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Frans_Jozef
Saturday, September 25th, 2004, 12:09 AM
Constructing identity and divinity: Creating community in an Elder religion within a postmodern world

By Jenny Blain, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax NS B3M 2J6


In the present day an increasing number of people are drawn towards earth-centered ('alternative' or 'Pagan') religions: and the ways in which they seek for information are as diverse as the people themselves or the goddess and gods whom they name. Many practitioners, particularly within the Women's Spirituality Movement, state that they look primarily to 'ancient' religions and practices as suggested by archaeological findings from the bronze age, neolithic, or even palaeolithic. A further group relate their beliefs and practices specifically to mythologies and mythological texts (such as the Mabinogi, or the Icelandic Edda), and archaeological findings, from Western Europe in a period of approximately one thousand years, from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries of the Common Era. Others may gather information on particular deities without being historically, geographically or temporally specific about practices. [1]

Various terms can be used to refer to the beliefs and their adherents, including "Earth Religions", "paganism", "alternative religions" and "prechristian religions". These cover many different approaches to spirituality and belief, whose adherents in general do not consider that their approach is the only "correct" one. Most pagans see others' forms of paganism as valid. Within this varied and varying mix of spiritualities, groups and individuals draw on narratives of (for instance) ancient Goddess worship, or ninth-century Heathenism, to demarcate who they are: to not only establish authenticity, precedents for practices, and status for group members, but provide individuals and groups with ways in which they relate discursively to Goddesses, Gods, Earth and community. Perceptions of earlier "indigenous" pagan religions provide reference points for identification and credentialling of not only group and individual practices and organization, but cosmologies and mythologies.

Elsewhere I have differentiated three major sets of narratives, which provide a means to categorize the uncategorizable. First, accounts of an unbroken chain of practice, disrupted, and driven underground by the period of witch burnings. Second, accounts of practices as modern and as deliberately created, but as derived from, influenced by and possibly including survivals of early practices. This group of narratives includes accounts constructed from interpretations of archaeological findings, such as Gimbutas' concept of 'Old Europe'. Third are deliberate "reconstructions", though within a present-day context and with present-day meaning, of such practices that are documented in surviving documents, generally written during the middle-ages, in which Celtic or Norse mythologies are detailed. A good overview of the range of "Paganism" available within Britain is given by Harvey and Hardman (Harvey and Hardman, 1996) in their book Paganism Today, and by Harvey in Listening People, Speaking Earth (Harvey, 1997) The North American scene is yet more diverse. It was described by Adler (1986) in Drawing Down the Moon, which has received both plaudits and criticism for its range, though many descriptins may now be outdated. The group I will describe in this chapter often consider that while Adler's work is valuable, it gives a highly distorted picture of their community.

This chapter is an examination of discourse and community formation of those members of the third category, "reconstructionists", who trace their beliefs and practices to the literature and archaeological findings of the Nordic and Germanic cultures of Northern Europe. I have described reconstructionist groups in earlier papers (Blain, 1996; 1997). In the present chapter I intend to examine how Heathen reconstructionists not only draw on "public narratives" but use these with deliberation in the construction of community.

Heathen reconstructionist Nuallë defines the term as :

By "Reconstructionist" I mean that I try by scholarly study to put together an understanding of the ways that those who historically worshipped the Gods I worship lived and practiced their worship. I then try to live and practice in the same ways, so far as that is possible and/or feasible while living in the real near-21st-Century-CE world.

In general, the expressed aim of reconstructionist [2] groups is not to recreate pagan society or ritual exactly as it was, but to use sources from the past to aid in the creation of religious, spiritual and ritual experiences and structures that suit the present-day: to draw on the understandings of the past for an improved understanding of the present. While there are reconstructionist groups that trace cultural links to religions of many parts of the world, the groups I am stuyding look to Northern Europe, to the rich sources of Nordic or Germanic mythologies, for their primary information. In drawing upon evidence from archaeology and literature, they will engage in lengthy debates over the interpretation of particular passages of "ancient" material, and how these shed light on their spiritual ancestors' concept of soul and spirit, or religious practice, or indeed how these inform their own responses to questions that concern present-day people (such as childrearing, education, individualism, gun control or social policy). All the reconstructionists I have met or spoken with are relatively well-read, regardless of their level of formal education.

Reconstructionists, then, are attempting to uncover previous rituals, philosophies and theologies, and adapt these to a present-day setting, creating religious philosophy and practice that they consider appropriate. They generally define themselves as belonging to specific faiths relating to culturally-specific goddesses and gods: in the case of the Norse Heathens described in this chapter, the Ćsir and Vanir, the deities of the Germanic-speaking peoples of Europe. Several organizations exist, in North America, Europe and elsewhere, whose objectives are not only to bring together like-minded people to practice religion, but to conduct the necessary background research to expand such practice. Not all reconstructionists are members of these organizations, and indeed the majority are probably not members, though many may belong to local groups affiliated with national or international organizations. (As with all categories of neo-pagans, acquiring numbers is an impractical task.)


