On Vikings and white nationalists

17 Aug 2023

An expert in medieval Scandinavian studies, Verena Höfig has been Professor of Nordic Philology with a special focus on Old Norse at LMU since August 2022.

“I study Vikings” – this is how Professor Verena Höfig often pithily describes what she does for a living. “But in fact I’m a medievalist and research the medieval culture of Scandinavia.” In her work, she wants to get away from the hackneyed image of the rough, warlike, and above all male Viking and shine a light on other aspects, such as the reality of life for women and children in medieval Scandinavia.

She has been Professor of Nordic Philology at LMU since August of last year. Reared in Baden-Württemberg, Höfig completed a degree in Scandinavian studies, history, and political science at LMU. To help support her studies, she taught modern Icelandic at the Munich Center for Adult Education. Her master’s thesis bore the title: Religious and Political Power Structures in Icelandic Society.

She wrote her dissertation Finding a Founding Father: Memory, Identity and the Icelandic landnám as a Regents’ scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, where she subsequently worked as a lecturer in Scandinavian studies. She taught at the University of Illinois from 2015, initially as a postdoc in Germanic Languages and Literatures, and then from 2017 as Assistant Professor for Germanic Languages and Literatures and Medieval Studies.

Professorin Verena Höfig vor einem Bücherregal. Vor ihr auf dem Tisch steht ein Winkingerschiff von Playmobil.

Professor Verena Höfig

© LC Productions

Vikings are often instrumentalized for radical political worldviews

“What’s wonderful about researching the North,” says Höfig, “is the great wealth of medieval literature that has come down to us, along with an unbelievably large corpus of pre-Christian artifacts: picture and rune stones, religious and mythological objects – even exotic seeds that washed ashore and were stored in decorative vessels.” That being said, not every item touted as Nordic is authentic. “Counterfeit swords and rune stones erroneously claimed to indicate the presence of Viking settlements are commonplace in the northern United States, for example.”

She also researches modern social trends that lionize the supposedly heroic masculinity of the Vikings and adopt it as a model, often in rather fanciful ways. “Some people base diets and fitness regimes around supposedly Viking customs, while others instrumentalize the Vikings for radical political worldviews.” A paper written by Höfig looked at Old Norse Myth and Radical White Nationalist Groups in Trump’s America.

In future, she plans to delve deeper into the history of Old Norse medicine, in particular obstetrics and gynecology. “Here we find things like small pieces of wood or metal or amulets inscribed with runes, which were thought to ward off evil spirits and disorders such as lumbago during childbirth, or were said to cure headaches.”

Despite her expertise and international experience, Höfig admits to not always feeling “entirely at home” in the university world as someone who grew up in a non-academic family environment. “I’m proud to have successfully pursued this path, but I do wish that the topic of first-generation academics received more attention in Germany and that there were suitable supports available.” After 15 years in the United States, she is “very glad” to have returned to Germany with her family and to be back at her alma mater.

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