Published December 1, 2006
Jörmundur Ingi, a real-life modern druid, is head of the Reykjavikur Goðar, one of two officially recognized Pagan associations in Iceland. In his position as Goði, he performs marriage and funeral services, and spreads the word of the naturalistic beliefs of ancient Iceland. The Grapevine sat down with Jörmundur Ingi to discuss the influence of ancient beliefs on Icelandic identity, politics, and the resurgence of the gods in Reykjavik.
Paganism, in many ways, is a universal belief system. What makes Icelandic Paganism unique?
In Icelandic stories, you have tales of what happens if you disturb the Mother of the salmon, or the Mother of the flounder, a fish about ten times bigger than any whale. She lets you hunt the flounder unless you get greedy and take too much. Then she will destroy the ship, because you have become to greedy. I see the beginning of the Nordic religion in shamanism. Shamans were simply very strong personalities who were the strong leaders who knew about the sun, the moon, the winds, the changing seasons, connected to nature. Nature was the enemy of primitive people – you always needed to pacify nature.
Where is Paganism most popular in Iceland?
Strangely enough it splits exactly in two. In small, what you would call primitive fishing communities, and mostly in the Westfjords where they have been, until recently, sustained by the seals. There, people are Pagan without being members of any organization, they just know this is how things are and how they have always been. It has been passed down. In Reykjavik, people have been sort of split off from nature, but only very recently. Almost until 1970, everyone kid in Reykjavik was sent out into the country during summer vacation to work on the farm. Everyone who was born before then has worked on a farm, so the connection with the country was much stronger.
Why are there are two Pagan associations in Iceland?
There should really be 36 separate groups. This was, I belive, the object of the three who united into Ásatru Félag, which was the first Pagan association in Iceland, in 1972. When I was leading the group, I tried to organize this as close to the ancient organization as possible simply because I thought that nothing has been invented ever since that comes close to the old Icelandic republic. This was not accepted by others in the group so we split up, also there where other issues which we will not get into. The ancient system was a mixture of a religious power and very much of people deciding, because you would have 36 Goðar spread over the country, and if you didn´t like your representative, you could simply leave and attach yourself to another one. It was a very direct democracy.
In Icelandic politics, we see many initiatives that seem to exploit Iceland´s natural environment. How do you interpret the government´s behavior, specifically with their policies that have been controversial for Icelanders and foreign groups alike?
We should do like the ancient people did. We should be scared of nature. We do know, and I have pointed out for decades, that there are no sins. The idea of sin does not exist in Paganism. You will bear the consequences for your actions, like karma in India. The price you pay for overfishing is no fish next year. The price you pay for overgrazing is no grass next year. With the whaling issue, I am not even sure whether I support the decision to start commercial whaling, but in Iceland we feel that we have the right to decide this ourselves. It´s ridiculous to think that the killing of seven whales this year and 39 next year is going to ruin the stock of whales. I can state categorically that there is one wrong thing in the whole scheme, and that is the whalers that say that “the whales eat our fish, so we have to kill them.” That is ridiculous. So right there, that will make my support a little shaky. Whales cannot deplete the oceans of fish, but man can because we are not living in the ocean. We are taking things out of the ecosytem. I think that human beings not only have the right to utilize the land like any other living creature in the world – to graze, to mine, to fish, even to make dams – but in reality we are obliged to. So if you don´t graze, that is also bad. You have to keep the balance. It is the excessive use which is bad, and this is when you are making decisions for the wrong reasons, like the dam at Kárahnjúkar which will never make any money. They just crossed their fingers and built the dam and it hasn´t leaked, at least not yet, but no one knows what will happen when it is full. It is too big a risk for a very small gain, so it is wrong.
So Paganism is the original Green Party?
We would be, as I say, ecological, but in the sort of way that we should not back away from everything, ie. no dams, no fishing, and so on, because if you live in nature without ever touching nature you also upset the balance. Thirty years ago when you talked about Paganism as an ecological religion, it was OK because ecology was not in fashion. But it sounds corny when you say it today because it looks like you are trying to cash in on the ecology trend. There is a good parallel that we are acting ourselves into a corner where we are so dependent on electricity and oil and new technology. Science will tell you that it doesn´t matter because there will be a new science that will solve all the problems of the old one. This is basically the same as what the prophesy of the Sibil in Völuspá states, except that there will be a crash, a collapse before you can go on.
Do you think Iceland will bear any ill consequences of its actions?
If you go against nature, nature will revenge. And you have to explain the word revenge, or hefna in Icelandic, it means simply to even things. If you upset the balance, nature will even things out, there will in other words be a new balance. Just like the Mother of the hunting animals, you go too far and you will pay the price when nature evens it out.
As “Goði,” what does your role as a spiritual and ceremonial leader entail?
I am licensed to perform marriages, and we have funeral services also. They are all based on old ceremonies. This would probably not be a very scientific way of doing it, but when I prepare a ceremony, I go to old law books, to the sagas, to all sorts of old traditions which often preserve a great deal of ancient knowledge. I simply go to my subconscious, to the things that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers told me. I am sure I have forgotten most of it but it is there. I know that I have succeeded in this because people say “this is a beautiful ceremony” and so on, but they also say “it is so Icelandic.”
How does one become a Pagan? Is there a so-called “sacred” text?
The sacred text would be the Eddic poems, but Snorri´s Edda is the key to understanding them. If we didn´t have Snorri´s Edda, we wouldn´t know anything about the Nordic sagas. We would be walking in the dark. It is all so vague, but Snorri explains it. To be a Pagan you must think of all of nature and the whole world as a balance, and everything is very close to being stable. This is what people, especially people living in cities, have a little bit of difficulty understanding: preserving too much is just as bad as destroying too much. There is no good or evil there, the good thing is to just have the scales be immobile. When people go too much on what they consider to be the good side, they will tip the scales just as much as if they do too much on the negative side.
Does your organization have a training center? Do you do any outreach?
No, we are not allowed to do any missionary work. It is our own rule. If you convince someone that they should change religion, it doesn´t hold. You may become a member of that religion on the surface, but it doesn´t hold. We have spoken at schools, even kindergartens, but we have not had seminars or courses in Our Way, as Icelandic Paganism is properly called. We would like to, at least I would like to. We used to have a huge building here down by the harbor, but it was sold after I quit. They plan to build a new one, and that will start on the first of December.
If you are not actively seeking new members, how will interest in Ásatru grow?
It´s a strange thing – it is growing mostly in Reykjavik, where it would be, in the good sense of the word, a nationalistic trend. It has become organized now that there are probably around 900 people, at least in my old group. People realize that this is maybe the best way for the younger people to express that they are actually Icelandic. One reason that Paganism is coming up could simply be because the church is losing ground. The strata that is underneath is only coming up when the patina of Christianity is starting to fade away. This is so much alive in Iceland that it is not considered strange to be a Pagan. It is such a part of the national identity that it´s very difficult to define Iceland without mentioning the ancient Paganism.