The ancient Norse gods were able to come out and perform this week in Iceland during an Autumn Equinox celebration in honor of Thor, Odin, Freya, Frigg, Vár, Freyr and Loki.
On Wednesday evening, 52 people gathered at a farm about 30 miles north of Reykjavik, on the shores of Hvalfjörður Bay, a serene body of water fringed by green, mossy hills sweeping across fog-covered mountains. Directly to the south was Mount Esja, actually a volcanic chain overlooking Reykjavik, the country’s capital. The rain from the previous day had continued and the evening was clear and calm.
The president was Jóhanna Harðardóttir, a priestess of Ásatrúarfélagið, known internationally as Ásatrú, Iceland’s fastest growing religion or spiritual movement. She began by hoisting a bull’s horn containing honey mead to the local goddesses, asking for blessings for the coming winter.
As a pagan movement first practiced by the early Vikings who roamed the eastern shores of Iceland, Ásatrú was resurrected from a 1,000-year slumber decades ago. Variants appeared in many other countries, some of which were adopted by neo-Nazi groups who appropriated the Nordic runes and symbols of Ásatrú.
But the Icelanders who founded the movement have no interest in a Viking-centered political movement. Their main preference is to commission a planned temple near downtown Reykjavik – an effort which, with cost overruns and complications from COVID-19, has stalled. But once more money is collected, the temple will be built, with features like a circular glass roof to make it feel like you are in nature.
Until then, Harðardóttir, 69, has been organizing rallies at his waterfront farm. Wednesday’s ceremony, called task (pronounced as “bloat”), began with a walk through a grassy pasture to a circle of grass-covered mounds with four narrow openings. They were about 6 feet tall. Inside was a circular space, about 18 feet in diameter, with a gravel floor.
Four benches bordered the circle. Near a bench was a 4-foot-high bentwood block designed as a phallic symbol. In one of the mounds was a stone figure with large breasts and a distended belly: the fertility goddess Freya.
In the middle was a metal brazier set on some rocks, next to which was a stone 2 feet high with a six-petalled flower on one side. On the other side was a hammer symbol for the god Thor.
“He’s my favorite god,” Harðardóttir said. “He protects me and I talk to him. We talk to the gods. They are like us. They argue like you and me.
And so for Thor – and all the other deities who might have listened – the priestess sanctified the area and sang verses from Edda in prose, a compilation of Norse mythology by 12th-century leader Snorri Sturluson. A fire has been lit in the brazier.
Wearing a green cape over a blue woolen robe with silver brooches, Harðardóttir passed around the horn. Because of COVID, no one took a sip.
“COVID,” she said with a sigh, “makes things so boring.”
What’s not boring are the statistics. The percentage of the population in Iceland’s largest religious body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, has grown from 90% in the 1990s to 64% today. But other groups are developing. There are at least 1,000 Muslims in the country, and the arrival in 2018 of the country’s first full-time Jewish leader, Brooklyn, New York Rabbi Avi Feldman, has spurred an increase in Jewish adherence. Mainly due to immigration from predominantly Catholic countries like Poland, the number of Catholics increased from 3,200 in 1998 to 14,658 members in 2019.
But it is mostly native Icelanders who join Ásatrú’s ranks, which tripled in size from 2007 to 2017. Once the temple, which has been plagued with cost overruns, will open, others will pass through the doors.
“We are over budget,” Harðardóttir admitted, “but we don’t owe anyone. We win every year, but it’s not because we try. People come to our ceremonies and ask, “Why didn’t I know about it before? ‘”
The group does not proselytize, nor do they insist on a dress code for events. Presenters tend to wear some sort of dress, but others may dress according to the weather (which, being Iceland, is usually cold and rainy). They can choose the gods they need.
Besides the god of war Odin, Freya and the trickster god Loki (“He steals my keys,” Harðardóttir insisted), there is Odin’s wife, Frigg, and Vár, a goddess who protects the contracts.
