On my way across the parking lot at my local supermarket, I noticed a truck with an unusual tailgate decoration and window decal.
The window decal contains the words “Protected by Thor” and the tailgate image seems to be Thor’s hammer. However, the most popular use of Thor’s hammer these days is in the Avengers and Thor movies. Being a fan, I know what Thor’s hammer looks like in those movies:
The image on the left is from Thor: The Dark World, the one on the right from Thor: Ragnarok, just before Hela destroys the hammer.
Here is a close-up of the image on the hammer from the movies:
While the borders seem to be decorative squiggles, the image engraved on the middle front is a triquetra – three intertwined elements. Though Christians use it to refer to the Holy Trinity, its use predates Christianity by thousands of years. It appears in passage tombs in Ireland, where it is often interpreted as the combination of life, death, and rebirth.
It’s been used repeatedly in popular culture. It appeared on a Led Zeppelin album, in the TV show “Charmed,” and in the TV series “The Walking Dead.”
However, the symbol on the truck doesn’t seem to be referencing those TV shows or the Marvel movies.
The simplified version of this symbol is currently used by Asatru believers and Neo-Odinists, as well as other contemporary pagan/heathen groups. Many of these people believe in the old Norse gods, including Odin/Woden and Thor. It’s even accepted now as a religious affiliation symbol that can be placed on the tombstone of a deceased member of the US military, like the Christian cross, the Star of David, or the Crescent Moon and Star. For modern Pagans, it’s a public badge of belief. Presumably, you could put this on your car in the same way Christians might put a fish symbol.
Again, though, it’s not exactly the image on the truck. And the truck image is not exactly like the amulets featuring Thor’s hammer found in ancient burial sites. Most of those have an animal face in the top section and a relatively simple swirl pattern below.
The gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant now housed in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities is more complex in its decoration, but it still has the eyes and nose of a face at the top and more complex designs in the middle and bottom.
The image on the truck
The image on the truck matches a badge sold on a website offering a variety of biker symbols, movie symbols, and other patches, all featuring strong, male images. Some examples seem like fan wear – a John Wick badge, a Tyrell Replicants owl badge, (a reference to the film Bladerunner), a crew patch from The Martian, and a royal crest patch from the Legend of Zelda game. Other patches have a darker side – a Confederate flag, a Hydra symbol from Captain America, lots of skulls, serpents, and pro-gun images, including a take-off on the North Face logo with the words “Aim for the Face,” and right-wing statements like ”Build That Wall” and the CNN logo with the words “Fake News.”
The few that reference women have a rape context, like “Duct tape: turning ‘No, no, no’ into ‘Mmm, Mmm, Mmm.’”
Distrust is a common theme. One patch features the Masonic Eye of Providence familiar from the dollar bill, but with “Trust No One” written under it.
Another has a heart shape with the words “All You Need Is Hate” inside it.
Clearly, there’s a range of opinions here. That same mix muddies the meaning of the symbols. Is “Protected by Thor” on the back of a truck a statement of a neo-pagan religion such as Asatru – just as “God is my co-pilot” might be for others – or is it a hate symbol? Today, it’s hard to tell. The Anti-Defamation League lists Thor’s Hammer as a symbol currently used by both hate groups and legitimate neo-Norse religious groups. They note that white supremacists often include other racist designs into Thor’s hammer, such as a swastika (which was an ancient symbol originating in India and used in many cultures worldwide before Hitler got hold of it).
Celtic and Norse
The symbol on the truck combines a Norse symbol with Celtic designs, a curious mix. The Celts originated in the Middle East as early as 10,000 years ago, then moved north and west, eventually reaching Eastern and Western Europe. The strongest remaining Celtic areas are shown in dark green on the map below.
A DNA study of a 5,200 year-old skeleton in Northern Ireland told an interesting story. She had black hair and brown eyes. Some of her ancestors came from what is today Syria and Iraq. Others came from what is now Basque Country in northern Spain.
Scandinavian settlement was delayed because glaciers covered the land during the Ice Age. When the ice retreated, people moved in. According to DNA studies on seven individuals living between 9,500 and 6,000 years ago, they came from two separate groups. The people from the south had blue eyes and dark skin. The people from the northeast had pale skin and a range of eye color. Later migrations into the area added new genetic material.
“The purity of the blood”
White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups have taken over many Celtic and Nordic symbols, including the Celtic sun (left), the valknut, various Icelandic runes, and Odin’s ravens, under the assumption that these are “White” cultures and therefore suitably “pure.”
But to be human is to be a hybrid, from the beginning. All people of Western European descent carry some Neanderthal DNA. Those of Eastern European descent carry either Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA – or both. A skeleton found in Russia in 2012 revealed a startling ancestry: one parent was Neanderthal and the other Denisovan with some Neanderthal. The Neanderthal genes resembled those found in a skeleton in Eastern Europe, which suggests multiple migrations between Europe and Siberia.
Over the centuries, waves of immigrants and conquerors swept through Europe, each one bringing its own culture and language. Over time, the warriors settled down with the local girls, and the cultures blended.
