Why Heritage Matters -- And Why Racism is a Betrayal of Heritage


I am a Swedish-American.

Granted, my family on the other side has been here in America a lot longer than have the Swedish side, but I've chosen to identify with the Swedes. It's not because of strength or purity of lines (even though that would be true if I bought into that dubious myth of identity). I identify as Swedish-American because the stories I got from that side of the family were immigrant stories, still redolent of another place and of the need to negotiate the fit of an old culture in a new place.

America is a fucked up place. And it ought to be, built as it is on the corpses of the First Peoples and the stolen labor of slaves. But though that is the reality of the country's history, it is a reality that is constantly being erased and overwritten by a myth of brave pioneers come to claim a future out of the bounty of a new land. It's the unreality -- the myth, the face-saving lie -- that has come to define what people mean when they speak of being a "real American." Somehow, in all the self-serving propaganda of the American identity, people have come to rewrite their immigrant ancestors as always already Americans and have rejected those who are coming here now as being a dangerous, foreign element that will spoil the essence of the American identity.

My Swedish ancestors didn't come here to be good Americans. They came here to be good Swedes in America -- not Swedes in the political sense, but certainly Swedes in the cultural identity sense. They left the old place because they were disappointed with the ways in which they felt that Sweden was falling short of allowing them to be good Swedes. That's all they really wanted. So they came to America and traveled to the places that allowed them to become Americans with the least amount of reinvention. They sought out climates and soils and growing patterns and seasons that were familiar. They tried as much as they could to recreate the sense of place that had defined them, while at the same time trying to maintain the ties of community to those around them. Guest rules and host rules were, as ever, important markers of character -- as much so as the grit and wisdom required to make a living from a Northern environment.

(If you've been watching American Gods or, better yet, if you have read it, you should recognize the themes here. Gaiman's story is itself a meditation on what you bring and what you leave behind and how place and time change you.)

Those who scream loudest about being American-with-no-hyphen (and, always, linking that to being Western European in culture) are seeking to erase and overwrite history. By owning that hyphenation I am foregrounding that history and proclaiming that, despite being a citizen of the US, I am part of an ongoing immigrant heritage and have no exclusive claims to land, culture or politics. I have a duty to show the same spirit of generosity to other immigrants that made it possible for my ancestors to come here and find a home. And I have a duty to recognize those whose ancestors were here on the land and who were driven off of it for my ancestors' opportunity. And I have a duty to recognize those whose ancestors did not have the choice to come or the freedom to build a life of their own choosing as their lives and labor and progeny were being commodified for the enrichment of others. There is justice still owing in both these cases, and I am not just if I don't acknowledge this and put their case ahead of my own.

If I believe that my heritage matters to me and that the character of my ancestors inform my own character, speaking to me across the ages, then I must acknowledge that the injustices suffered by others because of their heritage must also carry across the ages. And I must stand with them against the perpetuation of that injustice, even if I am not a party to the commission of that earlier injustice. If I do not, then how am I to claim to honor either justice or ancestry?

This is nothing new, by the way. It's recorded as part of Norse myth. Look at what I had to say about the Vanir and Skaði in my last post here. The Æsir were newcomers to the land in the mythological stories. They actively practiced peace-making and negotiated familial alliances sealed in intermarriage and recognized that their own structures of justice and honor needed to be extended to others, especially when those others sued for justice within the Æsir's own laws, but even when those others occasionally violated those laws as the Vanir did when they took Mimir's head.

The Æesir never stop being Æsir just because they have moved to the lands of the Vanir or when the Jötnar come to them and demand intermarriage in order to settle a blood debt, but they do take on complex mutual relations and engage continually in actively maintaining frið both as an affirmation of who they were and in an affirmation of who they are becoming and with whom they have joined in alliance.

There's no hard nationalism or supremacy in either of those things.

Ancestry, Legacy, Ethnicity, Culture: Inangarðr and Utangarðr

I hate dealing with racists -- bigots of any stripe, really -- which is a bit of a tricky thing when one is both a heathen and a metalhead. Go to a concert for a folk metal or viking metal band and you are sure to run into a few of these niðings wearing a Burzum shirt and sporting a White Power tattoo of some sort. The same goes for wearing a hammer (or having a hammer tattoo, as the case may be). Anything that identifies you as having heathen leaning or affinity with Finno-Scandian culture can attract attention from racists who assume you are an ally.

As the Nomads in Borderlands are wont to say, I got no time for this.

But it's inevitable due to the history of both nordic heavy metal and of Ásatrú in the United States. I could go into this here in more detail, but I really don't want to give the David Lane's of the world any more attention than they already have, lest they attract to themselves even more of the empty hatemongers drawn to their adolescent, cartoon ideology. If you are curious, though, you can find a lot of reading material at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Instead, I am going to attempt to outline what I believe is a consistent philosophy of how the old ways (forn siðr) interact with and can be incorporated into a modern worldview that values cosmopolitanism -- the recognition of interdependency while resisting the pull of universality.

