Friday, February 12, 2016

Universalist Asatru as cultural imperialism

Synopsis: Universalist Heathens are exacerbating the effects of European cultural imperialism by encouraging non-Europeans to practice Asatru. By doing so, they subconsciously imply that European cultures, which have been imposed on non-European populations historically, are inherently superior to non-European cultures, and subtly discourage those with non-European ancestry from exploring their own ancestral religions by perpetuating the idea that European culture is somehow universally applicable, and therefore superior to native cultures.

Folkish Heathenry, by contrast, finds beauty in the vast diversity of human cultures and indigenous faiths practiced around the world. We believe all peoples should be free to practice the faith of their ancestors, and wouldn't think of implying, even unconsciously, that someone should adopt the faith of our ancestors before they explored the faith of theirs, any more than we would co-opt the beliefs and practices of other peoples into our own religion.

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It should come as no surprise to my regular readers that I've gotten to really enjoy Lucius Svartwulf Helsen's blog, Son of Hel. He's both a Heathen and a practitioner of the Religio Romana (aka the Cultus Deorum), so we've got a lot of shared roots, even though my interest in Roman paganism these days is more academic than practical (especially given Nova Roma's complete implosion recently).

Roman Universalist Religion

So when he wrote A Cultor Deorum Looks at: Folkism vs Universalism the other day, naturally I was intrigued. In fact, I agreed with almost all of his points. I just came to a completely different conclusion:
The Cultus Deorum is both Folkish and Universalist.
I suspect jaws are no doubt hitting the ground. “How can this be, Lucius!” some people are no doubt asking. “Exclusionary and Inclusionary at the same time! Impossible!!”
The key words though are “Supremacy” and”Assimilation.” Worship whatever gods you please, but Rome’s Gods have supremacy if you wish them included. The Olympii are to be privileged above all other pantheons in the worship. Make your offerings to Odin, if you want, but remember that it is Jupiter who is King, and Olympus whose people have conquered. Praise the Morrigan if you so desire, but remember that on the field of battle, it was Bellona who was victorious and triumphant. You can be of any people by birth, but remember, you must be Roman if you wish the privileges and rights of Rome.
Folkism and Unversalism, living together in harmony.
I agree completely with his characterization of the Religio Romana. Rome, by its nature, was universalist in that it not only allowed, but expected, its citizens and subjects to at least pay lip-service to the fact that the gods of Rome were supreme, because Rome itself was supreme. The one was evidence of the other, so why not?

A Mithraeum. Mithras was a
Persian deity imported into Rome
I submit that Rome was also highly syncretic, not only exporting its own gods to other peoples, but importing their gods and cults into Rome. In fact, there was a whole priesthood, and a specific religious rite, devoted to doing so. The Roman State would regularly officially bring in alien cultii, often in response to advice gleaned from the Sibylline Books.

All that, of course, was in furtherance of its imperial power and ambition. The very notion of taking away a god or goddess from a conquered city, specifically inviting them to leave and come to Rome because Rome was stronger, is in and of itself evidence of an imperialistic mindset.

Now, Lucius is trying to forge his own Cultus Deorum Germanica, by his own admission, and more power to him.

Universalism in Heathenry

But in a strictly Heathen context, however, the problem becomes acute, specifically because historically the Germanic peoples did not act the same way that Rome did (and before it, Greece under Alexander, who spread Hellenism as Rome spread its own religious predilections, and largely for the same reasons). There's no evidence at all of the Germanic tribes -- Goths, Burgundians, Saxons, Franks, etc. etc. etc. -- spreading their tribal religions to others. To be sure, they conquered, and were conquered by, other lands and peoples. But the sort of "religious imperialism" evinced by Rome (first under paganism and later under Christianity) was alien to them, at least until they embraced Christianity. Before that, they had their tribal religion (min þeodisc gelefa, in Anglo-Saxon), and other tribes had theirs, and all was good, even if one tribe subjugated another.

Heathen goddesses,
Roman-style altar
That doesn't mean the Germanic tribes didn't adopt Roman customs when it came to expression of that religion. Material culture such as the shape and construction of altars and temples was absolutely borrowed from the Romans, especially in regions such as the Rhineland where cultural contact was most intense. But there's little to suggest that they brought in Mercurius to supplant Odin.

