There’s a new temple being constructed in Iceland that will provide people with a place to celebrate the gods and myths of Norse religion. It’s a fascinating project for several reasons: architectural, cultural, religious, and philosophical.
In terms of building form, if it’s anything like Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and made to resemble the basalt lava flows of the island’s landscape, it will be an architectural marvel mirroring the many aesthetic and cultural qualities that define this unique country. The temple, dug into a hill overlooking Reykjavik, will be circular with a dome on top to allow for natural daylighting. Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the high priest of ‘Asatruarfelagid’, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods, says that “the sun changes with the seasons so we are in a way having the sun paint the space for us.” (Hilmarsson is a well-known musician and artist in Iceland; he’s worked on several experimental music projects with artists such as Sigur Rós.)
What interests me the most, however, is the somewhat rational perspective taken by the people organizing this non-rational endeavour. No one actually believes “in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet” Hilmarsson says; rather, they “see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology”. In addition, the principles of this Icelandic neopagan association are “based on tolerance, honesty, honor and respect for the ancient cultural heritage and nature,” and built upon the premise “that each person is responsible for themselves and their actions” (as per a rough translation of the organization’s website).
How refreshing: a religious leader who understands the meaning of symbolism, myth and metaphor. A religious leader who understands that the myths have a relationship rooted to a particular place and and time period. A religious leader who publicly acknowledges that the stories are not to be taken literally. A religious leader who is not ashamed to admit that the power of the myths lay not with belief itself, but with humanity and relationships in this world.
This is in sharp contrast to most religious leaders who typically fall into two unfortunate camps: they are either charlatans who are all too comfortable deceiving and being misunderstood by their followers (e.g. New Age hucksters such as Deepak Chopra and the plethora of materialistic televangelists); or they are themselves deluded and blinded by the stories they peddle to their followers (e.g. most authority figures in organized religions, particularly the monotheistic ones).
This ancient religion of the North Atlantic may have all but died out 1,000 years ago, but it certainly has something valuable to teach the so-called “great” religions of our modern time: adapting ancient beliefs to conform to modern realities reason does not diminish cultural heritage, tradition, ritual, or architectural aesthetics.