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Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates

Misunderstood historical imagery at the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

One of the most-photographed seditionists from this past week was Jacob Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the self-professed “Q Shaman.” A failed actor and devotee of the Q conspiracy, he showed up shirtless, covered with tattoos, and wearing a horned headdress. He participated in the storming of the US Capitol and had his picture taken inside the Senate Chamber on the dais. The outfit is, to say the least, confused. There are appropriations of Native American dress but mixed with Viking allusions—the horned helmet but more importantly tattoos that have long been associated with hate groups, specifically the Tree of Yggdrasil, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and interlocking triangles called the Valknot

But as Dorothy Kim has written, the point here isn’t historical accuracy. The bridge between ninth-century raiders and modern racists was built by the 19th century, in mainstream scholarship that sought a pure, Romantic, hypermasculine ancestry for a nascent German nation. This was then picked up by race scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, early 20th-century racists such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard held up the “Nordic race” as the apex of all civilizations. Unsurprisingly, these American developments were heartily endorsed by the Nazis, using explicit imagery such as Norse runes for their military uniforms. 

This lineage continues directly into the 21st century. In the last few decades, however, this older race science has at times melded with a pseudo-new age neo-paganism. For example, the white supremacist terrorist who killed two in Portland, Oregon, posted “Hail Vinland!” to Facebook before his attack. Vinland refers to the short-lived Norse settlements in North America in the 10th or 11th centuries but white supremacist invocations of the term bring us back to the significance of the “Q Shaman.” What the white supremacists are doing “telescopes” history and creates what Danielle Christmas has called “heritage politics,” attempting to stand the actual Vikings next to c. 1900 race science next to the Nazis next to Trump, suggesting a simple and unbroken connection between them all and thereby trying to draw legitimacy from the past. 


A similar process is at play related to the Right’s use of medieval Christian holy war iconography, the so-called “Crusades.” Flags supposedly representing the 12th-century military religious order Knights Templar were spotted at the Capitol insurrection, and imagery of knights with crosses emblazoned upon their chests or their shields have been a staple of Far Right internet and protest culture pre-dating the 2017 Charlottesville riot. The origin point here, as for so much modern right-wing terror, may seem to be the 2011 massacre in Norway and specifically the neo-Templar screed the murderer released to justify his actions.


January 6th

Some rioters dressed as Vikings and invoked medieval holy war to support their ideas about racial purity, Christian nationalism, and violent masculinity. Here, historian Matthew Gabriele explains the long history of right-wing uses of "pop culture in combination with outdated historiography" to create myths about the Middle Ages.