It has been very interesting to read the responses that have been posted to my recent critique of the emphasis on tribalism in much of the Asatru/Heathenry/Norse Paganism that has been developing in the United States. While some readers seem to agree with my viewpoint, others are clearly annoyed that anyone would dare question the importance of The Tribe. This dual response brings me back to why I first began this blog: the sense that there was a split in the Pagan community between people of a conservative-libertarian political orientation and others with a more leftist-liberal perspective, with the latter being my own preference, which I felt was in need of greater representation and advocacy. In regards to Norse Paganism, it seems clear now that those who embrace the tribal concept are generally of conservative bent, and those who reject the tribe tend to be the more liberal sort of Pagans.
The recent discussions have further validated my sense that tribalism is a dead end for Asatru and any other form of Paganism; indeed, for modern life in general. While it may provide the comforting sense of a tight-knit community to those seeking the safety of a small, closed circle, it seems to me to often lead to, or perhaps derive from, an "us vs. them" view of the world that comes uncomfortably close to racism and intolerance, and could easily be interpreted to support such hateful attitudes and ideologies.
I believe that a core fallacy of the tribal concept is the notion that the solution to the frustrations of modern life is to retreat into the past. This is perhaps a weird statement for a Pagan to make, especially one drawn to Norse Paganism, since much of Paganism involves a desire to reconnect with and revive portions of the past. Where I differ from those I will characterize as "tribal Pagans" is that I see the past as a place to visit, to seek inspiration from, to learn from, but not to blindly emulate in every instance. I believe we have to pick and choose from past Pagan heritage what makes sense to us and suits us, but not turn off our minds and become unthinking slaves of the past. Tribalism does not make sense to me living in the modern world, and so I reject it.
I believe that tribes did make sense once upon a time when there was no larger social unit or government structure to integrate into or rely upon. But in Scandinavia and in other regions too, people generally formed larger-scale communities that went beyond the tribe as soon as they could. Kingdoms; commonwealths; republics; you get the picture. Also, people began to mix with others as soon as they had the opportunity to travel and interact more freely. The situations where people have resisted forming larger, more mixed and tolerant social units are not especially pleasant places to contemplate: Nazi Germany; Apartheid South Africa; Ku Klux Klan America; you get the picture. The overlap between white supremacist groups and modern neo-Nazis, some of whom claim to be Norse-Germanic Pagans, is all the more reason to reject the tribal model.
While tribalism does not equal racism, and I should note that I know a number of tribal Norse Pagans who are fine people and by no means racists, the ethnic focus of tribalism, coupled with the sense of a closed, insular atmosphere, makes me highly uneasy. Others may not feel the same kind of anxiety about these matters, but for me, having lived abroad in lands where I was a distinct minority, having pondered the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe and the history of racism in the United States, a history which I do not believe is over by any means, tribalism rings bells of alarm. Even if all tribal Paganism, as it exists today, could be proven to be 100% racism-free, it might still provide aid and comfort to those seeking a religious basis for racism, and this concerns me as much as anything else. Unless the definition of tribe can be extended to the point of embracing all humanity, I cannot embrace tribalism.
Today we got to see President Obama and other world leaders addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations. I find this quite inspiring, even the droning weirdness of a Muammar Qaddafi speech. Why? Because it is the most amazing experiment the world has ever attempted in bringing all humanity together to articulate common goals and ideals and address common problems. Perfect? No, it certainly is not. Neither is humanity. There is much to complain and feel disappointed about with the UN; but that again is a reflection of humanity's own flaws and failings. However, the worst part of the UN is when you see naked tribalism on display; someone banging on about their own tribe or nation and denouncing the tribe or tribes they consider their enemies. Somehow, calls to common interest and cooperation tend to make for more inspiring speeches.
How does this relate to Paganism? Well, it so happens that the United Nations has been in the forefront of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, including their religious traditions, and through the UNESCO World Heritage program, their sacred sites. This is fantastic. Though "Paganism" as this writer uses the term is generally limited to pre-Christian European religious traditions and their modern revivals, these indigenous traditions of other regions are clearly close cousins of the Euro-Pagan religious traditions, and in fact, there is good reason to question making any distinction between "Pagan" and "Indigenous," and that distinction may well go by the wayside in the future; but that is a topic for another day.
This writer has participated in international meetings bringing together Pagans of different countries, and there was a wonderful joy and a great spiritual power in these different traditions coming together. Might such interactions possibly water down or "pollute" the purity of each Pagan tradition, by blending elements of each with the other? Perhaps, but this is nothing new. Norse Paganism was influenced by Celtic Paganism and Christianity, and if the Vikings had stayed longer in North America beyond the few summers they spent in Newfoundland, they no doubt would have intermixed with the natives and been influenced by their culture and religion.
In this regard, it is interesting to see the spate of recent films that explore that Native-Norse encounter of a thousand years ago, which seem to be conflicted about how to portray the Native Americans in relation to the Norse explorers. Were the Native Americans enemies, or "noble savages"? Inferior race or potential partners? I do not know a great deal of these films and their filmmakers, and I would be happy to hear from those who are better informed, but I believe that these ambivalent portrayals may show the influence of Pagan tribalism, just as tribal Norse Pagans may form the most enthusiastic audience for such films. Though the encounter of Norse with Native is an exciting topic for cinematic dramatization, there seems to be a wistful nostalgia for the possibility that the Norse might have been able to thrive as a separate people, or perhaps become European conquerors of the Natives, some 500 years before Columbus. Is this tribalism-- or racism? No doubt it can be interpreted in different ways.
Rather than rhapsodize about long-ago Vikings who often resorted to violence in interacting with other peoples, I like to think of modern-day Scandinavians who have often been involved in peace negotiations, aid to underdeveloped countries, and other distinctly non-tribal endeavors. I believe they show the Viking spirit evolving over the centuries to expand the concept of "tribe" to a much bigger community, that of humanity in general. I want to see a Paganism that celebrates humanity, not the tribe.
Perhaps the best symbol for this, from a Norse perspective, would be Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Its roots connect all worlds, and its branches shelter all beings, without favoring any particular race, tribe or species. The more I think about that, the more I like it.