Sven and I are a couple of professional people who live in an urban part of Southern California. It seems kind of crazy that we’d adhere to a religion practiced in the coldest parts of northern Europe until no later than the 11th century. Granted, Sven is Danish, and his soul has been sound since he rediscovered the religion of his people. I married into it, and as with everything I do, I have to think about it deeply and develop it.
Two things strike me as I read the lore, the Sagas, and the archaeology. 1. Asatru is a religion whose values are terribly needed in the United States right now. 2. The Sagas are nothing on which we could build a modern religious society.
While Asatru was practiced from Germany to Greenland at various times through the centuries, most of what we have written down about it is from Iceland. The Icelanders have a particularly interesting take, because they were essentially a bunch of anarchists and outlaws who found kings and Christianity too restrictive and struck out on their own. For that reason alone, Asatru should have appeal to Americans and Australians in particular. It is a religion that sustained rebellious outcasts in the wilderness.
Personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are the Asatru values par excellence. Honesty and reliability define what a good person is. One does not have to be “nice” or religiously devout. One does need to be generous and aware of his or her place in the ancestral line. There is nothing wrong with being rich. There is nothing wrong with being proud of what one has achieved. These are sentiments I think we desperately need right now.
The rules for living are laid out for us in the Havamal. We honour the gods and ancestors through our deeds. They aren’t interested in how often we pray; in fact, since prayers are accompanied by sacrifices, they would prefer we pray too little than too much. A gift demands a gift, and there is a difference between giving in thanks and giving in order to create an obligation. The best offering to them is through what we do with our lives.
A good Asatru is a hero. They are someone whose descendants will want to talk about them for years to come. A good Asatru is free; they have something to call their own, preferably real estate and livestock. “One’s own home is best…even if it is only a roof and two goats, it is better than begging.” (Verse 36) Their clothes are clean and neat, even if they are old and worn. (Verse 61) They face challenges with courage. In the face of physical adversity, they find something, anything, that they can still do. “The handless can drive cattle, the lame ride a horse, the deaf be brave in battle.” (Verse 71)
This was true in 1000 C.E. and it’s true today. I’m not going to go on a rant about the sense of entitlement a lot of people have, and the widespread sentiment that we need government to protect us from ourselves. Make a stand! Refuse to be a victim!
Still, there are safeguards to keep this from becoming an Ayn Rand-esque, dog-eat-dog world. Generosity is mandatory, although within the limits of reason and not creating obligations unless obligations are needed. A generous person of worth is referred to as a ring-giver. Memorable heroes and heroines have excellent feasts and take care of their household and anyone assigned to it. Being wealthy was praiseworthy as long as the wealth was accompanied by proportionate generosity. No one approved of a miser.
A praiseworthy man (and this was the purview of men exclusively) would be a regular attendee and participant at the Thing, sometimes referred to in translation as the Assembly. This took place a couple of times a year, and it was when lawsuits would be decided and different transactions were conducted. The kind of man who was admired would be knowledgeable about the law and willing to stand up for people in their lawsuits. Engagement in the community was encouraged, and to not attend the Thing regularly was seen as a kind of selfishness.
In the modern world, we tend to be involved in the community around us whether we like it or not. The internet and dense centers of population have forced that on us. An Asatru who isn’t involved with any religious group would do well to get involved in something around them in the local community. Being around other people and forming friendships is an essential part of the Asatru experience. On the day of this writing, several heathens we know are fighting a fire in West, Texas, caused by an explosion in a fertilizer plant. For this, I hail them.
After all this, it feels anticlimactic to point out where examples of a heathen lifestyles fail in terms of ethics. Very simply, we cannot live the way the medieval Scandinavians did. The Icelanders were rural, living in extended households a good distance from the next farmstead. It was an unbelievably hostile environment, where to not take in strangers could easily mean their death from the elements. Over and over we read about people taking in travelers who they would rather not have in their home, but the laws of hospitality demand it. We modern Asatru live in cities and towns usually, and a traveler can check themselves into whatever motel or hotel is most convenient for them.
There was also a much larger danger from each other. We read about how man X would kill man Y as they both walked down the road because Y insulted or offended X in some way. The correct thing to do would be to go to the nearest farm, tell the occupants of the killing, the sentence being agreed upon at the Thing. To tell the nearest people of the death made it manslaughter; if the death were concealed, only then was it murder. Even with the intervention of the Thing, a killing like this could lead to a long feud, with the body count rising when warm weather allowed people to move around where they might encounter each other.
Obviously, these cultural norms do not work for us at all. I’d want to say to anyone who might romanticize the Icelander’s lives that I’ve seen where this can lead. Pastunwali is the social code of Afghanistan, and it’s very similar to that of the Icelanders. Again, most people live rurally in either farms or small villages. The normal dwelling is called a qalat, a walled compound with several buildings and an extended family with retainers living inside. One building with always be the guest house, and a person who arrives in a village with no place to stay will remain at the mosque until the end of evening services, whereupon someone will invite them to stay in their guest house. At Ramazan, an admirable man will set up a large tent outside the walls of his compound to feed anyone who comes to him, even if they are just passing by on the road.
They also have feuds, which are mediated by councils of elders. As in Iceland, just because a case is settled doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over. Disputes over land and water can go on for decades, with man X killing man Y because man Y’s uncle killed man X’s father. No one ever forgets a wrong, and certainly no one ever stops the feud because a wrong was generations ago. These are things that happen in the Sagas, and it’s no way to run a society.
In the developed world, we have laws, law enforcement, and courts with a judicial system derived from Scandinavian law. While often heathens will dispute how far criminal law should extend into peoples’ lives, the court system is a massive improvement over a code that leads to endless blood feuds. Since the laws are of Scandinavian origin (granted, by way of England), they aren’t even foreign for heathens. These have proven effective in keeping men from killing each other as they walk down the road.
If anyone wants to put up a tent in front of their house to feed passerbys on the holidays, though, I think that that too would be an improvement to their community.
Hail to the givers! Hail the High One!