The power of symbols

How do we engage with Viking symbols in an age of increasingly visible white supremacy?

Symbols

Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall / TT / NTB
Neo-Nazis march through the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, carrying flags with Norse symbols.

COURTNEY OLSEN
The Norwegian American

The co-opting and misappropriation of Norse mythology and Viking symbols has been the subject of much attention over the last several years. Banners with the symbol for Thor’s hammer flew at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and before the mass shooting in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, the shooter released a manifesto featuring references to the Vikings.

Much of the use of Norse symbols by white supremacist hate groups can be traced back to Nazi Germany. In their attempts to create an idealized Aryan race and heritage, the Nazis used Norse symbols for their propaganda and branding. For example, the Tyr rune was used for several Nazi groups such as a leadership school of the SA (Assault Division or Storm Troopers, also known as the Brownshirts) and for a Waffen-SS infantry division.

The misappropriation of Viking symbols and Norse culture by hate groups was the central discussion at a virtual event entitled, “Seizing Symbols: Hate Groups’ Co-opting of Culture” held by the National Nordic Museum in Seattle on March 22. Featuring scholars of the medieval and Viking eras and an expert of the far right, panelists discussed the legacy of the Vikings in America, particularly as it relates to the colonial history of North America, the relationship of religion and race with the Vikings, and the popularity of Viking culture and symbolism in far right and white supremacist groups today.

Before we get too far into this discussion, let me first say that this is a complex subject matter: there are many and often conflicting ideas about Norse symbols and how to engage with them. So rather than attempt to find one simple or concrete answer, I will instead prompt some questions raised in the “Seizing Symbols” event to think about.

Photo courtesy of Vikings Against Racism
Katrine T. Knudsen (left) and Karoline Hoel (right) are proud of their Viking heritage but at the same time feel it is important to fight against racism.

In many discussions about the misuse and misappropriation of Norse and Viking symbols, the ahistorical and inaccurate nature of the symbols is usually argued. While it is true that there is no such thing as a Nordic racial purity, panelist Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggested that we are asking the wrong question when we focus on the historical inaccuracy. He instead recommended that we ask: What are white supremacists and hate groups trying to do with these symbols? This question can bring up many answers, though one idea that Teitelbaum offered was that there is a nostalgia for a time when there was order, compared with a feeling of disorder or chaos in the present. Reframing to this question can help us better understand why some symbols have been misappropriated.

Another question discussed by the panelists was: What makes Viking culture attractive to white supremacists and hate groups? Again, this can have a plethora of answers. Perhaps the gnarly, fierce, and dangerous reputation of the Vikings draws people to them. Another idea that might unite some people on the radical right is the countercultural aspect of Viking history as an alternative account of the colonization of North America. Teitelbaum noted that many people on the radical right see themselves as victims or as losers in a global fight to homogenize the world, and from this perspective the idea of an alternative history of the founding of America could be appealing.

Christopher Crocker, a professor of Icelandic language and culture at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, noted that the indigenous aspect of this colonial story is important to remember. As far-right groups romanticize a Viking discovery of Vinland, they tend to erase the indigenous history of North America. This further reinforces the idea that the Vikings were an ancient and superior race of people and the native peoples living in present day Greenland and northeastern Canada were fragile, primitive, and inferior, a framework that is just as damaging as it is false.

A final question raised in the webinar was if certain symbols that have been used by hate groups can still be engaged with in a positive way. Crocker stressed that people have a responsibility to be conscious of the ways in which the symbols they use have been used for harm both in the past and in the present, and that there is the possibility that a symbol could be harmful to others, whether that is the intention or not. As such, we should be aware of the possibility of misinterpretation and the meanings that symbols can or do carry in specific contexts as we engage with them.

The truth is, there are no clear answers to the questions surrounding Viking symbols. People wear or use them for all kinds of reasons, and it is also important to remember that not all Viking symbols are associated with hate groups or white supremacists. Even on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of Norse symbols which are used by hate groups, they note that each symbol is still used by other non-racist groups as well, and thus it is critical to evaluate the context in which the symbol is used. However, we also have a responsibility to think about the meanings these symbols can carry for the people around us, whether that meaning is historical or contemporary. And while we cannot control how people will perceive certain symbols, we must at least acknowledge that the perception could be different.

Just as we can ask what it is about Viking culture that is attractive to hate groups, we can ask ourselves the same question. Does it connect you to your heritage? Is it pride in Nordic history? Does it remind you of your family? The answers are endless and each one is personal, and it can be useful to think about why the Vikings capture our imagination.

Further reading:
“Scandinavian studies professor debunks idea of ‘racial purity,’” Geoff McMaster, The Norwegian American, January 29, 2021, www.norwegianamerican.com/viking-racial-purity-van-deusen.

“Viking symbols ‘stolen’ by racists,” Judith Gabriel Vinje, The Norwegian American, Nov. 2, 2017, www.norwegianamerican.com/viking-symbols-stolen-racists.

“Hate Symbols: Norse,” The Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org/hate-symbols?keys=norse.

“What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion,” Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, Nov. 2, 2017, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/asatru-heathenry-racism/543864.

“We can’t let racists re-define Viking culture,” Catherine Edwards The Local, Oct. 6, 2017, www.thelocal.se/20171006/we-cant-let-racists-re-define-viking-culture-far-right-runes-swedish.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is the assistant editor of The Norwegian American. She recently graduated with her master's degree in history from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.

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