Conservative. Republican. Pagan?
It was an odd news story that briefly upended what should have been a sleepy City Council race in Bayside: the Queens Tribune reported that a conservative Republican was running a strong race in the 19th district and had a chance to win in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. But this was a conservative Republican with a difference: Dan Halloran is the spiritual leader of a local pagan group that worships Norse gods.
Although the Tribune‘s story had no hint of derision for Halloran’s religious affiliation, the newspaper was immediately attacked for its perceived ties to Halloran’s Democratic opponent. Other publications were quick to defend the Republican lawyer, some sounding offended that a candidate’s religion, however unusual, should become a news story during an election.
But Halloran’s beliefs are newsworthy. As far as we can tell, he has a chance to become the first pagan elected to political office in the country’s history. (He is certainly the first major party candidate approaching an election with his pagan beliefs already made public.) And while pagans have been growing in numbers for decades, the word “pagan” usually conjures nature-worshippers with interests in faeries and magick. What is a conservative Republican doing with the goddess crowd?
In fact, Halloran and his fellow travelers are more properly thought of as “heathens,” not pagans, and the tribal customs they ascribe to are heavy on hierarchy and tradition.
As the Tribune first pointed out, Halloran is “First Atheling,” or prince, of a Germanic neo-heathenist “theod” or tribe. State records show that he incorporated the group in 2002 with the official name of “New Normannii Reik of Theodish Belief.”
Colloquially, Halloran’s followers refer to their tribe as “New Normandy,” with a territory that incorporates New York City and parts of New Jersey (some of Halloran’s Pennsylvania tribesmen recently broke away — with his blessing — to form their own group, which they call “Arfstoll Thjod“).
After talking with several members of the local theods and looking at what Halloran and others have written, the Germanic neo-heathenism of New Normandy appears to be an inclusive, family-friendly pursuit. Local members enjoy researching history, dressing up, and trying as much as possible to live within the customs and beliefs that one might find in 12th century pagan Denmark while actually living and working in 21st century New York.
But there’s also a darker side to the heathenism movement in America. Festering in the country’s prisons, white supremacists who call themselves heathens and Odinists (after the chief Norse deity Odin), have for decades preached hate and carried out violence in the name of Norse and Germanic mythic figures — who also inspired Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Hate watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center have long warned about the rise of heathen prison gangs.
Halloran’s friends repeatedly assured the Voice that New Normandy has no ties to the white supremacists who practice Odinism.
Halloran himself turned down numerous requests to talk about his beliefs or the group that he leads.
Lou Sancio and Joseph Bloch were more forthcoming. The two have been involved with New York-area heathen groups for the past two decades, including Halloran’s New Normandy. Recently, Sancio was released from his oath to Halloran so that he could form the eastern Pennsylvania group, Arfstoll Thjod. He was the best man at Halloran’s wedding, and has been his friend for more than 20 years. Bloch, another member of the new tribe, has written numerous texts on heathenry.
“Heathenry is the worship of the pre-Christian gods of Northern Europe: Odin, Thor, Freya, the Norse gods,” Bloch says. Theodish heathenism, he explains, puts a great emphasis on rediscovering forgotten traditions. It shares many traits with the larger “Asatru” heathen movement, which worships Norse and Icelandic gods.
It was at Asatru meetings that Sancio first joined Halloran in heathen ritual, getting together in parks, usually in street clothes. “A lot of groups will do that. People passing by wouldn’t necessarily know that the group they were seeing was pagan,” he says.
When Halloran founded New Normandy seven years ago, he was looking for something much more formal and traditional. Sancio describes it as “definitely on the historically accurate end of the spectrum.”
Photographs of past New Normandy gatherings (which have attracted as many as 100 people) tend to look like shots from a Renaissance Fair.
Sancio says period clothing was “always an optional thing,” but that it’s “a good way to separate yourself from everyday life.” He compares it to “getting dressed to go to church. You see ladies in hats they’d never wear to work. You see guys who drive trucks for a living wearing suits.”
Dressed in tunics and cloaks, the oath-holders of New Normandy perform rituals, which sometimes includes animal sacrifice.
Sancio and Bloch say that the ritual of “blot” can involve sacrificing a valued object, but sometimes it involves killing an animal. Bloch stresses that this happens only “on very rare occasions, and when it’s done, it’s done by someone who knows what they’re doing.” Bloch likens it to Kosher or Halal butchering. The animal — usually a lamb, pig or chicken — is subsequently roasted and consumed. Bloch calls it “a kind of sacral barbecue.”
