The Helm of Awe within a longship

Anthropology: An Overview of Ancient Norse and Viking Symbols With Their Meanings

Symbols have been a part of human history since before humans had the ability to speak or write. There is evidence of early humans having drawn several marks on cave walls in certain parts of the world. Lines, curves, circles, squares, dots, spirals and handprints, among other designs, appear frequently in those places. It is known that drawings often helped pre-historical humans remember what their surroundings looked like. However, the frequency of these simple symbols suggests that they may have been used to communicate with each other. Pictograms may have also been the earliest method of expressing ideas.

As humanity advanced and civilizations were established, these symbols developed as well. They now consisted of more refined and complex marks, characters, images and patterns. Even objects, gestures and living beings were considered symbols. Just like today.

Symbols are a form of cultural expression, as they represent an ideology or belief significant to a group of people. Unlike early history, today, they are surely known to serve as forms of communication. Making it convenient to understand complex messages with a quick glance. It is indeed easier to look at an image and understand its meaning, rather than reading large chunks of text.

In this context, today we’ll be looking at some symbols from the Norse culture. Norse and particularly Viking culture are making a comeback. In more recent decades, this culture has been the inspiration for several books, movies, TV shows, video games, art and other works in pop culture. People have always been fascinated with Vikings, primarily because of how they’re portrayed in pop culture. They are often shown as a group of tall, strong, fierce and brutal warriors who raided and destroyed various villages.

Old Norse mythology is also gaining popularity, especially because of the Marvel comics and movies. Today, most people are familiar with at least a few of the Norse gods and goddesses. Such as Thor, Loki, Odin and Frigg, among others.

The primary reason we’ll be exploring Norse symbols is that they were a crucial part of their culture. Before delving into exploring these symbols, however, we will try to understand the difference between the terms Norse and Viking. Then, we will discuss the necessity and importance of symbols to the Norsemen. Finally, we’ll look at the symbols along with any stories associated with them. This will enhance understanding of their meaning, usage and significance.

Understanding the Terms Norse, Nordic and Scandinavian

The word Norse concerns anything related to the inhabitants of Scandinavia during the Viking Age. This includes their culture, traditions, mythology, philosophies, etc. The Viking Age, also known as the early middle ages, is marked by the 8th to 11th century AD. This was the period just before Christianity was introduced and spread in this region.

For those of us who do not come from Northern Europe, we tend to use the words Nordic and Scandinavian interchangeably. In reality, however, the term Nordic refers to all the countries and territories in North Europe. This includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland (Finland). Scandinavia, on the other hand, is the part of Northern Europe where the Scandinavian Peninsula is located. Thus, only the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden are generally accepted as Scandinavian countries. So, to sum up, all Scandinavian countries are Nordic countries, but not all Nordic countries are Scandinavian.

map indicating Scandinavian countries
Map showing Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Image Credit: World Atlas

The Difference between Norsemen and Vikings

The Medieval Scandinavians were known as the Norsemen and they were primarily traders, nobles and rulers. They spoke the Old Norse language and followed the Old Norse religion, which is also known as Norse paganism. The Norsemen were polytheists who believed in various gods, goddesses as well as supernatural and mythical beings. These divine figures embodied the forces of nature and the supernatural.

The Vikings were a group of these Norsemen who lived a different lifestyle compared to the other Norsemen. They spent one portion of their time farming. And the other portion of it, navigating the seas in their ships, discovering foreign lands, raiding them and fighting battles. Meaning, all Vikings were Norsemen, but not all Norsemen were Vikings.

Some sources suggest that it was around the 8th century AD that a few Norsemen worked on developing their ships. Boats and ships were already used for transport and trade within the region. However, they required bigger and sturdier ships to cover longer distances in search of land and treasure. This led them to create strong and durable Viking longships. With this invention, they could navigate quickly in large bodies of water and withstand harsh weather. If this supposition is true, it would explain how the Vikings developed their unique lifestyle.

By the end of the 8th century, 793 AD, to be precise, the Vikings raided foreign land for the first time. They attacked a church in Lindisfarne, England, marking the beginning of the Viking Age.

During this time, they continued moving south, raiding other European territories and settling there. By the end of the Viking Age, they had settled in other Nordic countries and places like Ireland, the United Kingdom, Russia and even parts of North America.

Importance of Symbols in Norse Mythology

Symbols were very prominent and important to the Norsemen. Their shapes and designs often connected them to myths featuring powerful gods. Due to this association, the signs represented certain characteristics derived from the stories.

The Norsemen believed that symbols held great power. They were believed to be connected to fate and the spiritual world. This comes from their association with the deities. As such, symbols were used to make decisions, gain insight to solve problems and for overall guidance. Symbols were also believed to provide protection against monsters, dwarves, elves, giants and ill-intentioned spirits. In Norse mythology, these creatures were portrayed as villains. Drawing protective symbols assured the Norsemen that divine powers were always by their side, especially during tough times.

Many of the symbols listed in this post may not have been used in the Viking Age. However, they are still included, either because they were developed in Scandinavia, but the exact timeline of their usage is unknown. Or, because they had some role to play in Norse mythology.

Limited artefacts, historical texts and artworks have survived from the Viking Age. Besides, the discovery of physical evidence of their culture is ongoing. The evidence that has been found does not provide a complete image and information about the Norsemen. This leaves many gaps in understanding their culture, and in this case, the true meaning of some of the symbols.

Symbols about to be discussed shortly were found on amulets, other jewellery, ships, paintings, manuscripts and engraved on structures. Additionally, it is known that some of them were even stitched on clothes and used as body paint.

icons of norse symbols
Image Credit: Sons of Vikings

Symbols: A Form of Visual Spell

The Norsemen used symbols to represent their identity, faith and religion. Symbols were believed to have magical powers with which they could connect with the deities and the spiritual world. To the point where they were considered visual spells.

The symbols were especially important to the Vikings due to their protective powers. The Vikings were fierce and brave seafaring warriors, but they still needed to survive in harsh terrains and weather conditions, and fight in them. They required all the divine protection they could get. Some would even use the sigils to scare off enemies as it was believed they had the power to do so.

List of Important Norse Symbols

Let us now finally look at a list of some of the most significant Norse symbols from in and around the Viking Age.

