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Northern Gods for Northern Folk: Racial Identity and Right-wing Ideology among Britain’s Folkish Heathens

In: Journal of Religion in Europe
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Heathenry, the modern Pagan religion inspired by the Germanic societies of pre-Christian Europe, is broadly divided between those embracing an inclusive, Universalist perspective, and those who favour a racially exclusive, Folkish alternative. This article represents the first academic analysis of Folkish Heathenry in Britain, focusing on the country’s three most visible groups: the Odinic Rite, the Odinist Fellowship, and Woden’s Folk. Examining how they promote themselves online, it explores how these organisations present an extreme right-wing socio-political vision focusing around the centrality of ‘the folk,’ while at the same time professing an officially apolitical stance.

Abstract

Heathenry, the modern Pagan religion inspired by the Germanic societies of pre-Christian Europe, is broadly divided between those embracing an inclusive, Universalist perspective, and those who favour a racially exclusive, Folkish alternative. This article represents the first academic analysis of Folkish Heathenry in Britain, focusing on the country’s three most visible groups: the Odinic Rite, the Odinist Fellowship, and Woden’s Folk. Examining how they promote themselves online, it explores how these organisations present an extreme right-wing socio-political vision focusing around the centrality of ‘the folk,’ while at the same time professing an officially apolitical stance.

1 Introduction

“Odinism is the original, indigenous faith of the English people.”1 This statement, which is replete with political underpinnings and ramifications, constitutes the opening sentence on a website run by the Odinist Fellowship, a British group devoted to a Pagan religion commonly known as ‘Heathenry.’ Similar sentiments—which are connected to an ideological standpoint known within the Heathen community as ‘Folkish’—are echoed on the websites of other British Heathen organisations such as the Odinic Rite and Woden’s Folk. Although these groups may identify first and foremost as religious, eschewing any explicitly political identity, their respective worldviews are ones with strong political positions, which analytically place them on what political scientists term ‘the extreme right.’2

Heathenry is a broad contemporary Pagan new religious movement (nrm) that is consciously inspired by the linguistically, culturally, and (in some definitions) ethnically ‘Germanic’ societies of Iron Age and early medieval Europe as they existed prior to Christianization. This latter category encompasses such societies as Norse Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon England, and Gothic Germany. While the term ‘Heathenry’ is likely the most widely accepted term for the religion among its practitioners and the academics who have studied it, there are undoubtedly those who favour alternatives, which include ‘Northern Tradition,’ ‘Germanic (neo)Paganism,’ ‘Asatru,’ ‘Odinism,’ ‘Wodenism,’ and ‘Wotanism.’ These different terms often express connotations that are understood within the Heathen community; for instance, many Folkish Heathens in the us use ‘Odinism’ because they wish to avoid terms like ‘Asatru’ which are also employed by many non-Folkish, ‘Universalist’ Heathens.3 Although this has led to the suggestion that one can divide the us Heathen community into the racialist ‘Odinists’ and the non-racialist ‘Asatruer,’ there is no neat division between the two, as many self-described ‘Asatruer’ also embrace explicitly racialist perspectives.4 Here, therefore, I shall refer to a division between ‘Folkish Heathens,’ who deem Heathenry to be a religion geared for a particular racial or ethno-cultural group (whether conceptualised as ‘Nordic,’ ‘white,’ or ‘Aryan’), and the ‘Universalist Heathens’ who hold to no such restriction. This former category can in turn be sub-divided into an explicitly white separatist, ‘racial-religious’ faction which typically exhibits a fixation with concepts like racial purity and race war, and an ‘ethnicist’ faction which retains the essentialist belief in a link between Heathenry and the racially or culturally ‘Germanic’ peoples, but which is otherwise more moderate and less openly revolutionary in its views.5

Like most Pagan faiths, Heathenry has failed to receive the levels of academic enquiry that have been directed toward the larger and better known Pagan religion of Wicca.6 Nevertheless, there has been a range of studies produced that have examined Heathenry in the United States, with a particular focus on the country’s extreme right groups.7 There have also been studies conducted on the movement in continental Europe, including on the development of Heathenry in the völkisch milieu of the early twentieth century.8 Heathenry in the United Kingdom has also been explored, with a particular focus on its neo-shamanic elements.9 As these studies make apparent, Heathenry exhibits unique characteristics in different national contexts; in the words of Egil Asprem, these nrms “will always involve adaptation to local cultural and political circumstances.”10

Here I seek to examine one sector of the Heathen community—Britain’s Folkish Heathens—by paying particular attention to the relationship that they exhibit between religion and politics. Before doing so it is pertinent to highlight the words of anthropologist Jennifer Snook, who studied American Heathenry, when she noted that:

Heathenry (like all religions) is intimately connected to “the political”—to how its adherents conceptualize and enact various identities (gender identity, political identity, ethnic identity) and how they patrol the borders of these identities in order to maintain a sense of authenticity and legitimacy and to protect what it means to be “Heathen” and not something else.11

In this context, ‘politics’ is not just something that happens among political parties and elected officials, but rather impacts almost every area of daily life: views on economics, gender relations, and—most importantly for the purpose of this paper—concepts of racial identity and indigeneity. My argument in this paper will be threefold. That (a) many extreme-right Heathen groups profess an apolitical standpoint for pragmatic reasons, while (b) outlining strongly political views about the current nature of society, the place of their religion in that society, and the future development of the society, but that (c) there are nevertheless interesting differences in the way that the three different Heathen groups under examination promote such ideas.

