I have been massaging this essay for many months now, working on it, trying to find the best voice for it. But it’s time – time to release this piece into the world and time to bring this conversation out of my head and onto the web.
I wrote in my first post about how the runes and mythology of the Norse pagans have been corrupted by white supremacists. The white supremacists that marched in Charlottesville – and who marched before and after Charlottesville – waved banners featuring the runes. They waved banners featuring Othila, one of the most sacred runes within my personal practice. Stephen McNallen, known white supremacist and founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly and the WOTAN Network, promised to join the crowd in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
I wept when I saw my beloved runes used in this act of hatred and violence. I crawled under the covers and wanted to hibernate.
But practicing heathenism means that I need to be even more explicit in my analysis of the racial politics of my faith. For me, practicing heathenry and working with the runes has become an interrogation of my whiteness – and how ugly that whiteness can be.
I constantly question why I’m interested in walking this path. Why now, after white supremacist organizations have so appropriated our symbols? And what can one heathen do in the face of this recent history?
The fact of the matter is: the vast majority of heathens are inclusive of people of color and LGBTQIA+ practitioners. But often, we are scared into silence.
That’s a problem. Because that means the groups that espouse hate become the de facto voice of our spirituality, when they are decidedly in the minority. And so working on this column has become even more important. Committing myself to exploring my own ancestry in public is essential.
A historical note: Metagenetics and ‘Folkish’ Heathenry
Witchcraft and the occult are not reserved for the progressives.
The brilliant writers at Gods and Radicals point out that most forms of paganism tend to lean left, whereas Asatru leans right. This has largely to do with the interest Hitler and Nazis had in Norse mythology. They used stories of Odin and Thor to glorify white masculinity and to justify their idea of the ‘Aryan race’. (For a deep dive into this, check out The Occult Roots of Nazism by historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.)
Jung also wrote a controversial essay in the 1930s titled “Wotan”, in which he attempted to understand what was happening in Germany. (Wotan is the Germanic name for Odin.) Jung connects Odin the Wanderer, the magician that moves through the world and stirs up magic and creates unrest, with the spread of the Hitler Youth. Jung went on to write about how this surge in violence in Germany was because of the reawakening of Odin within the bloodlines of German youth. While this wasn’t the first connection drawn between Odin and German nationalism, it was the most widely-read.
“Wotan” effectively and evocatively connected Odin with Hitler. But Jung’s contribution to racist heathenry doesn’t stop here.
Metagenetics is a concept created by Carl Jung and then bastardized by racist pagans. The concept defines culture as being passed down genetically between descendents. Metagenetics states that only those who are the literal, direct ancestors of a tradition may tap into the collective ancestral knowledge within that tradition. The Asatru Folk Assembly and other racist heathen organizations adhere strictly to the rule of metagenetics. They claim that unless you have a provable ancestral connection to the Norse, that you are not welcome and should instead “drink from your own well.”
‘Folkish’ heathenry is often used as code for organizations that follow metagenetics. If you’re looking for a local group of heathens to practice with, be wary of groups that talk about the “Northern folk” or who explicitly talk about ancestral worship in very literal forms. ‘Literalists’ in any faith are those that take the letter of ancient texts as literally true. An example of this outside of the pagan community would be the literal interpretation of Biblical rules, such as the rule that women shall not speak in church.
To be clear, any group of European pagans can buy into metagenetics and white supremacist ideology – it is simply far more prevalent in Norse paganism.
Most healthy pagan communities see the myths as metaphorical and, in fact, apply critical lenses of feminist, queer, anti-capitalist, and ecological theologies. Applying pagan liberation theology to Norse myths and sagas is just as valid as applying these theologies to Druidic, Grecian, Slavic, or a whole host of other pagan traditions. But there is significant recent history that makes this a charged endeavor.
Called to practice heathenry against all logic
Even though I come from an extremely Scandinavian background and even though the Gardnerian coven I was initiated into worshipped Odin and Freyja as their God and Goddess, I avoided heathenry like the plague. That priest did some rune readings for me, and I inherited more traditional knowledge than I realized during my brief tenure with that coven, but I always resisted incorporating heathenry into my solitary practices.
But eventually, Odin found me. The first time I sang the runes in ritual, I felt the voices of my seidr-witch ancestors singing through me. I couldn’t turn away from this practice without exploring it with two eyes wide open.
I am a solitary witch and have been for most of my practice. This means that I read a lot. But with learning more about runes and Norse practice, I’ve been very careful about what I’m reading.
I read the women scholars first: Diana L. Paxson, Freya Aswynn. I read the source material, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. I reach out to a friend, who is a Viking archaeologist, about scholars or important essays to read on that side of the field.
But there is some source material that I can’t escape – material that is so canon to Norse paganism that to skip it is to be blind to the full picture. I’m talking about Edred Thorsson’s Futhark. Thorsson goes by many names – his given name is Stephen Flowers, and he did a lot to connect Norse practice and Asatru with white supremacy. At the same time, it’s near impossible to study this branch of magic without reading Thorsson’s Futhark. This work is seminal to the understanding of rune lore as we know it and impossible to skip in your own study.
So I take out my red pen, I make a cup of tea (or, let’s be real, pour a couple fingers of bourbon), and get to work. My books are now filled with red markings, scribblings in pencil, all-caps notes that say, “WELL THAT’S FUCKED.”
It’s important for anyone who is exploring spirituality to look at whatever you read with a careful eye. This can be difficult in the pagan community – we don’t like to admit it, but many of us are making this up as we go. Which means that, as someone exploring my ancestral practices (or rather, practices inspired by the mythology of my ancestors), I can create my own framework. I can update them to suit my cultural context, as long as I have done the work to know the recent traditions they have grown from.
The actual practices of Norse heathenry – runework, Seidr, Norse shamanism – all can be engaged outside of the toxic frame put around them by the Asatru Folk Assembly and similar organizations.
In Part 2 of this post, I will explore ways to practice heathenry with an open heart and to use these spiritual practices to perform ancestral shadow work. I will also include links to other organizations, blog posts, and writing on this issue.