Modern pagans

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Dylan Berg Once employed as an industrial designer, Jórmundur Ingi now oversees one of the fastest growing religious groups in Iceland, the pagans. As Iceland's pagan leader, Jórmundur Ingi battles a hectic schedule. Yet, he still found time to put down the proverbial sword and shield to shed some light on Icelandic paganism, known as Asatru.

How has Asatru survived through the ages? Is it passed down by families?
Actually, very few of us were born into it or raised in Asatru. Most of us found it on our own. It is quite different in this respect from Christianity. With Christianity, first, you accept it or are baptized into it, and then you try it. In paganism, first, you try it, and if you like it, then you accept it. We never try to convert anyone.

What would you say is the underlying basis, or source of Asatru?
It stems from nature and culture. Culture, of course, is nothing more than the interaction between humans and nature. It is impossible to tell where culture ends and religion begins. In other words, you can define one end of human existence as cultural and one end as religious, but nobody knows where one blends into the other. From the point of view of paganism, especially thousands of years ago, there was no difference. We see this very clearly in India today. They see Christian missionaries as attacking Indian culture. It is impossible to throw away Hinduism and still be a Hindu.

Literature about the 'virtues' of Asatru describes honor, perseverance, bravery, and a work ethic. It sound a lot like Lutheranism.
That is the paradox. However, in an old and homogenous society like Iceland, people tend to think along similar lines. So their religions tend to be very similar also.
We feel that the interpretation of the gods is what you make of it at any given moment. Of course, we do respect and look for the ancient ways and interpretations of our ancestors. That is the basis of our religion. Paganism is in the head of the individual, and in the collective thought of the society, he lives in. Therefore, a pagan religion is always national or ethnic.

Are the origins of Asatru known?
No. Historically we can take it about 5000 years back to the Ukraine, or slightly east. You find something relatively similar in modem day Turkey. Asatru and Hinduism are also very similar. Moreover, these religions have been separated for 5000 years. However, it must be much older and simply disappearing into the mists of time. At one point, it was so different that you would not recognize it. Just like languages. You cannot pinpoint where any one language starts. It simply branches out of another language.

As you said, paganism is tied in closely with the natural world. As people increasingly live separated and insulated from the natural world, do you think it will become more difficult to relate to such religions?
Of course. What happens is that if you are separated from nature, like in a city, the contact with nature becomes more and more abstract. I think the religion is simply a reaction between nature and human nature. When people move into cities, they get cut off from nature.

That is interesting, because today in North America and Europe many "neo-pagans" live in urban areas, and hold jobs like computer programmers or industrial designers.
Yes, that is a strange contradiction, but it has an explanation. If you look at the rise of neo-paganism in Europe, it goes hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution. The more industrialization there is, the more paganism you see. However, this neo-paganism is not really an ethnic religion. What they did for example in England was adopt Pan, a rather obscure deity of the woods, as their supreme god for the simple reason, the woods were disappearing. Industrialization was ruining the landscape and all of a sudden, they found out that something they had always taken for granted was disappearing.

As industrialized nations go, Iceland still has quite a pristine environment.
Yes, we do, which is why this type of thinking is so foreign to us. For example, most Icelanders cannot understand why we are not allowed to go on with our whaling even though whales around Iceland are not in danger of extinction. The globalization of thought has made people think that if animals are in danger in one small part of the world, then they must be so everywhere.

What are your views on the official conversion of Iceland to Christianity?
Well, I have speculated a lot on this, and I have come to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, I do not think Iceland ever converted to Christianity. It was simply a political decision. It had a lot to do with the centralization of power toward the Norse crown.

Is it true that even after the proclamation of Christianity, people were still allowed to worship pagan gods in private?
Yes and that is a very interesting point - worshipping in private. The thing is that the only time Icelanders were in "public" was at Althing (national parliament), which was only for about two weeks during the year. The rest of the time, they were living on their farms throughout the farthest reaches of Iceland. So essentially, for 50 weeks of the year, Icelanders were living in private. They were free to do as they pleased.

