2016-06-30
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.

And why Asatru? Is it related to how the religion honors the warrior archetype?
I think it is. And I can kind of sympathize with that in a way because, many years ago, as a young ROTC student in college, my focus was primarily on the warrior. It took me time to understand that the warrior is not a community. The warrior is a part of a community and has a role to play in service to and in protection of that community. Most of these men are, at this point in their lives at least, not mature enough, not sophisticated enough perhaps, to see all the other connections. You know, they’re not quite ready for some of the other aspects. And for them, this is probably a valuable tool. In fact, it’s probably something that helps them get through the day.

What tools are those?
The ideas that it’s good to be strong and to be courageous and to be loyal to your friends.

What happened [with Michael Lenz] in that prison, is this the real Asatru? 
Unambiguously what this gentleman did was wrong. It does not represent Asatru, hatred of this sort is not a part of Asatru. We strongly disapprove. This does not represent our religious beliefs in any way whatsoever.

How did this mutation of white supremacists being attracted to this religion evolve from mainstream Asatru?
It’s important to point out that, among Asatruar in general, probably our percentage of white supremacists or white power advocates, or however you want to call these people, is not higher than it is amongst any other group. Now, in prisons, that’s going to be a little higher because you have a different demographic, and certainly a different situation. Unfortunately, some men will use this as an excuse for hostility towards other races and will use it as an excuse maybe to prop up their damaged self-image. I do not find it that common, frankly, though.

Can you explain a little bit about the Asatru relationship to heritage?
We see ancestral heritage as an innate part of our religion. We believe that we are connected with our ancestors, that we have duties to those ancestors and, at the same time, that we receive blessings from the ancestors. In many early cultures, death was seen as a semi-permeable membrane, and that the ancestors watch on. The ancestors, in a sense, are us. We are, in a sense, them reborn. We are so intimately connected with them that we are a continuity, even though that cannot be perceived by the senses. We have our duties to the ancestors, but the ancestors in turn give us gifts. They give us spiritual nourishment. They give us that hunch, that intuition. They give us that good luck that gets us through a tight spot. We are connected with them, and that bond is so strong that it transcends life and death. They and we and the gods form almost a unity.

Can anyone of any race become Asatru and have that kind of ancestral connection?
Well, obviously, this is the United States in the 21st century, and people can follow any path they want. It’s not for us to say that they cannot or should not. Now, my own feeling is that, just as the way of my ancestors is the best way for me, my advice, if it were asked, to someone of a different ethnic group, would be, “Seek the ways of your ancestors.” There’s where you will find peace. There’s where you will find home.

How do you honor the ancestors in practical ways?
One is by remembering them. Many Asatruar have little informal shrines in their homes and, on these, have photographs of known ancestors, or they’ll have bits and pieces of ancestral significance. For example, I am fortunate enough to have roof tiles that came off the ancestral home in Ireland that had been there for hundreds of years. Secondly, we feel it is our duty to keep the family reputation intact, to not let the family name be dishonored but, if anything, to add luster to it, to elevate it still farther, to carry it to greater heights.

Does Asatru value its own heritage above others?
There’s a very definite value that this is the best heritage for us. But, the important caveat there is… that there really is an appreciation of other peoples and other cultures. You know, we don’t want the world to all be the same. We don’t want us to all be alike. We think differences really are okay and really laudable, and that all of us can stand together against those forces that would just homogenize us, that would make us all look the same, shop the same, listen to the same music, etcetera.

Is Asatru a pacifist religion?
We are not pacifist. We believe in moderation. We believe in being slow to rile. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “The coward strikes at once, but the strong man holds back and waits before acting.” I believe that the warrior, properly understood, illustrates one particular spiritual discipline that can lead one to a higher level. I would use the term “warrior” to include any man or woman who puts their own safety, their own lives, on the line for the benefit of other people or for an ideal. And this can be a way, a spiritual discipline, that leads to control of the emotions, control of one’s actions that leads one to various realizations.

How would you like to see Asatru evolve?
I would like it to continue the evolution that it has been making for years now, which is away from the warrior stereotype. I would like people to see that we are a balanced, positive path, that just as we have gods, so we have goddesses. Just as we value assertiveness and all of these "tough" values, so also do we value nurturing, the gifts of the Mother—and Mother with a capital M here—respect for the earth, care for the earth, love for the earth… Asatru is a native European religion. Just like the Native Americans have their way, so have we our way. Words like "pagan" and "heathen" are inadequate. I'd like the world in general to understand the importance of the ancestors, not just of my ancestors but their own. This time-transcending unity is, in many ways, our last defense against a mechanistic, inorganic, life-denying materialism that threatens to eat all of us, whether we’re in Norway or Nigeria.


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