Friday, May 29, 2015

Odin lives!: heathenism today

At the beginning of Odin’s Child, Odd Tangle-Hair, the story’s narrator, tells us how Iceland adopted Christianity in the year one thousand. To avoid civil war between believers in the old religion and the new Christian converts, it was decided at the Althing that  year that one respected old chieftain would decide for all, and his decision would be binding on all.

The story goes  that he lay for a night and a day in his tent, his face covered with a cloak, while outside the people waited. When, at last, he came out, he gave his verdict. Let there be one law and one belief for all, he pronounced--and let it be the religion of the White Christ!

Odd’s father, Black Thorvald, alone of the chieftains, scoffed at the new faith and withdrew in fury to his distant farm, where, as time went by, he was consumed by anger and melancholy. Odd, whose mother was Christian, grew up torn between the two faiths. His mad father would lead him on night-long rambles up the slopes of Mt. Hekla, declaiming the ancient myths—and especially the myth of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods—in a howling torrent of words.
In the mornings [Odd tells us] I would reason with myself, for I am a reasoner by nature. If the gods were dead, or doomed, then why not let them go? Why not accept the Christian god as nearly everyone did and let life be simple? My mother believed in him, and she was a good woman.

No. Almost..., but, no. My father's hold on me was too great for that…For his sake, then, I thought, let these doomed gods have my prayers, for what little good it may do them. The White Christ has all the rest.

But does the “White Christ” (as Jesus is always called in the Icelandic sagas) still have all the rest?

Not quite, it seems—neither in Iceland nor elsewhere. The Norse gods live on in the hearts of a growing number of devotees. Nowadays they call the old religion “Ásatrú”—faith in the Aesir—a term invented in the nineteenth century at the beginning of the neo-pagan revival. Now in Reykjavik construction has begun on the first new temple to Odin, Thor and Frigg to be built in Iceland in a thousand  years. It will be a huge, cavernous space excavated into a hillside above the city and, when finished, will be available for weddings, naming ceremonies, and heathen holiday celebrations. Below, is the architect's plan for the temple and a group of contemporary heathens in Iceland. 



I am not a pagan myself, but as one who has studied and written about ancient polytheism, both Greco-Roman and Norse, I wanted to understand what motivates moderns who, like Odd Tangle-Hair, reject Christianity in favor of an older belief. Browsing Google Plus and Facebook, I discovered more than a dozen groups that advocate Ásatrú, totaling nearly 20,000 members if you add them all up (although I’m sure there is a good deal of overlap).

I posted a query to all of them, beginning “What drew you to paganism?” I received quite a few replies. Many of them began by first pointing out my error in terminology: the preferred term for believers in the Germanic gods is “heathen”, not “pagan.”

To quote briefly from some of the respondents:

“Myself, I grew up in an LDS (aka Mormon) house.  That never really
worked for me…I finally came to the conclusion that the Norse Gods and
Goddesses were calling me…”

“I feel the spirit of the world, the universe, coursing with energy through my spirit and soul.”

“I was drawn to it following my awakening out of Christianity and historical study with references from my Northern European ancestry.”

“…it's much more insightful [than Christianity] on how one should live and treat others.”

“…we can once again live as our ancestors did and continue a path of existence that will very well take us into a higher state of being…”

“I have always loved nature and adventure since I was a kid and this has been key in my embracing of old Nordic thought.”

“I get more of a personal connection to it than I ever did with Christianity, with Norse heathenry/ paganism I get a feeling of being connected to the past…”

“It wasn't until I felt safe enough to break away from the Church that I realized I was right all along and the Mary persona was created to conceal the worship of a very real goddess.”

“When I found Ásatrú, that's when the biggest puzzle pieces started popping up everywhere and even fit.”

“I was being groomed to be a Pentecostal pastor. I left because everyone was a hypocrite and wouldn’t hear it if you called them out.”

“Basically, it was a feeling of being connected to the past and feeling closer to my Celtic and German ancestry.”

 “The Gods are real. That's why.”

The themes that stand out are that heathenism is natural, ancient, ancestral, and more personally fulfilling than whatever faith the convert was brought up in. What is actually believed varies, as with any religion, from a literal belief in One-Eyed Odin and Red-Bearded Thor, to something  just vaguely ‘spiritual’. (There can be, of course, an unpleasant side to this too, where mystical “folkishness” shades into Aryan racism. But this is decried by almost all.)

If its presence on the Internet is any indication, Ásatrú is thriving and growing. A website called The Wild Hunt, is one of the most active voices in disseminating heathen news and advocating for heathen causes. A recent article highlighted a pagan lawyer who is fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of “protecting the earth and its creatures”.  Another piece discusses the campaign to get paganism recognized as a religion by the U. S. Army.

How would Odd Tangle-Hair have felt about all this if we could bring him back to life? I like to think he would be pleased.

1 comment:

The Asatru Community Tumblr Admin said...

Great Read! Not just this new article but the rest of your blog as well!
I hope you don't mind, but I shared the link to your blog on The Asatru Community tumblr page!
for your reference -

Thank you for sharing with us on Google+!!!