Runes

runes engraved on pebbles
Runestones used for rune casting. Image Credit: Pinterest

As mentioned earlier, the Norsemen, who also included the Vikings, spoke in Old Norse.  This was a North Germanic language that was spoken in three distinct dialects.  Old West Norse, Old East Norse and Old Gutnish. Old Norse is the language that eventually gave rise to the modern-day Scandinavian and some Nordic languages. It is believed that modern Icelandic is the closest language to Old Norse. But what has Old Norse got to do with runes?

Runes were essentially the alphabets used to write Old Norse and other Germanic languages during antiquity and the Middle Ages. Old Norse was thus written in the runic script. The runic alphabet is better known as Futhark, based on the names of the first six runes. While Old Norse was still in use, the Futhark evolved over time. Therefore, there were three main generations of the Futhark.

The oldest was the Elder Futhark, which was used until the 8th century and consisted of 24 runes. The oldest rune dates back to the 2nd century AD but, it may have been in use even before that.  Next, was the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc used between the 5th and 11th centuries, with 26-33 runes. Finally, there was the Younger Futhark, with just 16 runes. It was in use between the 9th and 12th centuries. During the Viking Age, the Norsemen used the Younger Futhark for writing. After this period, the runic script was replaced by the Latin script.

Characteristics of the Futhark Runic Alphabets

Runes are phonetic in nature, meaning, each letter represents a sound. Based on this sound, each rune is given a name. Therefore, each rune holds meaning and thus becomes a symbol representing an object, emotion, phenomenon, etc. There may be more than one meaning associated with the rune. Some runes may also be interpreted differently according to their direction. For instance, certain runes, when read in reverse, represent the contrasting qualities of the same rune when it is upright.

Below, we will look at the 24 runes in Elder Futhark as they are better known in the present day. The Elder Futhark runes are categorized into three groups of 8. Each set is called an aett (plural: aettir) and they are named after characters from Norse mythology.

Freya’s Aett

first aett of eight runes
Runes in Freya’s Aett. Image Credit: Spells8

In Norse Mythology, there were two groups of gods and goddesses- the Aesir and the Vanir gods. The Aesir gods were the most significant deities in Norse mythology. They were associated with knowledge, war, power and chaos. The Vanir gods, on the other hand, represented abundance, prosperity, fertility and magic.

Freya was the Vanir goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex and gold, among other things. The runes in Freya’s aett are connected to the creation, birth, growth and the overall concept of life.

Fehu: This is the first rune in the Elder Futhark and it means wealth or cattle. It is associated with hope, abundance, control, success and prosperity. Read in reverse, Fehu can indicate loss of property or something valuable that a person has put effort to keep. The sigil is used to bring luck and wealth.

Uruz: This rune refers to the wild bull or ox. It represents physical and mental strength, effort, perseverance, hard work, speed and energy. Uruz is associated with masculinity, freedom and potential as well. It is about using strength to get past challenges and succeed. In reverse, Uruz can mean weakness, violence, impulsivity, ignorance and illness. The rune is used when a person needs strength to start a task or continue working on something.

Thurisaz: This rune represents a thorn or giant. It indicates chaos, conflict and an uncontrollable external force influencing one’s life. It is about protecting oneself from these disruptions to keep moving forward. Much like the way a thorn protects a plant from predators. It is therefore used as a symbol of protection. In reverse, the rune reads defenselessness, danger and betrayal.

Ansuz: This rune is a symbol of the Aesir gods and can refer to a divine message. It is sometimes known as Odin’s rune as it represents his wisdom. Odin, the All-Father, is the supreme god in Norse mythology. The rune is associated with health, truth, order, wisdom, harmony, advice and insight. It is the rune of communication and the exchange of information. In reverse, it can mean miscommunication, delusion or manipulation.

Raidho: This rune stands for ‘journey’ as it means either chariot or wagon. It is thus associated with both physical and spiritual travel, relocation, rest, evolution and negotiation. It may even suggest the need to make a decision. In its inverse form, it may indicate stagnation, rigidness, dislocation or even a catastrophe. Raidho is primarily used when protection is needed during travel.

Kenaz: This means torch or lantern. The rune represents enlightenment, the creative spark, knowledge, clarity, truth, vision and inspiration. It is about seeing light that wasn’t visible earlier. Reversed, it suggests darkness, confusion, feeling lost and even stuck.

Gebo: This rune means gift. However, it doesn’t just refer to a physical gift. It could also mean an exchange between two entities. One person gives and the other receives. The rune also indicates partnership, relationships and harmony. Its meaning does not change when inverted.

Wunjo: Wunjo means joy, so, the rune represents prosperity, success, a sense of victory, happiness, recognition, security and celebration. The lightness that comes from being happy refers to Wunjo. In reverse, the rune reads sadness, loss and the feeling of not belonging somewhere.

Heimdall’s Aett

second aett with eight runes
Runes in Heimdall’s aett. Image Credit: The Daily Spell Network

This set of runes is ruled by Heimdall, the powerful Aesir god who guards Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods.  He stays on top of the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard to Midgard or Earth, watching for any invaders through his power of sight and hearing. He is able to hear and see everything. Runes in Heimdall’s aett represent external forces and energies influencing creation, growth or any other aspect responsible for bringing change.

Hagalaz: This is the first rune in Heimdall’s aett. Hagalaz means hail and it represents the destructive forces of nature. These forces are sudden and uncontrollable, indicating inevitable changes in one’s life. The impact of this change depends on the individual and their approach towards it. The Hagalaz rune has no contrasting meaning when reversed.

Naudhiz: This rune signifies need. The need to survive, the need for change and the need to overcome challenges. It is also associated with endurance and self-reflection. It is about evaluating one’s needs and distinguishing them from their desires or wants. In its reversed form, it can mean distress, depression, hunger or deprivation.

Isa: Meaning ice, represents being physically and spiritually stuck, stagnation, peace, rest, and clarity. It symbolizes frustration or challenge. It holds no contrasting meanings in its inverted form.

Jera: This rune represents harvest or the wheel of the year. It indicates the fruition of something that has been worked on. It also symbolizes abundance, prosperity, success, the cycle of life, change and energy. When reversed, this rune has no contrasting meaning.

