The Return of Odin: The Modern Renaissance of Pagan Imagination

Title: The Return of Odin: The Modern Renaissance of Pagan Imagination
Publisher: Inner Traditions
Author: Richard Rudgley
Pages: 342 pp
Price: $13.99/$11.95

The Return of Odin: The Modern Renaissance of Pagan Imagination is written for the mainstream reader rather than for the pagan or heathen reader. However, there is much here of interest to pagans and heathens, particularly the history of 19th century and early 20th century occultism, which is largely unknown to modern Heathens. The book is published by the Inner Traditions division of Simon & Schuster, which provided a review copy. This edition includes a preface updating the book on events since the book’s first publication. Although this book has many of the features of an academic work, including endnotes with citations, and footnotes, it is written in an engaging style and takes care to define unfamiliar terms, so it does not require the reader to read psychology, history, or literature at the college level to understand it.

Rudgley proposes that nations and countries, like individual people, can go mad if they repress important archetypes. The author considers Odin an archetype. That does not necessarily mean a metaphor of psychological processes without real existence. Rudgley points to outbreaks of war as evidence of how repression of Odin-as-archetype leads to a dark inversion of Odin’s true path.

In the preface, Rudgley mentions modern heathen organizations, one each in Iceland, the UK, and the USA. The organization he mentioned for the USA was McNallen’s AFA, so I found myself dreading the inevitable discussion of racism. The author did indeed talk about racism, and the clash between universalist and folkish heathenry. More discussion of racism was to come later in the book.

Rudgley sees Odin as a Jungian archetype rather than a person with a mind, interests, will, and agency, as a devoted heathen might see him, but Rudgley presents archetypes as having their own sort of power and reality. He defines the world of the imagination, that is, the world created in the mind by the imaginative power, as being “as ontologically real” as the world of the senses. He writes about Sufi mystics and how their mysticism has real effects. He writes that archetypes and other psychological forces have real effects on the real world. He argues that the terms “imaginary” and “myth” should not be taken to mean “not real.”

Chapter One is on Jung. Rudgley writes that Jung is the central figure in the pagan revival. It’s a statement that pagans and heathens might find a little shocking. After a summary of the idea of the collective unconscious, which is part of Jungian psychology and has pretensions to being science, the book takes an unexpected turn by claiming Jung had visions of Odin and was a prophet.

In the 1936 essay “Wotan,” Jung not only gave his opinion that Odin had woken up and his frenzy and battle-madness had possessed the Germans, but Jung predicted that that phase would not last long and after that Odin would bring his ecstatic qualities to the world. Rudgley considers this prophecy to have been fulfilled by the defeat of the Nazis and the rise of heathenry.

Chapter Two starts off with Dumezil and his oversimplification of Norse mythology into a three-tiered system that assigns Freya a fertility function despite her obvious war aspects and assigns Thor a war function despite the obvious fertility aspects of a rain god married to a grain goddess. After that there is an intriguing discussion of numerical symbolism and the tendency of European-derived cultures to classify things into threes. Rudgley details instances in the lore of nine, which is 3×3, and relates that to the Valknut.

Chapter Three talks about magical practices such as runes, seidr, drugs, utisetta, meditation, and yoga-like practices. Most of the rune info will already be familiar to well-read heathens, but there are a few nuggets that aren’t usually included in rune books that are instructional in nature. Chapter Four is a fairly standard rendition of the thesis of survivals of heathen and pagan practices through the Christian era and into modern times, but with occasional references to modern thinkers. One gets the impression the author approves of Harner and disapproves of Freud.

Subsequent chapters go forward in history to medieval Europe and the Icelandic books of magic, and backwards in time to legends of Hyperborea in various myths of Indo-European peoples. Then the Hyperborean theme is traced forwards through history to Bureus, the Odic force, Blavatsky, and Bulwer-Lytton’s novel about a subterranean civilization which introduced the idea of vril. These are the parts of the history of occult practices that the average Heathen doesn’t know. Many pagans and Heathens will find quite a few surprises here. There were proto-hippies in 1900. Many famous thinkers who disagreed with each other all participated.

