Ásatrú (often anglicised as Asatru) is an Icelandic term meaning 'Faith in the Æsir'; it is a modern term used describe a strain of the contemporary revival of polytheistic paganism often referred to as Heathenry.
The original Heathens were the pre-Christian North European peoples who lived a thousand and more years ago in the lands around what is now called the North Sea and possibly further. These included the peoples of England, Scandinavia, Germany, Frisia (Friesland) and the numerous colonies established in the outward expansion of these people during the Viking Age, though the religious beliefs of these peoples had much earlier origins.
Many historians and etymologists have speculated as to Archaeo-Heathenry’s connection with even earlier Indo-European traditions. However its earliest traceable roots start during the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700-500BC), for example, several Bronze Age rock carvings depict a similar figure who appears to be holding an axe or hammer, causing archaeologists to suggest that this is an early depiction of the thunder deity Thor.
Though we know little of the actual practices of the time, re-occurring archaeological themes suggest that several elements carried over into later religious custom. The Germanic Iron Age (Common Germanic Period c. 500BC-400AD) begins to expand our knowledge of these traditions through Roman ethnography. Two of the most referenced of these works are Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Tacitus’ Germania. Though they are often called into question regarding their sources and tendency to view practices and deities through a Romano-centric lens, they provide a fascinating early insight into these rituals and the people whose lives they centered around.
This era also saw the development of the Runic writing system beginning with the Elder Futhark around 250BC. The majority of archaeo-heathen beliefs that can be studied or researched from our perspective appear to have formed during the Migration Age (c. 400-700AD), characterised by upheaval and struggle following the collapse of the Roman Empire and invasions of steppe tribes from the east. This is possibly because some of the events and characters in later legends of these peoples in the Poetic and Prose Eddas appear to relate to real-life people and movements during this time period. These years also saw the initial rise of Christianity as a true world religion, as well as the Christianisation of several heathen peoples in later years, including the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic Saxons, Lombards and Frisians. Despite the emergence of Christianity, heathen traditions began to spread across Northern Europe. The disturbance of early European trade routes during the Migration Age along with other socio-economic issues forced the peoples of Scandinavia to expand outwards in an explosion of trading, warfare and settling known as the Viking Age (793-1066AD). Beliefs from this era benefit from much better documentation, through the aforementioned Poetic and Prose Eddas, most notably in the Icelandic sagas, written during the Middle Ages. Though once again in the later years of this period Christianity began to gain footholds across Scandinavia, often bypassing the common people and appealing directly to the royalty and landowners, who benefited from the Christian worldview.
During the early Middle Ages attempts to force the conversion of Scandinavia became more persistent, not an easy task, considering that the majority of the populace remained staunchly heathen for many years. No particular faction was faultless, but due to the stubbornness of heathen belief, Christian leaders often employed increasingly more brutal methods to coerce, notably Olaf Tryggvason and his descendant Olaf Haraldsson (later canonised as St. Olaf) are said to have converted the Norse ‘by the sword’. These actions often led to violent and bloody civil wars between the Christian and Heathen factions (the famous Battle of Stiklestad saw nearly 10,000 dead). Iceland’s conversion was mostly peaceful thanks to an agreement which allowed them to continue to practice in private, at least until the Church gained a stronger foothold on the island. One of the last heathen rulers was Sweyn (known as Blot-Sweyn for his readiness to take part in the ritual blót) who ousted his Christian predecessor at the behest of the Swedes. He had not ruled for long before the exiled king returned and murdered Sweyn by burning down his hall with his entourage inside.
The High Middle Ages saw heathenry being extinguished as a religion throughout Northern Europe, although private practice began to morph into folk beliefs, many of which are still held today throughout Europe regardless of religious orientation. Even many Christian holy days and festivals are connected with old heathen beliefs (Easter is Ēostrun the celebration of Ēostre, Christmastide replaced the festival of Yule) a contradiction caused by the Church’s preclusion for transposing their practices on pre-existing festivals, to make it easier transition for the commoners and to smother the remnants of the past. This was also manifested physically as it is clear that few heathen religious sites are left, due to the fact that churches were usually built on top of temple hof sites and sacred natural sites were sanctified.
