Friday 21 February 2014

A Rant about 'Ragnarok 2014'

I don't often rant, but when I do, it's because people who should know better are misrepresenting medieval things in the media. This time the culprit is the Jorvik Viking Centre, a heritage attraction which I've always thought of as a harmless and generally rather likeable institution popularising York's Viking history. I'm all in favour of popularising England's Viking history, and getting people to talk about the Vikings is always good. But this year, to promote their annual festival, they've decided to invent the concept of 'Ragnarok 2014', in which they pretend that Norse mythology predicted the end of the world would arrive on 22 February (the last weekend of the festival). They've been assiduously selling this idea since November, when they started the first '100 days to Ragnarok' story going in the media by having someone blow a horn - the Gjallarhorn being the first sign of the apocalypse, as news outlets dutifully repeated.

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.


Atli Freyr Demantur said...

A good read!!
finally someone with a little more knowledge about the Norse mythology !

I come from iceland ! and I've grew up surrounded by those folklores and myths about the old Gods,

and I've been listening to people all around me talking about the apocalypse ! well I have to state one fact that i find extremely interesting

"brother will fight brother and all the boundaries that exist shall crumble.’

Lets take a moment and look at what is happening in Russia, ukraine, syria, Venezuela and more other countries !

its an interesting to look at this prophesy from a more academic view ! …

we all know that those lovely yet scary stories, are still just stories! but again if we look at them from a different perspective … Ragnarök might just be happening! and could have started the 22nd of december 2012 !

where people have to fear they're government,
freedom of speech has been monitored and the voices of society have become silent !
so what is next?

I fear history is yet again repeating itself !

thanks for a good read!! this blog has been bookmarked!!

Steffen said...

Thank you for a brilliant riposte to a phenomenon that I've just learned about and that I'm repulsed by. As you say, it's not okay to deceive the public.

I am, too, hugely in favour of popularising history and I consider it one of my main duties as a historian to bridge the gap between the non-academic laity and academic research. This is one of the reasons I have a blog, and this is why I find it so greatly rewarding to talk about history with people who are not historians. Whichis why I find it close to unforgivable to wilfully deceive the public in this way.

Furthermore, I'm surprised by Jorvik Viking Centre's lack of understanding of how media works. They should know very well that newspapers are not venues for balanced, in-depth discussions and explanations, nor are they suitable arenas for too-subtle jokes and what we might call deliberate imprecisions. Since they have sought to reanimate the apolacyptic excitement of 2012 and the misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar, they should be aware that media does weird stuff with anything that has a semblance of apocalypticism, and they should know better than to flirt with it.

I consider myself a somewhat grumpy historian so I have very little tolerance for these things. Which is why I'm glad you, who are much more witty than I can claim to be, have spoken out against this.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Absolutely - I couldn't agree more. That's a great point that they should have realised how the media would jump on a supposed 'apocalypse prediction' (maybe they did realise and didn't care).

I'm sure they think it's just a bit of fun, but I hate to see trusting people lied to - for any institution engaged in the promotion of history to simply invent facts is beyond the pale.

Anonymous said...

If it helps, I have a friend who works there (and I'd add more about his/her credibility and education but I don't want to potentially get them fired) and here was their response:

"Yeah, our marketing is shite."

So at least not everyone that works there is proud of the nonsense.

Clerk of Oxford said...

:D This stuff must be very frustrating for anyone who works there because they actually want to educate people about the Viking Age.

Anonymous said...

Mind you, I do feel as if we might just have been through the fimbulwinter!

Jay Lewis Taylor

John Anninius Ülinen said...

I fully agree with you. Using one piece of an entire culture for publicity is disrespectful to a degree, especially when you lie about it and twist the truth.

I'd like to bring up another aspect of Ragnarok, that being Fimbulwinter (Please note, I am of the Asatru belief, so I do believe that Ragnarok will occur eventually.) Fimbulwinter is said to be a three year winter, with no summer in between. Not only that, but it is said to have snow come in from all directions. So this is to be a world wide three year winter. I'm not sure about you, but I haven't seen a mighty three year winter yet. We just not had a good snow here in the states, so if anything it is beginning here and now.

Ross Wittenham said...

That last point is the crux of this for me. You lose integrity and validity if you don't respect the culture you are portraying. Might as well rebrand as Disneyland York.

Anonymous said...

Taking into account differant perspectives, Has anyone considered that it could be the media that is lying? I live in york, and attanded the event.
It was well done and told the story of ragnarok as it is told in older texts. wihch brings me back to my main point. How many times have the media lied to promote fear? fear sells, if I told you tomorrow that I know a man with an axe whos going round killing people, and in my next breath tell you where to buy armour from? you wouldn't believe me, but if the media did the same, panic would break out and people WILL go buy amour.

