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The Role of Odinism in Contemporary White Supremacist Movements

Page history last edited by Margret 9 years, 11 months ago

Introduction

The focus of this page is the role of Old Norse gods and mythology, and more specifically Odin worship, in modern white supremacist movements. Although certainly not all white supremacist groups employ Odin or other Old Norse deities in their dogma (in fact, many claim that they are Christian groups), Odin worship does play a somewhat surprising role in the white supremacist movement.

 

Old Norse mythology shows up in modern music (usually death metal), and can serve as a way for white supremacist groups to create a history for themselves. It can also serve as a way for a group to hide its real purpose and goals—using religion as a cover can be an especially easy way for a group to claim persecution. Taking things a little further even, Odin worship is even used to blatantly exclude people who are not white from the group. A pamphlet from an Odinist group in the United Kingdom explained that they worshiped Odin as part of a larger desire and movement to reclaim their ancestral history, and they encouraged others to do the same. Unfortunately, this means that people who are not white are not welcome at their meetings or ceremonies because they have their own ancestral religions to take up.

 

The page is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of all modern Odin worship beliefs and practices (see that here). Nor is it an examination of current understandings on Norse mythology. Its focus is on how Odin worship in understood, manipulated, and employed by modern white supremacist groups, both in America and in the United Kingdom. Germany will also be included, since that is where much of the white power music scene started. I also want to make it clear that plenty of Odinists are not white supremacists. There are a number of people who truly want to return to their ancestors’ religious beliefs without any political agenda. This is a distinction that seems blurred in much of the current research.

 

Why is this topic important? First, understanding the views of those in the white supremacy movement is vital to putting a stop to it. And we cannot understand their views without understanding the reasoning behind them. It is usually much more complex than a person simply believing that lighter skin=better people. There is socialization and often fear in the motivations for people to join this movement. We spend a lot of time and energy on understanding how people use the Bible and Christianity to further their goals and justify their actions, but much less time considering how other religious beliefs can factor in. The desire for an ethnic history is a very strong motivator for many people, and Norse mythology can definitely provide a basis for that. Second, many groups use religion as a scapegoat and even a cover for their beliefs and actions. We tend to shy away from conflict once people (or groups) claim religion is behind their actions—we see religion as a highly personal and subjective thing and are cautious of insulting such a personal part of a person. There are absolutely groups that exploit this tendency that is largely institutionalized. Many white supremacist groups obtain non-profit status for this reason. We need to be able to separate those who hold legitimate religious beliefs from those who are simply using it as a cover. This, obviously, is an extremely hard task (how do we judge what someone truly believes and what only holds political motivations?), but being able to sift through what could be a legitimate modern iteration of a pagan religion from what is being exploited for political purposes is vital. Allowing groups that exploit and manipulate what for others are deeply held religious beliefs and part of their heritage in order to gain favored or protected status from the government, or even to intimidate people into not standing up against a hate group should not be allowed, and being able to recognize when this is happening is extremely important.

 

What is Odinism?

Odinism, as is the case with most pagan or neo-pagan religious traditions, is hard to Odinism, as is the case with most pagan or neo-pagan religious traditions, is hard to pin a definition on. There are, however, various working definitions that seem to say, more or less, the same thing. The Pagan Library offers, “Odinism is the indigenous religious faith of the Scandinavian, British and other peoples of Northern Europe; it is an amalgam of attitudes, ideas and behavior, both a personal faith and a communal way of life. In its beginnings Odinism is probably as old as our race.” The Odinist Fellowship, a group based in the United Kingdom, offers another, more detailed, definition. According to their pamphlet (available here), “Odinism is the name we give the original, indigenous form of heather religion practised by our forefathers, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and by the related Teutonic peoples of the Continent. It is, accordingly, the ancestral, native religion of the English people, and, as such, our very own spiritual heritage. Odinism is an ancient religion whose origins are lost in the mists of time, but it has been restored in recent decades by those who believe it offers a solution to modern Man’s spiritual crisis.” The Odinist Fellowship goes on to list more characteristics common to Odinism. It is a heathen or pagan religion as opposed to a prophetic religion, and polytheistic by definition (although Odinism has few requirements, belief in the Old Norse gods, referred to as the High Gods of the Asgarth is required). More simply put, Odinism is generally the belief in the gods of the Old Norse religion, the exact meaning of which is up for debate. For more about modern Odinist interpretations and practices, see Odinism: Ideology, Customs, and Practices.