Survival & Romaticism
Through folklore and legend, knowledge of pre-Christian traditions survived in the reality of the common man. Many of these tales and beliefs were later compiled into collections of fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm. Several stories also made their way into the courtly romances of Medieval Europe, notably the Nibelungen saga (very prominent in German myth, often associated with the Burgundian royal house), which has been the subject of numerous works of art, fiction, poetry and music. Much of the literature that influences modern heathenry comes from Iceland. During its original conversion to Christianity the Icelandic Althing agreed to accept the change peacefully, providing that people would be able to continue their own religious practices in private. Though this was ended in due course, this, combined with Iceland’s isolation from mainland Europe, possibly contributed to the lore surviving in clearer form. Historian-poets, such as the famous Snorri Sturluson, compiled vast collections of poems and stories, comprising myth, legends and real-world history. These added to other sources from throughout Scandinavia comprise what are now known as the Eddas (Poetic and Prose) and the Nordic Sagas. These were mostly recorded after conversion to Christianity, so are often questioned for their snycretic influence from Christian belief. Nevertheless this literature has served as a great inspiration to many people and as a tool in the study of Germanic paganism.
Further information can be gained from surviving examples of pre-Christian law and cultural themes; one of the most obvious being the days of the week (Old English influence – Monday=Mona(Mani)’s Day, Tuesday=Tiw(Tyr)’s day, Wednesday=Woden(Odin)’s day etc.). It is also notably present in folk-art throughout Northern and Western Europe, including in Churches and standing crosses. There is also thankfully a strong Archaeological record, to which new discoveries are constantly being added. On the whole however, Christianity did a fairly thorough job of erasing Archaeo-Heathenry’s history and lore. The Holy Roman Emperor’s Charlemagne and Louis the Pious made a point of destroying sacred sites (Charlemagne though is known to have collected many Germanic songs, but these are said to have been destroyed by his successor Louis).
During the early modern period, in the 19th century, a revival of Germanic culture took place in Europe, fuelled by the birth of Romantic Nationalism in Scandinavia and Germany, along with the related ‘Viking Revival’ in Victorian England. At this time the literature of archaeo-heathenry came under incredible scrutiny and study. Organised Germanic pagan groups began to appear in the early 20th Century. However, in 1933 the Nazi party took control in Germany, with many of its members associated with German mysticist groups. Many ancient European symbols and phrases were misappropriated by the Nazi party in its attempt to build the concept of a Germanic Aryan race, including the Swastika (known to heathens as the fylfot and often associated with Thor). This was in contradiction to the Nazis support of ‘positive Christianity’ and later years saw the persecution of German mysticists. This misappropriation of heathen beliefs and symbols by Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists is something that we still struggle against today unfortunately, but thankfully they are a minority and the bulk of heathens scorn on these practices. Many felt the same way at the time, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon scholar J.R.R. Tolkien commenting on his grudge against Hitler for "ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.". Odinism was the first major incarnation of modern heathenry, originating in Australia in 1930’s and 40’s. It was created by immigrants from the UK, influenced by the earlier ‘Viking Revival’, but later collapsed under scrutiny during WW2 and the movement went underground. Odinism later flourished again, but has often been criticised for associating with racist or folkish ideology (though this is not true for all organisations). After 1970, the liberation of social values gave the revival movement the freedom it needed to blossom. Germanic pagan organisations of various stripes appeared in the UK, USA and Iceland, working independently of each other. Iceland, through its strong cultural connection with archaeo-heathenry, saw the founding of Ásatrúarfélagið, the modern world’s first non-political, purely religious heathen movement, by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson. This was also the origin of the term Ásatrú, which has since become a banner and title for heathens across Europe and the world, a new beginning, without the political bluster or foggy-eyed mysticism. Many heathen organisations now exist, with several countries granting official recognition to the movement (however the UK Government’s practice does not include the recognition of minority religions except through the census).
