This year has been a strange one. Next year promises to be even stranger. Although it sometimes seems that the dark is rising and will overwhelm us all, there are steps we all can take to fight for the light.
A Dark Time
We now find ourselves living in a time when fundamental rules and relationships in the social order have begun to break down, sometimes in spectacular fashion. The general public is finally being forced to face the fact that men in power are emboldened by that power to sexually harass, abuse, and assault women and young girls. Five years after 20 small children were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the United States continues to be rocked by gun violence even as Congress chips away at safety measures. 72 years after the defeat of the Third Reich, followers of extreme-right agendas are openly flying Nazi flags as they march in the streets of the western world and chant slogans against Jews and Muslims.
On nearly a daily basis, a president accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women continues to blame his ongoing troubles on the woman who beat him by nearly 3 million votes when he became president via the electoral college and the votes of 19 percent of the national population. In Alabama, a former judge accused by nine women of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault of a 14-year-old) still refuses to acknowledge that he lost an election for U.S. Senate weeks after the votes were counted. In the U.S. Congress, male members of both parties have been accused of long-term sexual harassment, and prominent figures have resigned. Supporters of each of the two major political parties continue to denounce the accused on the other side as degenerates while defending, excusing, and minimizing those on their side.
The statistics on the year’s gun violence in the United States are staggering. There were over 30,000 injuries and 15,000 deaths, including more than 3,000 teens and 700 children. There were over 300 mass shootings and approximately the same number of police officers shot or killed in the line of duty. The numbers of incidents of defensive and unintentional shootings are nearly equal to each other. Even as these numbers continue to grow, the House of Representatives passed a bill that requires all states to recognize concealed-carry permits from every other state, aiming to gut the ability of local jurisdictions to enforce their own gun safety laws.
In several U.S. cities, white nationalists whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents died fighting the Third Reich have held rallies featuring anti-Semitic chants and the flying of Nazi flags. In Germany itself, a far-right party has won seats in parliament for the first time in nearly 60 years. In Poland, an estimated 60,000 people marched with neo-Nazi banners and chanted “Sieg Heil” in a city that actual Nazis in World War II bombed, occupied, and then used as the site of an extermination camp. The U.S. president defended the American white nationalists as including “some very fine people,” and Poland’s interior minister referred to the march in Warsaw as “a beautiful sight.”Powerful men brazenly flout any limits on their sexual appetites. A society brushes aside mass murder and the killing of children. The descendants of those killed by Nazis embrace the creed of the Third Reich and turn on members of their own communities. Whenever another news story on these subjects appears, I am reminded of the words of the prophecy of the coming of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”) in the Icelandic poem Völuspá (“prophecy of the seeress”):
Brothers shall fight and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men each other spare.
I don’t cite this verse for mystical, militant, or millennial ends, but because it seems to describe this point in history. Across the years and centuries, these words always seem apropos of the present moment. We are always approaching Ragnarök. We are always living in Kali Yuga. Society is always breaking down. Things are always falling apart. What can we do?
Affirming the World
Those who practice some form of Heathenry can declare again that we belong to world-affirming religious traditions, and we can embrace the knowledge that past and present forms of these religions focused on right action in this moment rather than pompous promises of the distant future. We can allow our study and love of the long-ago Heathen ages to inspire our lives now in a way that drives us to engage with the great conflicts of our times rather than turn our backs on them.
Many Heathens readily declare themselves ready for action. Over the years, I have often seen social media posts by male Heathens who post memes and comments with some variation of, “If you lay an unwelcome hand on my daughter, I will hunt you down and brutally murder you in revenge.” However, these Vikings of theoretical future scenarios rarely take equally strong stands regarding the revealed epidemic of sexual misconduct that women have always known of but that is only now receiving widespread coverage.
Women who speak of harassment and assault within Heathen communities are disbelieved or denounced as troublemakers. Women who go public with their testimonies of public figures are dismissed as “trying to cash in,” while the politicians accused endlessly receive the benefit of the doubt.
If a man is willing to commit murder — and therefore either be shot down by police, face government execution, or spend his life behind bars — on the hypothetical future word of his daughter, maybe he should also be willing to believe and support other brave women who have already come forward. If he can support vigilante execution of a theoretical future attacker, it doesn’t seem too extreme for him to support calls for those abusers in power now to step down from office, regardless of party affiliation.There are also many Heathens in North America who collect guns and vociferously defend the right of the private citizen to bear arms not just to execute rapists, but to resist government tyranny, to hunt, for sport, and a host of other reasons. Of these, there is a subset that supports the NRA line that any approach to curbing gun violence — including the smallest of common-sense restriction on the purchase of guns and ammunition — is the worst form of leftist tyranny.