2 Method and Theory

[S]cholars [of esotericism and Paganism] working with practicing populations need to protect their consultants and themselves through an honest and open presentation of their relationship with the community, regardless of whether they are or not practitioners. This protects the researcher as well as the population under study, especially if the researcher is working with extremist groups.12

In expressing these views, the scholar of modern Paganism Amy Hale was in accordance with the field’s longstanding theoretical and methodological concerns surrounding the issue of reflexivity.13 This being the case, it is important to reveal that although a scholar of contemporary Paganism who is broadly sympathetic to Pagan religiosity, I am not a Pagan, let alone a Heathen. My academic interest in Folkish Heathenry developed in the midst of a previous project that looked at the Pagan usages of Kent’s Medway Megaliths, during which I compared the attitudes to such ‘sacred sites’ among both local Pagan Druids and the Odinic Rite (or).14 Intrigued by the way in which the attitudes expressed by the or and Folkish Heathen groups were so different from those of most other British Pagans, I subsequently decided to explore them in further depth for a conference paper which constituted the basis of this article.15

While some academics have secured access to both Folkish Heathen groups and British extreme right-wing organisations for the purposes of ethnographic research, I decided against conducting in-depth, interactive fieldwork.16 As the political scientist Matthew J. Goodwin observed, extreme-right groups are “notorious for their intense secrecy, paranoia over infiltration and reluctance to grant outsiders access,” with fellow political scientist Cas Mudde commenting on the radical right’s “general suspicion of academics.”17 While Goodwin and Mudde were referring to explicitly political groups, it is also the case that Folkish Heathens can be quite defensive when faced with academic enquiry. During her research into the American Heathen community, Snook was denied membership of the us-based Asatru Folk Assembly (afa)—despite being a Heathen herself—amid accusations that she had “multicultural” leanings and was part of the “liberal agenda” propagated by the “academic elite.”18 While I am ethnically ‘White British’ and share the Folkish Heathens’ affection for the pre-modern societies of Northern Europe, I do not share their essentialist views about race and culture or their socially conservative attitude toward issues such as women’s and lgbt rights. Accordingly, it is highly likely that I—as a non-Heathen, left-leaning academic—would encounter a similar response from these groups to that received by Snook.19

For this reason, I decided that my research would be based solely on the publicly available material that these Heathen groups have issued, with a particular focus on their online presence. The advantage of this is that it gives me the opportunity to focus on how these groups seek to present the way in which they merge the political and religious sides of their ideologies to outsiders, in particular to potential converts. However, there are also problems with this approach. These groups may not be entirely forthcoming about their genuine ideological beliefs when presenting themselves online, fearing that to do so might turn off potential recruits or result in persecution from law enforcement. Similarly, they may hide the fact that internally the group faces much disagreement on these particular issues so as to publicly present a ‘united front’ with no evidence of internal disharmony. As will become particularly apparent during this article, it is also likely that the Heathens’ own emic conception of their political standpoints—as presented on their websites—would clearly differ from an outsider, etic standpoint of a scholar of religion, history, or political science. Ultimately, it must therefore be conceded that the focus on these groups’ public, online presentation of their ideological standpoints carries both benefits and disadvantages when contrasted with an ethnographic approach.

3 Heathenry and the Extreme Right

That the ideologies of Folkish Heathenry lie on the right wing of the political spectrum is long established. Robert Wallis for instance referred to the “strong right-wing views” of the or and afa.20 Problematically, the term ‘right wing’ lacks precision, being used to encompass a wide, disparate array of ideologies whose only clear commonality is an anti-egalitarian belief in the inevitability and desirability of social hierarchy. Such hierarchies can be rooted in traditional classes, a free-market economy, or in racial groups, and thus conservatives, libertarians, and white separatists can all be deemed ‘right wing’ despite their significant differences regarding such topics as ethnic identity, preferred economic system, and social issues. It is thus important to specify what sort of ‘right wing’ Britain’s Folkish Heathens are.

While ‘extreme right’ has been employed here, this is not a term that is entirely free from problems. According to Elisabeth Carter, “in spite of the fact that right-wing extremism has been extensively analysed by academics, journalists and other observers alike, it remains the case that an unequivocal definition of this concept is still lacking.”21 The term has often been associated with fascism and Nazism, as well as subsequent neo-fascist and neo-Nazi movements, although it has often been used more broadly to refer to white nationalist groups and those promoting ethnic or racial conceptions of nationalism in Europe. If ‘extreme right’ were to be avoided, then the best possible alternative might be ‘radical right,’ which was employed by Jacob Senholt in his discussion of right-wing political ideas within the esoteric milieu.22 This term originally developed in us political discourse to characterise the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthyite era, although it has since been used by some scholars looking at European and British politics.23 Within the more recent study of contemporary Britain, ‘radical right’ has been employed in reference to the non-racialist, yet anti-multicultural, position embraced by the uk Independence Party (ukip).24 Conversely, ‘extreme right’ has been used in descriptions of political parties like the National Front and the British National Party, both of which adhere to racialized nationalisms. As this article demonstrates, similar attitudes toward issues of race and identity are present among Britain’s Folkish Heathens, and it is for this reason that ‘extreme right’ appears to be the most appropriate term of description within this context.

