Iceland's Asatru pagans reach new height with first temple

By Neil McMahon

image copyrightSilke Schurack
image captionPeople of any religion are able to take part in Asatru ceremonies

It has been the dream of Iceland´s neo-pagan worshippers for four decades.

Now construction of the first heathen temple or "hof" to be built in a Nordic country in almost 1,000 years is set to get under way.

Work will start in March on a wooded hill near to the the capital Reykjavik's domestic airport.

The temple will provide followers of Iceland's old Norse religion with a place to hold their communal "blot" - or feasts - as well as marriages, name-giving ceremonies, funerals and rite of passage ceremonies for teenagers. Until now, ceremonies have mostly been conducted outdoors during the summer.

"At last, our long journey across the desert is at an end," says Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a composer and high priest of Iceland's neo-pagan Asatru movement.


Designed by Danish-educated architect and Asatru member Magnus Jensen, the oval-shaped temple will be built into the side of the hill and use the natural rock as one of the walls.

The nearby airport was built by occupying British forces in 1940, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with deserted gun positions and a cemetery with the remains of British servicemen.

image copyrightSilke Schurack
image captionHilmar Orn Hilmarsson leads a procession in the Thingvellir National Park near Reykjavik

Water will flow down the stone wall and collect in pools on the floor. Local wood will be used, and a skylight in the temple's dome will allow for an ever-changing interplay of light and shadow on a daily and seasonal basis.

It will incorporate the ancient concept of the "golden ratio", a geometric proportion regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing to the human eye.

With the design, Mr Jensen says he is seeking to combine natural with manmade, and indoors with outdoors.

For him, the building should appear timeless. He does not want it to resemble a traditional Viking temple or remain specifically modern in style.

Back to life

Norse paganism was the common belief in Iceland until 1000 AD, when its lawmakers conceded to Christian demands that Christianity should become the country's official religion.

Norse gods

  • Odin - god of magic, poetry and war (ruler of the gods)
  • Frigg - wife of Odin. goddess of marriage and motherhood
  • Balder - son of Odin and Frigg. god of beauty, peace, and rebirth
  • Freyja - goddess of love and fertility, who wept golden tears when she was unhappy
  • Thor - god of the skies, storms and thunder
  • Loki - mischievous "trickster god"

This compromise saved the nation from a bloody civil war. All that pagans asked was to be allowed to practise their religion privately. But once Christianity had established itself, paganism was suppressed and forced underground.

However, thanks to the literary endeavours of 13th Century Icelandic scholar and chieftain Snorri Sturlason, the old Norse myths were preserved and widely read by Icelanders through the ages.

Sturlason's epic text Prose Edda and the family sagas ensured Iceland´s pagan heritage was kept very much alive in the national consciousness.

And in spring 1972 a few individuals came together in a cafe in Reykjavik to bring it back to life by establishing the Asatru association.

image captionCharacters of the Prose Edda seen in an 18th Century manuscript

Later that year, the group's elected high priest, Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson, met Iceland's minister of justice and ecclesiastical affairs to present a request for the Norse religion to be recognised as an official religion in Iceland.

The move was met with opposition, with Iceland's Lutheran bishop saying a constitutional ruling on religious freedoms should not apply to polytheistic religions.

But the story goes that shortly after Mr Beinteinsson left the justice ministry, a powerful thunderstorm started up, causing a power cut in the capital.

Some Icelanders like to think it was Thor, the god of thunder, having his say on the matter, as a few months later the minister agreed formally to recognise the Asatru.

Rich symbolism

Today the Asatru has close to 3,000 members and is one of the fastest growing religions in Iceland.

Its principles are non-authoritarian and decentralised, with no sacred text or official founder. Its philosophy promotes tolerance and individual liberty. It costs nothing to join and is open to all irrespective of race, cultural background, gender or sexuality.

What is Asatru?

image copyrightSilke Schurack
  • Asatru literally translates as having faith in the gods
  • Polytheistic religion, with range of gods and goddesses
  • In Iceland the most popular god and goddess are Thor and Freyja
  • It does not aim to convert people and followers of any religion are welcome to their public feasts, or "blot"
  • Celebratory feasts take place across the the country all year round, with particular focus on summer and winter solstices and the two equinoxes
  • Asatru members decide who may join the society´s board and who becomes a priest or priestess: there are currently four priestesses and five priests
  • Members have protested against damage to the natural environment, including construction of a hydro-electric dam in 2006

Followers do not pray in the traditional sense and do not necessary believe in gods but instead, as Hilmar Hilmarsson explains, see the Norse myths as "wonderfully layered stories rich in symbolism and metaphors".

Because of the focus on living in harmony with nature, the temple's builders will carefully dig up the trees on the construction site and replant them elsewhere.

The "hof" should be completed late next year and Mr Hilmarsson is confident it will attract considerable attention among visitors.

"Foreigners are more than welcome to join our feasts, get married here or have a name-giving ceremony and we can arrange all the formalities," he says.

"People have come away from our ceremonies with a changed outlook, moved in a way they had never expected."

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