Arguments in Favor of Universalist Heathenry
This paper is far from definitive. For me to make it so would require a book. Furthermore, it would be a very long, dry book that no one would bother reading for the sake of avoiding terminal boredom. Therefore I have striven to be concise. Should my reader require clarification of any points made they are welcome to write me.
This is a partisan piece, something I am generally hesitant to write. However I believe it is in the interests of folkish Heathens to question their folkism, to test it against a range of measures. The feeling of ancestral connectedness and communal belonging that they seem to believe is dependent upon folkish thinking is, I believe, even more strongly available once that folkish thinking is set aside. It is my hope that some intimations of this view might lurk within the words that follow.
One of the ongoing problems in the debate about universalism and folkism in Heathenry is poorly defined terms. I am here going to offer what I think are clear and fair definitions of four terms: universalism, folkism, syncretism, and reconstructionism. Before I do that, a short definition of Heathenry itself seems in order.
What is Heathenry? The term refers to two things. Firstly, the pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic cultural-religious nexus that was gradually destroyed by Christianity over the course of centuries. Secondly, the modern community of individuals inspired by that legacy in myriad ways. Many modern Heathens have explicitly adopted Heathenry as a religious or spiritual framework for our lives.
Heathenry was, historically speaking, quite variable in its customs, but some general themes can be established. Like Hinduism, Heathenry was orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic. What mattered to it was that things be done in the right way; having the “correct” beliefs (ala Christianity) was completely irrelevant.
Heathenry clearly contained reverence for natural forces, the seasonal movements, plants, and animals. It venerated a varied and chaotic community of gods, heroes, and ancestors. It was founded in oral poetic traditions, meaning there was no textual canon. There was no centralized religious authority, and like many traditional religions, the line between religion and culture was blurred to non-existence.
Some notable ethical themes that emerge from the remnant Heathen literature that was recorded in medieval times: generosity, hospitality, moderation, forthrightness, reverence, and optimism.
I take universalist Heathenry to be the view that anyone, regardless of their ethnic heritage, can “legitimately” be drawn to the Germanic pre-Christian spiritual traditions and practice them. Some universalists hold that if a person of non-European ethnic heritage is drawn to the Heathen path then it means they must have, somewhere in their genealogy, some European heredity somewhere. Others simply believe that we humans have no right to dictate to the gods and spirits who they call to their worship, and that these entities are less concerned about categorizations of identity than we humans are.
It is important to note that a universalist can still practice ancestor worship, contrary to the misunderstanding of some. If we recognize that, genetically speaking, there is more variation within different groups then between them, it follows that ancestor worship must be either epigenetic or cultural in basis (perhaps both, since epigenetic markers, though biologically inheritable, are shaped by environmental, including cultural, influences). Hence there is no logical reason why ancestor worship and universalism should be incompatible. Celebration of my specific heritage does not necessitate excluding individuals of different heritage from being a part of my community.
“Universalist” is term is often taken to mean the belief that “one size fits all” as far as spirituality and spiritual identity goes. Critics of universalism like to link it to the phenomenon of the global McDonaldization and wholesale destruction of localized culture. It does not follow, however, that just because in principle any individual might have the capacity to follow any spiritual tradition, that therefore it is acceptable for the corporate juggernaut to destroy, uproot, and displace whole peoples and cultures.
“Universalist” is also sometimes used by anti-universalists to refer to religions that explicitly address themselves to all peoples, such as Christianity. Defined like this, Heathenism and many other religions cannot, in principle, be universalist. However, if we use the word in this way, we would then need to find another word to refer to Heathens who believe that persons of non-European heritage can legitimately be Heathen. For the sake of simplicity, therefore, I reject the use of the term universalist to indicate religions that claim to be true for all times, peoples, and places.
Furthermore, even a superficial examination of Christianity, Buddhism, and other so-called universalist religions shows them to have remarkable degrees of localized variations, albeit often unofficially. Even Christianity is far less uniform than its critics might like to say (hence the more old-fashioned use of the word “Catholic” to mean “diverse”). Whatever these religions are, they are complex and this complexity needs to be acknowledged. It is tempting to divide the world into black and white; when we remember that Christianity was one of the major innovators for this divisive attitude, however, we as Heathens are challenged to let go of such binary thinking.
