Every culture develops its own collection of symbols. Typically, these symbols are used to depict language, like an alphabet. However, symbols can also be pictorial representations. We see this in familiar things like a deer, a maple leaf, or a tree. Viking symbols and their meaning are no different. The Vikings have the market cornered when it comes to cool symbols. Plenty of them are popular symbols we would recognize today.
Vikings used a system of writing, developed by the Germanic people, and carried to Northern Europe, known as Elder Futhark. There is also a Younger Futhark (named for the sounds of the first six letters). They also used plenty of images to convey messages. This played an important role in helping the Norse people record religious beliefs, and preserved the Viking culture for generations. Many famous Viking symbols have made their way into modern times. You’ve probably seen Viking tattoos on your friends and not even known it. This has all ensured that Viking influence would survive long after the end of the Viking age.
Wondering why I said the first six letters, when there are clearly seven in the word Futhark? You might not know that “th” in this alphabet, is technically one letter represented by the symbol above.
Norse culture continues to intrigue people use many of these powerful symbols in different ways. Viking enthusiasts who want their body to tell a story, often choose tattoos of Norse symbols. We see artistic representations of the fearsome dragon ships, powerful weapons, and rune stones. You might also be apt to see a poetic line from the Prose Edda. If you browse the catalogues of streaming services, you have probably noticed that ancient cultures provide countess hours of inspiration. This allows us to dive into the many worlds of Norse mythology, and immerse ourselves in Viking life.
Stay with me while I tell you more about how runic inscriptions, Norse sagas, Viking long ships, and a bit of good fortune have helped preserve these famous symbols.
Thor’s Hammer (Mjöllnir)
If you are familiar with the Vikings then you can undoubtedly call to mind the image of Thor’s hammer. No, I don’t just mean the really cool hammer that Marvel created for their Avenger films. When I think of the hammer of Thor, my mind goes to the amulet of protection. This was worn around the neck of many pre-Christians.
This important Viking symbol is argued to be the most recognized icon of the Norse Gods. It has also been said to be the chief rival of the Christian Cross. You wouldn’t necessarily know this by volume, since not that many pendants have been found in archeological sites. However, we have other clues that hint towards this magical weapon bringing in more than bad weather.
Archeologists have discovered a foundry mould from the 10th century in Denmark. The foundry was designed to accommodate the creation of both a Christian Cross and the symbol of Mjolnir. This meant that the local blacksmith would be able to offer his customers a choice. Choice inevitably meant more money in his pocket. This foundry mould itself is an important symbol. It suggests there may have been a certain level of tolerance for both Pagan and Christian religion during this period.
If you want to know more about Thor’s hammer in Norse Mythology, go check out my post Powerful Weapons: Thor’s Hammer Mjolnir.
Loki’s Serpent Biting its own Tail (Jormungandr)
I’ve included this symbol in here for a very specific reason. This is what we can call a teachable moment. While you will find designs out there that claim to be a symbol of the trickster God Loki. However, there is no ancient symbol that has actually been conclusively linked to Loki. I know right? He seems like an important guy. He probably shoulda had his own symbol.
The Poetic Edda does, however, feature plenty of stories where Loki makes an appearance. From this source, we can draw some conclusions about his link to the serpent. In Loki’s Altercation, we hear a story of Loki exchanges insults with the other Aesir. During this exchange he ends up chained beneath a venomous serpent. Its venom drips onto Loki and he suffers terrible pain. It is from these historical sources that we draw so much about the pre-Christian culture. It’s not too far of a stretch then, to link Loki with the serpent based on these stories.
It is important to think critically and understand context. Not all viking symbols and meaning will be historical. Some are newly constructed ideas based on ancient beliefs. Some may be inspired by historical events.
Connection to the Serpent
This isn’t the only connection Loki has to the serpent. Snorri Sturluson, who authored The Poetic Edda, describes three monstrous children fathered by Loki. These include a son of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, known as Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent. This is a second connection to the serpent.
So clearly there is an argument to be made that Loki does indeed have some link to serpents. There are no runic symbols known to be an official symbol of the trickster. Kind of a disappointment. However, I like to defend our modern use of inaccurate histories at times. I think it’s totally fine to make this connection and use it going forward. There really is no right and wrong when it comes to interpretation. We can only use the information we have at the time.
This connection has been made by modern scholars, and demonstrates just how easily we can misrepresent the past.
Odin’s Valknut Symbol
The Valknut symbol is something we still see frequently today. It is often used as a tattoo. I’ve seen it recently among three siblings who all got the Valknut on their arm to signify their bond. I explained that this was a famous Norse symbol, and not surprisingly, they were all unfamiliar with its origin.
The symbol itself is ancient, and is found on rune-stones, but the name is a modern creation. We have no known sources that tell us what this symbol may have been called during the Viking Age.
