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Welcome back to the Heathen’s Journey podcast! We’ve taken a bit longer break than I had originally intended, but I am based in Minneapolis and have been focused on supporting the uprising here. Even before the Uprising really began, I had already planned to talk about this topic next, and it feels even more urgent to do so now.
This week, I’m going to be talking about the history of white supremacist and Nazi appropriation of Germanic and Nordic symbols. This is at the heart of my work, and is a big part of the reason I write about the Norse path. I think it is a deep responsibility that we have as white people to understand our cultural lineage, and how we got to this place.
There are certain runes that appear in the insignia of white supremacists today. The most common is Othila, the rune representing family or kinship. Tehwaz, connected to Tyr, is also found in the crests of white supremacists. The swastika is an ancient symbol that represented the sun, but was bastardized and used by the Nazis. Two Sowilos next to one another are the symbol of the SS.
It’s incredibly painful to see the runes used for such hatred – and it is the responsibility of runeworkers to fight against white supremacy and reclaim our symbols. Do I think it’s possible to reclaim the swastika? Absolutely not. But the other runes – definitely.
Part of the undoing of White Supremacy in our spiritual life is for white people to reconnect with our own traditions – but these traditions are sometimes abhorrent when we see how badly they have been misused. For years, I avoided doing any work with Norse deities or runes because I was so appalled by the ways that this culture has been used to uphold white supremacy. Eventually, with Odin storming all over my rituals and my interest in mythology growing, it became impossible not to consider working with the Norse. And then I realized that it was actually a deep NEED of mine, to connect to my own ancestors and do the work. It is infuriating that white supremacists have taken so much of Norse paganism for so long, and it’s time to reclaim it from them.
A lot of people who continue to appropriate traditions from People of Color seem to be pretty fragile, or to mean well. We are taught that our own cultures are “bad,” and so we look to other cultures to fill in the gaps, but we are drawn to the things that are parallels to things within our own cultural lineage.
A really good example of this locally is the sauna. The Lakota and Anishinaabe people both use sweat lodges for spiritual growth. In the 90s in Minnesota, a lot of Native elders were beginning to open the sweat lodge for visitors, and white women flocked to the sweats. This resulted in sweat lodge ceremonies filling up with white people, leaving no room for local native people to access the sweat. Local Norse practitioners began reaching out to some of these participants, inviting them to sauna rituals. Sauna rituals look very similar to a sweat lodge ceremony, but there are several culturally specific elements to them (including birch broom scrubs and dousing with cold water three times). When these particular white people discovered the Sauna, they stopped appropriating the sweat lodge and left more room for indigenous peoples in public sweat ceremonies.
So often, we as white liberals or leftists are taught that it is dangerous or wrong for us to engage with our own spiritual traditions, as they are steeped in the ideologies that led to white supremacy. So it’s a catch-22: You don’t want to appropriate from other cultures, and yet you’re resistant to learning spiritual systems from within your own culture. Which so often leads to inaction – when there is no “right” action, it feels like the safest thing to do is not to act.
But there is a middle way: What I call, the way of the red pen.
Knowledge is power. If we allow the powerful to rewrite history, without examining that history, we are ill-equipped to heal. Yes, read the difficult histories, and always have your red pen handy. Question things. Read black and indigenous historians, and then look at the other history texts and you can see what they’re covering up. Go deeper, try to find the threads of culture and history that are unique, and rewrite them to align with your own modern life.
I digress, but I think this is important to think about.
This is the way of the red pen in action. This is having both the knowledge to refute these white supremacists, and also recognizing the damage they’ve done and working actively to heal it.
This is going to be a fairly lengthy episode, but don’t worry I’ll include my resources in the show notes. Grab a cup of tea, a notebook, and settle in: I’m going long today.
I’m going to start in the 1800s. I could definitely start earlier and talk about the Viking era and the brutal colonization and fighting that happened then, but I’ll be covering some of that history in later episodes of the podcast. I’m starting here because this is when a lot of the European nations – as we know them today – were being created/founded.
There’s a whole mess of complex history here that I will try not to go too far into. After the fall of Napoleon, what we now know as Germany became a collection of 39 sovereign states. In 1848, the German people started to push for revolution and reform. After the conclusion of a couple of wars (with Denmark and Prussia), the Northern German States were unified in 1862 by Otto von Bismarck. He was able to situate Germany as a nation in itself through negotiations with individual stateheads, as well as bringing peace to warring regions (Prussia vs. Denmark as well as victory in the Austro-Prussian war). The 19th century was characterized within the area we know of as Germany as a time of political gains, but also economic instability, the industrial revolution, and war.