Britain’s Folkish Heathens are not alone in adhering to extreme-right ideas, which instead have a long pedigree within Heathenry, stretching back to its very origins within nineteenth-century Romanticism. One of the earliest Heathens was the Austrian esotericist Guido von List (1848–1919), who sought to revive what he termed ‘Wotanism’ as a new faith for Europe’s Germanic peoples.25 As Olav Hammer has noted, List’s esoteric philosophy, Ariosophy, was “unambiguously racist and anti-Semitic,” emerging from the same nationalist völkisch milieu that ultimately led to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.26 List’s ideas exerted an influence on pioneering Australian Heathen Alexander Rud Mills (1885–1964), who founded the First Anglecyn Church of Odin in 1936. Mills’ vision of ‘Odinism’ was an explicitly racialist one, tailored to the needs of the “British race.”27 In turn, Mills’ writings influenced Else Christensen (1913–2005), a Florida-based Dane who propagated Heathenry as a means of promoting racial consciousness among ‘Aryans.’ In 1969, she established a group that came to be known as the Odinist Fellowship, through which she published The Odinist magazine, known for its extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic content.28 In coming decades, Christensen communicated with sympathisers across the world, among them the prominent Australian Heathen who used the pseudonym of ‘Osred.’29

Heathenry is not the only sector of the Pagan and esoteric milieu to contain those who adopt an extreme right-wing view of the world, either in Britain or elsewhere. Across Europe, and particularly in the former Soviet bloc, many Pagan groups emphasise ethnic nationalist ideas.30 Ethnic nationalism can also be found in the Earth mysteries movement, particularly in the work of self-described ‘radical traditionalist’ John Michell (1933–2009), who popularised a vision of Britain as the centre of a coming Golden Age.31 Michell’s ‘radical traditionalist’ banner has since been adopted by the us-based journal Tyr, which combines Traditionalism with New-Right politics and Heathenry, attracting contributions from some of the Heathen community’s most prominent ideologues.32 Pushing into more extreme territory, the British-based Order of Nine Angles—which combines Heathen and Satanic themes in its ideology—has attracted attention for its embrace of various forms of political extremism and violence, most notably neo-Nazism,33 while the wider neo-Nazi movement has also exhibited various intersections with occultism, resulting, for instance, in the development of ‘esoteric Hitlerism’.34

Exploring this merger of esoteric and right-wing ideologies, “[…] Senholt pointed out that both are counter-cultural in their approach to modern Western society, thus co-existing in what Colin Campbell called the “cultic milieu”, inhabiting an intellectually marginal territory where it is easier for them to interact.”35 Moreover, he noted that Paganism attracts many in the extreme right who deem it to be the only credible spiritual alternative to Christianity in the West. For these individuals, Christianity is held ultimately responsible for the propagation of egalitarianism, something they deem inferior to what they understand as the ethical systems of pre-Christian Europe.36 Clearly, there is an esoteric, Pagan, and more specifically Heathen extreme-right milieu—both internationally and in Britain—which has the potential to influence, and in turn be influenced by, British Folkish Heathenry.

4 A History of These Movements

Perhaps the largest and foremost Folkish Heathen organisation in Britain, the Odinic Rite, was established in 1973 as the London Odinist Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite by John Gibbs-Bailey and John Leslie William Yeowell (1918–2010). Little is publicly known of Gibbs-Bailey, who used the name of ‘Hoskuld’ within the community.37 It is claimed that he had been an Odinist since the 1930s, which if true might indicate an influence from Mills. According to an or member who knew Gibbs-Bailey in later life, he “had a profound love of his folk and the proud heritage of his folk,” and as he was “then an idealistic young man, [he] at times was in the thick of battles” amid the mounting “tensions between radical political and social doctrines and the more conventional ones” that rocked that decade.38 Although not explicit, such a description strongly implies that he was involved with the right-wing nationalist movements of the 1930s.

