There are a few points that I would like to note on what has been termed Ásatrú, though my first is a general problem with this term itself. The determinant factors in the formation of this neologism (though I realize that it is a longstanding one, being formed in the 1970’s) are transparent. ‘Trú’ as a word for faith and related to the English ‘truth’ renders a meaning with Ása (the genitive plural of Áss) along the lines of ‘gods’-truth’. In its broader sense, ‘trú’ more properly renders what used to be meant by the word ‘confession’ in the sense of bearing witness to the truth, particularly in the sense of Christian witness to the gospel, hence ‘trú’ should really and properly apply to the Christian faith. Add to this the extra lexical trouble that the Æsir are only one set of beings around whom Norse cultic observation centred and suddenly the term seems a little grasping — a little too adamantly insisting on its own legitimacy. Perhaps Goðatrú would work better, though that leaves out the jøtunar, álfar and dvergar as well. Perhaps ‘trú’ should be omitted altogether. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to focus on close interpretation of what data comes to us regarding traditional religious observation rather than worrying about the political issues of what a particular religion, denomination or confession is called.
Leaving my own judgmental tendencies aside, this all points up the first thing that I really like about pre-Christian Norse religion, though I think ‘religion’ is a misnomer that leads to gross misapprehensions. It is immediate, experiential and encompasses the entirety of human endeavour and experience: violent and peaceful, male and female, hetero- and orthodoxical, devotional, literary, investigative and ecstatic. It’s pretty much all there but never claims to have the absolute last word on essential reality; there are classes of things (the dísir and troll for example) that allow or even presume direct interaction with something not fully known, but known enough to allow appropriate response. A similar thing is found in Gaelic tradition with the Sídhean, but this term is much broader, reflecting in my opinion the much earlier conversion. This is what I mean by immediate and experiential: it presumes that we come into contact with these things every day and must have an appropriate response. It treats the supernatural as though it were just another element of reality, like hunting, farming, child-birth and the economy. It’s not that it has no sense of wonder, but that wonder and weirdness is actually presumed alongside heroism and the possibility of imminent death.
I actually very much appreciate the cycle of sacrifices in the pre-Christian Norse observations, from the individual álfablót of the individual home to the high, communal blot appropriate to the various seasons. I was a vegetarian for a number of years, but decided that it was actually somehow misrepresentative of the realities of life. It felt somehow disrespectful. After long reflection I came to the realization that we live by sacrifice. Something always must make way for us to be here — simply to be, really. More importantly, we live by violence. We are born in blood and pain, must crush and dissolve elements of creation in order to sustain ourselves, and even in our dealings with other people we enjoy cycles of cultivation and dissolution in the smallest conversation. It suddenly seemed unbalanced to refuse the violent and chthonic elements of our reality. I stopped being a vegetarian then, deciding to consciously live by sacrifice and redeem that violent part of our nature by giving it the respect it deserved. Researching the cycle of the pre-Christian Norse blót, I found that here was a tradition totally in keeping with the sensibility at which I had arrived according to my own terms. There were, however, a number of questions: were honey and blood used to brew the sacred mead drunk at the blót or were they mixed together (e.g.)?
More importantly and since there are accounts of landvættir being driven away through Christian prayer (and acts of violence, interestingly enough — tells you something about Christian prayer), where are they now? I have often felt that the landscape we live in is devoid of some unseen element that the urban landscape particularly is like some vast desert despite its activity and complexity. I convinced myself years ago that it was the lack of biodiversity, although I fully admit that nothing could be further from the truth. There is a great diversity of animal and plant life in most cities, but it was the best I could do to explain to myself such an overpowering sense of loneliness and emptiness in the midst of urban sprawl. Now having looked into the idea of the landvættir and in the light of how the jøtunnar and dvergar, no less the troll and Vanir, factor into the Old Norse world-view, I suddenly have a conceptual framework and name for the sensibility that has so vexed me. The question now is whether or not they can be called back to where they are missed. I’ve no doubt that my son was able to see something akin to them out on the little path that ran behind our dwelling-place in British Columbia when we lived there. Likewise I have heard friends tell stories in hushed voices, as thought they were embarrassed of their own experiences, of the small people and creatures they happened on. The obvious answer is an álfablót, but this requires resources currently not at my disposal.
This brings up the final point I wish to call out regarding the Old Norse cultic landscape. There was a frame of reference in it for real wealth. It was not just monetary affluency, confluency or even defluency, but real wealth in both material and immaterial terms. Family, resources, political leverage and even the ability to levy direct, even violent, force was all part of a holistic view of what constituted real wealth. In this regard it was not much different from the perspective of wealth possessed by most pre-industrial and particularly heroic societies, and I breathe with a deep sense of dread and awe at how the greater portion of individuals who constitute our society have convinced themselves somehow that such a view-point is beneath that of our modern, acculturated, over-sophisticated, overworked, and overtaxed society, all-but-enslaved as it is to a culture of wage-labour and leisure pursuits that are increasingly devoid of personal involvement (e.g. spectator sports, media consumption and other essentially vicarious pursuits). [huff, huff … must calm down from rant.] The point is that, for all the violence, literal blood-thirstiness, and illiteracy (which may be less a bad thing than we first assume), Old Norse society had a deep sense of ethical propriety that embraced the chthonic and elemental, including instinctively a sense of balance that maintained an intimate connection with the land. It’s hard not to envy such a world-view.
Finally, my heart still very much lies with the Celtic world (and there may even be a geis on me against the eating of horse-flesh), but perhaps the boundaries between the Celtic and the Germanic are more porous and fluid than they may seem in the harsh, artificial light of our LCD screens. Perhaps there is much to be learned in seeing them both as part of a continuum, but such is a matter for another day.