“Are Humanistic Pagans building a temple in Iceland?” by John Halstead

If you haven’t heard, the heathen group, Ásatrúarfélagið, has announced that it is building the first pagan temple in that country in 1000 years*Ásatrúarfélagið is the the Icelandic Asatru Association and you can find their page translated by Google here.  You can read The Wild Hunt’s complete coverage of the temple building here.  This is newsworthy for a couple of reasons.  First, Scandinavia was late to convert to Christianity, centuries after the rest of Europe, and is still predominately Christian.  Second, contemporary Pagans have had a very difficult time building temples and community centers.  (See Cara Shulz’s 2-part series at The Wild Hunt on “Building Pagan Temples and Infrastructures”.)

As a Humanistic Pagan, what caught my attention about this story was this statement by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the high priest of the Association:

“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.”

This statement caught the attention of a lot of other people too, from devotional polytheists who were offended to conservative Christians who were mocking to atheists who were dismissive.  (Even ex-Mormons had opinions about it.)  According to my Google search, this statement has been reprinted over 2,500 so far and it has already been added to the Wikipedia entry on Norse religion!

Rod Dreher, at The American Conservative, has suggested that this news serves as a kind of religious Rorschach test.  Is it …

  1. Bad news: the Icelanders have lost their Christian faith, and are now in danger of reverting to the worship of false gods;
  2. Bad news: just when the Icelanders finally seem to be getting Christianity out of their system, some are even going back to an even dumber form of belief in the supernatural;
  3. Good news: because paganism is true, or at least more true than the Christianity and the secularism it supplants;
  4. Moderately bad news: it’s a shame they’re going to paganism, but at least it’s a modernist, liberal version of paganism, without any of the sacrifices, and without anybody really believing in the supernatural; these are just people playing games; nothing will come of it;
  5. Moderately good news: paganism is false, but as C.S. Lewis saw, it is more true than atheistic materialism; the pagan, whatever his errors, understands what the modern materialist does not: that the world is shot through with spirit and divinity; perhaps Europe must be re-paganized to some degree before it can be re-Christianized;
  6. Something else?

I saw this as potentially very good news.  I was excited by the possibility that a project this momentous was being spearheaded by religious humanists.  But before I claimed Hilmar and his folk as one of our own, I decided to do some further digging.  According to Wikipedia (that’s always a bad way to begin a statement), Ásatrúarfélagið is non-creedal and the personal beliefs of its high-priests have ranged from what I would call a tepid theism to pantheism (algyðistrú):

“My faith is based on a constant search but I don’t search frantically. It’s no use to rush out into space to search for some gods there, if they want to have anything to do with me, they will come. I have often become aware of them, but I don’t rush after them or shout at them. I have gotten to know them a bit in myself and also in other people.” — Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson

“The best way to do that [practice Ásatrú or heathenry], in my opinion, is to be self-consistent, live in harmony with nature, associate with it with respect and to submit to the public order. … The gods shape the dwelling places of people, the earth and the solar system out of the material that already exists. To that extent we can look on the forces of nature as the gods themselves and to a large extent that is what people did in antiquity.” — Jörmundur Ingi Hansen

“Ásatrú is a pantheistic belief. The earth, the air and the water has great value to us. We are a part of the earth and not its masters.” — Jónína K. Berg

“I believe in a higher power which appears to us in the multiplicity of nature and of human life.” — Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

Next, I found a report on the Facebook page for the Heathen journal, Óðrœrir, which claimed that Hilmar’s statement was taken out of context.  The report was by Josh Rood, the founder of Óðrœrir and a member of Ásatrúarfélagið:

An update for people who were upset by the quote in the recent article by Hilmar Hilmarsson, Alsherjargoði of Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland, in which he supposedly said “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

The quote was taken out of context. Ásatrúarfélagið is nondogmatic and Hilmar has never claimed to represent the beliefs of individuals not himself. What he said regarding “do you actually believe in the gods” was as follows:

“It’s very personal. People vary in their approach. Some people see them as archetypes, and others see them as forces of nature. It can change from year to year, or decade to decade in a person’s life. A lot of people see Thor as a friend of mankind and seek him out for strength and Freya would be very good for affairs of the heart and so on. But with polytheistic religions there’s not real script telling you how to behave, it’s something you work out for yourself.”

