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It is one of the most iconic scenes in modern cinematic history:  Indiana Jones is in a desperate race against the Nazis, a lone hero battling against the entire German war machine to prevent an ancient artefact of immense power from falling into the wrong hands.

Of course, as is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction. Nazi Germany really was obsessed with uncovering ancient texts and lost knowledge, and had a special division devoted to the pursuit of artefacts: the Ahnenerbe. This shadowy organization began as a prehistoric research institute, devoted to exploring German ancestral heritage. From inception, the group’s founders were obsessed with the legend Atlantis and the mystical powers of “Blood and Soil.” Himmler soon incorporated the group into the feared SS, but they remained an ideological factory, a thinktank, with fifty different branches and more than one hundred research projects in the field—archaeological expeditions and excavations seeking proof or propaganda that could advance the worldview that Germans were the master race.

Norse mythology spoke to the men of this new, resurgent Germany. The sagas recalled an age of unity, a timeless purity that existed in Northern Europe. The popular imagery of Vikings as a fierce warrior culture, willing to defend their lands in the name of Valhalla, resonated with the SS: the double sig-runes they used as their insignia represented victory. The Ahnenerbe craved links to the bold, brave North.

One such link was the venerable Snartemo sword, found on a farm in 1933 by two farmers, buried in a hidden tomb dating back to the early 6th century. Inside the tomb were rare fabrics, bear claws, and a magnificent sword. A sword with a gold-plated hilt, entwined with ornate geometric patterns.

And swastikas.

In Hitler’s own words, this ancient symbol “signified the mission allotted to us—the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind.” Germans had become obsessed with swastikas the moment Heinrich Schliemann discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy in the 1870s. They linked it to similar shapes found on German artefacts and concluded that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors”—the remote ancestors that gave legitimacy to Himmler’s outlandish claims, pseudo-science, and fake history. The swastika was like the Nazi North Star.

In 1936 an International Congress was held in Oslo, with a special exhibition of the Snartemo sword discovery as the main attraction. The Ahnenerbe were, unsurprisingly there in force, following their guiding star towards glory. So much so that some Norwegian archaeologists foresaw a problem, and, with great pragmatism, hid the Snartemo sword and its swastika hilt in a vault of a remote bank. Only a few academics knew of the plan, and these Norwegian Indiana Joneses kept their secret well. The invading German forces were never able to find the original and made do with a replica, recreated from drawings.

Historical revisionism

Not so long ago, the swastika meant something very different. In the years following the sensational discovery of Troy, the symbol popped up everywhere, in vogue as a good luck charm: in Rudyard Kipling’s signature, on Coca-Cola pendants, Carlsberg beer bottles, American army shoulder patches, and even Boy Scout merit badges. Charles Lindbergh had one emblazoned on the nose cone of the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.

The swastika genuinely does have a long history, used as sacred symbol in pre-Christian religions by Hindus, Shintoists, Odinists, and Druids. The sign usually represented the sun, and the original Norse name for it was the fylfot. Vikings used it as a decoration on a bucket found on the Oseberg ship dating to 800 AD. A version of a swastika, the sun cross, adorns the top of the Gosforth cross which is central to the novel, The All Father Paradox. The antagonist of the novel knows the power of symbols only too well: ““This leathery old binding, these spindly tattoos, they tell a saga. These marks are the birthright of my people; they bind me to the dead.”

Today, continuing Nazi connotations mean that swastikas are beyond redemption in the West. But in many senses, the same ideological war once waged by the Ahnenerbe continues on other fronts. Norse symbols, once coveted by the Nazis for their raw power and ancient heritage, are now contested by rival groups of pagans, Neo-Nazis, and advertisers seeking to exploit them for their own benefit. Vikings themselves have become a symbol, representing at best adventure, risk, individual spirit, and daring and at worst, xenophobia, purification of ethnicity, and male violence. There is a berserker rage felt keenly by those white males who feel under siege by immigrants and #MeToo, an anger that some modern politicians have encouraged (and it is a sentiment that the antagonist in the novel is happy to exploit too).

But this imagery is largely mediated through popular culture rather than from the original folklore of North Germanic pre-Christian Europe. Simply put, the way we perceive Vikings today has little to do with the reality of the Viking Age and everything to do with the way we want to see ourselves. It is the greatest of ironies that Vikings, once demonised as the scourge of Europe, are now a talisman for those who are mortally afraid.

Perhaps it is time to stop hiding in the illusions of the past and start building a future built on practical reality. If the story of the Snartemo sword teaches us anything, it is that when people try to use their heritage and symbols as weapons, the true sons of Vikings will just sensibly and quietly spirit them away.

The modern Ahnenerbe

In the dying days of summer 2018, posting and commenting as @vikingverse, I came across an Instagram post. Using the tag #VikingFacts and the slogan “Facts. Not Revisionism”, the account was proclaiming that:

  • “The Aesir are your ancestors and not gods”
  • The reference to gods is an “Abrahamised mistranslation.”

It seemed the Ahnenerbe were still peddling their own warped reality. Imagine: Thor, Odin, Loki and Heimdall—all part of the family. The DNA testing kit business would go into meltdown.

I wondered, did the poster really believe his post? On what grounds?

There is a long tradition of linking myth with real historical events or personages. It’s called Euhemerism, and it supposes that historical accounts become myths as they are exaggerated in the retelling, accumulating elaborations and alterations over the centuries.

It’s a great propaganda tool in any argument. The early Christians, hostile to paganism, embraced euhemerism in attempt to undermine the validity of pagan gods. Cohortatio ad gentes, they would cry—”Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves”.

Several centuries later, presumably to curry favour with King Hákon Hákonarson, Snorri Sturluson euhemerised Thor as a prince of Troy in the prologue to his Prose Edda, thereby linking his King to the very cradle of civilization and the Norse gods in one deft sentence. In all likelihood, this one book helped Himmler “join the dots” to his hoped-for past glory and predecessors.

I pointed out some of this background to the poster, mentioning that Æsir is the plural of áss, which is attested in other Germanic languages, like the Old English ōs, and for good measure, adding that the word had been traced back through its Indo-European roots to Sanskrit. It quite definitely meant God, I posted, and the Christians hadn’t meddled with etymology.

There was a momentary flurry of abuse, and then I was banned, my comments deleted. The rest of the account drips with misogynism and machismo—I should have looked more closely. After some research, I found out that the owner of the account is a Frenchman. Suffice to say he doesn’t speak Old Norse, or have a military background, or any of the other things he claims.

I like to think there is a different between writing fantasy and living it, but clearly for some people, the line is somewhat blurred.

***

IAN STUART SHARPE

Ian Sharpe was born in London, UK, and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. Having worked for the BBC, IMG, Atari and Electronic Arts, he is now CEO of a tech start up. As a child he discovered his love of books, sci-fi and sagas: devouring the works of Douglas Adams, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and George MacDonald Fraser alongside Snorri Sturluson and Sigvat the Skald. He once won a prize at school for Outstanding Progress and chose a dictionary as his reward, secretly wishing it had been an Old Norse phrasebook. The All Father Paradox is his first novel.