An interesting example of that blending is a bone sculpture of an Egyptian sphinx with a face carved of amber from the Baltic, discovered in the 500 BC burial of a Celtic chieftain in what is now Germany (pictured).
We use that heritage every day. In English, four of our days of the week are of Norse origin (Tiu’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day) but three are English translations of Latin names (Day of the Sun and Day of the Moon, Saturn’s Day). Our month names come from Roman gods and emperors (Juno, Janus, Mars, Julius, Augustus,) or Latin numbers (Septem, Octo, Novem, Decem) plus two Greek goddesses, Maia and Aphrodite. It seems to work pretty well.
But certain groups deny that heritage, history, and science. And they pervert ancient symbols to their own ends.
Is the design on the truck a hate symbol? Probably. But other groups are actively fighting back against the attempt to coopt these symbols. Heathens United Against Racism joined over a hundred other groups taking a stand against the theft of Nordic and Celtic symbols. In one standoff, White Supremacists bearing the Odin’s Raven flag (right) faced far greater numbers of counter protesters also carrying Odin’s Raven flags. Perhaps that’s the best answer.
Jaan Calderon, a Norwegian American and director of the Ravens of Odin Reenactment group, proudly wears a Thor’s Hammer amulet. He was shocked to see it used by “skinheads, racists, and Nazis to propagate their racist message” in Charlottesville, but he adds, “Earthly hate groups will come and go, but Thor and his gang will live on, keeping the evil ones at bay.”
Let’s hope so.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers,” National Cemetery Administration, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs,https://www.cem.va.gov/cem/hmm/emblems.asp
Apel, Jan, Lund University, “Ancient DNA sheds light on the mysterious origins of the first Scandinavians,” 10 January 2018, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/ancient-dna-sheds-light-on-the-mysterious-origins-of-the-first-scandinavians-89703
Badges from Titan One, https://titan-one.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage?page=15
Bray, Dan, “Hammer in the North: Mjolnir in Medieval Scandinavia,” Sydney Studies in Religion, Sydney University, 1997, https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSR/article/view/11966
“Calendar Origins – Names of Days,” http://www.calendar-origins.com/day-name-origins.html
“Calendar Origins – Names of Months,” http://www.calendar-origins.com/calendar-name-origins.html
Calloway, Ewen, “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know: DNA studies are uprooting our understand of prehistoric times,” Nature, 22 June 2015, https://www.nature.com/news/eruope-s-first-humans-what-scientists-do-and-don-t-know-1.17815
Claddagh Design, “The Meaning of Celtic Knots,” History, Ireland, 20 June 2019, https://www.claddaghdesign.com/history/the-meaning-of-celtic-knots/
Drawing of gilded Thor’s Hammer amulet, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=333214
Geraghty, Jim, “What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?” National Review, 21 August 2017, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/what-do-you-do-ehrn-hate-grops-decide-adopt-one-your-symbols/
“Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database,” Anti-Defamation League, General Hate Symbols, Hate Group Symbols/Logos, Neo-Nazi Symbols, Ku Klux Klan Symbols, https://www.adl.org/hatesymbolsdatabase?cat_id=146&cat_id148=148&cat_id=150&cat_id=151&cat_id=1467page=1
McKeown, Marie, “Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us Abut the Ancestry of People in Ireland,” Owlcation, 19 August 2018, Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/stem/Irish-Blood-Genetic-Identity
“Mjolnir,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mjolnir
“Odinism and Asatru: Basic Facts,” Odinism.net, https://www.odinism.net
Photo of carved sphinx, one of two found in a Celtic chieftain’s burial site in Germany, from “Fantastic Beasts: The Sphinx and other hybrid creatures in Iron Age European Art,” blog post, https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2018/11/10/fantastic-beasts-the-sphinx-and-other-hybrid-creatures-in-iron-age-european-art/
Radford, Tim. “Irish DNA originated in Middle East and Eastern Europe,” The Guardian, 28 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/dec/28/origins-of-the-irish-down-to-mass-migration-ancient-dna-confirms
Samuel, Sigal, “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion: White supremacists are coopting Norse heathen symbols. Should the heathens ignore them? Protest them? Create a new theology?” The Atlantic, 2 November 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/asatru-heathenry-racism/543864
Semley, John, “Thor: Ragnarok’ is a hammer in the face to the alt-right” Salon.com. 4 November 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/11/04/thor-ragnarok-is-a-hammer-in-the-face-to-the-alt-right/
“The Triquetra or The Trinity Knot – Meaning, Appearances And History,” Irish Around the World, 22 August 2018, https://irisharoundtheworld.com/triquetra-trinity-knot/
“Thor’s Hammer,” ADL Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database, ADL, https://www.adl.org.education/references/hate-symbols-thors-hammer
“Valknut,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valknut
“Viking symbols ‘stolen’ by racists,” The Norwegian American, 2 November 2017, https://www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/viking-symbols-stolen-racists/
Vogel, Gretchen, “This ancient bone belonged to a child of two extinct human species,” Science magazine, 22 August 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/ancient-bone-belonged-chld-two-extinct-human-species