In chapter nine we get to the worst part of history, the Nazis. The author maintains that the rise of the Nazis cannot be completely explained solely by referencing logical forces like economics. For Rudgley, the rise of the Nazis is the result of suppressing an important archetype, which made it turn dark. Thus, the rise of the Nazis was literally mass psychosis.

The terrible history of Nazism is all too familiar. Yet even here, one can run across surprising details. Rudgley recounts stories about various personalities, their organizations, their claims about what they could do with their magic, and explanations of history about various details, such as stories about the history of Thule when discussing the Thule Society. There are a lot of things one can learn from this book if, like many modern Asatruars, the reader’s knowledge of Heathen lore and history is spotty in between the writing of the Eddas in the 1300s and the foundation of modern Heathen religious organizations in the 1970s. However, there are a few details that appear to be erroneous, although they may merely be unclear. For example, the author states that Guido von List originated the trinity of Wotan-Wili-We. As that trio of names is an obvious German language variant of the Icelandic Odhinn-Vili-Ve from the Poetic Edda, Rudgley might have meant only that von List Germanized the spelling, but if that is what Rudgley meant then he was not clear.

The lurid tale of Wiligut the schizophrenic SS general would read as farce if it weren’t true. Wiligut denounced Heathens because of his personal gnosis, which included a history in which there were three suns at the beginning of the earth, Christ was German and was the same god as Baldur, and Odin was his great enemy. To me as a Heathen, Wiligut’s religious visions go past blasphemous and into ludicrous. To Wiligut, it was the Heathens who were committing blasphemy, and as the high priest of the SS, he had the power and the will to use the SS as his personal religious police to arrest Odin-worshippers. Of all the horrors committed by the Nazis, this is surely a mere footnote in history. However, since the story of Wiligut was new and untold to me, it had the novelty to horrify anew. Although reading about Nazis is uncomfortable, I’m glad I know about Wiligut’s doctrines because this knowledge will help me identify and exclude Nazis from my online Heathen forum, which is an ongoing task. I knew about the Baldur Rising folks, but now that I know the origin point of their strange theology, I know that they were the enemies of Heathens from the very start.

If this book had stopped there, with the conclusion of what Rudgley called the first Odinnic experiment, I would not hesitate to recommend it as a work of history.  However, in the section called “The Second Odinnic Experiment: The Anglo-American World,” the book ventures into parts of history that don’t seem very relevant to the topic. It starts out well enough, with a chapter on Tolkien. It was a delight to have something nice to read about after that extended foray into the Nazis. There were no surprises for me here as an avid Tolkien fan, but I was pleased to see my favorite quote, the anti-Nazi quote talking about “the noble northern spirit.”

Then the book descends back into unpleasant history with sections on Charles Manson and other criminals. After that we’re back to Nazis again, this time neo-Nazis. The author writes about Duclos and his werewolf theory, but Rudgley does not find that theory convincing. All this history of violent criminals doesn’t really seem relevant to the topic of Odin. The only one of the serial killers that seems like he has some relevance to Odin is the one with only one eye. The rest of them don’t seem very Odin-like to me.

There’s a chapter on the story of the FBI versus whoever they didn’t like, including nonpolitical Christians. That doesn’t seem to pertain to the topic of Odin very well, either. The next chapter, Wotansvolk, is more than I ever wanted to know about David Lane. At least it’s more relevant than previous chapters about criminals, though, since Lane actually claims to follow Wotan, one of the names of Odin. In the following chapter, Rudgley shows us a Nazi yoga commune. There are mentions of some famous historical figures.

Part Three is called “Visions of the Web.” Rudgley is referring to the Web of Wyrd, the metaphor which compares life and destiny to spinning and weaving fabric, not to the internet. Finally we hear from a normal, anti-Nazi heathen. The first chapter in this section starts with a quote from an Asatruar who points out the ways in which Asatru and Nazism are diametrically opposed.

