The Myths of Norse Mythology

May 02, 2016

Bloodthirsty, mythological and even political. Viking and Norse iconography is everywhere, but what is it and what to make of it?


Picture credit: Soldiers of Odin Norge

While uniformed vigilantes patrol the streets of Northern Europe under the banner of Odin, others call for the reclamation of Norse Mythology for positive ends. But is it even the same mythology they are representing? Contemporary Odinism and references to Norse mythology resemble far more than the cultural tradition they refer back to. They are meta-mythologies meant to unite over constructed memories of a lost golden era.

An exaggerated iconography

Viking culture, Norse Mythology or whatever you name the cultural heritage of pre-Christian Northern Europe, has definitely caught public attention recently. One obvious example is History Channel’s series The Vikings. No wonder that the legendary sagas about Ragnarr Loðbrók and others make good material for grand screen plays. However, it also contributes to an imagery of Norse mythology that overemphasises certain characteristics at the expense of others, and becomes part of a macho image of pre-Christian Northern Europe. I would not criticise the production for such representations, but it is worth mentioning that they feed into an already stereotyped image of pre-Christian Northern Europe. One-dimensional representations and myths of Norse mythology have been an unfortunate inspiration for fascists since Nazi Germany. Among other groups, Soldiers of Odin is one of the latest that combine imaginaries of Norse mythology and contemporary politics in an unfavourable fashion.  

One criticism of Soldiers of Odin’s representation of the Norse heritage has been their historically inaccurate logo – a horned helmet. “Everybody knows that the Vikings’ helmets didn’t have horns” goes the argument. Such an argument works to ridicule the movement, but might just as well backfire, as the argument is patronising and smug. It is not like we keep Asterix off our children’s plates just because its historical iconography might be inaccurate and exaggerated. On the other hand, we ought to expect more from adults' guidelines for their political worldviews and constructions of identity.

Apart from an ode to Odin, as wise and caring on the Norwegian branch of Soldier of Odin’s Facebook page, the group does not appear to be religiously coined when speaking about their vigilante activities in the news media. Their press photos are taken from behind showing off the logo on their backs, hoods on, and the group as whole remains anonymous apart from their leaders. When they formed in Norway, they did not seem very eager to elaborate on the Viking iconography apart from that the outfit looks nice. Instead their main talking points concerned public safety for righteous citizens of the state. Their symbiosis of Norse symbolism and socio-political activities is problematic for two reasons. First, because the founder of the group in Finland is in fact a neo-Nazi. Second, because their weak ties to the mythology suggests that it’s iconography is chosen to fit into an established network of nationalistic and murky theories about justice, race and culture.

An everlasting chain of re-interpretations?

International press seems to interpret Soldiers of Odin’s name along a mediated stereotype of Odin as “the Nordic god of war and death”. This is a very bleak and simplified depiction of a divinity that perhaps is foremost attributed with wisdom and knowledge. Yes, death and war is part of the mythology of Odin, but only as parts of his overall insight into the destiny of all beings in this life and beyond. Such a perception of Odin is a general mediation through popular culture, which is farther meta-mythologised through re-representations such as the one above. I do not want to promote some kind of correct theology of Odin, but it is worth mentioning that the mythology is more complex then the aforementioned simplification. Moreover, the Eddic poems that deal with Odin are difficult to interpret, as the qualities of the deity are both complex and ambiguous. However, it does not make any sense to speak of any authentic Norse Mythology because it all refers to a verbal tradition, which was narrated without written mediation. The poems and sagas were not put to paper until the Christening of the Nordics. Hence, the only literal sources of Norse mythology are written by and for Christian societies, which obviously has certain implications regarding how the material is framed for reception.

In fact, nowadays – and since Nazi Germany – Norse Mythology has been an unfortunate inspiration for nationalistic fascist movements that connect Aryan race theory and anti Semitism to something Norse. Moreover, Viking symbolism of Norse mythology from rune stones and archaeological items are adapted in modern symbols. The double sig-runes of Nazi Germany’s SS is perhaps the most famous iconography of Nazism with a clear linkage to Norse heritage.

