Archives For Asatru Alliance

A ceremonial offering bowl, containing Thor and Spam. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

A ceremonial offering bowl, containing Thor and Spam. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

Lauren Pond’s photography had me the first time I saw the Spam. In a photoessay about Heathens, one would expect to find pictures of things like wooden statuettes, leather belts, and offering bowls – the kinds of items that have an intrinsic ritual significance, which seem to automatically activate the area of the brain designated for religion. But one does not expect to find the blue cans of meat nestled in right next to these icons. Of all the things I have read about Valgard Murray, the controversial (to say the least) leader of Asatru Alliance and owner of the items in the photograph, the depths of his predilection for Spam were not among them. But Lauren Pond’s pictures focus on exactly these sorts of details – the human quirks of religious cultures that are often drowned in the seas of theology and ritual.

Pond has been photographing religious communities since 2006, when she traveled to the Indian city Vrindavan, known for being home to more than 15,000 Hindu and Hare Krishna widows. Her photos of the widows capture them attempting to survive despite their cultural stigma. They visit ashrams not only for spiritual reasons, but also for the rupees dispensed for their participation. “I didn’t think of it as a religion documentary at the time,” Pond said. “I thought of it as a humanitarian story.” But gradually Pond began to see that religion was the thread tying her work together. “I never thought that I would be documenting that,” she said, “but I decided that was what I wanted to focus on.”

Since her documentary in Vrindavan, Pond has photographed a number of religious communities. Her photoessays tend to focus on congregations on the fringes of society. Her essay Les Talibes covers the lives of Senegalese children who beg for money while studying the Qur’an. Test of Faith, The Next Generation and A Struggling Tradition examine three very different Pentecostal congregations in the southern United States. Pond takes an ethnographic approach to her work, and in some cases she has spent years developing a rapport with the people she photographs. “I’m not a member [of any of these communities] and I don’t participate in any of the rituals I photograph, but I like to develop a relationship with people,” she said. “That’s why I work on projects for long periods of time, too. That’s what helps build the trust.”

A group of Heathens march to a ritual at Christopher Creek, Arizona. Courtesy of Lauren Pond.

A group of Heathens march to a ritual at Christopher Creek, Arizona.
Photograph courtesy of Lauren Pond.

Among the religious groups Pond has worked with are American Asatruar. Pond has been photographing Heathens since 2010, working with groups in Ohio, California, and Arizona. She covers these experiences in her essay American Heathens, which focuses primarily on her visits to events held by Asatru Alliance in Arizona. The photographs in American Heathens seem to dwell on the apparent anachronisms of their subjects: the photos show Heathens in Viking tunics being photographed by smartphones, longships painted on camper trailers, beer cans scattered among waraxes. Pond says those contrasts are what intrigue her about Asatru: “It’s that blend of American culture and the religious aspects.”

“In photography especially, in our portrayals of religion, I think we tend to focus on the theology and the belief system,” says Pond, “but there is so much outside of that which would help to contextualize the actual beliefs and rituals that gets ignored entirely.” With her work on Asatru, Pond says that, unfortunately, she is more limited to photographing the ceremonial events than she is with some of her other projects, mostly due to time and travel constraints. “I wish I were able to visit on a more daily basis and spend time with them, but it just hasn’t happened so far. Of course, at the Yule Festivals and the Althing, there is a lot of hanging around, but it’s still not daily life.”

Even within the current limitations of the project, however, Pond’s interest in the mixture of the “mundane” with the “ceremonial” remains apparent. In the above photograph, for instance, Heathens in ritual clothing, led by a man holding a spear, are marching off to their rites – yet Pond’s framing of the picture makes sure to include the campground shelter and the village of nylon tents. The photo makes clear that both the “sacred” and “profane” elements of this scene are integral parts of the religious experience.

