The Havamal Witches

From Danish writer Andrea Hejlskov, on structural sexism in Heathenry


We know that every time a women kills herself two men does the same. That nine out of ten victims of violence are men. That men seldom seek the doctor by own initiative. That men are not prone to ask for help. That the majority of addicts are men. That the majority of homeless people are men.

We know.

Yet the violence of men towards women is not a subject that we should ignore, diminish or close our eyes to. We should not accept it and we should not excuse it.

I believe heathen spirituality encompasses strong moral concepts such as courage and strength. This means that we most be brave enough, always, to confront the dragon – even if it sits in our midst – and that is what I believe the hasthtag #havamalwitches strives to do.

See, the subject of sexism within heathenry is so much more than a story of physical violence: it is also a story of structural sexism, the kind of sexism that cannot easily be addressed because it is subtle, internalised and banned from our self-understanding. We´re not like that, right? “not in our community, we´re pagans, christ, get a grip!”

Yes: in our community.

I am a “strong” woman and as such I believe many people would maybe have a hard time seeing or understanding that I would have had problems with sexism within heathenry. I am assertive and somewhat successful, I have strong political beliefs and I do have some “power.”

I earned it, I gained it, I fought for it… and I will not excuse this (because I don´t think a man would).

Power struggles, gossip and lack of loyalty is something we all have to deal with; however, I feel that I had to fight a bit harder for both my voice and that loyalty from others. I cannot recount the many times I have been hushed upon on reconstructionists forums. I cannot recount the times people would turn to my blótbrother instead of me asking him to walk them through the ritual.

Worse, the many times we, as women, have had to fight each other because there were so limited space for us… we became competitors.

The structural subject of sexism is a difficult one to handle. Let me make this specific, allow me to root my point in an actual situation, a time, a place, some people sitting around a fire: it was after a very strong blót, the horn was passing around among us, we were drunk, the ocean lay calm and glistening under the full moon, we were laughing.

You know how it is. You know the power of this. The openness in the heart, the sense of community, the sense of being connected to the gods, that the whole world is alive.

My boyfriend at the time was a Gode and I was (am) a Gytha. We did not belong to the same kindred but that night was a mix of people from here and there, then and now; it was an open event and as some swam naked in the calm of the ocean, others would dance around the fire. He and I were dancing around the fire. Meaning; debate and conversation is the root of our religion, this is how the world was created “then went the high and the holy ones to the Rókstolar to hold converse”

As it often happens within heathenry, the dialogue and the debate became heated, wild as the fire, and my boyfriend, when drunk, would change character.

I knew this about him. We would talk about it (when he was not drunk).

Given that there is also a lot of (ritual) drinking in our practise this was becoming an increasing problem in our relationship so that night I asked him to stop- he snapped. I became very afraid of him. I grabbed my cloak and ran for the woods where I hid all night under a bush, afraid that he should find me.

“I´ll kill you” he yelled, into the dark. Later he went to sleep in our tent.

I don´t think the others knew. I mean, as Scandinavians we are quite tolerant, yes, I don´t think they sensed the same danger as I did. I tell myself they didn´t know. I don´t think they knew.

The shame and the humiliation the next day, crawling towards the people after having spend the night as an animal, under the bush, heavy breathing, using my magic to make myself invisible. Scared. To pretend as if nothing had happened. The flickering in peoples eyes as I would then return to my “status”- how my “status”, my worth, my name, my word would slowly be undermined by these episodes. And this: because I am a strong women- people tend to simply not believe me when I share sensitive stuff. Hurt. Pain. Fear.

So I am requested now to “prove” that I am a victim of sexism- my word seems to not be enough. It is insulting really. Am I supposed to cry? Am I supposed to come off as weak, am I supposed to victimize myself… before you would believe me?

I don´t hate this man. Not at all. But I hate that I should fear for my life when he was drunk and that I should be in actual danger because he could not contain his emotion, he could not allow it- and I was not a soft harboring woman with my bosom, I would not comfort him, no, I would demand more of him… because such are my inclinations as a heathen woman.

In some ways I think we were both victims of sexism.

The culture within heathenry does not demand from a man like that–that he should reach out, open up, ask for help. I don´t think anybody approached him and said “hey… dude…”

Instead other men would maybe even look up to him for being such an badass.

It was a dysfunctional relationship, no doubt about it but this is not the point of my story, by sharing this I want to highlight some of the hidden shit we deal with, all of us, alone.

Because of the things that happened I came to mistrust my kindred, my friends. I didn´t feel safe. The space of heathenry became contaminated, maybe we contaminated it ourselves- but the taboo of this, the way we would never talk about these incidences (and there were other incidences, other people, other stories)- slowly eroded something within me. I came to mistrust my community. I came to question loyalty- and if you don´t have loyalty, then what do you have?

Sexism came between us.

The stereotype of gender that my boyfriend suffered under – and me as well.

So I disappeared. I went into the wild and lived one the fringes for six years, practising alone.

Well. I am back now.


Andrea Hejlskov

Andrea Hejlskov is a Danish author and journalist living off grid in the wilds woods of Sweden. She has been a gythja for nearly 15 years. This is her page www.andreahejlskov.com


 

Sacred Violence and Our Hidden Monsters

“Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.”

On the Nature of Violence, from Mathieu Thiem

There is an aspect of violence which is sacred that we have all but forgotten. We have succumbed to a trend in which rage, anger, desperation, pain and great struggle have been swept under the rug for the sake of higher ideals sterilized from the gritty reality of injustice and suffering.

When we really understand violence, we come to find that it points to the underlying conditions which have manifested it. Violence is merely the symptom of a greater problem. There are terrible issues with violence, don’t assume that I am somehow stating it is a good thing, but by lumping all kinds of violence into one category, we do a disservice to violence as an indicator of a deeper disharmony.

In many “pre-civilized” societies, violence was an inevitable part of the conditions of life. Such societies even ritualized violent wars to become the outlet by which conflict between tribes was resolved. Sure, people died in warfare, but far fewer compared to the wars of empire. Ritualization of violence was a way by which people could have a controlled and sacred space to confront the darker nature of themselves and society. It was a way of giving voice to their darkness so that they could hear the powerful medicine that lay embedded in its constructs. But when we have lost this ability to give voice to our shadows, when we have lost the ability to seek medicine with the intelligent connections of struggle and conflict, how then do we hide violence within our lives?

In civilization, where we eschew violence altogether (unless it is the violence of the State), violence emerges and interweaves itself throughout our society without most ever being cognizant of it. For instance, privilege is an act of systemic violence, money is an act of systemic violence, so too is class, rape culture, hierarchy, bosses, fines, taxes that pay for war and programs that oppress, coca cola, coffee, chocolate, gas lighting–the list goes on and on. Violence is interwoven within society in some very unnoticeable ways. We often don’t realize the weight of injustice pressed upon us, nor what we perpetuate in turn.

Instead of viewing violence as a moral problem of right and wrong, we need to view violence as an indicator of deeper cultural pathologies. Many of us feel a deep revulsion to the term violence, as many of us have seen its effects, but when I talk about sacred violence it tends to also have a near identical response, if not coupled with a kind of morbid curiosity. I challenge you to look into this feeling and its underlying conditions.

Sacred violence is less about committing violence against the other and more about understanding violence as an indicator of a deeper problem. We act in violence everyday, our lives revolve around violence. And there are many times we unknowingly commit acts of violence against another. This can be readily observed within loving relationships where partners or family members violate your agency or seek to control you by projecting their identities of you onto the world and yourself. There is a deep controlling narrative to human relationships that can be extremely toxic; however, these again are symptoms of a pathology that caused people to be this way. In many ways violence is the only way we know how to confront a problem, not because we desire to, but because we truly don’t know how else to act (if we are even conscious of our violent responses). It is only by engaging in struggle that the reality of the solution can be found.

This is the crux of the problem with anti-violence: it is merely avoidance. Rather than seeking to sterilize the problem of violence, why don’t we bring forth its sacred nature and understand it for the reality it is exposing? Why do we not use violence as a way of uprooting the problems before they turn into a hidden monstrosity?

When we look upon a weed growing forth from crumbling concrete, we recognize this as a beautiful resistance. We fully comprehend this act of violence as a mode of righteous resistance, and according to many who view violence simply as destruction, is that not what is occurring when nature tears down empires? Do we look down upon the thunderbird as it destroys a city? Do we curse the strong oak tree for burning up the mulch machine? Do we demonize the wolf for killing the deer?

Nature’s violence is embedded into its operations. This violence is not a malice, but a striving towards survival and liberation. If we are able to see nature’s violence as a beautiful resistance, an affirmation of life, then why are we humans alienating ourselves from this nature and setting ourselves apart from these acts of sacred violence? Humanity’s act of sterilizing the natural world goes right into our morality as well, especially that of non-violence.

Those who view the dandelion in the concrete as weeds are themselves the perverse. Those who see the oak tree as an obstruction are the sick. Those who build cities in the path of thunderbirds are not heeding the wisdom of the land. Those who want the wolves dead are the ones who are desecrating the world. Those who seek to sterilize nature and prop up the great virtues of civilization are the same folk that seek to desecrate nature and create a world of hollow human values.

It perplexes me to see people assume there is always a way to avoid violence. We seem to think that there is always a way to escape the consequences of our actions, but this is always a lie. Reality doesn’t play out that way. Our actions are embedded into the system from which we operate, and we will always be made to face them. The things that cause us to struggle and live in pain, these things that come from the culmination of our externalized suffering, ingnoring responsibility whether collectively or individually, these things will always come back to cause us the pain that we sought to escape. We cannot escape the results of our actions. We can not cheat the ending of all things. The suffering and death of life: this will always be our fate.

Why then pretend there is always a way out? Why assume that we can bypass the struggle and pain of violent reorganizations of society and the self? Whether we are responsible for it or not, life does not ensure there is a way out of suffering, rather we are all the victims of the past. We are all bearers of the cycles of violence committed against one another. This violence moves forward with us. As long as we seek to deny death and suffering a rightful place at the table of our community, we will suffer the consequences of dishonored ancestors. We will be haunted by the unvirtuous dead that rise up during our own Ragnarok.

The story of Fenrir helps to understand violence. Odin and the Aesir were afraid of Fenrir, the wild chaotic nature of violence, and they bound him up in fear and cowardice of the inevitability of their own frailty. They thought that by controlling the process of the violence of nature, they could forever be safe. But it was this very action of seeking to bind and hide away this violence that they made an enemy of it. Externalizing their suffering became the very cause of their demise. The binding of Fenrir was the creation of a monster: out of fear they sought to bind him, and from the binding he grew in ferocity.

Often the only way to resolve conflict is to actually engage in the struggle. We must actively seek to wrestle the violent aspects of our nature to gain the relational intelligence that can open up the doors of resolving that violence. Within society and ourselves there are monsters that come to light only through our struggle in conflict. To ignore these darker parts of ourselves is to ignore reality. They need an outlet. They need a stage on which to be played.

Try to sterilize this concept of violence and we lose the fertility of its composting. Violence breaks things down in a way that allows for new things to grow. Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.

There is a wildness at the heart of resistance. A ferocity let loose when facing oppression. Capitalism culls this ferality out of us, it tames us by commoditizing the meaning of our lives. But we only need to let it run free. There is within our wild ferocious hearts a yearning for freedom. Our desire to sink our teeth into an oppressor’s neck is not the same old cycle of violence, but the natural cycle of life. This sacred violence that we crave is none other than the ritual of life feeding death feeding life. To sterilize this sacred violence with civility is merely a perverse ideal wrapped in the packaging of commodified desecration. So let the blood flow from where it may. Let your teeth sink into all forms of injustice and pull out the jugular for all to see.


