Not all practitioners, however, are happy with the renewed interest in this old religion which has been appropriated by white supremacists and extremists the world over.

The Old Norse religion

Nothing would have surprised people in Viking societies more than the fact that their religion, a form of Germanic paganism, is part of the cultural zeitgeist a millennium after the last Viking ship sailed. 

The majority of the "Viking homelands" (approximately what constitutes the "Nordic" countries today) believed in what modern academics have dubbed the "Old Norse Religion."

This religion, steeped in ritualistic and oral traditions, can be traced back to the end of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE) where, it was believed, forms of Germanic paganism spread north into the Scandinavian peninsula. 

Not only was this a polytheistic religion – of which Thor, Odin, Loki, and Freya have seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to Hollywood movies – but there was a host of other deities, beings, and spirits, living, surviving and thriving in a universe complete with nine vastly different and unique worlds.

It has been labeled an "ethnic religion" - similar, in that regard, to Judaism, Yazidism, or the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians. Scholars are currently locked in a heated debate about if, indeed, it can even be called a "religion" (in the modern sense of the term), as there was wide variance across Viking societies depending on the location and time period.

Nonetheless, until the advent of Christianity into the Viking societies, from the 8th century CE onwards, it was the dominant (but not the only) form of worship for most of the small population that inhabited these Viking societies.

The early Christian story in Scandinavia

Unlike the rest of Europe, Christianity arrived in the Viking world (an area roughly comprising the Nordic and Baltic countries, think of this as a "sphere of influence" that Viking peoples dominated). 

Whilst scholars may disagree whether it was Christian missionaries from the Frankish realms or from the British Isles - that is a bit of a moot point. By the early 8th century, Christianity had arrived in the Viking world, and it would never return.

The 830s CE would be an important decade for we Viking historians and lovers. This marked the end of the first phase of Viking history, where sporadic raids were made on isolated island monasteries. 

New larger raids, meaning more collaboration, coordination, and cunning, were launched – ultimately leading to the colonization, by Viking peoples, of European territories - whilst the two Christian churches in the Nordic countries were constructed at Birka (Sweden) and Hedeby (Denmark).

More than a millennium ago, the Scandinavian Peninsula was a hotbed of religious fervor, the epicenter of a Christian mission to proselytize the so-called "heathen masses." Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock

The spread and consolidation of Christianity

A century later, in the mid-10th century CE, Christianity had grown into a religion of the elite. 

Soon Viking rulers were trying to "tap into" the Christian cultural, social, religious, and economic network of broader Europe by converting and adopting it due to it being politically advantageous. 

There were no mass "forced conversions" in Scandinavia (unlike in other societies where Germanic peoples lived, especially earlier in Francia and Saxony), and many people believed in a synthesis of Christian and Old Norse religious beliefs well into the 11 and 12th centuries CE. 

By the mid-12th century CE, the now medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had established their own archdioceses and were actively stamping out any forms of "pagan" worship.

The story of Europe's transformation, from the early medieval to the later medieval period, has often been billed as the long and relentless march of Christianity. 

Yet any academic will tell you that the Old Norse religion lingered on in many Viking societies for decades, if not centuries, after they were supposedly peacefully replaced by the Christian God. 

The synthesis of the Christian and Norse religion was such that, little more than a century after the end of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE), a "Northern Crusade" was launched (in the 1170s CE) to the once Viking stronghold of the communities and societies around the Eastern Baltic Sea. 

Yet the Old Norse religion was not quite squashed out because it survives today in one of Europe's most remote islands with a deep Viking history.


On the periphery of Europe, as much now as it was back in the "Viking Age," is the island of Iceland. 

This island nation can trace its settlement to the outward expansion of peoples from Viking societies, into the North Atlantic Ocean, from the 9th century onwards. 

However, since 1972, the nation has experienced a unique cultural and religious reawakening. 

Whilst modern Iceland may be one of the most secular societies in the world, more than 1.3% of its population (a sizable segment of the tiny island nation) are members of the Ásatrúarfélagið (the "Asatru Association" where Ásatrú is Icelandic for "Æsir believers"). 

This is a modern form of heathenry (paganism) that can be traced back to one summer's day in the 1970s.

It was Icelandic poet and farmer Sveinbjömm Beintiensson who founded the association on the first day of summer (an Icelandic national holiday) back in 1972. 

There is no fixed dogma or doctrinal laws, but it draws heavily on the Old Norse religion and was a deliberate attempt, according to Beinteinsson, for Icelanders to try and reconnect with nature, reconnect with their former religious beliefs before the "importation" of outsider religions (namely Christianity). Furthermore, the worship of many of the gods from the Old Norse religion as well as broader Nordic folklore feature heavily.

The central ritual revolves around a communal feast (blót) whilst high priests officiate weddings, coming-of-age and name-giving ceremonies, and funerals with a pantheistic worldview. 

Most surprisingly, in Iceland's secular society, its founding in 1972 sparked a heated debate about Christianity's role as a foundation for modern Icelandic society to be built upon, or not, as well as the call, by some, for a formal separation between "church and state."

Ásatrú draws heavily on various aspects of the Old Norse religion. Photo: Nakaya / Shutterstock

Twisted by far-right extremists in the past and in the present

Over the course of the past century, the far right has adopted certain elements, symbols, and iconography of the Old Norse religion, warping and twisting them for their nefarious means. 

The Nazis viewed the Norse mythology so steeped in Icelandic culture, up until the end of the Viking Age, as a font of "true Germanic culture." 

Other elements warped by the Nazis were an existential war that would lead to the rebirth of a new world (Ragnarök) whilst also the warrior culture that was so heavily ingrained in Viking culture.

It was not just goose-stepping Nazis that have ruined, in Hilmar Hilmarsson's opinion, elements of the Old Norse Religion and Ásatrú by association. It is their modern-day successors, Neo-Nazis and far-right extremists, who have followed the Third Reich's suit. 

Anyone who has seen the symbol for the Nordic Neo-Nazi group, the "Nordic Resistance Movement," knows that it is the combination of two Norse gods' names written in runic script.

Perpetrators of the Christchurch and Utøya massacres also wrote manifestos that spewed forth a sick and corrupted view of "Valhalla" - in which Odin will raise fallen brave warriors after a battle to dine and feast with him until the end of times. 

Their entry ticket to Valhalla, the perpetrators thought, should be paid with the blood of hundreds of innocent people.

An old religion fighting back

Looking at the adoption of Norse symbolism by the far right, it could be a depressing view. 

Neo-Nazis can, more than at any time in history, access a wealth of information and broadcast their vile instantaneously, reaching the four corners of the earth. 

However, members of the Ásatrúarfélagið are fighting back. It has put its weight behind a progressive agenda, supporting environmental policies, gay rights, and safe and legal access to abortion, which has only infuriated far-right extremists. 

However, unlike these far-right extremists, more than a third of members of the Ásatrúarfélagið are women, and female membership is the fastest-growing segment of its adherents.

For every Neo-Nazi who has twisted and warped the rich ideology and mythology of the Old Norse religion, there is a member of the Ásatrúarfélagið who wants nothing more than to reconnect, peacefully, with a spiritual belief system that is over a millennium old. 

The current members of the Ásatrúarfélagið are playing their own unique, very Icelandic, and very old Norse way of combating modern-day prejudice with an age-old religion.

"The Viking Priest," the BBC's interview with members of the Ásatrúarfélagið, can be listened to on the BBC website here, whilst the official website for Ásatrúarfélagið the is accessible here.

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