Column: Report from Frith Forge

Karl E. H. Seigfried —  November 22, 2017 — 1 Comment

Frith Forge, the first international conference focused on inclusive Ásatrú and Heathenry, was held Oct. 6-8 outside of Potsdam, Germany. The event was the first major project of the International Relations and Exchange Program of the Troth, a U.S.-based Heathen organization with members around the world. The German host was Haimo Grebenstein of the Verein für Germanisches Heidentum (Association for Germanic Heathenry).

The conference had 31 attendees from t12 countries: Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. 14 religious organizations were represented: Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, Ár nDraíocht Féin, Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost, Ásatrú Ibérica, Asatru Schweiz, Asatru UK, Distelfink Sippschaft, Eldaring, De Negen Werelden, Nordisk Tingsfællig, Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige, Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Troth, and Verein für Germanisches Heidentum.

A Storm and a Sacred Center

Those of us who arrived on Thor’s Day (Thursday) were greeted by the Wild Hunt – not the news and commentary website you’re now visiting, but the furious host of the sky described in a German newspaper of 1832 as a troop that makes “quite a racket” as it that passes by “in the upper layers of the air.” The day we arrived, the storm Xavier blew gale-force winds across northern Germany, killing at least seven people, knocking down giant trees, and crushing cars.

A group of us rode a shuttle bus from the Berlin airport to the hostel hosting the conference, and what should have been about a one-hour drive stretched to almost eight. At one point, we waited for two hours under a full moon in the forest for a crew to cut up and clear the remains of an ancient and massive oak that lay across the road after being felled by the storm. It was actually a bit fairy-tale-like, and it gave us an opportunity to get to know each other before joining the rest of the attendees. We waited for other trees to be cleared, as well, and we were quite happy to finally arrive safely at the hostel.

Altar of the sacred center at Frith Forge [Karl E. H. Seigfried].

On Friday morning, Grebenstein led an opening ritual meant to create a sacred center for the duration of the conference. It took place outside, beneath massive oak trees at the edge of the lake known as the Glindower See. Participants were asked to bring soil or water from their homeland to place in a bowl next to the altar in a ritual centered on “the union of the different soils (homes) in a bowl/well that will be the ‘center’ of the conference permanently.”

This was the first time I had seen the Hammer Rite performed at a Heathen ritual, and it was striking to see how its performance and other elements of the rite seemed to be derived from Mircea Eliade’s idea of the “symbolism of the center” laid out in The Myth of the Eternal Return, whether directly or through a chain of influence in modern pagan religions. Afterwards, explaining some of the details to a non-Heathen friend attending the conference as a representative of the American Theological Library Association, I wondered how much of Heathenry today puts theories of 20th-century scholars of religion into ritual practice.

From Ancestry to the “Alt-Right”

The first of the conference presentations was “Ancestor Worship and Its Role in 21st-Century Ásatrú” by John Potts and Gunna Einarsdottir of De Negen Werelden (Netherlands). Their in-depth discussion of ancestor veneration examined literary and archaeological sources for historical practice, nineteenth-century influences on concepts of ancestry (including the tracing of a line from racialist Völkisch thought through the work of Vilhelm Grønbech and into modern Heathenry), and various approaches to ancestry in today’s practices. They concluded by highlighting the small step that can lead from ancestor veneration to a racist ideology of Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”), which left a bit of a question mark hanging over the opening ritual with its focus on soil and homeland.

Gunna Einarsdottir and John Potts discuss ancestor veneration [Karl E. H. Seigfried].

The ensuing discussion set the tone for the rest of the conference, with participants from various countries describing how their own Heathen communities address these issues. There was a wide range of approaches to ancestor veneration, from no interest at all (Norway) to a ban on calling on the ancestors in ritual (Austria) to aspirational ancestry (U.S.) to viewing house-spirits as ancestors (Germany). The discussion was followed by a ritual for “Remembering and Celebrating the Ancestors” led by the presenters, which made a strong connection between theory and practice.

The rest of the day was taken up by presentations on organizations represented. The basic idea was for all of the Heathen groups to learn about each other’s histories, structures, policies, and practices as part of the conference’s larger goal of building and strengthening bonds between Heathen communities. Before the conference, Grebenstein emphasized “a need for mutual engagement in order to understand each other better,” stating that

The world is becoming weirder at an accelerating pace, and this happens everywhere. In my experience, this has an impact on personal relations, and I consider that to be not good at all. As Heathens, Pagans, and Ásatrúar, we do share at least a similar – or even an equivalent – mind-set as a foundation for frith [old Norse “peace”]: dialogue, friendship, and mutual respect. I honestly consider Frith Forge to be an act of international understanding.

