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.
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.
During 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)
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.
The 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.
Online, 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)
One 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.
Currently 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.
Outside 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.
- 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.
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.