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 …
- Bad news: the Icelanders have lost their Christian faith, and are now in danger of reverting to the worship of false gods;
- 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;
- Good news: because paganism is true, or at least more true than the Christianity and the secularism it supplants;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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.”
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.