Give No Ground: Reclaiming Culture and Faith From the Right
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
The following is a guest post from an anonymous contributor and follower of this website. The views represented here are strictly their own and do not represent the views of On Black Wings.
From when I was incredibly young, I remember being told stories about the exploits of the Norse gods; of Thor’s brave conflicts with Jotuns and the children of Loki, of Odin’s silver tongued guile, of Idunn’s magical fruits that sustained the gods in Asgard, and our place on the world tree and cosmic cycle (albeit in less grandiose terms). These were bedtime stories, anecdotes and entertainment whilst going on walks and explanations when things didn’t quite make sense. I remember being given my first (and to date only) hand-made, iron Thor’s hammer pendant when I was around 4-5 years old by my father and loving it to bits as something both from him, and incredibly nerdy, cool and badass. We were a very poor family at that point, barely being able to afford food at times, so in hindsight this must have been a hard bought and meaningful gift. I remember running around my nursery playground showing it off, and mischievously demonstrating its power by using it to scrape away mortar from between the bricks that made up the school building, hoping to pry one free. The hammer I still wear daily bears these marks and is easily the one thing I have owned longest. It did, and still does, bring me great joy and a sense of connection with my family, my own past and a sense of strength going into an often difficult and dangerous world.
Unfortunately, the Norse paganism I grew up with also came intertwined with a toxic melange of white supremacy, sexism, homophobia and, essentially, outright fascist politics. My father, modelling himself as a “benign” despot, ruled our household with an unwavering iron fist; hammer pendants and tales of Norse sagas were for only for the men of the house, my father, younger brother and I. My younger sister and mother were actively discouraged from taking an interest, and at best were considered unimportant when it came to this male-centric spirituality. Any kind of spiritual practice that interested them was discounted as childish, silly or “women’s things”. Worse yet, phrases like “Hitler was a great and misunderstood man”, “we should round the Muslims up and bomb them” were commonplace, as were the standard fascist tropes of “the great replacement ” of “ethnic northern Europeans” by ethnic minorities under the oversight of a Jewish cabal, as well as that “Jewry” had somehow impoverished the German people after the first world war through pawn shops and predatory lending, and that the holocaust was an entirely justified form of righteous retribution against an oppressor of the German people. The fact that many of these Jews were themselves German never factored in. I never questioned these beliefs whilst I was young, because frankly I didn’t know any different.
My father, and by extension family, passively supported the BNP (British National Party)
in Britain and the NPD (Die Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands)
in Germany. I grew up with these belief systems, Norse-paganism and fascism, being inextricably intertwined and the consequent valorisation of violence and ethnic supremacy having justification in pagan spirituality and the Norse history associated with it. In this fascist mindset, the sagas are tales of heroic white men defending “their” women and lands from dangerous, deviant, unknown outsiders. Jotuns, trolls and the children of Loki became metaphors for the ethnic other threatening the established (and positively charged) white supremacist, patriarchal order. Keeping “our” lands safe from “them” was an obvious truth reflected both in lived experience and spiritual practice. Women, in both the tales and in my household, were secondary, precious things to be protected and ruled, not people with agency, lives and spiritual and political worth of their own.
After leaving home and making a radical break with my fascist upbringing to embrace Anarchist Communism, I rejected and left behind Norse Paganism as a guilty accomplice to the violent bigotry I had experienced first hand. I was angry that such a dictatorial and destructive philosophy had ruined all the stories and history I’d come to value so much and felt like a part of myself had been lost never to be recovered. Without a strong connection to family and past, I felt somewhat adrift and threw myself into direct action politics and the upsurge in radical left organising. I accepted at face value that fascism and neo-Nazism had an unchallenged ownership over the history and spirituality I had grown up with and that rejecting and fighting bigotry must necessarily involve fighting their spiritual underpinnings. I was ashamed I owned a Thor's hammer and was sure (probably at least partially rightly) that people in my new political scene probably wouldn’t understand or sympathise with where I’d come from. I didn’t know anyone else who’d grown up in such a right-wing environment and felt very alone in my experience of political and spiritual transition.
