On the Valknut, the Swastika, and Your Moral Obligation to Punch Nazis

Or, Neo-Nazis really, really suck

I am Jarl Rhydnara Sveinsdottir.

Ok, no I’m not. I’m actually a Jewish engineer Democrat from Connecticut. I’ve been into Vikings since I was a little girl. I made a deal with my parents that when I had my own health insurance, I could get tattoos. So within a month of getting my first job in 2013, and switching over to my own health insurance plan, I got a valknut tattooed on my left shoulder. It’s Viking, it’s made up of a bunch of triangles (I like geometry), and it’s a simple design that a tattoo artist was able to do in less than an hour.

A valknut. My inner engineer loves the triangles

Fast forward seven years, and enough Neo-Nazi groups have appropriated it that both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have it classified as a hate symbol.

So, a progressive LGBTQ ally Democrat Jew now has a Neo-Nazi hate symbol tattooed on her shoulder.

Fucking fantastic.

But here’s the thing. I’m not going to hide it. Nazis have a long history of appropriating cultural symbols and turning them into symbols of hate, and I’m sick of it. Thankfully, the ADL and the SPLC have a note attached to their entries on the valknut mentioning that some people still use it for its original religious use. And I say it’s time we take a stand and take it back from the Neo-Nazis. I also think it’s high time we took back the swastika, but before we do that, we need to understand the full history of this well-recognized symbol.

The floor of a Byzantine church in Israel

Most people at this point are aware that the swastika was used as a good luck symbol in the Hindu faith, and while this is true (among many other associations), it’s far from the whole picture. In reality, the swastika has been found in Neolithic settlements on every continent except Antarctica.

A three thousand year old necklace from Iran

It’s one of the oldest consistently used symbols around the world, and it still plays an important role in many Asian cultures today. In fact, it is frequently used to mark the entrance or doorway of Hindu homes or temples.

A Hindu temple in Rajasthan, India

Several Native American tribes use the swastika to represent the sun, and the Navajo use it for good luck.

Chief William Neptune of the Passamaquoddy

The Vikings used it as an alternate to Thor’s Hammer.

The Snoldelev Stone in Denmark, carved in the 9th Century

There are several theories as to how this symbol independently appeared across so many cultures. The most compelling, I believe, has to do with weaving.

If you take a look at the most simple form of weaving, with alternate rows of fibers running up and down, and side to side, a pattern can be drawn to show repeating swastikas. From baskets to fabric to brick laying, this pattern can be picked out anywhere this weave is replicated.

Having trouble seeing it?

Other theories suggest a spinning comet, or even a cross with trailing arms inspired the swastika.

A Han Dynasty manuscript detailing comet tail varieties

Whatever the inspiration, the swastika is an iconic symbol that pervaded human art for millennia.

A swastika formed from Hebrew letters, as used in Kabbala (Jewish mysticism)

Until the Nazis.

Asian cultures still use the swastika. At the end of the 2018 Olympics, the Chinese delegation featured it heavily in their presentation during the closing ceremony. There are numerous instances of imported toys carrying the symbol and Western purchasers being outraged when they discover it. Manga and anime frequently needs to be edited when it is translated for a Western audience.

Hyuuga Neji from Naruto. The swastika was swapped for an X when the anime was brought to the US

I have to give these Asian cultures props for not bowing to Nazi hatred, and still proudly utilizing a beautiful and geometrically pleasing symbol. They refuse to allow Nazi violence to take it away from them, and I wish the Western world could do the same. Unfortunately, the memory of the Holocaust is still far too strong to allow that to happen. Germany flat out legally bans the open display of the swastika until it is for religious purposes.

But it’s not like the swastika has disappeared from Western culture. It’s such a simple design that it still occasionally pops up, most likely by accident. Every now and then I’m able to pick it out in every day objects, in what I like to call a series of “hidden swastikas.”

A pretty window ornament I found at a crafter’s fair
The Book of the Gospels at my Dad’s Catholic church
The carpet at my doctor’s office

Someday, I hope we can properly reclaim the swastika. But it’s not too late for the valknut. Representing devotion to Odin and the afterlife, the valknut is again a beautiful and geometrically pleasing symbol that we can take back from the Nazis. We don’t have to allow them to turn it into a symbol of hate. That’s why I’m still going to use it. My Jewish faith has taught me that we need to focus on making this world the best we can rather than focus on the next. So I’m going to use the valknut to represent progressive ideals of shared humanity, that every person deserves equal protection under the law. That women’s rights are human rights. That science is real and no human is illegal. Black lives matter and love is love. And that you have a moral obligation to punch Nazis.

Ok, so technically that last one is illegal. But you should use every legal method available to fight every Nazi you come across.

Because love is stronger than hate.

Except for Henry Tudor. Because I still hate him.

We engineers love our triangles

A big shout out to twitter’s @KlezmerGryphon, who provided the valknut art I now use on my site. Because the world can always use more LGBTQ visibility.

And in case you’re concerned, their next tweet offered it up to the public domain

Questions? Comments? Let me know below! I can also be reached on Twitter @Rhydnara. I’ll be heading to PAX East later this week, so hit me up! I’ll be wandering around in 16th century Italian garb.

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