The term universalist is also often used as a synonym for syncretism. I believe this is a mistake, since a person can be a hard reconstructionist and a universalist, or be folkish but have very syncretic ideas. Below I define syncretism and reconstructionism in order to clarify their orthogonal relationship to the continuum on which universalism and folkism reside.
To recap, “universalism” for the purposes of this paper simply means “the belief that persons of non-European heritage can legitimately be drawn to and practice Heathenism.”
Folkism is basically the view that Heathenry entails ethnic exclusivity. In other words, an individual needs to have Germanic heritage in order to be able to be Heathen. The terms of this view vary widely. For some, the centrality of ancestor worship is the reason for this view. Others argue that since some other traditional cultures are skeptical of Europeans who want to be part of their spiritual community (for example some Native American groups), therefore it is appropriate for Heathenry to have the same attitude. Of course, European-descended peoples have not been the victims of centuries of systematic genocide at the hands of Native Americans, so the equivalency of the two cases seems doubtful.
For some folkish Heathens, racist beliefs in the inherent superiority of white people are the motivator. However it must be emphasized that folkish views do not necessarily align with racist or right wing politics. I know several folkish Heathens, for example, who are very liberal, voted for Barack Obama, and who have welcomed non-European individuals into their family by marriage. These are not people who are hung up on notions of racial separatism or supremacy.
For some folkists, an individual can be “legitimately” (whatever that means, exactly) Heathen even if they have only a small amount of European heritage. At the extreme, this view becomes indistinguishable from universalism. On the other hand, a folkish individual who insists that an individual be (as far as can be determined) entirely free of non-European heritage is almost certainly allowing racist politics to influence their opinions about Heathenry.
Note that I question my own use of the term “legitimately” in my definitions of both universalism and folkism. A folkish Heathen would argue that a non-European person would be better served to seek the spiritual traditions of their own heritage than to seek those of European origin, and vice versa. Note that a universalist could also hold this view. The only difference would be that if in the case of non-European persons feeling that Heathenry was a better spiritual home for them, the universalist would accept this.
The question mark that goes with the use of the word “legitimate” in this context is one of entitlement. Who is really entitled to say which individuals are or are not entitled to call themselves Heathen? As many folk have pointed out, there are no Heathen popes.
To recap, “folkism” for the purposes of this paper simply means “the belief that persons must have European heritage in order to legitimately be drawn to and practice Heathenism.”
Reconstructionism is the fairly reasonable notion that Heathens should attempt to base contemporary practice on what is known historically from texts, archaeology, and scholarship. Sometimes it leads to excessive nay-saying, arrogant hair splitting, or uncritical obeisance to poorly considered historical analyses. On the whole, however, it seems that reconstruction must be at the bedrock of Heathenry because contemporary Heathenry is by definition a reconstructed religion. There is no undisputed, unbroken link of tradition into the past as there is with, say, contemporary Hinduism.
I mention reconstruction because some folkish Heathens appear to assume that, historically speaking, cultures were hermetically sealed off from one another, and therefore that there can be no historical ground for universalist Heathenry. Later I will provide some examples to show that this is incorrect.
Furthermore, of the major Heathen organizations in North America, the only one to have published a significant corpus of reconstructionist-oriented texts is The Troth, who are universalist. It is important not to make the mistake of assuming that reconstructionism is a basis for folkish belief.
Some critics of reconstructionism feel that it imposes orthodoxy and undermines personal spiritual experiences. It can do just this, but it can also shatter our misconceptions about the past and offer richer inspirations for spiritual experience than any we might have invented for ourselves. What matters is our intent, and our courage to explore.
Syncretism is the practice of combining multiple religious or spiritual traditions. It can be done organically over long periods of time–as is the case, for example, of Hinduism–or it can be done quickly and superficially, as is the case with much of the classic New Age movement. Organic syncretism, had an important role to play in historical Heathenism. This is relevant to a paper about universalism and folkism because it underscores the historical cultural interconnections that benefited and in some important ways shaped Heathenism. If cultural isolationism had been the rule, the ancestral Heathens would have left us a much more inferior spiritual legacy.
Critique of the Concept of Race
The concept of race has driven much of how we as a species see ourselves. Fortunately or unfortunately, the notion appears to be based on rather spurious grounds. The emptiness of the concept is not in itself sufficient to justify rejection of folkism, but it certainly gets us most of the way there. Here are three critiques of the notion of race:
Despite extensive research, no genetic basis for racial identification has ever been found. Rather, research indicates there is more genetic variation within populations who identify as the same racial group than there is between different racial groups. In other words, any two white people are likely to be more genetically different than, say, a white person and a black person.
