As I write this article, spring is definitely underway in my little town of Tromsø in arctic Norway. Sure, there might still be over one-and-a-half meters (five feet) of snow piled on the ground outside, but the days are getting longer and the temperature only occasionally sinks below the freezing point now – a typical arctic spring in many ways. So while I might still be rocking my winter outfit (woolen sweater, hat and mittens, hiking pants and boots) I will soon enough have to rummage through my garderobe to prepare my new seasonal gear. As local summer temperatures rarely rise over 12 degrees celsius (53 farenheit), this means, in practice, wearing slightly lighter jackets, pants, and gloves. One thing that can be reasonably ditched though, is my trusty old felt hat, which will be replaced by a black cap, a cap emblazoned with the logo of the British Ásatrú organization Asatru UK.
While wearing an otherwise rather innocuous item of religious clothing such as this would be both a non-issue and a no-brainer for most, getting “there” was a bit of a longer process for me. This process started last summer, when I was invited to hold a talk about Norse-Icelandic literature at the Asgardian Heathen Festival near Birmingham, U.K. The event, which took place in the middle of August, was the perfect occasion to discover England, which I had never really considered visiting before. In truth, I knew little about the country, and most of what I knew consisted of age-old stereotypes whose veracity I was able to assess in person. One such stereotype – namely that English food is foul and ignominious – proved to be nothing but blatant lies. Another, concerning the country’s bleak weather, was, on the other hand, totally justified: it pretty much rained the entire time I was there. And foolish as I was, I had forgotten to pack any sort of headgear.
Here I was, wandering the campgrounds of the oh-so-typical English village of Hampton in Arden near Birmingham, enjoying my time at England’s first Heathen festival, and getting soaking wet in the process. Overwhelmed by despair, I started hanging around the various booths and stands set up in the festival area in the hope of finding something with which to cover my skull. I had little luck at the meadery tent, and the next one, manned by an affable elder hippie woman, only had Peruvian-inspired woolen beanies with llama designs on the earflaps. I excused myself, in the hope of finding something slightly more befitting, which I found a few meters away at the Asatru UK stand. There, for 15 fat pounds (20 USD), I was able to acquire a little black cap, which, thank the Gods, protected me well enough for the rest of my trip, which was positively awesome.
The festival’s closing ritual, in which well over a hundred attendees held hands and passed around a hand-woven string of wool, was especially memorable. The cap served me well enough afterwards when I spent a few days in Nottingham, the home of Robin Hood, where an old friend resides. Back home in arctic Norway, the cap was put to good use during our rather windy fall as well. It will probably rest on my scalp for most of the upcoming summer, where I will, necessarily, advertise for Asatru UK every time I go out.
As hinted at earlier, this made me think quite a bit. Growing up in France, I was heavily exposed to a civil society that was, for all intents and purpose, religion-free, and helmed by a rigorously secular state. Back in those days, it was simply not thinkable to display your faith in public places and, with some exceptions, wearing any kind of religious wear would brand you, at the very least, as some sort of very bizarre fella.
Taking into consideration this towering cultural baggage, I had to think a little bit before bringing my trusty Asatru UK cap into the limelight. I, after all, still very much lean towards establishing a mostly-secular public space where religion remains irrelevant to the day-to-day lives of the people. I also wondered what to answer if people would happen to question me about the cool-looking runic design emblazoned on my cap. I must admit, I have chosen the easy way out a few times by saying that I got it at a “viking festival in England” – not a 100% untrue statement, but less the complete picture.
Why? Well, because, for once, explaining what Ásatrú is might not be the simplest task out there, especially in mostly irreligious post-Christian northwestern Europe. I also really don’t want to bring religion (not specifically my religion, but rather any religion) into my everyday life. In the almost three decades I have spent in Europe, I can safely say that I have never had any idea about the religious beliefs and practices (or likely lack thereof) of about 90% of my friends and acquaintances, and I like it this way.
On the other side of the spectrum, I must also admit that I am not ashamed of who I am and the path I have ended up treading. I also have the utmost privilege of never having experienced any kind of religious bigotry or oppression for what I believe in. The worst thing that ever happened to me in such a context must have been when an elderly American tourist lightly admonished me, her tour guide, for not going to church – not the pinnacle of tyranny if you ask me.
Lately, I have also noticed that I am meeting more and more people who, if they are not Pagan per se, see Paganism, Heathenry, and ancient European spirituality in a mostly positive light. It might have something to do with the fact that I live in a rather cosmopolitan town in which a large proportion of the population is made up of students, but it is nevertheless encouraging to see this culture becoming slightly less subterranean as time goes by. In such a context, I feel like bringing my efforts to revive the ancient flame shouldn’t simply be limited to writing opinionated thought-pieces on an American website or producing obscure research papers for fancy tweed-wearing academics to read. This necessarily includes being more open and forthright about my alignment with what I, deep down, believe to be an overwhelmingly positive and valuable worldview and lifestyle.
If that manifests itself in the shape of a pricey black cap with runes on it, so be it. I can appreciate being able to spread Heathen idolatry to the world, all the while keeping my noggin dry.