A note on runes and racism

I know this is a lightweight blog, both in readership and theme, but there are things that need to be said. I’ve decided not to put this in the normal feed of posts. Partly because I don’t want it to get buried, partly because if you’re just looking for fun and games and a rest from it all, you should be allowed to choose that.

The third largest party in the Swedish parliament is a racist party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement. If any other party had put forward plans to strengthen the Swedish gaming industry and encourage games on Norse culture, the Viking Age and Swedish history, I would have been happily surprised. When their Danish counterpart, the second largest party in the Danish parliament, announced a couple of years ago that they wanted to protect runestones (by taking funds set aside for international cultural exchanges), I couldn’t cheer. These are things that I love so much that I’ve dedicated my career and much of my spare time to them.

Last week, the beginning of November 2016, neo-Nazis marched in Stockholm. It wasn’t the first time, probably not the last. The symbol this group, the Nordic Resistance Movement, has chosen is a rune. Looking at what symbols the extreme right uses, it includes several runes. This use goes back to the early 20th century runic esoterica that got picked up by the Nazi party (a brief overview here) and used to connect their ideology to a glorified Germanic past.

Just as runes aren’t intrinsically magical, they aren’t intrinsically racist. But they are used this way, and the people who want to claim our past for their own destructive agenda need to be countered. These are the people, in and outside political power, cheering in Europe as a confirmed bigot and very dangerous man takes the US presidency. They see in the Vikings a template for their violence, toxic masculinity and homogeneity, an idea of Nordic greatness to aspire to. Our job, as runologists, medievalists and Old Norse scholars, is to challenge this. It is to make sure that the Nordic past continues to belong to us all. This is not a question of proving once and for all that what we call Vikings were peaceful lovers of equal rights, but of showing why we can’t. We know that history is full of real people, with real lives and ideas, people who tried to handle the mess that their society created for them. This is one thing we can say with all the different interpretations and conflicting evidence we have. There is never just one story.

I love runes. I love being able to get closer to the culture of a thousand years ago. I love the weirdness of the sagas and I can even love the descriptions of slicing through enemies with a stoic witticism. I think it’s great, not in the single-minded way of the far right, but great in the way that humanity is great. Writing this blog, I see how runes come to represent something dark, rough and violent, but I hope it never becomes the only way of viewing them.