One of the more mature and clear thinking polytheists has just posted an important reply to the most recent round of BS from some of the Righteous Radical Social Justice Warrior crowd. It describes the concerns and lives of those who are devoted to the gods first and foremost, and rejects the pernicious foolishness that says that all things, including religion, are primarily political.
Today, it is time to talk about an important, yet increasingly overlooked part of heathen religious philosophy: hierarchies. Ah, I can hear the outraged howls and lunatic rants of the Righteous Radical crowd already. You know who I mean. The crowd that believes that all hierarchies and ranks are inherently evil. The crowd that spends all of its time online ranting about how everyone except for them are fascists who need to be forced to think and behave Correctly. The crowd that starts screaming “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” every time anybody expresses an opinion that contradicts one of their own. The crowd that has to spend all of its time foaming at the mouth in cyberspace because it can never get anything real done. Because when they get together, every least detail of every proposal has to be debated by everybody. Because everybody’s voice has to be heard about everything. Because only the person who is holding the Talking Feather at the moment can talk, and there are a lot of people waiting for their turn with the Talking Feather.
When everybody gets to be Captain, nobody’s a Private. Trouble is, Privates are the ones who get the actual work done, and part of the reason why they can get the work done is that only one person is giving them orders. Instead of, you know, an unruly mob of puffed up egos all trying to give orders to each other. The reason that all human societies create hierarchies is that it is stupidly, fatally inefficient to reinvent the wheel for every single problem you face. Experience is required to solve any significant problem, to perform any important task. Not everybody has the right kinds of experience to solve every kind of problem, and the totality of human knowledge is so vast that no one person can understand all of it. So humans develop specialists. Some gain the experience to govern societies, others gain the experience needed to master a science, others learn how to educate children, and so forth. This way, each job can be done well, and there is no need to waste the enormous amount of resources needed to educate everybody about every single thing.
Look at it this way: when the leopards start dropping out of the trees, which group of people do you think is going to survive? The one where one strong, experienced leader instantly shouts out orders for defense, which are instantly obeyed because everybody knows their roles? Or the one where everyone sits down and pulls out the Talking Feather to determine whose vision of a defense strategy should be used?
Odin is the heathen embodiment of the understanding of the need for hierarchies. He is the chief of the gods, the lord of Valhalla. He is the leader of the einherjar and the valkyries. In many ways, Odin is the god of hierarchy. His people tend to not only believe in hierarchies, but to see the spiritual world expressed in a wide array of hierarchies.
Odin is not only a god of leaders, societies, and hierarchies, though, he is also a god of individuals. He is the god of the young warrior trying to work his way up the military or political hierarchy of his people. He is the god of the scholar who seeks to learn and grow enough to work his way up the academic hierarchy. He is the god of the wargs and loners who reject hierarchies and choose to live outside of them. This seems like a contradiction, but in fact it embodies a profound understanding of human nature and the way in which human societies function.
Human societies function because of dynamic tension. A society run by conservatives would be a nightmare. So would a society run by liberals, though in a different way. A society where both conservatives and liberals hold some power, and pull society first one way and then the other? That manages to be almost livable on frequent occasions.
A society which is too rigidly hierarchical tends toward the fascistic, the bureaucratic, the inefficient, the evil. A society which tends completely toward the individual at the expense of hierarchies tends towards the chaotic, the savage, the divided, the unjust, and the inefficient. What is needed is a society that has hierarchies that are counterbalanced by strong individuals, some of whom work within the system and some of whom live outside of it or even fight against it. THIS is a healthy society. The individualism in it restrains the hierarchies from excess, and the hierarchies tame individual excesses.
This is why Odin is god of hierarchy and of individualism both. He represents the dynamic tension that a healthy society needs to survive and even thrive.
I used to be an amateur mixed martial artist. For ten years, I took part in an open-hand nearly-no-holds-barred tournament against a wide variety of fighting styles, in a setup much like the UFC was back in the days of Royce Gracie. I sometimes also fought in a collar-and-elbow wrestling tournament, and was also a member of the Broadsword League, dueling dozens of opponents (with wooden swords). I learned a lot from these experiences. One of the most important things that I learned was the fact that every fighter fights two battles for each fight. There’s the fight itself, of course, but there’s also the fight that happens before you step into the ring.
