Welcome to Asatru: An Asatru Primer
by Stephen A. McNallen
The native beliefs of our forebears were much more sophisticated and complex than generally acknowledged. Far from being a collection of simple tales and savage practices, Asatru contains depth, wisdom, and mystery enough to satisfy the most demanding inquiry.
What follows is a basic primer of Asatru - a quick introduction to the spiritual path of our people, arranged in a logical sequence. In the sections that follow, we explain about Asatru as our native religion, polytheism, and the reality of the Holy Powers. We introduce some of the Gods and Goddesses of Asatru, and tell you where to go for more information. Perhaps most significantly, we tell you how you can begin practicing Asatru right now, today, if you choose to do so!
Asatru: A Native Religion
Asatru is a native European religion - one developed by the Germanic peoples from the very essence of their soul, rather than imposed from without.
Perhaps the best way to understand Asatru is to compare it with the more familiar American Indian spirituality. Both are tribal. Both honor the ancestors, and both have much to teach us about our connection with the natural world around us. Both offer a noble set of values. Most relevant to the point we are trying to make, the Germanic Way and the Way of the American Indian are both native religions - the indigenous religions of specific peoples.
When we see that Asatru is a native religion, it becomes clear that this is not some "pagan" religion we have arbitrarily adopted, nor is it some New Age fantasy, nor is it a whim or passing fad. Asatru has ancient roots - our roots. It is the spiritual path of our Germanic ancestors, and as such it deserves to be taken seriously.
Far from being unusual, this connection between ancestry and spirituality is very natural. What is truly strange is to adopt a religion that began in another part of the globe, among people who were not our ancestors!
Asatru honors the Holy Powers - the Gods and Goddesses. It does so using the names by which they were called in ancient times. The Vikings were among the last of the European cultures to be stripped of their ancient beliefs, so followers of Asatru often call the Holy Powers by their Norse names, such as Odin, Thor, Freya, and so forth. This does not mean that modern followers of the Germanic Way dress or act like Vikings, run around in horned helmets, wear bearskins on their shoulders, or pretend that they live a thousand years in the past. Modern-day Asafolk, like modern-day American Indians, drive automobiles, use computers, and dress like ordinary people.
In short, Asatru is not some strange cult, nor something we have taken up casually, nor a historical hobby group. It is a native religion of a large and important part of the Earth's population - the peoples of Europe. As such, it deserves respect just like the religion of the Indian peoples, the African nations, or any other group on Earth
A World with Many Gods
One of the greatest stumbling blocks for those who would return to the way of our ancestors is the whole question of monotheism versus polytheism. Since we live in a larger society that believes overwhelmingly in only one God, it is a large step for most of us to even consider that there might in fact be many Gods - and Goddesses, too.
Much of the rest of the world, by the way, considers it perfectly natural that there should be many Gods and Goddeses. In the paragraphs that follow we will examine some arguments in favor of this idea.
Our own science has opened the door to the polytheist proposition, though we have hardly noticed. For decades, our physicists and philosophers have been tugging at the Establishment coat tails, trying to tell us that the world of predictability, linearity, and monolithic materialism has disappeared into a sea of uncertainty. The world is not the interplay of matter and energy described by Newtonian mechanics and Marxist dogma - it is, as one thinker has said, more like a vast thought than a vast machine. Einstein, too, failed to grasp the nature of things: God not only "plays dice with the universe" but he isn't the only player! Many dice, many Gods, a multiverse of profound and wondrous mystery...
It is this sense of mystery that pervades the new physics, and it amounts to nothing less than a reawakening of religious awe in a world which has become jaded, boring, and pointless. This time, we are all priests rather than peasants - not content to accept dogma mindlessly, but rather free and happy to pull and tug at the mysteries, to fathom the quantum enigmas and seek the truhts that underlie existence. The sense of the miraculous remains, even as we plumb the deepest secrets of the wonder around us.
