Contemporary Germanic Neopaganism goes by a few different names: Heathenry, Odinism and Asatru, just to name a few. Although there are a large variety of variations between these belief systems, they all borrow from older pre-Christian religious traditions observed by Scandinavians, Teutonic peoples and similar cultures in Europe. Currently, followers of modern Heathenry in the United States find that one central issue deeply divides their communities: Who has the right to call themselves a “Heathen”?
Universalists Vs. Folkists
For the most part, believers in the United States tend to be separated into two points of view regarding who can belong to the movement. In general, universalists welcome anyone who wants to practice Heathen ways into their faith, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. Meanwhile, others adopt what they call a “folkish” perspective, arguing that only individuals with European ancestry should participate.
According to Vice contributor Rick Paulas, this ideological debate has existed since at least the 1970s. In a 2015 piece for the online magazine, he briefly charted the history of the Asatru Fellowship, an Icelandic organization formed in 1972 to revive old pagan Scandinavian traditions. Paulus cited Michael Nielsen, a scholar of Viking History at Copenhagen University who describes the modern Icelandic Asatru movement as having “a holistic, environmental touch” and welcoming to all.
Meanwhile, an American named Stephen McNallen formed the Asatru Folk Assembly in 1976. Paulus describes McNallen’s point of view as “everyone has their own culture, and we should stick to it.” While McNallen himself doesn’t prohibit people of color from joining his organization, he wonders “why they would want to follow European native religion rather than the entirely valid and worthy native religions of their own ancestors.”
Racist Ideologies Within American Odinism
European and Canadian Heathen communities don’t experience the division between universalism and folkism to the same degree. Unfortunately, Paulus and other sources have documented that some folkish practitioners in the United States mix their religious practices with racist ideologies. The United States’ Southern Poverty Law Center first detailed this trend in a 1998 report, noting that many of these individuals refer to themselves as Odinists. With a heavy emphasis on racial heritage in determining who belongs in the Heathenry movement, the SPLC adds that white supremacists are adopting Odinism as their faith, branding it as a “white religion” promoting individual responsibility, honor and heroism.
Sadly, the links between older Norse culture and racist philosophies are not new. The SPLC mentions that Nazi leadership in 20th-century Germany coopted pagan Scandinavian and Germanic imagery, using some of it to create their myth of a superior “Aryan” race. Moreover, some have observed a troubling resurgence of the slogan “Blut und Boden,” or “blood and soil,” within a few modern Odinist circles. As a nationalist term codifying the notion of racial purity, its critics include The Rational Heathen blogger, who describes it as the idea that “a true Aryan came from the earth and tilled the soil, aka farmers, in Germany.”
The Debate Continues
Religious Tolerance’s entry on the Asatru faith also decries the combination of Germanic spiritual traditions with racism, noting that white supremacist activities are “no way related to the restoration of Ásatrú as a legitimate Heathen religion.” Rather, these tendencies may be the result of some individuals amalgamating their philosophies about ethnic superiority with their religious beliefs. Religious Tolerance refers to this as a “corruption,” noting that Heathen organizations around the globe openly reject bigotry in both their core values and actions. With its fascinating and beautiful traditions emphasizing courage, community support, integrity and perseverance, there are many actively fighting to ensure modern Norse paganism is welcoming to all who are willing to embrace and practice its customs.