The other principal ritual is “sumbel,” the drinking of wine or mead out of a horn, while making a series of “boasts and toasts.”
“It is not about getting drunk,” says Bloch. “That is discouraged… When you hold the horn, it has a mystical significance.” During sumbel, heathens will boast, or make a declaration, of a goal — with dire consequences from the gods for failure.
Halloran’s Normans usually gather at places owned by members in Long Island, in the Hudson Valley, and in New Jersey. Some years, they meet for a weeklong retreat at a campground. “Getting together isn’t solely about rituals,” says Sancio, “it’s also social.” Members participate in historically accurate pastimes, like sword fighting, archery and a bocci-like game called “koob.”
Newcomers to Halloran’s “reik” — an alternate spelling for “reich,” or territory — are considered “thralls.” The word literally translates as “slave,” and Sancio acknowledges that it’s an “unfortunate” word, and one he didn’t want to find himself defending.
Sancio describes theodish thralldom as “a period of learning, and enculturation. It’s not abusive.” Bloch says that thralls “learn humility” and engage in “menial chores, like washing the dishes.” It’s a chance, Bloch says, for the newcomer to make sure the group is a good fit. Every thrall has a mentor, and Halloran was Sancio’s during his introduction to New Normandy. The strict hierarchy has theological consequences: the group believes that “luck” falls from the Gods to their representative, Halloran, who passes it on to those who have sworn oaths to him.
Sancio dismissed white supremacists who follow the same Germanic deities. “It doesn’t affect what we do,” he says. “Our group, every Theodist group, has no prohibition [on race]…we have had members who are fully or partially African-American, Asian folks. Me, I’m Italian. Most white supremacists wouldn’t even consider me white!”
A photograph at the New Normandy website of a recent event shows several non-white members of the tribe.
In American prisons, however, heathenism is becoming an especially effective recruiting tool.
In the 1990s, Neopaganism replaced Christian Identity as the prevailing religion among white supremacists, according to University of Stockholm religion scholar Mattias Gardell. In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gardell describes how white supremacists had a break “with Christianity — which they see as unnatural, a religion that hails defeat and weakness and is symbolized by a crucified loser.” Increasingly, white nationalism in the country’s prisons is formed around heathen groups that tattoo themselves heavily with symbols of Norse and Germanic worship.
Perhaps the most notorious racist among Odinists was Robert Mathews, founder of The Order, a white nationalist group that killed Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in 1984. Mathews was killed later that year in a fire at his home during a gunfight with federal agents.
Frank Wilson, a retired Deputy of Intelligence for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says that he watched out for new Odinist groups at institutions because most people trying to start them “were white supremacists, and were willing to use it for nefarious reasons.” Still, he cautions that Odinism does not necessarily denote white nationalist fervor. “You can’t point to a tattoo and say ‘you’re a white supremacist,’ or point to it and say ‘you’re an Odinist,'” he says.
But even some pagan advocates express trepidation about white nationalist elements in neo-heathenism. Selena Fox is the founder of Circle Sanctuary, a major theological institution of neo-paganism in America. She successfully led a multi-year effort to force the Pentagon to allow a pentagram to be placed on the headstone of a Wiccan solider killed in Iraq as a matter of religious freedom. She is multi-racial herself, and hates to fuel suspicion of heathen white supremacy. Still, she acknowledges the difficulties facing a religion that some practitioners define, quite literally, as drawing its power from race. “There are some paths of Asatru that focus on ethnic heritage,” says Fox. “When does that focus on ethnic heritage become part of celebrating roots, and when does it become racist?”
Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate at Simon Wiesenthal Center, tells the Voice he’s concerned about the Odinist element and is actively watching it. “The term ‘ethnic pride’ is a code phrase by a lot of these guys,” Weitzman says, while noting that it doesn’t apply to everyone practicing heathen faiths.
Margot Adler, NPR New York bureau chief and author of Drawing Down the Moon, a popular pagan guide, notes that there’s a generational shift happening in paganism. “Politically, pagans are all over the map,” she says. But she points out that there’s a big difference between pagans who came to the religion through the pacifist and feminist movements of the 1970s, and newer people honoring the gods of war and fire and who are into, as Adler puts it, “making their own chain mail, jousting, and a whole warrior culture.”
“Many heathens,” she says, “don’t even consider themselves pagans.” In her book, she notes that some groups are “clearly using Odinist symbols and mythologies as a front for right-wing and even Nazi activities.”
