I’ve been approached too often lately by friends and acquaintances about the blight on the Heathen community: hate groups. Unfortunately, even though I’ve been writing about this topic, and working with others to support the fight against hate in Heathenry, there are still lots of people I know who think that “Asatru” equals “neo-Nazi”. So I interrupt your normal Barn Owl Broadside broadcast to explain some important points on this topic, and to share some terminology that people might not fully understand.
Let’s talk briefly about the history of the religion now known in the United States as Heathenry. Of course, that’s not the only name it’s known by, is it? Heathenry is the revival of the polytheistic pagan religion of the ancient Germanic peoples, who came from regions stretching from Iceland to England, to the continent, spread out over many different modern-day countries and eventually hiding in the folktales, art, and customs of people who migrated to the new world. These religions were subsumed under Christianity during the middle ages. It was Iceland, the last to officially convert, that was the site of the modern revival in the 1970s, with the group Ásatrúarfélagið, or “Ásatrú fellowship”. At the time, this was simply the Icelandic name for what was in effect, a new religion, even if it was based on past traditions.
This idea spread and organizations sprang up in other countries, including the United States. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of hate groups: neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, people who wanted to twist and pervert the ideas of this faith to give their bigoted philosophies a veneer of legitimacy. A number of these groups incorporated the word “Asatru” into their names and publicized the idea that they were legitimate denominations or organizations within the faith. Meanwhile, other completely welcoming organizations were also using the name Asatru. It became hard for people outside the community to readily distinguish the two.
Over time, the meaning of the term Asatru, as used in the United States, shifted. Many different offshoots, including those dedicated primarily to other deities, such as Vanatru, and those originating from cultures besides the Icelandic, resulted in the need for a better umbrella term. The umbrella term that the community seems to have settled on, at this point in time, is Heathenry. Asatru, then, has shifted in usage, to refer to specifically the denomination of Heathenry that is inspired by the Icelandic culture and traditions. It is the largest branch of Heathenry because we have more surviving information from Icelandic culture than any other, and other denominations frequently find it necessary to incorporate Icelandic sources simply because they’re all we have. Due to the original usage of the word Asatru, and the widespread use of Icelandic sources, many people still assume that Asatru is the umbrella term for what we now refer to as Heathenry.
Thus, when hate groups start disguising what they do as “folkish” religion, “the indigenous religion of European peoples”, or “Asatru”, this gets associated with the actual religion of Asatru. Don’t be fooled. Hate isn’t a part of our religion, and the ancient Germanic peoples had no concept of things like modern national borders or a “perfect race”. That’s why we have to refer to them so broadly–they were never a homogenous group!
In fact, it’s right in our mythology that our Gods and Goddesses came from different races, intermarried between those races, had children between those races, and never a word was spoken about things like “purity”, skin color, or a different culture being of lesser value. Our deities frequently went on quests throughout the nine worlds to meet with as many different people as they could, learning their wisdom, trading with them, and generally enriching themselves with all the things those people could do better than they could. We have plenty historic accounts of the people who practiced this faith being tolerant of people from different places and of different religions too.
How can I describe the frustration of seeing our faith painted with a hate-filled brush? It’s horrifying to have even friends approaching me, interested in getting to know our Gods, but afraid that this will mean adopting racism and bigotry, or becoming targets of hate themselves.
So what do we do about it? We fight it. We speak up. We draw a line, and say “On this side of the line is our faith, and on that side, hatred, that we will have no part of.” We get organized, we campaign for inclusive Heathenry, and we stand united against hate. We extend a hand in welcome to those of different races, backgrounds, orientations, and genders. And we make posts like this one, explaining clearly for all to hear, that Heathenry is about what you do and how you treat others, and not about bloodlines and skin colors.