Very simply, features such as skin, hair, and eye color are only a very small part of an almost infinitely large genetic puzzle. They might be easy to observe, but this does not mean that they make for a reliable indicator of meaningful or significant genetic difference. As it happens, recent analyses of mitochondrial DNA among Scandinavian remains from 0CE to circa 1450CE indicate that ancient Scandinavians were more genetically varied than their modern descendants. This finding is clearly inconsistent with the folkish picture of ancient Heathens as being insular and ethnically exclusive; it may imply that people have become more insular in more recent times, and hence that the folkish view of Heathen history is an anachronistic projection of more recent historical tendencies.
The emergence of epigenetic science indicates that environmental influences can shape the activation patterns of DNA, and that these environmentally conditioned triggers are also inheritable. In other words, environmental factors are an extremely important part of biological heredity–and by definition they could not be related to notions of biologically determined race, since they are rooted in environmental influences and life experiences.
Indeed, given the ever-growing prominence of epigenetics in understanding heritability and the manifestation of genetic material (material which differs only in minuscule and meaningless ways across racial populations) we might hypothesize that if ancestral influences are biological in basis, they are probably rooted in epigenetic instructions. That is, in material that is ancestrally inherited, but which is nonetheless a product of environment and life experience and not some kind of inherent biological nature. This hypothesis nicely shows how universalism and ancestor worship can be compatible even at the level of hard science.
Research into the human microbiome shows that only about 1% of our DNA is actually human. Yes, read that statement again. It still boggles my mind, too. The vast, vast bulk of our organism consist of endless colonies of microbiological organisms. If the markers of racial identity–such as skin color or facial features–represent only a tiny fragment of our DNA, and if that DNA is in turn only 1% of what we are, it seems rather absurd to be fixated on that tiny proportion.
Our profound biological relatedness–to other humans and to non-human organisms–is really a seamless symbiotic continuum. Ancestor worship means the worship of all life, without bar. Anything less would be to neglect our myriad ancestral roots. In the face of this vast ocean of genetic commonality, it seems that the deep bonds of resonant spirit that draw us to Heathenry must be based in something much broader than the scant and arbitrary specificities of human genetic variation.
One of the problems that vexes contemporary Heathenry (or indeed anyone) is the legacy of 19th century physical anthropology, its obsession with skull and bone measurements in particular. For 150 years, Western scientists obsessed over skull anatomy in particular, trying to link it to notions of racial difference. The illusion of scientific objectivity was bestowed by the seemingly quantitative basis of such studies. This is a classic illustration of Heidegger’s distinction between precise science and rigorous science; these physical anthropologists had plenty of precision but, it turns out, little of the more important quality of rigor.
Minutely accurate study of irrelevant factors makes for anything but a truly scientific outcome; modern DNA research has rendered much such physical anthropological processes utterly obsolete, and inadvertently illuminated them in the light of the often racist agendas and worldviews that drove them. Thus, for example, we can see how racially-based physical anthropology led some early 20th century researchers to project a theme of racial segregation onto the Icelandic sagas. Yet such a theme clearly does not emerge when one reads them without pre-existing cognitive bias.
It takes discipline for those of us who are not biological scientists to extricate ourselves from ways of seeing the world that are ubiquitous but no longer scientifically justifiable. Later in this paper I will discuss further the Christian roots of that typically folkish understanding of ethnicity as “exclusivity + uniformity.”
It is evident that much of the literature that emerged on the notion of racial superiority did so at a time when Western powers needed to justify their intentions to subjugate other, non-European, cultures. Without paternalism, it would have been very hard to justify the need to “civilize” supposedly savage peoples, or impose Christianity and modernity upon them, or rape their land for resources to be used in futile wars or the cultivation of nihilistic technocracy.
When we read ancient texts such as the history of Herodotus, there seems to be no reference to ideas of European racial superiority (indeed, he celebrates Ethiopians as being the most beautiful people on earth). Fast-forward to the 19th century, and the West was obsessed with categorization, measurement, definition, and parceling out of differing levels of status.
