Friday, October 2, 2015


Click links for Part One and Part Two of the interview with sociologist Jennifer Snook, author of American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement.

Jennifer Snook in Alaska
KS – In the book, you introduce Ásatrú Folk Assembly leader Stephen McNallen by saying he created an early Heathen organization while “[s]idestepping [Else] Christensen’s focus on racial ideology.” In 2003, Mattias Gardell also contrasted McNallen’s approach with the overt racism of Christensen’s Odinism, quoting Wyatt Kaldenberg’s portrayal of McNallen as non-racist: “He said folkish a little now and then, but when you said race, he’d turn pink.” Jeffrey Kaplan’s 1997 description of McNallen as occupying a “middle ground” between liberalism and white nationalism is echoed by Michael Strmiska’s 2005 portrayal of McNallen as “carefully screen[ing] potential members to keep out people with extreme political or racial views.”

However, you go on to describe the Ásatrú Folk Assembly’s “seemingly most important and all-consuming focus” on (in the organization’s words) “the preservation of the Peoples of the North,” the “cultural and biological” survival of “Northern European peoples.” This sounds quite close to the infamous “Fourteen Words” of white nationalist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.” You also cite McNallen’s essay on the “browning of America” and state that he uses the rhetorical tactics of white supremacists.

How would you reconcile these conflicting academic portrayals of McNallen as (1) non-racist, (2) neither non-racist nor racist, and (3) racist?

JS – I don’t know if there’s anything to reconcile. I would love to have interviewed McNallen. I’m sure he’s a very interesting and kind person, and I’ve heard as much from others. I’ve also read and gathered information from people that suggests that his attitudes toward race are complex and evolving.

I spoke to many people over the years that believe that he is becoming more extreme in his political and racial outlooks, and there is some evidence for this. His 2010 anti-immigration article “On The Down and Dirty Browning of America,” in which he freaks out about the racial take-over by brown people that he believes will rob white people of their political power and dominance, lead to their marginalization, and impending cultural extinction. In “Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca” he frames it as a “spiritual war.” I’ve spoken to people close to him that have grown deeply concerned, and his reputation is certainly troubling – outlined by Circle Anzus in their break-down of McNallen’s work over the years.

Having said that, I don’t feel qualified to label him an outright racist. People are complex. Rather, he expresses some ideas that are racist in nature and has some interaction with known white supremacists, and his publications are very popular with white supremacists. So while I have no doubt about his sincerity regarding his passion for European heritage and culture, there’s much to critique about the way in which he expresses these thoughts and with whom he keeps company.

There is also, perhaps, something to be said about the creeping increase in political ideological messages coming off of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly blog and Facebook page, leading me (as an outside observer) to wonder whether his organization is religious or political, though as a sociologist I recognize that there is no such thing as religion without politics.

KS – In 2011, you joined McNallen’s Ásatrú Folk Assembly. Within months you were the subject of an investigation by the organization that included interviews of your friends, parsing of your writings, and asking you to explain your political beliefs. As a sociologist whose work is based on interviewing individual members of social groups, performing close readings of their written statements, and asking questions about their political views, how did this experience affect your own subsequent methodology?

Difficult crossing: Snook fording a river in Iceland
JS – It did put me in the position of being the subject of investigation, but it was fundamentally different than what sociologists do. We don’t dig, and needle, accuse and parse words – and I am only one person. I am hardly a good sample.

When sociologists do this work, we collect, we ask, and we observe a lot of people over time and space, and then we analyze. We don’t go in trying to confirm an answer we already had, which is what the AFA was doing when they questioned me. We refer to this method as “grounded theory,” which allows patterns to emerge from the data itself, from the ground up. I am always very reflective about the researcher-subject relationship, which is part of the feminist methodology I mentioned earlier.

In regards to how this affected my research, it was eye-opening. When I joined, I told them up-front on the application form about my work and how I was hoping to include the AFA as part of my sample. It came as great surprise to me when I was then accused of being an infiltrator with subversive intentions. I told them what I was doing! That would make me a terrible spy. The rigmarole I went through with the Q&A to justify myself was intense but ultimately productive, though it seems the positive recommendation of my inquisitor to the board was ignored.

In regards to my research, it was a huge loss for the membership of the AFA, as they were robbed of an active voice in my work. It would have been fun and helpful to visit AFA gatherings and chat with folks, and get to know Steve, but alas.

What it left me with was McNallen’s personal statements and Facebook updates, articles and blog posts – many of which may or may not have reflected the beliefs of the AFA membership. The comments that people left in response were likely skewed toward those who agreed, making it look like McNallen was speaking for them. I cannot know how many of them disagree with his ideas, nor can I know how many of them simply don’t care. It was the reason for my joining, but I was unfortunately unable to fill in that piece of the puzzle.

What I was able to do was find those AFA members who attended other events and chat with them there, and that made up somewhat for the loss. Yet, I can’t know to what extent it affected my data, because I simply don’t have the data.

KS – Aside from Stephen McNallen, the figure who arguably looms largest in your book is Mark Stinson. Lightning Across the Plains, Stinson’s annual Heathen gathering, is repeatedly referred to in your book as a model event. You write that it represents “the possibilities of a strong regional community” that values face-to-face camaraderie over internet bickering, and you describe Heathens coming to the event from a very large geographical area “to cement bonds of community, reinvigorate their Heathen identities, and join together in spiritual expression.”

You argue that national organizations like McNallen’s are “losing their importance as regional efforts in the Midwest render them redundant” and laud Lightning Across the Plains for the “success of the tribal model” over the “steady, grinding bureaucracy” of the national organizations. You refer to McNallen’s group as “a political organization with religious overtones” while presenting Stinson’s ideas on “productive real-world, practical concerns, such as growing the faith through cooperative local and regional relationships with other tribes,” asserting that his “arrival to American Heathenry in 2006 has reshaped its landscape in the Midwest.”

Since the publication of your book, both men have made news. Only three weeks before it was due to start, Stinson announced the cancellation of the 2015 Lightning Across the Plains. Nearly simultaneously, McNallen raised well over $50,000 in one month of an online campaign to fund a place of worship and community center for the Ásatrú Free Assembly.

Given Stinson’s emphasis on his gathering as a place where real-world relationships trump online arguments, it is striking that the cancellation announcement effectively blames “those who come to the event, enjoy the fruits of our labor, interact with us face to face, eat our food, drink our mead, enjoy all the benefits of our hospitality and then, after leaving, assassinate our characters both collectively and individually.”

Given the description in your work of Heathens criticizing the bureaucracy, infighting and diffuse nature of the national organizations, it is interesting that McNallen’s organization – one of the oldest and arguably least democratic Heathen groups – has been able to so quickly raise such a large amount of donated cash and to purchase a dedicated property.

If you were still working on your book, how would you cover these two events?

Taking a breather after a long slog: Snook in Alaska
JS – Boy, am I glad that I’m not still working on my book! I spent a lot of time as I was writing thinking hard about what to include and what not to include, for fear of hurting people or violating their privacy. It was likewise difficult to clearly describe people when I thought that it might out them, unless they had already made themselves public.

In regards to the first, I would likely use McNallen’s fundraising as another example of how national organizations can be successful, and as evidence of the power of collective identity. How the money gets used, and how people participate in and experience the outcome is something I’m quite curious to see. I’m totally rooting for the AFA to make this contribution meaningful and useful to people.

The fact that he’s managed to fundraise online speaks as well to the power of social media – which I also discuss as influential in how Heathenry has changed over time. I don’t think that national orgs are useless, by the way, simply that they didn’t factor in to the daily practice and local culture of a majority of the people I came into contact with. In the cases where they were important, they provided networking and a feeling of like-mindedness with other members, particularly of The Troth, which is the only organization with which I spent any time.

