Asatru is the ancient ethnic indigenous spirituality of the Germanic peoples. As a religion it precedes Christianity by thousands of years, and is as old as this unique branch of humanity itself.
When the Germanic tribes appeared out of the Northern Scandinavian mist and fell upon Europe with fire and conquest, they forever changed the course of history for the entire world. They brought terror. But they also brought a tradition of equality, tolerance and a new concept of a democratic society with a representative government that emphasized individual liberty and rights. These basic principles would become the basis for English Law and judicial system, the Magna Carta, and also the seeds of the American Revolution.
Our ancient ancestors were a bold and venturesome people. From Northern Germany, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden they spread through the entirety of Europe in the several periods of vigorous expansion and migrations (CE 400-1150) known as the Migration Age and the Viking Age. Although they are primarily often thought of as barbarian raiders, the heathen Germanic peoples were also artists, traders, merchants, farmers, explorers, settlers and warriors. Our Germanic ancestors, through wide ranging migrations, settlements, trade and conquests, gave rise to the English, Dutch, French, German, Swiss, Austrian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, North Italic, and Icelandic peoples and nations, who are all directly descended from this single ancient source. They also they left their indelible mark on the peoples and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain and Italy, eastward to Russia and the Black Sea, and laid the foundation of many early kingdoms and states in these lands and many others that still exist today.
They developed a ship so advanced that they made the Baltic their own, and they were held in high regard by the Byzantine emperors, whose Varangian guard was made up entirely of Viking warriors. They thumbed their nose at Charlemagne in the Mediterranean. They laid siege to Paris, and settled a large part of France that became known as Normandy. They conquered England and made it a Danish Kingdom. They colonized much of Ireland, and founded all of the main cities there (Dublin, Cork, Limerick…). They settled in large numbers throughout Scotland, Iceland, the Hebrides and the Orkneys. They became the first European people to navigate the Atlantic Ocean where they discovered Greenland and North America, and even established several temporary colonies there.
They brought their traditions of individual rights and privileges with them in their new homelands. They left a legacy, not only of archaeological remains, but also of family names, place names and fieldnames. Their “remains” can be found in local dialects and customs, in folk tales and oral traditions, and, of course, in the genetic make up of the local people themselves who are descended from this ancient source.
The religion of our ancestors consisted of many Goddesses and Gods, giving them a holistic and balanced view of equality between the sexes. This ancient, traditional view permeated their society. The Northmen had a history of democracy stretching back well over a thousand years, to the beginning of the Iron Age, when various hardships caused the distinction between the classes to blur.
The Germanic peoples have a native and organic spiritual tradition of art, religion, mythology and magic unique unto themselves, which is embodied in Asatru. Asatru is a polytheistic, animistic, and shamanic form of spirituality. Contrary to Christian assertions, Heathens are not godless; in reality, they believed in many Gods, Goddesses, and other spiritual beings. Our ancestors lived in harmony with the earth, which gave their spiritual nature a balanced, holistic view. The deities, male and female, each embodied the various cosmic aspects of physical, mental and spiritual being.
The ancient Goddesses and Gods are viewed as the root of our people, our most ancient family members and inspirational role models, honoured and revered for their gifts of the mind, body and spirit. We approach our Gods and Goddesses to honour them, never to grovel before them on our knees. They are our role models, inspirations, and even family– but never are they our masters, nor are we their slaves. We hold our heads up high before our Gods, we do not bow or kneel before them when we call on them, nor do we surrender our human sovereignty to them. We do not pray and beg from them, sacrificing freedom for a handout.
Asatru is a living faith in which we each have the opportunity to form vital personal relationships directly with our deities. Although Heathenism is a personal religion without dogma, and the actual personal spiritual practices of Heathen-folk vary as widely as do the people themselves, there are some concepts Heathens hold in common: the belief that everything is alive, that the Earth is holy, that we can speak directly to our Gods and Goddesses, that we are responsible for our own souls and behaviour, that freedom, honour, duty, loyalty, love, hospitality and courage are our highest principles. Our Gods and Goddesses are benevolent, and are aligned against the forces of destruction. Heathens respect all life, and our spiritual texts teach us that we are connected to all creation. According to the laws of Örlög, what we do comes back to us.
Asatru represents a return to the natural faith and traditional values of our people, the religion of our ancestors. These values of family, equality, human freedom, individuality – along with our virtues of Courage, Truth, Honour, Fidelity (loyalty), Discipline, Hospitality, Self Reliance, Industriousness, and Perseverance – are needed now more than even in in today’s challenging world.
Equality of the sexes is one of the more outstanding features of the values of our cultural inheritance. Women were very highly respected in ancient Germanic society as healers, mothers, priestesses and magic workers. Ancient Germanic women had equal rights to men and possessed substantial powers far beyond anything else found in the rest of the ancient world in particular as well as the modern world in general: They had the right to own and inherit property, choose who they wanted to marry (or re-marry), and even initiate a divorce from their husbands if they so wished.
