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Viewing The World Through Pagan Eyes V: The First Pagan Reconstruction

 This piece builds on these previous articles:  part I , part II , part II , part IV


Some of the more exciting new Pagan movements in the West are attempts to reconstruct pre-Christian European practices in modern form. Reconstructionist Paganism embraces traditions originating from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean.  Yet this is not a new development, except in scale. The confirmed historical record for reconstructionist Pagan traditions goes back farther than it does for British Traditional ones, to Germany.

The analysis I have developed here sheds light on this first reconstructionist NeoPagan movement’s unfortunate outcome. Its core error rested on viewing culture as an organism rather than as an ecosystem. We face similar issues today.

The Volk and the revolt against modernity

Late 19th century Germany found the nation newly united and in the throes of rapid industrialization. Cities were growing, industry was expanding, rivers were polluted, forests were cut down, an urban proletariat was growing and traditional rural ways of life were threatened. A culture rooted in centuries of agriculture was being rapidly transformed by a modern one rooted in cities. In some ways, this was familiar territory that many had already trodden, especially in England, France, and the United States. But in other ways it was different.

Very importantly, German nationalism preceded German unification. In 1871, when Prussia forcibly annexed the rest of Germany other than Austria, there was already a strong sense of German identity. Like the U.S. this identity was ideological. Unlike the U.S. it was also tribal.

Following the violence of the French Revolution, many Germans were attracted to the Romanticism as an alternative vision of the world. Romanticism’s view of German nationality emphasized a unity of ethnicity, language, culture, spirituality and rootedness in the German land. Writing in the early 19th century, Johann Gottlieb Fichte argued “those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.”  The German Volk was an organic unity of which individuals were parts.

Prussia had embarked on rapid industrialization and urbanization, but romanticism rejected a narrowly scientific view of life and the calculative market mentality that considered everything a tool for human use.  Cities, which epitomized these values, were considered alien, breeding a mentality divorced from the earth and from Germany’s traditional culture. Many Germans were happy their nation had finally been united by Prussian conquest, safeguarding them from being the battle ground of stronger powers, but many also looked backward to a time they believed was more integral, more rooted in the land, and more in touch with the German spirit. Germany might have united at the cost of its soul.

Some Germans found a time of apparent cultural and spiritual stability in the Middle Ages. Others looked back, to what they imagined pre-Christian Germany had been like. Either way, they imagined this lost culture to have a kind of unity that stood in sharp contrast to modernity’s rootless, individualistic, urban cosmopolitanism.

The term that was most widely used to define this older, healthier, more unified culture was ‘völkisch,’ conceiving the German Volk as a cohesive people. It combined a patriotic interest in German folklore, a youth movement focused on connecting with the land and nature, and an anti-urban populism. The ideal was a self-sufficient life lived in mystical relation to the land. This movement was part of a widespread reaction to modernity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including William Morris in Britain, the Southern Agrarians  in the U.S. and many of the figures who would play an important role in the rise of Pagan religion in Europe and the U.S. But it began in Germany.

A fatal confusion

A Volk had members, and others were not. Originally this distinction had little to do with blood.  The Jews in particular were considered cosmopolitan, city dwellers divorced from the land, and so divorced from true German sensibilities.  Anti-Semitism had long been present in Europe, but the anti-Semitism of many völkisch Germans differed from the “Jew as Christ-killer” kind. Many educated Germans believed a people’s culture reflected its relationships with place, and Jewish culture reflected its desert origins. While they had lived in Germany for centuries, Jewish religion and culture reflected a sky God suited for such a place, but not for the cool forested lands of Germany.

There was still more to the story.

German Jews had long been banned from owning land while allowed to enter professions once closed to Christians, such as money lending.  Given the opportunities open to them, it was no surprise Jews in Germany tended to live in cities and towns and often engaged in commerce. Jewish communities were consequently more open to the rise of a market economy than were peasants long connected to the land.

The Jews’ relative success in the new economy and the culture it supported led to a strange outcome. Jews critical of the new economic order’s heartlessness frequently became its harshest critics. They did not challenge the existence of industries and cities, but they wanted all to benefit from them. Others were major beneficiaries of this order. Consequently, völkisch critics of the new order blamed both communism and capitalism as reflections of alien Jewish culture

It was in this broad context that German NeoPaganism arose.

German NeoPaganism

Stefanie von Schnurbein’s Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism is far the best source I have found for a detailed historical overview. Even when I sometimes disagree with her interpretations, especially concerning Wicca, I am always impressed with her deep knowledge of this movement.

Germans looking backwards to pre-Christian religion and culture hoped to resurrect the old German religion that had predominated before the forcible introduction of Christianity. They were the first prominent NeoPagan reconstructionists of which I am aware.  Their spiritual descendants make up a part of the wider Asatru community today, but only a part.

As I studied the thinkers behind this revival, I found myself deeply moved by the beauty of some of their major writing, especially Ludwig Klages’  descriptions of how industrialization had ruined the air, water, and soil.  I was just as deeply repelled by the frequent anti-Semitism that frequently emerged in writers like Klages.  

I was also struck with some other areas beyond anti-Semitism where they differed from most contemporary NeoPagans.

