Cultural Presentation:
The Swedish Asatru Assembly

By Henrik Hallgren

This article is based on a lecture, given at the 2nd International Conference and Gathering of Elders -- "Spirituality Beyond Religions -- 2006" -- 5th to 10th February 2006 at Jaipur, India.

It is a great honour to be here together with you all and participate in this conference. My name is Henrik Hallgren and I am Chairman in a religious organisation in Sweden called The Swedish Asatru Assembly. We try to develop and recreate a religious life based in the old preChristian spiritual traditions in Scandinavia that are often called Asatru. However, the fact is that many of us do not call ourselves Asatru at all, but prefer to say that we practise the Forn Sed or simply just Sed. The designation Sed can be translated as "custom". Sed refers to the old spiritual customs, traditions and practises that our ancestors lived by for thousands of years before Christianity came. Even after Christianity became dominant, the old traditions and beliefs continued to live under the surface in folk traditions and folklore up until the present day. We have many traces of the old religion left in Sweden; in place-names, old burial areas and other ceremonial grounds, in popular public holidays that celebrate the turning of the seasons, or in feasts such as Jul (Or Christmas as most of you may know it) when we give offerings to the local spirit called Tomten. The days of the week also hold memories of our faith, every weekday has its name from the old Gods. Wednesday or Onsdag comes from the God Odin. Thursday or Torsdag from the God Tor, Friday from the Goddess Frigga, and so on. The fact that these names of the week were incorporated in the English language during the Viking age when the Vikings settled in Britain, has led to the situation that our old Scandinavian Gods are called by their names every day, all over the world, even so far away from Sweden as here in India.

To talk about our spiritual tradition as a "custom" rather than a religious belief is rather telling. We do not have theories or "theology" so much in focus. Seden is an earth-bound spirituality. Its focus lies in everyday life, in constant dialogue and co-operation with the Gods and the spirits of nature. Seden is about the profound powers in the universe. It is about the fruitfulness of the earth, the wheel of the year and the flowering of all life. In the industrialised societies we often forget about the life-giving earth. These societies have come to believe that it is the machines or the illusion of money that creates wealth. Seden takes us back to the profound truths that all life and all wealth has its origin in nature and the bountiful earth.
This focus on custom instead of beliefs or theology does not mean that our spiritual way is anti-intellectual or anti-philosophical. Rather we seek a way to reconcile the spiritual life with the ordinary, life-sustaining work that we do in this world. Seden is not about some otherworldly existence far from the here and now. It is about the celebration of the life-giving powers that surrounds us in every breath, in every moment, in everyday life.
To practise Forn Sed means to strive towards good relations with the Gods and the spirits. It means to live in balance and harmony on this earth. It means to develop courage, generosity and wisdom.

Like all religions the Scandinavian tradition has its sacred stories. Stories that tell us about creation and endings, and about the powers that animate the world and the human soul. Nowadays most people in Sweden see these stories as nothing else than just entertainment. And indeed: The stories and myths are often very funny! The Gods are humorously presented as entities with all the weakness and shortcomings that are typical of human beings. But it is a pity to just leave the stories there: as mere entertainment.
From a spiritual viewpoint the stories tell us about a way to perceive the world around us as well as ourselves. When you look at the different stories and myths you see a cosmology emerging that contains, I think, great wisdom of life.
The Scandinavian myths tells us about a dynamic universe always in motion. We hear about Gods, Giants, Elves and many more beings related to each other in so many different ways; they are all involved in battles and love-affairs, in friendship and trickery. They are involved in a constantly, on-going drama, like a cosmic dance between the spiritual powers of the universe.
However, most of us do not see the stories and creation myths as true in a strictly scientific sense.
We do not believe that the world was created, literally, from the body of the Giant Ymir. The language of religion and myths are more akin to poetry. They tell us about other truths. Spiritual truths. They tell us about the spiritual powers and processes that we can recognise in our own lives and souls, and in nature. They describe different aspects and phenomena of the world.
This is not to say that the Gods do not exist other than as symbols of nature. In the Swedish Asatru Assembly we have no dogmas about how to perceive the Gods. Some see them as symbols, but I think most of us see them as also having an independent spiritual existence of some kind. Anyway; the most important thing for us are not some improvable theories about our faith, but our actual relationships with the Gods themselves.
The Gods are not all-mighty powers. They are part of a bigger cosmic process involving entities such as those we call Giants. The Gods are the life-sustaining powers, the powers that uphold all balance and harmony, the very essence of world order, but Creation is constantly threatened by the Giants who try to destroy life and disrupt the balance.
The great symbol for life and order in the myths is the World-tree, often called Yggdrasil. It is well-known as the tree of life. Our mythology tells us that different kinds of creatures, such as Giants and others, damage the tree and cause it to rot. The Gods are the ones who again and again try to protect life as well as re-create it. The Gods hold the secrets of recreation and rebirth.
By practising the old customs, the Sed, humans participate with the Gods in the activity of upholding the cosmos, and allow life to flow through the universe.

