Monday, January 17, 2011

Interview with Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir of the Ásatrúarfélagið, Part One

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir is an Icelandic journalist, author, and artist. She is also Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), the pagan church founded in 1972 that is officially recognized by the Icelandic government. At Hlésey, her farm north of Reykjavík in Hvalfjordur, she creates traditional Viking art (clothes, drinking horns, jewelry, leatherwork, runes, spoons, statues) and raises breeds of sheepdogs and hens that can be traced back to the time of Icelandic settlement. In 2010, she published Galdratákn Guðanna (“Magic Symbols of the Gods”), a book on the traditional system of runes.

Harðardóttir and Seigfried at Hlésey (June 22, 2010)

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried of the Norse Mythology Blog interviewed Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir at Hlésey on June 22, 2010. In her first English-language interview, Harðardóttir discusses many aspects of historical and modern Ásatrú ("Æsir Faith"). The name Ásatrú may only date to the 19th century, but the Northern European religion which gave us Norse mythology has ancient origins. Today, the Ásatrúarfélagið continues to perform an important role in Iceland's spiritual, cultural, and political life.

KS - What is your role as a góði?

JH - We are like priests. You would call us “priests” if we were Christian. We do weddings and name-givings and burials and all that stuff, same as priests do. Then, of course, we socialize with the people. It’s a kind of uniting the people, if you could say that in English.

KS - You have two titles in the Ásatrúarfélagið. One is Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) and the other is Kjalnesingagoði. Can you explain what that second one means?

JH - It’s the góði of Kjalarnes, which is the place here, which you just drove through. That was the góði that used to be there in that place. We are using the old titles for the areas of Iceland. My area really reaches from Reykjavík to Borgarfjördr.

KS - You also lead the church as Allsherjargoða when Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (Allsherjargoði of the Ásatrúarfélagið) is out of the country or unavailable.

JH - Yes, that’s true. But really, the góðis are nothing local. Even if I am, for example, called Kjalnesingagoði, I can do whatever I want, wherever I want. I can marry people in Akureyri or whatever. We just don’t take the designated areas too seriously.

KS - What led you personally to Ásatrú? How did you come to it?

JH - It’s a long story. When I was thirteen years old, I was confirmed like most of the kids are in Iceland, in the Lutheran Church. I went to the church, to the priest, to learn about God and all that. There I realized that that was not my god. I did not believe in that god, and I felt that this was all kind of stupid, and it was not a good god. It just wasn’t my god, but I still got confirmed, and I had a very bad conscience because of that.

You see, my mother is Catholic and my father is Ásatrúar. There was no Ásatrúarfélag at that time, but he was Ásatrúar, and he always was. He died two years ago, but he was a heathen. He was a pagan. When I grew up, we had this very good relationship, me and my father. He was teaching me about the old gods and telling me things about this religion, even if I didn’t know that he was heathen. We never talked about that, really. I love nature, and I love the animals, and we had the same thing.

Then I just suddenly realized where I came from and where my heart was. So, I left the Church of Iceland, but I didn’t join the Ásatrúarfélag for a very long time. I was not in a religious group. Then I got to know some Ásatrúar people, and it was just like coming home somehow. I just knew, at last. That’s what happened.

KS - If your mother was Catholic and your father was Ásatrúar, how did you end up in the Lutheran confirmation?

JH - When my parents got married, they were both registered in the Church of Iceland, which is Lutheran. My mother was registered in the Lutheran church, even if she was brought up as a Catholic. My father was also registered there. If your mother is registered there, you are registered there when you are born. So, all Icelanders are really born Lutheran. Well, most of them are.

KS - Do most Icelanders have much religion in their lives?

JH - No, no, no. We don’t care. That’s why so many people are still in that National Church of Iceland. It’s getting fewer and fewer. Maybe two percent a year leave the Lutheran church, which is a lot. For Icelanders, church is for getting married and for giving your children names and for going when somebody dies, but church is not a big thing with Icelanders. We are really very heathen people.

There’s such a lot of people that are registered in the National Church that are heathen. It’s in our hearts, being heathen. We love this country, and we love this lifestyle of being connected to the country - the land itself. That is, of course, part of being a heathen. It’s very strong in our genes.

KS - While driving around Snæfellsnes peninsula yesterday, I noticed that there was a little church every few miles, even if the area only had one or two houses. There were so many of these very small churches.

JH - There’s a very nice word in Icelandic which is called guðhræðsla which literally means “being afraid of God.” It’s all about power. Religion where there’s one god is about power. It’s getting the people to obey. People in Iceland used to be very afraid of God. “If you don’t believe in God, you will go to hell.” You have this passport. “If you believe in God, and if you’re Lutheran, here you are - you go to heaven. If you don’t - no, sorry.” That’s it, you see. That’s why they had so many churches everywhere.