In many chapters of this book, novels are presented as being at least as influential as more conventional political or religious nonfiction writing. This section is no exception. There is a long discussion on the Brian Bates novel The Way of Wyrd, and its influence on modern Heathens.

There’s a section on Stav, a magical and martial arts system. It includes the Stav version of the runes, which is based on the Norwegian Rune Poem. Stav is universalist, open to all races.

Then there’s another chapter about magical practices. Rudgley goes far afield to find magic, writing about Sufis and yogis. He does not mention modern practitioners of seidhr. He mentioned it in the historical section so he clearly considers it relevant to the topic of Odin. Among the rune magic workers he mentions, there are no women. Where is Freya Aswynn? For that matter, among all the different fiction writers mentioned, where is Diana Paxson? I’m pretty sure she’s still the only novelist who is Heathen who had her novel made into a TV series. Surely she is famous enough to mention. For that matter, where are the organizations she headed or helped found, the Ring of Troth and its descendent The Troth, and the SCA? Where is the RoT’s other descendant, the American Vinland Association? It was also founded by a woman, Prudence Priest.

I would say this was evidence of unconscious sexism, except that Rudgley doesn’t mention metal music either, and that’s dominated by men. So if there is some unconscious bias at work with what he included and what he didn’t include, it’s probably something less easily named than simple gender bias.

It does seem odd not to include music, though. If novels are included because they are like poetry, then what of the poetry of song lyrics? Since Rudgley included a bunch of criminals apparently just for being wanderers, what of folk songs about wanderers? Surely Cotton Eyed Joe should qualify under this standard. Many of the songs in Viking metal are literally about Odin, by name. Manowar has so many songs about Odin they have an entire song about his horse. Surely music influences culture.

The Conclusion opens by saying the book has now covered everything related to Odin. It really hasn’t. Where are the artists? Where are the painters, sculptors, and smiths? Where are the politicians? Are they not famous? Where are the radio hosts, the nonfiction authors, the MMA fighters, the event planners, the magazine publishers? Where are the internet forums? Where are the Renfaire guilds? Where are the priests and the godspouses and the temple keepers and those who care for sacred animals? The most glaring oversight in this book, which states over and over how much works of fiction influence popular culture and the popular psyche, is this: where is Marvel Comics? One can buy an Odin action figure at the Disney store, yes? This wasn’t worth mentioning?

Despite disagreeing with the opening statement in the conclusion, the rest of the conclusion is a good summary of the book. In fact, it could easily serve as an abstract of the book. If any readers are interested in just one or two parts of this history, I would recommend first going to the conclusion and reading that, and then reading the chapters about the time periods of interest.

Although there are omissions in this book of topics I would have liked to see included, I still recommend this book for those interested in occult history, particularly the first of the three sections, which deals with European history. Because the premise of this book is that Odin is an archetype, right off the bat some pagans and Heathens won’t want to read it. For those who are not too put off by that idea, though, there’s a lot to learn here. Of the several books that have been published recently which deal with racism and Heathenry, this one is by far the most accessible to the non-academic reader. It’s also the only one that doesn’t treat racism as a given, but presents non-racist Heathenry in many different times and places in history. Academic readers will find enough scholarly citations here to consider this a legitimate paper, while non-academic readers won’t be overwhelmed by them because they’re collected at the end, and footnotes are only used for side issue stories. I recommend this book for those who want to learn more about the history of European occult practices and the history of modern racist organizations.

[Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners and other books. She has been a gythia since 1989, published Berserkrgangr Magazine, is a godspouse of Odin and his brothers, and currently manages the Asatru Facebook Forum and writes the Pagansquare blog Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen. She lives with her mom and her black cat in Henderson, Nevada, where she ran for public office in 2010 and 2013, and is active in her local dance, arts, and pagan communities.]