Most women’s lives were usually bounded by hearth and home, but they had great influence within this sphere. The keys with which many were buried symbolize their responsibility for, and control over, the distribution of food and clothing to the household. Most women would have been engaged in spinning and other textile production much of the time. There are even legends that tell of women warriors. Some women made their mark through exceptional status or achievement. One of the richest burials of Viking Age Scandinavia is that of the Oseberg ‘queen’, buried in a very grand style with a richly-decorated ship and large numbers of high-quality grave goods.
Both farming and trading were family businesses, and women were often left in charge when their husbands were away or dead. Also there is evidence that women also could have made a living in trade and business commerce. Merchants’ scales and weights found in female graves in Scandinavia and other Germanic lands display a strong association between women and trade. Unfortunately, the Judaeo-basis of Christianity is very negative towards women. The Christianization of Germanic Europe & Scandinavia gave women new roles and reduced them to second class citizens in the view of the religion, stature in society, and in the eyes of the law.
The Germanic peoples also had a highly developed legal system, perhaps the most democratic in the ancient world. Decisions were reached by voting at open meetings where all free men had the right to speak.
These ideals are manifest most clearly in Iceland, a colony settled by heathen Norwegians that were being persecuted and killed by the Christian King Olaf Tyrggvasson. In Iceland an aristo-democratic government was developed. This government was based on the ancient Althing; the Germanic judicial and legislative body made up of the entire population of Iceland. Thirty-six chieftains whose authority rested on the voluntary allegiance of the individual free-holding farmers controlled the Althing. These people were so dedicated to their ideals of freedom and equality that in 1000CE they passed a law forever abolishing slavery in Iceland.
The Germanic peoples introduced the concepts of democracy and a trail by jury consisting of twelve jurors. This guaranteed the adherence to the ancient laws as the members of the juries were committed to these laws. In this way, the “law flowed from the people.” The concept of the jury was unlike anything that had been previously seen on the mainland.
Another notable contribution of the Vikings is to the English legal system. Today the English-speaking peoples all over the world are governed by English Common Law instead of Roman law. Christianity tried, but could not change the underlying structure and ethos of the Germanic peoples as they clung too stubbornly to their old ways.
The Germanic peoples contributed to the creation of the House of Commons and its parliamentary system of government. For as the people were all considered equal, they all gathered together to aid in the decision making process.
There was a version of the Althing in other Germanic countries as well. However, the Thing began to loose power as Christianity and feudalism came to be the dominating factor, and power structure, throughout continental Europe.
Through their representative government laws were made, altered and acted upon. Called the Althing, they had elected their Chieftain who were referred to as kings. These kings were democratically chosen for their intelligence, capabilities and strength in battle and were followed only so long as they proved themselves worthy. After the Viking invasion, the English had also chosen their kings through a process in which the royal council chose the most suitable member of the royal family. Because of this system, the English did not reconcile the concept of legitimacy until well after the Norman invasion. They believed that the king was not above the law, and that the king existed only to serve their people. If they were dissatisfied with the ruling king they had the option of replacing him. The Magna Carta was the result of this ideal of kingship. The lords were dissatisfied with their king, and therefore created a treaty to limit his power. The ancient Danish saga of Beowulf, written in the 5th century, speaks of this ideal. It talks of a king who “heaped troubles on his unhappy people’s heads.” He had become so swelled with his own wealth and power that “he deserved to suffer and die.” Over a millennium after these words were first written, they were echoed by the revolutionary writings of John Locke in the Declaration of Independence.
The commitment to compromise was brought to England first by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Later, it was reinforced by the Viking settlers. Most court cases then (and now) were settled by compromise. The accepted tradition of fines for crimes evolved into the system of lawsuits, which is prevalent in this country. As in England a thousand years ago, every injury done to another citizen can be repaid through money.
The Viking’s laws and customs dovetailed neatly into almost-forgotten Anglo-Saxon traditions because they were the same people removed by a few hundred years. Their language and culture was similar, although continental notions of feudalism had influenced the English.
Far from being merely primitive plunderers, conquerors and uncouth barbarians, in more recent years, researchers have been piecing together a more accurate and complex picture of our heathen Germanic ancestors that sharply contradicts the stereotype of uncivilized and unkempt barbarians. Farming, husbandry, and the first attempts at shipbuilding began 6,000 years ago. There was active commercial contact with Mediterranean countries 4,000 years ago, when Baltic amber began flowing south in exchange for copper and tin. Highly ornamented art, jewelry and crafts were important to early Germanic culture. They offer further evidence that they were not just warriors, they were farmers, artists, poets, shipbuilders, inventors and innovators. More than anything, they were excellent traders and explorers who connected peoples from Baghdad to Scandinavia to the mainland of North America.
