Racists Are Threatening to Take Over Paganism
The growing presence of racists in American Pagan communities threatens to tear the faith apart.
Illustrations by Matt Rota
There’s a war going on in the American Pagan community. On one side are racists who see gods like Odin and Thor as an embodiment of the supremacy whites have over the rest of the planet. On the other are the practitioners who believe these gods transcend racial lines and belong to everyone. Recently, the contention between these two groups has reached a tipping point as anti-racist Pagans try to claim the narrative around their faith before it is overtaken by alt-right racists.
Although the leaders of Nazi Germany were obsessed with Paganism and the occult, it has largely been associated with multiculturalism here in the United States. But with the recent rise of right-wing extremism in America, we've seen a co-mingling of racism and Paganism that has alarmed experts, activists, and Pagans themselves. For racists, the faith and its offshoots serve as both a cover and a recruiting tool. Today, one of the largest white nationalist organizations in the US, the National Socialist Movement, has traded in their Swastikas and Totenkopfs for Pagan symbols like the Othala rune. Similar groups have adopted Odinist phrases like "Faith, Family, and Folk." And while the Third Reich did embrace the Othala rune in their time, the symbol is far less inflammatory or recognizable than the Swastika in the United States, enabling these groups to fly under the radar.
White power's embrace of Paganism was on full display at the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. One notorious Pagan present was Stephen McNallen, the founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a far-right group fixated on "the survival and welfare of the Ethnic European Folk as a cultural and biological group." The rally also featured aspiring Pagan politician Augustus Sol Invictus, a an alt-right leader Richard Spencer credited with writing the first draft of the "Charlottesville Statement." Among other repugnant things, that infamous screed framed the refugee crisis as a religious war and promoted the concept of a white ethnostate.
Unfortunately, Charlottesville was just the tip of the iceberg. These racist Pagan groups are very much active. Recently, two Heathens and former members of the National Socialist Party purchased 44 acres of land in Tennessee to begin construction on a private religious community where they can "practice [their] religion freely" among "other culturally and spiritually similar people."
To the outside world, the far-right’s association with ancient gods and magic might seem absurd. But it’s actually been tied up with specific acts of violence and terrorism. One member of Virginia’s neo-pagan white nationalist group the Wolves of Vinland, Maurice Michaely, spent more than two years in prison for burning down a black church in 2012. A free man now, Facebook posts from 2015 suggest Michaely is back at work with the Wolves. In November 2015, three individuals with connections to Asatru were arrested in conjunction with a plot to ignite a race war. And in 2017, self-proclaimed “viking” and white supremacist Jeremy Christian was charged with stabbing two people to death on a train in Portland, Oregon.
Some Pagans have tried to combat the spread of racism within their ranks. They’ve formed advocacy groups like Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR) and The Asatru Community (TAC). These groups have banded together in public pronouncements: In August 2016, 43 Pagan organizations signed Declaration 127, a public renunciation of any Heathenry that promotes hatred or discrimination. Since then, that number has grown to more than 180 organizations in over 20 countries. And in 2017 TAC created "The Shieldwall," a manifesto compelling Heathens around the world to “denounce all those abusing [the Heathen] faith to spread hatred and negativity.”
Casey McCarthy, an activist and Seiðr-Worker (practitioner of Northern European magic), sees the white power movement’s shift from traditional signifiers like white robes and Doc Martens to tattoos of runes as an outgrowth of the “serious PR problem” that racists have in America. To him, this transition is not just about ideology or religion, it’s also about “languaging.” He told me that while most people have negative associations around something like the Swastika, the same doesn’t apply for runes and Norse myths.
Beyond that, McCarthy said, “They’re thinking strategically. Right now the narrative that the alt-right is selling to keep themselves afloat is that there’s a war on white people... that our culture, our way of being is being destroyed.” He pointed out that with white people in the majority in Europe, Canada, and the US, this narrative is hard to push without careful languaging around liberal ideas of multiculturalism. “The particular thing they are targeting in Norse paganism is the idea that everyone else gets to have their traditions, and everyone else gets to have their multicultural stuff, why can’t we have ours?”
Anti-racist Pagans are also worried that thanks to these prominent racists in their ranks, the adoption of Paganism could become a slippery slope to neo-Nazism. Xander Folmer, the founder and CEO of Huginn’s Heathen Hof, which started Declaration 127, told me, “It starts with things that we can usually agree upon, casually. Pride in one's heritage, respect for one's ancestors/ancestral traditions, a focus on the family… Then it moves from 'ancestral pride' and 'family' to 'supremacy' and 'exclusion.'”
James Calico, an activist and researcher with HUAR, shares fears about Pagans embracing white nationalism. He told me, “[Racist Pagans] get normal everyday folks who've got no interest in far-right politics, have never read a white nationalist tome, and would never in a million years identify as a Nazi to believe and repeat talking points consistent with a fascist message.”
