I distinctly remember how, when I met the woman who would later on become my wife, I was impressed by the weird occult and Pagan books she had lying on her shelf. Back in those days, I had only read about Paganism, Satanism, and occultism through rather dubious sources. Once I started reading other books, including the available books on Heathenry at the time by authors like Diana Paxson, Galina Krasskova, and Edred Thorsson, among others, I knew I had to research this peculiar religious universe further. In the years that followed, I would deepen my knowledge of Paganism, and especially Old Norse religion, through my studies, and integrated a lot more knowledge than I could have hoped for.
Yet, at the same time, I also realized that academic speech was not the most accessible way to spread knowledge to the masses. Instead, one could go pretty far by devising works that would be both academically-sound, acknowledge the religious realities of modern practitioners, and all the while retain an accessible approach. So when I heard that Danish scholar Mathias Nordvig, also known for his Youtube Channel and his Nordic Mythology podcast would be releasing a book about Ásatrú, I immediately knew I would have to give it a try.
The book, Ásatrú for Beginners: A Modern Heathen’s Guide to the Ancient Northern Way, published by Rockridge Press, is a rather short book (116 pages, discounting the glossary and the bibliography) that manages to be as readable as it is efficient. Right off the bat, Nordvig delves to the essence of the subject with the first of his seven chapters: “What is Ásatrú?” There, the author makes use of the meatiest of the book’s chapters to give a clear and concise introduction to Old Norse religion, its origins, and the various forms it has taken over the centuries until today.
The first thing that hit me when I started reading this first chapter was its language. Despite not being a native English speaker, Nordvig manages to craft very clear prose without cheapening the contents of his writing. “Ásatrú for Beginners,” is no false advertisement, and the author seems to have tailored his treatise for the general public. Every chapter, section, and narrative thread appears to be constructed in a way that someone with absolutely zero knowledge about Old Norse religion, Paganism, or even Scandinavian history and culture as a whole, would be able to get something out of it. Knowing one’s audience is one thing, but aptly adapting one’s style so well for them demands considerable skill.
He is just as skillful at presenting complex pieces of information in way that do not bastardize the source material. As is stated in the very beginning of Ásatrú for Beginners, the book is based both on his own more than respectable experiences as a modern Heathen, and his career as a scholar of Old Norse religion. As opposed to a number of modern books on Ásatrú written from the perspective of modern practitioners, Nordvig always makes it clear when he discusses information stemming from pre-modern sources (sometimes known as “the lore,” a term Nordvig himself eschews), and when he talks about modern practices or other recent interpretations of source material.
While the academic reader won’t find footnotes or references to specific passages and page numbers of the sources cited in the book, these are clearly labelled and are generally correctly interpreted. Still, these sources are only hastily presented and it is not always explained why or how the information presented therein is worth looking into, as opposed to other sources. Even if Snorri Sturluson is properly, and repeatedly, presented as an at-best problematic source for information pertaining to the authentic beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Norsemen, not much time is spent discussing what makes a source useful or not. Similarly, the author condenses his main thoughts on Old Norse literature into just two and a half pages, which is not nearly enough, even in the context of a book aimed at the general public.
Still, it cannot be denied that Nordvig manages to pack an awful lot of information into very few pages. Everything from the cultural influence of Norse myth in contemporary Scandinavian society to the etymology of important pre-Christian words and concepts is given a place in Ásatrú for Beginners, making for a most dynamic read. Anyone curious or dedicated enough could go through the entirety of this book within the timeframe of a long bus, train, or plane ride without ever feeling either overwhelmed or bored. These elements also make Ásatrú for Beginners a perfect way to introduce a loved one, a colleague, or a schoolmate, to a religion that can be very hard to comprehend, even from the inside looking in.
As previously mentioned, Mathias Nordvig has the unique perspective of being a longtime practicing Heathen who, as it is stated repeatedly in the book, has had the opportunity to encounter, and work with, Heathen individuals and organizations the world over. Although he has lived in the United States for the past five years, he retains a distinctly Scandinavian perspective. Throughout his book, he discusses the peculiarity of American Heathenry, as compared to its Scandinavian counterparts, and the hows and whys behind their somewhat different approaches to religion. In a world where the Anglosphere completely dominates Pagan and Heathen publishing, I find it a breath of fresh air to have a European, and Scandinavian to boot, presenting his own perspective in such a straightforward way.
When it comes to what aspect of Ásatrú for Beginners is my favorite, it would probably be the numerous instances in which Nordvig succinctly presents an Old Norse word or concept, explains its etymology, and explains how it relates, or could relate, to modern Heathen practices. His whole chapter on Heathen values, mostly a commentary on parts of Hávamál and Völuspá, would make for a very palatable and positive introduction for someone wondering about the ethics of worshiping little-known deities. Likewise, his presentation of Heathen holy days and celebrations does a great job at distinguishing between demonstrably historical pre-Christian practices and later innovations and reinterpretations.
Other than a handful of hard to comprehend editorial choices (such as using the word “demon” to refer to lower mythology creatures such as dvergar and jötnar), there is little to criticize about the contents of Ásatrú for Beginners. The only downside of the book is what is not in it.
As I went through Nordvig’s book, and attempted to imagine this being the very first book on the subject I read, I unfortunately could not help but feel the book felt lacking in some parts. As mentioned earlier, Ásatrú for Beginners is somewhat lacking when it comes to contextualizing primary sources. This could have easily been addressed by the addition of a short study guide introducing the reader to basics of textual criticism of Norse sources, the editorial history of some of the most important texts, and perhaps some resources focusing on Old Norse language. Unfortunately, such a chapter is nowhere to be found here.
In a similar fashion, considering the author’s extensive experience with various Ásatrúar groups all across the world, one could have expected a chapter, or at least an appendix, describing the various modern Ásatrú groups introduced earlier in the text. As it stands, numerous organizations are mentioned in the book, but almost all of them only in passing. Spending a bit more time describing specifics of organization, beliefs, and practices of a few more of them could have been beneficial.
That said, if the sole major criticism of this work lies in what could have been added to its otherwise overwhelmingly relevant and practical core, it certainly serves as a testament to its intrinsic quality.
While individuals that already have quite a bit of knowledge about Old Norse religion and the modern Ásatrú movement might not learn a whole lot of new things in Ásatrú for Beginners, this book does make for a great introduction to this labyrinthine world. I could easily see this book being used for outreach, chaplaincy work, and as a gift to young Heathens and prospective followers alike. With a bit of luck, the few elements that it lacks to be a truly all-encompassing work will come later, perhaps in a second edition or a second volume. One can only hope that such a dutiful and competent work will set the bar for others to follow in the future, and foretell an era in which scholarly knowledge and modern religious practice will work in concert for the advancement of the old religion.