The Misuse of Nordic Cultural Symbols in Racism & America

Updated: Jan 9

by Kari C. Tauring

In the 2010 census Americans listed gardening and genealogy as our top two hobbies. European Americans, like all humans, crave a rooted spiritual connection to the earth and to a culture that is not built on exploitation, extraction, and capitalism. But to excavate this root culture for real, we must cease to participate in exploitation, extraction, and capitalism which eats away at root culture identity and earth spiritual connection. The things our ancestors gave up to fit into "white America" - our mother lands, our mother tongues, our folk culture teachings - are part of the story. Often, these are things we were forced to give up before we even got to America, through European colonization, Christianization, and classism.

We need to look at what we and our ancestors stayed silent about, participated in, and what we continue to benefit from such as land theft, racial disparities, and an unjust legal system. We chose to identify ourselves by the social construct of race, white, in order to fit in and gain advantages, leaving our root cultures, folk traditions, and the spiritual ethos of them buried underneath with our actual ancestors fading farther and farther from our memories.

American culture is impatient, forgetful of the past, and extremely prone to cult-ism. The lack of root culture makes us feel sad and empty - alone. Like adolescents with no boundaries we follow along with what makes us feel good about ourselves. We steal other people's cultures to fill the void, but we only know how to consume and capitalize on other people's cultures. We get angry and tell other cultures that they can't practice the folkways of their ancestors...if I can't - you can't. But perhaps the most damaging thing that we do to ourselves is invent our own versions of our ancestors and their history, skipping over the hard work of truth telling and conveniently create/conflate race with culture in a grand fantasy. It's not just Americans who have developed this "blood ties/skin color/race=culture" ideology. White Nationalists have been worming their way back into the body politic throughout Europe in response to the influx of refugees from mostly Muslim countries.

As the United States capital was under siege last night, we got an up-close look at the kind of cultic frenzy white Americans are capable of. The photos of the fur-clad men with "Nordic" tattoos, runes, and other symbols spark the questions: Why they are using Nordic root culture to promote a racist agenda? Is Norse culture racist? My short answer is above and I will continue with some history.

The runes are a scriptural/symbolic writing system dating to at least 160 CE. The mjolnir or Thor's hammer dates at least to the Iron Age. These cultural symbols range from Germany to Iceland. There are iterations of the thunder god's hammer/ax even into Finland and other non-Germanic cultures. The sun symbol or swastika is so ancient and wide ranging in its use throughout the world that it's difficult to know how old it is.

In the 1800's all over Europe there was a trend, a backlash against industrialization and expansion that caused artists and intellectual elites to seek out the folk music and dances of the peasants. Romanticism of the simpler life created connections for the elites back to an earthy root culture identity, without actually returning to the land. In every country, simple peasant ways were cleaned up and brought into upper class society. This is what started the bunad movement in Norway, for example. A scouring of the countryside for clothing designs and then a rigid representation of new "folk costumes" that identified who you were and what district you came from. A folk-uniform if you will. National Romanticism was particularly poignant in Norway. The intellectual elite were busy reconstructing Norwegian root culture identity in a bid for freedom, having been held as an intentionally under-developed colony by Denmark for 400 years, and then ceded to Sweden.

Wagner was busy creating his version of Norse Mythology in the 17 hour - four part opera, "The Ring Cycle." Franz List was composing the Hungarian Rhapsodies out of folk dances. Grieg was cleaning up folk songs for the big stage. There was also a resurgence of interest in the mythologies and other pre-Christian cultural material. The question of who we were before Christianity was buzzing through the universities, artist salons, and political circles - until that material was mis-appropriated for use by the racist ideology of the Nazis.

After WWI, Germany was a country left destitute, demoralized, and shunned by the rest of Europe. They began re-building their psyche as a nation by perpetuating a mythos of the "Great Germanic Race." By the end of WWII the rest of Europe, Scandinavia in particular, shunned everything to do with the symbols appropriated by this sick and twisted ideology. It was understandable. Yet the root history of these symbols and their meanings for human kind was also buried. So the racist ideology applied to the ancient symbols prevailed until quite recently.

A movement to reclaim the runes, symbols, and mythologies began to take hold in a younger generation whose experience with Nazi ideology was tangential, historical. Modern scholars began tip toeing back into the field, global warming freed up new finds from the Iron Age, and philosophers and spiritual seekers have begun excavating the pre-Christian roots to see what messages they might hold for human kind.

