Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Speech on Heathen Visibility Project PPD 2019

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

This is the text of my speech on the Heathen Visibility Project which I gave on Nov. 9th, 2019 at Las Vegas Pagan Pride Day. Next up on my blog will be a report on PPD and on how the Project went.

Hi everybody! I’m Erin Lale, here to talk about the Heathen Visibility Project.

How many of you have seen a serious news article about Asatru illustrated with an image of Marvel Comics Thor? Raise your hands and wave. Yeah. OK now, how many of you have seen a positive article about Asatru illustrated with an image from a Nazi march? Yeah, not so fun huh. Both of these things have the same root cause. Not enough useable images of actual heathens doing heathen stuff. 

Neo-Nazis and White Power gangs are more visible on search engines than we are. We can change that. We can deny them that cultural space. The way we deny Nazis the cultural space of the first page of search results is to occupy it ourselves.

Asatruars and other heathens have written a lot about heathenry, and we’re pretty loud on the net, but we don’t have a lot of images that can be found and used easily by journalists, or even by other heathens and pagans. To be found, images have to be uploaded to searchable sites and tagged with search terms that journalists, bloggers, artists, and so on might use. To be usable for news stories, these images also have to be captioned in a way that meets standards for editorial illustration, and if the images are photos they have to meet certain technical standards.

Let’s define some terms. A heathen is a type of pagan that follows the Northern gods. There are many sects within heathenry. Asatru is one of them. Someone who practices Asatru is an Asatruar.

If you’re not a heathen, you can still participate in the Heathen Visibility Project! One of the kinds of photos I like to see for the Heathen Visibility Project is heathens and non-heathens together. Most of you in the audience are probably pagans, since this is Pagan Pride Day. Probably only a few of you are also heathens, but that’s OK! You don’t have to be a heathen to participate. You can be in a group photo with a heathen—like me! --or you can take the photos. After my speech there’s going to be time for a group photo with this sign, and some individual photos too.

I first noticed the need for this project while reading news, getting art for the Heathen Calendar, and looking for stock photos for my blog, Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen, which is on Pagansquare. I’d been noticing the problem with illustrations on news articles for a long time, but that actually represented some progress. It used to be that mainstream newspapers only mentioned Asatru or heathenry when a criminal who claimed our faith was in the news for a crime. That changed when Iceland built an Asatru temple, and mainstream news sources covered it positively.

Since then there has been a lot of positive or at least neutral coverage of heathenry, but a lot of it still uses images that are not heathen images to illustrate those articles. A minute on Google shows why. Type in Thor and you get Marvel Thor. When I started the Heathen Visibility Project a couple of years ago, searches for terms like Asatru and heathen didn’t bring up a lot of appropriate images either, but that’s been changing. At least some of the changes are because of the Project. There are still a lot of Nazi symbols and images that come up on searches of heathen related terms, and some of them are obscure enough that people newly exploring a heathen path might think those are actual heathen symbols. If they can fool some actual heathens, they can certainly fool a non heathen looking for a cool looking graphic to illustrate an article with, which they are not going to spend a lot of time researching.

When I was looking for heathen related art to illustrate the Heathen Calendar for 2018, I spent some time delving into advanced searches for art that could be licensed for commercial use, and I searched a lot of different terms, like the names of gods and goddesses, and phrases like “Asatru ritual” and “Asatru altar” and “Asatru people” and so on. Beyond advanced searches on search engines, I did internal searches on art sites, too. I found so little available that was of the quality for printing in a calendar that I ended up doing half art by living artists and half classical art in the public domain.

When I was writing for my blog, I often searched for stock photos of symbols, rituals, ritual objects, people in ritual attire, and so forth. I noticed a disturbing amount of Nazi and neonazi content in the search results. The average non-heathen journalist doing a quick search to illustrate an article would not know the difference. I recognized what I had seen because I taught myself to be able to identify neo-Nazis online for the purpose of screening membership applications to my forum, the Asatru Facebook Forum. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, and I’ve written about that too. At first I just wrote it into the Trollslayers’ Guide, which is what I call the handbook for moderators in my forum. I call them the Trollslayers. We have to screen membership applications to keep out neo-Nazis and white supremacists because they keep trying to get in, and any space they’re allowed in they’ll eventually take over. Just like ordinary trolls. We deny them the opportunity to take over our forum. We deny them the opportunity to recruit in our forum. We deny them the opportunity to use our religion as cover for their gang activities.