But this is not to say that the Giants are evil. They are not. The powers of the Giants are necessary for the world to continue to exist. They are part of the balance. In the myths the world is always in a state of conflict. It is in the battles between the Gods and the Giants and in the sexual parings between the Gods and the Giantesses, that the dynamics of life can emerge. The Gods created and uphold the order of the world, but in this order even the Giants and other hostile creatures have their place. But it is important that these forces of conflict, these dangerous powers do not rampage freely, for they are just a part of a wider sacred context.

As important as it is with a balance between Gods and Giants, so it is between the male and the female Gods. They are all needed for the world to continue to exist. In the old book, Eddan, its author Snorre Sturlasson notes that the goddesses are as many and as powerful as the Gods. This is a fundamental aspect of our religion, we believe in a balance between conflicting forces of creation and destruction as well as a balance in the roles of gender, male and female.

The central ritual in our tradition is called Blot, which is directly related to the English word Blessing. The word may also be connected to the same root as the Indian word "Brahman". Other scholars believe that the word Blot has an origin in the Indo-european word "Bhle" which meant "to increase" or even; "to strengthen". And this is actually what a Blot is about. In the Blot we co-operate with the Gods and the spirits in strengthening Peace and the Good life. We participate in strengthening the balance and harmony of the universe as well as within ourselves in a symbolic and a spiritual way. We also strengthen our connections to each other, to our fellow human beings, to nature and to the Gods. It is in the Blot that we experience our deepest communion with the Gods and the spirits of nature. We share food and an alcoholic beverage called mead together with the Gods in a mutual act of love, respect and faith.
A Blot can be carried out in many different ways, and often it includes callings, prayers, thanksgivings and praise. But the most important aspect of the Blot is the offering, or the sacrifice, to the Gods. In the Blot we express our joy and reverence for life. To give back a little part of what has been given to us, and bless it to the Gods, it is a way to show our appreciation and thanks.
We carry out our Blot whenever we feel it right to do so, but also at specific occasions when we celebrate the seasons and acknowledge that we are a part of the turning of the wheel of the year.
Besides the Blot we also have rituals to use in the special occasions of our lifetimes, such as birth, growing up, marriage, funerals, and so on. All with inspiration and guidance from our old spiritual traditions.

Our organisation The Swedish Asatru Assembly has only existed for eleven years, and so there is much we have to learn and much to develop. In many cases the traditions of our spiritual heritage are broken and we are forced to fill in the empty spaces ourselves. This is of course a difficult task that requires great sensitivity and care, but I think it is also a work that generates a great deal of creativity and openness and outward thinking. Which in itself has brought me here today.
I would like to make a point of saying to you all that I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to come here today, and to share in all the living spiritual traditions that each one of you represents. You are all a source of great inspiration to me.

Thank you.

© Henrik Hallgren 2006