G is for German Heathenry and … gah!

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter G, and it’s late again (I usually post these on Fridays).
Originally, I even wanted to skip this week’s post entirely because I didn’t feel inspired enough about any of my G ideas to actually write something about them (I’m saving
gender for next week because Friday is a public holiday here, which means “time to write all day”). But…

— And here I need to interrupt this entry before it has even really started for the disclaimer that I’m still very new at thinking about this in any systematic way, so I may lack even basic knowledge about established terms and concepts. Please assume that this is a piece of my thoughts in progress, and that I’m happy to learn from you about thoughts and/or articles that are worth examining. —

…as I was browsing pictures of other people’s altars today, I came across one that (according to the information on the original website it came from) seemed to be from some German Heathen group, from roughly the same area where I live. Hmm, interesting…? I followed another link from there and came to a German Asatru website. It looked harmless enough at first, but I got suspicious very quickly. You see, calling almost every single part of a website by a German name is highly unusual over here. I mean, we all know what a “link” is because half of the computer-related terms we use in German are either the same as in English or slightly Germanized versions of English terms anyway. So it stands out if someone explicitly uses a German term. (Maybe I need to also tell you that people who passionately fight to keep the German language free from all the “unnecessary” English words we’ve been adopting tend to lean towards a strange concept of “purity” that comes with all the baggage you can imagine. Sure, sometimes a German term would do just as well (or better) as an English one, but I don’t get the panic about “German dying out” when everybody has gotten used to originally French, Latin, Greek, or Yiddish words just fine in the past and most of us don’t even know they’re not “originally” German… But I digress.)

At any rate, I looked around a bit more on the website to see if my suspicions were justified. And, oh yes, were they ever! I found the most obvious clues on the “humor and satire” section of the website. It had several entries that made fun of the association of Asatru/Heathen groups and racism/extreme right-wing politics as if that was something so absurd that it was only good for satire, not for any serious discussion. As if there weren’t any problematic associations of the two in reality. And that, my dear readers, is something that just doesn’t happen when it’s important to you not to be associated with old or new Nazis and related ideologies. Not in Germany. Not as Heathens/Asatru.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the members of this group are all militant Nazis, but there were enough hints in the wording of their descriptions that made it quite clear that they see a direct connection between one’s ancestry, the land/country (the word is the same for both in German), and the religion one is supposed to follow. And to me that’s basically the same shit in just slightly more “spiritual” packaging than saying outright that “us German(ic)s” and “them members of different ‘races'” are fundamentally different by nature. (Despite typing this heavily quotation-marked for distance it still makes me want to spit out in disgust.) And that is what we call racism in my world.

And don’t anybody start claiming that religion/belief/spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with politics! How can’t it, when both are based on some ethical principles and specific worldviews?!

Well. I went back to the image hosting page and looked at a few more pictures. And it really doesn’t feel good to know there are organized groups of those kinds of Heathens/Asatru out there doing their thing in the same area where I live… Call me naive or ignorant, but it did make a difference to see visual evidence for this instead of just intellectually knowing they probably exist here, too. I immediately felt the wish to spiritually “take back the territory” from them. And I’m not even a Heathen/Asatru/Northern Tradition anything! In fact, I’ve barely just started learning a little bit about these Pagan traditions because, well, I do live in Germany, and I do own a German passport, and I do have plenty of German ancestors. And it’s certainly not like I feel like embracing everything that I’ve learned so far.

But still. This hits home closer than reading about “folkish” Asatru somewhere in America or cissexist rituals by Dianic Wiccans or any other problematic politics happening under the umbrella of “Pagan spirituality.” Maybe it’s just because those people have been to places that are literally less than ten minutes away from the house I live in. Or maybe I’ve started to identify a little bit with Northern Tradition Paganism by now. I’m not sure.

I just know that experiences like this make me want to do two contradictory things at once:

a) Run away and not even touch anything Heathen with a ten-foot pole. Instead, develop a Pagan practice with another cultural background (which would then bring up the problem of cultural appropriation, but that’s another kettle of fish).

b) Become a Heathen/Asatru myself and be as out and loud about my anti-racist and anti-Nazi politics and my constructionist and very queer worldview as possible.

