Since my March column on the Christchurch terrorist attacks and the response from practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry, there have been at least four new stories in the media connecting hate crimes and terrorist violence to modern iterations of Germanic and Norse religions.
The white man arrested in connection to three fires at historically black churches in southern Louisiania self-identifies as Ásatrú and Rökkatrú.
The white man sentenced to life in prison for the hate crime murder of an African-American teenager in Oregon is a member of European Kindred, a white supremacist gang whose founder began the organization for prisoners and says the majority of members are Ásatrú.
The two white men – one a jailer in Georgia and the other in the National Guard – investigated by their employers and journalists for posting “supremacist, fascist and racist” material online are both members of Ravensblood Kindred, a Heathen group that “has received repeated accolades from Asatru Folk Assembly.”
Given the continuing rise in popularity of right-wing ideologies in the United States and the growing alignment between racist Heathenry and white nationalist activists, we’re going to see a lot more of this.
After the Christchurch attacks, a reporter in New Zealand contacted me and asked what attracted white supremacists to Heathenry. After someone connected to Heathenry commits a hate crime, mainstream journalists and academics usually ask what in the mythology and religions inspires racism and bigotry.
How do we answer that question honestly?
A mythology of hugs and kisses?
The myths that form the core of the lore of modern Ásatrú and Heathenry are largely literary productions of thirteenth-century Iceland. Yes, they reflect older oral traditions and have connections to documented material from other northern nations. Yes, there are important myths recorded elsewhere, such as in the work of Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark and in the ballads of the Faroe Islands. But the main stem of the mythology was preserved by the Icelanders, and it is to that stem that many – even putatively non-Icelandic strains – turn for material on deities such as Thor and Odin in order to fill in the gaps of their more localized source materials.
The Icelandic mythological sources do not portray a post-Enlightenment, postmodern, post-feminist, post-gender-revolution worldview of welcoming inclusion and gentle kindnesses.
Thor repeatedly brags about fighting women, including those who had “done the worst things, betrayed the whole people,” and about killing women of the giant tribe in order to prevent them from having children he insists would commit genocide against “humans within Midgard.” The one thing that Odin and Thor agree on is that it would be nice to rape a girl “in the east” together, and Frey’s messenger Skirnir threatens the “beautiful girl” Gerd with extreme sexual violence, including forced mating with “a three-headed ogre,” unless she marries “Njord’s vigorous son.” Loki murders a servant and guides the killing of the “most beautifully spoken and most merciful” of the gods out of jealousy before killing the “great and holy” guardian of the World Tree and leading the invading forces that destroy the world and kill all of humanity but one couple.1
Attacking women seen as traitors to the race; killing women to prevent their children from committing some imagined racial genocide; guilt-free gang-raping of young women from another race; using sexual violence against women as a means of control; murdering declared enemies; leading a deluded apocalyptic war – to pretend that there is absolutely nothing in the mythology that can be cited by misogynist and racist Heathen extremists is to deny what is plainly stated in the lore of the gods themselves. Members of the worst hate groups can easily find Icelandic material to cite in their paranoiac rants about “traditional” gender roles, miscegenation, and “racial holy war.”
One might ask: aren’t the hate groups simply cherry-picking from the lore to justify their a priori prejudices? Like the mythologies of so many other traditions, the Heathen material preserved in medieval Iceland is inherently confused and contradictory. Snorri Sturluson worked to systematize the diverse materials preserved in poetry and oral tradition, but he didn’t quite succeed in taming his unruly sources. We are all of us engaged in picking out and amplifying the parts that support our particular worldviews, from the progressives who read Thor’s battle against the World Serpent as an allegory for standing against bigotry to the Lokeans who view the Icelandic figure as a “god of resistance” to the folkish Heathens who obsess over defending the “European-descended” innangard against the racialized Other of the utgard.
Myth is malleable. It always seems to be the other side that does the cherry-picking, while we see ourselves as being trú to “the ancient worldview of the arch-Heathen.”
No True Heathen
Whenever Heathen hate and violence bubble up into mainstream media reporting, the accusation of cherry-picking by self-declared “inclusive” Heathen individuals, organizations, and publications usually goes hand-in-glove with declarations that the perpetrator’s words and deeds are “not what Heathenry believes or stands for.”
Is there really one true church of Heathenry with a clearly defined set of beliefs and ethical positions? The old twin tenets of Heathenry (“you’re doing it wrong” and “you’re not the boss of me”) suggest that such an idea has never had any real support, as does the endless argument over minutiae of belief and practice within just about every Heathen community.