In regards to the canceling of LATP, that’s complicated. First, there was a kerfluffle at LATP last year prompted by a group of men who hadn’t attended before. I noticed that at least one of them had an SS pin on his lapel. They broke a number of rules of etiquette that many people found offensive. The matter wasn’t dealt with in a way that some people thought it should be, and a few vowed not to return.

Second, LATP got so big, it became harder to vet the people that attended, and it began to attract people who weren’t part of the region, and extremists who some viewed as predatory. This created quite a bit of unrest. Recently, I spent some time with people who expressed the sentiment that LATP had gotten too big for its britches, far beyond the initial focus of regional alliances and community building. They’ve instead decided, like Mark expressed as well, to refocus on their own local and smaller regional events.

So, what happened at LATP would support Mark’s own assertion that big organizations become too unwieldy and are no longer functional – yet this time it was the fruit of his own labor that collapsed under its own weight, hoist by its own petard.

KS – You discuss reconstructionism as “a method for understanding historical Heathenry” that seeks “to piece together Heathenry in what they view as its most authentic form, unadulterated by modern influence and interpretation.” You quote Bil Linzie: “To be a good reconstructionist, one must be able to step away from one’s cultural background as well as spiritual background.” As a sociologist, how do you respond to the idea that a modern individual can avoid “modern influence and interpretation” and shed their “cultural background”?

Skeptical sociologist Snook
JS – As I lay bare in the chapter, I don’t think this is something that we can do. I think most scholars agree, and I think most people who practice reconstructionism understand their limitations.

We are socialized into particular realities that limit us in ways that are unimaginable. It’s not impossible for us to break free, for sure, but unless you’re off the grid in a commune the way that the Amish live, and socialize your kids outside of mainstream society, I think the influence of social structural arrangements and cultural, political and economic realities are simply too constraining.

Of course, I look forward to being proven wrong, because I think it could really be cool.

KS – You write that “American Heathenry has developed apart from its Icelandic and European cousins into a cultural system that is wholly and uniquely American, inseparable from its sociohistorical, economic, and political context.” However, the vast majority of your informants are provided with Icelandic names as pseudonyms (although spelled without Icelandic letters such as ð, þ, or ö). You introduce us to Americans with a dizzying array of assumed names from Icelandic literature, including Alfdis, Alvis, Aud, Brand, Egil, Einar, Gunnthra, Hallgerd, Herdis, Kveldulf, Leif, Mani, Signy, Sunna and Thrain. Notably, the Heathens you mention without pseudonyms tend to have Biblical names such as Elizabeth, John, Joshua, Mark, Michael and Stephen.

In addition to this swapping of Icelandic names for American Christian names, the study of Icelandic saga as source of ritual practice, the use of Icelandic mythology for theological conceptions, and the equation of figures from the settlement of Iceland with “ancestors” seems to point to a construction of (some) American Heathenry as Icelandic – or, to use the language of your work, a “performance of Icelandicity.” How does this appropriation of Icelandic cultural heritage by those with no actual family connection to Iceland fit with the Heathen emphasis on ancestry?

JS – I discuss in my book that there’s a heavy romanticism involved in how many Heathens imagine their European ancestry. The focus on ancient “Northern Europe” is an appeal to the “epic past,” in which life and culture are idealized, valorized, and somehow superior to the present.

Many American Heathens idealize Iceland because of the influence of Icelandic literature and history on our understandings of what Old Norse Heathens believed and practiced. There is a distinct pattern of American Heathens idealizing Iceland as a Heathen Mecca. Heathens do understand that they don’t have direct ancestry to Iceland. They know, however, that Icelanders themselves are descendants of the “Vikings” and other “Elder Heathens.” So in this way, Iceland is just a repository of Heathen lore, culture and religion that is available for consumption. It’s a fairy tale.

When American Heathens imagine the “Elder Heathen” ancestor, I think many times they are imagining a general Northern European-ness, lumping Germanic cultures together. There is of course some resistance to this, and many Heathens for whom Iceland is irrelevant outside of what texts are situated there. For them, it is German, Norman, Anglo-Saxon, or other Germanic tribal peoples that inspire them.

KS – American Heathens opens with your self-identification as someone who both practices and studies Heathenry. You write, “I not only research, write about, and teach about paganisms; I have been a practicing Pagan since my early teen years and a Heathen since age eighteen.”

Describing your work as a college student on an assignment for a course on American Paganism, you write, “I wanted to meet and interview a Heathen whose experience would lend insight into my assignment and perhaps even inform my new faith.” Your first forays into meeting other Heathens occurred in graduate school, when a “cheerful young man” you met on a Yahoo forum became your “first Heathen friend and research participant.” You also state that your “first experiences with Heathen ritual and community” were private gatherings in Heathen homes at which you “recorded field notes with feverish enthusiasm.” You write, “As I observed them and worshipped with them, I discovered my own way of being,” stating that “I have been a member, a friend, and a confidant, but my training as a sociologist was most salient, making me ever an outsider, critic, and distant observer.”

At the very end of the book, you discuss how the end of your research coincided with the end of your engagement with “the group itself,” relating that you no longer identify with the Heathen community – aside from a few personal relationships and a sense of connection to “collective memories created and recounted from the epic past.” Your active engagement with the Heathen community coincided with your academic study of it, yet you still state that you are a Heathen. In what ways does your religious belief and practice continue today?

Snook with Odin & Ravens, one of her felt creations
JS – It continues in a way that is internal. I practice my Heathenry through my spinning, felted land spirit sculptures, archery and gardening. I’m planning on landscaping a portion of my back yard as a Vé [enclosed holy area], as a way to get my daughters involved.

I am in regular contact with a bunch of amazing people who have helped with my work, but have also been inspirational in their friendship, generosity, kindness and ability to think critically about the world around them. I plan on continuing to attend smaller, more local gatherings to spend time with these great friends.

My separation from larger community and dialing down my use of social media isn’t just because I’m done and it’s no longer useful. It’s because, as fantastic as this journey has been, it’s also been a rather significant buzzkill.

The positive reaction to my work has been motivational, helpful, thoughtful and will produce helpful conversations and discussions for many people engaged in their own Heathen projects around the country, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to be part of that with some of these groups, Skyping in or doing talks at moots.

The negative reactions, however, in tone and lack of intellectual rigor, have reinforced my inward focus. My conclusions weren’t entirely flattering, and the work that it took for me to analyze and interpret the data, and then write things that I felt might make my friends look bad was extremely difficult. The work that it took for me to internalize these conclusions was sometimes heartbreaking.

Now, I’ll focus on what so many of my Heathen friends have suggested is important in their own lives – a focus on the innangard [inner circle], on loved ones, on personal spiritual growth, and less worry about the disabling negativity of eHeathenry.

KS – As we discussed earlier, your first steps towards religion sprang from your youthful interest in heavy metal, vampires, fantasy fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and the Society for Creative Anachronism. At the very end of the book, you write that “[t]o be Heathen is, to me, a connection to the epic past, to Tolkien’s Middle Earth [sic], which itself is a product of his love for Germanic mythology.” After your many years participating in and studying Wicca and Heathenry, why do you think your religious sense of self has landed in a place so similar to where it was when you started your exploration?

Dr. Snook eagerly awaits your comments.
JS – Interesting insight. This is where I feel safest, where I have always been. Being a huge nerd, but allowing that nerd energy to merge with the sacred.

It doesn’t involve the acceptance or permission of others. It’s simply and deeply part of who I am.

KS – Okay, that's it! Thank you for doing this interview.

JS – Thank you for the opportunity, Karl.

