As with most other indigenous ethnic or folk religions, the ancestors of modern-day Scandinavians actually had no specific name for their religion. In those ancient times, when the whole community lived by one same religion, there was no need for a “name,” because there were simply no other religions known to them at the time.
Today, the name Ásatrú is used to refer to a religious community which takes on the worldview and philosophy of the Old Norse people in expressing that original Nordic faith.
The Ásatrú religion, as practiced today, is basically a reconstruction of what was once one of the most widespread faiths in Europe. Ásatrú is a very old religion, dating back to prehistoric times and it was the spiritual path of Nordic people for thousands of years until Christianity swept through Europe.
The re-creation of Ásatrú is being accomplished now by using the surviving historical records, literary sources from ancient times, archaeological and anthropological evidence, as well as traditions that have been passed down through the ages. Its followers have maintained it as closely as possible to the original religion of the Norse people; therefore, modern Ásatrú is practically the complete revival of the ancient Norse Pagan religion. It is sometimes also referred to by other names, such as Odinism or Wotanism, but throughout Scandinavia this religion is called Forn Siðr which means “the ancient way or tradition.”
The word Ásatrú comes from Old Norse, the tongue of ancient Scandinavia, where it means literally faith or belief in the gods. It is a combination of two words: Ása-, meaning “of the Gods,” and -Trú, derived from an Indo-European word that combines the concepts of loyalty and faith.
The adherents of Ásatrú religion are today commonly known as Ásatrúar or Ásafolk. In Ásatrú, “Kindred” is the name of their modern expression of the ancient tribe. Ásatrú is not a church, although there is a strong religious aspect and it is not a family, although the members consider one another to be kin. It is rather like a fraternity, where one is bound by oath to one’s fellows. The Ásatrúar also have no dogma, or formal creed, although they do have a set of shared beliefs. Perhaps the best way to think of Ásatrú is as an ethic, as a philosophy, or as a way of life.
In order to understand Ásatrú religious ethics, it is first important to grasp the fact that its core is essentially in human action. By his or her actions, a person can take life in their own hands. This way, an Ásatrúar can indeed be said to be the “Captain of his Fate” and the “Master of his Soul.” Ásatrú ethics look at results, not just an adherence to some man-made code; therefore it is a person’s actions and accomplishments that speak the loudest.
The goal of Ásatrú ethics is to make a positive difference in people’s lives. The key word here is dynamic, since a positive difference can come through dynamic thinking and action. It is fueled by faith in oneself, trust in life and in the rewards of living rightly, so these are not the dreams of those religions that promise rewards in an afterlife in exchange for suffering in this one. Ásatrú ethics do not pay off with some kind of hazy future reward that one will never see in their life time, and there is no waiting for a happy afterlife after a miserable worldly life; one must seize his or her own happiness in the here and now.
For an Ásatrúar, the rewards they can earn in this life are evidence that there will be even more available in the next life, so they prefer to take care of this life now, knowing that their future is the product of their present actions. This is why Ásatrú ethics place heavy emphasis on common sense. To the Ásatrúar, a code of ethics must partake of practical reality since unrealistic ideals are folly and only those things which work can be considered right.
While Ásatrú stresses personal responsibility, it is also a religion free of spiritual guilt. An Ásatrúar would deal directly with matters of right and wrong, in a practical manner, and does not accept such concepts as sin, penance, and the need for atonement. Wrong behavior brings about its own consequences. No deity can keep count of “sins,” and no “sin” stains the soul since the soul is not a tally marker. Likewise, in Ásatrú there is no concept of “original sin,” the notion that all people are tainted from birth and intrinsically bad, as is believed in Christianity.
Ásatrú itself is a religion of fairly broad guidelines. But, again, it is up to the individual to decide where within those broad guidelines lays in what they believe. Basically, Ásatrú promotes the idea of the person as an individual who has the faculties to think, choose and act for himself. People are not sheep, waiting for a shepherd to show the next thing they must do. Men and women can make their own decisions, so Ásatrú ethics don’t make any specific statements about what is right or wrong to do. It lets each individual person decide for themselves what is right or wrong depending on their own understanding of such things as honor, loyalty, courage, and truthfulness. Of course, belief like this means that an Ásatrúar cannot blame the gods for his or her shortcomings. The Ásafolk cannot hide behind a doctrine or take refuge in dogma. It is their life and it is up to them to live it.
The gods teach people through the examples of their own lives, as chronicled in the Eddas. The Hávamál, which is a part of the Poetic Edda, provides much information on practical ethics and common sense. It gives good advice and elements of wisdom from which moral and ethical teachings can be easily derived. All these ethical values and moral virtues have been a way of life for the modern-day Ásatrúar since the revival of Ásatrú. Therefore, in the modern revival of the Ásatrú faith, various organizations have outlined a simple set of values which they hold up as a simple guideline on how to live ones life. This set of values is commonly known as the Nine Noble Virtues.