Germanic art found its expression in everyday objects—in furniture, swords, belts, horse harnesses. The Germanic artists & craftsmen used indigenous motifs from their ancestral religion and passed it on to the Celts, in to what is now commonly known as “Celtic” art but is actually called “Hiberno Saxon” art.
But the Germanic Vikings were also driven by their innate pioneering spirit. Their most spectacular trek took them across the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, Greenland, and eventually North America. Around 1000 CE, hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, the Vikings landed in Newfoundland, Canada, a land they reportedly named Vinland.
The Germans from the Viking Age are best known for their sea voyages. Along the coasts of Western Europe, they travelled to the Mediterranean, and North Africa. By way of the Russian rivers, they reached Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), and beyond to Baghdad in Asia.
The Vikings quickly developed a fierce reputation. In letters to their bishops, Christian priests in Britain and France chronicled the violent deeds of the Vikings, which included attacking wealthy monasteries and killing women and children. (Many churchmen believed the Viking raids were God’s punishment on the Anglo-Saxons for their sins.) But it was also in the interest of the churchmen to exaggerate the atrocities of the Vikings in their reports. Many of the Christian rulers at the time behaved equally unpleasantly, without being condemned on religious grounds.
Since many of the people of the various Germanic tribes were unable to write, much of their history was recorded by Roman historians, British and French clergy—the very people who fell victim to their raids. It is no wonder that the Vikings have a reputation for mindless savagery.
In sharp contrast to the God of the Judaic-based religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), who demands that His followers submit and subjugate themselves with fear by being meek and subservient, our native Gods and Goddesses want us to live life to the fullest, and to be smart, strong, sexual, courageous and creative beings.
The values and teachings of our ancient Gods emphasize intelligence, freedom, courage, strength, vigorous actions, responsibility, loyalty, fruitfulness and family. So popular were they, their names were given to the days of the week that are still used today: The Ancient Germanic Gods and the days of the week.
Environmentalism and ecology is a natural and integral part of our native religion, whereas Christianity advises to “seek dominion over the Earth and all the creatures wherein” and seeks to treat the earth as something to be used and controlled, Asatru promotes the concept of living in harmony with the earth, our fellow creatures, and the spirits of the land as a sign of respect for the divinity flowing throughout nature. We recognize the innumerable spirits inhabiting everything from stones to trees. All in the cosmos is alive, and has some level of consciousness.
Our ancient religion is highly evolved, and is as rich in symbolism and moral teachings as the ancient Greeks’. Christianity did not displace the native Germanic Heathenism because it was better, but because Christianity was organized, centralized and had made the eradication of Heathenism one of its main goals!
During the early Middle Ages most of Europe was organized and unified by the Roman Catholic Church, who had turned the teachings of Christ into a political tool, and was attempting to recreate the Roman Empire.
The Christian kings and missionaries preached Christianity to their neighbours with fire, sword and murder. Their goals were nothing short of converting, killing or driving out every Heathen from their midst. By brutal acts of coercion, murder, torture, and rape, they forced Christianity upon the Germanic peoples. Literally hundreds of thousands of innocent men, woman and children were killed and horrible atrocities were committed. Babies were burned alive, young women were raped and torched in the name of Christ.
Fortunately due to our ancestors’ stubborn refusal to fully give up their religion, it was never eradicated. The spirituality, culture, and values of our native religion have been directly continued up to this very day in many forms.
Asatru is a religion in revival as opposed to a reconstructed spiritual practice. It is a living tradition, and has been continued in many forms that are thoroughly Heathen in origin and practice, yet have managed to survive virtually intact and unchanged by hiding under a thin veneer of Christianity, laid upon it to save it from total destruction. In fact, much of the traditional and popular aspects of our present culture in the Western world is derived from our Heathen Germanic ancestors. Our religious and cultural inheritance is immense. The majority of people in the Western world unwittingly still celebrate the Germanic Heathen Holy Calendar virtually unchanged from its origins, with all their symbols, meanings and trappings. From the “12 Days of Yule” and Santa Claus, to Easter and the rabbit, and the Thanksgiving harvest feast, the Heathen holy tides have clung to the Anglo-Germanic world. We still use the names of the days of the week, We still speak English – a Germanic language. The principles and methods in our legal system of law, and the very ethic of our society, revering honour and sacrifice for the community are hallmarks of our ancient religions endurance. Whether one has seen Lord of the Rings, read Grimm’s Fairytales, or revelled in the exploits of Beowulf – the ancient religion has survived, albeit relegated to myth and legend, or absorbed into Christianity. The Poetic Edda and Sagas, and other the remnants of our lore, remain in spite of the thin veneer of Christianity in the European world.
In modern times Asa-folk place their trust in the Aesir and Vanir families of Gods, just as our Heathen ancestors did long ago. Many wonderful Sagas, songs and legends survive to inform the practice of modern Asatru. Heathens today often are quite educated about and interested in these surviving Heathen texts, such as the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, for they give us insight into the historic practice of our religion.