The problem with initiatory traditions, particularly mystery traditions, is that they’re susceptible to abuse and the sheltering of abusive individuals. This is a problem that Wicca has grappled with for decades and that, from what I can see as an outsider, has improved somewhat.
Heathenry, on the other hand, still has its problematic bastions, in particular in the Theodish community, which today is rife with abuse, cover ups of that abuse, and general bigotry toward several groups. The history of Theodism is easy enough to find online, from its beginnings as a revealed religion when a Wiccan calling himself Merlin (now Garman Lord) allegedly had a vision of Woden instructing him to create the religion now called Theodish Belief all the way to the dissolution of Winland Rice and the subsequent rise of theods like White Marsh and Œþelland today.
Like Wicca, Theodism was and has remained an initiatory tradition with the inherently problematic practice of “thralling” at the center of that initiation process. Thralling involves the complete renouncement of one’s worth as a person and the selling of the self into the theod or tribe, from which one must earn worth anew and by which one’s worth is actually derived. It’s fairly obvious how this can create issues and openings for abuse, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg of modern Theodism’s problems.
As mentioned before, the most prominent theods existing at present are Œþelland and White Marsh. The former is based in the Houston, Texas area with Daniel Flores as Lord, and the latter is based in Maryland (with members scattered across the country) with Brian Smith as Lord. Flores and Smith are longtime theodsmen who learned from Dan Halloran, whose rise as heathenry’s only broadly visible public servant and subsequent fall as Theodism’s most prominent member to be convicted of fraud is well documented both in news sources as well as the pagan blogosphere.
Daniel Flores of Œþelland theod is particularly troublesome in the fact that his organization harbors at least one convicted sex offender, Eric Michael Street **(EDIT: I’ve been informed by a few people that the link isn’t working for them; it works for me, but either way, he can be searched by name in the Texas DPS sex offender registry). Street is active in a number of heathen Facebook groups under the alias Kenneth Nowicki (presumably to skirt Facebook’s guidelines about sex offenders) and was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a thirteen year old earlier in his life. He is at present a respected member of Œþelland and attempts to bring his record to light are either ignored by Flores, or met with a defense of Street.
Brian Smith, current heir apparent to theodism as a whole (as he’s likely to be named sacral King once Garman Lord passes away), has not to my knowledge done anything quite so vile as harboring a sex offender. However, his status as de facto leader of the broader theodish community and imminent rise to de jure leadership means that Œþelland effectively cannot operate without his blessing or in violation of his will.
Likewise, Smith himself has a record of unseemly behavior. The creation of the Missouri-based Wednesbury Shire of White Marsh Theod, as documented here (notably announced by Dan Halloran), occurred shortly after the restoration and pardon by Smith of one Swain Wodening. Swain had been outlawed from his former kindred for an incident involving the physical abuse of his then-wife, but when Smith learned that he had blood relation to the Wodening brothers, he offered Erik the leadership of a secondary shire under White Marsh and allowed Swain to renounce his worth and take the oath of thralldom to join Wednesbury Shire.
Even aside from this incident, Brian Smith (and other members of White Marsh) have shown a troubling tendency toward transphobic remarks, suggesting that the preferences of the tribe and its mandate on gender roles supersedes an individual’s gender identity. There seems to be little recognition of the parallels between a philosophy of “Do what you want, but we do not have to recognize it” and the reality of the so-called “Bathroom Bills” presently creating controversy throughout numerous states. That this rejection of identity would come from what is ostensibly the individual’s closest, most intimate community is all the more appalling.
The problem, unfortunately, is that Theodism’s influence isn’t restricted to the theods themselves, despite their nominally insular nature. Particularly with a wave of tribalism moving through heathenry at large, a great many groups or individuals take inspiration from groups like White Marsh and Oethelland, or look to their organizations as a model of sorts. Thralling (or variants thereof) has becoming increasingly common among other heathen tribes and kindreds, particularly those only a few degrees of separation removed from the theodish groups.
In seeing the theodsmen as leaders, an unfortunate number of individuals are willing to overlook even the relatively obvious abuses committed. Theodish-run (or heavily theodish-populated) Facebook groups like American Heathenry (at time of this writing, this page has been removed from Facebook), ALL American Heathenry, and HEATHENRY (run primarily by theodsmen, including Street, and the group in which the transphobic remarks linked above where posted), and others are little more than shitposting corkboards, existing only for theodsmen and their friends to ridicule others, often other heathen groups. Key figures such as Brian Smith and Daniel Flores are frequent participants, and the many hangers-on involved often give the impression that the theods themselves are far more populated than they actually are.
Even when presented with evidence of Eric Street’s sex abuse, the leader of one Seattle-area tribe (and co-moderator of the r/asatru subreddit alongside a member of White Marsh Theod) attempted to handwave the issue, saying the charge could have arisen from “whipping it out to piss in public while drunk” despite the sex offender registry page listing the exact penal code in question (a charge for the oral penetration of a child with the actor’s sex organ). He also stated rather apathetically that Eric Street was not “the first dirt bag on [his] friends list” and generally was neither willing to condemn the action or distance himself from the groups that attempt to cover up Street’s history. Instead, he simply insisted that there is no connection between himself and the theods whose members he actively collaborates with both on Reddit and the upcoming Re: Heathenry podcast.
While many initiatory traditions have been hotbeds of controversy and toxic ideas over the years, where many have improved, the theodish community has only turned ever more inward and incestuous in the propagation of its abuses. Almost any former member of a theod that I’ve spoken to has faced extensive harassment, and I myself have faced the same simply for attempting to question the veracity of their positions or point out problems within their community– in all likelihood, I will be the target of a tremendous amount of it for this very blog post. But as the heathen community has rallied before against bigoted and harmful organizations like the Asatru Folk Assembly, I think it likewise behooves us to address the problem of theodism with its primacy of the tribe over tolerance or respect, and with its propensity for sheltering sex offenders or domestic abusers.
The greatest contribution that Theodism has ever made to heathenry as a whole was the book “We Are Our Deeds.” Let us take the lesson of that to heart, and hold them to their own word.
** EDIT 7/28/17: Multiple members of Oethelland have attempted to argue that Eric Street was 16 at the time of the incident and that he was living with his 14 year old girlfriend. No official documents have as yet been offered to corroborate this version of events. The specific penal code mentioned (TEXAS PENAL CODE 22.021 (A)(2)(B)) in the Sex Offender Registry page explicitly states that the victim was under 14 years of age. As I have noted elsewhere, if genuine evidence is provided to the contrary, a retraction will of course be offered. Until such a time, unverifiable versions of events will not be given precedence over official state records.