“Celtic” Crosses and White Supremacism

In 2012, I published a book that was inspired by my 2001 dissertation on Irish crosses. In both the dissertation and the book, I was interested in how the symbol of the ringed Irish cross had become synonymous with an Irish cultural (and often ethnic) identity. My interest in the use of the ringed cross—as well as Irish interlace designs—grew out of a family habit of emphasizing our Irishness, even when our genealogy indicated a wider Northern European background.

In 2012, I was in a bubble of white privilege.

White supremacists were nowhere on my radar, which I now understand was one of the privileged parts of living in that bubble. To make matters worse, I had every intention of writing the book with an explicitly political bent. As a former labor organizer, my thinking was heavily filtered through the lens of social class. In 2012, I thought I was pretty woke.

In 2017, my worst fear is that my work will be co-opted in the service of some sick WS agenda. I’m writing this post make two things abundantly clear:

  • My work has never, and will never, advocate for or justify white supremacy in any form.
  • I pledge to do everything I can to work publicly to counter the misguided message that the Middle Ages was some bastion of “pure” whiteness.

Looking back on what I wrote then, I don’t want to change everything. Much of it still works to address the political causes I wanted to foreground. What I regret are the places where I wasn’t as direct as I should have been. Where I thought I was being strident, I now see places where I was being cautious, even silent. For example, in my 2009 article “Celtic Tattoos: Ancient, Medieval, Postmodern,” I describe tattoo culture’s use of the phrase “New Tribalism” without unpacking the problems with that. At the time, I was focused on elevating tattoo artists to be considered “fine artists,” and I suppose I didn’t want to offend any of them by pointing out the easy racism of that phrase. It was my obligation to do exactly that.

So, there’s an example, but I don’t want this post to be about me justifying my earlier work because, frankly, I think that enters white fragility territory. Instead, I want to clarify the difference between an Irish cross and a “Celtic” cross, and I want to propose that we approach visual symbols with a special kind of caution.

To begin with, the early medieval ringed stone crosses found in the British Isles were never “Celtic” at all—that terminology was applied during a moment of 19th century nationalism. That’s why I call them Irish crosses. (There are Welsh, English, and Scottish ones too, btw) My argument was—and still remains—that the notion of drawing a direct line from the 21st century back into the Irish past in order to construct a modern Irish identity is based on false logic and an imagined past. The so-called “Celtic Cross,” “Sun Cross,” or “Odin’s Cross” that WS groups use is visually quite different from the medieval examples. Generally, it is a simple, bold cross, often equal-armed, and surrounded by a circle. It was developed from a symbol used by the Norwegian Nazi party during WWII. (The members of the Material Collective’s Core Committee and I felt uncomfortable with showing that symbol on our site, so you can find an image of it here.)

I realize that for most readers/viewers the distinctions between the two versions of the ringed cross are quite minor if not altogether meaningless. Still, I want to emphasize how important it is to look closely at the images we’re considering.

In addition to the visual elements, the viewing context is, needless to say, incredibly important. As the Anti-Defamation League writes on their Hate Symbols Database: “Although white supremacists will occasionally use this [the medieval] version of the Celtic Cross, the overwhelming use of this version of the Celtic Cross is non-extremist and, in the absence of other hate symbols, does not denote white supremacy or racism.”

I quote this passage because some of the important discussions about institutional racism on social media in the last few weeks moved into the topic of visual symbols and what kinds of things are sold at our academic conferences. [Full disclosure: I did not attend either the IMC or the ISAS conference in Hawaii, so I did not see what was for sale there.] On the one hand, it is perfectly reasonable for scholars of color, or anyone with a moral compass, to request that offensive and/or racist items not be put up for sale. On the other hand, when we get into the visual realm, it is difficult to make a blanket statement that a certain type of image is always construed in the same way. In other words, do we ban replicas of the Irish crosses that I describe above? Or only the more abstracted, specifically WS version? [Perhaps the solution is to circulate an informational leaflet to the vendors?]

I don’t believe it is my place to assess the violence such symbols inflict on people of color. Indeed, as a white person in America, I am implicated in WS because I have benefitted from a system built on the backs of people of color. What is more, my class status has given me access to an education that many people would love to pursue but can’t. My concern is this: haven’t we in the Material Collective, and other groups like the BABEL Working Group, been working to break down class divisions within academia? What if that stand selling Irish crosses appeals most directly to the folks like amateur and independent scholars, members of the SCA, artists and/or graduate students who we are trying to welcome into our circles? I want to be clear that I am not suggesting we should listen to white supremacy as some sort of legitimate alternative narrative about the Middle Ages. On the contrary, we should never allow active discrimination or hate to go unchecked, and we should actively and vigorously oppose and reject WS when we encounter it. There has been too much silence. But, we also need to find a balance so that we can continue to welcome those who are not institutionally affiliated into our conversations. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, but I do worry that some folks might just be inspired by an Irish cross paperweight. I know I was.

The practice of public medievalism is certainly fraught in our time, and I hope that we can continue to have open and respectful dialogue on such difficult subjects. Now I’m off to do some more writing about the difference between medieval symbols—crosses, runes, Thor’s hammer—and their bastardized WS manifestations. Wish me luck!

3 Responses to ““Celtic” Crosses and White Supremacism”

  1. Jennifer Borland August 9, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Maggie!

  2. Martha Easton August 10, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

    I have been curious about why it seems that it is the early Middle Ages in particular that seems to be attractive to the alt-right. Or is that just my perception? And it also seems that “Celtic” things seem to be especially attractive with popular audiences — tattoos, and also those adult coloring books that were such a fad a year or so ago. So many of them seemed to be inspired by the Book of Kells, or at least have intricate patterns that were supposed to be relaxing, even meditative, to work on.

    • Ben Tilghman August 13, 2017 at 10:28 am #

      I suspect–though I don’t know enough to say for sure–that the appeal of “Celtic” coloring books and a lot of other popular commodities is that things like the Book of Kells are perceived as spiritual while not too deeply invested in the hierarchical structures of official Christianity. Partly this goes back to the perception of “Celtic” medieval forms as being rooted in pre-Christian religious traditions (which is a dicey claim to support). People think of it as a kind of outsider Christianity – yes, it’s Christian, but in a way that’s tangled up with broader, squishier ideas of pagan spirituality.

      I think the idea (myth?) of Celtic Christianity also makes it appealing for white supremacists because it feels less “Catholic,” and anti-catholicism has been an important strain within many white supremacist movements for years.

      This is mostly off the top of my head – like Maggie, I’ve come to realize that I need to investigate all of this more deeply, but I still have a lot of learning to do.

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