Here's the kicker, though. In a modern Heathen context, when someone of a non-European ancestry decides they want to be Asatru, they're really responding to having been raised in a culture dominated by Europeans. They're implicitly saying that European culture, and native European religion, is somehow superior to their own! And that's something that Folkish Asatru has been pointing out all along, if not in so many words. As Lucius said in another post on his blog:
After all, we all  have our ancestral cultures. As a rule, these ancestral cultures are really, really awesome. So why would you not go with your own super awesome culture, why are you wanting in on mine? Do you feel there is something wrong with yours?
So…it’s actually kind of the opposite of racism. It’s not saying “A Black man can’t worship Odin.” It’s more often saying “You’re a black man, why aren’t you worshiping Baron Saturday, that dude is fucking rad, man!!!! He’ll probably speak to the things you lived way better than Thor ever could.”
And that's exactly it. If there's one misconception about folkish Heathenry I'd like to correct, it's the idea that we say "you can't worship our Gods." It's exactly the opposite! We say, "Why would you possibly want to worship the Gods of our ancestors, when you can worship the Gods of your own ancestors?"

And Lucius, I think, has hit on the answer to that question, even if he didn't realize it.

"Europa über alles" - The Universalists' unwitting battle-cry

When a universalist Heathen says, "Come on and worship our Gods and Goddesses! Germanic culture is so great and wonderful, of course you should want to, no matter what your ancestry is!", when they're really saying is, "Yeah, I sortakinda know you've got an ancestral culture of your own, but mine's much cooler, and it can apply to you just as well as it does me, because of course everyone wants to do like my ancestors did!"

"Let me 'splain why Asatru is just as good for you as it is for me"
In other words, those other cultures are somehow deficient, and Germanic culture (and the Asatru religion) is a much better choice for everyone, even folks who have only heard about European paganism, even if their own ancestors had a completely different religion.

That is nothing less than an institutionalization of cultural imperialism by the universalist Heathens out there. After all, Europeans spent the last few centuries trying to convert the world to their adoptive faith, Christianity. The unspoken assumption is, if everyone thought that European religion was so much better than their own ancestral faith, then surely they'd find this older European religion to be better, too.

Or, to put it another way, when was the last time you heard a universalist Heathen tell someone of primarily African descent, "Hey, I hear the gods of Yoruba are really awesome. Have you thought to check that out first?"

Of course they would never say that. Because pointing out that other races and other tribes have their own cultures and ancestral faiths, and those faiths are totally just as cool and appropriate for them, would be... somehow racist?

But of course in our modern society, which is so focused on crushing any sort of tribalist identity in favor of a secularized, homogenized, one-size-fits-all post-industrial mold, has robbed non-Europeans of almost any knowledge of their ancestral faiths (paradoxically in the pursuit of a carefully-managed "individualism"). Indeed, modern American is a bland, corporate, monoculture loosely based on its original European roots. That's the true heritage of Colonialism; European culture is superior to all others, and therefore deserves to be embraced by everyone.

Wouldn't it make sense for those who find value in multiculturalism to champion the efforts of non-Europeans to embrace their ancestral faiths, rather than "helpfully" guiding them into a European faith merely because it happens to be the only thing that is even remotely known to them? Because we Europeans did such a great job of obliterating their native traditions, and they might think that's the only route to something even remotely ancestral, and the universalists are only too happy to oblige.

I submit the best thing that someone who is truly liberal could do, when someone of non-European ancestry comes to them asking to participate in a native European faith, is to encourage them to rediscover their own ancestral faith. Overcome the Christian cultural imperialism that has gripped them for generations, and stripped them of their tribal identity, and infused them with the idea (undoubtedly purely subconscious) that "European is better".

Otherwise, my universalist friends, that is precisely the message you're sending.

At least we folkish Heathens have the honesty to say that all pre-Christian faiths and cultures should be embraced by those whose ancestors practiced them. By adopting this "Asatru for all" attitude, you are quite literally contributing to the cultural genocide of non-European cultures.



  1. I have a fairly unique perspective on this issue because while my inclinations are folkish, the God I am devoted to is perhaps the most universalist deity there is outside of Jesus and his family. (I mean, hell, most of Dionysos' myths concern his travels to strange distant lands to share his mysteries and the civilizing influence of viticulture; in fact there's probably more evidence for the worship of Dionysos in Germanic lands than there is for Loki!)

