In May 2022, screenshots of a tweet about Netflix, Vikings, and white supremacy circulated on Facebook.
In tweet seen in the screenshot, user @YasmineJibril retweeted another user’s commentary about Netflix’s purported casting of a woman of color “as a Viking”:
Perennial reminder that Viking was a job, kinda like pirate, not a race or ethnic identity. The association with race is heavily steeped in white supremacist ideology. https://t.co/g0kEIqN02i
— Lella Yasmine • ياسمين (@YasmineJibril) May 2, 2022
Vikings: Valhalla, Background and Social Media Discourse
In the original tweet, user @mrj880 stated that they thought it was a meme, “but Netflix literally casted [sic] this woman as a Viking.” A viral reply from @YasmineGibril said that “viking was a job, kinda like pirate” and added that an association between Vikings and ethnicity is linked to white supremacist ideology:
Perennial reminder that Viking was a job, kinda like pirate, not a race or ethnic identity. The association with race is heavily steeped in white supremacist ideology.
@mrj880’s initial tweet included a photograph or still from Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla, featuring Danish-Swedish actor Caroline Henderson. A February 25 2022 Netflix.com interview with Henderson and introduction to Vikings: Valhalla began:
In the new series Vikings: Valhalla, the diverse city of Kattegat might seem like an outlier to those who aren’t familiar with Viking history. But fact is closer than fiction. In the show, a war rages between the Vikings and the English over political indifferences rooted in intolerance of religious worship and other cultural practices. In the midst of the fray is a seaside province ruled by Jarl Estrid Haakon, a Black Scandinavian ruler who manages to strike a balance between the tense intermingling of religions and the vibrant intercultural exchanges in the port city’s open-air marketplace. In real life, and as depicted on the show, Vikings often traveled and settled down all around the globe in the Middle Ages, stretching across Constantinople, Russia, North Africa, Spain and even Canada. While other characters are based on real people, Estrid Haakon is an invented character, whose Viking grandfather met her royal African grandmother while in the great trading city of Alexandria, Egypt. They fell in love and returned to Kattegat, eventually passing on ruling duties to her.
On Google, a search for “Vikings: Valhalla Controversy” featured a “People also ask” box with the following presumably popular searches:
- “Is Vikings: Valhalla historically correct?”
- “How is there a black woman in Vikings?”
- “Was there ever a black female Viking?”
- “Why is Vikings so historically inaccurate?”
One of the top results was a January 2022 Quora question:
Should the new Netflix series Vikings Valhalla be canceled because of their attempt to blackwash Jarl Haakon as a black female? Is this not offensive to Scandinavian people and Norse culture?
A May 3 2022 forum post on a thread about “woke” Netflix content lamented:
Just saw that they casted a black woman as a Viking jarl. Meme material at this point.
A separate post to r/vikingstv complained about the ongoing complaints:
‘Viking Was a Job, Kinda Like Pirate, Not a Race or Ethnic Identity’
Britannica.com’s “Viking (people)” entry described Vikings as seafaring warriors:
… [a] member of the Scandinavian seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century and whose disruptive influence profoundly affected European history. These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors were probably prompted to undertake their raids by a combination of factors ranging from overpopulation at home to the relative helplessness of victims abroad.
The Vikings were made up of landowning chieftains and clan heads, their retainers, freemen, and any energetic young clan members who sought adventure and booty overseas … Their burning, plundering, and killing earned them the name víkingr, meaning “pirate” in the early Scandinavian languages.
A History.com entry, “Vikings,” was originally published in 2009. It read in part:
Contrary to some popular conceptions of the Vikings, they were not a “race” linked by ties of common ancestry or patriotism, and could not be defined by any particular sense of “Viking-ness.” Most of the Vikings whose activities are best known come from the areas now known as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, though there are mentions in historical records of Finnish, Estonian and Saami Vikings as well. Their common ground–and what made them different from the European peoples they confronted–was that they came from a foreign land, they were not “civilized” in the local understanding of the word and–most importantly–they were not Christian.
