Regular Elhaz Ablaze readers will be familiar with the name of one of our most consistent commenters: Von den Vielen Raben – meaning Of Many Ravens in English. Von den Vielen Raben is a gifted and rigourous thinker with a deep knowledge of matters philosophical and religious. He recently sent me the text of this article and I was bowled over and immediately asked if we could present it here at Elhaz Ablaze. It was originally presented in 2007 at a university conference.
~ Heimlich A. Loki
Pagan Mourning: Heidegger on the Passing and the Return of the Gods
By Von den Vielen Raben
§ 1 Preliminary Reflections
I am a neo-pagan by faith. My scholarly leaning, too, is toward the reaffirmation of the lost pagan meaning of being in Western philosophy, on which my PhD is based by interpreting the difficult works of Martin Heidegger. Fighting the metaphysical oblivion of the gods in philosophy on the one hand, and the oppressive pervasiveness of what Heidegger calls the “onto-theology” of the monotheistic traditions on the other, my self-esteem as a neo-pagan has for many years been bolstered by a sense of being on the progressive side of history, or the “history of being” as Heideggerians would call it. It was only in recent months that I came to realise that this understanding on my part was dangerously conditioned by the relative isolation of my Australian “being-in-the-world”. As Heidegger would have put it, Dasein, as the self-disclosure of individual existence, is nothing more than the inscription of finitude on being. It is the “there” of my mortal span on terra australis – or rather terra australis incognita in the history of philosophy. My Australian paganism appears to be a splinter phenomenon that is cut off from the wholeness of being that a pagan Dasein has always meant for me. In my needful reflection on the question of authenticity that now arises, melancholy comes into play. Can a pagan’s melancholy like mine be used positively to create what Heidegger calls mindful awareness (Besinnung) of the primordiality of being? Or is melancholy always determined by the abyss of loss, in this case the loss of the pagan gods in the modern culture of “universalism”, which Heidegger addresses in his private writings from the 1930s on the question of the “last god”?
It was mainly through my regular intellectual engagements with my German and Scandinavian friends in Sydney, most of whom live here only temporarily and therefore stay decidedly North European, that I came to learn of the complexity of the sheer historicity of being “pagan”. Introduced as a neo-pagan to North Europeans, I was asked on several occasions whether I was a neo-fascist. I am not one. Yet to many Germans who were born after the war, the word “Heidentum”, which can be translated into English as either “paganism” or “heathenry”, is associated with the reappearance of what some academics call “brown esotericism” on terra europa, but is no longer confined there. This kind of esotericism is “brown” because it is Ariosophy: the “folkish” occultism of the Aryan race which characterised the beginnings of pagan revival in Austria and Germany at the turn of the last century, and which was eagerly appropriated by the Nazis. Today, riding on the currents of international anti-Semitism that defines the neo-Nazi scene, Ariosophy finds its supporters as far east as the non-Aryan land of Russians and even finds curious resonance in the Islamic heartland of Iran, once Aryan Persia. In postwar Japan and Taiwan, too, neo-fascist groups continue to strive for the never quite complete Dasein of “honourary Aryans”. And the transnational Aryan ties go further still. Christopher Hale’s Himmler’s Crusade, published not so long ago in 1993, educates us about the Nazi obsession with Tibetans as primordial Aryans; and vice versa, the Tibetans’ initial receptivity to the Nazis that was not at all unfavourable. In view of these bewildering lines of current and historical developments, paganism becomes more a question of race rather that of the gods; or that of a racial and racialist religion. If I were in Germany today, calling myself neo-pagan would be to risk becoming identified with the revival of conflict-driven Ariosophy in our strife-torn world. The same applies to scholarly discourse on new religious movements. Academics and students alike will be familiar with the groundbreaking work of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the Exeter professor of Western esotericism who valiantly tackles the question of the rebirth of paganism in this Ariosophical context. His two books, The Occult Roots of Nazism (1985) and Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (2002), are essential readings in any critical appraisal of pagan revivalism. Those who are timid at heart may be fully pursuaded by the didactice anti-paganism of Karla Poewe, the German-born Canadian anthropologist who in New Religions and the Nazis argues that any pagan revival in Europe ncessarily has a fascist agenda, in that it inevitably involves a radical struggle against Christianity, which is Jewish in origin. Published in 2005, Poewe’s book reflects the methodological leaning also of many German academics when it comes to the study of neo-pagans. Carl Gustav Jung’s controversial thesis on Germany’s deep fear of the return of Odin as descent into chaos and destruction may still be relevant today.
