The Swastika – Its Ancient Origins and Modern (Mis)use

A swastika on the 9th-century Snodolev runestone
A swastika on the 9th-century Snodolev runestone

The swastika is one of the oldest and most widespread of humanity’s symbols. It can be found on artifacts thousands of years old from several continents. While it was used by the Norse and other Germanic peoples from the beginnings of those societies, the swastika is far from just a Germanic symbol. It was one of the central symbols of Proto-Indo-European society, the society that gave rise to the Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, Greek, and Roman societies in Europe, as well as Hindu society in India, which accounts for its use by both ancient and modern-day Hindus and Buddhists. Nor was it an exclusively Indo-European symbol, however; it can also be found in the indigenous art of the American Indians, Sami, and plenty of other peoples across the world.

The Germanic peoples were carving the swastika onto rocks as far back as the Bronze Age, before most other Germanic symbols, including the runes, had yet appeared.[1][2] Its meaning for them was dynamic and hard to pin down into any simple definition, but it had much to do with luck, prosperity, power, protection, and sanctity, and was often associated with the sun and sky.

This article discusses the role the swastika played in ancient Germanic symbolism, the meanings it had within that system, and how it was tragically appropriated in the twentieth century by the Nazi movement, whose values were utterly antithetical to those of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

The Swastika, the Sunwheel, and Thor’s Hammer

As it was used by the Germanic peoples, the swastika was so closely tied to two other symbols, the sunwheel and Thor’s hammer, that the three were practically interchangeable.

Two sunwheels on a Bronze Age burial stone in Kivik, Sweden
Two sunwheels on a Bronze Age burial stone in Kivik, Sweden

The sunwheel (Old Norse sólarhvél), like the swastika, was found throughout the Indo-European world – that is, Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe and parts of Asia. Among the Celts, for example, the two symbols are generally found in the same archaeological context, occurring next to or in place of a depiction of a sky god in engravings and statues.[3] This suggests two things: that the two symbols were seen to be synonymous – and indeed, their visual forms themselves would suggest that they’re simply variations on a common image – and that they had an especially close association with the solar and celestial powers.

These same qualities are also found amongst the Germanic peoples. In runic inscriptions, which often included non-runic symbols, the sunwheel and swastika appear to have meant the same thing.[4]

As for the connection with a sky god, for the Norse the two symbols were hardly distinguishable from a third common symbol: the Mjöllnir or Thor’s hammer. Thor was the principal sky god of the Norse peoples during the Viking Age (having apparently taken over this role from Tyr over the course of the centuries). In the Norse tales, his hammer was used to defend the gods’ celestial stronghold, Asgard, from the giants, the forces of chaos, decay, and destruction. Ritualistically, the symbol of Thor’s hammer was used to consecrate and bless a marriage, a person, an endeavor, a piece of land, or anything else that one wanted to be protected by the forces of cosmic order and health against those of anti-cosmic chaos.

The swastika was often engraved on hammers. On runestones, the swastika can often be found beside or in connection with Thor.[5] In fact, the title “Thor’s hammer” (Old Norse Þórshammar) commonly referred to the swastika/sunwheel. For example, in one book of Icelandic spells, a clearly drawn image of a swastika is referred to as a “Thor’s hammer.”[6]

In a well-known episode from King Hakon the Good’s Saga, King Hakon, a Christian, attended a pagan feast. When it was his turn to drink from the cup of liquor being passed around the table – an act that had particular ritual implications – he made the sign of the cross over it before drinking from it. The other guests took offense. One of Hakon’s friends came to his defense by claiming that he had made the sign of “Thor’s hammer” over the vessel to consecrate it to Thor. If the visual form the king’s friend had in mind were a hammer, his defense would have made little sense. But if he and the other guests took “Thor’s hammer” to mean a swastika, then this defense can be much more easily explained.[7]

The Meaning of the Swastika

The meaning of the swastika, then, seems to have been the same as that of Thor’s hammer. Being hallowed with this symbol made the consecrated person or thing holy, lucky, safe, and prosperous.[8] In spells, especially runic inscriptions, the presence of the swastika/sunwheel/hammer heightened the potency of the spell.[9] The swastika was the quintessential and mightiest Germanic “good luck charm,” and was believed to take its bearer from one state of being – that of chaos, the mundane, and weakness – to another – that of sacred order and strength. In its many forms it seems to have been as central to the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples as the cross was (and is) in Christianity.

The Nazi Appropriation of the Swastika

Of course, when most people hear the word “swastika” today, none of that grand history comes to mind. Instead, people associate this once beautiful and noble symbol with totalitarian nationalism and virulent, militant racism. How did this happen? Why did the National Socialist movement of early-to-mid-twentieth century Germany adopt the swastika of all symbols as its own central icon?