“There are so many of them,” she said. “When you’re in love it’s good to have Freya. When you’re sick you want Eir [the goddess associated with healing] about.”
His red Nissan has a “Protected by Thor” bumper sticker on its rear window.
“He protected me. I need a lot of strength and energy,” she insisted. As she faced the impending death of a grandchild, “for three days we didn’t know if she would survive. Thor put me through that.”
The child survived.
Asked about details, Harðardóttir said: “I only saw his hands and his clothes. He has a very thick belt and leather straps around his wrists. They are amazing hands. I never have any. seen others like them. “
She’s had this kind of communication with Thor “since I was a kid.” His mother was Catholic; the father did not believe anything. Although the household was lapsed, she underwent the Christian Rite of Confirmation as a teenager, which she now regrets.
“I felt bad to be confirmed,” she said. “I felt bad about a God who was constantly spying on you.” Today, two of his three siblings are affiliated with Ásatrú.
Ásatrú does not imply any kind of belief or set of beliefs.
“I don’t believe in a god in the sky that we pray to, but I believe in him [Thor]”, said the priestess.” Ásatrú is not a religion where one prays to a god. Rather, it’s a way of life, living in peace with yourself and your environment. “
Around his neck is a “solar cross” – not a Christian symbol but a silver cross in the shape of a plus representing the four elements (earth, water, air and fire) placed in a circle representing eternity. “Icelanders know their sagas,” she said, adding that many believe that the old religions are more faithful to their national identity. “This country is still Christian in name.”
The late University of Pennsylvania scholar Michael Fell wrote in his 1999 book, And some fell in the good soil: A history of Christianity in Iceland, that when the Icelandic Althing (one of the oldest known parliaments in the world) met in the summer of 1000, Thorgeir, a pagan leader and spokesperson for the Althing, said that Iceland was not could exist under two different laws. Thus, the island had to convert to Christianity, starting with itself.
Thorgeir’s method – covering themselves with a cloak or horse skin for 24 hours to think about the decision – was legitimate for his pagan companions because the oracular method was how they made important decisions. Others have suggested that the oracle of Thorgeir was only a spectacle and that in reality he was succumbing to political pressure, as Norway relied on Iceland to accept Christianity.
Regardless, paganism officially disappeared from Iceland, only to appear in 1972, when a group of 12 Icelanders gathered at the Borg Hotel in downtown Reykjavik founded Ásatrú in as a local popular religion. Within a year, it was an officially recognized religious organization.
The organization has gone through several leadership changes, and Harðardóttir said she is only acting as an organizer temporarily while the current high priest, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, is on sick leave. She said she believed the massive conversions to Christianity of a millennium ago were more of a business decision involving Icelanders’ ability to find markets for their fish with Christianized Europe.
“The thought at the time was: Icelanders have 12 gods, why should we care about another called Jesus? ” she said.
The most honored god in Ásatrú cosmology appears to be Thor, and Harðardóttir’s horn includes runes showing Thor as “the son of Earth, friend and protector”. On the other side of the horn is a poem about mead. Below are two crows belonging to Odin. These same crows are tattooed on his arms.
For now, Ásatrú continues to generate interest, even among young people. Five teenagers attended Wednesday’s rite, and for them – and other guests – Harðardóttir told the story of Odin and Sleipnir, his mythical eight-legged horse.
She pulled out a children’s book, Sólstafir (“Sunrays”), the story of the god Freyr and his wife, Gerd. It sold well, she said, even though it was only Icelandic. Harðardóttir is planning a second for larger readership, in Icelandic and English, on Thor taking two human children to Asgard, the homeland of the gods.
Children raised in a pagan way are trained to do “what is good for you and for others,” she said. Even though Ásatrú has no concept of sin, “there are some things wrong,” she added. “I don’t make rules for other people. I hope they know what’s best.”
What if they don’t?
“You can tell others what is right and wrong and teach them to make a difference. We will have to figure out how to teach ourselves what is best,” she said.