SECTION ONE: WHAT ASATRU IS–AND ISN’T
Q. What IS Asatru anyway?
A. Asatru (literally, “faith in the gods”) is a modern reconstruction of the religion that the Germanic tribes practiced before their conversion to Christianity.
Q. What do you mean by “Germanic”? I thought Thor, Odin, and so forth were Viking gods!
A. “Germanic” is a collective name for many of the ethnic groups that live in Northern Europe. It is NOT a racial term, but refers to culture and language. The Germans (obviously) and the Scandinavians are Germanic–but so are the Dutch, the Frisians, the English, and several other ethnic groups that have died out or intermarried over the centuries.
Most of these groups believed in the gods we know as “Norse”. However, people think of them that way because Scandinavians wrote down most of the surviving myths and folk beliefs. (The other tribes probably had similar stories too, but those are almost totally lost.)
Q. Is Asatru related to any other religion?
A. No–at least not in the sense of “borrowing” other religions’ gods or teachings outright. Asatruar may have some basic beliefs in common with other pagans, or with religious people in general; but Asatru is NOT an offshoot of any other faith. (In particular, Asatruar are not “devil worshippers”; they do not even believe that a devil exists.)
Q. I’ve heard Asatru called a “nature religion”; does that mean that you really worship the earth, trees, and so forth as gods?
A. Asatruar do believe that the natural world is sacred and living. The sun, moon, and earth are personified as deities; there are also local nature spirits (dwarves, elves and landvaettir). But “nature” in that sense is only a part of Asatru; the gods are no more one-dimensional than we are. Thor, for instance, may be a thunder god; yet he is also a protector of man and the social order. Frey may be a fertility figure, yet he is also a god of peace and kingship. People are as much a part of “culture” as they are of “nature”–why would the gods be any different?
Q. Aren’t “Asatru” and “Odinism” just different names for the same religion?
A. It depends. Germanic pagans in England do tend to use those words interchangeably. In the United States, though, the name “Odinism” is generally avoided: it implies that Odin is the center of attention at all times and for all people, but that simply isn’t true. (Many Asatruar focus on some other deity, and still others believe that putting one deity above others is too narrow-minded.)
Q. Why choose to follow the Germanic gods at all? Aren’t they just aspects of a universal whole–or even of the worshippers themselves?
A. Some religions do indeed teach that all deities are one; Asatru, however, does not. The gods are distinct individuals and exist independently of their worshippers’ minds. (A Hindu might call Odin an emanation of the Brahman; a Wiccan might call him an aspect of the Father God; and a Jungian psychologist might call him a Norse version of the Wise Old Man archetype. To an Asatruar, Odin is ODIN: as unique an individual as his followers, not an aspect of any other god, and definitely not “all in the mind”.)
Q. How literally do you take the myths? For instance, do you actually believe that a huge, red-bearded man with a hammer is driving a wagon through the sky when it thunders?
A. On the one hand, Asatruar definitely believe that the gods are real and that they have power over the world. On the other, they admit that all myths contain some symbolic language: The Norsemen described Thor as a huge, red-bearded man with a hammer because that’s the best way they could understand him. (How many Christians, after all, believe that they are actual sheep and that Jesus is an actual shepherd? Not many–but they still accept that Jesus exists and takes care of his followers.)
Q. Do Asatruar consider their gods to be the only true ones?
A. No. Asatruar, as a rule, don’t seek to convert the rest of the world–largely because they don’t see it as the one right religion for everybody. If a non-Asatru pagan wants to worship Diana or Cernunnos, that is perfectly acceptable; if a Christian wants to remain Christian, that too is acceptable. The Norsemen generally didn’t belittle other people’s gods, or claim that those gods didn’t exist. Even in the late Viking Age, the attitude towards foreign religions was “You stick to your gods and I’ll stick to mine”; that attitude has carried on into the modern Asatru revival.
Some extremists may be anti-Christian–either because they were raised as strict churchgoers, or because they feel bitter about the forced conversions to Christianity during the Viking Age. That attitude is not usual, however, and Asatruar neither expect nor encourage each other to oppose any particular religion.
Q. But isn’t Asatru anti-Semitic? After all, Hitler claimed to believe in “Nordic” gods, and he used Germanic pagan symbols as part of his political agenda.
A. Hitler himself was raised Christian, and never actually believed in any of the Germanic gods. If anything, his beliefs most resembled those of the so-called “Identity Christians”, who use a warped interpretation of the Bible to justify racism and male dominance. The Germanic symbolism was used mainly because it appealed to the masses’ nationalistic feelings–and even then, its meaning was perverted into something that the pagan tribes wouldn’t have recognized or accepted.
There are, of course, extremists in every religion who will use their beliefs to justify racism (or sexism, or another prejudice). But Asatru itself does NOT teach or promote those people’s attitudes; the two should not be confused.
Q. Isn’t Asatru sexist? The Norse stories do show a definite slant toward male deities and heroes.
A. The Germanic tribes were no more patriarchal or sexist than any other pre-Christian society in Europe; neither was their religion. Strong, independent women (and goddesses) do appear in the stories that survived. But the myths were not recorded until centuries after the conversion to Christianity–and it was often Christian clergymen who recorded them. Because of this, much of the woman-related lore is gone.
