This distinction varies depending on location. In Europe, “Ásatrú” is often synonymous with the North American definition of Heathenry (read on to learn more). In Iceland specifically, Ásatrú references the organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which was established in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson.
In order to understand the distinction as it exists within the United States and Canada, one must first know the history of Heathenry in America.
The Contemporary Pagan movement began spreading in the United States and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s after the introduction of Wicca and Druidry to North America. One of the first groups established for the specific worship of the Germanic gods was the Odinist Fellowship, founded by Else Christensen in 1969. Ásatrú as a term, however, first appeared in the late 1970s when Stephen McNallen founded the Ásatrú Free Assembly (AFA). This organization ceased to exist in 1986 due to burnout, bankruptcy, and interpersonal issues between groups of members. The AFA was directly succeeded by the Ásatrú Alliance. McNallen, who temporarily ceased participating in active Ásatrú between 1987 and 1996, also found a new, racialist (“folkish”) organization, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly (also AFA), which is still active today.
The Ring of Troth (now simply called The Troth) was founded in 1987 by Edred Thorsson and James Chisholm, who were also members of the Temple of Set. Subsequent leadership included Prudence Priest, Stephan Grundy, William Bainbridge, and Diana Paxson. Through their efforts, The Troth became a well known, anti-racialist organization within the Wiccan and Neopagan scene by the 1990s. Moreover, practices used by members of The Troth, such as rune magic and the Hammer Rite, drew from earlier influences of ceremonial magic that were popular in those early decades. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these practices became popular within Ásatrú, along with the Nine Noble Virtues, which were developed and popularized by either: John “Stubba” Yeowell and John “Hoskuld” Gibbs-Bailey of the Odinic Rite, Stephen McNallen after establishing the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, or Edred Thorsson while he was a member of the Ásatrú Free Assembly.
As a result of this history, Ásatrú in the United States developed with heavy Wiccan, Odinist, and occultist influences. Heathenry, in turn, developed partly as a response to these influences on Ásatrú. Though the term “Heathen” has been in use by some individuals who worship the Germanic gods since the late 1970s, the effort to distance Heathenry from Ásatrú truly started gaining momentum in 2016. First, a greater emphasis on scholarship and historicity turned individuals away from the ahistorical beliefs and practices within Ásatrú that were inspired by Wicca, Odinism, and occultism. Second, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly’s new leader, Matt Flavel, made a statement establishing his organization’s stance promoting white supremacy, which soured the term “Ásatrú” for many people. Third, recent interviews with the high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið reinforced the organization’s pantheistic, archetypal view of the Germanic gods, which created distance between them and polytheists who view the gods are real, cosmic beings with intelligence and agency.
At this time, the movement of Heathens away from Ásatrú and its related trappings is in its earliest stages. Some individuals agree with the split and take on the label of Heathen (instead of Ásatrú) as a result. Meanwhile, some non-Heathens do not agree with the split — or do not see a need for it at all.