 

Modern Odinist Movement

The exact beginnings of the modern Odinist movement are somewhat under debate. There was definitely a renewed interest in Norse culture and mythology that lead to its themes appearing in romantic works, but it seems unlikely that that played a prominent role in reviving the religion. More likely, according to most sources, is that it reemerged in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Jeffry Kaplan writes, “Wandering groups of displaced or simply disillusioned German youth…began, perhaps as a lark, perhaps with more serious intent, to make sacrifices to Wotan [Odin].”

 

Folkish vs. Universalist Odinism or Odinism vs. Ásatrú

An important line is drawn within the Odinist community. The ideas of Universal Odinism and Folkish Odinism matter very much, both to the practitioners of the religion and those studying it. Along with this is the idea of Odinism verses Ásatrúism. Gardell writes about the distinction. “Nonracist Ásatrú is a polytheistic spiritual path that welcomes and genuinely interested person irrespective of race or ethnicity. Dismissing nonracist Ásatrú as an effeminate New Age Corruption, the racist position defines Ásatrú/Odinism as an expression of the Aryan racial soul and hence an exclusive creed open to whites only.”

 

Universal Odinists (“Nonracist Ásatrú”) tend to reflect the more “new age” tenants of the faith, holding the view that anyone who believes or “is called” (Generally by Odin) can be an Odinist without respect to heritage or ethnicity. This is not to say that they are not serious about their faith and practices, nor that their beliefs do not reflect their heritage, only that they do not see this as a prerequisite to their faith. It is important to note that this belief was probably more closely shared with the original Odinists than what the Folkish Odinists believe. Race is mostly a social construction, and Vikings tended to be very good at assimilation, as well as apt to for relationships with people who were not Norse themselves—their religion would not have been exclusively for other Vikings (Gardell). A good example of this attitude is “Ufheddin the Odinist”, who responded to a short survey asking about his beliefs. When asked about who can become an Odinist, his answer was short and sweet. “Anyone drawn to the path with the strength and will to endure it.” “Osgot the Odinist” shared this belief, “Anyone can become an Odinist if they truly understand what that means, and accept both the belief and the way of life that accompanies it. Being an Odinist is a personal choice. You do not need to be inducted or invited to a community. You simply decide to be so, and begin.” Although reliable numbers are hard to find, this stance seems to be the view of most Odinists. Many Odinists and Odinist groups take measures to distance themselves not only from overtly racist interpretations of their faith, but also from any indication that race or ethnic heritage has any part in their religion.

 

“It has been the sad fate of Asatru to have had our faith highjacked by some subhuman maggots who are trying to hitch their sick and twisted political wagon to our faith.It is the position of The Raven Kindred, Asatru Today, myself personally, and all legitimate Asatruar that race and ethnicity are completely irrelevant to Asatru and Norse Paganism. Asatru is a religion. It is open to anyone who wishes to join it. Those persons who would limit its membership on the basis of race, sex, sexual preference, or other such criteria are not only mentally challenged, but are traitors to the Gods. If the Gods call someone to their service, it is not our business to deny them based on their genetic origin. To do so is to go against the Gods, and thus is to commit treason against Asgard.”

 

The flipside of this view is the Folkish Odinists. This is the group that believes Norse blood is required to legitimately worship the Old Norse gods. This is where the line between religion and racism becomes blurred—especially given the fact that many people may not “look the part” but may in fact have more Norse blood in them than someone with blonde hair and blue eyes (genes can be tricky like that). These are generally the people who will point to the fact that (almost) every culture has its own pagan or heathen ancestral religion to be perused.

