Hel is the Norse queen of the underworld, a mother goddess in her underworld guise. She rules over a firey womb of regeneration and is especially responsible for those who die of disease or old age. Her underworld, unlike the Christian hell, which received its name from her, is simply an otherworld, a place of renewal rather than a place of punishment and misery. When northern shamans visit her realm, they put on a helkappe, magic mask (sometimes a helmet) that renders them invisible. It is possible that the masked harlequin, a standard character in commedia dell’arte, was originally one of the kindred of the goddess Hel. Hel is an embodiment of the divine mystery, a challenge to look behind the mask of appearances to see things as they really are.
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The National Church of Iceland continues to lose congregants. The latest data on religious registration from Registers Iceland reveals that the church lost 2,029 members during the first nine months of 2018. The State Church is the only of the five largest religious congregations to lose members this year.
Four Christian, one pagan congregation
The five largest religious congregations in Iceland are the National Church, with 233,062 members, 65.6% of the population, the Catholic Church of Iceland, with 13,799 members (3.9%), The Free Church of Reykjavík with 9,866 members (2.8%), the Free Church of Hafnarfjörður with 6,946 members (2%) and Ásatrúarfélagið, the Pagan Association of Iceland, with 4,349 members (1.2%). No other congregation tops 1% of the population.
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The religious practices and convictions of Icelanders have been undergoing rapid changes in the past years. The most recent data from Registers Iceland shows that Icelanders continue to turn their backs on the National Church of Iceland. At the turn of the century 89% of Icelanders were members of the National Church. This figure has dropped down to 65.6%.
At the same time the old Nose paganism Ásatrú is doing well. According to the latest figures from Registers Iceland 4,375 people belonged to the two separate pagan congregations, the small Reykjavíkurgoðorð (26 people) and the much larger Ásatrúarfélagið (4,349). Currently 1.2% of the population belongs to the pagan congregations. This makes the old pagan religion of the Vikings not only the fastest growing religion in Iceland, but also the largest non-Christian religion.
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The 11th century writer and historian, Adam of Bremen described Gamla Uppsala (meaning ‘Old Uppsala’) in Sweden as a pagan site where a temple dedicated to Thor, Odin and Freyr stood. Adam wrote descriptively, if not always accurately, of the rituals performed there and of the temple itself.
Gamla Uppsala’s Pagan Past
The temple, adorned with a golden chain, was said to be a place where “heathens” would perform animal and human sacrifices , specifically in the sacred grove next to the temple. The trees were “considered to be divine”, and sacrifices —animal and man alike— were said to have been hanged from trees and left to rot, and elaborate ritual songs were sung.
With the coming of Christianity, any temple that might have existed was destroyed, and a church was built over it. Gamla Uppsala eventually became an archbishopric in the 12th century. Still, remnants of its pagan past continued to exist in the landscape of Gamla Uppsala. The ‘Royal Mounds’ endure to this day as a national symbol of Sweden.
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