Compared with Gibbs-Bailey, more biographical information about Yeowell has been publicly revealed, in large part due to the contributions that he made in a wide array of different fields. Born to a Roman Catholic family, (unverified) claims circling the Odinist community claim that Yeowell fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Irish Brigade, a group of right-wing anti-communists under the leadership of the Irish General Eoin O’Duffy. He then served in both the French Foreign Legion and the British Regular Army, being a ‘Chindit’ member of the latter’s 77th Indian Infantry Brigade during the Burma Campaign.39 Although not specified on the Odinist websites, elsewhere it has been stated that Yeowell had previously been a member of the British Union of Fascists, which would certainly be in keeping with his involvement in both the Irish Brigade and Folkish Heathenry.40

In the 1950s, this duo met through their common cultural interests, with Yeowell embracing the Heathen faith that Gibbs-Bailey espoused. Their establishment of the London Odinist Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite in 1973—a group often abbreviated simply as the ‘Odinist Committee’—represented their desire to further this new religious movement. In 1980, they renamed the group the Odinic Rite, reflecting their belief that the faith had effectively been ‘restored.’ Formulating a structure that was partly inspired by previous Heathen groups, they created the Nine Noble Virtues as an ethical guide for practitioners and adopted their own Odinic dating system for marking the calendar. Partly as a result of the strain placed on Gibbs-Bailey by his wife’s ill health, it was Yeowell who became the primary spearhead behind the group’s momentum, serving as the first director of its leading Court of Gothar and producing the Raven’s Banner magazine. He also authored a number of books, including This is Odinism (1974), Hidden Gods: The Period of Dual Faith (1982), The Book of Blots (1991), The Odinist Hearth (1992), and Odinism, Christianity and the Third Reich (1993). Living for a time on the border between Whitechapel and Stepney in East London, he adopted the Odinic name ‘Stubba,’ after an Anglo-Saxon chieftain whom he believed had once ruled in the area. Seeking to expand the group’s membership, he also established communications with Heathens elsewhere in the world, including Christensen’s North American Fellowship. Odinism was not, however, Yeowell’s only interest, and—claiming to be a descendent of the ‘Sobieski Stuarts’—he was a member of the Royal Stuart Society, serving as its principle secretary from 1952 to 1970 and also as its vice president. In keeping with his love of the Stuarts, Yeowell was a Jacobitist, believing that the Stuart family were the rightful heirs to the thrones of England, Wales, and Scotland.41

Yeowell also established connections with the Odinist community in Australia, where an informal group had begun to assemble at the University of Melbourne in 1972. A woman belonging to this group visited Britain, and in 1976 undertook a Profession, or declaration of faith, to Yeowell and the Committee. On her return to Australia, she oversaw the Profession of other members, creating a link between the Australian and British communities. The Australians continued to seek Yeowell’s advice, and, in 1994, established the Odinic Rite of Australia (ora), which adopted the constitution and ritual structure of the British or but remained officially independent of it. It gained tax-exempt status as a religious organisation the following year. In 1994, a member of the group, Osred, began production of a quarterly, Renewal, which was kept officially separate from the ora to avoid possible legal issues.42 Also in 1994, a branch of the or—known as Odinic Rite Deutschland—was established in Germany, although it later declared its independence over socio-political differences and became the Verein für Germanisches Heidentum (VfgH, “Association for Germanic Heathenry”).43 Continuing with its global outreach, the or signed up to an alliance of Folkish Heathen organisations, the International Ásatrú/Odinist Alliance (iaoa), although this group disbanded in 2002.44

Back in Britain, 1989 witnessed Yeowell’s step down as director of the Court of Gothar, with the court electing the pseudonymous ‘Heimgest’ as his successor. This turn of events resulted in a schism, with a number of members being expelled and establishing a rival Odinic Rite. Yeowell initially joined the secessionists, although, four years later, he re-joined the original organisation that he had co-founded. Despite his Heathen beliefs, his funeral was held at the West London Crematorium in Kensal Green, where it was conducted by the Reverend David Skeoch, an Anglo-Catholic priest and honorary chaplain of the Royal Stuart Society. In accordance with his wishes, Yeowell’s ashes were scattered in an Odinic ceremony conducted by senior or member ‘Asrad’ at the White Horse Stone in Kent.45

The second of the groups that will be examined here, the Odinist Fellowship (of), emerged through the or’s schism during the 1990s. Initially also referring to itself as the ‘Odinic Rite,’ the Fellowship was established by Ralph Harrison, or ‘Ingvar,’ one of the defectors from the original Rite.46 Harrison had registered the original or as a charity in 1988, and he took this charity status with him during the schism, with the result being that it is the Odinic Fellowship, as opposed to the original or, which now has charity status.47 The of has been able to attract mainstream-media attention on a number of occasions. One of its kindreds, the West Riding-based Thor’s Hearth, was profiled on the bbc website, while local press paid attention when, in 2015, Harrison’s branch of the of opened a temple in a sixteenth-century former church building in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire.48

A third group that this article will be concerned with is Woden’s Folk, which promotes a religion that it terms ‘Wodenism’ or ‘Woden Folk-Religion.’ According to its website, this group was established on 23 April 1998 by ‘Wulf Ingesunnu.’ Woden’s Folk differ from many other Folkish Heathen groups by emphasising a clear English identity, thus favouring the Anglo-Saxon deity Woden over the Norse Odin. At the same time, their system is not based on an attempt to accurately reconstruct the pre-Christian religion of Anglo-Saxon England using surviving archaeological and historical sources, but rather draws eclectically upon a range of sources and has been heavily marked by its founder’s own spiritual revelations. It differs from other Heathen groups in exhibiting a strongly messianic component focused around a figure known as “the Hooded Man,” an “English folk hero” who is the son of Woden and who “will deliver us from oppression.”49 Ingesunnu believes that this entity represents an “Archetypal Folk-Hero” who has appeared throughout history and folklore in such guises as Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Eadric the Wild, and William Tell.50 In later sources, Ingesunnu characterises this entity as an “avatar” of Woden, thus likely reflecting an evolution in his understanding of this figure through his exposure to wider right-wing ideas about an ancient ‘Aryan’ religion that was the ancestor of both ancient Northern belief systems and Hinduism.51

