Asatru, pronounced 'asa-true' is the Norse word meaning 'True to the Aesir' (the 'Aesir are the Norse/Germanic Gods).
Asatru is also called Heathenry or the Northern Tradition, the Elder Troth1 or sometimes Odinism2, and is a polytheistic3 religion with no central organisation, based on the pre-Christian faiths of the Scandinavian and Germanic lands, including England. In Iceland the poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson won legal status for the religion in 1972 and Asatru is currently practised throughout Scandinavia, Germany, Holland and the English-speaking world, while forms of it exist in Eastern European countries.
The conversion of most Norse/Germanic peoples to Christianity was comparatively late, with Irish missionaries still being sent to England in the 9th and 10th Centuries, and King Olav I Tryggvason introducing Christianity to Norway and beginning the slow conversion process in the late 10th century.
While a decent amount of information is available about the beliefs of the Vikings, Normans, Saxons and such by observers4, much of the native literature is of a comparatively late date - some of the famous Icelandic Sagas, for example, were put into written form by the Christian writer Snorri Sturluson in the 13th Century, well after the times they purport to describe.
Another problem facing the theological historian is that of class. The Scandinavian and Germanic peoples were not generally literate in the Roman alphabet until the 7th Century as literacy was mainly the preserve of the clergy and aristocracy. We cannot be sure how precise a reflection of general beliefs and customs of the ancient Scandinavians and Germans the Sagas and Eddas give us; however, we do have a lot of physical and literary evidence for the late Pagan or early Christian period. Modern Asatru therefore relies on the contemporary literature, anthropology, academic historians and personal gnosis in the observance of Asatru as a living religious tradition.
Adherents of Asatru, hereafter referred to as Asatruar (pronounced 'asa-true-ar'), worship the known Norse and Germanic deities, such as Odin, Thor, Frigga, Freya, Heimdall, Loki, Hela and Baldr. It is worth noting that the Saxon versions of these deities are commemorated in the English names of six of the seven days of the week:
|Day||Saxon Deity||Norse Equivalent||Associations|
|Wednesday||Woden||Odin||Inspiration, poetry, runes, magic, death|
|Thursday||Thunnor||Thor||Thunder, lightning, protection from chaos, fertility|
|Friday||Friga, pos. Frea||Frigga||Social and domestic order, prophecy, judicial silence and secrecy|
|Saturday||Saetern is an Anglicised version of Saturn||None||None|
We cannot be sure that the deities mentioned in the myths and in the historical literature are the only deities to have been worshipped by the pre-Christian Norse/Germanic Pagans. Some regional variations of their cults are noted in the literature, but we cannot be certain that these descriptions cover all forms of the Asatru of old, as most of the literature was written for an audience already familiar with the religious beliefs associated with the gods - and none of it was written for 21st Century historians or modern day believers.
As with all Neopagan and Pagan reconstructed religious traditions, to attempt a definition of Asatru is to sail close to the wind. There are many forms and formats of religious worship, and while some groups are more involved in ancient Teutonic revision and re-enactment, others are more inclined to regard the lore and history as important bases for their beliefs, but have no interest in literally reconstructing the pre-Christian religions.
Asatruar are in general polytheists, regarding their deities as distinct, separate entities with which they may have special relationships. Many Asatruar are devotees of a particular deity, though honour and respect are given to all the gods.
Most Asatruar recognise the three major clans of deity and supernatural beings: Aesir (pronounced 'ace-ear'), the Vanir (pronounced 'van-ear') and the Jotun (pronounced 'yot-une'). The Aesir are the gods who dwell beyond the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, in Asgard and are generally associated with social organisation, legal affairs and so on. The Vanir are the earthy, fertility- and magic-associated deities who live in Vangard. The Jotun are the giants, some of whom are not only sympathetic, but are recognised as Aesir, and others who represent the forces of chaos, against whom the Aesir and Vanir wage a constant war of attrition. There are many overlaps between the groups: Odin is of Jotun parentage and Vanic Freya lives in Asgard, and strategic marriages, as well as love-match unions, are made between the three groups in a constant shift of power and balance. Some who worship only the Vanic deities refer to themselves as Vanatruar; but in most cases, worship of the Vanir falls under the umbrella term Asatru.
The concept of Wyrd (pronounced 'weird'5) is a subtle and complex concept of personal and communal destiny. The Vikings were not fatalists, but they did believe in a pattern of events that could not be avoided, but might be changed to one's advantage.
