“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” ― George Orwell, 1984
Once upon a time, the swastika symbolized good fortune, the four realms into which one could be reborn, Thor’s hammer, etc., depending on the culture that adopted it. In the Eastern world, some cultures still use it as a positive symbol representing health, prosperity, and long life. But the Western world now knows the right-handed swastika as a symbol of violent hatred, white supremacy, and genocide—associations that will undoubtedly scar its reputation for many generations to come.
Mistaking Hate for History
The upwelling of Romantic German Nationalism in the nineteenth century set the stage for the Nazi’s rise to power while trivializing Old Norse history and culture in ways that would suit the movement’s more nefarious purposes. The legacy of this gross oversimplification of an ancient culture can be seen in the misinterpretation of Odin as a mere war god whose name is used to justify hate under the guise of protecting the “white race”—as though all white people belong to some imperilled monolithic class. The Old Norse people generally, and the Viking warriors in particular, who looked to Odin as their chief god are thus also reduced to caricatures.
These so-called Odinists and other white supremacists who hide behind a tattered veil of historicity either do not understand or deliberately ignore Odin’s deeply pro-social nature. Clearly, they’ve never bothered to read the poem “Hàvamàl,” believed to represent the words of Odin, who repeatedly spells out the requirements of hospitality. It’s easier for them to flatten a complex figure into a one-dimensional projection of their little white fears rather than consider the nuances of his wisdom regarding life in medieval Northern Europe. (Also, I sincerely doubt they have even considered whether or how that wisdom would apply to modern Western societies. Thinking only slows them down.)
reclaiming the past
And so, with the debasement of the Old Norse gods and society goes the debasement of their symbols. The sight of rune flags flying next to swastikas and confederate flags is sickening, as is the sight of magical staves tattooed next to Nazi symbols and other white supremacist imagery.
For those of us who have religious, academic, or personal interests in understanding and preserving Old Norse culture, this misappropriation is disheartening, to say the least. Much of the actual history of the medieval Norse was written by Christian clergy, many of whom had witnessed or survived attacks by Vikings and thus had a decidedly negative bias towards them. The bizarre and politically motivated historical revisions of Romantic German Nationalism clouded our view of the past, and Hollywood’s penchant for portraying Viking warriors as fur-clad madmen in horned helmets didn’t exactly improve the situation.
There’s really no quick and easy solution, but the answer lies in tackling the public’s general ignorance about the Old Norse.
Much of how Western history is taught focuses on ancient Greece and Rome, which is fair given the outsized influence these societies had on the development of European history and, by extension, North American history. The result is that most of us have some knowledge of the history and mythology of these societies, and therefore at least a rudimentary basis for judging whether or not someone else is getting things right.
By comparison, our poor understanding of Old Norse history makes it an easy target for misappropriation, and the parody of the Viking warrior/berserker that has made its home in popular culture dovetails neatly with the violence and toxicity underpinning white supremacist narratives. Unfortunately, relatively few people seem to realize this, and it’s hard to call someone on their bullshit if you don’t even know that it is bullshit.
And for those of us who have strong personal connections to the culture, wearing its symbols in ways that are disassociated from or that openly defy white supremacist narratives can help redirect the public’s attention. The end game here is to help people form more positive associations with Old Norse history and the people who understand it (or are at least making a good-faith effort to understand it).
You might argue that this muddies the waters by helping white supremacists hide behind the legitimacy that good-faith actors provide. But they can—and do—employ this tactic with absolutely everything they can get their hands on. Frankly, the fact that they can and will twist anything into evidence that “white makes right” only serves to demonstrate that they don’t actually have any evidence to support their beliefs. If they really had so much evidence to begin with, they wouldn’t need to manufacture it.
More to the point, if we recoil from presenting Old Norse symbols for fear of confusion, then only the white supremacists will use these symbols, and they will become de facto white supremacist symbols. The tighter the racist stranglehold on Old Norse symbols, the more we risk losing an entire era to neo-Nazi revisionists. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to surrender an entire historical period to a bunch of frightened man-children.
If you’re looking for actual experts (i.e., people whose entire job is to know stuff about stuff) to help you understand Old Norse culture, you might want to start with YouTube’s favourite Viking cowboy, Dr. Jackson Crawford. He has an extensive list of videos that are quite accessible to the average viewer, although some of his language videos get more technical. Additionally, you’ll want to look up Dr. Judith Jesch, Dr. Carolyne Larrington, Dr. Neil Price, Dr. Cat Jarman, and Dr. Howard Williams, to start with.
It’s hard to keep track of white supremacist and white nationalist groups and the symbols they use to identify themselves. Here are a handful of resources that I hope will help you understand who they are and what to look out for.
Encyclopedia of Hate: A Look at the Neo-Nazi Militant Movements with Roots in Canada
Torch and Hailstone (page lists terminology and symbols)
Last, here are a few more resources on the rise of white supremacist and white nationalist ideologies.
- The Return of Race Science—The Quest to Fortify Racism with Bad Biology
Now, go forth and spread true facts about the Vikings.