Why you should care
Because not all neo-pagans are hippies.
I meet Edgar Foxbottom (name changed) on a beautiful spring day in the Jardin de Tuileries. In a vintage button-up shirt, tailored slacks and polished loafers, he looks like a time traveler from a chicer Parisian era, and sophisticated far beyond his twentysomething years. As we watch children pilot wooden sailboats on the artificial pond in front of the Louvre, Foxbottom buys us tea. We sip and talk about the seemingly countless statues of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in the museum. “You see, the difference between monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity and polytheistic ones is that we European pagans never had global conquest in mind,” he explains, overlooking, say, the Roman Empire. “These violent religions need to go back to the desert.”
History challenged or not, Foxbottom is one of a growing number of Europeans who subscribe to a racially charged brand of neo-paganism. Unlike the peace-loving, crystal-wielding neo-pagans who practice a universalistic mixture of Wicca and shamanism, these polytheists believe that Europeans are aligned in some deep-seated genetic way with their ancestors’ ancient religions. The migrant crisis of 2015 and recent terrorist attacks have only served to swell the ranks of disaffected right-leaning millennials who are turning to ultranationalism cloaked in neo-paganism in hopes of a return to what they perceive as order.
Racial paganism has its origins in Nazi Germany. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was a well-known occultist who led several campaigns to re-paganize the country. One of his projects was transforming Wewelsburg, a Renaissance castle in Westphalia, into a pagan Vatican City — to be the capital of the Nazi global empire following a wished-for German victory in World War II.
When people feel unsettled by social change, these kinds of ideologies draw on Utopian fantasies about … a simpler, more rooted time.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, associate professor of education and sociology, American University
Today, right-wing extremist political parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece and CasaPound in Italy, who reject Catholicism in favor of ancient Greek and Roman polytheism, violently defend their homelands from “desert” and “invasive” religions. In 2015, CasaPound members and angry locals in the village of Quinto di Treviso, northwest of Venice, descended on an empty apartment complex designed to house immigrants and trashed the place, setting fire to beds and breaking televisions.
During the Golden Dawn’s parliamentary campaign in 2015, party member Ilias Panagiotaros proclaimed in a fiery speech at a rally in Athens that “if Golden Dawn gets into Parliament, we will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens, and we will throw immigrants and their children out in the streets so Greeks can take their place.” Golden Dawn ended up winning 18 seats, making it the third-largest party in parliament. Later that year, attacks on immigrants reportedly doubled.
Once seen as thuggish and on the fringe, Europe’s right-wing pagans have received increased media attention as they’ve assumed a more mainstream aesthetic. Gone are the medieval-style arming hoods and other over-the-top fascist fashion statements of euro-pagan bands like Death in June or Blood Axis; instead, the polytheists are more aligned with Foxbottom’s look. Furthermore, potential neo-pagans don’t have to declare allegiance to the old gods when they join a political party; think-tank groups like Erkenbrand in Holland and the Iliad Institute in France give adherents the option of ascribing to nationalist pagan ideologies without participating in ritualistic ceremonies.
Other neo-pagan messaging is staying on brand. Erkenbrand and the Iliad Institute’s websites are slick, minimalist and devoid of the dark colors and ominous runic symbols characteristic of older far-right groups. Within these academic-looking sites, one can find such provocatively titled articles as “Why Does It Matter if the White Race Becomes Extinct?” and “Immigration Catastrophe — What Is to Be Done?”
Erkenbrand and the Iliad Institute brand themselves to appeal to youths, with the latter group hosting training sessions that promise to awaken “the people and nations of Europe in order to combat the risk of ’great erasure’ of our civilization and to renew the common thread of our identity.” As Cynthia Miller-Idriss, associate professor of education and sociology at the American University and author of the forthcoming book Extreme Gone Mainstream, explains, “When people feel unsettled by social change, these kinds of ideologies draw on Utopian fantasies about national restoration to a simpler, more rooted time. It is similar to the appeal of calls to foreign fighters to help restore the Islamic caliphate.”
The notion of heroism is deeply intertwined with the neo-pagan right’s use of Norse and Celtic imagery. Members of the Soldiers of Odin, a Finnish anti-immigrant vigilante group that formed in 2015 to patrol the streets of Kemi, wear jackets emblazoned with the likeness of the god who ruled Valhalla. Images of Viking, Germanic and Roman warriors with inflated muscles and bloodied broadswords abound on the websites of the Iliad Institute, Erkenbrand and, more recently, its American counterpart Identity Europa. Eric Kurlander, author of Hitler’s Monsters, explains this “second-hand” appropriation of racial paganism is “mediated through the lens of contemporary culture — comic books, popular movies, video games, pulp fiction and fantasy literature, etc.”
A subsection of the Iliad Institute’s suggested reading list is dedicated to graphic novels and comic books. “The young militant neo-pagan sees himself as both the defender of European values and heir of a long line of misanthropes who lost everything for their cause,” explains Stéphane François, a political scientist and specialist in right-wing neo-paganism. These misanthropes, of course, include the likes of Heinrich Himmler.
As we finish our second tea and the sun sinks low in the sky, Foxbottom and I say our goodbyes. “The lone wolves are gathering,” he says cryptically before leaving with a shy yet serious smile. Not knowing how to respond, I head to the Louvre, curious to see the marble statues of the old gods.