American Heathens

heathensTitle: American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement
Publisher: Temple University Press
Author: Jennifer Snook
Pages: 242 pp
Price: $29.95 (paperback) / $85.00 (hardcover)

This book published by Temple University Press is of interest to both academic and general audiences. To me, as an American heathen of the Asatru tradition, this book seems slanted toward the viewpoints of only some sects, which are projected in some sections of the book as representing all of heathenry. However, I would recommend this book to people interested in an academic perspective on heathenry, despite a few places in which I thought it could have been better. I will examine each of the chapters individually, except for the extensive notes and excellent index.

The author identifies herself in the introduction as a heathen, but her perspective in the main body of the book past the beginning is that of an outsider. The goal of this work is identified as ethnography, and in researching and writing this, Snook’s perspective is that of ethnographer rather than community member.

Becoming Heathen
The author recounts her journey to become heathen, typical of its time period, including forays into the SCA, general paganism, and new age philosophy. In this part of the book, Snook lists different heathen traditions and different sects within those traditions, including their names and the names of their founders.

Fleeing the Cross and the Pentacle
In this chapter, Snook examines the construction of an identity as a heathen as starting with the decision that one is not Christian or Wiccan. This may be a common experience of converts to heathenry living in a Christian-dominated culture, but it’s far from the only possible way to decide to identify as heathen or as one of the heathen sects. The author proposes that the dismissal of Wiccan-influenced ideas and ritual elements as “fluffy” is subtly misogynistic and indicative of an overall masculine flavor to heathenry.

Snook explains that “NRMs” — New Religious Movements — are usually seen as countercultural, but that heathenry sees itself as an ethnic religion rather than a New Age one and has conservative cultural values. She indicates that most heathens are some mixture of conservative or libertarian. This seems to me to be generally true.

Neo-Heathens and Reconstructionists
Snook writes about reconstructionism, which is researching the old heathenry for the purpose of bringing heathenry back in current times, and its queasy attitude towards UPG, which is having actual religious experiences. She indicates that debate over this in internet forums frequently devolves into bullying, a phenomenon I’ve seen myself. She writes of the difficulty of reconstructing an authentic heathen world view when all the historical written sources of actual stories (as distinct from writing on grave markers, jewelry, etc.) were written by non-heathens. She writes about how first generation heathen practices such as the Hammer Rite and the Nine Noble Virtues are now being abandoned as inauthentic as new scholarship emerges about what the ancient heathens actually did.

Loki in the Neo-Heathens and Reconstructionists Chapter
I’m going to focus in on the section on Loki and his worshippers, because it’s currently a major fault line in American heathenry, which is in the middle of another sectarian split like the one that happened between universalist and folkish heathenry in a previous generation, although the author does not say so.

The beginning of the section on Loki lists several quotes from the debate around Loki, all of which are anti-Loki. There are quotes from Loki-friendly sources and from Lokeans in the body of the text, but one such quote does no more than summarize the anti-Loki side of the debate, while not including any of the refutation which followed the summary in the original post.

It is clear to me from the vocabulary being used in the ritual observed by the author that the group she observed is Theodish. Loki is legitimately not part of the Theodish tradition because Theod is derived from Anglo-Saxon culture, which did not count him as a god, whereas in Icelandic and continental European culture he is included. However, the author presents the group she observed as representative of all American heathens. For a book on the politics of identity, there is oddly little distinction made between different heathen sects in this part of the book.

The question of having Loki as a patron is conflated with the question of having a patron god at all, and also with the question of having religious experiences and personal gnosis vesrus treating the Eddas like a Bible, which is a completely separate issue from the question of whether to include Loki in worship.

Snook correctly summarizes some of the debates about Loki going on in online heathen forums, particularly about LGBT heathens and about the influence of popular culture in the form of Marvel‘s blockbuster movies. However, more of the anti-Loki side is presented than the Loki-friendly side. For example, the anti-Loki position with regard to LGBT issues is summarized as perceiving Loki and Lokeans as sexual deviants, youthful attention-seekers, and effeminate men, but there is no summary presented of how the pro-Loki position sees its opposition, the Nokeans. Lokeans and mainstream Asatruars who are Loki-friendly see Nokeans as misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, and sometimes racist when the anti-Loki position is argued from racial originalism (an argument Snook does not mention). Only one perspective on the opposite side’s adherents is presented, the perspective of the anti-Loki side. It is telling that the author has heard most of the Nokean viewpoints, but has not heard the word Nokean which is used by the Loki-friendly side. This indicates the author’s informants came from only one side of the argument, making an objective presentation impossible. There is also no mention of the pro-Loki argument that Loki is a god in Continental European tradition, in Icelandic Asatru, and in some families of Urglaawe / Braucherei; in other words, in the cultures in which heathenry has a claim to at least something of a continuous cultural tradition; that only American reconstructionists seem to have a problem with him; and that perhaps Americans should listen to our European fellow heathens who are, after all, right there on the internet talking to us.

