Thursday, June 30, 2011

Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

KS - Your role as allsherjargoði seems quite different from that of other religious leaders in the western world. You do not set or enforce doctrine, and you do not define a specific theology. How would you describe your role?

HÖH at site of future Ásatrú temple in Reykjavík - June 26, 2010

HÖH - This is a good thing about polytheism versus monotheism. Monotheism is one truth for the masses, but polytheism is many truths for the individual. In a way, it’s just turning the tables. Basically, you can believe in whatever god or goddess you would like at any given time. You may have a need for Freya on Monday morning, and Thor may be absolutely essential for you on Tuesday afternoon. Nobody can teach you. You have to find it yourself.

I think my role is to teach people respect for this wonderful heritage that we have, [which is] hauntingly simple but still a really workable way of behaving and ethics. I think the Hávamál has a lot of teachings that are as essential now as they were a thousand years ago. It’s analogous to the Analects of Confucius in China, which are still the best precepts you can use to live by.

We don’t have a revealed truth. It’s not a revealed religion. We don’t have the final truth hewn in stone like in Judaism and Christianity and, later, Islam. It’s more up to us, really.

KS - I recently read a description of the four men who founded the Ásatrúarfélagið as a poet, a hippie, a theosophist and a Nýallist. Do you think that these elements are reflected in the organization today?

HÖH - I think it’s evolved. Things even evolved a lot with Sveinbjörn [Beinteinsson, allsherjargoði 1972-1993]. Of course, Jörmundur Ingi [Hansen, allsherjargoði 1994-2002] was a very important person, as well. Jörmundur was very good with the press. Press interest was far out of proportion with our membership in the earlier days. I joined eleven months after they got legally recognized. I was member number thirty-six. I was just waiting two years for my first blót - we weren’t really doing it. Me and Halldór Bragason - who’s now part of the board of directors - we were the “youth movement” of the society for many years. Ha!

Sveinbjörn actually said that his idea of founding [the Ásatrúarfélagið] - he’d been thinking about it since the early 1960s. He thought to himself, “This is my path. This is what I believe in.” Then, around 1970, we had these so-called Children of God that came to Iceland. This was a Christian sect founded by a man who called himself Moses David, who was a very strange character - a very sick character, it came out later. He sent out young people to hand out leaflets and say, “Come back to Jesus” and stuff like that. Sveinbjörn was looking at this and saying, “Why do we have these young foreigners coming to tell us to go to Jesus? Why can’t we just say to them, ‘Go back to Thor and Odin’?” That was, in a way, an inspiration for him.

Nýall was a theory from a strange series of books by this Icelandic geologist called Helgi Pjeturss, who was also mad. Ha! Totally mad, actually. When you come to my place, I’ll have to show you his copy of the Eddic poems, because he’s done some really strange things in his marginalia. Helgi was an extremely brilliant person who wrote probably the best Icelandic prose of everybody. Halldór Kiljan Laxness - our Nobel Prize winner - says his writing is absolutely fantastic. He actually uses him as a character in one of his books.

Helgi had this idea that, while we’re asleep, we’re actually living somebody else’s life on another planet, so what we dream is our life on another planet. There’s been this whole society of people who have been meeting for decades now. A lot of them come from the Borgarfjörður area where Sveinbjörn was brought up. Now it’s a dwindling society - which is a shame, because it’s wonderfully eccentric. They used to have these séances every Thursday where they would contact the Crab Nebula and speak to Dr. Helgi, who was there teaching Icelandic. One of the teachings is that Icelandic is the most perfect language in the world, so they’re teaching it all through the Milky Way galaxy.

It was really nice. I went there once and a medium was saying, “Thor here and Helgi here and Egill Skallagrímsson here.” It’s fantastic. What I always found amazing was that this woman who was the medium would be with them on Thursdays, and on Saturdays she’d be at the National Spiritualist Society, and she would be contacting the other shore, in spiritualistic parlance.

Detail of Beinteinsson memorial in Reykjavík - June 26, 2010

KS - Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson said that one of the impulses to start the Ásatrúarfélagið came from “the desire that Icelanders could have their own faith - and nourish it no less than imported religions.”

