A Norse Temple for the 21st Century
High priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson has had a lot on his plate lately. He is the leader of Ásatrúarfélagið, Iceland’s largest association of followers of Ásatrú, the Norse neopagan religion, and ever since news hit the international press that his association would soon be breaking ground on the first temple to the Norse gods in 1000 years, his inbox has been flooded with inquiries from foreign journalists. Ásatrú ceremonies have been disturbed by curious tourists.
This current notoriety is a far cry from the humble beginnings of Ásatrúarfélagið. Founded in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a sheep farmer and writer of rímur, a form of epic poetry (here he is, chanting the poetic Edda), the original congregation numbered just about a dozen souls. Nonetheless, in 1973 the association applied for, and received, official recognition as a faith-based organization with the right to perform marriages and funerals as well as to collect congregation tax. The worship of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods of the old Norse pantheon became an officially recognized religion exactly 973 years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity. This conversion was agreed upon at the Althing in 1000 AD; consensus was reached, with characteristic Scandinavian pragmatism, with the help of three compromises: the new Christians would still be allowed to eat horsemeat, abandon unwanted infants in the wilderness and worship the old gods in the privacy of their homes.
In recent decades, membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has grown to about 2,400 — a not insignificant sum in a country of only 330,000 — and has become the largest non-Christian religious community in Iceland. Ásatrú movements in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are more modest, with members numbering a few hundred in each country, but they are growing steadily.