Those not familiar with convoluted strains of extremism often find them inexplicable. How could people believe that white Europeans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel or that the U.S. government was secretly overthrown in 1933? Such concepts seem neither reasonable nor rational, but if one fails to understand them, their adherents will never become comprehensible.
Thus, it is welcome when someone attempts to explain arcane beliefs. In 1997, Michael Barkun shed light on the racist sect Christian Identity. Now, following rather consciously in his footsteps is Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell, who seeks to do for racist Norse paganism what Barkun did for Identity.
As he notes, it is certainly a little understood subject; among scholars, only Jeffrey Kaplan has given it much attention. Yet its importance is undeniable.
Gardell, a religious historian, provides the most comprehensive study to date, although not a study without flaws. Gardell asserts that paganism has emerged as "one of the most dynamic trends" of the far right, "currently surpassing" movements such as the Klan or neo-Nazis, and "well on its way" to reducing Christian Identity to the status of an "old man's religion."
These assertions are repeated throughout the book, yet not really supported.
In fact, Gardell is at his strongest when he concentrates on racist paganism, but at his weakest when discussing the far right in general, or the other movements or belief systems that populate it.
This is a more important point than it might seem, because less than half of Gods actually focuses on racist paganism. The remainder is taken up by lengthy footnotes and by chapters on racism and extremism in the United States (it is not until nearly 140 pages in that the rise of neo-Paganism is introduced).
The first chapter provides a history of racism and right-wing extremism in America. The second chapter offers up a "smorgasbord" of extremist beliefs, as Gardell explains aspects of the extreme right-wing counterculture ranging from anti-Semitism to conspiracy theories.
These chapters could safely have been left out, and Gods would have been the stronger for it, not only because there would be a sharper focus to Gardell's analysis of racist paganism, but because most of the book's embarrassing errors and judgments occur here.
The Fort Smith, Ark., sedition trial is variously reported as having occurred in 1987 and 1988, while white supremacist Matt Hale is once referred to as "Max" Hale. Throughout the book, Montana Militia leader John Trochmann's name is misspelled, while Gardell claims that one faction of the Michigan Militia had 15,000 members (at its height, it probably did not have a tenth of that).
Equally difficult to swallow is his characterization of Cathy O'Brien's TRANCE Formation of America as "the most influential work" of female New World Order conspiracists. O'Brien's book relates how the government used mind control to turn her into a sex slave raped by celebrities ranging from Manuel Noriega to Hillary Clinton. Even among conspiracy theorists, it is far-fetched.
Another creation that Gardell takes seriously is Cosmotheism, the bogus religion conjured up by neo-Nazi leader William Pierce primarily as an unsuccessful tax dodge (and possibly also to compete with Ben Klassen's Church of the Creator).
Cosmotheism is described by Gardell as "key to the National Alliance project," yet few members take Cosmotheism seriously.
Such statements — and others — cannot but raise questions about the extent to which Gardell is familiar with his subjects. Even though Gardell cautions the reader about accepting at face value the statements of extremists, too often he seems to do exactly that.
Gardell is on firmer ground when he discusses the rise of racist paganism in the United States. Starting with the rise of neo-Paganism in the 1960s (as manifested earliest in Wicca), he moves to people such as Else Christensen (founder of the Odinist Fellowship) and Stephen McNallen (founder of the Viking Brotherhood), who began reviving ancient Norse customs.
From its beginning, thanks to Christensen, this revival had a National Socialist component, but Gardell gives attention to others who helped create what he dubs "Aryan revolutionary paganism," including Wyatt Kaldenberg, "Jost" Turner, and Wotansvolk, created in 1995 by David and Katja Lane and Ron McVan.
Appropriately, Gardell devotes an entire chapter to Wotansvolk and the other activities of imprisoned terrorist David Lane and his wife. Here, too, he dips into the most interesting area of racist Norse paganism, its growth in the prison system.
In general, Gardell is more interested in discussing the beliefs of the groups and individuals whom he profiles than their actions. While this provides the reader with a greater understanding of such underlying belief systems, it sometimes leaves a bit of a vacuum as to how those systems are applied.
It would have been interesting to compare the relative successes that racist paganism and other racist movements, such as the Creativity Movement or Christian Identity, have had in prison recruiting.
More discussion of prison activism might also have helped Gardell answer one of the greatest questions surrounding racist Norse paganism: how firmly such beliefs are held by adherents.
The number of "true" Norse pagans may be substantially smaller than the number of racists intrigued by Norse symbology and mythology but whose beliefs are not deeply held. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the prison system, where some officials report the development of "prison-only Odinists" — that is, people who adopt Norse pagan practices when in prison, but abandon them when out — just as there for years have been "prison-only Muslims."
There is also the issue, unaddressed by Gardell, of prisoners who claim adherence to a religion in order to get certain privileges, such as private meetings. Ironically, Gardell notes "the conversion of whole prison gangs to the ancestral religion," without pondering that such mass conversions are much more likely to have been calculated than sincere.
Gardell does address the tensions between racist and non-racist Norse paganism, as well as those who promote "ethnic Asatrú," or Norse paganism as an "ethnic religion" for people of northern European background. While generally claiming they are not racist, they have positions which lead many — including Gardell — to conclude that their beliefs are, in fact, racist. Gardell also explores the interplay between Norse paganism and modern Satanism and the occult. Here, Gardell is more reluctant to ascribe racist beliefs to such movement figures as Michael Moynihan.
Gods is a worthy look into racist Norse paganism, although it is not the final word. Gardell seems to overstate the extent and influence of racist Norse paganism (although he is reluctant to provide numbers or estimates of groups or adherents).
Because the groups Gardell does discuss, such as those of Christensen and Lane, tend not to be membership groups but rather primarily publishers of literature, this leaves the reader unsure of the extent to which racist Norse paganism truly is spreading in the United States.
Gods is most valuable when explaining the beliefs of this racist religion, less so when analyzing its place in the racist right.
Mark Pitcavage, a historian and expert on the radical right, is the fact-finding director of the Anti-Defamation League.