Through scholarship and a popular podcast, CU Boulder professor Mathias Nordvig brings the Viking Age to the 21st century
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands.
To fight the horde
Sing and cry
Valhalla I am coming.
- “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin
When Robert Plant sang the opening lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s raucous, enduring, 1970 anthem “The Immigrant Song,” he was looking all the way back to 8th century CE, when three Viking longships are believed to have first landed in the British Isles.
A half century later, the Norse appear to have invaded once more, as Viking culture and all things Nordic continue to soar in popular culture. Old Norse gods such as Thor, Loki and Odin, command the screen at multiplexes, even as hordes of Europeans and North Americans have lustily embraced their Nordic roots through music, style and even religion.
“It’s funny, to be honest, as someone who was interested in all this stuff back when I was in my pre-teens,” says Mathias Nordvig, a native of Denmark who grew up in Greenland and is now teaching assistant professor and head of Nordic Studies in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-founder of the popular podcast, Nordic Mythology Podcast.
“We saw something similar with the Celts and Irish and Scottish culture, which became a theme in Hollywood.”
Nordvig, author of Ásatrú for Beginners: A Modern Heathen's Guide to the Ancient Northern Way and Norse Mythology for Kids: Tales of Gods, Creatures, and Quests, is gratified by the embrace of ancient Nordic culture by modern Americans and non-Nordic Europeans.
“I think one reason Nordic stuff is so popular is that it’s relatively accessible, but still the distant past. … It’s an anchor point, something people can relate to, from the old land,” he says. “There is just enough mystique around it that you can add your own flavor.”
When Nordvig was growing up, he stood out for his keen interest in ancient Nordic culture even among his fellow Danes.
“I was like the weird Viking guy,” he says. “Now, all the sudden this has become mainstream.”
Nordvig knew exactly what he wanted to study when he went off to Aarhus University, and eventually earned a BA, MA and PhD in Scandinavian Studies. His PhD thesis, later published as Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland, explores how Viking Age Scandinavian immigrants used Old Norse tales and myths to understand the active volcanoes of Iceland, a geologic anomaly unknown on the continent.
“They used traditional stories to create a framework for understanding of what was happening” in the restless, fiery belly of the Earth, he says. “That’s why the Icelandic landscape is still ‘populated’ today with so many trolls and elves. It’s entirely different from Norway, Denmark and Sweden; it’s a landscape that lives.”
As a scholar, Nordvig has also explored Nordic witchcraft and magic. The publication of the notorious Malleus Malificarum, or Hammer of the Witches, in 15th-century Germany prescribed death for “sorcery” and “witchcraft,” setting off centuries of violence against persons accused of being witches and warlocks, including in Christianized Scandinavia.
“The ideas … trickled down to become a schematic for people to get rid of their neighbors,” he says. “It was also used as a kind of low-key ethnic cleansing.”
Magic was part of Nordic culture well before the arrival of Christianity, Nordvig says, as evidenced by archaeological discoveries of “weird magical items” such as a pouch containing a mouse skeleton, owl vomit and herbs. Women he calls “female ritual specialists” were given high honor in pre-Christian Nordic culture, but denigrated as “witches” following the adoption of Christian ideas.
In 2019, Nordvig co-founded the Nordic Mythology Podcast with Daniel Farrand, owner of Horns of Odin, a company that sells Viking- and Nordic-themed goods and gear, after “stumbling on each other on the internet.”
“We decided to make a podcast to give people proper information about the Viking Age and Nordic mythology, and regularly send the message that this is something anybody can be a part of,” Nordvig says.
Since then, they have recorded more than 150 episodes, everything from interviewing scholars to reports from the Midgardsblot heavy-metal and Viking-culture festival in Norway. More than 1 million downloads later, the podcast is a gathering place for Nordic enthusiasts.
“It’s become one of the centers of community around Viking-related stuff. We get a lot of artists, scholars and an audience, and we connect everybody with each other,” he says.
Nordvig has practiced Ásatrú, “a modern spirituality based in the traditions, folklore, and mythology of Northern Europe and particularly Scandinavia,” for most of his life. His book on the practice explores the history, traditions, gods and goddesses, ancient texts, rituals, and the use of runes as a guide to contemporary practice.
One goal of all Nordvig’s work is to dispel persistent rumors of association between Nordic culture and right-wing, fascist and white-supremacist political movements, a lingering effect of the misappropriation of Nordic ideas and symbols in the modern era, Nordvig says.
“One important thing to keep in mind is that the whole Nazi and fascist movement in Europe was much more based in Christianity than anything else,” he says. “There were also these constructions, this ‘Nordic race’ nonsense. … They were just a bunch of people living in a corner of the world.”
And he eschews the stereotypical “masculinist view” that portrays the Vikings as the most “brutal, violent figure in European history. In fact, they were no more masculine or brutal or violent at the time than anyone else.”
Nordvig also tries to dispel stereotypes from the other end of the political spectrum: the Vikings were uniquely connected to nature or that modern Scandinavian states are a socialist paradise.
But, he says, Nordic myth and culture are anything but disconnected from the rest of the world.
There are strong similarities across cultures, continents and human beings, and there is a way to cultivate a relationship to your personal heritage that can be a healthy and helpful way of being.”
“If you look at the details of Nordic mythology, you’ll realize it’s actually not that different from some mythical systems in West Africa and the vodun religion,” he says. “There are strong similarities across cultures, continents and human beings, and there is a way to cultivate a relationship to your personal heritage that can be a healthy and helpful way of being.”
Nordvig recently decided to step down from co-hosting the Nordic Mythology Podcast to devote more time to his family and other projects, although he will still be a regular guest. And on Feb. 12, he launched The Sacred Flame Podcast.
“It’s about using Nordic myth in our lives today, how we can make use of these stories to rethink the way we live in modern society,” he says.
Nordvig encourages CU Boulder students to check out the Nordic Program.
“We explore great examples of what it looks like when an isolated corner of the world is tied in globally, both in the Viking Age and the modern era,” he says.