GRAND OL' PAGAN: What Does the Republican 'Heathen' Running for New York's City Council Actually Believe?
|The entire New Normandy tribe, a photo from the group's website.|
"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.