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The Spread of Ásatrú in Vinland


Cultic Studies Review, 1(2), 2002, 151-177

The Spread of Ásatrú in Vinland

Thomas Coghlan

New York City Police Department

The 1970s saw a rebirth in North America and Iceland of the religious practices of pre-historic Northern Europe.  This modern version of the faith, known as Ásatrú, has grown significantly since its rebirth, although it has struggled with and been vilified because of destructive tendencies within the faith.  This paper seeks to illuminate the historical and ideological differences between the benign faith of Ásatrú and its racialist[1], cultic, and terrorist deviations.

Wotan’s reawakening is a stepping back into the past; the stream was dammed up and has broken into its old channel.  But the obstruction will not last forever...  (Jung, 1936/1978, p. 192)

In the early 1970s Iceland and North America experienced an emergence of the religious traditions of prehistoric Northern Europe.  Extending into South America, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other nations, this religion has enjoyed rebirth and renewal despite the vilification stemming from its terrorist, cultic, and white-supremacist associations.  Unfortunately for its adherents, the defamation of this religion’s character has become a shadow from which it struggles to emerge into the conventional light of American society.  Although this religion has adopted nearly as many names as it has followers, for the purpose of this discussion it will be called Ásatrú.  This paper has two goals: (1) to explore the historical emergence and dogmatic polarization of the various Ásatrú factions in North America, and (2) to depict the diversity of modern Ásatrú.

Although academic information regarding modern Ásatrú is lacking, several authors (Byock, 1988; Davidson, 1988; Metzner, 1994) have detailed the evolution and diversification of Indo-European theology from its origins in prehistory, through the pre-Christian era and the fall of the Roman Empire, and up to the Christian conversion of Iceland circa 1000 AD.  An exact date for this conversion is not given, because “a controversy exists as to whether the conversion should be dated by our modern calendar to 999 or 1000” (Byock, 1988, p.11).  Unfortunately, the examination of modern Ásatrú is relatively novel and has not yet received substantial objective, academic attention.  Much of the available information regarding Ásatrú comes from the Internet, a troublesome and unreliable medium.  While Internet sources have been utilized in this discussion, they have been drawn upon with the proper caution and foresight that their use necessitates.  It is important to note that Internet sources have been used primarily for two purposes: first, as a means of communication with individual believers, and second, as a method of gathering intelligence on existing groups.  Electronic sources in and of themselves have not been relied upon, either academically or otherwise.  Attempts have been made to verify the validity of those electronic sources that were used due to a lack of availability of the document(s) in print.

This paper will deal with three general areas: a definition of terms specific to the topic, the history of modern Ásatrú, and an examination of its cultic, exploitative, and altogether ersatz deviations and derivations.

Definitions

This section will endeavor to define and distinguish three sets of terms: Ásatrú, Odinism, and Reconstructionalism; the Aesir, Asynjor and Vanir; and Vinland.

Asatru, Odinism, and Reconstructionalism

The term Ásatrú is contemporary Icelandic.  Phonetically pronounced au•sah•trü, this term is composed of the Old Norse words ása (referring to the Aesir pantheon), and tru (meaning faith or religious belief).  “Asatru, in its broadest sense means ‘the religion of the Germanic gods’, and in a narrower sense means ‘faith in the Aesir’” (Anschutz & Hunt, 1997, p. 17).  The Aesir pantheon will be discussed and defined below.  The term Ásatrúar (or the less common Asafolk) refers to individuals who practice Ásatrú.

For the purpose of this discussion, the term Ásatrú will be used to denote the modern religious practice of belief in and worship of the Aesir pantheon.  Many Ásatrúar would disagree with the use of this term.  For example, Grauwolf, co-Gothi of the Wolfgar Freehold, “a small, yet growing, independent Kindred” in Montana, explains that:

it is our feeling that over the years the term “Asatru”: has become, for most, little more than a convenient catch phrase...we prefer to refer to our faith as “The Religion of Our Traditional Northern Heritage”...preferable to the stewpot labeled “Asatru.” (personal communication, February 17, 2001)

Continuing this disparity, HeimdallR hinn gamli, the “presiding Elder, Society for the Elder Way, Samfundet for den Forna Seden USA, Inc.” reports:

I do not use the term “asatru” to describe my personal religious beliefs...because “asatru” is a misnomer, “not the correct name” this is a word used by the Icelandic Government in 1972 and which the Icelandic co-religious community freely admits they are stuck with.  Forn Sed© is the “correct linguistic” term describing those who follow the “old traditions.”  (personal communication, February 5, 2001)

Though respecting those who may disagree, this discussion will use the term Ásatrú to encompass practitioners who have diversified themselves under several different labels, including but not limited to Northern Tradition, Norse Tradition, Neo-Paganism, Germanic or Teutonic Paganism, Elder Troth, and Heathenry (also Northern or Germanic Heathenry).  It is important to note that the use of this term will be limited to those who practice religious devotion to the Aesir.  In order to draw proper distinctions, and with apologies to those who would object, the term Odinism will be used in reference to Far Right, white supremacist, or domestic terrorist deviations and perversions of Ásatrú.  While Odinistic practices will be discussed in detail below under a separate heading, a brief definition will help to illustrate the distinction.

