White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.

Roundup
tags: racism, Vikings, White supremacists



David Perry is a professor of history at Dominican University.

In early May, the white supremacist Jeremy Christian — who is accused of killing two men in Portland, Ore., on Friday — posted on Facebook, “Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!” “Victory” makes sense. Bigots feel empowered these days. But why “Vinland?” Why was this accused attacker talking about the short-lived Viking settlement in North America?

It turns out that white supremacy has gone fully medieval.

As the current contests over Confederate monuments exemplifies, Americans are accustomed to contested narratives about race and history fixating on the American South. Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the U.S., though, are looking much, much, farther north. Vinland was the name that a group of 10th-century Vikings, led by Leif Erikson, gave to a grapevine-rich island off what we believe is the coast of North America. For white supremacists, the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching especially 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.

The colonization of Vinland was pretty much a disaster, but it did happen. There’s archaeological evidence for a Viking presence in North America. Two surviving sagas recount the voyages. The sagas don’t always agree when it comes to laying blame — was it internecine violence or fighting with the indigenous people? Who started the fighting? The general details, however, are known. Erikson found an island, named it Vinland and went home with timber. Later expeditions failed, though a few survivors made it home to tell the tale. Voyages west from Greenland soon ceased, as the risk/reward calculus didn’t seem favorable. So much for Vinland.

Stories of the Vikings, both in Scandinavia and in North America, have long contained the potential to feed inventions of an imaginary racist past. European racists have long wanted to believe in a pure-white, hermetically sealed Middle Ages. Today, anti-refugee protesters in Europe dress up as Vikings and Crusaders. North American hate groups invoke the Norse god Odin and Vinland. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on the rise of Odinism in 2009, including the founding of the Vinland Folk Resistance. In the Pacific Northwest, the Wolves of Vinland and the allegedly affiliated Operation Werewolf present white supremacists with a combination biker gang, weightlifting club and militia. One individual who routinely shares Operation Werewolf social media posts, responded in 2012 to an article about the (untrue) legend of Viking colonization of Minnesota and southern Canada by writing on Facebook, “Our History is not a hoax. Hail Vinland!!!”

But even the Vikings of Europe did not exist in pure white racial isolation. The Vikings, or rather the conglomeration of Scandinavian peoples we’ve come to call Vikings, conquered and colonized where they found weak powers in the disorganized west of Europe. To the east, they also tapped into rich multicultural trading networks — fighting when useful, but delighted to engage in economic and cultural exchange with great powers of Eurasia. That included the Jews of Khazaria, Christians dedicated to both Rome and Constantinople and Muslims of every sect and ethnicity. Islamic coins, in fact, have been found buried across the Viking world, a testimony to the richness of this exchange.




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