What is Ásatrú?
A Short and Concise Introduction to Ásatrú
Copyright © 2009 By Ule Alfarrin
All Rights Reserved.
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A Short History of Ásatrú
Heathenry or Ásatrú (pronounced OW-suh-troo) is a modern name given to a living ethnic religion which embraces the indigenous polytheistic spiritual beliefs and sacred cultural formations of Pre-Christian Northern Europe. The first historical Heathens didn't have their ultimate origin in Northern Europe, but were parts of the great Indo-European family of cultures which all began somewhere in the steppes and river valleys of the Eurasian continent, north of the Black Sea.
That family of people would eventually migrate away and settle in ancient Europe, Iran, and India. Once long ago, these dynamic and world-affecting people all embraced similar Gods and sacred cultural institutions. Over time, cultural differentiation, migration, and diffusion of the Indo-Europeans led to the formation of groups recognizable as "Germanic" or "Teutonic" and "Celtic", as well as Roman, Greek, Slavic and many others. Ásatrú, as a term, is from the Old Norse and Icelandic languages, and it means "Belief in the Gods". The real seeds and root-impulses of Ásatrú go back as far as the Bronze age, as the symbolism and mythology of the religion reveals.
Ásatrú today refers firstly to the survival and revival of the belief in the Gods of the Indo-European peoples of Northern Europe. Secondly, it refers to the modern life-ways engaged by people today that draw their form and inspiration from what we know the ancient pre-Christian Northern peoples were doing religiously and how they lived, under the guidance of their cultural beliefs, institutions, and sacred stories.
Ásatrú was last practiced, in a form close to its present shape, in Iceland, up to the year 1000. In that year, the Icelandic assembly voted (under severe political pressure and threat of isolation from the Christian nations of mainland Europe) for the entire island to become Christian. Making offerings to the Old Gods and honoring the Ancestors was not immediately outlawed because of this ruling, but it became so later. It is believed that the practices and beliefs of the Old Way persisted behind closed doors (a great possibility in tolerant Iceland) until 1973 when the Icelandic Assembly recognized Ásatrú as the traditional indigenous faith of the people, and bestowed legal status and protections upon it. Ásatrú Hofs or temples, as well as cemetaries specifically for those who died in the faith, now exist in Iceland and in other places.
From Iceland, and on the heels of some of the earlier attempts to reclaim the old Heathen faith from continental Europe, Ásatrú spread out and new groups of people called back to the old faith began to appear. The various historical cultural sub-divisions of the Northern peoples- Angle, Saxon, Jutish, Norse, Swedish, Danish, Continental German, and others- have all been given both scholarly and poetic/spiritual attention in the last decades and have been successfully and respectfully tapped as sources for reborn Heathen religious and cultural lifestyles.
Ásatrú and Neopaganism
Though it is sometimes lumped together with "Neopagan" religions, Ásatrú is of a different character from the mainstream of Neopaganism. It is not based on "new" material; it is based firmly and foremost on historical records and the copious data we have preserved regarding the mythical and cultural underpinnings of pre-Christian society and religion.
Ironically, it was the Icelanders who, after their nominal conversion, first recorded and wrote down the stories and sagas of Heathen days, thus assuring their survival. The Icelanders, unlike others, were never ashamed of their Heathen past. A constant and recognized tradition of historical folk-belief and folk-custom also helps to refine the shape, beliefs, and practices of Ásatrú. Neopaganism often appears as synonymous with movements and beliefs like theosophy, cultural and moral relativism, monism, liberalism, Goddess worship, feminism and radical environmentalism and the like, but Ásatrú is not associated with those things as a whole.
Some Ásatrúar may study those things or consider them important, but the Heathen faith-movement as a whole is not entangled with the "new agey" elements that characterize most Neopagan faiths. Ásatrúar also do not tend to be as politically liberal as other Neopagans. Ásatrú has a deep respect and veneration for Nature itself- the earth itself is believed to be the body of a Goddess, and many sacred beings are believed to dwell within nature as a whole, but this does not mean that Ásatrú may be simply lumped in with radical environmentalists or nature-worshipers. The situation is a bit more subtle than that.
Ásatrúar largely reject the general Neopagan belief that "All Gods are one God"- Ásatrú is now, and always was, a truly Polytheistic faith. There are traditions of sorcery and mysticism to be found in historical Ásatrú as well as in modern Ásatrú- but unlike the Neopagan world which seems to be largely fixated on "magic" and things of that nature, this is not the main focus of the spiritual or religious lives of most Ásatrúar.
