what is asatru
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What is Asatru ?

Asatru is a modern neo-pagan reconstruction of Old Norse pre-Christian beliefs, with a religious structure of its own, and surprisingly on the rise in many countries these past fifty years, especially on European countries and in North America.

Please consider taking a look at the video on Asatru produced by Arith Härger:

What is the religion Asatru? And what does the word “Asatru” mean?

  Asatru the name created by the followers of the Nordic neo-pagan religion during the 19th century, to designate the modern reconstruction of the religious traditions of Scandinavia before the introduction of Christianity.

The name roughly translated means “to be true to the Æsir”, one of the tribes of Norse gods depicted in Norse mythology.

Although I must reinforce that this is the common designation and that the origins of the name might come from the old Norse word ǫ́ss or áss (plural æsir), meaning the “principal” pantheon in Norse religion; and from trú, meaning “faith” – “The faith of the Æsir”.

Therefore, during the 19th century, Asatru meant to be true to the Norse gods in general, to be faithful and worship the Norse gods and their symboles, but with the increasing knowledge about pre-Christian Scandinavian pagan traditions, and with the creation of other branches of this pagan faith, Asatru also became the term to refer to a religion much more focused on the Æsir tribe of gods.

Since when does Asatru exist?

  The 19thcentury was the period in which archaeology started to progressively awake some interest within the European nobility. It became an amateur activity for the wealthier members of the society , because it was very prestigious to have such an occupation as a hobby.

Consequently, the interest in archaeology grew and 19thcentury nations whose political notions turned around nationalism and the need to find a common past to unite the masses and new nations under construction, turned to archaeology for answers.

People became aware of their past, and because the 19th century was a historical period of great changes with the increasing process of industrialization and the abandonment of traditions and the family in favour of working in highly industrialized manufactures, most wanted to return to their roots and had a hard time accepting the social changes brought by industrialization.

asatru runen word

Returning to the roots didn’t mean people wanted to return to a religious pagan past, rather, they wanted to return to the land, to tradition, to the domestic and farming activities less stressful and depressive when compared to the new reality of industry. Archaeology and the social hunger for tradition and the old customs finally met.

The archaeological and historical perception of ancient European civilizations was that the ancestors of modern Europeans worshipped nature, and this was the line of thought that perfectly fit into both the associations devoted consciousness of the 19th century, and the political ideas of nationalism – to return to the land, to be auto-sufficient, family values and traditions.

In this way, many pre-Christian European cultures were seen as nature-worshippers. Which wasn’t far from the truth to a certain extent, since the archaeological interpretations of the time were focused on European civilizations from the Neolithic onwards; civilizations whose societies turned around the seasons – planting the soils, harvests, storing food for winter, and so on.

This led to the belief that pagan European societies were nature worshippers and most of their gods and goddesses were fertility deities.

 However, during the 20th century, to be more precise during the early 1970s, groups of people from Iceland, the United States and the British Isles, more or less at the same time, formed new religious association devoted to the revival of the ancient religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Northern Europe, particularly those of pre-Christian Iceland and Scandinavia but also the related traditions of the Germanic peoples of continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxons of England. Ásatrú gained a new meaning and progressively became a faith with strong foundations, and a clearer religious structure.

Asatru isn’t an ancient religion, older than Christianity. Asatru is a modern neo-pagan religious reconstruction, focused on the set of religions and spiritualties which springs from the specific spiritual beliefs of pre-Christian Northern Europe.

Obviously, our Norse ancestors did not refer to their religions as Asatru. In fact, pre-Christian Scandinavians did not subscribe to one single religion, but to many cults belonging to a spirituality with similarities shared by various pre-Christian tribal communities scattered all over Northern Europe.

These ancient faiths were revived as Ásatrú in the 19th century as previously said, although it received a special boost in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson (poet and a farmer) was the instrumental figure in getting Ásatrú recognized by the Icelandic government in 1973 and from that moment on several organizations started to appear all over Europe and in North America.

Is Asatru a recognized religion?

  Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson with a group of friends, many of them also poets and devotees of early Icelandic literature, formed the association known as Asatruarfelagid, “the fellowship of those who trust in the ancient gods,” quite often described as Ásatrú.