Defining the Elder Troth

Heathenism or Ásatrú is defined by its adherents as the set of religions of the Germanic-speaking peoples of Europe prior to christianization, basically the beliefs and practices of Northern Europe. Present-day Ásatrú is an attempt to find ways of reconstructing Heathenism within a late-twentieth-century setting. While Ásatrú is the name most commonly used, some prefer Heathenism. In Britain the term Odinist is used by some groups. In North America this is usually rejected, at least by the groups with whom I have contacts, for two reasons: first, it is seen as referring primarily to one deity, one, moreover, who is not universally liked, and often feared. It is therefore seen as more appropriate for those who regard Óđinn as their patron deity, who could describe themselves as Óđinnists within Heathenism [3]. Second, the name Odinist is seen as associated with factions of the right wing (some of whom have very little to do with Heathenism as the word is understood in this chapter), and has in some quarters taken on the association of "racist" and at times "nazi", as will be seen later in this chapter.

Another term popular with some Heathens is "The Elder Troth". The word "troth" in this context implies "belief", in the sense of "trust in". Ásatrú was coined in the 19th century (by the Scandinavian romantic movement) to mean "belief in the Ćsir", the gods described in the Icelandic Eddas and hence although it has the same general meaning, is more specific. (The spelling I use here is Icelandic, and the diacritical markings are often dropped in North American usage.) The phrase "The Elder Troth" is said to be the preferred form used by the Ring of Troth, the organization within which I have done most of my work on Ásatrú, at least according to Gundarsson's introduction to the organization's comprehensive compendium of Heathen belief, history and practice, Our Troth (Gundarsson, 1993 Introduction p.1). Yet in practice, this phrase proves cumbersome, and is not easily modified to a form that describes its adherents, so that most members of the Ring of Troth seem to use the words "Ásatrú" or "Heathenism", with "The Elder Troth" being used by literary types, mostly in their writings.

The history of the Heathen revival has been outlined within North America by Kaplan (1993) and within the UK by Harvey (1996 and 1997). Both point to problems of definitions and divisions within Heathenry, some of which will be met with later in this chapter. Also in each case the movement attempts to differentiate itself from the wider pagan community, and particularly from Wicca. Distinctions between Heathenism and Wicca are very apparent to Heathens, not necessarily so to outsiders - or to many Wiccans who use a more universalizing set of discourses. The phrase "all the goddesses are one goddess", quoted also by Harvey (1996, p.62), used by many Wiccans, is to most Heathens unacceptable, and they will point out that not only is Frigga culturally, cosmologically and mythologically distinct from (for instance) Isis, She is distinct and separate also from Nerthus or Nanna, both goddesses who are found within Ásatrú cosmology. Nevertheless, Wiccans or eclectic pagans attending Ásatrú rituals will seek to describe events and deities in terms of how "really" the goddesses, or gods, are "all the same" or how "really" the ritual took place within a magic circle, regardless of whether the practitioners considered they had cast one. The need to distinguish itself and its specific practice from Wicca therefore becomes the first task of the discourse of the Elder Troth, though not, as we will see, necessarily the most important task it faces in distingushing itself from other forms of practice in today's complex North American society.


Public Narratives of Heathenism

There seem to me eight major or "public" narratives within the Ásatrú community that are used by Ásatrú-folk to identify themselves and demarcate their practices and beliefs. These are:

1. References to myths and stories of the Aesir and Vanir, for instance to explain the characteristics or personalities of the gods. Followers of Ásatrú index specific pieces of what is referred to as 'the lore'. Knowledge of this material forms a backdrop to ritual and other events, and to discussion. Most Heathens consider that people do experience the deities in their own ways, and personal revelations (see #4, below) have become known on one email list as Unusual Personal Gnoses (UPGs), which can be checked against, and remain secondary to, 'the lore'.

2. A concept of polytheism (as distinct from monotheism or duotheism, and from at least the more popular conceptions of a Jungian discussion of 'archetypes'). The gods are spoken of as real entities, separate an distinct, with rounded personalities and different from, for instance, Celtic or Greek or Native American beings or deities. [4]

3. Along with this goes a sense of cultural specificity. Blót and Sumbel, the ritual forms of Ásatrú, are spoken of as suitable ways to worship or honor the Aesir and Vanir, and as distinct in kind from, e.g., a Wiccan circle. Again, they are drawn from 'the lore'.