Odinism, as used in this paper, refers to a racist offshoot of Ásatrú thought.  It is a perversion of true Ásatrú belief in that it incorporates tenets found in Christian Identity, British Israelism, and other strains of Judeo-Christian influenced white supremacy, demonstrated especially in its Millenarian outlook.  Kaplan quite excellently further explores these distinctions:

Odinists, like Ásatrúers, posit the tribal ethos of Germany and Scandanavia... however, the Odinist seeks to reconstitute that golden time virtually unchanged in the postapocalyptic modern world.  The Odinist dream is of battle...The borderline separating racialist Odinism and National Socialism is exceedingly thin, and much of the material produced by racialist Odinism contains explicit odes to Hitler and to the Third Reich.

Odinists differ from Ásatrúers in another way as well: their powerful sense of conspiratorialism.  For Odinists, there is no doubt as to the identity of the enemy...it is the Jew.”  (Kaplan, 1997, pp. 85-86)

There are, of course, self-proclaimed Ásatrúar who are ideologically Odinists, and vice versa.  Gerald Baumgarten of the Southern Poverty Law Center of the Ant-Defamation League recognizes this discrepancy in stating, “While there may be Odinists who are not part of neo-Nazi or other groups, Odinism has been a pseudo-religious strain of American neo-Nazi activity and propaganda”  (personal communication, March 16, 2001).  It would be a mistake to draw inferences to individuals’ belief systems by judging the label they prescribe to themselves.  The compartmentalization of these terms is mine alone, and is for discussion purposes only.

A third group that should be separated from both Ásatrúar and Odinists are the Reconstructionalists.  These individuals hold no religious belief in the Aesir pantheon, nor do they proclaim racialism or terrorist ideologies.  In fact, they concern themselves with Ásatrú on a purely superficial, aesthetic level, and are seen by many Ásatrúar as something along the spectrum between curiosity and anathema.  Reconstructionalism will not be covered below, simply due to the fact that it has no place in a discussion of Ásatrú.  Those interested in generic Reconstructionalism are encouraged to pursue literature concerning groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism.  For an exploration of the truly obscure extreme of the Reconstructionalist spectrum, specific to Ásatrú, readers are referred to the Kingdom of Uberheim (Uberheim, 2002), which advertises itself as "a Private 'Event based' Wagnerian Society subculture which is a unique mixture of Medievalism / Fantasy and Norse / Germanic Mythology."  (Uberheim, 2002, http://cybergaard.tripod.com/index1.html)

Aesir, Asynjor, and Vanir

A second group of terms to be defined and differentiated are Aesir, Asynjor, and Vanir.  For the purposes of this discussion, the term Aesir will be used to refer to these three terms collectively.  Ásatrú is a polytheistic faith, and Ásatrúar are, as their name implies, people who are faithful to their pantheon of deities, the Aesir.  There have been attempts to further diversify the religion through organizational dedication to specific patron deity(ies); a move towards micro-compartmentalization that has only served to segregate adherents from one another.

The term Asa, or As, is the singular form of Aesir, and is often used as a prefix when indicating an individual deity (i.e., Asa Thor).  There are two main bodies of deities, the Aesir and Vanir, overseeing government and fertility respectively, although these classes of deities are sometimes obscured or confused.  The prefix Van, like Asa, is sometimes used to denote an individual Vanir deity (i.e., Van Njord).  Asynjor refers specifically to the goddesses, but is used more rarely in Ásatrú vernacular.  Ásatrú is predominantly a patriarchal faith, with Asa Othin reigning as the chieftain of the Aesir.  He is known by many names, each descriptive of a definitive characteristic, but All Father is his chief title.  Othin rules the Aesir, and the Vanir as well, as a result of his supreme wisdom.  The Aesir’s purview extends across government, war, strategy, aristocracy, litigation, commerce, and civilization.  The Vanir’s purview encompasses agriculture, fertility, sexual prowess, and the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Among the Aesir pantheon are:

Odin, also known as Othin, Wotan, or Woden - god of magic, the runes, poetry, death, strategy, and cunning; remembered in the word Wednesday for “Woden’s Daeg”

Vili and Ve, also known respectively as Hoenir and Lodur (Othin’s brothers),

Thor (Othin’s son by the giantess Jord) - god of the storm, berserker rage, and protector of the common folk; remembered in the word Thursday for “Thor’s Daeg”

Balder (Othin’s son by Asynjor Frigga) - the beautiful god

Forseti (son of Balder) - god of justice and mediation

Tyr (Othin’s son by Asynjor Frigga) - god of war and oath solemnity; remembered in the word Tuesday for “Tyr’s Daeg”

Heimdall (son of Othin) - guardian of the kingdom of the Aesir

Hermod (Othin’s son by Asynjor Frigga) - the god of speed

Hoder (Othin’s son by Asynjor Frigga) the blind god whose actions will bring about the prophesized apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok

Bragi (Othin’s son adopted from the giantess Gunnloth) - god of poetry and eloquence

Vidar (Othin’s son by the giantess Grid) - god of strength

Vali (Othin’s son by the giantess Rinda) - god of youth.

Among the Vanir pantheon are:

Njord - god of the sea, who becomes an Aesir as a peace-hostage of sorts

Freyr (also known as IngFreyr) - Njord’s son and a god of the Elves and fertility.

Many of the Asynjor were of the Vanir race, including:

Frigga (Othin’s wife, Van Fjorgyn’s daughter) - goddess of motherhood and a feminine form of prophetic magic called seithr

Freya (a wife of Odin, Njord’s daughter) - goddess of beauty and leader of the Valkyr.

The above is only a brief description of Ásatrú lore, presented both to clarify definitions of terms and to give the reader an overview of the pantheon.  A full exploration of Norse or Icelandic lore is beyond the scope of this discussion.  For a more thorough search into the mythology, it is suggested that the reader begin by pursuing both the Poetic Edda (Hollander, 1996) and the Prose Edda (Young, 1966).

