| The dreams of man|
|Disturbing your sleep|
Asatru (sometimes called Odinism, Wodenism, Wotanism and Odalism) is an attempt to cobble together an actual religion from Norse mythology and pre-Christian Germanic religious practices. This is difficult to pull off, as the Norse myths, like other ancient texts, are incredibly spotty, contradictory, and prone to mistranslation (just ask Wagner), and were written down hundreds of years after the events recounted in them allegedly happened (insofar as they are even meant to be historical).[note 1] However, the same can be said of the Bible, the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon.
It dates back to 1972 when a group including farmer and poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson decided to relaunch a pagan religion. In Iceland the first Asatru temple is being built for worshipers to carry out their religious rituals, and it could be architecturally interesting if it is ever completed. So, who knows? Two centuries from now, there might be an Asatru temple in every American town.[note 2]
The irony in Asatru, of course, is that atheism is an age-old tradition in Scandinavia, and it predates Christianity. Scandinavians have always hated their gods; when the life is hard enough between 55th and 70th latitudes North, soil is poor and winter is lethal, the least thing you need is a bunch of cosmic bullies demanding you sacrifices. The Hrafnkel's saga is a Pre-Christian tale of a Viking chieftain Hrafnkel who gets disappointed with the Norse deities and becomes godhlauss, godless (atheist).
Questions of accuracy
There is some question regarding how closely Odinists have actually managed to recreate these beliefs, and of whether Germanic mythology ever qualified as an organized religion as it is understood today. Many Asatruar go to great lengths to link themselves with the past, such as taking on a Nordic "baptismal name" like Heimgest or Gunnar.[note 3] Presumably when there are more than a dozen Asatruar widely known by these names, patronymics will be introduced. When more than four can actually agree on something, you get a group known as a
"Black Metal" band kindred, which will then scream about Odin as if they have swallowed boiling grease. Possibly they have.
According to the neo-Druid Isaac Bonewits, some practitioners of Asatru are "mesopagan," meaning that they try to make their practice as close to the old form as possible with no intentional (but some unintentional) modern influences, while others are neopagan. Practitioners typically prefer to be called heathens rather than pagans (please see our article on the euphemism treadmill if you find this odd). If you really want to piss these people off, call them neopagans — within the community, this is often a snarl word used in the same way as "cafeteria Catholic", associated with Wiccans and other "fluffy" groups. However, most neopagans accept them as a slightly kookier branch of the big neopagan tree.
It's worth noting that not a whole lot is really known about how the Norse people worshiped, so despite their hatred of the term, practitioners of this religion can be most aptly named neopagans.
Asatru believers usually follow three types of rituals, the "Fainings," the Blot, and the Sumbel. The Blot is a sacrifice to the gods of Norse mythology; the Sumbel is a round of drinking involving oaths and toasts to each other. Sumbel typically involves drinking, whereas blot traditionally meant a blood-sacrifice (among the Old Norse, this was an animal ritually slaughtered and then consumed at a sacred feast). More common are fainings which involve non-blood offerings made to the gods usually in the form of alcohol. In practice, there are rarely any characteristic differences between sumbels and fainings. A lot of Asatruar are homebrewers because the mead sold in liquor stores is frankly garbage. Needless to say, Asatru worship services tend to end with everyone falling all over themselves drunk,[note 4] causing their priests to fall over themselves insisting that one does not need to get drunk to practice Asatru.[note 5]
Like many other pagan religions, Asatru tends toward orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy: unlike with Christianity, the finer points of one's world-view are not of the first importance. Consequently, ethical standards among Asatruar vary widely; as goði Stephen McNallen put it, "We do not have a list of Thou Shalt Nots."
However, the Norse myths have much to impart in the way of life philosophy and advice, even beyond the classical heroic virtues of honor, loyalty, bravery, etc. Many Asatruar have made attempts to codify these teachings into a latter-day ethical system, yanking many tenets from dark places along the way.
One such codification is the Nine Noble Virtues, derived by the Odinic Rite from the Eddaic poems Havamal and Sigrdrifumal. The nine virtues are courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness and perseverance.
