Since my wife Suzanne and I have worked together for a few years now on her Frithcast podcast, I’ve come to learn quite a lot about the Asatru faith, its theology and cosmology, and its ethics.
Ethics in modern Heathenry can be a somewhat fraught issue. It has this in common with any reconstructed historical religion. While most people who take up a historical faith tradition do so in response to a sincere belief that they have been called by those gods, by that particular aspect of divinity, there are always some who do it because they consider it the Ancient Religion Of Their Racial Forebears Whose Blood Runs In Their Veins and that it is the True Faith Of This Land. In other words, they do it as a flimsy, pseudo-religious excuse to indulge nationalism, jingoism and quite possibly racism.
All reconstructionist religions face this difficulty. There are equally some who call themselves Druids, or otherwise look to the Celtic gods, not because they feel a spiritual resonance in that tradition, but because they believe it reinforces their claim to be “indigenous British” and therefore entitles them to exclude people they consider incomers. The problem is not, to my knowledge, widespread in modern Druidry – though I suspect this is largely because as an oral tradition by definition, the culture surrounding the ancient Druids is largely lost to history, so much of what’s called Druidry today is firmly rooted in what Heathenry calls ‘unverified personal gnosis’. There’s therefore little argument over ‘true’ Druidic doctrine because nobody really knows what that doctrine might be, so any attempt to gatekeep Druidry will carry little weight.
Whereas Vikings wrote things down.
Mostly graffiti, granted – but they did write things down.
We know quite a bit about them and about their culture, from their own words and those of others who described them, and that recorded history, unfortunately, has caught the attention of some less than desirable groups over the years.
Heathenry has, in the words of John Farrell writing in Spiral Nature in 2019 (and giving us a kind little name-check into the bargain), a Nazi Problem. If you’ve followed this sorry excuse for a blog for a while, you may know I’ve talked before about the continuing attempts by the far-right throughout Europe and the Americas to co-opt Norse and ancient Germanic symbolism for their own hateful purposes. The ur-example of this was of course the actual Nazi regime, which adopted numerous symbols from Germanic history, as well as building romanticised socio-cultural ideals on a heroic ‘golden age’ nostalgia myth — a time when men were men and yadda yadda yadda.
And today, many European fascists and racists exploit Norse and Germanic symbolism, particularly certain runes from the futhark/futhorc alphabets, as well as an idealised concept of the ‘Viking warrior’ – often having more in common with TV portrayals than any actual historical basis.
But Heathens/the Asatru are very aware of this issue, and many maintain a constant vigilance for anyone pushing racist, xenophobic or fascist ideologies under the guise of Heathenry. One of the early warning signs that a professed Heathen may harbour these political views may be their insistence that, as an ‘indigenous European religion’, Heathens must be of ‘European heritage’ – by which, of course, they mean white. This attitude – that only white Europeans have the right to call on or seek to serve the Norse and Germanic gods – is often referred to as ‘folkism’. As in, “this is the religion of our folk”.
This is, obviously, bullshit. A god may call on whomever they please, and it’s nobody’s business other than the god and the person called. Folkism, even in its least objectively offensive form, is an attempt to tell gods what they can and cannot do, and therefore is clearly fatuous and arrogant.
Folkism is given short shrift around here.
Until recently my wife was a member of a US-based Heathen organisation called The Asatru Community, or TAC. I was a kind of peripheral hanger-on by virtue of being her wife. The initial appeal of TAC was that it was a firmly inclusive, ‘universalist’ organisation – which meant that it accepted that anyone, anywhere, could be called by the gods of Asatru. It explicitly rejected folkism, as well as any kind of discrimination – and that sat well with us.
About a month ago Suzanne made the decision to leave TAC. It’s not my place to speak for her or account for her reasons here, but I can say that from my own perspective there had been a number of concerning developments which suggested a gradual shift in TAC’s organisational attitudes. TAC had always had some difficulties in its relations with other groups and with individuals – for all its good intentions it managed to create a considerable amount of ill-feeling in the way it handled disputes and disagreements. This, in my own individual perception, was arguably due to a very presidential leadership model which, despite the existence of a board of directors, meant the organisation largely spoke with the voice of its founder.
This attitudinal shift ultimately drove our decision that we could not support TAC any further.
Since Suzanne parted ways with TAC, I’ve been paying them relatively little attention.
Until today, when I was made aware of a rather odd decision.
Today, TAC’s founder, Seth Chagi, still a prominent voice in the organisation’s leadership in a kind of ‘President Emeritus‘ role, posted an update on their website:
Just in case the image isn’t displayed, it says:
Hail to all of the Charter Members of The Asatru Community! This is an official statement from The Board;
As a community that stands for inclusiveness, we would like to announce that we are no longer in support of the Nine Noble Virtues and will be removing them effective immediately from all platforms. (Including, but not limited to: TAC Website, Facebook Page, Facebook Groups and the Clergy Training Program.)
