Marauders in the US Capitol: Alt-right Viking Wannabes & Weaponized Medievalism

Vikings are a very hot topic right now; there’s no question. Within the thriving genre of medievalism, Vikings have recently proven an especially sexy and profitable subject for contemporary pseudo-historical fiction, particularly in television series like the History Channel’s Vikings (2013) and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom (2015). Both these series are fundamentally anachronistic and closer in many ways to medieval fantasy than an accurate historical representation of the early medieval period known as the Viking Age (793–1066 CE). Inaccuracies are, of course, not unique to medievalism involving Vikings, and historical liberties are more abundant in historical fiction set in ancient and medieval times.

Bjǫrn “Ironsides” son of Ragnarr Loðbrók from the final season of the History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Still, these television shows are very popular and therefore highly influential. Even the anachronisms and inaccuracies in popular medievalism provide effective conversation starters when teaching the subject by offering both a hook into the material and a chance to separate fact from fiction. But in today’s world, by far the most important reason for medievalists to know the trends in popular medievalism and engage with this media directly is white nationalism. As scholars of the period, we must be aware of information, misinformation and disinformation that is being widely disseminated if we are to have any hope of using our voices to help debunk, nuance and contextualize shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom with a watchful eye toward white supremacist interpretations and appropriations.

King Haraldr “Fairhair” leads his army in the final season of History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Many medievalists of color have sounded the alarm—again and again—warning that this monster lurked in the shadows. Over five years ago, Sierra Lomuto stressed how “When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity” (2016).

In the wake of the riotous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where some alt-right protesters donned crusader and Viking garb, scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm and others have repeatedly warned the field of the dangerous appropriations of the medieval by white supremacists. Immediately following Charlottesville, Kim insightfully cautioned her fellow medievalists that “The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students” (2017). More recently, Rambaran-Olm has pointed out that “far-right identitarian groups [are] seeking to prove their superior ancestry by portraying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in ways that both promote English identity and national sociopolitical progress” (2019).

James Alex Fields Jr., who has been convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville VA, is pictured in the group (second from the left, wearing dark glasses), holding a round shield with white supremacist symbolism. Photo credit: Lidia Jean Kott (August 12th, 2017).

Moreover, alt-right activists have postured as pseudo-medievalists in order to further these white supremacist narratives and misappropriations of the Middle Ages. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos is known for his ad hominem article “The Middle Rages” that targets numerous medievalists of color. Still somehow, the “jousting” between medievalists of color and the alt-right was not enough to shake many white medievalists into action, despite the very real threat posed by white supremacist weaponization of the medieval.

Since the Nazi appropriation and sacralization of the “Germanic” in the service of white supremacy, medieval literature—especially Scandinavian myth and legend—has been rhetorically mobilized as an imagined “pure white” era in Northern Europe prior to encountering and intermingling with nonwhite peoples, despite clear historical evidence of multi-cultural trade interactions between ancient and medieval peoples. This ideology has infiltrated the neopagan religion known as “Odinism,” which varies widely and spans the political spectrum, but harbors a perverse, neo-Nazi strain (sometimes called Wotansvolk meaning “Odin’s Folk”) that has long haunted the movement.

Oðinn wandering after the battle from first season of History Channel’s Vikings (2013).

Odinism—named for the chief Scandinavian god of war, Odin—refers to modern New Age interpretations of indigenous religion in pre-Christian Scandinavian, and The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “A neo-Pagan religion drawing on images of fiercely proud, boar-hunting Norsemen and their white-skinned Aryan womenfolk is increasingly taking root among Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists across the nation” more than twenty years ago. More recently, “Anglo-Saxon” neopaganism, sometimes called “Heathenry” to further ground their practice in the language of the culture they idolize, has grown and frequently provides a haven for white supremacist rhetoric.

Jacob Anthony Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman,” was one of several protesters to storm the US Capitol. Photo credit: Win McNamee, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

The alt-right has mobilized medievalism toward nefarious ends, fashioning harmful narratives of white supremacy, which have been rhetorically weaponized by domestic terrorists such as the “Q Shaman” also known as Jake Angeli, but whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley. As a QAnon promoter and influencer, Chansley is described as a pseudo-celebrity at alt-right rallies, flashing his tattoos, including three prominent Norse symbols: Thor’s Hammer [Mjǫllnir], the Valknut and the World Tree [Yggdrasil]. All three were proudly displayed as he sat in Vice President Mike Pence‘s seat in the Senate, after the Pence was forced to retreat from the angry mob calling for his head.