Asatruar regard the Earth with reverence, paying respects to the Vaettir (pronounced 'vat-ear'), the spirits of land, sea and sky, and regard the Earth as a living goddess, Urdhr or Nerthus (pronounced 'oorth' - which is the origin of the English word Earth), Mother of Thor. This, in turn, leads Asatruar to see the most ordinary actions as imbued with spiritual significance - there is no division between the spiritual and the mundane.
Reverence for ancestors and familial spirits, such as the Disir (pronounced 'dis-ear', the singular, Dis, means goddess), the female ancestors who protect the family, are an important part of Asatruar beliefs.
Worship in the ritual formats known as blots (pronounced 'bloats') and sumbels (pronounced 'sum-buls') is still performed to this day. Blot is the origin of the word blood, referring to the historical practice of sacrificially slaughtering livestock to feed those gathered for ritual. There are numerous references to the altars of the Norse and Germanic peoples being smeared with blood from livestock. However, this was not a regular occurrence. Historically, public rituals such as these, where enough people gathered to require this kind of action, were held infrequently, with people relying more on personal and familial rituals.
Asatruar accept the idea of reincarnation, usually, though not always, within the family line, along with the concept of an afterlife, often spoken of in terms of going to 'live in the halls' of a specific deity. As Asatruar tend to believe that the soul is complex, being made up of many parts, these apparently opposing views exist simultaneously and very happily in the average Asatruar's mind.
Being Asatruar means recognising the possibility of magic. Teutonic lore is rife with tales of magic, divination and shape shifting. Perhaps as a result of many Asatruars' need to differentiate themselves from Wiccans, it is not uncommon to hear English-speaking Asatruar say that they don't believe in magic. Ironically, Icelandic Asatruar, who are often cited as the most desirable model for English-speaking Asatruar, are generally far more interested in magic than their US and UK counterparts. Many Asatruar, especially in the US and UK, either do not believe in magic or practise it only privately. Interestingly, there seems to be an upsurge of interest in runic magic and seidhr (pronounced 'sayth-ur'), a form of oracular divination in which a seer enters a trance state and either allows the dead to communicate with the living, or looks into the future her/himself. Seidhr is fundamentally a communal practice, in that it is always performed specifically for a group or community.
Modern Asatruar typically gather in groups to worship on a regular basis, often once a month or so. The traditional communal Blots were held at the winter solstice or Yule6, the vernal equinox or Ostara7, the summer solstice or Midsummer8 and the autumnal equinox or Winter Nights9. Other rituals were generally family-oriented, or might be performed for specific reasons either by a member of the household or a member of the clergy.
These days, Blots are formalised rounds of toasting to the gods, the Vaettir, the ancestors or whoever is being honoured at that specific ritual.
Generally, the participants will gather in a rough circle around or in front of an altar, sometimes referred to as a harrow, or as a vé (pronounced 'vay') The Blot is often opened with a few words from a participant acting as godhi or gydhia10 (pronounced 'gothi' and 'githya'), or the group may choose to chant a rune important to them or chosen for the occasion. Usually, a Hammer Rite is then performed, in which a participant raises a hammer, the symbol of the god Thor, and asks him to protect the gathering, with the words 'Hallow and hold this stead' often heard at this point. The gods, ancestors and Vaettir, may be asked to join the proceedings and a horn of mead, beer or juice may be blessed before being passed around the group.
Typically, the horn will be passed round the circle three times - depending on the size of the group - being refilled before it drains, each participant either making a specific toast or simply saying 'Hail the gods' before drinking, or alternatively kissing the horn, and passing it along. It is considered that the essence of the words spoken when toasting then reside in the remaining mead. This mead is usually poured into a hlaut bowl (pronounced 'h-lot') and is taken and libated11 on the Earth as a gift to the gods. Commonly, the words
From the Gods to the Earth to us; from us to the Earth to the Gods; a gift for a gift!
are uttered at this point. Blots may be solemn or full of laughter, depending on the people and the intent of the ritual.
Sumbels are generally less formal affairs and may be either planned or can arise spontaneously. Participants gather round and pass the horn, making toasts if they are moved to do so as the horn makes its way round the group. There is no obligation to make a toast at sumbel. Sumbels do not have any set number of rounds and may go on for as short or as long a time as the participants' desire. The idea is not to get drunk - though mead and its intoxicating effects were highly valued in a religious context both by the Norse/Teutons and Celts - but to make sincere toasts, ask for blessings and commune with one's fellows, gods, ancestors and the Vaettir in a spontaneous ritual. As in Blots, the words spoken in sumbel are considered sacred. If any drink remains, it may be libated, but this is not considered a necessity at most sumbels.
