Trying to define Asatru can be rather like trying to nail jelly to a tree - whenever one is convinced it has stuck it finds a way around the nail to land once more at your feet. The word itself is easy enough - it was invented by Scandinavian antiquarians in the 1830's to describe the ethical and religious leanings of their forebearers. Literally it means "True to the Aesir", one of the families of gods and goddesses worshipped by the Vikings. But the concepts go back much farther, and are indeed much broader than medieval Scandinavia.
Five thousand of years ago a people known as the Indo-Europeans swept out of central Asia across steppe and sea in a wave of conquest, trade and exploration.. Asatru is essentially their cultural legacy, now worldwide, wherever their descendants roamed. Scandinavia is simply the last place this culture existed in it's purest form, untouched by the influx of Semitic and Oriental religion and culture.
Asatru is a tribal or folk religion. As such, it shares much with other tribal traditions, including those of the Native Americans. However, unlike nearly every other tribal religion, Asatru has a written body of lore, the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and many, many sagas, all collected in Iceland in the Middle Ages and preserved.
An Asatru Kindred, such as Ravenswood, is the modern expression of the tribe. It is not a church, although there is a strong religious aspect. Legally, it is a religious order. It is not exactly a family, although the members consider one another to be kin. It somewhat like a fraternity, such as the Masonic Orders, where one is bound by oath to ones fellows. We have no dogma, or formal creed, although we do have a set of shared beliefs. Perhaps the best way to think of Asatru is as an ethic, as a philosophy or a way of life. This ethic is best expressed in the Nine Noble Virtues.
Asatru places the highest value of human freedom and individuality. This is true in both secular and religious matters, and is so strong that while we honor our gods and goddesses, we will never grovel before them. The Shining Gods and Goddesses (the Aesir and the Vanir of Scandinavian tradition) are models and inspirations: self-aware personifications of the forces of nature and of life. They are our friends, but never will they be our masters, and we will never be their slaves. We do not bow our heads before them, we do not bend the knee or surrender our judgment or our sovereignty.
Asafolk view the gods in many different lights. There are those of us who nearly atheists, believing the Gods and Goddesses to be manifestations of pure Nature, and preferring to trust in their own might and judgment entirely. For these folks, Asatru provides a context for their culture and it’s continuity. Others are literalists, believing the Eddas and Sagas to be divinely inspired, and believing the gods and goddesses to be literal physical entities. Most fall somewhere in the middle: finding our roots in the culture and our spiritual path on the road with the Shining Gods and Goddesses.
The cultural context that Asatru presents is indeed immense. Most of the holidays that we celebrate were original with our ancestors. Yule trees were decorated to celebrate, and the Ostara bunny left his eggs in the grass at the Vernal Equinox. Even the days of the week reflect our heathen heritage: Sunna’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Frigga’s Day ... Saturn’s Day was a Roman addition. Our system of common law and jurisprudence has it’s roots in the Thing, a general meeting of the community. This system, which has survived in America, Scandinavia and England is utterly unlike the Roman or Middle Eastern system of judges without juries and commands by divine kings.
At it core, Asatru believes in human action. No waiting for the afterlife to be happy: you must seize your happiness in the here and now! By heroic action you can take your life in your own hands. You are indeed the “Captain of Your Fate” and the “Master of Your Soul”.
The family is the pillar of Asatru. By tradition, people have been devoted to family, and rightly so, for the family is the basis of all enduring social achievements. Where families are strong, freedom is guaranteed. Where they are weak, tyranny flowers, and freedom dies.
Beyond the family is the community, not just other Asafolks, but the communities in which we live and work. Asatru has no concept of doing good for the community merely for the sake of doing good for the community. We believe that our deeds reflect our souls: to the extent that those deeds build our family and our community we are spiritually healthy.
Our concepts of an afterlife are fully consistent with our other beliefs. Those who are worthy travel to the realm of the gods, Asgard. Evildoers and oathbreakers are sent to Nifelhel, a realm of cold and fog. There is also a persistent belief in reincarnation, usually, but not always, within the family line. Thus do our ancestors live again through us. This has caused Asatru to sometimes be described as a “Norse Shinto”; Shinto being the ancestor worship as currently practiced in Japan. And indeed, there are many parallels.