4. The possibility of direct communication with these beings, to both speak with them and gain various forms of knowledge. This narrative is possibly the most difficult for many non-Ásatrú readers to understand, as it diverges sharply from the rationalist discourse of Western academia. Other pagans can more easily accept it, while complete 'outsiders' may tend to dismiss it. However, in interviews with many Ásatrú practitioners and theologians, this narrative of communication appears as an explanation of how they 'know' about their deities and why these deities appear so 'real' to them. Direct communication is a means of achieving personal gnosis (UPG). With this discourse of direct communication may go:

5. The possibility of manipulation of consciousness or 'reality' by deities, or through magic inspired by them or given by them to their followers: including Galdr (chanted magic), runic magic, and spae-working or seidhr. Not all Ásatrú-folk practice seidhr or attend sessions, but it is growing in its following. The practice of spae-craft is referenced in 'the lore', for instance in the Saga of Eirik the Red. More Ásatrú-folk, probably the majority, engage in rune-divination or rune-magic, often including galdr. However not all practitioners of Ásatrú engage in, or give credence to, magic as something they can perform, and in this Ásatrú diverges from some other popular forms of pagan practice, such as Wicca. While magic may often be a part of religious practice, not all ritual is magical.

6. Discussions of "the lore" and "the Goddesses and Gods" is however not engaged in solely for its own sake. A sense that spirituality is not separate from everyday life, but informs it, and what people do, and how they relate to each other, is in turn part of Heathen spirituality. Many Ásatrú-folk place a high value on skills of daily living which are mentioned in 'the lore' or known from archaeology or from later folk-practices - woodcraft, fiber-crafts, smith-crafts, brewing are only some. A craft-fair is an important part of an Ásatrú gathering. Part of this is the relation of Ásatrú-folk with Earth (focused on by some more than others, though all see Earth as living, or speak of her as personified by a deity).

7. A sense of individual merit and responsibility, combined with community worth. Some Ásatrúers focus on moral values or strictures, listing these as the Nine Noble Virtues. Others talk about individual responsibility and "being true" in more general terms. Ásatrú-folk point out that people have a choice in what they do, and need to accept responsibility for their choice. They contrast this with perceived Christian concepts of either "God's will" or "being tempted into sin" (a word which Ásatrú-folk do not use otherwise).

8. This general sense of responsibility goes hand in hand with an elaborate concept of 'soul' and 'self', which is currently being explored by some Ásatrú researchers - with reference, once again, to 'the lore'. With this goes a concept of personal or family fate or řrlög, which people, and the Norns, weave. This concept is less generally discussed than the others listed here.

A ninth concept would be that the Elder Kin (deities) also are subject to the workings of Wyrd or fate, but this enters much less into the interview data or general talk which I have observed, though it may underpin it.


Within Earth-centered religions today, Ásatrú practitioners are using these narratives to distinguish themselves and their religion from a host of others. Their religion appears more theorized - or theologized - than some others, notably than the general collection of spiritualities known as Paganism or Eclectic Wicca. This is in part deliberate, with emphasis both on learning the lore and on being able to explain it to others. However the sense of being linked with a complex body of knowledge, full of interconnections and complex meanings, appears to be one of the attractions for newcomers, and a central focus even for those Ásatrú-folk who do not themselves attempt to theorize the material: so that even those who do not speak of divisions of the soul, or recite from the Eddas, will debate the Gods and their personalities and characteristics, and know something of how their stories have come down to a late-twentieth-century world.

Many followers of Ásatrú ground their concepts of deity in the old literature, the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas. Others prefer to rely on their intuitions, on what "comes to them", though usually specifying that these are personal and pertain only to themselves. None the less, most follow similar patterns of ritual, and most will, if pushed, seek to trace back their practices to Edda and Sagas, whether through their own reading and research or through the research of those whom they see as authoritative or knowledgeable practitioners. Ásatrú boasts a number of adherents who are either fully capable of reading materials produced by scholars of Norse or Germanic religion literature, folklore or anthropology, or are themselves members of these disciplines. In other words, there is some direct connection between religious practice and scholarly debate.

In practice these narrative strands are woven together in the discourse of Ásatrú practitioners. Some examples come from an interview with a Canadian Ásatrú woman known as Valkyrja. [5]


JB: What is the most important focus of the religion for you?

Valkyrja: The moral and ethical values. The fact that it's unwavering, and also, I mean for lack of a better term the Raven's Kindred's "Nine Noble Virtues" I find very nice. The self sufficiency and the non-subservient relationship to gods. You know, as far as I'm concerned other religions can have the grovellers. I don't think they want us to grovel, and I know a lot of people think it's arrogant but I honestly believe they treat us as equals. Equals with a little less power but equals nonetheless. We can do things they can't, even though they can do a lot of stuff we can't.

... it's a partnership without being unequal, which I like, really like. It's probably why I'm still single 'cause I'm still looking for that ...I mean hel if I have it with my gods why would I not have it anywhere else. And it's the same way with friendships as well, it's equal give and take, or it's nothing. But you don't keep score. There's equal give and take but it's not "well I did something for you now you gotta do something for me". Oh excuse me.


