Are you curious about Norse Paganism but don’t know where to start? This guide for beginners covers the basics of the Norse Religion and includes a quick recap of the History, practices, free resources and more!
The Basics: What is Norse Paganism exactly?
Norse Paganism is a religious movement based on the practices and beliefs of pre-Christian Scandinavia. The origins of the Norse Religion date back to the Germanic people of the Iron Age and its development continues up until the Christianization of Scandinavia.
At the beginning of the Christianization, many kings converted due to military and economic interests. Some ordinary people adopted the Christian god as part of their polytheistic pantheon, instead of choosing one or the other. Because of this, the Norse religion never truly disappeared: many Pagan myths, folklore and rituals were influenced by Christianity and vice versa.
In modern times, Norse Paganism had a surge in popularity and many religious groups base their faith in the Old Norse Religion. Some examples are the Asatru, which is recognised as an official religion in some countries, the Vanatru or Heathenry (although this last one isn’t exclusively Norse Pagan).
Is there a “Bible” in the Norse Pagan Religion?
The Old Norse religion has its origins in the Iron Age and was transmitted orally, so there isn’t one specific book about it similar to what we know as the Christian Bible.
There aren’t written sources from those eras, apart from picture stones and runic inscriptions in memorial stones that mention their deities and myths. There’s archaeological evidence that gives us clues about different religious practices in the Viking Age, such as artefacts or ship burials.
We know about this ancient religion mainly from Roman sources, such as Tacitus and Julius Caesar, as well as Old Norse manuscripts created after the Christianization of Scandinavia. The most famous are the anonymous Poetic Edda and the posterior Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the Hávamál and other Icelandic sagas such as Heimskringla and Landnámabók.
Norse Pagan Beliefs
Before continuing with this and the following sections, I would like to make a quick disclaimer: it’s impossible to explain all the intricacies of the beliefs in every variation of the Norse Religion while keeping it short at the same time. I encourage you to use this just as a guide and keep exploring the topic in-depth after you finish!
To understand the beliefs of the Norse religion, we need to ditch the modern mindset, influenced by Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam).
These are the key elements of the Norse Pagan beliefs:
1. Polytheistic Religion
This means they worship multiple deities. These gods and goddesses have human characteristics, personalities and emotions: they get married, have children, fight with each other… Most importantly, they have talents and flaws, as opposed to the all-knowing and supremely good Christian god.
Deities are classified into three groups:
- Aesir or the deities of social realities such as justice or wisdom (for example, Odin or Thor)
- Vanir or the deities of sexuality, fertility and magic (such as Freyja and Freyr)
- Jötunn or giants, representing chaos and destruction.
2. Animistic Worldview
This means that culture and religion are not separate from each other, in fact, in pre-Christian Scandinavia, there wasn’t a word for “religion” as we have today.
Instead, the divine was part of everyday life: gods, goddesses, spirits and other magical entities are present in animals, nature and even in man-made objects. They worked with them as “allies”, creating a relationship of collaboration.
3. Ancestor Worship
Ancestors played a big role in family life. Keeping some kind of contact with them was crucial to ensure the well-being of the family: when venerated properly, they would give their blessings and provide happiness and prosperity. Otherwise, they would haunt the living and bring bad fortune.
The Norns controlled the fate (or Urðr in Old Norse) of men and gods alike. Even though these three women decided the fate of everyone and everything, the Norsemen and women had an active role in their lives: instead of surrendering to the events, they approached their circumstances as a battle that one should fight and confront with honour.
This is similar to how the gods would fight until their end at Rägnarok.
5. The Afterlife
There isn’t a clear picture about what happened in the Afterlife, some sources say the dead went to one of the many realms in the underworld (the most famous are Valhalla and Hel), others mention the reincarnation within the family line.
What we know for sure is that there wasn’t a dualistic view of death, as it happens in Christianity: it was accepted as part of the natural cycle and there weren’t any “good” realms or “bad” realms to reward or punish one’s actions.
Norse Religion Practices
To understand the practices in Norse Religion, we must identify its main purpose: to secure the survival and regeneration of society. Because of this very reason, neither in Pre-Christian Scandinavia nor in modern times, practices and rituals weren’t homogeneous, although there are certain elements in common.
There’s some evidence of big national religious festivals, but most of the feasts were tied to the village and farming life. Since survival was the goal, some of the blóts or blood sacrifices were celebrated around the moon phases and the farming seasons, to ask the gods for a fruitful and successful harvest.
In the past, animal sacrifices were the most common and human sacrifices only occurred in extreme situations, such as famine or during war times, using prisoners as offerings to the gods.
There’s also evidence of artefact offerings in bogs or wetlands (for example, bracelets, weapons or tools). This is the preferred method in modern rituals (just make sure that everything you leave in nature isn’t harmful or polluting), as well as using mead.
Transitions in life were greatly celebrated with different rites of passage, such as the birth and naming of a newborn, marriage and funerals.