Vinland

Lastly, the term Vinland needs to be defined.  In 986 A.D., Norse trader Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course while traveling between Iceland and Greenland.  He brought back with him reports of a heavily wooded coastline.  Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson (975-1020), also known as Leif the Lucky, son of Erik the Red

later bought Bjarni’s ship and, based on his description, retraced the voyage.  As he sailed, he touched Helluland (perhaps Baffin Island), Markland (perhaps Labrador), and finally Vinland.  The precise identity of Vinland remains controversial among scholars...in 1963, however, archeologists found ruins of a Viking-type settlement at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, in northern Newfoundland, which corresponds to Leif’s description of Vinland.  (Microsoft Corporation, 2000)

Recent endeavors have been made to give proper recognition to the contributions of both the Norse and Icelanders in this pre-Columbian “discovery” of the North American continent.  (Fitzhugh, 2000)  For two reasons, the term Vinland will be used in this discussion to refer generally to the North American continent: first, to impart a Nordic “feel” to the discussion, and second, to recognize Eriksson’s accomplishments.  Some Ásatrúar use the term colloquially, while others disagree with it on a semantic level.  For example, in response to a request for a referral of a scholarly source regarding the spread of Ásatrú in Vinland, HeimdallR hinn gamli wrote “I guess the people in ‘Vinland’ should answer for themselves, [they’re] Canadians you know”  (personal communication, February 5, 2001).

The History of Ásatrú

Although it has been used in the above discussion several times, the phrase “modern Ásatrú” is in fact an awkward redundancy, for the term ‘Ásatrú’ dates back to only the early 1970s.  Although the religious practices of Ásatrú date back into Indo-European prehistory, it was the Icelandic government that labeled the faith with its contemporary name.  Sources differ on the date Ásatrú was established in America. Kaplan’s (1997) selection of 1973, however, seems to be reasonable. In a 1986 interview with the late Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (April 4, 1924 - December 24, 1993), the founder of Icelandic Ásatrú reported the following regarding his efforts at having Ásatrú recognized:

My religion was officially recognized by the [Icelandic] government in May of ‘73...In the winter of ‘71/’72, at that time we were getting a lot of Jesus Children into Iceland, and I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute, we have older beliefs in Iceland.  Why should we not bring them back to life?...I had to go to the Minister of Justice who happens to be pro religious freedom, and explain our goals...Then I had to apply for a License to Practice with the police, and since then we’ve had the same rights as the Church.  (Graichen, 1999, 1-15)

Regarding this, Kaplan says:

Ásatrúarmenn in Iceland was formed by the late Svienbjörn Beinteinsson in 1973, and in the same year, the Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite was founded by John Yeowell in England.  The first American Ásatrú organization, the Viking Brotherhood, was formed in Texas by Stephen McNallen.  It is the Viking  Brotherhood, later renamed the Ásatrú Free Assembly (AFA) [and later again, the  Ásatrú Folk Assembly], to which the organized Ásatrú community in America traces its roots.  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 18)

Although this discussion is concerned primarily with the spread of Ásatrú in Vinland, the following anecdotal lore was found posted on the website of an Ásatrú Kindred (one of the terms used to denote an Ásatrú group), namely the Raven Kindred of the Ásatrú Alliance, Inc.  While its account is not verified as being factual, it does seem to be the sort of lore that develops into legend and is a curiosity worth quoting:

In Iceland, Svienbjörn and Thorsteinn Gudjonsson went to the Icelandic Government and demanded that Ásatrú by recognized by the Althing [the Icelandic Parliament].  After some predictable political maneuvering, and a lightening bolt striking the Minister of Religious Affair house (lightening is very rare in Iceland), Ásatrú was recognized as the official religion of Iceland on equal par with the other state religion, Lutheranism.  At the same time in Vinland, Steve McNallen, soon joined by Maddy Hunter and a handful of other Asatruar, worked to formulate and rebuild a religion long thought dead... (Murray, 2001, ¶ 16)

Regarding dates, many Ásatrúar refer to the Runic Era calendar, as opposed to the common calendar.  The website of the Wodan’s Kindred explains this as follows:

The Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, etc., have their own calendar system, so why not us?  At the time of this decision the oldest Runic artifact discovered in Europe had been carbon dated to 250 years before Christ.  So they chose that date as the time when Odin revealed the Runes to our race (the beginning of the current Era), and counted the year as “0", hence the “RE” stands for Runic Era...[despite differences of opinion] for the sake of unity and solidarity the Ásatrúar and Odinists of today (most of them) have decided to adhere to this original date...  (Wodanesdag Press, 2001, ¶ 3)

For example, the same Internet site states that the current year is 2251 RE.  The above-cited article by Michael Valgard Murray of the Ásatrú Alliance, also makes ample use of the Runic Era calendar, for example stating that “In the year 2238 Runic Era, Asatru was revived both in Vinland and Iceland by pioneers of the Folk” (Murray, 2001, ¶ 9), a reference to the 1988 founding of Murray’s Ásatrú Alliance.  It is unfortunate that this seems more the callow attempt of a fledgling belief system to trump the actions of existing mainstream or alternate faiths, rather than a true endeavor to better itself.  The above expression resembles more a need for “one-up-manship” than sincere theology.

