This week The New York Times reported that the uniforms of this year’s Norwegian Olympic Alpine ski team have caused a stir among those concerned about neonazi co-optation of Viking symbols. The Viking-themed uniforms include the runic Tyr symbol, used chiefly in a linguistic context but which also refers to an ancient Norse god of war. It’s also become a symbol used by the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neonazi organization founded in Sweden in 1997, with additional official chapters in Finland and Norway, and substantial support in Denmark and Iceland. “One of the group’s slogans, ‘Enough is enough,’” writes Richard Martyn-Hemphill for the Times, “even showed up on a drum in last summer’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.”
The controversy over the uniforms has special importance in a country that makes knitting patterns available each Olympic cycle, allowing everyday Norwegians to knit and wear their own team sweaters with pride. But following the co-optation of the rune by the Nordic Resistance Movement, several retailers have declined to carry the pattern, and many Norwegian Olympic athletes will be wearing an alternate official design to PyeongChang. Others in Norway see this response as abandoning cultural heritage to bigots. As Hilde Midthjell, chief executive of sweater manufacturer Dale of Norway, told the Times, “‘Neo-Nazis have marched with Norwegian flags. That does not mean we stop using that, does it?’” In accordance with this stance, Dale of Norway will continue to carry the runic sweater design.
From a cursory glance, the decision to drop the Tyr-emblazoned uniforms may seem excessive given the seeming obscurity of the group appropriating the symbol. But the Nordic Resistance Movement—which has attacked LGBTQ events, committed violence against anti-fascist protesters, bombed refugee centers, and was subsequently banned in Finland late last year—is part of a larger global landscape of White supremacist groups that have adopted ancient Nordic religious iconography and beliefs as part of their crusade for hate.
As I explore at length in the Winter 2018 issue of The Public Eye, White supremacists are increasingly embracing Odinism, a revival of ancient Norse paganism that centers around the god Odin. These Odinists reject Christianity as a weak, effeminate religion originating from a Jewish tradition they despise, favoring instead a hypermasculine fantasy of Viking religion they see as noble and authentically White. In the piece, I argued:
Many of those drawn to Odinism seem to fit the popular image of the angry, disaffected White men who voted for Trump: lacking in status, searching for a sense of identity and community, and insistent that White people are under attack as a group. In the face of economic despair and entitled, hypermasculine White rage, embracing a religion that seems to be all about White male victory can be appealing.
Such rage is fueling Odinist movements across North America and Western and Northern Europe, with goals ranging from expelling immigrants and refugees of color en masse to igniting racial holy wars and taking up arms against the state. In this light, concern over a rune on an Olympic team’s uniform takes on more gravity.
The growing White supremacist Odinist movement should be continually monitored as everyday enthusiasts of Nordic history and culture (including those who want to take back the Tyr rune from the Nordic Resistance Movement), as well as anti-racist practitioners of Norse paganism, push back against the appropriation of their heritage and beliefs.