It should also be noted that neither Hilmar or the Ásatrúarfélag claim to represent Ásatrú. They are and speak on behalf of their own org within their own culture.

The quote Óðrœrir which mentions comes from a Buzzfeed article.  But it is not clear that the first quote was actually taken out of context, since the first quote is not part of the second, and the two quotes do not seem to be in conflict, nor do they conflict with his quote on Wikipedia.  In the Buzzfeed article, Hilmar says, “Some people see them as archetypes, and others see them as forces of nature.”  What he fails to say is that some people see them as literal persons.  Josh Rood has yet to confirm whether or not there are, in fact, theistic members of Ásatrúarfélagið.

In any case, it seems safe to say that Ásatrúarfélagið and its high priest are humanist-friendly, and that a non-theistic Pagan, who understands the gods either as psychological archetypes or poetic metaphors for natural forces, would be not be out of place in their rituals.  It may be the influence of secularism on Icelandic culture or just PR, but I detect in all of the above a discomfort with literalistic theism, at least on the part of the high priests of Ásatrúarfélagið.  It seems that Humanistic Pagans may have kin in Iceland after all.  If so, then the Ásatrúarfélagið temple is further evidence that religious humanists can be as serious about our religion as our theistic counterparts.

Addendum: I want to thank Sweveham for offering some interesting links, in the comment below, about the differences between Icelandic and American heathenry.  Of particular relevance to this article is a quote from an interview with Hilmar by Dr. Karl Seigfried:

Hilmar: “… We are intimately linked with nature and the forces around us. For some of us, the gods are personifications of natural forces. For others, they are archetypal influences. Then, of course, for others, it’s a nice historical thing because it rhymes with an atheist sort of mindset.”

Karl: “Some followers of Ásatrú in the United States seem to practice their religion in a very American mode of true belief – if you pray to Thor, he will answer you. They read the Eddas in a way that is similar to literalist interpretations of the Bible.”

Hilmar: “Yes. It seems to be a fundamentalist mindset. You move away from being a fundamentalist Christian into being a fundamentalist Ásatrúar. You get into Edda-bashing, which is an unbelievable thing to do. Ha!”

Karl: “Do you think that kind of mindset is absent here?”

Hilmar: “Yeah, absolutely. I have yet to meet anyone like that in Iceland.”

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

18 Comments on ““Are Humanistic Pagans building a temple in Iceland?” by John Halstead

  1. I find the idea of American polytheists getting offended about what Icelandic heathens do or don’t believe to be frankly bizarre, but not surprising given the number of people on the internet who seem to have a full time job of crying “offence” at anything.

    Surely even the most hard-core polytheists don’t really believe Odin is literally just “a one-eyed man riding about on a horse with eight feet”? That’s like literally believing the Christian god is just a guy in the sky with a beard.

    I applaud what this group have done, and I think their openness to different interpretations of what the gods might be is admirable. “Poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology” pretty much sums up my view too.

    • Ryan, thanks. I have to say though, every time I have said to myself, “Surely there aren’t people who really believe [fill in the blank]”, I’ve been proven wrong.

      — John

    • I agree, Ryan, one can believe in the existence of a god without believing it literally exists as it is depicted in myth, which is poetic in nature as a genre, not prosaic and literally-descriptive. I have no trouble as a polytheist engaging with my gods as powers of nature imbued with spirit, and with my myth as poetic. Literalism is not the only way to do polytheism. Animistic and pantheistic communities from ancient Greece to indigenous nations extant today demonstrate their polytheisms in non-literal ways, so I am not sure why there is an idea that it only looks the one way that some contemporary westerners engage with it themselves. I find I resonate better with European and indigenous polytheisms much better than with American polytheisms, myself.

      • “Powers of nature imbued with spirit” is a very nice way of putting it. I have noticed a distinct difference between European and US ways of doing polythesim/paganism.

        I wonder if it is linked to the way religion is normally done in those areas. Europe and the UK does tend to have a more liberal, metaphorical view of religion anyway while the US skews to quite literalist Christianity. Perhaps literalist polytheism is a reaction to the previaling US religious climate, which we in Europe don’t have to contend with?