Much to the amusement of online critics, it is also apparent that parts of Woden’s Folk’s belief system—such as its references to the “Prophecies of Gildas” and a “Seventh Sword of Wayland”—stem from a 1980s itv television series, Robin of Sherwood, and have no basis in history or folklore.52 Ingesunnu, however, explains that he received knowledge of the Prophecies of Gildas on Halloween in 1993, while in Horam, East Sussex, thus implying that such prophecies pervade the English ‘folk soul,’ from which they were picked up independently by both Robin of Sherwood-creator Richard Carpenter and himself.53 Another influence on Woden’s Folk that can be identified is List’s work, to which they devoted a page of their original website.54 Elsewhere, Ingesunnu has revealed that during the 1980s, prior to founding Woden’s Folk, he had been involved in the or’s Leicestershire-based Hearth of Wayland group. He claimed that he began focusing on the Anglo-Saxon Woden rather than Odin while still an or member and that “naturally this did not really fit in with an organisation based on the Norse Tradition.” Accordingly, he left and, in June 1991, formed the White Dragon Kindred as a vehicle to promote specifically Anglo-Saxon Heathenry.55

It is perhaps noteworthy that the similarly named Wotansvolk—a us-based Folkish Heathen group—had established a European headquarters in London by the spring of 1996. By 2000, Wotansvolk’s Katja Lane claimed that the group had sixty-two affiliated individuals and eight affiliated kindreds in England, with a further three affiliated individuals and one affiliated kindred in Scotland.56 Given the similarity of name and general weltanshauung, it is not improbable that Woden’s Folk established under the influence of, or in direct affiliation with, Wotansvolk. Certainly, the first Woden’s Folk website recommended that Americans involve themselves with this us organisation, calling it “a very good heathen group,” while Ingesunnu has publicly thanked Lane for her friendship, and praised her husband, the white separatist militant David Lane, as a “hero” in his poem “Son of Woden.”57

The precise size of Woden’s Folk is difficult to determine, although on their blog they provide links to fourteen affiliated kindreds in England and another in Texas, also acknowledging that many “lone wolves” are part of their wider network.58 Taken together, this is suggestive of between one to two hundred affiliated individuals, albeit some of whom may also be involved with other Heathen organisations too. Clearly, there are other potentially connected exponents of extreme-right Heathenry in Britain, such as the mysterious Wessex-based Brotherhood of Woden, which has appeared in recent years.59 Also little known is the Patriotic Women’s League, an organisation based in Northwest England, which issued the Valkyrie newsletter during the late 1990s.60 Similarly elusive is a Folkish Heathen group brought to public attention in The Odin Brotherhood, a book authored by Mark Mirabello in 1992. Here he claimed to be relaying information about a secretive eponymous group that represented a genuine pre-Christian survival. This incredibly dubious claim notwithstanding, there is little reliable evidence that the Brotherhood actually exists, with the scholar of religion Graham Harvey having noted that most Heathens of his acquaintance doubted its existence.61 It is nevertheless possible that there was an original group behind the book and that further groups have since been established by individuals inspired by its contents.

At this juncture it is worth highlighting that not all British Heathens identify with the political right.62 Many are leftists, espousing social egalitarianism and opposition to racism, with prominent Heathen voices such as AsatruUK and Pete Jennings’ Odinshof using their websites to make clear that they oppose the views of their extreme-right co-religionists.63 Such attitudes are closely linked with Universalist Heathenry, which typically holds that the religion is not intrinsically intertwined with any particular racial group and thus can be practiced by individuals of any ethnicity (as well as those of any sexuality, gender identity, [dis]ability, etc.). In recent years some of these Universalist Heathens have gone further by actively campaigning against Folkish Heathenry and the racialist beliefs that Folkish Heathens espouse. One such example is Heathens United Against Racism (huar), originally established as a Facebook group in 2012 and now with branches in the us, Canada, and the uk. huar identifies as an anti-racist organisation that seeks to combat racism and the extreme right both in Heathenry and wider society, for instance by calling for boycotts of the afa over its racially discriminatory entry policy.64

5 British Heathenry and Politics

Previous scholarship has highlighted the impact of political issues on Heathenry. Snook, for instance, explored the politics of Heathen gender norms, while Horrell highlighted that Heathens often depict themselves as a ‘colonized’ people who have been negatively impacted by medieval Christianisation.65 Unsurprisingly, Britain’s Folkish Heathens are just as involved in political debates and issues as their counterparts elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is notable that several of these Heathen groups use their websites to actively express the view that they are not political. The or, for instance, officially denies being a political vehicle; in its online faqs it states quite clearly that:

The Odinic Rite is not a political movement—a member’s political outlook, if any, is up to them as free people. This does not mean members cannot comment on matters which affect us all. Indeed individual members would be abrogating their civic duty if they neglected or ignored the ethical matters that are constantly being discussed in the wider community. […] Under no circumstances are members permitted to use Odinism as a tool for the promotion of their political views.66

Not dissimilarly, on their original website Woden’s Folk declared that “Woden’s Folk in [sic] NON Political,” adding that “In an age where Mother Nature’s laws are the only laws needed to survive, all politics is useless and will fail you in the end […].”67 On their site’s current version, they declare that “Woden’s Folk is a Religious Order and has nothing to do with politics, culture or any other part of the struggle—we leave that to others.”68 Elsewhere it proclaims that it “transcends” the left-right political divide and eschews the terms ‘nationalism,’ ‘fascism,’ ‘Nazism,’ and ‘white supremacism.’69

The approach adopted by the Odinic Rite and Woden’s Folk is not without precedent. The us-based Ásatrú Alliance also proclaimed itself to be apolitical, and has ended its affiliation with those kindreds that have violated that bylaw by professing support for extreme-right ideologies.70 Similarly, on the (apparently us-based) forum Odinist.net, the second rule proclaims: “Leave your politics at the door! No posts usernames, signatures or avatars promoting political views or groups,” even though it then contradictorily states that “socio-political topics which affect us all” are an acceptable topic of conversation.71 In contrast to the Odinic Rite and Woden’s Folk’s public declarations about being non-political, on the website of the Odinist Fellowship, politics is not explicitly mentioned at all.

There are various reasons why these groups might choose to make such an explicit statement as to their apolitical nature, none of which are mutually exclusive. One potential explanation is that these groups contain practitioners of divergent political positions, and that by expressing an officially apolitical stance, the organisation can accommodate such diversity. A second explanation—one specific perhaps to the Odinist Fellowship—is that it fears losing its charitable status. uk law specifies that while charities may engage in political campaigning, “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are [purely] political.”72 Accordingly, charities which have been associated with extreme-right activities, such as the Steadfast Trust, have been de-listed by the Charity Commission.73 Related to this second explanation is a third, which would be that by professing an apolitical stance, these groups are attempting to evade any interference from the authorities which might be brought about were they to proclaim an allegiance to right-wing extremism. A fourth explanation is that these groups genuinely do not see themselves as ‘political’ vehicles, narrowly viewing ‘politics’ as something that only happens among elected officials, and that they instead wish to bring about socio-political change through cultural and religious means.

6 The Centrality of the ‘Folk’

A central tenet espoused by these three groups is folkishness, the concept that their faith is one that is intricately connected with a particular racial group, the folk, which in these contexts is associated with ‘Northern Europeans’ and the ‘English’ more specifically. This connection is legitimised as an ‘ancestral’ one, therefore providing a clear spiritual link between the past ‘folk’ and their current descendants. These Heathens furthermore express the view that because this religion has an intrinsic ancestral link to the Northern European ‘folk’ of the ancient past, it is only members of this particular group who can legitimately adhere to it in the present. This approach reflects the practitioner perspective that this new religious movement really is a genuine survival or revival of an ancient belief system, rather than an ‘invented tradition’ that owes more to modern Romanticism than the actual belief systems of pre-Christian Europeans (as outsider academics tend to view it).

The Odinic Rite describes itself as:

an organization whose aims are to promote all aspects of our ancestral religion today called Odinism, the organic spiritual beliefs and way of life of the indigenous peoples of Northern Europe […]. Odinism defines our unique identity as a folk and as individuals within that folk organism.74

This emphasis is embedded within their motto, “Faith, Folk, Family,” which is also emblazoned on the group’s logo. While the Rite speaks of Heathenry as a religion for Northern European “indigenous people” more widely—thus perhaps reflecting its desire to spread beyond its English homeland—both the Odinist Fellowship and Woden’s Folk instead speak more specifically of Heathenry as a religion for the ‘English’ folk. According to the Fellowship’s website:

Odinism is the name we give to the original, indigenous form of heathen 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.75

Clearly, there is an acknowledgment here that ‘Odinism’ is a religion with pan-Northern European links, but their focus is squarely on England.

It is apparent that such groups employ the term ‘English’ in an ethnic nationalist manner; as Ingesunnu put it, “it must be made plain that the word ‘English’ is used for the indigenous population of England, and is not used in the modern (and incorrect) sense of anyone who lives in this land.”76 His Woden’s Folk characterise ‘Wodenism’ as a “Folkish Religion” connected to a wider “Folkish Movement,” believing that it will appeal to those who hear the “Call of the Blood” and thereby attract sufficient numbers of converts to result in an English “Spiritual Revolution.”77 On their website, they utilise the controversial slogan “Blood and Soil,” thereby reflecting their belief in an ancestral connection between an ethnic group and a particular geographical territory.78 Not dissimilarly, the Odinist Fellowship proclaim that Odinism is “ethnospecific” and that if they “were we to receive a request to administer the Odinist Pledge of Faith to, say, a Japanese or a Nigerian, we would encourage that person to embrace” their own “indigenous form” of religion.79 These groups clearly “biologize spirituality” in the same way as their North American counterparts studied by Mattias Gardell do, adopting the pseudoscientific view that “somehow, gods and goddesses are encoded in the dna of the descendants of the ancients.”80