JB: how about the ah, as the Hávamál has it, a gift looks always to a gift, not in the sense in that it's kept score, but that it's expected to come around.

V: Yeah and in, in the way I look at it is, if I do something for a friend of mine, they may in turn do something for somebody else, and it's a what goes around comes around kinda thing. It doesn't have to automatically come back to me, 'cause eventually it will, and even if it doesn't someone has taken notice.

Several points appear in this dialogue: The narrative of self-sufficiency blends with that of regarding the deities as real, as beings who can do certain things which people cannot, but before whom people do not bow. The sense of "equal give and take" comes from the lore -- in this extract it was the interviewer who made the indexation explicit -- and becomes part of the concept of responsibility.

The emphasis on "the lore" means that, when asked, Ásatrú-folk are able to give accounts of cosmology, which though individual are recognizably patterned on the shared mythological basis. In my experience of interviewing, this does not happen with, for example, Wiccans, who give accounts which seem to bear little relationship to each other. The following account is from Steve, leader of a kindred in Kentucky, when asked to explain his cosmology.

Steve: I'm an avid reader of myths and then taking the myths and interpreting them in terms of modern scientific work ... I'm not a literalist with the Norse mythology ... But I find the Norse mythology very rich, and very rewarding way of looking at the development of the universe, the the creation of the universe. Hm, I feel that the universe sprang into being, perhaps out of some unknown and unknowable tension between polarities that we can't really understand, we can only accept on a very basic level. Uh, so in other words the story of Ginnungagap and Muspellheim and Nifelheim just fits right into that...

And the tension and the dance between these polarities bringing things into being. Hm, I've talked to a lot of people about the story of Ymir coming into being spontaneously from the centre action of these poles, and I look at Ymir as being raw chaotic matter/energy, that sort of flux-like state that we now know exists in the laboratories. And at the same time Auđumbla coming into being represents to me a sort of an intrinsic shaping principle that exists in the Universe, um, things want to be ordered. And I find it interesting that Ymir comes into being spontaneously from this material, Auđumbla shapes Bor from the same material, so you have raw chaotic matter and then you have the raw chaotic matter shaped into some order, and it's from this shaped being that the race of gods springs.

Steve here indexes accounts of the creation of the worlds from the Edda of 13th century scholar Snorri Sturluson, and from the earlier cosmogonic poem Vafţruđnismál. , in the Poetic Edda (as is the poem Hávamál referred to previously). Steve links these accounts to the accounts of present-day science, and finds that each helps in an understanding of the other. Few Ásatrú-folk that I have met interpret the stories totally literally. While "The God/desses" are "real", and are in some ways "kin" to people, this does not mean that they are merely some kind of super-people, but rather that the poets who gave us the stories used human analogies or metaphors. The Eddas are not a "revelation", and are not factual. There is speculation that some of the poems may have been used as ritual drama, at the time of their composition, and this speculation has been shared by at least some Eddic scholars (e.g. Haugen, 1983).

Not only cosmology, but everyday things such as food preparation are linked with spirituality:, and with relationships of individuals and groups to the earth.

Valkyrja: when I go out and pick vegetables, without making a big elaborate production of it I'm consciously playing or paying respect to you know the land, woods and the sun and the air, and and the time and, energy that people have put into making these things. If I'm out in the forest and I, I'm picking like flowers or mushrooms or some herbs or something it's more of a I didn't grow this yet this here when I need it so thank you, kind of thing, and same thing when I'm cooking, when I'm cooking I'm constantly um I guess it's kind of like embodying everything that I believe that should be good about the food into it ... Um when I hunt it's ah... I feel more that it's better than going to the grocery store and picking up a piece of cow. I don't know if that makes sense but I'm I'm going out, I'm doing the work, I'm tracking it, I'm killing it, and I am personally returning its spirit back to where it came from. And then the poor animal isn't in the slaughterhouse with fifty thousand other ones. That's just a personal thing but that's part of it. ... I'm taking the whole thing for need and use not for the sake of... and if I don't get close or I don't get an animal then it's still the same kind of experience. It's just the balance of life and death swung to life, you know.

Ásatrú-folk become exposed to the discourse through reading, and through meeting with other Ásatrú-folk, whether at gatherings or events, through membership in a local group (called a kindred), or through the electronic means of internet web-pages, email and mail-lists, and usenet news. Some find the practice of Asatru through an acquaintance with the mythology, discovered as an adult or as a child. For others the entry is through other means. For instance, Asvard, a gođi (priest) living in Toronto, describes his entry, over a number of years, from an original concern about anything 'occult', through a later reading of the work of feminist pagan author Starhawk and discovering that he shared many of the ideas she promoted, so that "paganism" became acceptable to him, to being given a set of runes and deciding to read about the culture that had spawned them. This led to his first experiment with ritual.

