Geirangerfjord, by Harmish Khambhaita

Just about every online introduction to Heathenism warns you that you’re in for a whole bunch of research, and hooboy, they’re not kidding. That’s also where the trouble starts.

Suzanne Martin and her partner Kate Coldwind have a wonderful Heathen podcast called Frithcast, and one of their regular injunctions is that “No one can tell you how to Heathen!” I love that. I had my fill of doctrine as a Catholic, and rather anarchic freedom of choices on Heathen practice is something that I love about my faith. It does place some land mines in the path of a new Heathen, though, as there are a lot of people who want to convince you of the rightness of their approach. And, more often than not, they want you to buy their book.

I once read a sensible piece of advice — an event so rare that it doubtless merits sharing, but is particularly relevant here. It was contained in an excellent book called First Nations 101, by Lynda Gray. When discussing spirituality and religious traditions among the First Nations, Gray says (and I’m paraphrasing), “There are many different traditions amongst Indigenous peoples, generally tied to a relationship with Nature and the land. If you are a non-Indigenous person, I invite you to explore your own spiritual traditions in this regard.”

What a marvellously phrased piece of advice! It is at the same time an invitation and a very courteous reminder not to try to co-opt something that is not your own. Message received, I thought to myself, so what now? As a former Catholic (who isn’t these days?) turned agnostic turned atheist, et cetera, et cetera of European descent, where could I turn to discover a spiritual connection and make my peace with the universe?

Well, to make a long story short, I turned to Heathenism. I discovered that even using that term is fraught with ideological choices, but that’s a story for another day. Let me state right here at the outset that I am not positioning myself as any kind of expert on Heathenism. My only defense for any errors or misrepresentations is my sincerity and goodwill. As the old saying goes, “If you’re stupid, you have to be honest; if you’re crooked, you have to be clever.” My own banner of stupid honesty ripples on the hill behind me.

Not all authors are created equal

Enter Edred Thorsson, aka Professor Stephen E Flowers, aka Darban-i-Den, among others. Indeed, there are many others, but I’m going to focus on him for the moment, because he is a prolific writer and his publications are some of the first that any beginning reader is going to find. His book on the Elder Futhark runes is the only such book that my local library features, and if your local occult shop has anything on Heathenism, it’s probably going to be authored by this fellow.

Based upon my experience, I’m going to suggest that this is a problem. I’m not suggesting that he’s factually incorrect — first off, he has a list of academic credentials, publications, university appointments, and so on — and second, remember that “No one can tell you how to Heathen!” His breadth and depth of knowledge is not the issue. No, the issue is that those damn Nazis are at it again.

Fjords of Flam, Norway, photo by Stephen Downes

Beware the Nazi

As you may know, the Nazis tapped deeply into the German romantic Volkisch movement, and co-opted an extraordinary amount of ancient Germanic iconography, symbolism, and supposedly Teutonic cultural and religious practice.

The intertwining of Nazi ideology and Heathenism in the early and mid 20th century was complex, and the untangling process is not yet complete. Anyone who watched footage of the Charlottesville protests of 2017 must have notice the sickening employment of runic symbols on the ridiculous shields and “armature” of the alt-right. Anyone who pays attention to hate groups in Canada knows of the existence of the so-called “Soldiers of Odin.”

For Heathens — not to mention the rest of society at this point — the message is clear: we have a Nazi problem.

Hate speech is not ok

Thus, given the omnipresence of Stephen Flowers’ work and therefore the likelihood that his writings will be some of the first that new Heathens read, his own beliefs and associations become relevant. Is Stephen Flowers the author to whom Heathens should look for an introduction to this spiritual path?

For an answer, I’m going to turn to Flowers’ associations with a media platform called Red Ice TV. Founded in 2003, this platform has been called a “racist online radio broadcast” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.1 It has featured guests including white nationalist Richard B. Spencer and Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer. It has also featured Stephen Flowers.

I’m not by any means the first person to have noticed this. For example, see “Stephen Flowers aka Edred Thorsson’s appearance on racist tv network” from Blue Face Druid,2 or “No Frið For The Charlottesville Racists” from Huginn’s Heathen Hof.3 A great deal of close attention was paid to those who participated in the Charlottesville marches of 2017, and their ideological supporters deeper online.

At this point I should note that Flowers himself has very carefully avoided making statements that could be clearly identified as racist, alt-right, neo-Nazi, etc. (At least, that I have been able to find.) So, is guilt by association enough? Anyone who has spent sufficient time online will be familiar with the hair-splitters and pseudo-Akkadians who are such ardent defenders of free speech that they will drown everyone else out with their howls of logical fallacies. They will tell you that to judge an individual according to their company is unfair, hypocritical, reveals bias, is virtue signalling, and so on.

Maybe they’re right. Professor Flowers knows a hell of a lot more about Heathenism than I do. (My banner of stupid honesty still ripples behind me.) I just can’t help but feel that he is not the first author that a beginning Heathen should be reading.

It’s also clear that we as a polity need to continue this process of separating our faith from Nazism, old and new. But in a tradition with a thousand voices, none of them definitive, how do we do this?

Some progress is being made. Stephen A. McNallen, founder of the neo-Volkisch Asatru Folk Assembly, is in the process of being de-platformed from major social media. The deceptively named Asatru Edda is widely reviled and ridiculed. (Sadly for me, not before I had purchased a copy, but there you go.) The Southern Poverty Law Centre is very good at highlighting Heathen groups with white supremacist ideology.

Northern Lights, Greenland, photo by Nick Russill

Find better sources

Poetic Edda, translated by Jackson Crawford

As far as where to turn for more positive influences? Well, it’s still early days for me yet, but there are a few recommendations that I would make. As mentioned above, there is the delightful podcast Frithcast. Some people have recommended Arith Harger’s YouTube channel, although I have yet to explore it in detail.

For the scholarly minded, Jackson Crawford’s YouTube channel, as well as his superb translation of the Poetic Edda, are highly recommended.

There are people doing the important work of untangling Heathenism from its toxic associations, and they deserve our support.

Image credits: Stephen Downes, Harmish Khambhaita, and Nick Russill

  1. M. Huitsing 8/24/2017 []
  2. Blue Face Druid, “Stephen Flowers aka Edred Thorsson’s appearance on racist tv network,” 15 August 2017. []
  3. Stella Hellasdottir, “No Frið For The Charlottesville Racists, ” Huginn’s Heathen Hof, 15 August 2017. []