Asatru (Heathenry, Germanic Paganism)
What is Asatru?
Ásatrú (Icelandic, "Æsir faith") is a modern revival of the pre-Christian Nordic religion as described in the Norse epic Eddas.
Ásatrú is an Old Norse word consisting of Ása, referring to the Norse gods, and trú, "troth" or "faith". Thus, Ásatrú means "religion of the Æsir." The term was coined by Edvard Grieg in his 1870 opera Olaf Trygvason, in the context of 19th century romantic nationalism.
Generally synonymous terms for Asatru include Germanic Neopaganism, Germanic Heathenism, Forn Sed, Odinism, Heithni or Heathenry.
The original, ancient form of Norse religion is usually referred to as Germanic paganism, Germanic religion, or Norse mythology.
The ancient origins of Germanic religion date from prehistoric times and are thus unknown. Most of what is known about Germanic religion is derived from descriptions by Latin writers such as Julius Caesar (1st cent. BC) and Tacitus (1st cent. AD), descriptions of early Christian missionaries, and archaeological evidence including cult objects, amulets, grave goods, and place names.
Anglo-Saxon England was converted from Norse paganism to Christianity in the 7th century, Scandinavia in the 10th century. The Germanic/Norse religion gradually disappeared after this, although Christianity absorbed some of its external features, such as the name and popular customs of Easter.
Asatru, the modern attempt to revive the old Norse faith, was founded by the Icelandic farmer Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924–1993). Beinteinsson was a sheep farmer and a priest in the religion, who published a book of rímur (Icelandic rhymed epic poetry) in 1945. In 1972 he petitioned the Icelandic government to recognize the Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið ("Icelandic fellowship of Æsir faith") as a religious body. It did so in 1973, and Denmark and Norway have since followed.
According to one Asatru website, similar communities were formed in the USA and UK at the same time as those in Iceland, each unaware of the existence of the others. This is a sign that "Odin, the wanderer, is once again seeking worshippers." (Irminsul Ęttir)
Today, there are small groups of Asatru adherents throughout Scandinavia and North America. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, in the 1990s the approximately 300 Icelandic adherents hoped to dechristianize Iceland by the year 2000, the 1000th anniversary of the island's christianization.
Neither ancient Norse religion nor modern Asatru is predominantly text-based, but Norse myths are beautifully preserved in two Icelandic epics called the Eddas.
The first Edda dates from the 12th century AD, when Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), an Icelandic poet, historian and politician, retold many Norse myths with quotations from poems and explanations of mythological imagery. His goal was to provide a handbook for poets so the ancient lore would not be lost. It was called Edda, which means "great-grandmother" but may also be derived from Oddi, Sturluson's hometown. It is now known as Snorri's Edda or the Prose Edda.
In 1643, a 13th-cent. manuscript book known as the Codex regius was found in an Icelandic farmhous, containing poems on gods and heroes. This collection, together with a few poems from other manuscripts, is called the Elder Edda, Poetic Edda, or Saemund's Edda (after an 11th-cent. scholar). The poems may date from as early as 800 AD and appear to have been composed in pre-Christian times in Norway. They recount the exploits of the gods Freyr, Loki, Odin, and Thor and include riddle contests between gods and giants, and much about the creation and destruction of the worlds of gods and humans.
Ancient Norse paganism and modern Asatru are polytheistic. In the Viking Age (9th-11th cents.), there were four main deities (see below), with earlier gods remembered as minor deities and other supernatural beings of varying importance. Most of these gods are worshipped by modern followers of Asatru.
The Norse gods are of three different types:
- Aesir - the gods of the tribe or clan, representing kingship, order, craft, etc. (incl. Odin and Thor)
- Vanir - gods of the fertility of the earth and forces of nature (incl. Freyr and Freyja)
- Jotnar - giant-gods who are in a constant state of war with the Aesir, representing chaos and destruction
The four main deities in Germanic religion and Asatru are:
- Odin (Germanic Woden) - god of magic, poetry, riches and the dead; ruler of Valhalla (gave his name to Wednesday)
- Thor - sky god who wields a hammer, controls the weather, and protects the law and the community (gave his name to Thursday)
- Freyr - fertility god represented with a phallic statue and seen as the founder of the Swedish royal dynasty
- Freyja - fertility goddess of love and beauty, sister of Freyr, known by many names (including Frigg, Odin's wife and patron of families, who gave her name to Friday)
- Njord - father of Freyr and Freyja, god of ships, sea and lakes
- Tyr (Germanic Tiu) - god of battle, sacrifice, and justice (gave his name to Tuesday)
- Ullr - god of death, winter, and hunting
- Loki - the trickster
The original Germanic religion did not have a unified conception of the afterlife. Some may have believed that fallen warriors would go to Valhalla to live happily with Odin until the Ragnarök, but it seems unlikely this belief was widespread. Others seemed to believe that there was no afterlife. According to the "Hávamál," any misfortune was better than to be burnt on a funeral pyre, for a corpse was a useless object.
