This summer a prisoner in Virginia, Michael Lenz, was executed for murdering a fellow inmate in the name of Asatru, his adopted religion. Though most adherents of the pre-Christian, earth- and heritage-based faith are honorable, law-abiding citizens who don't advocate random violence, a small (about five percent) but media-magnetic group of them are white supremacists, many of them prisoners. Asatruar worship a pantheon of Norse gods like Odin and Thor and goddesses like Freya and Idun. The warrior archetype is honored, but in no way defines the religion, says Stephen McNallen, 57, founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a leading Asatru group. McNallen recently set the Asatru record straight, speaking to Beliefnet from his California home about respecting our ancestors, balancing the warrior with the Mother, and how he starts everyday with a pot of tea and a well-fed cat in his lap.

What does "Asatru" mean?
I usually say that Asatru means, "Those true to the gods" or "The belief in the gods."

How would you sum up the core beliefs of Asatru?
Well, people are going to give you different answers on that. I believe that the core of Asatru comes down to about three or four main points. First, we are related to the holy powers [gods and goddesses], and our task is to evolve to become more like them. Second, we are specially connected to our ancestors, to our living kin, and to our descendants yet to come—the family line is a continuity that transcends time and space, and even mortality. Third, by leading lives of power and wisdom, we evolve to a higher level and this evolution gives us more choices in regards to an afterlife. And finally, the way of our ancestors is the best way for us, because we are the representatives of those ancestors in this little slice of space and time.

How many Asatruars would you estimate there are in the U.S.?
Well, obviously no one really knows because we’re not a very centralized outfit. There is no Pope of Asatru and no Vatican. The estimate that I have heard is 10,000 to 20,000.

What does a day in the life of an Asatruar look like? Are there daily or weekly rituals?
I can really only speak to my personal practice. Which again, because we are rather non-dogmatic religion, will vary very much from person to person. The first thing I do in the morning is put on a pot of tea and feed the cat—actually, feeding the cat comes first because she won’t have it any other way—then I do my salutation to the day. I affirm my connection with the holy powers. I confirm my acceptance of life, that life is good and the world is good, and I’m glad to be here. And then I sit down over in the chair with cat on lap and, again, make these basic affirmations of my connectedness and my obligations, as well as the blessings that come my way. Over the course of the day I will bless my food. I meditate. I use the power of the runes as transformative tools to help me notch my way up the evolutionary scale.

Are there regular Asatruar gatherings or is it a relatively solitary practice?
We do have our individual aspects. But Asatru, like many other religions, is inherently a collective experience. Some people gather once a week in local groups. Some only several times a year for the main holidays, including the well-known favorites: Yule has a ton of ancient customs attached to it. Easter is literally the name of a Saxon goddess. We thought that was kind of neat. Mid-summer is another favorite. Basically, the turnings of the seasons, the cycles in the natural world around us and their reflections inside of us, these are the things that typically we celebrate.

When did you start practicing Asatru?
I first decided that this was the way for me in about 1968. It was emotionally driven. I was a young man in college, early 20s. I was planning on a military career, so I was influenced by all these rather testosterone-laden aspects of the visible and obvious parts of the Old Norse, or Germanic, religion. And this evolved rapidly over the years and became much more balanced and much more whole. In 1972 I published the first issue of The Runestone which, so far as I know, was the first journal dedicated to this subject in the United States.

Why has this religion has become so popular among prisoners?
There are a substantial number of prisoners who have taken this up, probably because of a combination of factors, one of those being a dissatisfaction with more conventional religious beliefs. In many cases, the needs of prisoners are not that different from anyone else. They have fundamental questions about their role in the universe. Obviously, they are needy in the sense that things have not gone well in their lives. Another factor is the dire nature of life, and I almost want to put life in quotations marks there, in prison. Life in prisons bears no relationship to anything we know on the streets. It is a very adversarial place, a place of conflicts, a place where, basically, strength is what matters. Now, here on the outside, we can afford to be much more balanced about that. We can afford to see the feminine aspects of the religion. We do not feel the need to overplay the warrior aspects. In prison it’s a different scene.