Paganism, Theology

Combatting White Supremacy in Spiritual Communities Among Incarcerated Populations

White supremacists have appropriated Norse Heathen mythology and symbolism to create a group identity based on racist beliefs.  These groups grow their membership in prisons because incarcerated people are vulnerable and searching for group affiliation for safety.  Inclusive heathen organizations such as The Troth, Gullveig’s Hearth, and Heathens Against Hate provide prison in-reach services including study groups and rituals that are open to people of all races, genders, and sexualities.  Incarcerated people need access to an inclusive, anti-racist pagan/heathen community to support their spiritual growth.      

     Heathenry is based on the reconstructed pre-Christian beliefs of Germanic pagans and Northern Europeans.  Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar, historian, and lawspeaker,  documented these beliefs in the 13th century.  By the time Sturluson was writing the Prose Edda, Poetic Edda, and additional sagas, Christianity had come to Iceland, so the stories Sturluson documented included Christian stories as well as an attempt to integrate Christian and Heathen beliefs.  The texts by Sturluson along with other collected works such as the Havamal have been used to develop the Heathen belief system over the centuries.  The latest wave of what we will define as Modern Heathenry began in the late 1960s in the United States, about the same time as the pagan spirituality movement in general.

     The main practices in Modern Heathenry include living by a code of ethics and honoring the gods of Norse Mythology, the spirits of land, and ancestors.  Different Heathens go about this in different ways.  Some groups live by Heathen values but don’t necessarily believe in the gods as anything more than myths, others do seidr (magic), divination, ritual, and work with the gods daily.  The most common theme among most, if not all Heathen groups, is living by a code of ethics that applies to everyone in the group and to which they will be held equally accountable.  Modern Heathens honor Nine Noble Virtues or ideals to live by.  These virtues are seen both as a way to live a good life and also to be seen favorably in the eyes of the gods.  These virtues include

  1. Courage, 
  2. Truth, 
  3. Honor, 
  4. Loyalty, 
  5. Self-Discipline, 
  6. Hospitality, 
  7. Industriousness, 
  8. Self Reliance, and 
  9. Steadfastness

     In developing a theological understanding of Heathenry, we need to look at the development of self and how spiritual work can inform that development.  The Nine Noble Virtues were originally taken from a variety of sources, including the Havamal, which was said to have been written by Odin himself.  It’s essentially a guidebook on how to be a good neighbor, community member, guest and host/ess, which are very important in a culture where a neighbor might be the person fighting next to you to defend your village or asking for a safe place to sleep as they travel.  

     Hospitality is one of the virtues that we consider when working on prison in-reach services. Speaking from the perspective of The Troth, an inclusive heathen organization based in the United States, Heathens from outside our community and prospective Heathens are welcome to join The Troth and come to Troth events so long as they agree to agreements about frith (group safety, security, and friendship), inclusivity, and anti-racist work. Prison in-reach services are offered as part of this hospitality, as we are connecting with a part of our community that is temporarily incarcerated.

In addition to the white supremacist movement impacting heathenry, there is currently a lack of BIPOC inclusion in pagan circles within prisons, which prevents BIPOC from being from getting access to a community which could help provide a better level of safety while incarcerated. Heathenry is available to people of all races, genders, sexualities, etc, and inclusive organizations such as The Troth and Gullveig’s Hearth providing in-reach services can help disrupt the white supremacist narrative that is being used to acquire new members by creating inclusive spaces and providing curriculum and reading materials that debunk the white supremacist myths that come up in Modern Heathenry.

     Loyalty is a second major theme that applies to prison in-reach services, as it is up to the individual to decide and live up to the standard that is being set by the group.  The concept of frith mentioned early, refers to a feeling of community connectedness and security that group membership offers.  Frith requires loyalty among members, but only so far as an individual feels that the other members are also acting in frith.  Outside of incarceration when members are discovered to be racist or not adhering to the values of the group, they are given a chance through education and mentoring to deal with their views and behaviors or to be removed from group membership.  In the modern day, a person could just go find another group to be a part of, but the idea of exclusion or banishment could have been a death sentence in earlier times.  In the case of incarcerated individuals, the goal is to help people find a better path through education, spiritual development, and connection with the divine through ritual and prayer.

Through prison in-reach services, the Heathen community can provide incarcerated individuals space for education, community affiliation, connection with the divine, and spiritual tools to aid in their growth. By providing those tools with a theme of inclusivity and anti-racist actions, this growth could help incarcerated people who may be going down the path of white supremacy simply out of fear and a need for protection in numbers. Spiritual growth can take place while a person is incarcerated, and having that community offering continued support post-release can assist people in finding a new path, rather than going back to prison due to newly indoctrinated messaging about race. Inclusive organizations can provide that education and support to incarcerated people through the support of prison chaplains who are open to supporting non-Abrahamic traditions.