Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið, Part Three

Click here for Part Two of the interview.

KS - Ásatrú in Iceland seems to have no set dogma or theology. Is Ásatrú a religion, or is the Ásatrúarfélagið more of an interest society? How would you personally define what a religion is?

HÖH - It is a religion. I think it’s a way of looking at life. It’s also how we attach ourselves to creation. The Latin word religio and the verb religare have the meaning of "binding together." We talk about the gods as höpt or bönd, meaning fetters or ties - they are the ones who bind us to our surroundings, and we are tied and bound to the gods in an intimate way. The nature of the gods is within us, as well, and we can also mirror the [gods].

Hilmarsson at Þingvellir - June 24, 2010

Nature around us is also a living being, a living force. We can feel it, like with the volcanic thing where we start to anthropomorphize the volcano. We are saying the volcano is reacting to the pressure from the British, and so this is why the British got all the ash over them.

We are really quick at seeing nature before we set a task for [ourselves] - or maybe [nature is] forcing us into doing certain things. I think it’s a very cohesive worldview. 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.

KS - 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.

HÖH - 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!

KS - Do you think that kind of mindset is absent here?

HÖH - Yeah, absolutely. I have yet to meet anyone like that in Iceland.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson at Summer Solstice at Þingvellir - June 24, 2010

KS - In 2003, you raised a níðstöng (“scorn-pole”) in opposition to the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project. How do you find a balance between your political views and your role as a religious leader?

HÖH - I’m just doing things that Sveinbjörn did early on. He was also against the damaging of nature in Iceland by the multinational companies who are, basically, sucking out all the profit and leaving nearly none of it here in Iceland.

It’s part of my oath that I will fight with nature [i.e., on nature’s side] and respect the . . . how can I say it? We sincerely believe that, when we settled this country, we did it in good connection with the nature spirits and the spirits of the land. When we do our ceremonies, we are also offering our greetings and pouring out beer for the genius loci - the local spirits. I think it’s really important that we should give this country in better shape to our children and grandchildren than we receive it. If you have to take a political stand, so be it.

I know I was really on a real tightrope walk about not making this something against the local government in the east of Iceland, who actually thought that this would be of immense profit to the east of Iceland, which was having problems - all the parts where people are leaving and flocking into Reykjavík. Of course, I respect that they think that this would do nothing but good, but it’s done no good, because people are still flocking away from the east. I don’t think there’s any big future in having the east of Iceland providing a lot of unskilled laborers for the aluminum factory. I think we should give nature the benefit of the doubt and rather think about education and stuff like that.

The area they were sinking for this hydroelectric dam was unbelievably beautiful. There was a lot of propaganda going on from the government and the people in charge saying, “Well, this is a dead desert. There’s nothing there.” There was lots there! Green meadows, nice natural warm springs where you could bathe. There’s wildlife like you’ve never seen it before - reindeer, whole species of birds living just in this area. It was a horrible mistake, but I think most people realize it now.

Hilmarsson at name-giving ceremony at Þingvellir - June 24, 2010

KS - Ásatrú is probably unique in that its holy texts - such as they are - come from collections of poetry and prose gathered and written down by Christians well after Iceland’s conversion. This is a situation quite different from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, each of which has books written by believers. How do you think this has affected the development of the modern version of the faith?

HÖH - If we look at Snorri’s Edda, it comes up with some nice and amusing connections which are probably Snorri’s rewriting and imagination. I think that comes more from the poet Snorri than the Christian Snorri. I don’t think that Snorri’s supposed Christian beliefs interfered with those. He - or whoever wrote the Prologus to Snorri’s Edda; it may not have been him - he had a very clever way of doing this so the clergy wouldn’t react against it, by building up this euhemeristic story about the origin of the gods.

What I think, personally, is that Snorri had just - when he was writing that, or whoever did - had just been reading the story of the English kings by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which does the same thing as the Preface.

KS - With Troy and everything.

HÖH - Yes, yes. I think it’s Snorri just being a man of the world and being able to read the bestsellers that were going around Europe and saying, “Yes, us too.”

KS - Some scholars argue that Snorri was a Christian who presented the myths solely for literary and nationalistic reasons, and others say that he was a pagan in all but name. What do you think his relationship was to the material he recorded?

HÖH - I think he was certainly interested, and he certainly had access to a lot of things that have been lost. He's quoting the poem Heimdallargaldur, which is totally lost - there is only one verse from it preserved in a quotation by Snorri. He had a different version of Völuspá than we have in Codex Regius. He must have amassed a lot of things.

