“Did you know that this idol once received a blood sacrifice?”
The Icelander and I were standing in the assembly hall of Ásatrúarfélagið1, the Icelandic Ásatrú church, waiting for our companion, Tandri, to finish putting some supplies away in the back room. We were standing in front of a carved wooden idol, six feet tall, made of pale, honey-colored wood. Dozens of runic inscriptions had been carved into the idol and marked with red paint; I might have been able to work out their meanings, assuming I had an Icelandic dictionary and about twelve hours of spare time. I only knew that the idol represented Njord2, the sea-god, because the Icelander told me so.
The Icelander looked to be around my father’s age, mid-fifties; he was short, gray, and scruffy, and his English had a heavy Nordic tinge. We had been at Ásatrúarfélagið´s blót in Thingvellir3 earlier that day, and on the car ride back to Reykjavík, the Icelander had only spoken Icelandic, of which I understood just a little. He seemed to be the only man in the country who didn’t understand English, which pleased me – it’s disheartening to hear everyone in the country speak your language flawlessly when you are incapable of even ordering coffee in theirs. But then he realized I was a foreigner and switched to English. (His advice for learning Icelandic? “Read comics.”)
I shook my head; obviously I had never heard about any “blood sacrifice,” since this was the first time I had ever visited the assembly hall.
“Would you like to hear the story?” he asked.
“Já,” I said. Although I had only been studying Icelandic for a month, “já” had completely overwritten my vocabulary; even in English, I never said “yes” or “yeah” anymore, but instead “já,” with its curving diphthong like the sound in the English “hour.”
He smiled and started to tell a story I could tell he had told many times before. “Oh yes,” he said, “The god picked the sacrifice himself. She was a beautiful young girl. Only seven years old, too.” He grew wistful and turned away from the idol. “That is the short version of the story. Would you like to hear the long version?”
“Já,” I replied.
“Bah,” said the Icelander, who grimaced and waved me off. “You just say já to whatever anybody says to you.”
No other Icelander ever called me out for this, but he was absolutely right.
Tandri finally came out of the back room. I marveled at the clash of expectations when I saw him. Usually, when I tell people that I am a Heathen, and especially when I mention that I went to Iceland in large part to meet members of the Icelandic Heathen community, their minds rush to visions of viking raids and valkyries, blood-soaked battlefields and mead-drowned nights in some dank drinking hall. In reality, Ásatrúarfélagið´s offices are modest and clean, located in an unassuming part of Reykjavík. There are tables and chairs set up for meetings, along with a bookcase and a table with toys for children. In the back room, they store two iron firepits, some flagpoles, and a coffee pot. Hand-knit sweaters hang on the walls with prices marked next to them, with the proceeds going to support the church. The only obvious signs of Heathenry are the two large wooden statues, namely the idol of Njord and a seated Thor next to the entrance. The setup reminded me of nothing so much as a typical Lutheran Church basement.
And yet there was Tandri, standing just outside the men´s room in full viking drag. (He had missed the blót because he had a gig pretending to be a viking for the benefit of tourists.) His chainmail rustled in time to his footsteps. “I think we’re all good to go here,” he said – in English, for my benefit.
The Icelander nodded, and the three of us headed out to Tandri’s car, a brick-red Honda that I’m certain has been on Earth longer than Nirvana’s In Utero. My phone’s clock read midnight, but the summer sky was only a dusky indigo. I would not see true night again until I returned to Minnesota.
The Icelander climbed into the backseat. He and Tandri exchanged a few words in Icelandic – directions to the Icelander’s house, I suspected. Tandri started the Honda and began driving west, towards the part of Reykjavík I knew. As we drove, the Icelander spoke up again.
“So,” he said, “do you want really want to hear about the child sacrifice?”
“Yes,” I said, trying not to offend his sensibilities.
He chuckled. “The statue fell over on her. She broke her arm in the accident. But you see? There was a child! There was blood! And Njord did pick her – she was the one he fell on!” He leaned forward in his seat. “This was many years ago, you know. She is grown now. I love to tell people that story when she is in the room. I say that there had been a child sacrifice, and everyone – especially foreigners – their faces get so pale and they go quiet. Oh, how awful! How barbaric! The sacrifice of a child!” As though Heathens really were living up to all of the worst fantasies of Viking degeneracy – the stained altars and babes giving over to flesh-craving gods. “And all the while, she is sitting there, not saying a word!”
The Icelander continued to talk, uninterrupted by either Tandri or me, for the rest of the drive, mostly about his distaste for the American Heathens he had met online. (“I see this on Facebook – click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Odin. Odin! You might as well say, click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Satan!”) He talked about the expectations Americans seemed to have regarding Ásatrúarfélagið, and how frequently they were disappointed by the truth – that, as Tandri told me earlier in the day, the church was “basically a big hippie organization.” As the Icelander talked, I noticed that Tandri, who was closer to my age, seemed embarrassed; he had evidently not expected the Icelander to go on such an extended rant about American Heathens in the presence of, well, an American Heathen.
I hadn’t come to Iceland hoping for blood and viking glory, as I am by nature both a pacifist and a coward. But I understood the subtext in the Icelander’s words: that people like me came to Iceland in the same way that some people go to Bangladesh or Tibet, expecting to find some kind of “authentic” encounter with the divine that they can take home and brag about. Enlightenment tourism – as though enlightenment were something that could be advertised in a tourbook next to the Golden Circle and the National Gallery. Of course, that was exactly what I had been expecting myself. I called this trip as a pilgrimage; I had never considered what it might mean for the Icelanders themselves – for their practices, their landscape, and to some degree their entire lives to be viewed as a tourist attraction for the Heathen seeker. I could tell myself that my journey was different somehow – that I was genuine in my aspirations and had the academic and literary credentials to support my project – but everyone else could make similar arguments. I wasn’t special. I began to see my visit in an altogether less pleasant light.
We arrived at the Icelander’s home, which I recall as one of the innumerable concrete and tin structures that make up Reykjavík. He got out and said goodbye by reminding me about comic books. “Andrés Önd – Donald Duck,” he said. “Best way to learn.”
Once the Icelander had shut his door, Tandri turned to me. “He can talk, can’t he?”
“Já,” I said. Then I wondered if I should have said something else.
1. It’s spelled the way it sounds! And vice versa, I suppose. ↩
2. The Old Icelandic name for the god is Njörðr, but Njord is such a common Anglicization that I have used it throughout this essay. Same for Thor and Þorr. ↩
3. Þingvellir. ↩