It was an understandable simplification to make, that Norse Paganism “belongs” to the right and unfortunately fascists and Neo-Nazis have done a remarkably good job of infiltrating and usurping various neo-pagan scenes, whose unwillingness or inability to articulate explicitly antifascist politics leaves them vulnerable to being used as recruiting grounds. This represents a part of the shift in focus on the far right from politics,
. Similarly, the “Fascist Creep”, the insidious drift towards the far right and their takeover of previously neutral spaces, can be found alive and well in many other subcultures, especially the metal scene for example. I wasn’t entirely wrong in lumping together the brand of neo-paganism I grew up with, with fascist politics, the two were pretty closely tied, but my rejection missed out some key facts and strategic ideas.
Firstly, while that particular brand of Norse Paganism, the one which valorises violence for it’s own sake and focuses on the exploits of strong men to the exclusion of all else, is largely tarnished by white supremacy, it’s far from the only vision of what Norse Paganism is, or can be. Religion and spirituality, like any social space, is open to being contested. Much of the fascist fixation with Norse-paganism rests on their fetish for a distorted version of the societies that would have practised it in pre-Christian northern Europe. Whoever, there’s a fantastic point to be made that the kinds of ethnically homogeneous northern European culture and religion that fascists base their Viking fetish on
. I won’t go into that particular point in depth, as there’s a tonne of academic work in this field, but to summarise; Scandinavian “dark age” society was incredibly diverse and definitely would not have recognised any kind of “European” or “white” shared identity between a diverse set of ethnic and linguistic groups. What’s more many were well travelled and societies were often connected by trade over vast distances to massively different cultural groups in the middle east and the Russian steppe for example.
Furthermore, Norse society was very open to incorporating “external” beliefs and social practices into their own, as well as incorporating (albeit limited) democratic social structures, female enfranchisement and a less hostile environment to various contemporary non normative gender identities and sexualities. Further, this is all reflected in more progressive and radical readings of what few texts we have left, such as the Prose and Poetic Eddas. There’s also a fantastic point to be made, that the fascist obsession of recreating a fictionalised and idealised past had little do with what actual Norse-pagan practice should be concerned with now. Spirituality should reflect the lives and needs of those practising it, not seek to conform to the exact blueprint of a long-gone age.
The myth of the proudly independent, white, northern European, heterosexual warrior elite separate from the world, which suddenly popped into global renown at the start of the Viking age with the raiding of Lindisfarne in 793AD is exactly that; a myth, a fairytale, a fantasy. What’s more, it’s one that reflects the fascist world view back at itself, as an almost self-justifying truth – they argue that that’s how “Viking” society was because that’s how society IS and must be to survive, and the evidence be damned. Norse-paganism as espoused by fascists relies in on historical reconstruction of a bygone era and its belief system. So when they blatantly ignore historical evidence, this provides us an angle of attack on the far right trying to claim cultural ground. By removing the basis of this sham spirituality, we can show that the Norse Paganism of these fascists is merely window dressing to their shabby politics and by exposing and demolishing their fictional history, we can drive a wedge between them and spiritual practices that they are attempting to hijack.
Secondly, whilst it’s important to be careful we don’t slip into the tropes and ways of thinking the right try to creep into the political mainstream, it’s also important to remember that the fight against the far right is a strategic, as well as a moral one. Ceding ground to the right, whether that’s the metal scene, Neo-Paganism, or even the furry fandom, gives them just what they want; uncontested, free, sympathetic ground in which to recruit and build support for their movement. Why should they be allowed to have metal? Who said Norse Paganism belongs to them? Fuck letting the far right have absolutely anything nice or anywhere to feel safe or at home. We need to kick them out of every scene they try to crop up in and, unfortunately, refusal to do that in the past has resulted in that being a somewhat uphill struggle in some cultural spaces at present. Metal and Norse-paganism are now heaving with the far right (and vice versa) largely because the left have historically abdicated its responsibility to out organising them in these spaces. If we are not talking to people in these scenes, make no mistake, the right will be.
