Three Asatru Perspectives: Universalism, Folkism and Tribalism
A majority of my information in this post will come from Uppsala Online
The words “Heathen” and “Asatru” today refer to the modern revival of the old Pagan Norse/Germanic religion. The main difference between these two words is that Asatru refers to a specific set of beliefs in this group – while Heathen is a broader term referring to all Neo-Pagans who follow a Germanic/Norse pantheon of Gods and customs.
Asatru specifically is a modern Icelandic compound of the words Áss (which refers to the Aesir Gods) and trú (which literally means faith). So, question to the crowd, what does this mean? True booty? No. Asatru translates into a faith in the Aesir Gods. (Vanatru has the same roots and refers to the worship of the Vanir). If you are curious about the difference between these two groups, feel free to do research. But today I want to talk specifically about three different perspectives in the modern Asatru and Heathen community: Universalist, Folkish, and Tribalist. Universalism and Folkism are the main two perspectives, but Tribalism has been suggested as a sort of middle ground between the two.
Universalists believe that anyone of any background can become a Heathen. It’s pretty simple. This allows for greater freedom of choice and for more people to come to the Old Norse Religion. For example, if there was a practitioner whose direct bloodline was Japanese, they could still practice Asatru as long as they lived by the nine virtues, understood the lore, learned the runes, took responsibility for themselves and their actions and used common sense.
The main argument I’ve seen against Universalism is that it is too open ended. Folkish and Tribalist Asatru believe that much more criteria should be required before someone can call themselves an Asatru.
In defense of the Universalists, most Universalist viewpoints I’ve read still believe that followers of Asatru should follow certain guidelines and rules – that it isn’t some free for all in which you can do whatever you want.
The Folkish perspective is that Asatru is an ethnic religion that should be mainly practiced by those with a Northern European heritage. They believe that ethnic religions connect the practitioner to their landscape’s ancestors, bloodline and traditions. Folkish Asatruar have made the argument that they are not white supremacists, but that they believe that every Folk should worship its own ancestors. Many Folkish Asatruar cite that Shintoism for the Japanese as an example of a valid ethnic religion – and that they want to do something similar with Asatru and the Northern European people.
One of the arguments made against ethnic based Asatru (Folkism) is that there were many Non-Norse folks in the Eddas and other legends who took part in Norse rituals. Norse slaves came from Celtic, Slavic and even Middle Eastern lands. These slaves were expected to abide by the customs and rituals of the Norse people when they lived in Norse lands. While the lives of slaves were pretty grim and there is certainly no way to sugar-coat such a practice, it is true that the slaves were sometimes emancipated by their masters and allowed to live among Norse society. Conversely, when the Norsemen settled in new lands, they adopted some of the customs in the new territories that they settled in. These points are all explained on Uppsala Online:
“Norsemen, when travelling afar, often took part in the religious rituals of the lands they traveled to, such as is found in the example of prime-signing, where travelling heathens took part in Christian ritual without renouncing their native gods. If the ancient heathens thought every bloodline had its own gods that should be stuck to exclusively, then why did they engage in this practice? Similarly Radbod the Frisian, an Asatru hero, was going to take baptism to honor his friends’ gods (until a Christian priest said something stupid).”
While Universalism and Folkism are the two main spectrums of the Asatruar community, Tribalism has been suggested as a middle-ground, or a third opinion by websites such as Uppsala Online. There is a confusion of terms here because Tribalists still call themselves “Folkish” Heathens, but they typically are accepting of non-white Heathens among their ranks. They describe themselves as Folkish because they believe that there must be a deep adoption of Norse Culture in order for one to call themselves a Heathen or Asatru. They believe that anything otherwise is just a surface level adoption of Asatru. To become a Tribalist Asatru you either must have Norse/Germanic descent or you must be adopted and oathed into the community. This is similar to Judaism where one is either automatically born into the tradition via bloodline, or converted into the community.
I think what is important to remember is the character of the Norsemen themselves. They were a people who deeply valued honor, courage, individuality, exploration and growth. Those of us today who feel called to practice the spirituality of these Norse Ancestors will never get to live in the 9th century and will not directly experience the world of the Viking Age Era…unless you build a time machine that is. For those who feel called to the Asatru and Heathen ways, they will be forced to do so in the context of the modern world. Therefore I say it is impossible to practice Heathenry EXACTLY as the Ancient Norse once did.
