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The Swastika and the Flag


Some  Southern Pagans, have criticized  comments I made elsewhere on W&P and on Patheos supporting removing the Confederacy’s battle flag from all public displays in the South.  They thought I unfairly maligned Southern culture by saying it was inextricable from racism.  Some thought I must not know anything about the South. For the record I was born in Southwest Virginia, raised in the half-Southern state of Kansas with relatives whose views ranged from a relatively benign racism to endorsing Southern slavery.  For much of my life I frequently visited my Virginia and Arkansas relatives. I am not a Southerner, but I have fairly substantial experience with Southern culture, usually in a positive context. That experience plus their defense of the Confederacy's battle flag as a symbol of Southern culture has led to this post, dedicated to Southern Pagans.

Many Southerners sincerely equate the flag with their culture and argued their culture is more than the Confederacy and its heritage.  I replied I was not attacking theior culture but only one poisonous aspect of it.  The flag did not symbolize what was most admirable, it symbolized what was least so.  I promised I would explain in detail, including identifying what is worth valuing in Southern culture. I keep that promise here

We all probably get defensive when someone or something with which we strongly identify is wrongly or even rightly criticized. I know I can.  In making my case I decided to contrast the controversy over the Confederate battle flag with that of a Pagan symbol now fallen on hard times: the swastika.

If I am going to grasp a nettle, I may as well grasp two of them.

The swastika

             The swastika is a symbol used in religious contexts world-wide and has been for thousands of years. It is prominent in Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and pre-Christian European spiritual traditions. Its use  is truly ancient.


              Today we encounter it in  in some Northern European Pagan movements, such as the Lithuanian Romuva for whom it is a central symbol.


             In the late 19th century the swastika was a popular sun symbol among growing northern European NeoPagan revivals. In time this identification  encouraged some German nationalists to link it with specifically German völkisch culture. It was a romantic nationalism that arose in reaction to Germany's rapid industrialization and urbanization, and looked backwards to what were considered more spiritually and psychologically grounded times.  Some advocates for strengthening the Volk argued outsiders such as Jews could become German through cultural assimilation, others that its roots were racial, not cultural, and so Jews could never be German.  It was along this second path that the Nazis eventually were able to appropriate it as a symbol for their movement.

             Even as this darker use of the swastika began to stir, it remained a symbol of good luck and well-being within the West as a whole. It was also prominently used in business, on postcards, and in art.




More examples of the swastika's common use before WWII, as well as its significance in other religions, can be seen in Esoteric Online.  Its popularity was really quite remarkable, a truly world-wide symbol filled with positive meaning.

It is barely used today in the West. And everyone knows why.

One outcome of Nazi crimes was the desecration of a venerable and powerful Pagan symbol for a very long time to come.  Today most people are unaware of the swastika’s true history.  They associate it only with the crimes of Nazi Germany, an imprinting continually reinforced by the fascists using it as an honored in-your-face symbol for their depraved politics.  As the Nazis grew in power some who appreciated its positive meanings tried to push back, but the enormity of Nazi crimes ultimately overrode their efforts.


Today the swastika suffers from guilt by association. In the West a little over ten years of Nazi rule poisoned a symbol that had been popular around the world for thousands of years. Outside of the Romuva few  Western Pagans today give the swastika a prominent place in our symbolism unless they are sympathetic to the Nazi regime, which sadly a few are. Reviving the swastika would be misinterpreted and most of us do not want to spend a lot of time defending its prominence; which in many cases would not alleviate suspicions anyway.

The story of the swastika offers a revealing contrast to the current controversy over the Confederate battle flag. 

The 'Stars and Bars'

The original Stars and Bars for the Confederacy is almost unknown today. We see instead a version of the Confederate battle flag. This flag is defended  today as a symbol of 'Southern culture', without anyone ever getting very specific as to what about the flag makes it an appropriate symbol.

The battle flag's flag’s original design was soon modified to place it in the upper corner of a new battle flag, the rest  being white, symbolizing the white race.  William T. Thompson, the flag’s designer explained  “As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”



At the time the problem with this flag was not its symbolism, which was endorsed, it was that if the wind were not strong, from a distance it looked like a flag of surrender. So another version was designed.



After the war ended the flag fell into obscurity and was rarely seen in any of its forms.

