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Heathenry- Origin and Politics


Active Member
I wrote this some time ago but it may be of some interest to new Heathens.

Heathenry: Origins and Politics

Heathenry is an umbrella term for those who practice Germanic neopaganism whether the focus be Anglo Saxon. Norse, German, Frisian or Frankish. Heathenry has many names; Odinism, Asatru, FornSed, Ásatrúarfélagið, Wotanism, The Troth, The Northern Way, Nordisk sed, Germanic Reconstructionism, Hedensk sed etc, etc. The one thing we all have in common is that we have chosen the word heathen to describe both our neopagan identity and the folkway we are attempting to reconstruct. Ironically, the word heathen was first used by Christians to derogatorily describe the people and the practice of the pre Christian Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, we have made the word our own and it is the one thing we all have in common, but given the politics and praxis of some heathen groups it may be the only thing we have in common.

It is generally proposed that the word heathen (haiþno) made its debut in the translation of the Greek bible into the Germanic language Gothic; a task undertaken by bishop Wulfilas in 4th century CE. The word heathen was not used as you would expect to describe a pre Christian Germanic pagan but a non Jewish Greek woman, who in the context of the translation was a foreigner and an outsider. Etymologically speaking, it is an old Germanic word and has cognates in many Germanic languages; according to Etymology Online its literal meaning is "pertaining to one inhabiting uncultivated land".

The pre Christian Germanic tribes had no word for religion, as Rood states, the Germanic concept of the divine " was inseparable from the land, law and community". So without an indigenous form of self reference Christians used the word heathen to describe Germanic pagans. In the eyes of Christians, Heathens were not only foreign to their Christian religious identity but also lived outside their 'civilised' urban society. So Heathen came to express a similar sentiment to the Roman word paganus (pagan); which essentially described those who lived in rural areas but in a broader context both words had connotations of devotion to the old gods by rural peoples.

It is unlikely that pre Christian Germanic pagans would have used the word heathen to describe themselves, as they did not have a unified identity or a common dialect. The Germanic tribes were numerous at various stages throughout their history they extended over a the vast geographical area of Continental Europe, Northern Europe and England, even travelling on sea voyages as far as Vinland (America) and Greenland. They were sometimes at war with each other, sometimes formed into loose short lived coalitions, sometimes completely absorbed by rival tribes and sometimes formed into 'super tribes' out of necessity. Their identity would have been closely related to their warband, tribe, clan and cult not to a collective word like heathen, such a pan Germanic identity would have been alien to their world-view.

Unfortunately, the issue of race cannot be ignored in any discussion regarding the origin or the politics of modern day Heathenry. Mattius Gardell (2003) suggests that neopaganism in general has taken three positions on the issue of race; he defines these positions as racist, ethnic and anti racist/universalist. All three positions are present within Germanic neopaganism, Gardell (2003) suggests that Germanic neopaganism can be seen as either a continuum or as three separate social movements. Personally I see no similarity or common origin between the Heathenry I practice and that which is practiced by Wotanists.

From an organisational rather than individual perspective Gardell's three positions on race are too neat as some Heathen organisations will have members with diverse racial viewpoints, whilst some will attract only those who share specific politics in regards to race. Nevertheless, the politics of some heathen groups have been and still are associated with exclusion and racism so Gardell's three positions on race makes for an interesting framework for a discussion on Heathenry

Universalist/non racialist Germanic neopaganism welcomes anyone who dedicates themselves to the Germanic folkway regardless of race, gender or sexuality. This position on race is aptly summed up by the Asatru group The Troth, in their blog (2013), which states, "The Troth welcomes all people, whatever their religious, cultural, or ancestral background, gender or sexual orientation, who have developed or wish to develop a relationship with our Gods and Goddesses".

KveldulfR Gundarsson (AKA Stephen Gundy) of The Troth has also pointed out that racial purity meant nothing to the Germanic peoples who freely married outsiders to their tribe, a practice that is reflected in Norse mythology, with the Gods marrying Jotans and bearing children with them. Kaplan (1997) points out that the idea that Germanic tribes were one racial stock is fallacious and based on a romanticised notion of a pagan Golden Era.

In contrast to the universalist position, the radical racialist position is taken by Odinism/Wotanism. Radical racialism is connected to the right wing politics of national socialism, white separatism and anti semitism. To these groups the Germanic religion is a matter of race; it is ancestral carried in blood and DNA, ones blood and DNA somehow contains echoes of a sacred pagan past. As David Lane (1997) of Wotansvolk states, Wotan is the exclusive god of the Aryan folk, an archetype, an ancestor deeply ingrained in our genetic memory. The politics of race are as important to these groups as are the religious aspects and members are vetted for 'racial purity' prior to acceptance. The word WOTAN in these groups titles stands not only for the name of a Germanic god but also for acronym Will Of The Aryan Nation.

The word folk/folkish from the German volk (people) is an important term to radical racialists it invokes the notion of a unified nation composed of racially pure Aryan people. But according to Mosse (2003) the German word volk meant much more than its literal definition, it signified, " the union of a group of people to a transcendental essence" it is essentially an idealised common cultural, spiritual and racial identity. Radical racialist groups, such as Odinism/Wotanism dismiss universalism as the misguided politically correct view of new age pagans. As McVan states, on his Wotansvolk website (2008) ," Wotanism rises out of the mystical soul of Aryankind to bind us together as one Folk, one Destiny, and certain Victory! ".

Finally the ethnic position suggests that the Germanic folkway is for people of northern European ancestry. McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly states, in his Runestone article on Metagenetics, " There are spiritual and metaphysical implications to heredity and that we are thus not a religion for all humanity but rather one who calls its own". The homepage of Asatru Folk Assembly, further explains, "Our forefathers were Angles and Saxons, Lombards and Heruli, Goths and Vikings - and, as sons and daughters of these peoples, we are united by ties of blood and culture undimmed by the centuries....Asatru is our native Way" . To universalists this sentiment is thinly disguised racism and to radical racialists it does not go far enough.

To many Heathens race is irrelevant and discussions on Heathen politics can come as somewhat of a nasty surprise. If you are a heathen and wish to explore where you stand on this issue the Jarnsaxa Scale has been around for quite some time, it is a short questionnaire and it can be an interesting exercise in self reflection. If you are interested in viewing the Jarnsaxa Scale it is provided in the link below.

jarnsaxa scale


• M. Gardell; Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, 2003.
• D. Lane David, K. Lane & R. McVan Ron; Creed of Iron Wotansvolk Wisdom, 1997.
• J. Kaplan; Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah, 1997.
• G. L. Mosse (ed); Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich, 2003.
• B. Griffith's; Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, 2006.

Heathen: The Linguistic Origins and Early Context
The Troth Blog: The Troth's Response to Evan Ebel and Asatru's Role in the Murder of Tom Clements
Vinland Folk Resistance: WOTANSVOLK, by Ron McVan
AFA: Home
heathen | Origin and meaning of heathen by Online Etymology Dictionary