The pro-Trump mob breeched security, and demonstrators entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 electoral vote certification. Photo credit: Saul Loeb (AFP), Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

Moreover, Chansley’s horned helmet represents a continuation of the Victorian anachronistic introduction of horned helms on Vikings and Valkyries, drawn from classical depictions of Roman Victories. Chansley’s flag-spear may be intended as a reference to Odin’s spear, Gungnir, which further points to white nationalist medievalism. In the case of his horned helmet, Chansley’s ignorance is on full display, as his caricature more closely resembles the ahistorical symbol of the Minnesota Vikings’ football team than anything remotely resembling what a medieval Viking might have looked like. Chansley joined with other pro-Trump supporters to form a violent mob which stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

A man shouts and brandishes his shield as pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Photo credit: Leah Millis, Reuters (January 6th, 2021).

Of course, it must be emphasized that this insurrection was perpetrated specifically by a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” MAGA mob, there in support of the president’s blatantly false and dangerous claims that there was election-altering voter fraud during the recent 2020 presidential election (which he soundly lost to Democratic rival Joe Biden). This mob, incited by the president, sought to disrupt the lawful process outlined in the US Constitution by any means necessary in order to overturn a free and fair election.

Donald Trump’s boasting, belligerence and greed does link him with warrior ethics which sustain predatory economies and the Viking activities of marauding, feuding and plundering. The ironic Twitter account, “Beowulf Trump” (discontinued after Trump’s election in 2016), highlights this rhetorical connection by comparing the president’s macho posturing and self-aggrandizing campaign promises to hyperbolic boasts and egoistic attitudes in Beowulf. There were indeed marauders in the Capitol Building on January 6th, and alongside Trump’s red hats, outfitted in army camouflage and waving Trump or Confederate flags, were alt-right Viking wannabes.

This week, the academy has been quick to respond. Alfred Thomas compared the storming of the US Capitol Building to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, although Miriam Müller has disputed this analogy, prompting Thomas to further clarify his argument. Ken Mondschein considered Rudy Giuliani’s terrifying invocation of “trial by combat” in order to spur the MAGA mob into action, and Giuliani later likened his use of the phrase to its function in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011), which he inaccurately described as “that very famous documentary about fictitious medieval England.” Matthew Gabriele reflected on the role of medievalism in the seditious attack at the Capitol Building, pointing out that like at Charlottesville, in addition to Viking-oriented medievalism, rioters also sported crusader symbolism to signal their white nationalism. Helen Young responded to the incident by offering an explanation of why white supremacists often embrace medieval symbolism, noting that “the association of European Middle Ages and white identities reflect modern racism more than medieval realities.” She emphasizes that “Medievalist symbols have been linked to white European identities for centuries. Their use by violent extremists mean that this connection can not be denied, ignored or thought of as a neutral choice.”

Man who joined the pro-Trump mob wearing the Templar Cross of European crusaders. Photo credit: Samuel Corum, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

On January 13th, the Medieval Academy of America issued a direct response to the insurrection acknowledging the “presence of pseudo-medieval symbols and costumes among the rioters in the Capitol” and recognizing “our discipline’s complicity in the racist narratives of the past, and our responsibility to advocate unequivocally for anti-racism both in our policies as an organization, and in our teaching and scholarship as individuals.” More white medievalists need to be willing to stare this beast in the face and recognize that it is our problem too. It is my view that we should not idly concede medieval studies to the likes of white supremacists. We must respond. Failing to do so—for far too long—makes us complicit. We need to actively reject white supremacy. We must correct and denounce the alt-right’s misappropriations of the medieval both publicly and in the classroom by identifying these dangerous narratives as white nationalist propaganda.

If what we all witnessed last week is any indication of the widespread public ignorance we as scholars are up against, we surely have our work cut out for us. As medievalists, we must heed well the warnings of our colleagues of color and more forcefully and ubiquitously address the problematic phenomenon of white nationalist weaponizing of the medieval. Let me add my voice to those within the academy who are calling attention to this dire issue: the recent use of medieval symbolism during the insurrection at the US Capital is but the latest in a horrific trend that cannot be ignored in the field and must be loudly condemned as nonfactual and nonsensical white supremacist rhetoric in the guise of medievalism.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Baker, Peter. “Anglo-Saxon Studies After Charlottesville: Reflections of a University of Virginia Professor.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Barnes, Sophia. “Capitol Rioter Seen in Horned Hat, Carrying Spear Arrested: US Attorney.” 4 Washington (2021).