As it is, I don’t think I’ll do any of these just now. But the fact remains that I still can’t shake the impression that Heathens/Asatru with beliefs about the “natural” connection between one’s ancestry and one’s spirituality that can be described as at least incredibly naive/ignorant are actually in the majority here in Germany. No, I don’t have any numbers to prove that impression. I don’t even have any noteworthy connections to Heathen/Asatru people in this country (with the exception of an acquaintance who is most decidedly anti-racist). But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stumble across this kind of German Asatru/Heathenry practically every time I try to find out more about Northern Tradition Paganism in my native language. I know there are exceptions but they seem few and far between. Mainstream Heathenry (if that’s not a contradiction within itself) over here seems to have way too many ties with racist ideologies of the kind I just described – or at least not enough explicit dissociation from them.

And I can’t pretend that this isn’t majorly influencing my openness to even looking into Heathenry for purposes of information, let alone adopting anything Heathen as my own spiritual worldview and practice. Because I’m really not keen on coming across disgusting stuff like that all the time, especially not when I’m already having to translate everything I read into “queer-speak” to find out if I’m actually included in terms of gender and sexuality or not. (But the latter really is stuff for next week’s post, except for the bit I’ve already written about here.)

To conclude this (for now), I wanted to post a couple of links to websites of people who haven’t just started thinking and writing about this like me. I found them during a very cursory Google search, so they may not be the absolute best material that’s out there, but they looked good enough for a start:
“Racism in Asatru”, and the follow-up article “Responses to Folkish Heathens”, both by Wayland Skallagrimsson.

And here are two links to Heathen/Asatru organizations that are explicitly working against racism, because they do good work and deserve backlinks and support for it:
Heathens Against Hate (in English) and Nornir’s Aett (in German).

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10 responses »

  1. I had a similar experience to you just recently. I class myself as pagan although I don’t identify with any one tradition. Germanic myths and legends interest me so I spend a bit of time researching and reading about it. Recently I stumbled across an English language forum where I found some posts really shocking. Like you say, there is a difference between an intellectual knowledge that something exists and then actually being confronted with the reality of it. In paganism generally there seems to be a feeling that we should identify with the traditions of the land we are in (some say the land of our ancestors) which is one of the reasons Christianity is fiercely rejected by some. It is an ‘alien’ religion from a desert dwelling people – no point talking about the very real influence of Greek pagan thought and philosophy.

  2. The difficult thing is, looking into the traditions of our actual Ancestors may just as well be a way of trying to avoid appropriating the spirituality of other cultures with a completely anti-racist/anti-colonialist motivation. After all, aren’t there several annoyed Native Americans who tell us to do just that?
    In a similar vein, it makes sense to look into the traditions of the landscape we’re living in as a way of “thinking globally and acting locally.”
    In other words, it’s (of course) not the Heathen/Asatru spiritual belief system as such that is generally “good” or “bad,” but they way it’s interpreted and used politically that we need to examine closely.

    Personally, I don’t feel the same need to reject Christianity as others do – but that’s probably due to the fact that I never belonged to a Christian religion and never was forced into a rigid worldview based on one.

  3. Awesome post Cat! I like to read about such ‘ancestral’ practices because here in Brazil… they are not so common. Our religions are very mixed due to the different ethnicities and cultures that made our country. Of course, we do have more ‘closed’ group such as the Jews, Chinese and others that still maintain the spiritual traditions their ancestors brought.

    Personally, I have such a mixed ancestry that it’d be impossible for me to choose my spirituality based on that. I have in my family Portuguese, Spanish, German, Italian, Native Brazilian (indian) and Libanese heritage… makes it hard to choose one path, and even harder to justify why I am there, since my ancestry is very diluted.

    I wonder if there’s a spiritual tradition for people like me, lol! :p

    But I completely agree with you – it’s very easy to find reasons that justify the separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and that’s where all problems of racism begin. When we see people from a different origin as being a different species (as opposed to simply having a different cultural background, language, colors etc.), we de-humanize them and that’s the root or intolerance and violence.