Every fighter who’s not an idiot or a psychopath knows what I am talking about. At some point during the lead up to the fight, whether it is mere minutes or days ahead, fear sets in. You know how much pain you are facing. You know that, even in a largely safe sport, you are still risking your life. You know that, even if you win, you are going to end up battered, bleeding, and exhausted in a way that few people could even imagine. You get assailed by doubts about your skills, about your strength. You can’t shake the thought that your past victories were flukes, due to luck, and that this time you’re going to get stomped. You worry that your opponent is tougher, stronger, and more skilled than you are. These fears can become powerful. It can take all of your nerve and willpower to take the walk and step into the ring. Those minutes before the referee calls “FIGHT!” can be amongst the most nerve-wracking you have ever experienced.
During the fight itself, of course, you are usually much too busy to bother with such matters. But I’ll tell you this for free: fighting that first battle builds character, and then some. It builds willpower. It helped me develop the willpower to quit smoking. It has helped me become strong enough to do absolutely anything I put my mind to. It has helped me to keep going at any task long after everyone else has quit or collapsed.
This is one of Odin’s most important lessons. Even in this relatively peaceful modern age, even ordinary people who have never seen a battlefield and who will never see one can still benefit greatly from what the god of battle has to teach. I recommend that everyone have at least one good fight in their lives, something that can serve as an initiation experience, or a coming-of-age experience. Something scheduled for at least a month away, to give you plenty of time to face that first battle. You may get hurt, but the lessons you take away from the experience will aid and enrich your life for the rest of it.
Before bringing the conversation around to a truly unsettling trend in both the heathen and larger pagan communities, allow me a brief reminiscence of my days in college, to set the context for it.
Although I was a science major, I had a keen interest in politics, and got onto the student senate. In those days, at that university, the student senate was responsible for distributing $1 million to student activity groups each year. Each group would make a proposal, come before us, and get operating money. We were mostly a rubber stamp process, and served only to weed out misuses of funds.
When I served, the rest of the senate was composed of liberal Democrats. I, of course, am a radical moderate, meaning that I subscribe to no –ism or –ology, but make up my own mind about issues on a case by case basis. When the Conservative Interests of America group came before us (yes, the CIA), they barely got their pitch out before a senator made a motion to deny them funding, and was seconded. When I asked why, I was told outright that the other senators saw this as their opportunity to shut down Republican-oriented programs on campus, and advance their own political agendas. They spoke as if it was obvious that I should see these young Republicans as the “bad guys.”
Now, I didn’t think much of the CIA group. I found their hawkishness of foreign policy and disregard of collateral casualties repugnant. I found their supply side economics theories as ridiculous as Laffer’s napkin drawing. I thought their opposition to basic assistance to the poor that their business-oriented Randian fantasies had created was hypocritical. I also knew many of them personally, and thought they were mostly %&*@#$!-bags. Yet still, I stood up to defend them. I filibustered for hours, until I had annoyed my fellow senators into giving the CIA its funds.
Why? Well, it was my job to disburse the funds impartially and fairly, for one thing. But there was a larger principle involved. America is founded on certain fundamental ideals that are supposed to be so important that they trump everything else. One is freedom of speech. Everybody, no matter how dumbass or repellant, has the right to speak his or her mind, and advance his or her ideas. Another core American ideal is that we are a melting pot of different cultures and ideas. The American ideal is that of many different tribes, each pulling together in some ways and in different directions in others, working out the answers between them. Because we are different, we have different beliefs. To make the melting pot work, we have developed standards of public, civilized behavior that draw boundaries for conflicts between different tribes.
What my fellow senators did that day was profoundly un-American. You know what else is? The emergence of the new violent extremists on the left. The kind of people you can find all too often these days over at Gods and Radicals. The kind that are increasingly trying to take over modern paganism, and turn it into an extremist political instrument.
I wrote recently about the call for McCarthy-esque witch hunts from some of the Gods and Radicals crowd, to eliminate “wrong-thinking” pagan elements, such as heathenry. I considered that to be the end of the matter, as I had said all I had to say on the subject. Then I saw more of that crowd writing about a whole new batch of truly disturbing things, and now feel I must speak again.