Diana Paxson spoke about the founding of the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015. Like many at the conference, she discussed a recent and fundamental change on the Heathen landscape. For the first time, she has participated in public protests, driven by Asatru Folk Assembly founder Stephen McNallen’s partnership with the so-called “alt-right,” saying, “I got through the 1960s and 1970s without getting involved in a rally, but that has changed.” She now feels that the current political climate and the open involvement of some Heathens with white nationalism requires her to get involved in public protest.

This is an important change. In Paxson’s 2006 book Essential Ásatrú: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism, the brief discussion of racism in the religion makes no mention of McNallen or his organization. None of the many mentions of McNallen and the AFA makes any reference to racialist beliefs. In fact, Paxson includes the AFA in her annotated list of Heathen organizations for new practitioners to check out, writing without challenge that the group “states that it opposes racial hatred and honors other indigenous religions.”

This public neutrality regarding the AFA has been a stance within the Troth for many years. The most recent edition of Our Troth, the organization’s monumental two-volume textbook on Heathenry, includes material by McNallen. In her presentation at Frith Forge, Paxson made clear that times have changed, and Heathens of positive intent must change with them.

The announcement of McNallen as a speaker at the Berkeley rally in April led Paxson to take a public stand. In her presentation, she stated that McNallen is a “smooth speaker” who “has disguised his true feelings for 30 years,” but is now “letting it all out.” Recently, he has shifted from a long policy of carefully using terms such as “Northern European” and “European-American” to posting on his public Facebook page against “anti-white demagogues” and signing his posts with what he told historian of religions Mattias Gardell is his own shorter version of the notorious “14 words” coined by white supremacist David Lane of the terrorist organization the Order: “The existence of our people is not negotiable.” Whether he is pushing or following the new young leaders of the AFA, both he and the organization are now openly embracing racist positions and groups.

In this new reality, with right-wing Heathens wearing helmets and marching in rallies with Identity Evropa and other extremist groups, and with neo-Nazis including runes and other Norse symbols in their logos and placards, Paxson felt she and her group needed to show up with banners and signs reclaiming the religious symbols of Heathenry. “Part of my identity as a Heathen,” she said, “is to protest the hate groups using Heathen symbols.”

The long shadow of McNallen’s organization chilled some discussion at the conference. When Troth steersman (board president) Robert L. Schreiwer asked for video cameras to be shut off when he discussed the AFA, some European members expressed dismay at the fact that Troth leadership fears lawsuits from McNallen’s organization if they speak out too clearly about racist elements in its policies and statements. The threatened use of lawsuits to intimidate, they said, was a distinctly American phenomenon.

Post-conference discussion has included much back-and-forth over how to best forward inclusiveness in worldwide Heathenry while also providing help in identifying racialist and white nationalist groups for those who are new to the religion or not connected to a larger community. The aversion to direct conflict has led some members of the Troth’s leadership to oppose specifically naming any racist (or “exclusive”) organizations in the website now being designed by participants to promote inclusive Heathenry and serve as a resource and guide for those new to the religions.

Organizations of Many Kinds

This differences in approach and relationship to exclusive and inclusive groups and individuals became clear during the presentations of the various organizations at Frith Forge. Some European groups have historical ties to older organizations on various sides. Verein für Germanisches Heidentum began as Odinic Rite Deutschland in 1995 but unanimously changed its name in 2006. Eldaring began as a Troth partner group but formally removed “Troth” from its name in 2006. The second group seems to take a more rigorously anti-racist stand, with Ulrike M. Pohl declaring that “drawing a clear line once and for all” makes racists avoid the group’s events and prevents them from wanting to join the organization.

Some European groups have a relationship with the public that is radically different from what is usually seen in the United States. Having taken an overtly inclusive stance from its beginning, Sweden’s Samfundet Forn Sed responded to a journalist writing an investigative feature on the organization shortly after its founding by acting in a completely transparent manner, giving him all of their paperwork and making members available for interviews. He later confessed that he had planned to write about them as a racist group, but — given complete access — he was totally unable to.

Norway’s Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost seemed likewise straightforward in their stance against racism, which has been strongly pronounced since the organization’s beginning. All potential members go through personal interviews and screening, and there is a clear willingness to exclude unwanted people. In contrast to the regular American desire to “avoid being political,” Silje Herup Juvet strongly stated, “We are political! We have a political platform stating ‘welcome to a multicultural society.’” Rather than allowing racists and nationalists to set the public terms, she said, “We took control of the narrative and made a statement of all our positions.”

Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost cooperates with other minority religions in Norway (including Muslims and atheists), and its members refuse to attend events that also include Heathen organizations that are not publicly declared against racism. “Being not racist is not enough,” said Juvet. “You must be anti-racist.” Indeed, the organization goes further than many others and keeps an archive record of the sayings and actions of national and international Heathen individuals and groups.

