Cults in American Heathenry

Within the world of Heathenry, the word “cult” can have two different definitions, but the intention of this article is to bring awareness to a specific definition and so I will briefly explain the differences between the two and then focus on the intent of this post.

Cult: “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

Within Heathenry, some people may choose to venerate a particular deity over others – or even choose to venerate an animal totem. You’ll hear mentions of the ‘Cult of Thor’ or ‘Cult of Loki’, as well as the ‘Bear Cult’, ‘Wolf Cult’ and ‘Boar Cult’.  Under this definition, these various practitioners dedicate their energy towards a particular item, being, or deity as the focus of their worship. This practice is ancient in origin, relatively harmless, and is considered acceptable within Heathen groups.  We will do another post in the future detailing this particular definition of cult, but our interest for this post is in something much more sinister in nature.

Cult: “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” 

This is the definition we are going to focus on because as Heathenry has started to become more popular in North America, a void of leadership has formed and this has opened up room for something sinister and dangerous to fester and take hold: cults. As we’ve seen in modern history, cults tend to crop up around many movements; these types of cults include ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the ‘Branch Davidians’, Jim Jones and his followers, and many more. One thing all of these cults have in common is the deadly results they yield and the psychological trauma that they inflict on surviving members. 

As Heathenry grows in acceptance and popularity across the United States, Heathens everywhere are searching for local communities of like-minded people to become a part of, and so it’s important learn how to identify these types of groups so that we can steer clear of them in an effort to not get wrapped up in their deadly webs. The following is a list of warning signs compiled by psychologists who study this sort of thing, as well as my own experiences with these types of groups. It’s important to understand that these signs are not universal as cults can take many forms, and their leaders are masters at manipulation and therefore may know how to disguise themselves as well-intentioned, charismatic people. By studying cults in recent history and how they operate, we can identify classic traits that serve as red flags or potential warning signs of a group’s potential to become dangerous.

Infallibility: A leader of a malicious cult will often claim to have some sort of information that is unreachable by anyone else, therefore giving them a status of unquestionable infallibility. I have personally come into contact with a person who claimed to be a “World Walker” as well as the only seeress who had been welcomed inside the gates of Asgard in over 2,000 years. She claimed to be betrothed to Loki himself and insisted that she had innumerable contacts with all of the gods and goddesses of Asgard. Another person I’ve only heard of claims she’s one of Odin’s wives and therefore what she says is word directly from the Gods, and therefore indisputable. Over the years I’ve heard of others claiming to have distinct memories of past lives or be in direct contact with divine entities, and the like. Regardless of the gender or personal approach of the leader, the goal is to create a group of unquestioning followers who hang on every word of their divine leader. Some of these are, of course, extreme examples and not every group leader will exhibit these extreme traits. Sometimes this behavior manifests itself in more subtle ways, such as claiming moral superiority over another group. They’ll shut down conversations and take an “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance any time they’re challenged. One thing that is almost always a factor is the leader’s ego and therefore free thought, open dialogue, and debate is often squelched.

Loyalty: It’s common for any group to want its adherents to express some sort of loyalty, but some over the years have taken loyalty to a whole other level. Preying on the fact that Heathen culture is one built with honor as a foundational stone, groups will demand that an oath be taken by new followers and insist that the oath be taken before they’re accepted as “one of them”. This is usually met with pressure being applied by the leadership, with promises of special information or privileges so that new followers are encouraged to make the quick decision of “in or out”. Once a member has taken an oath, if they even think about leaving the group they’re subject to shaming and threats of being considered dishonorable or an ‘oathbreaker’ or even blacklisted from the entire Heathen community are often thrown around as ways to keeping their adherents through fear of being ostracized. I have seen groups “test” the loyalty of their members by asking them to do immoral or illegal acts, and I’ve even heard of one instance where a gun was allegedly put to a member’s head so that leadership could gauge their reaction and deem them either worthy or unworthy.

Reprogramming: Cultic groups often use deceptive means to gain the trust and acceptance of potential members, and once someone becomes a member they’ll undergo some sort of “reprogramming”. In the Heathen community this reprogramming often occurs in the form restricting the adherent’s flow of information. This is usually done by disallowing association with other groups or restricting what types of books they should read. A person being discouraged or forbidden from doing their own research and/or finding a group or path that is right for them is typically a more subtle warning sign of manipulation

Exploitation: In nearly all cultic groups, the hidden agenda behind a leader’s motivation, other than feeding their ego, is to exploit their members in some way. A few groups have been known to exploit their members sexually by requiring sex in exchange for membership or acceptance, but most within the Heathen community exploit their membership psychologically or financially.  This usually comes in the form of unreasonably high membership dues or fees or insisting that a member pledge a percentage of their paycheck. Now, it is important to understand that not all groups who ask for money are cults, as caring for a group of people or hosting public events or gatherings can be costly and so most groups share this cost by asking for donations from those who can. Asking for voluntary donations crosses over into the realm of exploitation when it becomes a requirement for acceptance or when the fruits of that cost are inconsistent with how much they’re receiving – or even non-existent. Not all groups that ask for money are bad, but requiring “tribute” to be able to associate with them and then not being able to see where your money is going is usually a good sign of a dishonest group, at the very least.

So, we’ve covered a few red flags that should serve as warning signs to anyone looking to become a part of an active community, but the question now remains as to what should we look for in a group that we may want to join. In any group you’re considering, membership should be voluntary and anyone should be free to walk away without being shamed or threatened. After all, if I’m doing my job as a group leader, I should encourage personal growth within my community and recognize that not all people grow in the same direction; people will come and go as their needs evolve and fluctuate, and this is okay. A good group leader will put the needs of the community above their own wants or desires and no one needs to be pressured into membership, sex, or handing over their hard-earned paycheck. A good group of people will encourage its members to seek knowledge and experience in as many places as possible and make the best decisions they can for themselves. Freedom of thought is one of the most valuable freedoms we possess, and a good group leader will understand that and encourage a diverse range of thought and discussion within a group. After all, what are any of us going to learn in an echo chamber?

Groups that seek out legal legitimacy in the form of establishing a 501c3 non-profit are held to a verifiable standard by the regulating governmental authority and therefore stand a good chance being a group worthy of your interest, although there have been groups that have established this form of legitimacy that have still turned out to be bad apples so, of course this isn’t an instant qualifier. A group who accepts donations should keep records of where the money is spent and so there should be some evidence that the leaders aren’t just pocketing it for themselves. A good group should always promote positivity, learning, growth, and have accomplishments under their belt so people can see the fruit of their labor – whether it be hosting events, or reaching out to the community via special projects, you should always be able to judge a group based on their accomplished deeds.

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