Pete Evans was a successful Australian television chef with over 1.5 million followers on Instagram. He hosted a wildly popular cooking show, My Kitchen Rules, and was the darling of morning television shows, even appearing on Oprah.
He wrote a highly-read weekly column in one of the nation's largest newspapers and had authored eight lucrative cookbooks. Yet when he uploaded a cartoon featuring a symbol of a black sun to his Instagram feed one day back in 2020, he was dropped quicker than a hot potato, accused of posting something "functionally equivalent of a swastika."
This wasn't the first time this symbol, called a Sonnenrad, has gained notoriety and courted controversy in recent years.
How has this symbol, which some claim to have its origins in the Viking era, come to be associated with Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and other loons on the extreme right?
Aside from antipodean cooking chefs, the infamous Sonnenrad (German for "sun wheel") has been used by a huge number of extremist far-right individuals and organizations, ranging from the Nazis of the 1930s, Neo-Nazis attending the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in the United States to the perpetrator behind the 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks.
To understand why they would use it, we need to look at its rather murky origins.
According to some historians, the use of a symbol to represent the sun has been traced back to various cultures and civilizations dating between the Neolithic Era to the Bronze Age.
The use of the Sonnenrad symbol, consisting of twelve radial arms arranged in a sun-like pattern, is believed to have its roots in Germanic pagan mythology, from which the Vikings drew heavily.
In fact, the Old Norse religion – to which most people in Viking societies adhered – is seen as a northern offshoot and evolution of Germanic paganism. It is with the Vikings that one of the most popular theories to its origins arises from.
One of the more interesting origin theories of the "Black Sun" symbol is that it has its roots (pardon the pun) in Norse mythology.
A giant world tree (Yggdrasil) was a giant ash tree that connected the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos.
It not only was the literal epicenter of the Norse universe, but it divided the realm of the gods above in Asgard from the underworld of Hel, down below. In some versions of the Norse myths, Yggdrasil has a black sun at its core, which was said to be a figurative gateway to the underworld.
Some scholars have drawn parallels between Yggdrasil and the "Black Sun" symbol. The twelve radial arms of the symbol are said to be similar to the many branches of Yggdrasil, whilst its black center could be seen as a representation of the underworld/realm of the dead.
Yet there are no contemporary Viking-era descriptions, illustrations, records, or runic carvings of the "Black Sun."
So how did it become associated with the Vikings? The blame lies, like so many things, with the Nazis.
Esoteric and occult association
More than a millennium since the pinnacle of Viking power and influence, the Nazi Party grew from a relatively obscure regional German political party to a movement that brainwashed millions (and killed millions more) into creating their own Teutonic version of Ragnarök.
Its rise to power, thanks in large part to Adolf Hitler, was one of the most unexpected events in 20th-century history. Yet the Nazis were not exactly original.
They mostly picked up their ideology, which was always just a 20th-century rehash of old racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, and intolerant bile and stereotypes, and twisted, warped, and modernized it to explain Germany's loss in the First World War.
Part of their ideology stemmed from esoteric and occult symbols, practices, and associations.
The Nazis loved these sorts of cultural associations and appropriations as they represented not only the power and mystery of the universe but also a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil – or, in their worldview, Aryan versus Non-Aryan.
The use of the Sonnenrad symbol, consisting of twelve radial arms arranged in a sun-like pattern, is believed to have its roots in Germanic pagan mythology. Illustration: robin.ph / Shutterstock
For the leadership of the Nazis, these esoteric and occult symbols also represented a kind of mysticism inaccessible to the masses, a secret knowledge that only the initiated could understand.
One such Nazi-linked organization which used this symbol was the Thule Society. Founded in the aftermath of the First World War – much like the Nazi Party – this was an oculist organization that heavily influenced the Nazis' views on the "purity" of the "Aryan race."
Several later key Nazi figures, including Rudolf Hess, attended meetings and had to sign a "special blood declaration of faith," ensuring they had no "Jewish or colored blood."
The logo that they used was the "Black Sun." As a precursor to the Nazi Party, it played a huge role in the development of a Nazi ideology, including the use of such symbols.
It is from its association with the Nazi Party that modern Neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have adopted the use of the "Black Sun" symbol.
The symbol has appeared in the propaganda of the Christchurch Mosque attacker, adorned on the flags of extremists taking part in the torchlit march for the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and on the body armor of the white supremacist responsible for the 2022 Buffalo terrorist attack and mass shooting.
These thugs have appropriated Nazi symbolism to promote their extremist ideologies and hatred.
Distortion of Norse mythology and culture
For we lovers of all things Vikings, the use of such symbolism by extremists, racists, and xenophobes is particularly problematic because it is not rooted in Viking mythology or any other ancient tradition.
The modern Nazi appropriation of ancient sun symbols, resulting in the creation of the "Black Sun," has seen a sort of modern cultural hijacking of these symbols, stripping them of their original meaning and context.
The use of such symbols by Neo-Nazis has also caused a distorted and inaccurate view of Norse mythology and culture. The Vikings were, of course, complex people whose nuanced culture extended far beyond the battlefield.
The appropriation of Viking mythology, symbols, and culture by extremists and the far right is not only cultural theft but has done considerable damage by perpetuating harmful stereotypes and myths about the Vikings and their legacy.
Yes, the Vikings were no angels, and they committed atrocities from the British Isles to the Baltic and Black Seas to Byzantium.
What is needed now is for the better promotion of a more complex, nuanced, and accurate study of Viking history, helping to redefine its culture and complexity.
Whilst they killed, raped, and dealt in human souls, they should not be associated with the sort of extremist, racist, and Neo-Nazi bile that has hijacked part of their legacy today.
Due to its association with these thugs, Germany has banned the use of the "Black Sun" symbol. Which is something that many in Australia wish Instagram had done to the account of a former celebrity chef.
Time has written on the current reclamation effort by academia of Viking history from the alt-right, available to read here.
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