Donald Meinshausen, a Libertarian heathen, says he joined a racialist heathen group when he went to prison for drug distribution. “I had been a pagan for a long time,” he says, “But I hadn’t come to Asatru until I came to prison.”
The Asatru tribe he found there “was for whites only, and I said, ‘I’m OK with that, but I don’t want to hear any hate talk. For your own good, you shouldn’t do that. For our own safety, we shouldn’t do that. We’re here to do research on our roots and on our own spirituality, not to put anyone else down.'” He says the others respected his caveat.
Meinshausen, who doesn’t consider himself racist, says he can “remember when I lived in New York City, and there were dyke bars that if you were a guy, you couldn’t walk in. So, they have their own club, and that’s OK. And I am sure there are organizations reserved for African Americans, people of African descent. And let’s say there was an Italian American Association, they probably wouldn’t let you join, unless you were Italian or had taught Italian somewhere. Unless I hear something different, that’s how I assume [Asatru racialists] are.”
Rob Taylor, who calls himself “the web’s most popular Bi-racial Republican pagan,” says that the connection between heathenism and racism has been overblown. “It’s an urban myth among pagans that all Odinists are white nationalists,” he says. And who started the myth? Taylor says it’s the Wiccans.
“Wiccans and re-constructionist pagan religions engage in infighting,” he says, charging “Wicca is just smearing the competition.” Taylor initially came to paganism as a teenager via Wicca, but the young Reaganite soon turned to Odinism. Odinism’s rules and order appealed to his conservative nature, while Wicca he now describes as a “fraud” and “a leftist thing — not just Democrat, but far left politically. Theodism and heathenism are more conservative.”
In New York City, there’s an organization whose goal, in part, is to unite local pagans of all types. And according to the Queens Tribune, the New York City Pagan Pride Project’s legal counsel and incorporating attorney just happens to be Dan Halloran.
But when the Voice called the Project to ask about Halloran running for office, spokeswoman Star Ravenhawk (a witch), says she had never heard of him. And she added: “I don’t necessarily consider heathens to be pagans.”
Ravenhawk was also surprised to hear that Halloran is a Republican. “Most of us are Democrats,” she said, adding that “To be a pagan, you have to have faith in a higher power.” She doubted that heathens shared that sentiment.
But Halloran hasn’t left any doubt on that score. After the Tribune story revealed his heathenism, he answered with an article in the Queens Chronicle, titled “I Believe in God.” That use of the singular noun, however, didn’t sit well with pagan bloggers, who reacted with scorn for Halloran’s refusal to use the words “gods.” Pandering to Roman Catholic voters, some called it.
The blowback was so strong, Halloran responded with an e-mail to one of the blogs (after repeatedly telling the Voice that questions about his religion had no bearing on his candidacy). Halloran pledged his allegiance to the one-handed Germanic deity Tiw (also spelled Tyr). He also avowed “respect of the Gods of the North and the Wights of Middenyard,” and declared that he’s such a proud heathen, his two cars bear personalized license plates that read “Tiw Tru” and “Tyr Tru.”
The original Tribune article has rankled Halloran from the time it was published. His campaign has charged that the Tribune is published by the same people who own Multi-Media, a PR firm that his Democratic opponent, Kevin Kim, retained for $80,000. Kim doesn’t dispute this: “My relationship is with Multi-Media. That relationship has been fully disclosed. You’ll have to ask the Tribune about their editorial decisions.”
Pagan or not, Halloran still looks like a tailor-made candidate for the Bayside district. He’s Irish, a former cop turned lawyer, and he descends from a long line of Roman Catholic police officers. Kim, a Korean-American, is better financed, but much of Kim’s support comes from outside the 19th district, which is not overwhelmingly Asian.
Last week, things heated up again when Kim’s campaign filed a police report alleging that two Asian campaign workers had been harassed by Halloran supporters while they were putting up posters. They claim that the duo was surrounded by about a dozen white teens, carrying Halloran paraphernalia and chanting “White Power!” and “Asian Man Out!”
Halloran doesn’t believe a word of it. “They said it happened at 3:30 in the afternoon, but there were no witnesses?” Halloran told the Voice at a recent campaign stop. Halloran accuses Kim of trying to create religious and racial divides where they don’t exist. But again, he didn’t bring up his own religious beliefs.
Next week, one candidate will make history in Bayside. If Halloran is defeated, Kim will be the first Korean-American elected to New York’s city council.
Or, if Halloran wins, he will surely be the only elected official in America with special license plates honoring an ancient, one-handed German god.