Everything Means Something in Viking

Brian Regal

With the twenty-first century resurgence in racist bigotry in the Anglo-American and European world, racists have appropriated nineteenth-century Viking pseudohistory to bolster their belief in white supremacy.

The growing racist, white supremacist, alt-right movement (not to mention a plethora of recent television documentaries about ancient America) has taken on an incongruous aspect. They have embraced ancient Nordic, Viking culture. As strange as this sounds, it is nothing new. The fondness for Vikings has a long pedigree. In the early nineteenth century, some in the United States began to believe that rather than Christopher Columbus, Vikings—Leif Eriksen in particular—had discovered America. There was little evidence to support this notion, and what supporters held up as such was dubious at best. The belief that Eriksen discovered America was largely confined to the realms of America’s wealthy, Protestant, “Native Born,” big-city Caucasian elites. Theorists such as Harvard chemist-turned-amateur-historian Eben Norton Horsford published books and articles, lobbied politicians, surveyed sites, and put up statues declaring Leif Eriksen the “true” discoverer of America. Underneath the insistence upon the Viking theory of American Discovery was a deep-seated fear and hatred of immigrants—especially the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants then pouring in—who were seen by the Viking fans as degenerate outsiders ruining the country. That underlying bigotry is also behind the current resurgence in Viking infatuation by those who believe that everything means something in Viking.

There are two Viking stories here. Genuine archaeological evidence of Norse explorers who reached North America centuries before Columbus was discovered in the 1960s. The Norse reached L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and established settlements there. There is no evidence, however, that they traveled much farther south than that. The other Viking theory, established long before L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered, is problematic. The original idea of the Norse discovery of America had specific individuals, most famously Leif Eriksen, having come to the new world and exploring and setting up encampments and even cities throughout New England and as far south as Florida. These claims have no evidence for them aside from a few Old Norse texts that are more literary and romantic than factual and a few supposed artifacts with even less veracity. These are the Vikings some have used to inspire dark, racist, anti-immigrant feelings.

Norse raiders—often erroneously referred to as Vikings—did wreak havoc upon the British Isles, Northern Europe, and even as far south as the Middle East during the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were widely and rightly feared. By the 1300s, however, these raids had ended, and the Norse had settled down across the region and become part of several separate, indigenous populations. So many people from Scandinavia had settled in northern France, for example, that the region came to be known as Normandy. Slowly, farming and commerce replaced conflict. The fearsome raiders who appeared as wild-eyed defilers all but vanished from the Western imagination. There are no mentions of the Norse, for example, in the Arthurian legends, and Beowulf was unknown in the United Kingdom until the nineteenth century.

Until the latter twentieth century, the only “evidence” that Norse people came to the New World prior to Columbus was a collection of late medieval manuscripts collectively known as the Vinland Sagas. This name comes from the belief that in his explorations of the lands west of Greenland, Leif Eriksen (who may or may not have been a historical personage) called the places he found Vinland. It was not until the latter part of the 1600s, however, that a few scholars from Iceland and Norway began to suggest that Vinland may have been North America. The texts tell a rousing story of adventure, warfare, love, murder, friendship, valor, and cowardice just as one would expect of a text meant to inspire, enthrall, and entertain an audience.

Violent warrior culture was only a part of Viking life. Most of these people—who had no homogeneous ethnicity or culture—were traders and farmers. In the Vinland Sagas, Leif Eriksen and his homicidal sister Freydis take center stage, but it is his friend, the farmer Thorfinn Karlsefni, who holds the story and the settlements together. Thorfinn and his wife, Gudrid, have a child named Snorri (if this is historically accurate, then Snorri Karlsefni—rather than Virginia Dare—was the first European born in the Americas). The modern-day alt-right Viking poseurs have little interest in farmers. They prefer the supposed manly mannishness of the warriors (though their choice of khaki pants, polo shirts, and tiki torches does have a tendency to undermine that image).

The nineteenth-century idea of the Vikings merged smoothly with a growing interest in the mythology of the Aryans, where it was adopted by Germanic nationalists and anti-Semites. For some, the image of the Viking represented the Nordic or Aryan ideal of racial superiority. In America, Norse theory drew several proponents who were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigots and used the idea of Viking discovery to bash Columbus in particular and the Catholic Church in general. In a fascinating twist on the current fantasy of Vikings as pagan sorcerers, in his The Goths in New England (1843) George P. Marsh argued that they were more than the stereotyped fur-covered ravagers. The Norse, or Goths as he called them, were not “the savage destructors and devastators that popular error has made them.” They were bringing Protestantism to sweep away “the spiritual and intellectual tyranny of Rome.” He argued the Puritans who came to New England were children of the Goths, “the noblest branch of the Caucasian race.”

