Here's the Story Behind Those Viking Helmets at the Capitol
Hint: It has to do with white supremacists.
Of all the photos of the carnage in the U.S. Capitol building yesterday, there are a few I just can't seem to shake. There's the picture of four bullet holes in the glass of the door leading to the House steps, and the one of an insurrectionist with his feet propped on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's desk.
And then there's an image as perplexing as it is disturbing, of a man with his face painted with stars and stripes, a horned helmet made of fur pelts on his head, his bare chest and arms displaying Norse-symbol tattoos. In the photo, he stands at the dais on the Senate floor, a spear in his left hand, to which he has affixed an American flag. "Where's Pence, show yourself!" he boomed from the seat that the Vice President had occupied just moments earlier.
Several outlets later identified the shirtless rioter as Jake Angeli, an Arizonian who calls himself a "Q Shaman" and is a prominent voice in the QAnon conspiracy movement. His choice of dress, according to an interview with The Arizona Republic, is something of a calling card, a uniform he wears to "attract attention," subsequently engaging people in his QAnon beliefs.
Viking regalia isn't just Angeli's own ice-breaker. Photos of another man decked in a large pelt, a fox skin on his head, and fur cuffs on his wrists, have also surfaced, and he too carries a spear. Both men, and their coordinated outfits, stood out among a throng of camouflage jackets, MAGA hats, and the "Trump 2020" flags worn as capes.
The roots of this Viking cosplay, however, go deeper than just a couple of fools wanting to stand out from the sea of MAGA hats in a deranged play for attention. Unsurprisingly, horned helmets and fur pelts have become something of a uniform for white supremacists.
Nearly 23 years ago, in 1998, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified a neo-Nazi interpretation of Odinism, the pre-Christian, Northern European and Germanic religion, that was spreading in the United States. "A neo-Pagan religion drawing on images of fiercely proud, boar-hunting Norsemen and their white-skinned Aryan womenfolk is increasingly taking root among Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists across the nation," they wrote.
In 2003, the comparative religion scholar Mattias Gardell reported "that racist forms of neopaganism were already outpacing traditional monotheistic versions of white supremacy." Along with this peak in this perverted version of Odinism came an interest in Old Norse folklore, and its various (often historically inaccurate) interpretations throughout the centuries. Soon, folklore surrounding the Vikings and other Nordic medieval groups — including representations in modern popular culture — became visual references for these racist groups. Think: the furs worn by Wildlings in Game of Thrones, the horned helmet donned by Spongebob Squarepants on Leif Erikson day, as well as the tattoos in the show, Vikings, and its spinoff, Valhalla. In other words, they thought it looked cool and then made it a part of their getup. Actual Viking history be-damned.
Horned helmets, like the one worn by Angeli and others, for example, are not even a part of Viking history. According to a Vox report on research conducted by Yale linguistics professor Roberta Frank, it was not the Vikings who had horned helmets, but medieval Germanic peoples. The myth of the Vikings' horned helmets can be traced back to 19th-century costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, who blended the Norse and Germanic histories for Wagner's opera about Nordic people, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Despite this factual error, the myth is perpetuated in popular culture today, thanks to film and television representations and certain Minnesota sports franchises.
Historical accuracy, though, is not the point of white supremacists' adoption of the style.
Time Magazine last year published a call to reclaim the imagery of the Nordic people, and to separate fact from this fictitious vision of Vikings as a homogeneous, barbaric, and ultimately heroic group of seafarers. Writer Dorothy Kim notes that despite evidence that Vikings were actually multicultural, the focus on race was nonetheless woven into the narrative of the religion beginning with Romantic German nationalism of the 19th century. She says that German scholars of the time "rewrote history, drawing on folklore such as that of Brothers Grimm, medieval epics and a dedication to racial white supremacy." And it should come as no surprise that this belief system later influenced the Nazi movement. The SPCL wrote that it was a "bedrock belief" for Third Reich leaders, and played a role in everything from initiation rites to the creation of the SS.
In 2018, the social justice think tank Political Research Associates wrote that "today, [racist sects of neopaganism] are even more prevalent, as White supremacists exploit political instability driven by anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment in Europe, and the racist backlash surging under Donald Trump in the United States." The leap from Odinism and other neopagan offshoots to a man wearing a horned helmet while storming the Capitol building, may seem like a broad one. Though, upon closer inspection into the aesthetics of the far right — from the scruffy beards and skunk-like shaved ponytails — it's not difficult to see the influence of say, a show like History Channel's Vikings. What may have seemed like pure coincidence in January of 2020, begins to seem less and less coincidental now.
Further separating the capitol rioters from any passing down of actual Norse culture, anthropology professor Thomas McGovern from Hunter College says "Really serious Viking reenactors tend to be very inclusive," and even have an organization called Heathens Against Hate, which put out a statement condemning the violence on Capitol Hill.
These guys dressed as Vikings? They aren't the real deal. "Fake fur and plastic," he adds.