"Gods of the Blood" Reveals Intersections of Racism and Paganism

On my recent beach trip, I finally finished reading Matthias Gardell's Gods of the Blood: Pagan Revival and White Separatism, a fascinating book I came across while doing research for a seminary class. If you're Pagan, you're probably aware of the growing problem of white supremacists appropriating Norse and Germanic symbols for their hate and propaganda. This isn't new--the Nazis did it, too. But what's new is the move away from the swastika and toward symbols that don't carry as much baggage with the general public, like the National Socialist Movement's decision to use the othala rune as its new logo. As Paganism itself becomes more acceptable, the public isn't going to necessary know how to tell between antiracist Pagans and racist ones. The last thing Pagans need is to be identified with the deadly 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally or the attack that same year on Muslim women on a Portland, Oregon, train by a man known for promoting the idea of "Vinland."

Although Gardell's book is from 2003, it is--unfortunately--still very relevant. Some of the actors he mentions have died or lost their influence and some of the leading white supremacist groups may have disbanded, but other players have eagerly taken their place. Gardell does a thorough job of exploring the various characters over the last half-century, their connections and contributions to blending religion and white supremacy. And it goes well beyond specifically Pagan groups to white supremacists in general, what drives them, how their worldviews are constructed and their often-shifting goals.

This is the part I found most interesting. As a minister, I am interested in many faith traditions, but I also want to understand where or how a particular spiritual practice may lead someone in a troubling direction. Gardell talks about many intersections between true Pagans and more racist groups. There are increasing similarities with concerns about environmentalism, ethnicity and culture, simpler living and back-to-the-land efforts. We ignore this at our peril.

I think back just a few years ago when I moved to Charlotte and was looking to meet other Pagans. I came across this guy who was a Heathen and wanted to start up a discussion group. Although I don't have a Heathen practice, I was interested. Unfortunately, in the first meeting, he made it clear that he wasn't interested as much in the spiritual aspects of Heathenry but in "preserving our culture." To me, that was code for white culture, for a racist and isolationist worldview that is the opposite of everything I care about. So I never went back.

As a person with strong German and Scandinavian roots, I feel a natural pull to Heathenry, Asatru and related spiritual traditions. But it turned out that by the time I actually knew these traditions existed, I was quite committed to Vodou and didn't want to change my path. I used to feel a sense of "missing out," that I would've been a Heathen if I had just known about it earlier. But I think things turned out as they should and for the best. No, not everyone who is Heathen is a racist. Groups like Heathens Against Hate do great work, and their site lists other similar groups who advocate against various forms of racism and inequality. But I think some of the racist groups would have been alluring to me because of where I was at that time in my life. Vodou helped change all that for the better. Also, it's difficult enough to be out as a Pagan without having to also fend off charges of or associations with racist elements in society.

If the intersection of Paganism and racism interests you, I highly recommend Gods of the Blood.

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