Now, when I say Nazi imagery I’m talking actual Nazi-Nazis. Like, symbols used on historical Nazi uniforms. There are also a lot of neonazi symbols and white supremacy symbols that reference our religious symbols and traditions. At least part of the reason for that is that some white racists go looking for a white god, and they see heathen gods and think they’ve found what they’re looking for. That’s why they keep trying to get into heathen groups. Some of them are trying to get in to recruit for their criminal gangs and terrorist organizations, and some of them really think they might want to be heathens, but we don’t want neo-Nazis either way. We are constantly screening, monitoring and moderating the discussions and banhammering any neo-Nazis, trolls, and so forth that managed to get in. We are constantly researching and learning the ever-changing symbols and coded dog-whistles they use, because once one of their secret handshakes gets well known they abandon it and use something else.

I realized there were a lot of other people out there who were also trying to screen them out or otherwise had a use for what I’d written. I saw a need for a guide to identifying Nazis online, and telling the difference between heathen symbols and hate symbols-- a guide written by heathens. I expanded that portion of the Trollslayers’ Guide into an article that will be coming soon in Witches & Pagans Magazine.

So, I knew what I was looking at, when I saw Nazi and neonazi imagery. Alongside the comic book images and the metal bands and other harmless but off target images in searches of Asatru related terms, there was a lot of Nazi stuff. And I thought, somebody needs to make some actual Asatru art and photos to drive all that stuff down off the first page of search returns. Somebody needs to deny the Nazis the cultural space of search engine results. And I’m “somebody.”

And so are you.

And thus, the Heathen Visibility Project was born. When I first thought of it, I thought, I should take some photos and upload them. But then I realized I’m one person and there are a lot of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It takes a lot of people to win out over a lot of people. I can’t occupy Google by myself. But all of us together can.

And so, we weaponize Search Engine Optimization in the fight against neo-Nazis. We take that territory. We hold it. We deny them that space. Occupy search engines and yield no cultural space to Nazis.

If you have a website where you make craft items or whatever, add in tags in the meta data so other people in the pagan and heathen communities can find you, and so you can represent your community to others. If you have an Instagram, add in your tags there whenever it’s appropriate.

I started shooting my own stock photos to illustrate my blog. If you read my blog Gnosis Diary you’ve probably seen some of them. I’ve also joined a couple of stock photo sites and have been putting some photos on there. I started with pics of my garden and stuff like that so I could learn how to use the sites, and now I’ve started putting some Heathen Visibility photos on there too.

A lot of progress has been made on the Heathen Visibility Project since it started just a couple of years ago. Lots of people are participating now. Several people have made Instagram channels just specifically for the Heathen Visibility Project. More people are talking about the visibility issue, and even one of the national Asatru organizations is talking about this issue. The Troth has formed a committee to talk about how to increase Asatru visibility. Lots of individual people are tagging their photos. Searches of heathen related terms like “Asatru symbols” and “heathen rituals” and “Asatru people” are turning up way more actual images of heathen religious people, objects, symbols, and events than they did when the Project started. We’ve done so much in just a short amount of time, and we can keep this momentum going.

How to participate, super easy level: pose for photos after this speech with this hashtag sign. I have some time set aside after my speech for anyone who wants to get a picture with the Heathen Visibility hashtag sign to come down here and you can take pictures of yourself with your phone or camera holding the sign, and if you want to you can also be in a big group picture with me, and you can take photos and I’ll get photos with my camera too. Whole lot of picture taking, but we’ve got plenty of time.