At the same time that McNallen was endeavoring to strengthen the Viking Brotherhood (renamed the Asatru Free Assembly [AFA]) the Odinist Fellowship was formed in the early 1970s (Kaplan, 1997).  Else Christensen, the widow of Alex Christensen, formed the group and began publication of The Odinist, under the influence of the writings of Alexander Rud Mills, an Australian Nazi sympathizer.  “Mills’ diagnosis held that the contemporary malady of civilization was due to the malign influence of the Jews...Out of this process of reasoning came Mills’ most influential book, The Odinist Religion: Overcoming Jewish Christianity.”  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 15)    Concerning this sort of ideology, Kaplan sums up the differences between Ásatrú and Odinism:

Although self-identified Odinists are often drawn to the belief system by preexisting racialist beliefs, Ásatrúers are a considerably more diverse community for whom racial pride, while important, is in most instances secondary to the greater considerations of spirituality and the “remagicalization” of the world.  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 19)

The year 1978 marked a decisive break on McNallen’s part from Odinistic thought when he issued a statement in response to the association with Odinism of the National Socialist White Workers Party, led by Allen Vincent, a veteran of the American Nazi Party.  Kaplan quotes McNallen as saying, “Nazi-Odinist identification has persisted down to this day, but most of us either learned to live with it or simply hoped it would go away...The Ásatrú Free Assembly announces the end of that tolerance”  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 19).

In 1985, Rob Meek (a.k.a. Ingvar Solve Ingvisson, his craft pseudonym[2]) joined the AFA, and would prove to be an eventual blight on the whole of Ásatrú.  Financial and political stressors eventually wore away at McNallen and the AFA, and in 1987 the Ásatrú Free Assembly was disbanded.  Two groups, the Ring of Troth, founded by Dr. Stephen Flowers (a.k.a. Edred Thorsson, his craft pseudonym), and the Ásatrú Alliance, headed by Michael Valgard Murray of the Arizona Kindred, were formed to answer for the deficit of organized Ásatrú.  Each group was distinct in its approach to Ásatrú. The Ring of Troth concentrated on the creation of an Ásatrú priesthood and the practice of rituals (i.e., blot, sumbel, rune divination).  The Ásatrú Alliance (AA) focused on community, and, unfortunately, maintained a degree of racialist ideology in that it connected ethnicity with faith.  The connection was inevitable, given Murray’s previous affiliations.

Kaplan recaps Murray’s history of affiliation and his spiritual journey through the shadow of the racialist beliefs of Odinism and his eventual discovery of Ásatrú:

As a teenager in Phoenix, Murray was involved in the local National Socialist scene through Rockwell’s American Nazi Party.  With the commander’s 1967 assassination, Murray remained briefly with the renamed party under Matt Koehl and was a member of the odd National Socialist White People’s Party’s Nazi Motorcycle Club...Murray left the world of National Socialism and in the early 1970s found Else Christensen’s Odinist Fellowship... Murray first met McNallen in 1972, but it was not until 1980 that, deeply moved by the spirituality of the rituals led by McNallen, Murray would officially join the Ásatrú Free Assembly.  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 20)

Following the breakup of the AFA in 1987, Murray assumed a leadership role and founded the Ásatrú Alliance.  In response to his first encounter as a leader with questions regarding the AA’s racialist affiliation with the National Socialist group, New Dawn, Murray said, “The Alliance does not advocate any type of political or racial extremist views or affiliation”  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 21).

Years of struggle with this infamous affiliation would plague the Ring of Troth as well as the Ásatrú Alliance.  A former member of the Ásatrú Free Alliance, the aforementioned Rob Meek joined the Ring of Troth circa 1988 and quickly rose into the group’s high ranks.  Complications from a brain tumor made Meek unstable and difficult within the group.  In 1991, he murdered his wife and was arrested.  Accusations of Satanic affiliation ran strongly through pagan communities.  Meek passed the accusations along to Flowers (a.k.a. Thorsson), an act from which neither Flowers nor his Ring of Troth could recover.  Flowers’ interests and alliances did not serve to help his situation either (Kaplan, 1997).

Flowers specialized in sexual magic, rune divination, the polarity of pain and pleasure, and the darker, shamanistic aspects of the Odinic figure.  He was a member of the Order of the Triskelion, a group devoted to the study of sexual dominance and submissiveness.  Within the Order of the Triskelion were the “Roissy Society for male dominants and female submissives and the Onyx Circle for female dominants and male submissives” (Kaplan, 1997, p. 26).  Unfortunately for Flowers, the membership of the Order of the Triskelion contained a mixture of members from groups such as the Temple of Set, a Satanic group led by U.S. Army Lt.-Colonel Dr. Michael Aquino (Langone, 1993).  Meek’s exposure of the connection damaged Thorsson and the Ring of Troth in a way that could not be undone.  In 1992, leadership of the Ring was handed over to Prudence Priest.  Priest, too, was soon ousted, continuing the legacy of infamy for which the Ring of Troth had come to be known (Kaplan, 1997).

Regarding the AA, Kaplan says:

the Alliance, in stark contrast to the Troth, never attempted to exercise control over local kindreds.  While the Troth’s Elder Training Program undertook the ambitious task of creating an Ásatrú “priesthood,” the Alliance left the spiritual direction of its member kindreds to the local leadership.  (Kaplan, 1997, p. 31)

This insistence on personal and Kindred autonomy is a mainstay of Ásatrú.  It remains today a recurring theme throughout kindred literature and is one of the significant distinctions between Ásatrú and the cultic mentality.

