Heathenism in Contemporary America
- ISBN: 9781781792230
- Published By: Equinox Publishing
- Published: September 2018
Being Viking deserves great praise and wide readership as an extremely detailed and well-researched historical and ethnographical study of the American variant of the New Religious Movement (NRM) variously known as Heathenry, Heathenism, Asatru or Modern Norse (or Germanic) Paganism.
Heathenism, to use Jefferson Calico’s preferred term for the modern Norse Pagan movement in America, is a form of modern or contemporary Paganism that endeavors to create a workable contemporary version of pre-Christian Norse Paganism as was once practiced in Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germanic Europe. Being Viking is the product of many years of participant-observation fieldwork research that Calico has conducted among Heathens in the United States and informed by extensive reading in the literature of NRMs in general and Modern Norse Paganism in particular. He builds on the previous work of such scholars as Jeffrey Kaplan, Mattias Gardell, Jenny Blain, Jennifer Snook, and myself.
Calico ably addresses many dimensions of the American Heathen religion from the biographies and contributions of religious leaders such as Stephen McNallen, Valgard Murray, and Diana Paxson to such particular practices as the sumbel (a toasting ritual); the blot (an alternate form of the sumbel)), and seid/seit (an oracular rite). In addition, Calico examines the devotion to medieval Icelandic and Germanic literary and religious texts as key source materials, the dedication of many members to practicing premodern folk crafts from Norse and Germanic tradition, variant forms of organization that have developed over time, questions of the importance of ancestral identity in the self-definition of Heathenism, and the important and enduring debate between “universalist” and “folkish” forms of the religion over who should be allowed to participate in and affiliate themselves with the religion.
The universalist conception holds that Modern Norse Paganism should be open and embracing to any person anywhere regardless of ethnic or racial background who feels a sincere spiritual interest in Norse Pagan gods and traditions. The folkish perspective holds that membership in the religion should be mainly—or even exclusively—limited to people of European or Germanic descent. Calico also provides valuable discussion of the problematic “metagenetics” theory propounded by Stephen McNallen, a pseudo-scientific attempt to ground Heathen spirituality—and folkish exclusiveness—in European genetics.
Calico juxtaposes the historical development of each topic while also providing colorful sketches of particular Heathens and their life-situations and religious practices. The author traces the lineages of different organizational structures that have undergirded the development of American Heathenism such as the Ring of Troth, more commonly and simply known as the Troth, and the Asatru Folk Alliance (AFA) pointing out their differing attitudes toward both religious practice and preferred practitioners, with the Troth being the more open and inclusive structure and the AFA the least, with a pronounced emphasis on ancestry and ethnicity that many observers have reckoned a thinly masked form of racism, or at the very least, very attractive to racists. Calico uses the metaphor of a river into which tributary streams feed and swirl as a means of explicating the different intellectual, cultural and social “streams” of influence that have fed into American Asatru, and this is an effective and intriguing manner of conceptualizing the internal diversity, dialogue, and conflict in the religion.
As the book’s subtitle “Heathenism in Contemporary America” and red, white, and blue cover illustration signal, one of the author’s chief aims is to emphasize the American-ness of this religious movement. In this effort, Calico shows great sympathy for the underlying social dynamics of the Heathens he comes to know, describing them as economically struggling working-class or middle-class white Americans for whom participation in Heathenry seems to satisfy certain identity, status, and community needs. However, it is an old story in American society that struggling whites have often turned to racial disparagement of non-whites and glorification of whiteness to bolster their sense of self and security, and this begs the question of whether such a white, Eurocentric religion simply plays this particular American tune in a slightly different key.
However, Calico’s desire to portray this form of modern Paganism as an “All-American” form of religion runs counter to his simultaneous attempt to classify American Heathenism as a “dissenting religion,” following the formulation of Stephen Stein in Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in America (Oxford University Press, 2003). It is never really clear what these American Heathens are dissenting from. They live fairly ordinary American lives and their religious activities do not involve any major breach with American society, other than rejecting the majority religion of Christianity and taking a special interest in premodern traditions and lifestyles.
Furthermore, while some Heathens may have suffered some friction in American society for having taken up such an unconventional religion, they have not been burned at the stake or driven from one place to another like the Mormons. They are not a Pagan Amish movement seeking to eschew modernity in favor of some more ancient or medieval world. They wave the flag, proclaim their patriotism, and embrace authority structures like the police and military. Their desire for closer familial and community ties can be found in many religious groups in America. The one point on which they seem to dissent from modern life to any pronounced degree is in their focus on European heritage and a European-centric identity at a time when multiculturalism and the embrace of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity have been rising trends in American society, as indeed in much of the world.
The thorny issue of the relationship of Asatru-Heathenry to racism and related forms of far-right and white supremacist ideology is the one point on which I find the book falling short. Calico displays a certain hesitancy in dealing with this troubling dimension of Modern Norse Paganism, a matter which most researchers into Asatru, including this reviewer, have long found to be an unpleasant but inescapable and seemingly ineradicable aspect of the religion. With Heathenry being founded on the myths and religious traditions of the pre-Christian peoples of Germanic Northern Europe, a certain rough parallel with Nazi glorification of Germanic identity is obvious and troubling, requiring careful explication of how this reconstructionist religion with an overwhelmingly mono-racial membership is something other than white supremacy in medieval drag. Calico does not completely avoid this issue, including providing a review of past scholarly discussions on the topic, but a more forthright exploration would have been a worthwhile addition to this excellent work.
In a day and age where we face a rising trend of far-right wing and white supremacist violence, some of whose perpetrators—such as the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik—have taken inspiration from racialized, Nazi-esque readings of Norse-Germanic Pagan myth and religion, the decision by either Calico or his editors to downplay this worrisome aspect of American Asatru is unfortunate. However, I am happy to report that in a 2019 conference convened by the Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan clergy training institution located in Columbia, South Carolina, Calico addressed the problematic conflation of Norse Pagan spirituality with white supremacy in a presentation analyzing the worrisome efforts of American white supremacist Heathens to use social media to promote their racist version of the religion. Calico’s fine presentation, along with those of other participants, including the author of this review and the prominent American Asatru leader Diana Paxson, has now been published as Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2020).
Being Viking stands tall as a truly monumental achievement. It is the most comprehensive monograph yet published on Heathenism/Asatru/Modern Norse Paganism in America and will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic for years to come.
Michael Strmiska is associate professor of world history in the department of global studies at SUNY-Orange, Middletown NY.Michael F. StrmiskaDate Of Review:March 30, 2021