Asgard Is A People, Not A Place: Heathenism and Race, or What Everyone Gets Wrong About Asatru
During the Nazi era, Germanic religion and history were, in short, simply treated like any other propaganda tool, with complete disregard for the actual beliefs of the heathen Teutons, the god/desses in who they believed, and the actual underpinnings of the Northern culture. Anyone who doubts this only has to try picturing a free-minded Viking or Germanic tribesman accepting the suggestion that he be shorn like a thrall and made to wear a uniform and march in step, obedient to the last words of his leader – or a woman such as Signy the Volsung, Sigridr the Proud, Unnr the Deep-Minded, or Freydis Eiriksdottir listening meekly to the news that her sole purpose for being is to bear strong sons for “the race”!
– Kveldulf Hagan Gundarsson, Our Troth, Volume 1
There is a scene in Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” that gives me all the feels. Hela is in the process of destroying Asgard and Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, is leading the remaining inhabitants, who are hunkered down in a cave, to safety. Heimdall is talking to Thor, and as the camera pans over a multi-racial group of Asgardian survivors, Heimdall declares “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people,” implying that the way of the Aesir will live on after Ragnarok in the hearts of all true folk who carry the gods with them, wherever they may roam. Damn scene gets me every time, for many reasons, one of which is that it illustrates that it is what is in the heart that makes one Asatru (which literally means true to the Germanic-Norse Gods) not where one’s genetics are from.
It’s a beautiful image, in a film full of them, but eventually the credits roll and those of us who carry the Gods in our hearts have to emerge into the harsh daylight of a world where our symbols and beliefs are being manipulated and maligned in a way not seen since Heinrich Himmler defiled the swastika and Black Sun, filling them full of hate beyond repair. Least you think I’m just talking about the neo-nazis currently trying to hijack the runes, I’m not. We also face misrepresentation from some on the left who are ready to pounce on anyone who “messes with runes”. I can’t count how many Twitter profiles bookended with red roses are willing to lump any follower of Asatru in with the nazis.
Before I skewer both sides, let me begin by saying that the pagan Germanic-Norse people that we draw our information about the Gods from were a tribal people who lived in ways that do not conveniently fit into any place on the modern political spectrum, right or left. Justice was decided by the clan, sometimes at the Thing, a governing assembly made up of “the free people”, and there were no hard and fast rules, no Commandments or Constitution to follow to the letter. Women enjoyed freedoms and power not shared by their counterparts in Christian Europe or the Middle East, whereas the disabled most certainly did not. Sexual freedom was a thing, as was honor, courage and generosity, or “gift giving”. Slaves were sometimes made of the inhabitants of the lands they conquered; yet they were also known to trade and mingle with a variety of cultures without conflict. The only thing that can be said one hundred percent for certain about our Germanic-Norse ancestors is that they were not isolationists. They interacted with the world and cultures around them, sometimes violently, sometimes not. In many ways the culture was progressive, and many ways it was not. Point is that any attempt by anyone trying to lay claim to this culture by way of a political viewpoint is entirely and rightfully doomed to failure, and does complete dishonor to the Gods, and should probably be blood-eagled to boot (which is a practice that probably didn’t actually happen, but whatever).
This, of course, didn’t stop the Nazis from attempting to co-opt certain pagan symbols for political ends, and in the case of the swastika, which had previously been a symbol of luck and auspiciousness (as well as solar and earthly energy), they most certainly ruined it’s public use. Yet, what is unknown, or at least ignored, by modern nazis who try to repeat similar blasphemies against pagan symbols is that Hitler himself had a very dour view of the Germanic pagans. When asked of the ancestors, he is reported to have said “there is such a lot of nonsense talked about the cult of Wotan and the spirit of the Edda…those idiotic windbags have no idea what their spouting causes,” furthermore saying “it seems to me that nothing would be more foolish than to re-establish the worship of Wotan. Our old mythology ceased to be viable when Christianity implanted itself. Nothing dies unless it is moribund.”
How anyone can read that last sentence and think that Nazism was sympathetic to Teutonic paganism is beyond me. The myth that somehow the two were intertwined came about because of Himmler’s interest in the occult, which had far more to do with Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy than it did Germanic paganism. Hitler had harsh words for Himmler’s proclivities as well, making it clear they were not part of the party’s ideology:
What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind, and now he wants to start that all over again. We might just as well have stayed in the Church. At least it had tradition…isn’t it enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up their villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds. All we prove by that is that we were still throwing stone hatches and crouching around open fires when Greece and Rome had already reached the highest stage of culture. We really should do our best to keep quiet about this past.
