Swedish Academic Mattias Gardell Discusses the Rise of Neo-Paganism in America

Mattias Gardell is a professor of religious history at the University of Stockholm's Center for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations. Although he is Swedish, Gardell has studied the American radical right extensively since the mid-1990s, publishing two books and scores of scholarly articles on the subject.

After completing an extensive study of the Nation of Islam in 1996, Gardell embarked on an another major research project, interviewing several hundred white American racist activists and spending long periods of time with key leaders. Later this year, the results of this work, which focused heavily on the rise of neo-Paganism on the radical right, are expected to be published by Duke University Press as Gods of the Blood: Race, Ethnicity and the Pagan Revival. The Intelligence Report interviewed Gardell about the rise of neo-Paganism and its meaning for the radical right.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Why did you focus your most recent work on neo-Paganism and the radical right?

GARDELL: When I came to the United States in 1996, I expected to write about [Christian] Identity preachers, Klan leaders, militia leaders and all of that. I didn't expect to meet all these pagans and to see a new generation of racial activists so involved in pagan activities.

I realized that this was really big, that paganism was coming up strong and Christian Identity [a racist, Bible-based religion that claims whites are the real chosen people of God and Jews are descended from of Satan] was turning into an old man's religion. It looks like a home for retired people.

I found the youth today go for Odin and Thor and Freya and all the other old Norse gods.

IR: What is driving the revival of pagan religions?

GARDELL: The popularity of Odinism today is connected to the revival of paganism in general.

In the first wave of this revival, the whole scene was mainly leftist. Between 1968 and 1972, it was part of the hippie counterculture, flower power, back to the land and away from modernism, capitalism, commercialism, all that kind of leftist thing. It was also connected to a rise in interest in pre-Christian African traditions and Native American traditions.

There was a revival of this sort all over the Western world at that time. At that time in the U.S., the far right was basically reactionary, Christian, into 100% Americanism and all that. So paganism didn't play much of a role on the extreme right during this period.

But when paganism resurfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was now connected to the right. The pendulum had shifted to the right in society in general, a turn to the right epitomized by Reagan's election and a whole new program of neo-liberal policies and deregulation and privatization, all of that.

A new generation was coming into adolescence at that time, and they were part of that rightist wave. At the same time, this generation was made up of people who had been brought up on [the fantasy novels of J.R.R.] Tolkien, who played [the popular fantasy game] "Dungeons and Dragons," and watched sci-fi epics. They also listened to all this new music — industrial music, Gothic music, black and death and thrash metal.

When this generation met the Odinists, they found all of that, but in a racialized and militant form. Odinism offered them a new grand narrative. They could belong to something more important than themselves.

They looked with distaste at American society with its consumerism and materialism and its stupid TV programs. Medieval knights and Vikings and all that looked attractive.

IR: Racist Odinists tend to be more independent than members of traditional hate groups. Do you think the rise of Odinism is changing the shape of the movement?

GARDELL: Definitely. Most of the traditional groups could hold their national meetings in a telephone booth, and very few of them last more than a few years — although it's also true that for each organizations that dies, another is born.

Today, the number of white racist activists, Aryan revolutionaries, is far greater than you would know by simply looking at traditional organizations.

Revolutionaries today do not become members of an organization. They won't participate in a demonstration or a rally or give out their identity to a group that keeps their name on file, because they know that all these organizations are heavily monitored. Since the late 1990s, there has been a general shift away from these groups on the far right.

This has also helped Odinism thrive. Odinists took the leaderless resistance concept of [leading white supremacist ideologue] Louis Beam and worked on it, fleshed it out.

They found a strategic position between the upper level of known leaders and propagandists, and an underground of activists who do not affiliate as members, but engage instead in decentralized networking and small cells. They do not shave their heads like traditional Skinheads or openly display swastikas.

This comes close to what the FBI said in [last year's] Meggido Report [on radical right groups]. They contended that the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorists today do not belong to any traditional organization.

So you need to shift your analytical focus from organizations to a counterculture. It is a counterculture that defines itself in opposition to what is perceived as the errant direction of where American society is going — multiculturalism, big government, all of that.