Mistakes of the past aside, our job now is to bring our politics into these spaces and make them hostile to the right, something which is encouragingly already happening. If radical liberation and left politics are to win (and we should always be trying to win), we can’t keep barricading ourselves behind comfortable and familiar cultural boundaries; our politics can’t be just restricted to punk, hip hop, atheism, wearing black and squatting (not to oversimplify the diversity on the left, but still). None of these spaces are an issue in themselves, but we have to go above and beyond them, culturally and politically, to bring the fight to the right. The left needs to be in Norse Paganism,
, in the fantasy genre,
, in gaming, in all the spaces we’ve previously conceded without much of a fight. That’s not to say we should uncritically engage with their less desirable qualities, like being very macho and male dominated, but we need to create alternatives to and within these spaces.
Lastly, even outside of reclaiming Norse Paganism as some kind of target with strategic value in antifascist struggles (which it is, but not just), it’s worth reclaiming because it can, should and *must* belong to everyone. Radical left and liberation politics are about shared ownership and collective power if they are about anything at all and we can and must apply that not only to politics, but to culture, religion and spirituality too. Norse Paganism is a part of many people’s history and present, whatever their background, and we need to create space for that to form a part of people’s spirituality and spiritual practice if that makes sense to them. The world and contemporary society is, quite frankly, a bit of a nightmare to traverse as I’m sure we can all agree. Having the spiritual tools and ways of understanding the world that Norse Paganism can provide as an unrestricted and inclusive option for more people can only be a good thing.
Although I’ve focussed very heavily on the political dimension to Norse Paganism, the spiritual dimension is no less important. Exerting control and agency over our own spirituality and spiritual practices as both individuals and communities is a vital part of a human experience that is empowered and liberated from doctrines and canons imposed from on high, whichever institution or group they come from, secular or otherwise. One of the fantastic aspects of Norse Paganism that appeals to this notion, is that there is no central authority, no established canon and no overriding, logically codified way of understanding or engaging with it. Sure, there are core elements that are important to recognise, but Norse Paganism is primarily a spiritual practice made by and for its adherents, not some elite of one stripe or another.
For me, coming to the realisation that opposing fascism doesn’t have to mean throwing the baby out with the bath water has meant embracing that my spiritual beliefs and practice are mine to shape regardless of what fascists or others might have to say about the topic. That’s an incredibly empowering prospect, and reclaiming spiritual beliefs I had thought lost or taboo to me has been both rewarding and nourishing. As of last year, I wear my hammer again, the shrine in my home has Óðinn at its head, I celebrate important seasonal events with my friends and comrades, and I’ve started focussing more on the things that matter to me on a spiritual and not just political level. I feel strongly like I’ve regained a core part of myself, my past and the way I relate to the people and world around me, and I feel better and stronger for it. What’s more, I’m determined to make this a part of not only my personal and spiritual life, but also my political one. When I smash fascists now, it’ll be as a Pagan!
There’s an unfortunate tendency, not exclusive to, but prevalent on the libertarian left, to reject or dismiss wholesale things that are murky, messy or difficult to engage with. I strongly suspect this is particularly the case with Norse Paganism, which hasn’t received nearly as much attention on the spiritual sections of the left as other brands of Neo-Paganism with less of a jarring association. However, if we want to take back hold of the things worth reclaiming, we are going to have to realise sooner or later that our hands are very likely to end up dirty in the process and that we’ll be fighting on unfamiliar ground. If there’s one thing that Norse Paganism teaches, it’s that the world is a complicated place, fraught with contradictions, tensions and unknowns, and that navigating it is a tricky business even at the best of times. Who wouldn’t want some help along the way, even if it might come from unexpected places?