Published June 27, 2003
These days, it seems, no one outside of North America and the Middle East takes religion seriously. So perhaps it was inevitable that these areas would come into conflict. Icelanders rarely go to church outside of weddings and funerals. For the last three decades, however, there has been something of a revival in the worship of the Old Norse gods. Iceland became Christian in the year 1000, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the old gods were once again granted official recognition. At the time, it was the only country where such recognition was granted, but Norway has since followed suit. The religion today numbers some 700 members in this country.
The order has become intertwined with the Viking festival, held in Hafnafjörður every year at solstice, where worshippers and other Viking aficionados gather together from all over the world. Among the attractions is a virtual fight between Christian and heathen Vikings. Sparks fly as blades clash, shields are battered and men are bruised, and the Christians are soundly beaten. At six o clock the pagans march, in full Viking regalia of course, towards the stone gate by the harbour and raise their flags, coincidentally at the seat of the first Lutheran church in Iceland. Having witnessed this, Grapevine then goes on a boat trip on the Viking boat Íslendingur, which once sailed from Iceland to North America on a four month trip. The boat owner, Gunnar Marel Eggertson, a 33rd generation descendant of Leifur Eíríkson, then intended to sail up the Mississippi and was to be sponsored for this by Swedish phone company Telia. Then September 11th hit, the company backed down, and Gunnar had no choice but to sail back to Iceland
Towards the end of the day, the Allsherjargoði, the head of the worshippers, consecrates the festival by lighting their symbol. After this the announcer, having done his impression of Viking Elvis, says those two words every Viking loves to hear, “Free beer,” and every true Viking then drinks himself into a stupor. Grapevine, of course, wanting to do its job thoroughly, has no choice but to participate. And they are generous with the beer, something the Church of Iceland might want to have a look at in order to get church attendance up.
The festival accommodates all sorts, from Englishmen primarily interested in the fighting styles, to more peaceful Swedes more interested in the storytelling aspect, to American true believers. A short, stocky man from Alaska tells me that he used to feel bad about his obesity, until he met Odin on a bridge, and since then has learned to feel better about himself. He later challenges Grapevine, who, it must be said, is somewhat annoying when drunk, to a duel. Grapevine declines the offer. Instead, it has a chat with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the Allsherjargoði.
“Is that it?” I ask, of having seen the symbol set on fire?
“No,” he says, now the Blót is just beginning. Eating and drinking are a part of the ceremony.” Grapevine considers rethinking its religious beliefs, before continuing.
“Is this how they were performed back in the day?”
“It varied, people sang and recited poetry, and toasted the Gods into the night. Sometimes participants were showered in animal blood, but I decided to leave that part out, at least for now.”
“Why is solstice celebrated?”
“We see time as a circular phenomenon, not linear from beginning to end. Hence we celebrate the shortest day and the longest, along with the spring and autumnal days when night and day are equally long. So we are celebrating the circle of life, and everything that lives. In every end there is also a new beginning.”
“So how long have you been a heathen?”
“Since I was 12 or 13, although officially only since I was 16, when I could legally change my religion.”
“What is it that you find in this religion that attracts you to it, rather than others?”
“We’re celebrating life, and we’re not asking anyone else to shoulder our responsibility. Help is to be found within ourselves, and we also encourage each other to do the right thing.”
“I feel it is stated clearer here, rather than talking around things. But we are not in competition with other faiths. We have very simple rules to life. People are free to join us if they want, but we’re not missionaries.”
“Do you have a favourite God?”
“There are different Gods for different occasions. But mostly I would say it´s Odin, the God of chiefs and poets.”
“Do you expect to go to Valhalla when this is over?
“I expect to go somewhere good. There are good places for all of us.”
“And what do you have to do to go there.”
“I’m sure that as with everything, you have to know the right people.”
It seems that the Allsherjargoði manages to retain a sense of humour about his faith, and perhaps it would be a better, or at least a more peaceful world if all believers did so.
Stories about the Nordic Gods
For those who want to learn more about Nordic mythology, but find the Edda´s a bit intimidating to start with, a good place to begin might be the CD Stories about the Nordic Gods, by Swedish storyteller Jerker Fahlström. It tells the story of how the seas became salt and how Thor got his hammer, among others, and also has some violin and mouth harp music. It is available in both Swedish and English in Fjörukráin, Hafnarfjörður and in the leatherstore Kos in Reykjavík, Laugavegur 39.