‘Odinism’: How white supremacists co-opt pagan symbols to further racist agendas in the United States
White supremacists have long had a tendency to steal, then subvert, the original meaning of symbols and runes used by peaceful, pagan religions worldwide.
INDIANA, USA — Throughout the entirety of a gruesome 132-page document that saw defense attorneys working to shift blame for the Delphi murders out of suspect Richard Allen’s hands into those of a cult of Nordic pagans, the word Odinism appears dozens of times.
It is a term anchoring a new theory put forth by Allen’s attorneys, Andrew Baldwin and Bradley Rozzi, that contends, in part, that Abigail Williams and Liberty German were “ritualistically sacrificed” by a group of white supremacists entrenched in a Nordic pagan cult.
Evidence of this so-called Odinist involvement, Allen’s attorneys claimed in a filing released on Monday, could be found in a reported rash of runic symbols discovered at the crime scene, and in an alleged contingency of Odinist law enforcement officers now keeping watch over Allen at Westville Correctional Facility.
But, what does ‘Odinism,’ or Odinist, actually mean?
Broadly, the word refers to a belief system that centers Odin, the Norse god of war and death. That a seemingly ancient term rooted in the beliefs of medieval European pagans would show up in a document filed by attorneys in a Carroll County courthouse does not come as a shock for scores of civil rights advocacy organizations keeping tabs on white supremacist organizations throughout the United States.
Hate groups have been pulling symbols, words and ideologies rooted in European pagan belief systems to advance racist beliefs for decades. Criminologist and civil rights attorney Dr. Brian Levin has won awards for his experience tracking hate groups and extremism at California State’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and said, throughout nearly 37 years of continual work in that space, he receives requests to define Odinism about once every three years.
Those first inquiries about ‘Odinism’ first began in the mid-1970s when, Levin explained, a widespread renewed interest in earth centered, pre-Christian belief systems percolated throughout the United States. White supremacist groups sought to realign themselves with more contemporary subcultures.
“Odinism has been around, in the American far-right white supremacist world for decades, but with different strata in regards to whether some folks just get a tattoo of these gods or symbols, or if they fully adhere to it,” Levin explained.
In the early 2000s in Indiana, a racist skinhead group called the Vinlanders Social Club, who identified as Odinists, formed in Indiana. That grew to be one of the largest and most hardcore, racist skinhead groups in the country. But, by the mid 2010s, membership had largely filtered out. Still, others remain entrenched in the state’s prison system.
“Odinism is fairly common among white supremacist prison gang members in Indiana. You’ve got two large gangs, the Indiana Aryan Brotherhood and the Saxon Knights present in the Indiana prison system. It gets a little complicated, because religious groups in prison can get certain privileges like meetings and so forth. And so some people claim to be of a particular religion without necessarily wholeheartedly believing in it,” said Dr. Mark Pitcavage, who a historian and authority on extremism in the United States with the Anti-Defamation League.
He, too, reiterated not all Norse paganists are white supremacists. The overall desire for white supremacists to claim facets of European paganism as a philosophical harbor for racist beliefs took off in earnest in the mid 19th century, as European states sought to reclaim a sense of shared national identity and reached back to a perceived – often erroneous – shared heritage to do so. Symbols were an easy way to do that.
“White supremacists like symbols, they borrow or symbols from a lot of different places, or create their own symbols, and then use them in a variety of ways. And that includes, but it’s not limited to Norse pagan symbols,” Pitcavage said.
Despite the prevalence of terms referenced now by U.S.-based white supremacist groups, Nordic, heathen or broadly European pagan belief systems do not reflect the racist ideals of the organizations now coopting their symbolism.
“This kind of Nordic mythology fit in well with groups who talked about conquering, and being a warrior for your cause, and your homeland, and your race. So, it really was bastardized and then exploited in a new toxic venom,” Levin said.
By World War II, leaders of the Third Reich would often incorporate symbolic elements of European paganism into nationalistic ideologies to the extent that it was “relevant for them to do”, according to Dr. Matthias Nordvig, who is a professor specializing in pre-Christian Nordic mythologies at University of Colorado Boulder’s Nordic Department.
“It was more language and symbolism that could signal to the general population that we represent this thing as Germanic heritage. And they did the same thing with Christianity, and used the churches in Germany to spread their propaganda,” Nordvig said.
Still, of all the terms rooted in European paganism contained in the court filing, Odinism is the one experts today said hints most strongly at affiliations with white supremacy. It is rarely used in Europe.
“There’s a thing to keep in mind with Odinism. That is that has, from the beginning, been associated with the white supremacist interpretation of [Nordic paganism]. So, there are very few people who call themselves Odinists who don’t admit to some level of sympathy for white supremacy,” said Nordvig.
The word “folk” or “folkish” also hints at ties to white supremacy groups.
A more complicated term is Asatrú, which also pops up in the Carroll County filing. That term refers to the general worship of Nordic gods and goddesses, and Asatrú has been officially recognized as a religion in Iceland since 1972.
In tracking whether certain groups have ties to white supremacist organizations, Nordvig said he tends to find European references to Asatrú are talkinga bout the original, European pagan belief system. Those groups are often not racist.
However, references to Asatrú in the United States are more likely to have ties to white supremacist groups. The use of the word Asatrú by white supremacists has prompted many of pagan faiths to do away with the term altogether.
“I have seen in recent years that people who identify with more liberal ideology lean towards Norse paganism as a term, and shy away from Asatrú, because as they say, it has been tainted by being co-opted by different white supremacist, and extreme right organizations. But, on the other hand, in Europe, Asatrú is the common term. In Europe, if you say Asatrú, people would not necessarily associate that with any form of extremism,” Nordvig said.
Allen’s attorneys claim several people with direct ties to Odinism were dismissed as potential suspects early on in the investigation without reason.
“Law enforcement’s failure to actively pursue the obvious links between the crime scene and Odinism is confounding,” Allen’s defense team wrote in the filing.
Allen’s defense team claimed lead investigators involved in the Delphi murder investigation consulted with a Purdue professor concerning what resembled, according to them, pagan symbols possibly Odinist in nature that were left behind at the crime scene, no later than February 2018.