Intelligence Report

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

Mattias Gardell, a Swedish expert on right-wing extremism, says that racist Odinism is the up-and-coming radical religion of the future.

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.

IR: The radical right seems in many ways to have further radicalized over recent years, to have become Nazified. Has Odinism played a role in this?

GARDELL: Odinism has been part of this process of radicalization from the outset. It goes back, most importantly, to The Order [a terrorist group of the 1980s], which was founded by Robert Matthews, who was an early Odinist. The revolutionary Aryan scene today is largely modeled on The Order.

Pagans have had another role in the radicalization of the movement: pointing out that Christianity, in their view, is the single most important cause of the demise of Aryan man.

By breaking with Christianity — which they see as unnatural, a religion that hails defeat and weakness and is symbolized by a crucified loser — racist pagans burned more bridges to American society than almost any on the radical right who came before.

And Odinism has also made another contribution to radicalization. In the past, militias and the "Patriots" in general claimed that the [original] American Revolution had been betrayed, that you had to have a second American revolution to return the country to what it once was.

But David Lane [an imprisoned Order member who runs an Odinist propaganda ministry from his cell] broke with these ideas radically.

Lane says that from the very beginning, America was part of the Zionist conspiracy. To him, that is why the American military has been engaged in all these wars ever since the country's foundation. All these wars, in Lane's view, were fought to force the nations of the world to submit to the Zionist dictatorship.

IR: So the American democratic experiment was tainted from the start?

GARDELL: It goes all the way back. Lane says you cannot be both white and American. How could you possibly be what destroys you?

Racists today, in contrast to the '50s and '60s, are not waving the American flag. They are burning it. And this has helped globalize their message, which has met and combined with the anti-American sentiment traditionally found among European fascists and national socialists who never forgave America for fighting on the wrong side during World War II. That has been an important bridge.

IR: Let's change subjects. Could you give a brief explanation of Odinism and Asatrú and describe some of how they differ from Christianity?

GARDELL: Odinism is a [20th century] racist reconstruction of pre-Christian, Norse pagan traditions that were generally called Asatrú. These were the religious traditions of Europe including Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland about 1,000 years ago before Christianity reached northern Europe.

Norse traditions do not speak of one god but rather several gods and goddesses. Odinism does not see the gods as being of a different nature than man, but as basically being of the same nature. God, or the divine, permeates nature and animates all living creatures, including trees and animals, rivers and mountains. The whole earth is seen as divine. There is no special distinction given to man.

Odinism is not an anthropocentric religion at all. It sees man as being part of nature and it sees the gods and goddesses as being part of nature. Basically, it's a combination of a pantheistic notion that holds nature sacred with a polytheistic view of a plurality of gods and goddesses. This allows for direct communications between gods and man.

Most people I talked to regard the myths as containing some sacred form of truth, but no one takes them literally. I have yet to meet one Odinist or Asatrúer who believes Thor is actually a red-bearded, muscular, anthropomorphic entity who wields his hammer to crush real giants. Each god has limits.

So Odinism differs from Christianity because there is no omnipotent and omnipresent god. The gods have strengths and weaknesses, they have desires, then enjoy sexuality, they have an appetite for life and they may even die

The conditions of the gods are familiar to men. This central point of kinship between man and the divine is key. So when gods and man engage, they have an interdependent relationship more modeled on the family than on one of master and servant.

An Asatrúer would never surrender his will to God. An Asatrúer or an Odinist, racist or not, would never pray to a god.

The energies or condensed forces of Odin, Thor, Freya, and the rest are symbolic representations of human potentials. They are aspects of man's personality that need to be addressed and balanced.

So the main objective for most Asatrúers is to work on these divine inner energies in the quest for self-metamorphosis, the act of becoming a god.

This is different from the Christian mystic who seeks to transcend humanity and become one with God. In a racialized context, Odinism or Asatrú translates into the notion that the European people are a divine race.

IR: Please describe differences between racist and nonracist neo-Pagans.

GARDELL: There are really three positions: the militant racists, the nonracists and, in between, a third, "ethnic" position.

The militant racist position claims Asatrú is an expression of the Aryan racial soul, the original Aryan religion going back all the way to the golden age.

This thinking connects with the national socialist occultism of German Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and a number of philosophers. They are very much Jungian in their way of perceiving the racial soul, a racial collective unconscious.

For them, Asatrú, or Odinism, is for every pure Aryan. And Aryan today is a wider concept than it was in the 30s, including all those people who we now normally call white — Russian, Greeks, Iberians, maybe even Iranians.

The nonracists see Asatrú as available to anyone. There is no particular connection to any tribe or racial group.

Then you have the ethnic position that says Asatrú is an ethnic religion, a tribal religion of the north. These people see the gods as present in the form of archetypes engraved in the ethnicity of all northern Europeans.

They say this is not racism but tribalism. They are open, for instance, to cooperation with [American] Indian nationalists. They are against national socialists and fascism.

But they are also against the antiracist position. Unlike the racists, they do not see Odinism as a stepping stone to implementing a global Aryan revolution. They never talk about ZOG [the so-called Zionist Occupation Government], Jews or blacks but they are very much ethnocentric.

They are interested in European traditions, artifacts, history and culture. They might study Icelandic and Norse languages.

IR: How do you assess the relative size of these positions?

GARDELL: The racist position has grown tremendously fast in the last four or five years. The militant racists today probably make up between 40% and 50% of Odinists and Asatrúers. And I would say the anti-racist position makes up another 30%. And the remainder goes to the ethnics.

