The Dangerous Duality of Modern Paganism in America

The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heine

America is a diverse place. Freedom of religion is taken seriously and has led to the world’s most interesting mix of highly individualized belief systems. This is no surprise considering the first migrants to arrive in North America fled religious persecution in their homeland and wished to build new lives for themselves where they could worship whatever god or variation of a god they wanted. America is a place where people are allowed to believe whatever they want to believe, and there are quite literally people who believe in anything and everything—from Bigfoot to Aliens to whatever you can think of, evidence not required.

It should therefore be of no surprise that there are small communities and individuals throughout the country who are reviving the old ways of Norse Paganism. Specifically, these groups of people want to emulate the belief systems of Viking Age Scandinavia. This belief system today goes by a few different names, Asatru being the most well known and accepted. Here I will refer to it as the Modern Pagan movement because of the numerous names that are derived from it. It is a subject near and dear to my heart because of the years I’ve spent devoted to the study of Scandinavian history. The attempt to revive their pagan ways is intrinsically interesting to me. Iceland, for example, is also experiencing a revival of what they call the “old ways” and their new pagan church has made headlines around the world. In an age where the masses are becoming disenfranchised with traditional institutions, this revival is attracting a great deal of attention.

There is much to applaud in this movement. It has ignited interest in history, in the exploration of a distant and foreign culture, and it has encouraged many to find a different path for personal growth. Yet what is most curious about this movement is how different the interpretations of the “old ways” seem to be. There is no consistency in Modern Paganism, but many (and I’ve met a few personally) are militant in how they defend their own particular brand of it. In fact, much of the zealousness demonstrated by mainstream religions has carried over, and there are those who are practicing this new faith with immovable conviction without basis in tradition or dogma. These people have an idealized, almost nostalgic vision of how life used to be in pre-Christian times, but it’s all wrong.

What must be noted is that we know very little of the pre-Christian pagan faiths of Northern Europe. What has survived to today isn’t from tradition but from testimonies written by Christian clerics who examined those religions through a specific cultural lens. After the Christianization of Scandinavia, the pagan traditions were essentially wiped out. Therefore, it is important to understand that, realistically, we know close to nothing about the details surrounding the religion of pre-Christian Scandinavia, and we can never truly know. With this in mind, the Modern Pagan movement begins to take on a more problematic character. It means that most of the practices and beliefs of Modern Pagans are mostly made up. This is a problem because the movement is being used by some for nefarious purposes.

The Modern Pagan movement has a seedy underbelly that is by no means representative of the larger population of believers—but it’s there. It seems that many who would seek to argue for their supremacy over others by virtue of race and heritage have hijacked the Modern Pagan movement and given it a bad name. Because there is no rigid doctrine to refer to, it is difficult to dispel their assertions or to convince those not affiliated with Modern Paganism that such views are incompatible with the faith. No one can say that the Vikings were not racist. We cannot know. So, the presumption will always be that Pagans are racist. To quote the Havamal, “The good is ignored where there is fault.”

On the one hand, there are people who are experiencing tremendous personal growth through the Modern Pagan movement. On the other hand, there are those who are utilizing it for hate. So while it all seems like fun and games, there is an innate danger in the revival of a religion that is mostly fictionalized and is derived from a fixation on heritage. Modern Paganism has left itself open to being hijacked and there really is no defense. If an established religion such as Christianity or Islam cannot weed out radicals, how can a revived religion with no clear structure be immune? Perhaps it is best if we not fool ourselves and stick to the history books. Of course, it’s a free country, so believe what you want. Just remember that free speech doesn’t protect hate.

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6 Comments

  1. Hayley Curtis says:

    An interesting piece with some very accurate points/observations.
    I feel it is always worth looking beyond the borders of the US for the standard for modern Heathenism.
    Heathenism/Heathen tends, in my experience, to be a more accurate ‘all encompassing’ term as Pagan can mean so many things.
    Though you mention Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland, in the United Kingdom AUK (Asatru UK) are a group who actively discourage discrimination and work tirelessly for the progression of Heathen community.
    Regular moots and the Asgardian Festival this year are just some of the positive actions of the group.
    Too often we get stuck in the mindset of Universalist versus Odinist or Reconstructionist versus go-by-feel pagans.
    Different groups will attract different folks and it isn’t our right to request change in that group no matter how distasteful their ideologies may be.
    What we can do is create or join a group that reflects our morality and show, through deeds, our worth.
    Whilst the Hávamál exclaims no peace to your enemies and fighting evil where it stands deconstruction can only destroy; leaving no alternative.
    Create the alternative, build a community of worth and contribution not just for today but for our descendants so we too can be Ancestors worthy of honouring.

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you, and I hope it was clear in the blog, that there are some great things happening in the movement. I just wanted to bring to light the darker side of it because I feel like it’s not talked about enough, and that’s allowing it to continue.

  2. Eva Sennesvik says:

    Excellent read and I agree with you. Here in Europe, especially Scandinavia, more and more groups publickly take a stance against racism, hatred and violence. Which is a a good thing. I also like to ad that suicide rates are high in pagan groups, as people search for something they need. But fall into the hands of bad groups.

    1. Christophe says:

      Interesting information about the suicides, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Martin says:

    It is important to remember that during heathen times there were also regional differences. Even then there was no “rigid doctrine”.

    Heathenism, in comparison to founded religions like Christianity or Islam, has always been a fluid one. Just like all “home grown” religions are.

    A good example of this is the discussion on the role of Tiwaz in earlier times in comparison to later times where Wodan seems to have taken over.

    Or the cult surrounding the Matronea on Walcheren in what is now the Netherlands and the distinct lack of that cult in the northern part of the Netherlands.

    Just to name two.

  4. It is important to remember that during heathen times there were also regional differences. Even then there was no “rigid doctrine”.

    Heathenism, in comparison to founded religions like Christianity or Islam, has always been a fluid one. Just like all “home grown” religions are.

    A good example of this is the discussion on the role of Tiwaz in earlier times in comparison to later times where Wodan seems to have taken over.

    Or the cult surrounding the Matronea on Walcheren in what is now the Netherlands and the distinct lack of that cult in the northern part of the Netherlands.

    Just to name two.

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