To take another example, on the question of whether Loki is a fire god / fire vaette, the author includes the “no” argument that the association with fire was a mistake made by Jacob Grimm, but does not include the “yes” evidence such as the Snaptun Stone, the Danish and southern Swedish folk traditions of associating Loki with the heat shimmer over newly ploughed fields, and of giving sacrifices of baby teeth to him in the kitchen hearthfire to ask his help growing the adult teeth. Further, the author does not separate this question from the question of whether Loki is a god or is to be worshipped. This is an important distinction, as the question of whether he has influence over domesticated fire is a question that Loki-acknowledging heathens debate among themselves; it is not entirely a matter of Nokeans on one side and Lokeans on the other. The author seems to be unaware of sectarian differences between different American heathen groups on this issue; perhaps the research methodology for this section treated American heathenry as a unified movement and therefore did not capture these differences.

Cyber Hofs and Armchair Vikings
Snook details the ways that the internet and social media are changing heathenry, and changing the very idea of community. The ease of dissemination of information on the net and of networking on social media is rendering part of the role and purpose of the old line national organizations obsolete.

She describes various types of trollery, accurately, as mockery fostered by a sense of anonymity and a sense that online activities are insulated from real world consequences. She also describes various trolleries, also with unfortunate accuracy, as misogyny and racism.

Valkyries and Frithweavers
In this chapter, Snook examines the role of women in modern heathenry. Starting with the mythology on the creation of humanity in which Odin and his brothers created the first man and woman as equals, the author examines gender roles in modern heathenry, where the majority of self-identified heathens are male. Snook writes about the tension between a lore-based narrative of Viking-era feminism, a lore-based narrative of traditional gender roles, and the roles of women in the current modern dominant culture within which heathenry exists. In this chapter, the author presents sectarian differences, for example those between Asatru and Odinism.

There is a passing reference to the Viking Age legal doctrine allowing duels to the death over ergi-insults, which the author includes as an example of misogyny rather than delving into the question of what exactly ergi was and how it relates or not to the modern social constructs of gayness, transgenderism, gender fluidity, and / or dominance and submission. This is a curious omission in a book about the politics of identity. This question could easily have formed its own chapter.

Snook examines the problems of interpreting mythology and Christian conversion era law codes for evidence of traditional heathen attitudes towards and roles for women, paying particular attention to the question of how the lore paints Odin’s actions towards women. She relates stories about modern heathen groups’ construction of the proper role of heathen women as simultaneously owners of households and warriors. She examines the varying ritual roles of women in different sects, particularly the roles of cup bearer at sumbel, and of prophetic shaman (volva or seidhkona.)

Honoring the Ancestors
In this chapter, Snook examines issues of race and ethnicity. Despite the chapter title, this is not really about honoring the ancestors, which would be a discussion about rituals for the dead. This is instead about who gets to belong to heathenry, which fits with the book title, about politics and identity. In this chapter, the author is aware of sectarian differences. She tells about the efforts of racists and neo-Nazis to infiltrate heathen organizations, and about how the media misrepresents heathenry by focusing on prisoners, many of whom have been outlawed by heathen organizations due to their crimes.

She acknowledges that there are differences between folkish and universalist groups. However, she describes the norm in the drawing of boundaries between any given heathen group and outsiders in a way that describes only the folkish perspective. The author examines the idea of whiteness, and lists some of the ways the folkish talk about race and ethnicity, for example that folkish heathens compared folkishness to the tribalism of Native American peoples. The author speaks about white privilege in her authorial voice, but quotes almost all folkish sources on the question of whiteness, except for quoting a heathen of mixed heritage about negative experiences with both overt and more subtle racism. The author quotes sources whose folkishness or universalism is not apparent when speaking of capital-letter ethnic heritage such as Gaelic ancestry.

The author describes tribalism as a form of folkishness that is distinct from race-based notions of heritage in that tribalism focuses on only one specific ethnicity, nationality, or language group. While the AFA is the model for white folkishness, Theod is the model for tribalism.

The author details the split between universalist and folk denominations with many examples and quotes from both sides. The quotes go into some of the philosophy and magical theories behind folkishness. She also quotes people from each side about what each side thinks of the other side. Some of the issues dealt with include the appropriation of ancient heathen symbols by white power groups, the invention of ethnicity among Americans who were not raised in a particular cultural tradition, and examples of other traditions such as the Hellenic tradition that also place importance on ancestor worship but do not require a specific heritage to join. The philosophy of universalism is examined also, particularly the example to humanity of the gods in the lore living in a multi-ethnic society with giants (particularly the mothers and consorts of various of the Aesir).