We are talking about somewhere around 40,000 people in the militant racist position. More than half of young people coming into the racist right are now pagans. Young people are not being drawn in by Christian Identity. Racist paganism is the most important radical religion today.

IR: You mentioned earlier that neo-Paganism is very interested in nature. Is there a link between neo-Pagans and radical environmentalists?

GARDELL: Yes. Paganism is very nature-oriented, geared to preservation of mother earth. Pagans have a critique of modern society as destructive to this planet. To them, it's insanity to think of man as a creature above other species.

So pagans tend to be radical environmentalists. Everybody supports the Unabomber.

IR: Does Odinism's view of man as no more important than any other living thing make racist Odinists more willing to engage in violence against fellow humans?

GARDELL: I'm not sure if paganism is more violent than Christianity, since Christians, however sacred they consider human life, slaughtered a lot of people. Maybe there is a theoretical basis for this, but I haven't really considered it.

There is a warrior aspect to Odinism that appeals to a younger generation that would like to make something greater with their lives. In some Odinist groups, there are a lot of male paramilitary warrior ideals, a lot of learning to hunt with bows and arrows and spears and all that manly stuff. But still, Odinism is not as militarized as some of the Christian Identity groups with their armed compounds.

It's also interesting that in Norse traditions the relationships between men and women were more equal than after the introduction of Christianity. So you have the whole strong woman concept that clashes with the traditional view of women as mothers only. In the Norse tradition, women are far more independent.

IR: You mentioned the support of pagans for the Unabomber. In general, are pagans connecting ideas of what are traditionally considered the left and the right?

GARDELL: We have all been working with a simple left-right scale for too long. If you lump all these groups together, national socialists, fascists, radical right extremists, you make invisible the very important differences that exist between an Odinist revolutionary and a Pat Buchanan. They are both far right.

You need to complement the left and right axis with another in terms of centralization and decentralization. Then you see that groups that belong to the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right have a lot of things in common, like the red-brown alliance in Russia. The Stalinists and Hitlerites have many things in common like the authoritarian state, their anti-democratic nature.

Similarly, the decentralist left and decentralist right also have a lot of things in common. You have all these green anarchists, radical environmentalists, talking about issues that are of great concern also to many of the Aryans and pagans who are involved in the decentralist right end of the spectrum.

These are all the people who were in Seattle [for protests against the World Trade Organization and economic globalization], on the decentralist end of things.

For all of them, it's a lot of anti-statism and decentralism, back to the land, being self-sufficient, small-scale, being concerned with pollution and environmental destruction, preserving wildlife, all these things. It's very anti-capitalist.

And also you have the rise of this Third Position [an anti-capitalist form of fascism], one of the more important ideologies in the racist counterculture today. That's almost all pagan in orientation.

Most of those who are Nazified are going back to the early fascists, like the [pro-worker] fascist syndicalists in Spain. And this is exactly where the pagans are.

IR: Is there something about American culture, other than what we've already discussed, that makes young people here particularly amenable to paganism?

GARDELL: Paganism has a resonance with traditional American anti-establishment philosophies, opposition to federal authorities and support for local self-determination. It connects to the whole Wild West mythos.

And all of this is integral to the pagan message itself. You don't have any kings; you don't have any presidents. You have tribal chieftains that have authority because they have a natural or organic authority. If they misbehave, if they prove themselves to be cowards, the people can choose someone else. It's very decentralist.

Paganism also connects to American identity politics, the importance to Americans of ethnic ancestry and people's lineages. It's like the T-shirts worn by African-Americans: "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." It's like the revival of Native American religions, of shamanism.

Through paganism, whites have an opportunity to do something similar, but distinctly their own. In the face of an ever more multicultural definition of America, they go back to northern Europe, where they find things to hold up in the face of the multiculturalism and global culture.

Roots and identity are more important to Americans today than ever.

IR: Does the rise of contemporary neo-Paganism have historical parallels? And what do these tell us about the dangers inherent in this movement?

GARDELL: Yes, there are parallels, but I don't think you should compare what is happening today with the 1920s or 1930s in Germany and the rest of Europe, as many do.

You need to go back a decade or two earlier and look at what happened at that time in continental Europe. There was a very similar kind of revival going on then, a reaction against the spread of rationalism, the notion that God was dead.

You had the reintroduction of magic, a rise in interest in alternative religions that looked east, like theosophy and anthroposophy. There was a revival of paganism. And you had nudism and all these alternative health therapies. All of a sudden, the pre-Christian traditions of Europe came into vogue again.

With all of this, you had the rise of nationalist romanticism and racial mysticism and occultism and the whole return of the medieval, chivalric sort of thing. All of the philosophers who are so popular today among racist neo-Pagans were popular then.

At the time, there were all these small, small proto-fascist groups that nobody really took seriously. They were too small, too dysfunctional and fragmented, and they engaged in constant warfare among themselves.

It was really hard to see that it all could eventually be turned into something as powerful as Italian fascism and German national socialism. But out of that scene eventually arose movements that gained power and threw Europe into a devastating war and created the Holocaust.

So I think we should look at this very seriously. Even though some of this stuff looks very bizarre — why pay attention to people who believe in old gods like Thor and Odin or UFO cults or Hitler being alive inside the hollow earth or this whole New Age concept? — it still has a lot of potential.

A return to fascism would not come in the same way today. But I think we need to watch this scene carefully, even if it is not a direct threat to American or European democracy today.