Asatru (Asatro) is the modern day word for religions involving the Norse Pantheon, the worship of them and the adherance to the nine virtues of Asatru. While it retains a great deal of the original religion (at least by what the history books tell us of the original), there are modern day interpretations. For example, the nine virtues are an interpretation of how an average pious Viking/Norseman lived his life.
Due to these modern interpretations, many brand Asatru as a Pagan, or worse yet neo-Pagan, religion. This is cringed at by the majority of us Asatruists, as paganism has become a very popular, casual religion. All the Asatruists I know, however, are as pious as any catholic, and so we prefer to call ourselves Heathens rather than Pagans1. Asatru has become an organised religion in some small communities, although it still remains largely unorganized. With that said, I shall describe the aspects of Asatru.
1This is not meant to offend Pagans in any way, or to suggest that there are no pious Pagans.
The following are the varying religions which are today known simply as Asatru:
The Nine Virtues
By facing life's struggles with courage, we constantly extend our capabilities. Without courage, nothing else can be done!
Blind faith has no place in Asatru. No pie-in-the-sky; we must act in this world as we see it and as it really is rather than calmly wait for the next.
We must be true to what we are, and we insist on acting with nobility rather than baseness. Our standards must be banners held high in our hearts.
We stand true to our faith and our values. Loyalty is the basis for all enduring human activity, and we hold it in the highest esteem.
The isolation and loneliness of modern life is not necessary. The willingness to share what one has with ones' fellows, especially travelers, is a vital part of our way of life.
We hold to the discipline necessary to fulfill our purpose. We stand willing to exercise the self-control and steadfastness necessary in these difficult times.
Let us dare to be all that we can be! Let us take risks and taste the richness of life. Passivity is for sheep. We refuse to be mere spectators in life.
We depend on our own strength and character to achieve our goals. We seek only the freedom necessary to our quest, whatever it may be.
We hold to our path until its completion and are not ashamed to be strong. The cult of the anti-hero will find no support in us, and the gods we follow are not for the weak.
Concepts of Asatru
Worshipping the Gods in modern day society is very different to how the Vikings did it. Where the Vikings would slaughter an enemy army and make sacrificial offerings to the Gods as their form of worship, today we must do so in a much more peaceful manner. The best form of worship is to simply learn the Gods' personalities that you wish to worship, and to model your life in that way. Adhering to the nine virtues is another way of showing your devotion, as is making shrines and wearing symbols of your Gods. Most of the devices of worship, the concepts of the soul, magic and cosmology, have been listed in the above node, so instead I shall do brief descriptions of the Gods and the Asatru mythology:
- Vanir: The Vanir dwell in Vanaheim, but their fortress was destroyed long ago in the war between the Vanir and Aesir. The Vanir were higher than the Aesir, but the only three survivors now live in Asgard and are considered equal to the others.
Aesir: Previously the second echelon of Gods, they are now the highest order since the destruction of the Vanir. They dwell in Asgard in the great Halls of the Gods. The great majority of Gods fall into this category.
Jotunar: The giants. Most lived in Jotunheim, although a few lived in Helheim (Nifelheim), and two even cavorted with the Aesir. Those in Helheim and Asgard were worshipped as gods.
- Fenris: The Fenris wolf was a terrible beast spawned by Loki. As Loki was a Jotun, so is Fenris.
- Hel: Loki's daughter and Goddess of death.
- Loki: God of mischief.
- Skadi: Goddess of the hunt and skiis.
- Sleipnir: Another spawn of Loki, an eight-legged horse, that is ridden by Odin.
Mystical Beings: Although not Gods, these beings are important.
- Alfraed: Elves, but not like your J.R.R. Tolkien Elf. They weren't jolly and they weren't friendly. There were two kinds of elves, Ljosalfraed and Svartalfraed; the former meaning White Elf, the latter Black Elf. Thus there were two elves, those that lived in Ljosalfheim, the Light Elves, and those that lived in Svartalfheim, the Dark Elves. The former were closely linked to good fortune, the latter to misfortune.
