masculine figures. The two most popular gods are Thor, the red-bearded god of Thunder and Freyja, the goddess of love and fertility. This red-headed voluptuouso is mythically famed for sleeping with four dwarfs to gain a magic necklace before going on to more heroic and lascivious adventures. Frigga, the wife of Odin is also revered as the goddess of marriage and motherhood. Her backstory is not as scandalous.
Icelanders’ affinity for the gods was bubbling under the surface for nearly 1000 years before the Asatruarfelagio (belief in the ancient gods) movement geysered to life in 1972. A group of believers sat around a café in Reykjavik organizing and decided it was time to become a state recognized religion. They knew religious strife could have torn the country apart by civil war in 1000 AD, but the pagans buckled as Christianity reigned. It was politically and economically convenient to be Christian for Iceland to get along with its larger European neighbors.
The Asatrus sensed times had changed and Iceland was ripe for another point of view. Their first high priest in 1972, poet Sveinborn Beinteinsson, got a meeting with the Minister of Justice and Ecclestical Affairs requesting that Asatru become state recognized. Not surprisingly, the Lutheran Church objected asking how the country could recognize a religion that had multi-gods. While the debate was leaning toward Asatru rejection, Reykjavik was hit with a massive summer electrical storm knocking out power. Electrical storms are rare on the island. Some said it was Thor, thunderously speaking. Within weeks the government recognized the new pagan religion.
New Church Rising
When you fly into Reykjavik look down as you near the airport and you may see a small construction site. Don’t be surprised to see people walking around it in medieval robes. No it’s not the site of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, but the site of the Asatrus first major church.
On Oskjuhill adjacent to the Reykjavik domestic airport they are building their church. It’s an ambitious project and when completed later this year will allow the group to hold their “blots” or feasts for up to 250 people. Marriages and other ceremonies will be conducted there. For the last 20 years the blots were held outdoors in the summer in parks and were open to all denominations.
The new temple is half buried 13 feet deep and will have a stone dome allowing sunlight to filter in. All the trees being taken out for the “hof” or temple are being replanted nearby. “The Asatruarfelagio temple is one of the biggest jumps in legitimacy and visibility for European paganism in recent memory,” wrote VICE’s Hay. The 4,000 square foot temple will align with the sun and incorporate the sacred numbers 9 and 432,000 into the design. The group has raised nearly $1 million to build the temple. In the last five years the Asatru congregation has doubled to nearly 3,000. Sexual harassment scandals in the Lutheran Church have driven some to seek alternatives.
The group encourages both Icelanders and tourists to join the blots. “Foreigners are more than welcome to join our feasts, get married here or have a name giving ceremony,” high priest Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson told the BBC.
The Gods Must Be Superheroes
Anybody seeking religious salvation in Iceland or Namibia (remember “The Gods Must be Crazy” where a coke bottle was worshipped?) should ask: Just who were these Icelandic gods and what contemporary meaning can they possibly have?
Hilmarsson has been an Asatru since he was 16 and has studied the ancient poems and manuscripts that chronicle the gods exploits. He explains, “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.”
The horse Hilmarsson was referring to was Sleipnir and its one-eyed rider was Odin who was depicted in 18th century Icelandic manuscripts as the god of magic, poetry and war. It is Hilmarsson who has the reigns guiding Iceland’s Asatru’s through perilous straits. He cut ties with Asatru movements in Europe and the U.S. as some of these groups used the movement as a cover for white supremacy and Nazi beliefs. He has thrown out some of his members who made racist remarks in an effort to keep Iceland’s Asatru above suspicion.
Hilmarsson is a professor of music at Iceland’s Academy of Arts and has composed sound tracks for 25 films including the Oscar-nominated doc, “Children of Nature.” Among the battles he has fought is to have gay couples marry and he joined other religious leaders calling for an amendment in Iceland’s constitution to end the special status for the National Church of Iceland.
For him, Asatru spans centuries of Icelandic life, a living tradition that dates back to the ancients that has survived modern times. The contemporary movement descends from Iceland’s 19th century romantic mysticism, to its post-World War II rejection of modernity and its 1960s counter- culture artistic leanings.
When he was a boy Hilmarsson liked to read comic books. His father scolded him and made him study Iceland’s history. “My father caught me reading a Superman magazine, and he just gave me Grettis Saga and said, ‘Okay, this is the real Superman.’ We have 380 bon mots or sayings from this saga which are still used in modern language. A lot of the saga material is still part of everyday language. We have things from Hávamál [‘Sayings of the High One’] written on headstones in Christian cemeteries. It’s so culturally ingrained. We can’t really escape it.”
And so while visiting Iceland this summer, feel the power of the ancients. Experience the thunder of Thor on an Iceland adventure of your own.