 

Even within Folkish Odinism there exists a division, one that is made both by Odinists themselves and academics. Some (classified as “Ethnic Odinists”) define Odinism as a heritage—their ancestors somehow link them to this set of spiritual beliefs. Of course, this contains an odd logic jump somehow connecting genetics to spirituality. Other Folkish Odinists are overtly racist. One estimate states that it is probably no more than fifteen percent of practicing Odinists who take an overtly racist approach to their interpretation and practices, although the number of “ethnic” Odinists is probably much higher.

 

Timothy G. Baysinger, in the Journal of Homeland Security Affairs, further describes the distinction, and classifies those who are more right-wing and white-supremacist as “Odinist” while allowing the title of “Ásatrú” to those who take a nonracist approach. Unlike most other scholars, Baysinger does not seem to make much of a distinction between “ethnic Odinists” and “racist Odinists” seemingly because the only real feature that distinguishes one group from the other is the level of action. Baysinger discusses important differences in theology and interpretation between the two groups.

 

                                                              Baysinger's Odinism vs. Asatru

Odinism

Ásatrú

Rejection of Christianity in favor of Norse gods—attracts followers using the promise of fraternal relations and a flexible belief system

Rejection of Christianity in favor of Norse gods—attracts followers using the promise of fraternal relations and a flexible belief system

Right-wing and white-supremacist

Rejection of white-supremacist ideology

“Accept the validity of conspiracies [especially involving Jews] when viewing the events of history.”

Most do not embrace conspiracy theories of history

Use of the “warrior principle” in ideology—leads to (attempted or planned) retaliation for “perceived past injustices.”

May or may not believe in/embrace the “warrior principle” but generally will not apply it to revenge for past events

“Hold racist feelings and opinions…merge[d] with racial mysticism”

Rejection of racist ideas

“Oversimplification of complex information associated with the revitalized tribal ideas of the Vikings.”

“Do not accept efforts to simplify their reconstruction of the communal, magical, and religions practices as they apply to modern society.”

 

Betty A. Dobratz offers another criterion for differentiating between Odinists who use their religion to further racist or white nationalist goals and those who simply believe in following one’s own heritage. “The development of racial pride is key in distinguishing whites who belong to this movement from whites who do not.” She quotes research done in the 1970’s which points out that most white supremacists are unable to see the distinction between culture and race, an essential difference for most people. Of course, the definition of what constitutes “race” has also changed dramatically over time, moving from largely being viewed as something innate that really did separate people to a purely social construction to something that is somewhere in between, although now scientific studies of race may group people who look nothing like each other based purely on genetics. Dobratz points out the tricky nature of pinning down a definition, especially among white supremacists. “The sociopsychological view of racism ‘has in fact ignored the most central feature of racialism, namely the meaning of race to the racialist.” White supremacists tend to view the terms “racism” and “racist” as positive ones—simply as someone who loves his race (here we see the confusion between race and culture). “It in no way means hate for any other race, it simply means love for my own race,” said one man she interviewed. She is also careful to note that the distinction between racial and nonracial Odinists is often blurred—how do we tell the difference between pride and racial mysticism?

 

Nazis and Odinism

“Many individuals who were involved in the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich were known to have been Odinists” (Baysinger). Although the extent to which Hitler and Nazis were involved in Odinism or its modern revival is controversial, there is ample evidence of a connection between Nazism and Odinism.

 

Neo-Nazis are not like the Nazis of World War II. Although they maintain the same practice of recruiting young, the reject many “traditional” Nazi ideas—for instance, while the Nazis of WWII Germany were proud to have discovered the “ultimate solution,” Nazis of today deny the Holocaust even happened. Nazism is becoming more linked with mysticism as well as Odinism as time goes on.

 

The biggest thing connecting Odinism with Nazism is the fact that Nazism is shedding its nationalist focus in favor of a racial one. While Hitler spoke of the German People, Nazis employing Odinism today speak of the White Race or Norse People—attributes that can span countries, even continents. With the ultimate goal of a transcontinental white only country, this is an important move to make.

 

Odinism and Nazism are clearly not mutually exclusive, and have a developing relationship that will have an important impact on the direction that the white supremacy movement takes over the next decade.