Mathieu Thiem

Mathieu Thiem is a bioregional animist who spends his time studying the art of mythic living and running a blog called The Woven Song. www.wovensong.com

Solidarity Beyond Bars: Pagans in Prison

The United States has 22% of the world’s prisoners but only 4.4% of the world’s population. Solidarity has always been a primary focus of radical and religious groups, but little is spoken of efforts to provide spiritual solidarity for Pagans and Heathens. So, I spoke with Donna Donovan, the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry to find out about her work and how others can help.


RHYD: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Could you tell me about yourself, and the work you do with the Appalachian Prison Ministry?

DONNA DONOVAN: Thank you for having us! My name is Donna Donovan, and I am the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry. We are a pan-Pagan ministry devoted to building an engaged, passionate, and spiritually fulfilled community of people from all backgrounds and faiths. We are devoted to engaging and impacting one another and others, believing it is our responsibility to set an example of service. This is where we come to “walk our talk” and educate by example.

Our main focus is our pan-Pagan prison ministry developed to serve the spiritual needs of our fellow Pagans currently incarcerated. Currently, we are the only Pagan ministry allowed in to West Virginia state prisons, serving monthly on-site at 5 facilities, along with monthly on-site services at 5 facilities in Ohio, including Death Row. We also serve, via correspondence, to several Kindreds and Covens in facilities across the United States.

RHYD: I’d like to ask you about the specific sorts of difficulties and needs of prisoners, but before that, can you talk about the barriers groups hoping to help prisoners face? What is certification like, what sorts of restrictions are you under, and how difficult is it to convince prison officials and state bodies to grant you access?

DONNA DONOVAN:  Since the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, followed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, inmates around the country of non-Abrahamic paths have been fighting to get their religious rights while incarcerated. The stigmas associated with the various “Pagan” groups in prison are really no different then the outside. Wiccans are considered evil, baby sacrificing, devil worshippers, and those of the Heathen paths are all a bunch of Nazi skinheads. As I tell the inmates I work with, many of these stigmas and attitudes did not just come out of thin air. There is a long history of violence perpetuated by various groups pushing their agendas through while trying to hide behind these religious paths. However, much like the outside, the fear is based on ignorance; a simple lack of understanding.

As with most States, in Ohio and West Virginia, volunteer programs such as ours, our what is considered “inmate driven” not “volunteer driven.” That means we have to be requested by the inmates. We can not solicit to go in. At that point, it is usually the prison Chaplain who contacts us. That’s when our battle begins.

So the first obstacle is approaching the administration and teaching them. Show them that we are not coming in there to start a race war, or to incite violence or anything else other than teaching folks about the faith of their choosing. Plain and simple. Wearing normal street clothes instead of prancing in there in festival garb and 10″ pentacles tends to help, too. [laughs] The point is that administration needs to understand that just because we do not worship the same does not mean we are not like them and everyone else walking.

Once you get past the door, then you have to fill out so much paperwork, you literally think you are buying a home. Background checks need to be done, recommendations sent, and so on. This process tends to take weeks, if not months. When you are finally approved, you then have to go through a volunteer training and orientation. All of this is for each and every facility. A few hours of videos and lectures, some questionnaires, tours, etc.. We then schedule a date to present to the inmates and go on to schedule our monthly meetings from there.

RHYD: Your prison work is in Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the United States. And of course, poverty and incarceration are deeply linked in Capitalist societies: most crimes on the books are ‘property’ and economic crimes. From your vantage point, what are the struggles you see for the prisoners you work with? I’m wondering, also, about the matter of discrimination you encounter against prisoners by the rest of society.

DONNA DONOVAN: You are correct, this is one of the most poverty stricken areas, as well as being one of the hardest hit by the opiate epidemic. Huntington, WV, where APM is based, is the overdose capital per capita in the entire country.

donna-pullHowever, mass incarceration is a national problem, not just regional. Our “war on drugs” has obviously failed. The only success has been the profit margins of those in the privatized prisons business. Our nation’s prisons went from being rehabilitative to punitive in the late 80s/early 90s when private companies like CCA took over.

Which leads to the answer to your second question. When an inmate undergoes incarceration and spends that time doing absolutely nothing productive, nothing rehabilitative…of course they come out of prison with no skills, no socialization and they end up going right back to the lifestyle that led them there in the first place. 95% of those currently incarcerated WILL BE released. Within 3 years, 60-75% of those will re-offend. But that’s what these private prisons want; they want the recidivism rates to stay high so their profits stay up. Quite sad when you think about that. What people do not think about is where those profits come from. They come from you. They come from me. Your taxes pay so CCAs, CEOs, and managers can live their luxurious lifestyles. You’re also paying for all those families whose loved ones are incarcerated, as the majority end up being single parent households on welfare.

When I asked the inmates what could be done for them to help them before they were released, they overwhelmingly answered “programs that help us adapt into society, education, life skills, the ability to grow in body, mind and spirit.” Therapy through art is one program that has shown success, mentoring programs, and programs such as ours that help them to grow in the faith of their choosing.

What sort of discrimination do I encounter in regards to inmates? “They’re criminals, they’re degenerates, they don’t deserve help.” From the Heathen community I hear a great deal about dishonor. Really? These inmates, male and female alike, know the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are paying for those mistakes. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or continuing to blame outside sources for their current situation, they are holding themselves accountable and doing what they can to grow in body, mind and spirit to ensure they do not make those same mistakes again. Truly, how many of us really do that? These folks have made oaths to themselves, to their Gods, and to their ancestors to live honorably. They realize, and freely admit, they did not do so before…which is why they are in prison. How can we not help them be able to do that?

RHYD: It’s difficult to find current statistics on prison population, but the most recent I could find (2013) showed the US has 22% of the world’s inmates despite having only 4.4% of the world’s population. So there’s definitely something going on besides ‘dishonor’ and ‘degeneracy,’ and profit looks like a huge factor.

Moving away from the larger societal issues towards your work with prisoners themselves: what exactly does your work look like? Can you describe your on-site and correspondence work?

519px-thors_hammer_skaneDONNA DONOVAN: When we go into a facility for the first time, we hold a general presentation for all inmates of non-Abrahamic paths. Wiccans, Odinists, Druid, eclectic, and even Satanist/Luciferians. Whoever chooses to come. This has been quite historic, actually, as these groups in prison almost never mingle. At least not without violence. We have not had one incident occur. After the general presentation, which is basically an introduction to who we are, what we do, and what we hope to do, followed by a Q&A with the inmates, we then set schedules for the upcoming visits.

From then on when we go in, we normally separate in two groups. I take the Heathens and we basically hold a moot: small Blot, rune drawing and readings, study a lesson, read from the Lore, and discuss the Havamal a few stanzas at a time. The course I am working with them is the Elder Troth Lore Program. Teresa, my on-the-ground volunteer, takes the Wiccans and eclectics and works with them her own sort of Wicca 101 program. In WV, I am also working a program with the Satanists.

Our correspondence courses are handled by several volunteers. The courses we offer, on top of the ones we handle in the prisons (which are also done via correspondence) are Pagan Astrology, Chaos Magick, Developing Divine Relationships (a devotional polytheist course), and Perennial Lessons in Living–a Druidic course by Emma Restall-Orr reinterpreted by me (with her permission) to be a bit more generalized.

At this time there is about 20 Kindreds nationally doing courses with us.

RHYD: With the programs and courses that you present or develop, do you run into many problems with censorship? How helpful or difficult are the relationships with prison chaplains and supervisors?

Honestly I have not. Prior to going into facilities in either state, West Virginia and Ohio, I met with State Prison officials and submitted outlines of the courses we were offering. All were approved. Surprisingly we have had tremendous support from both chaplains and administrative staffing.

When I first formed APM, I sent an email to the Commissioner of the WV Dept of Corrections introducing us and explaining what we wanted to do. I honestly did not expect an answer. I received an email the very next day requesting to meet with us in Charleston. Two months later we were in our first facility.

I truly believe the tide is changing. People are starting to see that the status quo is not working, and seeking alternatives. Either that or I am just exceptionally charming, and I doubt that is it.

RHYD: Or perhaps both? [laughs]

I’m also curious about white nationalism within prisons. I wrote to queer prisoners 8 years ago, and started a correspondence with a gay Asatruar. Our conversations about race and Paganism seemed to be going well, but I stopped my correspondence with him after he sent me a shirtless photo of himself in front of a swastika. Basically, I freaked. I’m still uncertain that was the right decision, especially once I realised he had no other non-racist Pagan contacts.

So, I can see how your work is deeply important, especially since so many are quick to abandon Pagan and Heathen prisoners. How much influence have you seen on the Heathens you work with from more organised white nationalist groups?

DONNA DONOVAN: Oh my, that is a loaded question. [laughs.] There is a huge influence. Primarily because, up till now, those were, for the most part, the only folks willing to work with Heathens in prison. Just like the Christians who “find Jesus in jail,” it is no different with Pagans. Many come to their chosen faith after incarceration. And as there is such limited access and information, they learn from those already inside, who learned from those already inside, who learned from those (with agendas) willing to come inside. I’ve seen so-called leaders of Kindreds inside who can’t even name the Nine Worlds.

donna-pullThis is exactly what I say when I meet these inmates: “I personally do not care if you are the biggest racist homophobe walking the planet. Truly I don’t. Those are your personal beliefs; you have a right to them; own that shit. Hate everyone that is not a straight white male…fine by me. But do NOT come to me and say that hammer hanging around your neck is the reason why. Your personal biases have NOTHING to do with the religion you claim to follow, NOTHING to do with the Ancestors. And for the next however many months, I’m going to use your own myths, lores and history to show you that. “

There’s been a few death threats…not from inside the walls.

That’s why you’ve seen me all over Facebook saying, “If you’re so worried about the ‘alt-right’ and all the hate crimes, why don’t you all come out from behind your computers and help me in the trenches where this starts?” Stop talking and start doing.

RHYD: It strikes me that something significant changed in the last few decades around prison work. There was a long radical (anarchist, particularly) tradition of correspondence with inmates, but it has not been as strong as before. I have also seen some work to support queer and trans inmates. But it occurs to me that this is one place Christianity beats out all other religious or social groups: solidarity with prisoners is actually written into the Bible.

That brings me to probably the most important question of all: What is needed? Both for your particular work and the Appalachian Pagan Ministry, and also to build stronger networks of support for Pagan and Heathen prisoners from outside the prisons?

Bodies and money. Blunt enough? [laughs.] Truly, in all honesty, this is growing so fast, is such a need, and I have a hard time saying no. We are in ten facilities in two states, about to add four more facilities. There is only two of us going inside. We have another volunteer who, bless his heart, is our driver. We need people to help.

I understand this isn’t for everyone. I get that. I spent my own time behind those walls, so I know what to expect. But we truly do need folks to step up. This is not a volunteer job to take lightly. You have to be committed and consistent and able to follow through. And thick skinned along with compassionate. You have to leave your judgements at the gate.

Financially we need all the help we can get. This all comes strictly out of our pockets: the car rentals, fuel, printing costs, postage, etc.. It has been asked why I do not push for State funding to help with this ministry. The answer is a simple one: I did not apply for a position with the State. We are there to serve and minister to the inmates, not to receive a paycheck from the administration. We are there out of service, not for a job. I also feel that it would affect the trust between the inmates and our volunteers if they felt we were just another correctional employee.

