Yesterday, U.S. president Donald J. Trump met with Russian president Vladimir V. Putin in Helsinki for a controversial summit denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike. In advance of the summit, members of an anti-immigrant organization known as the Soldiers of Odin, whose leader is a self-described Neo-Nazi convicted of a hate crime, knelt before Trump banners in a show of deference to the American leader. The anti-immigrant hate group was founded in Finland in 2015 to intimidate immigrants, and it now boasts chapters in Anglophone countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the U.K. Although the organization denies being racist or Neo-Nazi, studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Finland’s Yle public broadcaster found that its members were predominantly white supremacists and supporters of the extreme right.
The use of Norse pagan imagery—the god Odin in this case—as a symbol of white culture in opposition to largely nonwhite immigrants is reminiscent of Nazi efforts to revive Germanic paganism, a close cousin of Norse paganism, as an alternative to Christianity more acceptable to National Socialism.
This caught my eye because I spent this past weekend making some revisions that the editors of All About History requested for my article about Hitler’s wonder weapons. In doing so, I came across an unusual quotation from Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, in which articulated the exact type of argument that ancient astronaut theorists and lost civilization speculators now routinely make about pagan mythology.
In May 1940, Himmler commissioned a study of depictions of Thor’s hammer in “Aryan” art in order to determine whether the weapon, and similar armaments held by other gods, was something more than a magical piece of myth-making. He had come to believe that Thor’s power involved “not natural thunder and lightning but rather a case of earlier, highly developed weapons possessed by only a few, namely by the Aesir, the gods, and presuming an extraordinary knowledge of electricity.” It sounds too science fictional to be real, but this was actually written by Himmler himself in a letter sent to Walter Wüst, the head of the Ahnenerbe and recorded in the Kriegstagbuch Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS, currently held in the U.S. National Archives among Himmler’s papers seized at the end of World War II.
Himmler’s idea sounds strikingly like something you’d hear today on Ancient Aliens, and indeed, it actually is something that was on Ancient Aliens in 2013, and also on True Monsters, when both shows alleged that Thor’s hammer was actually a piece of high technology wielded by entities masquerading as gods.
It was hard for me not to compare this to Erich von Däniken’s infamous description of the Ark of the Covenant in Chariots of the Gods, which he similarly imagined as a piece of high technology demonstrating amazing knowledge of electricity: “When passing cattle shook and threatened to overturn the Ark, Uzzah grabbed hold of it. He fell dead on the spot, as if struck by lightning. Undoubtedly the Ark was electrically charged! If we reconstruct it today according to the instructions handed down by Moses, a voltage of several hundred volts is produced.” It is probably only a coincidence that Chariots was heavily edited and rewritten by Wilhelm “Utze” Utermann, under the penname Wilhelm Roggersdorff. Utermann had been a Nazi party journalist who edited the Hitler Youth magazine.
One might reasonably wonder how it is that Heinrich Himmler stumbled onto an ancient astronaut claim decades before the ancient astronaut theory came to prominence. The easy answer is that he borrowed heavily from Theosophy, with its claims of extraterrestrial gods, and from the Atlantis theories of Ignatius Donnelly, and from assorted other science fiction claims. The real answer is a little more complicated. It does, indeed, involve these influences, but it is grounded in a literal reading of the Eddas, which Himmler took to be a true and pretended were an accurate record of ancient Aryan migrations from Central Asia to northern Europe.
In the prologue to the Prose Edda, composed by Snorri Sturlson as a Christianized compendium of Norse myths, we learn that the Norse gods were actually human beings, princes who were born in ancient Troy and who migrated across Europe when the Greeks destroyed their city. Here is how Snorri described the birth of Thor, the god we are most interested in here: “One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor.” Snorri operated in the tradition of Euhemerus, turning the gods into mortal men, kings of old, in order to make them more acceptable to his audience.
Himmler therefore had it in his mind that the Norse gods were ancient Aryan kings—he called them “the earliest Aryans” and though they contained the pure “essence” of Aryanism—and their weapons were therefore actually high technology from the prehistoric Aryan homeland, the one Himmler kept trying to find in Atlantis, Thule, and Tibet.
Although Himmler’s specific idea did not survive him, strangely enough, something of it finds an echo in one of the most influential fringe history books of the twentieth century. In Morning of the Magicians, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier provided one of the first popular accounts of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe and its occult investigations into ancient history. Their account helped inspire later writers to take the group’s twisting of history seriously, even though the authors themselves did not. While they did not discuss Thor or his hammer in the context of the Ahnenerbe, they did mention him in discussing the allegation that the Gobi Desert had been nuked in ancient times, pushing the ancient Aryans out of central Asia and into Northern Europe about three or four thousand years ago. “The Scandinavian god Thor,” they wrote, “is supposed to have been one of the heroes of this migration.”
Although they do not identify their source, they are describing a bizarre French pseudohistorical claim from the late 1800s revolving around the imaginary homeland of the Aryans, Agartha, which was derived from Asgard by Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre and place in the Himalayas—the putative home of the Aryan race in Nazi theory and a number of other white supremacist ideologies. In time, he moved it under the earth when it became obvious that it didn’t exist on the well-documented surface of the planet. Anyway, later writers, specifically Ferdynand Ossendowski, popularized it, and Theodore Illion alleged that he had visited the place in travelogues published in 1930s Germany from Nazi presses. At times it was a lost city, a massive occult university, the home of Theosophical Ascended Masters and the Great White Brotherhood, and any number of other fantasies. Depending on whom you ask, it might be located beneath anywhere from the Himalayas to the Gobi. This (fake) esoteric tradition, allegedly of Buddhist origin, served to ennoble the emerging idea of a Proto-Indo-European homeland by imagining it not as the plains patrolled by itinerant herders but as the capital of a civilization befitting the world’s master race.
The direct source for Pauwels and Bergier, however, was Maurice Doreal, who took these ideas, along with a heavy dose of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and repackaged them in a pamphlet in the late 1940s called “Mysteries of Gobi,” which alleged that an underground civilization once lived beneath the Gobi and had been destroyed by a nuclear weapon. Oh, and the inhabitants of this civilization were snake-men.
Pauwels and Bergier went on to inspire Erich von Däniken, who was forced to admit as much when the publisher of the former threatened to sue that of the latter if they didn’t get proper acknowledgement for the material that von Däniken borrowed from them. Although the path from Himmler to von Däniken was not direct, the same core components—ancient gods were flesh and blood beings, ancient weapons were high technology, etc.—came together more than once among people drawing on the same building blocks, coming to similar results.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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