As is common among most Pagans, Asatruar generally make personal devotions. This may be as structured as a daily prayer at a personal vé, or as simple as a sudden desire to libate one's pizza. Most Asatruar feel that they can in some way interact with their gods, ancestors and Vaettir, and they do so in a wide variety of ways, from the obviously sacred to the silly or mundane.
Prejudice and Racism
It is a sad fact of life that racists, sexists and homophobes often hide behind religious beliefs. Given the apparently laidback attitude of the early Norse/Germanic peoples regarding ethnicity and sexuality, not to mention the probably highly unusual economic, social and political power of the women, it's particularly galling for its followers that Asatru is often associated with racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes in the minds of the general public.
Historically, the Nordic/Germanic peoples were very big on travelling, intermarriage and adoption. That they took enormous pride in their families and lineages is indisputable, but Nazi and White Supremacist ideas would have been foreign to them.
While transgressing social gender roles could be risky, it is well worth noting that Odin Himself practised the 'womanly arts' of magic and seidhr, which He learned from Freya, Mistress of Magic, Sex and War. According to mythology, Loki undergoes a couple of sex changes and even gave birth, and ritual transvestism - especially in the cults of Freya and Frey - were well known. As long as a man was reliable, honest, hardworking and fathered at least one child, no-one much seemed to care whether or not he took male lovers. Indeed, to argue that our ancient ancestors would even recognise our concepts of sexual orientation is stretching it a little. Sexual relationships between male warriors were common in every warrior society, from the Vikings to the Celts, to the Mongol Horde, and Spartans even made refusal of it a capital offence. As long as a Teutonic man did his social duty and contributed to the furtherance of his bloodline, all was well. The only exception could be where a man was what is often referred to as 'the receptive partner'; probably due to the widespread custom of raping one's conquered foes, there was discomfort with the idea of being 'on the bottom', which could result in accusations of being 'argur', meaning womanly or queer. However, there are instances of warriors known to be 'argur' in this manner, but who were highly respected for their bravery, integrity and trustworthiness. As always, complexities abound.
Less is known about female sexuality, probably because it was considered to be less socially important than male sexuality by later writers. Women could refuse a husband, initiate divorce and take back their dowry and half the marital possessions; could own land, property and businesses; take over their husband's business affairs in their husband's absence; advise war councils; command troops and fleets; and in Iceland, the economy would have been utterly crippled if not for women's weaving. The Dublin Viking Queen Aud, when her children were grown, simply took off with her warships and went 'a-viking'12; Leif Eriksson's crew included his wife, and his half-sister Freydis captained one of his ships to the Americas. It was not common, but not unknown, for women to become warriors: 'shield-maidens' fought alongside their male counterparts and took home the booty to prove it. The Irish Brehon Law codes, written between the 8th and 12th Centuries give similar rights to women; there appears to be some argument as to whether this demonstrates a widespread north-western European attitude to women, the Irish influence on Teutonic peoples, or of the influence of Teutonic peoples on the Irish, as Ireland was invaded and settled by Vikings, and there were many social, cultural, trade and marital contacts between these groups. Ultimately, we cannot be sure how much of the Brehon Law codes reflect a pre-Christian Irish belief system, as the Irish officially converted to Christianity around the 4th and 5th Centuries, with the Brehon Law codes being written centuries after.
In short, the mores and practises of ancient peoples and societies were just as complex as their modern counterparts: it is arrogance to ignore those complexities as, it can be well argued, racists, sexists and homophobes try to do.
Some racist and right-wing groups have attempted to hijack Asatru in the same way that they have hijacked parts of Christianity, ie Christian Identity13, and the Nazis did their utmost to co-opt the more powerful and well-known pre-Christian symbols. The best examples of this corruption of form and meaning are seen in the co-option of the swastika. This symbol, now associated all over the Western world with Hitler and the Nazi Party, was an ancient and positive symbol worldwide; now it is indelibly tainted in the West by its association with the horrors of Nazism. The best hope for rehabilitation of the swastika is through its open use by Asian peoples who routinely use them in their religious art, though whether it will be possible for white people to reclaim it as a positive symbol is in serious doubt. Most Asatruar either feel that the swastika is tainted beyond reclamation and never use it, or use it only privately, as even those who know its actual meaning usually find its modern associations too upsetting to bear.
