Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism

Title: Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Author: Stefanie von Schnurbein
Pages: 432 pp
Price: $28.00

This entire book is about racism. The topics within it, from gender to art, are examined as they relate to “ariosophy” and “the volkisch movement.” I had heard of the latter, but not the former. Ariosophy means the philosophy of Aryans. In all my decades as an Asatru gythia, I had not learned that word or idea, but that is what Schnurbein contends is the basis of heathenry.

Norse Revival is number five in the series Studies in Critical Research on Religion, published by Brill. The publisher supplied me a review copy. The keywords the publisher tagged this book with on its website include #Asatru and #heathenry, but also #racism, which accurately reflects the contents of the book. The series editor, Warren S. Goldstein, states in his brief preface, “While parts of the movement remain racist, anti-Semitic, nationalistic, and xenophobic, others parts of it have emerged which are not.”

The introduction and front matter: The author is German, and although drawn to heathen material, is not heathen. Studying heathenry as an outsider, an academic, appears to be her way of squaring her feelings of attraction toward heathen art and myth with her feelings of revulsion toward her country’s modern history.

She describes an incident in her youth in which she attended the spring ritual of Ostara, at which that celebration of the earth’s fertility was explicitly linked with racism. Her journey into heathenry started the same year as mine, 1986, but her experiences were very different. I wonder if we are describing the same thing, as in the story of the blind men describing an elephant, in which one says it’s like a snake and another says it’s like a tree, or if her snake and my tree are really two different things after all.

As with many academic works, von Schnurbein has chosen to invent new terms for things which already have names. She had named the racist or volkisch philosophy “racial-religious,” folkish heathenry “ethnicist,” and universalist heathenry “a-racist.” Von Schnurbein acknowledges that there is a difference between what is written about Asatru by official organizations on their websites and in their books, and how actual Asatruars practice, but she has chosen to concentrate on the former.

The author states she her colleagues’ reaction to her reports of pleasant interactions with modern Asatruars was, “But if they are not actually racists, what is the point of researching them?” The question is shocking. What is the point of studying any religion? Von Schnurbein attempts to answer that question, but the question is so boggling that no answer can make it make sense.

Chapter 1: Starting the history of the Germanic revival with the Romanticism of the 19th century, the author into the texts that contributed to modern knowledge about the ancient heathen mind, and the people who influenced the interpretation of historical documents. Von Schnurbein writes that the Romantic philosophy held that a people have to have a homeland, a language, a religion, and customs, and that this idea led to the volkisch or nationalist philosophy. The Romantic idea that to be a proper volk (people) a people must have a homeland led to regarding people who did not at that time have their own country as being somehow illegitimate and dangerous. This idea has internal logic, but I still finding it boggling. I can’t connect that idea to the Asatru that I know. According to this notion, most of the foundational thinkers of modern paganism built racism and anti-Semitism into their philosophies, even Carl Jung.

The book goes forwards in time, still discussing the famous and the infamous, such as von Liszt, and the influence of these people on various movements related to Germanic revival. Along with recognizable names, there are also historical figures who are thankfully obscure. For example, Lanz and his Apelings and Divine Electron are eyebrow-raising and ridiculous to the modern reader. The author reports that Germanic neopaganism was not welcome in Hitler’s Germany, because Hitler needed the support of Christian churches. Some prominent members of the volkisch movement supported the Nazis, but Germanic neopagan organizations of the pre-Nazi era were destroyed during the war years. Von Schnurbein contends that Wicca grew out of the same stew of Romantic and volkisch thought as the Anglo-Saxon branch of Germanic neopaganism, only adding Masonic rituals, fantasies about matriarchy, fictional accounts of an ancient goddess and god, and countercultural sexuality.

Chapter 2 continues history into the second half of the 20th century. The book catalogues different groups, categorizing them and listing data such as number of members and the years in which they began, and where relevant, ended. Each country has its own entry, discussing its magazines, religious organizations, internet forums, and prominent heathens. In the section on the USA, there is mention of some people modern Asatruars will recognize, such as Prudence Priest.