In the United States, Stephen McNallen and Robert Stine formed the Viking Brotherhood, which was soon renamed the Asatru Folk Alliance, and in Great Britain, John Yeowell and associates formed the Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite.

These were the first recognized Neo-Pagan revival organizations of the 1970’s, based on Old Norse beliefs. With the increasing interest in this Neo-Pagan branch, other organizations and associations have sprung up, introducing new ideas and approaches to the Northern European pagan traditions, including many academics who contribute to the knowledge of the Old Ways, and even the creation of new branches such as Vanatrú, Rökkatrú and þursatrú.

asatru practices and practitioners

  It’s clear that a wide variety of people are embracing Northern European pagan traditions, and most of them speak of their faith as Asatru or calling themselves Ásatruar (“Ásatrú believers”).

Alternately, they also refer to themselves as Heathens (the ancient Germanic term for non-Christians)and their religion as Heathenry. Those less aware of what Ásatrú is, often refer to it as the “Religion of the Vikings”, and in general during the faith is seen as “Nature Worship”. So first things first.

Let’s start clearer religious why Ásatrú is referred to as “The Religion of the Vikings”:

As previously said, during the 19thcentury and early 20th century, archaeology was greatly led by nationalist minds. They were trying to find a common past in each other’countries to have a reference and a factor that showed such nations were once united under one single culture. To Central Europe it was the Germanic; to Great Britain is was the Anglo-Saxons and to the Scandinavians it was the Vikings (although being a Viking was a profession and a way of life, and not a specific ethnical group, but it was a culture nonetheless).

The Viking Period was practically what placed Scandinavians in the books of history. Not much was known about center before the Viking Period, which was precisely a time when Scandinavians introduced themselves to the rest of Europe.

Viking Age archaeology was the means of finding a common culture that in the past united Scandinavians, and this historical fact was the key point of nationalist politics of Scandinavia, especially of Norway, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Subsequently, the Viking culture became widespread and very much a trend with J.R.R. Tokien’s works based on Old Norse and OldEnglish literature, and later on with Marvel Studies bringing up the Norse myths in the adventures of Thor, the god of thunder.

Viking Age archaeology

So a religion such as Asatru was easily referred to as “The Religion of the Vikings”, due to its obvious connection with the Norse myths and folklore, but also because the formation of Ásatrú and its basic religious beliefs are very much centred in Old Norse literature, both Sagas and Poems, of the Viking Period, or of late medieval and early modern Scandinavia, which depict much of the pre-Christian Scandinavian religious beliefs and practices.

Asatru has Been Described as a “Nature Religion”. What Does That Mean?

In terms of being a religion referred to as“Nature Worship”, much of this stigma comes from the 19th century perspectives and ideas formed around the pre-Christian European culture as being nature worshippers and the notion that most deities were fertility deities.

Within Asatru itself, at least the original founders and the very first generations of followers, there is a strong belief that the Gods manifest themselves through nature, and this reinforces the belief that Ásatrú is a Nature-Worshipping Religion.

However, with the increasing modern heathens in various academic fields of social-sciences, we came to progressively reshape the idea around Asatru as a Nature-Worshipping faith. Pre-Christian Norse and Germanic peoples seldom had faiths around nature-worshiping.

asatru beliefs in the connection with nature

It’s more common to see in the archaeological record cults around death, the ancestors, war and magic, then fertility cults or cults based on a spiritual notion that we can immediately connect to nature.

Certainly there were fertility cults and other cults around nature; a person could worship Freyja in her fertility aspect, to care for the crops and cattle; groups of people would worship Freyr in cults related to this deity as a fertility god; others would worship Njördr for plenty, a good catch on high seas; some would worship Ullr for good luck in hunt, etc.

But the gods had many aspects, and the same people who sometimes worshiped Freyja and Freyr, or any other deity in a nature/fertility-related cult, would worship the same gods on their other aspects related to war, death, and magic and so on.

In fact, until quite recently, even within Asatru (especially within Ásatrú), it was believed that magic had a secondary role in pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs.

This is something I (as an archaeologist and historian), and others in the academic field of social-sciences, must disagree. In truth it’s precisely the opposite – the religious practices during the Viking Age were characterized by a great insertion of magic, both in daily life and public life, to the point that it is almost impossible to separate the two realities. Religion in ancient Scandinavia had a lot of magic.

