Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trans-Atlantic Tensions, Euro-American Reflections

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.


blog said...

A good read. That is pretty much how I see it in my limited experience.
The only Heathen that ever contacted me was via yahoo messenger and all he wanted to talk about was guns and whether women could be warriors or not.
I am not very hopeful that I will meet like minded Heathens where I live in Michigan. At the same time I am not really interested in joining any kind of community.
The whole tribe concept seems a little antiquated to me and I feel I can honour the Gods and build relationships without joining a club.
My question to you is you have stated several issues that seem wrong with American Asatru but I don't understand your motives for doing so.
We can all have it how we want it so they can be xenophobic conservative militia members waving the Asatru banner it that is what makes them happy. What is the problem with that?
Can't this religion work at both ends of the political continuum?

Alkaru Anwamane said...

Should probably admit to being a European first of all but I have to say I find it bizarre they didn't seem interested in modern day Scandanavia. My religious leanings are more Hellenistic, and my trips to Greece have always had a strong spiritual element - but when my Mum went to Iceland without me while I was at Uni I was interested in the volcanic spa or whatever it was she went to but I was also somewhat disappointed she's not pagan so didn't look to go on any trips to the traditional religious sites there(to then tell me about :) ).

More generally, I simply cannot imagine anyone who practices a faith who is not interested in hearing about other members of the religion, particularly in that religions original region.

I've not had any dealings with American Asatruar but I do hope you're simply being unlucky in the ones you make contact with. (And better luck in the future hopefully!)

blog said...

I would have to say that if I had my choice I would move to Europe right away.
I am generally disappointed with American's in general and reality TV seems to be the extent of our culture.
Most American's only care about money and what role they need to play to make it.
I don't actually know any other person including my immediate family that gets it. It is truly a sad thing.


Maelstrom said...

Dear "blog" and "Alkaru," I do appreciate your comments. Blog, to answer your question as to my motive, it is stated on the sidebar of the blog, actually, to apply a political perspectives to Paganism and vice versa. To be more specific about Asatru/Heathenry, which seems to be your main concern, I am hoping to demonstrate that there is a definite underlying attitude of conservatism to much (though not all) American Heathenry, and to make common cause with those who would like to see a form of American Asatru develop that would be more in line with a liberal perspective. From what you write, I imagine this is something you would embrace if you could find it in your locale. At the end of your comments, you seem to worry that I am being unfair to the right of conservative, tribal Heathens to do their conservative, tribal thing. I think you have misread me. Go back to my previous postings, and you will see that I have several times stated that I am aware that the somewhat conservative form of Asatru that has developed in the USA seems to meet the needs and provide happiness, fulfillment and security for many American heathen, and I wish them well. My point is just to say that there are other possible forms and interpretations of Asatru, and I hope to contribute to the formation of a more liberal-oriented alternative. I agree with you completely that there can be forms of Asatru or any other Paganism, or for that matter any religion, that flourish at both ends of the political spectrum. What I don't like in current-day Asatru is the tendency for some conservative Heathens to assert that their form of Heathenry is the only, the absolute, the traditional and eternal form. That is where conservative Asatru tends toward fundamentalism, which I will discuss in a future posting. To Alkaru, let me say that I think I may have given you the wrong impression about American Heathens. Though I believe that an overall conservative style of thinking is dominant, this does not mean that all American Asatruar are equally conservative. If you have interest, you should venture out and explore, and you will find Heathens with varying political views, BUT, I argue, the dominant form and interpretation of American Asatru draws on American conservative ideas to a large extent. I hope that helps to explain my point of view about these matters.

blog said...