This is important because it sets the stage for Weimar and the Nazi takeover.
What the people were searching for was a unified cultural background. As the Germanic states were uniting, people were trying to create a unified culture. This led to an interest in what makes Germany unique among Europeans, as well as a revival in interest in mythology. Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ringen des Nibelungen) debuted in 1871, at the height of these unification efforts. That’s not a mistake: it’s a view into how people were attempting to construct their identities at the time.
Notably, this is also the time when the concept of race as we know it was being solidified in academic circles. Anthropology was growing as a field in the 19th century, and it looked very different from how it looks today. It was essentially a system of categorization of people under a hierarchy. Many anthropologists used their discipline to argue that slavery of African people was justified (it never has been) and an imagination of European/white superiority. The different nations of Europe were even filtered into different levels in the hierarchy: Irish and Italians at the bottom, English and Germans at the top.
So this feeds into a Germanic and distinctly North-Western Europe identity as a sort of “master race,” superior to others. Does the idea of a master race sound familiar? You might remember distantly the Nietsche bros, who were the WORST classmates in college. Well, the same goes for history. The concept of the “ubermensch,” or “over man,” has been interpreted many different ways. This is basically a concept of evolutionary philosophy that the human race is evolving, and that some have evolved faster than others.
Here’s a quote on it from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape … The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth … Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
White supremacists of the era, the Nazis, and white supremacists to this day use this philosophical concept as a sort of “intellectual proof” that they have evolved beyond other races. Hitler was convinced that the Aryan race is the end of this progression – that this is the uber mensch that everyone should strive towards.
So what we’ve got is a perfect storm of racism and the development of white supremacy, all centered around Germanic culture and ideals. Anthropologists upholding Anglo-Saxon and Germanic blood as “superior,” Philosophers spreading the idea that there is a master race – based partly on skin color, as well as the unification of Germany and search for a Germanic identity all led to an increased interest in the mythology by white supremacists. This all culminated in the volkisch movement, and the imagination of a superior, white, German nation state.
The Germanic legends themselves became the source for ideas about what the “ideal” person was. The Volkish movement rewrote history, drawing on the mythic cycles, folklore such as the Brothers Grimm, and medieval epics. At the same time, scholars were drawing on a racialized version of the medieval past. Runes became an area of interest again, as well as circling folk tales that would feed into this perception of superiority.
This historic and cultural milieu leads us right up to the eve of World War One. I am not a historian, so I’m not going to talk about the war itself or the specifics of the rise of the Nazis, but this is a very important turning point. In the German Revolution of 1918, Emperor Wilhem II abdicated his position and Germany was declared a Federal Republic. New leadership signed the Treaty of Versailles, accepting defeat and losing 13% of its territory and all colonized territory in Africa and the South Sea.
For a nation that had built itself up as a superior nation to lose so dramatically was humiliating. Communists seized power in Bavaria, and a new currency was minted. But the myth of the German superpower, and the idea that the Germans would rise again, was essential for building up the willpower to start another global struggle. Odin had been venerated since the 19th century, and one of the rallying points for German racists was the return of Odin.
This is also when we see the runes and other pre-Christian Germanic symbolism being used explicitly to confirm supposed “racial superiority.” The Thule society was founded shortly after WWI, which was an explicitly volkish group that focused on Germanic occult works. The Thule society centered around a blood claim to the Aryan race. Members had to sign a blood declaration that neither themselves nor their wives had any Jewish or “colored” blood. The Thule society was one of the primary sponsors of the Deutsche Arbeitpartei, or German Worker’s Party, which was eventually reorganized into the Nazi Party.
It was in the Weimar era that German youth also began to embrace Odinist beliefs. They were encouraged by older Germans who participated in the volkish movements. According to Jeffrey Kaplan, it wasn’t just local Germans but “sympathizers abroad whose anti-Semitic beliefs would lead them to conclude that, as Christianity is built on a Jewish foundation, it too must be swept away in the construction of a millenarian ‘New Order.’” This New Order would be built upon a Germanic past that never existed – it was purely imagined by white supremacists.
Out of this growing spotlight on Odin in German youth gangs, Carl Jung wrote what is his most controversial work: Wotan.
Jung worked with the idea that deep beneath our consciousness rests a dream world filled with archetypes. These archetypes have something to teach us, and inspire action in our daily lives. Jung was watching the Hitler Youth and the rise of fascism in Germany, and wrote Wotan to process that. Jung connects Odin the Wanderer, the magician that moves through the world and stirs up magic and creates unrest, with the spread of the Hitler Youth. Jung went on to write about how this surge in violence in Germany was because of the reawakening of Odin within the bloodlines of German youth. While this wasn’t the first connection drawn between Odin and German nationalism, it was the most widely-read.