More often people believed that life went on for a time after death but was inseparable from the body. If men had been evil in life, they could persecute the living when dead; they might have to be killed a second time or even a third before they were finished. Some records imply that the dead needed company; a wife, mistress, or servant would be placed in the grave with them. On the whole, beliefs in afterlife seem rather gloomy. The dead pass, perhaps by slow stages, to a dark, misty world called Niflheim (Niflheimr).
Modern Asatru beliefs about the afterlife also vary. One Asatru website states:
We believe that there is an afterlife, and that those who have lived virtuous lives will go on to experience greater fulfillment, pleasure, and challenge. Those who have led lives characterized more by vice than by virtue will be separated from kin, doomed to an existence of dullness and gloom. The precise nature of the afterlife - what it will look like and feel like - is beyond our understanding and is dealt with symbolically in the myths. There is also a tradition in Asatru of rebirth within the family line. Perhaps the individual is able to choose whether or not he or she is re-manifested in this world, or there may be natural laws which govern this. In a sense, of course, we all live on in our descendants quite apart from an afterlife as such. To be honest, we of Asatru do not overly concern ourselves with the next world. We live here and now, in this existence. If we do this and do it well, the next life will take care of itself.
Old Norse/Germanic Religion
In the old Germanic religion, the central practice was animal and human sacrifice, conducted in the open or in groves and forests. Roman authors repeatedly mention the sacrifice of prisoners of war to the gods of victory.
One detailed description of a sacrificial feast is given in a saga about a king of Norway, in which cattle were slaughtered, blood was sprinkled inside and out, the meat was consumed and toasts were drunk to Odin, Njörd, and Freyr. Sacrifices of a more private kind might include the sacrifice of an ox to a god or smearing an elf mound with bull's blood.
Women known as Volva had prophetic gifts. They visited homes, practiced divination and foretold children's destinies. They were probably linked with the Vanir (fertility deities).
Temples were rare but wooden temples seem to have been built in later periods. A major religious center was at Upsala, in NE Sweden.
Asatru (Modern Neopaganism)
Communities of Asatru are called Kindreds, Hearths, or Garths. Priests are called Gothi; priestesses Gythia.
A central Asatru ritual is blot, which means sacrifice and may be connected with the word "blood." In place of traditional animal sacrifice, followers of Asatru offer mead (honey-wine), beer or cider to the gods. The liquid is consecrated to a god or goddess, then the worshippers drink a portion of it and pour the rest as a libation.
Another major practice is sumbel, a ritual toast in three rounds. The first round is to the gods, starting with Odin, who won the mead of poetry from the Giant Suttung. A few drops are poured to Loki to ward off his tricks. The second round is to ancestors and other honorable dead, and the third round is open.
Asatru holidays center on the seasons and are similar to other Neopagan holidays. The major celebrations are:
- Summer Finding (spring equinox, March 21) - dedicated to Ostara
- Winter Finding (fall equinox, September 21)
- Midsummer (summer solstice, June 21)
- Yule - the most important holiday; starts on the winter solstice (December 21) and lasts for 12 days
In place of a list of commandments, followers of Asatru try to follow these "Nine Noble Virtues":
References and Sources
- "Germanic religion." John R. Hinnels, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, 2nd ed. (Penguin Books, 1997).
- "Germanic religion and mythology." Encyclopędia Britannica (Encyclopędia Britannica Premium Service, 2005).
- "Iceland." The World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, Vol. I (Oxford UP, 2001), p. 388.
- Rev. Patrick "Jordsvin" Buck, "Asatru, An Ancient Religion Reborn." Irminsul.org.
- Ásatrúarfélagið (Iceland, est. 1972)
- Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost (Norway, est. 1996)
- Sveriges Asatrosamfund (Sweden, est. 1994)
- Asatrofællesskabet (Denmark, since 2003)
- The Troth (USA, est. 1987)
- Asatru Folk Assembly (USA, est. 1974)
- Asatru Alliance (USA, est. 1988)
- Irminsul Ættir (USA)
- Gamla Uppsala - a place of ancient Viking sacrifice in Sweden
- Germanic Heathenry The Penguin Book of Norse-Myths: Gods of the Vikings Kevin Crossley-Holland
- The Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Europeans? Jonathan Clements
- A History of Pagan Europe Prudence Jones
- Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe H. R. Ellis Davidson
- Viking Gods and Heroes E. M. Wilmot-Buxton
- The Norse Tarot Clive Barrett
- Living Asatru Greg (Dux) Shetler
- New Edda Wayland Skallagrimsson
- Mimir's Well Noil Skeggold