I am not providing a specific link, as I have no wish to start a flame war, and my point isn’t the specific words of one person or another. Anyone paying even minimal attention lately knows the kinds of writings I am talking about. People advocating going to Trump rallies and trying to shut them down. Trying to use violence against Trump rally-goers in an attempt to intimidate them into staying home. People claiming that this is the truly Pagan thing to do, and that it is a form of sacred warriorship.
Bull$&!^. It’s fascism, pure and simple. It is profoundly un-American. Parts of it border on terrorism.
It is also astonishingly hypocritical. These people love to present themselves as freedom fighters, anarchists, and rebels, standing up to the obviously fascist Trump. Yet they use repressive, fascistic techniques to accomplish their aims.
These people are not rebels. They are not freedom fighters. There is nothing sacred about what they do. All they are is closet aristocrats. They do not actually value freedom, as they are proud of denying it to those who do not think as they do. They just want to be the ones who are in charge.
There’s an old song by The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It contains the lyrics:
The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
You know what? These closet aristocrats, these phony freedom fighters, are exactly who The Who were warning us about.
Don’t get me wrong. I am passionately anti-Trump. The man is clearly a racist, crypto-fascist demagogue with an IQ even smaller than his hands. He is a dangerous, petty halfwit who could easy take America down the road Germany went in the 30s, were he to ever get power.
You know how I’m going to deal with that? I am going to vote against him. Like an American. Like a true lover of freedom. I will let him have his rallies. It is his right to.
To the new extremist pagan left, I would say that you have stared too long into the Abyss, and you have not taken care when fighting monsters.
I would also say that you seem to be a load of halfwits. You are doing more damage to the causes you claim to honor than Trump ever could. He was the one with the violent, fascistic rallies. He was the one encouraging un-American violence and suppression of political enemies. He was well on the way to discrediting himself in the larger electorate’s eyes. He was well on the way to showing what he really was, and making a sharp distinction between his toxic politics and the politics of those who oppose him.
Then you Bozos go and change the narrative. You snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You make it clear that violence and fascistic jackasses come from the left, too, and make Trump seem less of an extremist problem relative to them. You even let HIM take the moral high ground, and publish speeches denouncing the un-American violence of your crowd.
Way to go, losers.
I am a man of Odin. I hear my god calling me to stand by my ideals, and not compromise them in order to score a cheap hit. Paganism is not politics, and it is most certainly not your brand of extremist, bumbling, grandstanding, un-American idiocy.
I think I am starting to get sick of Gods & Radicals as an organization. They seem to have a toxic, overprivileged culture that keeps leading members to say some really inappropriate things. The dust from Rhyd Wildermuth’s declaration that all pagan religions that do not toe the Gods & Radicals line be viewed as potential or probable right wing fascist fronts has not even settled, and another member has posted THIS little rant.
Is a left wing, multicultural Asatru possible??? SERIOUSLY???
Mr. Burley, you are clearly not a heathen. You clearly haven’t bothered to meet any actual heathens, or actually get to learn our lore or history in any way. You are doing nothing more than hijacking our traditions, and using us as a prop in your stupid little political efforts.
Not cool. In fact, you have taken it to truly bigoted levels of cultural appropriation.
The KKK had always been devoutly Christian, and claim the Bible’s sanction of their bigoted beliefs. Do you ask if a left wing, multicultural Christianity is possible? Do you ask the same thing of Islam because of a few terrorists? Do you believe that because there are some Jewish people who are heavily orthodox and insular that you must ask if multicultural Jews can even exist? Do you believe that nativist Buddhists in Myanmar mean that all Buddhists are knee jerk, right wing, nativist fanatics?
You have clearly never actually met any heathens, Mr. Burley, or you would be aware that, although we have our own problems with right wing fascist nativist racists, just like many other religions, most of us are not like this. Your asinine question indicates that you are not aware of MAJOR elements of our modern history.
As you seem to think it appropriate to make judgments and condemnations of us without having bothered to do even minimal research, let me provide the history lesson you skipped. The modern heathen/Asatru movement was pretty disorganized in the eighties, the decade it really got going in. Anyone who said they were heathen was accepted as such. Then there was a series of schisms around the end of the decade, into the nineties. One of the most major of these, the one you could not have possibly missed if you had done even a cursory amount of research into us, was the schism between Folkish and Universalist heathens. And also Tribalist heathens, but they were more of a minority at first. The other two groups were dominant.