An alternative codification is the Twelve Traits promoted by the Asatru Folk Assembly: industriousness, justice, courage, generosity, hospitality, moderation, community, individuality, truth, steadfastness, loyalty and wisdom. (Wait, isn't that just the Scout Law?)
For an even more concise summary, the Asatru equivalent of the "greatest commandment in the law" would have to be the proscription of oath-breaking. To the Asatruars' credit, breaking an oath of fealty was indeed a very serious matter in old norse society, and the myths make strong condemnation of oath-breakers.
Unlike Christian ethics, Old Norse ethics were not commandments handed down from a God who had written them himself; nor were the gods in the least portrayed as perfect beings who followed these ethics to the letter. Indeed, they are portrayed as having no qualms with rape, murder, stealing, cheating, lying, backstabbing, breaking oaths or anything else necessary to get themselves ahead; a chief example of this is the tactics used to fight the Aesir-Vanir War, a conflict around which much of Norse mythology revolves. Odin would give lengthy screeds about honor and respect in one story, then proceed to father children by rape in the next.
And, of course, whether or not a religion has a list of "Thou shalt nots" does not really have any bearing on the conduct of its followers, as discussed in the next section.
“”Posterity will have little occasion to write a new epic on these "heroic gladiators." I have seen too much of that kind of people not to feel a profound contempt for their miserable play-acting.
|—Adolf Hitler on the Odinists of his time|
In the United States, Asatru has long had to contend with white supremacists and Neo-Nazis claiming the religion because it has "Aryan" cred and (unlike Christianity) did not originate among the Jews. The Nazis (the original ones, not the shaved head thugs of today) also used significant amounts of Norse symbolism in their propaganda, and placed the Nordic people at the tippy-top of their racial ladder. There is also a strong contingent that takes a "folkish" stance, in which people can only worship the gods their ancestors worshipped (though it is seldom explained what this means to a person whose parents come from far-flung parts of the world), or alternatively, the gods pertaining to the culture in which they were raised.
Notably, this is not the case in Europe; although there is a contingent of racist pagans there (e.g., the black-metal musician and Nazi occultist Varg Vikernes, who burned down an 850-year-old stave church), the most significant group going hand in hand with Asatru is instead the folktro movement, people who promote the still-living Scandinavian folklore tradition without crossing the line into pagan worship.
This does not mean that most Asatruar are racist. The overall religion has split into three main camps, with the militantly racist and antiracist sides proclaiming "oaths" and "curses" against each other and the folkish[note 6] caught in the middle not wanting to have anything to do with either side.
Overall, there is something approaching a 90% turnover in adherents. That is probably a higher turnover rate than Mormonism has, which speaks volumes. Indeed, it seems to be one of those religions disproportionately favored by disgruntled ex-Mormons, strongest in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, and — not surprisingly — weakest in states like Minnesota and North Dakota, which are full of people who would not need to make up "baptismal names" if they converted, because their actual first names would do the job admirably. This can be partially attributed to the fact that for many of them, it is not necessary to profess Asatru in order to engage in many Norse pagan rites, as their cultural heritage lies in countries that never made a very clean break with Norse paganism and adopted a highly syncretic form of Christianity that maintained many of the old pagan customs; Sweden, for example, where traditional sacrifices continued in some places as late as the 19th century, and such pagan fixtures as the Yule Goat are still widely seen.
Although it is much loved among racists, there is nothing in Asatru, either moral or historical, which explicitly supports racism. Even the historic Norse had no problems dealing with people of other races.[note 7]
That said, there is no explicit condemnation of racism, either, and the rather loose doctrines allow the religion to easily be twisted to suit Neo-Nazis. Thanks to the Third Reich, this link is strong and will not easily go away. Although the larger Asatru organizations in the U.S. at least nominally repudiate racism, several of them are structured in such a manner that large numbers of racists can nonetheless exert heavy influence within them. Such organizations, thus, serve as a gathering place for sundry racist creeps and thugs, who enjoy the numerous Norse tales of Berserks, war, and mighty gods dashing around spearing faces (and vaginas), as well as the invented racist moral codes.