Eihwaz: This refers to the Yew tree, which is known for its longevity and ability to regenerate. It is also known to have poisonous seeds. This rune, therefore, represents defence, protection, strength, death and transformation. When reversed, it may indicate confusion, weakness or destruction.

Perthro: The meaning of this remains unclear. However, its shape suggests it could mean a dice cup. It represents the fact that the events in one’s life are up to fate and that one should make the best out of it. It is associated with rebirth, secrets, magic, fate, mysteries and fertility. In its inverse direction, it may signify the loss of faith, stagnation or isolation.

Algiz: Algiz means elk or protection. Thus, the rune is a symbol of protection against evil, defence, guardianship and connection with the divine. Reversed, it may indicate hidden danger, warning or disconnection with the divine.

Sowilo: This rune represents the sun. It is associated with the power to make positive changes, success, victory, energy, life, joy, fortune and health. It has no contrasting meanings when reversed.

Tyr’s Aett

third aett with eight runes
Runes in Tyr’s aett. Image Credit: Magic and Divination

Finally, the last set of runes is Tyr’s Aett. Tyr was the Aesir god of the sky, war and justice. Runes in this aett represent a connection with the divine entities. It suggests that the deities act as teachers to humanity. With the knowledge humans gain from them, they are able to have control over the cosmic energies. Transforming into divine beings.

Tiwaz: This is the first rune in Tyr’s aett. It is named after Tyr and serves as a symbol of the warrior. The rune is associated with courage, responsibility, strength, victory, success, self-sacrifice, authority and leadership. In its reverse form, it represents conflict, imbalance, apathy and a block in the flow of creativity.

Berkana: Meaning, birch is a symbol of physical and mental growth, fertility, new beginnings, regeneration, healing, femininity and birth. Reversed, it may signify rigidity, loss of control, infertility and domestic issues.

Ehwaz: This is the rune of movement or the horse. It represents transportation, physical movement, continuity and progress. The rune is also associated with energy, change, partnership and motivation. When reversed, the symbol could mean recklessness, restlessness, confinement and a need for change.

Mannaz: This rune means man and it represents the self, humankind as well as interactions between people. It additionally signifies social structure, intellect and skill. In its reversed form, it can be associated with loneliness, manipulation and receiving no aid from others.

Laguz: This rune signifies a lake or water. It is a symbol of emotions, flexibility, dreams, mysteries, the unconscious mind, intuition and the hidden. When reversed, it is a sign of obsession, limited creativity, madness or fear.

Ingwaz: This rune is named after Yngi, which is another name of Freyr, the Vanir god of fertility, earth and prosperity. The rune represents growth, virility, peace, love, wellbeing, balance and the love of family. Its meaning does not change when reversed.

Dagaz: This rune means day or dawn. It is associated with awakening, breakthrough, awareness, transformation, hope, completion and new beginnings. Like the Ingwaz rune, it has no contrasting meaning when read in reverse.

Othala: Othala refers to ancestral property. The rune, therefore, becomes a symbol of inheritance, home, possessions, heritage, legacy and family. This rune is strongly associated with family. In reverse, it could indicate prejudice, poverty and misfortune.

Runic Inscriptions

runic inscription in sweden
Runestone in Medelpad, Sweden. Image Credit: Orkney Runes

Runes were written using straight lines known as staves and smaller diagonal lines branching out from the staves, called twigs. Their linear nature made it easy to carve them into objects.

This detail is important because paper and ink were not in use during the Viking Age. The majority of the runes found were engraved in materials like wood, bone, stone and metal.

Many of the runes no longer exist because wood seemed to be their preferred writing medium. The ones that largely remain are inscriptions on stones and metal. Runes have been found on coins, weapons, utensils, and other everyday items. They are inscribed with the names of the owners or the names of the person who made the object.

Runic inscriptions can also be found on large stones. These were mostly erected in honour of leaders and the deceased. Some tell the story of Viking voyages. Today, these runestones stand in various parts of Scandinavia.

Compared to their oral traditions, the Norsemen did not really have a strong writing culture. Their culture, beliefs, traditions and stories were passed on orally. It wasn’t before the 13th century that Viking sagas and poems were penned down in Iceland and some Scandinavian countries.

The Mythical Origins of Runes

Some theories state that the runic alphabets may have been derived from Latin alphabets used by the Romans. However, in Norse culture, the origins of runes were rather mythical.

The Old Norse poem, Hamaval, written in the 13th century, tells the story of how Odin discovered the runes.

According to Norse mythology, there are nine realms in the universe. At the centre of it stood the large tree Yggdrasil, or the Tree of Life. One of its roots led to the Well of Urd, otherwise known as the Well of Destiny. Guarding the Well of Urd were the three wise maidens who decide the fates of all beings. Collectively, they’re known as the Norns. To decide one’s fate, the Norns would inscribe runes on the tree’s trunk, then cast their fate into the cosmos. This wouldn’t just affect the individual but everything in the universe.

Odin, the All-Father, sought this powerful wisdom more than anything. For him, this was the greatest form of power and magic. So, he began his quest to discover the mysterious runes. His journey was exceptionally challenging as the runes did not reveal themselves so easily. One had to prove themselves worthy and capable of handling often frightening insights. For that, Odin had to make sacrifices.

Odin’s Sacrifice

illustration of odin hanging from the tree of life
Artist’s interpretation of Odin hanging from Yggdrasil, calling out to the runes. Image Credit: Reddit

First, Odin stabs one of his eyes using his spear, voluntarily offering it as a sacrifice. Then, he hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days. In this period, he refused help from the other gods, he refused water and food, and just kept looking down, calling to the runes.

Finally, on the ninth night, his sacrifice was accepted when he was on the verge of death and about to fall from the tree. The runes revealed themselves to him and he memorized them immediately. With this knowledge, he became the most powerful deity in the universe. He now possessed the knowledge of chants, powerful enough to heal wounds, to liberate, to get enemies to surrender their weapons, protect people, and banish evil magic.

Some believe Odin then shared this knowledge with the other gods who eventually passed it on to humanity.

The Divine Powers of the Runes

The word ‘rune’ means secret, mystery or answer. Due to its mythical origins and association with the all-father Odin, runes were believed to possess magical properties. The symbols represented some of the most powerful forces in the universe. And, it allowed individuals to communicate, influence and interact with the forces of nature.