The Long Journey
In the final chapter, the author puts the heathen revival in the United States in context with broader social movements in America and with the history of the USA in various decades beginning with the mid-20th century. Snook points to some of the questions modern American heathens are debating, such as the role of weaponry and animal sacrifice in heathenry, and whether the historical foundations require voluntary simplicity. She digests some of the topics from earlier chapters, for example seeing the modern heathen woman as normatively (within heathenism) tomboyish. As this chapter is the conclusion, it summarizes previously addressed issues rather than introducing many new ideas.

The author relates some more of her personal experiences as she did in the first chapter, this time talking about her experience as a researcher of a community of which she considers herself a part. She uses her personal experiences to illustrate the difference between individual identity and collective identity.

The glossary illustrates how much influence Theod had on the author. There are twenty-four words used by all sects of heathenry, seven words exclusively used by the Theodish tradition, one word exclusively used by Asatru, and no words used exclusively by other sects such as Urglaawe, which has a large vocabulary of Pennsylvania Deitsch words not used in traditions based on other heathen cultures.

A troubling entry in the glossary is the definition of Universalist as “usually derogatory,” even though it’s the proper name of a sectarian division, with Universalist and Folkish being the two major types of sects, akin to the division between Catholic / Orthodox and Protestant in Christianity. If one went to the right place in Ireland, one could find a subculture in which the word Protestant was a fighting word, but that would hardly be representative of all of Christianity, or even all Catholics.

The glossary identifies Folkish as derived from the Volkish romantic movement in Germany and a category of sects in which one must have European ancestry to join, and Universalist as the category of sects in which one need not have any particular ethnic or racial background to join, but Folkish is described in neutral terms and Universalist as “derogatory,” which indicates that a preponderance of the subjects the author interviewed for this book must have seen Universalism as wrong, which no doubt slants the entire work.

The Author, Our Mutual Friends, and My Expectations
The About the Author section on the last page only says one thing, that she is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi. Elsewhere in the book she states that she’s originally from Germany, so, she has an outsider’s perspective on American culture in general, not just on American Heathens.

Although this book leans folkish and Nokean, I am  guessing that the author was trying so hard not to present a bias toward a liberal viewpoint that she accidentally swung the pendulum in favor of the folkish and Nokean viewpoints. This guess is based partly on the academic language referencing feminist issues and race issues the author uses, which present a typically liberal academic viewpoint, and partly on the list of our mutual Facebook friends. Indeed, although the publisher provided the .pdf copy I reviewed, I became interested in reviewing this book because I saw the announcement of its forthcoming publication in my Facebook feed, commented on by a mutual friend, and based on our mutual friends I was expecting far more interview sources from universalist sects of heathenry. The heavy bias toward the folkish viewpoint and toward Nokeanism in particular was a real surprise given who our mutual social media friends are, which includes prominent members of universalist Asatru organizations, including leaders and authors, a leader in Urglaawe, and no well known Theodish or folkish American Asatru leaders, authors, or scholars. I was expecting a very different book when I requested a review copy from the publisher.

I’m also going to guess that the author’s cloudy view of the differences between the various American heathen sects on some topics is an artifact of her outsider’s perspective. Academia values an outsider perspective when writing about a community, and Snook undertook this study as an academic, so that is precisely the perspective expected and desired by the publisher and her fellow scholars.

My Conclusion
This book will be of interest especially to American heathens ourselves, to see what we look like to someone who came to study us. The picture isn’t always pretty, and this book should serve as a wake-up call to American heathens to preserve safe public discussion spaces on the net so that the perspective that outsiders and newbies see when they look at American heathenry will be the reasonable, accepting and welcoming, peaceful, average middle of the road heathen, with room for a variety of perspectives in civil discourse, rather than having the trolls be the loudest because they are shouting everyone else down. This clarion call should serve to summon the ordinary, good-natured heathens out of obscurity to become the voices and images of heathenry that media, scholars like Snook, government, interfaith organizations, and so forth will think of to contact when they want to interview heathens. This book holds up a dark mirror to American heathenry, and if we don’t like what we see reflected, we had better work on presenting ourselves better, and on building a better heathenry in the future. This book, and probably my review of it, will no doubt be controversial. That’s good; we should use it to get a discussion going about ourselves, who we are as heathens, what heathenry should be going forwards, and what to do about the image heathens present to the public. All those who care about the public face of heathenry should read this book.

[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]