The great proponent of nineteenth-century Viking fandom was Eben Norton Horsford (1818–1893). Having become convinced that Leif Eriksen had discovered America, laid down a personal settlement, and helped found a city, Horsford tirelessly searched the region around his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and claimed to have found these very places. He and his daughter Nellie tirelessly promoted this idea. Though popular with the general public, few in the professional world of history and archaeology accepted his arguments. The Norse theory of American discovery quickly became part of a wider anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement.

A friend of Horsford, Thomas Gold Appleton (1812–1884), was a Boston lawyer-turned-Aryan aficionado. He said that Eriksen and the others were Aryans and as such “the greatest race in the history of Mankind.” In musings on life he published as A Sheaf of Papers (1875), Appleton randomly evaluated the different ethnic groups coming to America. “The Latin races,” he says, “are now being weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Erik the Red, on the other hand, was the “flowering of the Alpine [read Aryan] Rose.” He felt that “not without meaning, at the head of that swarm [of dark-skinned people] God has placed the Anglo-Saxon race.”

Another virulent anti-Catholic Viking proponent was Maria Shipley (1843–1900). She argued that the Norse discovery of America concerned more than just whose feet first stepped upon the New World. She saw, as did several pro-Norse authors, that the very survival of the United States was at stake. To allow Columbus to continue to be credited with the European discovery of America would allow the Catholic Church inroads to power and influence in the United States that would lead ultimately to the country’s downfall at the hands of a repressive religion and church hierarchy. Indeed, her book is less a reasoned presentation of facts and evidence supporting the Norse theory than a long rant against the evils of Catholicism (and eventually Protestant Christianity as well). She placed Nordic culture at the heart of American governmental and political development. She referred to the Vikings as a kind of equivalent to the “Pilgrim Fathers.”

A far cry from today’s misogynist Viking fans, Shipley viewed the Norse as a kind of fairy tale pagan, occult society with a nature-loving philosophy, female equality, and sexual license. Shipley combined her passion for Vikings with a growing admiration for “pagan” religion and an ardent feminism coupled with a consuming distaste for the Catholic Church and what she perceived as a Catholic conspiracy to take over America. Her book The Icelandic Discoverers of America (1888) was another long rant against all things Columbus and Catholic. She saw Columbus as little more than a cowardly slaver, whereas the Vikings were virile, manly men. Columbus, she argued, was a bit of an effeminate wuss. Current alt-right fans echo this sentiment in their deep-seated fears of a supposed growing effeminacy of modern man, emphasized by their odd obsession with milk and soy.1

By the early twentieth century, the Anglo-American Viking Theory obsession faded, only to return by the early twenty-first century. The interest in the Vikings became a part of the growing alt-right, white supremacist, and Neo-Nazi resurgence in America, England, and Western Europe. White supremacists have tried their awkward best to argue that Norse, like medieval, history shows a bygone world of Caucasian homogeneity where people of color were totally absent. They believe that this romantic white pseudohistory is one where no influence of other cultures has intruded. They argue that Norse culture is the fount of all racial superiority in the world. It is part of a wider phenomenon of pseudohistory in which amateur theorists have tried to revise the understanding of Medieval Europe and Civil War–era America. Like the Viking theorists of the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century enthusiasts use their belief to bolster their fear of immigrants, Jews, and Muslims—rather than Irish and Italians—while attempting to prop up their own masculinity. The alt-right firebrand Richard Spencer once said that women prefer alt-right men because of their virility. Women, Spencer said, prefer strong men “like cowboys or Vikings.” YouTuber Mike Peinovich, while discussing the supposed conquest of Europe by immigrant Muslims, said, “It’s time to become Vikings and wipe these people out.”

Pseudohistory, like pseudoscience, is an intellectual endeavor that purports to follow the rules of academic historical research but does not. For pseudohistorians, a thin veneer of superficial scholarship covers the deeper rot at its heart. Academic historians pursue knowledge about the past by tracking down and digesting primary source documents, writings, books, and artifacts. They follow this material, while contextualizing it, so as to learn about the past. They do it without preconceived ideas or answers. They let the facts push them one way or another and arrive at some insight regardless of the political, cultural, or religious consequences. Pseudohistorians dispense with all this and begin with a “truth” they want confirmed. In the case of Viking theory, they believe Viking culture was as lily white as the snows they believe they hailed from. All efforts then go into proving this preconceived idea regardless of the facts and evidence. This approach is at the heart of the Neo-Viking movement.

To live their Viking fantasies, some alt-right aficionados like to dress up in odd combinations of modern helmets and body armor with their idea of period garb in a form of the worst cosplay ever. Despite their increasing use of violence, the overall effect of their costumes is more amusing than intimidating. Little shields with ersatz runic inscriptions proliferate. Their admiration owes more to nineteenth-century Germanic theater and twentieth-century cinema than any historical or archaeological reality. Scholars argue that the modern imagery these people have adopted is more Victorian than Viking.