Chazan, Robert. “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Cole, Richard. “Make Ásgarðr Great Again!Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

Connelly, Eileen AJ. “Jake Angeli, Capitol rioter in horned helmet, arrested by Feds.” New York Post (2021)

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily (2017).

Elliott, Andrew B.R. “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Elliott, Josh K. “Horn-helmed QAnon rioter among far-right ‘stars’ in U.S. Capitol attack.” Global News (2021).

Fahey, Richard. “Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

—. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

—. “Monstrous Ethiopians? Racial Attitudes and Exoticism in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East’.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

—. “Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the NorthMedieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2015).

Franke, Daniel. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft: A Response.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Gabriele, Matthew. “Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates: Misunderstood Historical Imagery at the January 6 Capitol Insurrection.” Perspectives on History (2021).

—, and Mary Rambaran-Olm. “The Middle Ages Have Been Misused by the Far Right. Here’s Why It’s So Important to Get Medieval History Right.” Time (2019). 

—. “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” The Washington Post (2017). 

Goodman, Lawrence. “Jousting With the Alt-Right.” Brandeis Magazine (2019).

Greenspan, Rachel E., and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz. “A well-known QAnon influencer dubbed the ‘Q Shaman’ has been arrested after playing a highly visible role in the Capitol siege.” Business Insider (2021). 

Heng, Geraldine. “Why the Hate? The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and Race, Racism, and Premodern Critical Race Studies Today.”  In the Middle  (2020). 

—. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Höfig, Verena. “Vinland and white nationalism.” In From Iceland to the Americas: Vinland and historical imagination, ed. Tim William Machan and Jón Karl Helgason. Manchester University Press, 2020.

Hsy, Jonathan. “Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion.” In the Middle  (2018). 

Kim, Dorothy. “The Question of Race in Beowulf.” JSTOR Daily (2019). 

—. “White Supremacists have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019). 

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

—. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016). 

Knight, Ellen. “The Capitol Riot and the Crusades: Why the Far Right Is Obsessed With Medieval History.” Teen Vogue (2021).

Lee, ArLuther. “Protester in Viking headdress ID’d as Trump supporter, not Antifa.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2021).

Little, Becky. “How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them.” History.com (2018). 

Livingstone, Josephine. “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville.” The New Republic (2017)

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (2019). 

—. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2019).

Luginbill, Sarah. “White Supremacy and Medieval History: A Brief Overview.” Erstwile: A History Blog (2020). 

Mas, Liselotte. “Auschwitz, QAnon, Viking tattoos: the white supremacist symbols sported by rioters who stormed the Capitol.” The Observers (2021).

Mills, Ryan. “The ‘Q Shaman’ on Why He Stormed the Capitol Dressed as a Viking.” National Review (2021).

Mondschein, Kenneth. “Trial by Combat: Medieval and Modern.”Medievalist.net (2021).

Müller, Miriam. “Revolting Peasants, Neo-Nazis, and their Commentators.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Narayanan, Tirumular. “Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” and the Question of White Nationalist Iconography at Fort Hood.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Olusoga, David. “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.” The Guardian (2017).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8chan Medievalism – and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard. (2019).

—. “What to Do When Nazis are Obsessed with Your Field.” Pacific Standard. September 6, 2017. https://psmag.com/education/nazis-love-taylor-swift-and-also-the-crusades.

—. “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.” The Washington Post. (2017). 

Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting “Anglo-Saxon” Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

—. “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy.” Medium (2018).

Reed, Sam. “Here’s the Story Behind Those Viking Helmets at the Capitol.” In Style (2021).

Romey, Kristin. “Decoding the hate symbols seen at the Capitol insurrection.” National Geographic (2021).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.The New York Times (2019).

Steinbuch, Yaron. “Shirtless man in horned helmet at Capitol protest identified as QAnon backer.New York Post (2021).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Symes, Carol. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Thomas, Alfred. “1381, 2021, And All That.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

—. “Politics in a Time of Pandemic: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Storming of the Capitol by Trump Supporters in Historical Perspective.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Vinje, Judith Gabriel. “Viking symbols “stolen” by racists.” The Norwegian American (2017). 

