Who are you?
I was born in Iceland, in 1940. /…/ By the time I was seventeen, I was speculating on Asatro, or I decided when I was seventeen that I was Asatrua. This had just haunted me all my life. I just wanted to be Asatrua. I haven’t the fainted idea why, because both my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandmother – they all looked at themselves as Christians. But the old traditions of the wights, the hidden people, the beings that live in every rock and everywhere in nature were so much part of my upbringing, like most Icelanders’. I came to the conclusion that this was what I believed, not what I had been told by the church. Although I was always very much interested in religion when I took my confirmation – as we do in Iceland when we are fourteen.
Then I just decided when I was seventeen that … that’s it … I was Asatrua. Nothing much happened, I just felt better that I’d decided. I started right away to try to get people to form an Asatru association, but without any luck. In Iceland, especially in those days, you couldn’t go around telling people about your religion and what you believed in. This is considered to be so personal that those who speak about religion are considered to be a little bit crazy. I am in a very envious position at the moment, because I can speak about religion all day if I want to, because I am Allsherjagodi, so that’s normal, but somebody else would be considered a little bit crazy! [laughing]
So you were looking for people?
I was looking for people everywhere to join me, because I thought the Asatru should be reinstated in Iceland, many thought it was a good idea, but as I said before, Icelanders think religion is a very personal thing and they don’t want to discuss it. Fifteen years later I was speaking to someone, over a cup of coffee, he said Ooh! If you’re interested in that, you should speak to Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, he has been going around for years saying the same thing!
The next day I met Sveinbjörn for the first time, and within a week we had already formed the Asatro association. If I remember correctly, It was on the first day of summer, according to the Old Icelandic calendar, in 1972. And then we went on from there. We met, I think, one month later to do the official work, we were twelve at the first meeting, and thirty-five or thirty-six (a nice number!) at the second one. Everything was decided at these two meetings, very spontaneously. I’m not sure, in retrospect, how much we really knew – I’m sure that Sveinbjörn and some of the others knew much more than I did. But I am not really sure how much of what we did was based on solid knowledge and how much was based on instinct and cultural background. When I go over the papers from this time everything sounds correct and in accordance with what I know today, but I’m not really sure that we knew that much. We just did what we felt was right. I think it is actually more important, when you do something like this, to do what you really feel, than being historically correct. Historical accuracy is very good. It’s very good to have solid knowledge of old traditions and so on, but after all, your traditions are what you think they are. You shouldn’t have to look up your traditions in a book. Things like that have to be.
How, in your opinion, is the situation of the Asatrufelagidh in Iceland today?
I think they have a very solid position, maybe too easy-going. There is a steady increase in membership – if that is positive, I suppose it is. In the last three-four years, the increase has fluctuated from 40% down to maybe 10-15%… Never less than that. If you compare this to the Church – the National Church it is going steadily down in numbers all the time. Asatru is the fastest-growing religion in Iceland as in many other countries.
What do you think of the revival of pagan pre-Christian religions, not only in Europe, but in the rest of the world as well?
I think that is a very important work. It is absolutely necessary for Europe, because, even though Christianity was at one time part of a very European tradition, it simply does not work any more, and I think maybe that United Europe will result in people becoming more local than they were before. It’s very important that you nourish your local tradition, and the local tradition is always connected with Asatru or the local paganism. So the best way to nourish a local consciousness is to nourish the old tradition. They are so connected together … If you don’t have any tradition, you don’t have any identity, and you can’t get identity from a book like the Bible. In Europe, you can’t build identity from that, because it is based on completely different traditions. Probably, when Arianism, Catarism etc. was the dominant Christianity in Europe, it was much more local than the international Roman Christianity, which was, and to some extent still is, a mock Roman Empire. If we can’t rule their lands let’s rule their minds.
