The Northern Way

Viktor Rydberg’s Teutonic Mythology: Myths and Realities

In a recent overview of the modern heathen revival, Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis observed that, “[w]hile some representations of the past lack depth and interpretive nuance, and while some heathens may passively accept outmoded accounts of the past (e.g., Rydberg 1906), others contest simplistic narratives and contribute to scholarly dialogue regarding the past.” [1]

A fundamental purpose of the New Northvegr Center is to promote sound scholarship regarding our heathen heritage and its manifestation in the modern world.  Although we seek no quarrel with those whose goals lie elsewhere, at times this requires, in Blain’s and Wallis’s phrase, contesting simplistic narratives.  This is especially so when outmoded accounts of the past – such as Viktor Rydberg’s 19th-century Teutonic Mythology – are Viktor Rydberg’s Teutonic Mythology: Myths and Realitiesaggressively re-packaged and promoted in ways seemingly designed to mislead uninformed but sincere seekers after our spiritual heritage.

It is difficult for English-speaking readers to locate reliable information about Rydberg and his racial-mythological treatise.  This problem is compounded by the fact that Wikipedia, the popular open-source encyclopedia, has for several years presented a severely (and intentionally) distorted portrayal of the man and his work.  To help restore a balanced evaluation of Rydberg and his place in an informed, reconstructed heathenism, we have compiled a few of the most common myths that have grown up around Rydberg and his Teutonic Mythology, and contrast them here with the historical realities.

Myth:  Viktor Rydberg was an important 19th-century scholar who was an authority on comparative mythology.

Reality:  Rydberg was a college dropout who achieved acclaim in Sweden as a popular novelist and poet, but never earned an academic degree or held a position on the faculty of any university.

Rydberg dropped out of college in 1852, after completing only one year of study at Lund University, to pursue a career as a popular writer.  He never forgot his brief encounter with academia, however, and complained of the excessive rigor of Lund’s curriculum for the rest of his life.  Rydberg became known as an advocate of “folk” schooling, and he continued to denounce Lund for allegedly stifling its students’ creativity in his inaugural address to the Swedish Academy, nearly three decades later.

At the age of 50, after he had achieved fame as a poet and novelist, Rydberg was presented with an honorary doctorate in conjunction with his recitation of a poem during Uppsala University’s bicentennial celebration.  Then, as now, such honorary degrees are awarded to celebrities and usually play a role in the school’s fund-raising program; they are understood by all concerned to be unrelated to academic accomplishment.  Nevertheless, upon receiving his honorary diploma Rydberg began designating himself “Dr. Viktor Rydberg, Ph.D.”  This had the understandable effect of misleading some of his contemporaries outside Sweden, who mistakenly assumed “Dr. Rydberg” must be an actual scholar with an advanced degree.

Although Rydberg could not teach at either of Sweden’s two universities because of his lack of education, in 1884 he was offered a job lecturing at a tiny, private högskola (literally, high school) in Stockholm. Although the school focused solely on teaching the natural sciences, so valuable was Rydberg’s name recognition that it created a vaguely-defined position for the famous writer as a lecturer in “cultural history.” Typically, Rydberg’s Wikipedia entry misrepresents his academic credentials by claiming that he was a professor at Stockholm University. But in fact, the latter institution was not established until the end of the 1950s, more than half a century after Rydberg’s death.

Myth: Rydberg’s appointment to the Swedish Academy was evidence of his importance as a scholar.

Reality: Membership in the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature, is a literary honor that is totally unrelated to academic or scholarly accomplishment.

Rydberg was named to replace the poet, C. V. A. Strandberg, on the Swedish Academy following the latter’s death in 1877. Since the Academy was at that time engaged in a struggle against modernist trends in Swedish literature, Rydberg’s anachronistic Romanticism and his public criticism of the prominent modernist, August Strindberg, made him a leading candidate to join that body. Rydberg’s continuing hostility helped ensure that Strindberg – considered today to be the far greater writer of the two – would never be elected to the Academy.

Myth:  Rydberg’s Teutonic Mythology was an important contribution to world scholarship on Germanic mythology.

