Heathenry, Paganism, and Fascism
In the wake of an attempted Fascist coup in the United States capitol, as Americans looked on in horror while “patriots” invaded the seat of Congress and breached the American capitol, one thing stood out to Pagans in my circles.
Pictured is a man who was front and center in the capitol building, holding the American flag while demanding that American politicians overthrow the democratic process, and screaming at law enforcement officers while pouring into the seat of democracy to threaten duly elected electors performing their constitutionally mandated count of the votes.
This insurrectionist (whom I will not give more media time by naming) is apparently commonly found in Q-Anon spaces, quoting conspiracy theories, and backing causes supported by racists, anti-Semites, and fascists.
During the attempted coup, many Pagans learned about this guy for the first time, and my inbox filled with questions about his tattoos. It appears this “Q-Shaman” (as he’s been dubbed) is tattooed in common Heathen imagery, including the Valknut, Yggdrasil, and Mjolnir. Does this man follow Heathenry, or contemporary Paganism? I do not know. But the larger sentiment from my Pagan collogues today goes deeper than this one man. It is an all too familiar refrain decrying the co-opting of Heathen and Pagan symbols by fascists.
Why are fascists using Pagan symbols, and what can we do?
A friend on social media tagged me with a simple question: can’t modern heathens come up with a symbol that fights these symbols? Something that stands for “No Nazis in Valhalla.”
Essentially: What can we do to take back our sacred imagery?
It has gotten so bad that many Pagans and Heathens avoid these co-opted symbols publicly and think twice about getting Norse tattoos. Quite a few vendors I have seen at Pagan events selling Norse themed necklaces post signs up that say “warning: wearing this might make you look racist.”
This is so common of a conversation that I sometimes forget that some folks haven’t heard it yet. And it’s a continuously concerning issue. How do we root out the racists, sexists, transmisogynists, and fascists from our spaces and feeds?
I want to address this here, but I want to give the warning that the following won’t be hopeful or kind, it will simply be, and we will have to be mature about it.
In general, you run into a couple of basic issues here (and I will use Heathenry to illustrate these points but I will talk about how the issue effects broader contemporary Paganism at the end).
Preaching to the choir (or, like attracts like)
Firstly, organizations already exist that dedicate themselves to rooting racism out of modern Heathenry. The first to come to mind is Heathens Against Hate (heathensagainst.org), but there are others. HAH in particular works to support Heathen advocacy. They provide educational resources for new Heathens, lists of inclusive Heathen organizations, and host education resources to reclaim heathen imagery.
But because modern Neopagan religions are both highly individual and highly fractured, any symbols/statements by groups like this tend to be only useful to those already of the same political/philosophical bent. If you are looking for inclusive Heathenry or are looking for Heathenry devoid of hate, you may come across these groups. But you were already their choir if that’s the case. You already support their image of Heathenry.
Those who are members of fascist Heathen groups, or those who are individual Heathens with personal racist ideas, are not likely to hear the song sung by this particular Greek chorus. They will find groups that espouse their beliefs, their biases, their reimagining of history.
What is useful is the efforts of groups like Heathens Against Hate to educate the public about the iconography of Heathenry and about the inclusiveness that can be found in many Heathen groups so that slowly (very slowly) over time the image of Norse spirituality and Heathen culture might change, and those who are drawn to that image will be those drawn to inclusivity rather than white separatism, and those who are looking for racism won’t see a culture of racism in Heathenry to be drawn to.
Pearls to swine (or, you can lead a horse to water…)
Secondly, any modernly made image, phrase, statement, etc, meant to announce inclusivity in order to fight co-opting of Heathen symbols, will only mean that thing to those in the know. Or to be more specific: I can say “ducks are now the symbol of inclusion” but anyone who is unfamiliar with me or unconnected to me won’t know that, and when they hear that are welcome to reject it as “something some guy just made up.” Our symbols only have as much recognition as their popularity, and even then we are already in the business of looking past modern associations to the root (as far as we understand) of icons (consider the pentagram or the word “witch” that we have done our best to reclaim from their popular cultural meanings).
And if someone is unconnected to the groups and communities who are saying “ducks are now the symbol of inclusiveness” they have no reason to know about or accept that symbolism.
As an example: NeoNazi groups use certain runes to their benefit, and often practitioners who are not NeoNazi have no idea until they stumble across discussion about them. They are taken aback by finding to their horror that that the rune they researched, meditated on, carved into their tools, and tattooed on their skin, is being used on the flags White Power advocates. And they might never even find out about this ahistorical use until they are accosted by those who see the symbol and make the association.