As mentioned earlier, faith was present at all times. There were many other practices such as seiðr, a magical practice associated with prophecy, Trolldom or folk magic and ancestor veneration. Some sagas also mention small figures that were carried in one’s purse that represented different gods and goddesses.
How to become a Norse Pagan
If you are looking for a step by step tutorial on how to become a Norse Pagan, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t one!
Spirituality and religion are extremely personal matters that one has to explore over time and, eventually, decide what beliefs and practices resonate the most in their life. Not only that, but it isn’t something set in stone: it can and will change over time as you grow and learn.
Let’s take Christianity as an example. Even though the Christian God is the same for everyone that follows this religion, there are many branches with different rituals and worldviews, such as Catholicism, Protestantism or Orthodoxy.
So… when can you consider yourself a Norse Pagan? Again, I won’t give you an exact answer (sorry!): you shouldn’t depend on another person to decide your spiritual path and give you a label, especially if they are a stranger on the internet.
Personally, I think that the moment you decide to follow the Norse pantheon and take an interest in understanding the rituals, culture and customs is a good start. Others might disagree and prefer a certain ritual or rite of passage to mark this event, similar to the baptism in the Christian faith or going through the 13 moons in witchcraft.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is all up to you. Luckily, there are options for everyone and there are many paths you can explore inside Norse Paganism!
Norse Pagan Paths
There are many branches or paths within the Norse Religion: some of them are community-based, others are more solitary. In some cases, they prefer to stick to the tradition as best as possible, while other paths adapt the religion to modern times or are more philosophical.
Do you really need to follow one of these branches? Absolutely not! Actually, if you are a total beginner, I recommend that you start by studying as much as you can about Norse mythology and history before sticking to one.
Here are some (and definitely not all) of the paths of Norse Paganism:
This religious movement started in the 19th century and was recognised as an official religion in Iceland in 1973. The name means “true to the Aesir gods” and, as you can imagine, it’s focused on the worship of the Aesir (such as Thor or Odin), one of the tribes of the Norse gods.
This is a community-based religion, so the individual acts for the benefit of the group. The organisations in this path are known as “Kindred”, their priests and priestesses are called “Gothar” or “Gythia” (feminine) and their congregations are “Folk”.
Their main guidelines are based on the teachings in the Hávamál, although this book isn’t the centre of the whole religion.
The name means “true to the Vanir” and it appeared around the early 90s as an alternative to Ásatrú, for those attracted to the Vanir tribe of gods. The Vanir are the gods and goddesses of fertility, life cycles and magic, so the focus of this path is witchcraft, folk magic, divination and nature.
Also, gods and goddesses are treated as individuals and there are specific rites and ways to communicate with each of them, as opposed to Ásatrú, where the ceremonies and offerings are similar for all.
Although the community is important for Vanatru too, this religious path is less structured than the Ásatrú.
This term was coined by Abby Hellasdottir and it means “true to the Rökkr”. The Rökkr are the “dark” deities and the Jotun or giants in Norse mythology (for example, Hel, Loki or Jörmungandr). They represent concepts like death, chaos or the primordial elements, such as ice or fire.
For the Rökkatru, darkness or chaos don’t equate to evil, as it does in Christianity. Instead, they are accepted as part of life and its cycles, so they deserve to be worshipped too. This doesn’t mean that you can’t honour other gods, but it’s important to understand all parts of them.
This path is linked with Norse Shamanism, its focus is on the development of the individual and their personal connection to the deities, as opposed to Ásatrú.
4. Other Paths
If none of these paths resonates with you, here’s more information to keep exploring other options within Norse Paganism:
Books on Norse Paganism for beginners
Books on Norse Mythology
Although the original sources are a must-read, they can be challenging for those who are introducing themselves to the vast world of Norse mythology. Here are some beginner-friendly options:
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Once you get a good grasp of the basics, reading the original sources will be easier!
Free Books and Resources
Luckily, most of the original sources are in the Public Domain, so they are a great option if you are on a budget!
- Poetic Edda translated by Benjamin Thorpe
- Prose Edda translated by Benjamin Thorpe
- The Hávamál: 3 different translations
- The Icelandic Saga Database
- Germania, Tacitus translated by Thomas Gordon
- Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus
Books on Norse Religion
If you want to read more about Norse Paganism in particular, here are some recommendations. Some of them talk about the modern religion, while others are focused on Pre-Christian Scandinavia:
Norse Mythology Movies & Tv Shows
Let’s face it: sometimes, after a hard day at work, reading a book is not the first choice in your mind… especially if you have kids around or you live in a busy house!
These are some movies and TV shows that talk about Norse Mythology or use it as part of their storyline. Even though a lot of them aren’t historically accurate, they are a good way to learn more and even make it a game: try to recognise the different elements and characters of the sagas while you watch them!
There’s something for everyone, from fantasy to comedy and modern adaptations!