Asvard: I did a blót with Freyja and Freyr, that was the first two gods that I ever contacted, and I was filled with such a sense of welcome, like it's sort of like coming home for the holidays kind of feeling that you get from your family, and from then on I was hooked, I couldn't get enough of ah, enough of books on the subject, and I read everything.


Creating community: gatherings and discussion

Whereas many people come to an understanding of themselves as Ásatrúar from reading, they also say that the direct interchange with other Ásatrúers, and attendance at rituals, is an important part of learning the practice and discourse. Alissa says:

Alissa: I learned by doing it, because even though you can read them up in the books, you really have no clue what's goin' on. 'Cos you can say, well a sumbel is when you do this, but you have no idea, well what kind of things to say, and what's it about, and what does it mean, and I, when doing it you get to interact with other people, and then you understand. ... one of my first sumbles was with Slowfoot, and he made a point of saying, "anything you say, this horn represents the well of Wyrd. Anything you say continues on, it means something, it's important, so make sure you, your words aren't petty, and your words are true." And you know just understanding that is important.

William Bainbridge, current elected leader in the Ring of Troth, points to the importance of gatherings not only as instruments of teaching people practices, but of developing practice and culture and through these developing community. As he explains it, a religion exists within a community. In pre-Christian times, religion existed within a cultural setting, and varied from one group to another. Present-day Ásatrú is being created, deliberately, by "converts" all of whom are rather self-conscious about their beliefs and practices. To develop as a serious religion, Ásatrú must become "organic".

WB: The idea of people, I don't know, reading, reading a book on a religion, uh, forming beliefs inside their own head, and then suddenly declaring themselves to be something, is, is a very modern phenomenon. People in traditional societies simply didn't think that way, they didn't act that way and that's not how they developed and acquired their spiritual orientations. And if we are serious about practising a heathen, traditional, an indigenous religion, or making what we're practising into one of those, we need to realize that the community dynamic was part of that back then and therefore it probably needs to be part of it now.

When people read a book on Ásatrú and come to an event or a gathering, they often come to learn. The expectation is that they will find people there who are "experts". But as Bainbridge says:

WB: There's a great expectation among newcomers to the religion that they will be presented with a finished work, with some thing just like Christianity, which of course is developed over a number of centuries, um, that will answer the questions, that will function efficiently, in which every person knows their place and, and ah, um, uh knows what's expected of them and so forth, and the realities in, in really any organization group or um, other set of collective activities that I'm aware of, are the realities that this simply is not the case. All of us, whether we admit it or not, are still seeking for the proper way to practise this religion, in modern context, because of course our sources come from a very ancient context...

Though gatherings and meetings, and internet discussion, the discourse is not only being reinforced but actively being created. There are many groups within present-day Ásatrú, some small, some relatively large, some international. Although the groups tend to share and use the public narratives I listed previously, different groups will put differing emphases on lore versus personal gnosis, or on individual versus community (and indeed these words "individual" and "community" are interpreted in diverse ways within Ásatrú). Further, the discourse of "individualism" makes it unlikely that many groups will want to be "taken over" as part of a large organization. For these reasons alone, it seems unlikely that any one group can "organize Ásatrú", and, especially given the emphasis placed on self-reliance and independence, there is some suspicion of anyone who looks as if they might claim to be "Ása-pope". However many smaller groups are associated with larger ones, attending their gatherings. Orjon, a heathen from the Mid West, makes a plea for discussion and "bonding" between heathen groups.

Orjon: Um, if we don't have healing, if we don't have bonding between kindreds - my kindred is a free kindred, we don't belong to any organization, however, we are bonded with several kindreds. If we don't have that, if we don't have bonding on a national and international level we're not going to survive. I'm one of the old ones. I'm fifty seven years old, if we don't bring the young ones in, if we don't give them a good grounding, in the, in the old gods, in magic, in spirituality, not the doctrines, but worship of our gods, our cultural gods. If we don't bring them in, if we don't bring these groups together we won't survive. Um, I think, I think the gathering (Trothmoot '97, which he was interviewed) was wonderful, it just was totally enlightening to me. I was so happy that Frigga's web was so active this weekend...

Here we can turn to the question of why people are drawn to Ásatrú (or any non-mainstream religion) and how they construct meanings around it. Clearly not all Ásatrúers derive the same meanings, and it seems that not all can "bond" together. Young though it is, present-day Ásatrú has a history, in part mapped by Kaplan within the US. This history includes growth, but also includes division. This is perhaps inevitable given the diverse meanings that people create and the different reasons that have attracted them in the first place. Many are drawn by the stories of "the lore", or by the concept of independence and self-reliance. A small proportion, however, are attracted by quite another factor.
Identity and politics

Asatru has its right-wing nuts. So does Christianity. Right-wing Odinism bears about the same relationship to mainstream Ásatrú as Christian Identity does to the United Church of Canada. And some of them are the same right-wing nuts.