However, I personally believe that those who feel called to these old ways, will prove themselves via the mettle of their honor – and not by the shade of their eyes or skin. I agree that Asatru shouldn’t be a simple surface level religion, that it should involve a deeper commitment than simply knowing that Thor is the God of thunder or by simply wearing a cool Mjölnir (hammer of Thor) around your neck. Yet if you gauge admission by appearance – is that not very superficial in practice?
We must remember that Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi, were mothered by the giantess Jarnsaxa, and yet they are not only considered divine despite their “impure blood”, they are considered so divine and mighty that they will take up Thor’s hammer after Ragnarok, and become the defenders of men and gods alike (Uppsala Online).
Excellent clear overview, and great links here and at your previous post. I am going to reblog this because i do not practice Asatru and i think my followers, some of whom do, would find it of interest. Thanks and many blessings.
January 21, 2014 at 11:29 am
Many blessings back at you!
January 21, 2014 at 11:40 am
Reblogged this on Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge and commented:
I told MG – “Excellent clear overview, and great links here and at your previous post. I am going to reblog this because i do not practice Asatru and i think my followers, some of whom do, would find it of interest. Blessings.”
January 21, 2014 at 11:39 am
Christianity and Islam are not “universalist” in the same sense as Universalist Heathenry. Universalism in Heathenry is a manifestation of tolerance and acceptance, and, to put it bluntly, a rejection of racial bigotry. The so-called “universalism” of the Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the deep-seated religious intolerance of those religions. Since Christians and Muslims reject all other religions, then they believe that all humans must be converted to their faith. This is not a matter of nit-picking. Racially-oriented heathens use the argument that Christianity is “universalistic” in a perverse way to justify what amounts to racism. Therefore it is essential for non-racialist Heathens to reject any attempt to equate our lack of racism with so-called Christian “universalism”.
January 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm
That’s a very good point. I’ll make a note of that above in the article. I certainly did not mean to equate Asatru and Judeo-Christianity, since the two paths are nothing alike. I just understand that the word “Universalism” broadly refers to types of religions that accept all people of all backgrounds. Christianity and Islam are Universalist, whereas a religion like Judaism is Tribalist. But let me be more specific that Asatru is nothing like a Judeo-Christian religion so that people will not make that mistake.
January 21, 2014 at 12:44 pm
To be precise, the theological doctrine of Universalism isn’t just that it accepts everyone but that it is *the* belief *for* everyone. Way back in the day, when the Universalist/Folkish divide started, “Universalist” was used as a slur by Folkish Heathens because of that meaning. It was also meant to imply a syncretic characteristic that wasn’t just pan-Germanic in its syncretism (which almost all of modern American Asatru is) but also that it was syncretic with regards to all other beliefs, a la Wicca. Since then, however, it has been taken up by the targets of the word and within modern Heathenry has come to take on the meaning of “Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other factor that someone might decide you should be excluded for.” The syncretic element is usually rejected.
Likewise, accusations of racism, specifically neo-Naziism and white supremacy, were hurled at all Folkish heathens because of some very bad apples, regardless of whether or not it was deserved. In the early 1990s, Steve McNallen would publish an article called “Metagenetics” which postulated there was some sort of genetic element to spirituality and religion. This has been deconstructed numerous times over the last 20 years but its publication only helped to reignite the conflict. Today, there are Folkish Heathens who openly reject this belief but do maintain a belief that all of Heathenry is ethnic in origin and should be predominantly practiced by people of Nordic or Germanic ethnic and/or cultural heritage only. What continues to cause strife is that it is the Folkish label (which is all too close to the Nazi Völkisch ideal in appearance for many) is also claimed by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Sometimes they use Volkish (or some other variant spelling) instead of Folkish, and deride Folkish Heathens as fakes because of the often stated rejection of racial political beliefs.