  2. I suspect Hilmar’s comment was made in response to a very particular question asked by the reporter; it would be nice to know exactly what that question was, but I think we can imagine it pretty well. This bears out my long-held suspicion that naturalism is more endemic to global contemporary Paganism than we might otherwise think. It is rhetorically submerged for reasons I think we can also imagine pretty well.

    Thanks for this research and analysis.

  3. I’m fairly sure there are theistic and supernaturalist members of the Ásatrúarfélagið. Having no set religious dogmas and leaving every member to form their own view of norse paganism allows every kind of belief (or non-belief) to prosper among it’s members. At least, that’s how things turn out in the swedish equivalent of Ásatrúarfélagið, samfundet Forn Sed, which has a similar lack of dogma.
    For more information on the Ásatrúarfélagið and norse paganism in general, I can recommend Karl E.H. Seigfried’s Norse mythology blog on http://www.norsemyth.org/, he has interviews with Hilmarsson and other members of the Icelandic organization.

    I think there exists a kind of cultural difference in religion between the Nordic countries and the USA which actually cuts through Christian/Pagan divide. From what I read, American Christians tend to have a very devotional and personal relationship with God and a rather literal reading of the Bible. Nordic Christians (in the mainstream Lutheran state churches at least) however tend to put much focus on practice or ethics and tend to read the Bible metaphorically and as written by fallible humans. In fact, in Sweden at least, there are priests which do not believe in the supernatural parts of the Bible and which continue to practice and are accepted by their congregations, just as Norse Pagans have naturalistic leaders. A recent archbishop of the Swedish church, KG Hammar, though perhaps not a naturalist. had a very immanent view of God and interpreted the virgin birth as poetic metaphor.

    A similar divide exists between Heathens in the Nordic countries and in the USA. American Norse pagans like the Christians tend to have a very devotional and emotional relationship with the gods than their Nordic equivalents (who also tend to place more emphasis on local nature spirits in their practice than the Americans). Here is a good essay on the subject: http://fornsed.tumblr.com/post/2110556666/there-are-two-main-strains-germanic-neopaganism
    Of course this is related to politics as well. In the nordic countries, Norse pagans tend to be left-wing and environmentalist in their outlook, while American Heathens tend to be more right-wing and in a worrying way, incorporate racialist and militarist elements into their elements (there are of course many exceptions to this, this is only about general tendencies). Michael Strmiska has written about this here http://www.academia.edu/2339326/On_Becoming_A_Pariah_Personal_Reflections_on_my_Asatru_Research_ and on his blog The Political Pagan.

    • Sweveham, thanks for your comments. You confirmed a suspicion of mine about Icelandic religious culture generally.

      Galina Krasskova has also written about the connection between American heathenry and conservative Christianity in her thesis (to be published soon, I hear).

      — John

  4. “Elements into their elements” is of course supposed to be “elements into their beliefs”.

  5. Thank you for sharing this analysis; it’s one of the fairer and more even-headed responses to this news that I’ve seen.

    I agree with Sweveham that there are most likely theistic members of this group, but that theism is probably not a requirement for membership. There have been and continue to be many groups that follow this lead, going back all the way to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at least. (Aleister Crowley might have thought Gods, angels and demons are actually real, but not all of the other members did.) What I can’t fathom is Pagans (i.e., certain polytheists) acting like this is anything new.

    I do take issue with the final quote from Hilmar, in which he appears to conflate actual polytheism with fundamentalism. I don’t know whether he intended to come across that way or not, but that’s how it comes across in the context quoted above. As a polytheist myself, I like to think I’m a pretty rational person, and most of the other polytheists I know are pretty rational too. We might believe the Gods are actually beings that can be reasoned with, but I have yet to meet a single Kemetic who treats Egyptian mythology the same way an evangelical Christian treats the Bible – and I’ve been engaged in the subculture for roughly 18 years. (On the other hand, Heathens do tend to think a little differently than Kemetics do about certain things – like “hard”/”soft” polytheism – so maybe that has something to do with it.) In any case, I’d like to see theistic and non-theistic Pagans get along a bit more – especially if we all expect to fit in the same “Big Tent” – and conflations like that (intentional or not) are not exactly helpful.

    • I have to agree. “Fundamentalist” is a provocative word. I doubt Hilmar could fully appreciate how offensive that comparison can be.

