Review: Lale, Asatru for Beginners

Lale, Erin. Asatru for Beginners. e-book second edition, 2009. 157 pages.

Asatru for Beginners is by Erin Lale, an Asatruar who has run for office as a candidate for the Libertarian party. Lale moderated an MSN group for Asatruar for several years, and the book grew out of the FAQ and resources for that group. The book’s origins show clearly, and while it tries to be representative of many or most Asatruar, at times the author’s personal and political agendas come through with startling clarity.

Despite the title, I wouldn’t actually recommend this book for beginners. I think it would be most useful for someone who has a foundation in Asatru and wants to see what the collective documents of a group of Asatruar look like. Reading the book, I think I get a sense of what a lot of the conversations on the list must have looked like to come to these mostly-consensus positions. Encountering those as filtered through the author could be useful for someone trying to get more involved in Asatru, but it does not even attempt to be an unbiased look at Asatru written for someone with no basis.

Perhaps the most useful parts of the book are an alphabetical listing of deities, which I can see as a great resource for beginning practitioners, and the simple rituals for major life events. There is also a rune chart and some straightforward descriptions of how magic might be incorporated in an Asatru framework, plus an overview of additional resources. All of these would be valuable for anyone starting to follow the Asatru path.

The book could certainly do with more thorough editing. It is repetitive, reflecting its structure as parts of a FAQ rather than a book meant to be read linearly. Some things are a little oddly placed or phrased. A warning against not taking oaths in a language you do not understand is included in the FAQ answer on initiations, which seems strange to me. (13) In another place, the text seems to say that the political power of the Roman Empire was only broken after the Protestant Reformation. (33) Surely this is a mistake of confusing the religious power of Rome in Catholicism with the Roman Empire, but it seems to demonstrate a lack of attention to detail, especially since this is the second edition of the book. Some capitalization issues (“Science,” “Lesbians”) and paragraph problems also make the book look less professional than it might otherwise.

Unfortunately, the bigger problem is that some issues that have plagued Northern European reconstructionists show up here too. Lale says that there is disagreement within Asatru about “whether a person must belong to a particular nation in order to be that particular type of heathen.” She continues: “Those who say no are called universalists.  Those who say yes are called folkisch.  However, even among the folkisch, the tradition of tribal adoption is honored, and those of mixed ethnicity are welcomed as long as they have some ancestors from the given nation.”

This seems to me to only begin to scratch the surface of the tremendous issues surrounding race within Asatru. That may be appropriate for beginners, and is certainly okay on a website’s FAQ, but this is a missed opportunity for Lale to expand this material into a better form. Later, the Asatruar involvement in Kennewick Man situation is mentioned, and the author says that Kennewick Man “is 9,000 years old, and dates from a time before the modern races evolved,” which seems to me to confirm an outdated form of thinking about races as simply biologically distinct, rather than a complex interaction of biology and culturally-defined categories that can vary greatly. (15)

The issue of race in Asatru’s history comes up: Lale disavows any connection between Nazi Germany and Heathenism in confused ways; she acknowledges that some Nazis used some Heathen symbols, but maintains that Hitler was a Christian and that Heathens were persecuted in Nazi Germany as well. (33, 34) Again, I understand the limitations of a FAQ, but in a book, surely this could have been addressed with more nuance. The Nazis and their attitudes toward religon were not monolithic, and the text here seems too much like an attempt to claim fellow-victim status to deflect reasonable criticisms that have been raised and continue to crop up about Asatru interactions with white supremacy and other forms of racism.

The strangest part of the whole book for me was the way it addressed – or didn’t – issues of gender and sexuality. Responsible reconstructionists have to grapple with the ways that ancient traditions did or did not address gender and sexuality, especially given the fact that the ancients may have had very different conceptions of those issues than we do today. Lale seems determined on the one hand to insist that Asatru is not hostile to gays and lesbians and on the other to maintain the gender essentialist structure of historical Northern European cultures, right down to using derogatory terms for queer people. This is especially baffling because Lale herself is bisexual.

Addressing gays, Lale writes: “In any case, homosexuality was certainly never outlawed among the heathens.  Some of the gods were sexually ambiguous.” (106) I’m sure the fact that this was “never outlawed” in the past will be reassuring to gay people uncertain of their possible reception in Asatru today. There seems to be an assumption that gay men are effeminate, as another related statement points out that “Both transvestism and changing gender are practiced by some of the gods in our myths.” (105) Given the plethora of easily-available information on trans* issues, it is especially strange that Lale retains the outdated and pejorative “transvestitism.”

Further confusion arises when Lale states that “Modern male seidh practitioners are generally presumed to be gay unless they are transvestites.” (142) The relationship between seidh and gender and sexual identity in the myths is a complex and fascinating topic, but this offhanded statement obscures the potential richness of the topic as point of great interest to queer people interested in Asatru.

This approach also reflects the simplistic gender essentialism that pervades the book. Simple rituals for life events are included, but they are extremely gender-specific (at coming-of-age, women get a jewel, men a weapon) and only mention heterosexual unions.

Lale takes pains to assure women that “In heathen times, the traditional roles of women had value and power.” (102) Yes, the economic power of the home manager is not to be disregarded, but what of the contemporary female Marine who feels drawn to Asatru as a way to embrace her warrior identity?

Finally, in some places, Lale makes flat-out assertions and presents her personal positions as definitive, normative, and inherent in Asatru. For example, she says simply, “Asatru women do not cut their hair,” with a related explanation that women who cut their hair are whores or slaves. (94)

Her libertarian position comes out in statements this FAQ entry on gun control: “A free people is an armed people, because only an armed people has the means to remain free. Slaves are forbidden weapons; free people carry them openly.  A society in which only the police carry weapons openly is a police state.” (104) She does mention that not all Asatruar will agree with all the answers she gives, but in other places she tends to at least acknowledge variation of opinion. This topic is treated as an essential part of Asatru belief and practice.

All in all, this book may be helpful for some beginners, but it is not one I would recommend to someone just starting to explore Asatru. It falls prey to several problems specific to Heathenism, but more importantly, it seems to reflect the opinions of a relatively narrow subsection of that culture with very specific political and social views.

I thank Ms. Lale for providing a review copy of her book to me. It did not prejudice me in favor of her work.

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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