Tribalism as a middle road has proven thorny as there is no consistent meaning. Sometimes it refers to neo-tribalist ideals, which are often on display in Théodish groups, but it also can be used to describe a focus on cultural matters without regard to modern proto-tribal efforts or racial, ethnic, or national considerations. Often, Tribalist efforts are a combination of both and a rejection of both Universalist Heathenry as too inclusive and Folkish Heathenry as too tainted by racism. Tribalist groups *tend* towards a single Germanic culture as their source of inspiration, rather than being pan-Germanic, but this isn’t always the case.
The only thing that is ever clear from the use of labels (including my own preference of identifying my own efforts as “Culturalist”) is that it divides us. We are all too often weakened by this divide, with very little clarity gained, and it is almost completely a North American problem.
January 21, 2014 at 7:09 pm
I think we agree on the basic ideas, but I still think that we should use a completely different terminology for Christianity (and Islam). If we apply the term “universalist” to those religions, then we should use some other term for forms of Heathenry that are open to all regardless of “race”. Perhaps we should use the term “cosmopolitan”, for two reasons: 1. it is of ancient and noble origin, and 2. it is guaranteed to drive the true racists nuts. (And I say “true racists” because I certainly don’t believe that every Heathen, or probably even most of them, who identify as “folkish” is actually a racist. I just think they are mistaken about the nature of Heathenry, both as it existed historically and as it should exist today.)
Very nice site, btw. Glad I found it!
January 21, 2014 at 1:01 pm
I decided to just take out the reference to Christianity and Islam altogether, because that is probably going to make things too confusing. Glad you found my site too!
January 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm
Very good and informative post in short format – and one especially good thing is that you managed to avoid any “racist” labels when it comes to Folkishness or Tribalism. Any heathens who would fit within those two brackets aren’t any more or any less “racist” per se than adherents of judaism, for example (you brought the analogy up yourself) just because they have their own standards on who could “join” or not. The term racism usually seems to imply a deep set of prejudice against other ethnic or tribal groups, or thinking less of them (implying “less value” in human terms etc) and neither Tribalists or Folkish may hold as aggressive opinions and these, just because they “do their own thing” and exclude some alternatives. Certainly, christianity or islam is much more exclusivist or possibly even racist, as both these faiths argue that their one God is superior to everyone elses, and that all other Gods etc. are “false” which I tend to think that few heathen groups actually claim… As for me, I would consider myself mainly universalist, but with a sort of Folkish or tribalist twist. Religion or faith follows culture and language to a very substantial degree, if we are talking any Heathen or traditional faith, be it celtic, Nordic etc. Without being immersed in a “cultural landscape” where our anscestors actually lived, and without any – even rudimentary – knowledge of Old Norse, it would be hard to practise Asatru or study the Eddas, for example. And eventhough there are Asatruar in for example Australia or Brazil, a person living in those countries might find it “easier” or more convenient to relate to local, tribal or aboriginal traditions, rather than one from 1000’s of kilometres away.. Without any connection in form of heritage, it would be less likely to have a strong interest in Asatru or similar matters, perhaps, but this is not to say that one COULDN’T practise it in those surroundings, if one had the inclination, or the time… Anyhow, keep up the good work…
January 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm
I’m glad you liked my post. Just a question for thought, do you think someone born in Iceland would be better able to follow Asatru than someone born in the United States?
January 21, 2014 at 2:18 pm
No, it’s all down to individual preference and abilities. Many Icelanders are in fact totally uninterested in “things Asatru” or anything having to do with their island’s past, as they see it as “not cool”, “not modern enough” or “not progressive / not relevant” in today’s World etc..And not everyone living in the US of A is the same.. Some study very hard, and have much more knowledge about Asatru than your average Icelander or person of Nordic descent is likely to have, many have close cultural ties to their “old countries” and family traditions of their own, not just an academic interst, and others are “naturals” – just drawn to the subject or the whole thing, without any special ties (be it cultural, language, ethnicity etc) so Asatru CAN be practised by ANY individual regardless of race, language, age, gender etc – it’s just that in “likelyhood” terms, some are a little more likely than others, should we say..
