(this is an updated version of a paper I wrote during my Masters)
Given recent events in the US Capitol (and the past several years pretty much everywhere) I thought that writing about this here with a discussion on the role that Vikings, or rather the perception of them, have played in the development of far right ideologies beginning in the 20th century would be pertinent.
Before I dive in, I want to highlight the work that is already happening by other scholars to expose and undo the inherent racism within medieval studies as well as the manner in which fascists appropriate symbols of medieval history.
Amy is an absolute soldier of equality and inclusivity, their work in queering Old Norse studies and addressing white supremacy in our field is amazing. Their threads on Twitter are incredibly informative and I encourage you to follow them. Amy is also on the editorial team of the journal Kyngervi which addresses gender and Old Norse studies. Amy is also giving a seminar on Vikings and queerness as part of LUU’s LGBT History Month, and it promises to be interesting and topical.
Dr MRO is a WoC and literary historian, a frequent combatant in the ongoing battle against racism, who has compiled this needed and fascinating thread on Twitter concerning the appropriation of medieval symbols – follow for the information and stay for the anti-racism.
Rachel has produced this awesome presentation on the far right appropriation of vikings which you can watch on YouTube, in between intense work on a dissertation and constant knitting.
Erik, another queer medievalist, has produced this interesting thread on racist medievalisms employed by the far right in and around the events at the US Capitol this month. Erik has written some of my favourite work on medieval perceptions of homosexuality.
If you do nothing else but read these scholars work then I would consider that time very well spent.
I think it is important to address the way in which scholarship of the Viking Age has been, and continues to be, used in support of far right and white supremacist movements. As researchers of this period I believe we have a responsibility to address and undo these assumptions. Racism is a known problem throughout medieval studies and we must work to deconstruct this.
Where does it come from?
Many of the core assumptions around the Viking Age can be traced back to work of archaeologists in Germany prior to the rise of the Nazi party and have been argued to be linked directly with the development of Nazi ideology (Svanberg, 2003; Hochman, 2015). Much of the early work of German scholars focused on distinctions in age and gender, particularly extolling the apparent biological divide between men and women and their roles in Viking Age societies (Jefford Franks, 2019; Svanberg, 2003). Moving into the 1930s, a number of these scholars were members of the Nationalist Socialist Party and their work formed part of the Ahnenerbe ideology, which was a group that acted as a ‘think tank’ for the Nazis and had strong links with the Schutzstaffel, or SS (Jefford Franks, 2019; Kolvraa, 2019). The work of Otto Höfler focused on the importance of Germanic continuity, a persistence of values rooted in cis-heteropatriarchal thinking that excluded minority groups (including people who were Jewish, queer, people of colour and so on) which provided an approach the Nazi Party derived ideological benefit from (Jefford Franks, 2019; Kolvraa, 2019). Höfler wrote the infamous Männerbunde which popularised “all-male warrior associations in so-called primitive societies”, namely those of the Viking Age (Jefford Franks, 2019; Kim, 2018’ Svanberg, 2003). These works formed part of the Völkish movement which selectively drew on aspects of Viking Age history to perpetuate Germanic ancestry as descended from white, violent and gender-confined vikings (Jefford Franks, 2019; Kim, 2019; Hochman, 2015). Scholars during the Third Reich then used this perceived ancestry to suggest that Germanic civilisation was in decline and that was the fault of “dilution” by other ethnic and minority groups (Kim, 2018; Hochman, 2015).
In the early 20th Century the spread of ‘Odinism’ or Ásatrú, a relatively modern religious movement derived from apparent worship of Odin, across North America espoused values of racial purity and white supremacy (Steel, 2014). While there appears to be no direct link with the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany in the 1930s, sects of Odinists often reference ‘Aryan’ principles in their texts and discussion (Steel, 2014; Weber, 2018). Reports in the US have suggested that around 15% of adherents to Ásatrú are self-identifying as overtly racist (Paulas, 2015).
Modern Odinism has harboured members responsible for acts of violence across the world, where justification based on Neo-Nazi interpretations of Viking Age religion have led them to define Viking Age society as “whites only” and uses depictions of blonde, blue-eyed, male-bodied “Vikings” as their ideal (Weber, 2018; Kim, 2019). This particular religion is popular amongst white inmates in the US prison system, with allowances having been made for them to wear pendants of Thor’s hammer, representing their participation in this belief system (Paulas, 2015).
The blonde and blue-eyed Viking is a common trope in popular media where the inference to Ayranism is often seen. These concepts allegedly derived from Viking Age societies are relatively modern conceits, drawing on studies over the past century by scholars heavily biased towards nationalism and actively promoting fascism and white supremacy.
