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During the Viking age the Norsemen had a complex system of religious and cultural beliefs with different aspects of their belief system being represented in their artwork, weaponry, ships and jewelry as a number of different symbols, each of which had its own unique meaning. Since the world of Norse Mythology was so complex with many Gods and other mythical creatures having their own distinct qualities it is not surprising then that there were also a large number of different symbols to represent the different aspects of these characters.
As was the case with many civilisations throughout history a great number of these symbols predate the culture itself and were adopted or adapted from earlier symbols that were commonly used prior to the Viking age and throughout the European continent.
In this article we will look at some of the symbols most commonly associated with the Vikings in the modern day so that modern viking enthusiasts can better understand the exact meaning of the symbols that are displayed on their clothing and jewelry.
The Vikings believed that many of the symbols covered in this article could bring them protection or good fortune. It was common for them to wear Mjolnir pendants to show devotion to their gods, decorate their axes and spears with runes and carve elaborate engravings into their boats to ensure a safe voyage.
Life in Viking age Scandinavia was extremely harsh and brutal compared to the levels of comfort which we are accustomed to today, therefore it is only natural that the people of this time period would have found some comfort in their religious beliefs and the protection that they believed was provided by their use of the Norse symbols.
In the Norse Sagas there was also mention of these symbols granting magical powers, such as the runic engravings on Gungnir which made it such a fearsome weapon. It is therefore not surprising that many of the warriors during the Viking age would have added similar engravings to their own weapons in an attempt to enhance their own performance in battle. There was also widespread use of these symbols for everyday Scandinavians for reasons other than warfare, such as to display their religious beliefs or hope for a good harvest.
The importance of symbolism in Norse culture has always been evident to historians by the numerous historical finds of Viking artwork, rune stones and jewellery items that displayed their most popular designs. There were also an abundance of historical documents which provided insight into symbolism in Norse culture, such as the 'Prose Edda' and even helped to explain some of their meanings. It is unfortunate however that many of these documents were written centuries after the end to the Viking age, which casts some doubts upon the accuracy of their information.
Although in the modern day all of these symbols are associated with the Vikings, it is still up for debate as to whether some of them, such as the Vegvísir and Troll Cross, were actually used by the Norsemen themselves.
Many of these were only adapted by modern pagans centuries later and likely were unknown to the norsemen themselves. Even some of the older symbols, which were attested to in the Prose Edda by Snorri, were only written about more than a hundred years after the end of the Viking age, which casts some doubt about their authenticity.
There are however certain symbols which appeared often in Viking artwork and artefacts which were commonly used throughout the Viking age such as the Mjolnir and Valknut symbols. Modern historians can say with a high degree of certainty that such symbols were part of the norse culture during this time period due to the abundant evidence of their usage.
We must also consider the idea that there may be other symbols used by the Vikings themselves which were not recorded and have been lost over the years.
|1 - Mjölnir||2 - Yggdrasil|
|3 - Ægishjálmur||4 - Vegvísir|
|5 - Valknut||6 - Ravens|
|7 - Troll Cross||8 - Norse Dragons|
|9 - Wolves||10 - Web of Wyrd|
|11 - Bears||12 - Serpents|
|13 - Boars||14 - Horses|
|15 - Viking Axes||16 - Gungnir|
|17 - Longships||18 - Triskele|
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.
In Norse Mythology 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 it was the connecting tissue of the nine 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.
As one of the oldest and most fundamental aspects of Norse Mythology it is one of the symbols that was certain to be known, and used, by the Vikings themselves. Yggdrasil was mentioned often in the 'Poetic Edda' which was a collection of poems, many of which were written during the Viking age. Although the concept of a 'Tree of Life' was very important in Norse Cosmology, it was also prevalent in the mythology of many other European and Middle Eastern cultures.
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.
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 of Icelandic origin containing various magical staves. Both of these were written a few centuries after the end of the Viking age, with knowledge that had been passed down the generations. This obviously leaves their historical accuracy and relevance to the Vikings themselves open for debate.