January 21, 2014 at 2:26 pm
No, but they could easily make their runes on ice cubes (just butting in and being a dk here). I am sure your commenter will reply but it is probably both in the genetics / blood and also in the land, though i do not mean to bring up race. Its like can Americans practice native AmerIndian religions? Well maybe as All of us Europeans who have had families here for generations already have AmerIndian and African blood in us. But then back to the land. Have the Asatru or AmerIndian or Irish spirits fled or are they just sleeping waiting to be seen again? I know i am rambling here but i think anyone of any background can practice any religion, but not the same as the indigenous peoples Used to practice it. Carl Jung used to say that psychologically it was not good for Westerns to try to practice Eastern religions, but that was his thought in the context of his time when east was east and west was west. So finally i will say yes a person in America can practice Icelandic style religions, especially if one lived where Scandinavians immigrated to as the fey probably followed them in their ancestors and set up residence in this land.
January 21, 2014 at 2:55 pm
You know all the comments are as good as your blog post, and i just edited my reblog telling people to read them as they pile up.
January 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm
Yeah, it’s a party up in here!
January 21, 2014 at 3:08 pm
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As a Folkish Heathen, I applaud you for not limiting your definition of our perspective to, “THESE ARE A BUNCH OF BIGOTED, ASSHOLES! BURN THEM!!!”
I see no reason to war at words with Universalists, though I’ll admit that many people therein seem to have a burning need to scream at us. But hey, it’s the Internet! Why would anyone expect anything different? Lol
Ultimately, I think the resolution of this issue requires an acceptance for freedom of association. I don’t have any desire to “ban” non-Europeans from practicing Heathenry. What they do on their own time and in their own homes is none of my business. Believing that our way is ethnic in nature simply means that I choose to practice it with others who share that bond. For those of other lines of descent, there are plenty of Universalist groups.
Certainly, I will answer those individuals who get in my face, metaphorically speaking, but picking fights is unnecessary and a waste of time for people on either of the “main” sides of the debate. Sure, I disagree with Universalists on most of the topics which are relevant to the “divide,” but pissing matches are pointless.
January 23, 2016 at 11:52 pm
Thanks! Sorry it took me so long to approve your comment. Been busy with work and the family. But glad I can represent all points of view.
February 1, 2016 at 1:14 pm
Being busy is always good!
The sort of intellectually mature, balanced approach you took to this topic isn’t nearly common enough, but it certainly should be!
February 4, 2016 at 3:16 am
I have been studying my genetics in this past year, due to the fact that I do not know who my father is. I have taken a couple of different dna tests to find out my ancestry. While doing this I have been seriously questioning religion, specifically Christianity, in which I used to believe whole-heartedly. I wonder why do many of ‘our people’ follow a Middle Eastern Desert religion? Also I have been studying the Celts, before the Romans. I have wondered why the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Merlin, and movies/books of that sort are my favorite, then I got to thinking I must be drawn to that for some reason? I have an aptitude for learning herbs and other natural things. I love the mountains, rivers, and streams best. The more I study, the more I feel like it is my ancestors in my DNA calling to me in a sense. Sounds completely wacko I know. My husband can trace his family back to the northern Netherlands (Frisian?). Anyways, any time I have done research on the subject, your blog has come up. I am finding some interesting reading here. Thanks for reading my ramblings.
April 3, 2016 at 9:25 pm
No prob! This is all very interesting. I think adopting Christianity was the biggest mistake the European people ever made. (I.e. brought down the Roman Empire). It’s interesting to study the parallel path of Christianity and Islam. Islam was a religion that was well fitted to the people of the region who adopted it. It brought them together around a similar culture. It even bound ancient middle eastern pagan practices (such as praying five times a day and praying around the Kabah) into a monotheistic religion. Many of the key figures of Islam, prophets and so on were also from the Middle East – so it was a religion that was well suited to the people who adopted it. However, Christianity was an alien religion imposed upon the European people. A religion filled with prophets and other figures who had no ties to the actual culture or landscape. Some of this was mitigated by throwing in European pagan practices (like turning Gods into saints, and allowing the European people to keep their pagan holy days – as long as they made them Christian in name). But overall, Christianity was a big mistake in my opinion. And in studying medieval history, I’ve seen that it was a religion that basically had to be imposed under threat of death (i.e. inquisitions, witch hunts and so on) because it was so unnatural to the people it was imposed upon. The Renaissance happened when European people started learning about their ancient Gods once again, as well as in talking more with traders/scholars from the Middle East and Asia. Islam was good for the middle east. Buddhism/Confucianism was good for Asia. Hinduism was good for India. Christianity was BAD for Europe. Thankfully today many people are going back to the religion that calls them at a deep level. It’s not always at an ethnic level. I have some Asian and African American friends who are interested in practicing the Norse and Celtic traditions. But I think what’s important is for people to adopt the path that feels natural, but to also take it seriously.