Sigil asatru beliefs asatru magic pre-christian

This is a change on the perspective people had of Ásatrú. Maybe, Ásatrú wants to continue to be labelled a “nature-worshipping religion”, and quite possibly this is why many branches of Northern European pagan traditions are being created and separate themselves from Ásatrú, because in many aspects the pre-Christian Scandinavian religions were not just “Nature-Worshiping”, but highly complex spiritualties around hundreds of different realities outside the“nature-worshipping” panorama.

We Keep Talking About the Vikings. Does This Mean That Asatru is Only for People of Scandinavian Ancestry?

  Perhaps one of the most important questions that arise when people want to know more about Asatru, is if Ásatrú is Only for people of Scandinavian ancestry? 

  It’s true that Ásatrú has been labelledThe Religion of the Vikings” and that tends to give certain understandings that only people with strong Scandinavian roots are allowed to worship the Norse gods.

And there is even that stigma of Neo-Nazism and far-right political parties involved with Ásatrú. Many studies have been conducted due to the tendency of linking Norse Paganism to certain racist and Neo-Nazi elements within the Nordic Pagan communities.

Unlike what is led to believe that Ásatrú is filled with Neo-Nazis, the great majority of modern Nordic Pagans devoted to Northern European cultural heritage, are firmly opposed to Nazism and racism. The minority of NordicPagans with Neo-Nazi and far-right political perceptions are firmly denounced by most modern Nordic Pagans, as being members of groups most Heathens wish to have nothing to do with. Within Heathenry, there is a constant fight against racism and Neo-Nazism.

In reality, the number of non-Europeans who practice Northern European pagan traditions has increased since the early 2000’s. From all over the world, including many countries with no cultural ties to Northern Europe, people are honoring the Norse gods and practicing Northern European pagan traditions.

Sigil asatru beliefs asatru magic pre-christian

  Asatru in America began to encourage people to seek their cultural-heritage, but let’s not have a miss-interpretation around that. This doesn’t mean that the pride in ethnic heritage felt by Nordic Pagans is linked to racism, nor should devotion to Nordic culture be wrongly equated with Nazism.

It began by simply seeking cultural-heritage and embrace it. Nowadays, at least in Europe, Ásatrú and other forms of Heathenry isn’t much to seek cultural-heritage but to seek a spirituality that fits into our cultural perceptions.

This increasing shift from organized religion into spirituality gave freedom for other people to embrace the Norse gods and Old Nordic traditions. There are many people, even organizations, from Non-European and Non-Northern American backgrounds who embraced this faith.

Is the Norse religion still practiced?

 Nowadays Asatru religion has hundreds of followers all over the world, especially organizations in the United States and Europe; in Europe in certain countries it is recognized as an official religion.

What are the Basic Beliefs of Asatru?

  In Ásatrú there is a great emphasis of the Norse myths, although they are not seen as historical truths.

They are mainly guiding lines in how we should conduct our lives in order to achieve greatness and enjoy this world, taking the best advantage of everything that surrounds us, and as such, the gods are often seen as part of nature and often manifest themselves through nature, and we humans have an intimate relationship with them.

lthough it’s necessary to point out that we are on our own and we only communicate with the gods for help when all human efforts and recourses have been spent, and there is no other option, because when worshipping the Norse gods, a gift calls for a gift, and so sacrifices must be made, often in the form of ceremonies when the community shares with the gods personal objects, food, drink, etc., to maintain strong the bounds of friendship between us and the gods.

What are the Standards of Behaviour Taught in Asatru?

  Asatru adheres to the Scandinavian pagan believe that objects play an important role in the religious connection with the gods, the gods can infuse objects with power, there is a flow of energy which lies within all things.

asatru beliefs symbols thor hammer and runes with a drinking horn

For instance, we create something, we bend our thought to it, we give it shape and so we give apart of ourselves to the object, it is infused with our essence.

This can be given to the gods as an offering and in turn the gods are obliged to give something in return, in the form of energy, an exchange of essence which will help us to live life on our own but use that energy as a source of strength and enthusiasm.

We require this force, the Megin, which is something beyond human understanding but infuse us with power. The spiritual reality is affected by us and in turn it affects us, and this spiritual reality expresses itself in the form of gods and goddesses.

How is Asatru religion Organized?

  The Ásatrú organizations are known as Kindred.

