Happily Heathen: Heathens and Tolerance – Iceland, You Are *Not* Alone

Happily Heathen: Heathens and Tolerance – Iceland, You Are *Not* Alone July 24, 2015

[Author’s Note: Throughout this column I use the terms “Heathen” and “Asatru/ar” interchangeably for those people who follow a modern version of the Viking Age religions. Not everyone who follows a Norse path consider themselves to be Heathens.]

Welcome to Happily Heathen, a new biweekly column here at the Agora in which I get to wax poetic about all of the reasons that I love Heathenry and am Happily Heathen. Unfortunately, I’ll have to start my run here by discussing the one big reason that makes me unhappy (and frankly ashamed) to be Heathen: the prejudiced fringe element.

Heathenry has so many cool and interesting things to talk about. Rune stones! Seidh! Old Norse texts! The deities! Ancestor worship! Polytheism! These crazy myths! Cross-dressing Thor! Icelandic zombies! As a long-time Heathen, I wish that the second thing out of my mouth after I introduce myself as a Heathen to someone new does not have to be “…but I’m not a racist!”

Thor fighted Jormungandr at Mariatorget Torget park in Stockholm
Thor fights the Midgard serpent (Stockholm, Sweden; Cara Freyasdaughter)

Last week, Iceland Magazine interviewed the high priest of the Icelandic Asatru movement in Iceland, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. He stated in the interview that ever since word got out that his organization was building the first official Heathen temple (hof) in Iceland, his group has started to receive hate mail from conservative Asatruar. Hate mail, from other Heathens, aimed at a group that not only got Heathenry accepted as an official religion in Iceland, but is also now finally building the world’s first modern-day hof where Heathens from all over the world can come worship. Why the hate mail? Icelandic Heathens, like Heathens all over Scandinavia, are very liberal and perform same-sex marriages. This group has a long history of tolerance and acceptance towards all people, both Heathen and non-Heathen, and have always accepted people from any background to be Asatru.

The hate mail Hilmar Örn has received specifically threatens that these Heathens will attend the temple’s opening ceremony, “to ‘correct’ what those groups see as the incorrect tolerance of Icelanders.”

As soon as word of this got out, the international heathen community responded in outrage, shock, anger, and disappointment. Esteban Sevilla, leader of the Irminsul Kindred in Costa Rica, responded with an open letter to Hilmar Örn and his group called “We Stand With You Iceland” and started the hashtag #WeStandWithIceland. Haimo Grebenstein started a Facebook event called “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” which as of this writing has almost 2400 “attendees” and over 2600 people who have signed their full names in support of the event. If you check those who have signed the event, many of those who signed are signing on behalf of a family, kindred, or organization; and those who signed come from all corners of the world. Many of those who signed are not even Heathen, but are pagans from different paths who are offering their support to both Heathenry and Iceland’s Heathens.

Hilmar Örn has handled the hate email well and has calmly, yet pointedly, struck back at his detractors.

[He] adds that he and other members of the congregation are not interested in using the ancient religion of Ásatrú as a vehicle for romanticized machismo, as well as rejecting any tendencies to inject the practice of Ásatrú with conservative Christian morality:

“We know these texts; we have lived with these texts for a thousand years. We are not coating them in some Viking or warrior romanticism. And we are not obsessing over some books on morality, dating back to the year 70AD, as many of these foreign practitioners of Ásatrú do, considering that book a source on how the ancient religion should be practiced.”

Rainbow Freya
I can guarantee Freya does NOT discriminate. Her Hall Sessrumnir is many-seated; there is always room for one more.(from Archaeology & Celtic Myth, by John Waddell.)

Let me say this loud and clear, so that no one may mistake what I am saying: NOT ALL HEATHENS ARE INTOLERANT RACISTS. In fact, most Heathens are friendly, generous, community-oriented, spiritual people. Most Heathens will open up their hearth to you should you attend one of their rites.  How do I know? I’ve been a Heathen for over 15 years. I’ve been active in online communities and in-person communities.  I’ve attended large events and I’m a member of large organizations, such as the Troth and ADF, where there are people who are following the Heathen path in a respectful, friendly, and open-minded way. And very often, when a new person attends a Heathen event, they say that what strikes them the most is the sense of community and of coming home. Community and hospitality: two of the biggest tenets in Heathenry. Exactly what that unwanted fringe element is missing. (Coco the Spooky Librarian gives a stellar breakdown of why “racist” Heathens should not even be allowed to call themselves Heathen. Her well-worded rant starts around minute 8:30).

Interested in learning more about Heathenry, but worried that you run into one of these fringe groups? Here are some good places to get started:

  • The Troth, the largest international Heathen organization. (The Troth has a database with of all of their kindreds throughout the world and regional Stewards who field inquires from newcomers.)
  • ADF, not a Heathen organization, but home to many allies who also walk a Norse path
  • Hrafnar kindred, in Berkeley, CA
  • Golden Gate Kindred, in the Bay Area, CA
  • North Star Kindred, Lansing, MI
  • The International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), based in Sweden. They produce a great companion publication for this event, available for free here.
  • Asatru-EU, a completely informal network of Asatruar/Germanic-oriented Heathens throughout many countries in Europe who helped start the IASC
  • Huginn’s Heathen Hof, a great online community and resource run by Wyrd Wyrds Patheos author Alyxander Folmer

And many others that are not listed here. If you are one of the many liberal Heathen kindreds or hofs and are not on this list, please share your information in the comments section below! We need to let the world know that Heathenry is for everyone. This visibility makes a huge difference. As Hilmar Orm said in response to the worldwide support: “You always take most note of the loudmouths and yappers. But we know we have many friends around the world. But we usually hear less from them, they keep to themselves. So, it has been really pleasant to see the overwhelming support we have received since the article ran on Tuesday.”

Stockholm travel agency
From a travel agency in Stockholm, Sweden. Heathenry is everywhere! (personal photo)

Hail to Hilmar Orm and the Iceland Ásatrúarfélagið! May your strength, courage, and tolerance guide the rest of us into growing and creating an more hospitable Heathen community.

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