The above quote is a compilation and distillation, by the author, of comments made by Ásatrú-folk interviewed in Canada and the US. It summarises a situation that many Norse Heathens see as the greatest problem facing Ásatrú in the twenty-first century, and that consumes the energies of many organizers. To outline the situation I will draw on the work of Jeffery Kaplan, whose explorations within Ásatrú have been made from a different perspective, and hence with different emphasis and conclusions, than my own.

Kaplan, in outlining the history of Norse-heathen religions in North America, distinguishes between "Odinism" and "Ásatrú". In this usage, Odinists are people looking for a "white" religion, and Kaplan traces its construction from the Germany of the Weimar republic, through the writings of an obscure Australian, Alexander Rudd Mills, and their adoption by members of the American post-war extreme right-wing, to associations with present-day National Socialist groups (1993, p. 200). I do not intend to further explore these connections, but to note them for future reference, and to note that today some members of hate-groups, including Christian-based hate-groups, call themselves "Odinist".

Kaplan also traces the history of Ásatrú within North America, at least in terms of its formal organization from 1973, with the formation of what would become the Ásatrú Free Assembly, through its dissolution in 1987 and the arising from its ashes of two competing organizations, The Troth (known also as the Ring of Troth) and the Asatru Alliance. The split was in part over questions of who could consider themselves "Ásatrú", that is, what kind of people were acceptable as members of kindreds or groups. Those who felt called by the God/desses? Those who were interested in the mythology and cultures of Northern Europe? Those who were descendants of Northern Europeans -- or those who were descended only from northern Europeans? The two resulting groups took different stances, The Troth maintaining that membership of the organization, and participation in rituals and festivals were open to all "Trú folk", whomsoever these might be, regardless of background, race, gender or sexual orientation, while the Asatru Alliance held that individual kindreds had the right to determine with whom they would worship, and accepted that some members would not wish to worship with those who were "other" than themselves (in a number of ways, chiefly "race" and sexual orientation). Both organizations claimed to be the inheritors of the Asatru Free Assembly, and appear for some years to have functioned by essentially refusing to recognise each other's existence. However the Alliance was an alliance of kindreds (small groups), each setting their own policy, whereas the Troth was a collective of individual members, and in practice many individuals belonged to Alliance kindreds but were themselves members of the Troth. In addition, a nmber of "independent" kindreds had arisen, some fairly closely associated with the Troth and in sympathy with its goals, but remaining "independent" because of the various organizational and other problems that plagued the Troth (many of which appear common to alternative religious group within North America, as Kaplan points out).

In the years since 1993 (when Kaplan completed research for his thesis), a number of factors have complicated the scene. The Troth, focusing on scholarship and in pursuit of a goal of providing trained and knowledgable "clergy" to the Ásatrú community, published its 700-page volume Our Troth, now available only on internet, in 1993, and has revised its clergy programs to be (in theory at least) more manageable than those outlined by Kaplan; the increased growth of the internet has enabled increased development of international links, and vastly increased dissemination of information; some "independant" organizations have grown and developed their own clergy programs, so that there are now more "players" on the scene than merely the Troth and the Alliance; and Steve McNallen, original founder of the AFA, has created a new organization with the same initials, the Asatru Folk Assembly, whose status seems to vary between that of a kindred of the Alliance and that of a national US organization with its own links with overseas (and usually fairly right-wing) organizations, and which has recently beome embroiled in a lawsuit over the disposition of a 9000-year-old skeleton found in the Western U.S.

These groups now do acknowledge each other's existance, though not always amicably. In general there seems to be a developing awareness that Ásatrú does not constitute one community. Instead debate centres over whether "non-racial" Ásatrú should be in dialogue with "folkish Ásatrú". Idunna, the magazine of the Ring of Troth, has ceased to carry advertisements for Vor Tru, the magazine of the Ásatrú Alliance, the latter having some "folkish" kindreds. As William Bainbridge says:

WB: Ah, I know in The Troth ... we developed the principle that we are the non-racial approach to heathen religion, that is we do not believe in or accept theories that spirituality is racially determined and we absolutely do not tolerate discrimination on the basis of race.

This principle is shared by a number of smaller groups. At the opposite end of the Ásatrú spectrum are some kindreds or groups which officially hold the line that spirituality is inherited (a doctrine known as "metagenetics", outlined by Kaplan). An increasing understanding among members of The Troth and some of the "independent kindreds" which attend their gatherings is that "folkish Ásatrú" does exist, does attract some people (notably from among the prison population) and will continue go its own way. Its members are not likely to be converted, and its presence can be a liability -- particularly if a link is perceived between the "folkish" doctrine of metagenetics [6], and some of the more bizarre Odinist pronouncements. This understanding implies that it is up to members of non-racist or anti-racist organizations to proceed with their own creation of community, accepting that not all those who term themselves "Ásatrú" can or will be part of this.