It is fairly likely that the vegvisir was not an authentic norse design due to the fact that there is little concrete evidence that the symbol was used, or even invented, in the time of the Vikings, Therefore it is not possible to categorically class this as a 'viking symbol'. There is however an equally likely chance that the knowledge that was passed down through the generations is at least partly accurate, since many of these manuscripts were written much closer to the Viking age than the modern day.
The design 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, especially at sea. It was said to be used for protection against losing ones way, which would have been a big concern to those sailing the perilous waters of the northern seas before the invention of modern navigation techniques.
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.
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.
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 claimed to have found the symbol on a doorway at his parents farm, which was the family's ancestral home. 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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Northern European lands that the vikings inhabited the bear was the apex preditor. It was the largest, strongest and deadliest of all the wild animals. It is therefore not surprising that the vikings held great admiration for such a mighty creature and made it a symbol to be associated with their mightiest warriors.
The most notorious use of the bear symbol in viking culture was that of the berserkers, fierce viking warrior shamans who fought in a trance like state. They were often thought to be draped in bear hides as they charged into and were said to take on the spirit of the bear, granting them its might, ferocity and durability on the battlefield. This is also where the origin of the word 'berserk' comes from.
As was the case with many ancient cultures snakes were often depicted as being associated with evil and malice. They were also represented in Norse Mythology, the most notable example being the Jörmungandr often referred to as 'The Midgard Serpent'. He was said to have been cast into the ocean and encircle the oceans of the world. In viking symbolism the giant serpent was often depicted biting its own tail, this is similar to symbols from other ancient cultures such as Greece and Egypt and was associated with the circle of life, death and rebirth.
This giant serpent was said to be the son of the trickster god, Loki, and made appearances in various Norse Sagas including 'Thor's fishing trip' and the Prophecy of Ragnarok. He was the arch enemy of Thor and in their final meeting the two of them would fight to the death, with Thor finally slaying the great snake before dying from its deadly venom.
The boar was a common feature in the symbols of Viking age and early medieval Europe. One such appearance was in the story of the creation of Thor's hammer where Loki challenged the dwarfs Brokkr and Eitri to make three better items than the sons of Ivaldi. The brother produced Mjolnir, Draupnir and Gullinbursti. The latter was a boar with a golden mane which was said to glow in the dark and could run faster than any horse in existence.
Another appearance in Norse sagas was when the boar Sæhrímnir is mentioned in the Prose Edda. He was said to be slaughtered and eaten every night by the Aesir and Einherjar, only to be revived and eaten again the following night. This is consistent with the other appearances in medieval European symbology of boars being associated with toughness and durability.
This eight legged horse is an unusual symbol which often appeared in Viking artwork. The beast was said to be the best of all horses and was ridden by the Allfather, Odin. Sleipnir was the sibling of Jormmungandr and Fenrir, all three of whom were children of Loki. In a confusing twist Sleipnir's father was the giant stallion Svaðilfari, whilst his mother was Loki, who conceived Sleipnir whilst he was shapeshifting into a mere.
Sleipnir was able to walk on water and air and had the ability to use the tree of life, Yggdrasil, to travel to different worlds and traverse the Bifrost into Asgard. The eight legged horse appears in various sagas and transports Odin to Hel and was said to help transport souls between different worlds.
The Norsemen were not well known for their use of cavalry in battle, preferring instead to fight on foot. This could have been due to the fact that horses would have been difficult to transport on their longships. There is strong evidence to suggest that they did use horses for scouting missions, trade and farming purposes.
In Viking culture the horse symbol therefore represented speed, travel and even immortality. The idea of an eight legged horse also appeared in many other cultures from the same time period, throughout Europe, Russia, and Mongolia. The horse was a way of life for may nomadic peoples and in a similar way to Sleipnir's depiction in Norse Mythology the eight legged horse was mentioned in many of these cultures as a means of transportation for the souls of the deceased into the afterlife.