In addition to their use as inscriptions, they were also used for divination. Not only to gain insights about the future but, also for guidance on life. Runes were also used as charms to protect oneself from harm, misfortune and curses. They were also used for healing and for their wishes to come true.

Casting runes, a divination method still used today, were also documented to be used by the Norsemen. Pieces of bones or wood each with a rune inscribed on them were cast, a few of them on a piece of cloth. Then an expert rune reader would decode its meaning, providing insight and guidance to the rune caster.

Yggdrasil

As we saw earlier, Yggdrasil was a massive tree growing at the centre of the cosmos. This was the tree that the All-Father hung himself from to acquire knowledge of the runes. It is an evergreen ash tree that was supported by three large roots, extending to the depths of the universe. In some versions of the myth, Yggdrasil is a yew tree.

It was believed that the leaves and fruits of this sacred tree were magical. Consuming its fruit could heal any wound imaginable. It was also what the gods and goddesses consumed to keep themselves youthful.

Yggdrasil connected the nine realms in Norse mythology. By doing so, it maintained harmony and order in the cosmos. As the tree holds the nine worlds and sustains life in them, it is also called the ‘Tree of Life.’

The Nine Realms

Nine realms in the universe
The Nine Realms held by Yggdrasil. Image Credit: Fateful Signs

The Norsemen pictured the nine realms being placed vertically throughout the universe in three tiers.  Located at the top level, were Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim. Asgard was the realm of the Aesir gods. This is where Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Tyr and other Aesir gods lived. Close to Asgard was Vanaheim, the world of the Vanir gods. This is where Njord, Freya, Freyr and other Vanir gods reside. Also near Asgard was Alfheim, the realm of the light elves. The light elves were the benevolent counterparts of the dark elves. They were described to be more beautiful than the sun. These divine creatures most likely lived in peace and were even friendly and helpful towards others.

The Second Level

Below these realms were the worlds of the second level. These included Midgard, Nidavellir and Jotunheim. Midgard, which was located at the centre of the tree, is where humans live. It is essentially another name for Earth. Midgard was connected to Asgard by the Bifrost. Nidavellir is the realm of the dwarves. Dwarves were excellent blacksmiths in the Norse universe.

They forged some of the most powerful weapons in existence. Such as Odin’s spear and Thor’s hammer. In some versions of Norse mythology, Nidavellir may also be known as Svartalfheim or the realm of the dark elves. There is an ongoing debate about whether dwarves and dark elves are the same creatures. Also on this level was Jotunheim, the realm of the frost giants. This is where Loki, the Norse trickster god, was originally from.

The Third Level

The third level and the lower regions of the cosmos comprise Muspelheim, Niflheim and Helheim. Muspelheim is the realm of fire and heat. It was one of the first worlds to emerge out of the primordial void called Ginnungagap during creation. The realm is the home of the fire giants and guarded by the powerful fire giant Surtr. It was prophesized that during Ragnarok, the sky would split and from its gaps would enter the fire giants. They’d be led by Surtr and together they would destroy the Bifrost and burn down the world. Ragnarok refers to the destruction of the world, the gods and the whole universe. It was a prophecy the Norsemen believed one day would come true.

During Ragnarok, Yggdrasil will also be destroyed. In one version of the myth, however, a man and one woman would manage to hide inside the tree and survive the apocalypse. By then, a new world would have emerged which the two humans would repopulate.

Also located on this level was Niflheim. The cold, icy, dark and misty realm. Niflheim was the other world to have emerged from Ginnungagap during creation. This was seemingly where unworthy people went after death.

Finally, there was Helheim, located at the very low levels of the universe. Helheim was the realm of the dead. It was ruled by Hel, the goddess of death and Loki’s daughter. Some 13th-century authors wrote that this is where most people ended up after death. In some versions of the myth, Helheim was a part of Niflheim. In that case, Svartalfheim and Nidavellir were considered two separate realms.

The Three Sacred Wells

norns at the well of urd
Artist’s representation of the Norns by the Well of Urd. Image Credit: Silvana Massa Art

The three roots that supported the cosmic led to the three sacred wells. The first was the Well of Urd in Asgard. This is where the Norns, named Urdr, meaning past, Verdandi, meaning present, and Skuld, meaning future, lived. They would take care of the tree by drawing water from the well and watering it. Keeping the tree alive was the most important job. If the tree was ever to become unhealthy, it would directly affect the nine realms.

The second root led to the Hvergelmir Well, the oldest well in the universe. This well was located in the depths of Niflheim and was believed to be the source of many rivers. Close to this well lived a serpentine creature named Nidhogg. He gnawed at the tree’s roots, trying to make it fall but the mighty tree remained unaffected.

Finally, there was Mimir’s Well, located in Jotunheim. It was guarded by the Aesir god of knowledge and wisdom, Mimir. In Norse mythology, drinking from this well could allow a person to gain profound wisdom. However, they must be willing to make a sacrifice in exchange. This is where Odin sacrificed his eye in his quest to acquire knowledge.

Yggdrasil as a Symbol

Överhogdal Tapestries with symbol of yggdrasil
Yggdrasil on Överhogdal Tapestries. Image Credit: Roter Geysir

Now that we know more about the mythical tree, let’s find out what it represented to the Norsemen. Yggdrasil was the symbol of the very foundation of the Old Norse religion. It was, therefore, a sacred mark associated with the cyclical nature of life, the cosmos, destiny and time. As the tree kept the nine realms connected, it also represented harmony, family, bonding, relationships and connections, both physical and spiritual. It additionally served as the link between visible and invisible worlds as well as mortality and immortality.

It was one of the most popular and significant Norse symbols. We see this symbol weaved into tapestries from the Viking Age. The Överhogdal tapestries are the oldest type of textile surviving in Sweden. They date back to near the end of the Viking Age. The tapestries illustrate some of the Old Norse myths and lore. There are even scenes that were found written in the sagas.

Gungnir

iconograph of gungnir
Symbol of Gungnir. Image Credit: Berloga Workshop

In Norse mythology, Gungnir was Odin’s magical spear. A remarkable weapon that was forged by the dwarves of Nidavellir, using the branches of Yggdrasil. The spear was known for its accuracy as it never missed its target. Once it attacks the target, it always returns to the All-Father. What made it so accurate was the runes carvings on the weapon. Odin, on his journey to gain the ultimate form of wisdom, uses Gungnir to sacrifice his eye.