The Viking Age Scandinavians divided people into two categories: inangarðr and utangarðr -- those who lived inside the walls of the homestead/settlement and those who were outside. On the mythic register you can see these distinctions recorded in the tale of how the Aesir and Vanir settled their differences (the exchange of hostages, the killing of Mimir, etc.). At first meeting the Vanir are considered utangarðr by the Aesir and their interactions are wary and punctuated by threat and violence. Only after a period of mutual hostages, intermarriage, and reciprocal legal relations (weregild and the like), do the two groups become a mixed community.

Likewise, though of a more extreme nature, the tension between the Aesir and the Giants. As a general rule, the Giants (and the trolls, stallo, and other non-human wights) are considered utangarðr and viewed with suspicion. The two most notable counterexamples here are Loki and Skaði. Loki gets taken within the walls of the community by virtue of his being Oðin's oath-brother, but his rejection of the community rules of conduct recorded in the Lokasenna result in him becoming utangarðr once again. Skaði, by way of contrast, comes to the Aesir with claims of a blood debt owed to her when the Aesir kill her father, the Giant, Þjazi. Rather than pursuing hostilities, however, she accepts marriage as compensation and becomes inangarðr through respect of the communities laws and standards.

If we take these stories as illustrative of the way that the Old Norse negotiated the incorporation of strangers into the community then it would appear that they did not particularly idealize purity of heritage, however much they might value heritage as a marker of character. The Aesir intermarry and interbreed with other peoples, incorporating them into society or casting them out of society based on their character.

One step closer to the real world than the mythic register we have the Icelandic sagas and historical literature, where, as Jenny Jochens points out, we have many people referred to as been either black (svartr) or white (hvíti) based on what seem to be differences of heritage. The details, however, matter here, as those people are either Celtic and male, or were (as in the case of Egil's family: Egil Skallagrímsson, Skalla-Grímr Kveldúlfsson, Kveld-Úlfr Bjálfason) descended from Saami stock (or, alternately, from trollish stock, I kid you not; Jesse Byock argues that this may have been a result of the family suffering from Paget's disease). All three of these -- Celts, Saami, Trolls -- were believed to have an affinity for magic, marking them, I believe, as liminal figures both culturally and cosmologically.


We can say with certainty, given the historical record and the results of mDNA surveys of the Icelandic genome, that the Norwegian-descended Icelanders had no trouble taking in those with Celtic or Saami blood. Nor, does it seem, that there were any barriers to those people where access to the gods was concerned. The gods support the inangarðr, and anyone who can understand and follow the rules of community can not just become inangarðr, but a major figure in Icelandic culture.

And as Iceland's culture grew, so too did its ties to Celtic lands. The sagas show them traveling back and forth between families in Iceland and the Orkneys, for example, and we see Celtic names that had fallen out of families in the first generations to be assimilated make returns in later generations as the cross-cultural exchange works its way through the populations.

In short, it would seem that medieval Iceland was fairly cosmopolitan in its attitude towards outsiders. Hvíti and svartr mixed and mingled, intermarried and bred. Alterity and "trollish-ness" were not categories around which these people of the viking age built notions of purity. They were merely bloodlines of more or less prestige, and the big determinant, as always, was the character of the individuals and how willing they were to live within the laws and codes that governed the society as a whole.

All of which is why I have no patience with those who draw a hard, folkish line in the religious sand. Yes, having cultural and familial ties to Scandinavia give one a connection to the religion and history, but those connections are not the most important thing. Character and friðr far outweigh them.

Hallå, World

Welcome to Æsir/Disir: a place where I plan to write about all manner of things relating to mythology (mostly Finno-Scandian mythology with some Sami mythology and maybe some side excursions into Celtic and Greco-Roman myth). A mythic cosmology, of course, necessitates a non-scientific worldview as well, so any serious discussion of the praxis of mythic-age religion also necessitates a discussion of the non-scientific understanding of cause-and-effect – what's commonly called "magic," though that term has enough baggage associated with it to be a bit problematic (which is itself worth a discussion or two).

As for the "metal" part above, I'm interested in that in two senses. The most obvious sense in which I mean it is that I'm a metalhead. I love epic heathen metal from Finno-Scandinavia and the brooding cultural worldview that makes it so different from most of the heavy metal that you hear coming out of the US. But that's not the only sort of metal I'm interested in. I'm also very interested in the magic of forging steel into tools and weapons. I'm not a smith, but I'm a student of bladed martial arts and an avid reader of the Sagas and fully expect to obsess over that sort of metal from time to time here as well.

Disclaimer time: I'm not a reenactor. I'm not an Asatruar. I don't believe that people have a genetic connection to the land and religion of their ancestors (it's more complicated and nuanced than that). I oppose any notion of racial purity or folkish politics. I think Varg Vikernes is an asshat of epic proportions, as are any NS morons who agree with his socio-political views. I love diversity. I love cross-cultural dialogue. I think cosmopolitanism makes us better and stronger.

I'm also a trained academic. I hold a doctorate in literature. I'm heavily read in Northern European medieval history and anthropology. That training informs my view of religion and history. Ask me a question about myth or heathen religion and I'm as likely to give you a reading list and a set of further questions as I am to give you an answer.

Maybe moreso.

Definitely moreso, if you ask my wife.

But enough about all this. Pull a stool up to the fire. You are welcome here so long as you follow the rules of friðr and hospitality.