In the future, Pond hopes to expand her work on Heathenry to include more groups. In addition to the American Heathens essay, the Singles section of her website includes photographs of Heathens in her home state of Ohio, as well as members of a prison kindred in California. She has also attended a Troth Yule ceremony and hopes to soon photograph Heathen communities outside the United States as well. Pond’s American Heathens, along with Jennifer Snook’s recent book – also titled American Heathens – suggests that a turn toward ethnography in work about Heathenry is upon us. Pond thinks that this ethnographic approach is important because of how it humanizes religion. “When you study just theology, all you see is the differences between religions,” she says. “When you break it down into daily life – into moments – you begin to see the people.”

Katherine Stewart and Grant Smith try to ward off storm clouds. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

Katherine Stewart and Grant Smith try to ward off storm clouds.
Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

When I ask Lauren Pond which photograph in her essay means the most to her, she pauses to think, then directs me to a picture of a man and a woman with their arms raised towards the sky, which glows in vivid blue and pink. “They were having a blot – I want to say it was the Odin blot,” Pond recalls of the photo, taken at a Heathen gathering she photographed at Christopher Creek, Arizona, in 2014. “There were these clouds rolling in all day, and just after the blot started, the skies opened up. That particular image was right before the downpour. They were gathered over by the edge of the campground and were asking for protection.” Pond, who also does nature photography, found this confrontation between the Heathens and the sky fascinating. “I think what was most interesting to me was that, in that moment, there was a definite connection between people and nature.” Ultimately the invocation failed – the downpour came and everyone had to run for cover, and the rest of the weekend was rained out. “I slept in my car,” says Pond. “I guess Arizona has a monsoon season.”


All images were used with permission from the artist and under copyright. © 2006-2015 Lauren Pond. All rights reserved.

The U.S. Army has finally added Asatru and Heathen to its religious preference list after a five year effort led by the Open Halls Project. The Army is now the second branch of the U.S Military to include these two religious options. The Air Force led the way in July 2014. With these changes made, Heathen soldiers serving, or having served, in either of these two branches can accurately communicate their religious preference and, by doing so, earn a host of benefits and protections.

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/]

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/]

“This is a first step into showing how deeply integrated with serving our country Heathens are. We represent a significant minority of the world, but the large majority of Heathens have served their countries in some form or another. Taking care of our community is a Heathen worldview trait, serving in the military is one way to serve those communities. I hope that this recognition helps to encourage more Heathens to serve their communities in all ways,” said Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project in an interview with The Wild Hunt.

It is currently estimated that there are around 500 Heathens serving in the U.S. Army alone. That number is purely speculative based on Open Hall Project registrations. Heath said, “I’m hoping that getting the religious preference added will allow us to eventually ask the military to do an official census.”

Heath’s quest began in 2009 after he and his wife Cat joined The Troth. At that time, Heath was on Active Duty with U.S. Army, and wanted to see both Heathen and Asatru added to the religious preference list. Since that application required the backing of a 501c3 organization, he asked the Troth for help, which they gave. Unfortunately, the Army made an error and put The Troth on the list, rather than Heathen or Asatru.

As a result, Heath had to begin the process all over again. This time, however, he looked for support from a group whose name contained the word Asatru, as advised by Army officials. With the help of Vince Enland of the Asatru Alliance and Patricia Lafayllve of The Troth, he submitted a second application in 2010.  This was also the year that he and Cat formally established the Open Halls Project.

Open Halls Project
A year went by with little to no response. In 2011, the team decided to submit a third application. This one contained a petition with the signatures of over 30 soldiers. But, once again, they were simply told that the application was being reviewed.

After two years of waiting, the Army had still made no decisions, and the team was faced with two new challenges. Heath said, “In 2012, we were told by the Chaplains Corp that a new system to request Rel Prefs was being developed and would take some time to get anything new approved.” Additionally, Heath himself was no longer on Active Duty. Therefore, they “would need to get someone [else] who [could] reprocess the whole request.”

