Followers of the old Norse gods call themselves Asatruar, or followers of the way. Asatru, often called Odinism, has experienced a revival in the United States since being granted official recognition by the government of Iceland in 1972. Oklahoma is home to one group of Asatruar: the Oklahoma Great Plains Kindred.
A recent "intelligence report" from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization and law firm that tracks hate groups in the U.S., focused on Odinism in state and federal prisons. According to Aundrea Grooms, an Edmond resident, this new brand of Odinism has conflated her benign form of faith with the racist extremism of white supremacists who have co-opted Asatru for their own ends.
Grooms functions as a gythia, or priestess, for the kindred; Asatruar congregations are called hearths or kindreds. She said she prefers the term "native European traditionalist," the traditions of "pre-conversion Europe."
"In that sense, there is a racial component to it, just as there is in Native American spirituality," Grooms said. "This is the traditional faith of Northern Europe, but we are not racists and do have people of different ethnicities who practice Asatru."
Asatruar, literally "true to the Aesir," are polytheistic. They worship Odin, Thor, Freya, Balder and the other Norse gods. They believe those gods are the creators of the Northern European people, and interestingly think of the god of the Bible as a "giant" " a reference to the third category of gods who are always at war with the Aesir, the gods to whom the Asatruar pledge their faith.
Valgard Murray, the elected spiritual leader of the Asatru Alliance, one of the oldest Asatru groups in the U.S., said the intelligence report from the SPLC is just one more instance of a "concerted propaganda stream against Asatru."
"I've spoken personally with the SPLC," said Murray, who lives in Arizona. "They ignore what I say and publish the filthiest, dirtiest information they can find."
Murray has been practicing Asatru for 40 years. He works as a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and many state correctional departments in Asatru-related matters. He has also testified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. For 23 years he has headed up World Tree Outreach, a prison ministry that supports and defends inmates who practice Asatru.
"The prison system is full of people who use religions to further their own ends," Murray said. "Some guys change their religion just to get a special diet or to get permission to keep a beard. There are some bad guys who use Asatru to further their own agenda. However, they won't use the term Asatru. They prefer Wotanism or Odinism because they believe we don't measure up to their ideals of racial purity."
Grooms said she believes some of the confusion is related to the way prisons function socially. "Prison life is de facto segregation," she said. "People stay within their own ethnic group. The kind of Odinism portrayed by the SPLC is not practiced by any heathen outside of a penitentiary."
'I am certainly not a racist'
The mixing of extremism and religion in racist prison gangs and other ideological hate groups is a growing problem, according to Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Dallas office of the Anti-Defamation League. "Oklahoma is not really a hot spot in the country for this sort of thing," he said. "We consider it a place of moderate hate group activity."
Pitcavage said there are three types of white supremacist hate groups active in Oklahoma: the Ku Klux Klan, racist prison gangs and Christian Identity. Two of those three have overt religious ideologies. The Klan is allegedly a Christian organization, and Christian Identity practices a form of anglo-Israelism, the belief that the white race is the actual chosen race (the lost tribes of Israel) and contemporary Jews are not real Jews.
Pitcavage said there are chapters of the Klan in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Shawnee, Holdenville, Atoka and Henryetta. He also said there are five main racist prison gangs in the state, three of which are specific to Oklahoma, and two to Texas. The Oklahoma gangs are the Oklahoma Aryan Brotherhood, the Universal Aryan Brotherhood and the United Aryan Brotherhood. The Texas gangs active in Oklahoma are the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the Aryan Circle.
"These five gangs have developed an increasing street presence over the past 10 years," he said, "and we've seen the supply of methamphetamine grow where these gangs are."
Christian Identity groups are harder to monitor because many Aryan groups subscribe to some form of Christian Identity, particularly the more virulent anti-Semitic strains, including the idea that nonwhites have no soul and aren't truly human. In Eastern Oklahoma, Christian Identity followers were linked to Elohim City, the compound in Adair County that Timothy McVeigh telephoned before the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing.
"Many Christian Identity types become hybrids," Pitcavage said. "They join various white supremacist or anti-government groups. Much of the time they are very reclusive and meet in isolated areas.
"A larger problem is that most white supremacists are not card-carrying members of any particular group," he said. "You also have pagan groups who claim not to be racist, but their rhetoric speaks of a religion for the white race."
Meanwhile, Asatru speaks of a traditional religion for a specific European culture.
Asatru follower Aundrea Grooms displays items on her home bookshelf, including various figurines of the Nordic god Odin.
Murray said. "I don't know anyone in Asatru who is a racist. There are 40 kindred in the Asatru Alliance, and none of them make race an issue. We believe our gods are the creators of our people, and in that sense, it's no different than traditional religions like Shinto and Native American spirituality."
'Same symbols for different reasons'
The SPLC lists 19 different cells of six categories of hate groups in Oklahoma, including three cells in Oklahoma City: two black separatist groups and one neo-Nazi organization, the National Socialist Movement.
The neo-Nazi symbology has contributed to the conflation of Asatru with racist groups, as both Asatruar and neo-Nazis share symbols from Norse culture, including Thor's hammer and runes.
"The groups got the same symbols for different reasons," Pitcavage said. "Hitler used the European symbols as a means of encouraging nationalism."
Grooms, however, said the symbols were not incorporated for religious purposes. "Hitler writes in 'Mein Kampf' that he is not reviving Wodinism," she said, using another variation of the name. "The Nazis appropriated the symbols for their own agenda."
The common symbols make it difficult to determine who is a racist and who is a follower of Asatru. White supremacist groups that are not neo-Nazi, including heathens and modern-day Vikings, also use the Nazi symbols, thereby increasing the confusion.
"The Nazis co-opted our symbols," Murray said. "I think it should be pointed out that Hitler actually suppressed Asatru. One of our gothar (priests) died in a concentration camp."
Murray said tattooing is not integral to Asatru, but many adherents do tattoo the symbols of their faith on their bodies. Grooms, for example, has a valkyrie on her back.
"It's a personal choice," Murray said. "We're a very non-dogmatic faith. We have commonly held beliefs, not dogma. Our kindreds are like extended families, so we don't accept just anyone. You have to be able to get along and work things out, but we don't reject anyone based on race."
The SPLC recently added a clarification to its report that states its intention was not to imply that the Odinist they highlighted was a member of a racist prison gang. "Greg Horton