Already in 2003, Mattias Gardell from Sweden makes an assessment in his book Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism that nearly half of the Norse and Germanic neo-pagan movements in the USA harbour a racist worldview. In her recent article “The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s)”, Australian academic Carole Cusack makes a less disturbing assessment of the Asatru scene, claiming that only some of its organisations take part in “right-wing politics”, while most are scholars devoted to the study of runes and the Eddas, especially Asatruars who are “folkish”, i.e. those who believe that spirituality and race are interwoven and organise their groups accordingly. Given that countries such as America and Australia are multicultural democracy, such position gives rise to fierce debates in contemporary Norse and Germanic paganism concerning the “folkish” versus the “universalist” approach. The “folkish” Asatruars will insist that Asatru is for whites only, whereas the “universalist” Asatruars will accept members on the basis of spiritual receptivity, independent of someone’s racial and cultural background. The cultural politics of the Asatru Folk Assembly, the first Asatru organisation in America and openly “folkish”, cause some controversy as its leader Stephen McNallen views the increasing Hispanic population in his country in terms of a war between the Norse and the Aztec gods. Another controversy was created when McNallen entered into a publicised dispute with the Native Americans over the remains of the 9300-year-old Kennewick Man, claiming the skeleton, discovered in 1996 on a river bank in Washington State, to be of Norse origin when intitial testings indicated it to be not American Indian. Yet scientists argue that using morphometrics to determine the racial origin of any paleoamerican remains is fraught with uncertainties. To this date the question of verifying the genetic markers of the Kennewick Man remains an open one.
What these two “folkish” controversies certainly reveal is the difficult problem of grounding pagan identity in the biologism of race. The Kennewick Man case has opened up new possibilities in archaeological reflections that question the usefulness of “race” as a scientific concept for archaeologists. The formation of Native American nations, for example, was not determined by race, but by voluntary associations of people over a long period of time, who shared a common notion of sovereignty in a particular topos. If we call Native Americans “pagans” – and many Asatruars do liken themselves to Native Americans -, then they are so by virtue of their history and their culture, not a racial identity that they themselves try to construct and assert. “Folkish” neo-paganism, then, is confronted with the existential problem of the abyss of identity construction, since racial markers are ideological inscriptions on the factical embodiment of Dasein and are therefore readings, not explications. Race explains nothing. Over the Kennewick Man the Asatru Folk Assembly fell into the same methodological quagmire of the type of archaeology practised by Heinrich Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, a SS institute founded in 1935 to carry out research on Aryan ancestry.
This is not to say that in determining the ontological meaning of neo-paganism, “folkish” ideas do not correspond to a hermeneutic horizon that requires a careful examination and engagement, especially for any Dasein who has a self-understanding to be “pagan”. In this regard, pagan scholars have much to learn from Heidegger’s attempt to wrest the primordial meaning of das Volk away from the contemporary racism and biologism of the Nazi society that he lived in. Heidegger is particularly relevant to a thoughtful approach to pagan revivalism, in that the profound distress caused by what he called the “gigantism” of the Nazi war machine led him to produce the first philosophical writings on the gods in Western modernity. Heidegger was the first pagan thinker in modern Western philosophy, yet his writings – they number over 90 volumes in the Gesamtausgabe – have not even been taken up in neo-paganism.
§ 2 The “Godding” of the Gods
In 1989 the editor of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrman, published Beiträge zur Philosophie: Vom Ereignis (Volume 65). It consists of Heidegger’s writings that were written in secret between the years of 1936 and 1938. It is therefore a sigetic work. Before his death in 1976, Heidegger placed great hope in its eventual publication, believing that it will be revealed to the world as his second magnum opus after Being and Time. The English translation of Beiträge did not appear until 1999, as Contributions to Philosophy: Of Enowning, and its impact on Heidegger scholarship in the English language has only just begun.