We also feel the same as it comes to funding from organizations. We feel that the best way to keep from being linked to anyone’s ideologies is to not take funds from them. It is the same reason we do not sell advertising on our website. We serve the inmates we work with, not a state or federal entity, not any one group or organization.

I have a real problem with overextending because I can’t say no. When an inmate looks at me with tears in his eyes, literally sobbing, and thanking us for being there, saying, “We have fought for this for 20 years! Thank you so much for being here…” how can I not do this?

RHYD: How can people volunteer or financially support your work?

If they want to volunteer inside one or more of the facilities we go to, they can either contact me through the website at or on our Facebook page

Folks can also donate thru PayPal, purchase items from our online store or go to our “How You Can Help” for other ways to help.

Revolution, Not Absolution

We Are Our Deeds…

Heathenry boiled down to one sentence comes out as “We are our deeds.” Throughout our lives, we co-create the web of life with all that is and all that has come before. This is the meaning of wyrd- it is the way our individual actions weave into the actions of others both past and present, to create a reality that is based upon what came before, but is moving in the direction we believe is right.

We all live within the web of wyrd, and we cannot step outside of it. Every one of us is completely free to make our own choices, yet our view of which choices are honorable is deeply influenced by where we came from. We are our deeds, because our deeds shape who we effect in our lives, and who affects us, and what those effects are. Over a long enough time, our choices change culture and wyrd, because we have made more or less likely the forming of connections between people. Our lives are defined by how we influence the world around us- we are our deeds.

I think that this has political meaning for heathens. We are not bound by a fixed fate- we can change and influence our world and how we relate to others. We are also not without a past. Who we are is shaped by our familial past, our upbringing, and our culture. So I think that a heathen perspective on identity politics is necessary right now.

We are our deeds, and our deeds are the result of our choices. Our identities are not the creation of our circumstances they are the creation of our deeds within the framework of our lives. No matter what my deeds (barring suicide, of course), I would be right now a 25-year-old white biological female. There is nothing I can or could ever do to change that. So how can that be my identity? I am my deeds, not what I was born.

absolution-pullMy choice is to be a radical. My choice is to fight for a better world. My choice is to stand by the oppressed. My choices define me. And I am sick of identity politics proponents trying to take away and diminish my choices. I am not a racist because of my skin color. I am my deeds, and my deeds include fighting for social justice. I want to ask you to think about the people who know. Think about whether they fit into a demographic box. Think about how they have lived, what they were born with, and what they earned. Do you know people from different backgrounds? Do you think the experience of a black man from the susburbs is the same as a black woman from rural Alabama? Do you think the experience of a white person from rural Maine is the same as the experience of a white person from a ritzy suburb?

What I find interesting is the way each of us starts out in life with certain things. This is how I interpret the idea of privilege. A part of our wyrd is laid out before we are born. Some of us will have advantages that others do not, whether those advantages are money, skin color, gender, intelligence, excellent or poor parents, or any other thing. We are definitely woven into the web of wyrd from a starting place.

And I think it is worth broadening our scope here and looking at the whole world, not just America, and not just this time period. There are those who claim that white people are woven into the web as oppressors, and that we can’t change that. So I would like to look at the families represented among those I know, at their histories (as best as I know or can imagine based on the history I know). Are we truly woven into the web as oppressed and oppressors? Or are we woven into the web in a muddle, oppressors over here, liberators over there, oppressed in that corner, all of us tangled together in the tangled weave of oppression we call capitalism?

Strands of the Web…

First I want to look at this time period. Each and every one of us is an oppressor. America is not the world, and all of us bought our food from stores that sell produce picked by migrant farm labor- un-unionized, oppressed, and often kept in slave-like conditions. Our clothes are made from cotton grown by poor farmers who might have been driven to suicide by companies we hold stock in. Those clothes were assembled by people making next to nothing. We are all of us oppressors, and all of us benefit in a way from the oppression of people (mostly of color) worldwide.

There is no pass on this oppression for your skin color, your gender, your religion, anything. If you are American, you are an oppressor. Your tax dollars are at work right now killing some Syrian’s children. The military you pay for is currently terrorizing people in third-world countries to keep them from unionizing, or electing a better government. Even those “off the grid” homesteaders and permaculturalists generally use solar panels requiring mined materials. And those mines are not nice places to work.

This is not to say that we can’t be oppressors and also fight oppression- that is a false argument. We all have to eat to live, and to eat we have to work, and to work we have to reproduce our labor. Which means using and buying things which are the products of oppression. We must use the tools oppression gives us to fight the system of oppression.

absolution-pullIn this time period, we are also, all humans, and all other life, the oppressed. The same factories that oppress thousands also put out greenhouse gasses that threaten the future of life on this planet. The ships which bring the goods to America use an enormous amount of fossil fuels. The monoculture required to produce the tons and tons of cotton, soybeans, and corn that turns the wheels of industry is degrading our soil and water supplies at an insane rate. No one who must face the fact that their children or grand-children may see the last generation of life and can do nothing is unoppressed. The enormity of the destruction of life is so often ignored in our political conversations. We talk about oppression, yet we don’t talk about history’s largest genocide the wiping out of all life, of every culture, of every tribe, of every animal, of every plant, of every fungus, or every amoeba, and of most bacteria (some of those crazy bacteria might make it).

We never really talk about the truth and the horror of what we are doing. Think about what this really means. Jesus isn’t coming to rescue us. We’re not moving to outer space. We are all co-committing mass homicide and suicide and ecocide (us First World people more than others). I hate to gloss over what I just spoke of, to move on to other things, like other things could have any importance in light of the end of the world. But that is what we must do. It is the oath I took (and as a heathen, nothing could be higher law) that “I will not surrender in the presence of doom.”*

So I’m going to return to the narrative I promised you: the real or likely story of some ordinary people into the web of wyrd. The first step back in history is here.

Wyrd Through Time…

I know a family that originated in the south. They likely had some ancestors who were white sharecroppers, some who were over-seers, and likely some slave owners, too. The branch of the family I know moved north at some point, trying to escape the low wages caused by being forced to compete with slave or free black labor. Like thousands of Southerners, black and white, they fled north seeking work, higher wages, and a bit of freedom. Up until the current generation, they retained an attitude of superiority to blacks, even while they faced the same struggles and felt that black individuals they knew or heard about were getting a raw deal. This is a family that has supported a racist, sexist, and homophobic system and jealously guarded their privilege. Yet the potential for future generations to condemn racism and embrace solidarity has been realized, in some cases.

I know black family whose ancestors comes from Florida. I don’t know if any of their ancestors were part of the Seminole tribe and the resistance to colonial oppressors represented by the alliances of people of color in Florida, but I can easily imagine such strong personalities, backed by keen intelligence and a strong work ethic, being more than capable of building an alternative society and resisting the incursions of colonizers for centuries.

Growing up in New England, I knew several people descended from shipping families. They were not part of the slave trade, but were part of the merchant group aginst whom the Boxer Rebellion was organized. Let’s not forget the very real colonization of Asia and the South Pacific in our quest to understand how white people have been linked to other people throughout history.

I happen to be descended a long line of lighthouse keepers. My ancestors were not involved in the slave trade (only working the Maine coast). Given that the older generation always tried to use the “correct” words for people of people of color (“colored” in the 1940s, black or African-American today) and supported civil rights, I’m going to guess the family historically were quiet abolitionists who did nothing about their opinions. They could be considered guilty of a crime of omission, but sought to treat others with due respect within the culture of their time periods. I fault them a little for not being revolutionaries, but I can’t fault them any more than I fault myself for being a tax-payer.

Some of my ancestors are Irish. I know many others of Irish descent. I have no way of knowing whether the ancestors of the Irish I know fled the Potato Famine on ships where one out of every three passengers died, or whether they were brought over the work the mills or build the railroads. What I do know is that they likely at some point worked processing the cotton grown by slaves into cloth. Those workers were generally women, who faced twelve-hour days, sexual harassment, religious oppression, and highly dangerous working conditions. Other ancestors are likely buried in the mass graves used for railroad builders worked to death. If this is benefiting from the oppression of other races, I’m at a loss as to how. What I do know is that the labor wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s were led by immigrant workers and women like these ancestors. I- and every working class person in America- owe those who were brave enough to fight for the rights of labor a deep debt.

Taking a further step back in history, I can guess that the black people I know are descended primarily from people in Africa who were taken from their homes, chained into the coffin ships, and shipped across the Atlantic to be sold at auction like a horse or a dog. They faced whipping and mutilation at the whims of their “owners”. They were told that their enslavement was a good thing because it brought them Christianity.

The English and Irish people were likely driven out of their homes by those who claimed that their ancestral lands were now private property. Harsh vagrancy laws forced them to seek work in factories where they died by the thousands. Those “unfortunates” who failed to find work in factories were rounded up and sold as “indentured servants”. Again, this was justified because it took away their slothful habits and made good Christians out of them. Similar programs in other countries left much of Europe’s peasantry homeless and in search of a better life. Remember that at the same time America’s sharecroppers were struggling to survive, Russia’s serfs were still considered part of real estate and were bought and sold along with pieces of land.

A step farther back in history brings us to the conversion of Europe. Charlemagne’s genocidal wars against the pagan Saxons. The Crusades against the Lithuanians. And above all, the repression of women in society. The tortures used against colonized people were first turned against women in Europe. The stocks and the scold’s bridle, the public whippings and burnings, these were methods of control perfected on women before being used to subjugate other races. The dehumanization of an obviously human part of the population, and the precedent of giving one part of the population (men) a bit of privilege in exchange for their help in subjugating the others was set during the conversion years.

Religious oppression backs up all the other forms of oppression. It is no accident that fundamentalist Christianity and the alt-right are in bed together. It’s no accident that there is a flag hanging in most churches. The history of capitalism is the history of the oppression of indigenous religions, their lifeways, connections to the natural world, and gender relations. From the conversion of the Saxons to the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that Christianity would make people work hard and go to heaven by oppressing them has been a recurring theme. The idea that the world is a perversion of the divine plan, a dead thing for our use, or a land of temptation to be rejected has led us to a profound ecological crisis.

We should be the ones fighting this…

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m going through all this and when I’m going to get to the point. Here it is: we pagans should be the ones fighting all this. We should see the long tendrils of ideology weaving their way through the web of wyrd. We can see the mass of the past actions of our oppressors and how they have used religion, race, gender, and sexuality to divide us. We should recognize these demographic divisions as a tool of those who have historically oppressed all of us, and who threaten our future today.

absolution-pullAnd because of this, we are the most feared enemies of the rulers. For a revolution to be successful, we need an ideology and a worldview that sees the current system of oppression as wrong, and a tradition to reach back into for wisdom. This is why the Red Power and Black Power movements took steps to create or recreate a religion and culture for the oppressed- one not based on oppression.

As the holders of a religious and cultural ideology capable of giving those of European descent (and anyone else who wants it), a cultural identity as a collection of cultures and not just oppressors, we pagans are the deepest, darkest fear of the rulers. It is no accident that I know a racist who was happy to rent to a black couple because they are Christian. It is no accident the entheogens used by many non-Abrahamic religions are illegal (they tend to have the nasty side-effect of causing people to reject ecocide). It is no accident that the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) got music banned from the airwaves if it carried an “occult” message (this campaign supposedly failed, but now all the rock radio stations play the same ten songs from the seventies over and over and over and over and….)

Overall, we pagans have the knowledge of history to realize that an injury to one has been a good predictor of an injury to all. And we have the potential to realize our place in history on the side of the oppressed. Our ancestors may have been oppressors, and in some ways, we are oppressors ourselves. But our choices still matter. We can choose to reject oppression. And the choice to reject oppression matters.