 

Race and Religion: Creating a Group Identity

Religion plays a large part in many white supremacist movements. Not just because it seems to be an easy scapegoat and, especially in the United States, an easy way to claim discriminatory speech is protected. Social movements generally contain elements that challenge the way a dominant system works, and so new sub-cultures are created as an answer to the prevailing system. This is also a result of peoples’ tendency to seek identity within a group setting—religion offers an easy way to do that. Dobratz writes, “Although religion may be viewed as an individual matter, it is mainly a shared experience that links one human being to others; bond and tradition are major concepts associated with religion…they [religions] can also be used to foster collective identity in various social movements.” Odinism is not at all unique in its use of religion to inspire ethnic conflict. This is a tactic we often see used against Judaism, the idea that the Jews are somehow “different.”

 

In 2001, a Professor of Religious History at the University of Stockholm minced no words when asked about neo-paganism, and more specifically Odinism, in white supremacy. He asserted that, in the 1990’s, neo-paganism had overtaken Christian Identity movements in white supremacy. In The Role of Religion in the Collective Identity of the White Racialist Movement, Odinism is specifically named as one of the three religious affiliations that has been most influential in influencing and developing the white nationalist/racialist movement. This article makes a separation between racial Odinism and other neo-pagan religions. While most other neo-pagan groups tend to see their religion as somehow “universal” in scope and would normally be classified as quite liberal, Odinists, “do not believe in universal religions…unlike most other neopagans, support neotribalism, emphasize racial purity.” It is important to note that the lack of belief in a universal religion is something generally attributed only to Folkish Odinists. There is much Universalist literature suggesting belief in the idea that the Old Norse gods are simply different iterations, or even only different names, of the same pagan gods worshiped worldwide.

 

It has been suggested that, “religion, broadly conceived, offers the most promising path toward realization of the white nationalist dream” (Dobratz). As a broad category, religion is very helpful in recruiting for new movements. It works to provide a common history and group identity, something very attractive to potential recruits. While they may privately compete among themselves, the number of different religions that have parts in the white supremacist/white nationalist movement actually serves to attract more members than if it were homogenous. Dobratz writes, “The different religious views provide alternatives from which people can choose.”

 

Lately, however, Odinism seems to have become the go-to religion of white supremacists who are disillusioned with Christianity. As churches have become both more liberal and more accepting of changing societal norms (such as homosexuality or women clergy), more and more interest in Odinism and other “ancestral religions” has popped up. Frank DeSilva, a member of the Silent Brotherhood, argues that a break from Christianity in favor of Odinism is occurring within white supremacy. “Religion is for the race-culture that created it. In consequence to this, the movement is becoming increasingly non-Christian.” He goes on to cite the fact that religions are become more integrated or “non-white” as a main reason for this shift. The idea of Christianity as a Jewish plot is also gaining popularity. In a rare case of reasoning that is (somewhat) logical, one reason for white supremacists reject Christian movements is explained—

“I’m an Odinist, and I really wish that all this Christian Identity stuff would just like fade away…me and a lot of my friends just think that it’s the stupidest thing around—Christian Identity. I mean, I believe Christianity is Jewish. I mean, in nature, Jesus Christ was Jewish—it comes from the Middle East—it’s a Middle Eastern religion. I don’t think it’s for us as a racial movement—why should we take a Jewish religion if we’re so anti-Semitic?”

 

Odinism in White Supremacist Media

Music

“Music is the most effective propaganda tool ever. It brings racists together into a so-called ‘music scene’ that lets them spread their message almost innocently. Because while a young person probably wouldn’t even read a racist flier, they’ll listen to a tape or CD 15, 20 times and slowly get into the lyrics that way,” Devon Burghart, director of an Oak Park community group opposing racist activities.

 

If religion provides a common framework and communal group identity, so does music—and possibly in an even more socially acceptable and under-the-radar way than religion. After all, walking around with an Mp3 player is much less conspicuous than with a swastika tattoo.

 

The United States has the 2nd largest market in the world for racist music—just barely behind Germany. Because of extremely strict anti-hate speech laws in many (most) European countries, many white supremacist bands have come to the U.S., with its much more liberal first amendment, to record and distribute their messages.

