Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ásatrú in Iceland and America

The media frenzy continues. A few weeks ago, no mainstream journalist in the English-speaking world could be bothered to write a sentence about Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” the modern iteration of Old Norse religion). I know this to be true, since I've been pestering religion journalists and their editors about their lack of coverage of minority faiths for several years.

Now, news that Iceland's Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) is building a large hof (Heathen temple) in Iceland has gone viral. The story is being covered by the journalists who refused to cover news of the addition of Thor’s hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the recognition of Ásatrú by the Air Force and Army. Once one mainstream new outlet covered the news from Iceland, the rest ran after the story like a pack of lemmings.

Unfortunately, nearly every single article has simply recycled facts and quotes from previous stories. Almost all have fobbed off quotes lifted from other posts as original interviews. A Texas religion professor writing for Religion Dispatches wrote possibly the worst article, which was largely plagiarized from the Wikipedia entry for the Ásatrúarfélagið.

The proof that almost no original research was done by any of these journalists is that they nearly all write as if Ásatrú only exists in Iceland. This simply shows willful ignorance. A simple Google search will turn up nearly endless information about Heathens around the world, including the results of my Worldwide Heathen Census and the Ásatrú definitions I wrote for the Religion Stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association. I've received letters from sixth graders who have done deeper research than these professional journalists.

Yesterday, however, I was interviewed by a writer who had done a better job of preparing for her article. Nina Strochlic writes for the The Daily Beast, the news website that merged with what was left of Newsweek in 2010. After researching the subject, she asked me a series of intelligent questions about Heathens in Iceland and the United States.

Nina Strochlic
Photo from The Daily Beast

She only used a few sentences from my interview in her article. That's is totally fine. That's what a professional journalist should do – gather background information, digest it, then write a piece. Since she didn't use my full answers, I'm posting them here at The Norse Mythology Blog. You can read Ms. Strochlic's article by clicking here.

What uses will such a temple have?

It will be used for many of the major events of life: name-giving ceremonies for children, declarations of joining the tradition for young adults, weddings and funerals. It will also be used to celebrate the major blóts (Heathen rituals) throughout each year that celebrate important events. As the building expands, it will also host more mundane things like offices for the organization.

What impact might its building have on the religion’s following in Iceland?

Ásatrú in Iceland already has a unique position. It's the largest non-Christian religion in the country; this is true for Ásatrú nowhere else. Many non-Heathens in Iceland like the idea of Ásatrú, even if they don't practice or belong to the Ásatrúarfélagið themselves. Since it's founding in 1972, the group has had a very high profile in Iceland, so this will merely continue the organization's growth trend.

Ásatrúarfélagið leader Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
at the future site of the Heathen temple in 2010

The impact may actually be felt more outside of Iceland. In the last few weeks, there's been an explosion of interest in Ásatrú because of the temple-building news. Reporters who had never heard the word Ásatrú a month ago are now rushing to write features. The stories are going viral on social media. When I first learned of the building of the temple from the Icelanders in 2010, my immediate reaction was, "Well, here come the tourists!"

The members of the Ásatrúarfélagið are being inundated with interview requests. Like all media frenzies, this too shall pass. However, I'm pretty sure that the temple will be added to all the tourist guide books and websites for foreigners visiting Iceland. I hope that the constant arrival of busloads of foreign tourists won't disturb the spiritual nature of the new space.

How does the modern day version of Norse god worship differ from that of 1,000 years ago?

Ásatrú is really a modern religion. There are a wide variety of approaches throughout the worldwide Heathen community, from attempts at strict reconstructionism based on recent academic research at one end and Wicca-derived magical practices at the other. At every point of the spectrum, however, people are coming from a place of modernity. You can't simply erase your brain and pretend it's the year 800.

Heathen practice has changed a bit since the old days.

What is important for many Heathens is learning as much as possible about the worldview of Heathens of ancient times and trying to blend it or incorporate it into our lives today. Even the staunchest reconstructionists include post-Enlightenment beliefs into their worldviews – whether they'll admit it or not!

Today's followers of Ásatrú are often a bit rabbinical, in the sense that many of us spend vast amounts of time pouring over poems, myths, sagas, historical accounts, reports of archaeological discoveries and new scholarship in order to deepen our understanding of the Heathen heritage. We're also rabbinical in that we then engage in endless arguments over interpretation and implementation of the knowledge gained.

Why is this the building of this particular temple important?

What makes this temple so special is that it is being built in Iceland, the country that preserved the myths and legends, and the location where modern Ásatrú began in 1972. Many Heathens are localists, caring more about their own communities than what is happening halfway across the world. Others see connections between members of a worldwide Heathen community. So, for some, this is no big deal. For others, it's a very symbolic moment.

You found in your 2013 survey that more people in the U.S. worship Norse gods than anywhere else in the world. Why is that?

The simple answer is that America has a gigantic population. The raw numbers in the Worldwide Heathen Census show one thing, but the charts that show Heathens as a percentage of their country's total population tell a different story.

Click here for Worldwide Heathen Census results

American Heathens have really built their own versions of the religious tradition. There is a great diversity of belief and practice in the American Heathen community. This is at it should be. We may strongly disagree with each other, but I hope that we can respect everyone's right to practice as they see fit.

Could you foresee a temple of worship being built in the United States?

There would have to be a lot of changes before America has a large, modern, expensive, public temple built. For starters, there is no one large Heathen organization that everyone belongs to. There are competing national orgs, and many Heathens interact more with regional or local groups. Others, like myself, are lone practitioners.

Where would we put a temple? There is no single city in America comparable to Reykjavík in Iceland, no place with a great enough density of Heathens to make such an expensive undertaking possible. No, I think American Heathenry is on its own unique path.


Anonymous said...

She's to be commended for her effort, but the author got her History wrong - especially with regard to the Uppsala temple. Also, one gets the idea that there are no heathen temples in the US, but going through the full interview in your blog, it becomes clear that you're talking about large, public places of worship. If memory serves me right, there already are small temples in the United States.

Greyhawk Grognard said...

Two things if I may...

I think the popularity of the story is due in no small part to it's being featured on the Drudge Report a couple of days ago. Say what you will about him, but he is a major player in determining what a lot of people are talking about.

Also, it's not the case that there are no hofs in the United States. There are four that I'm aware of right now (doubtless more that I simply haven't heard of), and at least two more under construction. They tend to be somewhat more modest, and regionally focused, but they absolutely are there and have been for years, in some cases.

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


You make two good points.

You are, of course, right about the existing American hofs. We simply don't have a large, public structure of the scale and profile of the new Icelandic one.

Maybe someday...

lazycat said...

This begs the question of just how up to date the research of Gwyn Jones' book is (written in the 60s) but that states that religion was mostly presided over by local potentates and chieftains and that there was no organized religion as such. Just sacred groves and ceremonials that the Jarl would conduct. Or something like that.

Kilgore66 said...

Did this get built? I can't seem to find a picture of the completed structure

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