“Wotan” effectively and evocatively connected Odin with Hitler, something the Nazis had been trying to do for years. Jung also wrote that militarism is unique to the Germanic spirit: Wotan, the warrior/wanderer, was the archetype that he used to bring this all together.
As World War II raged, Nazis continued to misuse Norse symbols. One of those myths of a Viking past was the Männerbunde. Von Schnurbein described the Mannerbunde in the 1930s as “all-male warrior associations in so-called primitive societies.” This directly inspired the structure of the SS and the SA, which both relied on Odinist symbolism in their initiation rituals and cosmology. These are inventions of the Nazi party, not rituals that are true to pre-Christian heathenry.
After World War II, Odinist ideas were resoundly discredited in Germany – from a political perspective. However, in West Germany there was a freedom of gathering and religion, and so Odinism shifted from being a broader cultural force into a more religious force. This is still how these white supremacist ideas are spread today: White supremacists gather in prison under the guise of Odinism, but are actually organizing their hatred and bigotry towards acting on it outside of prison.
This isn’t only happening in Europe: Many white supremacist groups operating in America today organize under and around Norse imagery.
Else Christianson, a Danish immigrant to America after WWII, founded the Odinic Fellowship. This was explicitly based on the concept of Nordicism – an idea that the Nordic peoples were a subspecies of humanity superior to other races. Remember how Nietsche’s idea of the Ubermensch and the development of race theory in anthropology developed simultaneously? Nordicism is a direct result of that. Else Christianson began teaching Odinism to others, and writing about it. She especially targeted prisons as a recruitment ground.
This is where Stephen McNallen and the Asatru Free Assembly come into play. McNallen is a known white supremacist and far-right extremist, who founded some of the first Asatru organizations in the United States – and certainly the largest. His ideologies and teachings revolve around this idea of Nordicism, the German soul, that this is not an open religion but one that you must be born into by blood. The name for this? Metagenetics.
Metagenetics is a concept that bolsters Stephen McNallen’s politics and “spiritual” group. The concept defines culture as being passed down genetically between descendents. Metagenetics states that only those who are the literal, direct ancestors of a tradition may tap into the collective ancestral knowledge within that tradition.
McNallen has attempted to justify this position in the past, pointing to Native American spiritual traditions that are closed. But he staunchly refuses to recognize the power differential: While Native people are attempting to protect their spirituality from brutal colonization and erasure, McNallen’s brand of Asatru is denying the humanity of anyone outside his mythic “Aryan race.”
Now, the Asatru Free Assembly was not just the work of Stephen McNalllen. Other leaders of the organization included Robert Stine, a former member of the KKK and a US Nazi Party Member, as well as Valgard Murray, another former Nazi Party member. These men have perpetrated violence against Asatru seekers who are gay, and have a strict policy that people are ready to put their bodies on the line and use violence to meet their goals. The AFA was dissembled and then reborn as the Asatru Folk Assembly.
There are other white supremacist groups that proliferate today, operating under the aesthetic and overstructure of Asatru. The Vinlanders Social Club – aka Thug Reich – who use violence to control people they perceive as the enemy. A lot of these groups – both in Scandinavia and in North America – see immigration as a primary threat to whiteness in their countries. The Soldiers of Odin state that it is their mission to “protect citizens from refugees through vigilante street patrols.” Many of the groups active in North America, such as the Vinlanders Social Club and the Wolves of Vinland, use the concept of Vinland as their rallying cry.
What IS this imagined Vinland?
Vinland was a failed Viking settlement in North America in the 10th century. Two Icelandic sagas remain that discuss Vinland, but they disagree over the details. Basically, the Vikings fought with the indigenous people, lost, and left. This may seem like a strange rallying point – why celebrate a failure? – but as Weber writes in “White Supremacy’s Old Gods,” Vinland allows white supremacists to speak of the past as both victors and victims. Weber goes on to assert that Vinland also allows Odinists to assert a historical claim over North America: They are able to claim some level of indigeneity, while maintaining and emphasizing their Northern European roots.
So what does this all mean for contemporary leftist heathens?
For some people, this association means that you will never fully be comfortable with working within a Norse framework. I absolutely respect that. I do say that for those of us who feel called to work with this pantheon and cosmology, there are ways for us to shift and change this area of paganism. There are already many people who are working on creating inclusive heathenry. Many actively anti-racist heathens are already hitting back at the white supremacists. I am happy to count myself as one of them.