In  all its incarnations the flag was reserved entirely for military use and its preferred later versions were explicitly racist.  Which is perhaps why it was important to obscure this history by going back to the first version. 


A lot happened in the South both before the Civil War and between its end and the rise of the civil rights movement when the flag reappeared as a symbol of segregationist defiance. To be some of what happened was almost unimaginably bad, but much is  also worthy of our respect and admiration. None of the latter is connected to the flag in any historical or political sense, and some is diametrically opposed to it.  Southern culture’s history is rich, tragic, largely self-inflicted, and the best of it is obscured when treating the flag as its symbol.

Southern agrarianism. 

The southern agrarians were the most prominent Southern critics of corporate industry’s power that they believed had deformed the North. They were critical of the abuses of labor by Northern capitalists and praised the virtues of agriculture and small-scale communities.  They admired the Jeffersonian ideal of a country dominated by small independent farmers.  I think they were an American version of the völkisch sensibilities that had appealed to many Germans, with some of the same strengths and weaknesses.

The agrarians’ arguments were important early efforts to find a humane solution to the growth of corporate domination.  The ideals these men praised shared much in common with New England's  small agricultural towns that had so impressed Jefferson (perhaps the ultimate agrarian) that he wanted to establish New England style town meetings throughout the country.  But by this time those towns' independence had been massively undermined in New England itself.  Industry had weakened the influence of a society based on independent farmers and merchants. 

Slower to industrialize, the South preserved a much more agricultural society. So in many ways the agrarians defended very American ideals and a mode of life  rapidly dying out  in the states that once epitomized it and versions of which, (without the town meetings), still existed in Dixie.

They considered themselves conservatives because their ideals rejected the alluring belief that business and technology promised indefinite progress towards a ever better future.  Unlike many similar criticisms on part of the anti-capitalist left, they sought to root their alternative to corporate domination in localism, face to face communities, cooperatives, and traditional values.  Wendell Berry, whom I admire greatly, is a direct descendent of the Southern Agrarian tradition.

Today, other than traditional values, these themes are often associated with environmentalists and the left. "Movement conservatism" has largely rejected these same values other than their praise of "traditional values." This is why Wendell Berry can be popular among many who consider themselves progressive and is often criticized by modern 'conservatives.'

From this Pagan’s perspective their efforts were significant attempts to root our relations to land and place in something deeper than instrumental commercial thinking.  As capitalism gradually transformed American life, elevating consumers above neighbors and citizens, and corporate 'assets' above workers, their perspective pointed towards a more humane alternative. Up to a point.

The first Southern Agrarians also accepted segregation and hierarchy between the races, but their racism was in no sense an essential element of their arguments. These values were also endemic to Southern culture, but were not necessarily linked to face-to-face relations, agriculture, and small scale.  That is why Wendell Berry could so easily be their contemporary heir.

The segregation the agrarians took for granted had quite different foundations. It reflected a different cultural tradition that poisoned early Southern agrarianism, as it had poisoned so much of the rest of the South.

Slaver culture

Plantations were not expressions of Southern Agrarianism. They were huge market based enterprises seeking to make their owners rich and using large numbers of slaves instead of free labor to do so.  They were the spirit of capitalism applied to agriculture when workers were more profitable as slaves than as employees.

Slavery was big business.  Steven Deyle writes that before the Civil War the value of slaves in the US was “roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital, North and South combined, invested in manufacturing, almost three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks.” 

             Southern industry as well as agriculture used slaves, and companies as well as individuals owned them.  The Baltimore Iron Works was one of the largest industrial enterprises in colonial America. From the beginning it had used enslaved labor as a significant part of its workforce. Free workers, Black and White alike, were also employed, but records indicate slaves made up almost half the workforce. Using enslaved people in private industry was common in the South. While most slaves worked in the cotton industry, about 5% were owned or hired to work in factories, or in construction, mining, lumbering, and transportation. The South’s economy was largely agricultural because on balance cotton production was enormously profitable. But slaves were used wherever owners thought they could make money doing so.

Far from being pre-capitalist as so many on both the left and right think, the Southern slave economy was deeply capitalistic and integrated with the North’s growing industrialization. Southern cotton made the North's textile industry possible, and Northern textile production played a central role in New England’s industrial development.  Ronald Bailey writes “In 1860 . . . New England had 52 percent of the manufacturing establishments and 75 percent of the 5.14 million spindles in operation.” He added “New England mills consumed 283.7 million pounds of cotton, or 67 percent of the 422.6 million pounds of cotton used by U.S. mills in 1860.” This cotton was slave produced. It jump started Northern industry.