Thanks. I would also like to see a more liberal form of Asatru develop in the USA. Then, I may be more open to meeting people and thus making some kind of change to society via like minded people and their help.
I don't think you are unfair to the right-wingers at all. I was just wondering whether you think this blog will make a difference.
People with closed minds will never read this blog and if they do, as soon as they find out you are liberal they will get that ugly look on their face similar to conservative Christians and decide you are trying to destroy this great USA.
I'm exaggerating of course.
As a side note, I appreciate you posting my comments as I am just a simple guy who spends his day as a computer systems analyst. I have no command of the English language and have a hard time putting into words what I want to say.
If I could put my heart into words I feel I could make a difference.
That's why I read this blog and respond daily. I really believe you have the right heart and the ability to present these ideas so it makes sense and hopefully a difference somehow.
If I was more involved with current day Asatru groups I can see how this would get under my skin a bit more.
So, after re-reading your posts I get what your mission is and I am all for it.
I see these ideals to be greater than Asatru however. The conservative mind set of USA poisons the whole country and you would think people who revere a faith that is pre-Christian would understand how bad that is.
BTY, my name says blog but my name is Jim.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I believe that these are very deep observations. As someone else who also lived overseas, I never thought of myself as suffering *reverse culture shock. I will have to think on that.

However your descriptions gel with my own experiences on every level.

I believe that the first issue here is the assumption that local nationals of any country are not affected by politics. That is simply impossible. Wherever you live, then you are shaped by that environ--politics, nature, culture, etc.,

When I entered the Heathen Community as a Female Vet, I felt that was frowned upon at the time. Not understood. There was a lot not to like about me, but that this obvious sign of "patriotism" made it difficult for them to be overly critical and that made things awkward.

I felt that they did not respect the experiences and knowledge I brought from the rest of Paganism with me. Or any other spiritual or religious tradition. I was to forget all that as if it never happened, and start all over. ??? I was to cut my curiosity off like an overhanging branch of consciousness that obviously blocked out the light of their Asgardian Brillians LOL. As if I could do such a thing.

They wanted scholarship to back up their reconstructionism, but so long as it wasn't interdisciplinary scholarship.

In Asatru there are no universal motifs. It exists in a vacuum. There are no cross pollinators, nothing of the sort.

Someone else once told me that the Icelandic peoples were different in their expression of Asatru, and it sounded wonderful, but my lack of the ability to visit them at that time, allowed that thought to fade away.

As for the rest, the decriptions you put forth, are echoes of what is happening all around the whole country.

Perhaps they have bought into this desire for a violent sort of renewal along with the Tea Baggers and the Birthers and the Secessionists.

Matt BP said...

I am posting this from Melbourne where I am for an exhibition. Its been fun but I must say that the only Paganesque community form I have run into was a Satanist's bookshop off of Little Bourke street. Why are Satanist's all arses? I asked the bloke for a gift for my wife to celebrate our third anniversary of our handfasting and the prat actually went and got me a book on handfasting. it went a bit downhill from there.

Onwards to the topic at hand!

I can empathise with the sensation of reverse culture shock - it was difficult for me to get back into the swing of West Australian culture after being in Europe for 18 months. Since then I've flitted northwards with my wife and lived in Canada for a while, then gotten the same sensation upon return to Perth. I guess the moral and the point of this whole thing must be, is that all travelled and worldly Pagans and Heathens should move somewhere olde worlde and underpopulated and take over, mould it in our own image, somewhere like... Tasmania? Course I am being tongue in cheek. Maelstrom, I think that I can understand where you are coming from, but surely the freedom to choose includes the freedom to leave? I could move to Canada, live in a Pagan commune and study shillelagh... if I want to. Why are you staying in America if it distresses you to see what it it is? Perhaps, like me, you love the idea of your country and the natural majesty probably quite a lot more than you love its people, who all seem a bit thick (Aussies AND Seppos/Yanks). All in all it makes it difficult to leave because it is where you believe you belong, but painful and frustrating to stay.
In response to the other posts; American culture is powerfully pervasive and that is why the world hates America. People in Australia look at conservatism on the tv and the new McFattyboombah Burger at McDonalds and lament the inherent loss of our own culture, the slow whittling of word that become obsolete because of the steady strong flow of American spellings and words. Microsoft Word English (Australia) is a confused beast. The point is that American culture exists, and it is difficult to see a culture when you are immersed in it, until you go somewhere else and see that all those things you thought are just the way things are done, are not quite done that way everywhere.
I have to wrap this up because my brother has work to do, and I'll finish this off later.