The priests of a Kindred are known as Gothar, the plural form of Gothi or Gythia (feminine). The Gothar are the collective priesthood of the Asatr Community, and the congregations are known as Folk.

This is an important aspect of this religion, because like many pagan religions, it’s turned to the community, the importance of each individual in the community, altogether form a unified force that acts for the benefit of the entire group, to ensure protection, fertility, prosperity,well-being, so that the community stays strong and endures.

The ceremonies performed within the kindred are known as blóts(Old Norse “Sacrifices”; blóta – to worship, hallow or sacrifice), and the altars on which the blót, or sacrifice is performed are known as Stalli, and rarely hörgr,which is a heathen place of worship (an altar erected on a high place).

The Asatru bible, does Asatru Have a Holy Book, Like the Bible?

  There is no Asatru Bible but for people to become Gothar, the “priests”of this religion, the person must possess 3 things:

  • The wisdom of Odin,
  • The strength of Thor 
  • The love of Freyja.
These are the three main deities of Ásatrú, highly worshipped.

These 3 aspects are often expressed by possessing sacred texts, be part of a Kindred and care for the Folk. Guiding the Kindred with wisdom, being strong for the community and work for the benefit of the community, which also requires a certain amount of love, friendship and compassion for the members of the community.

asatru symbols of beliefs

The Gothar also need certain items to perform the rituals, like the hammer of Thor for instance, an oath ring, and focus much of the religious work on the Hávamál, on the teachings of the “High One” – Odin.

The Hávamál is not seen as a definite holy text. The Hávamál is a poem that establishes the guidelines of Ásatrú. There are other sources of knowledge, of course, often used but the Hávamál is a very important poem in the modern religious structure of Ásatrú, and mind that I continue to reinforce that I’m speaking about Ásatrú the modern reconstruction, and not the pre-Christian Scandinavian religions. 

In Ásatrú there is also an annual high council known as the Althing (Alþing) that sets the bylaws that the folk must follow. The Thing-speakers, the main voices of the council, must be chosen by their kindred and their attendance is mandatory. 

Like many modern pagan reconstructions, this is a religion that shapes itself to our modern needs, and as such, many Ásatrúorganizations may do things differently, but the cannons of this religion, the basics, are the ones I’ve just mentioned. Of course nowadays there are many branches of the pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs that are completely different from this 19th century religious reconstruction. There is a wondrous variety of modern spiritualties based on Northern European pagan traditions.

Ásatrú is the most famous Nordic neo-pagan branch and although there are clear differences from organization to organization, the foundations of this religion still cling to the 19th century religious reconstruction, and indeed the gods people worship in this religion are mainly the Æsir, such as Odin, Thor, Týr, Baldr and also two Vanir deities often included – Freyr and Freyja.

asatru based on the old norse religion of vikings

The other gods are seldom heard of, or are simply not included, because the main focus is on the Eddas, on these historical sources, which are works that reinforce the importance of the Æsirand a very few of the Vanir gods. So in Ásatrú, either the organizations focused solely on the Æsir or the ones focused on the gods in general, divide the gods into two groups, the same way the Eddas divide the gods; the Æsir, who are the predominant group – sky gods, war gods, law, justice, poetry, wisdom, more focused on social realities and the need to maintain order; the Vanir,some of whom have been adopted into the Æsir, but are gods more concerned with fertility, prosperity, plenty and with magic.

What are the Runes, and what do They Have to do With Asatru?

The Runes played an important role in Pre-Christian Scandinavia. They were not just a form of writing but also used in all sorts of religious and magical activities.

Nowadays, within Ásatrú, runes have the tendency to be used as a writing system, whilst in other branches of Northern European pagan traditions the runes are used in other fields such as divination.

Rune poems are the original literary sources from which the knowledge of the meaning of each rune comes from, and such interpretations are currently in use more or less the same way the Hávamál is used in Ásatrú – as guiding lines.

Does Asatru Involve Ancestor Worship?

When it comes to worshipping the Ancestors, it’s a question that can hardly be answered in a short text. But suffice to say the pre-Christian Scandinavian peoples worshipped their ancestors.