American Heathens is now available
in The Norse Mythology Store.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Click here to read Part One of the interview with the author of American Heathens.

Jennifer Snook, ready for more questions
KS – You state that past scholarly work on American Heathenry “overlooked the more moderate voices of Heathens” and that the first years of your research “focused on Heathens with liberal to moderate political sympathies.” The book includes data from your survey of Heathen political beliefs that shows “Liberal or Moderate” Heathens outnumber “Conservative” ones nearly five to three. Seventy-seven percent of Heathens “Agree with Marriage Equality,” more than the fifty-seven percent of Americans as a whole. However, you also state that the values of Heathens are “remarkably socially conservative, in keeping with dominant cultural norms” and discuss “the small and difficult-to-locate left.” How would you reconcile these statements and summarize your data on political positions of American Heathens?

JS – I’m not sure if there’s anything to reconcile. Heathens are at once more socially liberal than many Americans in terms of their views on marriage equality, yet more conservative in regards to views on interracial marriage. These are merely two examples of conflicting political trends. This isn’t a surprise, given the participation in the pagan milieu and simultaneous focus on ancestry, ethnicity, and whiteness.

So at once, Heathens exist in a subcultural environment – around other pagans and in other alternative enclaves – in which liberal attitudes in regards to recreational drug use, (hetero) sexuality, female empowerment, etc., are common. These ideas are socially “liberal” in the sense that these Heathens support more personal freedoms and less oppression or regulation.

On the other hand, the hypermasculinity of American Heathenry, coming up from the days of the Viking Brotherhood and with significant influence from ex-military and ex-convicts, has an impact on the way that many Heathens express their personal politics. This plays directly into how Heathens discuss Wiccans, how people treat those in LGBT communities, how they perceive matters of race and racial exclusion, and influences prevailing sexist attitudes. So when I say that American Heathens are socially conservative, I speak in reference to my observations in which conservative attitudes toward women, transgendered people, “liberals” and academics were quite popular, and in which many Heathen norms and values echo mainline Protestantism.

For example, I observed a ton of discourse that any reasonable person would characterize as “conservative” ideological thought: a rejection of social welfare programs, the insistence that people’s use of social services is “lazy” and that people are working the system. Ironically, there is no shortage of Heathens who themselves are on social welfare of some kind, or who are part of what we might call “the working poor.” Granted, our assumptions about who is using welfare in this country is heavily racialized and stereotyped, so this plays into people’s attitudes.

Snook losing a game of "Capture the Wench" in 2011
Also, there was no shortage of sexism which seemed to run counter to the Heathen insistence on the equality or “badassness” of Heathen women. I myself experienced this on a number of occasions, from the game “Capture the Wench,” at [midwest Heathen gathering] Lightning Across The Plains – critiqued by a Heathen friend of mine as making mockery of the historical theft and inevitable rape of women by the Vikings and other tribes – to anti-feminist rhetoric, people giving me shit because I’m vegetarian, frequent paternalism, or even a “joke” at an event that I prepare a man’s meal, the assumption being that it was my rightful duty as a woman to do so. These ideas are intimately influenced by a person’s social class, education and regional location, as well.

So, like I lay out in the book, it’s complicated.

KS – Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has written of “contemporary neo-völkisch groups and ideology in America and Europe” starting in the 1980s. Your portrayal of Stephen McNallen and Folkish Heathens seems to agree with his analysis:
Just as the original völkisch movement arose as a defensive ideology of German identity against modernity in the late nineteenth century, this neo-völkisch revival acts as a defensive ideology of white identity against multiculturalism, affirmative action and mass Third World immigration.
However, you differ with Goodrick-Clarke by stating that the pre-Third-Reich völkisch movement in Germany “championed the affirmation of white identity,” not German identity. What distinction would you make between the old völkisch emphasis on national German identity from modern Folkish ideas of transnational white identity?

JS – Well, white people – and Heathens – in the United States by and large aren’t focused on German identity. Although some ethnic whites focus on the ethnicity of their ancestors, a lot of Americans don’t have this data. They don’t know where they come from, and so they make assumptions based on their appearance, or vague information – they imagine that they are German, or English, or Scandinavian.

The Snook Family Crest, according to the interwebs
My dad, for example, thought for our entire lives that the surname “Snook” was a British derivative of “Seven Oaks,” like our mail-order family-crest infographic says. But when we trace our family tree, it goes back to Germany on the Snook side to Jacob Schnuch born in 1655. Then, when my dad had his DNA tested recently, it turns out we’re quite Irish. None of this changes my life or opportunities, and whether I embrace my “Irish” ancestry or not is completely voluntary.

When Heathens appeal to ethnicity, by and large they are appealing to whiteness. But whiteness itself is only a thing in contrast to the racialized “other.” It is a political construct meant to divide and conquer, used historically to make white wage-laborers work to support the white elite, rather than working in cooperation with freed black slaves also suffering under the same terrible working conditions. So whiteness has always been a privilege used for political purposes, and in this country, not much has changed. Yet, because we so infrequently identify whiteness as a category, it’s largely invisible.

Heathens are special in this respect, because so many focus on ancestry and a genuine desire to identify where they came from, their ethnic histories are salient. But my ethnic history may be different from another Heathen’s ethnic history, and yet, when we seek a common ancestral story, tradition or connection, we are appealing to a generalized whiteness. When we talk about Heathenry with the words “The Folk,” to which folk are we referring? And we know that Heathens of color frequently get crap from other Heathens who have no idea what their ethnic background is, but make assumptions based upon appearance.

I grew up with kids whose mothers were German but whose fathers were African-American soldiers. I have no doubt that these people would have a more difficult time settling into Heathenry and would constantly have to justify their “right” to belonging, simply because they don’t “look” white. So this is what I mean by an “affirmation of white identity,” which is intimately connected to the history of race and ethnicity in our country and culture in ways that I outline, perhaps too verbosely, in the book.

KS – You discuss “symbolic ethnicity by the offspring of immigrants” and “absence of actual ethnic identity among whites.” However, you also point out that many African-Americans “have white ancestry.” As a sociologist, how do you determine the relative “actuality” or “realness” of ethnic identity for a “German-American” daughter of postwar immigrants and an “African-American” whose ancestors have lived in America since the eighteenth century? Does academic parsing of identity politics override and overwrite individual and community self-definition?

"Whatever Happened to German America?"
Click here to read an excellent New York Times
post on "America's largest national ethnic group"
JS – No, of course not. People’s real-world lived experiences will always be more “real” than anything that we academics theorize. But, it’s our job to theorize, to observe patterns, to identify the historical, social, and economic significance of human events and behaviors. I don’t think that my words as a sociologist, in regards to symbolic ethnicity, in any way robs people of their agency to define their own ethnic identities.

What I would argue, however, if you’re asking the difference between the symbolic ethnicity of white people, and the “real” ethnicity of African-Americans, is that we’re talking about two different concepts. We don’t know the ethnicity of white people, unless they express it out loud. I can be Irish, I can be German, or I can just be a default taken-for-granted white American with nothing to prove. My ethnicity is invisible unless I’m wearing an ethnic costume, a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt, or participating in folk dances, for example. We do assume, however, that we know the ethnicity of African-Americans because their racial category is visible and we often conflate race with ethnicity.

Race, however, is a political construct; it is a tool used to place people in a hierarchy in order to decide who has access to domains of power and privilege. Ethnicity is the bearer of culture, which determines custom, language, religion, and culture – food, music, clothing, etc. So my point in saying that many African-Americans “have white ancestry” is to say that our focus on ancestry in regards to who gets to be Heathen – when this focus appeals to whiteness – is often a focus on race, rather than ethnicity.

