Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Charlemagne by Albrecht Dürer
Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans, fought a war of conquest and conversion against the pagan Saxons from 772 until 804. The thirty-two-year conflict ran through seventy percent of his reign; he was twenty-four when it began and fifty-six when it ended. This article will examine Charlemagne’s long-term efforts over this extended period to replace the pagan beliefs and social structures of the Saxons with Christian beliefs and Frankish rule.

After brief surveys of primary sources used, early Carolingian-Saxon conflicts, material goals of the Frankish invasions, and Charlemagne’s religious motivation, this article provides a narrative of the Saxon war that focuses on religio-cultural elements. Emphasis is placed on five key events: the destruction of the Irminsul, the conflict with Widukind, the mass execution at Verden, the issue of the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ, and the forced relocation of the Saxon people.

The central argument proposed is that, over the long course of the war, Charlemagne increasingly sought a complete erasure of Saxon pagan identity.


The Royal Frankish Annals are arguably the prime primary source for the history of the Saxon war. They offer an official history covering the years 741 to 829, with events after around 790 written down contemporaneously. Additional material was added by a reviser between 814 and 817. Although plainly written in annual entries with no real reflection or meaningful commentary, the RFA provide a detailed account of the major events of the Saxon war from a Frankish perspective. It is unknown whether Charlemagne personally commissioned the annals, yet the encouragement of such a project fits with his promotion of historiography in general.

The annals were a source for Einhard, who wrote his Life of Charles the Emperor around 828. He was educated at the Fulda monastery founded by Saint Boniface, the martyred missionary who was of such symbolic importance to both the Christian Charlemagne and the pagan Saxons. Einhard became a member of Charlemagne’s court while in his early twenties. He served Charlemagne from the beginning of the 790s until the emperor’s death in 814, then remained in the court of Charlemagne’s son and successor Louis until the end of the 820s.

Like the RFA, Einhard’s Life provides a courtly and contemporary perspective on the age of the Saxon war. Einhard states that his work combines his own eyewitness testimony “along with the common reports of other writers.” Although Einhard is often inattentive to detail, muddles basic facts, mixes up individuals with similar names, and imports information from classical authors, he at least seems to have not simply fabricated material. His courtly audience included many survivors of Charlemagne’s day who would have recognized outright fantasy.

Notker Balbulus in an 11th-century manuscript
Notker Balbulus, author of The Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great, was born in 840 and given to the monastery of Saint Gall as a child oblate. He was neither a member of the royal court nor an eyewitness to the events he describes. However, the section of the Deeds dealing with Charlemagne’s military conquests is based on the oral testimony of one Adalbert, who served in the Saxon war with Gerold, brother of Charlemagne’s wife Hildegard.

The anonymous Corvey monk known as the Saxon Poet is yet farther removed from the events of the Saxon War. His Life of Charles the Great was written between 888 and 891. Although the poem is largely based on Einhard and the annals, the poet does add some additional details.

More than eighty years after the end of the conflict, the Saxon Poet is thankful to Charlemagne for conquering and converting his forefathers. However, some sense of Saxon self shows up when the poet departs from his Frankish sources; he places more emphasis on distinguishing between the various tribal subsets of Saxons, portrays some of Charlemagne’s incursions into Saxony as pre-emptive strikes that were not motivated by actual Saxon attacks, and elaborates on the effects Charlemagne’s post-795 scorched earth policy had on the Saxon people.


The Saxons appear in the third entry of the Royal Frankish Annals. Charlemagne’s uncle Carloman invaded Saxony and forced the submission of the Saxon leader Theodoric in 743 and (with the aid of Charlemagne’s father Pepin) in 744. Pepin himself led forces into Saxony in 747, 753 and 758.

Pepin by Louis-Félix Amiel
The annals provide no explanation for the invasions and list no initial incendiary action by the Saxons, although material motivation is implied by the statement that, after the 758 Frankish incursion, the Saxons “promised Pepin to obey all his orders and to present as gifts at his assembly up to three hundred horses every year.” Throughout this period, a non-pacified Saxony provided a steady source of income in the form of raided plunder and large annual tribute payments. While reports of these early conflicts mention some religious elements (missionary work and baptism by the Franks, church burnings by the Saxons), their role is minute compared to what was to come under Charlemagne.

Charlemagne’s unrelenting offensives against neighboring peoples have been explained as “a means to provide the king with sufficient funds to reward his vassals and to compensate for the meager resources and inadequate revenues of his kingdom.” In 774, two years after his first invasion of Saxon territory, one of Charlemagne’s four attacking detachments is said to have “returned home with much booty.” Later campaigns continued to siphon Saxon wealth into Frankish hands.

The Saxon Poet makes Charlemagne seem something of a pirate in a passage reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s description of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne: “he sent a threefold army into [the Saxons’] regions, and sorely afflicted the people by much slaughter and plundering. After devastating many places he withdrew as victor, laden with spoils.” Altogether, the Saxon lands he worked so hard to conquer were eighteen times larger than the Wessex that Alfred defended from the Vikings; through his conquests, Charlemagne nearly doubled the size of the lands inherited from his father.


However, treasure and land were not the sole motivation for the conquering king who wore a sword with a “cross-shaped hilt at the ready for attacking pagans.” The Saxon Poet calls him “a teacher of faith” who came to the Saxons “to save them against their will.”

Charlemagne by D.J. Pound
A text on the life of Saint Liborius written between 887 and 909 states that Charlemagne “preached to the Saxons with an iron tongue,” perhaps echoing Notker’s striking image of the conquering “iron Charles” riding down his enemies: “helmeted in iron, armed with iron gloves, his iron chest and broad shoulders safe in an iron breastplate… ‘Oh, the iron; alas the iron’: the bewildered wail of the citizens sounded forth.”

In 775, the original RFA entry simply describes another Saxon raid by Charlemagne with no motivation given. The revised RFA, however, states that he “decided to attack the treacherous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely exterminated.” This determination is something quite different from territorial expansionism and gathering of wealth.

The religious nature of the Saxon war goes beyond the “with God’s help” trope repeated to the point of banality in the RFA. Charlemagne saw himself as a new Constantine, emulating the first Christian emperor by naming a Frankish stronghold Karlsburg after himself, as the earlier emperor had done with Constantinople. To his consternation, the eponymous stronghold was destroyed by the pagan Saxons rebelling under the leadership of Widukind.

In Einhard’s Life, the Saxons are the only non-Christian people whose religious beliefs are discussed. The biographer introduces them by stating that the Saxons, “like almost all the peoples who live in Germany, were ferocious by nature, devoted to the cult of demons, hostile to our religion, and did not consider it shameful to transgress divine or human laws.” Einhard’s assertion that the Saxons were demon-worshipers parallels the eight-century Old Saxon baptismal vow used by those who converted to Christianity: “I renounce all the words and works of the devil, Thunaer, Woden and Saxnot, and all those demons who are their companions.”

Along with this demonization of Saxon religion, Einhard sets out the trope of Saxon dual disobedience of sacred and secular law, an idea that pervades contemporary portrayal of the Saxon war. Unlike the RFA, Einhard gives Charlemagne a clear motive for his first offensive against the Saxons by asserting that the Saxons provoked the war: “Murder, robbery, and arson never ceased on either side [of the Frank-Saxon border]. The Franks were so irritated by these incidents that they decided the time had come to stop responding to individual incidents and to open a full-scale war against the Saxons.”

Despite Einhard’s description of a reasonable defensive action taken by the Franks, the first action against the Saxons was of an overtly religious nature.


