The rise to prominence of the alt-right from technological fringes to the mainstream in 2016 brought with it the emergence of ‘alt-histories’; namely fabrications of alternative timelines that employ both fiction and selective facts to shape narratives that contradict accepted history itself. During the same period, the intersection between violent extremism and video gaming was increasingly becoming a topic of interest within academic and policy circles; an issue that is of particular concern with far-right (violent) extremism. This Insight will bring together these two distinct yet overlapping areas of study and focus on the alt-histories depicted and manipulated from the popular video gaming franchises ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and ‘God of War’. Using visual empirical data, the Insight will outline how Viking medievalism – the re-imagining and re-invention of the Middle Ages – is being weaponised within far-right memes and video games to endorse white supremacy.
The Weaponisation of the Viking Past
Scandinavian history, particularly the era of the Vikings, is being increasingly weaponised and recast by white supremacists to represent a glorious past and to promote the idea of Vikings as heroic warriors who conquer other peoples. Historically, the word ‘Viking’ refers to seafaring groups who traversed oceans, rivers, and seas to raid and colonise from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Vikings established settlements across the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black, Arctic, and North Atlantic seas, colonising regions covering present-day Russia, Europe and the Americas. While Viking society is famed for extolling war and battle, the Vikings were distinguished from other cultures, such as the Anglo-Saxons and Celts, by their mastery of sailing. It is important to register that the word ‘Viking’ is also a verb – to go ‘Viking’ is an action – alluding to their raiding activities rather than their ethnicity. Both meanings contribute semiotic components to the Viking image that help fuel white supremacist genealogy; in the popular imagination, the term Viking conjures images of white, blond-haired warriors who sailed the seas, plundered coastal towns, and changed the course of European history.
The Viking Sagas are one of the many stories of heroic achievement focusing on Norse, Icelandic, and Viking-related history and folklore, but the word ‘Viking’ only entered the modern English language in 1807, at a time of growing nationalism and Empire building. Throughout the 19th century, Vikings were praised as prototypes and ancestral exemplars for European colonisers. A myth then arose that the Vikings were a distinctive ethnic or regional group with a pure genetic bloodline. This idea took root and coalesced with the notion of their being a Germanic race, fed by crude scientific theories and nurtured by the Nazi ideology of the 1930s. This fiction was partly born from the nationalism of the 19th century, particularly the growth of a powerful movement that invoked history, culture, and mythology to promote the unification of all Germans within a single Fatherland. This move to encompass German racial mysticism was termed by some Ariosophy (wisdom of the Aryans), and by others, the Völkisch movement, which mined the medieval past, utilising historical narratives to bolster the utopian vision of a white German nation-state.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players take on the role of Eivor Varinsdottir (male or female), a legendary Viking raider on a quest for glory, driven from Norway in 973 C.E. by continuous war and depleting resources. The task is to lead Eivor’s clan of Norsemen across the North Sea to England. Here, an open-world environment is set against the brutal backdrop of the early Middle Ages; players must raid Saxon troops and fortresses with dual-wielded weapons, develop prosperous settlements and establish political power in their quest to earn a place among the gods in Valhalla. The very name of the game – Valhalla – has been utilised by white supremacists to provide an all-white illusion of a medieval Scandinavian past, and promote the idea of an all-male warrior culture as being central to neo-Pagan revivalism. It has served as a justification for those wishing to view Europe as a white heritage territory. The image below is an example of content disseminated on the Instagram account of Europa Invicta – an image-based arm of the Identitarian Movement – utilising artwork from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
In addition to overseeing the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos, Odin, Chief God of the Norse Pantheon and Supreme God of War and the Dead, also presides over Valhalla, a majestic hall located within Asgard. This space is regarded as a paradise for warriors – a vast hall inhabited by the mighty Einherjar, an army of resurrected Viking warriors who have perished fighting on the battlefields, and who now await their final battle at Ragnarök – the end of the world of gods and men. In both the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the early Norse works of myth and legend, it is made clear that only men go to Valhalla, the anglicised name for Old Norse: Valhǫll – translating to Val (dead bodies on the battlefield) and hǫll (hall) – hence, ‘Hall of Dead Bodies on the Battlefield’. The promise of Valhalla offered comfort to those fearful before battle and solace to those grieving, its greater meaning embodying the Viking warrior spirit. Despite the fact they were doomed to be annihilated at Ragnarök, gaining entry into Valhalla and joining the ranks of Odin’s Einherjar was the greatest honour.
Heroic mythologies sourced from the primordial European past have long been an inspiration for those seeking to reanimate historical myths about world-shaping battles and heroes. Video games featuring both Asgard and Valhalla are portrayed in far-right propaganda to impart images of awe-inspiring grandeur, including elements that are reminiscent of heaven, even though tied to the Ragnarök narrative of the Norse apocalypse. Imagery manipulated from the artwork of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla can thus be considered as a means of inviting the audience to become heroes, fighting for their people and their land.