Odin used this spear to instil fear and panic in his enemies. The weapon would intimidate them and they’d feel threatened. It was believed that if a person was ever killed by this spear, they would surely be transported to Valhalla after death.

In Norse mythology, Valhalla was a large hall in Asgard. When warriors died in battle, a portion of them went to Valhalla to spend their afterlife in an idyllic place. They would live a generally good afterlife, participating in activities like fighting battles and feasting at night, for example. However, when Ragnarok came, they would need to fight the last battle alongside Odin against creatures of the dark.

The spear, being associated with Odin, was believed to hold great power and strength. So, the Vikings made their own spears to resemble the mythical weapon. They would even carve runes on them. The Norsemen associated Gungnir with skill, precision, focus, strength and authority.

According to legend, making a wish or taking an oath in front of Gungnir would fulfil them. It was also believed that whenever Odin threw Gungnir and it flew across the sky, it would flash a bright light. Just like a shooting star. The act of wishing upon a shooting star could have originated from this tradition.

Mjolnir

norse amulet from sweden
10th century Mjolnir amulet from Odeshog, Sweden. Image Credit: Irish Archaeology

Mjolnir is perhaps the most well-known symbol from Norse mythology. Especially after its popularization through the Marvel comics and movies. Mjolnir is Thor’s hammer and it is one of the most powerful weapons in existence. While its appearance has changed over the years, it is often depicted as a short sledgehammer-esque hammer. Making it possible to wield it with one hand. Like Gungnir, Mjolnir was also forged by the skilled dwarves of Nidavellir/Svartalfheim.

Thor is the son of Odin and is the Norse god of thunder, lightning and the sky. The hammer gave him the strength to fight off giants and the dark forces to protect Asgard and Midgard. Thor was physically the strongest god in the Norse pantheon.

As a sky deity, he also oversaw agriculture, encouraged growth and fertility. After all, crops can’t survive without air and water, which in this case refers to rain. Due to his association with growth and fertility, Norsemen believed Thor also used Mjolnir to sanctify marriages, births and funerals. The symbol of Mjolnir has been found on amulets, runestones and graves dating back to the Viking Age.

The Vikings highly revered Thor and saw Mjolnir as a particularly important symbol during the Viking Age. His influence on weather and fertility was especially significant to the Vikings as they were both seafarers and farmers.

Thor was invoked during important ceremonies for protection and blessings. At weddings, for example, he would be called upon to consecrate the marriage and wish the couple good health and fertility.

Moreover, the Norsemen believed that whenever there was thunder or lightning, Thor was using Mjolnir to defeat giants. Keeping Midgard safe from their wrath, preventing chaos and maintaining peace and harmony. Another reason why Mjolnir was a symbol of power and protection.

The Triple Horn of Odin

three interlocking horns
The symbol of the triple horn of Odin. Image Credit: Kindpng

The Triple Horn of Odin or the Horn Triskelion shows three interlocking horns. These horns represent the story of Odin’s journey to acquire the Mead of Poetry.

In Norse mythology, there was once a time when the Aesir and Vanir gods did not see eye to eye with each other. Their disputes ultimately led to war between them. After some time, they became exhausted and had enough. So, they called a truce, officially ending the war. To end the war, however, both groups of gods chewed some berries and spat in a container. From their saliva, a man named Kvasir emerged.

He was the wisest man in the universe and was able to provide answers to any question. Kvasir became a traveller who visited the different worlds and imparted his wisdom along the way. On his journey, he stopped at Svartalfheim, which in this myth was the home of the dwarves. There, he met two dwarves named Fjalar and Galar. The dwarves believed his blood had magical properties. So, under the pretence of wanting to talk to Kvasir privately, they killed him.

They stored his blood, mixed honey with it and brewed the Mead of Poetry. Drinking this mead could turn its consumer into a poet or scholar.

Odin’s Thirst for the Mead of Poetry

The mead was later acquired by the giant Suttung. He hid the brew inside a mountain and asked his daughter to guard it well. Though he had hidden the drink, he wasn’t silent about possessing it. The word had spread and soon, Odin heard about it. As he was on a quest to acquire all the knowledge and wisdom, he desired it more than anything. So, he decided to travel from Asgard to Jotunheim in the guise of a peasant. There, he stumbled upon the farm of Suttung’s brother, Baugi.

On the farm, there were nine servants who were wearily cutting hay. Seeing this, Odin offered to sharpen their scythes using a whetstone. The servants agreed and shortly after, their scythes were sharp. They were now able to smoothly mow the hay. Crediting this to the whetstone, they all wanted to buy it. Odin agreed to sell it, but only to one. Each of them began expressing their interest, trying to be the chosen customer. During that hubbub, Odin threw the whetstone high into the air. When they looked up, the sunlight made it impossible to see. Nevertheless, they all tried to reach it. Meanwhile, the whetstone seemed to just stay in the sky. The nine servants continued to reach it and in their chaos, they ended up slitting each other’s throats. Using their sharp scythes.

Odin, still in his guise, now approached Baugi and explained that his nine servants had killed each other. Knowing the giant was left with no servant, Odin offered to work for him. He offered to do the job of nine men in exchange for a sip of the Mead of Poetry. Baugi said if he kept his word, he would help the peasant get what he wanted.

Baugi’s Part of the Deal

Naturally, Odin managed to get the work done by the end of the season. So, as promised, Baugi took him to his brother and asked if he could have a sip of the mead. Suttung refused. However, Baugi was reminded to keep his word, meaning, he had to help the peasant get the mead. He accompanied Odin to a part of the mountain Baugi thought was nearest to the mead. Upon arriving, Odin handed the giant an auger and convinced him to drill a hole in the rock.

Baugi, after cheating Odin once, managed to break the rock and make a small passage the second time. Immediately, Odin transformed himself from a peasant to a snake. He quickly slithered his way inside before the giant could stab him with the auger. Once inside, he transformed himself again, but this time into a handsome man. He then approached Gunnlod, the guardian of the mead and Suttung’s daughter. He charmed her right away and seduced her. In their interaction, he struck a deal with her. She would allow him to take three sips of the mead if he made love with her for three nights.