During the Romantic period in the nineteenth century, the peoples of Europe took a great deal of interest in rediscovering their pagan heritage. Additionally, the English were fascinated by questions of what exactly made them English, the French were fascinated by questions of what exactly made them French, and so on.

Perhaps nowhere were these trends more pronounced than in Germany. Nowhere else did they achieve the same level of cultural prominence and social organization, nowhere else did they become as explicitly nationalistic, and nowhere else did these tendencies last well into the twentieth century.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Germany was awash with so-called völkisch (often anglicized as “folkish”) groups, who combined a kind of ethnic nationalism with the “occult” spiritualism that was flourishing at the margins of society. The völkisch groups and the people who comprised them were a very diverse and dynamic bunch; some were relatively private and mostly focused on esoteric spiritual pursuits, while some were overtly political, with various and often competing agendas in that regard.

What the völkisch groups generally had in common, however, was an insistence that the unifying forces of German ethnicity and cultural traditions were things to be celebrated, as well as a notion that looking to the past history of the German people provided clues to how Germans should live in the present day.

(Note that this outlook is not necessarily racist nor totalitarian. Many modern American Indian groups, for example, could also be classified as völkisch with regard to their own ancestral traditions and modern interpretations thereof. Except for a few outliers, it would be awfully difficult to seriously argue that these American Indian groups are racist and/or totalitarian, and the same thing, broadly speaking, could be said of the German movements in question.)

Given the prominence of the swastika in ancient Germanic society and spirituality, these groups often adopted it as a favored symbol. It thereby came to be a well-known motif in early twentieth century German culture, where it was associated with ethnic nationalism.

The relationship between the völkisch movements and the Nazis was tense and complicated. While many völkisch groups and individuals certainly supported the Nazis, others adamantly opposed them and were ultimately persecuted by them.

In any case, when the Nazis came to power over the course of the 1920s and 30s, they often utilized the superficial trappings of pagan Germanic society for propaganda purposes while utterly ignoring that tradition’s deeper content. The swastika is perhaps the foremost example of this trend. Despite its original meaning for the ancient Germanic peoples, and despite its near-worldwide occurrence, by this time the popular German imagination saw it only – and, of course, with reference to its earlier meaning, mistakenly – as a symbol of that which was specifically German and “Aryan.”[10] (“Aryan” is an older word for “Indo-European,” and, before the Nazis, usually had no connotations different than those that the word “Indo-European” does today.)

Thus, when Hitler explained the symbolism of the various components of the National Socialists’ flag in Mein Kampf, he wrote, “we see… in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”[11]

This appropriation of the swastika is as absurd as it is tragic. Pagan Germanic society was permissive, individualistic, and even anarchic to a degree that’s difficult for us moderns to fathom, let alone appreciate. In Viking Age Iceland, for example, there was no king, president, or executive branch of any sort, let alone a Führer. While there was a nominal judiciary and body of law, disputes were ultimately resolved by the parties who were directly involved in them.

Furthermore, the polytheistic theology of the Germanic and other Indo-European peoples left (to modern tastes extraordinarily) wide margins for any given person to choose his or her own thoughts and behavior in accordance with his or her own will and conscience. As Nietzsche (whose writings were similarly, and with a similar lack of justification, appropriated by the Nazis) insightfully said of polytheism,

One was permitted to behold a plurality of norms; one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him. It was here that the luxury of individuals was first permitted; it was here that one first honored the rights of individuals. … The freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods – one eventually also granted to oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbors. Monotheism on the other hand, this rigid consequence of the doctrine of one human type – the faith in one normal god beside whom there are only pseudo-gods – was perhaps the greatest danger that has yet confronted humanity.[12]

Any would-be totalizing and airtight control system, whether it comes under the banner of nationalism, socialism, capitalism, democracy, racism, egalitarianism, or anything else, is anathema to the freedom-loving, “live and let live” spirit of Germanic paganism and other polytheistic traditions, and deserves nothing from us but cold contempt.

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References:

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 84.

[2] MacLeod, Mindy, and Bernard Mees. 2006. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. p. 100.

[3] Green, Miranda. 1989. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. p. 4, 154.

[4] MacLeod, Mindy, and Bernard Mees. 2006. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. p. 9.

[5] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 83.

[6] Flowers, Stephen, editor and translator. 1989. The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimoire. p. 39.

[7] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 84.

[8] MacLeod, Mindy, and Bernard Mees. 2006. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. p. 21.

[9] Ibid. p. 24.

[10] Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. 1993. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology.

[11] Shirer, William L. 1960. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. p. 44.

[12] Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1974. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 191-192.

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