Defense of the community and standing up to anyone or anything that would harm it is at the core of Heathen mythology, theology, and practice. The concept of doing what needs to be done to save others — even when it means great harm to oneself — appears in history and texts revered by Heathens, from history to saga to myth. We don’t live in ancient times. We don’t swing axes at each other when we disagree. Our conflicts are settled in the ballot box, in the legislative chamber, and in the courtroom. At least, that is the ideal fought for by those who came before us and who built the societies in which we live.
Maybe we should be more open to the idea of voluntarily giving up some elements of the current set of privileges regarding gun and ammunition purchase and ownership, so that we can protect our communities at a more fundamental level than carrying pistols on our hips. Maybe protecting those around us from all the mass shootings and even unintentional deaths requires manly men to give up something that matters to them in order to encourage a positive change in the wider world.
I am fortunate to know many Heathens around the world who say that they have no tolerance for racism in their religion, who publicly declare that there is no place for white nationalism in their faith system or religious organization. Unfortunately, some of these same practitioners who announce themselves against racism in general will also strongly denounce other Heathens who stand against racists in particular. The common assertion states that Nazis are always bad, but that those who discuss specific white nationalist actions, publications, individuals, and organizations are the ones truly harming the community.
What community? White nationalist Heathens have mocked inclusive Heathens for decades. The derogatory terms have become more vulgar with the times — from universalist and liberal to cuck and snowflake — but the disdain has remained constant. The racialist Heathens see themselves as wolves and the inclusive Heathens as sheep. Common sense would dictate that sheep don’t try to hug a hungry wolf pack.
Instead of designing flyers and writing declarations, maybe it is time for today’s Heathens to do as the practitioners of the old way did long ago, and venture out into the world, build alliances, and truly stand against the monstrous. Maybe the time has come to hold interfaith events with local Muslims, join public protests against anti-immigrant government action, work with organizations that challenge police violence against African-Americans, and otherwise put down the smartphone and take specific positive actions.
A New Hope
Are there Heathens already doing what has been suggested here? Yes, there are. That’s why there is hope.
We are constantly bombarded with a stream of bad news, horror stories, negative comments, and open hostility. Yet there are so many people in the world working for good, people whose efforts go unnoticed at best and ridiculed at worst.
Those of us who work in the media have a responsibility to shine a light on injustice and to hold public figures accountable. All of us have a responsibility to speak out against bigotry and injustice wherever we see it, especially within our own communities. As Odin advises in the poem Hávamál (“sayings of the high one”),
Profit thou hast if thou hearest,
Great thy gain if thou learnest:
If evil thou knowest, as evil proclaim it,
And make no friendship with foes.
On the other hand — and Odin is always ready with the other hand — he also advises this:
If a friend thou hast whom thou fully wilt trust,
And good from him wouldst get,
Thy thoughts with his mingle, and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.
In addition to calling out what is wrong, we should also celebrate what is right. The media must include stories of special kindness as well as tales of particular evil. We must call out our friends when they act falsely, but we should also praise them publicly when they perform bravely.
Share your good deeds. Promote the good done by others. Take positive steps and encourage others both by example and by invitation. Work to engage with the wider world with whatever talents you have: writing, conversation, teaching, art, organizing, working with the government, joining with good people of other faith traditions. Whatever your forte is, there is need for you.
If you are already doing these things – and many of you are – spread the word! Contact me or the editors of The Wild Hunt and let us know what you are doing to work for positive change. Create a Facebook page or website. Get in touch with local newspapers and radio stations. Let the world know.This column began with a dark verse, so I’ll end it with two positive verses that I also think about often. Both are the words of Odin. They don’t appear next to each other in Hávamál, but they work well together.
No great thing needs a man to give,
Oft little will purchase praise;
With half a loaf and a half-filled cup
A friend full fast I made.
Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on to another word,
Each deed to another deed.
You don’t have to accomplish some massive act to make a change in the world. Small acts of kindness can counterbalance large-scale villainy. Each positive deed weaves webs of right relationships and encourages the doing of further good. If more of us choose light, we can outshine the darkness.
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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.