A neo-Pagan temple is being built on an unassuming plot of land on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Liv Siddall went to meet those whose visions are taking shape…
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson smokes little cigars, and wears a traditional Icelandic jumper knitted for him by his wife. He likes hot chocolate. He’s practical, logical, and kind. In March he took me crunching up a small hill, on a small piece of scrubland behind an office block just outside Reykjavik.
Back then the site he led me to was just trees and rocky crags peeking out underneath the snow. It was the spot where a new Pagan temple was to be built, the first of its kind in northern Europe in over 1,000 years.
Hilmar was visibly excited; he told me he had been visiting this site a lot recently, occasionally scattering sour milk and beer around the area to ward off bad spirits. Most people in Reykjavik know who Hilmar is, predominantly for being a pioneer in Icelandic music and working with the country’s superstars Bjork and Sigur Rós, but also for being the chief priest of the neo-Pagan Ásatrú Association, which he joined when he was 16.
“Music has always been part of me since I remember,” Hilmar says. “I tried to keep it as a hobby but it just took over my life.” Recently he’s been working on a new programme travelling round Europe – to Latvia, Serbia, Italy and Wales – to chant and play folk music with local choirs and musicians (he doesn’t actually chant himself: “Only behind closed doors. I’m terrible”). But no matter where he goes he always comes back. He told me that during a brief stint living in London he would drive down to Brighton just to have a look at the sea, or whizz over to Wales where he could wind down the car window and peer up at the mountains. “I try to visit abroad but we Icelanders have this umbilical cord that always throws us back,” Hilmar told me. “Most people try to go away but they always return. Those who don’t come back didn’t even belong here to begin with.”
Hilmar’s life is now divided between his musical pursuits, his family and the Pagan community for which he hosts events like funerals and weddings. More recently his time has been taken up with the design and planning for the temple, something that’s been bubbling away for over a decade. “We asked for a plot of land from the city of Reykjavik over 40 years ago. We cemented the whole thing in 2003 when the then-mayor of the city was very enthusiastic about the project. But we have had 11 mayors since then, and sometimes the majority of the city has been against the idea.”
By law the city of Reykjavik must allocate a plot of land for religious purposes, and for a long time the Christian church has commandeered it. More recently the Icelandic government decided that in order to discourage discrimination it would also give land to a handful of other religions. In general though, Hilmar says that Icelandic people aren’t too religious. “We seem to all recognise that there is something greater than us, but we don’t really put words on it. My parents were deeply spiritualistic and believed in the afterlife very passionately, and my grandparents thought that there was something there. So I think that’s more or less how Icelanders are. You know that there’s something greater than us, and you’re constantly being hounded by nature and the earth moving around us. We have storms and crazy weather that lets us feel that we are actually small and insignificant compared to those great forces.”
I know from personal experience that the Icelandic weather is constantly turned up to 11, and the landscape is a rocky, lunar expanse punctuated with icy waterfalls and exploding geysers. Perhaps this is why the Pagan community in Iceland is so strong. “Paganism is very much based on nature worship, and living in harmony with nature as opposed to, say, monotheistic religions where nature is subdued and man is the crown of creation and can do more or less what he wants with it. I think this is going to kill us if we don’t do anything about it.”
Everything about the new temple is designed to honour nature. After a competition to choose an architect for the project, Magnús Jensson was selected (he’d actually designed a Pagan temple for his graduation project).
When I met Magnús they were only a week away from the solar eclipse, which was to be the exact moment the first shovel broke ground. Magnús is tall with a twinkling grin emerging from beneath a very Icelandic beard. His enthusiasm for the temple was as infectious as Hilmar’s, albeit more focused on its design and construction. “There’s the entrance then a gallery space, then you go downwards into the rock. You’re going against the slope of the hill, to be faced with bedrock that will be cut to be part of the walls. Then we have the cafe, bar, kitchen and storage room. And a small space for people working, and the toilets.”
It’s easy to forget that the temple will also be a tourist attraction, and must welcome visitors as well as worshippers. But the main room – or the sanctum – will be dedicated to weekly Pagan rituals, and unlike most places of worship, won’t have any chairs.
I asked Magnús what normally goes on in a room like this on, say, the Solstice. “People stand in a circle. It starts by the God doing something that is called ‘making the place and time sacred,’ then people have a drinking horn which they pass around so that everybody gets their turn to speak and say whatever they want. Perhaps you ask the gods for something, or drink cheers to them but you don’t have to take the horn. Inside the horn is beer but sometimes people are driving so then they have non-alcoholic beer.”
"We have a long history for not wanting to disturb certain rocks because we knew there were elves in them."Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
The building process though is causing some consternation for Hilmar and his fellow Pagans as it will involve drilling through metres of rock and felling a lot of young pines. They’ve left libations for the local spirits (milk and beer) to apologise for the intrusion. “We have a long history for not wanting to disturb certain rocks because we knew there were elves in them,” Hilmar told me, “and even people who don’t believe in them pay lip service because it’s better to be on the safe side.”
As penance, Hilmar and Magnús worked hard to draw up plans for the temple that would mean as much of the excess material as possible from the site clearing could be used in the structure itself. Each piece of rock and wood will find its place somewhere in or around the temple. “We will use them as part of the floors and the outdoor area; we will have something that is not quite a stone circle but the rocks will be arranged in a certain way, a little like you have in Ireland with those beautiful stone structures. We want it to be completely self-sufficient,” Hilmar says.
They are also working with famed Sri Lankan engineer Cecil Balmond who worked on ArcelorMittal Orbit in the London Olympic Park and the famous CCTV building in Beijing. But Hilmar also wanted Cecil on board because he wrote a book called Number 9: The Search for the Sigma Code which tells a story of solving complicated mathematical problems through symmetry, mythology, philosophy and ancient imagery. “He’s frightfully busy,” says Hilmar, “but he’s offered to lend us some advice. Because we’re basing the design on very sacred geometry and sacred proportions, nothing is by coincidence – everything in that building will be designed.”
Surely every building is designed? Hilmar explains: “If you look at how temples were built in India, and some of the sacred architecture in Egypt and Greece and into the Middle Ages, they usually used something that is known as sacred geometry – numbers that always come up in designs. We’ve been using this very consciously, and so instead of starting out with aesthetics we have been starting with the numbers and then working them into the aesthetic. We are using something called The Golden Section (also known as The Golden Ratio), which is a mathematical formula that you find in the make-up of plants, leaves, or a seashell. In a way it’s how nature builds things, so we’re trying to do it in harmony with that. If you go back 100 years this method of design was very common, and then architecture kind of forgot it,” Magnús says.
So the natural world will shape almost every aspect of the new temple, but that’s not to say it will feel archaic. “I think the idea was to have a strong natural and local atmosphere in the building but not necessarily the old traditions,” Hilmar says.
My favourite element, and one that both Hilmar and Magnús were both particularly animated about, is the raw bedrock that will be exposed in the temple, inspired by the Church of the Rock in Helsinki. It epitomises Hilmar’s true quest, to bring everything back to nature. “It will be a symbolic descent into the underworld,” he says. “You are coming into the temple, moving into the elements, surrounded by the rock, there is a sacred fire. You have water dripping from the walls because it is a natural environment. And so you have the four elements, earth, wind, fire and air. All around you. In a way it will be a beautiful, artistic expression of these four elements. Hopefully the fifth element, spirit, will be with people as well.”