Viking symbols “stolen” by racists
Hate groups and neo-Nazis abuse Norse symbols like the raven flag and Thor’s hammer
Judith Gabriel Vinje
The look on the lady’s face said it all as she grabbed at the Thor’s hammer dangling from my necklace. “Skinheads wear these,” she snarled. “Racists and Nazis!”
“I do Viking reenactment,” I explained, shocked by the implication.
A flood of relief spread over her face. It was the first sign I was to receive that the Viking garb I had worn at Scandinavian and other festivals for two decades might not be understood by everyone as being purely historical. The very idea that the icons I sported with pride were being used by “skinheads, racists, and Nazis” was alarming. As a proud Norwegian American with a direct line to the Viking Age, I was not about to put aside my apron dress and drinking horn. But it was time to investigate the scene.
I found that Viking and Norse symbols are increasingly being used in the U.S. by hate groups—neo-Nazis and white supremacists—to propagate their racist message.
And they were out in full force as white supremacists along with far-right hate groups and neo-Nazis paraded in Charlottesville, Va., this summer. I was watching as the coverage of this white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally-turned-riot revealed several Viking symbols being sported: Odin’s raven, Thor’s hammer, rune letters, and the Valknut, as well as the Nazi SS symbol based on runic letters.
I was most shocked to see a large raven flag—the flag associated with Viking culture.
No one is more upset at this thievery than Viking Age enthusiasts such as the Ravens of Odin, a Los Angeles-based educational reenactment group. Highly regarded as “living history” even by academics, and with a prized artifact collection curated by director Jaan Calderon of Los Angeles, the group consists of otherwise ordinary people. There are some active Christians and a couple of lapsed Lutherans. It was co-founded by an American Jew and a man who is Native American, Latino, and Scandinavian. There are several participants with Nordic lineage. But there are no skinheads, no racists, no white supremacists, no haters.
Ravens of Odin
The group is named for the two ravens that accompanied the Norse god Odin—Huginn and Muninn—who flew about the world and brought the chief deity news from his realm. Viking groups often display the raven flag, which was reportedly flown by several Viking and Scandinavian kings when they went to war.
While no one has actually found an authentic raven flag, Calderon noted that the symbol was stamped on a Viking Age coin, and is also mentioned in the Norse sagas. Here’s the twist: some white supremacist groups claim the Raven flag was flown when Leif Erikson landed in North America in the year 1000 and thus is the “pure European: flag of the nation.” And for some white supremacists, according to David Perry of the University of Minnesota, “the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching from the northeast coast to the Pacific Northwest. They use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming.”
Decades ago, Scandinavian runes were co-opted by Nazi Germany; the SS symbol is the most famous example. Sported by neo-Nazis, other far-right groups use them as well.
Many police departments are trained to look for runic tattoos as a sign that a perp is a member of a white supremacist gang. Besides runic letters, tattoo subjects include Thor’s hammer and the SS symbol.
Large numbers of white supremacists get these “Viking” tattoos. They abound among white gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood in prisons, said to use crude homemade needles and ink from stolen pens to make their Viking and also Celtic tattoos.
While there are probably no more than 15 percent of practicing Odinists who take an overtly racist approach to their practices, it has become a religion entangled with racism in the American prison culture. The Holy Nation of Odin is a church that is run from a maximum-security cell in California and is only open to whites.
The most recognizable symbol from the Old Norse is probably Mjolnir, the famous hammer owned by the god Thor. It is also adopted by outlaw biker groups and white supremacists. But on the other hand, many Viking and/or pagan metal bands use the symbol Mjolnir in their logos and artwork and are not racist.
Should Viking enthusiasts stop using the symbol? Sven Lugar, a longtime Viking reenactment director, says no: “They shouldn’t stop wearing hammers. We must reclaim them from the hate mongers who are nothing but cowards anyway.”
Are there any racists in Viking reenactment groups? According to Lugar, they certainly aren’t the rule. “There may be a small number of old—and a few young—bigots who are shunned by most everyone. The demographics of politics among Viking heritage groups is pretty consistent with the national average. It’s just that the bigoted ones get all the press, and thus falsely seem to represent us. The vast majority of those involved in their Nordic heritage through re-enacting or heathenism are appalled by hatred.”