The Norwegian organization is also notable for its growth and accomplishments since its founding in 1995 and its state recognition the following year. Now with nearly 400 members and 10 blót groups (analogous to American kindreds), Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost receives the same annual monetary amount per capita as the state Lutheran Church of Norway. For ten years, the group has had its own graveyard in Oslo. As of August, the organization owns an impressive 600-square-meter community house with library, kitchen, dining hall, multipurpose hall, and 40 beds. The property is situated between two wolf packs and also includes a small barn and fifty acres of forest. The group’s goal is to use the building in ways that bring positive attention to inclusive Heathenry.

Idavollen Tingsted, the new property of Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost [May-Britt Bjørlo Henriksen].

Some of the other groups that presented at Frith Forge were much newer and much smaller. Netherland’s De Negen Werelden was founded in 2007 and currently has 32 members. Rather than officially identify as a church, they chose to be designated a cultural association. Denmark’s Nordisk Tingsfællig was formed in 2010 after the largest Heathen organization in the country affiliated itself with McNallen and the AFA. There are now 15 members in the inclusive group, and new members must take an oath that includes both a statement against racism and one affirming they do not associate with people who hold racist views – in effect, affirming the strong stances regarding race and multiculturalism in the organization’s bylaws. Ásatrú Ibérica was founded in 2008 and officially became a cultural association in 2017; the Spanish group currently has nine members.

The Troth’s own presentation went quite far over its scheduled time, due to the large number of questions from the other attendees. The elements that brought the most question and comment were the role of clergy and the ban on hailing Loki in ritual.

The Troth’s clergy training program is quite different from anything in the other organizations — some of which have no clergy at all — and the roles of clergy members as counselors and officiants were also a bit far from the experiences of many members of the audience. Paxson, who oversees the training program, gave a solid explanation of her perspective on and philosophy of clergy training and the role of the goði in the community.

The Troth’s Loki ban states that Loki cannot be hailed as part of a rite at any event sponsored, funded by, or representing the Troth, including events hosted by local groups affiliated with the Troth kindred program. There was a heated reaction after the policy was explained, with at least one audience member stating that this seemed like the enforcement of Christian doctrine. Grebenstein said, “If you get rid of that stuff, you get a lot of European support.” His statement was greeted by a round of applause.

In the evening, Schreiwer led a candlelit ritual to the Germanic figure Holle. He had not been present for the other organizations’ presentations and had actually missed his own scheduled talk on Urglaawe, a newer Heathen religion that focuses on Pennsylvania German culture, so he prefaced the rite with explanations of his tradition’s beliefs and rituals. He also offered his own perspective on the toasts and speeches of each attendee, explaining how Urglaawe belief did or did not agree with their statements. While many of us know Holle as the Frau Holle figure of German folklore and fairy tale, she is a major goddess for practitioners of Schreiwer’s faith.

From Public Theology to Hailing Loki

My own presentation opened the program on Saturday morning. I attended Frith Forge as goði (priest) of Thor’s Oak Kindred and a member of the Troth clergy program. I read my paper, “A Better Burden: Towards a New Ásatrú Theology,” which addresses common approaches to writing on theological issues within the cluster of modern Heathen religions, addresses some pitfalls that have arisen in work that strongly focuses on either secular scholarship or personal religious experience, then forwards the idea that Heathens build a new public theology that fully engages with contemporary issues. The paper concludes with my offer to edit the first anthology of such work and to seek a publisher. Those interested in the project can read the paper here.

Grebenstein gave a talk based on the book Sterbendes Heidentum (“Dying Heathenry”) by German ethnologist Bernhard Streck. He also explained theories presented in relatively recent academic work by Bernhard Maier and Jan Assman. Grebenstein’s theme was that Heathens should “look for inspiration in other polytheistic cultures that still exist or haven’t ceased as ancient Germanic or Norse polytheism have done.” He asked the question, “Why not learn from others that have ‘survived’ Christianization or have not even been touched by it?” For him, Heathens are engaged in reinvention rather than reconstruction.

The day was packed with a wide variety of talks. Paxson repeated her presentation from the Parliament of the World’s Religions, “Staving off Ragnarök: a Heathen Response to Climate Change,” which views the current ecological crisis through the lens of Norse mythology. Juvet and Gunna gave a brief report on Heathen and Heathen-related festivals around Europe.

Pohl made a fascinating and deeply researched presentation on Frija, addressing a wide range of materials from literature, history, linguistics, and archaeology. She discussed Roman reports and modern scholarly theories on early Germanic tribes, medieval literary sources and laws, German folklore, archaeological artifacts, and much else. I hope that she will publish her work as a paper to serve as a resource for a wider Heathen audience.