KS – Discussing European immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you write that “ethnicity is something that white people adopt or neglect according to their whims,” describing “Americans who highlight their Irish American, Italian American, or German American (white) ethnicities during festivals and holidays.” Even in the last fifty years, there has been real discrimination in housing, hiring and government against some European immigrant groups and their descendants, many of whom were not considered “white” (such as Sicilians). There are still Americans today who draw sharp distinctions between Americans with Irish, Italian, German, Spanish and other Old World roots. In America’s major cities, there are communities where English is a second language after Polish or Russian. How does the idea of ethnic-by-choice relate to these continuing experiences of ethnicity by descendants of immigrants?

JS – Of course these communities exist, and ethnicity is a salient characteristic in the lives of the people within them. My research happened outside of these insular communities.

Disappearing into the landscape: Snook in Colorado
I am using the work of scholars since the 1970s who speak to the increasing disappearance of ethnicity as a category of identification among white Americans. See Alastair Bonnett’s 1998 piece “Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness” in Ethnic and Racial Studies. It may be salient to some people, but it’s certainly not as salient in the lives of white Americans as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.

So it’s not that ethnicity is not in play in some spaces, it’s that it’s much less a factor in the lives of white people than it used to be. In many cases, ethnic identification is optional for white people.

But perhaps more important is that ethnic identification by white people doesn’t necessarily, as a pattern of experience, exclude them from the privileges of whiteness the way that being non-white in our society does. Most white Americans do not live in these communities, and for the average white person in this country, ethnicity is not ascribed.

KS – You offer a critique of past scholars of American Heathenry, writing that “previous research has focused overwhelmingly on a fringe element within American Heathenry for whom whiteness is central to the question of who gets to be Heathen.” If we accept that the word Heathen “is inclusive of all varieties of Germanic paganism” (as you write in the book), then the term must encompass Odinism and overtly racist ideologies like Wotanism – as is suggested by your reference to the racist subjects of previous authors as “a fringe element within American Heathenry.” What hard data is available to sociologists that shows the percentage of the overall Heathen community that consists of those “for whom whiteness is central to the question of who gets to be Heathen”? In other words, how can we know scientifically that they are, in fact, a fringe element?

JS – In 2012, I put out a survey to Heathens over social media and email lists. I didn’t ask the question “Are you racist?” or “Are you a white supremacist?” – but I did ask people about their political identity. Of the 687 people who took the survey, only one of them identifies as a “white nationalist.” One white nationalist out of 687. That’s 0.1%.

What was more important to me than the survey data, however, was the field work. When we observe and interview the people with which we come in contact and listen to them, we can get a sense of the Heathen landscape. I did this for over a decade, all over the country. What I can speak to is the depth and breadth of my own data, across time and space, which clearly suggests, like the survey data, that most Heathens are not white supremacists and most are not overtly racist.

I should qualify what I mean by “overtly racist.” We have a conception in this country that racism requires people to not only declare the superiority of their race over those of the racialized “other,” but also to use derogatory terms and behave unpleasantly toward those who are non-white. This is what we sociologists call “traditional racism.” It’s the racism of our grandparents.

Bonilla-Silva's Racism without Racists
After the Civil Rights triumphs, however, the way that we discuss and experience race in this country has changed. Now, it is no longer acceptable to be openly racist – yet, racism persists. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses this in his book Racism Without Racists. We’ve fundamentally learned a new way of talking about race that allows us to express racist sentiments – “soft” racism, if you will – or to disclaim or avoid accusations of racism by talking about how we’re “friends with black people” – which empirical data suggests is uncommon, anyway – or to use racism as a form of comedy, etc.

All of this by way of saying that the way that we do racism these days has changed. It’s more subtle and symbolic, it’s institutionalized and often unintentional. So when I say that most Heathens are not overtly racist, what I mean is that they are not traditionally racist. This doesn’t excuse them from their color-blind racism, any more than it would the average American – and Heathens are not special in this regard. They were socialized to understand and express ideas about race the same way as everyone else in the United States.

Although my survey was widely dispersed throughout the Heathen community and represents a diverse cross-section, my interviews and fieldwork didn't focus on Odinists, Wotanists or any group that was overtly racist. Mattias Gardell did enough of this in his book Gods of The Blood. But the Heathenry that he featured was not the Heathenry that I had known, nor was it the Heathenry I would come to know through my work. We cannot discount these groups – they exist. But they were not part of my sample, which was plenty large enough without them in it.

KS – Why do you think that academia and the media have focused nearly exclusively on the far-right, racist subset of Heathenry? Why do they largely continue to, as you write, “ignore the sizable contingent of outspoken antiracist Heathens”?

Embracing the Other: Snook with troll
JS – For reasons you may have guessed – White Supremacy is dramatic and interesting. These groups are more vocal and obnoxious and easy to locate, because part of their whole shtick is being heard. The people that I observed and interviewed were not political activists in this way; they are regular people living regular lives.

It would be much more challenging for a researcher who was not already a member of a group like Heathenry to locate and study its participants, although it has been done in the last few years by another colleague of mine who came to Heathenry as a non-member and then slowly went native. And then you’d have to have a compelling enough research question going in, unless you were convinced there was something of interest at play and were committed to allowing the data to speak for itself over time. I was committed.

To be concluded in Part Three.


If the infographic fails to load after a decent amount of time, click here to view it offsite.

Monday, September 21, 2015


American Heathens by Jennifer Snook
Sociologist Jennifer Snook's groundbreaking new book is American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement. It is not only the first long-term ethnographic study of the subject in the field of sociology, but it's also the first peer-reviewed academic book on American Heathens written by an American Heathen.

In the work, Snook uses the term Heathen as "inclusive of all varieties of Germanic paganism," including Ásatrú (Icelandic for "Æsir faith,” belief in the Old Norse gods) and Theodism (focused on Anglo-Saxon belief and social structure).

For anyone interested in the subject of modern Heathen belief and practice, the book is indispensable. As the first work of its kind, it will be the defining text in this field. Future scholars will have to address Snook's ideas as they formulate their own studies.

Born in Germany to an American father and a German mother, Snook grew up on U.S. Army bases in Germany where her father was an officer. While the family was stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia, she received her BA from the University of Augusta.

She earned her PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder with her dissertation On Being Heathen: Negotiating Identity in a New Religious Movement. She subsequently published “Reconsidering Heathenry: The Construction of an Ethnic Folkway as Religio-ethnic Identity” in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

In 2005, she moved to Oxford, Mississippi to join the University of Mississippi's Department of Sociology and Anthropology as Instructional Assistant Professor of Sociology. She recently relocated to Iowa to join the sociology faculty at Grinnell College.

American Heathens is now available in The Norse Mythology Store.

KS – A child of agnostic parents, you spent several years as a Wiccan before a “moment of epiphany” that led you to Heathenry. You write that, starting at age twelve, your interest in heavy metal, vampires, fantasy fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and the Society for Creative Anachronism led to an interest in the occult. This interest led to your practice of Wicca, which you describe as “a reconstructed Pagan mystery religion” informed by feminism and “concerns over religious ecology.” After you began self-identifying as Heathen, your practice was solitary; you did not meet another Heathen in person for five years, and your internet interaction with other Heathens was minimal. How did these formative years in your spiritual life inform your conception of religion as a category of experience?

JS – For many of the people that I hung out with, interviewed and observed over the years, there seems to be a common experience, that I discuss in my work, that involves some pretty sore feelings regarding Christianity – feelings of being made to feel wrong, shameful and alien.

