For the first time in 1,000 years, Iceland will have a new temple dedicated to Norse gods. The house of worship will be a circular building built into a hill that overlooks the country’s capital, Reykjavik, Reuters reported.
The 3,800-square-foot-temple will belong to members of Ásatrúarfélagið, a neopagan faith that has tripled in size over the last decade in Iceland. The organization was founded in 1972 and had fewer than 100 members for nearly two decades. Today there are nearly 2,400 followers in the island nation of only 320,000 people.
“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, told Reuters. “We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”
Iceland, which was settled by Vikings in the ninth century, was a pagan island whose inhabitants worshipped Norse gods before it became Christianized around A.D. 1,000. Christianity was introduced by European missionaries and later imposed at swordpoint by King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, who initiated a program of forcible conversions, destroying pagan forms of worship and building churches.
While the majority of Icelanders are at least nominally Lutheran, like other Scandinavians, the country isn’t necessarily “fanatically Christian nor particularly orthodox in its Christianity,” Michael Strmiska of SUNY Orange wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. In fact, Iceland is among the most atheistic countries in the world.
Reminders of the country’s pagan origins are visible today in streets named after Nordic gods. Further, many personal names are based on the Nordic deities such as Thor, the Washington Post reports.
The Ásatrúarfélagið denomination grew after its leader Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson died in 1993. This thrust the faith into the national spotlight. A sexual abuse scandal in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland also led many to leave the pews.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by Norse mythologist Karl E. H. Seigfried, the United States has the highest population of people who worship Norse gods, as well as other neopagans like Wiccans and Druids. Iceland was ranked fourth out of 17 countries.