In 772, Charlemagne’s destruction of a major sacred space of the Saxons was the opening sortie of the Saxon war. The RFA report his actions:
Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough.
The destruction of the Saxon sanctuary was enough of an event for news of it to fairly quickly travel as far as England. In 783, the Anglo-Saxon abbot Eanwulf sent Charlemagne a letter congratulating him for his victory over the pagans and his demolition of the religious site.

"Charlemagne Destroys the Irminsul" by Hermann Wislicenus

The name Irminsûl means “gigantic pillar” in Old Saxon. Rudolf of Fulda described the Irminsul as “universis columna, quasi sustinens omnia” (“pillar of the universe which, as it were, supports all things”), but he was writing in 860, eighty-eight years after the event. He was also prone to cribbing descriptions of Saxon religion from the first-century Roman writer Tacitus.

The Saxon Poet writes that the Irminsul “was fashioned in the form of a huge column and contained a corresponding wealth of adornment,” but his account was written nearly 120 years after the destruction of the site. Such later sources must be treated with caution; sources contemporary with the Saxon war do not clarify whether the Irminsul was a carved column or a natural tree.

As in the entries on Carloman and Pepin’s incursions into Saxony, no initial Saxon strike is mentioned; Charlemagne simply initiates the decades-long war by invading Saxon territory to destroy and plunder a religious sanctuary. The wealth benefit incurred by stealing the site’s votive treasures seems secondary. The reason given for Charlemagne’s extended stay at the site is to completely demolish what must have been a substantial pagan temple, not to search for more treasure.

The destruction of the Irminsul and the plundering of the temple treasure represent a radical break with past Carolingian policy. The wealth of the site was likely well known, and the shrine’s location near Eresburg would have been easily accessible by Charlemagne’s predecessors during their raids on Saxon lands. However, neither Carloman nor Pepin had sent troops to plunder it. The fact that Charlemagne destroyed the religious site left intact by earlier Frankish leaders marks the beginning a new strategy of engagement with the Saxons.

A sense of holy war hovers over the scene, as the annalist describes the miracle of water God sent to Charlemagne’s army. Given the continuing religious elements of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, it is striking that the first mention of Saxon religion in the Royal Frankish Annals is a description of Charlemagne destroying their idol in “a symbolic statement of his intentions.”


While Charlemagne was in Rome in 773, the Saxons entered Frankish territory with a large army. After they burned houses outside the castle of Büraburg,
they came upon a church at Fritzlar which Boniface of saintly memory, the most recent martyr, had consecrated and which he had said prophetically would never be burnt by fire. The Saxons began to attack this church with great determination, trying one way or another to burn it. While this was going on, there appeared to some Christians in the castle and also to some heathens in the army two young men on white horses who protected the church from fire. Because of them the pagans could not set the church on fire or damage it, either inside or outside. Terror-stricken by the intervention of divine might they turned to flight, although nobody pursued them.
This passage in the RFA mirrors that describing Charlemagne’s destruction of the Irminsul. In the first event, Charlemagne succeeded in destroying a pagan holy place because God sent a miracle of water as help for the Christian Franks. In the second event, the Saxons failed to destroy a Christian holy place because God sent a miracle of fire-retardant horsemen as obstacle to the pagan Saxons. Symbolically, the waters of baptism are opposed to hellfire. The Christians are sent life-giving water when the sun is at its highest; the pagans bring destructive fire that loses its power in the face of God’s grace.

Adding to the literary and homiletic sense of these paired entries is the invocation of Boniface, the martyr (originally an Anglo-Saxon monk named Winfrid) associated with Charlemagne’s father in the RFA. In 750, “Pepin was elected king according to the custom of the Franks, anointed by the hand of Archbishop Boniface of saintly memory.” The saint is intimately tied to the Carolingians by his blessing of their first king, and this dynastic connection continues through the fulfillment of his prophecy during the reign of Pepin’s son. Charlemagne himself was dedicated enough to Boniface to task the Frisian cleric Liudger with constructing a church and large-scale memorial to martyred saint.

Boniface cuts down Thor's Oak
St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, Crediton, England
If the failed attack on the church consecrated by Boniface is to be taken as historical fact and not merely as a pious lesson on the Carolingian’s saintly connections and Christianity’s inevitable victory over paganism, the Saxon choice of target is noteworthy. In his missionary days, Boniface had (with the aid of “a divine blast from above”) felled “a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter” in front of “a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods,” then used its wood to build an oratory dedicated to Saint Peter.

“Jupiter” is usually taken to be an interpretatio romana of Thunaer, the Saxon equivalent of the Norse Thor who appears in the baptismal vow mentioned above. So, after the destruction of the Irminsul, the Saxons attempted to avenge the destruction of a pagan site centered on what may have been a “great pagan tree shrine” by destroying a Christian site dedicated by a man who had famously destroyed a sacred pagan tree in an earlier generation.

The Saxon Poet stresses that the church consecrated by Boniface was indeed the primary target of the Saxon incursion. The pagans continued to come after the saint; the saint’s relics eventually had to be evacuated by the monks of Fulda when the Saxons sought to destroy the monastery and kill its clerics, perhaps in an effort specifically designed to stop missionary efforts at conversion and destruction of sacred pagan sites. The RFA entry on the initial Saxon attack in 773 makes no mention of plundering, which supports the idea that it was a retaliatory act against a religiously significant object.


If this reading is correct, it suggests that the Saxons saw Charlemagne’s attack as an act of religious warfare in the context of a long-term campaign against their traditional religion. “Conscious and consistent policies of resistance” may have been driven by a pagan worldview that formed its own narrative of Christian actions across multiple generations.

Attacks on churches, including the Episcopal seat at Büraburg, continued through 774. The Saxon assault on church property put Charlemagne on the defensive as the royal protector of Christianity. His desire for revenge piled upon revenge continued to escalate over the following years in a self-perpetuating cycle reminiscent of the decade-spanning feuds of the Icelandic sagas.

Sturm by Johann Philipp Preuß (from a photo by Lothar Wiese)
After the mass baptism following the Saxon defeat in 777, Abbot Sturm and the four hundred monks of the Fulda monastery founded by Boniface were tasked with the religious education of the new converts. The monks made baptism their primary goal and destroyed as many heathen religious sites as they could. Sturm’s biographer Eigil writes that Charlemagne specifically entrusted the abbot with destruction of Saxon temples, razing of sacred groves and raising of new churches.

Many of these churches were in turn destroyed by pagan Saxons, belying the triumphalism of the poem De conversione Saxonum, composed at Charlemagne’s court in 777 to celebrate Saxon conversion and the seeming end of the conflict. The reaction of the Saxons to the ongoing anti-pagan activities of the Franks and their allied churchmen led to the rise to prominence of the major Saxon leader of the decades-long conflict.

Widukind will appear in Part Two.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

ART CONTEST – Midwinter 2015

Cover to a book by Karl Paetow


The theme for The Norse Mythology Blog's sixth art contest is a bit different. Be sure to carefully read the entire Contest Theme section so that you understand the assignment.

During the winter solstice on December 21, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year. This may seem early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point on, days will get longer as we slowly move back towards summer.

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midwinter. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midwinter spirit.

I strongly suggest doing some reading and research on myth and folklore before you begin your artwork. What characters and concepts can you discover? Can you think of a way to relate them to the contest theme?

If you need some ideas about mythology, browse The Norse Mythology Blog Archive. You can also check out the winners of the Midwinter 2014 Art Contest in the three categories: kid, teen and adult. Most importantly – be creative!


Illustration of the Grimms' fairy tale
Your artwork entry must somehow relate to the character and legends of Frau Holle. When I was a child, my father told me of the German folk tradition of Frau Holle; when she made her bed in the sky, she would shake out her comforter, and the downy feathers would fall to the earth as snow. I think of her whenever Chicago is coated by a beautiful new snowfall.