In other words, the movement that birthed the Folkish heathens also birthed the other major camp, the left wing, multicultural heathens. You know, the ones whose existence you doubt.
Today, both Folkish and Universalist heathens have moved into the background in favor of the more common Tribalist heathens. We are neither left nor right wing. We are not fascists. We reject racists. WE are the dominant form of heathenry, if you look at the actual numbers.
So your snide little comments about “the clear association between Heathenry and an openly racialist subculture,” and “But what is it about Asatru that creates a trajectory towards the folkish interpretation,” are, at best, disingenuous, and at worst actual lies.
Our religion, our gods, are not props in your political struggles, Burley. You use us. You insult us. You misrepresent us. Fuck you.
I have been in the heathen scene for a long time. I have written a lot, and run groups. I have spent a lot of that time and effort in fighting fascism. Like any true heathen, I have stood up against the right wing and fascist elements in my religion. But that does not make me left wing. I also stand against you and your left wing brand of fascism, Burley. You and your Gods & Radicals buddies are every bit as bad as the right wing variety. And I will take just as strong a stand against you. We don’t need Folkies stealing our traditions and pushing their own agenda with it. And we do not need a load of crypto fascist anarchist neo-maxi Zoom dweebies doing it either.
Happy Loki’s Day, to all who love the god, or can bear his blessings.
A couple of years ago I published an essay to this blog titled “The Culture War: One Heathen’s Perspective.” Events in the last couple of years have pushed me to revisit the topic, and take up some of the points I discussed there from a different perspective.
Two things have been bugging me lately. One is a growing thing that I can only refer to as a form of cultural imperialism in the larger pagan community. What do I mean by this? I mean a point of view that functions as a way of creating and maintaining an unequal relationship between the dominant pagan culture and all other pagan cultures. I mean a refusal to understand things as people mean them, and an insistence on interpreting all other things, all other beliefs and cultures, through the narrow lens of one’s own, and an insistence that all people, all members of other cultures, must adopt and conform to their beliefs.
Take, for example, the recent hysterical idiocy over the Sanders’ campaign’s “Bern the Witch” slogan. A bunch of people got very upset over the fact that this slogan was used as part of a Halloween theme last October. Seriously, people?
There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Firstly, “witch” is an astonishingly broad term. It does not mean “pagan.” It does not mean “woman.” It has been used by both pagan and Christian cultures for many hundreds of years to basically refer to a stock boogeyman of fairy tales: the creepy outsider who traffics with dark forces. Yes, there was a period when it was often used to persecute those with pagan beliefs, or at least vaguely pagany-sorta-looking beliefs. It was sometimes used as a cover for discrimination against women. More often than either of these, it was used to disguise naked seizures of one’s neighbor’s land or to justify harsh political measures that would be less palatable without a scapegoat.
Pretending ownership of the word in order to pursue your own agenda is pretty lame. Dirty pool, even. Pagans do not own the word. Just because it was sometimes applied to them does not let them ignore all of the other uses of the word. Just because it was sometimes applied to women does not mean that somebody can claim the word to mean “woman,” and ignore the far longer history of different uses.
“Witch” is a popular culture term that has, these days, far more to do with cheesy costumes and candy than anything else. Being so myopic as to insist that only the way you use the word is proper, and that all other uses of the word must be judged by the standards of your own beliefs and political agenda is plain old cultural imperialism, wearing a new mask.
Then there is something even more disturbing. The best example of it is the recent post on Gods & Radicals on “Confronting the New Right.” The author, Rhyd Wildermuth, basically drew up a list of all of the kinds of paganism that don’t “think correctly,” and need to be viewed with suspicion because of their supposed tendency to go fascist. This list includes devotional polytheism, reconstructionist paganism, druidry, heathenry, and any tradition with a hierarchy or secret mystery traditions. He declares that “hierarchies are artificial,” and that they are a warning sign of New Rightist tendencies. Egalitarianism, he rapturously declares, is the One True Path. Just like in nature, he effervesces, where there are no hierarchies at all, and all plants and animals help each other out of a sense of friendly brotherhood.
Gag me with a spoon.
Mr. Wildermuth, and his devoted followers, are astonishingly blind to hypocrisy, irony, and the definition of fascism.