Whitaker, Cord J. “Game of Thrones’ Peasants are a Problem of White Supremacy – and It’s Victims, too.” In the Middle (2019). 

Young, Helen. “Why the far-right and white supremecists have embraced the Middle Ages and their symbols.” The Conversation (2021).

—. “White Supremacists love the Middle Ages.” In the Middle (2017). 

—. “Re-making The Real Middle Ages (TM).” In the Middle (2014).

Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore and an Easter Homily of Maximus of Turin


MS B44 Inferiore of Milan’s Ambrosiana Library is an unstudied aestivial (summer season) homiliary from the thirteenth century. It is an exceptionally large manuscript, measuring approximately 40cm by 30cm. An eighteenth-century librarian of the Ambrosiana marked it as a homiliary of the “Ambrosian rite,” which is not a description meaningful for ascertaining the paradigms on which the homiliary’s structure is based. The invocation of the “Ambrosian rite” does, however, point to peculiarities in the Lombard region’s liturgical calendar which B44 might reflect. The homiliary’s reflection of local liturgical traditions could best be judged through a study of its “sanctorum” portion; this, however, was not the focus of my time with the manuscript. Despite its large size and length, the homiliary only spans the summer part of the liturgical year. Its de tempore section begins with the Easter Vigil and ends with the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. The Feast of Mary’s Nativity was locally important since the Milanese Duomo was dedicated, from at least the eleventh century, to the Blessed Virgin’s birth.

            To familiarize myself with the manuscript’s structure and homiletic content, I surveyed the sermons it included for the Easter season (1v-52r), noting sermon incipits from Easter until Pentecost. Though for the sanctorale section, there are a wide variety of authors, the Easter de tempore section largely consists of homilies from Sts. Ambrose, Bede, Gregory, and Augustine. The sermon choices are, however, eclectic, and do not match the arrangement of the paradigmatic homiliaries summarized by Réginald Grégoire in his still-unsurpassed Homéliaires Liturgiques Médiévaux. In short, MS Inf. B44’s Easter sermons do not match those included in the Roman and Toledan homiliaries, nor those in the collections of Pseudo-Fulgencius, Paul the Deacon, or Romain d’Agimond. As far as contemporary homiletic developments go, Inf. B44 also is far removed from the pocket-manuscript homiliaries popular among the mobile mendicants; more generally, the patristic collection of Easter homilies here does not reflect high medieval developments in preaching. No “scholastic” sermons based around themae are included, nor is there any trace of the politically and socially-charged “activist” preaching of mendicants like Giordano da Pisa (1255-1311) or Remigio de Girolami (d. 1319). In short, though Inf. B44 compiles an eclectic set of sermons, it is a conservative exemplar of the homiliary genre.

            The description of the eighteenth-century Ambrosiana librarian on the manuscript’s first folio also notes that B44 Inf. was acquired for the Ambrosiana in the seventeenth century, when it was removed from Milan’s cathedral. It is unknown if the homiliary had been a possession of the cathedral from the outset, and, if not, why or when it was moved to the cathedral. Judging by the highly moralizing and interior-focused content of the Easter sermons, it is possible that the homiliary had been used by the cathedral canons or a northern Italian monastic community. From its large size, it seems the homiliary likely would have stayed in one place, for use in private mediation or as an aid for the composition of monastic sermons. If we seek a more specific paradigm, it should be noted that B44 Inf. shares basic similarities with high-medieval Cistercian homiliaries copied in northern Italian and Burgundian monasteries, such as the house of Morimondo near Milan. These Cistercian homiliaries were usually fairly large, written in twelfth-century miniscule, and included sermons of Augustine, Bede, Ambrose, and Gregory—all characteristics that B44 Inf. shares.[1] However, further study of the Cistercian homiliaries of northern Italy is necessary to ascertain whether these and our manuscript conform to a common paradigm.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Maximus-of-Turin-Miniature-from-Medieval-Manuscript.jpg
Saint Maximus of Turin, Anonymous (Italian, Piedmontese), Carte Sciolte, n. 390, Archivio Storico della Città, Turin, from Codice degli Statuti di Torino o Codice della Catena,” 1360.