This complex figure of folklore has many aspects, and most of them relate to winter and midwinter. Your job is to find something about Frau Holle that speaks to you and inspires you to create your own original work of art. Here's some information to set your imagination going.

In the first volume of Children's and Household Tales (1812) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as Grimms' Fairy Tales), Frau Holle appears in tale number twenty-four. A beautiful and diligent maiden falls into a well and finds herself in a lovely meadow. Eventually, she meets an old woman named Frau Holle.

At last she came to a small cottage where an old woman was looking out of a window. She had such big teeth that the maiden was scared and wanted to run away. But the old woman cried after her, "Don't be afraid, my dear child! Stay with me, and if you do all the housework properly, everything will turn out well for you. You must only make my bed nicely and give it a good shaking so the feathers fly. Then it will snow on earth, for I am Frau Holle."

[After loyally serving Frau Holle for a time, the maiden eventually asks to go home.]

Frau Holle answered, "Since you've served me so faithfully, I myself shall bring you up there again."

She took the maiden by the hand and led her to a large gate. When it was opened and the maiden was standing beneath the gateway, an enormous shower of gold came pouring down, and all the gold stuck to her so that she became completely covered with it.

"I want you to have this because you've been so diligent," said Frau Holle. Thereupon, the gate closed, and the maiden found herself up on earth. Then she went to her mother, and since she was covered with so much gold, her mother gave her a warm welcome.

[adapted from translation by Jack Zipes]

There's more to Frau Holle than just feathers! The following descriptions of her are adapted from the first volume of Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology (1835). Notice that Frau she appears in many different guises – some charming, some beautiful, some frightening. Which aspect will you pick to portray in your artwork?

Powerful goddess of the sky

In popular legends and nursery-tales, Frau Holle appears a superior being, who manifests a kind and helpful disposition towards humans, and is never cross except when she notices disorder in household affairs.

Frau Holle is represented as a being of the sky, begirding the earth; when it snows, she is making her bed, and the feathers of it fly. She stores up snow, as Thor does rain; so that Frau Holle comes before us as a goddess of no mean rank.

Beautiful lady of the lake

She loves to haunt the lake and fountain; at the hour of noon she may be seen, a fair glowing lady, bathing in the flood and disappearing; a trait in which she resembles the goddess Nerthus. Mortals, to reach her dwelling, pass through the well.

Wagon-driver in the midwinter dark

She drives about in a wagon. She had a linchpin put in it by a peasant whom she met; when he picked up the chips, they were gold. Her annual progress is made to fall between Christmas and Twelfth-day, when the supernatural has sway, and wild beasts like the wolf are not mentioned by their names, brings fertility to the land.

Head of the Wild Hunt

Frau Holle, like Odin, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror and she, like the god, belongs to the Wild Hunt. From this arose the fancy, that witches ride in Frau Holle's company. Into the same Furious Host, according to wide-spread popular belief, were adopted the souls of unbaptized children; not having been christian'd, they remained heathen, and fell to heathen gods, to Odin or to Frau Holle.

Leader of spooky sprites

The next step is, that Frau Holle, instead of her divine shape, assumes the appearance of an ugly old woman, long-nosed, big-toothed, with bristling and thick-matted hair. "He's had a jaunt with Frau Holle, they say of a man whose hair sticks up in tangled disorder, so children are frightened with her or her equally hideous train: "Hush, there's Holle-bruin, Holle-bogie coming." Holle-peter and other house-sprites are among the muffled servitors who go about in Frau Holle's procession at the time of the winter solstice.

Wife at the spinning wheel

Frau Holle is set before us as a spinning-wife; the cultivation of flax is assigned to her. Industrious maids she presents with spindles, and spins their reels full for them over night; a slothful spinner's distaff she sets on fire, or soils it. The girl whose spindle dropt into her fountain, she rewarded bountifully.

[adapted from translation by James Steven Stallybrass]

Frau Holle statue by Viktor Donhauser
You can do any of these things:

1. Illustrate a scene from the fairy tale of Frau Holle
2. Illustrate one of the aspects of Frau Holle from Teutonic Mythology
3. Illustrate the feeling of Frau Holle
4. Create something inspired by Frau Holle
5. Draw something connecting Frau Holle to other characters or concepts from Norse myth and Germanic folklore

You must do this one thing:

Include an explanation with your entry explaining how your work relates to the poem.


In this contest, Marvel Comics characters are NOT considered part of Norse mythology or folklore. Art with imagery from comic books or movies will NOT be accepted. Do some reading and research on myth and folklore, then base your imagery on what you learn!


I am extremely proud to announce the judges for the art contest. I greatly respect both of these incredibly talented people, and I'm very happy that they agreed to participate this year. The three of us will judge the entries together.

Simon Coleby
Simon Coleby
I've loved Simon Coleby's art since I first discovered it in the early 1990s in the pages of the great UK weekly comic 2000 AD, where his brilliantly unique work was showcased in tales of Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Venus Bluegenes, Malone, and Sinister Dexter. In the first decade of this century, Simon blasted into the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine, with massive thrill-power on the title character and hilarious silliness in stories of Bato Loco.

His work for DC includes Lobo (with Batman's Alan Grant) and The Legion (with Thor's Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning). For Marvel, he's worked on The Punisher, Death's Head, and The Eternal. He's currently working on Dreaming Eagles (with Preacher's Garth Ennis) for Aftershock Comics.

Simon's art is always designed with integrity and finished with intensity. I'm very happy that he's a judge this midwinter, and I look forward to his insights on the entries.

Dr. Kendra Willson
Dr. Kendra Willson
Kendra Willson is currently a researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Turku in Finland, with a project focusing on possible Finnish and Sámi elements in runic inscriptions.

She has previously held positions at the University of Helsinki, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Manitoba. She holds a PhD in Scandinavian languages and literatures from the University of California at Berkeley. She has written on Old Icelandic and Modern Icelandic personal names, discourse structures and genre in Old Icelandic sagas, metrical aspects of poetic translation, and word order change in Icelandic and Finnish.

I am very interested to follow the results Kendra's fascinating new research into Finno-Ugric elements in runic inscriptions. She writes:
I will review the corpus of runic inscriptions from Scandinavia to reassess the possibility that especially undeciphered inscriptions might contain names or other elements from Finnish or Sámi. Unintelligible inscriptions have often been interpreted as magical or illiterate but rarely as reflecting non-Germanic languages. This may in part reflect outdated views of the cultural makeup of the region in earlier times and the nature of language contacts.
Scandinavian runic inscriptions contain personal names from West Germanic, Celtic, Latin and (one) Slavic. While runestones mention several place names from Finland and Estonia, no Finnic personal names have been established in runic inscriptions. The few proposed Finnish and Sámi interpretations in the runological literature have shown anachronisms due to limited understandings of the histories of those languages.
The results of this research could have far-reaching repercussions for interpretation of supposedly magical runic inscriptions. You can read more about Kendra's project by clicking here.


Frau Holle by Wilhelm Stumpf
There will be three winners in each of the following categories:

Kids: Age 12 & under
Teens: Age 13-19
Adults: Age 20 & up


1. Art must be done with crayon, marker, paint, pen, pencil or digital materials.
2. Original art only; no photos or collage.
3. Art must be kid-friendly; no nudity or violence.
4. No copyrighted characters. Let’s leave the Marvel Comics to the professionals!
5. One entry per person, please.


Send an email to mythcontest@live.com that includes the following:

1. Your full name (kids can give first name and last initial)
2. Your age (as of December 18, 2015)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork that explains how it relates to lore of Frau Holle
5. Your artwork (as an attachment)

Seriously, don’t forget to include your art as an attachment!


