England is a rather strange place. I might only have visited the nation on two occasions, but I always find myself somewhat bewildered by what I see, or don’t see, there. One thing I certainly miss in England are mountains. Pretty much everywhere I have been, from London in the South to Nottingham in the middle, I was hard pressed to find anything even remotely resembling even a wee hill. For someone like me who has lived almost a decade in Norway, where deep fjords and sharp peaks abound, this seemingly utter lack of distinctive geographical features weirds me out.
Another thing that weirded me out when I last was there, in August, was how serious some people were about football – European football, that is, soccer. Here I was, in the small town of Peterborough, in the middle of what the Brits, dryly enough, call the Midlands, just fresh off my third or fourth train ride from London, and I could scarcely comprehend what was taking place in front of me: As I exited the station, I suddenly found myself in the midst of what could be best described as some sort of an uncomfortable standoff between dozens of loud and drunken hooligans and a horde of policemen who streamed out of their headquarters from the other side of the street.
After a few somewhat tense minutes, a riot van drove in, stopped, and opened wide its doors. What came out of the vehicle was not, as I would have expected, a team of armored anti-riot police, but a bunch more drunken hooligans, who apparently had gotten a free ride from the cops to go watch this day’s game at the pub. This scene felt somewhat surrealistic and I really started wondering why in all hells I had come all the way here. Then I remembered. I was, deep down, not so different from the rowdy football hooligans. I had come to this gods-forsaken place for one reason, to engage with a spirit of fellowship alongside my people. I had come to attend the Asgardian Heathen Festival.
The Asgardian is, all things considered, a very young event. While there had been talks of establishing a distinctively Heathen festival in England since at least 2014, the first edition of the Asgardian did not see the light of day until 2016. While not that many people came to that first Asgardian, the event was enough of a success to warrant a second, third, and now ultimately fourth iteration, with attendees now being counted in the hundreds instead of the dozens. The festival organizers, Pip E. Hall, who kickstarted the whole machinery, and Tomas Scarle, who joined the team from the second year on, now coordinate dozens of volunteers, sellers, speakers and others in what is billed as being “the largest gathering of Heathens in the UK.”
I first heard about the festival early last year through some online contacts from the shadowy realm of academic Heathenry. Since I was privileged enough to graduate with an M.A. in Norse religion from the University of Iceland, I have attempted to use this otherwise rather niche diploma in any possible way, and speaking at a Heathen festival seemed like a good enough idea. As it happened, my experience at Asgardian 2018 went very well. I gave a talk on the topic of Old Norse literature and sources that attracted almost 30 people. While I only stayed at the festival grounds for some 24 hours, I came home with the conviction I would have to come back. So, in August of this year, I ventured down south again to what was now the fourth edition of the festival, and somehow managed to have an even more profound experience that time around. How, and why?
I am, after all, not the most religiously devoted man out there. Just a few years ago, the idea of participating in a religious festival of any sort would certainly have weirded me out, even after I realized that I was, deep down, a Pagan. For me, Paganism has always been more about keeping the stories, the memories, the reverence – the old flame, if you will – alive. I am not really all that sure why, though. Maybe my largely agnostic upbringing in a strongly secular nation simply made me uncomfortable at the sight of religious festivities in general? Maybe me living in a rather secluded small town with little to no Pagan scene around made me more of a religious introvert? I honestly do not know, but one thing that I know is that coming back to the Asgardian for the second year in a row made me somewhat reconsider the way I see Heathenry and Paganism. For one short day, I gave up my bookwormish, wannabe researcher act, and I joined a living, breathing community of like-minded folks. For a very short period of time, I stopped being just another somewhat spiritual person and actually did religion, and it was absolutely exhilarating.
