Yggdrasil, or the World Tree, and White Supremacist Appropriation

In my family’s group text on Thursday, my midsis wrote these motherf—ers below an image she shared from Wednesday’s white supremacist mob storming of the Capitol. She had circled the QShaman guy, who was bare-chested with tattoos of several Asatru/Heathen symbols that are now being called white supremacist symbols. Because she and I are learning Swedish (we’re at the level where she can say flickorna sover about her kids and I can say bra), I wrote Trumpanhängare är förrädare after looking it up to make sure I’d done that right.

On my professional LinkedIn on Thursday morning — hours before my midsis’ share — I learned the true meaning of post character limits because I realized that the appropriate venue for condemning what I saw wasn’t the ingroup of the pagan and polytheist communities, but the people who would never think about those topics in the first place or wonder if what they were seeing reported had additional nuance. I kept the statement simple so it wouldn’t confuse anyone, and because it was LinkedIn, I focused on being a professional of faith, the leadership opportunities I had as a young woman in Neopaganism, and the World Tree’s meaning to me.

(Above, the wall piece of the tree that I have. It was a gift from my mom during the holidays in 2019. I started seeing a lot of Norse suggestions on Etsy because I was gifting ritual supplies to my midsis, so I added it to my wishlist. The weave of roots and branches is truly hypnotizing.)

I don’t worship many Norse Gods, but I am Scandinavian American — Norwegian and Swedish — on my mom’s side. My siblings and I also grew up in a Neopagan household. We went to a Unitarian Universalist Society on Sundays and to Circle every six weeks or so for the rituals. My midsis is semi-practicing, my mom is an initiated Wiccan priestess, and my youngest sister irritated all of us by choosing some priestess to officiate her handfasting who had no connection to the family. I have a dream journal that I kept back in high school that has three interlocked World Trees on the cover, which was attributed as a Celtic symbol on the back cover, and a long-sleeved cotton shirt with the same symbol. There was a green sarong with the same symbol that I wore around the house when it was over a hundred degrees and so sticky (we didn’t have A/C) that every brush of fabric was torment.

The World Tree is a symbol of the cosmos and its interlocking, interwoven components, according to my understanding; this is a simplistic definition driven more by upbringing than by research. The cosmos includes all of us, and if anything, symbols like this should make people think of inclusivity and togetherness, not white supremacists endangering lawmakers and threatening our country’s democratic process. The interlocking triangles symbol that the guy was also wearing is something that I know less about, but I have heard that it marks what is Odin’s, and I can’t be alone in thinking that maybe it’s time for Odin to put in a recall on that guy’s flesh.

Some of the commentary about these sacred symbols points out — very validly — that white supremacists have been appropriating them for as long as the contemporary pagan and polytheistic movements have been reclaiming them, and that since the two have developed in tandem (and, in the case of the AFA, there’s overlap), what is happening with these symbols is not appropriation. As a Scandinavian American, I disagree because what’s at stake isn’t just a fight among white supremacists and a struggle among Asatru/Forn Sidr/Heathens related to inclusivity, but the heritage histories of those of us whose families come from that part of the world and the people in those countries today. Often, in thinking about the past, many forget that the descendants of Vikings or Chaldeans or Ancient Greeks or Sumerians or Assyrians or whoever actually still exist, and while we’re not the same as those from yesteryear because cultures change and evolve, these histories are part of our cultural identity. The tomte and nisse in Scandi holiday decorations come from the land guardians worshipped a thousand years ago, as just one example. The nature spirits in Greece who lure men and steal their life essence are the Christianized, demonized understanding of nymphs, as another.

There’s a concept in appropriation (and abuse) where a distinction between power over and struggle with comes to light; the former is a case of abuse, and the latter is a case of conflict. (Note: for the italics and some of these overarching concepts, I am indebted to Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse, which I am currently reading.) Power over, in this specific case, is multifaceted — white supremacists are loud and culturally aggressive, and they are taking symbols and displaying them on the international stage in a way that makes people associate those symbols with them. The Norwegian ski team has more of a right to runes than those assholes, and yet the international condemnation was of the Norwegians, not of the white supremacists who have perverted something that should have been a cute nod at thousands of years of history. In the Norwegian American, a Viking historical reenactor discussed the uncomfortable experiences he has had as cultural history becomes appropriated by hate groups. While there are white supremacist groups in Nordic countries, the American white supremacist appropriation is making all of this worse. People of Scandi heritage (and I say this broadly — there are many Scandi POC, including some of my family members) should be free, regardless of religion, to explore our cultural history without having to deal with the consequences of white nationalists appropriating these things. The big difference between weaving these symbols into an inclusive, modern form of worship of Norse Gods and white supremacy is that the religious renaissance is a respectful use of symbols that enhances their worth and value, and it’s a healing of cultus that was brought to a halt by Christianization; the latter is injecting these symbols with poison, and the power over aspect is causing irreversible damage.

There are other appropriations that I could talk about, like how the idea of being cozy at home has turned into some kind of capitalist exportable, or how tomte and nisse are being branded as “Christmas gnomes” in the USA, something that caused my mom to go on a one-hour rant on a Zoom call about people who haven’t even done cultural research selling them. They’re absolutely benign in comparison, though — barely worth mentioning. Tomte taking off in the USA is why I can get Scandi holiday decorations at Marshalls on clearance. White supremacist appropriation of the World Tree and other symbols makes me fear that the beautiful World Tree that is visible on my wall when I’m on Zoom will make people on the other end of the call feel unsafe.

To heal this requires condemning white supremacists and doing it publicly in venues where we may feel uncomfortable about sharing things that are deeply personal. For those of us who descend from people that white supremacists fixate on, this requires being culturally loud when white supremacists twist our heritage into hate propaganda to further their violence against people of color, and for people who worship the Norse Gods, perhaps exploring the techniques of Quakers for social justice and establishing social justice outreach committees within religious organizations (like in Unitarianism) — that way, the focus on the Gods is still central to the actual worship, but there’s a mechanism for people to get involved and represent the organization in antiracist interfaith work.


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