- Dvalinn: The Dwarves lived deep below the surface of Midgard in a place called Nidavellir. They were excellent smiths, but somewhat malignant, and could never be trusted.
- Eagle of Yggdrasil: This eagle sits on top of the Yggdrasil tree, watching all.
- Einherjar: These are the spirits of the dead who ascend to Valhalla. They are manifested in this form, and are to be led by Odin during Ragnarok.
- Nidhogg: The dragon that lives in Niflheim.
- Jormungand: This serpent encircles Midgard. Loki is trapped beneath his fangs, which drip poison onto his eyes.
- Ratatosk: This squirrel runs along the roots of the Yggdrasil tree, allowing the Eagle and Nidhogg to communicate.
- Valkyries: These beautiful warrior women ride on their Horses of the Aurura during battle, selecting those who die during the battle that are worthy to ascend to Valhalla.
With that done, I will now describe how the world is perceived in Asatru. At the very top of the world is the Yggdrasil Tree, everything was created from this. From here, one root runs down to the Well of Urd, which connects to the second layer of the world, Asgard. A second root runs down to the Spring of Mimir, which connects to the middle layer, Midgard. The final root runs down to the Spring of Hvergelmir, which connects to the lower layer, Nifelheim. Between these layers are other sub-realms, it looks something like this:
***** Yggdrasil Tree
(Well of Urd)
Midgard & Jotunheim
(Spring of Mimir)
(Spring of Hvergelmir)
The final concept to be adressed is Ragnarok. Ragnarok means the final battle, in which all the forces of good, evil, and everything in between, come to fight. Every God is designated to die on the fateful day, save for the Heroes of Ragnarok. In the fighting, the world will be decimated, but the Heroes will rebuild the world, and thus a new life shall be born. It will be a life of peace and harmony, as all the forces of the world which bring misfortune will be destroyed during Ragnarok. There are seven Heroes of Ragnarok (Balder and Hod will rise from the dead afterwards, but are not of the Heroes), and include :
Heaven vs. Hell
This concept of pure Good vs. Evil, Heaven vs. Hell doesn't really exist in Asatru. Even though the battle of Ragnarok, more or less, the forces of Helheim against the forces of Asgard, its more like Law vs. Chaos. Even Hel, the only Goddess to be depicted as evil, blurs the lines and is often known to do good. Another prime example, Loki, who was responsible for countless deaths and misfortune, is depicted as more of a trickster, if a little malignant at times, than an incarnation of evil.
As for people who believe in Asatru, there are two places one can go to upon death. Those who fight with honour and valour, and die in battle, may get chosen to ascend to Valhalla, if they are deemed worthy by Odin and Freyja. All others descend to Helheim; but it wasn't so bad here either. Sure it wasn't as nice as Valhalla, but you aren't tortured or punished in any other way. In today's society, people who fight the battle of life with honour and valour, never allowing themselves to be second best, never giving in, may be chosen for Valhalla. People who constantly break the nine virtues are never deemed worthy.
In the same way that there is Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Church of England etc., still under the same God, there are several sub-Religions of Asatru that still worship the same Gods. The differences in these sub-Religions is the focus on what part of Asatru is the most important, i.e. which God is the King of the Gods etc. (not unlike the argument between Jews and Christians over whether Jesus was the messiah or not).
This is the closest to the original religion. Odinists focus on the worship of Odin (obviously), and are usually intellectuals, warriors or practictioners of magic. While the worship of other Gods is common for an Odinist, they are all secondary. Odinism brings Odin to such a pedestal that he is almost a christ figure.
Vanirists, like Odinists, change the focus of the religion to particular Gods, in this case Freyr, Freyja and Njord. In this variation, the Vanir are seen as far more Godly than the Aesir. Freyr and Freyja are basically worshipped as the Father God and Mother Goddess, respectively; Njord is not always worshipped, but if he is, he is less important than the other two.