It is well known that most Neopagan religions tend to haphazardly blend and mix all manner of cultural religious features (like Gods, beliefs, and mystical techniques) from east and west into a chaotic blend of metaphysical hodge-podge; Ásatrúar are, like all reconstructionists, against the disrespectful and immature appropriation of spiritual and metaphysical ideas from other cultures. Ásatrúar have their own Gods and Goddesses- those of their own Ancestors- and their own historically-attested ways and beliefs. And these are all they need.
General Beliefs of Modern Ásatrúar
I like to compare Heathenry or Ásatrú to the Japanese religion of Shinto- for they have many of the same features. Both are ethnic and indigenous faiths, native to a particular landscape. Ásatrú is native to the vast forests and mountains and sea-ways of Europe from Russia and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Ireland, and Iceland. Germanic culture didn't remain only in these places; the Fall of the Roman Empire saw the seeds of a new Europe sown by migrating Germanic tribes, whose legacy was to create (among others) the nations of France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, England, and eventually, America.
Like Shinto, Ásatrú is polytheistic, honoring the countless sacred powers of this world for what they are- sentient beings with motivations and powers beyond the ken of human beings, but some of whom are friends to man, and crucial to the survival and thriving of human societies. Like Shinto, Ásatrú also honors spiritual beings that dwell in the land itself, and in all of nature's many expressions.
Ásatrú believes in a sturdy and simple code of noble living and behavior which is seen as ideal for human beings who wish to live a "Godly" life, or a life in which humans can live up to the example of the Gods- beings who are powerfully creative, self-sacrificing, and protective of goodness and rightness. Like Shinto, Ásatrú honors the Ancestors as sacred beings who lived long ago- or not so long ago- and whose ongoing spiritual participation in the world can still be sensed and integrated into our lives for good ends.
Ásatrú believes that the world and the universe moves through cycles of existence, coming into existence from natural, sacred processes, lasting for many ages, and finally falling apart and falling out of the order we know it in now, before it is regenerated and reborn. All beings- Gods or humans or animals or any others- are part of this great natural process of formation and re-formation. In the life, death, and rebirth of the cosmos, which has happened many times before, and which will continue to happen forever, humans and other beings that we know now and share our world with will all live and live again, as will the Gods.
During the ages of the world, Gods and humans strive to preserve the good things about the world and their respective societies, always working for the well-being of other kinsmen and other life. Ásatrú also believes in something that is deathless within mortal beings- the Spirit of the Gods- and in a life or a form of existence after the death of the body. Ásatrú, drawing on many historical sources, has a belief that how a person lives helps to shape their destiny in life, in death, and beyond. It is to each person's benefit to live well, live bravely and with nobility, with loyalty for kin and friends and with hospitality, generosity, and reason.
How does one become Ásatrúar?
Ásatrú has a strong emphasis on Ancestral connection, but it is not a religion that can be only practiced by people of Germanic or European ancestry. Anyone who grew up in the Western world, influenced by Western cultures, speaking English or another language of Germanic origin, is automatically a part of the "group power" of the Germanic peoples as a whole. This concept of "group power" is related to the power that collectively surrounds families, and even individuals- it is a power that is passed down through the ages by cultural transmission and even bloodlines, and it influences everything about a person or a group's life and destiny.
In keeping with the ethnic and culturally bound nature of Ásatrú, those who wish to become Ásatrúar or Heathen must engage the cultures behind it. A study of the modern and ancient Germanic languages, a deep and introspective study of both history and the sacred stories of the Heathen world, and a real and transformative effort to live one's life by the moral and ethical ideals behind Ásatrú as well as a personal identification with the Heathen religious culture are all required to some extent before one can be said to have become a "believer in the Gods".
Ásatrú is an organic religious tradition, not a revealed religious establishment with a central doctrinal authority or hierarchy. Groups of Ásatrúar are organized locally, following unique local customs. Each member of the faith is enjoined to study the Ancestral lore for guidance in living, and to build strong communities of friends and faithful to have a taste of what real communal spiritual life is like, and what it was like centuries ago.
Like the historical Heathens, Ásatrú rejects the idea of "spiritual authorities"- there is no "bible", or any other authoritative documents that bind all Ásatrúar, but there are sacred stories and traditions that come down from the past, giving advice and examples for living rightly with the Gods and others. How a person or a community interprets them is largely a matter of their own insight and conscience.
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