In a cultic situation:

no withdrawal is permitted and no time for private consideration...is allowed.  Thus...the basic assumptions of “dependency” and “fight-flight” replace individual expression and personal autonomy...[cultic activity] reinforces the merging of the individual within a “horde” or “mob” whose leader can then use his/her authority to undermine the individual’s autonomy.  (Halperin, 1983b, p. 229)

If there is blasphemy in Ásatrú, this surrendering of autonomy is it.  The “relationship to a controlling and charismatic leader” (Halperin, 1983, p. 231) that characterizes a cultic group is anathema to Ásatrúar, who appreciate the strength of the individual and his or her will.  The following excerpts from the literature of individual Ásatrú groups illustrate this appreciation.

Asatru is an independent faith...  We worship the Aesir and Vanir not in submission, but standing upright… (Gladsheim Kindred, 2002, Retreived from the World Wide Web: http://www.gladsheim.org/whatis.html)

...Ásatrúars are fiercely independant (sic)...we are not “sheep,” and I would not see Ásatrúars made into them. (member posting on asatru-FORN_SED@egroups.com, February 19, 2001)

We recognize the strength of Ásatrú to be in its diversity...and consider the individual and his or her family to be the most important unit of Ásatrú...We believe that organizations should exist to support the growth of individuals in their faith and that leadership positions on any level should be a matter of responsibility, not privilege (sic)...Ásatrú places the highest value [on] human freedom and individuality.  (Irminsul Aettir, Retrieved February 7, 2001 from http://www. irminsul.org/ir/ir.html)

Wodan’s Kindred [is] a religious/cultural fraternity of free men & women. (Wodanesdag Press, 2001, ¶ 1)

Suffice to say, the principle of autonomy is of extreme importance to Ásatrúar.

Although not all Ásatrúar accept them as tenets, Ásatrú professes the Nine Noble Virtues as a guide to daily morality and a standard by which to measure one’s actions.  In this way Ásatrú represents a “healthy religious affiliation [in that it] confirms the individual’s autonomy by providing him with an integrated, internalized ability to judge and explore the moral implications of his acts and those of others”  (Halperin, 1983a, p. xxi).  The Nine Noble Virtues are Honor, Fidelity, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance, Perseverance, Courage, Truth, and Discipline/Self-Rule.  (Irminsul Aettir, 2001). This code of ethics comes largely from The Havamal (“The Sayings of Har”), a poetic work included in the Poetic Edda (Hollander, 1996), which, along with the Prose Edda (Young, 1966), represent the closest thing Ásatrúar have to a holy text.  In The Havamal, Odin imparts wisdom and advice on a wide array of subjects, including being or receiving a guest, interactions with friend and foe, and the knowledge of runic magic.

The common term for an Ásatrú group is a Kindred, although many other names exist, including Felagid, Freehold, and Hof.  Formed in these Kindreds, Ásatrú currently spans the whole of the United States, portions of South America, Canada, and the whole of Iceland.  Normally conducted annually, Ásatrúar meet at an AlThing, or a meeting of Kindreds where by-laws are read and Kindred business is conducted.  This mimics the tradition of the pre-Christian Icelandic parliament which met annually at the site of ThingVellir for the AlThing.

Some attempt has been made, as mentioned above, to further diversify the faith by organizational dedication to specific patron deities.  For example, groups professing Vanatru (faith in the Vanir) and Odintru (specific dedication to Odin, a faith not to be confused with the racialist Odinism) have emerged.  This is uncommon in that the faith is inherently polytheistic, and calls for attention to all members of the pantheon.  A reflection on this was offered by HeimdallR hinn gamli, Presiding Elder of the Society for the Elder Way, Samfundet for den Forna Seden:

…coining new phrases like “Vanatru”...is in my opinion silly.  But, there are those who prefer using both “asatru” and “vanatru” like the association in Brazil.  If one begins to divide the deities into groups, why not choose those just worshiped predominantly in Germany in one group, those worshiped in Sweden in another and those who worship Thor forming a completely separate religion.  See how silly it becomes?  And theologically it is way off base.  (personal communication, February 6, 2001)

Expanding on this idea of patron deity dedication, Mirabello reports having encountered a “secret society” called the Odin Brotherhood “while conducting doctoral research in history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow” (Mirabello, 1995, p. 3).  During his published interviews with the Brotherhood, the term Odinism is used to describe a dedication that seems on the surface to be an extreme version of what this discussion calls Ásatrú.  There is no mention of racialist views or Odinistic outlooks in the interviews, despite its self-appointed title.  Mirabello reports:

Odinism is an ancient religion that acknowledges the gods by fostering thought, courage, honor, light, and beauty...The Odin Brotherhood is a secret society for all extraordinary mortals who embrace the principles of Odinism...Men and women who possess an epic state of mind...Although Odinism is the primordial religion, the Brotherhood itself is only five centuries old.  (Mirabello, 1995, p. 5)

Exploring the validity of Mirabello’s reported Brotherhood is beyond the scope of this discussion, although at first read it appears specious.  He admits as such, reporting that “my sources...provided me with information on condition of strict anonymity, and I therefore cannot document my materials with the proper references...I cannot personally guarantee the credibility of the individuals who communicated with me” (Mirabello, 1995, p. 3).  The linguistic style of the interviews also seems to originate from a single speaker, although Mirabello further explains that this is the result of his having translated the text.  It seems to further complicate issues that this “secret” society is currently advertised on an Internet site, “The Odin Brotherhood” (Odin Brotherhood, 2001).   Specious or not, the report of the Odin Brotherhood is another example of the diversification of Ásatrú.

