Column: Notes on “Paganism and Its Discontents”

Today’s column is a guest submission by Tahni Nikitins, a long-time Pagan and writer in multiple genres. Tahni’s work has appeared in Gods & Radicals, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Nomad.

On March 15th, a symposium was held at the University of South Carolina, a collaborative project between Cherry Hill Seminary and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Anthropology & Archaeology titled  “Paganism and Its Discontents”. The symposium featured special guest Diana Paxson and keynote speaker Michael Strmiska, Ph.D., who  presented his paper Arguing with the Ancestors: Making the Case for a Paganism Beyond Racism.

Unfortunately, I was only able to be in attendance for the first day of presentations. Over the weekend a dozen essays focusing primarily on the problem of racism within paganism, especially Heathenry, were presented. Our hosts Holli Emore and Jonathan Leader expressed at the opening of the symposium the delight and excitement of this moment: this was the first academic conference addressing racism in paganism that featured speakers who were not only academics, but also academics who were practicing pagans themselves.

I opened Friday with my paper Sacred Symbols Becoming Battlegrounds, focusing on efforts within Heathenry to reclaim or retain symbols which have been targeted for use by white supremacist movements as well as subgroups within the Heathen community on these efforts. The papers which followed focused on a variety of issues regarding racism in Heathenry, each author taking a look at a focused strategy such as the on-going effort by racists to co-opt genetic science as well as performative völkisch Heathenry and, ultimately, how such movements spread.

Though there isn’t space here to go into any great discussion about the subjects covered on Friday, let me give a brief roundup of some of the highlights:

  • In light of some of the quotes featured in Sacred Symbols Becoming Battlegrounds, a discussion was started about the validity of dismissing racist Heathens as “not real Heathens,” in which it was pointed out that though some such racist Heathens appear to be disconnected to the mythology and gods of Heathenry, others have a clear understanding of the meanings of the symbols and adopt them deliberately, while still others seem quite attached to certain deities and concepts such as that of Valhalla. It was also pointed out that Muslims are not often afforded the privilege of saying that terrorists performing acts of violence in the name of Islam are “not true Muslims,” and the question was posed of how the effort to dismiss racist and violent Heathens reflects on Heathenry given this cultural context.
  • Stephen Grundy’s paper Reconstruction and Racism in Modern Heathenry, presented by Diana Paxson, explored the question of whether or not pre-conversion Nordic societies had a concept such as the modern concept of race. Though Grundy concluded that they may have held ethnocentric views on beauty as expressed in surviving texts, there is little to no evidence that pre-conversion Scandinavian people cared that much about race, even if they did have a concept of race. Grundy went on to say that efforts to project racially motivated values onto these past societies are overlooking clear context clues which indicate the people of the time put far more value on class and social standing than on skin color.
  • Ben Waggoner explored the strange world of white supremacist efforts to appropriate genetic sciences, concluding that racist groups invoke DNA as a symbol rather than as a hard science or as an objective fact, citing common phrases such as that Heathenry is “in your blood.” Waggoner highlighted some of the ways in which racists have to go far beyond the realm of science in an effort to use DNA as a symbol for their racist ideals, and suggested that better education on what “genes do, don’t do, and can’t do” may help to diminished understandings about genetics and make it a little harder for racists to co-opt over simplified, bad versions of the science.
  • Jefferson Calico took a fascinating look into the case of Stephen McNallen and his many theatrics in Performing American Völkisch. Exploring the background of Folkish Heathenry as taking ancestry as both it’s starting and central point, and the origin of Völkisch (from which Folkish is derived) as being racial-religious response to the early 20th century anxiety in Germany that the German identity was threatened. Drawing correlations to the development of German Völkisch movements and modern Folkish movements in America—referred to in the paper as “American Völkisch”—Calico went on to explore some of the ways in which McNallen has performed this identity for both a Heathen and an “Alt-Right” audience, and used that performative aspect of his racist Heathenry to take his movements “viral.”
  • In his paper, Gus Dizerega explored the surprising parallels between the early German Völkish movement and the American counter cultural movements of the 60s and 70s, as well as the ways in which Völkish occult practices set the stage for some of Hitler’s rhetoric to take hold in Germany. Through this Dizerega analyzed the development of the Völkish movement in Germany and its values, and compared and contrasted this with the American Folkish movement as it has presented at events such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Papers presented later in the weekend included Balancing on the Rainbow Bridge: the Challenge of Inclusive Heathenry and Moving Forward from Declaration 127: A Heathenry for the Future by Diana Paxson in coordination with (respectively) The Troth and Berkano Hearth Union; Awakening and Emerging from Political Cooption of Religion by Omar Shaheed; Child of the Lost Cause: the Lingering Malaise of Post-Reconstruction Racism in the American South by Holli Emore, and Radicalization, Recruitment, and Realities in Modern Paganism and Heathenry: a perspective by Jonathan Leader.

A publisher is currently being sought for a book featuring all of the essays presented at this symposium. With luck, it won’t be long before those interested in these subjects will be able to comb through the essays mentioned here for themselves.

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