The Rise of Iceland's Heathens
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because confusing times make us all want to retreat into comfort zones.
By Fiona Zublin
Things you might expect to see at a pagan ritual: Viking longboat, check. Horn of beer, check. Readings of ancient Scandinavian texts, check. Swords, check. Ceremonial dress and tambourines? Not among Iceland’s heathens, who are more likely to warm themselves around a little fire, have a little fruit and then drive home. No quaffing, no ax fighting, no burning boats. This is modern heathenry, and it’s not ashamed to be dull.
The numbers are striking: Iceland’s statistics bureau found that membership in the Asatru Association, the country’s main organized heathen group, increased from 280 followers in 1998 to 3,187 in 2016 — meaning that in less than 20 years, the association grew more than elevenfold and now comprises nearly 1 percent of Iceland’s population. Asatru is even building a much-ballyhooed pagan temple, Europe’s first in nearly a millennium. And heathenism is on the rise elsewhere in Europe. Pew Research estimates that folk religions on the Continent will double their share of adherents by 2050.
Heathenism … is deeply ingrained in Iceland’s cultural bedrock, drawing on ancient songs and texts that are still taught in schools.
Such a leap in numbers isn’t because everyone saw the Avengers movies and was awed by Thor, the hammer-wielding, golden-maned, absurdly muscled Norse god of thunder. Instead, anthropologist and researcher Joshua Harmsworth sees the pagan surge as a reaction to the breathless pace of modern life. In the ’70s and ’80s, “you had a period of rapid technological change,” says Harmsworth, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Canada’s heathen community. “And anytime you see that, you see lots of people adapt some kind of rooting practice. There tends to be a kind of looking back.” In Iceland, for example, the past decade has been extremely disruptive — banks failed, there were two major volcanic eruptions, and the president resigned earlier this year in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal. Harmsworth claims that those stressors likely contribute to the growth of heathenism, which is deeply ingrained in Iceland’s cultural bedrock, drawing on ancient songs and texts that are still taught in schools. Many islanders may find the calm, modern manifestation of the religion a comforting, familiar retreat.
In Iceland and elsewhere, the neopagan revival seems bound up in powerful connections to place, since many iterations of the religion emphasize experiencing nature within the cycle of the turning year. Michael Strmiska, a professor and the author of Modern Paganism in World Cultures, says that link with nature is a key draw, as many heathens are deeply concerned about the environment. Iceland’s new pagan temple will be the country’s first building in modern times to be constructed solely from native trees — larches planted as part of early 20th-century reforestation projects. In Estonia, two folk religions have surpassed Islam as the country’s most popular non-Christian faith — Maausk, a nature religion, and Taara, a homegrown Estonian belief system organized around sacred groves.
Iceland’s heathens are still greatly outnumbered by the Lutheran faithful. In fact, a 2013 online survey of the global heathen community found that the U.S. has thousands more pagans than Iceland does, although they form a much smaller percentage of the overall American population. While Strmiska agrees that heathenism is growing, he notes that “we’re talking about a fringe group growing into a slightly larger fringe group,” not a global movement. However, he’s seen healthy pagan communities flourish in Spain, South Africa and the Czech Republic, and there are even heathen organizations in New Zealand and Australia.
We’ve become totally mainstream and boring.
And they’re all different. The religion places a premium on personal practice, meaning the beliefs of not just national chapters but even of individual families or single worshippers can vary dramatically. One American group Harmsworth studied focused on highly performative rituals and associated strongly with warrior culture, whereas Icelandic heathens take communion together by holding weekly chats about their lives over potlucks of baked goods, sans dramatic “come-to-Odin” moments, as Asatru high chieftain Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson calls them. One thing heathenism is not, for Icelanders at least, is even a little bit metal. “We’ve always had a high profile,” Hilmarsson says. “But in the last 15 or 16 years, people’s perceptions have changed. We’ve become totally mainstream and boring.” So mainstream, in fact, that Hilmarsson claims two practicing heathens are serving in Iceland’s parliament — one conservative, one liberal.
Sometimes the cultural looking back manifests as toxic nationalism. According to Hilmarsson, that’s one reason the Icelandic Asatru community no longer associates with heathen groups in other countries. In the mid-1980s, they cut ties with right-wing German heathens who started preaching something “more to do with Hitler than heathenism,” Hilmarsson says. Icelandic pagan groups have been outspoken opponents of those who try to use Norse mythology for racist ends.
And what about the highest-profile appropriation of a heathen figure — the film and comic-book representations of Thor? While Harmsworth and Hilmarsson both have heard rumors of protests in the heathen community over the inaccurate representations of their sacred stories in popular culture, Hilmarsson admits he doesn’t mind them. “The Marvel comics aren’t mythology, but they try,” he says. “I only like films that have explosions, car chases and aliens, and the Thor movies and Avengers films have all those things.”