The United Kingdom, Germany, and much of Europe have also experienced this rebirth of what Jung in 1936 called the Wotan archetype.  Regarding Odin Jung said that

apparently he was only asleep in the Kyffhauser mountain until the ravens called him and announced the break of day.  He is a fundamental attribute of the German psyche...a Germanic datum of first importance.” (Jung, 1936/1978, p. 186)

Wotan is active in the form of Kindreds spread across the United States, including but not limited to those affiliated with the following associations: Ásatrú Alliance, Ring of Troth, Ásatrú Folk Assembly (currently lead by Stephen McNallen of the above-mentioned Viking Brotherhood), Irminsul Aettir, Confederation of Independent Ásatrú Kindreds, American Vinland Association, New York Metro Ásatrú Society, Odinic Rite, Raven Kindred Association, Ásatrúarfélagid (the Icelandic Ásatrú Association), and the Icelandic-associated Society for the Elder Way, Samfundet for den Forna Seden, USA.

What follows is an overview of Ásatrú deviations and derivations.

Odinism and Alternate Ásatrú

Odinism, as defined in this discussion, is a white-supremacist deviation of Ásatrú.  Hypocritically, and paradoxically, these groups tend to merge Ásatrú ideology with that of concepts such as British Israelism and Christian Identity.  The Christian Identity Movement is found in groups such as the Aryan Nation, the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, and the domestic terrorism group, The Order, an Aryan Nations offshoot.  The basic premise of Christian Identity is that:

the ten lost tribes of Israel taken captive by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC had been assimilated into the pagan cultures of Europe and especially Britain.  Thus, people of Anglo-Saxon descent were identified as heirs to the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament.  (Watchman Fellowship, 2001, ¶ 3)

Two other theories tend to run concurrently in Christian Identity circles: the Pre-Adamite theory and the Serpent’s Seed doctrine (also known as the Two-Seed Doctrine).  The Pre-Adamite theory states that Whites are the descendants of Adam and Eve, while other races (Blacks, Asians, etc.) are the descendants of human beings created before Adam, the “beasts of the Earth” spoken of in the Book of Genesis.  The Serpent’s Seed Doctrine expands on this with the theory that Cain was the offspring of Eve and Satan.  Cain and his descendants then bred with the Pre-Adamites, resulting in an inferior race, now known as the Jews (Watchman Fellowship, 2001).

For example, the Internet site of the Aryan Nations states:

We believe that the true, literal children of the Bible are the twelve tribes of Israel, now scattered throughout the world and now known as the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Teutonic...We believe that the Cananite Jew is the natural enemy of our Aryan (White) Race.  (Aryan Nations, 2001, ¶ 5-7)

The closest links to Ásatrú, however, are two groups: the Bruder Schwiegen and Wotansvolk.

The Bruder Schweigen, also known as the Silent Brotherhood, or more commonly as the Order, was formed by Aryan Nations member Robert Jay Mathews.  He left the Aryans Nation Church because its leader, Pastor Richard Butler, was not, in his mind, concentrating enough on action in the pursuit of securing a White America (Kaplan, 1997).  In 1983, Mathews recruited a group of fellow dissident-Aryan Nations members and formed the Order.  Mathews respected, and took inspiration from, terrorist-minded individuals such as Gordon Kahl of the Posse Comitatus (Boyle, 1995).  Although Mathews was eventually killed in December 1984 in a shootout with federal agents on Whidbey Island, the voice of the Order lives on, as demonstrated in this excerpt of an interview with Mathews’ follower, Randy Evans:

I believe Odinism, Druidism, Buddhism, Brahmaism, Greek and Roman Gods all are part of the collective unconscious of our folk and therefore should all be considered in their perspectives by individuals.  This is “Aryanism.” (Sigrdrifa, 2001, ¶ 6)

Mathews was strongly influenced by William Pierce’s (a.k.a. Andrew Macdonald) The Turner Diaries (Macdonald, 1996):

The anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-government book that has become a bible to the Christian Identity Movement and to people like convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh...Mathew’s group had a grand plan: Rid the country of blacks.  Kill all Jews.  “Stand up like men and drive the enemy into the sea,” Mathews preached.  (Brown, 1999, ¶ 7)

The Order professed a philosophy called the “14 Words.”  The 14 Words are as follows: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children”  (Wotansvolk, 2001).  To this end, the Order sought to instigate a race war in order to bring about the prophetic Norse apocalyptic prophecy of Ragnarok.  Two points are relevant here regarding the Millennial aspect of cultic thought.  First, Mathews and his ilk fit well into Garvey’s characteristics when he reports:

The Millenarian tradition embodies the idea that the final conflict between good and evil is imminent...Those who embrace the revelation...will be saved...Anything performed in the services of the Millenium becomes pure even if the acts themselves would normally be considered as immoral or even reprehensible.  (Garvey, 1983, p. 62)

The above quote applies quite well to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s rationalization of his murder of women and children.

The second point, applicable to Mathews and his hold over his followers (his near-deification upon his “martyrdom” reflects the respect he is yet held in) is as follows:

…charismatic leaders and their followers may think and say that they assemble to bring about the millennium, cargo, or universal brotherhood, while “in reality” they react to oppression and cultural contamination.  What drives them, in other words, happens to them, behind their backs, so to speak.  (Fabian, 1983, p. 135)

It is unfortunate that, in their reaction to these driving forces, the Odinists have incorporated the lore and practices of Ásatrú into their pathology and thus vilified a religion whose true adherents seek only to revive the old, lost religious beliefs of their ancestors.