Historically, pagans faced great oppression. In recent times, our oppression has lightened, so long as we hold a Christian worldview and just change the name of the god. Should we truly follow our religions, whether by using entheogens, or fighting for life (I refuse to trivialize it by calling it “the environment”), or having abortions, or celebrating the Hieros Gamos, or reading tarot, or fighting for a better life, or following gender roles accepted under (some forms of) paganism but denigrated under Christianity, we face serious consequences. We could be arrested, thrown in solitary, killed by the cops, or made “unemployable”. In other countries, the consequences for being non-Abrahamic in religion can be quite…medieval.

Our struggle is real, and the more we become involved in fighting for a better world, the harder the hand of the rulers will turn against us. And make no mistake, we white pagans are no more popular among the fundie crowd than black people- probably less popular, in fact. I know a racist landlord who was so proud of herself for renting to a Christian couple- they were black. I know someone who was kicked out of foster care for practicing Wicca. How many teenagers have no place to go because they draw the stigma (or stigmata?) of devil-worship?

The discrimination against pagans hits the most vulnerable the hardest- those teenagers who must rely on fundamentalist parents to survive, or those adults who must stay with family in order to survive due to disability, poverty, or lack of opportunity, those adults too poor to afford housing that is private enough to permit practice without raising eyebrows, those of us who work blue-collars jobs where being a beer-drinking, flag-waving Christian is important. Cultural conformity is a huge part of being in the “in-crowd”, and with networking as the primary source of jobs, being part of the “out-crowd” can have serious consequences. When religious oppression intersects with racial or gender-based oppression, it can get very nasty- and that sort of oppression is very common for the rural poor in economically depressed areas, where losing out on a job opportunity can mean poverty or a huge upheaval and move.

absolution-pullIt’s not just pagans who are going to face this. McCarthyism is starting to make a comeback. The rulers of this country have broken the left before, and they will try to do it again. What is annoying redbaiting now could turn into blacklists, lost jobs, unemployability, and even execution in the future. (Remember Sacco and Vanzetti? The Palmer Raids? Eugene Deb’s imprisonment? The shootings at Kent State?) I don’t say this to make us afraid, or to cause people to give up. I say this to help prevent the white left from absorbing the right-wing message that we are just privileged whiners.

The arguments that white people benefit from racism and that various groups have this group-wide privilege can be useful tools for pointing out some of our own blindspots to work on. Don’t get me wrong: I had to think long and hard about my privilege and I think everyone should take the time to consider their own privilege. But these arguments about privilege can also turn into a subtle gas-lighting of the white (and/or male) left, causing us to doubt our right to stand up for ourselves as well as for more-oppressed groups. If we go around saying that we’re privileged whiners, then how can we effectively combat the narrative that we’re all a bunch of privileged children who need “tough love” to kick us out of our safe spaces into “the real world”?

These divisions along race, gender, and sexual lines among the left disturb me greatly. I don’t think that they are progressive. As a pagan, I can see the history of capitalism, and I see it beginning with the oppression of pagans, particularly women. I see that some groups (such a the Native Americans, or African-Americans) suffered far more than others. But I still see a pattern of oppression of all by the rulers. And I think we have a common enemy in the rulers. I’ve written before on the subject of tribes in politics, and the illogicality of considering an entire race a tribe. I think it’s time to apply this same logic to identity politics. (I think the same logic also applies to gender relations, also.)

We are all individuals. We come from different places and make different choices. We are our deeds, and our deeds define us. Ben Carson’s deeds define him as a racist. A man I know who fights with bikers over institutionalized racism is defined by his deeds as not a racist. To claim that any race has an overarching common interest opposed to other races, is pseudo-tribalist propaganda that allows the rulers to keep us divided. (That is not to say that all black people don’t have a common interest in gaining rights- I merely state that that common interest is not IN OPPOSITION to any other group’s rights, except the rulers “right” to oppress.)

People of different races and genders are not warring tribes, each trying to carve out a larger slice of a tiny piece of the pie of human rights. We are natural allies. When a black man is shot for carrying a sandwich, it sets the precedent in the courts that a cop can use lethal force if he feels threatened by a sandwich. That precedent can be used against a white person, since the laws are not written to have separate precedents for white and black people. When a black man loses his job for speaking out against racism, it sets the tone of a workplace that no one can organize there for fear of losing their livelihood. We need to stop fighting over the scraps of humans rights that the rulers choose to give us, and start demanding the whole pie.

absolution-pullHuman rights aren’t “privileges” to squabble over. They are RIGHTs. It is horrible when black people are denied their human rights, and it is horrible when white people are denied their human rights. Leftists shouldn’t be gleeful that Trump-supporting coal miners are losing their health care. We should be enraged. We should be engaging with those coal miners, not to say, “I told you so”, but to engage them in a productive struggle, so that they can have options for resistance to the rulers other than voting for His Orange Majesty because he says mean things about other politicians.

Reweaving the Web

We don’t know someone’s level of privilege from their appearance. It’s fine (and necessary) to say “We live in a system where white people get treated better than black people.” That is 100% true. But that does not negate the choice of white people who choose to fight that system. Nor does it negate the very real struggle of white people who don’t conform to some leftist’s idea of an average white life, complete with white picket fence. Our demographic identities shape us, often in ways we can’t even see. But they do not define us, unless we define ourselves by them. We are many things, few of which are visible to the naked eye.

No one should be told that they don’t matter. And when we tell a white pagan who lost their living situation due to their religion, a mentally ill person, a blue-collar worker whose job just went to Mexico, or a woman who has faced discrimination that their oppression “isn’t that bad” or “doesn’t compare” to the oppression faced by our pet demographic group of the day, we are erasing their struggle. Of course their struggle probably isn’t as bad as the struggle a black person faces, or the struggles that Native peoples face. That doesn’t make it unimportant.

9 times out of 10, white people aren’t really trying to compare their struggle apples to apples to the struggles of oppressed groups. They are merely trying to find a common ground. They’re reaching out a hand, saying, “I see you. I’ve struggled, too. It’s wrong that we have to struggle like this just to survive. Let’s make a better world together.” And right now, the left is returning that outstretched hand with a slap. The left is saying back “Fuck you, you’ve never struggled. You can fight for the liberation of others, but remember that this is about the liberation of others, and not about yours. You’re a part of the problem”

This is not liberating. This is not radical. This is awful. How do you think it feels to be a queer person in the closet and be told that you have no idea what it’s like to be queer, and that you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to suffer from mental illness and be told that you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to be disabled and then to be told you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to be living in poverty and be told by someone who makes three times as much money that you can never understand the challenges of systematic racism and poverty because you’re white? How do you think a white woman who’s been raped feels when someone tells her that because of her race, she has no idea what it’s like to feel powerless, or helpless, or unable to seek justice because of an external factor?

absolution-pullStatistics are meaningless to the individual. We can’t take people and replace them with our idea of what someone of their demographic experiences on average. That is dehumanizing them. We can’t go around telling people “you’re not really oppressed”. We can’t judge the oppression of others without taking some serious time to step into their shoes. I have no problem with using critical thinking and debating the depth of oppression faced by certain groups, but I grow tired of off-the-cuffs answers where no white, no male, no cisperson, no straight person, can know or understand oppression because “privilege”.

I know straight white men who are dead scared of the cops- for good reason. I know black families who’ve had to fight to keep their kids from being diagnosed as retarded because they had a bad week at school. I know black men who’ve been entrapped deliberately by the cops, and I know white men who’ve been pressured by the cops to leave a town because they didn’t make enough money. I know women of all races who’ve been assaulted.

I am also disturbed by the circular logic of some proponents of identity politics. I, as a young white women, need to listen when the older black ladies I know when they talk about what it is like to be black in America. I need to treat her with respect. Some of them disagree strongly with the idea that white people are all racists benefitting from white privilege. They thinks that is a racist argument. It is absolutely not my place to tell them (even to think to myself while not listening to then): “I’m a white person half your age, but what’s really going on is that you have internalized racism. Now let me educate you.” I don’t have to agree one hundred percent with their politics, but I do need to take their views into account when I think about what it is like to be black in America.

I think that we on the left need to create a space for disagreements. The circular logic of identity politics is that if you are white and you disagree, you’re a racist. If you are of color and you disagree, you have internalized racism (a.k.a., you’re a racist). There is no space for anyone to disagree, yet still earn respect for their work. We need to treat the experiences of others with respect. We should treat the experiences of African-Americans, immigrants, Asians, men, women, other genders, whites, pagans, Christians, and everyone else with respect. We shouldn’t get so busy trying to educate others that we forget that we have much to learn ourselves, and turn into arrogant jerks who can’t take any criticism of our ideas (I’ve done that before, so if those words hit home, remember that I’m describing myself at various times in my life, not trying to attack anyone.)

Oppression may hit some communities much harder than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to set ourselves up as the judges of oppression and privilege. We also don’t get to set ourselves up as the judges of other people’s ideas. If a privileged person contributes to a movement, and shows by their deeds that they support that movement, then they should have as much right as any to a voice in that movement. We can’t change what we were born, but we can change how we relate to others.

We, as believers in freedom, should not be telling anyone to sit down and shut up. We should make sure that everyone has a voice and is heard respectfully. If we need to ask that the next few speakers be from minority groups to keep the discussion from being dominated by straight white males, then we do that. If we need to stay until 3am to make sure that all those straight white males do eventually get their chance to speak, we stay till 3am. A democratic movement should never silence anyone who is aligned with the goals of freedom and justice for all people. We should never be telling people that their voices aren’t worth hearing, that their experiences aren’t worth sharing.

I am not my demographic group. I am not Last Name, First Name, female, aged 25, straight. I am myself. In some ways I’m very privileged, in others I’m very unprivileged. But those things are not what define me. I am a heathen, and I believe my deeds define me. And my deeds are in service of my goal- to build a better world, one in which a person is who they are, not a skin color, not an age, not a gender, not a religion or a sexual orientation, but an individual. Get to know me, and my deeds, before you judge my worth. I matter, and I think you matter. Let’s talk about how to show them that we matter. Let’s work on forcing the world to accept that we do matter. Let’s work on making sure there is a world left to matter in.

*Credit where credit is due for this quote, from Darkseed’s song “King in the Sun”


Ruth Morong

I’m a Heathen and Radical. I’m a union construction worker with a useless college degree. My main concern is taking care of my family. In my spare time I listen to heavy metal and read books. My ranting is at Pursuit of Sol (https://pursuitofsol.wordpress.com/).

My Gods Cannot Come First

When exploring a new path as a Polytheist or a Pagan, it is only responsible to do vigorous research on the deities and powers that will potentially receive your devotion. The powers themselves come with endless stories to give us not only the full flavor of their personalities, but implied guidelines to go by. Many people are pulled into various paths because they are called by deities to work with them in ways that will promote wisdom and an overall enriched life from that point forward. While the powers of any particular way of life or religion may have been the beacon of light that leads you to the practice in the first place, hopefully it becomes the ethics taught in their stories of triumph and defeat that keep you there. Hopefully you have found self-fulfilling purpose through your interactions with your chosen powers, or a reason to join and contribute to a community.

My gods welcomed me to learn from them. One thing that working directly with the gods has given me is the understanding that I need to make hard boundaries with them. The gods are older and wiser than us, they can see a bigger picture of where the universe has been and where it is going, and therefore have divine agendas based on their experience. Often times, practitioners are called by deities to do their will. In the times that I have unquestioningly put my gods first, I have been used up. Sometimes the gods forget we are fragile humans who have not explored the extent of our own boundaries yet (and press us to do so).

