But tension was brewing among the Ironwood Kindred, as the men were known in the Augusta Correctional Center. Inmate Michael Lenz thought Brent Parker had committed blasphemy. And for that, Lenz believed, his fellow inmate must pay.
The peaceful ceremony exploded into a bloody melee that left Parker dead and landed Lenz on Virginia’s death row. His execution is slated for Thursday.
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Asatru has been growing in popularity among the nation’s inmates, say religious leaders and prison experts, who believe the religion’s roots in Viking mythology attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity.
“Those ancient gods were really very revered – they were perceived to have power,” said M. Macha NightMare, a California priestess and witch who has written several books on paganism. “That’s a cool thing to identify with if you’re feeling weak and insecure. It’s an overcompensation – and they are disempowered because they’re in shackles.”
Asatru is often referred to as Odinism, although some followers believe the two are independent religions. It is a polytheistic, pre-Christian faith native to Scandinavia and worships such gods as Thor and Odin. The religion emphasizes a connection with one’s ancestors and values the principles of honor, loyalty, generosity and truth.
There are an estimated 10,000-20,000 people in the United States who consider themselves Asatruars or Odinists, said Stephen McNallen, director of the Asatru Folk Assembly, one of the nation’s leading Asatru groups. Local groups of followers are called kindreds.
One common Asatru ceremony is called a blot, in which followers make offerings to the gods. Generally, this involves an offering of meat, which is dedicated to the deities and then shared among the participants.
National statistics aren’t kept on how many inmates follow Asatru. But experts say its popularity among inmates has steadily increased over the past 15 years and enjoyed a recent boost from court rulings supporting the rights of prisoners to practice minority religions.
Last year, the Supreme Court sided with an Asatru inmate by upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate the religious affiliations of prisoners. Several Ohio inmates who followed unconventional religions such as Wicca and Asatru had sued, claiming they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items and denied time to worship. Asatru inmates in Ohio had argued they were banned from purchasing items such as altar cloths and hammer-shaped amulets, which represent Thor’s hammer and symbolize holiness, power and fertility.
That ruling helped make it easier for Asatruars to practice their religion, which attracted the attention and curiosity of other inmates, said Patrick McCollum, Wiccan chaplain of the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., and national religious adviser for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The gang culture in prison also helped contribute to the rise in Asatru’s popularity behind bars, said theologian Britt Minshall, a former police officer and Baltimore pastor who ministers to inmates. Some white inmates who felt threatened by black prison gangs formed their own gangs and sought out a belief system they felt would provide additional security, he said.
“It’s a way of grouping together for safety,” he said. “And you have to have a god in the middle of that to really keep you safe.”
Asatru is often associated with white supremacy, although most Asatru leaders bristle at suggestions of any such relationship. The majority of Asatruars are white, but Asatru welcomes members of all races, said the Asatru Folk Assembly’s McNallen, who contends a few bad seeds – such as Lenz – have sullied the faith’s reputation.
“Horrible things are often done in the names of all religions,” McNallen said. “Asatru is not about gangs, it’s not about cults, it’s not about white supremacy.”
McNallen said most Asatruars are peaceful people who abhor the kind of violence seen in the case of Lenz, who was sentenced to death in 2000 for Parker’s murder. Lenz and another inmate, fellow Asatruar Jeffrey Remington, fatally stabbed the 41-year-old Parker a combined 68 times with makeshift knives during the prison ceremony. Remington was also sentenced to death, but committed suicide in 2004.
At trial, Lenz testified that Parker had not been taking the religion seriously, and to protect the honor of the gods, Parker had to die.
Lenz’s belief that fatal force was warranted is not surprising, said Art Jipson, who studies white racial extremism and directs the University of Dayton’s criminal justice studies program.
“If he believes the fight was necessary, whether or not it was legal is the least of his concerns,” Jipson said. “If he’s a truly devout practicing Odinist or Asatruist, he’s doing what he must do. And it would be a shame – it would be a black mark on his soul, his spirit … for him to be cowardly and not to fight.”
That kind of warrior mentality can exacerbate an already tense environment behind bars, some experts say.
“It’s a theology that celebrates raw physical power and domination – and that is why I think it is so popular among prison inmates,” said Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors hate groups.
“The kind of inmate who might be attracted to this is a white man who is looking for justification for extreme violence, who is looking for an ideology which explains why he should be the boss.”
But McCollum, the religious adviser for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said only around 4 percent or 5 percent of Asatruars are white supremacists. And only a small portion of the religion’s followers emphasize its warrior aspect, he said.
“They follow the golden rule – treat your neighbor with respect, to respect your elders, to respect your community, that all people have value,” he said. “They have a very high moral standard.”