And what about the deities? You had mentioned that Asatru comes from inside the head. So do you believe that Odin, Thor, and the rest of the gods are simply archetypes from your own psyche, or do you believe in them literally?
Both. I do not think there is so much difference and the difference that is there does not really bother anyone. Sitting here drinking coffee in the city during broad daylight with a tape recorder - log¬ically, let's face it, to believe in supernatural beings who rule the world sounds, to say the least, a little archaic. But if we were in the winter highlands in the middle of the night, it would be a differ¬ent situation. So it depends on your frame of mind. When you are in the middle of a ceremony, there is a quite different feeling. There are three ways in seeing the gods. One is to believe literally in the gods. Another way is to see them as archetypes. Yet another way is to think of them as representing the laws of nature. It sim¬ply depends on what you are thinking at the moment. I have no doubt that there are some people who believe literally in the gods at all times. I think most people, though, have all three views, and slide from one to the other depending on their mood and situation.

What is the relevance of some of the pagan gods in today's socie¬ty, for example, Skaldi, the god of hunting and skiing? Hunting and skiing are not important activities in most people's lives today. Why does this god exist?
In fact, this particular god Skaldi has actually not been popular for a very long time. That is how things work.

What about Valhalla? It is spelled out very clearly in the Eddaic poems that Valhalla is reserved for brave men who die in battle with a sword or axe in their hands. But there are very few weapons and no battlefields in Iceland today. For whom might you think Valhalla is reserved?
Valhalla was the specific belief of the warrior cult. However, there are other alternatives described in the Eddas. Specifically, there are twelve places where the gods exist, probably like the twelve houses of the zodiac. So there is ambiguity. My predecessor was once asked about what happens to pagans when they die. They were obviously at the ready to ask about Valhalla. He said that he did not think it has changed so much in the past thousand years. In the Viking Age of Iceland, when somebody died he would either be buried in a mound, or in a hill or mountain with his kin. He would also be accompanied by protective spirits that were close to his loved ones. He could arrive in Hel, the underworld, but also he could be in the heavens with the gods.
If you talk to a modern Icelander, a Christian, he obviously believes that his loved ones are in the cemetery. Christians also think of the dead as being somewhat still with them in spirit. Thirdly, they like to think of them in heaven, which oddly enough, most Christians think must be a very bormg place.

Yeah, Valhalla does sound like a lot more fun.
Oh yes, in Ireland, for example the pinnacle of life for the Celtic warriors was to stuff themselves with pork and ale, chase the girls until late into the night, and then get up early and fight. Then they would go back to eat more pork and start over. This was the warrior cult. This is how they wanted to spend their lives. So the afterlife is just a reflection of this, but without all these little earthly inconveniences like having your leg chopped off. From that point of view, for a young pagan in Iceland, the afterlife might involve a rave party for example. However, they enjoyed themselves most in life.

Of course, I have to ask about the famous "hidden people" or huldufólk in Iceland. What is their story?
Maybe this is just another way of keeping nature pristine. The hidden people are simply a personification of nature – its beauty and the fact that nature has a right. One of the strange things is that people who live on the outskirts of Reykjavik will preserve large rocks in their garden and declare that there are hidden people living there. I think this is simply an Icelandic way of declaring that you are "on their side".
We used to think that these hidden people were uniquely Icelandic, but all over Scandinavia, Ireland, and the rest of Europe, you have these hidden beings. Sometimes they are called elves. This соme as no surprise because half of Iceland's population is of Irish decent. A few years back, the National Museum of Iceland was making a cultural anthropology study. They took a survey and asked questions like "Do you believe in elves?" or "Do you believe in ghosts?" The director said that more than 90 percent of Icelanders do not believe in these things. Then he changed the questions to "Do you know anybody who has seen a ghost or been in contact with the hidden people?" and "Do you accept this person's experience as true?" This time the results came back with 90 percent of the people answering "yes". For me, this means that there is a difference between belief in the Christian sense, and belief in the pagan sense, which is just more acceptance. People do not actively believe in these supernatural beings, but they do accept their existence.

In the same sense that gods like Skaldi have become less popular, do you think there is room for new gods that apply more to modern life? For example, god of mobile communications, or god of computers?
People usually think of Loki in that regard. He is like the Roman god Mercury. He represents all the dangerous things in nature, which you must utilize. He is the god of fire use. Think of the electricity in our homes, which can at any moment break out and burn the house down. Likewise, Loki is the god of the waters. Through his son the Wolf, he is the god of tamed water, like irrigation and canals. His other son, the Serpent, is god of the wild sea. But you must also use this for sailing. So he is the god of all these dangerous things in nature which we utilize.

Dylan Berg is an English freelance writer living in USA.