Chapter 3 starts with a portrait of the Asatruars of various countries  by class background, age, gender, and other categories of identity. It goes into narratives of how people find Asatru and how Asatruars talk about their individual path. It tracks trends in belief, such as an increasing emphasis on true polytheism over time, while maintaining the non-dogmatic nature of Asatru.

There is an interesting tidbit on the origin of the word fulltrui, which modern American Asatruars use to mean a patron god. The word does not appear in ancient heathen lore, so its origin is opaque to many heathens today. Von Schnurbein has traced it to medieval Catholics who used the word to refer to their patron saint.

Here the book talks about things that I can recognize as Asatru as I know it. There is an outline of a blot, one of our basic rituals, although the author has actually described a sumbel, as the ritual including only toasting and not a blessing. Her description of a blot included casting and taking down a circle, which many Asatru groups did a generation ago, but which is less common now. Von Schnurbein covers the history of esoteric practices such as rune magic, and the personalities that drove the revival.

Chapter 4 deals with the struggle between racism and anti-racism among contemporary heathens. Famous personalities are quoted, and their writings analyzed. The various positions on the issue are summarized, the philosophies behind them explored, and problems with default positions and contradictions enumerated.

Chapter 5: In relating Asatru’s anti-monotheism and anti-Christianity to anti-Semitism, the author ignores the entire history of conversion to Christianity, and all the various grievances against it, in favor of rooting for the desired truffle of racism. Of course she finds what she seeks, but is that because it’s the biggest thing in this forest? What about the trees? It is self-evident that pagans and heathens explain experience based religion, polytheism, etc. in contrast to Christianity because Christianity is our society’s default idea of what a religion is, but von Schnurbein ignores that. She finds anti-Semitism in what is obviously an attempt to explain an unfamiliar thing by comparing it to a familiar thing.

Chapters 6 through 8: In the chapters on nature worship, gender & sexuality, and lore study, the author continues examining each topic through the lens of racism. Most of chapter 7 deals with the very real issues around gender and sexuality within Asatru. There is a big section on seidh and ergi and how they relate to each other, complete with cameo appearances by celebrities such as Raven Kaldera. The author finds racism there by linking the appeal of Vikings, which attracts men to Asatru, to the mannerbunde and thus the volkisch movement.

Chapter 9: In this chapter on “art religion,” there’s a section on Tolkien. Yes, she found racism. However, she also acknowledges that the parts of Tolkien’s fiction that appeal to pagans and heathens are the mythological themes and the contrast between nature, which is good, and industrial pollution, which is evil. Pagans and heathens are inspired by Tolkien’s portrayal of trees as self aware beings who are as worthy of consideration as human beings are.

“Instead of a Conclusion”: The author relates some of her recent experiences with Asatruars, in contrast with the early experience that set her on the path to study racism in heathenry. She is given a gift in thanks for helping root out racist groups from the heathen community, because of her previous writing. Here she engages my appreciation.

Then she writes, “The gods passed around the table will always carry with them a tinge of nationalism, racism, or ethnic and cultural essentialism.” That’s beyond stating an opinion about Asatru; it’s stating an opinion of the gods themselves. I realize she doesn’t think they are real or have any awareness or feelings, but I cannot let this pass. I hear the voice of Odin within me telling me to smash that idea.

Imagine for a moment of scholar studying Christianity, even if studying Christian Identity white supremacists, saying, “Jesus will always carry with them a tinge of nationalism, racism, or ethnic and cultural essentialism.” If we can see what is wrong with that, we can see why it is equally wrong to apply to other gods.

The author restates her ambivalence about her subject. I too am ambivalent; reading this book, I was by turns informed and offended, driven to read sections aloud to my traveling companion and unable to bring myself to open the file back up for weeks at a time. I have to say that I actually learned a lot, despite feeling that the author was searching for facts to support a preselected conclusion to the point where I sometimes wanted to tell her, quoting Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”

I recommend this book for those who want to study racism for the sake of studying racism. I cannot recommend it for those who want to study heathenry for the sake of studying heathenry. The themed chapters and sections might be of interest to those who study the history of those specific things, for example, the subsection on music in the art-religion chapter for those interested in the history of modern musical movements. This book is intended as an academic work, and it is certainly a work that students of modern history or of studies on racism might want to cite in a paper. I recommend it for that purpose.

[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.]