As can be seen elsewhere in the Heathen community, British Folkish practitioners contrast what they see as the racially appropriate nature of Heathenry with the idea that Christianity, being the creation of Semitic peoples, is fundamentally alien to Northern Europeans.81 Shropshire-based blogger Nikarev Leshy speaks of Odinism as “not merely a set of arbitrary beliefs we [as Northern Europeans] have adopted” but as “an innate expression of who and what we are,” which is thus at odds with Islam and Christianity, “alien religions that do not truly speak to our souls.”82 Speaking bitterly of the Christianisation of England, the Odinist Fellowship moreover “strongly disapprove” of Christian and Islamic missionary work among other societies.83

Apparent from an analysis of this online literature is that the idea that white Northern Europeans—or the English specifically—constitute a singular, self-contained racial group fundamentally distinct from other groups is assumed to be self-evident. No attempt is made to critique the vast academic literature arguing that ‘race’ is a cultural construct, nor any sign made that these practitioners are even aware of such literature. Even if they were, it is perhaps likely that they would dismiss it as part of the socio-political establishment’s nefarious plan to erode ‘the folk,’ alongside other tactics like multiculturalism and miscegenation. Fundamentally, the belief in the objective reality of distinct racial groups remains an act of faith for Folkish Heathens.

For these Heathens, there are clear political ramifications stemming from their beliefs about ‘the folk.’ On their online media, prominent Folkish Heathens express the view that ‘the folk’ are threatened by the forces of modernity and racial mixing, something that they typically blame upon the socio-political establishment. In a blog post, or head Heimgest expressed his frustration that “both the ‘left wing’ and the conservative camps wish to dissolve all diversity and barriers within humanity, thereby creating a mongrel folk—a human soul devoid of all unique features.” He lamented that much of the time,

[a] wish to preserve the uniqueness of race groups is called ‘Race Hate.’ In actual fact it is just the reverse. Can anyone honestly say the destruction of unique cultures, religions, organisms is desirable? […] Could anyone honestly call the wish to preserve species race hate? Indeed it is high compassion.84

On his blog, Woden’s Folk’s founder expressed anger that “we live in an age where ‘equality’ is being forced upon us (which shows it to be unnatural),” while on an older webpage his group characterised ours as a “decaying and dying world.”85

Seeking the establishment of a society that they deem preferable to that currently engulfing ‘the folk,’ Woden’s Folk articulate a far-reaching political plan for the future of British society. Calling for an end to both the European Union and the ‘New World Order’—the latter acting as both capitalism and socialism—it instead calls for the establishment of a “European Imperium” constituting a “Europe of the Free Nations,” each of which is to be a distinct nation-state that is nevertheless free of the “narrow-minded ‘nationalism’ that would plunge our nations into World War iii.”86 According to their claims, they see their role in this ultimate scheme as idea generators, promoting a Wodenist worldview in the belief that, when the material and cultural conditions are right, the “English Awakening” will occur along with its concomitant socio-political changes.87 Elsewhere, Woden’s Folk have laid out their desire for a small-scale, agrarian, and Heathen society in which a homogenously white English populace live in largely self-sufficient family units and attain what else they need through a barter economy.88 In envisioning this as an ideal society, Woden’s Folk share many of the desires of the National Anarchist movement, whose foremost ideologue, the English Heathen Troy Southgate (b. 1965), has clear connections to the group.89 Ingesunnu has repeatedly spoken at Southgate’s New Right discussion group in London, Southgate’s poetry is included on an old version of Woden’s Folk’s website, and Southgate has edited and published a collected volume of Ingesunnu’s writings.90 This vision of an idealised society also closely mirrors that promoted by the Nouvelle Droite, a French movement that emerged in the late 1960s and which has since spread to other parts of Europe. Like Woden’s Folk, the Nouvelle Droite critiques the egalitarian ethos of Christianity and liberal democracy, claims to be ‘beyond left and right,’ promotes cultural change as a prerequisite for political change, and envisions a federalised Europe consisting of small-scale regional communities.91 Given this wide range of common attitudes, it is likely that the ideas of the Nouvelle Droite have been an important influence on Woden’s Folk, just as they have influenced National Anarchism. Whether this influence was direct, with Ingesunnu having read the work of Nouvelle Droite thinkers, or whether it was indirect (perhaps through Southgate) remains unclear.