I didn’t grow up in a family that went to church. My mom was openly cynical about mainstream faith. We heard a lot of stories on AFN – Armed Forces Network, our only American radio and TV station – about the famine that affected Ethiopia in 1983 to 1985, then the war in Bosnia in 1992 to 1995, and other atrocities. If they didn’t die, people would say that God saved them. Meanwhile, we saw images of starving and mangled children, and my mother just couldn’t accept that a God would allow that to happen. I heard this a lot growing up, so it taught me to think critically about what people use faith to accomplish, and what they use it to excuse.

My dad was silent about religion. I didn’t have a lot of contact with people who spoke openly about their faith until I was a teenager and was already self-identifying as Pagan. At the time, I had already spent some time feeling marginalized, like I didn’t quite fit in with the other kids my age. In high-school, the other “alternative” kids were busy smoking pot, drinking heavily and mooning elderly German women from our school bus.

As dependents of the Department of Defense, we were in Germany as a privilege, not a right. Kids who broke the law were often sent back to the states to boarding schools or to live with relatives. This was horrifying. I watched this happen to some kids I liked. My dad was an officer, and he spoke with me gently on a number of occasions, after a long day at work, about his soldiers with whom he had to “discuss” – probably firmly – their kid’s shenanigans. I got the message, loud and clear! I avoided the alternative kids for these reasons, and the muggles in student government just didn’t interest me.

My apologies to anyone who was in student government. I’m sure you were the awesome exception.

Adopting a Pagan identity for me, and for a lot of people, was just another way of expressing my alienation, and made more sense to me because it was world-accepting, made me feel connected to the natural world, and didn’t shame me for not having a penis.

Connecting to the meaningful: Jennifer "Skaði" Snook
So for me, religion was about connecting with something deeply meaningful, unknowable and natural. I understood, and still understand, why people have religion, or why they identify as spiritual. It serves an important function in many people’s lives. For me, I have always felt most connected to this sense of awe when I’m in the woods, at the beach, spinning, practicing traditional archery or otherwise experiencing the natural world.

My mother’s cynicism and critical questioning, however, was always at work and this is one of my many motivations for exploring why people do Heathenry.

KS – You write that “Most participants [in American Heathenry] experienced the same pattern of becoming Heathen: rejecting the mainstream, spiritual seeking and experimentation, dabbling in or associating with Neopaganism, and ultimately rejecting Neopaganism and settling into the Heathen identity.” This lines up with your own personal experience, as detailed in the early sections of the book. Do you consider yourself to be a typical (or prototypical) Heathen?

JS – Not really. There are a number of personal characteristics that put me on the fringe, even among Heathens.

I’m a sociologist by training. I recognize that people have intersectional categories of experience and that my life experiences – growing up overseas as a child of a German mother, developing relative privilege as my dad earned higher rank over the years, living on army bases, graduating at Heidelberg American High School – which no longer exists – then later going to college debt-free, going to graduate school in Boulder, Colorado – which was a total mind-blowing out-of-body experience for me after living on Army bases all my life—have influenced the way that I see the world.

Moreso, however, is that my sociological imagination is never at rest. A lot of the people that I hung out with over the years didn’t go to college, aren’t economically privileged, didn’t receive post-graduate training, and these things affect our perspectives a great deal. So it’s not that I am different than most Heathens, but I am different than a lot of people, which I think other army brats would understand.

I recognize that while we may have had similar experiences growing up in various subcultural milieus, that I have had other experiences that have shaped me as well, as have we all. I’m not sure I would say that there is such a thing as a prototypical Heathen. I would say that, on average, we have some things in common, and these things can be meaningful.

KS – You discuss the early development of American Heathenry as a reaction to Wicca that actually incorporated Wiccan elements, much as Icelandic Ásatrú incorporates elements of the Lutheran Church with which it has sometimes clashed. As a sociologist, how do you explain this phenomenon of a group mimicking aspects of the very Other that it defines itself against?

Snook at the Drowning Pool in Thingvellir, Iceland
JS – I discuss in the book that this is a necessary element of subcultural belonging. All subcultures and social groups who share a collective identity do this – from ethnic groups to punks, goths, and fraternities. Everyone does it, because it’s an important social process.

This study of boundaries, or “borders,” around identities has been at the core of many research agendas in a variety of academic disciplines. There is even a sub-group of inquiry in the American Sociological Association, called the “Symbolic Boundaries Network.” For a good overview, see Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar’s piece “The Study of Symbolic Boundaries in the Social Sciences" [Annual Review of Sociology, 2002. 28:167–95].

Early on in the study of religion, sociologist Emile Durkheim noted how people define boundaries around the “sacred” and “profane” as the most “elementary form of religious life” in his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The idea is that all social groups have to define their norms and values, and agree upon them, before the group can function. I explain this in class with clips from The Little Mermaid, where Ariel is using a fork as a comb and a pipe to blow bubbles. Why not do these things?

A big part of reality construction is maintaining the boundaries around any community by consistently defining conflicting norms, values and identities as “other.” Kai Erikson wrote about this in his book called Wayward Puritans, when he investigates the social function of “deviance” as a label and category of behavior. He argued that defining a group as “deviant,” or “other,” brings people together by reminding them of their own boundaries of identity and behavior.

So the idea is nothing new. In my book, I just outlined how Heathens do it – first as a resistance to Christianity and then later as a resistance to Wicca, which is the ongoing discourse that we can’t seem to do without. Again, it’s important, and if it wasn’t Wicca, it’d be something else.

KS – You write that there is currently “a disproportionate number of ex-Wiccans within American Heathenry.” According to your work, some of the Heathens most determined to eradicate Wiccan elements from Heathenry are those who were Wiccans before they were Heathens. How much of today’s anti-Wiccan feeling in Heathenry comes from ex-Wiccans attacking their own former faith?

JS – There are two things going on here that I identify. First, you’re right. A lot of the disassociation is a product of escaping old identities to settle into the new. It’s a distancing from Wiccan terms, behaviors and trappings in order to be more authentically and fully Heathen. This is part of the process I just identified in the previous question.

But there’s also something else going on here, which I identify in my work, which is a caricature of Wicca and Neopaganisms as tree-hugging hippie liberal unshaven feminists with inauthentic made-up beliefs and practices that risk tainting Heathenry and robbing it of its manhood – read: authenticity – and deep, meaningful realness. It’s a play on personal politics, which isn’t unique to Heathenry.

There’s a larger societal conversation going on in the background, about femininity in contrast to intellectualism and any authenticity worth taking seriously, and masculinity as symbolizing rationality, strength, and authority. I teach this in my introductory sociology classes and take students to the “Unnecessarily gendered products” Pinterest pages, and to that Burger King commercial about the “Man Burger” which calls salad “chick food.” Not to mention the bazillion other commercials, ads, and other cultural examples of how things viewed as “feminine” are devalued and things are made “masculine” so that we take them seriously. “Bronuts” for example. Donuts for bros. Or a bar of soap with a tactical grip – seen in this Buzzfeed page about the fragility of masculinity – or Coke “One” marketed to men because they wouldn’t drink diet soda, because it’s for girls. I could go on.

So when we mock Wicca, sometimes it’s because we genuinely think that it can be silly, but these thoughts don’t come from nowhere. They’re situated in a broader cultural context outside of our own small communities, and our ideas, cute jokes, aversions and stereotypes are similarly culturally situated.

KS – There is a ritual element to your academic work. In 2003, you made an oath at a blót [Heathen ritual] that you “would honor the time that others had sacrificed to help me by publishing my work.” Throughout the book, you refer to “our faith,” “our strengths,” “our weaknesses,” and so on. How do you think this open identification as a believer in the minority faith tradition you write about will impact reaction from the wider academic community?

Snook before participating in sumbel (drinking ritual) in 2011
JS – There’s a conversation going on in Pagan Studies circles right now about how insider-scholars who write about their own groups are too apologetic and not critical enough of their own experiences and observations. And certainly this has been a problem with some insiders, or anthropologists “going native” in the field, losing their ability to be “objective” about their subject.

