Amongst a whole basket of people, including white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and other far-right extremists, Viking symbols, culture, and history are being misused and misappropriated for political gain.
We look at how their legacy is being tainted with the stench of 21st-century ignorant, xenophobic myths, bloody acts of political violence, and the politics of intolerance.
Vikings, Vikings, everywhere...
The past few years have seen a new explosion of the Vikings onto the world stage.
Slightly less bloody than the original Viking expansion, from the late 8th to mid-11th centuries CE, this one has seen Vikings capture not our walled citadels and treasure troves but our imaginations as everyone seems to be cashing in on a renewed interest for history's new cool kids, the Vikings.
From the Marvel movie reimagination of Thor to the Netflix series Vikings, to the gargantuan pile of Viking-related books, serious tomes or fantastical in tone, released daily (quicker than a Marvel movie, it seems), to what seems like an almost weekly occurrence of another archaeological dig discovering some lost Viking artifact, the Vikings are as omnipresent and universal as the Wi-Fi that connects us all.
There is, however, a much darker side to this Viking ubiquity.
Viking symbolism and violence
Following the 22/7 attacks in Oslo, Norway (the bloodiest act of terrorism in the country since Nazi occupation in the Second World War), the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, stated that he is "...very proud of my Viking heritage".
A Thor's hammer appeared on a banner held by some of the "Unite the Right" protestors storm(troop)ing through the streets of Charlottesville, USA, in 2017, screaming, "Jews will not replace us."
Valhalla – that mythical hall in the sky reserved only for the bravest of fallen warriors – makes a chilling mention in the manifesto of the mastermind of the Christchurch Mosque attacks in 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant. He had signed off his musings claiming that this was exactly where he would end up before going on to murder 51 innocent people.
How, then, did the history, culture, symbols, and mythology of peoples in early medieval societies, throughout what is now the Nordic region, get intertwined with political violence, hatred, and intolerance?
The answer lies in Germany over a century ago.
Hitler and the Nazis used propaganda and distorted interpretations of history to promote their ideology. One way they did this was by associating themselves with the Vikings. Illustration: Naci Yavuz / Shutterstock
The Nordics and the Nazis
Our story begins in the late 19th century CE. A German state (yes, a singular German state) had just been proclaimed from the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles following Prussia's astounding defeat of the Third French Republic in the Franco-Prussia War.
Germany, since at least the time of the Roman Republic, had always been a land of states (the Holy Roman Empire consisted of 1,800 territories!) but had never been one singular state.
Conversely, German people had spread throughout Central Europe and were united by their shared language. This was the basis for the Völkisch movement that swept up the new state of Germany.
In it, the movement not only fostered the seeds of nationalism for the new state but also obsessed with a "German ethnicity," which promoted "Germanic peoples" as being the apex of society.
This movement was seized by the Nazi Party, whose meteoric rise to power following the German Reich's defeat in the First World War, coupled with the Weimar Republic's inability to deal with the economic and political turbulence following the Great Depression, and was twisted and warped by them throughout the 1920s. The idea of a superior "Germanic" race became a cornerstone of Nazi ideology.
In which period did the Nazis raid the annals of history to find exemplars of this "Germanic race"? Why the Viking period, of course. Those Scandinavians, with their stereotypical blonde hair and blue eyes, become the unfortunate archetypes of this Nazi propaganda, the pinnacle of this "supreme Aryan race."
Furthermore, Scandinavia was once the birthplace of Vikings, whose hyperviolent culture, steeped in death and victory, saw them dominate different peoples around Europe (especially those pesky Franks to the west and Slavs to the East).
During this time, several anti-modern, mystic, and semi-religious groups as well a handful of pseudo-scientific ones (the most known is the "Thule Society" - set up as a study group for "German Antiquity"), were established and began to mix Nordic, Aryan and Germanic groups into a blended form of extreme nationalism.
So it was Hitler's twisting of history, and his party's obsessions with an idealized "Germanic" race, that saw the beginnings of the association between Nazis and the Vikings. A precedent had been set.
The rise of the far right and their misuse of Viking symbols
Though Hitler was ultimately defeated in 1945, bringing Germany down with him in a fiery Götterdämmerung, the Nazi ideology did not.
Over the past two decades, the rise of Neo-Nazism has been an alarming trend amongst many diverse societies, and extremist, right-wing attitudes are becoming more and more socially widespread.