Over the next two years, they put the project on “the back burner.” They periodically checked in with Chaplain Bryan Walker, personnel director of the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. They also worked to garner more support and allies for the mission.

By 2013, momentum began to build in the form of both interest and corresponding actions. In terms of earning increased support, Josh Heath credits a 2013 interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, published on the Norse Mythology blog.  While the article is predominantly about the couple’s personal history and religion, it does mention the Open Halls Project and its deep involvement “in American Heathenry and … the struggle for its recognition as a religion in the U.S. military.” In fact, that very interview is what inspired Msgt. Matt Walters, the Air Force NCO, to seek out the Open Halls Project for help in getting Asatru and Heathen added to the Air Force religious preference list.

While support increased, other serendipitous events began to happen. In spring 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs added the Mjöllnir, (the Hammer) to its list of symbols available for gravestones and markers. Then, in early 2014, the Army added Humanism to its religious preference list, and the Air Force added Heathen and Asatru.

Thor's Hammer Emblem.

Thor’s Hammer Emblem.

In a recent interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, Heath admitted that the adding of Humanism, “riled him up!” He said, “I’d been working on this issue for Heathens for five years, and they still hadn’t approved us! I threatened a lawsuit, politely, and even contacted the ACLU and the humanists that won their campaign to ask for some guidance on how to proceed.”

Due the increase in support from the Heathen community, Heath was able to find four new Active Duty soldiers willing to work on the project. The team consisted of Christopher Gibat, Omar Bailey, Andrew Turner and Daniel Head, who would became the new principle point of contact. In a recent interview, Head told Dr. Seigfried that after some “back and forth” and questioning the chaplains signed off. Asatru and Heathen were added to the list.

While this designation is purely administrative, the benefits can be far reaching in the experiences of a Heathen soldier, and in the education of military officials. Heath said:

Some Heathens will still have a hard time getting the right to worship, but having their religious preference added will mean the Chaplains Corp, MUST, assist them within the regulation requirements. That is a huge advocacy pool, even a chaplain that doesn’t really want to help will have to or face disciplinary action for failing to uphold their oath. I think this will help, when good soldiers, are seen as good soldiers, and then someone finds out they are a Heathen, this will hopefully show that we are good for our units, good for the Army and good for our country.

He also noted that Heathen Veterans can apply to make a change to their religious preference. Doing so will help with any official census taken, as well as supporting Heathen specific needs for funerals and other religious-based services.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

After the announcement was made, Open Halls members were asked for reactions and thoughts. Heath shared some of those responses:

I have [had] to choose ‘other’ as my religious preference, that makes me and many others feel excluded. I will no longer have to worry, “Will there be someone who understands what I believe, and to speak for me, if the worse were to happen.” – Daron Regan

It is a great feeling not to be marginalized as “that weird guy that believes in comic book characters.” – Andrew Turner

I am thankful for those that have stayed the course, it seems to have paid off and brought honor to us all.- Omar Bailey

This is the seed from which something great may grow. Whether it be something as simple as full recognition or a full chaplain representation. Our deed will feed the well that feeds the seed.- Joshua Spencer

A few members were skeptical on how much this will really affect their day-to-day experience, but most reactions were celebratory and focused on the next chapter of the project. Heath said, “We are planning on pursuing the Navy and Marines next, as they use the same system for Chaplains, a win there will affect both branches at the same time. I seriously doubt they would add the preferences themselves without prodding, but I do not think it would be hard for personnel to make those requests now.”

For more extensive detail on the entire process and experience, turn to the recent interview with Daniel Head and Josh and Cat Heath at the Norse Mythology Blog

On March 19th, 2013, a man who officials believe to be Evan Ebel went to the home of Tom Clements, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and assassinated him in his doorway. The alleged killer, shot dead during a high-speed chase, was a member of a white supremacist prison gang, and officials are still trying to determine whether this was an ordered “hit” on behalf of a client, or if it stemmed from some personal motivation. The nature of the murder shocked many, and garnered national attention due to a recent rash of law enforcement assassinations. Now, as the Colorado Department of Corrections releases more documents relating to Ebel, we now discover that he considered himself a Heathen, and made a complaint relating to acquiring religious literature.