Picture Credit: Harald Damsleth, Waffen-SS Propaganda poster 1941

Viking iconography and Norse mythological characters are central symbols in way too many neo-Nazi representations throughout Europe and beyond. The German company - Thor SteinarNordic Company, is one of the brands that promote neo-Nazi merchandise that combine Norse iconography and  the Norwegian flag. The Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs asked the German government to ban such violations of the Norwegian flag a few years back. In 2012, the brand opened an outlet named “Brevik”, claimed by critics to be an ode to terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, and their presence continue to stir controversies in Europe.

A meta-mythology

At the same time as Norse mythology is appropriated by right wing extremists, other calls for more positive usage of the same characters and histories. The epic Edda poems do carry a rich folklore of a fantastic universe, which certainly can inspire storytelling, such as Norwegian play writer Jon Fosse’s Edda, which premieres early 2017. Additionally, there are living neo-pagan groups that worship the Norse gods today. Some of these groups have pronounced policies in favour of multiculturalism that differ from other groups that are explicitly hostile to the culturally other. The Nazi interpretation of the Norse iconography has less to do with the actual mythology and is more about a romanticised idea of a pure race and culture that were untouched by both Christianity, Judaism and now Islam. The interpretation represents rather a myth about the mythology; hence we can call it a meta-mythology.

By meta-mythology I refer to narratives that serve to emphasise one part of a myth or interpret mythology in such a way that it nurtures a collective identity. It is an appropriation of symbolism from a distant culture. There is a selection process to such a practice, in which the mythology itself does not play a substantively crucial part as a whole, while the imagery is adapted to distinguish something quintessential about the origins.

Soldiers of Odin is according to Etunometön Frog, researcher at the University of Helsinki, an example of such meta-mythologization. The Soldiers of Odin, originating in Finland, cannot refer to any national pre-Christian heritage by referring to Odin, as Finland never shared the Scandinavian mythology. In other words, their use of Norse symbolism is to be perceived as a neo-Nazi feature rather than a Norse mythological one. This is meta-mythology in the sense that it emphasises certain aspect of the mythology in order to connect with likeminded through a shared iconography.

The Third Reich’s use of runes in their logos and contemporary representations, such as Thor Steinar Nordic Company, are symbolic codifications that calls upon a unity in Northern Europe prior to and disturbed by other ethnicities, cultures and religions. Additionally, the popular imagery of Vikings as a fierce macho culture adds another dimension to the meta-mythology of a brave people, willing to defend their ground and engage in violent battle for the greater good. Martyrdom with cosmological benefits is central to the mythology. And that is perhaps the most widespread narrative of Norse Mythology, namely that to fall on the battlefield is rewarded with a place alongside Odin in Valhalla.

The Viking heritage of Northern Europe connotes an imagery of a macho culture – an every-man-for-himself-culture – that resonates with the xenophobia, purification of ethnicity and male violence.  This imagery is largely mediated through popular culture rather than from the original folklore of North Germanic pre-Christian Europe.

A multi dimensional counter culture

Norse mythological iconography has played an important part on the music scene too. It has been a drive against conformist society represented by an alienating faith of the church that allegedly has driven people away from the origins. Satanism and the Nietzschean take on the individual self was combined with Norse symbols to counter the Church’s numbing of individuality, and its strongest expression has probably been Norway’s biggest cultural export since Ibsen and Munch – Black Metal. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, is amongst the symbols that are spread worldwide in cheap necklaces and other merchandise that exhibits taste for black metal, and distaste for conformity and for Christianity in particular. This tells us less about Thor as a Norse god than it resembles agitation towards hegemonic culture. Such agitation takes many forms; some are Odinist in the neo-Nazi sense, others can be Asatru in the neo-pagan holistic, back-to-the-roots-kind of spirituality, while some simply represent a particular taste in music. What they have in common is a leaning towards something perceived as original, pure and untouched by judeo-christian culture, but the end result is quite different. Hence, there are disputes over terminology, iconography and identity of Norse mythology. It is meta-mythologisation if you like.