Interview conducted via email and social media by Joseph S. Hopkins, October 2018

Image: Jennifer Snook

Jennifer Snook is an American sociologist and heathen. Snook is perhaps best known to date for her 2015 book American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement, an in-depth study of adherents of Germanic Heathenry in the United States.

Snook’s volume makes for a valuable contribution to the nascent study of the place of modern Germanic Heathenry in Western society, in no small part because Snook is herself a member of the growing new religious movement. In turn, Snook draws extensively from personal connections and fieldwork. Snook teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa.

1. Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in many places. My father joined the army in 1972 and was immediately stationed in Worms, Germany, where he met my mother.

I was born in Frankfurt in 1979, at a military hospital. Because my dad learned German fluently, the Army had him working as a liaison officer with the German military and NATO. This shaped my childhood, growing up primarily in Heidelberg (eight years, altogether), Bad Kreuznach, Mannheim, and Worms, usually on or near American military installations. I also lived in Virginia (twice), North Carolina, California, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Georgia, in no particular order. Sometimes for six months, sometimes for two years. It was our “normal.”

This went on and on until I moved to Colorado for Graduate school. It shaped who I am and how I interact with people, having met so many of them in so many places.

2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context? 

Well, since my mother is German and I grew up in Germany (15 years altogether), I was surrounded by what many Americans would consider “fantastic” landscapes. Castles on the Rhine, and in Heidelberg, and images of dragons and legendary heroes on every street corner in Worms, where the Nibelungenlied takes place.

My mother, as a native of Worms, was keen to read me stories about Sigfried and Krimhilde, Brunhild and the dragon Fafnir. These were my bedtime stories, and although the U.S. Department of Defense school curriculum only taught us classical Greek mythology, I began reading “German Mythology” when I was old enough to understand the difference. 

3. What is your academic background? 

I got my bachelors of arts in sociology at Augusta State University, in Augusta Georgia in 2001, and then moved to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado, Boulder for a Ph.D in sociology, which I earned in 2008.

4. What was your earliest work on the topic of Germanic Heathenry? 

My high school English teacher required that we write a research paper on the topic of our choice. So I chose to write about the mystical versus historical origin of the runes. He picked on me a bit about this, remarking that the gods were not real. But, he also assigned us Beowulf and taught us a bit about Norse mythology from a literary perspective, so for all his effort to discount the gods, he made a lot of effort making sure we knew their names. 

Later, in graduate school, I began studying Heathenry right away, as soon as I took my first research methods course – a required core course in our program. I contacted a self-identified Heathen guy on the internet and we met at a local coffee shop. He was able to introduce me to other local Heathens and take me to my first ritual.  So my data collection started at the same time as my community involvement. Fast forward to 2013, and I published my first article in Nova Religio on “Reconsidering Heathenry,” which was my attempt at complicating the folkish vs. universalist conundrum and how Heathens navigate issues of racial identity, inclusion, and exclusion.

5. Which scholars had the greatest influence on your work? Why? And what research are you currently conducting on the topic of Germanic Heathenry? 

This is the part where I’m supposed to name-drop famous sociologists to show how smart and well-read I am.  There are scholars whose work I admire – C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber – all social theorists whose ideas I have internalized so thoroughly that I sometimes can’t tease out whose ideas are whose. There are those other contemporary scholars whose work validates my own goals – Nancy Ammerman, who teaches us to study religion in “every day life,” and Penny Edgell who encourages us to view religion as “cultural” rather than rehashing old theoretical debates that no longer answer pressing questions. I’m influenced by the late Margot Adler, who I was lucky enough to meet several times, and her ground breaking work “Drawing Down The Moon,” which showed me how ethnographic research into Paganisms can be done. I’m influenced by scholars like Kathryn Rountree, whose few edited volumes solicit contributions from scholars around the world to discuss paganisms in their particular cultural, economic and political contexts. This helps me to ask macro-scale questions about how the “personal” is connected to the “political” when studying American Heathenry.

After I published American Heathenry, in 2015, I gave it a few moments to be new. The work was done, published, out of my hands, and I went on a sort of “forgiveness tour,” to seek approval from the friends who had helped me along the way and contemplate those stories that I would now tell differently. Then I essentially went dark. I continued being Heathen, which, because I’m an ethnographer, means I’m always collecting and storing data away in my brain. Mapping an “image” of particular Heathenries in particular contexts as I read Facebook, and worship with others. In terms of writing, I contemplated in a piece on “The Trump Effect” (not published, under revision), how macro-scale political shifts to the right that we’re seeing in Europe and the United States, in response to immigration and economic woes, has led to a change of political and racial discourse in Heathenry – using Heathenry as a sort of meso-level cultural barometer. This piece was depressing, and so I haven’t revised it yet. 

6. What do you hope to work on related to the topic in the future?

I’ve just conducted some exploratory fieldwork in the Northeastern U.S., where I’d never visited before, and am thinking through what questions may be worth pursuing for the future. Some topics I’ve considered – how regional differences in the expression of Heathenry are related to geographical space, culture and economic realities. Right now I’m working on a global survey of Heathenry. I’d like to pin down, with quantitative data, how regional and national differences in Heathenry map out, how various Heathen ideas are conceptualized around the world, how these factors are influenced by political beliefs, economic realities, education, and other variables, and how regional and national cultural differences map onto how people practice Heathenry. 

Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Jennifer Snook for her participation.