Heathenry (new religious movement)

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A modern reconstruction of a historical Viking Age pendant worn by North Germanic pagans in the Viking Age—Mjölnir, the hammer of the god Thor—now popularly worn in modern Germanic Neopaganism

Heathenry or Germanic Neopaganism is a contemporary Pagan new religious movement whose practitioners seek to revive various forms of Germanic paganism, the pre-Christian ethnic religion of the Germanic peoples that existed in Iron Age and Early Medieval Europe, using surviving historical, archaeological, and folkloric evidence as a basis. Germanic Neopagan approaches to this material vary considerably, ranging from strictly historical polytheistic reconstructionism to more syncretistic interpretations. Heathen communities are currently present in various parts of Europe, North America, and Australasia.

Heathenry is a polytheistic religion, centered around a pantheon of traditional Germanic deities. It adopts the cosmological views that were described in various historical sources, including an animistic view of the cosmos in which the natural world is imbued with spirits. The faith's gods and goddesses are honored in sacrificial rites known as Blóts, which are often accompanied by Symbel, the act of ceremonially toasting the gods with an alcoholic beverage. The Germanic Neopagan community assembles in small groups, usually known as kindreds or hearths, who often perform their rites in specially constructed buildings or outdoors. Some practitioners also engage in rituals designed to induce altered states of consciousness and visions, most notably Seiðr and Galdr, designed to gain wisdom and advice from the deities. Heathen ethical systems – which are generally social conservative and often codified – place great emphasis on honor, personal integrity, and loyalty.

The primary division within the Germanic Neopagan movement surrounds the issue of race. Most Heathen groups eschew racialist ideas, adopting a universalist perspective that believes that the religion is open to all, irrespective of ethnic or racial identity. Conversely, other groups adopt a racialist, folkish attitude by viewing Germanic Neopaganism as a religion with intrinsic links to a North European ethnicity that should be reserved explicitly for white individuals. Different groups often prefer specific terms to describe their beliefs based on their regional focus and attitude to folkish ideology; groups emphasizing Scandinavian deities for instance commonly use Ásatrú, while those focusing on Anglo-Saxon deities use Theodism. Folkish groups tend to favor the terms Odinism and Wotanism.

The religion's origins lie in the 19th and early 20th century romanticist movements that glorified the pre-Christian beliefs of Germanic societies. Organised groups venerating the Germanic gods developed in Germany, Austria, and Australia, which typically exhibited a racialist interpretation of the religion, resulting in the movement largely dissolving following the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. In the 1970s, new Germanic Neopagan organisations grew up in Europe and North America. In recent decades, the Germanic Neopagan movement has been the subject of academic study by scholars active in the field of Pagan studies.


Classified as a new religious movement,[1] Heathenry is largely a reconstructionist form of contemporary Paganism.[2] A "a movement to revive and/or reinterpret for the present day the practices and worldviews of the pre-Christian cultures of northern Europe (or, more particularly, the Germanic speaking cultures)",[3] its practitioners seek to revive these past religions using surviving historical source materials.[4] Sources used by Heathens include Scandinavian and Icelandic Old Norse texts like the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, as well as texts from continental Europe like the Nibelungenlied and Anglo-Saxon sources like Beowulf. Some also make use of folk tales from later periods in European history, as well as taking ideas from archaeological evidence.[5] These sources are often fragmentary and composed within Christian contexts, thus making it problematic for Heathens seeking to use them to "reconstruct" the pre-Christian prehistoric and medieval belief systems which they discuss.[6] Thus, anthropologist Jenny Blain characterised Heathenry as "a religion constructed from partial material",[7] while religious studies scholar Michael Strmiska referred to it as a "postmodern movement" whose beliefs are "riddled with uncertainty and historical confusion".[8]

The ways in which Heathens use this historical and archaeological material differs; some seek to reconstruct historic beliefs and practices as accurately as possible, while others openly experiment with this material and embrace new ideas.[9] Some for instance accept what is termed "unverified personal gnosis" (UPG) that they have gained through spiritual experiences,[10] while others adopt concepts from the world's surviving indigenous religions, believing that doing so helps to construct spiritual world-views that are akin to those that existed in Europe prior to Christianization.[11] Some other practitioners who emphasize a hard reconstructionist approach that relies exclusively on historical and archaeological sources criticize such approaches, denigrating those who practice them using the pejorative term Neo-Heathen.[12]

Some Germanic Neopagan groups seek out common elements that were found throughout Germanic Northern Europe during the Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, using those as the basis for their contemporary beliefs and practices.[13] Conversely, other groups focus on closely imitating the beliefs and practices of a specific area and time, such as Anglo-Saxon England or Viking Age Iceland.[13] Some adherents are deeply knowledgeable as to the specifics of Northern European society in the Iron Age and Early Medieval periods,[14] but others often express a romanticized view of Nordic culture.[15] Sociologist of religion Jennifer Snook for instance noted that many practitioners "hearken back to a more epic, anachronistic, and pure age of ancestors and heroes".[16] Conversely, some adherents


Icelandic Heathen rite at Sigurblót 2009

With no central authority existing to impose a particular terminological designation on all practitioners,[17] different terms have been used by different Germanic-oriented Pagan groups to describe their religion, often reflecting differences in "their region of ancient origin in northern Europe, in their structure, and often in their sociopolitical leanings."[18]