Even though a lot of what I saw and did this year did not differ much at all from last year, getting back felt like rolling into a soft, familiar grove. As I entered the festival grounds (a sheltered green field in the middle of the countryside), I was met with pretty much the same crew as last year. Despite having not met any of them for a year, I was warmly greeted and immediately offered a damned good plate of England’s national dish, chicken tikka masala. Just like that, I was not a stranger in a strange world anymore, I was, thousands of kilometers from home, home in another home.
As the day slowly started fading away, I set up my tent and decided to wander around the large field and get my bearings. I quickly located the tavern, and beside it, the stage, where the bands Atorc and Sellsword took turns blasting Epic Metal from the speakers. Following their towering performances, people started moving back to the tavern to taste small-batch ales and meads while watching night fall. At this point, the only people I actually had interacted with were the crew and my fellow academic Heathen and speaker, Rich Blackett. As the evening turned into night, I found myself wandering further out of the main camping area. The sky was clear, the air, crisp, and by the edge of the field, by the tall trees, I could spot some flickering lights, and hear the faint echo of a drum.
The light and the music came from the sacred grove, where the god-figures had been laid out at the start of the festival. Outside the enclosure were dozens of people, slowly moving to the beat of drums, and repeatedly chanting “Hail, hail, Grímnir.” This was the Grímnisblót, an homage to Oðinn.
The all-father has many names. Grímnir itself means, “the masked one,” hinting at his numerous faces and attributes, yet none are as renowned as Oðinn, the folly, the furor, the rage, the delirium. For what seemed an eternity, we were dozens and dozens, gathered under this very notion, chanting, yelling, twitching and shuddering in the midst of the night. Then, without a warning, a group of hooded figures came, carrying torches. The assembly fell silent, and they entered the holy circle. Another figure came towards the figure of Oðinn, and spoke words of praise for the ancient god. All stood still, in deference, until the chanters, drummers and speakers left the holly grove. As they stepped out, heading towards the camp, they suddenly stopped. All eyes were on the hooded men.
Then the one at the front shouted, “Let’s get fucking drunk!” And we all did.
Outside the tavern, many kept chanting, processing, and drinking around the bonfire for a while longer. The energy gathered that evening simply did not want to go away. It certainly was a folly of sort, a passion, an intoxicating feeling of triumph, of achievement, rendered all the more potent by the aforementioned drinks. Everywhere I looked, I only saw smiling faces, companions gathering with companions, long-lost friends getting acquainted again, all under the banner of the old religion, and of Oðinn.
As for myself, I made use of this merry gathering to meet with another online contact of mine, Ioan McCarthy. Ioan, a towering Welsh giant, was actually one of the hooded men who led the ritual and who, just like I did, studied in Iceland a number of years ago. The feeling of being able to discuss the intricacies of modern Norse research with someone I had never met in real life before, in the middle of a foreign countryside, thousands of kilometers from home was almost as exhilarating as engaging in the ritual itself. Maybe because, in the end, I was somehow still home, here at Asgardian.
The realization that somehow, through religious ritual and engagement, I was able to feel a feeling of camaraderie and companionship with people I hardly knew before just settled in further on the next day. Even outside of any ritual, it just felt surprisingly right being able to be fully oneself at anytime of the day and night. Being immersed in an environment where just about anyone understands and feels somewhat similarly to you is a feeling I did not quite comprehend the first year I joined the festival. Somehow, the second time was the charm, and it felt only natural to be here. The sense of ease, peace, and concord was hardly broken at all while I attended. And all around, there were lots of kids, lots of dogs, people of all ages, from all across the U.K. and beyond. Families. Friends. Fellowship.
If I learned anything during this festival it was that these three things were not only desirable, but attainable for Pagans and Heathens alike. I am sure that I am far from the only one who felt this kind of magic in the air during the festival. I can proudly say that, if what I experienced is what it means being a Pagan and Heathen, then it means nothing but peace, and prosperity. And while it might still be some ten months away, you can be sure that, come the summer, I won’t be missing another gathering with my companions.
Hail, hail Grímnir, and hail, hail the Asgardian Heathen Festival.