Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Folkish Spectrum

Completely ahistorical. Everyone knows
Vikings  didn't have horns on their helmets.
This post started off as a reply to one of the comments on my Why I am no longer blogging at Witches and Pagans post from a couple of months ago, but Sean Sartin raised some valid questions that I thought were deserving of some more in-depth answers than I could give in a simple comment. Too, this would also serve as a reply to Harrison Hall’s A Letter to Mr. Bloch, which covers much of the same ground and makes, in my opinion, many the same mistakes when it comes to Folkish Ásatrú.

As an aside, I think this might be the first time I've ever had an open letter addressed to me on the Internet specifically to argue against something I've said (or, that the author thinks I said, which as we will see isn't quite the same thing), which I suppose raises me from the realm of “just a blogger” to “noted blogger”. Woo hoo, big time, baby! :-)

One of the most important things that must be remembered about Folkish Ásatrú is that the only thing that can be said to define it is that “ancestry is relevant to religion.”

Outside of that one simple sentiment, which is deliberately broad, one must toss aside any assumptions when one attempts to speak of “Folkish Ásatrú” as if it were some monolithic thing with a common definition that was agreed to by all its adherents and proponents, or imposed upon them by Steve McNallen or anyone else. Folkish Ásatrú is a collection of individuals, and as such, there is an enormous spectrum that constitutes what it means to be Folkish.

On one end of the spectrum, it is perfectly consistent to call oneself Folkish and adhere to the “one drop is enough” ideal. That is, as long as one has a single ancestor who themselves honored the Germanic Gods and Goddesses, that single drop of blood in an otherwise wild mixture of ancestries and ethnic backgrounds. This camp would certainly embrace most African-Americans, who, without comment on the circumstances by which it was obtained, almost universally have at least some northern European ancestry in their family tree.

If we define Folkish to mean “ancestry is relevant to religion”, then it must perforce include “one drop is enough.” There is no inconsistency here. This represents the most inclusive end of the Folkish spectrum. Is it the largest? I daresay not. But it is there nonetheless.

As we move along the spectrum, it would also be perfectly consistent to call oneself Folkish and have a somewhat more majoritarian view that takes into account the relevant percentages of ancestry and applies it to an ancestor-based faith such as Ásatrú. For instance, if, out of one’s 64 great-great-great-great grandparents, two were Swedish and the rest were Bantu, it might not seem unreasonable to suggest that one might first want to explore the tribal religion of one’s Bantu forebears first. If, after a suitable time spent in such an endeavor, one still finds that it is the Gods of Asgard that are calling, then, such an exploration is certainly warranted. But it seems fair to at least give the Gods of the majority of one’s ancestors “first crack” in such a situation. It should also be pointed out that in terms of those with many ancestral homes (where there isn't a majority, perhaps, but a plurality), one might go through quite a few tries. Indeed, one might try Ásatrú in this exact context and realize that it isn't right for you. To coin a phrase, “the Gods call whom They will,” and if that ends up being Unkulunkulu rather than Odin, so be it.

If we define Folkish to mean “ancestry is relevant to religion”, then it must perforce include “go with the majority first, and if you still feel the call, try Ásatrú.” There is no inconsistency here. Indeed, I would posit that most Folkish Ásatrúar fall somewhere in this category, with the relevant percentage varying from individual to individual. This is the vast middle of the Folkish spectrum.

As we keep moving along the spectrum, we could run into those that are, in essence, the mirror image of the first category. That one drop of non-northern European blood renders one ineligible to honor the Gods of the vast majority of one’s ancestors. Personally, I don’t see too much sense in this position, as one will almost invariably find an admixture of ethnic backgrounds if one goes back far enough in one’s ancestry. But, if one picks an arbitrary standard (a date, perhaps, or a number of generations), it would certainly be possible to establish and apply such a standard consistently. No genetic tests necessary, although it would, I think be necessary to at the very least acknowledge that the standard is arbitrary (not that setting arbitrary boundaries is a bad thing in and of itself – we do it all the time as humans in all sorts of contexts).

If we define Folkish to mean “ancestry is relevant to religion”, then it must perforce include “one drop of alien blood makes you no good.” There is no inconsistency here, although the practical application does require a certain setting of boundaries.

And who is the arbiter of what is the “correct” position along this spectrum? Each and every individual or kindred, for themselves. Period. I don't get to say you're "wrong", and you don't get to say I'm "wrong". As it should be.

I should point out that both Messrs. Sartin and Hall seem to be focusing their arguments to that third point along the spectrum, which in practical application seems to be occupied by a minuscule minority of those who call themselves Folkish. While that is certainly the easiest target to aim at, and it is certainly the one that the non-Folkish paint as the singular definition of Folkishness (for the very reason that it's an easy target), it is now hopefully clear that the “purity camp” is not only not the defining position within Folkish Ásatrú, but with so many other options, it is also not the majority view and is thus not worthy of bearing the brunt of anti-Folkish arguments.

Indeed, given the enormous scope that the Folkish philosophy encompasses, it could legitimately be said that those who limit their critiques to variations on “there’s no such thing as race”, or “there’s no such thing as ethnic purity” are being disingenuous. Folkish Ásatrú is based on ancestry, not pseudo-scientific 19th century notions of race (or even 21st century scientific notions of race). To insist or imply otherwise is simply intellectually lazy, and ultimately neither helpful in advancing the conversation nor in dealing with real issues of actual racism.