However, at the same time, social science has gone through somewhat of a shift where we now recognize that objectivity, in the old positivist use of the term, isn’t a concrete thing. We can’t really achieve 100% objectivity in this work, because we ourselves are products of our socialization into cultural and social “realities.”

But there’s also a push for more critical analysis of gender, race, privilege, and other aspects of society – studying “up” to the elite, rather than simply focusing on the disadvantaged. My training and the influences from which I draw inspiration are in this critical tradition.

I think that scholars who read my work will have the common language of this critical perspective and understand that my insider status gave me insights that outsiders may not have had, but that the work is ultimately a critical examination highlighting both the subjectivities of Heathens, but also the context in which they practice.

KS – You write that “the news is awash with reports of Pagans of all faith traditions losing their jobs… upon revealing their religious status.” How has being openly Heathen affected your own academic career?

JS – I don’t really discuss my religious status with my colleagues, unless we discuss my work or become friends. In my ten years at the University of Mississippi, my religious status was not something that I felt comfortable sharing openly with just anyone.

In the Deep South, people take their Christianity seriously, but sociologists tend, as a group, not to be religious. So I was less concerned with openly identifying myself as Heathen to my colleagues than I was at outing myself to administrators or students, and I only once had a feeling that one of my colleagues was working against me because she thought my work and religious identification were ridiculous. Over those years, I got used to confused expressions as I tried explaining my work to others, but this would probably happen most places. It should have been exciting to discuss, but it was actually pretty exhausting.

When I did tell my students, I did it in my Sociology of Religion class, after a half a semester of teaching and situated it within a week on New Religious Movements. I allow them to ask me questions after they read portions of my work. The last two semesters the questions I received spanned from “Do any or all Heathens worship Satan?” to “Do Heathens practice human sacrifice?” Or, they would praise me for how brave I was for “coming out” to them, as though my religious status was obviously something shameful.

But this was a product of my context. Now I’ve moved to a college town in Iowa, and in the first month here, people are asking me to join ministerial groups and to work with the chaplain, helping to mentor Pagan students. I’m in a different context now, and my colleagues are so far very supportive.

KS – Near the end of the book, you predict that your work “will provoke defensiveness from some Heathens,” and suggest some will argue that you “did not represent their particular niche of Heathenry.” You discuss the fact that you leave some groups to previous researchers (Heathens in prison) and some to future scholars (Heathens who practice “so-called alternative sexualities”). As a sociologist, to what extent can you extrapolate from your informant sample to the wider American Heathen community?

Doing fieldwork: Snook in Alaska
JS – In the book I present an overview of a relatively diverse community that shares many common threads.

When sociologists do ethnographic research, we observe and interview, and collect as much data as we can over years. We look for patterns of behavior, common elements of discourse, belief, norms and values, and we code our data. The chapters in my book are products of emergent themes, and the issues that I outline are patterns that I observed throughout the decade or so that I was paying close attention to what was going on.

Social media and the rise of blogging was a huge help, as well. I was able to observe the conversations and shared thoughts of people around the country. When I went to events, I met people from all over the place. When I observed the same argument, idea or behavior happening over and over, I was pretty sure that I had reached what we call “data saturation.”

Having said this, I recognize that no book is perfect and that there will always be people whose experiences aren’t necessarily reflected in my work, or who have perhaps somehow incubated a community that is different in many ways from the groups and people that I observed. I would have loved to have reflected the East and West coasts more thoroughly to include more diversity in thought and practice, but I’m a person with a job and a family, financial constraints, and a pressing need to get this work finished.

Yet, I’m confident that they have shared some of the experiences, conversations or concerns that my work outlines, or at the very least, they’re aware of them. I’ll leave further study to the scholars that are just coming up and finishing their PhDs.

KS – You define political as “referencing a system that moves beyond people’s individual preferences to ideas that tap into larger structures of power and inequality” and referring to “concepts that reflect differential opportunities that are part of a broader system of power and the perpetuation of inequalities.” You state that “people’s personal ideas often reflect wider systems of oppression and dominance.” How does this view of individual thought as a manifestation of larger societal systems relate to Heathen ideas of individuality?

JS – The Heathen idea of rugged individualism is very much in keeping with the American sense of each-man-is-an-island. This myth is part of the cultural landscape and something I work hard to desocialize my students from believing in the fifteen weeks I have the in my courses.

We are affected at every turn in our lives by the pushes and pulls of our social structural contexts. By our families and our homes, our towns and our states, our regional cultures, political cultures, religious milieus, educations, opportunities, etc. We certainly have the individual agency to make choices that affect our lives, but these choices are made in particular contexts in which we are either limited or freed by our social, economic and political access. Yet, we continue to believe that we are “free” to make any choice, at any time, in any place, and that not doing so is the reason for people’s individual failures.

The classic work by C. Wright Mills
C. Wright Mills – a badass biker sociologist who wrote back in the 1950s – argued in his work The Sociological Imagination, that perhaps the most helpful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is that between personal troubles and public issues.

For him troubles had to do with "an individual's character and with those limited areas of social life of which [people are] directly and personally aware."To describe those troubles and to resolve them, he argues, we have to pay attention to the individual's biography and the scope of their immediate milieux – what Mills describes as "the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity." A personal trouble is therefore a private matter: "values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened."

In contrast, issues have to do with "matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the limited range of his life." Mills says that these issues can’t be easily defined in terms of the everyday environments of ordinary people, and that they often involve a crisis in institutional arrangements. He uses the example of unemployment:
When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.
So the Heathen and American focus on the individual often overlooks this broader context in which we live our lives, and by which our choices are constrained. It also leads to a context in which Heathens are increasingly hostile to one another and are creating much sharper and more vocal distinctions between their innangard [inner circle of a person's tribe, family or social group] and what is considered utgard [space or people outside a group's inner circle]. This is much of what I discuss in my book.

KS – On one hand, you state that “[i]t is unlikely that the average Heathen experiences Heathenry as a product of political dialogue or even as politically influenced. Many Heathens are disengaged from politics, experiencing their often conservative political beliefs about society and social life as common sense.” On the other hand, you state that “people’s lives are intimately affected by their social and economic position, which influences their political beliefs. In this regard, there is little within American Heathenry that is not politically informed and determined.” How do you balance the tension between an individual explaining her own worldview and a scholar telling her what non-conscious elements determine her worldview?

JS – Great question. Certainly this is a concern, and people generally don’t appreciate having their realities defined for them.

But again, we are each most often focused on daily concerns, families and our immediate needs. We don’t focus on the context and the structures that affect our behaviors, because in many ways there’s little we can do to affect them and we may each perceive them differently.

There’s little I can do, however, to affect people’s defensive repackaging of my words, if various theoretical interpretations in my book irk them. I sincerely don’t think that my situating people’s lives and behaviors in a broader context necessarily robs them of their agency or experience. It merely helps to contextualize it.

KS – You argue that “all identities are political and all politics matter,” and you state that your book “is informed by insights from feminist methods.” How did your own personal politics affect your analysis of Heathenry?

JS – “Feminist methods” is a methodology that acknowledges gender, privileges subjectivity, avoids exploitation and empowers people, particularly women. This methodology is a way in which sociologists and other social scientists conduct research. It’s not a fundamentally alien way of doing things – rather, it’s quite common in ethnographic work.