    As someone who has suffered sometimes from prejudice in international airports (being mistreated because I am female from a 3rd world country), I can tell how horrible it is to be judged ‘inferior’ based on your passport. To be treated as a less deserving human being because of your origin. And the people who have treated me badly are not evil – they are simply under the influence of a brainwashing culture that tells that all people from South America are poor and desperate to steal their jobs and invade their countries. And that if you are a single woman, you must be dying to get pregnant from a ‘superior’ North American or European man so you can leave your horrible homeland.

    It’s a heavy and sad baggage to have throw upon your shoulders, when all you want is do tourism and have fun or an opportunity to study…

    I don’t see any problem with honoring one’s ancestry, but I do see a problem when it is used to justify the supposed superiority of a group. And in spiritual matters, it’s particularly dangerous because we all know religions have such a brainwashing potential…

  4. One apple doesn’t ruin the barrel..as long as you check them all occasionally for rotten spots.
    Because there Will be rotten spots in every single barrel you examine.

    They are too weak to stand alone so they grasped the nearest cloak available. If you keep looking you’ll find Catholic pagan groups too. The only pagan’s going to heaven…dancing around the campfire singing their rituals that burn everyone else in hell.

    People is weird.

    :)

  5. Great post!

    I think a lot of the folkish heathens forget that heathenry is a cultural/environmental religion and not a racial heritage one. We’re not all neo-nazi’s, but they do exist, unfortunately.

  6. Well, at least this incident has motivated me to read some more about the kind of Heathens/Asatru here in Germany that doesn’t make me want to spit out… And I’m happy to report that I already found lots of great thinking there, and a nice sense of humor, too. So maybe that was a nudge into the right direction after all!

  7. We had that lengthy chat recently, but I want to state it here, too – as someone who has been beating around the bush for years because I feared the political implications (and also felt like a bad feminist for being interested in what I perceived as a deeply patriarchal culture), I feel your pain.

    I am glad that I found some awesome, critical people and now that I’ve done some of the homework, I don’t mind being one of the uncompromising “Asatrú Antifa”. Yep, sometimes other pagans see that as uncomfortable – I don’t mind (anymore).

  8. After our lengthy chat recently I re-read this one and just wanted to let you know once more: I feel your pain.

    And yes, checking heathen communities here for affiliations and right-wing personalia is a nasty business. Checking authors and publishers, too. In the beginning, I didn’t know whom to trust and whom not. Maybe I’m really lucky that I had a friend who was more experienced in these issues and knew some others…

    which lead to me befriending, some years later, the same people who, in the nineties, set out to reclaim Germanic culture in Germany. The ones I got to know of them are still as uncompromising as they were in the beginning.

    Considering the “heritage” thing, I tend to see that as entirely cultural. I firmly believe that spirituality isn’t inherited by the way of genes. I’m not even interested in the Germanic tribes because I feel so natively German, there must be something more to that – something I can’t pinpoint (yet).

  9. I’m glad you decided to go for being uncompromising on the issue of antifascism/antiracism despite the discomfort of others! I say, let them be uncomfortable. They can probably bear it, just as others bear being confronted with racist (or sexist, or queer-hating, or…) shit over and over again, including by the people who are supposed to be their spiritual (and/or political) community.

  10. This is where I want to say “thank you, Internet, for existing and being accessible to me, and for making it easy to do research and find different perspectives! and “thank you, whatever is responsible for my ability to read English and understand its nuances!” Because I don’t think I’d be where I am right now if I’d only had access to printed reading material, and if it had been only in German. Funny what detours we sometimes need to take…

    I also agree with you that spirituality isn’t a matter of genetics (aka “blood”) and that it also can’t just be a matter of cultural heritage. I actually have no final idea on what causes people to develop into this or that spiritual tradition. I’m not even sure that the origin of someone’s connection to a certain spiritual (non-)tradition is what really matters.

    What matters a lot more to me, is how people use the spiritual (non-)tradition they connect to. Do they learn about the people who’ve been a part of that tradition before they came along? Do they examine the colonialist and/or fascist and/or racist and/or sexist heritage of their Ancestors (not limited to their genetic Ancestors but also to the more general history of the country/ies that play a role here) and work actively against perpetuating it? Or do they just “go shopping” without much thought for anything beyond what they like, let alone examining why they like something? And that goes for Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Traditions just as much as it goes for other traditions like Gardnerian Wicca, Kemetic Paganism, Native… Anything, Buddhism, and, yes, Christianity.

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