I am one of these, whose careful un-packing of my own heritage has led me to understand how Edda poetry, runes, and root culture values connect to the full history of my Norwegian heritage. Studying the ethics and cultural ideologies presented in this ancient material sheds light on many of the cultural norms I find in our Sons of Norway groups. I have found threads back to the Eddas in the folk music and rune shapes made by our bodies in the folk dances. This is root culture revealing itself. I find within the messages of the runes, ways to pay shild (debt), to amend and repair damages with indigenous peoples and the earth itself, that my settler ancestors inflicted or benefitted from.

And there are those who can not or will not un-pack their actual heritages. They cling to these mis-appropriated symbols and their twisted, distorted meanings as a way of filling the void of their root-less souls. They create fantasy ancestors, fantasy clothing, and cling to the fantasy that their fantasy race of white people is the same as culture. In America, a land based on fantasy, re-writing history, cultism, denial, and perpetual adolescence, the cult of "Nordic Whiteness" finds ready adherents. There is no healing in this pathway. There is only more pain, emptiness, rootlessness, and mounting shild that must one day be paid at the feet of the fate goddesses, the Norns.

Moving from Race to Culture

A Native American friend of mine once asked, "what does race or blood quantum have to do with culture?" This question sent me on a deep dive into my own root culture experience. Through the years I have developed a "three-legged stool" of folk culture that gets at the who, where, and why of it for me. It also explains the lack of stability when these legs are kicked out from under the stool and replaced with monotheism, colonization, and racism.

The first leg describes who we are. In Norse culture there is a thing called öorlog. It describes who we are based on a variety of things such as blood relationship, marriages and other oath relationships like adoption and fostering, and also the whole of the cultural fabric in which we were raised. So this leg would include the culture we were raised in as part of our ancestral öorlog. Therefore, in answer to my friends apt question, bloodline is a sliver on the leg of the stool that makes up a cultural identity. As we have seen in so many Saga stories and in archeological research, many people belonged to the Norse culture because they were raised in it or came into it regardless of where their DNA traces to. The same, she asserted, holds true for her own cultural root saying, "If you are raised Lakota, you are Lakota." This is one reason why our Scandinavian folk music and dance community is so wide open to everyone regardless of "DNA". It is a cultural tradition that we ache to preserve and share. If you find beauty in it, you are most welcome!

The next leg is where we are - it is the Nature/Environment/the land on which we are raised. The water source we drink from, the soil we grow our food in, the level of gravity, weather conditions, and other natural phenomenon affect how we live, carry our bodies, and relate to the world around us. This leg of the stool is important in Minnesota where the weather extremes and learning to walk on ice are paramount to survival. Many southern transplants to Minnesota will attest that they have felt these changes deeply. For Americans, this must also include the original inhabitants of the land on which we are living. I live on Mdewakanton Dakota territory with ties in Northern Minnesota to Anishinaabe peoples. So it is incumbent on me to learn how the people of this land honor this land. Not to be appropriative, but to acknowledge myself and my culture as guests and good neighbors here. In this way we can discover the intersectionality of our root cultures, learn and share and hopefully heal and make amends to one another and the living body of Mother Earth that my people call Jord.

Finally we have the why, the supernatural forces, gods and goddesses within a folk culture that help us understand and integrate the relationships we have to ancestors and land. In fact, the other two legs are permeated with spiritual force in the form of ancestor helpers and nature spirits within most folk cultures I have studied. Again, DNA has little to do with feeling the spirits of the land. Root cultures give us names for them that belong to a specific culture. I have spent several decades learning the names and natures of the supernatural forces in nature, in the runes, and in my lineage. Again, anyone with an love of this particular culture is welcome to explore the metaphysics, cosmology, and spiritual potency of Nordic root culture - but not to appropriate it.

In Nordic root culture, these three legs of the folk way are preserved in the ancient mythic poems, the meanings of the rune letters, and in the folk stories, songs, and dances. They are apparent in many of the root culture values that persist in Scandinavian culture such as a deep respect for women, nature, paying our debts, and the sharing of wealth in society. They are the roots that tie into the particular expression of Christianization in Norway (for me). And they connect to the world tree from which the living expression of my root culture identity has blossomed.

So perhaps now you can see that race, a social construct, has nothing to do with culture.

Author's Footnotes:

*Race to Culture - a phrase I learned from elders at the Cultural Wellness Center in Minneapolis, MN

*Resources for European Americans

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