The Improbability of Monotheism
Looking at history objectively, we have to wonder why monotheism captured men's minds in the first place. Does our observation of nature support it? Consider nature: storm and calm, ice and fire, plants and animals, life and death, sky and earth, all in endless combinations and complexities. The world around us is characterized by a multiplicity of forms and phenomena of very different kinds. It is perhaps more likely to ascribe this wide range of forces, things, and events not to one cause - one spirit or mover or God - but to many. The natural world does not encourage us to believe in a single deity, but in numerous ones.
Is the nature of human populations consistent with monotheism? Just as the world of natural phenomena is complex and varied, so is the array of nations and tribes that make up the human race. The way of Asia is not the way of Africa, which is not the way of Europe - is it logical that one supernatural Power can be the only true God for all of mankind? Is it not more reasonable to assume (as in fact each tribe and nation insisted until convinced otherwise by fire and sword) that each group has a set of Gods that expresses divinity in accordance with its own vision?
Does the direct spiritual experience of mankind, as witnessed by shamans, mystics, and holy men, support the contentions of monotheism? On the contrary, countless cultures assert that the multiverse is teeming with non-human entities, many of which can be categorized as Gods and Goddesses both major and minor. The claim that there is only one God is by no means the only view. Indeed, the existence of Thor, Odin, and the other Norse Gods was acknowledged by Christian missionaries and chroniclers, while the idea that they are fictional is a more recent development. Of course, the position of the Church was that the old Gods and Goddesses were demons - but the self-serving nature of this claim makes it transparent to all but terrorized peasants.
In summary, monotheism is contradicted by our observation of nature's manifold and differing phenomena, by the widely diverse peoples that make up humanity, by the direct experience of those in every culture who deal with the Otherworld, and even by the testimony of men who claim to follow the One God!
The Effects of Monotheism
Around the world, the rise of the monotheism was accompanied by intolerance and persecution. In a world where it was accepted that there were many Gods and Goddesses, religious wars were hardly possible. It was assumed that each pantheon had a special relationship with a particular tribe, race, or nation. No single deity or collection of deities demanded the right to rule all mankind; Gods and Goddesses were not particularly transferable from one group to another.
Monotheism changed all that. If there was only one God, the Gods of the tribe across the river became demons, usurping the devotion that should go to the One True God. The followers of those Gods were now devil worshippers, and they must be killed for their heresy. Conquest, previously justified by greed, now had a new motivation - righteousness! It was the beginning of a bloody phase of human history that continues down to the present.
Anywhere monotheism met polytheism, the followers of the One God went on the offensive. Horrible things were done in the name of religion. Monotheism was accepted peacefully in only a very few cases. More typically, the confrontation of belief systems meant wars lasting for years or generations. Only after about a thousand years of conflict did the tribes of Europe officially surrender their native ways - and even then, remnants of the old faiths survived in the remote regions beyond the reach of "law and order."
Looking at this record of intolerance and outright genocide, it is hard to claim that monotheism, in and of itself, has bestowed any blessing on mankind. We cannot help but contrast this with societies where many Gods and Goddesses were known: Although polytheistic cultures waged wars of greed and conquest, at least they felt no need to convert their neighbors. Religious war was unknown in Europe until the coming of monotheism - and since that time, sectarian strife has not ceased - as the Irish can testify.
Polytheism and Liberty
Another way in which polytheism differs from monotheism is in regard to political freedom. By its very nature, polytheism promotes real freedom of choice. Monotheism offers only one option for worship, and it historically enforced that option with a social structure in which authority flows from the top downward. One God, one ruler - the idea of the "divine right of kings" came only after monotheism took control of society.
Without exception, our concepts of freedom can be traced to the polytheistic tribes of Europe. Representative government in Europe and America derives from the Germanic tribal assemblies. Centuries before the British parliament was founded, Iceland was governed by a nation-wide legislative and judicial assembly called the Althing; the same is true of the Isle of Man. Tribal leaders were generally chosen by the leading families or by the entire assembly of freemen. Some tribes did not even have a real leader, except in time of war.