Origin of the Name
In the History and Science of Knots by John Christopher Turner, he suggests some possible origins of this name Valknut. He mentions a glossary from 1769 that uses the term Walknut with the following translation: “Walknut, Hercules knot, consists of many intertwining bights; called Valknut from vel which in Icelandic means cunning, superstition.” Connections can be drawn between Greek heroes and Norse gods. This may have certainly inspired the use of Valknut.
Turner also provides reference to an 1825 passage that reads: “On the loose sands of word friendship rests, which stretches out of days and late times although silent it speaks of faithfulness our valknut-bond’ goes over mountain and valley.”
This one seems to inspire more thoughts of Odin’s knot in my mind. It has connotations of stretching out over time and being a great bond. We know the God Odin sits in the halls of Valhalla feasting with the slain warriors. He also welcomes them upon their arrival. The unique thing about the Norse gods is that there is a sort of welcoming camaraderie about them. Though it has different words, and Odin is sometimes represented by different Viking runes, a bond of eternal friendship seems an appropriate symbol.
Odin as a Symbol
Odin himself is a symbol. He can usually only be conclusively identified on rune-stones by the presence of Sleipnir. This was his eight-legged horse that we will talk about later. He is sometimes identified by the presence of a Valkyrie. We never see a valknut or ravens when Odin is present. This is taken to mean that they would be redundant in that rune. Instead, they are thought to be a stand-in to represent Odin.
If you want to dive into the available data on runic symbols and their meanings check out the link below. Kelsie Spears Masters thesis from 2016 elaborates on this connection to the Norse world. She talks about where much of the information on Odin’s symbols was derived.
- Learn More: If this triangle symbol intrigues you, then check out my post specifically on the Valknut symbol.
Odin’s Ravens (Huginn and Muninn)
As we mentioned above, Viking symbols and meanings can be used interchangeably to represent the same thing. This is most evident with the god Odin. He has many symbols, and they can be used together, or separately, not always retaining the same meaning. One such symbols are the two ravens of Odin, Huginn and Muninn.
Odin was said to have two ravens who he released into the world each day. At the days end, they would return, and bring with them all the news they had collected. These ravens appear many times in Old Norse literature, and in Viking age depictions. Like the valknut symbol, the symbol of two ravens is often seen in Odin’s place.
Ravens, Hugin and Munin, of Thought and Memory
wing the wide world each day :
I tremble for Thought, lest he come not again,
yet for Memory more I fear.
Huginn was believed to represent Odin’s conscious thought, and Muninn was therefore thought to represent his unconscious thought. They are sometimes referred to simply as ‘Thought’ and ‘Memory’. This meaning, however, is the subject of debate among some scholars.
The symbol of two ravens is thought to also represent death in certain depictions. This is likely because of their ability to stand-in as a symbol of Odin. While Odin’s presence does not necessarily represent death, in the right circumstances, he can be thought to suggest death. This is likely because Odin is believed to reside in the great hall of Valhalla. Valhalla is where warriors are usher by Valkyries when they die in battle.
For even more information on these ravens go check out my post titled: The Ravens of Odin.
Odin’s Triple Interlocking Horns
The final symbol we will touch on is the triple horn of Odin. This symbol is exactly as it sounds, and looks like three interlocking drinking horns. This symbol is also found on runestones from the Viking era. The three horns are believed to be linked to the mead of poetry. In Norse mythology, the mead of poetry is not just any mead. This mead possesses magic powers, and those who drink this beverage become great scholars or skalds.
Mead is closely linked to the God Odin. It is the only known food source mentioned in the saga literature that is consumed by Odin. He also resides in Valhalla, where the medieval pre-Christian Vikings believed they would go and drink mead forever after death.
The three horns call to mind the story by the skald Snorri Sturluson about the creation of the poetic mead. In this story the mead is made from the blood of Kvasir and poured into three containers by Odin.
Interestingly enough, Odin spilled some of this mead, and it splashed onto Earth. This is how we now account for all the bad poets here in the realm of man.
Gungnir (Spear of Odin)
While Odin’s spear doesn’t receive the same Hollywood acclaim as Thor’s hammer, it is also a magical weapon. Odin is often seen brandishing it.
The name Gungnir comes from an Old Norse word meaning, “the swaying one”. I imagine Odin letting loose his spear, and knowing its target, swaying perhaps in the strong North Atlantic winds. Norse mythology tells us of its creation. The spear was believed to be hand crafted by dwarves (often thought to have magical properties). It was then brought by Loki to the Norse gods, with other fantastic treasures.
We often see images of Odin on runestones holding a spear that date to the Viking Age. There are even much earlier depictions of a spear God that date back to the iron age. However, supporting evidence, it is hard to determine if this was also Odin.
In the saga literature, Odin is described as riding out during Ragnarok, adorned in a golden helmet. He is also wearing a coat of mail and brandishing his spear Gungnir. It was revered as an unfailing spear, upon whose point sacred oaths were sworn. The point is also rumoured to have runes cared into it. There is no written description of what these runes might have been.
As Odin’s main weapon of choice, and his most well-known, it is thought to represent the unwavering wisdom, courage, strength and precision of the All-Father.