            Particularly interesting among Inf. B44’s Easter sermons is the second entry for the fifth day after Easter, located between ff. 16v and 17v. This homily, misattributed in the manuscript to St. Ambrose (probably as a result of local enthusiasm for that venerable bishop), is actually a probable composition of St. Maximus of Turin, and its main theme—defending oneself from lustful temptations—coheres well with the manuscript’s probable monastic origin. However, how the sermon conveys this theme is in no way typical, as it does so by extended engagement with the story of Ulysses and the Sirens. Though in Late Antiquity, scientific exegesis of Greek mythology was very common in neo-Platonic circles, Christocentric engagement with a mythological text is a rare phenomenon, even within Maximus’ own homiletic corpus.

            To provide a brief analysis of the sermon: Maximus begins by recalling the passage of Ulysses’ ship past the isle of the Sirens, whose lusty song is irresistible to the sailors. Because Ulysses knows that the ship will be lost if it is captured by the siren song, he ties himself to the mast. For Maximus, the mast and the ship to which the sailors cling are figures of the cross of Christ, on which all sin is expiated. Maximus soon moves from the example of Ulysses—whose story he calls “fictive and not factual”—to Moses’ healing of his people by means of a snake affixed to a staff. Unlike the Ulysses example, the history of the Jewish people is factual, and so truly prefigures Christ’s sacrifice. It can be argued that Maximus’ Christocentric interpretation of Ulysses’ binding to the mast is inspired by Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, the methods of which Maximus then applies to Greek myth. There is, after all, a strong exegetical tradition, beginning already with the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, which sees ships—specifically Noah’s ark—as a figure of the cross. From there, the paradigm might be easily transferred even to the ships of Greek myth. But transference is not all that Maximus is doing, notwithstanding his curt dismissal of Ulysses’ story. For later in the sermon Maximus encapsulates salvation-history thus: “Fittingly is he crucified on wood so that, since man was deceived in paradise by the tree of desire, he might now be saved by the same tree of wood; and the matter which was the cause of death might be the remedy of health.” In Maximus’ thought, nature itself—here instantiated in wood—constitutes the means of salvation, providing remedies for the bodily weakness of humankind. Since Ulysses’ salvation came directly through divinely-created nature, his tale is not just some forgettable fable. In this conception, however subtly stated, pagans and non-Christians are not outside the economy of salvation, for they, too, exist within a grace-filled nature which can proffer the remedies for their ailments.

For my transcription, translation and recitations (in Modern English and Latin), see my multimedia edition of Maximus of Turin’s homily for the fifth day after Easter in Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore.

Mihow McKenny
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame


[1] Mirella Ferrari, “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo,” in Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.



Bibliography

D’Avray, D. L. The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture. 3 volumes. Translated by Mark Sebanc and E. M. Macierowski. Eerdmans, 1998-2009.

Ferrari, Mirella. “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo.” In Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.

Grégoire, Réginald. Homéliaires liturgiques médiévaux : analyse de manuscrits. Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1980.

Longère, Jean. La Prédication Médiévale. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983.

Maximus of Turin. Maximi episcopi taurinensis sermones.Edited by A. Mutzenbecher. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 23. Turnhout: Brepols, 1962.

Rahner, Hugo, S.J. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. Translated by Brian Battershaw. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Yuletide Monsters: Christmas Hauntings in Medieval Literature and Modern Popular Culture

When one thinks of modern Christmas, warm images from Christ’s nativity to Santa’s midnight sleigh ride might come to mind. However, Saint Nicholas is not the only thing that goes bump in the night—Yule monsters represent another syncretized and modernized phenomenon, which corresponds to a medieval tradition that presents winter solstice as an ideal setting for monsters to emerge from the darkness of the long night. In celebration of the holiday season, my latest blog in our series on monsters will consider the tradition of Yuletide monsters and discuss some instances of Christmas haunting in vernacular Middle English and Old Norse-Icelandic sources, thereby catching a brief glimpse at a broader medieval tradition of monsters associated with the winter solstice.

Rima Staines, ‘Baba Yaga’ (2014).

Christmas hauntings have a deep cultural and literary history. One seasonal spook, the Slavic Baba Yaga—a present-stealing witch—is generally remembered today as a holiday monster, though her character has only become associated with Christmas and New Years in modern times. Another, perhaps the most famous Yule monster, is Krampus—the notorious, child-stealing Christmas demon and son of Hel (the Norse goddess of the underworld), who is still popular in modern Germany and increasingly abroad. These modern Christmas hauntings align with a robust medieval tradition of Yuletide monsters that come with the cold and specifically the long night of the winter solstice. Even Grendel in Beowulf, who notoriously terrorizes the hall of Heorot, does so for XII wintra tid “twelve winters’ time” (147) specifically. While this phrase surely refers to the monster’s yearlong assault on Denmark, it also seems to stress the dark and snowy season as the prime time for Grendel’s hauntings.

