By Edwin Harwood:
It’s hard not to think of Harry Potter obsessives, mentally unstable hippies and other social misfits when talking about people who call themselves pagans. But not all people who identify themselves as such can be written off as victims of a hangover from the post-war counter culture; the sort of people who insist on rather dubious claims to an authentic pagan religion which conveniently conforms to the anti-Christian liberal ideals of sex without responsibility and worship without discipline.
Unlike the morally ambiguous new-age religion of Wicca, heathenism, also known as Odinism or Ásatrú, is rooted in the historical culture of our ancestors. Anglo-Saxons Vikings and many Germanic peoples on the continent worshipped a similar pantheon of gods as those depicted in the Norse mythology of 13th Century Icelandic literature. This pantheon is still worshipped in modern times and in October 2012; heathens from around England met at the London “Thing” to discuss the future of their faith.
One of the speakers at the conference was Ralph Harrison, also known as Ingvar, who is the head of the Odinist Fellowship; the only heathen organisation to receive charity status in the United Kingdom. He spoke about the role of Odinism as a national religion and its increasing popularity as a result of the liberalisation and modernisation of the Church of England and the rise of Islam in the West. If, as he says, the rise of militant Islam may cause, “trueborn English to seek the security of a trueborn English faith”, then can Odinism fill the gap that declining spirituality has left in our culture? I asked him how relevant he thought Odinism could really be to young people,
“It’s for all age groups,” he replies, “but the young face more changes than the old. It is a religion of the future though rooted in the past. As I said in the talk, I feel there is a spiritual vacuum created from the collapse of Christianity and people are looking further afield for some of the answers. Odinism is not a difficult religion to believe in, in the sense that it does not require the total abandonment of scepticism.”
For a polytheistic faith to claim to be a national religion in a country which has been Christian for centuries is somewhat at odds with our historical identity. I ask Ralph to what extent there is a conflict between Odinism and Christianity?
“There is a conflict at the level of theology and belief. There is also a conflict or disagreement on the level of morality as well.” He explains, “It’s generally accepted by liberal opinion that we should be giving our money to the Third World. That’s regarded as laudable and I think this derives from Christianity. It’s not particularly consistent with his ideology for a liberal secularist to make a sacrifice such as that. I think that Odinists tend to have a different moral perspective in which we would feel more conscious about the need to help less privileged people in our own community and those close to us.” At this point Ralph is interrupted by the sound of a horn being blown by a large bearded man, “Oh dear,” he says nonchalantly, and then continues, “Obviously Christianity has a long history in England, but it is an imported religion, which Islam is too.” Playing devil’s advocate, I point out that Anglo-Saxon paganism must also have been imported at some stage. Ralph agrees, “Yes, but with the Anglo-Saxons.
It came with the people so it’s autochthonous. I also think that there are elements within Christianity where there is a considerable degree of Anglicisation. So much of what people think of as Christmas or yuletide celebration is actually the pagan element which goes back to an Anglo-Saxon and Danish past, rather than to the Nativity.”
It seems then that unlike other new-age and medieval religions, Odinism, at least as Ralph understands it, is not hostile to English Christianity. The faith, though marginal, does have the potential to provide a spiritual identity for British people in the 21st century because it does not create conflict with scientific learning, only with materialism and globalisation. As Ralph explains, heathens are keen to share the myths and folklore of our ancestors with all the nation; Christian and atheist alike.
“The Eddas and the sagas, the old English literature; all our myths and so on, these don’t just belong exclusively to Odinists. They belong to people of any and no religion, who are of the Northern world. They come from our cultural infancy, the infancy of our nation, from what our original faith was. You might imagine that a Jewish person, who has turned atheist, might still look back to the story of the children of Israel and to their heritage. It’s similar for us. All we see ourselves as is the vanguard of the English, in cultural terms.”
By Edwin Harwood © 2012
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