           American capitalism could have taken a Southern turn. There were more millionaires in the Southern Mississippi valley than anywhere else in the country.  Those millionaires became wealthy through huge agribusiness enterprises, not through small farms. The only difference between them and modern industrial capitalism was that they relied on slaves rather than wage labor. And our evolution as a nation could have taken a Southern turn.

Southern economic elites argued slave labor was intrinsically superior to free labor. Anywhere. Consider these words from an 1856 issue   of the Muscogee Herald cited in an excellent article by Ta-Nihsi Coates

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman's body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.

This is not the language of the small farmer, it is that of the lordly aristocrat, a parasite on the labor and creativity of others strutting around as a ‘gentleman’. For those familiar with his writing, compare these views with Alexander Tocqueville’s description of the North during this time.

Many advocates of slavery were vocal on how slavery was superior to free labor not just in the South, but everywhere, and often applied to all races. For the economic elite that the slaves were Black was less important than that they were slaves.  Being Black made escape difficult and helped make poorer Whites loyal to the system, but there was no intrinsic problem with enslaving Whites.  The leading South Carolina Democratic paper supporting the pro-slavery James Buchanan for the 1856 presidential election wrote 

   Slavery is the natural and normal condition of the laboring man, whether white or black. The great evil of Northern free society is, that it is burdened with a servile class of mechanics and laborers, unfit for self-government, yet clothed with the attitude and power of citizens. Master and slave is a relation in society as necessary as that of parent and child; and the Northern states will yet have to introduce it. This theory of free government is a delusion.

The Richmond, VA, Enquirer wrote 

   Repeatedly we have asked the North ‘has not the experiment of universal liberty failed?  Are not the evils of a free society insufferable? . .

These attitudes were also present in  slavery’s Northern supporters. Two news papers supported Buchanan in New York City.  One, the Day Book, supported re-establishing and expanding slavery in the North as the solution to white poverty

Sell the parents of these [poor] children into slavery. Let our legislature pass a law that whoever will take these parents and care for them, and house them – shall be legally entitled to their service; and let the same legislature decree that whoever receives these parents and their children, and obtain their services, shall take care of them as long as they shall live.

Had the South won the Civil War these same interests also hoped to expand slavery through military conquest in the Caribbean and Mexico. This had been a long term goal of slaver elites.  In 1848 Jefferson Davis had argued after the Mexican American War Cuba "must be ours" to "increase the number of slave holding constituencies.”   Albert Gallitan Brown, one of Mississippi’s most influential citizens, who founded the University of Mississippi, argued in 1858 "I want a foothold in Central America... because I want to plant slavery there...I want Cuba,... Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason - for the planting or spreading of slavery."

It was in service to their interests that the Civil War broke out with the firing on Fort Sumter. It is these interests that the Confederate battle flag honors and symbolizes.  It had nothing in common with the most basic views of the Southern agrarians. 

But there is more to Southern culture than its preservation of a more agricultural and small scale way of life that the agrarians praised.


American Christianity took two distinctly Southern forms. Some Christian churches broke away from Northern Christianity due to disagreements over the legitimacy of slavery and more demanding kinds of patriarchy.  Most importantly, the Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists have their roots in defending slavery and domination on theological grounds. Their image of deity remains today essentially that of a slave overseer for the human race as a whole.  The obedient get into heaven so they can worship Him forever and the disobedient get Hell.  These churches' origins and continuing views are inextricably shaped by their origins in defending slavery. You can learn much about them and their appalling contemporary influence on Americans as well as southern society in Kevin Philips’ American Theocracy. 

 African American Christianity was the other Southern Christian tradition. It was the means by which religious slaves could find hope and meaning in the lives they were forced to endure. From it came much of our best gospel music and a decidedly different deity, one who promised to side with the oppressed and powerless. If the White Southern churches worshiped a deity of domination, the Black Southern churches worshiped a deity of liberation, as was made so clear in many of their spirituals.   In addition, African traditions gave Black Christian traditions much of their unique feeling compared to White churches and congregations.   The difference still remains, as eloquently symbolized by the differences between Martin Luther King, jr. and Jerry Falwell. One supported freedom and respect for all and a church that promoted liberation, the other supported segregation and domination, though Falwell ultimately mellowed on the former.