Anti-racist pagans use the nithing pole (an impaled horse head) as a curse against racism in the name of Norse deities.
In 2017, white supremacist and alleged-terrorist Jeremy Christian was accused of killing two people in Portland, Oregon. Prior to the killing, Christian posted on his Facebook page, "“Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!", a reference to the short-lived Viking settlement in North America, and a likely reference to Odinism.
Missing the point
While Norse Mythology is certainly an easier religion to justify one's racism to than Christianity is ("We are all one in Christ" and all that), it still has its problems. It's full of interracial romance (such as the marriage between Njodr of the Vanir and Skadi of the Aesir, Loki being a Frost-Giant, Frey falling in Love at First Sight with a giantess), or what can be called the polymorphous perverse (Thor crossdressing at one point in an attempt to disguise himself as Freya and actually pulling it off; Loki's fondness for coupling with animals, such as the infamous time he transformed into a female horse, got impregnated by a stallion, and gave birth to Odin's eight-legged steed Slepnir).
What's more, the Norse Gods are described repeatedly in the original myths as vulnerable and mortal, they are afraid of Frost Giants, Trolls and others and rely greatly on powerful weapons and artifacts (such as Mjölnir) to feel safe, have to sacrifice eyes and limbs to achieve their ends (Odin sacrifices his eye, Tyr sacrifices his arm) and of course there's the fact that in the end, the Aesir and Vanir lose their war against the Giants. Founding an ideology of power and domination based on gods who are mortal, vulnerable and self-destructive is a bad case of not thinking things through.
Oh and while this isn't particularly racism-related, it's still worth considering how the Norse afterlives work. While sources vary on how many afterlives there are and how you get into them, one constant is that the best one is Valhalla, which one gets into by dying in combat. While folks in this afterlife do spend half their time gorging on food and liquor served to them by hotties, they spend the other half of the time fighting each other, bloodily maiming each other, "dying," and regenerating, forever. While the barbaric Vikings themselves presumably loved the idea of an afterlife like that, it obviously wouldn't seem that fun to many people today.
Asatru vs. Odinism
There is some dispute as to whether the religion should be called "Asatru" or "Odinism," but prominent priests under both banners do not consider there to be very sharp differences between the two terms at present. It is likely that the rest of the world doesn't care that much.
There was historically a division in the use of the terms, based on political and racial emphasis versus religious emphasis. The term "Odinist" was first used as a self-descriptor by Alexander Rud Mills, an Australian Nazi sympathizer who founded an Odinist church in 1934. The name was carried on by Else Christensen and her Odinist Fellowship; Christensen's newsletter, The Odinist, contained more Liberty Lobby-esque political content than religious content.
The term "Asatru" was coined in Iceland in the early 1970s. The Icelandic practitioners, led by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, were more about practicing the religion than forming a political bond, so on average "Odinism" saw more use among the political group and "Asatru" saw more use among the apolitical group. Since Christensen's death and the dissolution of her Odinist Fellowship, this division is not so pronounced. The Odinic Rite, which describes itself as "Odinist," has no historic association with either Mills or Christensen and is more religious than political, but was founded before the term "Asatru" became popular.
The white supremacist David Lane, recognizing that "Odinism" is now used primarily by non-racist groups, and realizing that the German name for Odin, Wotan, is an English backronym for "Will Of The Aryan Nation," advocated the use of the term Wotanism for an explicitly racist version of Asatru. Today "Wotanism" still refers exclusively to these racist variants, which have had much syncretic influence from Christian Identity and Mormonism, although Lane rejected Christianity. For example, Lane himself was a supporter of polygamy, which cannot be conclusively stated to have existed as an institution in pagan Scandinavia.
Edred Thorsson (real name of Stephen Flowers), an occultist who at one point called himself Asatru, tried dodging the name issue entirely by calling his organization the "Ring of Troth." The revelation that he was also a member of the Temple of Set unleashed a brief round of Satanic panic among the Asatruar.
