How Iceland Recreated a Viking-Age Religion

June 9, 2019

Priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson rummaged around in his blue woollen robe and fished out two cans of warm Icelandic lager. “Beer?” he asked, handing me one of the tepid tins, which frothed violently as I pulled the ring. “Skál,” said the priest, a mischievous glint in his pale blue eyes. “Skál,” I repeated, and we slurped our overflowing lagers.

Those weren’t the first beers of the day. Earlier that afternoon, Hilmarsson had poured pilsner into a bull’s horn and passed it around his congregation; a motley crew of characters, some of whom looked like they were extras from Game of Thrones, others straight off the stage of a heavy metal concert. Most, though, were dressed in regular clothes befitting of a breezy day in Iceland.

The congregation, which comprised a few dozen souls, including a Buddhist and a Hindu guest, had gathered near a sandy beach on the outskirts of Reykjavik, next to the city’s domestic airport, to celebrate the first day of the Icelandic summer. It was 25 April, slightly chilly and mostly overcast. Rain looked likely.

The ‘blót’, as the changing-of-the-season ceremony is known, began with the lighting of a small fire, which flickered in the breeze as the congregation listened to Old Norse poetry and raised the beer-filled horn to honour the Norse gods. Elsewhere on the island, similar ceremonies, I was told, were taking place.

The blót had been organised by the Ásatrú Association of Iceland, a pagan faith group that is currently one of the country’s fastest growing religions, having almost quadrupled its membership in a decade, albeit from a low base of 1,275 people in 2009 to 4,473 in 2018.

Hilmarsson is the faith’s leader. A warm, charismatic man in his early 60s, he cuts a debonair figure with his white hair, white beard and nicotine-stained white moustache. Hilmarsson was elected as high priest in 2003 and jokingly claims to have been “stupid enough to say yes”. He also works as a prominent musician, and has collaborated with some of Iceland’s best-known artists, including Björk and Sigur Rós.

“The high priest and the composer work hand in hand,” he told me, puffing on a cigar. “There’s a search for harmony in both.”

The Ásatrú Association is tricky to define because it has no fixed beliefs (“The suspension of disbelief is more accurate,” Hilmarsson explained, somewhat surreally). The group does, however, subscribe to local folklore, and meetings typically involve recitals from the Sagas of Iceland, a literary canon written during the 13th Century, but based on fantastical tales of love, loss and heroism from as far back as the 9th Century.

“People in the year 950 didn’t have a lot to do, so they sat around fires telling stories,” explained Haukur Bragason, a young, well-coiffed Ásatrú priest who was attending the blót. “They were the Netflix of old times.”

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