Without the emergence of Christianity (which needed racism to prop up both anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism) and technocratic/modern capitalism (which needed racism to prop up wholesale slavery, land theft, and imperialism) racism would have been a much less useful tool of discursive power. Needless to say, neither of these institutions have anything to do with the Heathen worldview.
When we construct a group as being radically different to ourselves, a Them to oppose to an Us, we immediately risk denying and then projecting what we cannot accept about ourselves. The projection, for example, that some other racial group is lazy or dishonest immediately allows us to ignore the (no doubt) plentiful supply of lazy and dishonest members of our own racial group.
The more we deny what we do not wish to see in ourselves, the sicker we become. Racism has been a powerful tool of denial, particularly for Westerners. For example, “Darkest Africa” became a real-world cipher for the unconscious, so that we could continue to disown everything that we did not want to face in ourselves. Given that, under the sway of Christianity, this included such beautiful things as sexuality, creative expression, and dreams, we can see that racism has been a profoundly destructive excuse for not achieving our own growth, healing, and spiritual expression.
At bottom, projection of unconscious content–especially things we dislike about ourselves–onto some group that we are able to superficially but easily distinguish from ourselves is an act of violence against reverence for Mystery. Given that reverence for Mystery is the highest art, demonstrated by Odin when he hung from the tree to grasp the runes (mysteries), it seems that Heathens would be well served to extricate themselves from the convenient but simplistic binaries of exclusionary ethnic thinking.
The idea that we project onto others what we do not wish to see in ourselves comes from Carl Jung’s depth psychology. If Jung had been a Heathen, he would have been a universalist (even though some Heathens do not appear to have read enough Jung to realize this). The whole purpose of his notion of the collective unconscious was to explain the startling parallels he found in different cultures’ spiritual and psychological experiences and imagery. He believed that all humans’ brains are biologically identical, and that this is the reason for the astounding thematic uniformity across different cultures’ symbolic lexicons.
Evidence from Heathen Sources
It is worth dwelling on the very nature of the family of deities called the Aesir, because this family is actually composed of two pantheons, the Aesir and the Vanir. Early in mythic time, these two families went to war against one another. To make peace, they exchanged hostages and it is clear that in short order the two separate groups became one.
This story makes essentially no sense from a folkish perspective. The radical and swift melding of two disparate ethnic groups–who at first are enemies–to produce a vigorous and healthy whole is antithetical to folkish thinking, which emphasizes the incommensurability of different ethnic groups. Yet the Heathen pantheon is a multi-cultural melting pot.
Furthermore, the relationship of the gods and the giants is one of intense ambiguity. On the one hand, there is plenty of conflict between gods and giants, and a seemingly dualistic cosmos of Ingard and Utgard obtains. Yet when we look closer, we realize that a great many of the gods have giant heritage, spouses, and friends. Odin is the son of giants; Thor is the son of Odin and Jord, a giantess–making Thor, the foe of giants, a giant himself!
This list goes on, and the point of it is to show that whatever the differences between gods and giants, they cannot be based in heredity or biological separation/difference but in socialization. The only reason the giantess Skadi is not fully integrated into the pantheon of the gods is because of the breakdown of her marriage to Njord; had their personal differences been resolvable, she would have permanently entered the fold of the Aesir, just as the Vanir did, and just as the giantess Gerd did when she married Frey.
Folkish Heathens like to point to the Lay of Rig as an example of racial segregation. Yet it is clear that this myth is an attempt to account for class stratification, not ethnic stratification. In any case, the god Heimdall is still the ancestor of all three social groups described in the poem, making them close biological relations (via the parenthood of a god, no less!). The closest parallel within Indo-European cultures is that of the castes in India, which are about social class, not race.
Nowhere do we find references to racial or ethnic exclusion in the remnants of Heathen mythology we still possess. This is particularly notable because classism and misogyny are certainly present, and arguably homophobia as well. It appears the original Heathens, when they dipped their muzzles into the dirty trough of bigotry, did not think to channel their negativity along ethnic fault lines.
Actually, there is one exception to this theme, and it plays in favor of universalism. Consider the Eddic poems Gudrunarhvot and Hamdismal, in which Gudrun’s two sons murder their half-brother–who it is suggested might be (as might be said in more modern terms) of mixed race. Yet the poems conclude with the killers lamenting the wrongness of their deed; furthermore, without his help they are outnumbered and slain by their enemies. In other words, this Eddic account of what could be something like racially motivated violence casts condemnation on both the ethics and the practical wisdom of such violence.
