Column: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.

Published May 31, 2017

In early May, the white supremacist Jeremy Christian — accused of killing two men Friday in Portland, Ore. — posted on Facebook, "Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!" "Victory" makes sense. Bigots feel empowered these days. But why "Vinland?" Why was this accused attacker talking about the short-lived Viking settlement in North America?

It turns out that white supremacy has gone fully medieval.

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. They use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming.

The colonization of Vinland was pretty much a disaster, but it did happen. There's archaeological evidence for a Viking presence in North America. Two surviving sagas recount the voyages. The sagas don't always agree when it comes to laying blame — was it internecine violence or fighting with the indigenous people? Who started the fighting?

The general details, however, are known. Erikson found an island, named it Vinland and went home with timber. Later expeditions failed, though a few survivors made it home to tell the tale. Voyages west from Greenland soon ceased, as the risk/reward calculus didn't seem favorable. So much for Vinland.

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 the Pacific Northwest, the Wolves of Vinland and the allegedly affiliated Operation Werewolf present white supremacists with a combination biker gang, weightlifting club and militia.

But even the Vikings of Europe did not exist in pure white racial isolation. The Vikings, or rather the conglomeration of Scandinavian peoples we've come to call Vikings, conquered and colonized where they found weak powers in the disorganized west of Europe. To the east, they also tapped into rich multicultural trading networks — fighting when useful, but delighted to engage in economic and cultural exchange with great powers of Eurasia. That included the Jews of Khazaria, Christians dedicated to both Rome and Constantinople and Muslims of every sect and ethnicity. Islamic coins, in fact, have been found buried across the Viking world, a testimony to the richness of this exchange.

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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. It's not that medievals lacked prejudice or hate, but our hang-ups and divisions were not theirs.

Medieval Europe was not isolated from the broader world, but rather participated in a "Global Middle Ages" that linked great Eurasian and African cultures through the movement of things and people (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not). One of the vectors of those connections was, of course, the very same Vikings now serving as fodder for American hate.

Vinland wasn't the only medieval presence at the Portland murders. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, died fighting to protect the vulnerable people targeted by Jeremy Christian's hate. Myrddin is the Welsh name for Merlin, the great wizard in the court of King Arthur. Taliesin was a sixth-century Welsh poet who was later folded into the Arthurian legends. Their namesake died defending the vulnerable. His last words were, like a chivalric hero, to tell the people on the train that he loved them all.

History has never just been "the past." As a historian, I study the way that groups have always tried to assert control over their story, seeking to mold legend, myth and reality into a useful narrative about identity and destiny. Stories like this have power, and we'd be foolish to ignore the threat.

As we mourn the martyrs in Portland, care for the wounded and support the women who were initially targeted, we shouldn't ignore the danger that racist appropriation of the medieval past presents. American white supremacists want to make Vinland great again, laying out an imagined past in which Vikings are the rightful conquerors of North America, locked in eternal battle with the Skraelings, the Viking slur for indigenous people. We must inoculate ourselves against this hate by telling a better story, one that recognizes the many errors of our past, but also lays out a vision for a more inclusive future.

David Perry is a professor of history at Dominican University.

© 2017 Washington Post