One only has to look at some of the xenophobic comments uttered by Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, which were met with cheers by the "White Nationalist" movement across the States, Viktor Orban's ongoing support of the "Day of Honor" (a celebration of the SS record in Hungary during the Second World War) in Budapest or the time that Giorgia Meloni (current Prime Minister of Italy) spent in a Neo-Fascist Youth Party, to see that Neo-Nazism is more than alive once again.
In this current political environment, Neo-Nazis are using pseudo-Viking symbols to help proliferate their hate and to try and link them to broader transnational "white supremacy" movements, the type that Anders Behring Breivik and Brenton Harrison Tarrant both believed they were playing active roles in.
One such symbol is the "Sonnenrad" (Black Sun) which many people believe to be a symbol plucked right from an etching on a Viking-era runestone. This symbol, however, though it may pass a striking resemblance to a futhark rune, was invented by the Nazis – plundering from the Viking era again.
It has been seen everywhere, from the arm of one of the most recognizable stormers of the US Capitol (the so-called "Q-Anon Shaman") during the attacks there back in January 2021 to the chest of a white supremacist who killed ten people in a shooting rampage in Buffalo, New York last June.
It is not just in the United States that these "Viking" symbols have been used by violent extremists. Days after the siege of Mariupol, an apocalyptic siege in a strategic eastern Ukrainian city following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a Russian soldier - remember, they went sent into Ukraine to "DeNazify" the country - was filmed receiving an award whilst wearing a" Valknut" symbol – which is a symbol popular amongst Neo-Nazis.
Whilst it is mistakenly thought to have originated in Viking lore and culture, its origins are much more recent. It is first mentioned in an obscure mid-19th century CE Icelandic tome on symbols and staves.
That's more than nine centuries after the traditional end of the Viking Age in 1066 CE.
The "Sonnenrad" (Black Sun) symbol. Illustration: robin.ph / Shutterstock
The welfare or warfare state?
What of the "land of the Vikings," their spiritual homeland in the far and cold north?
The birthplace of the Vikings, in the Nordic region, and specifically Scandinavia, is often more associated with peace prizes and progressive politics than Neo-Nazis and extremists, right? Wrong. This has been a successful hunting ground for right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis – inside and outside of the mainstream political scene.
The second largest party in the Swedish parliament today, the Sweden Democrats, has its roots in white nationalism. One of their most popular campaign stickers, in the late 1980s, featured an image of a Viking warrior holding a placard that said: "Bevara Sverige Svenskt" ("Keep Sweden Swedish").
It didn't dawn on the designers that the Swedish Royal Family would, under this logic, be kicked out of the country as they are descended from one of Napoleon's generals...not exactly your typical "Swedish" family...
Even more disturbing than the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats is the popularity of the "Nordic Resistance Movement" across the Nordic countries.
This is a pan-Nordic, Neo-Nazi movement that has links with other ultranationalist far-right paramilitary groups in Russia and the United Kingdom. Their symbol consists of a combination of two futhark runes – associated with the Old Norse Gods Odin and Freyja.
Back to the history books
Some, however, may argue that, hang on...the Vikings literally enslaved huge swathes of people. They killed and murdered people of different religions and cultures. This is all true.
However, so did a plethora of other people, cultures, and civilizations in the "bad neighborhood" they grew up in – the early medieval period. They were just more successful than others and thus more written about.
Whilst the Vikings did indeed make their name in violent raids, many people from their societies carried a scythe more than a sword. Whilst many Viking warriors raped, pillaged, and plundered from Dublin to the Dnipro, from Constantinople to modern-day Canada, they were also a people who settled, colonized, and intermingled with people.
Would England have been conquered had not the Vikings settled in Northern France and intermingled with the local Gallic population to produce, in a few generations, the Vikings 2.0, a.k.a the Normans?
Where would the history of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus be without the influence of those Volga Vikings who, according to legend, helped establish order in these medieval European backwaters?
The Vikings, to be sure, were not exactly pillars of Gandhian non-violence. They were, perhaps, the early medieval period's most ferocious and effective warriors...for two and a half centuries.
A bright star that, by the mid-11th century CE, had turned into a supernova. By the 12th century CE, new cultures, peoples, and civilizations had replaced the Vikings.
Not for the first time in their history, they are getting a bad rap. Except that this time, it's not their fault – to lump them together with Neo-Nazis and other thugs is not only just plain stupid but is also historically wrong. Which, in the opinion of The Viking Herald, is the most heinous of crimes.
The Conversation has published an article on the links between Neo-Nazism and Viking symbolism, available to read here.
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