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Are the Norse Gods Racist?
Today I was chatting with my colleague Ochani Lele (who will be appearing on Wyrd Ways Radio on June 5), author of "Sacrificial Ceremonies of Santeria: A Complete Guide to the Rituals and Practices," "Diloggun Tales of the Natural World," and several other books. We were discussing our respective Holy Powers when he asked me a question that made me stop and, after answering it, ask him if he'd mind me using it as a question here. During the course of our conversation, he said to me:
"You know . . . having Jewish blood, I've always been a bit afraid of Norse religion. Just out of curiosity, how do you think your gods would react to someone with Jewish blood taking up their worship? Would they respond? Would they accept? What about an African, or an African American? How would the Norse gods respond to such a person? Are they beyond racial boundaries, like the Orishas? I'm assuming they would be . . . but assumptions often get me in trouble. What are your thoughts on that?"
This isn't the first time someone has asked me this and it always hurts my heart a little when I realize how the attitudes of certain fringe elements within the Heathen community might be driving people away from the Gods. I'm going to say right up front: racism has no place in Heathenry. If you are using ancestor veneration as an excuse to indulge in racist thoughts and behaviors you're doing it wrong.
I think this highlights oh so clearly that there can sometimes be a chasm between "religion" and the Gods. The former often gets entangled and corrupted by human faults and errata; the latter exist on Their own well outside of what is all too often a simmering morass of human confusion and foolishness. This is not to say that Heathenry is racist. I don't think, overall that it is, but I do think that in some sub sections --blessedly small--- that element persists. It does so to our shame. The majority of upstanding Heathens eschew such garbage and recognize it as a corruption of our faith, our practices, our folkway and we openly condemn it.
As to someone of Jewish blood coming to Norse religion, or an African American: it's been done! Many times! I firmly believe that the Gods are well beyond racial boundaries. "Race" is a very human construct. What's more, it's very much a product of a post-Doctrine of Discovery world. Our ancestors may have recognized differences of phenotype, culture, language, and religion, but the idea of 'race' in the ancient world did not carry with it the charge and terrible weight of harm and hurt that it so often does today. Moreover, even in the surviving stories, the lore that is given such pride of place in so many Heathen hearts and devotional lives, we have Gods marrying and wandering all over the place. Race in the sacred tales was a non-issue. Our ancestors certainly had no problem with it. They had trade routes everywhere and while I'm too lazy to look up the requisite academic sources right now, there's no evidence whatsoever for the type of racism and xenophobia that characterizes certain branches of the contemporary religion. This is a modem corruption.
Beyond that, as a spiritworker and priest, I've seen up front, first hand that the Gods have no problem claiming people of non-northern european descent. In fact, it's happening more and more frequently. I also firmly believe that the various pantheons are in conversation with each other. Certainly it was Odin who negotiated space for me with the Orisha and I am hardly the only one for whom this is so. The Gods have Their agendas and They call whom They call and there's quite often a lot of back and forth between Them.
I find that it's only with the human element that issues like racism or anti-semitism arise. I've never, ever, in over twenty years, known that to be any issue at all with the Norse Gods. To return to the original question, what I have seen, is people with Jewish backgrounds getting snapped up or called or feeling a draw to and by the Norse Gods and struggling with it. The lands in which the Norse Gods were venerated include Germany and there is a terrible ancestral trauma there for those of Jewish descent because of the Holocaust. Add to that the fact that Hitler utilized imagery consistent with some of the more outre aspects of Northern Religion as decorative tropes for His military (note a little known fact, however: he sent followers of the Norse Gods to concentration camps and was adamantly against any restoration of Pagan religion which had actually begun in the late 19th century with the rise of Romanticism. He utilized only the trappings as a folk-binding tool) and all told, it can sometimes be very emotionally and psychologically triggering to suddenly find oneself drawn to Germanic Deities. I have even spoken with more than one person who all said the same thing: I deeply love these Gods and I want to be Heathen but i feel as though I would be betraying my ancestors if i did this.
This is not an issue with the Gods. I want to make that clear for my readers. This is an issue of cultural, social, ancestral, and human wounding. This may be something that triggers not only the living devotee but their ancestors as well. It is not an insurmountable issue though. What it may require is a process of delicate negotiation with one's ancestors. If you are Jewish and finding yourself drawn very strongly to the Norse Gods, that's ok. I would suggest doing two things. First, I'd say set up an altar and get down to the business of developing a devotional relationship with the Gods in question. Secondly, I'd advise beginning to honor your own ancestors. I would also likely counsel (and this would depend on the situation and would be handled on a case by case basis) the person in question to either have a long sit down conversation with their ancestors explaining things, or to seek out an ancestor worker, diviner, or spirit worker who can help facilitate this so it does not come as a shock to the dead. If the Norse Gods did not object, I might also suggest not abandoning all the family rituals of Judaism. If you light sabbath candles, for instance, I would maintain that ritual. If you cover your head, either in prayer or as an act of modesty, I might continue that. These are simple examples and the first that come to my mind, but the purpose is the same: Let your ancestors know that this is not an abandonment of them or a rejection of their lives and deeply ingrained beliefs for which some of them may have died, but that this is --in addition to all that---where you are being called spirituality. You have an obligation to answer, an obligation not only to the Gods but to your own soul.
What Christians call the old testament, by the way, is not a monotheistic text. It's henotheistic: it promulgates the worship and veneration of one God over all the Others. Read in the original, it openly acknowledges the existence of other Gods. Think about that for a moment because the first time this hit me (in a class on sacrifice in the Old Testament), it rather blew my mind. On top of that, i've known more than one very devout Rabbi who circumvented the "you shall honor no other Gods before me" prohibition by making an offering or hailing YHWH first, and then going on to honor and hail the other Gods he venerated. Letter of the law is a wonderful thing. I found this creative and amusing.
In the end, if you are in this situation, you will have to decide for yourself and find your own way. Sadly, this is not something that I feel one can depend yet upon the Heathen community as a whole for assistance in sorting. Too many people come into the religion for reasons other than love and veneration of the Powers and quite often they do not challenge their dearly held assumptions and beliefs. That's ok. It will sort itself out in time. In the meantime, there are spiritworkers and diviners available to assist should it be required.
Ochani Lele, thank you so much for a thought provoking question. I would never have considered giving my thoughts on this particular issue had we not had the conversation we did. Ashe.
Check out Ochani Lele's books here: http://amzn.to/14Llba8
and his blog here: http://ochanilele.wordpress.com/
Learn more about Wyrd Ways Radio here: http://krasskova.weebly.com/wyrd-ways-radio.html
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