If those words don’t convince you that the Nazis were not pagan (in fact, the overwhelming majority were Christians), maybe what will is the fact that what Germanic pagan groups did exist at the time were outlawed, while some of their leaders were sent to the concentration camps to die. Just as with any totalitarian society, the only god that exists is the dictator, and that was Hitler, not Wotan.
Unfortunately none of this historical reality prevents modern day nazis from ignorantly plastering the Odal rune on their flags. Before I address that issue, I want to make something very clear to anyone reading this who might be sympathetic to using Teutonic paganism as an excuse for racialism; my ancestry is overwhelmingly Germanic-Norse to a shocking degree (I was actually taken aback by how non-diverse my Ancestry test was), hell my mother’s maiden name literally means “people of Thuringia”, the German Free State. I’ll happily stack my DNA results up against the likes of neo-nazis Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Workers Party or Jeff Schoep of the National Socialist Movement. Other than German and Danish, my DNA is 13% Scottish and 22% English, with the English actually being from what formally was known as Danelaw, or Daneland because it was conquered and settled by Danish Vikings. This “my dick is bigger than yours” genetic measuring shouldn’t matter, but it does to the nazis, and they are who I am addressing here.
First, it should be pointed out that being proud of your heritage and ancestry, which I am, and which everyone has a right to be, is not the same as being a supremacist. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite, which is why none those Ancestry DNA commercials where someone celebrates their heritage after discovering that they are part Nigerian or Native American ends by them calling for “white genocide”. At the risk of getting all Dr. Phil for a minute, let me say that from a psychological perspective, truly loving who you are means that you are happy with yourself, despite what anyone else does, thinks or is. No one who is truly happy with themself demeans and attacks others; they live and let live. Ideas of supremacy do not stem from feelings of self-love, they stem from feelings of self-hatred and insecurity. If you feel confident enough in yourself, and who you are, there is no way you would feel threatened by another to the point of wishing to seem them extinct. It is sort of like the homophobe who is actually afraid of his own homosexual urges. No one that is self-assured in their sexuality is threatened by the existence of gay men. It is the same with white supremacists, which is why so many of them look more like they just came off a mountain dew and meth bender than they do Chris Hemsworth as Thor. The real enemy that most of these racists face is not “the blacks and the jews”, it’s themselves. Rather than hold rallies just to get into fisticuffs with Antifa, as their numbers dwindle, they would be better off holding a massive group therapy session to figure out why they hate themselves so much to be driven to an ideology that isn’t based on empowerment of the self, but rather destruction of the other. This is an area of awareness that groups like Life After Hate, and Daryl L. Jenkins’s One People’s Project have focused on to help people get out of right wing extremism, and one that is surely more productive and positive than simply smashing people’s faces, although certainly occasionally a face needs to be smashed, especially if it’s Richard Spencer’s.
This article isn’t about saving nazis from themselves though; this is an article about saving Germanic-Norse paganism. To that end let me say unequivocally that there is absolutely NOTHING in the Eddas or the understanding of the Gods or the runes that would give support to a racist agenda. It simply doesn’t exist. What does exist in truth is that these Gods and this tradition are the cultural heritage of a particular group of tribal Indo-European people, who were not always racially homogenous. That’s it. Full stop. Any romantic ideas of “Aryan” perfection exists only in the minds of the racists that seek to co-opt that culture, it most certainly does not exist in the imperfect culture they seek to steal from.
Part of the problem is that there is no simple concise definition of Germanic-Norse paganism. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, there is no overarching ideology to guide one, nor is there any catchy “do what thou wilt” type imperative. Instead the practice is dependent on each individual’s personal relationship with the Gods, Fate and the forces of nature. Certainly a full understanding of the runes opens up a profound mystical understanding of the world and it’s energies that is somewhat akin to Hinduism or Taoism, but nothing that can be adopted toward political or racial ends without distorting or limiting it (although there is certainly a basis for basic social structures to be found in the runes, in the same manner that there is in the Taoist writings, which is to say minimally and in accordance with nature).
In short, and because this is hardly the space to explain what is an incredibly complex spiritual practice, Germanic-Norse paganism is a paganism for “free people,” people who have no need for a group or holy scriptures to lead the way, but whose spirituality emerges from their own personal meditations and interactions with the forces of this tradition, whether they be the Gods, the ancestors, the runes or Fate itself. What is important for our purposes here is that such a practice is the very antithesis of the sort of “group think” that fascist organizations rely upon.