In my work, I aimed at maintaining open dialogue with respondents, listening to their thoughts and ideas. I took them seriously and asked frequently for feedback. During the course of my research, I sent many Heathens parts of the book to read and respond, and I shared the parts of the book that concerned people directly, to make sure that I wasn’t mischaracterizing people’s words. I had a number of people help with various elements of the book – the glossary, for example – and cross-checked a lot of what I said with Heathens on my Facebook page. So the “feminism” methodology involves compassion and dialogue, rather than a positivist or clinical analysis that takes away people’s abilities to speak for themselves. Then, I situated their experiences within a theoretical framework.

Building on a solid foundation: Snook in Colorado
This book is a social scientific work based upon empirical evidence. It may not speak to every single experience of every single Heathen, but it captures the existing patterns of behavior of a large swath of American Heathenry. It’s not survey research, which captures a wide breadth of data, but only superficially – although I did gather this data as well. It’s primarily ethnographic, which means it captures the depth of experience for a particular sample of people over a long period of time.

Of course, science is supposed to be apolitical, but we know it’s not. My personal politics, like those of most of my social scientist colleagues, are informed by the empirical world. Some readers no doubt read my book as the rantings of a crazy liberal. But to experience every time someone disagrees with your own anectodal experiences, or every time someone critiques your privileges or unempirical assumptions about the world as “liberal” would be a mistake and just seems intellectually lazy. I read social scientific work for a living, and I incorporate these things into how I envision the world and my place in it.

My underlying political values are simple. I believe that people generally deserve not to be messed with – by systems, structures, institutions or other individuals – in ways that are harmful or unfair. I believe that humans should experience equality of opportunity and condition, so that they may experience economic, social and political equality without infringing on the rights of others to do the same. So when I analyze things from a critical sociological perspective, these are the underlying goals and assumptions that I think most social scientists share. These things are fundamentally political.

KS – You offer American Heathenry “as a lens through which we can understand our embeddedness in social structure and dependence on political frameworks for meaning making.” If social structure and political frameworks determine the creation of religious meaning, what role is played by belief, spiritual experience and engagement with religious and scholarly texts?

JS – A lot! But, of course, these things also happen in a social structural context. So we can have beliefs and experiences, but we interpret these things according to the context in which we live. A Heathen of today has different beliefs and experiences than a Muslim from two hundred years ago in the Middle East.

It may sound obvious, but I think people often forget the importance of our cultural, economic, political and social context on every aspect of our selves. The way that people engage with religious and scholarly text is also influenced by these factors and the prevailing academic paradigms, which themselves exist within this same context. Our biographies intersect with history and cannot be separated from it.

I’ve heard Heathens complain on a number of occasions that Christians are taking the Bible out of its original context, ignoring the culture and the historical situation during which it was constructed. Yet, it’s important for us to acknowledge that we as Heathens do this as well, here and now. Pointing this out in no way takes away from people’s experiences. If anything, it informs these experiences by offering an analysis of the bigger picture within which they occur.

To be continued in Part Two.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Edmund's decapitated head cries out while guarded by a gray wolf
English illustration, c. 1475
Translator's Note

The Anglo-Saxon Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955-1025) was a prodigious hagiographer, writing over thirty accounts of the lives of saints. His Life of St. Edmund, based on a Latin text by the French monk Abbo of Fleury, is of particular importance to readers with an interest in Viking lore, since his account of the martyrdom of the ninth-century East Anglian King Edmund (on November 20, 869) includes two Danes called Hinguar and Hubba.

This pair of Norsemen are better known as Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba, sons of the legendary saga hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnarr Loðbrók), who has himself surprisingly become a recognizable figure in contemporary popular culture, thanks to the History Channel's Vikings television program, which is (very, very loosely) based on his adventures.

Those with knowledge of Norse mythology may be surprised that this Christian tale includes the appearance of a gray wolf guarding a talking head and a dead body with the power to “make his enemies... blind, or deaf, or terror-struck” (as Snorri Sturluson writes of Odin). Some mythic ideas cross religious boundaries.

Those who think anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon may also be surprised by a couple of nasty slurs that appear in the text. Sadly, such bigotry was often part of Christian teaching long before the twentieth century.

The full text in Old English of the Life of St. Edmund can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson's A Guide to Old English, which is now available as a paperback in The Norse Mythology Store under BooksDictionaries & Language.

Ælfric's Life of St. Edmund
Translated from the Old English by Karl E. H. Seigfried

The Danes torture King Edmund
Illustration by James E. Doyle (1864)
In the day of King Æthelred [968-1016], a certain very learned monk came from the south over the sea from the place of Saint Benedict [the French monastery of Fleury] to Archbishop Dunstan [of Canterbury] three years before he died, and the monk was called Abbo. Then they conversed until Dunstan related about Saint Edmund, just as Edmund’s swordbearer related it to King Æthelstan, when Dunstan was a young man and the swordbearer was elderly.

Then the monk set down all the narrative in a book and afterwards, when the book came to us within a few years, then we translated it into English, just as it stands hereafter. Then within two years the monk Abbo returned home to his monastery and was immediately appointed as abbot in the same monastery.

Edmund the blessed, king of the East Anglians, was wise and honorable and always honored the almighty God with noble practices. He was humble and virtuous and thus remained resolute that he would not yield to shameful sins, nor to either side did he bend from his practices, but was always mindful of the true teaching, “You are appointed as leader? Do not raise yourself up, but be between men just as one of them.” He was as generous as a father to the poor and to widows and with benevolence always guided his people to righteousness and punished the cruel and blessedly lived in true belief.

The Vikings Arrive

The Viking Ship by N.C. Wyeth (1922)
It eventually befell that the Danish people set out with a fleet, ravaging and attacking far and wide throughout the land as is their custom. On that ship were the foremost leaders Hinguar and Hubba, united by the devil, and they landed on the land of the Northumbrians with spears and laid waste the land and slew the people. Then Hinguar returned to the east with his ships and Hubba remained behind in the land of the Northumbrians, victory having been won with bloodthirstiness.

Hinguar then came rowing to East Anglia, in the year that Prince Alfred was twenty-one years old [869], he who was later famous as king of the West Saxons [as Alfred the Great]; and the aforementioned Hinguar suddenly like a wolf stalked on the land and slew the people, men and women and the innocent children, and shamefully mistreated the innocent Christians.

Hinguar's Ultimatum

Calling of Vikings by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
He then sent immediately afterwards to the king the threatening message that he should submit to his service if he cared for his life. Then the messenger came to King Edmund and quickly delivered the message of Hinguar to him: “Hinguar our king, brave and victorious on sea and on land, has the power of many peoples and now has come suddenly with the army here to the land so that he may have here winter quarters with his host. Now he commands you to quickly share your hidden hoards of gold and the wealth of your ancestors with him, and you be his under-king, if you wish to be alive, because you do not have the power that you can withstand him.”

Lo, then King Edmund summoned a bishop who was nearest to him, and considered with him how he ought to answer to the fierce Hinguar. Then the bishop was afraid because of the sudden misfortune and for the life of the king, and said that it seemed advisable to him that he submit to that which Hinguar commanded him.

Then the king fell silent and looked at the earth and then at last regally said to him, “Oh, bishop, the poor people of this land have been shamefully mistreated, and it would now be preferable to me that I would fall in battle, so long as my people might be allowed to enjoy their homeland”; and the bishop said, “Oh, you dear king, your people lie slain and you do not have the support that would enable you to fight, and these Vikings will come and bind you alive, unless you protect your life with flight, or you protect yourself by submitting to him.”

Then King Edmund said, as he was very brave, “Of that I desire and wish with my spirit, that I alone should not survive after my beloved retainers who with their children and wives were suddenly slain in their beds by these Vikings. It was never customary to me that I would take flight, but I would wish rather to perish if I needed to for my own homeland; and the almighty God knows that I will not ever turn from his service, nor from his true love, whether I die or live.”