A September 2020 NationalGeographic.com article, “Scientists raid DNA to explore Vikings’ genetic roots,” began with references to both DNA findings and links between Vikings and “nationalist movements” that have appropriated their image:
In popular imagination, Vikings were robust, flaxen-haired Scandinavian warriors who plundered the coastlines of northern Europe in sleek wooden battleships. But despite ancient sagas that celebrate seafaring adventurers with complex lineages, there remains a persistent, and pernicious, modern myth that Vikings were a distinctive ethnic or regional group of people with a “pure” genetic bloodline. Like the iconic “Viking” helmet, it’s a fiction that arose in the simmering nationalist movements of late 19th-century Europe. Yet it remains celebrated today among various white supremacist groups that use the supposed superiority of the Vikings as a way to justify hate, perpetuating the stereotype along the way.
Now, a sprawling ancient DNA study published [in September 2002] in the journal Nature is revealing the true genetic diversity of the people we call Vikings, confirming and enriching what historic and archaeological evidence has already suggested about this cosmopolitan and politically powerful group of traders and explorers.
An abstract for the Nature article summarized the underlying research and concluded:
We conclude that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial transregional engagement: distinct populations influenced the genomic makeup of different regions of Europe, and Scandinavia experienced increased contact with the rest of the continent.
A September 2020 CBC.ca piece about the study (“Short, dark and southern — many Vikings aren’t who you thought they were”) explained that researchers assessed “skeletons in Scotland … buried in the Viking tradition along with Viking artifacts, yet the DNA analysis revealed no connection to any group in Scandinavia. This suggests that being a Viking was more of an occupation than an ethnicity.”
LiveScience.com’s summary of the same research held:
This sweeping gene analysis suggested that the Vikings weren’t just the continuation of Iron Age groups who lived from about 500 B.C. to about A.D. 700 in Scandinavia before the Viking Age. Rather, the Vikings and their ancestors would have intermingled often with people from Asia and Southern Europe. Many Viking individuals had “high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry,” the authors wrote in the paper.
“No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age,” [senior author Eske] Willerslev said. They also found that many Vikings had brown hair, not blonde blond hair as typically imagined, according to the statement.
Another September 2020 item about the research described the known reach of Vikings’ expeditions:
The researchers found that while some were born Vikings, others simply adopted the identity, or perhaps had it forced upon them … Many of the Vikings’ expeditions involved raiding monasteries and villages along the coastal settlements of Europe, which gave them their brutal image. But the goal of trading goods such as fur, tusks and seal fat through continents was often the more pragmatic aim – taking them as far as Greenland and the American continent to the west, and the Caliphate in Baghdad and Constantinople in the east, and even to North Africa. Many Vikings settled in different parts of Europe and built families and farmed land.
“Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures,” explained Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, who collaborated on the paper.
Science.org’s reporting on the then-new September 2020 research was titled: “‘Viking’ was a job description, not a matter of heredity, massive ancient DNA study shows.”
The Association Between Vikings and Ethnicity Is ‘Heavily Steeped in White Supremacist Ideology’
There was some sporadic discussion about white supremacist appropriation of Vikings in the years before Vikings: Valhalla began airing on Netflix.
A May 2017 Washington Post editorial, “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong,” referenced conflicts of that moment, and referenced a Southern Poverty Law Center report from 2009:
As the current contests over Confederate monuments exemplifies, Americans are accustomed to contested narratives about race and history fixating on the American South. Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the U.S., though, are looking much, much, farther north. Vinland was the name that a group of 10th-century Vikings, led by Leif Erikson, gave to a grapevine-rich island off what we believe is the coast of North America. For white supremacists, the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching especially from the Northeast coast to the Pacific Northwest. [White supremacists] use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming.