Three days later, Gunnlod led him to the mead. It should be noted that the Mead of Poetry was stored in three vats. In some versions of the story, these vats were drinking horns. They were named Odrerir, Bodn and Son.  Odin took three sips and with each sip, he emptied one of the vats. The Triple Horn of Odin is the symbol for these very drinking horns.

artwork of the norse myth of the mead of poetry
Gunnlod handing Odin the Mead of Poetry. Image Credit: History of Vikings

What do the Horns Symbolize?

In this context, this symbol is associated with poets, wise people, historians, musicians and tricksters. Each drinking horn holds meaning. One represents wisdom, another means poetic inspiration and the last one stands for Odin. The interconnectedness of the horns symbolizes the link between the three.

Like in many cultures worldwide, the number three was considered divine in Norse culture.  We see the number presenting itself frequently. For instance, Yggdrasil has three roots. The Well of Urd has three Norns. Loki has three children. Or even that the Futhark runes are divided into three aettir. Thus, the Triple Horn of Odin can be classified as a divine symbol.

Finally, another reason for the symbol’s connection with Odin is that he was also the god of alcohol. Horns were often used to drink alcohol, especially at ceremonies and feasts. Drinking alcohol was thus seen as an important ritual at feasts and gatherings, as it was a way to honour the All-Father.

Many believe the symbol existed before the story. This symbol has been found inscribed on metal runestones like the Snoldelev runestone.

Svefnthorn

norse symbol svefnthorn
Svefnthorn. Image Credit: Bavipower

The svefnthorn, which roughly translates to ‘sleep thorn’, is a symbol of sleep, rest and health.

When the Vikings were not travelling the seas and fighting in wars, they were living an agrarian life. They would try to live a healthy life, which involved getting sufficient sleep to start afresh the next day. The symbol was found engraved on bedposts in very old Scandinavian houses.

The symbols can also be found in Norse texts from after the Viking Age. The appearance of the sign varied between sources. In the present day, it is depicted as a set of four harpoons in a row. In terms of its application, it was sometimes described as a physical object that would be thrown at the enemy. While other times, it is described as a spell that’d be cast on others.

It is widely believed that svefnthorn was used to put one’s enemies into a state of deep sleep, especially during battle. The sleep was very difficult to wake up from. Enemies were kept in that state until the person applying the svefnthorn wanted them to wake up. By making the enemy fall asleep, one would have the upper hand and defeat them. However, just like its appearance, its function also differs between various sources.

Svefnthorn in Norse Mythology

There were a couple of myths associated with svefnthorn. The most well-known story comes from the Saga of the Volsungs. In this story, Odin uses svefnthorn on the Valkyrie Brynhildr, as punishment for disobeying him. As a result, she enters a state of deep sleep. Then, Odin drew a circle of fire around her sleeping body. She could only wake up if someone crossed the dangerous circle of fire. No one dared to cross the circle except the mythical hero Sigurd. He crossed the fire circle and kissed the Valkyrie awake.

Valknut

valknut the norse symbol of the slain warrior
Valknut, the triangular symbol at the centre. The symbol is carved into the 7th century Stora Hammars image stones in Sweden. Image Credit: Wytch of the North

The Valknut, sometimes known as Odin’s knot was another sacred Viking symbol. It was associated with death and it signified the life cycle and the transition between life and death.

The symbol is made of three interlocking triangles. The use of three triangles once again connects it to the divine. In this case, with Odin the All-Father. The symbol also produces nine corners, each representing the nine realms of the cosmos.

Valknut is derived from two words – valr meaning slain warrior and knut meaning knot. It was believed that when warriors died with glory in battle, the Valkyries carried some of them to Valhalla. The Valkyries were a group of powerful female warriors who decided the fate of the slain warriors. They would decide whether or not they could enter Valhalla and join the army of the fallen warriors. This army would fight alongside Odin when Ragnarok came. Once they’d select the warriors, they’d carry them to Valhalla riding winged horses or wolves. As we discussed earlier, Valhalla was Odin’s paradisiacal hall of slain warriors and one of the five realms of the Norse afterlife.

This is why the valknut symbolizes the cycle of life, the transition from life to death and the journey from one realm to another. Viking tombs would often have this symbol engraved on them. The symbol was believed to provide protection to the deceased when they made their journey to Valhalla.

As it was also connected to Odin, it appears on artwork featuring Odin. Such as the images on the 7th century Stora Hammars stones located in Sweden.

The Matrix of Fate

norse web of wyrd surrounded by runes
The Matrix of Fate. Image Credit: Lioudmila Perry via Pixels

The matrix of fate may also be known as the Web of Wyrd or Skuld’s Net. It is a symbol used to represent the fact that the past, present and future are interrelated.

In Norse mythology, the matrix of fate was woven by the Norns. The Norns, who were a group of three maidens, each represented the past, present and future. They decided the fates of all living beings in the cosmos. This is why they were also known as the Shapers of Destiny. They seemingly decided destiny by weaving the matrix of fate.

The symbol is made up of nine staves intersecting each other to resemble a net. A rune would appear within the spaces of the net, showing a being’s past, present and future.

The Norsemen believed that a person’s fate was determined at the time of birth. No one could escape the events of fate. Not even the gods as destiny did not discriminate. Ragnarok for instance was the fate of the gods.

While there is no written record proving the symbol’s use during the Viking Age, it definitely seems to be a part of Norse culture.

Helm of Awe

norse symbol of the helm of awe
Helm of Awe. Image Credit: Mark Bere Peterson

The Helm of Awe, also known as Aegishjalmur, was a magical sigil of protection, courage and strength.

The symbol is illustrated to have eight lines, looking like tridents emerging out of the centre, forming a circle. It seems as if the tridents are defending the central point.

Due to its protective properties, Viking warriors would even paint the symbol of their foreheads during battle. It was believed to have the power to instil fear in enemies. So much so that foes who looked at the symbol always faced defeat.

The symbol has been found in texts such as the 17th-century Icelandic grimoire (spellbook) Galdrabok. Suggesting it was used to cast spells. It also emphasizes its magical properties. Many think its magical abilities may be due to the symbol’s composition. When observed closely, the sigil has a few runes forming a pattern. Such as the Elhaz rune forming the circle in the centre.