After an unfortunately under-prepared PowerPoint presentation that led an audience member to ask, “What’s the point of this lecture?” things got back on track with another presentation from Paxson, this one titled “Balancing on the Rainbow Bridge: How do We Reconcile Ethnic Pride, Inclusive Ideals, and Heathen Tradition?” She strongly challenged the term “universalism,” stating that it “is not the correct term for what we’re doing.” Instead, she advocated for “inclusivity,” the term commonly used by participants throughout the conference. She challenged the view that a European religion should be for Europeans only and forwarded a notion of inclusion via acculturation into a group and through articulation of shared values.

Grebenstein led the second main ritual of the conference, focused on an idea of “frith to take.” In a beautiful rite, attendees were encouraged to reflect on information exchanged and friendships forged, then to take what they had gained throughout the conference and bring it back to share and energize their own local communities. One of the highlights of Frith Forge occurred during the ritual, when the horn being passed around the circle came to Juvet. She announced she was breaking the Troth’s Loki ban and hailing the trickster, then said, “This is how we do it in Norway,” took a large draught from the horn and ran along the ring of participants while gleefully spitting the liquid over several of them. Some were scandalized. Most were amused. Vive la différence.

Inclusivity vs. Diversity

The evening concluded with a large-group discussion of “Frith, Hospitality and Inclusion in Heathenry/Asatru.” According to Amanda Leigh-Hawkins of the Troth’s International Relations and Exchange Program, the goal of exchange was

to discuss how inclusive groups and individuals handle the challenge of when and how to be (ironically) exclusive of hateful or disrespectful individuals in order to provide a safe, peaceful, and diverse group space or organization. We will address racism, nationalism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and other LGBTQIA+ concerns, and any other form of prejudice in Heathenry/Asatru… This will be a time to build alliances among inclusive groups and individuals so that we may more strongly support our shared inclusive values together, rather than in isolation.

The discussion was long, intense, and sometimes heated. There were strong differences of opinion over how to best deal with organization members found to belong to hate groups or to espouse racist views. Some issues that had bubbled up at times earlier in the conference were more clearly articulated here, and differences between American and European approaches were more prominent.

Perhaps the most profound difference was how the inclusiveness – the foundational theme of the conference – was understood. It was quite clear that, for the European Heathens, inclusivity is not synonymous with diversity. For the Americans, standing up for our beliefs means actively welcoming Heathens from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, celebrating together in ritual, and building communities that reflect that diversity of the United States. For the Europeans, similarly standing tall really seemed much more about speaking out against resurgent and racist nationalism, keeping hateful individuals out of their organizations, and actively challenging those who hold and promote racism. The Americans seemed very wary of publicly denouncing individuals and organizations that everyone agreed are overtly racist, and the Europeans seemed somewhat taken aback by questions about the all-white make up of their inclusive groups.

Assembled attendees at Frith Forge [Robert Lewis].

This emphasis on inclusivity, coupled with a total lack of diversity, was really the glaring flaw of Frith Forge. In the 21st century, it’s no longer enough to have a room full of white people earnestly discuss the need for inclusiveness. We are far past that point. We need to have diverse voices in the discussion. We need to have diverse voices leading the discussion. If Frith Forge happens again — and I sincerely hope that it does — building a diverse group of participants must be a priority. It’s not enough to have one or two African-Americans, because they will inevitably be seen as “speaking for their people,” and that’s not good for anybody involved. There has to be a mass of people from diverse backgrounds in order for discussion of inclusive Heathenry to have any real heft.

There also has to be participation from people of color who have left inclusive organizations after being made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. It will be difficult for some to hear their testimony, but it needs to be heard – especially after one participant performed an imitation of an African-American woman’s manner of speaking during the large-group discussion on inclusivity. There are attitudes and behaviors that even those of us who argue for inclusion have deep within us, and the only treatment is to dig deep into our assumptions and lay them bare. The process is painful, but real change always is.

This conference was a needed first step. The organizers did a lot of hard work to make it happen, and the result was extraordinary. A major outcome of the final discussion was the agreement of the participants to work together on building a website resource on inclusive Heathenry and Ásatrú that will have detailed information and guides for the general public and religious practitioners. One of the important ideas regarding the website is that it will provide guidance for those new to the religion — especially young people — to help them recognize warning signs of racist or otherwise extremist Heathenry. Such a resource is much needed and can do a lot of good.

Grebenstein closed the conference as he opened it, with a ritual of the sacred center. Hopefully, the presentations, discussions, and conversations at the conference will continue to resonate within the participants and lead them to push for positive change within their own organizations and communities.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Karl E. H. Seigfried

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Karl E. H. Seigfried is a writer on mythology and religion in Chicago, where he teaches for Newberry Library’s Seminar Program. His website, The Norse Mythology Blog, was named the world’s Best Religion Weblog in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His writing has been broadcast on the BBC and published in Herdfeuer, Iceland Magazine, Interfaith Ramadan, MythNow, On Religion, Religion and Ethics, Reykjavík Grapevine and the Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook. He is currently working on his third graduate degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.