Anti-fascism and the Left’s Euro-Secular Arrogance

Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And that cannot be done without interrogating the secular arrogance of the left’s “founding fathers.”

An editorial, from Rhyd Wildermuth

Perplexity, shock, and a revulsion she tried to temper with all else she knew of us rippled across her face after we said the words to her:

“We’re pagan.”

“But you two…you’re both anarchists and anti-fascists! How…how can you two also believe that stuff?”

We’d met through my partner. Both were in the same graduate history program; her work focused on the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Shoah and the ways those histories have been written since; his focus was upon the alternative occult and queer communities in Berlin that the Nazis both crushed and appropriated in their march to power.

Most of our bonding came from our life experiences, however. We were all anarchists, had done anti-fascist work, were all queer, and had lived similar counter-cultural lives. Despite all we shared, despite already being good friends, my partner and I had been quite scared of telling her what we believed.

The conversation which followed our confession was long and sometimes heated. But it was around a table on a balcony overlooking a lake, with food and tea and German beer, and because we were all friends who genuinely wanted to understand each other (rather than merely wanting to be heard), we not only stayed friends but became better friends.

I remember what she said to us that night, because it was the first time we’d ever heard anything of the sort: “this goes against everything I have known, but I believe you that it’s possible to be Pagan and not fascist.”

Especially to those with shorter histories in anarchist and anti-fascist spaces, this conversation might not seem very significant. But for me, more than ten years ago, it felt like pure freedom and hope. Before then, whenever I told other anarchists or communists in the US or Europe that I was a Pagan, the response was almost always something along the lines of: “Wait…you’re a fascist?” Those who didn’t immediately make that conclusion instead responded with words less accusatory but no less dismissive, such as “that’s all nonsense.”

I’d been derided enough times that I learned to keep my beliefs as private as possible. I learned to smile pleasantly when atheism and anti-religious dogma was repeated in speeches at protests and organizational meetings. “No gods no masters” was an unquestionable foundation of every anarchist gathering, never to be challenged. And though my entire experience of the living world ran counter to the secular-scientific atheist consensus in the anarchist and socialist groups I worked with, keeping silent about what I believed was better than being lectured, laughed at, or more often: labeled a fascist.

So when my friend (herself an atheist, an anti-fascist organizer, and later a curator of anti-fascist and anti-nationalist museum exhibitions in Germany) accepted my apparently contradictory positions (being against fascism, being deeply Pagan), relief flooded my soul.

Her acceptance gave me the confidence to broach the subject with others in political spaces. Though most of the conversations repeated the same dismissals (or worse) that I had experienced before, I was able to slowly find others who would cautiously confess that they themselves also held similar beliefs. I remember an IWW and Solidarity Network organizer telling me in an anarchist bookshop (after looking around herself first to see who might hear her say it) that she read tarot. I remember a leftist social worker who also did sex work admitting she kept an altar and did protection magic. And I remember meeting a burnt-out anarchist magician coming to life again upon finding someone he could finally talk to about his work.

European Leftism, European Atheism

There are several reasons we had all felt both embittered and scared of being open about our beliefs.

Most of these reasons are historical. Anarchism and communism were both first articulated in Europe during a time when being anything other than atheist marked you as anti-intellectual and aligned with bourgeois values. Proudhon, Marx, Stirner, Bukunin–pretty much all of the early philosophers of anarchism or communism (with Tolstoy a significant exception) were not just dismissive of spiritual beliefs, but aggressively hostile.

Any astute reader of the aforementioned paragraph, however, will note that the philosophers of whom I am speaking are all of European origin or derivation. This is an important fact, because the atheism that was carried into leftist thought was a European atheism. Being European, it bore with it utterly unnoticed colonial conceits. While many were influenced by indigenous (including Iroquois) forms of autonomous self-government and anti-colonial struggle, the European narrative of progress (which posits that all societies eventually “progress” from animist and polytheist beliefs into monotheism and finally atheism) prevented these philosophers and theorists from accepting the metaphysically animist nature of the cultures that inspired them.

This arrogance is what then allowed communists, anarchists, and socialists to argue that indigenous cultures would need to relinquish their non-scientific (that is, non-European) beliefs and worldviews in order to achieve full liberation. No gods no masters was not just a rallying cry but an imperative, and this has in no small part led many indigenous cultures to reject some leftist ideologies as continuations of colonial oppression.