Even when the “new meaning” does become widely seen and begin to filter into the larger cultural consciousness, oftentimes there is still contention over any “changes” or perceived “modern additions.” These symbols are confronted by “traditionalists” who will fight their inclusion in reconstructionist religious spaces, and who will loudly complain anytime they are used that “that’s not actually an historical icon, can we please stop making stuff up?” And these people will sound reasonable, like historians trying to avoid appropriation or anachronism. But the conversation will not be one of academics, but instead one meant to suppress the efforts of the new symbol’s creators. And thus a symbol, phrase, icon, etc, meant to filter into the culture and root out racists will instead simply become a shibboleth for already inclusive Heathens.
Or worse, as a recruiting tool for the very groups they were meant against.
The alt-right has proven itself very capable of co-opting the language of the left in efforts to recruit new members.
The process can be easily imagined here. Use our imaginary “inclusive duck” symbol point to inclusive Heathens in mockery and show new seekers that “those people don’t know their history and are just making things up, come to us for the real Heathenry.” Re-meme it into a symbol of ridicule. The left has already seen this with words like “triggered” or “SJW” being turned into ways for the alt-right to identify, infantilize, and shut down their opponents without engaging in actual discourse.
Disavowal doesn’t acknowledge the real issue (or, the call is coming from inside the house)
Lastly, any efforts to “disavow” racists Heathens are futile on the parts of non-racist heathens for two reasons:
Reason 1: Disavowal is quieter and less interesting than hate speech, so gets less press.
Religious scholar Dr. Reza Aslan discusses this in Islam. He points out that no matter how often Imams all over the world disavow radical Islam, and how often Islamic centers make statements condemning violence, no matter how peaceful 99.9% of worldwide Muslims are, invariably those in the wider culture still say things like “but why don’t ‘good’ Muslims ever disavow these terrorists” (being completely and willfully oblivious of the constant disavowing that is indeed being done).
These racists exist, and non-Heathens will always see them while having no consciousness of the efforts by inclusive Heathens to disavow, or distance themselves from these monsters.
Reason 2: Disavowal is ineffective when racists continue to be found in our spaces.
The reality is that racism in Heathenry is nowhere near as rare as we liberal Pagans want to pretend it is. We cannot argue for showing the world what “real Heathens believe” because racist Heathens are still Heathens. They attend the blots, they post to the forums, they print books, they form organizations, they are here and we can’t pretend like they aren’t.
Historian and comparative religions scholar Dr. Mattias Gardell’s book Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism looks at the long history of racist use of Norse imagery, at the large national Heathen/Asatru groups that support racist narratives, and at the interconnection between Asatru and NeoNazi groups.
And certain big names in our community espouse racist beliefs (whether proudly or subtly).
We can’t announce to the world that “we are not racists” until we root the actual racists out of our spaces.
Paganism as a whole (not just Heathenry)
Yet this is in no way limited to Heathen spaces. Racism can be found, both subtle and overt, all over the Pagan community. Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community explores the voices of Black Pagans who have experienced hostility, Euro-normativity, and tokenism whenever they attempt to join Pagan spaces. People of color find that they are assumed to worship certain gods, assumed to go toward the Paganisms of their ancestors, or assumed to have some secret family knowledge. All of these things, combined with the general Ren Faire / British Folk conversation permeating Paganism and Wicca, serve to create an environment uncomfortable to these practitioners.
I have seen it myself. With Pagans of color being told that they shouldn’t worship Greek gods, or envision Greek gods with African skin because it’s “not historical” (ignoring the mountain of evidence to the contrary). And this conversation becomes more hostile in Norse and Celtic spaces.
And none of this is addressing the same hostility, bigotry, and tokenism experienced by Trans and Nonbinary practitioners, a subject warranting far more articles… of which several are coming… and which is only now starting to see academic study and acknowledgement. For an informative study there, look to Master of Divinity scholar Bran Stigile-Wright’s thesis “American Evangelicalism, Heathenry, and Narrativizing Trans Identities.”
What can be done?
It is a blight, and the only way to combat it is by coming out loudly against it, to our fellow Pagans, Heathens, and anyone who will listen, and to stop making excuses for popular figures and “big name Pagans” who are connected to racist groups.
But moreover, we need to stop asking “what can Pagans do to show the world we’re not the same as those people?” One could just as easily ask “can’t good Christians remind people that Jesus said turn the other cheek” or “why doesn’t Islam announce that violence isn’t Islamic” and the answer to all of these questions is they have and it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.
Instead, if we don’t want Paganism to be associated with fascists, racists, and bigots then we need to get fascists, racists, and bigots out of Paganism. We need to confront them when we see them, call them out publicly, and enact the virtues we want to be associated with Paganism rather than letting them enact their fascist “values” on our behalf.