So let me provide it for you, Mr. Wildermuth. “Fascism” comes from the old Roman symbol of the fasces, a bundle of sticks. You see, each stick alone is weak, and can be broken. But tied together in a bundle, they are strong. In other words, Mr. Wildermuth, fascism is all about enforcing uniformity of belief and behavior in order to be strong, and to advance your particular set of beliefs and ideals.
Mr. Wildermuth, you and your supporters in the Gods & Radicals crowd have started a McCarthyist witch hunt, an attempt to ferret out the “wrong elements” from our culture, and enforce your astonishingly limited perspective onto paganism as a whole.
Do you condemn traditional Chinese folk religion? It is BASED on hierarchy. Its core belief is that the world takes the form that it does because the Celestial Bureaucracy has ordered it to take that form. Do you condemn Kemeticism? It is based in hierarchy, too. Much of the religion, both ancient and modern, is centered around its own divine hierarchy, as mediated in the person of the pharaoh.
You are not the popes of paganism. Your view of paganism is not one held by many historical forms of paganism. Your declaration that people who put the gods first, or believe in hierarchies, are to be looked at with distrust and suspicion is downright insulting.
I am a neo-tribalist, Wildermuth. I am a heathen. I have fought long and hard against the racist, Folkist elements of my faith. I do not need people like you coming along and declaring that I and all people who believe like me practice what is “generally considered the most problematic” form of paganism. Mr. Wildermuth, can you guess which finger I am holding up?
Hierarchies abound in nature, Wildermuth. Wolf packs. Chimpanzee social groups. Ants. Chickens. Have you seriously never heard the term “pecking order” before? Anyone practicing a traditional, pagan, nature-oriented religion has every right to respect, honor, and benefit from such natural constructs. You have no right to claim that these are signs of right wing activity. You have no right to dismiss our beliefs.
And you know what? Hierarchies and anarchy are not mutually exclusive. I am an anarchist. And I believe that hierarchies are useful, necessary, and have their place. What, are you king of the anarchists, now, too?
The wonderful thing about polytheism is all the variety. There are many paths, many beliefs. There are many ways of knowing. This makes us strong, because alloys are strongest. You want to talk about “real” pagan thought, Wildermuth? Let me share with you what real polytheism looks like. I helped organize and moderate a group of berserkers for many years. For those of you who do not know what a berserker is, which is most of you, a berserker is a person who practices a martial art that is much like Shaolin: a combination of martial art and spiritual tradition. Berserkers tend to be heathen, and use heathen spiritual practices.
Over the decade plus our group was together, we got all sorts of members. Some were hard core conservatives. Some went to the point of holding beliefs that I found repugnant. One even insulted both of my grandfathers, accusing them of being part of the “moon landing conspiracy,” because they worked on the Apollo program. Some were serious left wing types. Some of these held beliefs I found idiotic, or even repugnant. Many of these people did not hold similar beliefs to each other, and did not get along.
You know what, though? We believed that the gods were not sock puppets who held the same political beliefs that we did. We believed that the gods are vast, and beyond human comprehension, and that each of us only had a corner of the truth, not the whole thing. We acted respectfully to each other, so that we could be about the business that we came together for. We learned things from each other. We all benefitted from this. This is why polytheism is awesome. We are many, who can work together at need, and go our own ways at other times. None of us sets himself up above the others, saying that he has The Truth.
You know what, Wildermuth? I believe a lot of the same things that you do. I think that fascism is a bad thing. I think that the New Right is indeed a danger. I am an anarchist. But, unlike you, I do not blindly assume that the gods think as I do. I am a devoted Odinist, and you know what? The Old Man and I disagree about a number of things. I do not, for example, approve of his support of waging war for glory, or power. But I can disagree with him without rejecting him, and without pretending that he really agrees with me.
This is the other thing that has been bugging me over the last couple of years: an increasing tendency to put the gods last. Wildermuth’s group at Gods & Radicals seem to be putting politics first, and using the gods only as a means of furthering their own political agenda. They are trying to open up a new front on the culture war: setting up their form of pagan belief as the One True Way, and purging all wrong-thinking elements from pagan society. They are pagan cultural imperialists. This kind of blind, unthinking, pagan cultural imperialism is privileged bullshit. This kind of pagan crypto-fascism needs to be stopped.
PS The subtitle to this post is a joke that probably only members of my own Generation X will get.