As a magical symbol, it needed to be illustrated on items for protective spells to succeed. So, the Norsemen would engrave or paint the symbols on different objects and surfaces. Such as on the body, on the bark of trees, on drinking horns, the soil, etc.

The Helm of Awe is also mentioned in the Poetic Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems documented in 13th century Iceland. The poem titled Fafnismal tells the myth of the dragon Fafnir. In the story, the Helm of Awe was originally in the possession of Fafnir. He reveals that it is the Helm of Awe that gives him such immense power. Later, the dragon is slain by the Norse hero Sigurd, who then keeps the helm of awe in his possession.

Vegvisir

vegvisir the viking compass
Vegvisir as seen in the 19th century Huld manuscript. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vegvisir is sometimes even known as the Viking Compass or Wayfinder. It is believed that the sign guided the Vikings to their destination. Many a time when they were out at sea, there was often the possibility for the weather to rapidly change. It could start raining heavily or there could be storms at sea. These conditions made it difficult to navigate the ships due to low visibility and instability. Thus, increasing the chances of getting lost at sea. To avoid such a situation, they used Vegvisir as a compass to find their way home or to safety in general. Though it is unclear how exactly it was used for this purpose. It was also believed to have protected the crew from the dangers of the sea in those conditions. The symbol was therefore used as a talisman on ships.

The insightful powers of Vegvisir weren’t limited to the sea. Many Norsemen onshore as well used it to seek guidance when they felt spiritually lost.

The appearance of this symbol seems to have evolved over the centuries. The symbol we presently know as the Vegvisir was first found in the Icelandic Huld manuscript written in the 19th century.

Like the Helm of Awe, Vegvisir also has eight staves emerging out of a centre to form a circle. Each represents the cardinal and inter-cardinal points. The ends of the staves have different motifs made using smaller lines, curves and dots.

Many believe the symbol shouldn’t be considered a Viking symbol. This is because a significant amount of time may have passed before it was documented. Thus, there is insufficient evidence to confirm it was used in the Viking Age.

It does, however, make use of runes, have illustrations on Viking ships and play a role in Norse mythology. All suggest that it is a valid Norse symbol.

Swastika

swastika carved on a viking age runestone
Swastika carved onto the 9th-century Soldelev runestone located in Denmark. Image Credit: Norse Mythology.org

The swastika has long been a symbol of spirituality in many cultures throughout the world. However, during the early 1900s, the symbol was unfortunately used to represent the Nazi party of Germany. Since then, it has been viewed as a highly controversial symbol worldwide.

In the Norse culture, the swastika was a symbol of sanctity, power, luck and life force. The sign was also linked to the sun wheel and the sky god Thor’s hammer Mjolnir.

Like Mjolnir, the swastika was also used for the purpose of consecrating people and objects. Hoping to bring luck and safety into one’s life.

The Norsemen frequently carved it into objects, particularly on their tools, to make them more sacred. The blessed tools were believed to be lucky and could result in better productivity.

They often combined the swastika and Mjolnir, the two symbols of Thor. For instance, the Norsemen may have had a swastika carved on their Mjolnir amulets. It was believed that the swastika even had the ability to improve the effects of a spell in its presence. It could add power to the spell, making it stronger. This explains why, many a time, runic inscriptions had a swastika engraved on them. Runic inscriptions were considered magical and could be used as spells.

Finally, the swastika was even carved on tombstones to wish the deceased luck and an easy progression into the afterlife.

The Viking Longship

a real viking longship
Viking Longship. Image Credit: Kidadl

Longships, also known as dragon ships, were the heart of the Viking identity and culture. These were large ships that the Vikings used for trade, war and evidently transport. The Vikings were able to travel to foreign lands using these advanced ships.

Boats have been around since ancient times in Scandinavia. The people there relied on the use of boats to move from one place to another within the region. However, these ships were different and what made them so was their efficient design and building techniques.

Viking longships were narrow, lengthy and lightweight wooden ships with a curved prow and stern. The vessel’s headpiece was often decorated using serpentine creatures to intimidate enemies and the villagers in the places they raided. If they were approaching a place with peaceful intentions, they would remove the ornament.

These boats could cover large distances with great speed and ease. It could also withstand the changing weather and the overall harsh marine environment for prolonged periods of time. The longships were operated by both manual effort and the wind. The sides of the ships were fitted with oars, which the Vikings used to steer the ship. The ships were additionally equipped with a large square-shaped woollen sail in the middle of the vessel. When the wind blew, the sail would help the ship move forward. These features reduced physical effort, especially when travelling long distances.

Due to these features, the Vikings always had an advantage over their opponents. They were already known to be ferocious warriors. But, with these added advantages, they would absolutely terrify those they fought.

Longships are an identity of the Vikings and a legacy of their material culture. It is an invention that Scandinavians are still proud of today.

Symbolic Use of Longships

image stone showing viking ship
Viking ship in an image stone in Tjangvide, Gotland, Sweden. Image Credit: Hurstwic

These advanced ships were more than just warships. They were a metaphor for the journey of life and, later, the afterlife. They were, therefore, used for burial rituals as well. The deceased would either be buried in graves on top of which stones arranged in the shape were placed. Or, deceased Vikings were buried inside a ship along with their belongings. In some accounts, the ship was burned, believing the flames would help the deceased reach Valhalla. These types of burials were usually reserved for Viking chiefs and leaders.

Lastly, images of longships have been found on several runic inscriptions from the Viking Age. Many of which narrated the stories of Viking voyages.

The Viking Axe

viking style axe with a metre long handle
Modern make of a Viking axe. Image Credit: Dark Knight Armoury

The Axe was the Viking weapon of choice. It was preferred over any other weapon because it was faster to produce and because the Vikings were expert axmen. The Norsemen were very used to cutting wood to produce heat, make furniture, boats and houses. Not only were they more comfortable with the axe but, far more skilled at using it compared to other weapons.

Viking axes had thin but sharp blades. This reduced the weight of the weapon, making it easy to wield. It was likely they used both hands to wield it as the Viking Age axes had long hafts. Sometimes measuring up to a metre.