Gruss vom Krampus, 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from Krampus!’

Today, I will mention three popular medieval texts—one poem and two sagas—which feature Christmas hauntings of all types, including by a green man, an undead revenant, a troll woman and a dragon.

Although most of the Christmas monsters discussed in this blog come from popular Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, the Middle English alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with a mysterious Green Knight, gome gered in grene “a man geared in green” (179), described as half etayn in erde “half-giant on earth” (140) and aluisch mon “elvish man” (681), who appears at Camelot on Christmas riding a green horse and wielding a green axe. Not only does the Green Knight come at Yule (284), he emerges in court wearing a fur-trimmed robe (152-56) and holding a holyn bobbe “holly bundle” (206) in his hand, as if he were the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Ghost of Christmas Present from film ‘Scrooge’ (1970) directed by Ronald Neame.

Moreover, he explicitly wishes to play a Crystemas gomen “Christmas game” (283). The passage describing the Green Knight’s arrival emphasizes his coming for the Christmas festivities, thereby linking him with the tradition of Yuletide monsters. The Green Knight declares that since there is no warrior who can match him in battle:

I craue in þis court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Ȝol and Nwe Ȝer, and here ar ȝep mony:
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
Þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche,
Þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte (283-290).

“I desire in this court a Christmas game, for it is Yule and New Year, and you here are many. If any in this house holds himself so hardy, be his blood so bold—his brain in his head—that he dare stiffly strike one stroke for another, I shall give him my gift, this rich gisarme—this axe—that is heavy enough to handle as he likes, and I shall abide the first blow, as bare as I sit.”

Manuscript illustration of the headless Green Knight in British Library, Cotton Nero A.x f.94v.

Christmas stays a prominent theme throughout the poem, and it operates as a metric by which to measure time. Gawain spends the following Christmas with Lord and Lady Bertilak in anticipation of the subsequent Christmas game, when the Green Knight will deliver a return blow. Christmas feasting both begins and concludes this Middle English romance, enveloping the narrative with this holiday theme. Indeed, Christmas is mentioned nine times in the poem, demonstrating its role in framing the narrative. Yule is mentioned twice, and the first reference comes from the Green Knight himself as to the reason for his journey to King Arthur’s court.

The next text in our discussion is the Old Norse-Icelandic Grettis saga, which contains multiple Christmas haunting episodes, each featuring a very different type of Yule monster. In Grettis saga, the holiday of Yule is likewise a repeated fixture and marker of time, and Yule is referenced thirty-three times in the saga.

Grettir Ásmundarson as depicted in a 17th-century manuscript illustration, Reykjavík AM 426.

The major and most frequently discussed Yuletide haunting in the saga concerns the undead revenant Glámr, a Swedish herdsman who ignores Christmas traditions:

Nú leið svo þar til er kemr aðfangadagr jóla. Þá stóð Glámr snemma upp ok kallaði til matar síns. Húsfreyja svaraði: “Ekki er það háttr kristinna manna at matast þenna dag því at á morgun er jóladagr hinn fyrsti,” segir hún, “ok er því fyrst skylt at fasta í dag” (chapter 32).

“Now time past there until when comes the eve of Yule. Then Glámr stood up and called for his food. The lady of the house answered: ‘It is not proper that Christian men eat meat on this day, because tomorrow is the first day of Yule,” she says, “and thus they shall first fast today.’”

Glámr’s response marks him as explicitly unchristian, which may serve to foreshadow his untimely demise:

Hann svarar: “Marga hindurvitni hafið þér þá er ek sé til einskis koma. Veit ek eigi at mönnum fari nú betr at heldr en þá er menn fóru ekki með slíkt. Þótti mér þá betri siðr er menn voru heiðnir kallaðir ok vil ek mat minn en öngvar refjar” (32).

“He answers, ‘You have many restrictions, when I see no good come of it. I do not know that men fare better now than when they did not heed such things. It seems to me that the customs of men were better when they were called heathens, and now I want my meat, and no foolishness.”

Michael Davini, “Viking Village” (2011).