11:59 p.m. (Chicago time) on December 18, 2015


Winners will be featured on all
Norse Mythology Online sites
Steve, Kendra and I will be judging the entries based on creativity and relation to Norse mythology. Do some reading, do some thinking and make something original!

The three winners in each age group will be featured on The Norse Mythology Blog, The Norse Mythology Facebook Page, The Norse Mythology Google+ Page, The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page and The Norse Mythology Twitter Page. Your art and your description of it will be posted on all the many sites of Norse Mythology Online and will remain permanently in the The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

December 21: Kid winners announced
December 22: Teen winners announced
December 23: Adult winners announced

Good luck to everyone!

Friday, November 6, 2015


Translator’s Note

Illustration of Óláfr Tryggvason
by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)
The anonymous Old English poem known as The Battle of Maldon was preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript that was destroyed in the 1731 Ashburnham House fire. Although a copy was made by David Casley in 1726, the beginning and end of the poem have been lost – hence the ellipsis a the start and the sudden cessation of the action at the finish.

The Battle of Maldon tells of a historical battle between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings that took place in August 991 on the River Blackwater (called Pante in the poem). In The Anglo-Saxons (1982), Campbell, John and Wormald call The Battle of Maldon an “unparalleled vernacular poem” and write that it “has been taken by almost all commentators as virtually contemporary with the battle.”

The Viking invaders begin the battle on the island (now called Northey) where they had landed their ships. Their main leader was Óláfr Tryggvason, famous (or infamous) for his declaration that “all Norway should be Christian, or die” and for his bloody forced conversions of the unwilling. The Maldon battle took place while Óláfr was still pagan, three years before his confirmation as a follower of Christ.

The Anglo-Saxon defenders are led by the ealdorman Byrhtnoth, follower of King Æthelræd. Campbell et al. refer to Æthelræd’s reign (979-1016) as one “of almost unremitting disaster that has impressed itself on the folk-memory of the English.” Æthelræd is today known as the Unready, but his nickname was actually Unræd (“ill-advised”), a play on the literal meaning of his name Æthelræd (“good advice”).

The battle begins at high tide, when the causeway from the island to the mainland is completely submerged by the river. As the tide flows out, the raised path is revealed and the Anglo-Saxons defend the narrow way until the Vikings politely ask to be let across.

Byrhtnoth’s fatal decision to let the Vikings wade over from their island camp to fight on the mainland – a decision made “because of his overconfidence” – may not have been as unwise as it seems at first blush. If he had not agreed to let the Vikings come to land and fight his assembled army, they would simply have sailed along the river in their ships and raided undefended spots.

Map of the site of The Battle of Maldon (click image to enlarge)

Readers familiar with Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, Beowulf and related medieval sources will recognize many elements of The Battle of Maldon, such as having no tolerance for cowardice, standing by a boast made in the hall, vocally challenging the opposing side, demanding tribute or battle, standing in the shield-wall, seeing ravens fly over the battlefield, and winning glory in battle. There is a familiar emphasis on the special relationship of sister-son, the reciprocity between leader and followers, the duty to avenge a fallen lord, and the leader as giver of rings. Also present are tropes such as such as laughter amid slaughter, the “storm of spears,” and the image of Vikings as “slaughter-wolves.”

Following translators of Old English such as R.D. Fulk and J.R.R. Tolkien, I have rendered the poem as prose. The full text of The Battle of Maldon in Old English can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, available as a paperback in The Norse Mythology Store under Books → Dictionaries & Language.

The Battle of Maldon
Translated from the Old English by Karl E. H. Seigfried

Statue of Byrhtnoth by John Doubleday
…was broken. [Byrhtnoth] then commanded each one of the warriors to let his horse go, to drive it far away, and to walk forth, to give thought to his hands and to good courage.

When the kinsman of Offa first realized that the nobleman would not tolerate cowardice, he let his beloved hawk fly from his hands towards the forest, and he strode towards the battle; through that one was able to recognize that the youth would not weaken at the battle, when he took up arms.

Besides him, Eadric wished to support his leader, his lord at the fight, then began to bear forth a spear to the battle. He had good thought as long as he was able to hold a shield and a broad sword with his hands; he stood by his boast when he had to fight before his lord.

Then Byrhtnoth began to array the warriors there, he rode and gave counsel, taught the warriors how they had to stand and hold the position, and bade that they hold their shields aright fastly with their hands, and fear not. When he had properly arrayed that army, he dismounted among the people where it was dearest to him, where he knew his household retainers were most loyal.

“The heathens shall fall at the battle”

Then the messenger of the Vikings stood on the shore, loudly cried out, spoke with words, he threateningly announced the message of the seafarers to the nobleman, where he stood on the shore.

“The bold seamen sent me to you, commanded that you be told that you may quickly send rings in exchange for protection; and it is better for you that you buy off this storm of spears with tribute, than we dispense such hard battle. We do not need to destroy ourselves, if you are wealthy enough for that; we will establish a truce with the gold.

“If you decide, you who is richest here, that you will ransom your people, give to the seamen in their own judgment wealth in exchange for friendship, and take peace from us, we are willing to go with the payment to ship, fare on the sea, and keep peace with you.”

Byrhtnoth spoke, he raised his shield aloft, he brandished a slender spear of ash, spoke with words, angry and resolute gave him back an answer:

“Do you hear, sailor, what this army says? They want to give to you as tribute spears, poisoned spear-point and ancient swords, that war-­equipment which will not be of use to you at the battle.

“Messenger of seamen, announce back again, say to your people a much more hateful message, that here stands a noble of unblemished reputation with his troop, who will defend this homeland, the country of Æthelræd, of my leader, people and ground. The heathens shall fall at the battle.

“It seems too shameful to me that you would go unopposed to ship with our payment, now you have come thus far hither into our homeland. You shall not get treasure so easily; spear and sword shall first reconcile us, fierce game of battle, before we give tribute.”

The slaughter-wolves waded

The island of Northey (left) & the site of the battle (right)
Photo by Terry Joyce
He then commanded shields be carried, warriors to go, so that they all stood on the riverbank. Because of the water, the troop was not able to go to the other; there came the flowing flood after ebb-­tide, the water-­streams joined. It seemed too long to them, until they would bear spears together.

They stood there alongside the river Pante in array, the East-­Saxon vanguard and the spear-­army. Nor was any of them able to harm the other, unless someone took a fall through the flight of an arrow. The tide went out; the seamen stood ready, Vikings many, eager for battle.

The protector of the warriors then commanded the war-­hard warrior to hold the bridge, he was called Wulfstan, brave with his kin, that was the son of Ceola, who shot the first man with his spear who stepped there most boldly on the bridge. There stood with Wulfstan warriors unafraid, Ælfere and Maccus, two bold men, who would not take flight at the ford, but they steadfastly defended against the enemies, as long as they were allowed to wield weapons.

When they perceived and readily saw that they found bitter bridge-­wardens there, the hateful strangers began to use guile, asked that they might have passage to land, to fare over the ford, to lead the foot-troop. Then the nobleman began because of his overconfidence to allow too much land to hateful people.

Then the son or Byrhtelm began to call out over the cold water (warriors listened):

“Now a way is opened to you, walk quickly to us, men to battle; God alone knows who may control the place of slaughter.”

The slaughter­-wolves waded (not mourning because of water), the Viking troop, west over the Pante, carried shields over gleaming water, ship-men bore shields to land. Byrhtnoth with his warriors stood there ready against the hostile ones; he commanded them to form the battle-­wall with shields, and to hold that formation fast against the enemies.

Then the fight was near, glory from battle. The time was come that there doomed men had to fall. There was shouting raised, ravens circled, an eagle eager for carrion; there was a cry on the earth.

