In embarking on the intellectual and spiritual journey of this blog, I have been repeatedly struck by the great distance that divides American versus European forms of Norse Paganism. I am starting to wonder if it is even accurate to consider Heathenry/Asatru in the two regions the same thing, or if it may be necessary to create new terminology to distinguish the "Ameritru" version of modern Norse Paganism from European/Scandinavian Asatru (not to mention other varieties now being created in Africa, Australia and likely other places, too, which is a topic I would love to hear readers' input about.)
This is a highly personal topic to me, as my introduction to Asatru, and indeed to Paganism in general, came in two distinct sets of experiences, one in the United States, the other in Scandinavia. I am probably more inclined toward the European version of Asatru because my meetings with Scandinavian Pagans were from the very first moment pleasant and inspiring, and my first encounter with American Heathens was disturbing and discouraging. Back in the late 1980s, I learned of a Norse Pagan publication being produced by an Asatru association in Florida, whose name I no longer recall. I eagerly wrote to the group for a copy, and received something that was totally perplexing to me. The publication certainly showed knowledge of old Norse literature and traditions, and expressed a dedication to the Norse gods and goddesses, which I appreciated, but this was mixed with racist ideas and language that were totally disgusting to me. Repelled, I gave up on any further contact with this or any American Asatru or Heathen group well into the 1990s, though graduate study of Old Norse kept a small light flickering somewhere inside me.
My interest in Old Norse mythology and religion remained strictly academic for some years, until the mid-1990s when I received a fellowship to study in Iceland, which was a wonderful and truly life-changing experience for a working-class kid who had never been out of his home country before. In Iceland, I was introduced to Heathens who were not only extremely well-versed in Norse Pagan religion, this being after all a venerable part of Icelandic cultural heritage, but also completely opposed to any kind of racist interpretation of their religious traditions. They furthermore showed great curiosity about other religious traditions of the world, with my best buddy in Iceland being a great fan of American Indian culture and religion. Another Icelandic friend involved in Asatru professed to me his atheism, despite being deeply involved in the Asatru Fellowship in a leadership position. For him, what mattered most about Asatru was not believing in Norse gods but understanding Norse cultural traditions and attitudes that he felt were embodied by the old Pagan religion.
For me, this was a revelation. Here was a Paganism that was not a narrow-minded club with racist overtones, but an expansive, open-minded Heathenry, sufficiently well-grounded in its own traditions to not need to be dogmatic or fundamentalist, and knowledgeable and respectful enough about other religions to seek to learn from them. Their attitude seemed to be, "but of course....we are the descendants of the Vikings...we are explorers and seekers of knowledge." I found this an eminently welcoming milieu, and in later years, when I visited with Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Belgian and German Asatru groups, I found much the same attitude and atmosphere: tolerant, open-minded, non-dogmatic, and intellectually curious toward the larger world.
Since returning to live in America in the last five years, I have found difficulty in locating the same kind of atmosphere and attitude. Some of this is no doubt my own personal psychological difficulty in adjusting to living in the USA after a good many years abroad; a sense of returning-home-but-not-quite-belonging that is sometimes called "reverse culture shock." After living in both Europe and Asia, I can no longer share the easy confidence of many Americans that their country is indeed the best, their society superior; "USA #1," as it often phrased, sometimes in a rather belligerent manner that I cannot relate to at all. There are many things I love about America, but I love many qualities of other cultures as well. To put it in more Paganistic terms, I have walked among the spirits of other lands and received their blessings and guidance, and my sense of gratitude towards those other lands and spirits does not allow me to uphold any kind of narrow, exclusive patriotism.
My style of patriotism is to try to form bridges of understanding between the United States and other countries, even though America really is a very isolated culture and the distance to be bridged is often very immense. I feel my personal spirituality calls me to this, and I would go so far as to say I do not think any really genuine spirituality can be nationalistic in a narrow way, for neither Jesus, nor Odin nor Athena nor any other deities or revelations come to us wrapped in an American flag or any other flag. Even the Flying Spaghetti Monster travels without a passport.
I have always thought that the point of spirituality was to rise above anything as limited and confining as nationalism, but in returning to America, I am struck by how pervasive American nationalism is among Pagans that I have encountered. I had a Heathen acquaintance write to me with a kind of patriotic ultimatum: "Are you American Heathen, or not? If so, good. If not, bye!" I have never in any other context been challenged to produce proof of patriotism in order to be accepted as a Pagan; as some say, "only in America." For me, this ruins the whole point of engaging in Paganism as a spiritual path. If I wanted a religion based on patriotism, I would worship a deified version of George Washington or Ronald Reagan instead of honoring gods out of ancient Europe.
Certainly there are many complex issues of identity and loyalty tied up here. I know that in American society, someone like me who has spent an extended period living in other countries is not exactly a typical person, but a bit of a freak. However, having had that very enriching foreign experience, I cannot simply shelve it in a box of exotic mementos and pretend that all I know and all that matters is what is American. This has been particularly painful for me in reaching out to American Heathens, because here are people who I would expect to be really excited about international linkages and comparisons, being that their spirituality is inspired by texts and traditions out of Northern Europe, but I find that they are often not really very interested in modern-day Europe and Scandinavia, only the Northern Europe of their imagination, of the Viking past that they read about in books.
Of course, it is not anyone's fault if they do not have the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures, but I have the sense that some, perhaps many, are really not all that interested in experiencing other cultures at all, not even those of the Scandinavia that they supposedly revere as their spiritual homeland. This leads to a kind of closed, in-grown quality to some American Heathenry that by lack of knowledge of other cultures, becomes narrowly, tribally American, despite the sincere attraction to Norse Pagan traditions. I also have come to detect an underlying world-view and set of attitudes that is American conservative to the core, and this to me is not a straightforward read-out of ancient Norse traditions, but a distinctly American, conservative way of thinking.
Some of my European and Scandinavian Pagan friends who have read this blog have been scolding me for making such a fuss about politics, which they feel should not be mixed in with Paganism or Heathenry. However, I do not think they realize the extent to which their own form of Asatru is in many ways informed by modern-day Scandinavian social and political attitudes, just as the conservative American form of Heathenry largely reflects the dominant, conservative political viewpoint of American society. Looking at this, I realize that what is eating at me, and what is indeed a further symptom of my "reverse culture shock," is that I am hoping to find in America more of what I have known in Scandinavia.
This is more than a mere matter of personal taste, however. I find the modern Scandinavia of today just as spiritually inspiring as the Viking Scandinavia of the past, and I want to be part of a forward-looking Norse Paganism that can change and adapt with the times, rather than an exclusively backward-looking or retrospective Paganism with tendencies toward fundamentalism.....which will be the topic of my next entry.