This distortion has occurred in the second above-named faction as well; Wotansvolk.  The two, Wotansvolk and the Bruder Schweigen, are not separate entities, but two branches of the same ideology.  Wotansvolk claims itself to be the incarnation of the Wotan archetype.  The name is an acronym for “Will Of The Aryan Nation,” hence the name W.O.T.A.N.  (Wotansvolk, 2001).

Ironically, while Odinists find their connection to Ásatrú in their pursuit of the millennial Ragnarok for its apocalyptic-cleansing ability, neither this mentality nor its purpose exists in true Ásatrú.  In fact, the simple connection between Odinsim and Christian Identity is such an extreme juxtaposition of incompatible theologies that there seems no valid basis for the Odinist’s argument.  Unfortunately, Ásatrú seems unable to rid itself of its connection with Odinism’s racism, anti-Semitism, violence, and crime.  Regarding the December 2000 - January 2001 manhunt for seven escapees from a Texas penitentiary, it was reported that Patrick Henry Murphy, one of the last two escapees to be captured, was an Odinist.  “They said he is an adherent of the Northern European mythological religion called Odinism.  Odin is the Scandinavian name of the god of wisdom, poetry, war and agriculture”  (Becka, 2001, ¶ 29).

Ásatrúar have taken steps to counter this misunderstanding and to make known the true intent of their religious practices and its distinction from the racialist Odinists.  In 1999 in anticipation of Millennium terrorism, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report titled, Project Megiddo, intended to be a “strategic assessment of the potential for domestic terrorism in the United States undertaken in anticipation of or response to the arrival of the new millenium”  (FBI, 1999, p. 1).  Megiddo, named for a hill in Northern Israel with apocalyptic significance, illustrates the Gnostic bridge between Odinism and Christian Identity, but does not specifically vilify Ásatrú:

Odinism provides dualism - as does Christian Identity - with regard to the universe being made up of worlds of light (white people) and worlds of dark (non-white people).  The most fundamental difference between the two ideologies is that Odinists do not believe in Jesus Christ.  However, there are enough similarities between the myths and legends of Odinism and its beliefs of Christian Identity to make a smooth transition from Christian Identity to Odinism for those racist individuals whose penchant for violence is not being satisfied [as Mathews was not being satisfied within the Aryan Nations church].  (FBI, 1999, p. 20)

In response to this report, Michael Valgard Murray, credited as the “head of the International Ásatrú/Odinic Alliance (IAOA)” (CESNUR, 1999, ¶ 1) issued several statements, as did the Ásatrú Folk Assembly in their rebuttal, Ásatrú/Odinism: A Briefing for Law Enforcement Officials. (Asatru Folk Assembly, 2001).  Osferth, head of the Odinic Rite Vinland, issued the following statement:

Odinists will celebrate the beginning of our year 2250 on the Winter Solstice, our New Year’s Eve.  We practice a pre-Christian religion that does not recognize Armageddon or a second coming related to the Christian doctrine or calendar...The FBI’s suggestion that the year 2000, the second coming of Christ, or Armageddon have any significance to Odinists makes no sense whatsoever.  (CESNUR, 1999, ¶ 3)

Murray voiced conspiratorial concerns in stating:

False, misleading and deceptive information about our religion and its followers in an FBI report released in October about possible millennium-related violence raises grave concerns about the government’s intentions....What’s next?  Will we be fed to the lions?..Let’s not forget the fate suffered by the Branch Davidians at Waco.  (CESNUR, 1999, ¶ 1-3)

Murray seems to be continuing to hold on to the former beliefs of his racialist affiliates in mentioning such extreme views.  Perhaps the preferred move on his and all Ásatrúar’s part would be to disavow all connection with the term Odinism.

On an entirely separate level of deviation is a group professing Skertru.  This may be the closest Ásatrú-based theology to resemble a cult.  Much like “Joseph Smith...the leader and prophet of Mormonism [who] presented himself as the recipient of a divine revelation - The Book of Mormon” (Garvey, 1983, p. 60), the founder of Skertru has imparted to his followers divine knowledge sent to him from Odin himself.  Regarding this, HeimdallR hinn gamli reports:

Skergard/Skertru, based upon heretical writings of Lars Anthony Cone a/k/a Lars Agnarsson.  Cites as “divine revelation” his “receipt of both Skerbok and the Nana’smal directly from Odin, while high in the Colorado Rockies,” the preceding is a direct quote from Lars  (personal communication, February 6, 2001).

Grauwolf of the Wolfgar Freehold expands on this by writing,

I did remember, and confirm, that Lars Agnarsson was part of the RoT...[it is possible] that somebody came along and managed to show him up for the fraud that he was.  (personal communication, March 28, 2001)

Miscellanea

In order to illustrate the separation that exists between the Ásatrú communities of Iceland and Vinland, the following anecdotal information is offered.  During the initial draft of this paper, an attempt was made to gather information concerning the events surrounding the second-hand reporting of an assassination of an Icelandic Ásatrúar of some renown.  Regarding the question of this high-profile assassination, the following inconclusive information was gathered from Vinlandic Ásatrúar.