The warriors give thought to war

The Battle of Maldon by Rory W. Stapleton
They then released from hand file-hard spears, grimly ground spears to fly; bows were busy, shield received spear-­point. Bitter was the battle-­rush, warriors fell on either hand, young men lay dead. Wulfmær was wounded, chose a bed of death, kinsman of Byrhtnoth; he was with swords, his sister-son, cruelly cut down.

There the Vikings were given requital. I heard that Eadweard slew one fiercely with his sword, withheld not the stroke, so that the doomed warrior fell at his feet; for that his lord said thanks to the bower-­servant, when he had the opportunity.

So the resolute warriors stood firm at the battle, eagerly gave thought who there with spear-­points might first win life from doomed man, a warrior with weapons; the slaughtered fell on the earth. They stood steadfast; Byrhtnoth commanded them, bade that each of the warriors give thought to war who wished to win glory from the Danes by fighting.

Then advanced one hard in battle, raised weapon up, shield as defence, and strode against that warrior. So went the resolute nobleman to that yeoman, each intent on harm to the other. Then the sea-­warrior sent the southern spear, so that the lord of the warriors was wounded; he shoved then with the shield, so that the shaft burst apart, and so that the spear quivered, that it sprang back.

The warrior was enraged; he stabbed with a spear the proud Viking, who gave him the wound. The army-warrior was wise; he let his spear go through the neck of the warrior, hand guided so that it reached the life of the sudden attacker. Then he quickly shot another, so that the mail-­coat burst apart; he was wounded in the breast through the ring-­mail, the poisoned spear-­point stood in him at his heart. The nobleman was the happier one, laughed then, bold man, said thanks to the Creator for the day’s work that the Lord gave him.

Then a certain one of the Vikings let spear go from hand, to fly from hand, so that it too deeply went through the noble thane of Æthelræd. By his side stood a warrior not fully grown, a boy in the battle, who completely bravely pulled from the warrior the bloody spear, son of Wulfstan, Wulfmær the young, let go the exceedingly hard one to go back again; the spear-­point penetrated in, so that he lay on the earth who previously severely wounded his lord.

Their lord lay dead

Anglo-Saxon sword grip & pommel (late 8th century)
Then an armed warrior walked to the nobleman; he wished to fetch the rings of the warrior, armor and ring-­mail and ornamented sword. Then Byrhtnoth drew sword from sheath, broad and with shining blade, and struck on the coat of mail. A certain one of the ship-men hindered him too quickly, so that he wounded the arm of the nobleman. Golden-­hilted sword fell then to earth; he was not able to hold hard sword, to wield weapon.

Then the hoary battle-warrior still spoke words, encouraged young warriors, bade to go forth as good companions; he was not able then to longer stand up fast on feet. He looked to heaven:

“Thank you, Ruler of peoples, for all of the joys that I experienced in the world. Now I have, merciful Creator, most need that you grant goodness to my spirit, that my soul be allowed to travel to you into your dominion, lord of angels, to go with peace. I am requesting to you that hellish enemies are not allowed to lay it low.”

Then heathen warriors hewed him and both the warriors who stood by him, Ælfnoth and Wulmaer both lay dead, who alongside their lord gave up life.

They retreated then from battle, those who did not wish to be there. There the son of Odda was first in flight, Godric from battle, and abandoned the good one that often gave him many a horse; he leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, on the harness which was not right, and his brothers both ran with him, Godwine and Godwig, cared not for battle, but turned from the battle and sought the wood, fled into that stronghold and saved their lives, and more men than was proper, if they all remembered the favors he had done them to their benefit. So Offa had said to him earlier in the day before in the meeting-place, when he had a meeting, that many spoke bravely there that afterwards at need would not endure.

Then the leader of the army was fallen, nobleman of Æthelræd; all the hearth-­companions saw that their lord lay dead. Then there went forth proud thanes, undaunted men hastened eagerly; they all wished then for one of two things, to forsake life or to avenge the dear one.

They did not care about life

Anglo-Saxon drinking horn made from aurochs (late 6th century)
So the son of Ælfric encouraged them forward, warrior young in winters, spoke words, Ælfwine then said, he valiantly spoke,

“I remember the times when we often spoke at mead, when we raised boasts on bench, heroes in hall, about hard battle; now one can find out who is brave. I wish to make my noble lineage known to all, that I was of a great family among the Mercians; my grandfather was called Ealhelm, wise nobleman, prosperous.

“Thanes in that people shall not reproach me that I wish to fare from this fyrd, to seek my homeland, now that my lord lies cut down in battle. To me is that greatest of harms; he was both my kinsman and my lord.”

Then he went forth, remembered feud, so that he wounded one with spear, seaman in that army, so that he on the ground lay killed with his weapon. He then began to urge comrades, friends and companions, that they should go forth.

Offa spoke, shook ashen spear:

“Hey you, Ælfwine, you have exhorted all thanes at need, now that our lord lies dead, nobleman on the earth. It is needful for us all that each of us should encourage the other warrior to battle, as long as he is able to have and to hold weapon, hard blade, spear and good sword.

“Godric, cowardly son of Odda, has betrayed us all. Many a man thought that, when he rode on horse, on that proud horse, that it was our lord; therefore here on the field the army was divided, shield-wall broken. May his beginning come to naught, because here he caused so many a man to flee!”

Leofsunu spoke and raised his shield, shield as protection; he answered the warrior:

“I vow that I will not flee a footstep from here, but wish to go further, to avenge my beloved lord in battle. Steadfast heroes need not reproach me around Sturmer with words, now that my lord has fallen, that I would travel lordless home, would turn from battle, but a weapon must take me, spear and iron sword.”

He advanced very angrily, fought steadfastly, he scorned flight.

Dunnere then said, shook spear, humble yeoman, called out over all, bade that each of the warriors would avenge Byrhtnoth:

“He who intends to avenge the lord in the army can not draw back, nor care about life.”

Then they went forth, they did not care about life; retainers then began to fight fiercely, fierce spear-bearers, and asked God that they might avenge their beloved lord and work death on their enemies.

A special song of terror

Anglo-Saxon shield ornament (late 6th century)
The hostage eagerly began to help them; he was of a tough family in Northumbria, son of Ecglaf, his name was Æschferth. He did not flinch at the fighting, but he often shot forth an arrow; sometimes he shot into a shield, sometimes tore apart a warrior, always after a short while he gave some wound, as long as he could wield weapons.

Edward the Tall still stood in the vanguard, ready and eager, spoke boasting words that he would not fly the space of a foot of land, retreat in the rear, when his better lay dead. He broke the shield-­wall and fought against the warriors, until he splendidly avenged his treasure-giver on the seamen, before he lay dead in the slaughter.

So did Ætheric, noble companion, ready and eager to advance, fought earnestly. The brother of Sibyrht and very many others cleaved keel-shaped shields, keenly defended themselves; rim of shield burst, and the byrnie sang a special song of terror.

Then at battle Offa struck that sailor, so that he fell on the earth, and there the kinsman of Gadd sought ground. Soon Offa was cut down at battle; nevertheless he had carried out what he had promised his lord, as he before vowed with his ring-giver that they should both ride into the stronghold, hale to home, or fall in the army, in the place of slaughter perish from wounds; he lay loyally beside his lord.

Then was crashing of shields. Seamen advanced enraged by battle; spear often passed through life-house of a doomed man. Then Wistan went forth, son of Thurston, fought against these warriors; he was the slayer of three of them in the throng, before the descendant of Wigelin would lie on the field of slaughter.

There was a hard encounter; warriors stood fast in strife, warriors perished, weary with wounds. The slaughtered fell on the earth. Oswold and Eadwold all the while, both the brothers, encouraged warriors, bade their beloved kinsmen with words that they ought to endure there at need, unweakly use weapons.