Identity and the wider society

Ásatrú exists within a social context of late 20th-century North America. Racism, at times virulent, is part of that context, as is awareness of recent history, and these impact on Ásatrú in a number of ways. The US popular press is aware of Ásatrú, and periodically indulges in arrticles such as Time's "Can Thor make a Comeback?", describing a "folkish" site on the internet. The people who see themselves as "mainsteam Ásatrú" see themelves as constantly engaging in damage control. An article in US News of 29 December, 1997, by David Kaplan and Mike Tharp, states that

...another strange sect attracting the radical right is the Odinists, who epouse a form of ancient Scandinavian mythology. Odinist practices include witchcraft and paganism, and the sect has attained a strong following among neo-nazis and racist skinheads, who blend in white supremacy beliefs...

This was all strictly true, in Kaplan's terms, but highly problematic for Ásatrúars (both mainstream and "folkish") as the unstated implication was that all followers of "ancient Scandinavian mythology" were "racist Odinists". It sparked a number of letters from Ásatrú followers, explaining differences between mainstream Ásatrú/Norse Heathism and whatever these "racist skinheads" might be practicing. At least one was printed, from Ann Sheffield, which included the following statements :

...I appreciate your pointing out that "most Odinists are not dangerous", but I fear that your article may still leave the impression that racist views and terrorist sympathies are the norm among those who practice modern forms of ancient Scandinavian religion. Like any religion, including Christianity, we have our lunatic fringe, but it would be a mistake to think that the fringe is typical or in any way represents the beliefs and practices of most believers.

I am a follower of Asatru, a form of reconstructed Norse polytheism. I, and the majority of my co-religionists, view racism and terrorism with the same abhorrence shared by all decent people. Asatru is open to all, and white supremacism is morally repugnant to me...

Periodically, requests circulate within mainstream Ásatrú groups for people to respond to "watchdog" organizations and to the popular press, to inform them that "we're not racist". Even on an academic list for the study of nature religions, comments made about Ásatrú have suggested a straightforward linking between heathenism and racism. Several Ásatrú-folk have reported that members of other pagan groups made them feel unwelcome, or refused to discuss Ásatrú or attend Ásatrú rituals, because of such a perception. Asvard sees racism as one of chief problems facing today's Ásatrú, and he points out:

...you run into people of other pagan traditions who have preconceived notions of what Ásatrú is all about ... when someone wears a pentacle, for example, they have to deal with the thing of being called a Satanist, and, well I'd rather be called a Satanist than a Racist, you know... some of our holiest symbols have been of course, taken and used for absolutely abhorrent, perverted, yeah, ends.

The perception of outsiders and the existence of "Odinism" have caused Ásatrú to devote considerable time and energy into articulating theories of culture, inheritance, and spirituality. Some of this exercise has been divisive. However the effect has been to problematize concepts which within many other Earth-centred religions have gone unexamined. Some members of Ásatrú groups are now on interfaith councils, or assisting "watchdog" organizations, others are engaged with press and public in ways similar to the writer of the letter to US News quoted above. The range of expression on ethnicity, "race" and generally, inclusiveness varies from the Troth's statement that "race" is not a factor and discrimination is intolerable, through to a sense that those people most likely to be drawn to Ásatrú will have some descent from the peoples of Northern Europe, but almost all, including members of the AFA, make plain that they regard concepts of superiority and "white supremacy" with the same distaste as the writer of the letter. Deep divisions within Ásatrú lie between the view that says "to each their own", and the Troth's position, which comes closest to sociological theories on the construction of ethnicity and "race". This range of views parallels that of mainstream North America.


Communities and culture

To conclude, followers of North Heathenism within North America today are attempting to construct for themselves some sense of who they are with respect to the wider community, both of other Earth-religions and of society in general. They are constructing the boundaries, through discourse and practice, which indicate what Ásatrú is and what it is not. Some of these boundaries are set by referral to "the lore" and shared concepts of ritual practice. Some of the boundaries are set by referral to social assumptions and expectations. Ásatrú-folk are endeavoring to ensure that these boundaries are set through their own active definitions: they claim the right to define what they are, rather than have this done for them by outsiders. In doing so, they are constructing a set of overlapping communities of shared perceptions and shared discourse.

This construction of community cannot be forced, and cannot be entirely directed by the current leadership.