In fact, Lugar noted, many “heathen” groups—i.e., those who practice the old European religions—are using the internet to fight back against hate and the co-option of their identity by racists, protesting the misapplication of the historic symbols.
Stealing Thor’s hammer
Nazis have a long history of stealing benign cultural symbols and infusing them with hate. The most famous of these is the swastika, which actually originated on the Indian subcontinent 11,000 years ago and was virtually interchangeable with Thor’s Hammer during the Viking Age.
The U.S. National Socialist Movement replaced the swastika with the Old Norse Othala rune, which was previously used on an SS infantry flag in World War II. The iconic twin lightning bolts usually signify allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood or another white power group.
Another commonly usurped symbol is the Valknut—three interlocking triangles—another symbol seen at Charlottesville. Known as the “knot of the slain,” the Valknut represents the afterlife.
While Viking festivals and re-enactments continue to grow in both the U.S. and Europe, the old religions are also thriving. Odinism and what is known as Ásatrú—“faith in the [old] gods”—are officially recognized by Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. In the U.S., Thor’s hammer is now allowed to be carved into military gravestones.
No hate here
According to Lugar, there is no hate in Ásatrú or other similar heathen sects, many of which are actively trying to combat the racism erroneously attached to their northern path. “The Vikings themselves were not necessarily racists. They traveled the world and dealt with all kinds of people.”
Another re-enactor, Carlos Galin, sporting a Viking-style braided beard and a clean-shaven head, part of the Ravens of Odin encampment at Danish Days in Solvang, Calif., hopes he is not mistakenly taken as a racist due to his appearance. “That bothers me a lot,” he said.
“Racists are people who are insecure about themselves. I don’t want to be confused with that kind of person. I know who I am and I don’t have any quarrels with anybody. I like to be in harmony with everybody else.”
Galin, who hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina, speaks with a slight accent about racists: “I don’t want to be confused with that kind of people—that’s not who I am. We need to live together in harmony and forget about the differences we had in the past. That is gone. From history we learn and we move forward. So all those things about black and white, brown and yellow—everybody has their own culture, and it’s nice to learn from each other.”
While reenactment and living history participants are not necessarily the same as spiritual “heathen” adherents, they share concern that the misuse of ancient Norse symbols generates prejudice and misunderstanding towards the non-violent followers of this alternative religion.
Many heathen Facebook groups are coming out boldly against hatred and bigotry. Heathens United Against Racism takes a strong stand on Facebook against the “stealing of a world heritage.” There is concern that as the media highlights the misuse of ancient Nordic symbols, prejudice and misunderstanding toward Heathens grow.
More than 100 heathen organizations from all over the world have signed a statement denouncing racism and the misuse of symbols from Scandinavia, such as runes and Thor’s hammer. There is a group named Svinfylking—Heathens Fighting Hate—that has publicized a picture of Thor’s Hammer with the words “This hammer smashes fascism.”
Another frequently used symbol is the rune letter Tiw, named for the Norse god Tiw or Tyr, the god of law and order and the vanquisher of evil. (Tiw was the chief deity in the original Germanic and Norse pantheon, later to be replaced by Thor.) It figures in the Heathens Fighting Fascism slogan, “No Tiw for Nazis!”
And so, as another festival ends and I put away my “kit” of hopefully authentic-looking Viking garments and accessories—my drinking horn and my many strands of glass beads—I wonder if Viking enthusiasts will ever be forced to stop wearing Thor’s hammer due to the outright theft of the old Norse symbol. If they will be misidentified as racists otherwise.
But I’ll take the word of a longtime Viking researcher, who protests: “The legacy of the Vikings has lasted more than 1,000 years. The real Vikings weren’t racists. They traveled the world and brought back many things from other cultures.” Lugar adds, “Yes, they were often raiders. But they were also traders: they were sophisticated and open-minded—the high-tech jet-setters of the medieval world.”
Nonetheless, I’ll count on any protective qualities my Thor’s hammer might possess. In Norse mythology, its name is Mjolnir, the thunderbolt. It not only kept the evil giants away but was also used as a wedding symbol. But that’s another story from the vast repository of the great literature that contains our heritage of Norse mythology. While earthly hate groups will come and go, Thor and his gang will live on, keeping the evil ones at bay.
Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.