Ásatrú is an Icelandic/Old Norse term consisting of two parts: Ása (Genitive of Æsir) referring to the gods and goddesses, and trú meaning faith. Thus Ásatrú literally means faith in the gods. It is commonly misunderstood to mean 'true to the gods'. The faith is also referred to as Norse or Germanic Heathenry. The Old Norse term for 'heathenry' is "heiðni". Yet another Old Norse designation is "forn siðr"; the ancient custom.
The faith may be regarded as an indigenous ancestral faith much like Shinto, Native American spirituality, and Judaism. It represents the indigenous pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples. This included the peoples of present-day Scandinavia, England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, among others. Ásatrú might be viewed as the northern branch of several philosophical offshoots of an earlier Indo-European religion, analogous to the way in which the proto-Indo European language evolved into such off shoots as Sanskrit and the Germanic and Slavic languages. Religious siblings of Ásatrú include the Greco-Roman religion in southern Europe, and early Hinduism in the east. Numerous scholars such as Georges Dumézil, H. R. Ellis Davidson, Hans Gunther (author of "The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans") have commented on the philosophical similarities of these religious systems. Friedrich Nietzsche laid some important groundwork in his works in which he felt the pagan philosophical system of the Greek religion of the ancient heroic and classical era was vastly superior to Christianity, which he felt suffered from a "transvaluation" (or inversion) of healthy instinctive values.
The genitive of 'ásatrú' is 'ásatrúar'. Thus it means 'of ásatrú'. "These five people are ásatrúar" means "these five people are of ásatrú", i.e. they have that faith. In English 'ásatrúar' is sometimes used as a noun meaning "a practictioner of ásatrú".
After having few if any practitioners for many centuries, this religion was revived as Ásatrú in the 19th century. It received a special impetus in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson was instrumental in getting Ásatrú recognized by the Icelandic government in 1973 and a Danish emigrant to Canada, Else Christiansen, began publishing "The Odinist" newsletter. In America, Steve McNallen, a former U.S. Army officer, began to publish in the early 1970s a newsletter titled "The Runestone" and hold annual "Althings." An offshoot of McNallen's Asatra Free Assembly (later renamed Asatru Folk Assembly) was the Asatru Alliance, headed by Valgard Murray, and publisher of "Vor Tru", followed by the establishment of the Odinic Rite in England and later founding of The Troth in America. Today, Ásatrúar may be found today all over the world but principally in Scandinavia, Western Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand. In Iceland many practitioners consider it a left-leaning phenomenon, whereas in parts of America torn by racial strife it has been interpreted by some groups with a rightward bias.
Ásatrú organizations generally favor democratic and republican forms of church government, as inspired by the parliamentary Althings of the Viking era and subsequent parliamentary systems of Britain and the Scandinavian countries, and promote individual rights and freedom of speech reminiscent of Norsemen of the saga era and their more modern descendants.
In the United States, the most prevalent form of Ásatrú organization is a group usually between five and twenty practitioners in size, known as a Kindred, but sometimes also referred to as a Hearth, Garth or Stead. A Kindred generally draws its members from a particular community or region, permitting regular gatherings and celebrations to be attended by all members. As the name might suggest, the members of some Kindreds are related by blood, while other Kindreds are composed of unrelated individuals sharing the desire and intent to worship the Norse or Germanic Gods, the Æsir and Vanir. The number of groups calling themselves Ásatrú Kindreds in the U.S. in 2003 probably was in the hundreds. Larger national Ásatrú organizations, such as the Troth, the Ásatrú Alliance and the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, have served as clearinghouses for information on the faith and organization of yearly gatherings and activities attended by numbers of Kindreds and other groups.
In addition to local groups, an unknown number of solitary practitioners of Ásatrú exist.
As the ancestral religious "common law" of the Nordic peoples, Ásatrú can survive by tradition much like the Anglo-Saxon common law, and does not require a lot of theology and dogma, just like the British parliament evolved without an equivalent of the U.S. Constitution. Important source material include the prose and poetic Eddas written in Iceland during its golden age of saga literature, but other guidance can be found by studying the folklore, history, and antiquities of the Nordic peoples as well as the religions of their ethno-religious cousins (Druidism/Celtic mythology, Greco-Roman religion, and early Hinduism). Ásatrúar generally look at the Norse mythology as "truth in poetry" rather than literal truth. They find spirituality in "the music of the spheres" or mathematical order of the cosmos, therefore the kind of rationality and technology content that other religions reject as "sterile" and "scientific," many Ásatrúar find spiritually enlightening. As an example, many ancient Asatruar chose to be buried or burned in Viking ship graves; the ships, which have been termed "poems carved in wood," are an instance in which seafaring and exploratory technology became a spiritual aesthetic; in contemporary terms, the "Faustian" urge shown by Odin when he traded an eye for all-knowledge may be reflected in a desire to create universities, build a better computer or space ship, or evolve a more advanced civilization, all of which has an enobling, spiritual dimension. Creative efforts -- whether in art, science, literature, music, architecture or ritual -- are highly regarded by many Ásatrúar as embodying the bringing-forth of the spirit of the faith.
The Ásatrú approach to religion is very similar to the motivating factors behind the Protestant Reformation in which most of the Nordic peoples in different countries around Europe, ranging from northern France and Germany to the Baltic states, Scandinavia, and Scotland rejected Vatican authority. They sought the right to run their own local church government and the right to find religious truth through personal learning, analysis, and self-examination rather than through coercion by a centralized source, dogma, unquestioned "divine" revelation, or through forms of spiritual "possession" or (in the case of religions elsewhere in the world) drug-induced states of altered consciousness. Even contemporary American Protestants have had problems fathoming the nature of Scandinavian spirituality, for example when American evangelist Billy Graham once visited Denmark, he was shocked to find out that only about 10% of the people regularly went to church, even though the land of Kierkegaardianian existentialism wears the cross on its national flag. Ásatrú is suited for people who do not want to let going to church interfere with their personal religion. Thus, as might be expected, rites and practices of the faith in modern times vary widely from person to person and group to group, differing branches of a tree whose roots are found in the common sagas and traditions of the pre-Christian Nordic and Germanic cultures.
See also Norse Mythology, Neopaganism, Runic alphabet