This arrogance was rarely subtle in the leftist spaces in which I moved. I listened to socialists, anarchists, and communists (sometimes to crowds of thousands) say that First Nations and indigenous peoples of other continents must eventually come into the 21st century and “throw off the chains” of shamanic and other traditional beliefs. Never once did I hear this challenged in those spaces.

As non-indigenous adherents to reconstructed Pagan beliefs, my partner and I had even less ground to stand upon in these arguments. Though the “backwardness” of indigenous people gave them some time to change, we were white, which meant we were supposed to have moved beyond such beliefs centuries ago. We were “lifestylists,” according to the worshipers of Bookchin and  “immature” according to the Scientific Socialist currents birthed by Trotsky and Lenin. But worse than this, we are also “crypto-fascists.”

There is another root to this accusation. The history of Paganism and occultism in Europe during the 19th and  20th century is unfortunately rife with fascist forms. Esoteric fascists such as Julius Evola evoked Pagan forms in their writing, Theosophy and the Golden Dawn both had adherents who were sympathetic to fascist forms, and of course some Nazis attempted a re-invigoration of ancient Germanic religious beliefs. But socialists and anarchists also evoked Pagan forms, and the aformentioned occult traditions (Theosophy and the Golden Dawn) had more intersections with leftist groups than they did with the right (*a good source for more on this is Affective Communities by Leela Ghandi). Further back, as Peter Linebaugh has shown repeatedly in his works, leftist and anarchist resistance to Capitalism in Ireland and England often evoked ancient pagan gods (particularly the Whiteboys in Ireland and the Luddites in England) and pagan forms (such as May Day) as part of their resistance.

So while a case can be made that Pagan, esoteric, and occult forms are fascist and do not belong in leftist or anarchist movements, the exact case can also be made that they were important parts of leftist and anarchist movements from the very beginning. Thus, leftists who label Pagan beliefs as fascist by pointing to historical connections are only ever looking at half of the evidence, if they are even looking at all.

Why they would appear to miss that evidence has been addressed succinctly by post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his work, Provincializing Europe. Basically–European secularism is an artificial narrative, and it is one which attempts to overwrite its own non-secularism. Erasing traces of folk traditions and religious beliefs within European (and generally Western) societies helps European societies and intellectuals see themselves as more “advanced” and “modern” than the rest of the world. That is, this secular-atheism is a product of its own colonial arrogance.

The continuation of this arrogance in Anti-fascism

Anarchism, Communism, Socialism, and especially Anti-fascism has never really interrogated this arrogance. This becomes a particular problem now that we are seeing increasingly public displays of aggressive white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and extreme right rhetoric in the United States and Europe.

This rise is absolutely cause for concern. Unfortunately, the violence of their ideologies and their actual physical violence has initiated quite a few panicked and uncalculated responses to their threat, some of which spread patently false information. In such a panicked state, we can clearly see the symptoms of this un-examined arrogance.

For instance, consider this image from the U.K. group Brighton Anti-Fascists:

Text reads:” Know your enemy–NeoNazi symbols & codes Nazis and white supremacists often use codes and symbols to disguise their true politics. Memorise these symbols–if you spot one (of[sic] more) of them, you’ve probably got yourself a fascist!”
I encountered this image with great dismay after it was shared by another anti-fascist group. Dismay might not even be the correct word: I was horrified by the inclusion of one particularly image–that of the Valknut (third image from the left on the bottom row).

The Valknut is an ancient Nordic symbol found on stone work and textiles, and while its precise original meaning is unclear, it’s usually thought to have indicated the procession of ancestors and to honor warriors who died in battle. Currently, its most common uses are amongst those who adhere to Heathenism or Asatru, religions derived from Scandinavian and Germanic cultures. Some followers of these religions profess racist, exclusionary, and even fascist beliefs, but many more do not. I personally know several antifascist organizers who use this symbol, including one who has it tattooed on his body.

Claiming that the presence of the Valknut indicates that “you’ve probably got yourself a fascist!” is, therefore, no more true than claiming that a person wearing a cross is a child-molester or a person carrying a prayer mat in order to pray towards Mecca is a terrorist. That is, while there are Heathens who adhere to fascist beliefs, and no doubt there are fascists who adorn themselves with the Valknut, there is no correlation between the symbol and the violence of the extreme right.

