This is so obviously a publicity stunt for the festival that you might not think there's much harm in it. Well, I may be completely humourless (certainly a possibility), but it's been annoying me, and every time I see another news story about it or someone tweets a #Ragnarok2014 joke I get a little more annoyed. First of all, let's be totally clear: the date of 22 February is plucked out of nowhere. It is made up. The 100 days thing was made up. Norse mythology does not put a date on Ragnarok: not a guess, not a hint, not a whisper of a date, no sense at all that there might be a fixed day. (In fact, it may be that Ragnarok has already happened.) There is no 'Viking calendar predicting the end of the world', as one news report put it. All made up.
The reason I feel the need to be so emphatic about this is that the Jorvik Viking Centre decided to be deliberately misleading. When they say Norse mythology predicts Ragnarok will happen on February 22, what they mean is they're staging Ragnarok as an event at the festival on February 22. You might think this is so transparently obvious that no one could really be deceived, but if you take a look at the reporting and the comments on the various stories, the problem becomes clear: people have been completely taken in. They believe this is a 'fact' about Norse mythology. Of course they don't really believe that the world's going to end on this date, but they now believe that Norse mythology says this. And why shouldn't they believe it? The 'experts at the Jorvik Viking Centre' said so. A whole bunch of news outlets have reported it: here's the Huffington Post; here's Time; here's the Independent, plus others too stupid to link to. Not one of those articles takes the idea seriously, but they also don't indicate that it's invented - because, not knowing better, they trusted the 'experts' who told them it was true. Does it really need saying that it's not OK to just make stuff up for publicity purposes? The idea of staging a Ragnarok event is perfectly fine, but to publicise it by saying something which is untrue - the Vikings believed the world would end on 22 February - is deceiving people who don't know better, people who trust you to tell the truth.
This is the kind of thing these experts are saying, from the Daily Mail:
Norse mythology experts have calculated that Vikings believed this will take place on February 22, 2014. On this day, the god Odin will be killed by the wolf Fenrir and the other ‘creator’ gods. There will be huge earthquakes, the sea will rear up and the soil and the sky will be stained with poison. The sound of the horn is supposed to call the sons of Odin to the battlefield, where Odin will ultimately be killed. After his death, the Earth was foretold to sink into the sea, paving the way for a new utopian world with endless supplies.
Danielle Daglan from the Norvik Viking Centre told MailOnline that a number of recent events spoken about in the legends of Ragnarok led them to believe that the end of the world may well be imminent.
The legend states that ‘the first to notice shall be man, brother will fight brother and all the boundaries that exist shall crumble.’
‘The idea that “boundaries that exist shall crumble” could be said to be about the Internet age, where you can communicate with millions of people simultaneously around the world thanks to the global rise of social media,’ said Ms Daglan.
That report has been shared more than 29,000 times; I almost hope the last comment is a self-mocking joke, because if social media is a sign of the apocalypse, it's because of stuff like this.
(I do find it hilarious that the Daily Mail manages to credit it to the 'Norvik Viking Centre'; you shamelessly make stuff up to get press attention and they still can't get your name right? Excellent work all round.)
Their publicity worked - it got them lots of coverage, and I'm helping them by posting about it. But I don't think that makes it OK; it's not just a bit of fun. I really don't have a problem with popularising history - the British Museum are currently doing a great job publicising their upcoming 'Vikings' exhibition with etymology-themed posters, a nice illustration that you can promote history without having to condescend or lie to the general public. My own guiding principle as an academic blogger is 'people will understand anything if you explain it well enough'. Popularise away, and be quirky and funny and clever about it - no problem. But fundamentally, you have to be honest; you have to realise that people will believe the things you tell them, and you need to be careful that they won't mistake a joke for fact. And maybe it's just me, but I feel you really have crossed a line when you claim that myths and texts (in this case Snorri's Edda) say things they do not say.
This particular story has another element too: quite apart from the fact that if you call yourself an expert and then you flat-out lie to the public you should be ashamed of yourself, this attitude to Ragnarok is disrespectful. In a world where Thor is a comic-book movie hero fighting aliens in spaceships (OK, that is kind of awesome), Norse mythology has become part of our general winky postmodern cutesiness; I enjoy that as much as anyone, and a playful attitude towards the gods is one of the most attractive features of the Norse sources for mythology. (I myself have been known to recreate key scenes from Norse mythology with Playmobil and gummy worms). But Ragnarok is not a joke. It's a story of terrible fear, annihilation, though with a hope of rebirth. The dread of it runs through many stories in Norse myth - the knowledge that for the gods this destruction will come, inevitably and irrevocably. In Snorri's Edda, the story is also deeply sad: Ragnarok begins with a family grieving helplessly for their dead son. (Couldn't fit that in the press release, I guess.) Can we not take that seriously? If nothing else, can we not maintain a basic level of respect for a belief system different from our own? How can we ever hope to understand the Vikings, or any past society, if we turn their mythology into a joke?
I know people like this kind of stuff. Twitter likes it, and journalists like it, and heritage marketers think it's what their job is all about. As always, I don't blame the journalists who write about it or the people who trustingly retweet it. I blame the people who feed this stuff to the press: people who are supposed to be communicators, sharers of interesting facts, valuable information and entertaining stories, to help the public understand and enjoy and appreciate the Viking past. This kind of stunt is misleading, if not outright deceitful, and culturally insensitive; it betrays an unwillingness to accept the past on its own terms, or to think about history with an open, honest and curious mind. And if you can't do that, why on earth are you bothering to market it?
Update, 24/02/2014: The Jorvik Viking Centre contacted me today to assert that they thought I was misleading people in this blog post. Naturally I disagree, and feel the irony of this complaint requires no further comment from me. However, I offered them a right to reply, and if they respond I'll post that on the blog.
In contacting me, they did not mention whether they have made similar complaints to any of the numerous international news organisations who reported their campaign as a genuine prediction.