Decoding Viking Signs: Nine Norse Symbols Explained
The Vikings used many symbols in accordance to Norse mythology. Such symbols were widely used in Viking society and they represented elements of their beliefs and myths. There are even some Viking symbols which still have unknown meanings. The following is a list of some of the most significant ancient Norse symbols.
Thor’s hammer was named Mjolnir, meaning “lightning”. This was a clear reference to Thor’s power as the god of thunder and lightning. The Norse believed that Thor’s hammering caused thunder and lightning during storms.
Thor is an ancient god of war who was beloved by the Vikings. Therefore, his image is quite prominent in Norse mythology. Thor was the son of the earth goddess Fyorgyn and Odin, the chief deity of Norse mythology. According to legend, Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, had the power to level mountains.
Thor's Battle against the Jötnar (1872) by Mårten Eskil Winge. (Public Domain)
As a magical weapon, Mjolnir always returned to its master after it was thrown. Also, when he used his hammer, Thor used to wear a special gauntlet. Dwarves are said to have forged the hammer for the god.
As an amulet of protection, the symbol of Mjolnir was very common and one of the most popular Viking symbols. When early Norse Christianity appeared, later forms of Mjolnir were used - such as the Wolf’s Cross or Dragon’s Cross.
The Valknut is the Norse symbol for death in a battle. The symbol was also known as “Hrungnir’s Heart”, “the Heart of Vala”, “borromean triangles,” and “the Heart of the Slain”. Hrungnir was a legendary giant from the Eddas whose heart is said to be ‘made of hard stone with three sharp-pointed corners.’
The meaning of the symbol is not totally clear, but it is linked to the idea of dying in battle. The word itself is believed to be a combination of the words ‘valr’ meaning ‘slain warrior’ and ‘knut’ meaning ‘knot,’ thus it’s the knot of the slain warrior.
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The Stora Hammars I stone, where the valknut occurs in the most central and predominant position, alongside images interpreted as Odin (with a characteristic spear) hunting another figure into a burial mound, while a raven is overhead and another man is hanged. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
This symbol appears on funerary stone carvings as a representation of the afterlife. It is also quite often associated with Odin - who had power over death. When the symbol is drawn in one stroke, it is said that it has the power to protect against evil spirits.
The Valknut also resembles the old Celtic symbols representing rebirth and motherhood. As the symbol contains three triangles, the multiplied number three might represent the nine worlds of Norse mythology.
Yggdrasil is the tree which holds all of the nine worlds in its branches. An eagle was said to live at the top of the tree, while the dragon Nidhoggr resided at the bottom. Four deer feed from the branches and three old wise women known as the Norns protect it.
As a world tree, the figure of Yggdrasil appears in various forms in many mythologies across the globe. For the Vikings it was also the creator of the first human beings, Ask and Embla, who sprung from its acorns.
A Norse symbol for Yggdrasil. (markus dehlzeit /Adobe)
Yggdrasil is also depicted on the Overhogdal Tapestry dating from the year 1066. The image containing the world tree depicts a representation of Ragnarök, the apocalypse that is also said to destroy it.
Yggdrasil is often translated as ‘Odin’s Horse’ because Ygg is another name for Odin, and drasill means ‘horse.’ Some ancient manuscripts suggest Odin and Yggdrasil are one and the same. This can be seen in Odin saying he ‘sacrificed himself onto himself’ when he was hung, speared onto the tree.
The Helm of Awe
The Helm of Awe is a strong Norse symbol for protection from any sort of disease. This Viking symbol shows eight spiked arms surrounding a circle as if they are protecting it from all sides. The Old Norse word for the Helm of Awe is “Ægishjálmr,” which also means “helm of terror.”
Some sources say that the Helm of Awe was worn between the eyes in order to induce fear in the heart of enemies. In the Poetic Edda, the shapeshifting dragon Fafnir suggests that he gets his invincibility from the Helm of Awe.
Helm of Awe “Ægishjálmr”. (Public Domain)
This symbol could provide spiritual and mental strength alongside physical protection. But it was also meant to protect one from abusing that power.
There are also variations to this symbol, such as a four-armed version without the perpendicular lines that appears in a 17th century Icelandic grimoire. Some people believed it was most powerful if it was inscribed with spit or sweat.
The Web of Wyrd
The symbol is comprised of nine straight lines and contains all the images of the runes within it as well as all the possibilities of the past, present, and future. It is a reminder that the past influences the present and that the present influences the future.
The Norse symbol of the Web of Wyrd. (CC0)
The Troll Cross
The troll cross, also called trollkors, is a Viking symbol which is meant to protect against evil elves, trolls, and dangerous magic. It could be used to protect people, animals, possessions, and places.
The amulet has the shape of an odal rune, which represents estate, heritage, and inheritance, and has been associated with home and family as well.
A Troll cross. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Some say that the troll cross is actually only based on an ancient idea, but not ancient itself. It hasn’t been found in Viking era graves and supposedly a blacksmith created the first amulet in Sweden after finding a similar object in her grandparents’ home.
Gungnir was the spear used by Odin, the ruler god of Norse mythology. It was a magical weapon made by the dwarves through the order to the trickster god Loki. Loki brought the spear to Odin as a gift. This spear was so valued and sacred that it was said an oath sworn on the point of Gungnir could never be broken.
In Old Norse ‘Gungnir’ means "swaying one." Legends said that the magical spear Gungnir always flew straight at and never missed its target. It is one of the symbols that denotes Odin as a war god.
Lee Lawrie, Odin (1939). Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. (Public Domain)
The Triple Horn of Odin
Another symbol of Odin, the triple horn, also called Odin’s horn and horned trickle, is formed of three interlocking drinking horns. Today, the symbol is often connected with the Asatru faith. In the past, drinking horns were used in traditional toasting rituals.
The exact meaning of this Viking symbol is unknown, but it is usually connected with stories about Odhroerir – the mead of poetry - a magical mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir. Odin went on a quest to obtain the mead and the Triple Horn is said to represent the three draughts of the mead.
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Triple Horn of Odin decorated with Scandinavian ornaments and runes. (bourbonbourbon /Adobe)
Norse myth uses the mead of poetry as a symbol for poetic inspiration and wisdom. Anyone who drinks the mead would become a skald (scholar), so the triple horn may be related to similar pursuits.
Vegvisir is a symbolic compass and can be translated from Icelandic as “That Which Shows the Way.” The symbol was a magical device used to help in sea navigation. As a protective symbol, the Vegvisir was carved or inscribed on vessels going out to sea in order to ensure their safe return.
The most well-known depiction of the symbol comes from “Galdrabók”, a 17th century Icelandic grimoire. The 19th century Huld manuscript states that “If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.”
Vegvisir, one of the Icelandic magical staves. (Public Domain)
Although it is popularly called the Viking Compass, no one can say for certain if Vegvisir was a symbol used in that time or when exactly it emerged. It is equally uncertain how the symbol was originally used, though later grimoires suggest it should be painted on a person’s forehead in a similar manner to the Helm of Awe.
Top Image: Valkyrie in the heat of battle. Thor’s hammer, one of the most popular ancient Norse symbols, is in the center. Source: warmtail /Adobe
By Valda Roric
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