Depending on the powers you work with, some are gentler than others. In my case, I work with Heathen gods such as Odin and Loki, and neither of them ask anything easy. These gods come with a long list of warnings and side effects by long time practitioners for a reason.

So, in my practice, me and my community come first- my gods do not come first. The gods may pop up in a dream, or I may hear them loudly when I am being recruited for a task, and when that happens I take the time to do some serious negotiation. I do not make split decisions, I take my time.

One of the greatest tasks asked of me by the gods has been to help mend and protect the reputation of Heathenry, and I agreed to that honorable cause. Therefore, I have to be involved with politics. I know of many who would rather dig their own grave than be involved with the politics of their path. Being a Heathen of interracial heritage, I really don’t get much of a choice. If I had not learned why race should not be a determining factor in my compatibility with Heathenry, then the racism, discrimination, and hate from others would have scared me away long ago.

I have had to justify my right to practice more times than I feel comfortable with (just once was more than anyone should feel comfortable with). But my involvement in politics is not just an endless task bestowed upon me by the gods, and it is not just a fight for my personal rights to practice. My accomplishments and contributions are making my chosen path safer for all marginalized folks every day, and it is helping to tarnish the existing reputation Heathenry has in the US of being racist and bigoted, so that those who have the privilege to put their gods first, can do so in safe(r) spaces.

Again, the problem I find with putting the gods first is they might accidentally (or not accidentally) take advantage of you. But, you have the right to do so if you feel that is a productive use of your time. Just understand that if that is a choice you have, that very choice is a privilege that not all Polytheists and Pagans have. By no means am I saying that work with the gods is unnecessary, or even secondary to my practice, nor am I implying that it should be in anyone else’s.

Even the many I have spoken to who are likewise involved with their religions politics probably wouldn’t say their politics come “first.” Their own needs and communities come first, and the needs of communities and the individuals within them are often political needs. My community comes first, and the individuals within it are screaming for change, praying for safety for themselves and their marginalized loved ones.

Politics take the front seat in my practice, they do not take up the whole of my practice, but the absence of politics in my practice would make it incomplete and less safe than it already is. Take the time to engage in conversations with the people involved with inclusive politics in your path and actually ask them why they do their work, and thank them. Help when you can. Be aware. Do not say politics have no place in religion or your practice because that is selfish, and understand why that might be the forefront of any practitioners focus.


Sophia Fate-Changer Martinez

Sophia Fate-Changer MartinezWith a thirst for justice, I am committed to exploring conversations no Sone wants to have in order to make the world a slightly-more-than-tolerable place to exist. I consider myself an actively outspoken Heathen Hedgewitch, a mixture of which tends to have otherworldly side-effects. I enjoy long walks in my cavernous dream realm, from which I often wake suddenly with mixed emotions about the reality of society. Lastly, and I hope not least, I am a member of Golden Gate Kindred in the Bay Area, and an administrator for Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR).


Interested in ordering a copy of Pagan Anarchism?

Collection: Heathenry

This is a new occasional series from Gods&Radicals where we’ll compile links to essays about specific topics for readers.

These will also be available as permanent pages and will be updated when new articles become available!

Articles on Heathenry, Asatru, or related topics from Heathen perspectives


Ruth Morong

  • Heathen Family Values: Many would argue that the highest ethic in Heathenism is to defend and bring honor to the family/tribe. But what does it mean to bring honor to the family?

Sophia Fate-Changer Martinez

Ryan Smith

  • The Call of the Vaettir: If we, as Heathens and animists, are to be true to our relationships with the world around us then we must take whatever steps are most necessary and effective to heal the wounds so many thoughtless actions have inflicted.
  • Heathenry and Democracy: Heathenry and Paganism stands at a crossroad in our history and development, and this decision point hinges on the question of how we should organize and govern our communities.

Shane Burley

Ginger Drekisdottir

Crafted Recordings Podcast

Christopher Scott Thompson

  • Honor: “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means”
  • Shapeshifters: The Paganism of Identity and the Danger of Fascist Infiltration

 

Heathen Family Values

A Guest Post from Ruth Morong

Many would argue that the highest ethic in Heathenism is to defend and bring honor to the family/tribe. But what does it mean to bring honor to the family? What is honor? Honor or worth, (in my opinion) is the just esteem in which a person or family/group is held by the community. (I’m going to explain how I see it in terms of family, but I think it applies just as well to any close-knit social group.)

To build up the honor of a person or family means to make valuable contributions to the community, which reflect well on the contributor and those associated with them (the family). To defend the honor of a family is two-fold: first, it means challenging those who would hurt or oppress any member of the family, and second, it means fighting for the right of the family, both as individuals and collectively, to gain honor and worth. Furthermore, in the combination of these factors, striving to bring honor to one’s family implies leaving the best legacy possible to our children and grandchildren (or our spiritual children).

In practice, building up the honor of ourselves and our families might mean studying to gain knowledge and wisdom to serve the community, building an ethical and respectable career, or undertaking community service. In the modern day, defending the honor of our families’ means fighting for every family member to be treated with respect and dignity. This means defending our right to be safe in our chosen occupation, to be paid fairly for the work we do, and our basic human rights. Defending the honor of our families means pursuing justice against those who have wronged members of our family. It also means fighting for the right to gain honor through education, service, or leadership, and to compete with others for honor in a fair contest. Above all, it means ensuring that there is a place for our descendants to live and a chance for them to succeed.

If it is true that building this sort of honor is the highest goal of a heathen, then there can never be apolitical Heathenism. Politics has the power to affect our lives and the lives of those we care about. How could we be so blind as to carefully reconstruct a heathen tradition for our children to inherit while letting the ability of the planet to support their lives be destroyed? How can we bring honor to our families without fighting for a world in which our families and friends are not being oppressed?

Furthermore, how can we build honor within our family by ignoring dishonor and injustice outside of it? In the sagas, there are cases of a criminal showing up on someone’s doorstep and persuading the householder to protect them on the argument that if they allowed the criminal to be killed while seeking refuge on the doorstep, they would be judged dishonorable by the whole community.

If it is dishonorable to allow a criminal to be killed on the doorstep, then how much more dishonorable is it to allow our tax money to be used to kill innocents? How honorable can it be to allow the poisoning of children? Or the exploitation of children in sweatshops? The ancient heathens were quite obviously active, engaged people, always promoting the interests of their families and pushing for the agenda they thought was right. Turning away from the world in favor of religion was not something they would have understood.

It is this definition of honor that leads me to be a “political” heathen. My family comes first and foremost in all matters, and right now, the future of my family is being destroyed along with the future of thousands of species which will not survive the industrialization of our world or the inevitable post-industrial collapse which will follow. We humans grow sick from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases caused by the crap diet that is all most of us can afford to eat. In fifty or a hundred years, even this factory style of agriculture will likely fail, leaving our children to starve. Those poisoning our water and our air, killing our pollinators, and laying waste to our food supply are our enemies.

A good heathen gives their enemies no peace. And yet I still hear the head-in-the-sand rhetoric about “not getting political”. “Not getting political” is giving our enemies peace. “Putting aside our differences” means giving our enemies peace while they destroy our families and the planet. Furthermore, there are many people in our world who face special oppression, beyond the destruction of our world and the general oppression faced by everyone who has to sell their life for money. Should the queers of the pagan world give peace to those who oppose their rights, or who support groups and politicians who fight against their rights? Should people of color give peace to those who would destroy the honor of any person who has the bad luck to be killed by the police? Should those of us who have friends and family who are Black, queer, or otherwise specially oppressed value the bonds of religion over the bonds of friendship and kin?

I know plenty of people will think I’m advocating for a “thought police”. I’m not. What I am saying is that if someone upholds a status quo that is literally poisoning my family and killing my friends (look at the death rates for Blacks, Native Americans, and transgender people), then I don’t need to invite them to my home or draw them into my family’s religious life. It’s not that everyone I work with in ritual needs to agree with me. It’s that a person can’t be working against my interests outside the ritual and then claim to be my kin within the ritual. The idea that the “community of faith” is more important than the “concerns of this world” is an idea rooted in the world-denying baggage of monotheism. It has no place in a heathen’s struggle to bring honor to themselves and their family.

I don’t care how someone identifies their politics. What I care about is whether a person is going to be screaming in my face when I go to Planned Parenthood, or donating money or time to some conservative Christian politician who seeks to destroy my religion and degrade the honor of my friends and family. Right-wing politics in America are based on denying environmental concerns and continuing the oppression of non-Christians, queers, racial minorities, and women. Right-wing politicians make a point of trying to deny the reality of climate change, force Christian prayer in schools, appoint justices who will discriminate against non-Christian religions, and restrict the rights of women. For pagans to claim that right-wing politics are not opposed to paganism is as silly and illogical as Caitlyn Jenner’s insistence that Republicans don’t oppose transgender rights.

This is serious. Politics is not a game that can be set aside for other “more serious” matters. Politics is life or death. It is the ability or inability of my children to survive. It is the hours I will have to work enriching someone else to feed my family, it is the amount of my money which will be stolen from my paycheck in taxes, it is how much my student loans will cost me. Politics is in the cost of my food, the time I have or don’t have to pursue my religion, and in the air I breathe, and in the water I drink. Politics determines whether I can teach heathenism to my child to whether social services can harass me for having a different religion.

The time has come to stop hiding our heads in the sand and face the world with the courage that can win a better world for our children. I can envision a different heathenism. One in which we make teaching true family values a main part of our religion. If we want a better world, or even a world as nice as this one for our children, our economic, political, and environmental system has to change. I believe this starts with changing our culture. It is my belief that heathenism has a lot to offer in developing a culture which respects the Earth, prioritizes the future of our children, and recognizes the value of other people, cultures, and traditions.

Heathenism offers us the long-term view- the knowledge of the struggles and victories of our ancestors, and the concern not just for our lives, but for the lives of future generations. I know that my ancestors fought for a better world and won worker’s compensation, the weekend, the eight-hour-day, equal pay for women, an end to child labor, and over-time pay. I honor my ancestors by fighting to maintain the rights they won. In the present, fighting for the rights of the working class might save my parents and grandparents, friends, and extended family from dying for lack of access to healthcare, unsafe work practices, and pollution-related diseases. In the future, fighting for a world that puts the long-term survival of our species above profit might lead to a future for my family. I honor my ancestors by defending and expanding the rights they fought for. I defend the honor of my family by defending our rights. And I leave a good legacy to my children by fighting for a better world.

Heathenism informs my struggle in that historically heathenism has put a high value on knowledge and cunning. We know that the head of the heathen pantheon was Odin, whose main interest seems to be in gathering knowledge and wisdom. Thor, the mightiest of the gods, was once defeated (in Utgard) by a giant who swapped a hill for his head (among other tricks). To see clearly friends and enemies and to recognize when an enemy is using deception was more valuable that might and strength alone.

In the modern day of red herring politics, gaining the background knowledge and experience to know what questions need to be asked and how the politicians and pundits frame the debates in ways that support their positions is critical. Follow the example of Odin and seek out enough knowledge to see the world clearly. Seek out information and perspectives from people you don’t like or trust. Wander outside your comfort zone and see what you can learn from people who might be hostile.

Heathenism is a practical (some might say cynical) religion. Heathens are concerned with the future of our families, and we value honorable behavior. These values imply that we must not shut out the problems of the world, but instead face them with courage. As the story of Thor’s journey to Utgard implies, our first weapons must be cunning, knowledge, and wisdom, or else all the might in the world can’t save us. We need to start using these tools that our religion gives us to figure out the true intentions of those who would win us to their causes.