After his praise for heathenism, spurring caution, Glámr ventures into a known haunted region at Yuletide, and he never returns. We are told that kom hann ekki heim jólanóttina “he came not home on Yule-night” and soon we learn that he has died. After days of searching and a number of attempts to bring Glámr’s body to the church to be buried, eventually the townsfolk give up and bury Glámr where they find him, and Það drógu menn saman at sú meinvættr er áðr hafði þar verið mundi hafa deytt Glám “men drew from this, that the evil spirit which had been there before will have killed Glámr.” However, shortly thereafter, it is the undead Glámr who perpetrates Yuletide hauntings, as the saga reports:

Litlu síðar urðu menn varir við það at Glámr lá eigi kyrr. Varð mönnum at því mikið mein svo at margir féllu í óvit ef sáu hann en sumir héldu eigi vitinu. Þegar eftir jólin þóttust menn sjá hann heima þar á bænum. Urðu menn ákaflega hræddir. Stukku þá margir menn í burt. Því næst tók Glámr at ríða húsum á nætr svo at lá við brotum (32).

“A little time after men were aware that Glámr did not lay quiet. People become so greatly disturbed by this, that many fell into hysteria when they saw him, and some lost their wits. Even after Yule men thought they saw him at home on the farm. People became extremely scared.  Many men then fled. Next, Glámr took to riding houses at night, so that he nearly broke them.”

John Vernon Lord, illustration of Glámr riding roofs in ‘Icelandic Sagas’ 2, The Folio Society, 2002.

Grettir famously defeats Glámr, who is frequently associated with the Old Norse-Icelandic draugr, but not until the revenant has cursed Grettir with unceasing fear of the dark, as terrible light from Glámr’s eyes haunts Grettir until the end of his days and he becomes nyctophobic forevermore.

Another Yuletide monster discussed in the saga takes place when Grettir arrives at Sandhaug to investing a trǫllagangr “troll-haunting” (chapter 64), and he encounters a trǫllkona “troll woman” (65). This monster enters the halls of Sandhaug on aðfangadag jóla “Yule-eve” (64), and she plunders the halls during the long night:

Nú er frá Gretti það at segja at þá er dró at miðri nótt heyrði hann út dynr miklar. Því næst kom inn í stofuna trǫllkona mikil. Hún hafði í hendi trog en annarri skálm heldr mikla. Hún litast um er hún kom inn ok sá hvar Gestur lá ok hljóp at honum en hann upp í móti ok réðust á grimmlega ok sóttust lengi í stofunni (65).

“Now it is said of Grettir that when it drew towards midnight, he heard a great din outside. Then a great troll woman came into the hall. She had a trough in one hand, and a blade, rather great, in the other. She looked around when she came in and saw where ‘Guest’ [i.e. Grettir] lay and ran towards him, but he jumped up to meet her, and they wrestled fiercely and struggled together for a long time in the hall.”

John Bauer, ‘Troll Cave with Deer’ (1915).

Eventually, she drags Grettir from the hall, carries him off and tries to escape to her lair ofan til árinnar ok allt fram at gljúfrum “up to the river and all the way to the gorges” (65). Grettir is ultimately able to cut her shoulder, slicing off the troll woman’s arm, a fatal blow which sends her off a cliff and to her death. After recovering from his encounter with the troll woman, Grettir sneaks into her cave and slays her companion, a jǫtunn “giant” (66).

The final Yuletide haunting discussed in this blog comes from Hrólfs saga kraka, when a massive flying dýr “beast” (probably a dragon of some kind) threatens the hall. The cowardly Hǫttr explains how this night-terror returns during Yule to haunt the hall of king Hrólfr:

Ok sem leið at jólum, gerðust menn ókátir. Bǫðvarr spyrr Hǫtt, hverju þetta sætti. Hann segir honum, at dýr eitt hafi þar komit tvá vetr í samt, mikit ok ógurligt, “ok hefir vængi á bakinu, ok flýgr þat jafnan. Tvau haust hefir þat nú hingat vitjat ok gert mikinn skaða. Á þat bíta ekki vápn, en kappar konungs koma ekki heim, þeir sem at eru einna mestir.

Bǫðvarr mælti: “Ekki er hǫllin svá vel skipuð sem ek ætlaði, ef eitt dýr skal hér eyða ríki ok fé konungsins.” Hǫttr  sagði: “Þat er ekki dýr, heldr er þat mesta trǫll” (chapter 35).

“And as Yule neared, men became gloomy. Bǫðvarr asked Hǫttr what caused this. He said to him that a beast had come there for two winters in a row, great and monstrous. ‘And it has wings on its back and frequently flies. For two autumns now it has visited and caused great harm. No weapon bites it, and the king’s champions, those who are the greatest, do not come home.’”