The big group photo is going to be a big thing for the Project. One of the challenges we face in getting group photos for visibility is that we can’t just take photos of actual rituals or random Pagan Pride Day crowds because not everyone there has consented to be in the photos, so photos of rituals and groups have to be staged. When I do photos and videos of my own rituals I usually do the pictures first after I set everything up, and then do the actual ritual afterwards. So the picture taking session after this speech is an important part of the Project. I’m hoping that at least some of the group photos we get today will be approved on stock sites, because that’s where journalists will look to find illos for articles. And of course I’m going to blog about today’s event too. So if you’re in the big group photo with the sign, your image is going to be on the net, so lining up for the group photo with the sign means you’re giving active consent to have that picture with you in it appear on the net.

How to participate if you want to do a little more: Take photos of heathen related things, places, people and events, and tag your Twitter, Instagram, and so forth with the heathenvisibility hashtag and also any other appropriate tags that describe your photo. Of course only include people who want to be included.

The sorts of things that are appropriate to include in a Heathen Visibility Project photo are heathens doing heathen things, heathens doing regular life things, heathens wearing heathen symbols, heathens and non-heathens together, things like ritual tools and symbols. Appropriate symbols would be Thor’s hammers, runes, and symbols of various gods. Absolutely no swastikas. That symbol cannot be reclaimed. We can fight for the rest of our symbols, but that hill is already lost. That’s what will happen to all our symbols if we don’t fight to keep them. We have drawn a line in the sand and say, the territory of the swastika is lost but we won’t yield any more territory to nazis.

How to participate at an artist level: using art and stock sites.  There are art sites where the art on them is licensable under a creative commons license, which makes it so people can use the images in newspapers, on blogs, or even in commercial uses like calendars depending on exactly what rights you decide to license. An example of that kind of art site would be Deviantart. You can choose to license different rights and uses for each of your images. So for example in you post a picture of an altar and want to make that available for all uses including commercial uses and use by other artists, and you also have a photo of a person that you only want to make available for non- commercial uses, you can do that. Some stock photo sites only have commercial use licenses available, such as Pixabay, but other stock sites such as Shutterstock have both commercial and editorial licenses available. Editorial images have to be captioned a certain way; each site has its own directions for that.

I know that kind of sounds like a lot of work, but this Project should be fun! It’s about taking photos of people and things you care about and sharing them on the net, which you were going to do anyway, right? You’re just adding tags. Or if you’re an artist, you’re joining a couple of more art sites or photography sites and adding tags there. Or you’re doing whole photo shoots, if that’s the level of participation that you want. Get inspired and run with it! It’s up to you.

Have fun, and remember what we’re doing this for. We want the public to know heathens exist and we are neither neo-Nazis nor a comic book religion. We’re everybody’s neighbors just like everyone else.

Every time you add the heathenvisibility hashtag and other tags that make it so people will find your pictures with search engines, you’re standing up for your faith and your community, showing your pride, showing who we are, occupying that space, showing what a heathen looks like—or a pagan posing with a heathen friend--, and metaphorically punching Nazis in the face.

You can participate as much or as little as you like. You can just participate once, here, when you pose for the group photo after the speech, or participate all the time with your own photography. It’s up to you. Right after this speech we’re going to do a group photo with the hashtag sign, and then you can take individual pictures with the sign with your phones. Anyone who does not want to be in the photo, you can take photos. If you want an autographed book please hang out until the photos are done.

Before we get going with the pictures, does anyone have any questions? (Question and answer period.)

Anyone else? OK. Remember, be proud, be visible, and yield no cultural space to Nazis.

Now it’s picture time! Anyone who does not want to be in the picture but wants to take photos, come on down over here, and anyone who wants to be in a picture with the hashtag sign, come on down and line up right along here. Thank you.

Image: Erin Lale (me) using a microphone, standing next to the Heathen Visibility hashtag sign.

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners. An updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path, is coming in 2020 from Red Wheel / Weiser. Erin was sworn to Freya as Priestess in 1989, given to Sigyn, and is a Bride of Odin and his brothers (Honir, Lodhur, Loki.). She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, is gythia of American Celebration Kindred, and admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office. She is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press for 5 years, created the Heathen Calendar 2017 and 2018, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.

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