This world desperately needs family values- the sort of family values that mean caring about what the Iroquois called the “seven generations”. Right now I look around and I see mostly people concerned about their own future, not the future of their children. I see people so unaware of the triumphs of our ancestors that they don’t see the need to defend things like over-time pay and human rights. They accept these things as natural, not as victories handed down to us by our ancestors and in need of constant defense by our generation.

It is my belief that our culture is poison. It is certainly poisoning our world. The heathen focus on family is one way to counteract that poison, but it will only help us if we are willing to take heathenism outside of the “religion” box and make it a living force in our lives. Which, as many people have pointed out, implies politics.

The alternative to allowing politics and heathenism to mix is to try to separate religion and politics- which means that we are left with a religion that we don’t allow to have any bearing on the deep questions of our time. By taking that route, we are guaranteeing the slow death of heathenism as a religion. It is unreasonable to cut off a religion from the life-ways of the people who practice it and then expect it to be able to survive.


Ruth Morong

I’m a Heathen and Radical. I’m a union construction worker with a useless college degree. My main concern is taking care of my family. In my spare time I listen to heavy metal and read books. My ranting is at Pursuit of Sol (https://pursuitofsol.wordpress.com/).


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Heathenry and Democracy

 

Heathenry and Paganism stands at a crossroad in our history and development, and this decision point hinges on the question of how we should organize and govern our communities.

There are many who argue, in Heathenry and the broader polytheist and Pagan communities, for vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities. They claim these ideas are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume.

The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory. In the liberal democratic societies many such Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists live in there is the central assumption of an unceasing, ongoing clash between democratic governance and rule by the few. Those who argue from one position or the other accept, without question, that humanity’s base setting is one of endless violence, rule by the few, and oppression of the many. They further claim that democracy as we know it is only possible in modern society and is a very recent development. Examples like Athens are seen as flukes or exceptions rather than the rule. One of the most eloquent expressions of this idea in American political philosophy is a famous passage from the Federalist Papers which says:

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

If this were true then it would be easy to assume that monarchic, strong-arm rule was the default for all pre-Christian, pre-modern societies making these arguments for new autocracies indisputable. Yet when one digs into the histories and lore of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples nothing could be further from the truth. Investigation into their past, their lives, and social organization shows the default mode of governance among these people was highly participatory and democratic. Power rested in the hands of all the people who made, enforced, and upheld the laws of society. The freedom of these peoples was maintained by them directly, not an external lawgiver or a benevolent state.

The best term for the form of governance used by the Germanic peoples is the Thing system, taking its name from the Old Norse word for these popular assemblies. Things were directly democratic assemblies where participants met under the open sky, debated great matters, passed laws, and resolved disputes. Every free person, man or woman, could speak before the Thing and seek redress of their grievances and in some cases even thralls were given voice and space before these assemblies. These Things were the bodies that made and deposed kings. The leaders of the Germanic world, quite contrary to the assumptions cultivated in popular culture, ruled at the behest of the Things.

This system was incredibly ancient and widespread among these peoples. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his famous Germania, wrote about the Things of the Germanic peoples living in the lands now known as Germany during the early 100s AD. According to Tacitus:

“In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, 50 to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; 51 and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests 52 are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”1

Tacitus makes it quite clear this is no system of elective monarchy or people choosing which absolutist ruler shall lord over them but is extremely participatory, especially when one compares it to the oligarchic government of Rome during the same period. He goes on to describe exactly how these assemblies functioned and what they held power over:

“On affairs of smaller moment, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community; yet with this circumstance, that what is referred to the decision of the people, is first maturely discussed by the chiefs… When they all think fit, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on this occasion a coercive power. Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins; for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms.”2

They even held the power of judging crimes and assigning punishment:

“Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees: cowards, dastards, and those guilty of unnatural practices, are suffocated in mud under a hurdle.”3

He makes it clear those who administer such justice are chosen by and are accountable to the people:

“In the same assemblies chiefs are also elected, to administer justice through the cantons and districts. A hundred companions, chosen from the people, attended upon each of them, to assist them as well with their advice as their authority.”4

Such practices endured on the continent among Germanic peoples, like the Saxons who lived in northwestern Germany, who held true to the old ways. One description of these proceedings comes from the account of the Frankish Christian missionary St. Lebwin who reported the following on Saxon governance practices around 770AD:

“It was also the custom among the Saxons that once a year, they held an assembly by the river Weser on a place called Marklo. There come usually the chiefs from all the (twelve) different communities, as well as twelve chosen noblemen, an equal number of free men and unfree men. There they together renew their laws, pass verdicts on important matters of justice, and decided how to proceed in matters of peace or war that they had before them that year.”5


In the Scandinavian world the Things are an extremely well-documented phenomenon. One cannot go through the historical sagas of the region without tripping over Things at every turn. Great matters were resolved by these public assemblies and the people, not the kings, were the ones who held power. Two powerful examples from Scandinavian history are the cases of Hakon the Good and Torgny Lagman.

Peter_Nicolai_Arbo-Haakon_den_godeHakon the Good became King of Norway during the early 10th century through rallying the support of the people of Norway for pressing his claim. Central to his campaign was promising to restore the land rights they’d lost under King Harald Fairhair’s rule.6 After making good on this promise he then went before the people of Norway at the Frosta-Thing, a major assembly in Norway, and asked they convert to Christianity. The response from those assembled was not positive:

“As soon as the king had proposed this to the bondes, great was the murmur and noise among the crowd. They complained that the king wanted to take away their labor and their old faith from them, and the land could not be cultivated in that way. The laboring men and slaves thought that they could not work if they did not get meat”7

The main voice of the opposition, Asbjorn of Medelhaus, rallied opposition to conversion with this speech:

“We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don’t know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burn, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.”8

He then warns Hakon what will happen if he refuses to back down:

“If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy the faith that suits our own inclinations. Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing is ended.”9 (emphasis mine)

According to Snorri Sturluson, “The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.”10 Hakon was forced to agree and remained king of Norway until his death in battle against an invading army from Denmark. Following his demise Eyvind Skaldaspiller composed the Hakonarmal which ends with Hakon being welcomed into Asgard by the Gods who, according to the skald, say:

“Well was it seen that Hakon still

Had saved the temples from all ill;

For the whole council of the Gods

Welcomed the King to their abodes.”11

torgnyAnother example of the power of the Scandinavian Things occurs during a war between King Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden and Olaf Haraldson of Norway in 1018. The war between the two kings was going poorly and emissaries had arrived pleading for peace. When the matter was brought before the Thing of All Swedes in Uppsala King Olaf of Sweden angrily denounced the emissary and his foe, demanding the war go on.12 “When he sat down,” says Snorri, “not a sound was to be heard at first.”13 Torgny Lagman, a respected lawspeaker, then rose and delivered his response beginning with a recitation of the great deeds of Olaf’s ancestors before saying:

But the king we have now got allows no man to presume to talk with him, unless it be what he desires to hear. On this alone he applies all his power, while he allows his scat-lands in other countries to go from him through laziness and weakness. He wants to have the Norway kingdom laid under him, which no Swedish king before him ever desired, and therewith bring war and distress on many a man. Now it is our will, we bondes, that thou King Olaf make peace with the Norway king, Olaf the Thick, and marry thy daughter Ingegard to him. Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou has shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.”14 (emphasis mine)

“Then the whole public approved,” says Snorri, “with clash of arms and shouts, the lagman’s speech.”15 King Olaf, clearly bested, says, “he will let things go according to the desire of the bondes. ‘All Swedish kings,’ he said, ‘have done so, and have allowed the bondes to rule in all according to their will.’”16

This system of social organization is even present among the Gods. Along with the mention of the council of the Gods in the Hakonarmal there are direct references to the Gods working in council in the Voluspa. Every aspect of the creation of Midgard was handled by the Gods meeting in council to resolve critical matters. As it says in the saga:

“Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,

The holy ones, and council held;

Names then gave they to noon and twilight,

Morning they named, and the waning moon,

Night and evening, the years to number.”17

They also met together to resolve their own affairs, such as discussing the question of how to distribute the gifts given by the residents of Midgard to the Gods:

“Then sought the Gods their assembly-seats,

The holy ones, and council held,

Whether the gods should tribute give,

Or to all alike should worship belong.”18

Such methods of decision-making are so ingrained in the Gods they stay true to government by council even in the face of Ragnarok and their own demise. According to the Voluspa:

“Yggdrasil shakes, and shiver on high

The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose;

To the head of Mim does Odin give heed,

But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.

 

How fare the Gods? How fare the elves?

All Jotunheim groans, the Gods are at council;

Loud roar the dwarfs by the doors of stone,

The masters of the rocks: would you know yet more?”19

If the norm for these peoples was a system characterized by democracy, direct participation, and rule of the many how is it possible such norms were replaced by the autocracy of feudalism and monarchy? The first, kneejerk reaction of some would be to argue humanity’s base inclinations overtook their higher aspirations, bringing down the Things and their democratic norms. Yet this line of reasoning is one with no support from history.

The beginning of the end of the Things, such as those in Saxony, came not by internal decay and downfall but through sword and Cross. Beginning in the 770s Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, initiated a series of bloody, vicious wars against the people of Saxony to force their submission to his rule and Christianity. One of the many atrocities committed against the Saxons by Carolingian forces was the notorious Massacre of Verdun where an estimated 4,500 Saxon warriors and chiefs, who had converted to Christianity shortly before, were slaughtered without mercy. Frankish chroniclers claimed the Verdun River ran red with blood for weeks after the king’s cruel verdict. Just over a century later the Christian Emperor Otto would do the same in Denmark, forcing their conversion through invasion.20 Following conversion Denmark would be the only Scandinavian country where the people were forced under the yoke of serfdom. Many other ambitious warlords, like Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Thick, followed the same pattern of using Christianity to justify naked ambition, slaughter, and oppression, destroying all who stood against them.

There is little doubt the arguments for rule by the few and submission by the many have no weight or substance. As is shown in the history of the pre-Christian peoples Heathens draw our inspiration from power was widely shared and vested in the people, not crowns or thrones. As a new and developing religious movement we stand at a key turning point in our development where we can repeat the mistakes of the past by descending into clerical and personal autocracy or avert them through a bold, decisive stand for the ways of the ancients. It is clear those who seek to dominate others in the name of all that is holy do so at the expense of those they claim to guide and protect. Their arguments of natural orders have no basis in human history or behavior. Modern Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists should heed the example of the Things and live through methods, structures, and systems that reflect the needs & desires of all adherents, no matter who they are, instead of glorifying and elevating a self-appointed few at the expense of the rest.

  • 1  Germania, Tacitus

2  Germania, Tacitus

3  Germania, Tacitus

4 Ibid

5 Vita Lebuini, Hucbald

6  King Harald’s Law for Land Property, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

7 The Frosta-Thing, Saga of Hakon the Good, Heimskringla translated by Samuel Laing

8 Ibid

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 . Hakon’s Death, Saga of Hakon the Good, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

12  Of The Upsala Thing, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

13 Ibid

14  Thorgny’s Speech, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

15 Ibid

16 Ibid

17 Voluspa 6, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

18 Voluspa 24, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

19 Voluspa 47-48, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

20 24-27, King Olaf Trygvason’s Saga, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing


Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.

Rainbow Heathenry: Is a Left-Wing, Multicultural Asatru Possible?