I mentioned in the first episode of this podcast that I will never call myself Asatru. As a wing of Norse heathenry, Asatru is far too close to the hyper-masculine comic book religion of the white supremacist. Saying that I am a witch and a heathen helps me feel separate and distinct, and hopefully can act as a signal to people that I might run into.
Look for groups to work with who talk about themselves as “inclusive heathens.” These are people who believe that Norse neopaganism can and should be available to all, regardless of your blood ancestry. The Troth is an incredible resource for inclusive heathens. This is an international organization that promotes learning, study, and spirituality within the Norse pagan framework. The Troth also does active important anti-racist work, including the essential “in-reach program,” centered around stopping the spread of white nationalist groups in prisons.
Another method of distance is to focus on women in Heathenry. Of course, white women can definitely be weaponized within white supremacy, but I’m talking about listening to women scholars. Read work done by women, who have less to benefit from toxic masculinity that runs rampant within the Norse pagan community. This is important because there are so many stereotypes of the Norse pagan community as hyper-masculine, that we need to show that there are other perspectives.
There is plenty of genderbending in the source material as well. This is one of the primary reasons I work with Loki: As a God, Loki is fairly canonically nonbinary. There are also powerful women throughout the Norse cosmology. Another thing to do is lift up myths and aspects of heathenry that aren’t often talked about, or that play with our expectations of the gods. One of my very favorite of these is when Thor dresses up as Freyja to reclaim his hammer.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m only one person, and I feel like I am still just scratching the surface of this wide world. This podcast will continue to call out white supremacy and center the inclusion of queer people, people of color, and women in heathenry. This is far from the only episode where I will talk about this issue – this is a continuous conversation.
I’ve included my references in the shownotes. If you read nothing else, make sure that you read Shannon Weber’s article called “White Supremacy’s Old Gods: The Far Right and Neopaganism.” There should be a link in the description.
BIG shoutout to Wikipedia for helping me to pull together historic details and dates. If you’ve never given Wikipedia money, please do so – it’s an invaluable resource. I’ve listed the primary, really important resources in the show notes, though I was not able to list all of them because of space issues. A full list of references – as well as a transcript for this episode – can be found over on my patreon: patreon.com/northernlightswitch.
You can find me on Instagram at northern.lights.witch and on Twitter at @northlightwitch. You can book a reading or catch up on the Heathen’s Journey Archives at northernlightswitch.com.
Sarah Emily Bond, “Hold My Mead: A Bibliography for Historians Hitting Back At White Supremacy.” History From Below. September 10, 2017. (https://sarahemilybond.com/2017/09/10/hold-my-mead-a-bibliography-for-historians-hitting-back-at-white-supremacy/)
Shane Burley, “Rainbow Heathenry: Is a Left-Wing, Multicultural Asatru Possible?” at Gods and Radicals. April 6 2016. (https://godsandradicals.org/2016/04/06/rainbow-heathenry-is-a-left-wing-multicultural-asatru-possible/)
Höfig, Verena “Vinland and White Nationalism”. and Machan, Tim William Helgason, Jón Karl (ed.). From Iceland to the Americas: Vinland and Historical Imagination. Manchester University Press. 2019, 77-100.
Jeffrey Kaplan, “Right-Wing Violence in North America,” in Terror from the Extreme Right, ed. Tore Bjørgo (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1995), 60.
Amy Kaufman, “Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK,” at The Public Medievalist. November 21, 2017. (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/birth-national-disgrace/)
Dorothy Kim, “White supremacists have weaponized an imaginary Viking past. It’s time to reclaim the real history.” At Time. April 12, 2019. (https://time.com/5569399/viking-history-white-nationalists/)
Clare Downham, “Vikings were never the pure-bred master race white supremacists like to portray.” The Conversation. September 28, 2017. (https://theconversation.com/vikings-were-never-the-pure-bred-master-race-white-supremacists-like-to-portray-84455)
Sierra Lomuto, “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique,” at In The Medieval Middle, April 4 2019. (https://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2019/04/public-medievalism-and-rigor-of-anti.html)
David Parry, “White Supremacists Love Vikings, but they’ve got history all wrong,” at the Washington Post. May 21, 2017. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/05/31/white-supremacists-love-vikings-but-theyve-got-history-all-wrong/)
Shannon Weber, “White Supremacy’s Old Gods: The Far Right and Neopaganism,” at Political Research Associates. February 1 2018 (https://www.politicalresearch.org/2018/02/01/white-supremacys-old-gods-the-far-right-and-neopaganism)