We of course know that the old Heathens were vigorous travelers and traders, and eagerly incorporated other cultures’ ideas into their own. The runes themselves emerged out of a synthesis of Germanic and non-Germanic influences (probably a fusion with Etruscan Rhaetic cultic practices, although we will never know for sure). Similarly, the matron statues, which tell us so much about early Germanic Heathenry, were inscribed in Latin, not runes. As early mentioned, we also know from mitochondrial DNA analysis of physical remains that pre-modern and Heathen Scandinavians (going as far back as the Bronze Age) were more genetically diverse than their modern counterparts, a finding strongly at variance with folkish perceptions of the past.
We know that Ibn Fadlan was welcome to be present at an important Heathen religious ceremony (the funeral of a great leader). We also know that individuals of Middle Eastern, and in one case perhaps African, descent were buried alongside Scandinavian Heathens with no physical markers to indicate any difference in status or respect. There is also mitochondrial DNA evidence of Native American heritage among Icelanders. In the case of the trade center at Birka, it is possible that a good many Middle Eastern traders were buried there–perhaps mitochondrial DNA analysis might eventually be able to clarify points of origin for some of these remains.
None of this proves universalism or disproves folkism. However, given the great importance attached to burial rites, the fact that non-Scandinavian bodies were buried alongside Scandinavian remains, and with no material inequalities to suggest identifiable status differences, does not seem particularly consistent with folkism. This evidence does not show that non-Europeans were welcomed should they have desired to adopt Heathenism, but it does show a level of cosmopolitanism and spiritual openness that contradicts the folkish vision of Heathenry as being ethnically closed. On the balance of probabilities, then, this evidence is much more consistent with universalism.
Given the evidence that persons of non-European descent were included in important aspects of Heathen spiritual practice, in particular burials and funeral rites, it seems difficult to insist that modern Heathens of European descent have much basis to exclude individuals not of European descent. From what archeology permits us to know of the original Heathens, they did not make such exclusions.
Psychology: Adoption and Group Belonging
Implications of Research on Adoption Losses
A central tenet of folkish thinking is that something irreplaceable is imparted in biological heredity. This is a way of thinking that has been shown to be distinctly anachronistic, an artifact of a modern world in which we are profoundly socially and familially disconnected from one another.
Irving Leon’s 2002 study of the psychology of adoption losses is on point in this regard. In contemporary Western settings, much is made of the loss of the adopted child of the knowledge of their biological heritage. This pain and loss is a real experience and is not to be trivialized. However, as Leon demonstrates from attachment research, it is clear that the deep bonds of connection between parent and child are forged through positive interpersonal interactions. Without these, the presence or absence of a blood connection is no guarantee of any sense of connection. There are plenty of abusive biological parents, and plenty of profoundly selfless adoptive parents (indeed, this is one of the reasons why the custom of adoption exists at all).
The implication is that were we moderns to construct different narratives about the meaning of adoption and biological relationship, we would find that the significance we place on biology over loving relationships is somewhat misplaced. Leon surveys a wide variety of pre-modern cultures in which adoption was commonplace and bore no stigma. He uses the Roman Empire, ancient India, China, and traditional Pacific Island examples of the ways in which adoption was widely practiced and totally normalized. This is not to say that these cultures did not appreciate biological relatedness, but it is to say that they did not regard it as being the deciding factor in the depth or quality of relationships between caregivers and children. On the contrary, adoptive relations have been just as intense and precious as biological ones across many pre-modern times and peoples.
Furthermore, practices of inter-tribal adoption are well attested among the Germanic peoples, particularly their nobility. Indeed, the practice of hostage exchange–such as that which secured the end of the mythical war of the Vanir and Aesir–is a variant on adoption practices, and one which appears to transform and reformulate the supposedly unbreakable weave of biological relatedness.
