After floating their intentions in January, a group of pagans in Iceland earlier this week announced that they would break ground on a new temple to the old Nordic gods within the month.
After floating their intentions in January, a group of pagans in Iceland earlier this week announced that they would break ground on a new temple to the old Nordic gods within the month. It will be the first such religious site built on the island since the nation's legendary conversion to Christianity around 1000 AD.
The structure will be built into Öskjuhlíð Hill in Reykjavik. A half-buried dome sinking 13 feet into the slope, the circular temple will measure in at 3,767 square feet and accommodate up to 250 people. Designed by Magnús Jensson, a local architect, the temple will align with the sun and incorporate the golden ratio as well as the numbers 9 and 432,000, sacred in this pagan group's rites. Its price tag will be around $975,000.
Rather than a space for any old schmoe with an interest in Viking deities via Chris Hemsworth's Thor or Nordic death metal, the temple will be a headquarters for a particular set of pagans: the Ásatrúarfélagið.
People tend to lump all pagans together, but there are a vast array of groups and ideologies across the world, from druids to neo-shamans to Wiccans, with all sorts of idiosyncratic individual practitioners, spiritualists, and splinter groups in between. Some focus on paganism as a vehicle for new age beliefs, some for environmentalism, some for an escape from Christian mores, and some for rabid, far-right return-to-purity nationalism, but all have been increasing in numbers over the past century or so. Some groups literally believe in the old gods and practice ancient rituals, while others see them as metaphors. And despite their hippy-dippy reputation, some avowedly non-dogmatic groups deny others their pagan identity because they refuse to share the same conception of nature or order, or worship the wrong metaphorical gods.
Here's how Ásatrúarfélagið fits into the squidgy mass of paganisms: They are reconstructionists, using ancient texts like the Icelandic Edda poems to rebuild lost traditions and worldviews rather than inventing new and nebulous mythologies piecemeal. Within reconstructionism, they practice heathenry, the belief in pre-Christian Northern European myths, worldviews, and rites, along with sects like Northern Tradition, Odinism, Forn Sed, and Germanic Pagan Reconstruction.
Technically Ásatrúarfélagið is just the Icelandic branch of the larger Ásatrú brand of heathenry. But after their founding in 1972 (and recognition by the Icelandic government in 1973 as an official faith), they broke off in the 1980s, believing that in many nations the ideology was being used as a backdoor for far-right, neo-Nazi activities, which they wanted nothing to do with.
As to their own beliefs, according to the group's fourth Allsherjargoði (high priest—since 2003) and Sigur Rós collaborator Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who joined the movement at its inception when he was just 16, they're a little bit of everything. They're partially an attempt to purge Christian influence and revive a romantic-yet-progressive nationalist identity, partially anti-modern, counterculture environmentalists, and partially the living continuation of a series of ideas and beliefs they say never really died out as an undercurrent within Icelandic society. This identity revolves around fairly progressive politics and a healthy dose of pantheistic environmentalism—respecting one's place as part of but not the master over the earth and finding some divinity within everything.
"I don't believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet," Business Insider quoted Hilmarsson as saying of the actual deities involved. "We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology."
However, some members of Ásatrúarfélagið do honestly believe in the gods, and others are agnostic—which is OK, because their movement is non-dogmatic. Beyond acknowledging some manner of hidden force in nature and respecting Icelandic culture, you can do whatever the hell you want.
For years they've organized religious ceremonies (as of 2006, the Icelandic government allows five pagan priests to officiate legally binding marriages, burials, and so on), like feasting days (sans the old animal sacrifices) and name-givings, without their own base. They've even managed to organize campaigns against environmentally unfriendly developments and for marriage equality and the separation of religion and state. But as the faith has grown to 2,400 active members (out of a nationwide population of 330,000), tripling their ranks over the past decade, the need for a long-desired central temple at which to perform rites and hold meetings has grown dire. The group applied for state land in 2006, received their hillside plot in 2008, and have since been working on drawing up plans, working through procedure, and raising the money to make the creation of a home for their bourgeoning and active community a reality.
Ásatrúarfélagið's temple is one of the biggest jumps in legitimacy and visibility for European paganism in recent memory. In 2008, the Hellenic Reconstructionists of Greece drew national attention for hosting a prayer to Athena on the Acropolis (to protest the creation of a new museum on the site), but their gathering was a onetime affair of just 200 people. For Iceland's pagans to have regular meetings of about that size in a prominent location in a dedicated space in a European capital is a true sign of the growth and broad acceptance of pagan traditions.
Yet as pagan groups grow, their newfound exposure has in the past invited some nasty backlash. In America, where as of 2004 we had between 200,000 and 400,000 pagans of one type or another (by one conservative estimate), there have been several underreported hate crimes against believers and their holy spaces. In 2010, someone put a giant cross on a pagan worship space at the US Air Force Academy (yes, the US government recognizes paganism) in El Paso County, Colorado. In 2013, a pagan family in New Port Rickey, Florida, suffered drive-by acid bombings by people who shouted "fucking witch" as they rolled down the street. And most recently, much closer to Iceland, in Northern Ireland, some folks stole a statue of the Irish pagan sea deity Manannán Mac Lir, replacing it with a cross inscribed with the words "You shall have no other gods before me." Although the statue was installed by the Game of Thrones set designer as one of five tourist-promoting statues in 2013, the founder and leader of the Order of the Golden River (the local pagan big noise) Patrick Carberry still views the theft as a hate crime.
It's unclear whether there's any risk of Ásatrúarfélagið's newfound visibility bringing them any trouble. But given the group's friction with and attempts to end the constitutional special status of the National Church of Iceland and the clear risk of the growing faith poaching off some of the Christians' members, there's always a chance that their high profile will inspire some ire.
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An earlier version of this article said that Christianity came to Iceland around 1000 BC. It was, of course, 1000 AD.