Things White Nationalists Like to Get Wrong about the Vikings

In the wake of the terrorist attack on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, peace rings have cropped around the globe to protect our Muslim brothers and sisters as they pray. To my knowledge, more than a dozen such groups appeared around Toronto during yesterday’s midday prayers, and I felt compelled to participate in one.

Despite the sharp wind that blasted along Queen Street West, there were up to thirty or forty of us at one time standing by the doors of a mosque in a show of solidarity. Leaders from the United Church, a Tibetan Buddhist temple, and a Jewish synagogue spoke briefly. A young woman who had recently arrived in Canada from New Zealand expressed concerns for her Muslim friends back home. At the end of prayers, when many worshippers left the mosque to return to work, school, and home, they smiled to see us. Some shook our hands or hugged us. It was a beautiful moment.

At the same time, it is also impossible to forget that the white nationalist movements that inspired the Christchurch shooter have appropriated Old Norse symbols and reinterpreted the history and culture of the Vikings to suit their odious purpose.

The Valknut (a symbol relating to Odin) and Mjöllnir (Thor’s hammer) may be misused for their association with warrior culture; the rune Othala/Othalan has been appropriated for its association with heritage. In all cases, the misuse of these symbols seems to depend on a gross oversimplification of Viking cultures and the romanticization of violence.

While it is true that success in combat and raiding was one way for a Viking man to prove his worth, it is not true that this was done out of racial malice. The concept of race as we conceive of it today was unknown in the Viking Age, and there were no such things as nations, so the Vikings were certainly not “nationalists.” There were kingdoms and empires in mainland Europe and Asia, as well as the Caliphates in the Middle East, but the stark cultural and geographical boundaries that white nationalists use to define “us” and “them” were not so clear a millenium ago.

Not a Unified People

The people we call Vikings did not call themselves Vikings. To them, viking was a thing you did, so only travelling warriors and raiders could properly be called Vikings. Frankly, most of the people of Northern Europe were farmers and tradespeople. And while there are significant cultural and liguistic similarities between the various Viking populations of Northern Europe, it is by no means clear that they saw each other as belonging to a single group.

Northern Kingdoms May Have Contributed to the Decline in Paganism

For the first half of the Viking Age, the Old Norse people tended to live in relatively small communities. They likely followed a jarl (earl or nobleman) or goði (chieftain with religious duties), not a king.  The young kingdom in Norway was quite small relative to its mainland counterparts, and was perhaps made all the more so for the fact that it apparently inspired the exodus that populated Iceland in the late ninth century. The kings of what is now Denmark adopted Christianity during the period, likely as a means of fending off attacks from the Holy Roman Empire, which controlled Central Europe.

Partly as a result of political pressures from the mainland and Christian missionary work  in the north, the burgeoning kingdoms of Northern Europe turned increasingly to Christianity. These small northern kingdoms may not have withstood a war with the much larger and more organized empire to the south, and they would almost certainly have been forcibly converted had they lost. Hence, the pagan way of life began to decline as these kingdoms rose.

Raids were Likely Motivated by Economics

There are many possible reasons that the Vikings began raiding, most of them economic. The first confirmed Viking attack was committed against a Christian church at Lindisfarne, but was probably not motivated by race or religion. The Roman Catholic church liked to keep shiny things, and the Vikings liked to have shiny things. However, it seems unlikely that the any of the early Viking groups were large enough or organized enough to carry out major attacks that could drive Christians out of Scandinavia or the U.K., and the Christianization of the Northern European kingdoms would only have made such an attempt that much harder.

Trade, Travel, and Intermarriage

Some experts think that high-status Viking men may have had multiple wives or concubines, making it harder for other men to find wives locally. As a result, some raids may have been a way for lower-class males to acquire wives and concubines of their own. For example, the Norwegian Vikings who settled Iceland took slaves from Ireland and the British Isles, and these Irish women contributed to the population of the Icelandic Viking people. This is borne out by literary, archaelogical, and genetic evidence. Additionally, some Icelanders possess a genetic sequence known only in Native American groups, which may have been introduced as a result of Leif Erikson’s sojourn to Newfoundland.

Indeed, the Vikings encountered a wide variety of people on their travels. From Scandinavia, the Vikings scattered across much of the world: they travelled westward to the U.K., Iceland, Greenland, and Canada; eastward into Russian and Ukraine; and south to the Mediterranean region, including Northern Africa and the Byzantine Empire, which created a Viking unit within the Varangian Guard. Archaelogical finds suggest that the Vikings had significant contact with the Middle Eastern Caliphate, and we have the accounts of Arab emissaries, such as Ibn Fadlan and al-Ghazal, who visited the north. Furthermore, medieval Europe was generally a very diverse region, and the Vikings engaged in significant economic and cultural trade with mainlanders.

Odin and the Duty of Hospitality

White nationalists like to invoke the name of Odin as a way to justify hatred and racial segregation, but this only shows how poorly they understand him.

Yes, Odin was a god of war, and perhaps a somewhat chaotic one at that. He was known by many names, including “Father of the Slain,” “Victory Father,” “Terrible One,” and “War-merry.” In one myth, he asks Loki to steal the Brisingamen (the Brisings necklace) from Freyja so he could demand that the goddess of love stir up a war between two human kings. But war and victory were not his only areas of expertise.

Among other things, Odin was the co-creator of the nine mythological worlds and the human race, as well as a god of poetry, magic, and wisdom. He embodies the complexity of human nature and compels his followers to show generosity to travellers.

The speaker in the poem Hávamál1 (“Sayings of the High One”) is often believed to be Odin, but the tone and content of the work sounds nothing like the words of a xenophobic warmonger. Rather, the bulk of the poem concerns leading a good and productive life, and often focuses on mundane matters:

Quite enough baseless blather comes
from the man never silent;
a quick tongue, unless it’s held in check,
often talks itself into trouble.

Hávamál, 29

A farm of your own is better, even if small,
everyone’s someone at home;
a man’s heart bleeds when he has to beg
for food for himself at meal-times.

Hávamál, 37

Despite the Vikings’ terrifying reputation, much of their daily life was based on complex legal and moral codes. Honour was gained by keeping one’s promises and showing generosity to others. Numerous stanzas in Hávamál  concern matters of hospitality, notably the following:

Fire is needful for someone who’s come in,
and who’s chilled to the knee;
food and clothing are necessary for the man
who’s journeyed over the mountains.

Hávamál, 3

I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice,
it will be useful if you learn it,
do you good, if you have it:
never hold up to scorn or mockery
a guest or a wanderer.

Often they don’t know for certain, they who sit inside,
whose kin those newcomers are;
no man is so good that he has no blemish,
nor so bad that he is good for nothing.

Hávamál, 132-133

In addition to the prescriptions in Hávamál, numerous instances in the myths and sagas demonstrate  how crucial generosity and community were to the Vikings. You don’t have to work hard to find stories about people or gods welcoming strangers into their homes.

Hospitality was one of the highest virtues in Viking society, and it was Odin himself whose words compel his followers to provide food and shelter for travellers. By dismissing and obscuring the core tenets of Old Norse religion and society, white nationalists are not protecting the heritage of Northern Europeans—they are destroying it.

Further reading:

  1. Larrington, Carolyne, transl. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York [2014]

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