Racial and Ethnic Openness in Pagan Traditions

After reading a recent blog post by Morpheus Ravenna, I decided to join in with an affirmation that Paganism needs to take an anti-racist stand. Since I first saw the post, this issue of racism and Euro-centric pagan traditions would turn into a bit of a firestorm, and Morpheus Ravenna’s blog post ended up being censored from one prominent site because the editors were bothered by her labeling of Asatru FolkAssembly (AFA) as a racist organization that condones racist notions in their pursuit of Germanic/Scandinavian traditional practices. Another discussion of the controversy is here.

So bravo to those who are taking a stand, and here’s my voice joining them.

Asatru, the revival movement of pre-Christian traditions of Norse/Germanic European heathenry, has adherents in the white supremacist community. Some groups state that one of the goals should be the preservation of the purity of the northern European culture. At least some of their members seem to interpret this as meaning that only those of northern European decent should be practitioners. I see a number of problems with that idea.

First, Asatru is reconstruction, not preservation. Adherents are not from an unbroken line of worshipers of the old gods. Those who are creating new communities around this reconstructed tradition are made up of people whose ancestors for many generations have been Christians of one form or another. If membership was limited to only those with an unbroken heathen lineage, there would not be Asatru.

Second, culture is not dependent on bloodline, it is learned by people. Language, religious traditions, food preparation, music, clothing – all these things are passed from person to person without regard to race or ethnic heritage. I understand that some people from Asatru and other reconstructionist traditions think that people need to adopt the entire system of practice to be proper adherents. I can understand the frustration that some have with the New-Age-y shallowness of a smorgasbord approach to religion. But any person, regardless of ethnic or racial background, must have a first introduction to a tradition. If they need then to work, learn and experience to fill out the rest to be full members of a community, so be it, but an ethnic prerequisite doesn’t make sense.

Third, I believe that the gods and goddesses don’t draw these lines around race and ethnicity. The gods call who they will. We can seek out relationships with them, but anyone who deals with them at all will know that they can be unpredictable and they will often call someone who may seem like a very unlikely person.

Racial and ethnic exclusion is certainly not the position of all followers or even a majority of followers of the path of northern reconstructionist religions. I respect those who acknowledge the senseless prejudice within their community and who wish to challenge it. Those outside Paganism will recognize this ugly side of the community and it should be clear that most Pagans in this country reject racism.

Just to be clear, I am not a follower of Asatru, and I wouldn’t claim to speak for or hold any special knowledge of that tradition. I appreciate the Norse pantheon, but I know it largely through modern reinterpretations from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I have been curious to learn more about runes, which do come from that tradition, and I may pursue more knowledge about that subject in the future.

My framework is a modern, eclectic version of Religio Romana – the religion of ancient Rome. One of the things that I love about that tradition is the fact that anyone striving for purity in that tradition is a bit laughable. Like the English language, it’s a mish-mash from the beginning and new, strange, and not-entirely-logical aspects are constantly incorporated. The Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Germany to the Near East to North Africa, and all those traditions were folded into the religious life. Race was not really conceived of or thought about in the same way as today, and it was never a test for citizenship, religion, slavery, marriage or any other social institutions. Don’t get me wrong – there was always plenty of inequality and prejudice, but just not usually based on race.

It strikes me that thinking that gods and goddesses should only be in relationship with people whose ancestors were also in relationship with these deities is a like saying that people whose parents grew up in the desert shouldn’t have rain. Or that since my family is from the Great Lakes region, which is seismically inactive, that I shouldn’t visit a volcano or experience an earthquake. If we really believe that when we experience the Divine that we are in touch with something outside of and/or greater than ourselves, this kind of limitation just doesn’t make sense.

2 comments on “Racial and Ethnic Openness in Pagan Traditions

  1. […] Witches and Pagans is another site that features a wide variety of Pagan voices, including many well known voices, providing opinion and education. There is a lot of content here. The site itself is visually beyond bland, and I don’t find it enticing. I really should look at it more, since there is a lot of great content there. I wrote about some of the controversy several months ago centering on several of their bloggers quitting in protest over the issue of racism and ethnic exclusion in certain Pagan paths. […]

  2. […] which is sometimes associated with white supremacist ideology. I wrote previously about my view on Racial and Ethnic openness in modern paganism and rejecting the racism and ethnic exclusion in some of the corners of our […]

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