HÖH - Yes.

KS - This must have to do with the time of the Children of God.

HÖH - Yes.

KS - Do you feel that Ásatrú - as practiced in Iceland - is a specifically Icelandic national movement based on the Eddas and sagas, or do you think that it is fundamentally connected to the German worship of Wodan and Donar, the English worship of Woden and Thunor, and the other forms of paganism that existed in northern Europe as a pre-Christian, pan-Germanic religion?

HÖH - This is how it ended up in Iceland. We know that a lot of the heroic poems were recited all over northern Europe, and we have runestones showing Sigurd and the dragon. A lot of these stories were universal. The Wessobrunn Prayer - an old German prayer that we know - uses lines from Völuspá: “ero ni uuas no ufhimil” [“earth was nowhere nor the sky above”]. There are variants found in Heliand, rune stones in Sweden and the runestaff in Ribe in Denmark - which shows that this phraseology and these ideas [were widely dispersed].

We know that lots of these ideas - and maybe some of the poems - were known in northern Europe. We have a lot of place names in Sweden which show us the god Ullr. We know really nothing about him except that there’s a kenning for a shield called Ullar skip ["Ullr's ship"] in Icelandic - also Ullar askur and Ullar sundvigg. He seems to have been worshiped in certain areas in Sweden. We know that there were a lot of deities written down here with little or no stories attached to them, but there are some place names in Norway and Sweden and even Denmark which show that their worship was probably bigger there than here.

In that sense, it is a religion that was practiced all over northern Europe. Sadly enough, there’s so little to go on, most of the sources having disappeared. We have a small section of the Merseburg prayer in German which is referring to Odin, and we have a runic inscription talking about Logaþore and stuff like that. There are little references, but it’s more productive if we look at some of our sister religions like the old Persian religions, which have a similar creation myth with Ymir being Yima - and Yama/Yami in Hinduism.

Also, in Hinduism, we have Indra - who is a cognate with Thor in Indo-European - who was a dragon-slayer. It’s also good to look at some of these connections. Hinduism moves into Buddhism, which is sort of a protestant movement within Hinduism, at one stage. Of course, it turns into something else. It’s a nice way of looking at some of the sayings and some of the thought that we have.

Tibetan Buddhism is a fusion between the native Bönpo religion - which is a native shamanistic tradition - and the incoming Buddhism. There, we have a lot of nature deities which are quite similar to the vættir that we have. We have dakinis riding on horses and picking up the dead people in Tibetan Buddhism, so it’s very close to our valkyries and stuff like that. There are a lot of connections you can explore to deepen your understanding of what we have here.

KS - Do you think the development of what is now called Ásatrú was influenced by Norse contact with Lapp shamanism?

HÖH - I think there is a big connection with the Saami traditions. Lapp is a derogatory term; they would like to call themselves Saami. Lapp is someone who is wearing really patchy clothes. It’s a Swedish term. Leppur in Icelandic has a similar meaning - terrible clothes.

There’s a wonderful book written by Hermann Pálsson taking up a lot of these stories about our connection with Finland and Finnmark, which is in northern Norway. He’s showing that there was some intermarrying with people from there. A lot of the older stories about magic and the practice of magic seem to be connected with the Finns.

One of our oldest and most beautiful odes - and ode that we still use in the Ásatrú society - is an ode called Tryggðamál. You find it in Grettis Saga (in a corrupt form) and you find it in Staðarhólsbók and you find it in Jónsbók. It’s an ode talking about [how] you will keep your word as long as the earth revolves, snow falls, a ship sails, and a Finn skis.

Hilmarsson in Reykjavík - June 26, 2010

First comes the Oath (“I will be steadfast . . .”), then a rough translation would be:

While fire burns,
Earth is fertile,
A child (which can speak) calls upon its mother
And mother gives birth to her offspring,
Men light fires,
A ship glides,
Shields flash,
Sun shines,
Snow falls,
The Finn skis,
Fir grows,
The falcon flies
On a spring day,
The breeze carries him
Under both wings,
The heavens revolve,
The world is settled,
Wind blows,
Waters fall into the ocean,
Men sow their seeds (of corn).