Why yes, I am a Doctor Who fan. Why do you ask?
As for physical appearance, while it is certainly not a sure marker of ancestry, it is nonetheless a convenient shortcut and starting point. When one sees a person with blonde hair, blue eyes, and high cheekbones, the odds are certainly better that that person is of Scandinavian descent than Bantu. Is it perfect? Of course not, and no one would argue otherwise. (This also short-circuits the disingenuous “why don’t you think albinos are worthy?” argument – since physical appearance is only used as a short-cut, skin tone and hair color alone are most certainly not the defining characteristics. It’s about ancestry, not appearance, and although appearance can be used as a starting point to guess at ancestry, but it's certainly not the point.)

In closing, Mr. Hall also noted that my pointing out of the ancestral components and requirements of Shinto, Yoruba, and Amerindian religion do not excuse it in Ásatrú. As Mr. Hall puts it:
“…even if these other faiths were identical in their culpability, pointing that out doesn't magically make any other group more or less prejudicial.”
Indeed, I would agree with that statement, but it misses the point. My point in including those comparisons was not intended to excuse Folkish Ásatrú (not that I think such an excuse is necessary). It was to point out the hypocrisy of many critics of Folkish Ásatrú who are quick to label it as “racist” (despite the evidence to the contrary) while at the same time not only excusing, but in many cases embracing, the very same attitudes when expressed by non-northern Europeans. It’s somewhat unfair to say that a statement doesn't accomplish something that it was never intended to accomplish.

I hope this clarifies some things, and serves as an answer to both Messrs. Sartin and Hall. Or, if not an answer exactly, then at the very least an advancement of the conversation.


  1. I see many similarities in our thinking from a blog that I wrote awhile ago. Nice to see that there are others who think similarly. :)

  2. I suppose my question is thus:

    If one can say:
    "As for physical appearance, while it is certainly not a sure marker of ancestry, it is nonetheless a convenient shortcut and starting point."

    Should we not discount physical appearance entirely? Youve noted yourself that while its convient is far from certain, and if it is not in fact 100% accurate is it not better to accept those who come than to turn away those who **might** not have the 'qualifications'?

    Is not thus judging based on physical appearance not, in and of itself an issue?

    And lastly, and most importantly, if for many even a drop is enough... is it not completely beyond any one person to say 'you cant worship these gods" because of the plain and simple fact that you are NOT an expert on this others genetics nor are you likely to be informed of their religious path? Perhaps they have tried the worship of their forerunners and found that asatru is their chosen way.... who is anyone else to say?

    Indeed, and what of those single droplets? Where did they come from? What is it that made it ok for a 9nth century immigrant or captive to worship Tyr but not a 20th century person who has been brought into the fold by need, calling, or marriage etc?

    If the whole debate is really that grey, how can we do anything but give the benefit of the doubt. I ask again- are there really so many of us that we can afford to turn away earnest worshippers?

    And lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, how are we to command respect in a world that recognizes equality as a universal virtue if we ascribe to any part of a philosophy that is connected directly to white supremacy, and the nazism that blanketed both our religion and that racism under a single umbrella within living memory? Who can blame those who see talk of " you dont have enough scandinavian in you" and see runic tattoos and hear odin chants along with 'mein fuhrer' and determine use to be the scum of the earth?

    Is it really worth it to hold onto the idea that there needs to be X quantum of blood in the face of the harm it does our members to be associated wit such filth?

    I cant see that it does. Thus Im a universalist, and this idea of folkism continues to me to seem like a fools errand. Our gods did not judge on race, and I do not see why we can do anything less than try to follow their good example.

  3. You seem to be insisting on a "racial purity" that almost no folkish Asatruar I've ever met would require. 100% accuracy? If someone wants to hold to such a stringent criterion, they can insist on DNA tests like some Amerindian tribes require. As I indicated, it's up to the person and the kindred. For the overwhelming majority, such stringent purity isn't at all the point. Physical appearance implies some level of kinship, and that's good enough. And that, too, is up to the person and the kindred. You seem to imply that it must be clinical certainty or nothing, when nothing of the kind needs to be the rule.

    Too, I would point out that you once again miss the entire point. Where, may I ask, did you see anywhere in my post anything that implies "you can't worship these Gods"? You didn't. And that is the point.

    What people who hold to one or another point along the Folkish spectrum are saying, is that "you can't worship these Gods *with us*." Certainly anyone has the right to decide, based on whatever criteria they think is right, who they do and do not wish to worship with, and who they want to invite to join their tribes.

    You, on the other hand, seem to be saying "you *must* worship these Gods with me," which I find an abhorrent attitude that reeks of the urge to control. As the old joke goes, "a liberal doesn't care what you do, as long as it's mandatory."

    If someone wishes to say that "I want a kindred of people who sort of look like me, because the chances are pretty good that they and I share a level of kinship at some level", then that's their choice. If you want to say, "my kindred must have at least two people who, as proven by genetic test, are so completely unrelated from me that we are only related to one another via 'Mitochondrial Eve'," then that's your choice.

    You seem to be much more hung up on issues of purity, imposing them on the folkish people who are, as a rule, much more lenient on the subject. Are there some within the Folkish community who do adhere to such a stringent standard? Probably the number is vanishingly small, as anyone who would be so inclined would already be within the Odinist/racist camp, and thus fall outside the sphere of folkishness, which by definition eschews any notions of superiority.