The term Heathenry has been used in academic contexts to describe the faith in its entirety, "because it is inclusive of all varieties" of this religious movement.[19] This term is the most commonly used option by practitioners in the United Kingdom,[20] with growing usage in North America and elsewhere.[21] The term is based on the Early Medieval word heathen, which was used by Christian writers to describe non-Christians in Germanic Europe, with modern practitioners reclaiming it as a term for self-designation.[22] Alternately, Blain suggested the use of North European Paganism as an overarching term for the movement,[23] although Strmiska noted that this term would also encompass those practitioners reviving the belief systems of ancient Finnic and Slavic societies in Northeastern Europe.[24] He favored Modern Nordic Paganism, although accepted that this term alienated those focusing on Anglo-Saxon and continental Germanic belief systems.[24] However, many practitioners favor the term Heathen over Pagan because the former term originated among Germanic languages, whereas Pagan has its origins in Latin.[25]

Another popular name for the faith is the Icelandic term Ásatrú, which is more commonly rendered as Asatru in North America; this term translates as "allegiance to the Aesir" – the latter being a sub-set of deities in Norse mythology – with practitioners being known as Asatruer.[26] This term is favored by practitioners who focus on the deities of Scandinavia,[27] although is problematic as many Asatruer worship deities and entities other than the Aesir, such as the Vanir, Valkyries, Elves, and Dwarves.[28] Other practitioners term their religion Vanatrú, meaning "those who honor the Vanir" or Dísitrú, meaning "those who honor the Goddesses", depending on their particular theological emphasis.[29] Another term often used is forn siðr or forn sed, meaning "the old way".[23] Other terms used within the community to describe their religion are the Northern Tradition, Norse Paganism, and Saxon Paganism.[30]

Many racialist-oriented Heathens prefer the terms Odinism or Wotanism to describe their religion.[31] There is thus a general view that those who use Odinism adopt an explicitly political, right-wing and racialist interpretation of the religion, while Asatru is used by more moderate Heathen groups,[32] however no such neat division of the usage of such terms exists in practice.[33] Although Germanic Neopaganism is analytically categorized as a form of "reconstructionism", many practitioners avoid using this term to describe their practices,[34] with many favoring the term indigenous as a description of it.[35]


The Gods and spirits[edit]

Many followers of Germanic neopaganism venerate the Æsir, deities found in Norse mythology. Here, they are pictured gathered around the body of Baldur. Painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1817

The historian of religion Mattias Gardell noted that there is "no unanimously accepted theology" within the movement.[36] However, Heathenry is typically polytheistic, with a theological structure which includes a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Adherents offer their allegiance and worship to some or all of them.[37] Most practitioners are polytheistic realists, believing in the literal existence of the deities as individual entities;[38] however, there are many practitioners who express a psychological interpretation of the divinities, viewing them for instance as Jungian archetypes or racial archetypes.[39] Such deities come from all over the Germanic record, including Tyr, Odin, Thor, Frigg and Freyja from the North Germanic corpus, Wōden, Thunor and Ēostre as attested among the Old English and the figures such as Nehalennia on the continent.[13] Some practitioners adopt the belief, taken from Norse mythology, that there are two sets of deities, the Æsir and the Vanir.[40] Certain practitioners blend the different regions and times together, for instance using a mix of Old English and Old Norse names for the deities, while others keep them separate and only venerate deities from a particular region.[41] Many practitioners adopt a particular patron deity for themselves, and describe themselves as that entity's devotee using terms such as Thorsman or Odinsman.[42]

Heathen deities are not seen as perfect, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and are instead viewed as having their own strengths and weaknesses,[43] with many practitioners believing that these deities will one day die, as for instance the god Balder did in Norse mythology.[44] Heathens view their connection with their deities as being "an interdependent relationship modeled on the family rather than on the paradigm of master and servant".[45] Many practitioners believe that they can communicate with these deities,[46] and it is hoped that through venerating them, practitioners will gain wisdom, understanding, power, or visionary insights.[47] As part of this, practitioners often negotiate, bargain, and argue with the gods.[48] For Germanic Neopagans, these deities serve as both examples and role models whose behavior is to be imitated.[49]

Many practitioners combine their polytheistic world-view with a pantheistic conception of the natural world as being sacred and imbued with a divine energy force permeating all life.[45] Heathenry is animistic,[41] with practitioners believing in sentient non-human entities commonly known as wights that inhabit the world,[50] each of whom is believed to have its own personality.[13] Some of these are known as landvaettir or land spirits and inhabit different aspects of the landscape, living alongside humans, whom they can both help and hinder.[51] Others are deemed to be house wights and live within the home, where they can be propitiated with offerings of food.[52] Some Heathens interact with these entities, and provide offerings to them, more often than they do with the gods and goddesses.[53] Wights are often identified with various creatures from Northwest European folklore such as elves, dwarfs, gnomes, and trolls.[54] However, some of these entities – such as the Jotun of Norse mythology – are deemed to be baleful wights; within the community it is often deemed taboo to provide offerings to them, although some practitioners still do so.[55] Germanic Neopagans also believe in and respect ancestral spirits.[56]

Cosmology and afterlife[edit]

Germanic Neopagans commonly adopt a cosmology based in Norse mythology in which our world – known as Midgard – is one of nine realms, all of which are linked to a cosmological world tree called Yggdrasil. Each of these worlds is believed to be inhabited by another type of being; humans live on Midgard, while dwarves live on another realm, elves on another, giants on another, and the divinities live on two further realms.[57] Most practitioners believe that this is a poetic or symbolic description of the cosmos, with the different realms representing higher realms beyond the material plane of existence.[58] The World Tree is also interpreted by some in the community as an icon for ecological and social engagement.[47] Some Germanic Neopagans, such as Brian Bates, have adopted an approach to this cosmology rooted in analytical psychology, thereby interpreting the nine worlds and their inhabitants as maps of the human mind.[47]

Asatru cemetery in Iceland

According to a common Germanic Neopagan belief based on references in Old Norse sources, three sisters known as the Norns sit at the end of the World Tree's root. These figures spin wyrd, which refers to the actions and interrelationships of all beings throughout the cosmos.[59] In the community, these three figures are sometimes termed "Past, Present and Future", "Being, Becoming, and Obligation" or "Initiation, Becoming, Unfolding".[60] It is believed that an individual can navigate through their wyrd, and thus, the Heathen worldview oscillates between concepts of free will and fatalism.[61] Germanic Neopagans also believe in a personal form of wyrd known as ørlög or örlög.[62] This is connected to an emphasis on luck, with Heathens often believing that luck can be earned, passed down generations, or lost.[63]

Ethnonationalist Heathens have interpreted the historical Norse myth of Ragnarok as a prophecy of a coming apocalypse in which the white race will overthrow their oppressors and establish a future society based on Heathen religion.[64]

Heathenry does not place a key emphasis on afterlife belief, instead stressing the importance of behaviour and reputation in this world.[65] In Icelandic Ásatrú, there is no singular dogmatic belief about the afterlife.[66] A common Heathen belief is that a human being has multiple souls, which are separate yet linked together.[67] It is common to find a belief in four or five souls, two of which survive bodily death: one of these, the hugh, travels to the realm of the ancestors, while the other, the fetch, undergoes a process of reincarnation into a new body.[68] In Heathen belief, there are various realms that the hugh; can enter, based in part on the worth of the individual's earthly life; these include the hall of Valhalla, ruled over by Odin, or Sessrumnir, the hall of Freya.[68] Beliefs regarding reincarnation vary widely among Heathens, although one common belief is that individuals are reborn within their family or clan.[68]

Morality and ethics[edit]

Forn Sed Sweden (former Swedish Asatru Assembly) holding a blót during their annual meeting at 4 June 2011 in Humlamaden near Veberöd in Lund municipality, Scania, Sweden.

In Heathenry, moral and ethical views are based on the perceived ethics of Iron Age and Early Medieval North-West Europe,[69] in particular the actions of heroic figures who appear in Old Norse sagas.[70] Evoking a life-affirming ethos,[71] Heathen ethics focus on the ideals of honor, courage, integrity, hospitality, hard-work, and strongly emphasize loyalty to family.[72] It is common for practitioners to be expected to keep their word, particularly sworn oaths, and to take personal responsibility for their actions.[73] A common motto within the Heathen community is that "We are our deeds".[74] Due to its focus on family ties and honest living – values perceived as socially conservative in Western nations – it has been noted that Heathenry's ethical system is far closer to traditional Christian morals than the ethical systems espoused in many other Western Pagan religions such as Wicca.[75]

In North America and elsewhere, the Heathen community have formalized such values into an ethical code, the Nine Noble Virtues (NNV), which is based largely on the Hávamál from the Poetic Edda.[76] There are different forms of the NNV, with the number nine having symbolic associations in Norse mythology.[77] There is a divided opinion on the NNV; some practitioners deem them too dogmatic,[77] while others eschew them for not having authentic roots in historical Germanic culture,[78] negatively viewing them as an attempt to imitate the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments.[78] Gender roles are based upon perceived ideals and norms found in Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, in particular as they are presented in Old Norse sources.[79] Among male Heathens there is a trend toward hypermasculanized behavior,[80] while a gendered division of labor – in which men are viewed as providers and women seen as being responsible for home and children – is also widespread among Heathens.[81]

Rites and practices[edit]

A Heathen altar for household worship in Gothenburg, Sweden. The painted tablet on the back depicts Sunna, the two larger wooden idols Odin (left) and Frey (right), in front of them there are the three Norns, and in the front row a red Thor and other idols. In front of the cult images are two ritual hammers.

In Anglophone countries, Heathen groups are typically called kindreds, hearths, fellowships, tribes, or garths.[82] These are small groups, often family units,[83] and usually consist of between five to fifteen members.[73] They are often bound together by oaths of loyalty,[84] with strict screening procedures as to whom they allow to join them.[85] Prospective members may undergo a probationary period before they are fully accepted and welcomed into the group,[86] while other groups remain closed to all new members.[86] Such groups are largely independent and autonomous, although typically network with other Heathen groups, particularly in their region.[87] There are other followers of the religion who are not affiliated with such groups, operating as solitary practitioners, with these individuals often remaining in contact with other practitioners through social media.[88]

Priests are often termed godhi, while priestesses are gydhja, adopting Old Norse terms meaning "god-man" and "god-woman", with the plural term being gothar.[89] These individuals are rarely seen as intermediaries between practitioners and deities, instead having the role of facilitating and leading group ceremonies and being learned in the lore and traditions of the religion.[90] Many kindreds believe that anyone can take on the position of priest, with members sharing organisational duties and taking turns in leading the rites.[73] In other groups, it is considered necessary for the individual to gain formal credentials from an accredited Heathen organisation in order to be recognised as a priest.[91]

Heathen rites often take place in non-public spaces, particularly in a practitioner's home.[92] In other cases, Heathen places of worship have been established on plots of land specifically purchased for the purpose; these can represent either a hörg, which is a sanctified place within nature like a grove of trees, or a hof, which is a wooden temple.[93] British Odinists have converted a 16th-century chapel in Newark, Nottinghamshire, into an Odinist temple.[94] Currently two hofs are planned for construction in Iceland, one in Reykjavík[95] and one in Akranes.[96] Germanic Neopagans have also adopted archaeological sites as places of worship; for instance, British practitioners have assembled at Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire,[97] and the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire.[98]

Germanic Neopagan groups assemble for rituals in order to mark rites of passage, seasonal observances, oath takings, rites devoted for a specific deity, and for rites of need.[73] These rites also serve as identity practices which mark the adherents out as Germanic Neopagans.[99] Strmiska noted that in Iceland, Ásatrú rituals consciously attempted to recreate or pay tribute to the ritual practices of pre-Christian Icelanders, although also had space in which to innovate and change to suit the tastes and needs of contemporary practitioners.[100] During religious ceremonies, many adherents choose to wear clothing that imitates the styles of dress worn in Iron Age and Early Medieval Northern Europe.[101] They also often wear symbols indicating their religious allegiance. The most commonly used sign among Heathens is Mjöllnir, or Thor's hammer, which is worn as pendants, featured in Heathen art, and used as a gesture in ritual. It is sometimes used to express a particular affinity with the god Thor, although is also often used as a symbol of Heathenism as a whole, in particular representing the resilience and vitality of the religion.[102] Another commonly used Heathen symbol is the valknut, used to represent the god Odin or Woden.[101]

Blót and sumbel[edit]

Main articles: Blót and Sumbel

The most important religious rite for Germanic Neopagans is called Blót, which constitutes a ritual in which offerings are provided to the gods.[103] Blót typically takes place outdoors, and usually consists of an offering of mead, which is contained within a bowl. The gods are invoked and requests expressed for their aid, as the priest uses a sprig or branch of an evergreen tree to sprinkle mead onto both statues of the deities and the assembled participants. This procedure might be scripted or largely improvised. Finally, the bowl of mead is poured onto a fire, or onto the earth, as a final libation to the gods.[104] Sometimes, a feast is held afterward.[13] In other instances, the blót is less ritualized and much simpler; in this it can involve a practitioner setting some food aside, sometimes without words, for either gods or wights.[105] Some Heathens perform such rituals on a daily basis, although for others it is a more occasional performance.[63] Aside from honoring deities, communal blóts also serve as a form of group bonding.[106] Sometimes, communal blots may include — or be part of — rites of passage. Examples of these last are the naming of newborn children to whom the parents give names of Germanic origin, a ceremony which takes place nine days after the birth, but also handfastings and funerals.[107][108]

The Swedish Asatru Society holding a blót, 2008.

In Iron Age and Early Medieval Northern Europe, blót referred to animal sacrifice performed to thank the deities and gain their favor.[109] Such sacrifices have generally proved impractical for most modern practitioners, due to the fact that skills in animal slaughter are not widely taught, while the slaughter of animals is regulated by government in Western countries.[13] However, in 2007 Strmiska noted that a "small but growing" number of Heathen practitioners in the U.S. had begun performing animal sacrifice as a part of blót.[110] Those who do so typically follow the procedure outlined in the Heimskringla: the throat of the sacrificial animal is slashed with a sharp knife, and the blood is collected in a bowl, before being sprinkled onto both participants of the rite and statues of the gods.[111] Species used for this purpose have included poultry as well as larger mammals like sheep and pigs, with the meat then being consumed by those attending the rite.[112] Some practitioners have made alterations to this procedure: Strmiska for instance noted two American Heathens who decided to use a rifle shot to the head to kill the animal swiftly, a decision made after they witnessed a blót in which the animal's throat was cut incorrectly and it slowly died in agony; they felt that this butchery would have displeased the gods and accordingly brought harm upon those carrying out the sacrifice.[113]

Another common ritual in Heathenry is sumbel, also spelled symbel, a ritual drinking ceremony in which the gods are toasted.[114] Sumbel often takes place following a blot.[115] In the U.S., the sumbel commonly involves a drinking horn being filled with mead and passed among the assembled participants, who either drink from it directly, or pour some into their own drinking vessels to consume. During this process, toasts are made, as are verbal tributes to gods, heroes, and ancestors. Then, oaths and boasts (promises of future actions) might be made, both of which are considered binding on the speakers due to the sacred context of the sumbel ceremony.[116] According to the sociologist of religion and practicing Heathen Jennifer Snook, the sumbel has a strong social role, representing "a game of politicking, of socializing, cementing bonds of peace and friendship and forming new relationships" within the Heathen community.[117]

Seiðr and Galdr[edit]

Main articles: Seiðr and Galdr

One religious practice sometimes found in Germanic Neopaganism is Seiðr, which has been described as "a particular shamanic trace ritual complex",[118] although the appropriateness of using "shamanism" to describe seiðr is debatable.[119] Contemporary seiðr developed during the 1990s out of the wider Neo-Shamanic movement,[120] with some practitioners turning to Umbanda to learn about trance-states.[121] A prominent form is high-seat or oracular seiðr, which is based on the account of Guðriðr in Eiríks saga. Although such practices do differ between different groups, oracular seiðr typically involves a seiðr-worker sitting on a high seat while songs and chants are performed to invoke gods and wights. Drumming is then performed to induce an altered state of consciousness in the practitioner, who then goes on a meditative journey through Yggdrassil to Hel. The assembled audience then provide questions for the seiðr-worker, which they then reply to using information that they have obtained in their trance-state.[122] Some seiðr-practitioners make use of entheogenic substances as part of this practice, although others explicitly oppose such usage.[123]

A Heathen shrine to Freyr, Sweden, 2010

Not all Germanic Neopagans practice seiðr, and many on the movement's right-wing dissaprove of it, particularly given its association with the ambiguity of sexuality and gender and the form of Odin or Loki in their inimitable or unreliable, trickster forms.[124] Although there are heterosexual male practitioners,[125] seiðr is largely associated with – and most often performed by – gay men and women.[126] One member of the Ring of Troth, Edred Thorsson, experimented with forms of seiðr which involved sex magic utilising sado-masochistic techniques.[127] Part of the discomfort some Heathens feel toward seiðr surrounds the lack of any criteria by which the community can determine whether the seiðr-worker has genuinely received divine communication, and the fear that it will be used by some practitioners merely to bolster their own prestige.[128]

Galdr is another Germanic Neopagan practice involving chanting or singing.[129] As part of a galdr ceremony, runes or runic poems are also sometimes chanted, in order to create a communal mood and allow participants to enter into altered states of consciousness and request communication with deities.[130] Some contemporary galdr chants and songs are influenced by Anglo-Saxon folk magical charms, such as Acerbot and the Nine Herbs Charm. These poems were originally written in a Christian context, although practitioners believe that they reflect themes present in pre-Christian, shamanic religion, and thus re-appropriate and "Heathanise" them.[129]

Some Heathens practice forms of divination using runes; as part of this, items with runic markings on them might be pulled out of a bag or bundle, and read accordingly.[131] In some cases, different runes are associated with different deities, one of the nine realms, or aspects of life.[132] It is common for Germanic Neopagans to utilize the Common Germanic Futhark as a runic alphabet, although some practitioners instead adopt the Anglo-Saxon Futhark or the Younger Futhark.[129] The contemporary use of runes for divinatory purposes is however found more widely than within Heathenry, with books on the subject being common in New Age bookstores.[133] Due to the fact that it was not a factor of common Iron Age and Early Medieval European rituals, magic is not an intrinsic part of Germanic Neopaganism, although various magical practices are performed by some practitioners.[73]


An Icelandic Pagan community of the Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið preparing for a Þingblót at Þingvellir

Different Germanic Neopagan groups celebrate different festivals according to their cultural and religious focus.[73] The most widely observed Heathen festivals are Winternights, Yule, and Sigrblot, all of which were listed by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla and are thus of ancient origin.[134] The first of these marks the start of winter in Northern Europe, while the second marks Midwinter, and the last marks the beginning of summer.[135] Additional festivals are also marked by Heathen practice throughout the year.[135] These often include days which commemorate individuals who fought against the Christianisation of Northern Europe, or who led armies and settlers into new lands.[101] Some Heathen groups hold festivals dedicated to a specific deity.[101]

Some Germanic Neopagans celebrate the eight festivals found in the Wheel of the Year, a tradition that they share with other contemporary Pagan religions.[135] Others celebrate only six of these festivals, as represented by a six-spoked Wheel of the Year.[136] The use of such festivals is criticised by other practitioners, who highlight that they are of modern origin and do not link with the original religious celebrations of Early Medieval linguistically Germanic society.[135]

Such festivals can be held on the same day each year, although they are often celebrated by Heathen communities on the nearest available weekend, so that those practitioners who work during the week can attend.[101] During these ceremonies, Heathens typically recite poetry to honour the deities, which typically draw on or imitate the poems originally written in Old Norse or Old English.[101] Mead or ale is also typically drunk, with offerings being given to deities.[101] Fires, torches, or candles are also often lit.[101]

There are also regional meetings of Germanic pagans known as Things. At these, religious rites are performed, while workshops, stalls, feasts, and competitive games are also present.[137] In the U.S., there are also two national gatherings, Althing and Trothmoot.[138]

Racial issues[edit]

Altar for Haustblot in Björkö, Westgothland, Sweden. The big wooden idol represents god Frey (Ing), the smaller one next to it represents Freya (Walpurgis), the picture in front of it Sunna (Sun), and the small red idol Thor.

The question of race represents a primary source of division among the Germanic neopagan movement.[139] One viewpoint in the community is that race is biologically determined, while the other viewpoint is that race is a cultural concept rooted in heritage; in U.S. community discourse, these viewpoints are described as the folkish and the universalist positions, respectively.[140]

The folkish sector of the movement deems Germanic neopaganism to be the indigenous religion of a biologically distinct Northern European race.[141] Some practitioners explain this by asserting that the religion appeals to the collective unconscious of this race.[142] In this group's discourse, there is much talk of "ancestors" and "homelands", although these concepts may be very vaguely defined.[14] Folkish Germanic neopagans are sometimes, although not always, white supremacists and racists.[143] Others eschew racial supremacism but express disapproval of multiculturalism and the mixture of different races in modern Europe, advocating a position of racial separatism.[141]

The universalist approach believes that the deities of North-West Europe can call anyone to their worship, regardless of ethnic background.[144] This group rejects the folkish emphasis on race, believing that even if unintended, this emphasis can lead to the adoption of racist attitudes toward those of non-Northern European heritage.[145] Thus, universalists welcome practitioners of Germanic paganism who are not of Northern European ancestry; for instance, there are Jewish and African-American members of the U.S.-based Asatru group, the Ring of Troth.[146] Proponents of this view have sometimes argued that Germanic paganism is indigenous to the land of Northern Europe, rather than any race.[147]

The historian of religion Mattias Gardell (himself a Germanic neopagan[148]) categorizes Germanic neopaganism in the United States into three groups according to their stance on the issue of race: the "anti-racist" group who denounce any express association between the religion and racial identity, the "radical racist" faction who see it as the natural religion of the white race which cannot be followed by members of any other racial groups, and the "ethnic" faction who seek a middle-path by acknowledging the religion's roots in Northern Europe but who do not exclude the participation of individuals with differing ethnic heritage.[149] Religious studies scholar Egil Asprem deemed Gardell's threefold typology to be "indispensable to make sense of the diverging positions within the broader discourse" of Heathenry.[150] Heathen and sociologist of religion Jennifer Snook stated that both mainstream media and early academic studies of American Heathenry had focused primarily on the racist elements within the movement, thus neglecting their anti-racist counterparts.[151]

In contrast to North America and much of Northern Europe, discussions of race rarely arise among the Icelandic Heathen community as a result of the nation-state's predominantly ethnically homogenous composition.[152] The religious studies scholar Fredrik Gregorius also noted a phenomenon among Scandinavian neopagans to rise "digital nithing poles" and denouncing Nazis for misusing Norse symbols.[153]


Romanticism and the Völkisch movement[edit]

Guido von List

In Austria, the occultist Guido von List sought to revive a religion that he termed "Wotanism", with an Ariosophic inner core to the movement being termed "Armanism" by him.[154] List's Wotanism was based heavily on the Eddas,[155] although over time it came to be increasingly influenced by the occult teachings of the Theosophical Society.[154] The völkisch movement also emerged in 1930s Norway with the milieu surrounding the Ragnarok Circle and Hans S. Jacobsen's Tidsskriftet Ragnarok journal; prominent figures involved in this milieu were the writer Per Imerslund and composer Geirr Tveitt, although it left no successors in post-war Norway.[156]

A variant of "Odinism" was developed by the Australian Alexander Rud Mills, who published The Odinist Religion (1930) and established the Anglican Church of Odin. Politically racialist, Mills viewed Odinism as a religion for the English race which was in a cosmic battle with Judeo-Christian religion.[157] Some of Heathenry's roots have been traced to the "back to nature" movement of the early 20th-century, among them the Kibbo Kift and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.[158]

Several early members of the Nazi Party belonged to the Thule Society, a study group for German antiquity. It is postulated (by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians in 1960 and by Gerald Suster in Hitler and the Age of Horus in 1981) that occult elements played an important role in the formative phase of Nazism and the SS in particular, but after his rise to power Adolf Hitler discouraged such pursuits. Point 24 of the National Socialist Program stated that the party endorsed "positive Christianity", which did not depend upon faith in Christ as the son of God or the Apostles' Creed and rejected the Semitic origins of Christ and Bible.[159]

The eclectic German Faith Movement (Deutsche Glaubensbewegung), founded by the Sanskrit scholar Jakob Wilhelm Hauer, enjoyed a degree of popularity during the Nazi period.[160] Some Germanic mysticists were victimized by the Nazis: Friedrich Bernhard Marby spent 99 months in KZ Dachau, and Siegfried Adolf Kummer's fate is unknown.[161]

The sun-wheel symbol of the Thule Society

Several books published by the Nazi party - including Die Gestaltung der Feste im Jahres- und Lebenslauf in der SS-Familie (The Celebrations in the Life of the SS Family) by Fritz Weitzel, as well as the SS Tante Friede - illustrate how the National Socialists regarded traditional Germanic heathenry as primitive superstition which needed reworking to better serve the state. Celebrating the traditional festivals like Jul and Sommersonnenwende were encouraged and recast into veneration of the Nazi state and Führer.[162]

The appropriation of "Germanic antiquity" by the Nazis was at first regarded with skepticism and sarcasm by British Scandophiles. W. H. Auden in his Letters from Iceland (1936) makes fun of the idea of Iceland as an "Aryan vestige",[163] but with the outbreak of World War II, Nordic romanticism in Britain became too much associated with the enemy's ideology to remain palatable, to the point that J. R. R. Tolkien, an ardent Septentrionalist, in 1941 found himself moved to state that he had a "burning private grudge ... against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler" for "ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."[164] After the Second World War, many felt that the mythologies of the pre-Christian Germanic societies had been tainted through their usage by the Nazi administration, an attitude that to some extent persisted into the 21st century.[165]

Modern development[edit]

In the early 1970s, Heathen organisations emerged in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and in Iceland, largely independently of each other.[166] This has been partly attributed to the wider growth of the modern Pagan movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged the establishment of new religious movements intent on reviving pre-Christian religions.[167]

In Iceland, the influence of pre-Christian belief systems still pervaded the country's cultural heritage into the 20th century.[168] There, farmer Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson founded Germanic pagan group Ásatrúarfélagið in 1972, which initially had 12 members.[169] Beinteinsson served as Allsherjargodi (chief priest) until his death in 1993, when he was succeeded by Jormundur Ingi Hansen.[170] As the group expanded in size, Hansen's leadership caused schisms, and to retain the unity of the movement, he stepped down and was replaced by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson in 2003, by which time it had accumulated 777 members and played a visible role in Icelandic society.[170] In England, the British Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite was established by John Yeowell in 1972.[171] In 1992, The Odin Brotherhood by Mark Mirabello contained claims of a surviving Odinist "secret society", allegedly founded in 1421 to protect pagan tradition from Christian persecution.[172][173] The independent Odinic Rite of Australia was established from 1972 to 1995.[citation needed]

Outdoor temporary altar of the Swedish Forn Sed Association.

Asatru grew steadily in the United States during the 1960s.[174] Stephen McNallen first founded the Viking Brotherhood in the early 1970s, before creating the Asatru Free Assembly in 1976, which broke up in 1986 amid widespread political disagreements after McNallen's repudiation of neo-Nazis within the group. In the 1990s, McNallen founded the Ásatrú Folk Assembly (AFA), an ethnically-oriented Germanic neopagan group headquartered in California.[175] Meanwhile, Valgard Murray and his kindred in Arizona founded the Asatru Alliance (AA) in the late 1980s, which shared the AFA's perspectives on race and which published the Vor Tru newsletter.[176] In 1987, Edred Thorsson and James Chisholm founded The Troth, which was incorporated in Texas. Taking an inclusive, non-racialist view, it soon grew into an international organisation.[177]

In Germany, the Artgemeinschaft organisation was founded in the 1950s by Wilhelm Kusserow and others. From 1989 until his death in 2009 it was led by Jürgen Rieger. Under his guidance it described itself as "Asatru" and a "faith community for people of Nordic-Germanic type". Only those of northern European stock were allowed to join. Also in Germany, the Heidnische Gemeinschaft (HG) was founded by Géza von Neményi in 1985.[citation needed] In 1991 the Germanische Glaubens-Gemeinschaft (GGG), led by von Neményi, split off from the HG.[citation needed] In 1997 the Nornirs Ætt was founded as part of the Rabenclan and in 2000 the Eldaring was founded. The Eldaring is affiliated with the US based Troth.[citation needed] In Scandinavia, the Swedish Asatru Society formed in 1994.[citation needed] The first Norwegian Heathen group, Blindern Åsatrulag, was established as a student group at the University of Oslo in the mid-1980s,[178] while the larger Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost was established in 1996; after a schism in that group, the Foreningen Forn Sed was formed in 1999.[179] In Denmark Forn Siðr also formed in 1999 (and was recognized by the state in 2003) and in Sweden Nätverket Gimle formed in 2001, as an informal community for individual heathens. Nätverket Forn Sed formed in 2004, and has a network consisting of local groups (blotlag) from all over Sweden.[citation needed]

From the mid-1990s, the internet greatly aided the propagation of Germanic Neopaganism.[180] That decade also saw the strong growth of racist Heathenry among those incarcerated within the U.S. prison system.[181]

Contemporary runestone, erected near Jelling, Denmark, in 2006


Adherents of Heathenry can be found in Europe, North America, and Australasia.[182] In 2007, the religious studies scholar Graham Harvey stated that it was impossible to develop a precise figure for the number of Heathens across the world,[183] however a self-selected census conducted in 2013 found 16,700 members in 98 countries, the bulk of whom lived in the United States.[184]

Many individuals are inspired to join the movement after enjoying German folk tales or Norse myths as children, or after being interested by the depiction of Norse religion in popular culture.[185] Some others claim to have involved themselves in the religion after experiencing direct revelation through the forms of dreams, which they interpret as having been provided by the gods.[186]

North America[edit]