Stories of the Vikings, both in Scandinavia and in North America, have long contained the potential to feed inventions of an imaginary racist past. European racists have long wanted to believe in a pure-white, hermetically sealed Middle Ages. Today, anti-refugee protesters in Europe dress up as Vikings and Crusaders. North American hate groups invoke the Norse god Odin and Vinland. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on the rise of Odinism in 2009, including the founding of the Vinland Folk Resistance … In fact, the whole notion of a pure white medieval Europe, so important to white supremacists today, is false. The fixation on skin color is largely a modern phenomenon, alien to a Europe dependent on a Mediterranean world composed of people with varying shades of brown skin.
In September 2017, The Conversation published “Vikings were never the pure-bred master race white supremacists like to portray,” also crediting historical revision for the trope and comparing Vikings to pirates:
During the 19th century, Vikings were praised as prototypes and ancestor figures for European colonists. The idea took root of a Germanic master race, fed by crude scientific theories and nurtured by Nazi ideology in the 1930s. These theories have long been debunked, although the notion of the ethnic purity of the Vikings still seems to have popular appeal – and it is embraced by white supremacists. … We often hear terms such as “Viking blood”, “Viking DNA” and “Viking ancestors” – but the medieval term meant something quite different to modern usage. Instead it defined an activity: “Going a-Viking”. Akin to the modern word pirate, Vikings were defined by their mobility and this did not include the bulk of the Scandinavian population who stayed at home.
A November 2017 piece in The Atlantic, “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion,” quoted modern neo-pagans and referenced Nazi appropriation of Viking symbols:
In Germany, where Viking symbols were coopted by the Third Reich, many heathens are particularly wary of misappropriation today. Ulrike Pohl, a member of the Eldaring, a German heathen group, told me she carefully screens the Facebook page of anyone who asks to join the group, checking to see whether their “likes” betray any racist leanings. Another organization, Nornirs Ætt, researches the way heathen ideas as filtered through Nazism manifest themselves in contemporary far-right groups, which it exposes online through its “Odin’s Eye” project. “I think it’s possible to take back the authentic runes, and to take back the narrative, through education—with new members as well as with the public,” Pohl said.
Articles addressing links between Vikings and white supremacy often appeared in the aftermath of white supremacist terror attacks. A May 2019 Time.com editorial was one, explaining:
The [Christchurch, New Zealand] shootings followed the release of materials some have called a manifesto but that has more accurately been called a “media plan.” In it are multiple medieval references, several involving medieval Vikings, which these days function as a signal to white supremacists. Along with much else from the European medieval world, the Viking past is part of the far right’s standard visual and textual imaginary. That vision of a Viking world depends on contemporary digital and filmic popular culture — such as the TV show Vikings and Viking-adjacent video games — as well as on academic and historical sources.
In the 19th century, Romantic German nationalism metastasized into the Völkish movement, which was interested in historical narratives that bolstered a white German nation state. The movement rewrote history, drawing on folklore such as that of Brothers Grimm, medieval epics and a dedication to racial white supremacy. Late 19th and early 20th-century scholars simultaneously drew from and reinforced this racialized imagination of the medieval past … German scholarly work during the eve of the Third Reich then added to this idea, with authors like Gustav Neckel and Bernhard Kummer blaming socialism, Jews and class revolutions for the “decline” of a Germanic race they saw descending from this Viking past.
In July 2020, Scandinavian studies expert Natalie Van Deusen was quoted in a piece titled “White supremacists are misappropriating Norse mythology, says expert.” Van Deusen reiterated that Nazi ideology formed a “precedent” for modern-day white supremacists:
There is an urgent and pressing need for everyone to understand the Vikings, argues Scandinavian studies scholar Natalie Van Deusen.
That’s because all manner of Viking symbols and misconceptions about a golden age of Nordic racial purity have been appropriated by racist extremists looking to justify their xenophobia and acts of violence, according to the University of Alberta researcher.
Van Deusen said the age of racial purity never existed and she is determined to debunk the corrosive myth at every turn, especially in the classroom.
Viking symbols are everywhere among the ultra-right. When the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville in 2017, some protesters carried banners featuring the Norse god Thor’s hammer, popular among the Nazis and neo-Nazi groups.
