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Viking Symbols and the Meanings Behind Them

Viking Symbols and the Meanings Behind Them

1. Mjölnir - Thor's Hammer

In Norse mythology 'Mjölnir' refers to the hammer wielded by the God of thunder, Thor. This name translates from old norse to mean something similar to ‘crusher’ in english.

Mjolnir featured often in Norse sagas and was said to be the most powerful weapon ever made. It was capable of destroying entire mountain ranges in a single stroke and gave Thor numerous powers including the ability to summon lightning.

It is hard to think about Norse Mythology without the iconic Mjolnir symbol coming to mind, it has been featured on so many Viking artefacts. Mjolnir was a common symbol amongst the North germanic peoples often being used in jewelry to symbolise protection for the wearer. It was even allegedly carved above doorways to provide protection against harsh storms.

Over 50 different Mjölnir pendants have been found at Viking graves in Scandinavia and England, most are estimated to have been used from the 9th century to the 11th century AD. It was thought that they became particuarly popular when Christianity was spreading throughout northern Europe, and people would wear them as a sign of defiance against the newly converted Christians.

The symbol is still widely used today in the modern Viking community and those practicing the Asatru faith. There are many depictions of Mjolnir in the modern day on jewelry, T-Shirts and in various Metal bands.

 

mjolnor - viking symbols - viking style

 

2. Yggdrasil - The tree of Life

The tree of life, referred to in old norse as ‘Yggdrasil’ was an evergreen ash or yew tree (depending on the source) which was the centre of the universe. Its branches touched the heavens and the earth and is the connecting tissue of the 9 realms in Norse Cosmology.

It may seem hard to envisage but the vikings did not necessarily consider this to be a physical tree. This was a time before the advanced science and astronomy that we have today, for the norsemen this theory was a way of connecting the different parts of the universe. The tree wasn’t imagined as being in a single physical location, but rather as a connecting force that joined all life together and connected everything in the cosmos.

Tree of Life - viking symbols - viking style

 

3. Ægishjálmr - Helm of Awe

The Ægishjálmr symbol, also known as the ‘helm of awe’ or ‘helmet of terror’ originated in Iceland and was used mainly for protection from harm and to ensure victory to viking warriors. There are numerous references of the symbol in Icelandic sagas, including a book of Norse magic called the ‘Galdrabók’ which was written centuries after the viking age had already ended, however it was inspired by generational knowledge that has been passed along the ancestral line from the Vikings themselves. 

The translation from old norse is as follows; ‘aegis’ meant to ‘shield’ and ‘hjalmr’ meant ‘helmet’. It is supposed that the symbol was also painted on the foreheads of viking warriors before they went into battle.

One source (the saga of Valsungs) mentions Fafnir using the symbol on his helmet and it making him fearless of the men who stood against him and unafraid of any weapon.

The translated version of the passage is as follows:

“The Helm of Awe
I wore before the sons of men
In defence of my treasure;
Above all, I alone was strong,
I thought to myself,
For I found no power to equal my own”

 This re-enforces the idea that the symbol was used for protection against harm.

aegishjalmr - viking symbols - viking style

 

4. Vegvisir - Pathfinder Symbol

The exact origin of this symbol is not known, it does feature in a number Icelandic scripts including the ‘Galdrabók’ and the ‘Huld manuscript’. These were books Icelandic magical staves. Both of these were written a few centuries after the Viking age with knowledge that had been passed down the generations, which leaves their historical accuracy and relevance to the Vikings themselves up for debate. 

This symbol is similar in appearance to the aforementioned Ægishjálmr symbol, however its meaning is quite different. Commonly referred to as the ‘pathfinder’ or ‘wayfinder’ symbol Vegvisir was associated with navigation, quite often at sea. It was used for protection against getting lost, which will have been a big concern when sailing the perilous waters of the northern seas before the invention of modern navigation techniques. 

vegvisir - viking symbols - viking style

 

5. Valknut

The valknut (pronounced “val-knoot”) is another one of the most prominent symbols associated with Viking culture. It often appears in both old and new features of viking artwork and artefacts.

The symbol is one of the more mysterious and illusive ones from the viking age since no written explanation of the meaning of the valknut exists. It has therefore fallen to viking historians to explain its meaning.

One depiction of the valknut is in the Tängelgarda stone which was found on the island of Gotland in Sweden. This image shows two raven’s, supposedly Huginn and Muninn which leads us to believe the figure holding the spear is Odin. He seems to be lifting a slain warrior from the grave, with a valknut symbol in the sky. This could be indicating that the warrior is being taken to Valhalla by the Allfather.

Some other notable uses of the Valknut symbol include it being found on the grave of a Viking shield maiden who was buried with the Oseberg ship that was found in Vestfold, Norway. There are also various tombstones in the British Isles which feature the symbol, mostly dating back to the 10th century AD. This further supports the theory of the symbols association with death and fallen warriors.

The symbol itself is often associated with the god, Odin and has been referred to as ‘Odin’s symbol’ or ‘Odin’s knot’. Valknuts have been found carved on many viking artefacts including items of jewelry and on the graves, monuments and drawings. 