While the battle for the soul and heart of American Paganism appears to have reached a tipping point, it has been developing behind the scenes for a long time.
According to Fredrik Gregorius, a senior lecturer at Sweden's Linköping University who specializes in the occult, Paganism has long been “associated with progressive movements such as women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, the labor movement, and so on.” However, white supremacist ideas have always been there on the periphery.
Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky is one figure whose race-related writings from the late-1800s continue to be controversial. According to Gregorius, her idea was that humanity evolved from several “root races.” “The most famous interpreters of a more racist [view] of Blavatsky’s ideas about ‘root races’ are German Austrian esoteric writers [of the early 1900s] like Guido List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, who is often seen as the primary founder of Ariosophy, a development of Theosophy that saw the Aryan race as divine.” Blavatsky’s work is also admired by modern racists like Tony Hovater, the “Nazi sympathizer next door,” who was profiled by the New York Times in 2017 and worked as an organizer for the recently disbanded Traditionalist Worker Party.
Modern Paganism can largely be broken down into two categories, "eclectic" and "reconstructionist." The most well-known form of eclectic Paganism is Wicca, which was created in 1954 with Gerald Gardner's Wicca Today and is typified by worshipping gods across various cultures. While this has sometimes been criticized for cultural appropriation, for the most part eclectic Paganism is generally progressive and inclusive. “[The founder of Wicca] was himself a Tory and quite conservative,” Gregorious told me over email, “but when Wicca came to the United States it quickly became integrated into the 60s subculture and second-wave feminism. So that created a different environment that it grew out of.”
Reconstructionist Paganism, on the other hand, attempts to recreate the spiritual practices of ancient peoples, from Norway to Egypt. Asatru, Odinism, and other forms of Heathenry typically fall under the umbrella of reconstructionist Norse Paganism, and almost all of them have racists thriving within their ranks. The SPLC recently classified racist strands of Nordic Paganism under the umbrella term of "Neo-Volkisch."
"Asatru and Odinism in America came out of a more nationalistic environment and it also aligned itself with pre-existing cultural images of the hypermasculine Viking,” according to Gregorious. “There is a narrative that early on connected the idea of Asatru and Odinism to ideas about ethnic identity. That didn't happened with Wicca in the same way.”
One of the nation’s most notorious alt-right reconstructionist Pagans, Seana Fenner, explained to me that, “A few years ago, there wasn’t as much interest or knowledge about Odinism or Asatru.” In 2006, McNallen estimated that Asatruars or Odinists numbered between 10,000 to 20,000 in the United States. But along with the rise of Donald Trump and emboldened racists across the nation, Fenner claimed to me that her brand of racial Paganism is “becoming wildly popular.” White supremacist Asatruars and Odinists are especially thriving in US prisons.
Fenner identifies as an Odinist. She also believes that the Holocaust was a lie and has an entire page on her website dedicated to “white genocide” where she claims, “It is only white nations that are being targeted for genocide by immigration.” In an especially chilling post on Memorial Day in 2017, she wrote of hoping to avenge all those soldiers who had died for “Jewish wars.”
Fenner also told me that she believes that non-white people cannot participate in Heathenry or Odinism because that would “[make the] religion into a joke.” The 74-year-old is the founder of Odinia International, a group with more than 5,000 followers on Facebook that advocates for the restoration of “native European religion.”
Fenner sees Christianity as a violent, foreign, Jewish religion that was forced onto European peoples. On the other hand, “Odinism is the final stage of deprogramming,” she told me. And it helped her enhance her “tribal identity.” Her main goal as an Odinist leader today is to “restore the native religion [of Europeans]” and she believes “white nationalism, or white identity, is central to” that mission.
To Fenner, the reason her task of converting Christians and “eclectic” Paganists to racist Odinism has gotten easier is simple: “It’s something people are drawn to because they wish to have this connection to their ancestors and their own native spirituality.” She finds there are two kinds of people drawn to her faith: those who “want to practice [their] own religion as part of [their] identity,” and those who feel they are being “marginalized and blamed for things they didn’t do.” The latter reason embodies the myth of reverse racism against whites that has helped fuel the rise of the alt-right in general.
This concept of “white genocide” has had a similar impact internationally in terms of mobilizing and energizing racists. On November 11, 2017, more than 60,000 white nationalists marched in the streets of Poland, rallying around this notion of a “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and demanding that the “Refugees get out!” For Fenner, this was a “wonderful” development she’d love to see happen in the US. “The only thing that would have been better would be if the Poles had bodily removed the non-Europeans from their nation, and sent the antifa protesters to a black nation in Africa where they could get all the diversity they need. But perhaps that will come.”