However, we are excited to announce that our President, Topher W. Henry, is in the process of creating a new version based off of the stanzas in the Hávamál, which will be named the “9 Oaths to Odin”.
We would like to take a moment to thank you, our community, our Charter Members, for embracing this change and standing up for what The Asatru Community has always been about: Inclusiveness.
This is weird. And here’s why.
The Nine Noble Virtues – hereafter the 9NV – are a set of qualities that some Asatru (the Virtues aren’t universally held) attempt to embody in their everyday lives. In their simplest form, as the 9NV, they are:
Pretty simple, I’m sure you’d agree. Simple, but not easy. They’re straightforward concepts, easily understood at face value, but individual to each person and often very hard to truly and consistently maintain through the challenges of life. As such, they’re generally understood as aims; things to bear in mind when making decisions or going about your day-to-day affairs.
But – and this is presumably where TAC’s decision has some basis – the list does have a somewhat uncomfortable origin. The above is one of several sets of comparable ideals compiled variously by members of the Odinic Rite organisation, the Asatru Free Assembly (now succeeded by the overtly racist Asatru Folk Assembly); and there is a set of ‘Nine Charges’ put together in flowery pseudo-archaic language by the Odinic Rite in 1970.
In an ideal world, the 9NV as listed above would be taken as they are: they’re concepts. They are, in themselves, free of any intrinsic ideology. Every Heathen will have their own idea about what constitutes courage, or hospitality, or honour (the latter being a notoriously cloudy term at the best of times). Like the Wiccan Rede – “An it harm none, do as you will” – these aren’t rules that everyone must strictly adhere to at all times: like the Rede, they’re principles to bear in mind when making decisions. They’re there to guide your actions by keeping the standards in the forefront of your reasoning. And nothing about them carries the inherent smell of the folkism of those who might first have compiled the list.
TAC offers no explicit reason for its abandonment of the 9NV. The best we can discern is the statement, “As a community that stands for inclusiveness” – perhaps implying rejection of this list because of its unfortunate origins. It’s difficult to judge exactly what prompted this decision or why it’s been taken now when it wasn’t an issue before. But this is more confusing than worrying.
What’s more concerning is the framing of the proposed replacement: Nine Oaths to Odin. This is potentially thorny for two main reasons.
Firstly, as they stand, the 9NV are not oaths to anyone. Again, they’re simply qualities a Heathen might try to live by. Oaths, on the other hand, are dangerous things. Unless they’re couched in fairly soggy language such as “I will try to”, “I’ll do my best” – in which case the undertaking loses a lot of its meaning in any event – then they’re effectively binding the individual to a specific standard or behaviour which they cannot fail to maintain. Failure then means the breaking of an oath, and in Heathenry, as in witchcraft traditions and in the contracting of the Aes Sídhe, breaking a formal promise is… Well, let’s say it’s not looked on favourably.
Obviously a lot will depend on the exact formulation TAC ultimately comes up with for these ‘oaths’ – but however they’re constructed they are going to represent a greater imposition on members and a greater degree of prescriptiveness. At least, if they don’t, then it will raise the question of why call them ‘oaths’ in the first place.
Second, the focus on Odin is theologically, and quite possibly politically, troublesome.
Odin, as the All-Father, the chief of the gods, is of course important in any Norse or Germanic theology. But he isn’t necessarily the god that’s personally called any given Heathen. A Heathen might just as well answer the call of Thor, or Freya, or Heimdall, as Odin. This vocation, if you’ll excuse the Christian term, is again between the god and the person called: formalising and imposing a structure of oaths to Odin regardless of the experience of the one called may not be appropriate for every prospective member. And, in addition, it can’t be ignored that Heathen organisations placing disproportionate emphasis on the worship of Odin or Wotan, or building him into their names tend, in general, to lean more folkish than I for one would be comfortable with. This isn’t an absolute, but it’s a theme. While ‘Odinism’ is certainly a term used to describe the Heathen traditions, it’s an expression with its roots in such operations as Alexander Rud Mills’ First Anglecyn Church of Odin in Australia in the 1930s (for reference, Mills once remarked that he thought Hitler had a “a strong sense of deep kindness”).
Clearly all of this is concern over some ‘oaths’ that haven’t yet been presented publicly. So I have to withhold any real judgement. But the decision seems odd, abrupt, and very much sets TAC on a stroll across a minefield. Whatever they come up with they will have to navigate the route carefully. I’ll be interested to see where they go. Because at the moment my faith in TAC – even as someone who doesn’t share their religious faith – is not strong.