A rough translation of Valknut from Old Norse helps us better understand the meaning of the symbol. It roughly translates to ‘knot of the slain warrior’ with ‘Valr’ meaning dead warrior and ‘knut’ meaning knot.

In Norse mythology Odin is considered to be the god of both death and war, this could explain why the valknut symbol is so often associated with him. Another noteworthy point is that the symbol has 9 points, this was significant in viking culture and was thought to represent the 9 realms of Norse Cosmology.

valknut pendant - viking symbols - viking style

 

6. Ravens - Huginn and Muninn

The Raven is one of the animals which appears most frequently in Viking culture. The two most famous being Huginn & Muninn who were the Ravens of Odin. They were said to fly over Midgard and relay information back to the Allfather.

The names roughly translate from old Norse accordingly; Huginn means ‘Thought’ and Muninn means ‘Memory’. This suggests that they had a deeper meaning in their connection to Odin and acted as his eyes and ears throughout the realms. Many depictions of Odin feature his two ravens by his side, this is in fact a telltale sign that the figure that is being depicted is in fact the Allfather. 

Another noteworthy Viking hero who is often associated with Ravens is Ragnar Lothbrok, who allegedly used a raven on his banner when he charged into battle. Numerous sagas describe his exploits in Scandinavia, the British Isles, France and even as far afield as Turkey. All of his campaigns were lead underneath the raven banner, which was also carried by the great heathen army when they invaded England to avenge Ragnar’s death.

raven - viking symbols - viking style

 

7. The Troll Cross

Also known as the ‘trollkors’ this symbol was used to ward off malicious spirits and evil creatures, specifically trolls. 

There is not much historical evidence for this symbol, however it became popular as an item of jewelry in the early 1990s when a Swedish man by the name of Kari Erlands made it into a necklace. He had found the symbol on his ancestral home at his parents farm. The troll cross itself has a similar look to the othala rune in elder furthark, which was often associated with the ‘estate’ or ‘inheritance’  which could explain its use at the farm.

It is thought that the symbol could also have been used as a way to protect the property from enemies and malevolent magic.

troll cross - viking symbols - viking style

 

8. Norse Dragons

Dragons were also a prominent symbolic feature in Norse stories and artefacts. Viking longships were nicknamed ‘dragon ships’ and were decorated with a dragon’s head carved into the bow.

Many times the references to dragons in Viking sagas were not to physical creatures but instead meant to symbol some cosmic force. One such example is Níðhöggr who was a giant dragon who gnawed at the roots of Yggdrasil whilst waiting for Ragnarok. As previously discussed the tree of life was thought to be a metaphor for the universe instead of a physical tree itself, which means that the dragon can be interpreted as a metaphorical representation too. 

Another example of dragons in norse mythology is Jörmungandr who was a giant serpent that encircles the seas of Midgard (Earth). It was prophesied that he would fight to the death against Thor in the battle of Ragnarok.

There are various Viking heroes who slayed Dragons in the sagas, including Beowulf and Ragnar. One of the more unusual mentions is of the Dragon Fáfnir, who was originally a dwarf and only turned into a dragon after committing numerous acts of greed and deceit. His sinful ways made him transform into a giant and fearsome serpent who slept on a large pile of gold. 

The story of Fáfnir is a good representation of the darker side of the human condition which leads to corruption and chaos.  

dragon - viking symbols - viking style

 

9. Wolves - Fenrir

Wolves were present on many Norse artefacts and in sagas, often with differing meanings. Fenrir was one of the main characters in the Sagas, said to be the son of Loki and Angrboða (a giantess), he was a giant fenris wolf. Being the brother of Jormmungandr and Her (Goddess of the underworld) it was prophesied that he would escape from the chains in which he was bound, swallow the sun and moon and kill Odin at the battle of Ragnarok.

There were also other wolves portrayed in Norse Mythology and not all were considered evil. Odin was often pictured with two wolves by his side, named ‘Geri’ and ‘Freki’. These loyal companions followed him into battle and other endeavours.

Berserkers (which means men who become bears) were some of the most famous and fierce warriors in the sagas, however there were also another type of warrior called úlfheðnar who were associated with wolves. They were very similar to berserkers, fighting in a trance like state and empowered with the spirit of the Allfather.

Fenrir - viking symbols - viking style

 

10. Web of Wyrd

This was a mysterious symbol which was interlinked with the Viking idea of destiny. The concept of fate tied in closely with many aspects of Norse Mythology in the way that even the Gods themselves could not avoid the inevitable coming of Ragnarok.

The Web of Wyrd represents the intertwined matrix of fates which was orchestrated by a people known as the ‘norns’ who held control over the destiny of the cosmos. 

The symbol itself consists of nine overlapping staves, this is significant since the number nine appears frequently in Viking sagas. It is the number of realms in Norse Cosmology and it is also the number of days Odin was said to hang from the tree of life in order to learn the secrets of runeology. 

The way that the lines in this symbol interlock symbolises the connection between the past, present and future and how one decision made by an individual can influence the outcome of their timelines. 

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