For those who raise the bowl in offering and veneration of the Old Gods, there is a glimmer of their connection to the past. Much of the Yule Celebration is based around this key concept for those who identify with Asatru, the revival of the traditional Norse pagan religion. It is the attendance to and memory of ancestors, the veneration of them just as the Gods, both of which can be traced back in a familial lineage. As Thor, Freya, and Odin are mentioned, faces around the table can envision what those names meant to their family deep in the past. The power of thunder. The perseverance in battle. The strength of conviction.

Yet it is not those elements that most of those with quick glances see when they notice a small silver Mojinir around a believer’s neck. Today Asatru is one of the most divided areas of the new pagan groundswell that is happening world wide. This is not simply because of its origins, or the warrior ethic present in its primary source materials, the Eddas and Sagas. It is the clear association between Heathenry and an openly racialist subculture, one that has taken on Norse myth and symbols as a primary form of identification. Hundreds of neo-Nazi and white nationalist bands and magazines take their names from the Northern Tradition. Some of the most militant racist prison gangs, skinheads, and open fascists venerate the same Gods of the Aesir. Across the far-right spectrum you will see the stories of Vikings and their pantheon represented as Gods of a purely white constituency, bound by blood and soil. Even amongst the more moderate view the “folkish” ideal–that says this tradition is unique only to those of Northern European ancestry–attempts to soften the blow of racial separatism.

But what is it about Asatru that creates a trajectory towards the folkish interpretation? Is Asatru today possible of having distinctly left-wing and multiracial interpretations?

The Roots of Modern Heathenry

The history of Heathenry in the modern context comes out of a certain impetus that drove its reconstruction. During the beginning of a truly industrial society of the mid 18th century, there developed a strong consciousness about the encroaching modernity and what might be lost from a direct connection with the natural world. This drove a broad interest in the traditional paganism implicit in pre-Christian Europe, but it had a unique perspective in the Germanic context.

Here, a strong sense of ethnic nationalism developed out of German Idealism and Romanticism, one that drew to find something unique and powerful inside of the Germanic peoples. This developed the strong Aryan mythology that led into the 20th century, where we see mysticism like the Thule Society developing a pseudo-spiritual base for the rise of the Third Reich. The notion was that there was a spirituality that was not just to be acquired and universalized (as Christian missions behaved), but one that you simply were by birth. The German Volkish movements needed a long-standing mythology to justify “blood and soil” and show why not only were Aryans owed control of Europe, but why they held Godlike qualities.

19930601.p13.Else_Christensen_and_husband
Else Christensen (right)

The direction of this tradition in the post-WWII European tradition was the development of Odinism by early Gothi like Else Christensen. Here Odinism explicitly took the Nordicist concept, which saw the Nordic people as a subspecies superior in a pseudoscientific understanding of early race theory and its further breakdown of “Caucasian” as a category. The Odinic Fellowship, and later the Odinic Rite, took a decentralized Volkish communal idea, which mixed the racial mysticism that came from pre-Nazi Germanic theory and the anarchist labor ideas of her earlier anarcho-syndicalism. Many of these ideas are represented in the Third Positionist National Anarchist milieu today, which attempts to take many left-wing revolutionary elements and match them with openly fascist ideas about race, gender, and hierarchy. (1)

While Odinism was traditionally an openly racialist position, Asatru was intended to be the more moderate approach. Inspired mainly from the Scandinavian and Norse countries who were reconstructing both the traditional religious and folklore ideas of the ancestors, the term Asatru meant “those who follow the Aesir,” the main pantheon of Heathenry. While Asatru was not an explicitly racialist concept, it was not opposed to it necessarily either.

The first spark of the Asatru tradition in the United States came with the formation of the Asatru Free Assembly, coming from the earlier Viking Brotherhood. It is here we get many of the most relatable interpretations of the Lore and traditions, as well as a starting point for the organizations today. The racial interpretation was present from the start, but instead of outright allying with white nationalist and fascist convictions on race they preferred a softer “folkish” interpretation. This says that the Gods are literally the ancestors of the Northern Europeans, and that their archetypal image and presence is unique to those with that ancestry. This allowed for the Asatru Free Assembly to attract neo-Nazi and organized racist converts, which eventually forced the AFA to split into a number of organizations. Today the founders of the original AFA founded the new Asatru Folk Assembly, while others created the folkish Asatru Alliance and the universalist(non-folkish) Troth. (2)

The Politics of Asatru

The story of Asatru in America has really been centered on its most proselytizing and missionary member: Stephen McNallen. Founder of both incarnations of the AFA, McNallen is known for popular books and articles as well as speaking on radio and television programs wherever a microphone seems to be available. In his seminal work, Asatru: A Native European Religion, he offers up the idea of “meta-genetics,” which is to say that white Europeans have a unique characteristic amongst themselves. Avoiding rhetoric of racial superiority, he prefers a line of “racial distinction,” where he uses antiquated studies to try and push the notion that there are key fundamental racial differences. What this draws on in terms of spirituality comes from Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes in the collective unconscious.

hitler-reich-party-dayDuring the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, Jung wrote one of his most infamous essays titled “Wotan” where he said that this brutal militaristic spirit was the rise of Odin in the collective unconscious of the Germanic peoples. The notion here, which is much different than the actual evolutionary psychology in which Jung wrote about archetypes, is that the Norse Gods are unique to the minds and spirits of Germanic peoples and that they have a calling towards them that comes deep from within their bodies and their past. This is to say it is a voice bringing them home, and trying to instruct them about their instinctual nature and the best way of organizing communities.

The direct inheritor of the original AFA was the Asatru Alliance initiated by Valgard Murray, a former organizer with the American Nazi Party who worked with Else Christensen in the original Odinist Fellowship. Murray took an even more accommodating view than McNallen about the inclusion of neo-Nazi and organized racist types, and has brought controversy for allegedly threatening queer-identifying Heathens and publicly criticizing universalist Asatru. (3)

SPLC-Extremist-Files-David-Lane-1280x720
David Lane

The distinct racial elements of these archetypes are key to another, and much more violently racist interpretation of the lore often referred to as Wotanism. This comes from a branch more closely associated with Nazism, popular in prison and amongst disparate skinhead gangs. The term Wotan was focused on by former Order member David Lane, who is well known for his attempt to start a race war in the 1980s and for coining the “14 words.” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”) Lane, who formerly was a member of the anti-Semitic and white supremacist Christian Identity church, preferred the name Wotan since it could stand for Will of the Aryan Nation. It should be made clear that all branches of regular Heathenry, including the ethnically focused folkish and racialist groups, condemn the violent racism of Wotanism. Much of the consciousness of Heathenry’s association with racism comes from the high-profile crimes of Wotanists and their calls for violent white revolution. (4)

Today, further steps have been taken into the extreme edges of Heathenry, whereby racialism is only a part of the analysis. The Wolves of Vinland uses the structure of a biker gang, with its exclusionary nature and foundations on violence. Members are expected to fight and train, where differences in body type are as disallowed as differences in skin tone. While they take a hard line on folkishness, they also unite with an Evolian view of the world as degenerate and in the “Kali Yuga,” instead rejecting modernity and arguing that members should “rewild.”

Here the term tribalism is taken even more literally, where the entire function of the Wolves is to create an “Odinic wolf cult” that is defined by an in-group and an out-group. In recent months they have gotten even more notice as they gained high profile members like neo-tribalist and anti-feminist writer Jack Donovan–as well as Youth for Western Civilization and American Enterprise Institute faculty member Kevin DeAnna–joined their ranks. Their work on runic magick and on customizing and personalizing ritual has made them incredibly popular, and shows where heathen and pagan communities often focus too heavily on reconstruction rather than keeping the spirituality alive, but it has clouded the judgement of onlookers who are not seeing their direct connections to white nationalist institutions like Counter-Currents Publishing or the National Policy Institute.

The Heart of Asatru

To really understand the true nature of Asatru you need to look at its component parts. This is especially true of all pagan faiths in that followers come to them in post-modern times, where few were raised with them and they are inherently a reconstruction or a non-fundamentalist approach.

What this means is that there are few “pagan literalists,” those who take the word of myths to be literally true. Instead, the reconstruction or eclecticism itself needs to have a sort of “logical” part where people reason why these ideas and traditions are valuable and real to them. Pagans rarely take myths themselves solely as their instruction for spiritual ideas, but instead they apply already existing or developing ideas to the Myths and Gods that speak to them.

Their faith then, in this context, has a few component parts: The Myths and the Gods, The Theology, and The Philosophy.

HEIMDALLEDDAThe Theology is largely at the core of the ideas inside of a pagan worldview, and this can academically read as concepts such as pantheism, panentheism, or even “hard polytheism.” This says how you actually see the Gods and the stories told about them. Do they represent parts of nature and the cosmos? Are they both archetypal and real? Do they literally exist, but do we shift between them by culture? These ideas can be stripped away from the Myths and traditions in a certain sense, even if they are deepened and developed in relation to spiritual practice and study.

The Philosophy looks at what types of social tropes and concepts are important to find in the faith, such as courage, caring, egalitarianism, tribalism, heroism, etc. These can, again, feed from your experience of the religion, but they can also exist outside it and can be explained in secular terms as well.

This then makes the Myth and the Gods super-structural: they color, specify, and invoke the Theology and the Philosophy. This idea has been controversial amongst many pagans, especially in Germanic Neopaganism since there is such a strong Theodinist sphere that attempts to not only reconstruct stories and ritual, but to literally inhabit the minds of the ancestors and their relationship to the Gods. The religion itself, the source materials and the literature of the Gods are the cultural lens through while the complex and mystical ideas of Theology and Philosophy can be seen. This is to say, the divine itself is so complex that we need these vessels in which to place a human context. This does not make the Myths or Gods any less true to pagans, but instead represents the way that they reveal themselves to the people.

Within this idea, Asatru holds a lot of things in many of these interpretations that are clearly not in its Myths and Gods as displayed in the Eddas and Sagas. The key concept that is proposed in these ethnic Asatru conceptions is that the Gods are specific to genetic groups of people. Second, it is that those Gods actually exist in the bodies and spirits of those peoples, yet not others. When Stephen McNallen is asked to describe Asatru he often says that the best way to describe it is that “It is a Native European Religion.” This statement actually says nothing about the religion if by the religion you mean the Myths, Gods, and traditions, since nowhere in the Eddas and Sagas do they make any racial or genetic distinctions. What this does show, however, is a distinct worldview of his Philosophy that is key to his total concept of what Asatru is as a religion.

The Myths and Gods are then colored within this frame of reference, where things like the Innangardh and Utangardh (Tribal in and out groups), the warrior heroism displayed by Gods like Odin, and the hierarchy found in Viking tribal orders are focused on heavily. There are equally problematic elements in other areas of European reconstructionist paganism, including gender and power differentials in Celtic and Druid traditions, but what we see in things like Wicca (especially Dianic Wicca), Druidry broadly, Reclaiming, Feri Tradition, and a whole host of other paths that draw on the past are the use of these Myths to focus on things like ecology, feminism, queer liberation, and anti-capitalism.

This is to say that with similar mythological structure, history, and God descriptions, these traditions today still vary very seriously in term of Philosophy. The Norse myths can be transferred to these left-leaning ideas just as easily as those traditions, with gender parity more prevalent in Norse traditional cultures, transgender aspects of the Gods, as well as a certain kind of anarchist individualism.

At the same time, the rest of the mentioned pagan traditions could be forced to the political and social right, but they don’t. For example, ancestor veneration is key in most of these pagan traditions, but it is only through Heathenry that adherents focus on the “blood and soil” interpretation of that concept.

The point here is that the Philosophical and Theological work that has been done for Heathenry, its extensive writing and development, was started–and has been continued–by a nationalist, right-wing current.