There is evidence that the tribes had some matriarchal and goddess-centered groups–but some scholars (such as Gimbutas) have romanticized or exaggerated their importance. (The matriarchs and goddess worshipers were not totally peaceful, nor were the patriarchs and god-worshipers totally violent.) Ancient Germanic religion didn’t glorify either gender over the other, and the modern revival doesn’t either.
SECTION TWO: DO I HAVE TO…TO BE ASATRU?
Q. I’ve noticed that a lot of Asatru people are into “playing Viking”: wearing Norse-style clothes in ritual, learning crafts that were common in the Viking Age, assuming Norse names. Is this actually a requirement of the religion?
A. No. People on both sides have their valid points, however:
Those who DO “play Viking” emphasize that Asatru teaches respect for ancestors, tradition and history. They see Norse names, ritual clothes and handicrafts as a “hands-on” link with the past. They also point out that most religions keep some archaic practices in a ritual context, long after those practices have died out in the everyday world.
Those who DON’T do any of these things emphasize that a religion has to be relevant to the time and place where its followers live: a modern American shouldn’t try to act like a 10th-century Icelander. (Ancient Germanic tribesmen learned to fight with swords, grow their own food and sew their own clothes because those skills were necessary in their day-to-day life; that is no longer true for most of us today.) The “modern relevance” people also point out that there’s no evidence that the Germanic tribes themselves treated their religion as a historical reenactment; people didn’t “play Stone Age” in a ritual context to prove that they respected the past.
Q. I’ve read that the Norsemen sacrificed animals and even humans as part of their religion. Is this still part of modern Asatru?
A. Human sacrifice is definitely NOT part of modern Asatru practice. Some groups, however, still do practice animal sacrifice; those groups tend to live in areas where farm or game animals are often killed for “mundane” reasons anyway. They see the sacrifice as a vital part of the religion, acknowledging that their food comes from living creatures and consecrating its death to the gods. (Unlike some cultures’ version of animal sacrifice, which destroyed the whole offering by fire, the Germanic version was essentially a sacred meal: the edible parts were blessed and shared by the worshipers, and the rest was used or thrown away as it would have normally been.)
For the most part, however, modern Asatruar make only a “symbolic” animal sacrifice (consecrating an edible image of an animal, or a piece of meat) if they make one at all. Some reserve that practice for only the most important rituals; many more do away with the sacrificial animal altogether, offering only a drink.
Q. I’ve noticed that many Asatruar practice magic (especially rune magic); is this a requirement of the religion?
A. The religion does teach that magic is real and acceptable; and many people do indeed come to Asatru through an interest in runecraft. However, this does NOT mean that everybody is expected to study or practice magic. (Spell-working does not play as strong a role in Asatru as it does in Wicca, to name the most obvious example.) Conversely, a person can practice rune magic in some form without following the Asatru religion–as long as the magician is familiar with the Germanic gods, myths and symbolism, and takes the runes in their cultural context.
Q. I remember reading that the Norsemen believed that only fallen warriors lived with the gods after death–that everyone else was doomed to end up in Hel. Is this true, and do modern Asatruar still believe this? (If they do, there’s not much point in following Asatru unless you’re on active duty in the military!)
A. The idea of an either/or afterlife (one place good, one place bad, and no other possible destination) is common in Middle Eastern faiths like Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. But the Germanic concept of the afterlife was not either/or. Valhalla was reserved for Odin’s chosen warriors, true; yet Valhalla is not the only divine residence in Asgard. The other gods have homes of their own, and there is some evidence in period texts that the dead could end up living with some deity other than Odin.
As for Hel, the horrifying images in the Prose Edda were probably influenced by descriptions of the underworld in non-Germanic religions–Christian, Greco-Roman, or both. (Snorri Sturluson, after all, was a Christian with a classical education; and he did live at least 100 years after Iceland was converted.) Other sources (the Eddaic poem Balder’s Dreams, and some folk tales from present-day Germany) show Hel as a quiet place of rest for the dead, but not a place of torture or sadness.
Only one poem, in fact, mentions an afterlife of torture as part of Germanic belief–and that poem describes Nastrand (“Dead Man’s Shore”) as a separate place from Hel. Who ends up in Nastrand after they die? Murderers, oath-breakers, people who lie to seduce others–in other words, the “bad place” is reserved for people who commit heinous crimes.
What does all this mean? It means that modern Asatru shouldn’t be seen as a “warriors only” religion, and that people who can’t die in battle shouldn’t feel “doomed” for missing Valhalla.
Q. OK–so I don’t have to be a warrior, a magician, or a historical reenactor to practice Asatru; and I haven’t done anything horrible enough to send me to Nastrand. Does that mean that I can do anything I want, as long as I believe the Germanic gods are real?
A. NO!!! The Germanic tribesmen still believed that right and wrong exist, and that actions have consequences. Even the gods are limited and make mistakes–but even they have to pay the price for those mistakes. (The god Tyr, for instance, lost his right hand after he made a promise he didn’t intend to keep: he swore to let the Fenris Wolf go if it couldn’t break some magic chains the dwarves had made. The wolf couldn’t do it, of course–and bit off the hand that Tyr had placed in its mouth as a pledge of good faith.)
The mythical texts we have may not say that the gods are totally good, or that the slightest mistake leads to eternal torture. They do, however, teach the value of honor and a good reputation: a man (or a god) should be judged on his actions, not merely his words or beliefs.
(Credit to http://www.erichshall.com/ for the FAQ’s)