Our deepest ideas of law derive from the Germanic world, through the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons (Hence "Anglo-Saxon Common Law"). Indeed, the very word "law" comes from Old Norse, not from Roman, Greek, or Hebrew. Indigenous European law applied to all freemen, and the king was not above it; defiance of tyrannical rulers is a common thread running through the old sagas of Europe. Iceland was colonized in the ninth century to provide escape from the dictatorial edicts of Olaf Tryggvason, the law-breaking king who forced his countrymen to accept monotheism or die.
Many of the individual freedoms we take for granted in the West today had their counterparts in our ancient tribes. Women in traditional Germanic culture had many more rights than did their sisters in later centuries. Similarly, the right to bear arms belonged to all freemen in Germanic society - a right that eroded after the triumph of monotheism.
The list can go on and on, but the essence is this: Northern Europe, under its traditional, ancestral religion was dominated by republics with built-in safeguards to protect the rights of the free folk. After the destruction of that religion, royal power was centralized at the expense of the ancient checks and balances, and human freedom was drastically lessened. These rights were painfully regained through the centuries, with the Magna Charta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States.
In summary, freedom is a birthright from our polytheistic ancestors in Europe, not something we imported from monotheists!
A Summary: Monotheism and Polytheism in the Balance
The variety of natural phenomena and the multiplicity of human races and cultures all argue for polytheism and against monotheism. The truth of polytheism is attested by thousands of years of observations by holy men and wise women, mystics, and shamans.
Monotheism has been the main cause of religious warfare, which began in ancient times and has continued to this morning's news. Our political freedoms are rooted in native, polytheistic belief - and those freedoms have typically diminished when monotheism has gained control.
Luckily for us, the Way of our ancestors remains open to us. And to find ourselves, to serve our kin and to attain our destiny, we must stride boldly through that door. It is, after all, the front door to our own home - the spiritual home that served us well for countless millennia and still offers us comfort, dignity and freedom today.
The Reality of the Holy Powers
What makes us think that the Holy Powers honored by our ancestors actually exist? Here are a few reasons -
1. Our ancestors - hundreds of generations of them - considered the Gods and Goddesses to be as real as their own family, as real as the mountains looming over their homestead, or the clouds blowing through the sky. Of course, it is easy today to say that our ancestors were stupid, or at best ignorant and naive, but can that really be true? The human brain has not significantly changed over the last few thousand years.
In terms of innate intelligence, some of our brighter forebears could have invented the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics a thousand years ago. This didn't happen, of course - because the conceptual foundations had not yet been laid by others, and because our ancestors were busy doing other things, such as growing food and fighting off the tribe from the next valley over. Discovering quantum physics is one thing, but inventing the necessary mathematics and all of classical physics at the same time, while planning raids and sowing the crops, is a little much to ask! Lack of brainpower, per se, was not the problem
2. Tribal Europeans (and just about everyone else in the world) lived in an environment that selected intensely for intelligence and hard-headed practicality. Stupid people tended to make mistakes that got them killed. Impractical dreamers likewise met untimely and tragic ends. By comparison, we live much more protected lives, insulated from the effects of the natural environment and from hostile people armed with axes and swords. Fools, self-deceivers, the gullible, and dreamers did not fare well in early society. The ancient Germans and Celts are not likely to have believed in the Gods and Goddesses unless they had some reason to do so. We on the other hand, living in an environment with much less evolutionary stress, are much more likely to believe in superstitions like dialectical materialism and the good intentions of politicians.
