Photograph: Reuters
High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson leads an Ásatrú ceremonial procession. Photograph: Reuters

I read a story last week about the construction of a temple in Iceland intended for worshiping Viking-age gods. No, really. Apparently Norse paganism has been experiencing a perceptible comeback in recent years, which is pretty impressive for a religion that had been wiped out by Christianity and considered dead for nearly a millennia. Yep, the old Germanic deities are all getting a new lease on life. Praise be to Odin, the Allfather… just when I had hope for a new Age of Enlightenment.

My first thought was, Marvel must’ve ran a helluva marketing campaign. Turns out that The Avengers movie franchise had nothing to do with it. For the last few decades, a slow-moving interest in the old gods has been gaining global traction. An association in Iceland that promotes faith in Norse gods called Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Association) has a current head count of 2,400 members.

That may not seem like an astounding number, but considering that Iceland has a population of only 330,000 it’s a fairly decent figure for a formerly dead religion. Estimates put the global number of Ásatrú followers upwards of 50,000 – a large portion of those members residing in America (go figure). Interestingly, as Iceland has experienced a steady decline in religiosity, Ásatrú has seen a commensurable boon within the same time frame, tripling their membership in the last decade. It’s now recognized as an official religion in Iceland and Scandinavia, the former being one of the top ten most atheistic countries in the world.

I’m completely fascinated by this trend – people trading in one faith-based religion for another; possibly disenfranchised with Christianity but unwilling to ditch the delusion of gods. Not just ditching “God” but adopting an entire pantheon of mythical gods to replace him/her/it/whatever. Perhaps one just wasn’t enough.

Monotheism is one truth for the masses, but polytheism is many truths for the individual.

— Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

The high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, is a pretty interesting dude. He’s a renowned Icelandic musician and producer popularly linked to Björk who has held interests in magick, witchcraft and paganism for most of his life. Hilmar points out that while the revival is based on the traditional practices of Norse religion and lore, there are modern differences. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

He touches on what I think is the real appeal behind this phenomenon. We crave human and spiritual connectivity. Our lives can seem meaningless and contrived without these things. Combine that with an innate fear of death and you have a likely basis for the birth of religious beliefs – the “manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.” These beliefs have evolved of course but the ancestral religions sought answers to some of the same questions we’re still asking today.

Our current scientific understanding of nature and existence makes a literal belief in mythology absurd, but we still desire those connective elements of being human. We still hope that there is more than what we know and are; yearning for a universal force that defies logic and reason. We are dreamers with questions and limitless imagination.

Most Ásatrú would probably admit that Thor, Odin and Frigg aren’t literal, tangible deities living it up in Ásgarð. They’d likely agree with Hilmar that these stories are poetic metaphors meant to represent aspects of human life that are hard to define or are more easily understood when seen through the lens of allegory. If that’s the case and these people don’t actually believe in these gods, ascribing a more polyatheistic stance, then why not ditch religion altogether?

Good point. Maybe there’s some merit to Odin after all. Those Frost Giants are a pain in the ass.

I think it’s really about the allure of tradition, ceremony and belonging; being part of a collective organization that is larger than one’s self. Finding groups of like-minded people can be challenging, but atheism doesn’t define any common ground beyond a non-belief in gods. It may influence a certain worldview, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll get along with every atheist you come across. For that reason, atheism can be lonely, especially if you were raised in religion and long for the same sort of connectivity you once had as a believer.

Becoming part of something that not only awakens an admittedly captivating ancient mythological history but also provides a peaceful outlet to commune and fellowship is a positive thing. I really don’t see a problem with it. But in every group there is always an extremist fringe minority that gives the majority a bad name. In this particular case, Ásatrú has been associated with neo-Nazi white supremacist groups. Ásatrúarfélagið, as well as the three largest Ásatrú organizations in the US, have denounced any association with racist groups. Odin has turned a blind eye to the situation but Thor is threatening to drop the hammer.

I honestly wouldn’t mind attending an Ásatrú blót ceremony for the ritual interest alone, just as long as I’m not offered up for sacrifice. Kidding.

So what are your thoughts on Ásatrú and the revival of Norse paganism in the 21st century? Is it a step backwards? What can we learn from the ancestral religions about who we are today?