The presence of the Valknut in this list of “NeoNazi symbols and codes” is not only misinformation, but it has other effects as well:

  • It damages the credibility of the anti-fascist organizations who disseminated it. Any reader aware of the much larger non-fascist and even anti-fascist uses of the symbol immediately understands that Brighton Antifascists don’t actually know what they’re talking about. People are thus less likely to take anything else they say seriously.
  • It causes unfair and damaging defamation of people who use the symbol and are not fascist, putting them into situations where they have to “prove” themselves not to be fascist.
  • It makes anti-fascism in general elsewhere lose credibility among those who are not yet politicized. Anti-fascists are often criticized for being “alarmist,” “fanatic,” and otherwise unable to distinguish symbolic meaning from actual threats; lists of symbols and codes that signify someone is a fascist increases this perception, and when those codes are demonstrably false such accusations become irrefutable.
  • It undermines years of work that anti-fascist Heathen groups (like Heathens United Against Racism/HUAR) have done to prevent their religious beliefs from being co-opted by white nationalist, supremacist, authoritarian, and explicitly fascist groups.
  • Perhaps worst of all, it increases the already-high fear and anxiety felt by oppressed peoples in a damaging way. The trauma experienced by those against whom the marches, rallies, and repeated identity-based violence of the various extreme-right groups occurs is already deep; inflating their fear through false information only helps those who wield terror against them.

The importance of this work

The Valknut is hardly the only symbol that that has been recently mis-labeled (see my previous critiques of such panics regarding the Tyr rune, red boot laces, the Black Sun and egoism, and the wolfsangel.)  And some of these mistakes can be ascribed to mere panic or a puerile fundamentalism that mistakes the symbolic for the real, much in the same way that Christian fundamentalists publish lists of “signs” your child is into the occult.

But a larger criticism is necessary.

The larger issue is that leftist, anarchists, and anti-fascist spaces in European and Anglo-American contexts have too long failed to re-evaluate their inherited Euro-atheist arrogance. The Valknut is an artifact of the pre-Christian cultural existence of Europe, one which has persisted into the present through folk customs and art. It’s part of the paganism that European secularism–especially now in its Anglo-American leftist forms–tries to forget it ever was. And by forgetting, it gives over those who find meaning in such things to the very fascists it claims to fight.

Much has changed already regarding the arrogance against Paganism and magical traditions in leftists spaces.  Some of this change is on account of my work and the work of other writers at Gods&Radicals, as well as more clear-thinking anti-fascist theorists such as Shane Burley. This collective work has brought us to a place where Paganism, witchcraft, and occultism are now much more accepted as authentic expressions of autonomy and resistance.

Heathens unfortunately remain too often smeared as crypto-fascist by anti-fascist groups and the larger public. Worse, these smears and misinformation campaigns comes at a time when white supremacists are actively recruiting in Heathen communities, making it much harder for Heathens to fight off their advances.

Knee-jerk assumptions, simplistic reductions of symbols and beliefs, and a willingness to discard spiritual and cultural symbols in our fight to stop a nebulous Fascist threat will not only lead us nowhere good, but will aid the recruitment efforts of the people we are claiming to oppose. It not only shows us as ignorant but willfully arrogant: our “enlightened” European-derived secular-atheism is the only true way, and any who find meaning in spiritual symbols are at best foolish or, more often “fascist.”

Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans ; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And importantly, greater acceptance of non-Christian and non-Atheist cultural and spiritual beliefs supports a much larger work: abandoning the colonialist arrogance which still sees European-derived civilization as superior in its secularism.

As this arrogance is abandoned, indigenous and colonized people will able to claim more space to articulate their animist and ancestral beliefs, without being dismissed as uneducated or backwards in leftist spaces. It’s this larger work we must be committed to, a work that cannot be accomplished by sacrificing the beliefs of others on the altars of purity or the fight against fascism, nor can it be accomplished without interrogating the secular-atheism of the left’s “founding fathers.”


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is one of the co-founders and co-editors of Gods&Radicals. His recently released collection, Witches In a Crumbling Empire, is available now. You can support him on Patreon, and listen to his podcasts with Alley Valkyrie, Empires Crumble.


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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/).


Have a guest post you’d like to submit? Or interested in joining as a regular writer? Contact us!

 

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.