Due to their use in war and cutting wood, the weapon is a symbol of courage, strength and power. Interestingly, it also inspired people to cut through challenges in their life. Just the way a tree is cut down with an axe.

Animals as Symbols

So far, we have looked at symbols either as designs and patterns or as physical objects. In Norse culture, certain images of animals also conveyed a certain message. Many of them feature in stories from Norse mythology.

Huginn and Muninn

18th century illustration of the ravens
Huginn and Munnin sitting on Odin’s shoulder as illustrated in an 18th-century manuscript from Iceland. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Huginn and Muninn were the twin ravens of Odin who served as the messengers of the All-Father. In different artworks, they are seen sitting either next to Odin, or on his shoulders. They were believed to fly around the world during the day. Odin had bestowed them powers to be able to travel long distances in one day and even understand humans. At night, the birds would return to Odin and report what they saw.

Many believe the ravens represented Odin’s conscience, as the words Huginn and Muninn mean ‘thought’ and ‘memory’, respectively. The Vikings were said to have sometimes relied on ravens to find land. They believed ravens always flew towards land. If they couldn’t find any, they’d return to the direction of their ship. According to the Landnámabók, which is a record of the Norse settlement in Iceland, the Norwegian Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, or, Floki used his three ravens to find his way to Iceland in the 9th century.

During the Viking Age, they were often featured in artwork and drawn on banners. The legendary Danish Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok, who was the supposed descendant of Odin, used ravens on his army’s banner. As ravens were associated with Odin, they symbolized wisdom, insight and victory.

Sleipnir

sleipnir the eight legged horse
Sleipnir as a symbol. Image Credit: Pinterest

In Norse mythology, Sleipnir was the eight-legged horse of Odin. Sleipnir is also a son of Loki, whom he conceived after turning himself into a mare. The horse has the ability to ride on land, water and air. Odin rides Sleipnir when he travels across the Nine Realms.

To the Vikings, the horse was a symbol of speed, travel and spirituality. An item with the symbol of Sleipnir was believed to serve as a lucky charm for anyone making a journey. This journey could involve physical travel or a journey to achieve enlightenment.

Bears

three bears pictured together
Image Credit: Best Served

Bears were highly revered creatures by the Norsemen. These large and furry animals were known for their strength and were believed to possess powerful spirits. Archaeological records even indicate that Vikings commonly kept them as pets. Those who weren’t able to be tamed were sacrificed in rituals. House bears, however, were given proper funerals. However, bears had a bigger role to play than just ritual sacrifice and domestication.

The Norse gods, Thor and Odin, were believed to visit Midgard in the guise of a bear. This made them well-respected creatures, who were honoured during certain initiation rituals for warriors.

The bear even had its own cult during the Viking Age. Its members were called the Berserkers. The Berserkers were perhaps the bravest group of Vikings to have lived at the time. Inspired by the bear, they were known to acquire the animal’s spirit before battles. This made them enter a frenzied state where their animal instincts took over. They became brave and powerful like the bear and charged directly at their enemies, scaring them. In this state, they fought wearing either bear armour or no armour at all.

Bears were therefore a symbol of ultimate strength, fury, the warrior, wisdom, healing and balance between the hidden and visible.

Wolves 

Artwork showing Skoll and Hati chasing the sun and moon
Artwork showing Skoll and Hati chasing the sun and moon. Image Credit: Pinterest

Wolves have a contrasting image in Norse Mythology. The majority of the wolves in the stories are evil, but there are a few that do not fall into the pattern.

The most famous wolf in Norse mythology is Fenrir. He is the son of Loki and the Angrboda. When he was young, Odin brought him to Asgard and so he was raised there by the deities. It soon began growing rapidly, something which the gods were unable to keep up with. He grew bigger, more powerful and wild. So much so that he began posing a threat to the gods. So, Fenrir was taken to an island located in the strait separating Denmark and Sweden. There, using a chain crafted by the dwarves, Fenrir was tied to a rock. It was prophesized that Fenrir would only break free during Ragnarok. The wild wolf would then face Odin in a battle where he would defeat the All-Father by swallowing him.

In addition to Fenrir, Norse mythology also tells the story of Skoll and Hati. Skoll and Hati were two wolves who spent eternity chasing after the sun and moon, hoping to eat them. This is how the Norsemen explained the movement of the sun and moon. As well as the occurrence of day and night and the changes in season. They were predicted to finally be able to consume the sun and moon when Ragnarok came.

The Duality of Wolves

In contrast to these relatively wicked wolves were Geri and Freki. Geri and Freki were loyal companions of Odin who were often seen lying beside his throne. Odin would even share his food with the pair of wolves.

Overall, wolves seemed to be malicious, untrustworthy, terrible and wild, but they were also strong, brave and clever. Some even had the ability to be loyal. Wolves were therefore a symbol of chaos and destruction. However, they also represent the duality residing within every individual.

The Vikings sometimes used the wolf sigil to draw power from it, in order to gain more strength and for success in war.

Dragons

dragon carving on stone
Dragon carved onto a runestone in Uppsala, Sweden. Image Credit: Andreas Sundell via Flickr

Dragons were feared beasts in Norse mythology as their presence brought only chaos and destruction. They were also one of the most powerful creatures in the cosmos.

The Norsemen believed that even simply looking at a dragon had the power to bring chaos and destruction. This is why they decorated the prows of their longships with dragon ornaments. Sending a message of fear and warning to their victims.

Dragons in Norse art were portrayed to have serpentine bodies, which is why they may be described as serpent-like creatures. In fact, Nidhogg, the serpentine creature gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil, was actually a dragon. Dragons in Norse mythology didn’t have wings and neither could they breathe fire.

Dragons were thus a symbol of strength, danger, chaos, death and even wealth.

Closing Words

The Helm of Awe within a longship
Image Credit: Vikingsbrand

In this post, we learned that symbols are more than mere illustrations, objects or beings in nature. They are a form of cultural expression communicated to both outsiders and people belonging to a certain culture. Surely, the Norsemen or the Scandinavians of the Middle Ages understood that. They made use of numerous unique and mysterious symbols to express their understanding of the world, their ideologies, their stories and their way of life. The Norse heritage has survived and these symbols have greatly contributed to carrying on their legacy.

 

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