So when you’re talking about the eternal things - things that will go on eternally - it shows you that people have actually thought highly of [the Finns].

KS - Dagur Þorleifsson described Ásatrú as a movement back to nature and away from the negative aspects of industrial civilization. This reminded me of the Nature Boys, the German and German-American proto-hippies that inspired Hermann Hesse. Do you know if there was any exchange of these sorts of ideas between Iceland and Germany in the early twentieth century?

HÖH - That’s a funny thing, because you had the hippie movement in Germany around the turn of the century and even earlier. You had the artist colony in Monte Verità [“mountain of truth”], as they called it, where you had all the nudists and the freethinkers and the homeopaths and all the people who were into eastern religions and stuff like that.

I’ve been trying to trace some connection. There may be a slight connection, because Helgi Pjeturss’ sister was married to a German nobleman who was intimately connected with the Nietzsche family and a lot of radicals. Helgi corresponded a lot with some strange people - both in Germany and England at the time. When he couldn’t find a publisher for some of his stuff, it was being published by The Occult Review in the 1920s and '30s in England. I think it’s safe to assume that Helgi, in his time, was in touch with some of these strange people, but I don’t think there was a direct influence on anything with the Ásatrú society early on.

KS - The Icelandic Lutheran Bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson was a Nýallist and a pagan in his youth, but he became an adamant public opponent of the Ásatrúarfélagið being granted government recognition as a religious organization in the early 1970s. How is the relationship today between the Ásatrúarfélagið and other religious groups in Iceland?

HÖH - It’s pretty good, actually. We had some strange years around the year 2000 when there was the millennium celebration of Christianity in Iceland and our poor bishop - who is a son of Sigurbjörn, Karl Sigurbjörnsson - he made an ass of himself, to speak bluntly, in the way he tried to treat us. It came out really badly, and public sympathy shifted. This is when the first flux of people started to join the Ásatrú society.

KS - That’s when the membership went up?

HÖH - Yes. So we are really grateful for that. Ha! He was a bit paranoid about us for some time, but now everything is very cordial between us. We are in good contact.

Also, we are part of an inter-religious group that meets up and talks about ethics and how we can prevent hatred between different religious groups. I’ve done co-religious ceremonies with many priests from the state Lutheran church, and also I’ve done some ceremonies together with the Free Lutheran Church, which split from the state Lutheran church. That took place in 1899, if I remember right. They are the largest denomination outside of the state Lutheran church - about 8,000 people, I think. We’ve been basically trying to build bridges, rather than to build walls.

KS - American Ásatrú groups seem determined to create their own version of the Catholic Church.

HÖH - Yes.

KS - They have the Nine Noble Virtues instead of the Ten Commandments, and they have standardized beliefs and ritual practices. You can order their instruction manuals in paperback on Amazon and learn how exactly how to be a pagan in ten easy steps.

HÖH - Yes.

KS - When I visited with the members of the Ásatrúarfélagið here in Reykjavík, there was a great diversity of beliefs and difference of interpretation among the members. Do you think that this diversity of beliefs and lack of standard dogma is an inheritance from Iceland’s independently-minded settlers of the saga period, or is it a reflection of the difference in spiritual attitudes between the post-religious European mindset and the evangelical American idea of true belief?

HÖH - If you look at the way that people looked at the gods - they could mock their gods, like in Lokasenna, where they are making huge fun of the gods and Loki’s talking about Odin being a cross-dresser banging a drum and probably f**king some males, as some say. It’s total irreverence. At the same time, people felt good about their gods. They were their friends. They’re not the Other - they’re not different from us.

This is the religion and the type of faith we’ve had in Iceland. We’ve never been good Christians. All our bishops married and all our priests were married in the so-called Catholic times. Rome was sending out angry letters and saying, “Why don’t you just shape up and do things like you’re told to do?” They would say, “If you sent this letter fifty years ago, the ship must surely have been lost at sea. We never received it, so...” Ha! This is the way we’ve been practicing religion ever since the settlement.

Click here for Part Three of the interview.

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