One Christian tradition sought to reinforce slavery, the other to overcome it. Both are elements of Southern culture but in my view only one is worthy of admiration.

Southern Music

Southern music has enriched the country with traditions from its Scotch Irish settlers and also from Africa.  The Scotch Irish influence on country music is well known.  Less appreciated, or even recognized, is the African influence, which is arguably greater. The Blues, Jazz, and  Rock 'n Roll all have African roots.  Those African rhythms are themselves rooted in its rich heritage of ritual music, especially Voudon.  Michael Ventura’s “Hear the Long Snake Moan” is a wonderful introduction to this history- a entirely unappreciated influence of Pagan religion on our country. Its origins here are in the South, and we are much richer as a culture because of it.

Southern Food

Southern food is, well for me it’s awesome, from its most basic such as spoon bread, corn bread, and barbecue to its most extraordinary productions.  One of the two most memorable meals of my life was cooked up for a family gathering in Virginia.  Almost sixty years ago, and I still remember it.

Southern food is truly a multicultural cuisine: Native American, African, and European.  When we add New Orleans the menu becomes even more wonderful, if not necessarily good for your longevity. Slavers contributed relatively little.

Genuine Southern culture is enriched by Whites, Blacks, Indians, and mixed bloods, This mixture has particularly blessed our nation’s sense of justice, cuisine, music, and other arts. It has preserved a slower pace of life less bound to the tyranny of the clock that characterizes industrial capitalism.  It has reminded us of a attractive alternative to the corporatist powers that dominate our society.  This genuine Southern culture is rooted not in a slaver commercial aristocracy and their pretend values of being a society of "gentlemen," it is rooted in the values and struggles and tears of its less exalted members, White, Black, and Red alike.

This truly admirable Southern culture is slandered by a flag designed by those desiring to force most people into lives of eternal subordination.

The swastika and the flag

The case for rehabilitating the swastika as a European religious symbol is far stronger than the case for flying the Confederacy's battle flag as a symbol of anything good about the South. The swastika’s symbolism has been positive far longer than it has been negative. It remains a valid symbol for North European Pagan religions.  And sadly it is obvious we are for the most part still far from being able to do so. Years more will likely have to pass.  But the reason is those who profaned it, not in the symbol itself.

The battle flag's origins were in affirming the value of slavery and White supremacy.  It was the battle flag in a war that ultimately killed at least 600,000 Americans.  It represented a moneyed elite that stood in opposition to and dominated the  Southern culture I described.  It continues to inspire and give a sense of legitimacy to the authoritarian racists who provide the cultural framework within which young people like Dylan Roof are poisoned and turned towards murder.  It symbolizes a social and political order standing at cross purposes with those parts of Southern culture most deserving of our respect and admiration by other parts of our country. Relying on most Southerner’s ignorance of much of their history's darkest sides, those who treasure that dark heritage seek to slander the South as a whole by making it stand for them all.

It is time, it is past time, for the flag to go. And unlike the swastika, there is no case for ever associating it with the positive cultural values that make the South a distinct part of this country.  Yes, good people died while fighting under its banner.  But they killed other good people fighting under a different flag.  Honor the people, not the cause and the symbol for that cause.  Once the flag is abandoned perhaps that rich and creative culture it obscures and distorts can begin its own healing.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Heather Freysdottir
    Heather Freysdottir Sunday, 28 June 2015

    As a Southerner who also whole heartedly approves of the removal of the confederate flag from public spaces, I very much appreciate this post. I'm not certain that I agree with you yet on the swastika simply because I think that modern heathenry needs to do more work on removing racism from its ranks before we can truly say that there's no racially-motivated connotations to its modern day usage, at least in the US.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 28 June 2015

    Thank you Heather. I don't know how important they are within their community because I am not a Heathen and rarely attend their doings. The Heathens I know aren't racists, but I know some are- because non-racist Heathens ruefully tell me they are their 'cross to bear.'

    Racism on religious issues is so damn stupid. Small minds trying to squeeze the Gods into smaller boxes.

  • Helena
    http:// ​Helena Monday, 13 July 2015

    Thank you so much for this. Perhaps a few people will be reached.

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