KS - The small churches in the small villages all look very similar. What time period are they from?

JH - It was in 1552 that we went from Catholic to Lutheran. After that, they started building churches everywhere. These are little Lutheran churches. Most churches in Iceland are.

KS - Why did Icelanders switch to Lutheranism from Catholicism?

JH - The Catholic Bishop of Iceland had two sons, which is really funny. They were killed. It was really a revolution. We Icelanders have really been christened with force twice. First in the year 1000, of course. I bet you heard that story about how we got christened in the year 1000, but you always hear just one side. There are always two sides to every story.

KS - The standard story is that Iceland underwent a totally peaceful conversion. At the Alþing (the national assembly), the Lawgiver said, “I think we should be Christian,” everyone agreed, and that was it.

JH - That’s one part of it. That’s the part we hear, when we speak to Christian people. There is always another story. The truth is - now, let me tell you, I know the truth. Ha! No, really - you can read that also. That is, if you know where to look for it.

Óláfr Tryggvason was the king of Norway, and he wanted to have Iceland because it was good for him, politically. This was very political, this being Christian in the year 1000. There were four young men from Iceland - the sons of rich Icelanders - that were hostage in Norway at that time. They let them know at Alþingi that those four young men were there, and if we did not become Christian, they would be killed. They also gave [Lawgiver] Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði pieces of silver, so he would think more clearly. It helps very well to think clearly, to have some silver.

As a heathen, when you are at blót [a ceremonial offering] - Þingblót, for example - you don’t fight. You put your weapons aside, and they had done that there. Of course, if the heathen people would have wanted to fight - they were a strong majority, and they would have won. In spite of what people think, heathen people are very peaceful, and they do not want to fight, if they don’t have to. Why not become Christian? One god more doesn’t matter; we have plenty of them, already. Jesus? Yeah, okay. Join the party!

That’s my side of the story. No, it’s true! You can find it in books. It’s just whether you look for it or not. Of course, in those days, you believed that if you make an oath - if you promise something - you stick to it. It was not like that with Christian people.

KS - Christian chroniclers writing the history of Northern European conversion (in the first few centuries after it happened) tend to portray heathens as simple-minded folk who literally believe that their wooden idols are the gods - that the statue of Thor actually is Thor.

JH - With those gods of ours - the old Nordic gods - I don’t believe in them, and I think I could say that for maybe ninety-five percent (or even more) of all the Ásatrúar in Iceland. We don’t believe in god as a person. Our gods are not persons. They are powers. They are symbols of powers within ourselves and within nature. That’s true.

Those wonderful stories of Nordic mythology are very funny. They are both educating and entertaining. They are really to show you the characters, and those characters are something that you can always find one of within yourself. If you look, you can always find one god that is exactly like yourself or somebody that you know. Because it’s just a power, it’s not a person.

Thor is my god. That’s because he was the strong one, and he was the one that was the son of the Earth. I’m the daughter of the Earth. He was a friend and a protector, and that’s why I like him. He has this power, and I need a lot of power. He is the guy that I look up to. He is the power that I need.

But, when you fall in love, for example, and you’re just head-over-heels in love, then you think, “Oh, Freya is my god.” It depends on which power that you need in your life at that time.

KS - In the older poems - in the Poetic Edda, for example - the gods are referred to as regin. The word is sometimes translated into English as “gods” and sometimes as “powers.” Which translation do you think better captures the meaning?

JH - It really means both. Regin is really “the highest.” Reign is to rule; it’s the ruler. It’s the same stem as that word - as reign in English. It’s “he who rules.” Whether it’s a person or not, nobody knows that. It’s just something that rules - something that rules.

KS - In the stories, it doesn’t seem the Norse gods are gods in the way that the Christian god is. They die; they need the mystic apples to stay alive.

JH - They have their stupid sides, as well, just like we do. They are not above us; they are our friends. They are something that we can relate to.

There is one special thing that I didn’t like when I was a kid, and I never liked, and I will never like, and that is somebody who can come and judge me. “Hey, if you don’t do this...” I will be judged. Everyone will be judged. I’m being judged now, as you sit here and listen to what I’m saying. Everybody is judged, but it’s not God. It’s the people around us, and it’s us. We judge ourselves, and we are probably the worst judges.

It’s different with our gods. They are not something that judges us.


wvgreekgeek said...

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Wren B. said...

What an interesting interview. Some of the things she said about how she felt about Christianity I understood and could relate to.I myself have had a hard time defining my belief. I also believe that God is too powerful to be incapsulated in a body. God is a power, an energy. Frankly, I think if you believe in something that is good and just. Something that is bigger then you and better then you. You are doing well for yourself. Because if you believe in nothing then you will become nothing. Wonderful interview and thought provoking.

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