The Nine Noble Virtues are considered a modern innovation and were codified first by the Odinic Rite in England, using as a basis the Hávamál and other ancient sources. The Nine Noble Virtues attempt to encapsulate all the values held dear by the old Norse peoples, and they, in fact, are true guidelines for how any person (not just a follower of Ásatrú) should behave, what kinds of choices to make, and how to act.
They are not like some “Nine Commandments” for Ásatrú. They couldn’t even be called rules as much as simply time-honored principles by which to live. But, still, to live as a true Ásatrúar, a person should lead his or her life in accordance with the Nine Noble Virtues.
The core values of Ásatrú, as outlined in the Nine Noble Virtues, are Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self Reliance, and Perseverance. Some groups use different words to explain the virtues, but they are essentially all the same.
The list of the Nine Noble Virtues offers a window to further explore the inner logic of the world of Ásatrú.
Courage: This refers to more than just martial courage, especially in modern times, where it actually takes real courage to stand up and not fear being counted among the Ásatrú folk, regardless of any hostility from the world around. Because of this, courage is the most important virtue, and in every statement of values applied to Ásatrú, courage is usually listed first.
Courage mainly used to be a warrior’s virtue. Yet even if someone never lifts a weapon, the courage to risk social disapproval, or the courage to defend what one knows is right, or the courage to not take the “easy way out,” is no less worthy than the courage to go into combat.
In modern Ásatrú ethics, this other form of courage is the most highly valued, and a truly courageous person is one who stands up for what he believes, even when it would be easier to keep quiet, and doing what he believes is right, and refusing to do what he believes is wrong, even when other people laugh at don’t support those choices.
The fact is that few people today face actually such turmoil as a literal battle for one’s life. It might even be easier to manifest courage in such a situation than to do so in the many smaller day to day occurrences in which courage is called for. So, almost everyone understands what being brave is about. However, an important thing to understand is that being brave doesn’t mean that you aren’t afraid. What makes people courageous is doing the right thing even when they are afraid.
Truth: This is pretty self-explanatory. Tell the truth, even when there could be painful consequences. For an Ásatrúar, the virtue of truth, in the sense of honesty, is essential to personal honor. If one is to uphold an honor code, one must be brutally honest with oneself and with others.
The virtue of truth is quite simple. It basically means that a person should never tell lies. But there is more to practicing truth than just that, since, for example, the easiest way to avoid telling lies is to never do anything that other people shouldn’t know about. Telling lies simply to avoid punishment for doing something that is wrong would just make that bad deed worse.
Honor: The basis for the entire Ásatrú moral rationale is honor. Without honor, a person is nothing.
In many ways, the most important of all the virtues is also difficult to describe. It is almost like all the other virtues rolled into one. Perhaps the best way to describe honor is that if a person is truly living with honor, he or she will have no regrets about what they did with their life. Or, to put it another way, as the saying goes, “Reputation is what others say about you, honor is what you know to be true about yourself.”
However, honor is not mere reputation. Honor is an internal force, the outward manifestation of which is reputation. Internal honor is the sacred moral compass that everyone should depend on. Honor means understanding how one’s actions will affect and appear to the community. So, the basic meaning of honor is also respect. When one person honors another, they express the feeling that they have earned respect for a particular action or for the way they lead their lives. A personal sense of honor is the commitment to live by the standards that should earn a person respect from others. And, finally, honor means treating other people the way you want to be treated.
Fidelity: For an Ásatrúar, fidelity is most important in terms of faith. A person must remain true both to the Æsir and Vanir Gods of Ásatrú and to his kinsmen. A person must also stand true to his faith and his values.
Loyalty is should be held it in the highest esteem since it is a critical component of human behavior. Fidelity is just another way of being faithful or loyal to a person, to a group of people, or to an idea.
Quite simply, fidelity is being loyal to those one is connected to. This includes the keeping of oaths, something the ancient Norse held in the highest esteem, since to break an oath to another often led to war and suffering.
Discipline: In any discussion of the values of Ásatrú, discipline is best described as self-discipline. It is the exercise of personal will that upholds honor and the other. If one is to be able to reject moral legalism for a system of internal honor, one must be willing as well to use the self-discipline necessary to make it work.
A member of the Ásatrú folk should have the discipline to keep oneself from straying from the path of Ásatrú into other, perhaps easier, paths. Discipline and fidelity often work very closely together, with discipline providing the willpower needed to retain one’s fidelity.
Many people looking for the right religion continuously go from faith to faith, system to system, path to path. Ásatrúar are much less likely to do this. The discipline of keeping faith only with the Norse gods and the ways of the ancestors is part of the modern Ásatrú practice. In this way, people limit themselves in some ways, but gain much more in others.