Cult of Thor
This is more of the comman man's religion. As Odin is more of an aloof, disinterested, infinitely wise, magic type, he is quite inaccesible to many. The common working class, at least back in the time of the Vikings, could relate far more readily to Thor, your average, hard-working guy who liked to drink beer and have the occasional brawl. Thus, the Cult of Thor shifted the focus to Thor as the primary God.
Cult of Tyr
While Odin was the God of War, Tyr was originally, and thus some continued to worship him instead. As the God of Justice, the Cult of Tyr attracted more of the just, honourable warrior type, although it wasn't too common back in Viking days and still isn't. Those who wish to focus on justice alone worship Forseti.
Cult of Uller
Uller was believed to have originally been the King of the Gods in the early Germanic tribes. Thus, some still worship him in this position, or as an equal to Odin. As a God closely related to winter, this variation was more common in colder lands, but was still not very common.
Cult of the Disir
The Disir are local goddesses, often deified ancestors. They are credited with considerable powers varying from turning the tide of battle to protecting possessions and children. In the Disir we see very personal deities who might be worshipped only by one person or one family.
Cult of the Elves
This was, and still is, the most uncommon variation. Basically, the Gods are shoved into the background, and the Elves are worshipped.
The Evolution of Asatru
In its beginnings Asatru was spread over many regions and could not be labelled as one religion. The Norse, Vikings, Germanic tribes, Teutons, Saxons, Picts and even Celts were known to worship some or all of the same Gods. The focus of the religion at this time was very violent and a very wild lifestyle. It was a religion of the strong, ferocious people of the north, people who lived to die in battle and embraced the ferocity of the wilderness. They lived in harsh lands, with harsh, but infineitely strong, Gods.
With the advent of Christianity, however, the worship of these Gods dwindled. First the Picts and the Celts, crushed or united beneath the British fiefdoms, were converted. Next the Saxons fell to Welsh missionaries. Soon after this, the Vikings invaded Britannia, and were converted in a wave of British missionaries, which soon spread to the Norselands, bringing Christianity there. Finally, the Teutons, recently converted to Christianity, united the Germanic tribes beneath them into the Holy Roman Empire in the late Dark Ages, and Heathenism fell there. Thus, the world was free of any centralized or organised Heathenism.
Though it was far from dead, and no matter how hard they tried, it could never completely be stamped out. The religious wars in the Norselands soon turned it into a hidden religion, however. The farthest reaches of the Norselands (i.e. Greenland, Iceland) were the most common places to find it, but even here it was rare. Despite this, Heathenism survived as a religion right up to modern day. Being a hidden religion, it changed, and as society changed to frown upon violence, so did the religion reflect this. While there are no Asatru virtues or rules dictating that battle and war is in any way wrong, it no longer dictates that battle and war are an integral part of the religion.
Today Asatru is a coersion of what remains of the original Heathen religions. The varying tribes' (Saxon, Teuton, Norse etc.) Gods have been melded under one pantheon, although there are still many discrepencies of spelling. I prefer to take the Old Nordic spelling whenever possible, however some Gods are Teutonic, Saxon etc. and cannot be spelled that way. The only language in which all the Gods and other terms have been translated into is the Anglo-Saxon language, otherwise known as English, and so all terms in this writeup are written in that language.
Regardless of spelling discrepencies, the religion is more or less the same throughout the world, save small variancies, such as the ones listed above. It is most popular in England and what is today known as the Norselands, Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia and Denmark. It is also popular in Germany and America, but beyond that there are generally only small, isolated communites, or people who worship on their own, in other countries. There are various organizations on the internet one can join if they are interested, and they include:
- American Vinland Assosciation: http://www.freyasfolk.org/
- Asatru Alliance: http://alliance.eagleut.com/
- Forn Sidr Contacts: http://www.fornsidr.dk/english/groups.htm
- Midgard's Web: http://www.midgardsweb.f2s.com/index.html
- Ring of Troth: http://asatru.knotwork.com/troth/index.html
- The Troth: http://www.thetroth.org/