The Theological underpinnings that create folkish interpretations, the academic writing that celebrates that racial distinction, and the mysticism that has created false mythologies about people with Northern European ancestry has developed a cult of Heathenry that is uniquely its own, and is uniquely right-wing while the source material is without contemporary political or racial content. The understanding that there is an entire tradition of racial Asatru and Odinism is not an attempt to uproot a “logical understanding” of the faith, because there isn’t one. Even through contradictions you will find that the main joining point in the Heathen philosophical circles is the racial and socially rightist concepts over the Myths and traditions.

An example of this has been in the publishing world that has developed around Heathenry. The editor of the Heathen journal Runa, which publishes open white nationalists like Colin Cleary, is also an editor of the aptly named Tyr journal. This journal notes itself as ascribing to the Radical Traditionalism of people like the proto-fascists Julius Evola and Renee Guenon. Here editors like Michael Moynihan brings over people like Cleary to write again about Odinism, while the traditionalism itself denies paganism outright as it lacks a “chain of initiation.” (5)

Likewise, Moynihan has been closely associated with the Church of Satan, Social Darwinist organizations, and with cultish groups around Charles Manson, all of which are mythological and Theologically conflicting with Norse paganism. You will see this crossover with people like The Troth’s Stephen Flowers and the left-hand path Temple of Set, and a lot of dabbling in Satanist, Crowleyian, and other dark esoteric traditions. (6) None of these follow any of the key precepts outlined in any traditional material on Lore, but that isn’t the point in the first place. The point for these adherents is to find a true mythological and religious justification for right-wing ideas about strength, social hierarchy, race and gender. The fidelity is not to Heathenry; it is to racism.

Historiography and genetics are twisted to create a discourse mirroring academic explanation, but it fails to live up to those field’s academic standards. The genetic argument, specifically, is emphasized so heavily among folkish journals and authors, yet the understanding that there are no significant genetic markers inside racial groups as there are between racial groups is mistaken. The idea that, on a historical time frame, there are no purely Asatru peoples of the North, nor is there a historic justification for the idea that Heathenry cannot be taken by people of different origin is always forgotten. Instead of following the academic rigor that is established in academic research, preference is given for concepts that have nothing to do with the fields they reference.

As Mattias Gardell outlines in his study on various ethnic and racial forms of paganism in Gods of the Blood, if the ethnic Asatruar’s claims that the folkish basis is not founded in racism, then you would find a welcoming atmosphere for multi-ethnic pagans with some Northern European ancestry. But here those questions faltered even further, with many members saying that it was too complicated. Valgard Murray went as far as saying that they needed to “look like a white man,” and that they would question AA members about their ethnic background and if they can “act white.”

Whiteness here is associated with mental and behavioral qualities such as trustworthiness, honesty, industriousness, nobility, honor, courage, and self-reliance—that is, exactly the virtues believed by white racists to be inherent in whiteness. If this were to think and act white, then to think and act “red,” “brown,” “black,” or “yellow” would, at least implicitly, be characterized by a lack of these same virtues. (7)

The Future of Asatru

Because of the influence of the racialist interpretations of Heathenry we have seen the most vocal parts of the Asatru tradition shift to the right, while the rest of contemporary paganism shifts (for the most part) to the left.

Right from the start the the idea of Asatru as an ethnic religion made many pagans who were Northernly inclined revolt. Gamlinginn, a long-time pagan antifascist organizer stated bluntly that the tradition out of Asgard could simply could not be exclusive to one group of people. “Every culture that has ever existed in the world has inherently esteemed the virtues esteemed by Asatru,” he said. “Asatru is a multi-ethnic religion—not because that might be ‘politically correct’ at this point in time, but because multi-ethnicity is fundamental to the theology of Asatru. Asgard, home of the Gods is multi-ethnic. For example, Magni and Modi, the sons of Thor, are also the sons of their mother, Jarnsaxa, who is Jotunn. [referring to one of the other races listed in the Eddas] Who will tell Thor that his sons should not participate in something because they are not of ‘pure descent.?” (8)

While groups like the AFA, AA, and numerous other Asatru and Odinist organizations loudly proclaim folkish values, a large current of explicitly universalist and anti-racist Heathens have emerged and are espousing a line that is more closely associated with other types of contemporary pagan thought and spirituality.

HUAROnline, Heathens United Against Racism celebrates a fully diverse group of Heathens, often hearing from people of color in the Global South who follow the Norse tradition. The spiritual Theology here is that the Gods and Goddesses can call a person directly, and that a person feels that this particular cultural tradition best represents their connection to the divine. This does help elevate the archetypal distinction that the Gods are, while real, also symbolic and uniquely represented and interpreted through human metaphor. They have utilized campaigns to confront what they identify as racist Asatru currents, including a campaign where Heathens of all different backgrounds declare their ancestry and take photos holding a sign reading “Stephen McNallen does not speak for me.” (9)

circleOne of the most radical divergences from the folkish interpretations of Germanic Neo-Paganism came from the Circle Ansuz collective from the U.S. West Coast. The group identifies with the label of “Heathen anarchist” or “Germanic anarchist,” which is to say that they stand with “red and black” anarchism of the broad revolutionary left tradition as well as following a Heathen path. Their organization, which hosted both kindreds and individuals, made political organizing and explicit anti-fascism a key part of participation. Here they refuted any racial or ethnic origins to the faith and called on heathens to participate in both confronting fascist organizing, right-wing influences in musical culture, and the problems in other Heathen organizations. Circle Ansuz’s praxis for spirituality comes from the same texts and history as the Asatru Folk Assembly, yet here they emphasize the equality of genders, the independence and free-association of individuals, and the cyclical nature of the Voluspol.

In Heathen anarchism this process is proof that free will, free choice, and autonomy are inherent elements of all life. The gods do not give humans freedom or constrain their freedom because they acknowledge that humans, by the simple virtue of living, already possess these qualities. If even the gods that created us have no right to place any constraints on our autonomy then no human institution has any right to limit our inherent autonomy by force, fraud, or coercion. Just as the gods created the universe through discussion, council, and consensus it follows all human systems should be founded on similar principles. (10)

There is no effort here to simply re-write the tradition to fit a political agenda, nor to ignore the reality of history as they acknowledge perfectly that the Viking past was far from a revolutionary utopia. The difference is that they find the tools within Heathenry to have a spiritual component to their lives that are also framed through the political commitment. Their confrontation of the broader Heathen community has been profound, where they even have a full four-part expose of Stephen McNallen focusing on his association with racialist groups internationally.

the_troth_emblem_logoCurrently The Troth, formerly The Ring of Troth, is one of the largest Heathen organizations in the world. It represents the “universalist” wing of Heathenry, and states openly that it will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Though many of the folkish organizations often state that they are opposed to racism, The Troth takes a clear stance that anyone, regardless of ancestry, can practice Heathenry. (11) There are also many middle-ground positions that reject folkishness as a purely genetic option. The “tribalist” position is universal in who can practice Heathenry, but restrictive about whether or not it can be eclectic. The “moderate” position does support a certain understanding of folkishness, but also makes exceptions for those raised in or profoundly inspired by Germanic and Norse culture.

The notion of ancestry and culture may also simply play as a more complex series of inspirations for the faithful, which the author of Essential Asatru, Diana L. Paxson, sees as being a source of cultural inspiration since it is not possible to cleanly identify who is of what “genetic origin.” Here, the culture of ancient Europe defines much in our world and it may simply be the route to the Gods and the Earth that someone prefers. (12) Ancestry may very well be the inspiration for some, while the uniqueness of it could be the driving force for another, and for many modern Heathens all of these are acceptable as long as they are not exclusionary.

IcelantOutside of the United States, and in countries from which the Germanic traditions were originally found, the traditions are notably different. The Ásatrúarfélagið, the Icelandic Asatru organization, recently spoke publicly about the backlash from right-wing, American Heathens to their universalist and queer affirming practices. Notable for their left-leaning stance on religious and social issues, they officiate gender-neutral marriage, support progressive causes, and invite anyone in who feels draw to the religion. In many post-Nazi countries, like Germany, they are even more reluctant to allow right-wing sentiment in because of the way that the Third Reich appropriated Runic symbols. At the same time, the more violently neo-Nazi versions of Norse paganism still present a growing problem in Germany and much of Scandinavia, which they want to draw distinction away from even further.

For pagans drawn to the Aesir and Vanir, the avenues are available for building a Heathen foundation that is friendly to a multi-ethnic and progressive community.

If people from the polytheist traditions want to challenge racialized interpretation of the Asatru faith, there has to be a conscious Theology and Philosophy that can undermine the folkish traditionalism that has dominated much of the ideas inside of the “cult of Odin.” Many pagans see that this could come in the form of eclecticism that allows for openness and integration of other traditions. Many folkish Asatru oppose eclecticism and prefer a stricter form of reconstructionist fidelity, which often comes from the fact that the traditions they see as bound to their blood. Instead, pagans may find that moving past a strict adherence to traditions may leave them open to a more diverse understanding of Myth and the Gods. Likewise, it could simply mean drawing on many of the different Philosophies and Theologies that are prevalent in other traditions (though there are really every type of Philosophy and Theology at play in every pagan path).

An example of this: many of the ideas that have fueled Starhawk’s Reclaiming movement, which takes a uniquely panentheist understanding of the Gods and specifically sees an importance in the progressive values inside of Myth and practice. These ideas were never God/Myth specific, yet a strong sense of syncretism could allow a new synthesis that builds an emerging tradition that is both coherent and Philosophically strong.

The pagan traditions, both old and new, often evolve based on what parishioners bring to it. The ideas that evolve both inside and outside of spiritual practice, where it is the broad experience of life, relationships, and the earth that guide some of the most profound insights that are brought into practice. With Asatru, pagans can again bring those experiences in and make it more of an exchange between the living world and that of tradition, between the follower and the Gods. Only here can the old strictures be challenged, and followers can build up the Asatru that they have already be drawn to in the way they see it from the power of the Myth.


 

Notes

  • 1. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 257-277.
  • 2. Gardell, Mattias. Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Nationalism. Duke University Press. Durham: 2003. Pp. 258-282.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Gardell, Mattias. Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Nationalism. Duke University Press. Durham: 2003. Pp. 191-256.
  • 5. “About The Journal.” Tyr-Journal Website. Last retrieved September 14, 2015. http://tyrjournal.tripod.com/about_the_journal.htm.
  • 6. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 213-230.
  • 7. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 257-277.
  • 8. Gamlinginn. 1997. “We Are Not Racists.” Widdershins, issue 6 (Yule) http://www.widdershins.org/vo13iss6/index.html (18 October 2000)
  • 9. “Heathens United Against Racism.” Facebook.com.
  • 10. “The general theory of Heathen anarchism.” Circle Ansuz. July 4, 2013. https://circleansuz.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/the-general-theory-of-heathen-anarchism/.
  • 11. “About the Troth.” The Troth. December 27, 2013. http://www.thetroth.org/index.php?page=about&title=About%Us%20|%20The%20Troth&css=style2&pagestyle=mid.
  • 12. Paxson, Diana L. Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. Citadel Press books, Kensington Publishing Group. New York: 2006. Pp. 153-156.


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Shane Burley

Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work as appeared in places such as In These Times, Truth-Out, Labor Notes, Waging Nonviolence, CounterPunch, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He contributed a chapter on housing justice movements to the recent AK Press release The End of the World As We Know It?, and has work in upcoming volumes on social movements. His most recent documentary Expect Resistance chronicles the intersection of the housing justice and Occupy Wallstreet movement. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net, or reach him on Twitter at @shane_burley1.