Reality: In his later years Rydberg became absorbed with 19th-century race theory, and Teutonic Mythology (Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi) was his effort to craft a national epic for “the ancient Aryan race.” Largely a product of Rydberg’s creative imagination, the book was ignored by serious Indo-Germanic scholars of his time, and is of interest today almost solely as a historical footnote in the development of the Aryan racial doctrines that culminated in the Holocaust.

The discovery of commonalities between ancient Sanskrit and the major European languages led to a burgeoning scholarship, by the mid-19th century, in the field of comparative philology. Leading scholars like Max Müller sought evidence of a primitive forerunner of all these tongues – a hypothesized, reconstructed language known both then and today as proto Indo-European (PIE). Unfortunately, less cautious scholars than Müller reasoned that if a single ancient language had once swept over most of Europe, it must have been carried by a single, ancient, conquering race. This simple logical error was the origin of the fascination with “Aryan” race theory that came to dominate much of European (and American) popular thought, reaching its historical crest with the rise of the Third Reich. Rydberg was a passionate advocate of the racial-nationalist ideology of his day, and devoted the later years of his life to crafting an imaginary ur-mythology for his equally imaginary race of “ancient Aryans.”  Teutonic Mythology was Rydberg’s answer to Friedrich Schlegel’s famous lament: since no common Aryan mythology existed, “one would have to be invented.”[2]

A sustained pastiche of snippets from Norse, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and other myths, Teutonic Mythology was above all an expression of Rydberg’s own racial preconceptions and cultural biases. In the words of the eminent Uppsala scholar, Adolf Noreen, Rydberg’s endeavor had “the same scientific value as a study of whether Leda’s adventure with the swan occurred before or after Europa’s with the bull, or Danae’s golden rain.”[3] The indifference of the academic world to Rydberg’s turgid opus (even the science-based högskola where he worked responded by reassigning Rydberg to lecture thenceforth on the history of art) was reflected in the writer’s failure, despite lengthy and intense efforts, to get the book translated into any of the major languages of scholarship. German scholars were especially disdainful, openly dismissing Teutonic Mythology as an amateur work, far below existing standards of scholarship. It was not until a decade after his death that the first half of the book – the part featuring Rydberg’s version of the supposed racial origin of the Aryans – was translated into English as part of Rasmus Anderson’s so-called “Anglo-Saxon Classics” (which at the dawn of the 20th century carried the meaning, “classics of the white race”).

Rydberg’s vision of creating a singular, proto-Aryan mythology is dismissed today as misguided and naive.  Scholars long ago “abandon[ed] the idea of Norse mythology as a single, unanimous system in which every detail can be explained into consistency, and which comes to us as the detailed witness of an ancient Indo-European system from thousands of years earlier.”[4] Moreover, it is universally agreed among modern scholars that “[m]erging Eddic characters and looking for hypostases is an unprofitable occupation. It allows any god (giant, dwarf) to become anybody else, as happened under Rydberg’s pen.”[5] Nevertheless, Teutonic Mythology retains a cult following on the Internet today because of the racial myths it perpetuates, despite its lack of any redeeming scholarly value.

Myth:  Rydberg used the term “Aryan” to mean what is now called “Indo-European.”

Reality: Although the terms “Indo-Germanic” and “Indo-European” were commonly employed by scholars of his day, Rydberg expressly rejected this terminology in favor of the more racially charged “Aryan” to describe his fictive ancient race of superior beings.

As Romantic-nationalist doctrines of racial superiority invaded the field of comparative philology, many 19th-century writers like Rydberg came to prefer the term “Aryan” to the more linguistically precise “Indo-European,” believing that it reflected the unique nobility of a supposed race of ancient conquerors. (Aryan derives from a PIE root meaning “noble,” and was thought to be related to the German Ehre, “honor.”) It was in this context that Rydberg expressly rejected “Indo-European” in favor of “Aryan” to denote the noble – albeit imaginary – race in which he claimed membership.  (Rydberg went so far as to abandon his own given name, Abraham Victor, in favor of the “more Aryan” Viktor.)  Rydberg’s modern-day apologists are simply engaging in historical revisionism when they claim he was ignorant of the racial implications of his choice of terminology.

