Allan Massie: Pick and mix revival of old gods

As Iceland sees a new temple to honour the old Norse deities, this rekindled interest in almost forgotten religions falls short, writes Allan Massie
The return of worship of the old Norse gods in Iceland is more akin to a pop festival than the traditional image of Vikings. Picture: GettyThe return of worship of the old Norse gods in Iceland is more akin to a pop festival than the traditional image of Vikings. Picture: Getty
The return of worship of the old Norse gods in Iceland is more akin to a pop festival than the traditional image of Vikings. Picture: Getty

There is no shortage of dead gods and goddesses. Assiduous research could probably give you as many names as are to be found in your average New Year’s Honours List. Who worships Baal today? Who worships Dagon or Ashtaroth, or the other Philistine deities? Where are those weird Egyptian gods with unmemorable names? Where are the Gods of Olympus or those Roman emperors who were pronounced, or pronounced themselves, divine? (When Augustus died, a senator swore that he had seen him ascending into heaven; that would have been some 20 years before the assembled Apostles saw Jesus do that too.)

The more you think about it, the stranger the disappearance of these deities is. Many were worshipped for centuries, even millennia. Beasts of the field and (sometimes) human beings were sacrificed to them in the hope of ensuring prosperity and fertility. Sometimes they seem to have withered away. Sometimes they were joined by new gods, sometimes supplanted by these immigrants. Yet in their time they served their purpose every bit as well as the god of the three great monotheist religions.

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Many, however, didn’t quite go away, but only withdrew into the shadows. John Buchan, son of the manse and elder of the Kirk of Scotland, had a livelong interest in anthropology and folklore. At least two of his novels – Witch Wood and The Dancing Floor – and several rather creepy short stories turn on the idea of old beliefs and cults simmering under the crust of the Christian religion, and ready to break, disturbingly and frighteningly through. Now some of the best-known are making a comeback. In Iceland construction will start this month on a temple to the Norse gods, Odin, Frigg and Thor, as a modern version of the old Norse faith gains popularity. It is promoted by an association entitled Asatruarfelagid which claims to have almost 2,500 members. (The population of Iceland is 330,000; so Odin & Co have some way to go.) Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the priest of the Norse Gods, makes the point that it is a serious faith.

“I don’t think that anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” he says. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

There are of course a fair number of Christians, among them ministers of religion, who, either willingly or if pressed, would say that their understanding of their faith is a bit like that; even the Resurrection, the event which is at the heart of Christianity, is to be understood symbolically rather than as a historically verifiable happening.

In other respects the neo-Norse church sounds pretty standard or middle of the road… it will conduct weddings and funerals and baptisms, and “initiate teenagers”, which is, I suppose, their version of confirmation. Its ministers and practitioners seem, from a glance at the photographs made available, to dress in what one might call the Hollywood idea of vaguely medieval old-time religion. In other words it all seems rather decorous, and we are also told that, though it will celebrate the “ancient sacrificial ritual of “Blot” (sic) with music, reading, eating and drinking”, there will be no slaughter of animals to please the gods. All a bit like a pop festival, I suppose.

Here in Britain we have our own neo-pagan religion, Wicca. The name makes it seem older than it is, for it was the brainchild (for want of a better word) of a retired civil servant and amateur anthropologist, Gerald Gardner, in the 1930s.

He declared that “the gods are real, not as persons, but as vehicles of power”, which, to my mind, sounds rather vague and a bit boring. However, Wicca and its more witchly offshoots have a fair following. In the last census, 56,620 people identified themselves as pagan, 11,766 as Wiccans, and 1,276 as witches, all of whom are, or suppose themselves to be, in some sort of association with these vehicles of power. Wiccans also do pretty well in the US (though competition from rival cults is decidedly stiff there) and in Canada, where the University of Victoria in British Columbia has a Wiccan chaplain who, according to newspaper reports, “marks the solstice with pagan rituals”.

European religion has gone the same way as shopping. Goods are no longer dispensed from the pulpit or from behind the counter. It has become self-service, and, for many “pick ’n’ mix”. If you fancy a bit of Norse mythology, bung that in, and dress up, if you please, like a medieval abbot. If you feel the need to be in touch with the deep and secret forces of nature, then some variety of Wicca (there are several) will probably be just your thing.

One of the curious features of these neo-pagan revivals has been the depersonalisation of the gods. Talk about poetic metaphors, manifestations of the forces of nature and human psychology, and vehicles of power, is all rather abstract, even dead. The old Norse gods, like those of Olympus, were intensely alive, forever loving, seducing, quarrelling and fighting. One can of course chose to interpret them as poetic metaphors or whatever, but they were also super-humans, just like us, only more so. They had a wonderful vitality, but they were also capricious and easily angered by us mere mortals, which is why ceremonies were devised to please them or turn away their wrath. Shakespeare understood this. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” No ancient Greek or Roman ever trusted the gods; experience told them that at any moment any god might pull a dirty trick. This consciousness was carried over into the Christian faith: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

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I don’t have the impression that these Icelanders building their Norse temple have any fear of Thor’s thunderbolts. And if they don’t, then they are merely playing at religion, like children dressing up as Superman or the Incredible Hulk.