Iceland has been a predominantly a Christian nation for over 1000 years, but recently more and more Icelanders have been turning to the old Norse Gods they once worshipped pre-Christianity.
The story of how Christianity arrived in Iceland, according to Nordic lore, reads like a scene ripped from “Game of Thrones.” A millennium ago, Christianity had just taken over Norway. So the Norwegian king dispatched a mighty warrior missionary named Thangbrand to Iceland to spread the good news. Thangbrand did, along the way spearing dead a great many heathens. Then came a test that would decide whether the icy island would accept Christianity or stay faithful to Thor and the other Norse gods.
Thangbrand had discovered an Icelandic beast impervious to fire. So, he said, “we shall light three fires. I shall bless the first one, you heathens shall bless the second one, and the third one shall remain without a blessing. If [he] walks through your fire unharmed but is afraid of my fire, you must accept Christianity.” The beast galloped through the heathen fire — but reared before the Christian one.
That was in the year 1000. And from that day on, according to Icelandic texts translated by the University of Pittsburgh, Iceland was a Christian nation.
But now the old Norse gods have once again emerged from the clouds to claim a people once theirs. For the first time in more than 10 centuries, thousands of Icelanders soon will be able to worship Thor, Odin, Frigg and others at a temple on which construction begins this month. Not since the collapse of the Viking age has anyone overtly worshiped at the altar of a Norse god in Iceland, which banned such displays of reverence at the rise of Christianity.
The degree of religiosity among the church’s denizens, however, is a matter of debate. “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a high priest of the Norse god religious church, Asatruarfelagio, told Reuters. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”
That contention explains a shift in Iceland in the past four decades, as a small religious sect devoted to the Norse gods rose from obscurity. According to statistics kept by the Icelandic government, membership in the Asatru Association has exploded by Icelandic standards. Founded in 1972 as a means to preserve ancient ways, the church had a membership below 100 in its first two decades. Today, nearly 2,400 are in its ranks.
While not a large number on the international scale, it is for Iceland, which has a population of around 320,000. The church claims to be the largest non-Christian church in Iceland.
In most corners of the globe, Thor finds a home only in comic books, Hollywood movies and video games. But the rise of Asatru, which has doubled in size in five years, is neither extemporaneous nor inscrutable. According to research published in the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, the church can thank both ancient economics and modern politics for its fast emergence.