I once wrote an essay for Ebon Musings, “Parting the Parthenon“, that was a semi-serious debunking of the ancient Greek gods. I wrote this as a reply to Christian apologists who accuse atheists of singling out Christianity for criticism, but also to show how many similarities there are between these ancient myths and the modern religions still believed by millions, and to implicitly ask what makes one more worthy of belief than another.
So far, I haven’t received any outraged letters from believers in Zeus or Poseidon. If there are any still around, I haven’t heard of them. But surprisingly, even in the 21st century, not all the ancient paganisms are dead and gone. One of them that’s made a fairly respectable comeback is Asatru – the worship of the Germanic deities, such as Odin and Thor.
Asatru in its modern form began in the 1970s, principally in Iceland (as one might have expected), although there were significant early advocates in the U.S., Australia and England. It’s still a small fringe movement, even in Iceland and the Scandinavian countries where it’s officially recognized – few estimates would put the number of followers even as high as 50,000 worldwide, although the number is larger if Asatru followers are grouped with other self-identified pagans in surveys of religious affiliation.
Asatru beliefs are polytheist, even close to animist. In addition to the traditional Norse gods and goddesses – the primary ones are Odin, Thor, Freyr, Frigga, Freyja, Skadi, Ostara, and Loki, although there are many others – it also includes a whole pantheon (see also) of lesser supernatural beings from myth and folklore, including nature spirits (Landvaettir) and elves (Alfr).
Whether followers of Asatru literally believe in these beings seems to be a point of some contention. As one devotee’s FAQ explains:
Yes, [the gods] are real. However, just as most Christians do not think their God is really an old bearded figure sitting on a golden chair in heaven, we do not believe Thor (for example) is actually a muscular, man-shaped entity carrying a big hammer. There is a real Thor, but we approach an understanding of him through this particular mental picture.
But a different site says:
There are those of us who nearly atheists, believing the Gods and Goddesses to be manifestations of pure Nature, and preferring to trust in their own might and judgment entirely. For these folks, Asatru provides a context for their culture and it’s continuity. Others are literalists, believing the Eddas and Sagas to be divinely inspired, and believing the gods and goddesses to be literal physical entities.
Aside from Norse gods, Asatru, like many modern paganisms, includes a grab-bag of other beliefs and principles. Belief in magic, supposedly accomplished through runes, is a recurring element. The Asatru afterlife is less clearly defined than in most religions, although there seems to be a general consensus that everyone will be in some way punished or rewarded as their deeds merit (and this FAQ reassures us that it’s not necessary to die in battle to get to Valhalla, so you can take comfort in that). They also have their own holidays and traditions, some of which – like the blót – sound genuinely fun. How could you not enjoy an outdoor barbeque with home-brewed mead?
But even cheerful pagan religions have their darker side, and in Asatru’s case, it’s that the religion has also been adopted by some prominent neo-Nazis and other white supremacists (this strain is often called “Odinism” or “Wotanism”). These tend to be people for whom racist movements like Christian Identity aren’t radical enough; for the most part, they view Christianity as hopelessly tainted by Judaism, and consider their version of Asatru to be a more pure, more “Aryan” faith. White supremacists associated with these groups have even been convicted of attempted domestic terrorism.
Unfortunately, none of the websites I consulted, whether racist or egalitarian, answered the question I was most curious about: What persuades one of the truth of Asatru? How do you genuinely become convinced that Odin and Thor are real?
I suspect the answer has to do with the demonstrable antiquity of these beliefs. It does seem to be true that in religion, it helps to be old and venerable; it lends the beliefs a gloss of respectability (Judaism was tolerated in the Roman Empire for just that reason). The allure of reconnecting with the past, carrying on heritage and tradition, is an attractive prospect that few cultures can ignore. That this tendency leads to renewed belief in Odin and Thor is one of the stranger contingencies of human society.
Other posts in this series: