Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity
Proponents of racist interpretations of pre-Christian Norse-Germanic spiritualities have claimed to be preserving “heritage,” while others belonging to the contemporary Heathen movements have moved to distance themselves from “volkish” thinking. Long-simmering just beneath the surface of American Paganism, racialized Heathenry was on full display in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The contributions to this volume delineate between two communities that are using shared symbolism for widely different purposes. The book will serve to broaden understanding of the narratives in play here, resulting in mitigation of the rising tide of hate and racialized identity.
Holli S. Emore, MDiv, is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, USA and author of Constellated Ministry for the Pagan Spiritual Landscape (2021). Committed to building interfaith relationships, both locally and globally, she has served on the Board of Directors of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina since 2012 and as a regional resource for law enforcement, victim services and criminal justice classes since 2004. She is the founder and priestess of Temple Osireion, and served as the first South Carolina Regional Lead for Disaster Spiritual Care for the American Red Cross.
Jonathan M. Leader, PhD, is the State of South Carolina Archaeologist and Chair of Archaeology at the University of South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology. He has 40 years of archaeological and anthropological experience within diverse communities, providing training, research and consultations on four continents, the islands of Micronesia and the Caribbean. His publications include Catawba Indian Nation Boundary Cemetery Project and “Archaeological Prospection: Near Surface Geophysics” in Archaeology in South Carolina: Exploring the Hidden Heritage of the Palmetto State.
“One would not think that such a slim volume (156 pages; preface included) could encompass a subject as vast and as important as race, religion, and identity. Yet this compilation of essays not only succeeds in addressing this difficult and often very complex subject matter, but outright refuses to gloss over what the book cover of nondescript flames illustrates—the damaging fires of hate, which have long been burning through the world, rising to engulf culture and religion alike.
Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity, or Discontents for short, was born out of a symposium by the same name that was held jointly by Cherry Hill Seminary and the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in March of 2019. The book delves into the problems of racialized identity primarily through the lens of pre-Christian Germanic Reconstructionist religion, or Heathenry, which has had more issues concerning white supremacy within it than most other spiritual modalities. Examining the connection between white supremacy and Heathenry is, and has been, a book unto itself; however, each of the essays found in Discontents contributes its own account of this narrative.
The voices that resonate within this book are intimate and foreboding. Each writer gifts the reader not only accurate information and historicity concerning extremism and racialized identity, but also their personal experience as a part of a community with an expanding racialized problem. This, above all, makes this book not merely a simple cry to end extremism and calling out those who espouse it, but provides a piercing glimpse at understanding the “why” and the “how” of extremism and those who continue to fall prey to it.
The knowledge that an auditorium full of people had listened to the words now published grants further captivation to an already curious reader; especially when considering the keynote address (which opens both book and symposium) by Prof. Michael Strmiska. Without shying away, and without any apologetics on the matter, Prof. Strmiska charges forth with stern condemnation and determination, breaking down misconceptions concerning our perception of ancestry and heritage, and tracing the rise of modern white nationalism from its inception in 19th century cultural romanticism all the way to its prominent presentation in the recent decades. His address, “Arguing with the Ancestors: Making the Case for a Paganism without Racism”, clearly sets the stage for the remainder of this compilation.
Discontents addresses much of the misinformation that has been perpetuated by extremism. The essays by Jefferson Calico and Ben Waggoner have done an exemplary job in debunking much of the myths perpetuated; namely by Stephen McNallen of Ásatrú Folk Assembly notoriety and his “brand” of (Folkish) Heathenry. Calico’s essay, “Performing ‘American Völkisch’”, expertly explains how ritual theater, charisma, and social media are used by Stephen McNallen and his wife Sheila in recruiting and ultimately deceiving adherents into buying the beautiful-yet-empty package of Wotanism and other extremist Heathen ideology. Ben Waggoner chose to focus his essay, “Reclaiming the Double Helix: Countering Racist Heathenry’s Co-Option of Human Genetics”, on Stephen McNallen’s “Metagenetics” (the pseudo-scientific theory of spirituality conveyed through DNA and ancestry). Ben uses his own expertise (a PhD in Integrated Biology from UC-Berkeley) and experience as an established Heathen presence since the early ‘90s to cite McNallen with precision; not merely debunking McNallen’s theories using established science, but offers the means to discuss the subject itself without losing one’s patience or focus. Admittedly, I felt a little lost with these essays due to some of the technical and scientific terminology used. Yet despite some rereading and possible online searches for unfamiliar terms, these essays do lend an air of objectivity through their sociological and scientific analysis.
In addition to misinformation, the co-option of Heathen beliefs by extremists extends to the use of Heathen iconography to attract a particular demographic, and no other contributor to Discontents focuses on the subject as thoroughly as Tahni J. Nikitins. Despite being the only non-academic author, Tahni’s writing is valuable nonetheless. Hers is a rallying cry for the protection of Heathen symbols from extremist appropriation. By providing examples of movements within the Heathen community toward iconographic protection, Tahni gives the reader a concise understanding of how extremism markets itself through the distortion of both information and symbolic meaning. By sharing her own communication with several members of the Heathen community—in their words—Tahni amplifies the voices of Heathens themselves, thereby providing a personal account of the effects that extremist symbolic appropriation have had on practitioners of the faith.
Whether or not you identify as a Heathen, or are curious or concerned, this compendium is an absolute must-read for academics, theologians, and laypersons alike. Readable to anyone who seeks to examine the manner in which Reconstructionist pagan religion, namely Heathenry, was founded upon folkloric sources, subject to romantic imaginings of culture, and in search of establishing an identity which haphazardly opened the doors to extremism (which in turn created misinformed interpretations and exclusionary practice). Yet in today’s world, which has seen much divide and exclusion, reading this book also provides hope. It showcases the hard work of a religious community that strives to pull their faith from the hateful flames, dusting off the ash of burnt embers, and hold aloft an old and rich religion born anew.”
Heathens against Hate
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