Perhaps no other symbol better represents the Vikings in the modern day than their trusty weapon of choice; the Viking axe. Since swords were expensive and difficult to manufacture axes were often the favoured weapon of Viking warriors. In the hands of a skilled fighter the axe was a fearsome weapon and had some key advantages over swords and spears, mainly the ability to hook an opponents shield or weapon and disarm them.
The vikings had numerous types of axes that each served a unique purpose and provided the user specific advantages in battle. The famous 'Dane Axe' had a long handle and was wielded in two hands, however they also had shorter single handed axes which were similar in style to the Native American 'tomohawk'. These could be used in conjunction with a shield to allow for efficient defence and offence at the same time. The axe was often said to be the weapon of choice to the infamous 'Berserkers'.
The symbol of the axe has represented the Viking culture long after the decline of their civilisation. It is a symbol which was associated with strength, bravery and valor.
In Norse Mythology 'Gungnir' was the name for a powerful spear which had various magical abilities, it was said that the spear could never miss its target when thrown, regardless of the skill or strength of the warrior using it.
This is the spear that appeared in many pieces of Viking artwork being wielded by Odin, the all father of the Norse pantheon. It was made by two Dwarves, the sons of Ivaldi, who were legendary for their blacksmithing abilities. It was with this spear that Odin was said to have impaled himself in his sacrifice at Yggdrasil in order to gain knowledge of the runic alphabet, which he later gifted to mankind.
In the 'Poetic Edda' there was mention of Gungnir having runes engraved along the tip of the spearhead which were what gave it the magical abilities. There have been some historical finds of spears from the Viking age with runes engraved along the tip in a similar way that was mentioned in this text, which indicated that they may have been trying to imitate Gungnir, and perhaps gain magical abilities for themselves in battle. The spear symbol in Norse Mythology was often associated with bravery, focus and precision.
The Vikings were famous travellers, navigators and raiders, however their seafaring ways were only possible due to their mastery of shipbuilding and the famous Viking Longship. Also known as a 'Drakkar' the ship was well built and allowed the Vikings to cross some of the worlds most perilous oceans on their travels to the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland and even North America.
There are two famous examples of ships in Norse Sagas which are mentioned in both the 'Prose Edda' and the 'Poetic Edda'. The first is Naglfar, which was said to play a key role in the battle of Ragnarok. It would be captained by Loki, manned by giants and help to ferry monsters to Asgard to do battle with the Norse Gods. Another representation of ships in the sagas was that of Skíðblaðnir, the ship of the God Freyr. This ship belonged to the Gods and was said to be the best of all ships. It could sail across water, land and even air. In the Prose Edda it was stated that this magical ship could be folded up like a piece of fabric and could even fit inside someones pocket.
The ship symbolically represents some of the fundamental principles of Viking culture; they were pioneers, explorers and navigators who fearlessly travelled into uncharted waters. In Norse culture the longship was therefore a symbol of bravery and willingness to traverse the extreme dangers of the open seas in order to discover new lands and the promise of untold riches.
This 'Triskele' symbol depicted three interlocking drinking horns, it is often associated with the God, Odin. There have been historical finds from Sweden and Denmark where the design was found in numerous Viking artworks from the 9th century. One example was the 'snoldelev stone', a rune stone which is now kept in the National Museum in Denmark and clearly displays an engraving of the Triskele design. This is strong evidence to confirm that the Triskele was an authentic Norse symbol and was both known and used during the Viking age. It has also become increasingly popular in recent years amongst practitioners of the Asatru Faith.
The meaning of the Triskele has remained largely unknown, however the symbol does have a very similar appearance to others used in the early medieval period and prior. One such symbol was referred too as the Triskelion, which appeared in Celtic, Greek and Sicilian cultures. A variation of it is even represented on the Sicilian flag to this day.