April 3, 2016 at 10:23 pm
Problem is that it’s basically ancestral worship (Freyr and Njord are the ancestors of my boyfriend for example). If you are in Japan, they would think it odd for you to become Shintoist wihtout japanese ancestors. Even if worshiping at certain tenples is allowed to tourists. But no one complains about that. They are not white.
April 8, 2016 at 7:51 pm
Well, I guess that’s why I wrote this piece. There are different points of view about this. Some people link the Gods directly through ancestry (folkish). Some believe that a person’s biology doesn’t pre-determine their link to the Gods (universalist). Some are a mix in between (tribalist) – in sort, biology helps, but making a strong effort to integrate into the culture and tradition can work too if you don’t have the biology.
April 10, 2016 at 5:44 pm
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July 4, 2017 at 3:19 am
I am a Tribalist and I am glad that you did not lump my opinion with the Folkish. While I do not hate all Folkish, We are not the same. I don’t mind non-white Asatruar as long as they have “Assimilated” and became Germanic. That is also why I am a Civic nationalist as opposed to a racial nationalist. I don’t care who you are as long as you Assimilate to your host country and don’t refuse to take on your host countries culture. I am from the U.S. and I feel that we can all get along as long as we become American, (Which is essentially Germanic/Celtic in its culture).
August 21, 2017 at 11:28 pm
Glad I represented your point of view well.
Civic Nationalism is a term I’ve never heard before, but that is interesting. It sounds like it reflects my point of view somewhat. When I think of assimilating into American culture, I think more of people taking the time to learn English (or even having more free opportunities for immigrants to learn English) and making sure people learn our laws. But I think of America as a place where freedom is the ultimate value above culture and religion, and as long as people strive to respect and protect the freedoms of their fellow Americans, they’ll fit in fine. But I also recognize that this shouldn’t be the case everywhere, and that every nation has the right to its own values. I think the situation in Europe is much more troubled, because they have adopted a set of American values, despite the fact that they aren’t American. They don’t have the history we have. They aren’t set up with the kind of economy we have. So the fact that many European countries are trying to replicate the great American experiment while forgetting their own culture and values will be detrimental to them. I’m not against European countries taking immigrants, but I think it is okay for these European countries to expect the immigrants to assimilate into their culture and values. I’ve heard stories of (some not all) immigrants who come from the Middle East and just form their own enclaves within their host society, and go to schools funded by Saudi Arabia Wahabbi religious extremists, and some just soak up Europe’s generous welfare without getting a job. I think this is wrong, but when people speak out against this they are labeled racists. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a people wanting to protect their own culture (especially if that culture has been around for hundreds or thousands of years and plays a role in maintaining the stability of the society). Europe shouldn’t tolerate schools funded by religious extremists, that teach values opposite of their own (anti-semitism, the inferiority of women, etc.) It’s fine for immigrants (in my opinion) to come from the Middle East to Europe and practice Islam, but they have a responsibility to respect their new society, to respect its laws, to respect its customs and people, and to contribute something of value (like work) in exchange for being allowed entry. And if they can’t do that, they should leave.
August 22, 2017 at 10:11 am
Trying to figure out who should be allowed in the club is a mentality brought by Christianity and Islam and the like and should be abandoned as part of their destructive influence.
There was always extensive sharing between pagan traditions that were in close contact – the Slavs and Norsemen being two good examples. I do not believe it was ever about ethnic lines or exclusion.
Point being, it’s not likely they would have even identified themselves in such a regard, but rather favored identifying with particular deities or concepts within their beliefs.
December 6, 2017 at 9:59 pm
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Well thought paper.
December 5, 2021 at 11:46 pm