Tacitus wrote of the ancient Germans, “they think it proper neither to confine their gods within walls nor to give them any likeness of human appearance: they consecrate groves and glades and call by the names of gods that intangible quality they see with the eye of reverence alone.”
And yet we know that in the eleventh century an impressive temple dedicated to the gods still stood in Sweden, in what is now known as Old Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala). According to Adam of Bremen (born ca. 1050), a gold chain surrounded the temple, hanging from its gables. Near the temple, Adam tells us, was an immense evergreen tree, and a spring at which sacrifices were made. (Indeed, his report is filled with grisly details of what he alleges to be immense numbers of both animals and humans sacrificed at the temple.)
Within the Uppsala temple itself were supposed to have been three statues of Thor, Odin, and Freyr — all depicted, contra Tacitus’s report, in anthropomorphic fashion. Aspects of Adam’s account have been disputed, but it is generally accepted that such a temple did indeed exist. And some archeological evidence has been discovered.
In any case, there have been no temples to the gods since the one at Uppsala was destroyed and a Christian church built on top of it. That is, until now. Just days ago the Asatru Folk Assembly acquired an old grange hall on the West Coast. It sits on roughly two acres of land, is surrounded by trees, and is in excellent condition — as the photos included in this post will attest. The NewGrange Hall-Asatru Hof, as it is being called, is a perfect space for the AFA to meet, and even includes its own kitchen.
This is obviously a major event for Asatru in America (indeed, in the world: a proposed temple in Iceland is supposed to be built in 2016, but the AFA got there first). However, I’d like to persuade my readers that this event is of broader importance as well.
NewGrange Hall will be a sacred space in which Asatru will continue to take shape as a modern religion. By this I simply mean a religion for men and women of the folk living today. It is not a gigantic temple ringed with a gold chain. Instead, it is a modest structure (though certainly an appealing one). And, appropriately, it is very American — in the good, old-fashioned sense: simple, functional, and unpretentious. This is the New World, and Asatru is a new-old religion. It is a reconstruction and revival of the old, ancestral religion. It borrows from the aesthetic of the past, which is fine and good and necessary — but it must bring forth its own, new forms. It must be vibrant, alive, and responsive to the present, while never losing its ties to the past or compromising its fundamental principles.
It will be fascinating to see the new forms of artistic expression that will take shape as members of the AFA begin to adorn this austere, modern American structure. And new forms of ceremony, theology, and community will take shape there as well. All of them will be the result of a dynamic interplay between the old and the new. The work that will take place on the building, and the new-old forms developed within it, will parallel the process that is taking place in each of us as we learn to be true to the gods of our ancestors.
Each of us — and here my audience really is Asatruar in North America — is like NewGrange Hall itself: modern and American. And austere, in the sense that among other things we are united in wanting to strip from ourselves most of the refinements, pretensions, and preoccupations of the “average man.” As Asatru assumes its latest shape within this modern American structure, so it takes shape within our modern American selves. There is a continuity here. But what comes to be in NewGrange Hall and in ourselves will be unique to our time and place, and impossible to predict.
Now, as for those of my readers who have no interest in Asatru, why should they care about NewGrange Hall? As I have argued elsewhere (most recently in my review of Steve McNallen’s Asatru: A Native European Spirituality) a religion is the expression of the spirit of a people. It expresses what a people values, what it hates and fears, what it strives for, and how it sees itself. Thus, religion is a way in which a people confronts itself, or becomes conscious of itself.
Asatru is an expression of the spirit of Northern European people. Or, to put the point much more strongly, Asatru just is the spirit of Northern European people, given expression in the form of myth, imagery, custom, and ceremony. And through Asatru we are brought back into touch with who we are — with our ideals, our history, and the way of being and relating to life and existence that is most natural to us. Thus, the larger significance of NewGrange Hall is that it is a place for our people to come together and come to awareness of who they are. Right now, there is no other place in the world solely devoted to this purpose. That makes NewGrange Hall not just a special place — but one that can only be seen as sacred, if its purpose is fully appreciated.
This is a major event, therefore, for all of us — Asatruar, and those who do not yet realize that they are Asatruar. Ultimately, this is not a matter of choice for us, as we are all the children of Odin. I can no more choose not to “follow Asatru” than I can choose to have different parents. But this is a matter that demands a careful argument, one that I will have to make elsewhere.
The AFA owns NewGrange Hall — but it still has to pay for it. And funds are needed for such things as painting, repairing, and decorating the building. Only five days are left in the AFA’s fundraising campaign — and they have not yet reached the goal of $74,800. Even if you can only spare a modest sum, please donate.
This is an important chapter in the history of our people. You should be a part of it. (And see the Facebook page here.)
1. Tacitus’ Agricola, Germany, and Oration on Orators, trans. Herbert W. Benario (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991 ), 67.