God of Race War
On 3 February 2018, Luca Traini carried out a drive-by shooting in Macerata, Italy, seriously injuring six African migrants. Following the attack, Traini draped the Italian flag over his shoulder and raised his arm in the Sieg Heil Nazi salute, demonstrating the white supremacist and nationalistic motives underlying his attack. The wording in Figure 2 translates from Italian to English as “Thanks Hero, Luca the Vindicator, the Revenge of the People, the Last Roman Legionary, To Pamela, and Free Luca”. Traini maintained that his attack was revenge for the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old white woman whose dismembered body was found in two suitcases disposed of in the countryside. A 29-year-old Nigerian migrant was arrested and charged with Mastropietro’s murder; an individual who had previously been denied asylum yet had remained in Italy.
Traini was sentenced to twelve years in prison for shooting and seriously wounding the African migrants, in what was clearly a racially motivated attack. Significantly, the shootings came a month before Italy’s national elections, which were marked by a fierce controversy over the arrival of 600,000 predominantly African migrants since 2014. Due to its proximity to the coast of North Africa, Italy had taken in the highest number of migrants in Europe, and this humanitarian crisis, together with the 2008 financial collapse, was cited as a reason for rising crime in Europe. Simultaneously, political leaders on the far-right had been capitalising on the popular sentiments of opposition, fear, and hostility that surrounded the rising number of migrants, highlighting the influence populism and nationalism can have on motive for some far-right actors.
This incident contributed to the motivations for the attack in Christchurch in March 2019, which led to the deaths of 51 Muslims. The perpetrator discussed these motivations at great length in his manifesto, titled The Great Replacement. This term has developed into a conspiracy theory increasingly adhered to by white supremacists which reinforces the notion that rising levels of immigration and the growth of minority populations will lead to a ‘white genocide’.
The artwork above, a meme disseminated on Gab in the aftermath of this attack, shows an image of Traini, portrayed as Kratos, the main character in the God of War video game – a franchise rooted in ancient Greek and Norse mythology, and notorious for its offensive depictions of women, scenes of violence, and central elements of toxic masculinity. The original image of Kratos was an artistic depiction encompassing two archetypes of masculinity – warrior and father. However, the meme imagery above was manipulated to portray Traini as a Nordic warrior, inviting the audience to view him as the embodiment of a male power fantasy. For white supremacists like the Christchurch shooter who commit or endorse abhorrent acts of terrorism in the name of racial survival, human life has no value, other than the lives of the perpetrators’ ethnic group. This belief is embodied in the image, by the alteration of the phrase ‘God of War’ to ‘God of Race War’, emphasising the way in which the audience should view Traini’s attack.
Further demonstrating links between white supremacist ideology and Norse mythology is the use in the image of rune letters relating to groups of alphabets employed to write early Germanic languages. The artist has included 12 Sig runic transcriptions (originally used to represent the sun and later co-opted as insignia of the Schutzstaffel), radially arranged into a symbol frequently referred to as the ‘Sonnenrad’ or ‘Black Sun’. For propagandists who utilise the Sonnenrad, the emblem holds distinct meaning, some believing that it represents the source of the fabled light from which they believe the proto-Aryans rose, others claiming a connection with the ancient Teuton, Old Norse, and other pagan beliefs. Norse mythology and paganism have particular appeal to white supremacists; they champion the virtues of early North European whites and dwell on a time and place dominated by the white monoculture that existed before the arrival of ‘Jewish Christianity’ in Europe. The Sonnenrad thus performs a symbolic role in forging close links with the Nordic religion that flourished before the arrival of foreign imported Christianity.
Aspects of Viking culture are continually adopted and weaponised by white supremacists who want to claim these traditions as their own, despite incorporating many factual inaccuracies. However, it is important to reiterate that far-right Viking medievalism is not about historical accuracy, but instead about creating narratives that target contrasting audiences. The hallmark of the imagery depicted is its misrepresentation of history, promoting the idea of an all-white Viking past to fuel contemporary far-right movements. These movements adopt an imagined past in which Europe was considered pure, the basis on which to reconstruct an idealised future and a white ethnostate.
However, as stated previously, the word ‘Viking’ was a job description, not an ethnicity, and evidence disproves the claims of an all-white warrior culture. These peoples were not the homogenous seafarers that are often imagined, but multi-cultural and multi-racial groups. The very mobility of the Vikings led to a fusion of cultures within their ranks, and their trade routes extended from Canada to Afghanistan. Genetic evidence from Viking burial sites also shows that many of them had mixed ancestry from Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, and indigenous communities. Viking-style graves excavated on the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland contained individuals with no Scandinavian DNA, whereas some bodies buried in Scandinavia had Irish and Scottish ancestry. Several individuals in Norway were buried as Vikings, but their genes identify them as Saami, an indigenous group genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than Europeans. Such genetic evidence thus disrupts far-right narratives as the identifying characteristics of the Vikings have been proven to be neither genetic nor ethnic, but social. This demonstrates that racialised medievalism is drawing upon an imaginary past genealogy that attempts to unify amorphous populations by fixing them to a common historical record.