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American Heathens * Jennifer Snook (2015)

“Jennifer Snook is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi”. Raised as “a college-bound army brat”, first in Germany, later in the USA, Snook became interested in “paganism” and later “heathenry”. When she started to study sociology, she wrote her dissertation on contemporary heathens. She remained both a practitionar and an observer ever since. 15 Years of fieldwork resulted in this 200+ page book on “American Heathens, the politics of identity in pagan religious movement”.

The author gives a very personal look into her personal path here and there, like on how she rolled into the pagan world (a term that she uses quite generally including various sorts of paganism) and later “heathenry” (which is more a specific German-centered kind, say “Asatru”, “Odinism”, “þheodism”, etc.). The book interweaves personal accounts of gatherings and rituals that Snook attented, interviews, musings of her own and of course her sociological considerations.

The author gives an idea of the history of American heathenry and writes about a couple of ‘big subjects’ at length. Identity, ethnicity, race, whiteness, ancestry as one group, gender roles as another subject. There have been quite some investigations linking heathenry to white power. However Snook shows herself as a very left-leaning thinker, she shows that these subjects are much less black-and-white as often portrayed. The same with conservatism and the role of women within heathenry. Snook makes it clear that she finds but a few allies in her particular line of thought within the heathen world, but at least breaks a lance to look at these subject in a more nuanced way than her predecessors often did.

“American Heathens” shows well the difficulty of subjects such as that of (perceived) racism, subordination of women and the like by giving quotes from interviews and her own thoughts. Unfortunately Snook looks at a subject from so man different sides within just a page that it hard to figure out what way she exactly tries to lead her readers. Both her gender study and her chapters about racial exclusivity elude me frequently, especially when her (apparent) own ideas are bluntly stated as facts (the difference between man and woman is automatically oppressive for example). The concluding remarks fortunately make up for a few of these indistinctnesses.

What is interesting for a European is to see how some things in the USA are very recognisable while other developments are entirely alien to heathery in Europe. A little strange is Snook’s (apparent) idea that heathenry in Europe is imported from the USA though.

So, perhaps not “a standard text for scholars and teachers in the emerging field of Pagan studies” as Michael Strmiska states on the back, but likely the best in the field so far; interesting for scholars and heathen alike. It would be interesting if the investigation would go on to include Europe.

2015 Temple University Press, isbn 1439910979

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