Like millions of others, I followed the events in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago with outrage and horror. Amidst all the images of violence and hate, there was one frequently shown photograph of flags and banners held by the hatemongers which produced in me an extra sense of anger.
It included a banner with the image of a rune: Othala.
As a Heathen who works with runes, it is of course frustrating and infuriating to see a symbol which carries no implicit racist or supremacist meaning adopted by groups promoting such philosophies. Like all the runes of the Elder Futhark, of which it is a part, Othala is rich with varied meanings and significances. Broadly speaking it encompasses such concepts as homeland, ancestry, tradition — that which grounds you, supports you, strengthens you — your spiritual core. It is a rune of spiritual and emotional strength and resilience, not a rune of fear and bigotry. The appearance of the rune itself suggests an enclosure, and Diana Paxson develops this idea in her book, Taking Up the Runes:
The symbol of the sacred enclosure, whether spiritual or psychic, can be very useful. Whether or not one owns property, one can claim a sacred space in vision that will be an inalienable refuge. This rune relates to the human need both for personal space and for a community to which to belong.
Whatever its varied meanings, to interpret this rune in a racist, “blood and soil” sense is utterly unjustified. And after high profile events like the ones in Charlottesville the cry goes up in the Heathen community to “Take back our symbols!” — to wrest these symbols away from the racists and supremacists who pervert them so that the symbols can continue to be used in our own spirituality without misunderstanding.
While I agree completely with the desire to reclaim Othala and other symbols from groups that would misuse them in hideous ways, the response can’t end there. Once we reclaim them how do we use them? Do we simply proceed as before, or do we perhaps find in the timeless meanings of these symbols new ways to directly counteract their uses by the forces of hate?
With Othala, maybe we can look again at the “sacred enclosure.” It is not an enclosure for a given race or culture to shut themselves in due to fear and bigotry. Rather it is an enclosure open in hospitality to all who wish to live in harmony, and in particular those who face persecution and oppression. This is the “community to which to belong.” The forces of fear and bigotry aren’t on the inside of the enclosure — they are on the outside. But as the cause of justice is increasingly embraced the enclosure can always be made wider. Thus Othala is changed from a tool for hate to a symbolic weapon against it.
This is the challenge for Heathenry and indeed for all of us — to not just say, “This is who we are not,” but to say as strongly and defiantly as possible, “This is who we are.”