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Heathenry as an Anti-Imperialist Tradition

September 1, 2012

This article very clearly outlines the forces facing the Germanic tribes during the days of the Roman Empire.  From cross-border raids to slavery and forced tribute Siegfried makes a clear case the ancient Germanics were on the receiving end of and their awareness of Roman imperialism.  He argues events like Arminius’ uprising and other attacks by the Germanics were acts of resistance to the encroaching power of Rome.  He urges Heathens to remember this example when assessing resistance to uses of American military and economic power. The original text can be found here.

Heathenry as an Anti-Imperialist Tradition by Siegfried Goodfellow.

What does it mean to belong to a tradition that fought so vehemently against Empire? Well, at the very least, it would mean that we would tend to look with skepticism at statements coming from within an empire, and we might at least examine with an open mind the statements of those people who are resisting empire. In the modern world, the United States, Britain, and other countries tend to form the nucleus of a global empire, and so, in the United States, this skepticism towards imperialism would mean actually taking the time to read the statements of those leaders and peoples who are resisting or fighting the United States Empire. It certainly doesn’t mean an uncritical embrace of anyone who opposes an empire or the United States Empire specifically, but it would mean taking the time to actually learn about anti-imperial efforts around the world, at least before one explicitly and in a knee-jerk fashion began to condemn them.

This is a matter of selection in whom we listen to, and in an empire, we are often encouraged to see and look through the empire’s eyes. Well, this was not how old Germanic warriors fighting against the Roman Empire saw things, and so we might begin by looking at other Third World countries like Germania once was, and listening to what they have to say, because they may have interesting things to say, which will not “convert” us to their point of view by any means, but give us a broader perspective from which to understand the power politics in the world.

One of Odin’s names is sooth, the authentic truth behind appearances, that requires listening to all the testimony available. Our myths alert us to the fact that behind many disparate narratives of war and aggression lies one archetypal story : the rapacious wolf bred by greed, fear-mongering, lies, and the breeding of strife. Once you understand that metanarrative, many of the stories of history and war line up as only so many nuances and instances of that greater mythic tale. It has been pointed out before that one of the primary symbols of Rome was the Wolf, the so-called Lupus Martius, or “Wolf of Mars”. As Germani tribesmen identified Mars with Tyr, their god of warriors, the possibility that the myth of Tyr’s role in binding Fenris may have come together with feelings about the Germanic warrior’s role in relation to the Roman Empire must be given serious consideration. It is certainly not outside the scope of prophetic symbolism wielded by our ancestors, and may have been adapted to this cause. Certainly the tradition held warnings about kings who stepped over their rightful limits and began to set up proto-empires ; the legends about Ermanerich and his tyrannies, characterized by “wolfish” behavior, were cautionary tales that aligned Germanic warriors with freedom-fighters and restorers of ancient rights such as Dietrich.

If we are to align ourselves with ancestors who fought with tremendous courage to defend their traditional lands and groves against the incursions of empire, we would dishonor them if we did not at least include their eyes as a lens with which to look at our modern world. The reason this is not often done is that it is easier to abstractly claim ancestors than it is to demonstrate any kind of loyalty towards what they really stood for, particularly because looking through their anti-imperial lens might require us to take a far more critical look at many of the institutions, stances, and stories we take for granted in the modern world. Yet how can we fail to look at the significance of their history of resistance?

When Spartacus began his uprising against slavery in the Third Servile War of 73 – 71 B.C., one of the most famous slave revolts of history, his compatriots were Germanic, Celtic-Gaulish, and Thracian slaves of the gladiator arenas, who decided to fight to end their submission. One of his fellow leaders, Crixus, a Celt from Gaul, led a contingent of 15 – 20,000 men, mainly Germanic slaves, with some Gauls and others mixed in. In 393 A.D., Saxon prisoners were brought to the gladiatorial arenas by the Roman aristocrat Symmachus to slaughter each other before the public, but instead, many of them committed suicide. What this means is that for roughly 500 years, Germanic peoples had been subjected to enslavement by Rome, which became one of their big resentments against the Roman Empire. Historian Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his masterful The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005), avers that the barbarian invaders were not devoid of hatred for Romans who for centuries had acted as if “the best barbarian was a dead barbarian” (p.24.) Monuments showing the slaughter of Germanic warriors, and the enslavement of their women and children eixsted in various places throughout the Empire as taunting signs of conquest.

The fight against slavery was one of the big motivations for a Germanic man to go into war. Tacitus mentions their wives imploring them to fight to keep them from being dragged into slavery, and Arminius, rallying the Germans to fight the Roman legions, continually emphasizes that it is literally a matter of freedom or slavery, and having seen what the Roman Empire reduced conquered provincials to, he knew what he was talking about. Arminius’ uprising is correctly seen, therefore, not only as an act of national liberation, but a successful warding off of slavery.

These facts are some of the most important facts of Germanic history. Without Arminius’ uprising, it is unlikely anyone would be speaking a Germanic language, and other Germanic customs such as juries and so forth would probably have given way to Roman law. Saga is deeply and richly important in Germanic religion ; her name is the name of a Goddess and blesses our attempts to give story to genealogy and history. The Icelandic Family Sagas are important monuments to a later age in Germanic history, but the tales told by foreign witnesses such as Tacitus and others of the heroic resistance of Germanic peoples in the interests of freedom are extraordinarily important for heathens to integrate. I would go so far as to say that these largely unwritten sagas ought remain central. Over time, the resistance to empire became a critical core of the Germanic ethos, and we, the heirs of their tradition, ought therefore to understand their tradition in the proper light.

The end result of failed slave revolts in Rome was crucifixion. It was a dishonorable death reserved for slaves and traitors. The First Servile War or uprising, led by the prophet Eunus, ended in punishments that prominently included crucifixion. When Spartacus’ revolt was finally crushed, 6000 of the rebels were crucified up and down the Appian Way. Germanic peoples would have been very familiar with crucifixion, and what a cross meant. Given the largely non-literate nature of Germanic peoples, it is interesting to speculate whether iconography and stories of a saviour or liberator nailed to a cross would have invoked more imagery of slave-revolts and anti-imperial resistance than it would have a Palestinian man-god. Saxo Grammaticus places the Frodi-Frith, won through wars against invading tyrants and thieves, about the time of Christ. It is possible that the iconography of the crucifix, as a symbol of revolt against empire’s enslavement and its imperial punishment, may have reminded native Germans of their own stories of Frodi’s uprisings against Ermanerich’s bodyguard-army of giants, which ended not with Frodi on a cross, but the giants themselves being chained to the mill of peace and plenty. It should be noted in this regard that within a handful of years after the alleged birth of Christ, Arminius succeeded in liberating Germania from Roman domination.

In general, given that our myths make giants the enemies of the Gods, we should look with suspicion on the big players throwing around their weight in any conflict, particularly an international one, and look with interest and curiosity at the lesser players engaged in the conflict. We should beware the smokescreen that Loki’s people throw over everything, and the greed that motivates Angrboda’s wolves. If you have become used to looking at the world through a giant’s eyes, even a giant that identifies itself with the values of your history and people, loyalty to the Gods might suggest looking with greater criticism at the statements and positions of any giant. That this might lead you, through careful investigation of all sides of an argument, to scary positions relative to mainstream beliefs about countries, peoples, and histories, is a given, but that, after all, is another reason why courage was so valued amongst our ancestors.

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