Maelstrom said...

Dear Matt: You raise the eternal dilemma posed by the Clash among others: "Should I stay or should I go." I have indeed struggled with this, having mixed feelings about either staying in America or leaving. The simplest answer is that I am dedicated to my academic career, teaching in a small college and pursuing the odd project on the side, such as this blog, and that I now have a secure, full-time teaching position in America, and see a lot of potential for what I can do in this position. I do find myself in a state of perpetual inner conflict with certain aspects of 21st century America, but to stay or go is a kettle full of conflicts in itself. For one, I know that relocating from one country to another, one continent to another, is an exhausting and stressful process, and I feel that the several international relocations I have made in the past have taken a toll on me, and health-wise, I see the need to stay put and "enjoy" stability, for a good little while at least. Also, I am getting older, coming up on the big 5-0, and it is good to see a secure future with a pension ahead. I could try for a teaching position in Europe or Asia (not Australia because I don't speak the language, ho ho), but most likely such positions would be short-term without real security. There is also a moral issue. I think that one of the deepest problems of America is its insularity and arrogance in relation to the rest of the world. In my current position, teaching World History, I can hope to make a small difference in that regard by introducing students to other cultures and regions, hopefully opening up their eyes to a broader view of life on earth. Your own peregrinations tell their own tale of how difficult it is to relocate. I had my longest stay abroad in Japan, and if I were to relocate, I would probably go there. I was quite impressed by Japanese culture, especially Shinto, and will probably write about that at some point. Incidentally, I am open to the Tasmanian option if you can make the arrangements!

Matt BP said...

I looked at the Tasmania State Govt website, but it doesn't have any option to buy the whole island online with a credit card, so I'm fresh outa options unless someone has a Pagan merc force handy. There is a downside to running Tasmania, as it has the second highest output of A-grade heroin in the world after Afghanistan, and if we started trading that in Euros, we'd have America trying to make landfall at Launceston in order to claim the Bass Strait oil field. Nah, I think we have to fix what we got, eh?

I think that the crux of the problem is nostalgia for a golden age (that never existed). People are attracted to the old tales because people only die in glorious battle, only starve in glorious defeat, quaff ale generally gloriously and so on and so forth - its a world without bills and irritating neighbours an strange smells in the back of the car. A world without modern stress basically. That why Heathens and Pagans out there aren't interested in modern Scandinavia, because its too 'real'. I don't think the feeling that its too un-American or un-Australian is really the problem, because there are plenty of people who admire the democratic-socialist national model. I think its all about nostalgia.

Btw Maelstrom, you can get creams for it you know, called antiSeptics!

Hal Rager said...

I too, have sought a more liberal form of Asatru in the USA. I have just discovered this blog and will enjoy following...

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Yes that Golden Age rubbish. Gotta love that. Right now America is suffering under an insane voter block that is obsessed with golden age stuff that never happened--nor should their version of that golden era be allowed to happen.

Quaffing ale gloriously. Gosh there are people who still do that?

Right now I am quaffing espresso gloriously, all by myself in a rural neighborhood in a very red state.

The land does call to me here, but not much else. Also I am in love with the idea of America, but not so much with the reality currently. It seems the country has lost near double digits in terms of mass IQ points. scary and depressing.

Someday I might be able to do what Maelstrom is doing. Teaching at a small college. Right now I will settle for teaching my own children.

null2099 said...

blog/Jim. As a pagan living in Jackson, and working in Ann Arbor I can relate. I hope yo find a community that works for you somewhere along the line. The older I get the more important I think community is.

Of course, as a friend recently put it about the pagan community "The so-called community does not support, it consumes"

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