Evan Ebel

Evan Ebel

“New documents released by the Colorado Department of Corrections show the man believed to have killed Colorado Prison Chief Tom Clements practiced a controversial form of religion behind bars. While behind bars before he became a murder suspect, Evan Ebel adopted a religion that is popular among white supremacists. In documents filed with the Department of Corrections he complains about religious literature that was taken from his cell. That literature was related to what’s called Asatru; Ebel called it his official religion.”

That was from a CBS Denver affiliate, who also interviewed Valgard Murray of the Asatru Alliance.

“You cannot practice the religion of Asatru and be a hateful, bigoted person. It’s just not part of our value system.”

The only other news outlet that has noticed Ebel’s religion (so far) is The Colorado Independent, which mention it in the context of a number of grievances he had made while incarcerated in solitary confinement.

“The subjects of his grievances included problems sending and receiving mail and DOC’s decision not to let a woman visit him on grounds that her driver’s license wasn’t valid. Ebel complained about what he called inadequate medical treatment for a knee problem, tremors and spasms, intestinal issues, a colostomy bag and a persistent eye infection. He grieved that the prison censored his “Resistance” magazines, a publication popular among white supremacists. And he decried the confiscation of his literature about Asatru, a faith based on Northern European white lineage that Ebel listed as his religion. He complained about the cost of canteen items, and the lack of food products with protein for sale to prisoners. He grieved about his laundry going missing.”

While Ebel was certainly a troubled and violent individual who had earned his time in prison, some are now questioning whether the treatment Ebel was given pushed him over the edge. Unbalanced to a point where he was completely unready for freedom, once given, and filled with a rage he could not control.

“Anderson’s long history of mental illness and the 16 years he has spent in so-called administrative segregation were the subject of a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, which he won in September. Anderson sued the state for depriving him of sunlight, fresh air and mental health treatment, including medications that would help him earn his way out of isolation. The prison’s refusal to provide outdoor exercise to prisoners at the facility amounted to what U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson ruled was cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ebel himself requested help in transitioning to the outside world, requests that were denied on procedural grounds.

“Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?”

No doubt some will use the revelations of Ebel’s religion as further proof of a racist and violent ideology, but I see it as a tragic and lost opportunity. What if Ebel had access to regular chaplaincy services from an reputable Asatru organization dedicated to helping him reintegrate?  Could the alleged murders he committed, and his own death, have been avoided given proper medical treatment and counseling from leaders in his chosen faith? Perhaps Ebel was too twisted by his gang affiliations, and his own instability, to have been helped, but would it have hurt to allow him supervised religious fellowship? Individuals who loved that same gods, but rejected the violent and racist path he had traveled?

This is not a “bleeding heart” argument, but a pragmatic one. If prison merely makes murders, rapists, and other criminals more hardened, more entwined with criminal organizations, then how can we ever expect to make society better by sending hundreds of thousands of men and women there each year? It is common sense to want prisoners to be rehabilitated, and one method is to allow more robust access to minority religion chaplains. To give them a lifeline that is not tied to gangs or extremist ideology.

According to available data, there could be as many as 40,000 modern Pagans currently incarcerated in the United States and more than a third of prisons say their Pagan populations are growing. Yet the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian, and of that number an impressive 44% are Evangelical Christians. If we are to reach these troubled Pagans and Heathens behind bars we must advocate for better access, equal treatment behind bars, and build better chaplaincy-building infrastructures within our own communities. If we don’t we will simply revisit the accusations that Pagan faiths in prison are tied to extremism, and lurid details to flesh out tabloid reporting, each time a crime is committed by a former inmate.