“An Old Norse Word Meaning Kill”: was the Zodiac killer into vikings?


Between the late 60's and early 70's, the California Bay Area was haunted by one of the most cryptic serial killers of the 20th century. Though only seven victims have been conclusively tied to the case, the Zodiac killer orchestrated much of his own notoriety through a series of letters – frequently containing codes and ciphers – which he would send to various newspapers in and around San Francisco.

The case is cold as the grave, but whoever he was, he put a lot of thought into his image. Unlike most serial killers, Zodiac was quite talkative. He chose his own nom the guerre, and signed his letters with a crossed circle, resembling a Celtic cross or, rather, the wheel of the zodiac. The likeness to the crosshairs of gun scope is quite obvious, and surely deliberate. This symbol served as his personal logogram throughout his letters, which often contained intertextual references, and sometimes more famous passages of symbol-ciphers, of which only one has been successfully deciphered.

It's difficult to make a non-speculative assessment based on the limited information revealed in these letters. Besides, it would not be unfair to characterize the Zodiac as an unreliable narrator, as he often distorted or embellished the facts surrounding his crimes. Almost every letter he wrote is a cornucopia of spelling errors and mistakes, which might suggest that the killer suffered from severe dyslexia. If he really did is anybody's guess, but reading the notes I can't help but feel that many of the typos seem a tad too deliberate, down to over-obvious, childlike mistakes such as inverted characters. This seems incongruous with the more or less fluent diction and clevernes of some of his other alleged letters, if these are authentic, and not penned by copy cats and impersonators. I would not put it past him to plant such ruses, and that Zodiac was gaslighting the police with layers of conflicting information and red herrings.

If his strategy was to spawn a cacophony of speculations, his efforts were clearly a huge success: The references, as well as the playful, even creative contents of the letters, have lead some to think that he might have been an artist, graphic designer, musician, or other such cultured person. Then again, if he's not the evil genius he's made out to be, he could simply be reaching far and wide for symbolism he knew would give him a chime of mystery. He wouldn't be the first person with a kinda-sorta creative knack to be lauded as a genius, despite being about as deep as a puddle. Guesswork about the Zodiac's identity has made him a modern day Jack the Ripper, and the chaotic tangle of imaginative theories far outgrow the facts we know about the actual personality behind the crimes. While not exactly a fully developed armchair theory, I have come across some things myself that have left me wondering if the Zodiac killer might have been interested in the Viking Age.

Exhibit A: A letter to the San Francisco Chronicle

Dear Mr. Editor,
Did you know that the initials SLAY (Symbionese Liberation Army) spell “sla,” an Old Norse word meaning “kill.”
a friend

The above letter was received by the the San Francisco Chronicle on February 14th 1974, and is assumed to be one of the many letters penned by the Zodiac killer to various newspapers during his active years. The Symbionese Liberation Army was a shortlived far-left terrorist group, and some speculate that their activities, and subsequent media notoriety following the kidnapping and recruitment of Patty Hearst – the daughter of a senator – might have left Zodiac feeling that the SLA was stealing his thunder. It's possible that the SLA roused Zodiac's jealousy, but again there is nothing but the letter to support the assumption. Though a minor detail in a complex narrative, my eyes remain glued to the last phrase of the letter. I find it odd that Zodiac should have any interest (or knowledge) about Old Norse as a (presumably) non-academic American living in the 1970's. It could be an example of him reaching for obscurity in an attempt to seem creepy, but it seems like a far-fetched and unnecessary reference.

 Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

Patty Hearst posing in front of SLA banner

The one thing we do know, is that the Zodiac seemed to mention things that interest him, such as movies he liked, or criminal cases he followed. It might be that he felt some sort of affinity to a perceived Norse brutality, so common in outward depictions of the culture, especially in those days. Though this is the only example of him making an unveiled reference to Old Norse, it does exhibit a highly specific sort of know how, even if he was in fact wrong about the etymology: The Old Norse verb slá does not specifically mean "to kill", but "to strike". Conversely, the verb drepa can mean "to kill" but also "to strike, knock, beat". I don't think he would have been aware of these nuances (he did, after all, mispell slá. Anybody with a background in Old Norse would hardly have left out the diacritic). It seems safe to suggest that he was a better graphic designer than he was a linguist.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Front). Note the first symbol on the bottom right

Constructing a theory

While we won't get more definite answers from the Zodiac's vocabulary, the postcard above features a peculiar monogram or symbol, speculated by some to be a runic ligature. If so, it could be the runes lǫgr , or týr , and áss . In any case you'll be hard pressed to find a meaningful message drawing on that piece of evidence alone, but since it's impossible to muddy the waters more than armchair detectives already have across half a century's worth of digging, I'm going to entertain this idea a little further. The symbol (or whatever it is) sort of resembles the runic ciphers from the early 9th century Rök stone, though these ciphers are constructed differently (each rune runs along one axis, and they criss-cross. They don't turn 90 degrees like in the postcard above). If the Zodiac killer was familiar with runes, perhaps we might expect to find some rune-like symbols in his other ciphers? There are none as far as I can see. If there is any deliberate model for the Zodiac's coded letters, then Greek seems to be a more likely candidate.

 Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

Cipher Runes from the Rök Stone (Sö 136)

In fact, the Zodiac's other ciphers have quite a striking resemblance to the so-called Oak Island inscription which, of course, some bozos think was carved by the vikings. Admittedly, that is not the most popular theory, but it does seem to be yet another one of the many inscription-based hoaxes endemic to North America. Any similarities to Zodiac's writing could be coincidental, but apparently the inscription has only been in circulation since the mid-20th century, so who knows what Mr.Z might have picked up along the way:

oak island.png

Now compare it to one of Zodiac's ciphers below:


Another point addressed by many interested in the Zodiac case, is the fact that his main symbol of choice is also extremely similar to the Celtic cross, popular among American white supremacists. However, I've found no evidence to support that Zodiac's “interest” in Old Norse was influenced by a neo-nazi or otherwise far-right movement. All of his victims were pale as the driven snow, so there seems to be no white nationalist angle to the killings, and he certainly doesn't mention it in his letters. Besides, the Celtic cross does not seem to have been widely used in a white pride context at the time, though The Minutemen, a 1960's anti-communist paramilitary group had a logo not dissimilar. In this case it's clearly a gunsight, rather than a Celtic cross. If nothing else, I do believe Zodiac intended his signature reminded people of a gunsight, given that one of his ciphered letters stated:

I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest [sic] because man is the most dangeroue [sic] anamal [sic] of all […]

While there seems to be no political motivation for the crimes, it's not impossible that Zodiac was a man with casual counter-cultural affiliations, perhaps associated with some of the many subcultures thriving in 60's and 70's California. Again, the evidence for this is spurious. True to the theatrical marketing of his crimes, it should come to nobody's surprise that people have tried to frame the Zodiac as everything from a satanist, to a victim of government mind control experiments. But when all is said and done, I don't think we need to buy into media hype to think there might be something to the Zodiac's alleged fringe interests, the time and place of the murders considered. One of the more interesting subjects among the countless suspected Zodiacs out there is Earl Van Best, who was supposedly friends of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and allegedly jammed with Kenneth Anger's crush/Manson Family affiliate Bobby Beausoleil. One would suppose that such a character had a passing fascination with norseness, at a time when anything remotely Teutonic had a spooky spectre hovering around it. However, there seems to be nothing but guilt by association tying Van Best to the case.

 A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

A statement from the Minutemen showing their gunsight logo

Slaves in Valhalla, or: How deep was the Zodiac?

If I may allow myself to wade deeper yet into these waters of speculative insanity, I'm going to pretend that not only is the apparent “runic cipher” hypothesis completely true, but I will also entertain the notion that the Zodiac killer was actually a full fledged Old Norse nerd, possibly with academic credentials. Of course, we may have to assume that he was playing dumb when he penned the SLA letter for this hypothesis to work.

In several of his letters, Zodiac refers to a belief that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife. Even if I'm not convinced that Zodiac actually believed this himself, I have to wonder where on Earth he got the idea from. Continuing down the road with our Norse goose chase, we may state that if he had read the 10th century Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan's account the so-called Rus on the Volga river, he would have found a vivid description of dead chieftain's cremation in great detail. The exact ethnicity of the Rus in Ibn Fadlan's description is debated, but it suffices to say that most scholars assume they were Scandinavian. If Zodiac was an academic specializing in the viking age at the time, he probably wouldn't have doubted it either. Most famous of all is the passage where a slave girl is killed in order to serve the dead chieftain in the afterlife, which is also indicated in Viking Age burial practices more broadly.

 Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

Postcard received by the San Francisco Chronicle,October 27th 1970 (Adverse)

It doesn't quite add up if we presume that Zodiac's belief in otherworldly servitude was governed by academic rationality. If indeed he was a scholar he was probably pedantic enough to notice that there is a certain difference in terms of social dynamic between a slave being buried with their master (their relationship is continued, not established, in the afterlife), and gunning down heavy-petting teenagers on Lover's Lane. But let's imagine Zodiac as a man who knew his comparative sources. If so, he might have come across Leo the Deacon, who was a chronicler employed at the imperial Byzantine court in the second half of the 10th century. Being an eye-witness to some of the empire's many run-ins with the Rus (He called them Tauroscythians), Leo mentions a practice of martial suicide among them, through which they believed they could avoid becoming their killer's slave in the afterlife:

This also is said about the Tauroscythians, that never up until now had they surrendered to the enemy when defeated; but when they lose hope of safety, they drive their swords into their vital parts, and thus kill themselves. And they do this because of the following belief: they say that if they are killed in battle by the enemy, then after their death and the separation of their souls from their bodies they will serve their slayers in Hades. And the Tauroscythians dread such servitude, and, hating to wait upon those who have killed them, inflict death upon themselves with their own hands.

One possible parallel to this belief is found in the Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, who rightfully earned the name “Hunding's bane” by becoming a guy named Hunding's bane. It is in stanza 39, after Helgi himself has given up the ghost, that he finds Hunding waiting for him in Valhalla. Helgi immediately tells him:

Þú skalt, Hundingr,
hverjum manni
fótlaug geta
ok funa kynda,
hunda binda,
hesta gæta,
gefa svínum soð,
áðr sofa gangir.

You shall, Hunding,
wash the feet
of every man,
and kindle fires;
bind dogs,
herd horses,
feed pigs,
before you go to sleep.


Long story short, Hunding is Helgi's bitch in paradise. Is it possible, even likely, that Zodiac acted on convictions handed to him by Byzantine historians and Norse poetry? Before we start taking the names of every medievalist active in 60's and 70's California, I'd wager it's about as realistic as him being an MK Ultra lab rat, satanist, kabbalist nerd, a government psy-op, a Mossad agent, the Unabomber, or whatever else people have taken him for over the years. In other words, it's pretty damn unlikely. If nothing else, it proves how easy it is to craft a theory.

If you are interested in the Zodiac case, check out www.zodiackillerfacts.com for an impressive archive of articles, pictures, and newspaper clippings dedicated to exploring one of the most confusing serial killers of the 20th century.