Asatru and Modern Heathenry
Heathenry is at its heart individualistic, there are no concrete lists of rules for how to live your life and no central authority. This is considered an ideal situation for most heathens, not the least because it mirrors the practice of archaeo-heathenry, wherein regional belief and practice varied widely. Many modern heathens are members of local groups called hearths, kindreds or kiths. Most religious practices take place within these communities, often officiated by recognised (or unrecognised) priests known as Godhis (male) and Gydhjas (female), however despite the isolation of individual groups, organisations like ours, in the spirit of the great heathen festivals (such as those at Uppsala, a centre of pre-Christian belief) endeavour to bring heathens together in large numbers to network, learn, worship together and show unity.
The beliefs of modern heathenry can be extremely difficult to catechise due to its ever changing nature as we understand heathenry better through study and research. We are all polytheists, though the definition and view of deities often differs widely from person to person. The gods an individual chooses to acknowledge are usually a personal decision, but invariably they are normally present in the Northern European pantheon comprising the Æsir, Vanir and related divine beings. Another area of devotion for heathens is ancestor worship, a deference to passed family members both recent and ancient. This can be shown by offerings given during rituals or care given to family burial sites etc. Also many animist heathens honour the wights or vættir, nature spirits inhabiting nearly all environments, which are sometimes propitiated with offerings. All heathens share a similar worldview based on these principles, as well as along some of the principles of Norse Cosmology which divides the universe into 9 worlds connected by a ‘world tree’ named Yggdrasil, however many heathens see this as an abstract concept.
Despite the lack of regulation there are a few simple views that heathens share, that by holding these beliefs, they shape the way we live our lives. Probably the most important of these is a concept of fate, or wyrd, through which heathens recognise the interconnectivity of all beings, forces and decisions in the universe. In myth this is controlled by the Norns, three sisters of destiny and fate. It is believed that an individual can navigate through their wyrd, and thus, the heathen worldview oscillates between concepts of free will and fatalism. There is no unified school of thought regarding the afterlife and while many heathens speak of Valhalla, the home of the chosen slain, this is not necessarily believed in a fundamental sense. Heathenry tends to focus on our life on earth (or Midgard in Norse Cosmology), rather than what comes after.
The heathen worldview manages to offer us a unique standpoint without lambasting its believers or constraining them. Moral and ethical views are often based on the perceived ethics of archaeo-heathenry, most notably extracted from the stories of heroic figures from the Nordic Sagas and the proverbs of the Hávamál (a collection of poems attributed to Odin, known as the ‘Words of the High One’). Ideals highly prized by the community include honour, courage, integrity, hospitality, hard-work and familial loyalty. Some organisations, especially in America have compiled these values and others into a list of ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, however these have not been endorsed by scholars or religious experts and outside of America have been widely rejected as syncretic Christian influence (although vastly different in content many have compared the NNV to the Ten Commandments).
Heathen places of worship are as of yet, extremely thin on the ground. Historically a heathen temple was called a Hof, though none are left standing, we can still learn about them through archaeological study. In Iceland, where Ásatrú is most prevalent, heathens have gained planning permission for 2 purpose-built hofs, the first of their kind in modern Europe. Sacred enclosures and way shrines were also sites of worship. In modern heathenry rituals regularly take place in the great outdoors, sometimes at ancient sites of historical interest, or more often in any available quiet space. Obviously many aspects of Archaeo-heathenry cannot be replicated in modern times, so naturally some recent practices do not have corresponding ancient rituals. However, such is heathen respect for the past that wherever possible, we strive to follow in the footsteps of those before, something that many heathens feel is missing from many Neo-pagan movements. While Asatru is not Archaeo-heathenry, we believe it is a valid interpretation of those beliefs and means as much to us as it did to people hundreds of years ago.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_paganism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_neopaganismhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/subdivisions/heathenry_1.shtml http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A918452http://www.religioustolerance.org/asatru.htm
Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Anthony Faulkes (Everyman, 1987)
The Prose Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia by E.O.G. Turville-Petre (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964)
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson (Penguin, 1964)
Scandinavian Mythology by H.R. Ellis Davidson (Paul Hamlyn, 1969)
Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions by H.R. Ellis Davidson (Manchester University Press, 1988)
The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson (Routledge, 1993)
Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen by Christopher Abram (Hambledon Continuum, 2011)
Article by Ioan McCarthy