On Saturday, August 12th, 2017, crowds of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia marched forth waving flags, banners, and signs bearing symbols out of ancient Germanic mythology.
One of the supremacists drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters and murdered 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer. Two state troopers also died when their helicopter crashed. Initial news accounts misreported the attack as a spontaneous outbreak of violence between clashing participants.
It was not. It was a planned attack by domestic terrorists.
“All of them have the same goal of a white ethnostate,” observed Heidi Bierich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “So, these are people who are for ethnic cleansing, because that’s the only way you’re going to get that done.”
The white protesters had first turned out against the removal of a local statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general known for having his slaves savagely whipped and brine poured on their lacerated backs for good measure.
When racists misuse mythology and its symbols, those of us who collect, teach, and retell the myths must publicly denounce such acts of racist hatred.
Not all of the symbols were Germanic. Flags, shirts, and signs carried by Neo-Nazis bore Confederate flags, St. Andrews Crosses, Italian fasces, Dragons Eyes, and Spartan Lambdas. The bearers regarded these images as displays of masculinity.
Let us focus on one symbol, the Othala rune, to consider how violent people who twist ancient symbols wind up broadcasting their ignorance of history.
The rune was a favorite of Hitler’s SS, but it predates the Nazi Party by centuries. Othala, also called Oþal, is found in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, a seventh-century set of runes derived from the Elder Futhark. Othala is the rune of nobility, inheritance, homeland, and estate. It signifies permanent, immobile wealth accumulated by one’s ancestors down the generations.
Here we meet the first irony: that of white supremacists of low education and limited means proudly carrying a symbol of elite wealth confined to the uppermost castes.
In the Elder Futhark the rune is called Ansuz, which means “mouth,” as shown by its shape. It may link etymologically to asura, a demon hungry for power. This rune probably evolved from a letter of the Phoenician alphabet invented by the wealthy seafaring cosmopolitans of the Levant. Their ships exported gold, silver, copper, wine, oil, precious pottery, and priceless jewelry. The Old Testament refers to these people as Canaanites. The word “bible” is named after one of their cities.
And so another irony: the Phoenicians were a Semitic people. In fact, some Lebanese, Syrians, Turks, and Jews of our day trace their genetic ancestry to this ancient civilization.
Nevertheless, contemporary neo-Nazis and Klansmen ignorant of this history favor the rune because it lacks the genocidal associations of their other favorite stolen symbol, the swastika.
In the postwar aftermath of the Nazis and fascists defeated at such great cost, it became easy to blame the mythological symbols they warped. But symbols are containers of numinous power, which makes them natural targets for subversion by haters and malcontents with reactionary agendas. In their violent hands, the symbols are made to serve meanings contrary to those of their origins.
In my book Myths Among Us I refer to such acts of cultural perversion as mythuse.
Mythic symbols and the myths from which they derive mature along a cultural lifespan. Originating as revelations, visions, or peak experiences, they draw around themselves stories and rituals that develop over time into institutions and traditions.
But collective consciousness does not stand still. As these symbols wear out, they become vulnerable to mythuse by ideologues. This brand of theft is particularly evident in the history of religious symbolism.
Those who stoop to these acts of cultural barbarism share many psychological commonalities: Authoritarian Personality traits, fear of education, flagrant paranoia, intolerance of difference, bigotry, misogyny, emotional immaturity, and a preference for violence over dialogue. They make ready prey for the hate preachers, hucksters, and propagandists who know how to manipulate them. Vaguely but fearfully sensing themselves well behind the times, they band together with similarly fearful reactionaries who shore up their false superiority by pillaging ancient imagery.
Their regressive mythuse of the symbols of the past shows as much contrast from a conscious redreaming of the ancient myths onward (Jung) as acts of terror do from evolved inclusiveness.
It is not enough to remember what these symbols stood for and might again, for they carry the potential of limitless reimagining. Nor will it suffice to protest their appropriation for hateful purposes. Our responsibility as citizens is to reach out to the victims of hate and do whatever we can to protect them—including helping them protect themselves—while forcibly denouncing acts of terror opposed to the humane values on which every civilization depends.