The power of adoption over biology is profoundly attested in Vatnsdaela Saga, in which the transmission of a dead man’s name to his enemy’s offspring is considered sufficient to allow his spiritual legacy to be reborn! “Dreaming, Death, and Memory,” an article from Hex Magazine, discussed this at some length and bears quoting here:
The wish of the dead to be remembered can lead to surprising circumstances. “Vatnsdaela Saga” relates the tale of Jokull, who is mortally wounded in battle. He begs his victorious foe “not to let my name pass away…if a son be granted to you or to your son.” One must truly desire to be remembered if one chooses to ask one’s own slayer to continue one’s name in their offspring! The living memory of the dead was also passed on within families, as attested in “Svarfdaela Saga,” in which Thorolfr promises to pass his good hamingja (luck or power) on to any son of his brother who should be named Thorolfr; it is this or else Thorolfr’s name risks passing “out of use like withered grass.”
The fact that this nebulous sense of rebirth-through-memory is not a fait accompli among blood relations by simple virtue of their biological relation, and the fact that for our ancestors it could occur between people who shared no blood (indeed, who were even enemies), suggests that memory is not something for us to be complacent about: it has the power to carry the dead back into the world of the living, if perhaps in a non-literal fashion. If we do not act regularly to keep memory’s waters flowing through reverent observance then we risk falling back into the bleak fields of amnesia.
Given the foregoing I suspect that we should be cautious about reducing modern Heathenry to a matter of biological continuity. It seems clear from these kinds of evidence that for the old Heathens it was the social and spiritual practices of naming and remembering that were necessary for the preservation of lineage; going from these sources family relatedness seemed to be an optional extra from our ancestors’ point of view.
What appears to be most essential in these examples of the old Heathen worldview is a commitment to the cultural lineage and the integrity of tradition; rather than resting on the laurels of membership in a biological or familial category. Given that most modern Heathen communities are bound by bonds of friendship and not by familial relation, we are fortunate that it appears our ancestors did not insist on blood ties but rather social and spiritual ones for the transmission of their luck and lineage.
I think it interesting to note the point made above to the effect that biological continuity still needs social continuity (through the inheritance of names across generations) in order for the ancestral line to be perpetuated. These examples from the sagaic literature make a mockery of the heaviness of our modern emphasis on biological heredity, be it in the context of adoptive relationships, or in the context of membership within the Heathen community.
For the ancient Heathens, adoption was a sound basis for unbreakable bonds of ancestral and spiritual continuity. The implication is that there is no reason why non-European individuals could not similarly be adopted into the fold and be just as much at home. After all, if as has been shown, biological continuity is insufficient to guarantee filial lineage, the implication is that all Heathens–regardless of race or ethnicity–have some serious inner work, study, and practice to do if they wish to really step into the tide of the old ways’ current. It might be likely that most Heathens will have at least some biological European heritage, but such heritage is neither necessary nor sufficient when considered through a thoroughgoing psychology of ancestry or filial connection.
The simple fact is, we moderns are living in a story of disconnected isolation, the fruits of technocratic modernity, which has been eroding the human psyche for some centuries now (and which has its roots in the dissociative manipulation of Christian dogma by power elites since the time of Constantine). If we buy into the notion that biology somehow trumps the meat of living relationships, that is, adopting a folkish view, then our romanticism of blood is merely a way of denying the dissociative everydayness to which we are profoundly habituated. From this point of view one could perhaps even argue that within a very strict folkish framework it is ironically impossible to truly embrace an ancestral pre-Christian Heathen psychology.
The Psychology of Belonging
So much of religion is about belonging; given the social fragmentation of modernity it makes absolute sense that Heathens are seeking to recover that nagging sense of lost, shared mutuality. If we reify this sense of connection in biological terms, however, we are going to find psychology making profound fools of us.
Consider research on in-group and out-group formation. Sherif’s landmark “Robber’s Cave” experiment pitted two groups of twelve year old boys in competitive games of skill over a period of days at a summer camp. To drive competition, prizes and privileges were awarded to the winning team in various tests of skill. In short order, vicious rivalry emerged–so vigorous that it reached a fever pitch of violence and the experimenters had to intervene!
Yet despite the profound sense of both distinct in-group identity and out-group animosity, the experimenters found that when they reformed the boys into two new groups–groups which combined members of the previously opposed factions–and had these new mixed groups compete, the old group identities melted away quickly and new in-group/out-group dynamics formed.
Finally, by instigating co-operative challenges, the experimenters were able to dissolve all sense of group separation, generating in the end a sense of cohesion and esprit de corp among all of the experimental participants.