    Bit of background before my actual question. I am of mixed ancestry - predominantly Southern Italian and Blackfoot Indian, with a tiny bit of Welsh and Polish thrown in for seasoning. As an adolescent/early teen I had a strong interest in connecting with my Native roots which was completely rebuffed - by the living community, by my ancestors and by the spiritual powers my people had honored before conversion. Now, obviously, I was eventually snatched up by Dionysos (and they may have kept their distance out of respect for his territorial claim, which likely had been asserted when I was very, very young, back when I had my first brushes with him before his later reentry into my life) but suppose it had been one of Norse deities? Would you be welcoming of me or tell me to go back to the ones who had already rejected me?

    1. Well, as I said in a post from a while ago, there's a spectrum of Folkish belief on the question. Some folks believe one drop of European ancestry is sufficient, some folks believe one drop of non-European ancestry cuts you out, and the vast majority are in the middle someplace. Personally, I tend to be a majoritarian when it comes to the question. Obviously, never having met you, I can't really answer your (quite legitimate) question, but you say you're "predominantly Southern Italian and Blackfoot Indian", so you're definitely bringing in Goths and Vandals into your "predominant" portion, which I guess from a majoritarian POV (or perhaps pluralitarian!), and you've apparently got other threads in there, too. But there's no magic formula; "ah-HA! You have a non-Germanic grandmother! You're OUT!"; I'm quite content to leave those sorts of strict formulae in the dustbin of history with small mustaches and typewriters with a dedicated "SS" key. As with many things, it's situational.

    2. I missed this response earlier, so apologies for jumping back in at such a late date.

      Yeah, this is one of those issues where I don't think there's really a simple or easy answer. Personally, I would favor groups that prioritized devotion to the Gods and identification with a culture over ethnic determinism - but that's merely my preference. In no way would I feel it was appropriate for me to demand inclusion and that a group change their beliefs and policies to accommodate my needs. What would be the point other than fostering resentment and ill-will? Clearly, such people aren't my folk and I'd do better finding those who are. Which is what I really don't get about the liberal, universalist position. Why would you even want to force your way into a group that doesn't want you? Maybe I'm too much of a hippie, but I want to live in peace with people and part of that involves respecting their right to be, act and believe as they will (including the right to be wrong, as anyone who doesn't want to associate with me clearly is because I'm fucking awesome) and giving everyone the space to do so. Viva la difference!

  2. As an Afro-American who is a Lucumi(Santeria) priest.and a budding Celtic reckon,my lineages are not composed only of Africans. Rather, like the majority of AA's my family lines include African,Irish, Dutch,Scots and the apocryphal NA which is not documented so it's likely not NA at all.Most White Americans are also of mixed European descent, some with a surprising--to them---of African DNA.

    In ATRs, we are required to venerate ALL of one's Ancestors, regardless of ethnicity,race,culture or the manner in which they entered your family line because without them you literally wouldn't be here.This also means that any one of those Ancestors back to the beginning of the line, can tap their descendents to restore or heal damage to that line. I'd say that forced violent conversion from one's traditional religions and customs creates a huge trauma in an ethnic group in general, and in familial lines specifically. So yes, if one branch of a lineage has only a few modern descendents with the potential to revive and heal the line, they will inspire the one with the most potential to do so. And it might just be that Mixed kid or the adoptee, the litmus test is devotion to culture and family over the faulty notion of race.

    I also want to note that Traditional African Religions are many and varied. The only ones that Americans are vaguely familiar with are Lucumi and Vodou. Ghanaian traditional religion is different from that of the Yoruba, which is different than that of the peoples of the Congo/Angola/Cameroon There is no universal African religion for AAs to turn to, nor are all of us drawn to them, and because of generations of mixing with Whites of varying ethnicities it shouldn't be surprising that some AAs are drawn to some revival and Recon spiritual traditions.

    I do believe however, that when one enters a culturally based religion one must respect the customs of the house, tribe etc.,within reason. Using divination to see if an individual's and the community they want to enter, Ancestors and spirits approve of their approve of their joining can aid in both sides receiving what they need for their progress.