Hospitality: Simply one of the strongest core values at the heart of virtually every ancient human civilization is the concept of hospitality. In a community/folk religion such as Ásatrú, it is the virtue that upholds the social fabric.
In the modern Ásatrú community, people need to treat each other with respect and act together for the good of the community as a whole. This functions most solidly on the level of the kindred, where non-familial members become extremely close and look out for each other.
The isolation and loneliness of modern life is not necessary. The willingness to share what one has with one’s fellows is a vital part of the Ásatrú way of life. Hospitality is the virtue where you recognize that, in addition to being an individual, you are also part of a community.
In the ancient Norse world, people lived in wild lands, often cut off by miles from their neighbors, so hospitality meant opening your house to travelers and treating people who came to visit you with the same kindness and respect as you give your own family.
Hospitality is a virtue that Ásatrúar take very seriously. When a guest comes into a home, he is offered a drink and something to eat. The guests must feel comfortable. The virtue of hospitality was very important in ancient Scandinavia, because the gods of Ásatrú were believed to go wandering about Midgard (the world of men) in human guise. One could never know who a guest really was.
Industriousness: An Ásatrúar must be industrious in his or her actions. It is necessary to work hard to achieve one’s goals.
Industriousness doesn’t just apply to vocational work, but to the way people live their whole lives. Vikings were people who lived each day to its fullest and didn’t believe in doubt or hesitation. Therefore, modern Ásatrúar should have the same attitude in all that they do, whether it is usual vocation, devotion to the gods, or leisure time. To work hard and intelligently allows a person to keep thinking and growing.
The idea behind the virtue of industriousness is to be wholehearted in whatever one does, to get the most that one can from the time and effort one spends. This means putting in the work it takes to accomplish whatever one tries to do, using self-discipline to work toward that goal, and continuously trying to better oneself in positive ways.
Self-Reliance: This virtue fits in very well with industriousness in that the sense that it means you shouldn’t wait for someone else to do the job for you, don’t wait for the world to be handed to you on a platter. Going back to the general notion of this article, morality is largely self-imposed and thus requires self-reliance. People must rely on themselves to administer their own morality.
In terms of the Ásatrúars’ relationships with the gods, self-reliance is also very important. If people wish the gods to offer them their blessings and gifts, they must make themselves worthy of them – and the gods are generous to those who stand on their own two feet. This is one of the reasons for the Ásatrú “rule” that no one kneels to the gods during ceremonies. By standing, an Ásatrúar acknowledges a want for comradeship and a relationship with the gods, rather than looking for a handout.
On the other side of this is a simple lifestyle that frees one from the temptations of materialism. People from all faiths have found that adjusting ones material desires to match one’s ability to meet them leaves one open for a closer relationship with the gods and a more fulfilling life. While the Norse ancestors were great collectors of gold treasures, they didn’t lust after possessions; rather they appreciated what they stood for and could do for them.
Being self-reliant also means taking responsibility for one’s life. It’s refusing to blame one’s failures on an unfair world. The world may, in fact, be unfair, but it’s a person’s own responsibility to deal with it. The gods do not help those who will not help themselves.
Perseverance: The final virtue is perseverance. It is the one that Ásatrúar most need to keep in mind in living with the other values. If people truly wish to build an Ásatrú community that other people will hold up as an example of what a committed group can do, then perseverance is required to get through the hardships that building the kindred is going to entail. Ásatrúar must be willing to continue on when they are pushed back. Ásatrúar must hold to their path until its completion and remain strong.
The best combination of all is to persevere in learning how to use one’s special talents and in learning new skills and abilities. No one can beat a combination of ability and perseverance. It’s the people who fail and get past their failure that really succeed in life. Even though times may get rough, one must grind through, persevere: “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
Perseverance teaches to keep on trying until you succeed, not letting setbacks deter you from your goals, sticking with it until you finish what you started, bettering yourself and not being discouraged by what others say or think.
Times were hard in the days of the Vikings, so only those who were strong, smart, and crafty survived. The Norse ancestors were survivors. They fought bravely, explored widely, and never gave up in the face of terrible odds. A good example is the perseverance shown by those Norsemen who settled in Iceland, Greenland, sailed to the shores of Vinlad. Times are still hard, so people still shouldn’t give up at the first sign of adversity. Work, strive, carry on, and don’t give up — those words embody the essence of perseverance.
Ásatrú folk have a saying, “We are our deeds.” This essentially defines ethics of Ásatrú better than anything else. In the immortal words of theHávamál (verse 76):
deyr sjálfr it sama,
hveim er sér góðan getr.
Cattle die, kinsmen die, and so must one die oneself. But one thing I know which never dies – the fame of a dead man’s deeds.