As people would not accept a completely foreign kind of religion concessions where made and local traditions twisted around to fit into Roman Christianity because they realised that you can’t be without those traditions. So it turns out that you can keep 90 % of the Christian holidays, because they were Pagan holidays to start with. Yule, the midwinter feast is one classical example and there are many more. I can recite another one. /…/
We can rediscover all these traditions. You keep the local holidays, and revert to the original customs. This is very healthy and quite different from nationalism, which is always made up by somebody. The connection of nationalism with tradition is usually very shallow: a few words, songs, symbols, which you’re supposed to believe in, and that’s why it gets out of hand, because nationalism does not connect to the soul of anybody, and has to be kept alive by constant propaganda. But local patriotism is a positive aspect of society. I think this is very necessary for the identity of Europe. Europe should not become one huge Europe with European nationalism, because that will always be a fake. But local feelings for the environment, culture and traditions are a very positive thing. I think that Paganism or Asatro is the best way to go back to your roots, rekindling the pride of belonging, without hating those that are different.
You mentioned the importance of going back to your roots in Europe. Now what’s going to happen to the Americans, I mean the white Americans. How can they go back to their own roots? Is it possible?
Not in the same way as you can do when you are in Europe, absolutely not. The groups in America that are trying to do this, they have got it mostly from books. Not completely, but mostly it is from books. They read about it, and a lot of the books published in this century are not even very accurate, although this is changing in the last few years. I have told them in America that, while it is quite good to examine your roots, family traditions and so on, you cannot build everything on that which happened hundred or two hundred years ago in Europe, because both society and nature are different. The environment is different from Europe and very varied from Alaska to Mexico.
They should look to the Indians, for tradition. Not becoming Indians, because that would be a fake also, but try to develop their identities separately. I think that, if you have two extremes: people forming a Pagan group solely based on what they felt was right, and, on the other hand, someone who was basing everything on very accurate scientific research on some period in the past … doing just what you feel is right, is more correct than the exact recreation.
Of course, it’s best to have a little bit of both, facts and feelings. But at least if you make the whole thing up, in other words start from scratch, then you are doing something, which is in harmony with yourself. Such an understanding of the divine may not be Isatrs as we understand it in Iceland or Europe, but if Paganism is, as I belief, half being in harmony with yourself, and half in harmony with nature, then you are one the right track. If you are not in harmony with society, yourself and nature you could just as well be Christian. Notice however one thing however; no one individual can start a Pagan religion or “sidr”, there can be no prophets in Isatrs, it goes against the grain of everything Pagans stand for. This is the problem with many groups outside Europe, (and some in Europe to) you start with a handful of people around a teacher and when the group expands and the ideas expand, the leader will not let go, and the whole thing collapses. The Pagan understanding of the Divine is always a collective understanding. In the Judaic based religions the reverse is true; there can be only one understanding, the Bible, the Pope or the Prophet.
It is inherent in the Christianised thinking of the West that, if two things are not compatible, they have to be opposites. In the older Pagan way of thinking (circular thought) you can bend around the problem, then, really, things that seem to be opposite turn out to be just different and fully acceptable.
All this revival in Europe, at the same time there is a lot of “Neo-Paganism”, lot of “New Age”. Do you see it as a danger for real ethnic religion?
No, not really. I have been told that in England especially people who would really like to be pagans but are a little nervous to go all the way get involved in New Age thinking, because that is sort of semi-acceptable, maybe because of the commercial aspect. Those who are really sincere tend to become Pagan later on and I don’t really see a conflict there. It may be that paganism will follow a forked road, a traditional one and a neo-pagan movement.
New-Age movement will never be able to gain any momentum if they are not real.
So, on the long term, they do not make me nervous. Some of them might possibly bring some damage in the short term. I think that shunning them out completely, refusing to talk to them, calling them names, will only make them more eccentric. I am a Pagan and we maintain that we must all find our own way so I dislike to criticise religious groups, but take scientology for example, which is in reality set up by one man. It is OK to say that, because they know this very well themselves. He just made up a new religion and that will newer work.
What happens with religions like that? When some fundamental difficulties rise, they don’t have any tradition to revert back to. /…/ When Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson died and I took over there was no problem. The tradition in Iceland is so strong that if I had tried to change course completely, I would have done that alone and left all the others on the main road. In case of a new made-up religion, when the leader/prophet dies you are left on a roundabout with many lanes and numerable exits./…/ Even if Christianity is a relatively new religion, it can fall back on the Jewish tradition, but sometimes I have the feeling that they are just driving round and around and that it even dos not worry them very much. We will just wait, the made-up religions with dubious ties to cultural traditions will eventually disappear, and then is our duty to be there, waiting.
The full French version has been published in “Antaios” magazine.