Asatru in politics
Even disregarding the American racist element, Asatruar tend more toward political conservatism than other pagan groups. There are several possible reasons for this:
- Unlike neo-pagan religions such as Wicca, which are based in traditions that have always been countercultural, Asatru is based in the old mainstream cults of the Germanic tribes, which were headed by the secular rulers rather than the local weirdos. This might inspire the Asatru adherent to regard the State as having some moral authority and to (in a display of self-hatred) have disdain for said weirdos.
- Asatru places much emphasis on oaths, honor, loyalty, and other values that are also held in esteem by the military, and the Vikings were a warlike people. This might inspire the Asatru adherent to support a strong military and oppose pacifism.
- Asatruar practice ancestor veneration (according to the Prose Edda, many of the Norse gods were based on historical kings and heroes),[note 8] and the Old Norse clan structures were very important to society. This might inspire the Asatru adherent to support some form of family values.
- The Eddaic poem Havamal contains several sayings in support of self-reliance on the grounds that "a man is his master at home," and the old Germanic modes of government (petty kingdoms, voluntary assemblies, etc.) were not large and centralized. This might inspire the Asatru adherent to go against "big government" and "nanny-statism." However, as with many other "small government" conservatives, this is contingent upon the belief that "small government" and "big military" belong in the same sentence although the vast majority of the racial/white supremacist ones are against said military spending: they don't want to "enrich" the "Zionists", you know.
- TL;DR version: Asatru tend to lean to the right, with some even taking the dive into full-on Fascism or Nazism.
In recent years, a few Asatruar have been elected to public office on center-right tickets. In 2003, an Asatru priest, Sigurjon Thordarson, was elected to the Althing (national parliament of Iceland) in 2003, serving for four years as a member of the Liberal Party. In 2009, Dan Halloran, also an Asatru priest, was elected as a Republican/Libertarian/Independence/Conservative candidate to the New York City Council. Halloran is a traditionalist conservative campaigning primarily against redevelopment of his neighborhood. When a controversy sprang up about his religion, the Republican party defended him, with a Republican state senator opining that it is acceptable because Asatruar are "an honorable group." The only openly Odinist party that is known to exist is Vigrid, a Norwegian white supremacist cult with a very odd interpretation of the religion.
No relation to
- White Supremacist Running Odinist Network From Maximum-Security Prison (March 20, 2009) Southern Poverty Law Center
- | Irmandade Odinista do Sagrado Fogo
- It is unclear how far modern practitioners of Asatru actually believe their mythology. High priest, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson sees the stories as metaphors for human psychology and natural forces. Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods since Viking age
- Anything's better than a megachurch and a Creation "Museum".
- Compare the phenomenon of Western converts to Islam changing their names to make them more Arabic-sounding — Cassius Clay and Cat Stevens becoming Muhammad Ali and Yusuf Islam, for instance.
- Not that there's anything wrong with that.
- There is, however, something wrong with that.
- Folkish, from the German Völkisch, refers to a form of romantic nationalism that has spawned many political philosophies, running the spectrum from liberal to far-right, of which the most well-known is Nazism.
- "Dealing with" does not, just to say it out loud, mean the same as the Mafia "deals with" people. The Norsemen were just about as violent as their contemporaries, but they could and did also have friendly relations and there is no evidence of outright racism in the written sources — which also meant, if the relations were not friendly, that they were equal-opportunity robbers and killers.
- Caveat lector: The Prose Edda also says that Asgard, the Norse analogue of heaven, was just another name for Troy, the mythical city best known for being obliterated in the Trojan War.
- How Iceland recreated a Viking-age religion, Gavin Haines, BBC Travel, 3 June 2019
- Iceland's Asatru pagans reach new height with first temple
- Norse Pagan Fellowship Considers Crowdfunding Temple Completion, Iceland Review, 7 Feb 2019
- White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong. Why the accused Portland killer and others see Vinland as an inspiration. by David Perry (May 3, 2017) The Washington Post.
- Wotanism (Odinism) Der Brüder Schweigen Archives & David Lane's Pyramid Prophecy
- Gwyn Jones on Norse polygamy