      • I interpret Hilmar’s words differently. In that interview he and Karl Seigfried is talking about a specific type of American heathen, not polytheists or supernaturalist pagans in general.

        And yes, there does exist the kind of Heathen that does treat the Eddas and Asatru like the Fundamentalist treats the Bible and Christianity. I have met several such people on the internet. They often are fundamentalist Christians who have abandoned that belief, but not their approach towards religion which they carry over to Asatru (frankly, often the reason for that shift in religion is because Christianity is too Jewish for them. These people are often severe racists). They often are very right-wing and often hold a romanticized view of history, in which the vikings have the same basic moral values as the modern Republican Party in America. These are the people that Hilmar and Karl are talking about. Michael Strmiska talks about them in the article I linked to.

        Again: Hilmar and Karl are not talking about people who hold supernatural beliefs in general within paganism or heathenry, but a very specific type of American Heathen who is literalist in their beliefs. I’m fairly certain Hilmar, as someone who helps many supernaturalist polytheists in his religious work, is capable of not conflating the latter with the former.

        I suspect the misunderstanding might be due to a lack of context, specifically the context of Heathenry and Asatru. These people are quite well known within Norse paganism, due to being a vocal minority on the internet, but not so much outside this context, and I’m fairly certain few if any equivalents exist within other pagan religions, which doesn’t have the problem with racists appropriating their religions.

    • Why is literalism being viewed as the only kind of polytheism? Literalism is fundamentalism, by definition, but not all theistic polytheists are literalists. Believing in Odin and believing Odin is actually a one-eyed creature on an 8-legged horse are very different things. Viewing myth as metaphor, as it largely is, as a genre, doesn’t mean viewing gods as metaphors- gods and stories are different things. And he isn’t far off in his comparison with fundamentalism when there actually is lore-thumping going on. He rightly points out that there is no pagan doctrine dictating how one ought to conceive and relate with the gods, as is true. Using myth/lore to insist otherwise is disingenuous.

      • I’m not sure if you’re actually responding to me, or if you just hit the “Reply” button under my comment and are actually responding to someone else. But in any case, I’d like to clarify that I do not view literalism as being the only kind of polytheism, and that I assumed this was made obvious in my previous comment.

  6. The full quote provided demonstrates that these Asatru folk in Iceland are not humanist in some definitive sense, but understand the non-doctrinal nature of modern polytheism/paganism, in that there is no stated creed insisting on any one way in which adherents must conceive of and relate with their gods. And that is absolutely true. Further, I would not place those who relate with the gods as forces or personifications of nature in the humanist basket, for this is a certainly historical form of polytheism; polytheism does not only mean the conception of gods as literal human-like entities. Historically and culturally animistic and pantheistic ideas from indigenous to classical greek sources demonstrate the very ‘realness’ of the conception of deities and other important spirit beings as powers of nature which nobody would look at and call humanism, being exactly not human-centric. I don’t think his stating that his people don’t conceive of their gods as literally manifesting as they are depicted in myth is equatable to claiming gods don’t exist, only that they don’t feel they actually exist in that specific form. Viewing myth as metaphor is also reasonable since as a genre, this is what it often is- it isn’t history as some sort of literal recounting of events. And viewing myth as metaphor is describing how one conceives of and engages with stories, not gods. Stories aren’t gods, they are tellings full of deep truths about the gods, and how we might meaningfully engage with them. As a polytheist who engages with the gods as powers/forces of nature and the land who teach and guide humanity, and one who reads myth as non-literal, because I’m educated, I don’t find anything objectionable about the statement made above by the Icelandic Asatruar at all. I think those polytheists who are upset are missing the nuances of what he didn’t say as well as what he did say. They are, of course, lacking the rest of the quote; thanks for providing it. I suspected something was missing.

    • Good points Erin. I do agree that polytheism need not be literal; in fact, I think it is much more interesting when it is not. I’d quibble however over the “basket” idea — the notion of placing people in various baskets according to belief. I realize this was a casual figure of speech, but nevertheless I think it’s important to recognize that mutually exclusive distinctions are not necessary or particularly helpful. In other words, this is my long-winded attempt at saying: one can be both humanistic and polytheistic.

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