Wyrd Designs: Understanding the Words – Asatru

A factoid that not many outside of the Asatru faith realize is that the term Asatru is entirely a recent invention. The ancient followers and believers of the old Gods of Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England did not have a name that they called their religion because their religious identity was simply part of their cultural identity. It wasn’t until Christianity encroached on these ancient polytheistic cultures that the term Heathen (used by the 4th Century Christian Goth Ulfilas in his translation of the Bible) was first employed to distinguish between Christians and the ‘other’. It is believed that Ulfilas was inspired to follow the example the Romans had created when they termed the word pagan. Ulfilas’ use of the term heathen in his translation of the Bible would trickle down the centuries until the word was used in various sagas later.

Through the centuries since, the terms pagan and heathen have in the common vernacular become somewhat interchangeable, and the meaning has shifted and changed. Christians later used the term to describe any non-Christian people regardless of geographic location, and eventually the word was stripped of even religious connotation in some usages to merely refer to something that is strange or uncivilized. As such while there is a movement of some modern-day practitioners trying to reclaim the original definition of the term Heathen and using it to name their collective religious identity as Heathenry, many others have opted instead with finding other words and terms.

Among these we find the term Asatru derived from the 19th Century created term Asetro, used by Edvard Grieg in his 1870 opera Olaf Trygvasion. The term etymologically is meant to be a contraction between the root word for the ‘Aesir’ (Gods like Odin, Frigga, Thor, etc.) and the root word for ‘faith’, and thus can be understood to mean something like the ‘Aesir’s Faith’, or ‘Those True in the Aesir (Gods).’ While the term may have been coined over 140 years ago, it doesn’t appear to have come into use as a term describing a current religious identity until sometime after the modern-day reconstructionist movement started in the 1970’s. Since Asatru is a word based on Old Norse terms, if one applied Old Norse grammar usages then the term ‘Asatru’ is the plural name for the group, and the name for an individual practitioner should be ‘Asatruar.’ However, since most Americans don’t speak Old Norse, many tend to use Asatru as the term to both represent the religion overall as well as the name for an individual practitioner who follows those beliefs.

In addition to the term Asatru, we have other words that crop up as terms for this religious identity. Many European practitioners prefer to use Forn Sidr/Fyrnsidu/Forn Sed which translates to ‘old custom’.  Beginning in the 19th Century the term Odinism was introduced, referring most obviously to the All-father patriarch of the Aesir: Odin. Therefore Odinism refers to those who worship Odin (and by extension the other Gods in the pantheon). While people who were Odinists have worshipped for over a century at least under that name, usually the form of religious practice is different than what you’d find amongst the reconstructionists which didn’t appear on the scene until late in the 20th Century. However… just as the terms pagan and heathen became synonyms for one another, so did the terms Odinism and Asatru, and now it very much depends who you ask on the defined nuances of practice.

More recently we also see other terms used to describe the religious faith and identity of those who honor the Aesir: the Germanic Paganism, Norse Paganism, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, and the Northern Tradition also used. There even exist a few specialized denominations (for lack of a better term) like the Vanatru (who focus their worship on the Vanic deities such as Freyr, Freyja, Nord, etc.). Some may also view Theodism as another denomination that focuses on a very reconstructionist-based, historical, geo-specific culture (like the Frisians, the Miercingans, the Normani, the Franks, etc.) as the foundation for their modern practice.

There is no one great consensus on how we are called, which is a matter that can confuse many.  Just as there is also no one vast consensus on exactly how we worship and live the faith today. For some this is a point of great contention, and others see it as par for the course. Afterall, if we look to the more mainstream religions we see vast plurality of multifaceted interpretations and beliefs even within the same base ‘umbrella’ – just think of how many denominations of Christianity that exist for an example.

In the future you can look forward to more explorations into some of the words and terms used within the Northern Tradition umbrella. If anyone has specific words they’re curious about understanding better, leave a comment below please with the ‘word’ in question. In the meantime you may enjoy reading up on some of the symbols used by practitioners of Asatru, and their meanings.

Understanding the Symbols:

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  • Wes Isley

    Thanks for the overview. And you’re right, it can be confusing. My family has strong German roots, and I’m just beginning to learn about some of these spiritual traditions.