Bǫðvarr spoke: ‘the hall is not so well guarded as I thought, if one beast shall here destroy the king’s realm and livestock.’ Hǫttr said: ‘It is not a beast, rather it is the greatest troll.’” 

A Winged Dragon in a bestiary, 1278–1300, Franco-Flemish. Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 4, f.94.

This warning is quickly validated, for when jólaaptann “Yule-eve” arrives, King Hrólfr commands his warriors to stay inside and forbids them from fighting the monster, proclaiming that it is better to lose his livestock than his people. However, Bǫðvarr Bjarki sneaks into the night, dragging Hǫttr behind him, and the hero quickly slays the Yuletide monster terrorizing the kingdom. Then, at Bǫðvarr’s behest, Hǫttr consumes the flesh and blood of the beast, which strengthens and emboldens him, transforming him into a hero (in a way that recalls Sigurðr’s actions after Fáfnir is slain).

These medieval stories of Yuletide monsters participate in a robust tradition of winter-time (and even Christmas-specific) hauntings, which continued throughout the ages and manifests still today. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the more memorable, with visitations by four ghosts at the home of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Dr. Seuss’s Grinch renders its Scrooge-like antihero in the form of a green Christmas-hating monster bent on stealing Christmas, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas explores the theme of Christmas haunting when the pumpkin king and leader of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, decides he would rather celebrate Christmas one year instead out of sheer boredom with his own holiday. Jack then proceeds to haunt Christmas transforming cozy festivities into a horror show as if he were a Yule monster of old.

Jack Skellington and Santa Claus from Tim Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993).

More recently, in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and HBO’s corresponding TV series Game of Thrones), winter monsters known as the White Walkers (seemingly inspired by Old Norse-Icelandic revenants), led by the fearsome Night King, come with the cold in the long night to terrorize Westeros. Even Netflix’s edgy reboot of Sabrina the Teen-age Witch, appropriately retitled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), gives a nod to medieval tales of wintertime monsters when during the solstice the Spellmans place a protective candle in the chimney to prevent Yule demons from entering their home; however, this does not stop Grýla—an Icelandic giantess—from visiting during the night when the witches’ protective candle becomes accidentally extinguished.

Night King from season eight of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series (2018).

Yuletide continues to provide a haunting wintry setting for monster visits. Although often balanced by saccharine images of Christmas as a source of light and warmth against the cold dark, what lurks beyond the illumination of society during the long night seems to readily elicit horror in the modern—as well as medieval—imagination.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Billock, Jennifer. “The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa.” Smithsonian Magazine (2015).

Carrière, Jean Louise. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Christmas Poem.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1.1 (1970): 25-42.

Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts (A Study in the Draugr and the Haugúbi).” Folklore 57 (1946): 50–65

—. “Norse Ghosts II (Continued).” Folklore 57 (1946): 106–127

Cereno, Benito. “The Legend of the Baba Yaga Explained.” Grunge (2020).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters From Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2020).

—. “Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2019).

—. “Zombies of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2018).

Firth, Matt. “Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas. The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

—. “Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong.” The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

Jakobsson, Ármann and Miriam Mayburd. Paranormal Encounters in Iceland 1150–1400. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2020.

—. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Medieval Undead.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110 (2011): 281–300

—. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga.” Folklore 120 (2009): 307–316.

Kirk, Elizabeth D. “‘Wel Bycommes Such Craft Upon Cristmasse’: the Festive and the Hermeneutic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 93-137.

Palmer, Alex. “Why Iceland’s Christmas Witch Is Much Cooler (and Scarier) Than Krampus.” Smithsonian Magazine (2017).

Phelan, Walter S. The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992.

Squires, John. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Brought Christmas Demon Grýla to the Screen for the First Time.” Bloody Disgusting (2018).

Su, Minjie. “Old Norse White Walkers? Draugr, the Walking Dead in Medieval Icelandic Sagas.Medievalist.net (2017).

Troop, Sarah Elizabeth. “Monsters of Christmas.” Atlas Obscura (2013).

Villareal, Daniel. “These 20 Terrifying Christmas Monsters Will Haunt Your Holidays.” Hornet (2019).

Zarka, Emily. “Draugr: The Undead Nordic Zombie.” Monstrum, Public Broadcasting Station (2019).