The researchers’ ability to dissolve two competitive groups into new mixes of members and then reconstitute the fierce conflict and in-group identification demonstrates just how arbitrary our supposedly iron-clad social convictions can be. Their ability to then heal the rifts that they had created demonstrates the profound human capacity for shared purpose, mutuality, and growth.
I describe this experiment because it highlights the very plasticity of our sense of belonging. That we all need to feel a sense of belonging is undeniable. However, no matter how absolute that feeling might be, it can be totally inverted or otherwise radically transformed in the crucible of shifting social relations.
So if we as Heathens wish to cement a deep sense of spiritual connectedness and belonging with one another, we are going to have to do it through positive, cooperative social interaction. If we are distracted by the notion that ethnic exclusivity somehow will produce this connectedness, then we risk losing ourselves in an endless maze of shallow projection and superficiality. In addition to its potential for use as a justification for bigotry, primary emphasis on biological heredity is a threat to the cultivation of a modern culturally deep and robust Heathenry.
Those who focus on relatedness and social building will come much closer to the community ideals that the original Heathens prized and spent so much energy cultivating and maintaining. Biology seems to be rather irrelevant to such a process. Locality, shared goals, and filial love are the only ingredients that are necessary. Insofar as folkish groups achieve the experience of Heathen community, they are at perpetual risk of being side-tracked or otherwise hampered by their beliefs around ethnic exclusivity.
Christianity and Ethnicity
A major obstacle for modern people in understanding the notion of ethnic identity as it was understood (or at least experienced) by the original Heathens is that between us and them lies up to 1,500 years of Christian political thought. These layers of thinking and theorizing political and social identities invisibly influence our ability to understand the past. It takes tremendous effort and not a little luck to be able to avoid the snares of unwitting historical tunnel vision. This theme has already been encountered in my earlier discussion of issues related to biology and genetics.
Recent research in the anthology Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World points to a startling problem for contemporary Heathens trying to think through the function of ethnicity in their spirituality. Very simply, early Christianity invented a startling new formula for the definition of ethnicity, which can be summed up as “exclusivity and in-group uniformity.” To put that another way, the founding assumption of folkism that ethnic groups are isolated and internally consistent–and therefore that one cannot or must not “cross the streams”–has its birth certificate in Christian ideology that was devised to facilitate the conversion of the original Heathens.
This is a radical thesis, yet the concept is simple. Early Christianity explicitly saw its task as being the conversion of peoples more than individuals; or at the least, this was the raison d’etre of Roman Catholic tactics for converting non-Christian cultures in Europe. This in turn necessitates the theorizing of groups into very rigidly defined, uniform categories. The basis for this theorizing was in Christ-sanctioned kingship.
Christian missionaries liked to target the rulers of Heathen groups, relying on a cascade effect to get the rest of the populace (an unfortunate exception to the usually ineffectual strategy of “trickle down”). This in turn meant that power-hungry Christian leaders needed to reformulate identity among their tribe(s) along the lines of uniform loyalty and belief, as well as whitewashing the variability within the tribe-members’ heritages (consider the earlier point that ancient Heathens were more genetically varied than their modern descendants).
Here, it seems, therefore lies the embryo of ethnicity as exclusive uniformity–in other words, folkism. As a tactic for a Christianized power elite to cement a philosophy of Christ-mandated, centralized power. When we consider that Arminius was killed by his followers when he attempted to set himself up as a Germanic Emperor after the battle of Teutoberg we begin to get a feel for how alien this model of ethnicity was to the ancient Heathens. They weren’t interested in totalitarian rule even by a fellow Heathen.
Thus it appears that Christianity benefited from a more rigid, homogeneous definition of ethnicity because it shored up the strategy of trying to convert entire populations. When the Frankish king Clovis converted, so did thousands of his subjects, more or less by default. This would not have been possible if the more anarchic philosophy of tribalism evident in Arminius’s day had still reigned. As such, folkism seems to be guilty of a kind of ideological Stockholm Syndrome–buying into the very formulation of ethnicity that was instrumental in the process of conversion.
In this light we can make better sense of the theory that Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies which trace back to Heathen ancestor gods were really more a function of Christian politicking than a genuine remnant of Heathen custom. More precisely, even if these genealogies were a remnant of Heathen custom, they nonetheless became recycled by Christian-supported autocracy because they played right into the redefinition of ethnicity for the purpose of centralizing power in Christian hands and legitimizing reprisals against reluctant converts.
