Hilmarsson with other members of Ásatrú gathering at Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park. Image: Gunnar Freyr Steinsson / Alamy

The high priest of Ásatrú on the push to revive Iceland’s foremost pagan religion

Despite attempts by white supremacists to co-opt it, the Ásatrú Fellowship is based on openness and respect for the environment, argues Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

On a hill surrounded by woods, just north of the Raven’s Cliffs and west of the Rock of the Hanging One, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is building a temple.

Hilmarsson, 65, has been high priest of Iceland’s Ásatrú Fellowship for the past two decades. The pagan religion was practised in the country during the Viking era, disappearing with the island’s conversion to Christianity in 1000 CE. It was formally re-established in the 1970s and is growing in popularity. The number of followers in Iceland has more than quadrupled in the last 15 years, to 7,000 people, according to Hilmarsson. Although this is less than 2 per cent of the population, it’s enough to make it the country’s largest non-Christian faith. It also has offshoots around the world, including a small branch in the UK. 

Now, Iceland’s pagan religion needs a temple. Hilmarsson takes us on a tour of the construction site, showing us the circular pit that will form the ceremonial hall and the huge wooden sculpture of Thor’s hammer in the woods nearby. Norse symbolism, such as the number nine, is encoded throughout the architectural design.

A softly spoken father of four, Hilmarsson became fascinated by Norse mythology as a child, and has been involved with Ásatrú since soon after it was re-established. 

“It’s a nature-based religion, and it’s polytheistic,” he explains. “There’s no revealed truth. There are no commandments… You just live your life but there’s a very good set of ethical analects.” 

The religion is grounded in the Icelandic environment—in features of the landscape such as the Raven’s Cliffs and the country’s famous volcanoes. On this island just south of the Arctic Circle, the effects of climate change are “right in front of us,” Hilmarsson says. “We are seeing the glaciers retreating year by year.”

“The Judeo-Christian idea that man is the ruler of Earth… has in a way been the undoing of the whole planet,” he says. “We are part of the Earth… it is our duty to leave land to our offspring in a better shape than we received it.”

The fellowship keeps its ceremonies “simple”, he says—although he mentions “sacrifices”, which we later ascertain simply refers to any offering of food or drink to the gods. “We are not dressing up as Vikings, we are not behaving in a theatrical way,” he says. “We take this seriously.”

Ásatrú’s membership has grown organically—there is no proselytising—while Iceland’s biggest religion, Lutheranism, is in decline. Hilmarsson puts that down in part to Ásatrú’s openness. Same-sex wedding ceremonies have been performed since 2003—long before the national church—although the marriages were only legally recognised in 2010.

That openness has also attracted unwanted attention. With its Viking roots, Ásatrú has been co-opted outside of Iceland by white supremacists, including the American whites-only hate group Asatru Folk Assembly. The organisation was reportedly planning to hold a ceremony at Stonehenge in October 2023 but backed down after an outcry from other pagan groups.

In the past, US-based fundamentalists have targeted Hilmarsson over his stance on LGBT rights. “I got death threats… People said they thought it was a blasphemy,” he recalls. People would call him at home during the night and speak in tongues—he thinks a lot of it comes from people who have converted from fundamentalist Christianity and brought their beliefs with them. Yet there’s a lot of gender fluidity and openness about sexuality in Norse mythology, he points out—look at Loki, a deity who can change his sex.  

The conflict doesn’t seem to have bothered him much. “I like fighting with idiots,” he says. But he emphasises that he is “disgusted” by the way his religion has been distorted. 

The temple has been beset by delays, including those caused by the pandemic, but Hilmarsson hopes to open the doors in a little over two years’ time.

“I think mankind needs this,” he says—an ethical system to live by. “If we can learn to be sensible, I think the future is very bright.”