What a World

02.05.15 10:55 AM ET

Why Iceland Is Building a Temple to Its Pagan Gods

As the Ásatrú pagan religion becomes ever more popular, a group of followers is constructing a shrine overlooking Reykjavík to the gods Thor, Odin, and Frigg.

The God of Thunder is making a triumphant return to Iceland. After 1,000 years without a temple of worship to the Norse gods, Iceland is resurrecting its pagan roots.

A collective of followers called Ásatrúarfélagið has started construction on the shrine to Thor, Odin and Frigg, that will overlook the capital city of Reykjavík—for the first time since the Viking religion was superseded by Christianity.

It’s also the first major Norse temple built in Northern Europe in almost a millennium. The long-lost Temple at Uppsala, in Sweden, was built in 1070 by the Vikings and described as being laden with gold, and covered in the sacrificial bodies of men and animals, while the three gods reigned supreme in their thrones: Thor, who ruled the air with his lightning bold, Odin, the shape-shifting warrior god, and Frigg, wife of Odin and purveyor of beauty and love.

This modern center of pagan worship, covering 3,800 square feet, dug 13 feet into a hillside and topped with a sunlight-filled dome, will cater to the 2,488 Icelandic members of Ásatrúarfélagið, or the Ásatrú Association, a sect of neopagans that formed in 1972 for Icelanders to have a religion to call their own.

The temple, when construction is completed next year, will be used for weddings and naming ceremonies and also to celebrate the ritual of Blot, which once involved sacrificing animals, but is more of an cause for performances and feasts for the Ásatrú followers of the modern variety.

Its draw is an offer of individualism unfound elsewhere, says Karl E.H. Seigfried, who runs the Norse Mythology Blog and has taught the subject at Loyola University in Chicago. “Ásatrú offers a different path, a different way of looking at the world.”

The religion’s rubric allows practitioners to basically interpret it however they’d like as long as it doesn’t break any laws. Membership is rising steadily: in just five years it has doubled and it’s currently the largest non-Christian religious group in Iceland.

“There are a wide variety of approaches throughout the worldwide Heathen community, from attempts at strict reconstructionism based on recent academic research at one end and Wicca-derived magical practices at the other,” says Seigfried, adding that these aren’t exactly the deity worshippers of yore, though. “You can’t simply erase your brain and pretend it’s the year 800.”

The high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið agrees. “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, told Reuters. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Though the Viking’s pagan gods were downgraded from a national religion when the Christians arrived in 1000 A.D. and destroyed any signs of polytheistic worship, Iceland never became a fervently Christian country.

Though the Norse gods hadn’t reigned long before being overthrown—the Vikings only settled Iceland between 870 and 930 A.D.—they’ve continued to retain a following over the past 10 centuries.

And in recent years, after a number of sexual abuse accusations, members have been fleeing the scandalized Lutheran church. The country is still 80 percent Lutheran, but Iceland today has one of world’s the highest rates of atheism, and clues to its pagan past are everywhere: from street names to the population’s surnames that developed from the god Thor.

In 2013, Seigfried mapped the globe’s population of pagan worshippers in what he called the “Worldwide Heathen Census.”

With nearly 17,000 responses, he found Iceland charted as the fourth most heathen-worshipping country in the world, though its percentage of pagans is the largest in the world when you factor it against Iceland’s population of 320,000.

The nation with the most “heathens” is the United States. But that doesn’t mean a center for the worship of pagan deities will begin constructed above the Washington Monument anytime soon.

“Where would we put a temple?” Seigfried muses. “There is no single city in America comparable to Reykjavík in Iceland, no place with a great enough density of Heathens to make such an expensive undertaking possible. No, I think American Heathenry is on its own unique path.”