A Modern Makeover for an Ancient Religion: The Norse Gods Find a New Earthly Home

OdinWe see them on the big screen, bashing about aliens and each other, ruling over fantastical worlds and wielding extraordinary weapons. Their hair is perfect, muscles rippled and jaw chiseled. While Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston do a remarkable job of portraying the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Loki, it is likely few moviegoers are aware these are not just superheroes, sprung from the mind of a talented writer. These are important figures in an ancient religion. And now, after thousands of years, the Norse gods are getting a brand new temple, the first since the Viking age. Before we explore this new phase of the Norse religion, let’s venture into its past and find out how it all began.

A depiction of the creation of the world by Odin, Vili and Vé. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

A depiction of the creation of the world by Odin, Vili and Vé. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

Norse mythology was the religion of the Norse and Germanic people of Scandinavia, Iceland, the British Isles and even parts of continental Northern Europe before they were converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages. The Vikings are the most well-known group of believers. The Vikings were seafaring warriors and explorers who flourished from approximately 79-1000 CE. They traveled far and wide, east and west, even reaching to North America in their quest for plunder, trade and expansion. Throughout their reign, they adhered strictly to their ancestral traditions, which included the worship of their gods.

Norse mythology is “animistic, polytheisticpantheistic, and holds a cyclical view of time.”[1] It is populated by a wide variety of creatures and spirits including elves, dwarves, land spirits, giants and two different tribes of gods, as well as an “animating spirit” for every single element of the natural world.[2] The main tribe of deities, called the Aesir, live on Asgard, a celestial home, from which they rule the universe and everything in it. Odin has a single eye and is the most powerful god. He is joined by his wife Frigg, with whom he has a son named Baldur. Unlike the Hollywood movie account, Thor and Loki are not the sons of Odin and Frigg. They are, however, powerful deities. Loki is a trickster and troublemaker, while Thor is beloved for his loyalty and honor. The second tribe of gods and goddesses, the Vanir, are lesser known today and we don’t have nearly as much information about them. They are associated with the natural world rather than with Asgard. The most well-known Vanir is probably Freya, who actually becomes an honorary member of the Aesir tribe and is even married to Odin at one point. At times throughout history, she is almost interchangeable with Frigg.

There are numerous other gods and goddesses and each being has a rich and specific history and purpose. There is a creation myth as well as a myth about how the world will end. The mythology is extensive and fascinating with so much to explore and learn. It teaches us about the people who followed these traditions and helps us to better understand their way of life. However, while most assume that Norse mythology is a thing of the ancient past, in reality the traditions are very much alive today.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of Ásatrúarfélagið walk to a blót at Þingvellir in the summer of 2009.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of Ásatrúarfélagið walk to a blót at Þingvellir in the summer of 2009.

A growing number of believers still exist and they promote a new, modern version of Norse paganism called the Asatru movement, which takes the stories and myths and uses them to craft a new way of viewing the world. Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of Asatruarfelagid, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods, says, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”[3]

While Hilmar says that no one really believes in Odin as a real being, it is important to note he may not speak for all believers. A brief search of Asatru group websites reveals that many groups do believe the gods and goddesses are very real and continue to influence human lives today. However, even if you don’t take the pantheon and stories literally, there are still ways to worship and follow Norse paganism. For example, Modern American Asatruar follow a guideline known as the Nine Noble Virtues. They are:

  • Courage: both physical and moral courage
  • Truth: spiritual truth and actual truth
  • Honor: one’s reputation and moral compass
  • Fidelity: remaining true to the gods, kinsmen, a spouse, and community
  • Discipline: using personal will to uphold honor and other virtues
  • Hospitality: treating others with respect, and being part of the community
  • Industriousness: hard work as a means to achieve a goal
  • Self-Reliance: taking care of oneself, while still maintaining relationships with Deity
  • Perseverance: continuing despite potential obstacles[4]

These virtues are derived from the pantheon of gods and goddesses and their individual attributes.

Each group of believers is called a Kindred. These may be large groups affiliated with a national organization or they can be as small as a single family. Each Kindred is generally led by a priest and chieftain who speaks for the gods.[5]

Membership in Asatruarfelagid, the group that began the Asatru movement in the 1970’s, has tripled in Iceland in just the last ten years. Last year there were 2,400 members in a country that boasts a population of only 330,000.[6]

The new temple will be a center of worship and communion for the followers of Norse paganism. It will be a place for ritual and ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, the conference of names for children, initiation of young people and even the celebration of the ancient sacrificial ritual of Blot, minus the slaughtering of animals.[7] It will be “circular and will be dug 4 metres (13 feet) down into a hill overlooking the Icelandic capital Reykjavik.”[8] There will be a dome at the top that will let the sunlight in and as the sun’s position changes with the seasons. The sun will constantly repaint the room, giving it a mercurial and ever-changing feel.

As this ancient religion and its traditions are carried into the modern world, the spirit of the Vikings lives on through new believers who will gather together in a completely modern space. This temple will truly be a place where past, present and future fuse and ancient worship meets 21st century sensibilities.

[1] Norse Mythology for Smart People – The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2015, from http://norse-mythology.org/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods in 1,000 years. (2015, February 3). Retrieved March 24, 2015, from http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/02/03/uk-iceland-religion-pagans-idUKKBN0L70FN20150203

[4] Wigington, P. (n.d.). Asatru – Norse Heathens of Modern Paganism. Retrieved March 24, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods in 1,000 years.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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