Clovis again stands out here as someone who used the language of blood kinship and ethnic cohesion in ways quite alien to Heathenry, and under the aegis of Christianity. For him this language facilitated the rooting out of possible political rivals and justifying their killing. It is not altogether unsurprising that this hardened, abstract, stratified, and violent concept of ethnicity led to the objectification of the non-believing Other. Here is where the concept of “one religion for all” commences–the need to demonize, convert, or destroy the other. The real root of the practice of reducing cultural variety to a single rigid model is the concept of exclusive, uniformalized ethnicity that folkism espouses.
In contrast to the Christian notion of exclusive and uniform groupings, research indicates that any number of the Germanic tribal groups of which we know were themselves fragmentary ethnic palimpsests, dynamically shifting over time. The incorporation of non-Germanic populations is clearly attested among Germanic tribal groupings: Alans, Scythians, Turkic-speaking groups, and for the Vandals in North Africa, Berbers. Let us not forget, for that matter, the Huns, whose impact was so great that it marked the Scandinavian Heathen myths indelibly. Germanic rulers began to adopt more Romanized titles for themselves in order to cast nets of ethnic rigidity over the tribal diversity of their followers. Theodoric the Goth, for example, dropped the title rex Gothorum in favor of a more politically useful Flavius rex. As Wolfram states in his discussion of ancient Northern Europe’s complex ethnic webs, “in reality there has never been anything like a uniform people or nation” (p. 101).
It seems therefore that whereas kin groups prior to Christianity did not insist on exclusion or uniformity–happily including even non-Germanic elements–Christian rulers could only think through the notion of tribal cohesion by insisting on fictions of what could anachronistically be called folkish unity. If folkish thinking accurately reflected the customs of the ancient Heathens, Christian revision of the meaning of ethnicity would not have been necessary; the neatly pre-packaged groups would have already been ready for knock-down via conversion of their rulers.
Instead the Christians faced centuries of passive and active resistance, internecine back-stabbing, and in some cases, even resorted to mass executions (e.g. with the Saxon resistance to Charlemagne). Fragmentary interdependence was the rule of the Heathen tribes, and this was not possible without a general acceptance of diversity that seems widely out of step with modern, anachronistic folkish thinking.
Of course, these days we tend to think of Christianity as itself a universalistic religion, in that it proposes that its teaching can apply to anyone regardless of their background. A quick glance at the impact of Christianity on the world shows that in fact it has often been bound up in the rigid division of ethnic groups and the thinking through of their identities as based on exclusion and inner uniformity. This perhaps began with its attitude towards Jews (an attitude which culminated almost 2000 years after Christ in the Holocaust), but it touches on every people that Christianity has met. In this sense, colonialism would have been impossible without the hypocritically rigid ethnocentrism of Christianity. In contrast, the whole notion of colonialism would have made little sense to the ancient Heathens.
I have been fortunate enough to connect with non-European Heathens of great spiritual depth. In this way, my embrace of universalism has enabled me to deepen my own personal ancestral connection to the gods and spirits that I revere. Were I folkish, my Heathen soul would be the poorer for it. It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that folkism tends towards producing a less robust, more brittle, and more shallow Heathenry.
The question will be asked: do I worship my ancestors? Unequivocally. Ancestor worship–as I think this paper should well and truly have demonstrated in myriad direct and indirect ways–has nothing to do with ethnic exclusion on an insistence on a degree of uniformity within a given ethnic population.
In my closing remarks I turn to the subject of racism. I do not accept the equation of folkism with racism–I know of a number of staunchly anti-racist individuals who either call themselves folkish or express folkish views. Likewise, I do not accept the equation of universalism with non-racism–if nothing else, because even an individual who does not consider themselves prejudiced might yet have some degree of unconscious bias.
That said, it is certainly true to say that universalist Heathens seem much less likely to harbor racist beliefs, and likewise that racism within Heathen circles is more likely to be tolerated among the folkish parts of the extended community. This said, we must be wary of hysterical accusations and cynical assumptions of bad intent; these will serve no productive purpose. Far better to carry the argument that it is in the interest of folkish Heathens to reconsider their position. In this way it is my hope that those who are really more racist/political in basis than spiritual will have to re-examine the core of their motives for identifying as Heathen. With luck this examination will produce mind expansion, or else cause them to abandon Heathenry and its attendant communities.
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