The connection between Woden’s Folk and the Nouvelle Droite highlights how Britain’s Folkish Heathens often share the beliefs of pre-existing extreme-right political groups. The view promoted by the Odinic Rite and Odinist Fellowship that religious beliefs and cultural practices can be ethnically specific not only echoes that of the Nouvelle Droite, but also parallels similar ideas found across the contemporary British extreme right. Whereas those extreme-right groups active in the heyday of the British Empire often embraced ideas that were explicitly biologically racist and white supremacist, espousing the idea that Northern Europeans were innately superior to many or all other racial groups, this view began to shift in the 1990s. From this point onward, extreme-right groups like the British National Party (bnp) have dropped their open promotion of biologically racialist ideas and replaced them with a (less electorally toxic) emphasis on the idea that ethnic groups are culturally distinct and should be preserved through a system of racial segregation.92 While groups like the bnp promoted this idea in Britain’s party political arena during the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is also clear that the Folkish Heathens were simultaneously endorsing a similar attitude within their own religious communities. Whether there was any clear influence of one approach on the other is not clear, however it is perhaps likely that the two perspectives were mutually reinforcing, particularly given their mutual co-existence within the British extreme-right milieu.

While some might be tempted to categorise these extreme-right perspectives as ‘neo-Nazi,’ this would be misleading. Nowhere on these websites is there a glorification of Nazi Germany or a specific advocacy of either ‘Aryan’ or white supremacism. This absence of explicitly supremacist viewpoints was similarly observed by Gardell in his study of American Folkish Heathens, although he did note that many expressed supremacist views regarding white people’s intellect and culture while in conversation.93 Similarly, none of these British groups actively described themselves as ‘racists.’ Gardell, however, was content to refer to Folkish Heathenry as a racist ideology, on the condition that ‘racism’ be defined as a worldview in which humankind subdivides into distinct races each with their own physical, mental, and moral qualities.94 If that definition were employed here, then the three British groups described could indeed also be categorised as ‘racist.’ Problematically, however, ‘racism’ is a highly contested term that is used in competing ways by different groups. Certainly, Folkish Heathenry’s emphasis on celebrating what its adherents perceive to be their own race, coupled with the belief that the religion should be racially exclusionary, undoubtedly puts it well within certain definitions of racism. This is bolstered by the fact that much Folkish Heathen discourse appears to be replete with statements glorifying ‘white’ history while criticising perceived foreign influences such as Christianity.95

All three of the Heathen groups discussed here emphasise the idea that the religion that they espouse is Folkish—that it is designed for members of a specific racial folk group, whether they be defined as ‘English’ or more widely as Northern European. However, the three clearly differ in the manner in which they present their socio-political allegiances. On one side, we have the Odinist Fellowship, which does not outline any form of socio-political agenda on its publicly available material. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Woden’s Folk, whose website offers a clear, anti-modernist critique of contemporary British society and offers a vision of a future that it wishes to bring about. Between these two we have the Odinic Rite, which makes reference to various political issues surrounding ‘the folk’ on different parts of its website, but which does not publicly articulate a fully-rounded critique or project of how to bring about the changes that it desires.

7 Conclusion

The three British Folkish Heathen groups discussed in this article all utilise the internet as a medium through which to promote their respective denominations. Two of them—the Odinic Rite and Woden’s Folk—use their websites to make explicit declarations of their political neutrality, while the third—the Odinist Fellowship—avoids mentioning politics at all. At the same time, all three advocate an inherently political stance in terms of ‘race’ by embracing a Folkish attitude which restricts membership of their group to ‘white’ individuals of Northern European ancestry. Moreover, both the Odinic Rite and Woden’s Folk use their websites to promote a wider critique of contemporary British society and advocate for a future that is more to their liking; analytically speaking, these political programs clearly belong on what political scientists term ‘the extreme right.’

These Heathens all subscribe to a broadly similar weltanschauung, one which is fundamentally counter-cultural to mainstream Western attitudes. Theirs is an ethno-centric worldview in which one’s genetic material and ancestral lineage is of central importance, defining someone as belonging to one particular ‘folk’ rather than another, and building a connection between (pagan) past, present, and (putatively Pagan) future.96 For them, our present world is one in which the perceived historical homogeneity of ‘the folk’ is under threat, and it is hoped that through promoting a race-conscious Heathen faith they will help to secure its future.

All of these groups adhere to ideologies that exist beyond the margins of mainstream political respectability, and thus their prospects for bringing about the socio-political change that they seek—at least in the short term—appear negligible. While more explicitly ethnic-nationalist political parties have achieved growing electoral success in various parts of Europe, the only non-mainstream right-wing party to have made a significant impact in Britain, ukip, have only been able to do so by repeatedly emphasising a non-racialist concept of ‘civic nationalism.’ Britain is becoming both an increasingly ethnically heterogeneous island and one that is (with some significant caveats) largely comfortable with such ethnic heterogeneity. This is not something that will be to the liking of Britain’s Folkish Heathen groups, who may well respond by deepening their insular and counter-cultural stance. Whatever the future has in store for Britain and its Folkish Heathens, it will be fascinating to observe.

This article is based on a paper presented at the conference “Generation Hex: The Politics of Contemporary Paganism,” held at the University of Cambridge’s Division of Social Anthropology on 10 September 2015. My thanks go to the organisers of the event, as well as to those who gave me feedback on my presentation, among them Professor Graham Harvey, who chaired the session in which my paper appeared.

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