Yorkshire was the destination for our family holiday this year, and knowing our eldest son was going to learn about Vikings at school this term, we decided we would go on a day trip to York to visit the Jorvik Viking Centre. I have been a fan of Greg Jenner’s You’re Dead to Me podcast for some time – he brings together historians and comedians to make history fascinating and funny. Knowing we were going to spend a long time in the car, I downloaded the episode about Old Norse Literature, featuring historian, Dr Janina Ramirez and comedian, Kae Kurd.

Listening to Dr Ramirez, I was reminded that far right groups often use Viking iconography and that symbology was centre stage when Capitol Hill in the USA was attacked in January 2021. Kristin Romey has written a brilliant piece for the National Geographic decoding many of the symbols that were displayed by the insurrectionists that day. She quotes Matthew Gabriele, chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, who explains that far-right groups use these icons to hark back to the “militant masculinity” of the Vikings and the perception that Viking society was ethnically pure and therefore non-diverse.

The problem is not confined to the US. Birmingham City Council has created a guide to the symbols of the far-right and many of them feature Viking iconography, such as runes.

You’re Dead to Me

Back to the podcast. Greg Jenner invites all historians to share a nuanced view in a section of the show called the Nuance Window. Dr Ramirez uses hers to explain that Viking society was not pure and monocultural in the way that racist groups believe it was. She explains that trade, travel and encountering new cultures were motivating forces for Vikings. Yes, they could be fierce warriors but this was only one small part of their story – they were both cultured and civilised. In contrast to a pure Aryan race, the Vikings were diverse, and the Viking world was “multi-racial” (Dr Ramirez’s words) – they travelled everywhere from the edge of the Americas to Constantinople. With this in mind, the misappropriation of Viking symbology couldn’t be more misguided.

Back to York

I was even more excited to visit Jorvick Viking Centre now that I had learned that Vikings shared my interest in learning about different cultures. I wondered if I would find anything that supported what I had discovered and I wasn’t disappointed. A “live action” part of the museum invited visitors to have their own Viking coin minted. I did what any parent living vicariously through their children would do and pushed them to get involved. They came back with a coin depicting the Christian cross and sword and Thor’s hammer. This replica of a silver penny changing hands in York over a thousand years ago, clearly showed a pluralism and religious tolerance that belies depictions of Viking society as militantly pure and monocultural.

The Vikings produced so many myths but it seems they have fallen victim to one, a myth propagated by those seeking to identify with an era of homogeneity that never was. In contrast, it seems they symbolise a love and fascination for difference, something we can believe in.