In Beiträge Heidegger moves away from the existential resoluteness of Dasein in Being and Time as the promising ground of authenticity in face of the ever-present possibility of death. In its place is the near-mystical appropriation of Dasein by the epochal unfolding of the meaning of being to Dasein qua being itself, which nevertheless stays away from being understood as any kind of being, including God. The ground of being is abyssal; its history, an interplay of nearness and distance, of memory and forgetting. Heidegger uses the emblematic notion of Ereignis – which in ordinary German means “event” but this is carefully avoided by Heidegger – to hint at the interpretive fusion of appropriation, resonance and opening that characterises the history of being and Dasein’s projection upon it. What Heidegger calls “being-historical” thinking, which he attempts to outline in Beiträge, is to be distinguished from historiographical research on the meaning of historical events. However, the disappearance of pagan gods from European life through the Christianisation of the West is one major historical occurrence that reveals a great deal about the nature of the understanding of being in the Dasein of Western men and women. It is the overall appropriation of this understanding by monotheism, which posits God as the creator of all beings, the summum bonum of being itself. To conceive of being outside God is impossible in Christian thought – and similarily in Judaism and Islam. But according to Heidegger, what this divine schema overlooks is the dualism of transcendence and immanence that has its origin in Plato’s doctrine of forms. Earth can never be that good, for it is only an imperfect copy of an original image that is not accessible to mortal perception. Existence on earth is a lack rather than fulfilment.
The attractiveness of paganism for many is the dwelling of the sacred in immanence. Sacred mountains and sacred rivers are existential truths. Seasonal changes and summer and winter solstices generate a yearning for connection with the divine; the same with major stages in human life such as birth, marriage and death. The gods and the goddesses that neo-pagans follow have qualities that humans can relate to, even if they are negative ones, as in the case of the Norse god Loki. While the Aesir deities are far superior to the mortals, their speeches and actions as recorded in the Eddas and the sagas that can enter the hermeneutic circle of Dasein’s understanding, providing a clearing in being that Dasein can project upon in its existential possibilities. Pagan theurgy is temporal, not eternal, but it is no less sacred because of that. For a pagan, no attempt is made to worship perfection. He or she understands the work of time, which is change. Death is embraced as a part of life, as a transition to the other world, or the beginning of a new journey; it is not seen as an imperfection in existence.
In Beiträge, Heidegger describes our fundamental attunement to the gods in terms of our guardianship of the sacred on earth. At the very least, this involves a distressing recognition of the struggle of world against earth in the rage of the “gigantic”, fueled in his time by the Nazis’ ambitions for planetary domination and control. Heidegger is against both political and technological imperialism; the idea of the Aryan “master race” repels him. For Heidegger, the pagan Dasein calls for creating conditions on earth that will see the re-establishment of the fourfold of gods and mortals, sky and earth, which is envisioned in Hölderlin’s poem “Germanien”. Heidegger sees in Hölderlin the finest example of philosophical thinking in the gathering power of poetic language. Unlike his Romantic contemporaries Goethe and Winckelmann, Hölderlin actually believed in the pagan gods as living beings and loved them, and his continued devotion to Christ caused an inner conflict that eventually claimed his sanity. Heidegger never declared himself to be a neo-pagan. Yet through the significance that he places on Hölderlin, it is very possible that the pagan character of Heidegger’s Beiträge was shaped by his reading of this great poet. “Germanien” was important enough for Heidegger to devote a whole lecture course to its interpretation in 1934. In this poem, Germany is depicted as a priestess who serves the gods and provides spiritual hospitability to all those who come to her:
Yet at the centre of time
In peace with hallowed,
With virginal earth lives aether
And gladly, for remembrance, they
The never-needy dwell
Hospitably amid the never-needy,
Amid your holidays,
Germania, where you are priestess and
Defenceless proffers all round
Advice to the kings and the peoples.
By 1934 Heidegger was sufficiently disillusioned by his initial involvement with the National Socialist restructuring of universities to come up with some form of resistance against the Ariosophical madness all around him. Through his lecture on “Germanien”, Heidegger offered an understanding of the German Volk that was radically different from the official Aryan revisionism that saw in the same poem the heralding of a pan-German nationalism. In “Germanien”, Germany is a Volk of the gods and their land is a gateway to the sacred. In another of Hölderlin’s famous poem, “Der Ister”, on which Heidegger also gave a lecture, this time in 1942, the Germanic goddess of earth Hertha is mentioned. Hölderlin describes the Germans as children of Hertha, a Volk with a profound relationship with nature. In this poem, too, Heidegger sees hospitability as essential to Dasein’s attunement to the sacred: Hölderlin describes the secret dwelling of the Greek god Heracles by the Danube – Ister is its Roman name -, to which the German people belong as much as the Rhine. The stranger Heracles has made his home in Germany through the graciousness of Hertha.