... today we are dealing with so many individuals, who have thought deeply about religious matters for a number of years, who have developed their own ideas on spirituality and their own expectations from spirituality, that we are not working in a context where our leadership can profitably tell people how the religion should be practised, and expect them to simply do it that way. We have to be a lot more indirect and we have to be a lot more artistic in the way we go about things, because a lot of what we are really trying to do is allow people's own creativity to come through enough, so that it's recognizable to other people, uh, and in this way when we start recognizing these deeper and more creative aspects of, of our own spirituality, people will start to recognize one another, to recognize common approaches, to recognize the people with whom they feel comfortable working, the people with whom they should be working, and organizations really will start assuming the character that reflects the deeper motivations and ah um character of the people. (Bainbridge, from interview.)

Whether this can occur when the "community" is widespread, without daily contact with individuals, is not yet evident. If Heathenism is to be treated seriously as a religion, by others than its adherents, it will have to be seen as an expression of community spirit and feeling. Today Heathenism is an experiment. As to tomorrow, we shall see.


Footnotes

[1] I have outlined some categorizations of pagan religions in an earlier paper, given at a conference on The Middle Ages in Contemporary Popular Culture (Blain, 1996).

[2] I use the word because it is convenient. Some adherents of Ásatrú and of Druidism, however, dislike it, and I am currently searching for a better word that covers the same range of meanings.

[3] As others might use the terms Thorswoman, or Tyrian, or Freyasman, in each case refering to a deity who has their primary allegiance. Many Ásatrú-folk will avoid the word altogether, so that a woman might say something like “I am a Heathen and an Óđinsgyđja,” in referring to herself as a priestess of Óđinn.

[4] Some heathens do talk about archetypes, though those engaged in constructing theology generally do not. It has been pointed out that individuals use the word “archetype” in diverse ways and that Jung’s own meaning may not be too far from an Ásatrú conception of deities. In a recent debate via an email discussion list, it was pointed out that newcomers to Ásatrú speak of the God/esses as archetypes, while “old hands” speak of them as “real”. From the point of view of discourse analysis, part of this may be that exposure to Ásatrú discourse “permits” a person to come to speak and think of deities existing independently of people without feeling they will be regarded as “flaky”. In my interviews, some do use the concept of archetypes, and it seems that they do so to express something that has its being on a cultural or social level, rather than uniquely within the individual psyche (which is how the word is chiefly used by Wiccans).

[5] Many practitioners suggested a pseudonym by which they could be known for this study, sometimes a name they use for religious purposes only, or on occasion an internet use-name. Some, particularly community leaders, wish to be identified by their own names, and this is done most obviously in the cases of writers within the field or publically-known leaders who are speaking as such, e.g. William Bainbridge, who is quoted later in this chapter.

[6] Eavesdropping on the internet newsgroup alt.religion.asatru gives one to ponder the possibility that the only proponent of “metagenetics” who can actually discuss the concept may indeed be Mr McNallen himself. (In this I am in accordance with Kaplan.) The theory is very little discussed, and mostly used as a reason people might want to restrict membership of their groups. Alt.religion.asatru is mostly occupied by the slinging of insults between groups and individuals, as the newsgroup serves as a chief point of contact between those who use Heathen discourse and practice as a way of proclaiming superiority and those Ásatrú-folk who are willing to “talk with racists”, usually in order to demonstrate to other readers that Ásatrú is about other things than race. Serious discussion of points such as those enumerated in this paper occurs in other forums.


References

Adler, Margo. 1986. Drawing Down the Moon. 2 ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

Blain, Jenny. 1996. Witchcraft, magic and religion: some discursive reconstructions of belief and practice. The Middle Ages in Contemporary Popular Culture. McMaster University, Hamilton Ont., March 1996.

Blain, Jenny. 1998. Presenting constructions of identity and divinity: Ásatrú and Oracular Seidhr. In Fieldwork Methods, ed Scott Grills, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 203-227.

Gundarsson, KveldúlfR Hagan, ed. 1993. Our Troth. Seattle: The Ring of Troth.

Harvey, Graham. 1996. "Heathenism Today." In Paganism Today. Ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman. London: Thorsons.

Harvey, Graham, and Charlotte Hardman, ed. 1996. Paganism Today. London: Thorsons.

Harvey, Graham, 1997. Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism. London: Hurst & Co.

Haugen, Einar, 1983. The Edda as Ritual: Odin and His Masks. In Robert.J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason (eds.) Edda, a collection of essays, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. 1993. "Revolutionary Millenarianism in the Modern World: From Christian identity to Gush Emunim." Ph.D. University of Chicago.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. 1997. Radical Religions in America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Allenson
Tuesday, September 28th, 2004, 03:13 PM
Kaplan, Jeffrey. 1993. "Revolutionary Millenarianism in the Modern World: From Christian identity to Gush Emunim." Ph.D. University of Chicago.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. 1997. Radical Religions in America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.



This is the same fellow who wrote "The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right", "Encyclopedia Of White Power : A Sourcebook On The Radical Racist Right" and "Nation And Race : The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture".....

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