The Powerful Allure of the North

North is a relative idea. It is a direction, not a place: our absolute North, the pole, was long theorised, but for most of human history nobody had been there. The North star marked something yet unknown.

In Extreme North: A Cultural History, Bernd Brunner argues: “The concept of ‘North’ represents a space both real and imaginary—one that, depending on the era, might include the borders of northern and Celtic-influenced Europe, the northern parts of the British Isles, the English colonies of North America, and beyond.”

The “beyond” is kept vague. While he gestures towards a broader conception, with a discussion of the way that in “Global North” and “Global South,” North serves as a metaphor for development and prosperity rather than a strict geographical delineator. But we don’t hear about how “north” has a particular meaning in most of the world. The primary “north” with which he is concerned is the north of the Nordic countries and Iceland. (We get nothing here of the Chinese view of Mongolia as north, for instance).

He begins with a cabinet of curiosities in seventeenth-century Copenhagen, containing artefacts of the “north.” This collection of natural and man-made objects rather parallels his approach in this book, which offers more of a scrapbook than any clear thesis.

His selection of who and what to include is idiosyncratic. There is extensive discussion of the identity and culture of the Inuit and their role in emblematising the North, yet I doubt many people have the same cultural associations towards Inuit that they do towards the Danes, who are also part of this Northern survey. The vision of the North, when limited to Nordic countries, is a distinct cultural evolution.

He starts with the origins of our cultural notion of North and moves on through around 2000 years, and the changing identities of Scandinavia within Europe. He has put together a great number of anecdotes of various travelers and scholars and their journeys to Scandinavia or Greenland or the northern reaches of Canada. Alas, the approach seems to be somewhat scattergun. Many of these interesting threads are dropped as quickly as they’re picked up, with abrupt chapter endings, and we are left with the random encounters of disparate people. This is a shame, because many of these threads could have been woven more successfully into a deeper understanding of different cultural understandings of the North.

For most Europeans through the classical period to the Middle Ages, the North was the source of bad weather, frightening winds, and violent men. Meanwhile, the idea of North and who was north of whom changed as different societies gained greater knowledge of the rest of the world, over centuries of exploration and trade.

Precisely who even counts as Northern European is a different question. As he notes:

. . . in 1771, August Ludwig von Schlözer took up this question in his book General Northern History, writing: “We Germans do not consider ourselves to be part of the North; only the Frenchman views our land as his North, and he speaks of Berlin as we do of Stockholm. Spanish writers commonly understand the North as Great Britain, and it is of course natural that African geographers and historians refer to the Mediterranean as the North Sea and believe that all Europeans are northern peoples.”

Brunner begins to hit his stride when we get to the nineteenth century, where he marks the pivot to finding a cultural origin in Norse mythology (and possibly a northern evolutionary origin too) rather than regarding the classical Mediterranean as the cradle of civilization.

Some Darwinists latched onto this line of thought: Georges Vacher de Lapouge claimed that European “nordids” had evolved from a now-submerged Anglo-Scandinavian plain in the North Sea. The first president of Boston University, William F. Warren, also made a claim for Eden in the arctic circle in Paradise Found: The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole.

The Scandinavian and Icelandic cultures also held appeal for those in rapidly industrialising Britain, who could project their nostalgia for agricultural life onto their northern neighbors. William Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement, was impressed by the traditional lifestyles he saw when visiting Iceland. This image was one deliberately cultivated: at World’s Fairs, Scandinavian nations tended to present their folk art customs, rather than their most advanced technologies. This enabled them to be idealised by visitors, particularly those who felt an ancestral connection to the region and felt that Anglo-American society was in decline. The Victorians also developed a fascination for Vikings, and much of our iconography of Vikings (the braids, the horned helmets, etc) are inventions of this period, with no archaeological basis.

Meanwhile, for the waves of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States, a focus on Leif Erikson as the discoverer of the Americas, was a way to cement their identity (much in the way that celebrating Columbus often was for Italians). Erikson was also appealing to those who wanted to see in him a link to their ideals of Northern Protestant industriousness. If they found Columbus too ethnic, too Catholic, then Erikson was a better forefather for their WASP city on a hill.

The North can be all things to all people, a cultural influence far greater than even Leif Erikson could have hoped.

The twentieth century brought the Nazis, who had their own fascination with Norse iconography, building on nineteenth-century race theories and their goals of Aryan rule. After the war, European nations sought to rebuild, while social changes produced new identities. Sweden’s liberalism came to the fore: it was described by Eisenhower as the land of “free sex, high tax and suicide.” Increased tourism delivered its own shorthand and stereotypes, of travel brochures featuring saunas and smorgasbords.

Today we see a revived interest in Norsemen, at least as subject matter for popular culture. The main Viking I remember from childhood was Hagar The Horrible, but now we have several high-budget TV series focusing on Vikings, while Thor in the Marvel universe brings at least one conception of the Norse mythology to new audiences.

The Vikings are a way to celebrate a European past, which is also too far back to have any current victims or awkward elements to address. The world of longboats and Viking raids is remote enough from ours to almost be a fantasy realm, while also offering an origin story for those who seek it.

Descendants of those who in the 1800s fetishised Scandinavian folkways now focus on furniture design or social democracy as things the Nordics do better than us. Surveys show us they are happier than us too, with their hygge and felted slippers. We drive our Volvos to IKEA stores and watch grim Scandinoir crime dramas on Netflix. The dark fantasies are still here too: the adoption of Norse mythology by white supremacist groups echoes that of the race cranks of the nineteenth century. The “Q-Anon shaman”—whose photo was on the news all over the world—wore fur and horns, his bare torso showing tattoos of Norse symbols. The North can be all things to all people, a cultural influence far greater than even Leif Erikson could have hoped.