A manifesto was posted online by a suspected terrorist, just before 10 people were killed in a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, 2022. The top is decorated with the “sonnerad” or “black sun”, an old Nordic symbol.
The sonnarad is composed of 12 repeated runes – letters from the ancient Germanic languages - arranged in a wheel. Each rune represents a sound, as in the Latin alphabet, but they also have a meaning when they stand alone.
Sonnrad is a well-known Nazi and neo-Nazi symbol seen in other white supremacist attacks. For the Nazis, the rune in design stood for “victory”. What is less discussed but nonetheless important is that the symbol has a spiritual component. It is associated with a contemporary religious movement, the populist heathenry – a form of contemporary paganism.
Today, “heathen” is an umbrella term used by people who practice various forms of spirituality inspired by Nordic cultures. Folkish heathenry, in particular, was revived from Nazi spirituality. In the 1960s, a group in Florida began to spread spiritual ideas inspired by Nazi writings, and became their followers throughout the United States. In turn, he also influenced some other heretical groups to adopt white identity politics.
Understanding the spiritual roots of sonnarad can lead to a better understanding of the implications of its use and its importance to members far and wide.
many types of paganism
Heathens is a minority form of contemporary paganism, itself a minority religion. Followers live not only across the United States but are active in Northern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
All forms of contemporary paganism have been shaped by pre-Christian spiritual practices. Contemporary Pagans rely on archaeological, historical and mythological accounts, mixed with modern occult practices, to create a religion that speaks to their lives in the 21st century but is inspired by past practices.
As a sociologist of religion who has studied contemporary paganism for over 30 years, I know that all forms of paganism have many similarities. Contemporary pagans worship gods and goddesses, hold the earth sacred, celebrate the changing seasons in a set of annual holidays, and participate in magical practices. Most of the members of these religions are white. In a survey I conducted with religion scholar James Lewis, whom I discuss in my book “Solitary Pagans,” we found that the majority are socially liberal and open to diversity in all aspects of life, including ethnic and racial differences. Huh.
Those who identify as “heathens” differentiate themselves from other Pagans in several ways. They celebrate the ancient Norse gods who were once worshiped in Scandinavia, Iceland and Germany. When discussing moral issues or looking for the best way to know and celebrate the gods, they rely on medieval Icelandic texts about them: most importantly, two are called the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Runes usually carved or drawn on stones are used in their rituals and divination – that is, to predict the future.
Within Heathenism, there is a growing divide between those who are politically more liberal or middle of the street and populist Heathens who are politically right-wing. Inclusive Heathens believe that all who “hear the call of the Norse gods” should be welcomed into the religion, regardless of race or ethnic background.
On the other hand, the Phokish Heathens maintain that religion should be confined to people of “pure” Northern European heritage; In other words, religion only for white people. They themselves see religion as part of their white identity and have incorporated Nazi writings into their spirituality.
Folkish heathens joined the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and since then, more inclusive heathens have been declaring that populist heathens do not represent their religion.
Adolf Hitler was not particularly religious, but some of his lieutenants adopted a type of occult worship that centered on ancient Norse gods. He saw it as the “Volk” or religion of the folk – the common man and woman whom the Nazi Party romanticized as the heart of the nation.
Since extreme anti-Semitism was at the heart of Nazi ideology, the fact that Jesus was a Jew and that Christianity grew out of Judaism bothered some Nazis. Therefore, he saw Norse traditions as an attractive alternative and envisioned it as the “true” faith, the religion of the natives of northern Europe. Their religion emphasized healthy outdoor living and connecting people to “their” land. The people and the nation were mysteriously bound to the ground.
Propaganda suggested that those considered “outsiders” or “others” were like weeds: they needed to be eliminated for the health of the nation and the health of the people, who were conceived as the “true” people of the land. Was. Runes, worship of Norse gods – especially Odin, who was seen as a warrior god – and Sonnrad were part of this spiritual component that influenced elements of the Nazi agenda. For example, Sonnarad was embedded on the floor of a palace for SS officers.
‘folk’ thoughts today
Similarly, populist heathens in the Americas have come to view the land as “belonging” to white people, even though all except indigenous peoples were immigrated or brought here. Like the Nazis, the land is believed to be spiritually linked to a “people”.
In his manifesto, the suspected shooter in Buffalo argues that he is not religious, although he ends with the words “I’ll see you in Valhalla,” the Norse afterlife words for the warriors. It was the same ending that the terrorist who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 used in his manifesto. The Manifesto of 2022 relied on this earlier one as a model, and both referred to the racist conspiracy theory as the “Great Replacement”.
However, the use of heathen imagery in both of these manifestos is not merely an act of imitation. The Folkish Heathens are part of the Far Right and their imagery of a “pure” white world is attracting other members of the Far Right. Folkish heathens interact with other Pagans and others online and in person even remotely. Heathen religious ritual and imagery are becoming integrated into far-flung groups.
Images like the black sun not only emanated from the ruins of Nazi Germany, but directly from people who are following a contemporary religion. The involvement of the folkloric Heathens in understanding the Far Right is an important piece of the puzzle.