Sociologist Jeffrey Kaplan asserted that it was impossible to calculate the exact size of the U.S. Germanic Neopagan community. He nevertheless estimated that, in the mid-1990s, there were around 500 active practitioners of Germanic neopaganism in the country, with a further thousand individuals on the periphery of the movement.[187] He noted that the overwhelming majority of individuals in the movement were white, male, and young. Most had at least an undergraduate degree, and worked in a mix of white collar and blue collar jobs.[188] The Pagan Census project led by Helen A. Berger, Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer gained 60 responses from Germanic pagans in the U.S., noting that 65% were male and 35% female, which they saw as the "opposite" of the rest of the country's Pagan community.[189] The majority had a college education, but were generally less well educated than the wider Pagan community, with a lower median income than the wider Pagan community too.[189] From her experience within the community, sociologist Jennifer Snook concurred that the majority of American Heathens were male, adding also that most were also white and middle-aged,[190] but believed that there had been a growth iin the proportion of Heathen women in the U.S. since the mid-1990s.[191]

Subsequent assessments have suggested a larger support base; 10,000 to 20,000 according to McNallen,[192] and 7,878 according to the 2014 census.[184]


An Odinist wedding in Spain, 2010

In the United Kingdom Census 2001, 300 people registered as Heathen in England and Wales.[83] However, many Heathens followed the advice of the Pagan Federation (PF) and simply described themselves as "Pagan", while other Heathens did not specify their religious beliefs.[83] In the 2011 census, 1,958 people self-identified as Heathen in England and Wales. A further 251 described themselves as Reconstructionist and may include some people reconstructing Germanic paganism.[193]

By 2003, Ásatrúarfélagið had 777 members,[194] and by 2015, it reported 2,400 members and has started work on its first new temple in a thousand years.[195] In Iceland, Heathenry has an impact larger than the number of its adherents.[196] In Sweden, the Swedish Forn Sed Assembly (Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige) was formed in 1994 under the name Swedish Asatru Society (Sveriges asatrosamfund) and is since 2007 recognized as a religious organization by the Swedish government. In the spring of 2010, on the "year-ting", the Communion changed its name to the current name. In Denmark Forn Siðr was formed in 1999, and was officially recognized in 2003.[197] In Russia the many neo-pagan groups venerate the "Golden Age of the pre-Christian Rus" (the Rus being early Scandinavian settlers in Russia), and "In general, Neo-pagan newspapers ... appear irregularly in editions ranging from 10–50,000 copies, or more rarely, as many as 500,000 copies".[198]

Germanic neopaganism is found in Spain and includes the Comunidad Odinista de España-Asatru (COE) (established as Circulo Odinista Español in 1981).[199] The COE was recognized by the Spanish government as a religion, allowing them to perform "legally binding civil ceremonies", such as marriages. COE is the sixth Odinist/Asatru religious organization in the world to be recognized with official status, after those in the UK, Australia, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. In December 2007, they conducted the first legal pagan wedding in Spain, on the beach of Vilanova, Barcelona.[200]

See also[edit]



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  153. ^ Fredrik Gregorius, Modern Asatro - Att konstruera etnisk och kulturell identitet, 2008, s. 105-106.
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  159. ^ The point demanded "freedom of religion for all religious denominations ... so long as they do not endanger its existence or oppose the moral senses of the Germanic race ... The Party advocates ... a Positive Christianity without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination." Alfred Rosenberg, in The Myth of the Twentieth Century, defined "positive" Christianity as Germanic against the Etruscan-Syrian-Jewish-African "negative" Christianity, with positive Christianity carrying on the spirit of Nordic paganism, tossing out the Old Testament as well as the "Jew" Paul. Positive Christianity, so conceived, was essentially a sleight-of-hand repudiation of orthodoxy. See generally Chapter 12, "Nazi Religion versus Christian Religion," in Peter Viereck, Metapolitics: from Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler, Transaction Publishers, 2004, ISBN 0-7658-0510-3. See also Rev. Thomas D. Schwartz. "The National Socialist Stand on Christianity," The Barnes Review, Nov./Dec. 1999, pp. 55-57, available online here. Naturally, the Party's supposed "liberal" views on freedom of religion did not extend to Judaism. The Nazi efforts to "coordinate" German Protestantism (see Gleichschaltung) moderated after the notorious November 1933 Berlin Sportpalast speech at a "positive" Christian rally attacked the Old Testament and the "Rabbi Paul" and called for the need for a more "heroic" Jesus.
  160. ^ Carl Jung mentions this movement in his 1936 essay "Wotan". Jung, Carl G. (1970); Collected Works, Volume 10; Routledge & Kegan Paul, London; ISBN 0-7100-1640-9; pp. 190-91.
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  163. ^ My name occurs in several of the sagas, Is common over Iceland still. Down under Where Das Volk order sausages and lagers I ought to be the prize, the living wonder, The really pure from any Rassenschänder, In fact I am the great big white barbarian, The Nordic type, the too too truly Aryan. "Letter to Lord Byron IV." This whole section of the poem was dropped from Auden's later collected editions, but appears in The English Auden, ed. by Edward Mendelson (Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 189.
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  200. ^ http://www.laverdad.es/albacete/20080420/provincia/otras-religiones-discipulos-odin-20080420.html "La verdad" daily


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