What’s the Role of Women in Ásatrú?

Pre-Christian Germanic culture held women in high esteem, and contemporary Ásatrú does as well. Historically, women were equal before the law in terms of rights; they could own property, act as witnesses in legal disputes, and divorce their husbands. Indeed, in many ways women were placed above men; they were considered to be the ones who ran the household, which is why the symbolic passing of the keys to the wife was so significant; it marked her as the one who was in charge. Women warriors were also not unknown, and modern archaeology leads us to believe female warriors were even more common than had been believed; evidence from graves confirms that they were among the earliest waves of settlers in new lands. They could own property, and while no examples of female skalds remain in the literature, there are plenty of examples where women are praised for their intellectual prowess.

Too, there were roles that women were deemed to be specially adept at, especially in the realm of prophecy and magic. Migration-era histories from Greek and Roman authors inform us that certain of these prophetesses (Old Norse völvá) were held in great reverence and awe, and that large decisions waited upon their input. These examples recall the later examples we have of wandering spákonas that would visit farms and speak to the land-spirits for prophecies, who were similarly held in great esteem.

So historically, the pattern of equality of the sexes under the law is nuanced by the elevation of women in certain roles that emphasize their connection to the spirits and prophecy. Modern Ásatrú embraces this equality, and similarly recognizes that in some cases, there are things that women are just better at than men (and vice versa), but also that there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

Seiðr is performed at Winter Nights 2017

What Sort of Rituals does Ásatrú have?

There are two main rituals in Ásatrú; blót (pronounced bloat) and sumbel (pronounced soom-bull).

Blót is an offering to the Gods (or ancestors, or spirits). It can be anything, from an animal sacrifice (rarely practiced in modern times), something more symbolic (like a straw animal, or one made out of dough), items of value (like coins), things that took skill to create (artwork, weapons, tools, etc.), and the like. The thing being offered is destroyed or damaged, in order to make sure that it cannot be recovered and thereby taken away from the Gods. The central idea of the blót is that an offering is made either in thanks for something that happened, or in the expectation that something will happen.

Sumbel is ritual drinking. Toasts are made to either boast about what one has done, make an oath about something that will be done, or to honor a particular God or Goddess. In a very real sense words spoken over the sanctified drink during a sumbel have an impact on the real world. An oath made at sumbel must be followed through at all costs, or ill luck will result. Sumbel can also be used as an occasion to give gifts between individuals, helping to cement the communal bonds between the members of the group.

Sumbel during Sumarmal 2017

Does Ásatrú Believe in Sin?

There is no concept of “sin” in Ásatrú, in the Christian sense of a transgression of some divine law that can be washed away by forgiveness, or acceptance of some dogmatic concept.

We believe that wrongs committed are committed against individuals, and it is up to the individual (or their relatives or friends) to see to it that wrongs are set right. This concept applies to the Gods as well; for every wrong it is possible to regain balance by the payment of what is known as shild or weregeld. This need not necessarily be money; it could well be hard work, or some action undertaken. Such forgiveness is also not a blanket thing; each wrong must be righted in its own way.

Our Gods don’t have long lists of things that are forbidden for us to eat, or touch, or say, or do. They’re not persnickety that way. They are much more concerned with men and women living good lives, and the best way to judge that is by our reputation in our communities. They are perfectly willing to grant us prosperity and luck in return for praise and gifts. They leave the details of people’s lives to people.

Which strikes most of us as an eminently practical thing to do.

What happens after we die?

The Asatru conception of the afterlife is complex. The existence of a soul that survives the death of the body is taken as a given, but what happens to that soul can take a few different paths.

The most well-known fate for the dead is Valhalla, Odin’s hall in Asgard where the souls of those who have been chosen in battle fight all day, and those who fall are raised every day and feast all night, drinking mead and eating pork. But this destination is only for a very few, those warriors who fall in battle after being chosen by Odin and his Valkyries (literally, “choosers of the slain”). Odin gathers these best-of-all-warriors to him to have a force to fight against the giants, whom he knows will some day attack Valhalla during the last battle, Ragnarok. We are also told that half of those who are chosen to die in battle end up in the goddess Freya’s hall, Fjolkvang.

The vast majority of people, though, find themselves in Hel (spelled with only one “L”). As opposed to the Christian place with a similar name, Hel is not a place of torment and fire, but rather is a place of peace, where we live out shadows of the lives we lived here on Earth. It is named after the goddess Hel, who rules over the place, and is the final destination of the vast majority of people, who die of old age, sickness, and the like. Significantly, after the world is destroyed, it is only those who were in Hel who will survive the devastation, and be able to remake the world from its ashes. If you lived a good life and demonstrated kindness to others, the journey will be easy. If not, the journey will be quite unpleasant, but you’ll still get there.

Asatru does have a place of punishment in its afterlife, however, called Nastrond. It is a place of chill and torment, reserved for murderers and oath-breakers. Those are the worst crimes one can commit.

But the afterlife isn’t always about some otherworldly experience. There is also a strong tradition that when we die and are buried, we simply continue living as we did in life, feasting with the other ancestors. Often this is centered around a holy mountain or hill, or burial mound. That’s one reason ancestor-worship was and is so common; we know that those who have gone before us are still around, watching over us and helping bring us luck and plenty in life. While this may seem contradictory, one of the things that makes Asatru so strong is its lack of dogma. If you believe you will dwell in a holy mound when you die, and your family does as well, then dwell there you shall.