“Mind must be the harder”

Bryhtwold spoke, he raised his shield aloft (he was an old retainer), shook spear; he very boldly advised warriors;

“Mind must be the harder, heart the keener, courage the larger, the smaller our strength grows. Here lies our leader entirely cut down, the good one in the dust. He can mourn forever, he who now intends to turn from this fighting. I am old in life; I will not away, but I myself by the side of my lord, by so beloved a man, intend to lie.”

So the son of Æthelgar encouraged them all, Godric to battle. Often he let spear go, slaughter-spear to fly into the Vikings, so he went foremost in that army, hewed and injured, until he perished in battle. That was not that Godric who fled from the battle.

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

Friday, October 23, 2015


For the second time this year, a mainstream news organization produced an ethically problematical piece on Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” a modern iteration of Old Norse religion). In February, Religion Dispatches posted an article on Icelandic Ásatrú that was rife with plagiarism and disrespect. Last Friday, Religion News Service released a deeply flawed report on American Ásatrú.

Religion News Service reporter Kimberly Winston tweeted on October 6 that she was visiting the building recently purchased by Stephen McNallen’s Asatru Folk Assembly, calling it “the first #Asatru ‘hof’ [Heathen temple] in the US.”

Since I had previously helped her cover Heathen soldiers pushing for recognition in the U.S. Army by bringing the story to her attention, providing background, introducing contacts, and verifying facts, I offered to help her with this new piece on Ásatrú.

What follows is the story of how a Religion News Service reporter resolutely insisted on giving a national platform to one controversial figure in American Heathenry while excluding any Heathen voice from outside of his non-profit organization and without quoting any source that challenged his statements and claims.

Ms. Winston has given me permission to quote from her emails for this article. Everyone quoted below in red is a Heathen whose contact information I provided to her; none of them were included in her post.

Note: Within a week of Religion News Service posting Winston's article, the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) website featuring McNallen’s essays on racial conflict was changed from public to members only.


In The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, anthropologist Stephan Palmié makes a distinction between a discovery and a find, writing that “you can only discover what you already presume to be there. A find, in contrast, always needs to be subjected to laborious conceptual reworking, to turn it into a discovery.”

We can’t expect online journalists to act with academic rigor, but it seems fair to ask them to avoid discovering a story by first deciding what the reality is, accepting only data that fits a preconceived narrative, and rejecting any inconvenient truths that don’t match a predetermined conclusion. Honest journalism requires first finding as much information as possible, then writing a piece that connects the data.

Eric O. Scott (columnist at The Wild Hunt): The facts dictate the story; the story does not dictate the facts. This basic tenet of journalism applies especially to stories about minority religions, including Heathenry and other forms of modern Paganism, because reporters often lack grounding in the unique qualities and social dynamics of those religions. Reporters need to educate themselves about these subjects before publishing about them – and they need to confirm their findings with multiple sources, recognizing that any individual may hold views contradictory to the rest of the community.

In today's resource-stretched journalism environment, this kind of research may seem overly time-consuming and tedious, but it's necessary work. I understand that figuring out the complicated history of Heathenry and other Pagan religions is more complicated than writing another blog post about whatever the Pope said this week, but reporters owe it to their readers to present a full and nuanced account of minority religions.

Editors of mainstream media outlets continue to assign articles on Heathenry to writers with no prior knowledge of the tradition or contacts in the various communities. This usually leads to questionable stories with some variation on “religion of Thor” in the title.

Josh Heath (advocate for Heathens in the military): I've interacted with the media a lot over the last five to six years with the Open Halls Project. We've really tried to get some attention for what we've been doing with the goal of making people aware of what our mission is, but also to get some movement on the different actions we've undertaken.

Some of the media I've interacted with have been excellent at digging into a story, even asking for more time before publishing because they wanted to have all the information they could get. Those are the folks we want writing about Heathenry. They recognize that they are not experts, and that they need to truly hear the voices of a community before making a call on what they're going to write. They also understand that there is a real value to knowing when to use positive information, and when to dig deeper to see if there is more story to uncover.


After seeing her initial tweet, I notified Winston that the AFA building is not the “first standalone #Asatru ‘hof’” in the United States. She admitted that she had “not yet looked into other hofs” before publicly declaring the AFA to have the first in the nation, and she seemed to uncritically accept as true the AFA claim that the repurposed meeting hall is the first “temple, shrine, or other structure like this in almost a thousand years.”

She told me that the AFA “admitted there were other hofs, but characterized them to me as privately owned (like, in someone’s yard or on his/her property) or temporary.” Although I gave her the contact information for a Heathen group with its own permanent standalone hof – and at least one other Heathen contacted her to discuss this point – her article presents the AFA assertion as fact. Repeating the organization’s statement in her own voice, she writes that previous hofs have merely been “rooms in houses, backyard sheds, temporary structures or rented sites.”

Religion News Service administrators also promoted AFA claims as truth, publicly declaring that “Thor & followers of ancient Norse religion #Asatru build 1st US worship hall.” This goes even further than Winston in erasing existing Heathen spaces. To promote the AFA’s 4100-square-foot building as a “worship hall” while dismissing the 2800-square-feet Gladsheim Hof of Maryland as merely “a small house that serves as a hof” suggests that Winston and the Religion News Service are struggling to help McNallen create a news event where there is none.

Joe Marek (gothi [Heathen priest] of Gladsheim Kindred, which owns Gladsheim Hof): I was not contacted by her. Obviously she has not done any real research, and I have had others try to dismiss my building before. I was granted a conditional use of the property as a religious facility in 2005 by The Howard County, Maryland zoning board. It’s a matter of public record, and all of our rituals at the hof have been open to the public since the beginning. There is also another Hof – in Michigan, I believe – that is open to the public. But as I did get a permit from the county government, I do believe I had the first one in the US.

Winston insisted to me that “This is a story about news, not personalities.” The AFA building is neither the first American Heathen “worship hall,” the first standalone hof, the first free-standing hof, nor the first public hof. If the “news” is a fabrication, what is left but a promotional piece on a personality?


While writing her piece, Winston told me “I’ll be happy to reach out to anyone you suggest.” I supplied a list of Heathens, academics and journalists that included ten practicing Heathens, four leaders of Heathen organizations, and six academics (including four who have published major scholarly works on Heathens). I contacted people on the list, vouched for Winston’s trustworthiness, insisted that she would fairly represent their views, and reassured them that they would be quoted accurately. Mea máxima culpa.

Of the six academic contacts that I provided, the only one quoted in Winston’s piece is Jeffrey Kaplan, author of Radical Religion in America (1997). He minimizes McNallen’s contact with “racist subcultures” and the impact of his theory of metagenetics. Dr. Kaplan states that McNallen and other leaders of the AFA “really tried to redirect their anger to more positive directions,” but he does not specify what they are angry about or why the anger continues.

Dr. Michael Strmiska (editor of Modern Paganism in World Cultures): The treatment of a very important issue is sadly lacking. The connection of McNallen's form of Asatru with racist attitudes is a well-known controversy within the Asatru world, and for this reason many Norse Pagans who oppose racism disavow McNallen and his theory of “metagenetics” altogether. Though this is touched upon in the article, merely providing a link to a critical article without addressing the content of that criticism runs the risk of – no pun intended – "whitewashing" McNallen and the AFA.

Those who want to know more need to read serious scholars like Kaplan, whose words here do not reflect his generally much more critical scholarship, and Mattias Gardell, who did in-depth field work among American Norse Pagans/Asatruar and found a lot of racism there. Check out McNallen's attitude toward Mexican immigrants and the picture will become more clear.