Hertha and Ostara are both Germanic goddesses linked to the fertility of earth and of those who dwell upon it. Ostara, unfortunately, was used as the name of the most rabid Ariosophical journal that was circulated in Vienna in the early 1900s. The editor of Ostara was Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, who made some name in the “folkish” milieu through the racial dualism of his “theozoology”, which depicts a worldwide struggle between the Aryans and the “inferior” races and the former’s eventual victory and hegemony. Prior to his rise to fame Adolf Hitler was a keen reader of possibly every issue of Ostara. Lanz’s choice of Ostara was based on his vision of Aryan eugenics. Ostara in Ariosophy is the divine mother of the master race to come. Himmler’s Lebensborn program was the later political manifestation of Lanz’s ideals. Both were anti-feminists obsessed with their fear of Aryan women losing control of their lust and producing children of mixed races. This fear has its resurgence in the “folkish” neo-paganism of the Asatru Folk Assembly, which discourages interracial sex and marriages. While not openly racist, this leading Asatru organisation believes in the separation of peoples so that the Norse and the Germanic blood can survive. Such racial politics is also advocated by the Thule Seminar, a rather secretive institute of the German New Right. Its founder Pierre Krebs claims in Im Kampf um das Wesen that multculturalism in Europe is a conspiratorial program of global forces encouraging the “ethno-suicide” of Germans and other Europeans. In this aspect Krebs is supported by Alain de Benoist from the French New Right, whose writings are translated into German by the Thule Seminar. Both men recommend a politics of difference based on “ethno-pluralism”, which in the meaning of the New Right is “folkish” separatism: they see any celebration of diversity on the same soil of Europe as dangerous and misguided. They also advocate neo-paganism as an anti-thesis to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but without actual adherence to any revived or reconstructed pagan tradition. In Krebs’ view especially, paganism is a metapolitical strategy aimed at bringing about a symbolic war between “Greece” and “Jerusalem”, such that Europeans will be reawakened as children of the Iliad and the Eddas, not of the Bible. This is nothing short of a violent rebirth in Christian Europe. In this process, Krebs sees Germany playing the role of the “inner Reich” of all European nations, instead of different European peoples deciding their own destiny. Hence the “folkish” appropriation of the ancient meaning of the “all-father” in the leading god figure of Odin, also known as Wotan in German.
All this is far cry from the paganism of Hölderlin and Heidegger. The biologism prevalent in some neo-pagan circles, potentially fascist, will find its critique in Heidegger’s Beiträge, who nevertheless is not against the notion of Volk as such. Volk for Heidegger is the proximity of Dasein to being, since it is what comes most ready-to-hand in Dasein’s being-in-the-world. It is the proximal access to Dasein’s selfhood. Yet in the present age of what Heidegger calls the abandonment of being, when the abyss beckons at Dasein for going under instead of surpassing and mastery, the existential nearness of the Volk is an illusion that can further distances Dasein from the primordial question of being. This is because the nearness and the distance of the Volk to Dasein is historicised in accordance with Dasein’s own understanding of being, which is highly problematised in modernity. Instead, it is through the uncanny of the stranger, and not the familiarity of the Volk, that Dasein can come to understand its selfhood. The stranger is not necessarily a member of the other Volk or race, as “folkish” thinking would want us to believe, but one who is aware of the daimonios topos of the truth of being, like the warrior Er in Plato’s Republic, who returns from the land of the dead to tell the living about the allotment of destiny to those who are to be born on earth. The stranger is someone who understands, and it can be anybody. For example, a “witch”. Or the ghostly loner that introduces anxiety and trembling into the question of the race (Geschlecht) of humanity in Heidegger’s postwar reading of Trakl. Our question is the encounter of this stranger among our midst and how we relate to him or her. Only then can a Volk be renewed in the clearing of being. Hospitality, however, is the essential condition for the stranger to exist; xenophobia, on the contrary, drives him or her to extinction. It is important for a Volk to be hospitable.
The Hölderlinian-Heideggerian axis of pagan revival is founded upon an understanding of being that has the openness and the reception of hospitability as its essence. And this renewal, which is also remembrance of being, cannot take place without the gods.
Reading Heidegger’s philosophy, then, opens up possibilities in neo-pagan thinking that are vital to the future directions of neo-paganism as a whole. This is a challenge when the philosophy of the New Right is enthusiastically taken up by neo-pagan organisations such as the Asatru Folk Assembly as justification of a pagan traditionalism.