Fenner and her extremist group Odinia International are not isolated bad apples. Instead, they stand alongside ill-famed names like Stephen McNallen and his Asatru Folk Assembly, Jack Donovan and The Wolves of Vinland, and countless others who intertwine hate with Paganism. This hate has been trickling down, infecting Pagan communities across the nation, which has been especially disconcerting for practitioners of colour.
Former Salem, Massachusetts, resident Demetrius Lacroix told me that he got the sinking suspicion that his Pagan employers at the Coven’s Cottage were racist when they asked him to watch Hitler's War: What the Historians Neglect to Mention. Allegedly recommended by his bosses at the “family-owned witchcraft shop,” the documentary argues that the Nazis never wanted violence but were pushed into war by Allied powers. When Lacroix allegedly brought up his issues with the film, he said his employers acted like he was the one with a problem and then stopped talking to him altogether. “It was absolutely gaslighting,” he told me over the phone.
He started his job as a Tarot card reader in 2013. During his year-long employment, the shop started selling books by Pagan racists like Stephen McNallen. And the employers allegedly expressed “really uncomfortable views about Jews and women.” After the town’s busy season in October, Lacroix told me that the relationship between him and the owners soured until he was unceremoniously let go in August 2014.
The situation isn’t too far removed from the experiences he’s had with white Heathens in other groups. It’s why he’s started practicing African diasporic traditions like Vodun. “As a person of color in the community, you are already ‘othered,’” he told me. But he sees this explicit wave of racism as something far more toxic.
While the Coven’s Cottage declined multiple interview requests for this article, they did email a statement in which they described recent allegations of racism as slander and they denied being "white supremacists, racists, bigots or nazis." They wrote [sic], "We are compassionate and loving family run business that treats every single person we encounter, whether that’s in the shop or in our personal lives, with kindness, respect, dignity and genuine love regardless of race, gender, creed, religion, sexual orientation, etc."
Like Lacroix, Xander Folmer of Huginn's Heathen Hof has recognized the proliferation of racist Pagans. “Our communities tend to be fond of a kind of faux-neutrality, in which topics that are seen as being 'too political' simply get avoided,” he told me. But this wave of racists has forced him and his peers to stand up, because he believes that “Racism is a very real thing and a very real threat to our community and traditions.”
In response to the threat, Folmer used Declaration 127 to build a network “with many groups participating that had never spoken with outside groups before purely because they didn't want to risk running into racist elements.”
But while groups like Heathens United Against Racism and proclamations like the Declaration 127 are important, some of the most effective initiatives against the hate of racist reconstructionists like Seana Fenner come from former hatemongers themselves.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Arno Michaelis was an Odinist—and a leader in the white power movement. He performed as a lead singer of the skinhead band called Centurion and organized followers under the banner of white nationalism. Today, he’s an activist against racism and the author of the book My Life After Hate. Michaelis is one of the cofounders of the organization Serve to Unite, a group created after a white supremacist conducted a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee on August 5, 2012, killing six. Pardeep Kaleka, the son of one of the victims, founded the organization alongside Michaelis, and the two now travel to schools and colleges across the country, speaking on the dangers of bigotry and racism.
“For me, the biggest draw [to racist Paganism] was it really pissed people off,” Michaelis told me over the phone. “Beyond that, it really made me feel like I was a warrior for my people. It gave me this sense of power and importance.”
While Michaelis said there are many ways for people to fall into the trap of racism, he argued the general pattern is one of “suffering” people. “If you are completely happy and contented with your life you have absolutely no reason to get involved in that bullshit.” His goal now is to reach out to people in the white power movement and break their cycle before it’s too late.
When Michaelis was in the white power movement, he considered himself an Odinist, but it was only later, after leaving that life behind and adopting Buddhism, that he decided to get Norse tattoos. His forearms are covered in Celtic knots, a Thor’s Hammer, various figures from Norse mythology, and a Viking shield. He explained that the culture of Northern Europe and the Middle East have been intertwined for thousands of years, and pointed to a long history of Vikings trading with Arabic peoples in the ancient world as a counter to the narrative of white separatists. “That [history] gets completely lost in their fear and ignorance.”
He got most of the tattoos in Denmark from a fellow former skinhead, and hopes they “spark a conversation” and “disrupt the narrative of white supremacist groups.”
“To me, it makes a statement that you can love your heritage without being intimidated by other people’s heritage, and be excited about multiculturalism in a broad sense. In many ways, the Vikings were a multicultural society.”
Michaelis and other activists are leading the fight against racism in the Pagan community and beyond. But they certainly have their work cut out for them. According to Fredrik Gregorius, it’s only going to get more contentious.
“I think we will see more [division],” Gregorius told me. “Occult and Pagan groups tend to reflect the larger social trends we face. And considering the political development today, I think this will only become more visible.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.