Some may think this is the simplest of questions, which are the sources we should consult in order to recreate the religion of Asatru? 2 very good texts have been preserved and these texts give a quite understandable overview of the dogma and religious convictions of the great religion of the North. Apart from Both Edda’s nothing else is needed in order to reconstruct the religion of our ancestors. This is exactly what I believed when I first encountered Asatru as an 18-year-old, with a young head Tolkien-filled with tales of hobbits, orcs and elves.
If only it were that simple. Something quite peculiar is going on with those sources, they only recount one portion of the ancient religion. The texts mainly focus on the Aesir’s aspect of the religion. The Vanir are merely mentioned where they are needed to explain or support the actions of the Aesir.
These texts mainly focus on the eventual downfall of the universe, the gathering of warriors for the final battle. The more daily occupations of men remain outside scope.
The texts learn us much of the occupations of the nobles, the worshippers of the Aesir, but little is told on the earthlier occupations of normal men.
This is logical in the sense that the skalds who recited the verses of these sagas were connected to the world of the nobility. Even Snorri himself was a member of the upper class.
This doesn’t render these sources unusable. It merely means we have to keep this fact into mind when trying to reconstruct the original believe system.
Another thing that should be kept in mind is that the belief system we encounter has been highly structured by Snorri. He was a scholar with a Christian background, he structured his sources in a logical system and attempted to make a coherent story of a number of myths that were common knowledge. As such trying to describe the world from beginning to downfall. Without any doubt he was inspired by the logical organisation of the bible, genesis to Armageddon.
His structuring gives us some sort of suggested timeline. Since this way of thinking appeals to the structured modern mind, this representation of the divine timeline has clung on to our interpretation of the religion and can be found today in almost every work related to the Viking religion, from Peter Madsen to Marvels Thor.
In order to really understand the original religion, we mustn’t necessarily put this completely to the side, but we need to be conscientious that this structure might not have been equally well embedded in the original belief system and religious views of the ancients.
Thus, in order to get some understanding of the original belief system, we should also consult, what I would call the secondary sources. The Icelandic saga (apart from the Edda’s that is) provide many more clues to the original religion, and so do scholars as Saxo.
But we needed stop there. Many other more or less reliable though fragmentary sources remain. All of them permitting us to lift part of the mystery.
And perhaps there is an slight advantage I have as a non-Scandinavian Asatruar. Apart from the Scandinavian sources multiple Anglo-Saxons and old German sources exist, admittedly they are far less complete then the sagas and more fragmentary, and many of them clearly show at least some traces of Christianisation, but for the attentive reader these documents offer a world of information. Just think of the Mersemburger zauberspruche, the widsith, beowulf.
Church records, annals of the lives of saints can also give some insights. Just look for the life of Bonifatius, and his visit to Forsiteland.
These texts provide a rare written source and with regards to our subject, mostly the texts of the archbishoprics of Hamburg and Bremen are relevant. These sources are however to be looked upon with the utmost prudence. Their main goal was to discredit the ancient religion, not to accurately describe it. A well-known discussion is that on the temple at Uppsala. The descriptions of this temple (e.g. the golden chain) are so unlike the information we find in other texts that distrust is a justified attitude.
Another important issue is that many of these descriptions are post factum and may be highly influenced by the religion of the Balts and Slavs encountered during the Baltic crusades.
Another useable resource can be found in the many local myths and fairytales. These documents offer insights into pagan thought patterns and the deities that have been forgotten in other sources such as the Idisi, the elves, the Vanir, the giants the dvaergae… .
Many good collections are available to the public. But when reading these documents one must always be very attentive to later additions that have nothing to do with the original pagan faith. Therefor it is important not to read the individual myth, but large collections of myths and to try and uncover the general themes and motives that are covered by these texts. For instance, the mythology on dolmens and dysser gives quite an insight into some of the believes with regards to afterlife. The motives of the brothers that fight or a single girl are references to the widespread Indo-European beliefs on the device twins and their sister etc.
In a sense these sources go further back then the primary texts and when combined with the Edda’s they offer a much more detailed picture of the beliefs of the Common people and the regional variances of those beliefs.
As I belief in a continuous religion tradition from the Bronze age to the Christianisation, these sources are also very important in order to retrieve information on the pre-”Wodanisation” of the Norse religion. A little explanation seems necessary.
We know that the advent of Woden as a deity can be situated in the time of the great migrations. The entire society was in turmoil and warlords gathered war bands. The participants in these war band were no longer limited to members of the same tribe. Instead of a society based on “national” or tribe related loyalties, society evolved to a system based on personal loyalties. This system would in the end evolve to the medieval feudal empires.
These war band leaders had to justify why they no longer clang on to the previous system of tribal loyalties. And they did so by introducing the new social order into religion. This was done in a comparable way to the way the Muslim faith is manipulated by war bands such as the Taliban or Boko Haram, Deash etc.
In a polytheistic religion the advent of new Gods can easily be accepted by the community, contrary to monotheistic beliefs. As such the advent of Woden wasn’t a religious revolution. In polytheism gods come and go, absorb each other and get absorbed. After all, why bother about names. Suppose you worship god A and your neighbour god B, but they share an important part of their competences, there is an important overlap so to say. Why shouldn’t you simply agree with your neighbour to use the same name.
We see this even today in the modern world. The German call god Gott, the French call him dieu, the Spanish have a dio etc.
Thus the new god Wodan, whether he was a development of an already existing small god or whether he was introduced by the Sarmatian was perfectly possible without disturbing the existing religion. The target group for this new deity wasn’t the same either as the original group of worshipper. The warrior bands could easily worship Woden whilst the farmers and tribesmen could continue to worship the older Vanir Gods and landvaetir whose worship goes way back to the bronze age. Slowly the two visions would have become interwoven and the Aesir found a solid foundation in the elder faith, ultimately overshadowing the elder beings but not really conflicting with them.
This wasn’t the case with the next divine being that would entry the scene. The white Christ. The Nordic religion would initially have accepted him as just another God to add to the pantheon, but since these Deity didn’t play by the same rules his only goal was to eradicate the other deities. but that is a story to be told elsewhere.
This continuity can be proven when we use the comparative method. Wherever the Indo-Europeans went, they took along their religion. We find the same motives in Greek, roman, Celtic and Norse religion, we find the same types of bronze age petroglyphs throughout entire Europe. Of course every subdivision of the great Indo-European family would have had its own developments. But in comparing their mythology, a great number of things can be learned on the original religion, and we can also try to explain the many unclear passages in mythology or the many vague characters we encounter in other text.
Our final source is archaeology. Archaeology can give us an explanation to the terminology used in the texts mentioned above. We know for example that religious activities took place in the great hall. The finds of guldguber confirm this. Recently piles of rocks have been found that might have been platforms whereupon religious ceremonies were performed etc.
In conclusion, we see that a variety of sources are at our disposal, but none of them can be taken literally, none of them can be looked upon as the truth. We need to compare and evaluate the intrinsic value of each of our sources, and of course this also implies that 2 persons evaluating the same source might come to different conclusions.
This doesn’t mean one of them must be wrong, not at all. Religion is constantly evolving, and in the course of only a few years a lot can change. Less than a century ago, Catholic masses were sung in Latin and most of those present didn’t understand what was said. In the early middle ages, to christians hell was a cold place. In Dantes time it was a blazing inferno. Purgatory has come and gone, etc.