However, this symbol, which was once associated with an elk, has been hijacked, over the past century, by Nazis and other right-wing extremists.
A Viking alphabet
Somewhat contrary to popular opinion, people from Vikings had a complex system of written and spoken language. The most famous example of this linguistic legacy is the runic alphabet.
By the dawn of the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100 CE), people in Viking societies had taken earlier Germanic runic letters and morphed them into what scholars now call the "Elder Futhark Alphabet."
With its heyday between the 2nd and 10th centuries CE, though some areas of Sweden continued to use it until the 14th century CE, this alphabet consisted of 24 runes, of which the first six (F, U, Þ, A, R, and K) gave its name.
These runes were grouped into three groupings – named ætirr (clan, family) of 8 runes each. Each rune not only had a sound of the rune itself but also had a deeper meaning, of representative value. For example, the first rune in the alphabet, Fehu, meant both cattle and wealth.
Cattle were, of course, synonymous with wealth in the Nordic region, where farmland is limited at best. Most of the meanings behind each rune came from the vast pantheon of Norse mythology, the natural environment, and the human condition of everyday life.
A book could be (and probably has been) written on the history of the evolution of each runic letter. For the sake of brevity, we will skip to what modern linguists and historians have called the "z letter" of the Elder Futhark alphabet, Algiz.
Linguists believe that this letter emerged from a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor and evolved when a new Proto-Germanic language emerged sometime between the 6th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.
However, the name that we moderns have given the name of this rune (a Proto-Germanic word for "elk") may not have been the same name that people in Viking societies used. Like much knowledge of the language of people from Viking societies, there are still gaping holes yet to be filled.
From about the 5th century CE, the Algiz symbol went through an evolution in how it appeared. It soon began to appear as both pointing up and pointing down.
This evolution of Algiz is typical of what happened with all other runes, during a transitional period between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, to what would become the "Younger Futhark" alphabet from about the 8th century CE.
The rune has appeared on archaeological finds uncovered throughout the early Viking world, in Denmark, Germany, and Norway.
The Algiz rune has appeared on archaeological finds uncovered throughout the early Viking world. Photo: Nakaya / Shutterstock
German nationalism and runes
Unlike other runic letters in any of the Futhark alphabets, Algiz has had a surprising afterlife. One of the key global events of the late 19th century CE was the emergence of German nationalism, which crystallized into the founding of a modern German nation in 1871 CE.
(What made this more delicious was that it was created from the ruins of a French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Not for the first time in history had two peoples, separated by the Rhine River, have bloody differences of opinion...)
Part of this growing tide of German nationalism was a rediscovery and reimagination of earlier periods of German history tied with esoteric ideological ideas, including the ethno-German folk movement (Völkische Bewegung).
One of the most important proponents behind this mix of nationalism, history, and esoterism was an Austrian author and founder of Neo-Germanic paganism, Guido von List. In a 1902 article, List modified 18 runes from both the Elder and Younger futhark alphabets. The Algiz letter was one of these modified by List, with the upward pointing letter said to signify "life" and its downward version "death."
List's modified – and let's face it, fabricated - list of supposed Germanic runes – including Algiz (now called the "death rune"), was picked up by a growing number of a new generation of German nationalists following the defeat of the German Reich in the First World War.
One of these was an Austrian solider, and keen occultist, Karl Maria Willgut. He was eventually urged to join the Nazi Party, handpicked by Heinrich Himmler, and was instrumental in the Nazi adoption of aspects of neo-paganism, occultism, and "German mysticism."
A misreading of Viking culture
The Algiz rune – a dichotomy of life and death – was then widely used throughout Nazi Germany, from pharmacies to becoming the official logo of the Sturmabteilung, the Stormtroopers.
Sadly, the twisting and blatant fabrication of elements of Viking history and culture would not stop with the downfall of the Third Reich in 1945.
The rise of Neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists throughout much of the Western world in recent years has seen a similar twisting and fabrication of elements of Viking history, particularly when it comes to the use of Norse symbols and runes, such as Algiz.
However, though this rune may have been hijacked by jackbooted thugs over the course of the past century, they have misread what the runic letter means.
Most modern historians and linguists believe that Algiz, like most runes, should be seen from a broader perspective as a symbol of protection and guidance.
Not for the first time in history, extremists have misread Viking history and culture, proving their ignorance is equal to their intolerance.
CNN has more on a recent runic discovery in Norway here.
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