First, they often made Woden (Odin) virtually the only deity, and many apparently viewed polytheism as primitive. Many distinguished between an exoteric (public) Wotanism for “the people,” and an esoteric monotheistic “Armanism” for initiated elites.  From this perspective “the Gods” were “the spiritual forces that guide the Germanic or Nordic peoples, or [manifest] the folk or race-soul.” (Schnurbein, 94) They often seemed to combine a monotheistic sensibility with an impersonal pantheism.

Their religious focus was not on individual or a small group’s relationship to deity, or of a coven as a working group, but rather to the community’s relationship to spirit.  As far as I have been able to determine, their celebrations were communal and, in contemporary NeoPagan terms, focused on the solar Sabbats alone.

Völkisch religion was chosen primarily for cultural reasons and, from our perspective, was collectivist in spirit. What really mattered was the strength of the Volk and one’s dedication to it. From this foundation, their sense of the appropriate roles for men and women emerged. Men should defend and strengthen the Volk and women should contribute to it through child bearing. Feminism was considered an element of the cosmopolitan urban civilization they opposed.

Finally, they were often hostile to the shamanic or magickal dimensions of pre-Christian times.  Occult traditions were often considered alien to the Volk, being supposedly rooted in Mediterranean religion and culture. I could find little about magickal workings in early German neoPaganism.

They were not Nazis. The Jews’ problem was not biological, but culture’s role in a person’s identity was virtually as decisive for arguing they could not assimilate. But the logic of a völkisch analysis had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.  Zionism was a Jewish völkisch movement at the same time, with a similar emphasis on uniting Jewish people, culture, and land, in Palestine.

Where it went wrong: organisms and ecosystems

The phrase “blut und boden” illuminates an important dimension of German NeoPaganism. Coined in the nineteenth century, it linked the German race (blut) with the German earth (boden).  Advocates urged a "back to the land" approach and reviving "rural values,” holding the German land was bound to German blood. Peasants were cultural heroes and their folklore a mirror back into ancient times. Much of this this has a strong affinity with many NeoPagans today.

But the concept held a fatal tension: the relations of blood to earth. To explore it I will turn to Zionism so as to free this error from association with anti-Semitism, because Zionists made the same error. Two prominent Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century illustrate my argument: Hannah Arendt  and Edwin Montagu.

Arendt wrote of Zionism as “nothing else than the uncritical acceptance of German-inspired nationalism” which “holds a nation to be an eternal organic body, the product of inevitable natural growth of inherent qualities; and it explains peoples . . . in terms of superhuman biological personalities.” (15)

In 1917, reacting critically to the British government’s plan to endorse a “national home” for Jews in Palestine, Edwin Montagu, Britain’s Jewish Secretary of State for India, argued

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation . . .

Arendt and Montagu illuminate the contrast between conceiving culture as an ecosystem or an organic unity. To use the ecological framework I previously developed, the Volk formed a social ecology long embedded within its natural environment. But in Germany the Volk was conceived as a collective organism.  This essentialist idea of culture holds there is some core reality only it has, and when that reality is gone, so is the culture. The people, land, and culture, form an organic whole, and what was most genuine in a German was what was in harmony with this whole.

An ecosystem does not actively repel new residents. They enter, and either survive while making little impact, survive and transform the system’s patterns by doing so, adapt into something new in order to survive, or die out. Consider what I have written earlier about memes as the same process an organism experiences within an ecosystem.

An organic unity is defined by much more closed boundaries with the wider world. An organic organism employs skin, antibodies and other defense measures to repel external invasions. It also has a center of action, and can pursue goals, whereas an ecosystem does neither. The boundaries between the two can be blurry at their edges, but not the fundamental distinction between them, rather like land and water ecosystems are distinct, even if the shore is blurry. 

Organic conceptions of society always subordinate individuals to the ‘social organism’.  This view misinterprets the complex relations of people and memes that comprise a society. It’s focus on a nonexistent ‘essence’ seems to encourage pointless efforts to determine who is truly most genuinely a member of that group. While researching this topic, I discovered that some contemporary Nordic writers who think in essentialist terms now even exclude the Vikings because they were too cosmopolitan. (Schnurbein, 131)

Thinking about a living world

Some völkisch Germans had argued Jews could become good Germans if they adopted the culture, some argued they were too different to do so.  The core flaw on both sides in this debate was making culture, a permeable network of energies, into a ‘thing.’ Something more profound was happening.

The modernity against which völkisch Germans and others were rebelling is blind to important dimensions of reality. I, for one, am deeply sympathetic to their sensitivity because, in my experience, the land has a presence, and in this presence many people who have long lived there feel at home.  Our world is alive at many levels and dimensions. But the connection is not organic.

Consider the words of a Crow elder, as reported by Gary Snyder

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers are not lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.

Over time the energies of the land and of ourselves weave increasingly intricate connections. The most deeply rooted peoples were particularly sensitive to this reality. For them the land was not a stage, it was not “an environment,” it was not wilderness, it was a place to dwell, and in their dwelling, it was home, a home enlivened by many relationships, human and otherwise.

A living world is a world of interacting organisms, and, minimally, culturally this includes humans and memes.  Pagan reconstructionists can never recreate an imagined past possessing a unity it never had any more than northern Europe can recreate the mammoth steppe. What reconstructionism can do, with the aid of their ancestors and the Gods, is further develop Pagan insights as they apply to the places we now live.

And that is marvelous.



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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.


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