The mash-up of Viking regalia and political violence and hate speech is not new. The Nazis had a barely contained arousal at Viking culture. They embraced the runic inscriptions as their own and styled much of their symbolism on what they considered their forebears. There was a Nazi army unit called The Viking Division. They too saw in the fantasy of Viking culture the mirage of their own antecedents of racial superiority. This helps account for the confluence of racist, Neo-Nazi, and Neo-Confederate imagery often seen at their gatherings and protests today (the preference for bogus history and science also means beliefs such as flat-earth, anti-vaccination, and UFOlogy have begun to bleed into them).

While most of the Viking aficionados are mere sound and fury, some of them have gone to violent extremes. Anti-racist protests have been met by violent alt-right counter protesters who quickly resort to physical group violence. Individuals have also taken up the Viking sword. In May 2017, Jeremy Joseph Christian, who stabbed and murdered people on the Portland, Oregon, light rail, posted “Hail Victory, Hail Vinland” online before his rampage. When the gangs of white supremacists marched in Charlottesville the following August, some carried cardboard shields with Norse runic symbols on them. One of them, James A. Fields Jr., intentionally drove his car into anti-Nazi protesters, killing Heather Heyer. He was later convicted and sent to prison. He will likely feel at home there. White supremacist prison organizations have used Viking symbolism and embraced the historical religion of the Vikings, Odinism, perverting it in the process. A more recent organization to come out of the same white supremacist/prison nexus is the Vinland Folk Resistance.

In an interesting turn that few of the modern Viking theory fans recognize, nineteenth-century Viking researchers rejected the pagan Odinism of tenth- and eleventh-century Norse people and claimed they were really Christians. Today’s Viking enthusiasts embrace the pagan religious aspects of their heroes and try to package it as some sort of eternal Caucasian spirituality not ruined by Jews and other “mud people” they consider inferior. This has resulted in an unlikely backlash.

The racist embrace of Norse religions such as Odinism is as fantastical and misunderstood by its appropriators as any other hijacked aspect of Norse or medieval history. Asatru is a modern revival of the Old Norse religion. In one last ironic twist to this story, the modern followers of Asatru—which began in Iceland in the 1970s and has since grown around the world—have denounced the racist embrace. They argue Odinism/Asatru is a peaceful religion that does not recognize racial hatred. Indeed, they argue that the Viking era was multiethnic and had no concept of race as it is interpreted today. They have actively fought to distance themselves from what they consider the violent bastardization of their religion, and they consider themselves anti-racist Vikings.

The embrace of Viking history by the alt-right is a disturbing example of the attempt to subvert history to some evil end. It fits in with the “Irish Slave” myth, the delusion that the Democratic Party is the genuine party of racism and fascism, the suggestion that African slaves fought voluntarily for the Confederacy, and other forms of historical memetic nonsense. The idea that Leif Eriksen discovered America was, and still is, a desperate claim that America, as well as the United Kingdom and Western Europe in general, is a whites-only homeland settled right from the start by Nordic supermen. Native Americans are discounted as little more than brown-skinned, savage heathens who only got in the way of proud white expansion, and non-white, non-Christians are seen as savage defilers of all that is good and beautiful who must be stopped at all costs. While we do know now that the earliest Europeans to come to America (of which we are aware) were Norse, the particular Leif Eriksen story of Vinland has no supporting evidence. It is a wish-fulfillment fantasy meant to satisfy a troubling emotional need for everything to mean something in Viking.

If the genuine Vikings of the tenth and eleventh centuries could see what is going on now in their names, they would likely be puzzled. But Thorfinn and Gudrid are together in eternity. They hear not the call of the alt-right to a white paradise that never existed.

 


Note

  1. In one of the odder aspects of current white supremacist Viking fandom, some alt-right types go on about how cow’s milk is a symbol of white supremacy. It is genuine; it is what the Vikings drank. Soy, on the other hand, is for weaklings and the effeminate. Milk enhances male virility while soy destroys it. Also, veganism is for sissy boys while meat-eating is for real warriors.

Brian Regal

Brian Regal teaches the history of science at Kean University, New Jersey. His latest book is Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads and Cryptozoology (Palgrave, 2011).


With the twenty-first century resurgence in racist bigotry in the Anglo-American and European world, racists have appropriated nineteenth-century Viking pseudohistory to bolster their belief in white supremacy. The growing racist, white supremacist, alt-right movement (not to mention a plethora of recent television documentaries about ancient America) has taken on an incongruous aspect. They have embraced …

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