Saturday, December 11, 2010

The fylfot/swastika in tablet weaving

I think anyone reading this blog is likely to be aware that the fylfot is a very common motif in Iron Age and Medieval geometric patterns. It is present in some of the brocaded Viking patterns I wove last year, such as the Mammen band and Birka 6. Before I started work on these bands, I asked my friends what they thought about including this motif in my weaving. People seemed to fall into two camps:
  1. It would offend me, not because I think you are aligning yourself with Nazi philosophies, but because you are showing insensitivity to the fact that I may be offended. Don't do it.
  2. It wouldn't offend me, but I still wouldn't do it if I were you because it would offend other people.
I am quite annoyed that the Nazis have gone and ruined such a perfectly good motif (I mean, obviously, in terms of Bad Thing The Nazis Did, this doesn't really rate, but you know what I mean). I also find the self-perpetuating nature of camp 1 to be somewhat frustrating. I don't mean to dismiss these people's feelings, in fact, merely finding out that some of my friends feel this way is enough to make me feel a little the same way myself (before asking this question I was guessing everyone would fall into camp 2).

For in the Birka designs showing fylfots, I amended my patterns to exclude this section. In the Mammen band, I replace the fylfot section with a different motif. However, in the Snartemo V band, which features no fewer than 6 fylfots (or in my case, 7, because I repeated part of the pattern), I left the pattern intact. This is because while the Viking bands were intended for wearing, the Snartemo V and is more of a "demonstration" piece (I will probably stick it in the A&S display at Canterbury Faire). I hope this compromise does not offend too many people.


  1. The thing is that people who are NOT already your friends have no idea whether you are using the symbols because a) you are clueless, b) you are devoted to historical authenticity, c) you are Buddhist, or d) you are a white supremacist. d) is a pretty threatening possibility for a lot of people.

    I'm a little frustrated about this, too, but I just don't think it's worth making people who don't know me feel uncomfortable or even threatened. I can expect my friends to give me the benefit of the doubt, but I certainly can't expect it of strangers (and they can't exactly go "Pardon me, I see you're wearing a swastika. Are you a white supremacist?").

    I think using fylfots on demonstration pieces that will be explained is absolutely fine.

  2. At an event, if I saw someone in well-researched garb with fylfot trim, it wouldn't occur to me that there was a statistically significant chance they were a white supremacist.

    However, I can see that context can have a great effect on this- for example, a newcomer will not recognise well-researched garb, may not know the fylfot motif is period, and may not be familiar enough with SCA culture to determine that that sort of outlook is unlikely to be tolerated. So you make a good point.

  3. I think it absurd to avoid a well-documented historically used motif simply because a real-world Evil Empire used it as their primary symbol. Has Christianity ceased to use the cross as a symbol just because the Ku Klux Klan burns wooden crosses as part of violent racist activities? Of course not.

    That being said, you may wish to consider making your period-correct use of the motif as an occasion to educate, e.g., by explaining some of the history of the swastika who people who question your usage. It may also be worth pointing out that in Nazi usage, the swastika appears in black on a white background, usually in a white circle surrounded by a red field; that is not how it appears in prehistoric clothing.

  4. Cathy, that is actually an answer I expected to hear from some of my friends when I asked on LJ and was surprised when I did not, shifting my own perception of the usage of the motif quite significantly. Thank you for confirming that there are indeed people out there who hold that view.

  5. Always glad to help provide perspective. :-)

    To the extent people in your area are sensitive to the idea that swastika-wearers are Nazi apologists or worse, there are two other factors that may support taking Melissa's advice.

    One is that the Nazis themselves were fascinated by early period Germanic history, believing that it supported their racist and genocidal agenda. :-(

    The other is that the Nazis themselves are now part of history. You are not attempting to recreate the life and culture of Nazi Germany, but what if you were, solely as an exercise in understanding their culture? I can see where some people might think that what you are doing is no different from that, and that both are wrong (though I don't agree with that view).

    In the end, how you proceed will come down to how much educating and explaining you're willing to do, and how much discomfort you're willing to tolerate, to weave designs that are historically correct. If I were in your shoes, I would continue to use the motif, because I am opposed to actively distorting history, even for benign ends. But you are not me, and you will of course make your own decision, in accord with your circumstances and your conscience.

  6. I would describe my stance as more "not offended, given context, but still uncomfortable with the use, has bad associations, and is aware that there are other people about with more reason to be offended/uncomfortable"
    I do feel that the argument about other symbol use is oversimplified, and doesn't take into account the specific ways in which the Nazi party used symbols - the ubiquitous, propaganda nature of the swastika, I feel, puts it in a somewhat different category than burning crosses, as does the relative group size and damage. Having said that, I'd be equally uncomfortable with burning crosses as a motif.
    It is a great pity, but there are a number of perfectly period things spoiled by the intervening centuries in some way - good period names used for prominent television or book characters, for example. One cannot escape the relationship in people's heads, unfortunately. Even without any assumption of nasty intentions the connotations pull one into the 20th century, no matter how incorrect that is. Human brains are funny things.

  7. I definitely don't find it too problematic to include the swastika in reconstructions of patterns where it was actually originally used! Avoiding it only means we let the nazis ruin a symbol that has been in existence far longer than any political standpoint. I think it's much better that MORE of us include the swastika in historical/archaeological contexts such as this, so that eventually people won't just see it as a Nazi symbol. Of course it's sad if people are offended, but I say we should make a stand here and not let the nazis ruin a part of our history! Now I am NOT saying that one should use swastikas with the purpose of offending people or picking fights. Not at all. I see it more as a very basic silent protest against the modern day nazis...