3. The enemies of the Gods - the Christian missionaries and later chroniclers - believed the Gods and Goddesses were real. The Christian kings of Norway, tyrants who made free folk into royal subjects and forced them to give up the old ways or die, met Thor and Odin in mysterious encounters that have come down to us in the sagas. One can argue, of course, that the stories are made up, but the very existence of the stories clearly reflect a belief that the old Gods were real. Nowhere in the surviving sagas do the Christian writers think of Odin, Thor, Frey, or any of the others as delusions. In fact, the oath required of the Saxons upon converting to Christianity specifically renounced the old deities, thus by implication acknowledging their existence.
4. The Gods and Goddesses manifest to living men and women today. The old religion of the pre-Christian Nordic and Germanic lands has been revived in an organized form for hardly thirty years, but the might of the Gods and Goddesses has shown itself many times. These instances are of varying types and qualities. When we make requests of the Holy Powers, we often get dramatic results. In other words, our prayers are answered. People get healed, children are born, difficulties are resolved, the future is foretold, and so forth. In short, the Gods work!
Other times, the Gods and Goddesses (and other entities described in the Nordic lore, for that matter) actually appear to people in visions. You can call these delusions or hallucinations, but they are generally associated with real results that happen, then or later, in the real world.
Finally, there are cases, admittedly rare, when Gods and Goddesses manifest to humans under conditions that do not appear to be visions at all - when they are as real as your house or the rock on which you stub your toe.
Real, but Different
To say that the Gods and Goddesses are real is not to tell us much. The next question is...what are they like?
Aside from the odd personal encounter and rare representations as statues or on old tapestries, the only descriptions we have of the Holy Powers are in the myths. When we look at the stories, we find Thor pictured as a muscular fellow with a red beard and flashing blue eyes. Odin is a tall, older man with a gray beard and one eye, and he sometimes travels in the company of his two wolves and ravens. Freyr - well, he's a fertility God, with the appropriate physical attributes.
Are we to take these vivid, dramatic images literally? That depends on how you want to think of the Gods and the myths in which they appear. Here are two possibilities:
We can think of myth as metaphor. In this scheme, the myths are symbolic ways of transmitting spiritual truths. They have multiple layers of meaning. On the most obvious and superficial level, they are entertaining tales that often make a moral point or illustrate virtues like the love of wisdom, sacrifice, and bravery.
Below this level, things get trickier. Some mythologists (not themselves followers of our ancestral religion) will say they are allegories describing natural phenomena such as lightning, or the warming of the land with the departure of winter, or the cycle by which vegetation grows, dies in the winter, and comes to life again in the spring.
Psychologists, particularly those who are students of Dr. Carl Jung, interpret the myths as depictions of psychic realities rather than external ones. In this model, the ancient stories tell us important things about the personal and collective unconscious. The heroic quest and the growth and maturation of the individual are typical themes. The Gods and Goddesses are thought of as psychic forces in the person and in society, but are not considered objectively real.
We can admit the value of these viewpoints in a technical or analytical sense, while not conceding they represent the whole truth. Many Asatruar consider the myths to be true - not in the literal sense but in the sense of tales which tell spiritual truths, "those things which never happened, but always are." The tales of Gods become allegories, some of which can be deciphered by reason. Others cannot be interpreted in terms of logic, because they speak a deeper, non-linear "meta-language," the secret code of the unconscious. In this case, the myths communicate with us subtly, without words, influencing our mind and spirit.
For Asatruar who think of the myths as metaphor, the Gods and Goddesses are real, but the anthropomorphic images of them presented in the old lore are strictly symbolic. Thor is not really a gigantic, muscular, man-like figure with a red beard, any more than Jehovah is a human-shaped entity in a white gown sitting on a golden throne, surrounded by clouds. The description of Thor we find in the stories gives us a way to relate to the very real force in the cosmos that we call Thor, but it is not him.
The Gods and Goddesses are not limited by the constraints of flesh and blood. So while it is convenient for us to picture Freya as a beautiful woman wearing a shining necklace, or Heimdal as having golden teeth, these are allegorical. The Gods and Goddesses themselves are mighty spiritual powers, existing within us and without us, capable of manifesting to humans in any form they wish.