Winston’s willingness to include defenses of McNallen was coupled with questionable treatment of Heathens who don’t belong to his non-profit organization.

Ryan Smith (co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism): I was contacted by Kimberly Winston by email. She failed to follow up with me after first getting in touch and rescheduled our phone interview so she could go to a basketball game. She later contacted me asking for more information, and after I provided it to her, she informed me she had already published the article. When I contacted her editor, she refused to retract the piece, claiming there were no factual errors justifying a retraction – in spite of multiple examples contrary to her assertion.

After receiving a formal complaint, what were the fact-checking methods used by the Religion News Service editor who confirmed the accuracy of Winston’s piece? Religion News Service promoted the false story of the AFA building being the “1st US worship hall.” Did they also “whitewash” McNallen’s statements on race?


Stephen McNallen promotional photo
When I raised the subject of McNallen’s positions on race with Winston, she told me, “I am well aware of who he is,” and “I raised the racial issue with them and got the standard ‘you can’t judge a religion by its worst adherents’ which is what I expected.” The following discussion examines what type of “adherent” McNallen is himself. No baseless accusations are made; evidence is examined and conclusions are drawn.

Winston’s article links to McNallen’s essay on metagenetics yet provides no response or criticism from other Heathens. It simply offers four words (“brought charges of racism”) hyperlinked to the Circle Ansuz series on “Stephen McNallen and Racialist Asatru.” Winston cites no information from the four-part series, but she does quote a one-paragraph summary of McNallen’s theory from a controversial Vice article followed by three paragraphs denying McNallen’s connections to racism. Relegating criticism of McNallen’s essay to four words while devoting four paragraphs to its explication and defense seems a bit unfair and unbalanced.

In her emails to me, Winston wrote that “the whole metagenetics thing” is “something perceived as racist.” Her article suggests that McNallen’s theories are merely portrayed as racist by his opponents and do not, in themselves, promote racism. However, reading the metagenetics essay itself quickly dispels any suggestion that something is being imposed on the piece by others, as opposed to being forwarded in the work by McNallen himself.

Despite Kaplan’s claim that “metagenetics is largely forgotten,” the new AFA website features both the original 1985 article and a 1999 “update” in which McNallen expands his theory to include crystals and “morphic resonance.” He claims that his updated theory “has incorporated new evidence” but declines to state what the evidence is, merely writing “I won’t go into it here.”

Metagenetics” (1985) begins with a challenge to “some” who “have attempted to label us as ‘racist.’” Echoing L. Ron Hubbard’s claims for “Dianetics,” McNallen calls metagenetics “a science for the next century.” He discusses the “special place” of “clan,” “the curious connection between twins,” ESP research, “psychic resonance,” LSD promoter Timothy Leary’s theory of the “nuerogenetic [sic] circuit,” “reincarnation phenomena,” “rebirth into the clan line,” Carl Jung’s criticism of “Jewish psychology,” and the “inborn temperament” of “each race.” All of this leads to his conclusion that “Asatru is an expression of the soul of our race” and that “we” must focus on “coming from our racial ‘center.’”

This is undeniably a racialist theory.
ra • cial • ism
: a theory that race determines human traits and capacities; also: racism
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
McNallen’s entire essay builds to the assertion that race determines “inborn attitudes” and “inborn religious predispositions.” This perfectly fits the definition of racialism. But is it racist?
rac • ism
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Tracing answers to two further questions will help determine whether McNallen’s work, in addition to espousing racialism, also promotes racism.
McNallen’s conclusion to “Metagenetics” states that his theory “does not mean that we are to behave negatively toward other peoples who have not harmed us.”

Question 1: Does McNallen claim that any “other peoples” have harmed white people?

While insisting that McNallen’s connection to “racist subcultures” is in the past, Kaplan mentioned the continuing “anger” of the AFA leader.

Question 2: What is the object of McNallen’s anger?
These questions are answered in articles McNallen has issued since the release of Kaplan’s book in 1997.

McNallen’s “A Down and Dirty Look at the ‘Browning of America’” (2010), also known as “Not Just Another Immigration Piece,” is featured on the website of European Americans United, a group claiming that “European-Americans are facing a challenge to our institutions, our way of life, and even our genetic continuity.” This sense of being threatened and emphasis on biology also appear in the AFA Declaration of Purpose, which states that “the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.”

McNallen is one of the subjects of
Mattias Gardell's Gods of the Blood:
The Pagan Revival and White Separatism
McNallen discussed the idea of white people as an endangered species with historian of religion Mattias Gardell in 2000. He spoke about his personal views on the favorite numbers of white nationalists: 88 (referring to “Heil Hitler,” as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, or to the “88 Precepts” of white supremacist David Lane) and 14 (referring to Lane’s “14 Words,” “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children”). McNallen told Gardell, “Some like the number 88. Some like 14, as in ‘14 words.’ I like it shorter… eight words: ‘The existence of my people is not negotiable.’”

Who does McNallen think is threatening the existence of white people?

In his essay on the “browning of America,” McNallen writes of “the slow-motion tidal wave” of non-white immigration into the United States. His focus is explicitly on race as he uses the terms “white folks” and “European Americans” interchangeably and laments loss of “our political and cultural clout” as “European Americans face minority status, then marginalization, and eventually extinction.”

According to McNallen, this racial Ragnarök has already happened: “The country we knew has been destroyed, and another one is being put in its place.” Illegal immigrants, nonprofit organizations, liberal foundations, government grant-giving agencies, local political entities, and the federal government have worked together to implement “conquest,” “invasion” and “takeover” of America by non-whites.

This answers both of the above questions at once:
Answer 1: McNallen does claim that “other peoples” (non-white immigrants) have harmed white people.

Answer 2: The objects of McNallen’s anger are non-white immigrants.
These answers are confirmed by McNallen’s “Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca: The Spiritual War for California and the Southwest” (2000), an article featured on his organization’s website. It paints a picture of “barrio revolutionaries” who are “reviving Native Mexican religion” as part of a plan to take over California and the American Southwest and perpetrate the mass expulsion and killing of white people.

As in his metagenetics article, McNallen invokes Carl Jung and suggests that Catholic celebrations and rituals are “the way the archetype of Tonatzin manifests to the humble Mexican people” and that “Mexican-descended people” – although “solidly Christian, at least on the surface” – “manifest religious forces of which they’re not even consciously aware.”

McNallen asserts that Aztec gods are secretly inspiring
Mexican Catholics to kill white people in America
Using the same conspiratorial rhetoric as the “browning of America” article, McNallen claims that a “widespread” and “powerful movement” seeking to implement a “program of ethnic cleansing” by “killing or deporting European-Americans” has infiltrated “today’s college campuses” and is “encouraged, somewhat covertly, by the Mexican government.” He compares “the Mexican nation” to the Third Reich, suggesting that “the bloodthirsty deities of the Aztecs, renowned for their warlike ways and human sacrifice on a mass scale” will drive Mexicans to “turmoil and war.”

In the worldview presented by McNallen, “this dangerous situation” will lead to “a subordinate role” for white people unless whites undergo a “cultural rebirth” and refuse to submit to “disempowerment and death” on the “cultural battlegrounds.” His concluding “challenge to Asatruar” is to “sink down roots in the soil, and insist on our right to be here.” In this context, the AFA’s purchase of a permanent home may be a belated response to that challenge – a response that seeks to send the message to “the Mexican nation” that the essay calls for: white people “are here to stay.”

I drew Winston’s attention to the metagenetics essay, the “browning of America” article, and the Gardell book with the discussion of white supremacist code-numbers. The Circle Ansuz series her article links to quotes and discusses the “Wotan” article. The extent to which Winston seems to have uncritically accepted McNallen’s representation of his views on race is reflected in her statement to me that “the context of the story” is that “the community out here is now big enough that they’ve bought their own building and are setting down roots.” Notably, she repeats the concluding rhetoric of the McNallen’s “Wotan” essay. By defending McNallen from “charges of racism,” her article supports McNallen’s message of racial conflict.