In terms of the historical development of modern Heathenry in the United States, the racists were here first. Else Christensen’s Odinists were organized and recruiting from prison gangs nearly twenty years before the founding of national-level “universalist” Heathen groups and long before the “inclusive” Heathens began their own prison recruitment programs. The fact that the first great schism in American Heathenry was over overt versus covert racism, between white nationalism and ethnocentrism, and that the two sides have rebranded themselves repeatedly in the decades since (despite overlapping leadership and membership) suggests that the hateful Heathens may indeed be promoting what a relatively large proportion of Heathenry “believes or stands for.”
Yet articles, blog posts, declarations, Facebook statuses, and social media comments by Heathens continue to insist that those who promote racialist ideologies are “not real Heathens.” We’ve seen this sort of denial from multiple religious groups over the last two decades: ordained priests who rape children aren’t real Catholics, terrorists who aim to create an Islamic state aren’t real Muslims, Wiccan elders who sexually abuse young people aren’t real Pagans, etc.
In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, philosopher Antony Flew wrote about the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:
Imagine some Scottish chauvinist settled down one Sunday morning with his customary copy of The News of the World. He reads the story under the headline, ‘Sidcup [England] Sex Maniac Strikes Again.’ Our reader is, as he confidently expected, agreeably shocked: ‘No Scot would do such a thing!’ Yet the very next Sunday he finds in that same favourite source a report of the even more scandalous on-goings of Mr. Angus McSporran in Aberdeen [Scotland]. This clearly constitutes a counter example, which definitively falsifies the universal proposition originally put forward… Allowing that this is indeed such a counter example, he ought to withdraw; retreating perhaps to a rather weaker claim about most or some. But even an imaginary Scot is, like the rest of us, human; and we none of us always do what we ought to do. So what in fact he says is: ‘No true Scotsman would do such a thing!’
As ever more reports of racist statements made and hate crimes committed by Heathens appear in the media, the “no true Heathen” proclamations seem increasingly limp. In the past, I believed some preliminary research suggesting that white nationalists made up a statistically insignificant minority of American Heathens. I no longer believe that the reported data accurately reflects the reality on the ground, if it ever did, and I now wonder if racist Heathens are actually the majority in the United States.
So what does it mean to declare “what Heathenry believes or stands for”? Is it ever meaningful to claim that there is some universal Heathen worldview today and that diverging from this dogma brands one as “no true Heathen”? If racist Heathens are actually the majority, how should non-practitioners cover these religions in media reports and scholarship?
I’ve long challenged journalists and academics to cover aspects of modern Ásatrú and Heathenry besides the racism forwarded in the name of the old gods, to write about issues of theology, community, worldview, and ritual instead of always about this one issue. But self-declared Heathens of various stripes continue to promote and act on racist ideologies, and self-declared “inclusive” Heathens continue to flood the internet with declarations and denunciations. Why wouldn’t reporters and scholars cover this, when it surely seems like the key concern of this set of new religious movements since their beginnings in the 1970s?
Race issues in Heathenry have long ago moved from internal debates into journalistic reports and academic writing. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting on racist Heathenry for over twenty years. Jeffrey Kaplan’s Radical Religion in America, with its in-depth discussion of “Odinism and Ásatrú,” is nearly a quarter-century old. There is now an established body of literature on this particular subject.
How should journalists and academics respond to the growing number of Heathen hate crimes and the proliferating number of Heathen denunciations of those crimes? With a lack of hard data delineating the breakdown of even just the American Heathen community by perspectives on race issues, how can they make a clear assessment of which view is in the majority and which is in the minority?
In any case, the endless declarations against racism don’t seem to be having much effect on racists. I’ve asked before what the point of these proclamations really is. Are they simply about publicly distancing ourselves from racist members of the wider religious community in order to stave off accusations of racism against ourselves, or is there really a strong belief that these proclamations will convince members of hate groups to renounce their deeply held ideological allegiances and join their local multicultural, eclectic, neo-Pagan associations? What’s the goal here?
It doesn’t seem like most people want to critically examine their own beliefs and practices, whichever side of whatever public debate they’re on. That’s human nature. We especially don’t want to examine how the mythology and religion that means so much to us can also inspire the most virulent hate and violence. It’s comforting to declare that the other side is cherry picking and that they’re no true Heathens. But our reluctance to make real changes perpetuates the same old status quo.
Modern Heathenry has been on this path since its beginnings last century. What will it take to truly and fundamentally change?
1. Quotations are from Carolyne Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda and Anthony Faulkes’ translation of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda. ↩