 

Former operator of the Swedish Midgard music label says that he has seen a surge in interest in white power music with Odinist themes—although he in no way believes this is for religious reasons. “It’s not so much to pray, but to honor the nature and power of white people,” he says.  Mark Potak, editor of The Southern Poverty Law Center’s journal speaks about the strategy behind white supremacist music. “They’re disguising the message behind different kinds of themes, especially Celtic and Norse mythology. There is a very strong need among white supremacists to create a mythic past…this mythic past allows them a world view, instead of just saying, ‘I hate black people.’” 

 

Burghart also explains how Odinic white supremacist music relates to the bigger plans of white supremacists. Not only does it help create a mythic past and group identity, he explains that there is basically cross-marketing, where white supremacist groups pass out music at meetings and bands promote these groups at their shows. He ends with, “This is all a strategy. You see, its one thing to identify a small crew of racist skinheads. It’s harder if they’re integrated into a bigger arena. The idea now is to move into new and broader scenes, to infiltrate not only politically, but socially, economically, and culturally” (read the article here).

 

Tattoos

Tattoos are an increasingly popular way to express beliefs and identity—and those within the Odinic white supremacist movement are no exception to this trend. White supremacy message boards and websites over flow with advice about where and what kinds of tattoos to get to express belief in the supremacy of white people. Advice ranges from the more conservative end of the spectrum—warnings to get the tattoos in places easy to hide in case one is pulled over or simply wants to lay low in his supremacist beliefs—to people encouraging others to be loud and proud about their heritage. Many of their designs combine traditional Norse images (such as Thor’s hammer or Odin’s ravens, even runes) with more modern white supremacist themes (swastikas or even the symbols of various white supremacist groups). Some recommend simply Norse-themed tattoos without any other obvious symbols as a way to fly under radar—other white supremacists will recognize the message, while people not in the loop will simply see a cool design.

 

The following tattoos were all pictures posted on vairous white supremacist message boards or websites as examples of tattoos that would show racial pride and a belief in the inherent supremacy of white people. They all contain elements of Norse mythology and belief in a warrior culture.

 

 

Odinism in Prisons

Odinism is playing a larger and larger role in prison culture. White supremacist groups have historically seen and used prisons as recruiting grounds—an already largely segregated population is an easy target for racial supremacists. Add to this a religion promising racial superiority in addition to a mystic and warrior mythology, and it creates an almost prefect storm for racial Odinism to prosper. Adding even more fuel to the fire is the growing push for more inclusivity of religion in government entities—a 2005 Supreme Court case ruled that prisons must be more accommodating of minority religions (more information here and here).

 

Odinism has had a prison population since at least the mid-1980’s, but really began to surge in the mid 1990’s, bolstered in part by the sudden explosion of white supremacist music and a movement for more tolerance of non-mainstream religious practices. As of 2007, at least 15 states had laws explicitly allowing Odin worship to take place in prisons, and The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that right-wing racist Odinism within prison populations is the fastest growing Odinic sect in the world.

 

Conclusion

The important role that Odinism plays in white supremacy, as well as the role that white supremacy plays in Odinism, cannot be ignored or denied. Although the majority of Odinists are peaceful and in no way racially motivated, the fact is that there is a growing and dangerous sect of Odinists who use their religion in racist and radical ways.

 

Sources Consulted

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     <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2004/2004_03_9877>.

"Cutter v. Wilkinson." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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     Movement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40.2 (2001): 287-301. Web. 25 Oct

     2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1387951>.

Baysinger, Timothy G. "Right-Wing Group Characteristics and Ideology." Homeland Security

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"Odinism, What Is It?." The Pagan Library. 6 May 2007. Web.

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Comments (2)

Margret said

at 8:24 pm on Dec 4, 2009

I actually have read this, but I lost the link, so thanks for posting it again!

Carmen said

at 6:40 pm on Dec 4, 2009

I don't know if you have seen this article or not, but thought you'd be interested in how people can take the reconstruction of a Viking ship and make it work for their cause. http://www.natall.com/adv/2007/07-14-07.html

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