We have references of festivities such as the Dísablót, Álfablót, “Cult of the HearthFire”, and private celebrations in burial mounds, hills and mountains in private properties etc., but we know little about how things were religiously performed. The historical and archaeological facts we have at hand don’t tell us much about these religious performances mainly because they were quite private and belonged to the domestic sphere.

asatru practices solstice celebration

What is performed nowadays in religious terms connected to the Ancestors, are modern recreations (shared either with the community or in private) based on the little information available. This is one of the religious aspects that is greatly developed in the academic field. The scientific research to find answers and concrete facts that allows us to understand how things were truly conducted.

For now what can be done is to compare the archaeological findings and the historical references of pre-Christian Scandinavia, with contemporary living communities whose spiritualties are very much based on polytheism, shamanism and animism of the Northern Hemisphere. For instance, the study of the living spiritualties and mythologies of the Siberians, Sami and Inuit, give us a lot of clues which we can be used to make comparisons with what is found in pre-Christian Scandinavia on the archaeological record.

How Does Asatru Differ From Other Religions?

  So this is what Ásatrú is, a neo-pagan polytheistic reconstruction based on certain religious and historical aspects of pre-Christian Scandinavia. and Scandinavia of the pre-Christian indigenous faith of the Norse peoples.

Nevertheless, it’s important to refer that the believers of this faith attempt to interact with the Norse gods and in addition they recognize that other people have their own gods, so by no means do the followers of Ásatrú believe that their gods are the only true gods.

It is a religion, or a reconstruction of a religious tradition, without a hierarchical structure, dogmas, or sacred books being the center of the entire religion, and as such, the religious practices may suffer a lot of changes and different interpretations according to the social environment in which they are inserted.

References:

Amster, Matthew H.; (2015). “It’s Not Easy Being Apolitical: Reconstructionism and Eclecticism in Danish Asatro”, in Rountree, Kathryn, Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses, New York and Oxford: Berghahn, p. 43–63.

Asbjørn Jøn, A.; (1999). “‘Skeggøld, Skálmöld; Vindöld, Vergöld’: Alexander Rud Mills and the Ásatrú Faith in the New Age”, in Australian Religion Studies Review, 12 (1), p. 77–83.

Blain, Jenny; Wallis, Robert J.; (2009). “Heathenry”, in Lewis, James R.; Pizza, Murphy, Handbook of Contemporary Paganisms, Leiden: Brill, p. 413–432.

Boyer, Régies; (1986). Le monde du double: la magie chez les anciens Scandinaves. Paris, Berq International.

Calico, Jefferson F.; (2018). Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America, Sheffield: Equinox.

Cragle, Joshua Marcus; (2017). “Contemporary Germanic/Norse Paganism and Recent Survey Data”, in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, 19 (1), p. 77–116.

Gregorius, Fredrik; (2015). “Modern Heathenism in Sweden: A Case Study in the Creation of a Traditional Religion”, in Rountree, Kathryn, Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses, New York and Oxford: Berghahn, p. 64–85.

Harvey, Graham; (1995). “Heathenism: A North European Pagan Tradition”, in Harvey, Graham; Hardman, Charlotte, Paganism Today, London: Thorsons, p. 49–64.

Haywwod, John; (2000). Attitudes to sex, in Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age, London, Thames and Hudson, p. 169.

Horrell, Thad N.; (2012). “Heathenry as a Postcolonial Movement”, in The Journal of Religion, Identity, and Politics, 1 (1), p. 1–14.

Jónína K. Berg; (2004). “Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson skáld og allsherjargoði frá Draghálsi” from Vor Siður, No 5, p. 5-6.

Kaplan, Jeffrey; (1996). “The Reconstruction of the Ásatrú and Odinist Traditions”, in Lewis, James R., Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, New York: State University of New York, p. 193–236.

Langer, Johnni; (2005). Religião e magia entre os vikings: uma sistematização historiográfica, in Brathair 5 (2), p. 55-82.

Paxson, Diana L.; (2006). Essentinal Ásatrú, walking the path of Norse Paganism, Citadel Press, New York.

Paxson, Diana; (2002). “Asatru in the United States”, in Rabinovitch, S.; Lewis, J., The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, New York: Citadel Press, p. 17–18.

Price, Neil; (2005). L’sprit Viking: magie et mentalité dans la scieté scandinave ancienne, in Boyer, Régis, Les Vikings, premiers européens. Paris, Éditions Autrement, p. 196-216.

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