After these words he returned to the messenger that Hinguar had sent to him and said unafraid to him, “Certainly you would now be worthy of slaughter, but I do not want to defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ, who so set an example for us; and I will gladly be slain by you, if God so preordains. Go now very quickly and say to your cruel lord, ‘Edmund will never yield to Hinguar alive, to the heathen commander, unless he first submits with faith to Christ the Savior in this land.'”

Edmund's Martyrdom

Then the messenger turned quickly away and met the bloodthirsty Hinguar on the road with all his army, hastening to Edmund, and told the dishonorable one how he was answered. Hinguar then commanded the Viking host with arrogance that they should seize that one king, who rejected his command, and bind him immediately. Lo, then King Edmund, when Hinguar came, stood inside his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw away his weapons: he wished to imitate the example of Christ, who forbad Peter to fight against the bloodthirsty Jews with weapons.

"...until he was completely covered with their missiles"
English illustration, c. 1130
Lo, the dishonorable ones then bound, shamefully mocked, and beat Edmund with cudgels, and so afterwards led the faithful king to a tree firmly rooted in the earth and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and again beat him for a long time with whips; and he always cried out between the blows with true faith to Christ the Savior; and then the heathens became furiously angry because of his faith, because he called Christ as help for himself. They shot then with spears, as if for entertainment for themselves, thither, until he was completely covered with their missiles, as it were the bristles of a hedgehog, just as [Saint] Sebastian was.

Then Hinguar saw, the dishonorable Viking, that the noble king would not renounce Christ, but with resolute faith ever called out to him: he ordered them to behead him, and then the heathens did so. While he was still calling out to Christ, then the heathens took the holy one to the slaughter and with one stroke struck the head from him, and his soul travelled blessedly to Christ. There was a certain man nearby, held hidden by God from the heathens, who heard all this and afterwards said it just as we say it here.

The Wolf & the Talking Head

"They hid the head in the forest somewhere"
English illustration, c. 1130
Lo, then the Viking army fared again to the ship and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it would not be buried. Then after a time, after they had departed, the people of the land came thither, who there was then left, where the body of their lord lay without a head, and became very sorrowful in spirit because of his slaughter, and especially that they had not the head to the body. Then said the witness who had seen it, that the Vikings had the head with them, and it seemed to him, as it was completely true, that they hid the head in the forest somewhere.

Then they went all together to the wood, seeking everywhere, through bushes and brambles, if they could find the head anywhere. It was also a great wonder that a wolf was sent by God´s guidance to protect the head against the other wild animals through day and night. Then they went seeking and always crying out, just as it is customary for those who often go in the wood, “Where are you now, comrade?,” and the head answered them, “Here! Here! Here!,” and so frequently cried out, answering them all as often as any of them called out, until they all came to him through the cryings out.

"They were astonished by the guardianship of the wolf"
English illustration, c. 1130
There lay the gray wolf which had guarded the head and with his two feet had clasped, greedy and hungry, and because of God dared not to taste of the head but held it from the wild animals. Then they were astonished by the guardianship of the wolf, and carried the holy head homewards with them, thanking the Almighty for all of his wonders; but the wolf followed forth with the head, until they came to town, like he was tame, and then afterwards returned back to the wood. Then the people of the land afterwards laid the head near to the holy body and buried him such as best they could in such haste, and erected a church above him immediately.

Edmund's Body is Healed

Then after a time, after many years, when the harrying ceased and peace was given to the afflicted folk, then they joined together and splendidly made a church for the holy one, because there were frequently miracles at his grave at the prayer house where he was buried. They wished then to carry the holy body with public honor and to lay it within the church.

Then was the great miracle that he was just as whole as if he were alive, with a clean body, and his neck was healed, that before was cut through, and was as it were a red silken thread about his neck, as evidence to men how he was slain. Also the wounds that the bloodthirsty heathens made on his body with frequent missiles, were healed by the heavenly God; and he lies as whole up to this present day, awaiting resurrection and eternal glory. His body reveals to us, which lies undecayed, that he lived without wantonness here in the world and with a clean life traveled to Christ.

A certain widow, named Oswyn, dwelt at the grave of the holy one in prayer and fasting for many years afterwards; she would cut the hair of the saint each year and neatly trim his nails with love and keep them in a coffer as a relic on the altar.

Thieves in the Night

Dead abbots in coffins at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey (1903)
Then the people of the land honored the saint with belief, and Bishop Theodred greatly endowed the monastery with gifts in gold and in silver as an honor to the saint. Then came on a certain occasion eight wretched thieves in one night to the honorable holy one: they wished to steal the treasures that men had brought thither, and tried to discover with skill how they could come in.

One struck the hasp mightily with a sledgehammer, one of them filed around with a file, one also dug under the door with a spade, one of them with a ladder wished to open the window, but they labored in vain and so wretchedly fared, in that the holy man wondrously held them, each one as he stood struggling with a tool, that none of them could perpetrate that crime, nor could they move themselves from there, but stood so until morning. Then men wondered at that, how the criminals hung, one on a ladder, one bent to digging, and each was bound fast to his work.

They were then all brought to the bishop and he ordered them all to be hanged on high gallows, but he was not mindful how the merciful God spoke out through his prophet these words that stand here: eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cesses [Proverbs 24:11: “Do not fail to release those who are lead to death”] “those that one leads to death, always release them out”; and also the holy canons forbid the ordained, both bishops and priests, to be among thieves, because it does not befit them that are chosen to serve God, that they should assent in the death of any man, if they be the servants of God.

Afterwards, when Bishop Theodred later looked at his books: he repented with sadness that he set down such a cruel judgment for the wretched thieves, and after regretted it until the end of his life, and bade the people zealously that they would fast with him fully three days, asking the Almighty that he should pardon him.

The Body of the Saint

The Shrine of St. Edmund in an 1843 illustration
In that land was a certain man, named Leofstan, powerful with respect to the world and ignorant with respect to God, that rode fiercely to the holy one with arrogance, and very insolently ordered them to show the saint, if he were whole; and so as soon as he saw the body of the saint, then he immediately went mad and raged horribly and wretchedly ended with an evil death.

This is similar to that which the faithful Pope Gregory told in his narrative about the holy [Saint] Lawrence, who lies in Rome – that men always wished to see how he lay, the good and the bad; but God restrained them, so that there perished in that viewing at once a group of seven men. Then the others ceased to look at the martyr with human error.

We heard of many wonders in the vernacular speech about the holy Edmund, which we will not set in writing here, but everyone knows them. In this holy one is clear, and also in others, that God almighty can again raise man on the day of judgment whole from the earth, he who holds for Edmund his body whole until that great day, although he came from the earth. Worthy is that place because of the venerable holy one, so that one honors it and furnishes it well with pure servants of God for the service of Christ, because the holy one is more glorious than men can imagine.

Saints of England

A contemporary icon of St. Edmund
by Bulgarian artist Marchela Dimitrova
England is not deprived of the saints of the Lord, when in the land of the English lie such holy ones as this holy king, and [Saint] Cuthbert the blessed, and Ætheldryth [a.k.a. Saint Audrey] in Ely, and also her sister [Saint Sexburga], whole in body, as confirmation of belief. There are also many other holy ones the English nation that work many wonders (just as it is widely known) as praise to the Almighty, whom they believed in.

Christ reveals to men through his glorious holy ones that he is Almighty God who makes such wonders, although the wretched Jews utterly forsook him, wherefore they are accursed, just as they wished for themselves. There are not any wonders worked at their graves, because they believed not in the living Christ, but Christ reveals to men where the true belief is, when he works such wonders through his holy ones far and wide throughout this earth.

Therefore to him be the glory forever with his heavenly father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This modern English translation is © 2015 by Karl E. H. Seigfried
Previous Post Home