Example: After the awful events of 9-11. the media report that nostradamus predicted this and claimed it as fact from expects. no-one put a name up to this. When questioned the experts said they did not say this. they said there was a referance to twins falling, but that was it. no mention of death and destruction.

Whilst I agree people do believe Ragnarok is an ending event and because of the publicity, it has a date. (which doesn't)
I Guess im just trying to say that I blame the media rather than Jorvik.
(sorry for any bad spelling, I'm using a cheap chinese android tablet from ebay, bloody crap)

Clerk of Oxford said...

Good to hear from someone who was there! I'm glad the event was well done, and generally I do think the festival is a good thing. The media are definitely to blame for making this story go as far as it did - they thought it was a funny story and reported it without making it clear that it wasn't ever intended as a real prediction. (Some of the news stories have reported it as 'Norse pagans in England are gathering to greet Ragnarok', and of course that's not what the Jorvik Viking Festival is!) So the media have certainly played their part. But I do think the original statements from the Jorvik Viking Centre were deliberately misleading, and that's a real shame - it may be that they didn't anticipate that their joke would be taken seriously, but when you're an institution which purports to be at least a little bit educational, I think you should be very careful about just making stuff up.

Anonymous said...

Did Jorvic Viking center actually say "'Norse mythology predicts Ragnarok will happen on February 22' and 'the Vikings believed the world would end on 22 February' or was that just how the media reported it?

Clerk of Oxford said...

This link seems to be what they originally said:

'There have been some strange occurrences across the world that match the prophecies of the Viking apocalypse... Traditionally the Viking festival of Jolablot marked the end of the winter – if this winter truly does not end then that feast may be given over to Ragnarok instead. As Jolablot will take place on 22nd February it seems that Ragnarok is due to take place at the same time! We’ve also had Heimdallr, a Norse God blow the mythical Gjallerhorn heralding the 100 day countdown in York, what more proof is there? No one can say for certain – we have only interpreted the myths as best we can. What we do know for certain is that the Vikings loved to feast and wouldn’t want to miss an event like this!'

To someone who knows anything about Norse mythology, this is clearly meant to be a joke. To someone who doesn't, but who reasonably thinks that people at something called the 'Jorvik Viking Centre' are experts in Viking mythology, it's not so obvious. ('We've only interpreted the myths as best we can' is particularly disingenuous, I think). What I find concerning is that they either didn't anticipate that people would take their 'prediction' seriously, or they didn't care - neither possibility is very encouraging.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a well written view on the Jorvik Ragnarok. I have been posting some similar views, especially that I was disappointed with the center for doing just exactly that and had lost a lot of respect for the institution. I saw very few other people that took the view, and thought that it was great fun. The difference is just what you pointed out, they didn't say it was for fun, they made it up and promoted it as a truth that others took seriously just because of the source.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks for commenting! I have to say I've been amazed by the reaction this post has been getting, on Twitter and elsewhere - lots of people are getting in touch with me to say how disappointed they are that the Jorvik Viking Centre would do this. So it's not just you and me who think so :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the clarification. My Norwegian friend is suspicious of all things Viking as described by the English speaking world. Your explanation allowed me to avoid blundering into a meaningful subject as if it were a cartoon.

jpg said...

This rather reminds me of the time when my own alma mater organised a fun day for kids, gluing and sticking and drawing viking patterns and that kind of thing. A postdoc put together a single page information sheet about vikings, which tended towards the 'vikings weren't only raiders, but also bathed and liked fancy clothes' line. The national press got hold of it, and the story went global: British researchers discover vikings cultured and peace-loving.

You've got to ask -- these journalists and their editors: in the UK they're mostly the product of quite good humanities courses. Have they actually learnt nothing, have they forgotten everything, or do they actually have no shame whatsoever? Are they (a) stupid, (b) careless, or (c) dishonest, or all of the above.

Clerk of Oxford said...

It's a mystery, isn't it? I wish I knew what it is about the word 'Viking' which makes the media lose any semblance of common sense.

Heliopause said...

"misleading, if not outright deceitful, and culturally insensitive... betrays an unwillingness to accept the past on its own terms..."
Yes!!! I am absolutely, totally in agreement. For such misleading to be carried out by an institution whose mission it is to open history to the public is a complete betrayal.

(I also think that journos have an ethical responsibility to fact-check, by the way.)

I am very grateful indeed to you for this post, for sharing your scholarship and for being a voice for ethics in history (to say the least of it). Thank you very much.

scribblar42 said...

I would like to echo Heliopause's last paragraph. Thank you for speaking up. (It's precisely because of this sort of thing that I can not watch '40s-'60s Hollywood "historic" movies - people actually believe they are accurate!)