The perpetrator of New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre last year wrote, “See you in Valhalla”-referring to the great hall where heroes of Norse mythology go after they die-at the end of his manifesto.
Closer to home, the Soldiers of Odin-a Finnish white supremacist movement named after another Norse god in 2015-have recently emerged in Alberta and throughout Canada.
“The precedent was set with the Nazis,” said Van Deusen. “National Socialism and Hitler idealized the Norse people-those who lived in the Nordic areas. Even the swastika is based in part on a symbol based on Viking artifacts.”
A popular text among the Nazis was Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus, who describes Germanic people as a pure, uncorrupted race.
“It laid the groundwork for the Nazis to hearken back to,” said Van Deusen.
Many current white supremacist movements are similarly “motivated by their belief in a white medieval past and a pure ancestral race they perceive as under threat in the face of immigration and religious and racial diversity,” wrote Van Deusen in an article for the Canadian Historical Association.
“The Viking age and Norse mythology are of particular interest in these groups, who have committed acts of violence against perceived outsiders, such as Jews, Muslims and people of colour.”
In April 2021, Scandinavian studies professor Terje Leiren analyzed the relationship between white supremacy and false ideas about Vikings, referencing the 2020 DNA study in Nature and writing:
Archaeological and textual scholarship in recent decades, including DNA analyses, indicate that while Viking warriors were far from benign, they were nevertheless ethnically diverse, culturally tolerant, conscientious of the law, and fastidious about their personal appearance.
Such studies give lie to the racist and nationalist sub-cultures that have highjacked Viking symbols for their own nefarious social and political ends. One such individual is the self-professed, shirtless, horned-helmeted “Q Shaman” at the Jan. 6  storming of the U.S. Capitol. He was adorned with tattoos depicting the Yggdrasil tree, Thor’s hammer, and interlocking triangles called the Valknot, a symbol long associated with hate groups. Judith Gabriel Vinje writing in The Norwegian American in November 2017 pointed out that many police departments around the country are “trained to look for runic tattoos as a sign that a perp is a member of a white supremacist gang.” Their use is generally motivated by the false belief in the ethnic purity of a white medieval past and that somehow the Vikings and Norse mythology articulated it. It is more than a simple falsification of history; it is a way to weaponize hatred of the “Other.”
In April 2022, just before the Twitter exchange above occurred, The Guardian covered the release of Viking film The Northman. That reporting suggested the link between Vikings and white supremacists was pervasive in popular culture:
At the London premiere of The Northman in early April , the director, Robert Eggers, explained on stage how he was seeking to reclaim Viking history from rightwing groups. Many of these groups thrive on myths of an imagined European past: a time before racial mixing or progressive politics, when men were mighty warriors and women were compliant child-bearers.
As Eggers told the Observer recently, such associations almost put him off making The Northman. “The macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture, made me sort of allergic to it, and I just never wanted to go there.” Eggers has spoken of his scholarly research and commitment to getting Viking history right, down to the smallest details. But as rigorous and accomplished as The Northman is, it might in fact be the kind of movie the “alt-right” loves.
The far right’s love of Nordic lore goes back to the Third Reich and beyond, – and the connection is stronger than ever. The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was full of Nordic symbols on banners and shields. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who murdered 77 people in 2011, carved the names of Norse gods into his guns. The shooter at the 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, drew Norse insignia on his possessions and wrote “see you in Valhalla” on his Facebook page.
A viral May 2022 Twitter response to debate about Vikings: Valhalla claimed that “Viking was a job, kinda like pirate, not a race or ethnic identity,” adding that the “association with race is heavily steeped in white supremacist ideology.” Both claims were substantiated by research and scholarly sources. A 2020 Nature analysis of Viking DNA was often cited to “debunk” white supremacists’ myths about Vikings. Moreover, analyses of the esteem in which white supremacists held Vikings typically traced that link back to Nazi Germany and earlier, related far right movements.