The ideology of the far-right espouses racial purity, it is an exclusionary ideology designed to oppress and harm any group outside the narrow confines of their membership.
Vikings and Odinists
The Aryan Viking
Archaeological evidence has shown the spread of the viking travels during the 9th and 10th centuries, as raids and as trade routes, which have gone from the Middle East to Canada (Downham, 2017). The word ‘viking’ or víkingr has been linked to description of activities – such as travelling, seeking fortune or piracy – and has only carried more negative associations, such as raiding, in later centuries as the word has made its way into the English language rather than a description of a distinct ethnic group (Hofman, 2016; Downham, 2017).
The development of the ‘white viking’ appears to have gained traction in the run up to the Third Reich, where nationalist tendencies amongst academics were lending themselves to the idea of a ‘master race’ that Germanic peoples were descended from (Svanberg, 2003; Jefford Franks, 2019; Hochman, 2015). This fed into the ideology of racial purity, popular as the Nazi Party rose in power, extolling the virtues of the white Aryan who became synonymous with the viking.
The ‘imagined’ purity, strength and success of the vikings was part of the symbolism associated with parts of the Third Reich, in particular the quasi-religious SS which held up the image of the male-bodied viking warrior as fierce warriors who protected their communities and were feared by their enemies, whom they conquered (Kolvraa, 2019). These concepts were based on scholarly work that effectively re-wrote histories of the Viking Age to complement the growing far right ideologies of the time, taking forward racist and misogynistic ideas of purity and superiority (Jefford Franks, 2019; Kolvraa, 2019; Hochman, 2015). This ignored the evident diversity of Viking Age societies, painting them as the ideal Aryan (Downhan, 2017; Hochman, 2015).
The white viking is an idea, drawn from biased nationalist and fascist studies of the Viking Age and did not exist.
Odinism and Ásatrú
Ásatrú is described as a polytheistic religion which reveres the many deities of Old Norse mythology, however the more known sects appear to focus in particular on Odin and what this deity represents to them as the warrior, the wise and the white (Kim, 2019; Mills, 1957; Weber, 2018). Odinism is defined by Kaplan as indistinctly separate to Ásatrú, supposedly stemming from the German Youth movement prior to the Third Reich where “disillusioned” youths took it upon themselves to make sacrifices to Wotan (Odin) (Kaplan, 1996). During this same period in Australia Mills, a prominent supporter of the Nazis, determined that source of “social ills” lay with minority groups, in particular Jewish people, and that since Christianity was built on similar foundations to Judaism then a move towards Odinism would be the ‘solution’ and from this was produced Mills’ tract on Odinic religion (Mills, 1957; Kaplan, 1996). Mills writing on Odinism claims to use eddic sources and attempts to translate the principles of Odinism into modern terms. Mills’ tract draws many criticisms of Christianity and posits that Odinism is the only means to move forward as a civilised society (Mills, 1957).
More recently, the term “Wotanism” has been coined by overtly white supremacist adherents to Ásatrú which was strongly promoted by American white supremacist and convicted murderer David Lane who is quoted as stating (Weber, 2018):
“W.O.T.A.N makes a perfect acronym for Will Of The Aryan Nation”
David Lane was a member of the terrorist group “The Order” and died in prison in 2007 however remains one of the most prominently known idealogues of white supremacy, who was an adherent of “Wotanism” (SLPC, 2019). Odinism spread through the US prison system during the 1980s and was the most common religion reported by incarcerated white supremacists of which David Lane was a notable proponent (Weber, 2018; Kim, 2019).
The development of Odinism shares roots with the idea of the white viking, produced in the re-interpretation of Viking Age archeological evidence and eddic writings to create a driver for racism, nationalism and fascism that coincided with the rise of the Third Reich.
The toxically-hypermasculine, blonde, blue-eyed and white viking warrior is the most common association when people think of the Viking Age and is evident in popular media. This symbol is also used by white supremacists and their followers to support their ideologies and their perceived perpetuation of Viking Age values and traditions.
This white viking is not real, it was invented to do these very things. Scholars prior to the Third Reich allowed nationalist influences to shape their research and publications, supporting the Aryan ideals and using the imagined images of vikings to garner support from the population. This focus on purity and the excision of others from their society was driven by this imagery.
The vikings didn’t have any role per se in the development of far-right ideologies, it is the nationalist and fascist interpretations of their society that fed into the violent policies of the Nazi Party in the 1930s and continues to fuel white supremacy and fascism in the modern era.
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