Guest Post- Thersa Kennedy Racism in Heathenry
Excuse the lack of Paragraps, Copy and Paste can only do so much.
Racism in the Heathen Faith
The Heathen faith is considered a neo-pagan reconstructive religion based on the worship of the gods and goddesses of the ancient Scandinavian and Germanic people. Though there are many various branches within the faith, most focus on the worship of Norse deities such as Odin, Thor, Frey, Tyr, as well as nature spirits and personal ancestors. As stated by The Pagan Federation, “Many Heathens belong to small groups made up of Heathen friends and family members. These groups are sometimes called 'hearths' or 'kindreds' and meet for religious rituals in members' homes or in outdoor spaces. Some hearths and kindreds have recognized leaders. Others are entirely egalitarian.” (Heathenry) It has been officially recognized as a religion in the United States since the 1970s, though it has gained more popularity due to television shows and movies such as Vikings and The Avengers. Though mostly held as a peaceful practice, in more recent years there has been an increase in negative media coverage revolving around exclusive communities and terroristic activities against those of different faiths and ethnic heritages. Racism found in the Heathen faith is a deep-rooted issue that is both detrimental to those within the confines of the faith and society at large.
The earliest arguments found within the Heathen faith stem from the Nazi Regime of World War II. To strengthen the ties to a cultural identity, the Nazi Regime employed use of various pseudo-scientific thought and powerful ancient symbolism. The first of these was a sense of racial superiority, that being of ‘Aryan’ decent made one better than those of another ethnic heritage. In doing so, they began to employ the use of Old Norse and Germanic runes in their propaganda. The most recognizable of these would be the swastika. As one of the world’s oldest and most recognizable symbols, it can be found in many places over the world dating back thousands of years. Though its true meaning is unknown, most scholars believe “it had much to do with luck, prosperity, power, protection, and sanctity.” (McCoy) It’s use by the Nazi Regime has seemingly removed any positive connotation previously associated with its use. Other symbols appropriated by the Nazi regime include a series of runes used by the ancient Scandinavian and Germanic peoples known as Futhark.
The Futhark was in fact a writing system that is believed to hold great power in each of its runes. For modern practitioners of the Heathen faith, runes are employed using their ancient meanings in magical workings. The rune Swailo was employed in a double form for the SS officers as a form of channeling its meaning in divine wrath and victory. Another rune, Othala, was changed from being a symbol for the god Odin to another mark of domination over foreign enemies. Using these symbols, the Nazis claimed both their racial and spiritual superiority over others, far different from their original intentions in most cases. In the resurgence of these beliefs, many Neo-Nazis and Skinheads often adorn themselves with these marks in the form of tattoos. When in prison or in society, these marks are used as a non-verbal means of communicating ideals held by the individual. Many practitioners of the Heathen faith fear adorning themselves with these symbols to prevent any confusion between the two, instead keeping their magical workings in private.
Another thing to note about the connection with Neo-Nazis and the Heathen faith revolves around prisoners and their reemergence into proper society. In prison, it is important to form strong social bonds with others. Religious practice is one way to exempt themselves from the scrutinization of the guards. These individuals gather and warp their practices around racist ideologies, much like the cartel do with their practice of Santeria. When rejoined with society, these individuals join up with groups of practitioners and place their mark in the overall practice of faith. Most of these former criminals consider themselves Odinists or Asatru, an Old Norse word loosely meaning “follower of the Asir/gods.”
These groups of Asatru can often be divided into two major schools of thought regarding race: Folkish and Universalist. Folkish groups believe in a strong tie to one’s ancestral heritage, even to the point of excluding anyone deemed “outlander” from their practices. According to the leader of the American Folk Assembly, one of the first Asatru organizations in America, “We’re all trying to preserve our peoples, cultures, and native religions in a world where transnational corporations and intrusive governments work to destroy all differences.” (Snook) These groups often call upon the so-called Fourteen Words, a borrowing from a white supremacist group known as The Order. These words call others to “secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” (14 Words) Though mostly non-violent, these groups often call for romantic relations to be restricted between white men and women. They strongly discourage same-sex and interracial unions, calling them weak and often times an ‘affront to the gods.’
In direct response to the Folkish are a group known as Universalists. They welcome all individuals, regardless of race or sexual identity. The main argument that Universalists make against the Folkish relate to the nature of the ancient Norse people referred to as Vikings. They claim that Vikings “were great travelers, explorers, traders, conquerors, who ranged far into Eastern Europe and even into Northern Africa. So, it is quite apparent to anyone not trying to shut their ears against what they don’t want to hear that the real motivation of these Folkists is not religious at all, but political.” (Skallagrimsson) Some sources note that “when travelling afar, often took part in the religious rituals of the lands they travelled to, such as is found in the example of prime-signing, where travelling heathens took part in Christian ritual without renouncing their native gods.” (Skallagrimsson) Many Universalists even speak out publicly against Folkish groups such as the AFA, though they themselves are not held as a very reputable source of information due to their highly inclusive nature and leaders consisting mostly of converts from monotheistic or Wiccan faiths.
However, the main issues with Racism within the Heathen faith seem to stem from those who are not truly Heathen to begin with. It is apparent that most of the extremely violent behavior comes more directly from outside sources twisting the culture behind the faith itself. With the rise of Viking culture in the eye of the public, people tend to use the misunderstood nature of Vikings with the Heathen faith. Even as far back as the 1990s, Far-right extremist groups such as the Soldiers of Odin have militarized themselves, committing acts of arson and assault against ‘foreign invaders.’ As noted in studies, “Though opposition to Muslim immigration is the group’s main purpose and it appears to have no deep commitment to Pagan religiosity, the usage of a Pagan god’s name in the name of the organization is significant as it indicates that the organizers of the movement clearly saw advantage in associating themselves with Nordic Paganism and its symbols.” (Vrzal) Also, in early 2019, an individual identifying himself as Brenton Tarrant gunned down two mosques in New Zealand. “A manifesto titled “The Great Replacement” written by the accused shooter was viewable online and contained the statement “Goodbye, god bless you all and I will see you in Valhalla.”” (Bustamante)
The question then remains on how to correct the issue of Racism within the Heathen faith and improve relations with the outside world. The answer, though it seems simple, may be far more complex than it seems. First, a separation from the misconceptions of the so-called “Viking Culture” and the Heathen faith is crucial. The public, as well as those within the faith, must be clear about the differences in modern portrayal of ancient cultures and the truths behind them. There must also be an understanding of a sense of community. Ancient people thrived on diverse communities and their interactions with outside forces. These ideals should hold a high place in humanity’s interactions with each other. Education is crucial, as is reeducation. Individuals clinging to their racist views should hold no place in religious communities and speaking out against them is vital to the survival of the Heathen faith. If these steps can be made, racism will no longer be an issue within the Heathen community. Once that task is complete, relations within the global community will surely improve.