Why does white supremacist Odinism thrive in prisons?

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TWH – Some people believe that religious beliefs necessarily transform people and eliminate bad qualities such as prejudice. However, prejudice forms one of the core beliefs of white supremacist Odinism. Mass incarceration has provided white supremacists a place to recruit alienated white prisoners, which has created a toxic mix. Recently, The Wild Hunt interviewed Rory Bowman about white supremacist Odinism in prison.

Bowman is the chaplain liaison for Heathen Prison In-Reach Services of the Troth, an international organization that promotes inclusivist Heathen traditions, or those that do not endorse such prejudice or similar beliefs.

What is white supremacist Odinism?

Bowman distinguished between the social origins of Wicca, Druidry, and inclusive Heathenry and those of white supremacist Odinism, which he called a “romantic cult that emerged from theosophy and traveled to modernity through the Nazi party.” He added, “They may claim to worship gods with the same names as some you know, but white supremacist Odinism is a fundamentally a different thing and must be understood it as such.” In contrast, Wicca and modern Druidry emerged from explicitly anti-fascist English-language traditions. Much of Neopaganism originated in the environmental and feminist counter-cultures of the 1960s.

Bowman considers most forms of white supremacist Odinism as henotheist. In a henotheistic cosmology, many gods are present but only one counts. All the others are mere “window dressing.” He thinks that white supremacist Odinists are for the most part hostile to Paganism, or dismissive of it as lesser or soft.

“White supremacist Odinism may seek shelter under the larger Pagan umbrella,” Bowman cautioned, but “they do not play well with others.”

History of white supremacist Odinist traditions

Madame Blavatsky (1831 – 1891), the German-Russian occultist, founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Bowman argues that theosophy had a major influence on the development of white supremacist Odinism. Blavaksky popularized the swastika and promoted the idea of a superior Aryan race.

Theosophy influenced Guido von List (1848 – 1919), a romantic, pan-German writer. He developed the philosophy of armanism or ariosophy. Armanism refers to a supposed order of priest-kings of the ancient Germans. Ariosophy refers to the study of wisdom concerning the Aryans. Von List coined the term “Wotanism,” anglicized as “Odinism.” According to Bowman, von List had a great influence on Heinrich Himmler. Von List’s idea of the armanist priesthood formed the basis of Himmler’s Schutzstaffel SS.

After WWI, the Thule Society (1918 – 1925) formed the next link in this chain. That group founded the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers Party) in January 1919. Hitler reorganized the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei into the Nazi party in April, 1920. As he noted, the Nazis emphasized “romantic notions of a pan-German state,” which would rule the world.

Bowman argues that this appealed to humiliated WWI veterans.

Grave stone of Else Christensen [Nyo].

After the end of WWII, Else Christensen became the next link. She and her husband were Danish Nazi sympathizers. They left Denmark after the war for England, and then Canada. In the late ’60s, they founded the Odinist Fellowship. In 1971 she relocated again to Crystal River, on Florida’s central Gulf Coast. She wrote to prisoners promoting white supremacy through Odinism. Christensen was able to obtain federal and state prison systems recognition for Odinism as a religion. U.S. white supremacist Odinists recognize her as the grandmother of their movement.

Conditions in prisons that foster the growth of white supremacist Odinism

The isolation and violence of prisons forces most prisoners to need a primary social group for support and protection, as Bowman explains. This need may drive prison behavior. It increases the power of peer pressure.

Bowman stressed that prisoners can leave white supremacist Odinism if they have somewhere else to go. He said, “This usually happens when a prisoner begins to ask religious questions that cannot be answered by their alleged co-religionists, or head down historical or religious paths that vary from the tribal clique.”

The religious practices of a prisoner may change upon release, according to Bowman. Many prisoners who turn to religion in prison, leave it after their release. Religion in prison may have more to do with belonging to the primary social group in prison than with theology, he explained.

Bowman sees evidence of toxic masculinity. He said, “Most of the Odinists I know inside [prison] consciously present as more masculine than most.”  Male prison culture has a macho component with lots of toxic masculinity. He compared it to middle school. In that environment “the more tolerant people will often be quiet from fear of ostracism,” he said.

How to help prisoners explore non-Odinist traditions

Bowman urged people that, if a friend is sent to prison, people should go out of their way to maintain contact.  “Most of those who fall into racist Odinism by accident do so because there isn’t much else available,” he continued, “so help make other things available.”

The Troth has a prison ministry which involves volunteers answering questions from prisoners and chaplains, corresponding with prisoners, and sending resource materials to prisoners and prison libraries. Some members, like Bowman, make in-person visits to prisoners. Rather than promoting a “one true way” of Heathenry, the Troth emphasizes reputable resources and self-study.

Definition of terms

Many people use terms like white supremacy, Odinist, and fascist without clear definitions, as a result this usage makes discussion of these issues difficult. Bowman clarified his use of these terms in this interview as follows:

A white supremacist  is someone who believes that races are real things, whether biological or as part of a caste system. They believe that an alleged “white” race is superior to other races. That belief in superiority entitles them to rule over or have privileges over other races.

An Odinist is someone who gives lip service to honoring Odin and “Norse” or “Germanic” culture. They draw on the tradition first established by Guido von List. The Thule Society and Nazis carried on and amplified that tradition. Else Christensen introduced it to the U.S.

A fascist is someone who believes in authoritarian nationalism, however that nation is defined. They draw on the mid-20th century ideologies of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. Those fascisms were all clearly tied to corporate industrialism. Economic authoritarianism formed a central tenet of those fascisms.

Impact on other Heathens outside of prison

According to Bowman, the major impact of white supremacist Odinism on Heathens outside of prison is embarrassment. White supremacist Odinists “get out [of prison] and perform a sort of cosplay masculinity.” Other people assume that cosplay is Heathen or Pagan. He said that they tend to associate Heathenry with anti-social behavior, adding “I don’t know a single Heathen who has not had to explain at some point that no, they are not Nazis.”

Bowman remains optimistic about prisoners reentering society. He said that “I’ve seen several turn their lives around and become positive, contributing members of society. I’m honored to call them my friends. All of us can make mistakes, and all of us can learn to take responsibility and do better.”