Now let me say something about it being the cultural pagan heritage of a particular group of Indo-European people, particularly my group of Indo-European people. Every single ethnic group on Earth has a pagan heritage. By extension, every single person on earth has ancestors who were pagans and traditions that are pagan. Paganism, in its most basic form, is the polytheistic worship of natural forces, or deities related to those natural forces. The idea that one group of nature worshipers is superior to another makes no sense whatsoever. The Earth does not discriminate between who worships it, nor do the Gods. To be pagan is to be part of the universal tapestry of humankind’s original spiritual tradition that venerated the forces and cycles of nature. If there is land, sea and sky, no matter where, you can bet that whatever ethnic group populates that area has a strong pagan tradition, whether it is as popularly known as Teutonic Paganism is or not. For my part, I have always believed that the pagan community is made strong by the diversity of its wide range of various cultural practices and traditions, with the Teutonic branch being only one of many.
I say this because the issue should not be what form of practice is “superior” to another, because there is no “superior”, but rather what form of practice resonates with you. Certainly thinkers like Carl Jung believed there was a Germanic cultural collective unconsciousness that cried out for Odin, and it is hard for me to dispute that as a person with my particular ancestral history, who is called to Odin. Yet at the same time, there are deities that resonate with me which are not part of the German-Norse pantheon, so I hardly believe spirituality is simply a matter of ancestry, although that is undeniably a factor (particularly for those of us who actually venerate our ancestors as part of our practice). Furthermore, a close reading of the Havamal and a true understanding of the Gods make it clear that we are called upon to be honorable and generous in our interactions with others, including those who are foreign to us. Ultimately, and this is key, our Gods are not a skin color; they are an idea, an ethic, a way of life; none of which are racially defined.
Given that, who am I to tell a member of the folk that they have no right to Thor or Freyja because of the color of their skin, or their origin of birth? If they carry the truth of the Gods in their hearts, and act with wisdom, honor and courage, then they are as much a part of the people of Asgard as I, and they are as much a part of the clan of Odal as I. There are plenty of white people running around who are not worthy of the troth in the slightest, and plenty of people of color who are. It’s really that simple.
Ultimately, what is at issue today is not Asatru, it is that there are a whole lot of white people without any honor whatsoever trying to lay claim to the Gods or the runes. We don’t have an Asatru problem; we have a white people problem. Asatru isn’t racist, but plenty of white people spouting off about the ancestors and their heritage are. Odin is not the problem; it’s the scared white guys who think that by calling themselves Odinists that they are worthy of Him. They are not. Without a doubt, the wandering God that traversed the Nine Worlds in search of wisdom has little time for the machinations of ignorant racists who fear what dwells beyond their own gates.
Sadly it isn’t just the nazis that are besetting heathenism. Attacks from the left against racists and neo-nazis have a tendency to ricochet in the black and white world of Twitter politics that neither wants to, nor cares to, understand the history and meaning of pagan symbols. Recently when Antifa attacked Taake on Twitter, the use of runes was one of the things used as evidence against both Hoest and his opening act King Dude. To be fair, there are some who do not see the runes in and of themselves as evidence of fascism. Occasionally some more reasonable Antifa members will point out that the runes should always be viewed in context of other actions and symbols, but there are plenty of others who are ready to cry nazi at the first sign of the Futhrak, confident in their self-righteous ignorance. The fact that runes and Asatru are part of that discussion at all leads some of us to be as weary of the left as we are of the right, least we be dismissed as racists. Not surprisingly, it’s far easier these days to talk openly about Satanism than it is Asatru.
This is particularly true given that no less than the Atlantic and the New York Times are writing articles like “Can Asatru Be Rescued From The Racists: What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion” and “Who Owns the Vikings? Pagans, Neo-Nazis and Advertisers Tussle Over Symbols”. Unfortunately articles like this typically only add to misconceptions about Germanic-Norse paganism. Indeed, all I really learned from the New York Times piece was that because I work the runes and eat almost exclusively organic food, I must be a secret nazi, or that by writing this very article decrying racism in Germanic-Norse paganism I’m actually secretly normalizing racism, because that’s the “trick” we “extremists play everywhere.” Just as with any subculture, mainstream exposure usually does nothing to help that subculture, and certainly that is the case with these articles.
In the end, I can’t change my ancestry, nor do I want to, because my ancestors are literally now me. That is what our DNA is, after all. Just as every culture has an ancestral heritage to be celebrated, so does mine. Regardless of the misuse of that culture, I will not be shamed against my Gods or my ancestors. I will not stop using the runes, or tattooing them on my body, or honoring Odin and Thor, Freyja and Frigg every morning that I rise, and every night before I go to bed. I will not rid myself of the wisdom of the Havamal, or the magic and secrets of the runes. These beliefs and practices have been here long before the Nazis ever stole a couple of symbols from us, and they will be here long after the new wave of racists have found their way to the dustbin of history. Asatru is not a race, it is a people united by beliefs, practices and a way of life that has no use for anyone’s politics. All true folk are welcome, and the color of your skin is not a prerequisite, instead what matters is what is in your heart, your mind and your actions.