Dr. Jennifer Snook (author of American Heathens): McNallen's expressions of anti-immigrant fever and fear about white folks' loss of land, privilege, and political power, that he has vocalized publicly, have marked his organization as one for whom politics are a leading factor. I spoke to many Heathens across the country over the course of my research and asked a lot of them about the AFA (and other organizations). Most of them were not members of national organizations, and were alarmed, or at least suspicious, of McNallen's political motivations. It would be naive for us to think that this hof is open to anyone, regardless of racial classification, or that the AFA represents more than a fraction of American Heathenry, politically and spiritually.


In terms of the definition of racism cited above, McNallen’s essay on metagenetics indicates “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities.” His more recent articles claim that “the Mexican nation” (“a much more fundamental entity than the Mexican state”) is determined to exterminate white Americans, thus reducing millions of individuals to a monolithic, faceless and terrifying racial Other. This clearly shows “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

McNallen’s articles thus match two-thirds of the definition; the only element not clearly shown so far is a belief that “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Is there any evidence that McNallen promotes this idea, as well?

In 2011, John Powell of Media Matters for America posted “The Supremacy Cause: Inside the White Nationalist Movement.” It details his visit to “Towards a New Nationalism: Immigration and the Future of Western Nations,” that year’s annual conference of the National Policy Institute, “an independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” This self-description of the organization lines up exactly with McNallen’s rhetoric throughout his career.

Powell calls the event as “a gathering of white supremacists” representative of “the white nationalist movement.” Describing the worldview of the attendees, he writes,
It's through this prism of tribal heritage and racial pride that the white nationalists seemed to view nearly every aspect of the rest of the world. The white race, which they know to be genetically superior to non-white lineages, is threatened by massive non-white immigration movements and widespread political liberalism promoting a universal egalitarian moral code that shuns conversations about race.
Everything in this statement accurately describes McNallen’s writings, except the sense of superiority. Does McNallen also believe this, the final piece of the racism definition?

Powell describes his interactions at the conference with a group of AFA members who were in attendance: “There were at least 7-10 AFA members at this event, maybe more, and with their jewelry [Thor’s hammer amulets] displayed, they could not have been unnoticed by the conference organizers.” The AFA members shared “their plans to recruit others to the white nationalist cause by use of racist humor” and “expressed frustration with a culture and government that they feel ignores and looks down upon the interests of the white race.” Believing that the reporter shared their views, “They were relieved that they had finally found a place where they didn’t have to ‘feel out’ the conversation before navigating it into the straits of white supremacy.”

National Policy Institute's latest conference event features
Robert Taylor, another one of the subjects of Mattias Gardell's
Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism
McNallen has accused Media Matters of defamation and claimed that the AFA members attended the conference as “private citizens,” not as representatives of his organization. His denial of responsibility is undercut by his simultaneous endorsement of the event as a gathering of “people of European descent to quietly discuss issues of concern to them as a group.” The issue of common interest he cites is “white extinction,” exactly the subject of his own essays discussed above.

McNallen’s denial that the conference attendees were sent by the AFA is dismissed by sociologist Jennifer Snook, who writes in American Heathens that Powell’s account was “corroborated by AFA members with close ties to McNallen.” Discussing McNallen’s claim that the AFA members were not at the conference on behalf of his organization, she writes, “Heathens with connections to McNallen and those in his inner circle have reported the opposite, citing the presence of the AFA attendees as a deliberate attempt at recruitment.”

When McNallen’s close associates declare the dishonesty of McNallen’s refusal to take responsibility for the recruitment effort at “a gathering of white supremacists,” they provide the final evidence that he is promoting a racist worldview. The clear congruence of his published rhetoric with the stated focus of the National Policy Institute is underscored by his public defense of a conference dedicated to discussing responses to a supposed “white extinction” threatened by non-white immigrants.

This removes any doubt that McNallen’s work fits every aspect of the definition of racism, including belief in “inherent superiority of a particular race.” It also shows that the repeated denials of racism with which he peppers his writings are merely part of a public relations campaign capable of luring a journalist of the Religion News Service into posting positive press promoting his projects.


Locking the hof doors: most of AFA website
went private after Winston posted her article
In an email sent to Winston eight days before she posted her piece, I wrote:
Given that Mr. McNallen founded the Asatru Folk Assembly due to his disgust at "liberals, affirmative-action Asatrúers, black goðar, and New Agers" in American Heathenry, it's difficult to see his purchase of an agricultural advocacy group's meeting hall as relevant to anyone outside his own non-profit organization for "the northern European folk."

To view American Heathenry through a Catholic lens – to look for an "Asa-pope" who speaks for Heathens, to see the headquarters of one non-profit organization as a spiritual center for the greater community – is to fundamentally misunderstand and misrepresent a set of related religions that has no central authority and no central meeting place, but does have a complicated network of local groups and places of worship.
She replied by telling me that the AFA’s building “is a sign of the maturity of newly revived ancient religion on American soil” – apparently even if the vast majority of that religion’s practitioners deny that their faith has anything to do with McNallen’s racialized version of it.

Lonnie Scott (member of Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Troth): The Tree and Well at the center of Heathenism connects all of us. Our fates are intertwined regardless of politics or skin. Our myths recognize this in adventures of the gods seeking knowledge and heroes exploring beyond known borders. Our ancestors stretch back to the first humans all the way through the continuing expansion of mankind's migrations. I honor my ancestors for their challenges, skills, and the life they gave to me regardless of their culture, religion, or skin color. My values and deeds are color-blind. Heathenism may not be for everyone, but let that be their own personal decision free from twisted politics.

Winston’s article for Religion News Service cites my Worldwide Heathen Census 2013, stating that it “put the number [of American Heathens] at a little under 8,000.” Unfortunately, this confuses data and analysis. There were 7,878 responses from Heathens in the United States. In the census results post that she links to, the method suggested for interpreting the data would “put the number” of Heathens in America at 17,119. If we accept AFA claims regarding its own membership numbers, as Winston seems to do in the article, AFA members would make up only 4% of American Heathens.

Different standards for covering pagans and popes?
In 2014, Religion News Service ran a piece titled “Pope Francis raises eyebrows by saying pedophile priests include ‘bishops and cardinals.’” It quotes the pope saying, “Many of my advisers who are fighting it with me are giving me reliable data that estimates pedophilia inside the church at a level of 2 percent.”

If a building bought by a non-profit whose membership is only 4% of the American Heathen population represents the religion as a whole, does the child-rape perpetrated by 2% of priests, bishops and cardinals in the Catholic Church represent all of Catholicism? More to the point, since the AFA is only one organization led by one charismatic leader, to equate it with all of American Heathenry is like equating the rapist priests with all of Christianity.

Josh Heath (advocate for Heathens in the military): I've been a Heathen for twenty-plus years now. In that time I've seen organizations, kindreds, and people come and go. Heathenry has been moving away from large organizations. The large majority of Heathens in the US are not part of national or international organizations. They are focused on understanding and developing local manifestations of their regional Heathenism.

No one group or person represents all of Heathenry, and no single group building a hof means anything for Heathenry at large. If it did, all of the other hofs that predate the AFA's purchase of this grange building would have meant more than they do. Instead, they are local places of worship and that is what we should be striving for. The AFA's hof means nothing to me, nor does it mean anything to the large majority of US Heathens. It's an organizational holy site for members of that organization. It means as little to me as a new church going up in Alabama does.
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