Paganism or the rediscovery of Identity
by Jormundur Ingi, Allherjarsgodi
of the Asatru Felagidh, Iceland
presented at Pagan Conference in Antverpen, March 7th, 1999
We do not recreate, we rediscover. If we are going to help or support others, we have to start with ourselves. How well have we managed to recreate or rebuild our old ways and customs, this is of course something everybody must answer for him- or her-self. How can we recreate something as fundamental as religion and the customs of our ancestors. The answer is we can’t. We can’t recreate something that is lost. How can I say that to you, I’m myself a leader of one of the first groups to do just that. You are all members of groups doing just that. No you are not, at least I hope that you are not. We do not recreate, we rediscover, there is a lot difference between recreating and rediscovering.
We can never recreate the traditions and religious beliefs of our forefathers, as I said at the outset, but we can rediscover our Pagan identity by looking inside ourselves and come to terms with our past, without refusing the present.
The first ceremony we rediscovered, so to speak, was the sanctification of the Althing at Thingvellir. Actually this was one of the few ceremonies written down, in a short form, already in the twelfth century. Then we could supplement this with later Christian ceremonies. As it turns out, when you skip over the hail Marrys and the names of the various Saints, the old Pagan rite is there almost unchanged.
We will perform this ceremony in its fullest form, at the original side next year in Thingvellir (in 2000). The opening ceremony is done at eleven o’clock at night at mid summer. At that time of year in Iceland there is still full daylight. This will be the one thousand and seventieth time, counting from the year 930, that this rite is performed.
In Iceland Thingvellir, the “Parliament Plains” are considered the most sacred place in the land. As a matter of fact it is designated by law as a sacred place of all Icelanders. When the Minister of Culture tried to forbid the Isatrsar to perform the opening ceremony there a few years back, there was such an outrage from a multitude of people that he promptly reversed his decision. Now we have the same rights there as the Parliament and the Bishop of Iceland. These three are the only ones that may perform public ceremonies in this most holy place. I mention this to illustrate the place that Isatrs plays in the mind of the Icelanders. The national identity of all Icelanders is strongly linked with the past, and the past is irrevocably linked with Thingvellir.
Our identity, whether it is our national identity, our cultural identity or our religious identity is not physical but mental. Thank the Gods for that.
If our identity was physical we could not revert to the beliefs and ways of our forefathers without undergoing major surgery. Even without surgery the process can be quit hard and painful. Christianity has molded the thoughts of western man for almost 2000 years. It takes more than a simple decision to become Pagan.
It is not enough, as some seem to think, to form a Pagan group and adopt the rules and teachings of the Church, only inserting the names of the Gods into the appropriate places. That leads only to a mockery of Christianity. A much more honest way would be to make everything up, at least the result would be compatible with your own identity.
When Asatru was established in Iceland in 1972 we where faced with the difficult assignment to rediscover Icelandic Isatrs or “Our Way” as it was known in times of old. We based the whole thing on our identity and insight. Of course we had read the Sagas and Eddas in the original 12th and 13th century Icelandic and we knew quit a bit about the scholarly work on these sources although that did not do us any good. Scholarly works on religion are quit worthless unless you understand that religion on a personal and cultural level. In other words we based our whole work on traditions and our identity.
One thing did not enter our heads and that was to set down religious teachings and dogmas. On the contrary we stated that it was every man for himself, so to speak, and so it has been up to this day. There are no demands made on the members (exempting a few rules of conduct). Those that state that they are Isatrsar are accepted without question. Then they will of course have to dig into their subconscious for their own religious truths. This makes up for a variety of different believes, but no conflicts, perhaps as we Icelanders, Pagan and Christian alike, have a very strong conviction that the religious believes of each individual are his, or hers, private matters that others should not meddle with.
After the principles where clear in our minds, our first priority was to gain the formal recognition of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This would make us eligible to receive our share of the religious taxes, which however were pitifully low at that time. More important was the recognition itself without which we could have been viewed as just an other group of eccentrics. The fight for the recognition took the better part of a year. Far too long we thought but as it turned out a remarkably short time when compared to what would happen in other countries not so much later.
One of the strangest arguments of the Ministry was that it was all right, and even a duty, to recognise the so called international religions with long histories, thick books of teachings, well defined dogma and many members in a number of countries. We steadfastly refused to submit any written statements or teachings, and were, of course, only a handful of people in one small country. This, that I thought at the time, to be the eccentric view of small country bureaucrats was upheld in a recent ruling by the International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In the case brought by Yahweh’s Witnesses against the State of Rumania the Court found for Yahweh and stated that Yahweh’s Witnesses were a well defined religion, established many years ago with many members, in a number of countries and therefore it was the duty of the Romanian Government to grant them full status as a religion. I suppose that the same could be said of the Church of Scientology and many others.
To me it is quite astounding, to say the least, that the authorities in Countries all over the world will recognise religions only on the bases of quantity, that is number of members and collection of written works. I cannot but sympathise, although I do not agree, with the Russian authorities in their refusal to accept what they call strange religions, at least they are being Russian and are simply trying to cling to their Russian identity. New religions whether freely accepted or forced upon people will change the identity of both individuals and nations. Of course, Christianity has changed the identity of the North Europeans but perhaps not so much as one could be led to think. When new doctrines are forced upon people only a small part of the new teachings are accepted. As a matter of fact there is a lot of North European Paganism in Christianity, otherwise it could never have succeeded as long as it has.