Mike Valgard Murray reported:

The Gothi “Assassination” - A gothi of the Felag (Asatru Fellowship) was killed in his home by a burglar last year.  I regret I don’t remember the name of the guy, I never had any contact with him.  (personal communication, February 12, 2001)

Grauwolf of the Wolfgar Freehold expanded on this by writing

I don’t recall the man’s name, but I believe it happened shortly after he took over for Svienbjorn Beinteinsson [1924-1993] so the “last year” remark doesn’t seem to fit.  (personal communication, February 12, 2001)

Finally, HeimdallR hinn gamli, a Vinlandic Ásatrúar Gothi who self-reports strong ties to the Iceland Ásatrú associations through both heritage and social ties, wrote in response to a query regarding the murder of any Icelandic Ásatrúar Gothi:

As far as I know, first hand from Jormundur Ingi, Allsherjargodhi of the Asatru Fellowship of Iceland, Sveinbjorn died in his sleep at home...The fellowship met and elected Jormundur to lead them, which he has proudly done without disgrace ever since...The only assassination I have ever heard about concerning “Iceland” was the death of Snorri Sturleson in the 12th century.  (personal communication, February 7, 2001)

No positive results concerning the murder of a high profile Ásatrúar were gathered from Vinlandic sources.  Subsequent research through Icelandic sources though, revealed a far greater amount of information concerning this significant act within the Ásatrú community.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 13, 1999, Thorhallur Olver Gunnlaugsson stabbed to death Ásatrúar Agnar Wilhelm Agnarsson in the victim’s flat in Leifsgata, Reykjavik.  Gunnlaugsson was arrested by Reykjavik Police that same evening for an unrelated case of suspected drunk driving.  Blood samples were taken from his clothing, sent to Norway for DNA testing (where they were later confirmed to be Agnarsson’s), and Gunnlaugsson was released from custody.  Shortly after, he fled Iceland from Keflavik International Airport to Copenhagen, Denmark where, through the assistance of Interpol intelligence efforts, Danish police arrested him at a train station on the morning of Sunday July 18, 1999 (Icelandic News, August 20, 2001).

The importance of this event within the Ásatrú community is directly related to the inter-community importance of Agnarsson himself.  On the Internet website for the Asatru Folk Assembly, the following is attributed to Ásatrúar Thorsteinn Gudjonsson

Icelandic Ásatrúar member Agnar Agnarsson 48, died on July 14th, as a result of a murder-and-robbery attack into his own home, says the police.  The doer (in no way related to our movement) is under arrest.  Agnar was one of the first to declare himself into the Ásatrú in 1973, on the national registry of Iceland - thus being one of the founders... Agnar Agnarsson was one of those who did more for us than we did for him.  The announcement in a newspaper of his death was adorned by the sun-cross.  (AFA Community Update, May 31, 2001)

The lack of knowledge among American Ásatrú regarding the murder of such a prominent figure in the revitalization of the faith in the system’s homeland is expressive of the general lack of community and consensus within and among the same.  Moreover, Agnarsson’s obituary was significant in that it was the first obituary bearing the mark of the Ásatrú “Othin’s Cross,” rather than the Christian/Lutheran mark of a cross.

Conclusion

Ásatrú is the revived faith of prehistoric Northern Europe and is theologically and ideologically separate and distinct from Odinism.  Emerging in America in the 1970s, while simultaneously re-emerging in Iceland, Ásatrú is a polytheistic religion that has enjoyed a healthy rebirth but has not yet been able to secure a firm grounding in traditional American society.  For this reason, some Ásatrúar cling to conspiratorial ideations that border on paranoia.  This is complicated by the affiliation of some Ásatrúar with racialist and culturally-deviant groups, which can likely further ostracize Ásatrú within American society.  Such alienation may then lead to a cultic “us-versus-them” mentality.  Valgard Murray seems unable to separate from the influence of prior racialist and Odinistic affiliations, judging by his above-mentioned quotes regarding the FBI’s Project Megiddo.  It would be a tragic occurrence in the history of a struggling faith if Murray’s paranoia were to evolve into that which plagued the late Jim Jones, who “viewed anyone who defected from or criticized the People’s Temple as part of a conspiracy aimed at destroying him and his mission”  (Goldberg, 1983, p. 174). Unfortunately, the omens of such a transformation and the ingredients of its cultic equation appear to be portentously present in certain Ásatrú circles.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the following individuals who, in a spirit of hospitality and scholarly commitment, have extended themselves both by imparting their knowledge, opinions, and ideologies, and by allowing those discussions to be reproduced here: Wolfgar and Lassan of the Wolfgar Freehold, Valgard Murray of the Ásatrú Alliance, Detective Chief Inspector Sigurgeir Omar Sigmundsson of Interpol Rejkjavik, Detective Superintendent Omar Smari Armannsson of the Reykjavik District Police, Hlin Petursdottir of the Morgunbladid, Carl Jensen and Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Science Unit, Joseph Roy and Gerald Baumgarten of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and HeimdallR hinn gamli of Samfundet for den Forna Seden USA, Inc.  These individuals represent a wide range of perspectives concerning this discussion, including Ásatrúar whose personal tenets vary along the spectrum of Ásatrú beliefs and practices.

Thomas Coghlan received his M.A. in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.  He is a Detective in the New York City Police Department, and is currently preparing his pursuit of a doctoral degree.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2002, Page


[1] The word "racialism" is a common term in heathen political circles.  Kaplan (1997) and other authorities use it liberally. The difference between “racialism” and “racist” is more than simply semantic. Racialism is a specific belief that only those of certain bloodlines either a) should be allowed to practice Germanic or Northern Paganism, or b) have the ability (related to a belief in a religious collective unconscious) to interface with the gods.

[2] A craft pseudonym is an a.k.a. that is assumed by some in the pagan/heathen/wiccan community when either interacting with the pagan community (e.g., book signings or other appearances) or when performing rituals. It is a totem name of sorts, chosen by the practitioner to denote either some attribute or to aid in a liaison with the gods.  For the most part craft pseudonyms are not legal names.