What is Ásatrú?

Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives, reconstructs, and reimagines the ancient polytheism of Northern Europe. The new religious movement began in 1972, when Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson and eleven other Icelanders decided to bring back public worship of the Norse gods, goddesses, and land spirits. New iterations of the Old Way quickly spread around the world, and by 2013 there were nearly 40,000 followers of related practices in ninety-eight countries.

The word Ásatrú is modern Icelandic for “Æsir Faith” and refers to belief in the major tribe of Norse deities. Practitioners often self-identify as Heathens, and the term Heathenry is generally used to refer to the wider range of contemporary religions related to various Northern European polytheistic traditions dating back to approximately 2000 BCE. Although there are clergy known as goðar (singular goði), there is no central Ásatrú authority and no set dogma. Throughout the Heathen world, there is a great variety of beliefs and practices.

The history of Northern European polytheism stretches from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age, a long period in which local variants developed among the Germanic peoples of continental Europe, the Nordic countries, and the British Isles. Although large-scale practice ended with the coming of Christianity, private worship is documented for several subsequent centuries. Some beliefs and rituals survived into the twentieth century as elements of folk religion throughout the Northern European diaspora.

Since the founding of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in 1972, modern practice has spread worldwide through a mixture of national organizations, regional gatherings, local worship groups, and lone practitioners. The Ásatrúarfélagið has been recognized by the Icelandic government since 1973, and Ásatrú is now Iceland’s largest non-Christian religion. In the United States, the Department of Defense officially recognized Ásatrú and Heathenry in 2017, thereby granting full religious rights to practitioners in all service branches.

Today’s beliefs and practices span a range from humanism to reconstructionism, from viewing the gods as metaphorical constructs to approaching them as distinct beings. Deities venerated in Ásatrú include Odin, Thor, and Freya, but respect is paid to a large number of figures. Ásatrú is a world-accepting religion; emphasis is placed on right action in this life rather than on expectation of an otherworldly afterlife. Practitioners assert that “we are our deeds,” meaning that the sum of one’s actions is of primary importance.

Blót is the central ritual of Ásatrú. The Old Norse word for “sacrifice” is used for a rite in which offerings are made to gods, goddesses, land spirits, and departed people of importance. Blót is often performed outside, and the most common offering is some form of alcohol (usually ale, beer, or mead). The ritual can be performed as often as desired by the community, and it forms the core of major holiday celebrations such as Midsummer and Yule.

For grounding and inspiration, followers of Ásatrú turn to a diverse set of texts that includes Greek, Roman, and Arabic descriptions of Germanic peoples; myths preserved by the medieval Icelander Snorri Sturluson and his Danish contemporary Saxo Grammaticus; Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Middle High German mythic and heroic poetry; legendary and historical sagas of Iceland; and later folklore collections. Many practitioners also study and write modern scholarly work in disciplines such as archaeology, history, medieval studies, and religious studies.

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