Since the 2011 census, paganism has more than doubled in the UK. Here, Risteard McDonald outlines how elements of paganism are being uniquely wielded for far-right radicalisation in prisons, and what could be done about it.
Germanic Contemporary Paganism (GCP), the academic term for Norse Paganism, has seen a complex and controversial history, especially in its misappropriation and deployment by far-right actors for nefarious purposes. Often being used as a symbolic treasure chest for fascist groups to recruit disaffected white men, it has been linked to a rise in radicalisation in the Anglosphere, playing a unique role as a tool for radicalisation within English and Welsh prisons. To unravel this issue, we need to delve into the intertwined narratives of religious identity, political extremism, and prison culture.
What is ‘Germanic Contemporary Paganism’?
GCP, also known as Norse Heathenism or Old Norse Religion, is the revival of religious traditions of the Norsemen prior to the Christianisation of Scandinavia, specifically during the Viking Age. Since the 2011 Census, pagans have more than doubled in the UK, and this looks set to increase over the next ten years.
Norse Paganism or GCP is polytheistic, with beliefs revolving around a pantheon of gods and goddesses, the most prominent of whom include Odin, Thor, and Freya. These deities reside in the celestial realm of Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds in Norse cosmology. The universe’s central hub is the Yggdrasil, an immense and central cosmic tree.
There is no single holy book (although some adherents cherish the ‘Hávamál ’, a book of aphorisms and wisdom attributed to Odin). Instead, much of what we know about this religion comes from sources such as the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, medieval texts that preserved older oral traditions, and from archaeological evidence. Practices and beliefs within Norse Paganism varied widely and included elements such as ancestor worship, belief in fate (or wyrd), and various rituals and feasts. Norse rituals could involve sacrifices of food, objects, and sometimes animals or even (rarely) humans to the gods.
It’s important to note that while some people today identify as Norse Pagans or Heathens, practising what is often called Ásatrú, their practices and beliefs can differ significantly from those of historical Norse Paganism, due to the lack of comprehensive historical records and the influence of modern religious and philosophical ideas: to this extent, they are largely reconstructionist affairs, an attempt to build sinew of contemporary practice onto bones of actual and assumed ancient beliefs, rituals, and celebrations.
‘GCP’ and Far-Right Politics
The allure of GCP for far-right groups resides largely in its perceived status as the ‘indigenous’ religion of the ‘Aryan peoples’ of Europe. Organisations like the National Socialist Movement and Combat 18, both widely considered to be terrorist groups, have appropriated Norse symbols, language, and mythologies to construct an ethno-nationalistic identity (Goodrick-Clarke, 2002). This imagined heritage taps into notions of racial purity and supremacy, thereby amplifying extremist ideologies.
The prison environment is a particularly fertile ground for such ideologies to take root and grow as it separates people from their social ties, deprives them of liberty, and places them within a dense psychosocial framework of hierarchies, rules, violence, and masculinities. This is, in part, due to the shift in prison management styles over the last few decades. The ‘new penology’, driven by an overarching managerial focus, places a premium on efficiency, control, and risk assessment (Feeley & Simon, 1992). This impersonal approach prevents prison officers from developing a nuanced understanding of the inmates’ religious practices, making it harder to recognise signs of radicalisation, or to mislabel genuine practice as ‘risky’. Furthermore, it exacerbates feelings of marginalisation among minority groups, who might already feel disadvantaged by systemic bias in society and the CJS; by failing to attend to their rehabilitative needs.
This approach can also increase racial, ethnic, and religious segregation in prison as a dogmatic focus on risk aversion and management fails to address the causes of social fracturing, violence, and gang formation. Overall, the focus on efficiency prevents an individualised experience of incarceration, leading prisoners to find new ways to form social bonds between themselves, not least bonds of meaning based on metaphysical answers to their existential situation.
Contrast this with the ‘old penology’, characterised by direct relationships between prison officers and inmates. Scholars like Alison Liebling and Ben Crewe emphasise the importance of such relationships for better prison governance and rehabilitation (Liebling & Crewe, 2013). Their work suggests that an understanding of the individual’s lived experience, including religious practice, could be vital for preventing radicalisation. For instance, prison officers trained to understand GCP’s true ethos could distinguish between a genuine practitioner and those for whom it is a façade for far-right ideologies. They could learn to recognise the misuse of Norse symbols and detect shifts in behaviour that signal a move towards extremism. In essence, adopting elements of the old penology would engender a more nuanced and effective approach to combatting radicalisation.
Of course, this phenomenon is not isolated to the English and Welsh prison system. The rise of far-right politics worldwide has seen a similar misuse of GCP and other religious identities, including Christianity. From rising anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe in response to ‘small boats’, to white supremacist movements in the United States, the far-right’s co-option of religious symbolism for political ends is a global issue (Miller-Idriss, 2020). It is not that GCP is inherently risky or problematic, more that it lends itself to misappropriation for radicalisation just as Christianity or Islam might under the right conditions. It is understanding how to prevent and disrupt those circumstances that is key for scholars and practitioners.
Addressing these challenges requires a multidimensional approach. For prisons, this might mean combining the efficiency of the new penology with the relational focus of the old, strengthening the role of chaplaincy services, and allowing prisoners to build better relationships with the vibrant voluntary sector while in prison, to keep them moored to their community and in direct contact with affirming, informed champions. For society at large, it demands critical awareness of how religious identities can be manipulated to fuel hate and extremism. This is particularly pertinent given the unique vulnerabilities of prisons, where social isolation and identity crises can make extremist narratives more appealing.
This is a mere glimpse into the complexity of GCP and radicalisation within UK prisons. These themes will be explored in further detail in an upcoming book chapter titled ‘Fascist Frith’, part of an anthology by Bloomsbury Publishing on the security risks posed by minority religions. The chapter will delve deeper into the mechanisms through which GCP becomes entangled with far-right ideologies in the prison context and propose concrete strategies to address this issue. The anthology is in development but details will be shared here in due course.