Also, Snorri is in contact with a Swedish jarl, Hákon, whose nickname is "Galinn," which may be connected with that people thought him mad or connected him with galdur - a magical practice or a heathen practice. We know that, in Snorri’s time, there was some heathenry left in Sweden, and Snorri travels to Sweden. It’s not unlikely that he may have had access to some people there.

HÖH (with horn) & KS (with rune flag) at Þingvellir - June 24, 2010

As I said, we’re really bad Christians [in Iceland]. We converted, but what happened was that the old goðar, they became kirkjugoðar. They just put “church” in front of their old term. The old goðar system went on for three hundred years, so Snorri had this goðorð. So the whole thing was intact for a very long time with this thin Christian veneer spread over it. I don’t think we were as serious about Christianity as other people.

Of course, Snorri had a valid point when he was writing down the Edda, the Skáldskaparmál. Unless you know the mythology, you can’t write court poetry - dróttkvætt. All the kenningar and all the heiti - they have a root in the old pagan stories, in the pagan mythology. So you have to know your paganism to be able to be a good poet.

KS - As Christianity took over northern Europe, völur became witches, seid became witchcraft, gods became devils, and elves became demons. They were all recast as negative things in the new Christian world. How much of what we now call the occult do you think is a translation, remnant, perversion or misunderstanding of original northern European religious practice?

HÖH - I think you can actually see how a lot of the old folk beliefs were taken over by the church. You had churches being built on old pagan sites and holy sites. Of course, you had the Roman Catholics, who did some clear, clever appropriation. Saint Bridget is basically the old Irish goddess Brigid. In a way, they took over some of the old pagan things and just took the whole pantheon through the saints.

Of course, there was a lot of demonizing going on, as well. We can see that Freya was probably turned into Grýla, this mythological being that eats children and has the Christmas Cat that comes and eats the poor children around Christmastime. Certainly, we can see that the gods were demonized to a certain extant here, as well. A lot of them just went into the folk beliefs. Our big obsession with the hidden people and the elves and stuff like that is remains of the old beliefs in the land wights and even the gods themselves.

HÖH (with horn) & KS (with rune flag) at Þingvellir - June 24, 2011

The wise women were made into witches, and the whole witch hunts in Europe were - to some extent - a reaction against some of the old pagan views. I don’t think it was like . . . Margaret Murray theorized that there was a witch cult that lived in western Europe, unbroken for centuries. I think that’s fantasizing.

The funny thing is - if you look at statistics - most of the people executed in Europe were women witches. But in Iceland, it was twenty-three men and one woman, and that one woman may not have been executed for magic. So we have no witchcraft tradition here in Iceland, but we still had magicians.

KS - Were the Icelandic magicians drawing on pagan ritual?

HÖH - They were using some pagan ideas. There’s a book from the 16th century - Galdrabók [“magic book”] - which is a strange fusion of cabalistic ideas and then old pagan ideas. It has some magical incantations around Odin and Thor, but then you can see that the one who wrote it must have also had some access to pretty amazing things for that time and age.

We know that Cornelius Agrippa’s books on magic were part of the library of the bishop in Skálholt. We always see Iceland as being really isolated in those times, but if you look at the library of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, you see that we were totally up-to-date with what was happening in the rest of Europe.

KS - Do you think that the later English and continental occult is translated pagan ritual?

HÖH - The gods had to come back. You can see how the gods are coming in the 19th century. We had some years of rationalism - the Industrial Revolution, people losing their ties with nature and repressing religion and focusing on science and knowledge. You had the president of the French scientific academy proclaiming that we’ve more or less found out everything that there is to be found out - we only need to polish some theories. In an atmosphere like this, the gods need to come back, because they’ve been repressing them so long. Ha!

KS - Well, I got all my questions out before the battery died. Thank you!

HÖH - Yeah, yeah. Okay!

This concludes the Norse Mythology Blog's interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. More information can be found at the Ásatrúarfélagið website.


Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic read. Thank you for posting this!

R.Dawn Bellchamber

Unknown said...

Great interview! Where can I find more english-language articles or writings by Hilmarsson?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


Thank you for the kind words!

Unfortunately, there's not a lot by or about Hilmar in English. There are a some little things on YouTube and online. Just search for "Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson."

I wish I could be of more help!

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