Myth: The use of Rydberg’s work after his death by Nazis and other champions of Aryan racial superiority was inconsistent with the spirit of Teutonic Mythology.

Reality: Rydberg’s unwavering insistence that racially “pure” Aryans could be identified by their height, hair and eye coloring, and skull dimensions fed directly into the Swedish eugenics campaign of the early 20th century, and is indistinguishable from Nazi race doctrine of the same era. The fact that Rydberg did not live to see these applications of the theories he embraced is mere chance; they were readily foreseeable consequences of the arguments Rydberg expounded, and can in no sense be considered a “misuse” of his work.

Rydberg’s Teutonic Mythology is devoted to the creation of an imaginary mythology for the “Aryan race” – according to the author, a tall, blond, noble people whose origin he placed in or near his own country, partly on the basis of human skull measurements. It is important to understand, however, that Rydberg was not writing on a clean slate. No scientist himself, Rydberg was entirely dependent on the work of others in sketching out his racial theories. Accordingly, his choices of what material to rely upon, and what to ignore, is the best gauge of his convictions and intentions.

While Rydberg was drafting Teutonic Mythology, leading Indo-European scholars like Max Müller were speaking out forcefully against the very sort of misinterpretation of their work that Rydberg embraced. Müller called linking the PIE language to a primal Aryan race – the very core of Rydberg’s project – “a downright fraud,” adding, “it goes against all rules of logic to speak, without an expressed or implied qualification, of an Aryan race, of Aryan blood, or Aryan skulls.” Contrary to Rydberg’s insistence that a homogeneous Aryan race – identifiable by height, complexion, and cranial index – had occupied a homeland in northern Europe since “the Aryan Stone Age,” the scholarly consensus had already settled on the understanding that “[t]he Aryan was initially and remained an object of pure fantasy.”[6]Abraham Victor (Viktor) Rydberg, illustration from the cover of Lambda Nordica 1999

The pseudo-scholarly treatment of racial origins with which Rydberg opens Teutonic Mythology is virtually impossible to distinguish from comparable passages in Mein Kampf, written a mere 20 years after its publication. Rydberg’s glorification of what he believed to be his “Aryan blood” was emblazoned on a banner at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, promoting Sweden’s racial hygiene movement – a eugenics program of forced sterilization of those deemed racially unfit. His cautionary essay, “The Future of the White Race,” was written as an introduction to the Swedish edition of Benjamin Kidd’s social-Darwinist manifesto, Social Evolution, published in 1895. This work contrasted the “restless, aggressive, high-pitched life” of the white race to that of the “careless, shiftless, easily satisfied negro of the United States or the West Indies,” concluding that the only hope for the survival of the “inferior races” was the civilizing influence of those of European stock.

The pattern is obvious and undeniable. It is not merely a coincidence that Rydberg’s nearly forgotten contribution to 19th-century racial-nationalist ideology is promoted today on an array of racialist, racist, and white supremacist web sites, where Teutonic Mythology is sometimes featured side-by-side with such works as Francis Parker Yockey’s fiercely anti-Semitic Imperium, and the 19th-century racist hoax, The Oera Linda Book.  That is its rightful place today, rather than on the bookshelves of any serious student of pre-Christian Northern culture and beliefs.

NOTES

[1] Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis, “Representing Spirit: Heathenry, New-Indigenes and the Imagined Past,” in Images, Representation and Heritage: Moving Beyond Modern Approaches to Archaeology (Ian Russell, ed., 2006), p. 105.

[2] Friedrich Schlegel, Sämtliche Werke (1846), vol. 4, p. 197.

[3] Adolf Noreen, Spridda Studier (1895).

[4] John McKinnell, Both One and Many: Essays on Change and Variety in Late Norse Heathenism (1994), p. 26.

[5] Anatoly Liebermann, “Some Controversial Aspects of the Myth of Baldr,” Alvíssmál, vol. 11 (2004), p. 38.