In the 1970s, an American national Asatru organisation, the Asatru Free Assembly (AFA) was formed; in the late 1980s, a deep schism between 'folkish'14 and other Asatruar within the AFA led to the formation of the Ring of Troth, a highly inclusive organisation, and the Asatru Alliance. This schism has so heavily influenced US Asatru that it can be argued that there are two separate branches of Asatru now current in the US, with the major difference being the emphasis on ethnicity and sexuality. The vast majority of Asatru groups have a very strong anti-discriminatory stance and while it is impossible to deny the sincerity of a person's belief in the gods simply on the basis of their attitudes to ethnicity, gender and sexuality, many Asatruar feel strongly that racism, sexism and homophobia run contrary to the spirit of Asatru. While Asatruar are generally on the socially conservative end of the modern Pagan/Heathen spectrum, Asatruar are not typically tolerant of bigots and have no qualms about speaking their minds on the subject.
Paganism and Heathenism
The differences between Paganism and Heathenry are hotly debated by Asatruar. Many prefer to be called Heathens as a way of expressing their difference from other Pagans. As Wicca is the dominant Pagan religion, many people think that all Pagans are Wiccans - few things annoy Asatruar more than having their religious identity overlooked. In many respects, this is a normal response to feeling marginalized within an already marginal community. Sometimes, the desire for recognition of Asatru as an historically based, separate religious identity tips over into downright hostility towards Neopagans in general, who are often characterised as intellectually sloppy and personally irresponsible. In return, some Wiccans express their view of Asatruar as aggressive and uptight. In fact, there is sloppy thinking and intellectual rigour in all camps and no religious, political, or social group has a monopoly on idiocy or reasonable behaviour. As things stand, some Asatruar feel insulted when referred to as Pagans, while others are perfectly at home with both the terms Pagan and Heathen, especially as they literally mean the same thing.
On the upside, there are quite a few Asatru and Wiccan groups that have strong ties of friendship and mutual respect. As both communities mature, it can be reasonably assumed that this will become more of a norm.
The following are only a few of the excellent resources available on Asatru and Norse/Germanic history and culture:
The beautiful English Heathenism page is not just a work of art, but contains in-depth information on the gods and history of the Saxons, along with the practise of Saxon-oriented Heathenry in England.
NYCPagan provides a Quicklist of the better-known Asatru deities and supernatural beings.
The Asynjur Mailing List is devoted to discussion of the goddesses, also known as Asynjur (pronounced As-in-your) of Asatru.
Frigga's Web is an organisation devoted to Frigga and all the many activities associated with her. Community building and maintenance are their main focus.
Vingolf is a New Jersey Kindred whose website includes good definitions of Asatru, in-depth descriptions of ritual format and an excellent resources list.
The Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance website is devoted to accurate information about pretty much any religious group you can name and quite a few you can't. Solid and down-to-Earth.
'The Pentacle And The Hammer' is an in-depth essay on the relationship between Asatru and Wicca, co-written by Lew Stead, an Asatruar, and Devyn C Gillette, a Wiccan priest.
The Viking Answer Lady's essay on 'Homosexuality in the Viking Era' is well worth reading, as is everything else she has to say; if you want to know anything about the Vikings, her website is an excellent resource.
The Germanic History and Culture website provides a great deal of historical information.
The Ring of Troth is a US national Asatru organisation. Edred Thorsson's A Book of Troth (Llewelyn Books) provides a guide to the Ring of Troth's ritual structure and theology. Idunna, the Troth's magazine, is a well-regarded Heathen publication.
The various Sagas are available in Penguin Classics.
Snorri Sturluson's Prose and Poetic Eddas are available in Texas and Everyman respectively.
Everything by HE Davidson is highly recommended, such as The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, The Road To Hell, and Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe.
Kveldulf Gundarson's excellent book on Asatru, Teutonic Religion is a Llewelyn book.
Jenny Jochens' Women In Old Norse Society is available through Cornell University Press.
Edred Thorsson's Runelore and Runecaster's Handbook are available through Weiser.
Freya Aswynn's Leaves of Yggdrasil (her individualistic take on runecasting for divination and magic) is available through Llewelyn.