Learn more about this weapon over here in my post on Gungnir.
Yggdrasil (Tree of Life)
The great Ash tree that contains all existence within its roots. The worlds of the gods, the giants, the dwarfs, and the people all reside within Yggdrasil. It is sometimes called ‘The Tree of Life’, or ‘The World Tree’. The ideogram, or symbol that is used to represent Yggdrasil is a huge Ash tree. The branches on top are usually perfectly, or closely mirrored in size in its root system. It looks like you can turn it upside down and not lose its shape.
Because Yggdrasil contains all the realms of man and myth, it can also operate as a stand-in for the cosmos. Yggdrasil is the universe to the pre-Christians.
The Nine Worlds of Nordic Mythology
Within its root system are the nine worlds. They include: Muspelheim (the world of fire), Nifleheim (the world of ice), Asgard (the world of the gods), Vanheim (the world of the Vanir), Jotunheim (the world of the giants), Midgard (the world of humans), Svartalfheim (world of black elves), Alfheim (world of light elves), and Nidavellir (the world of the dwarves).
Beneath its mighty root system are three wells. The first, which is guarded by the Norns is called Urðarbrunnr. The second well is guarded by Mimir, and is called Mimisbrunnr. The final well called Nidhogg. This has a giant serpent residing within who continually gnaws at the root system in Niflheim. According to legend, this will eventually cause Yggdrasil’s collapse.
Because of their oral tradition, the stories of Yggdrasil can be slightly different as literature evolved. For more on Yggdrasil’s role in Norse Mythology and its ideograms, check out this thesis by Renata Rusu.
I have a post dedicated specifically to the Tree of Life right here!
Helm of Awe: A Magic Stave
Next to Thor’s hammer, and the Valknut, the Helm of Awe is one of the most recognizable Viking symbols. It is a magical object, though not necessarily dark magic. This symbol, along with many others were used as decorative art for the Viking people. It can be found in weaving, carvings, on bone, wood, and stone, as well as on jewelry. It persisted as a popular symbol even after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Today it is possibly the most popular Viking inspired tattoo.
The Helm of Awe is spoken of in the surviving Norse literature. This means it is indeed ancient and from the viking period. It is described as being used to induce delusion and forgetfulness. The Helm of Awe was also used to prevent people from seeing things are they are. It seems to produce a bit of brain fog in those exposed to it.
The magical powers attributed to the Helm of Awe included the ability to hide someone from their pursuers. This meant it was a great symbol of protection. It could be engraved in leathers, or embroidered into cloth. It could also be thrown over the head of a fugitive for safe passage.
The Helm of Awe makes an appearance in Völsunga Saga. After killing Fafnir, Siguid is said to have looted Fafnir’s riches and then finds the Helm of Awe. Yes they’ve got some weird names in the sagas. It is also said that the Vikings would draw the Helm of Awe on their foreheads before battle for protection. The Helm of Awe was not only for protection. It was also a symbol of strength, since those who made use of its magical properties were also believed to be freed of their fears.
Vegvisir (The Viking Compass)
Unfortunately, this is another case of modern writers putting the name Viking on something that has no real connection to the Viking age. I would argue that the Vegvisir could have been used as a magical stave during the Viking age, since magical staves like the Helm of Aew mentioned above were present in the saga literature. Unfortunately, we have no extant literature that supports the use of the Vegvisir during this period.
The Icelandic word galdrastafir can be translated to mean ‘magical sticks or staves’. These were definitely in use during the Viking period, and directly originate from the runic alphabet, and runes used by even earlier Germanic languages.
People inscribed these runes onto items to create a talisman (an item that has been carved with the belief that it now carries magic powers or can bring good luck). They could be used for many purposes, but we often find them associated with battles, seasonable fishing, to rid someone of evil spirits, or just protection in general. These items were thought to be used in everyday life.
The Vegvisir means ‘way finder’ and that is no doubt how it came to be known as a compass. It was thought to be used much in the same way, but was more of a magical compass, in lieu of the real thing.
New Creation, Old Concept
This particular stave does not get mentioned until much later generations. In fact, we cannot find any written evidence of Vegvisir until about eight centuries after the Viking Age ended (its end date is a subject of debate).
However, it is not unlike many staves that would have been used for generations, and therefore I don’t find it preposterous to have it included here.
It is also a very popular tattoo, and it is a bit unfortunate that many who get it do so under the guise of being a Viking symbol, when it is actually more likely associated with the Icelandic witch trials of the 17th century.
Svefnthorn (the sleep thorn)
The Svefnthorn is a symbol that is hotly debated. Ok, hotly debated might be a stretch. The sleep thorn varies considerably in both looks and meaning, depending on the source in which it is found.
It does feature in several manuscripts from the Viking Age and is often depicted as four harpoons. Additionally, it is sometimes represented with only one line and a diamond attached below. This is one of those Viking symbols and meanings that leaves us with more questions than answers.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the ways it has been described in the literature, and discussions of its representation then check out this post that considers recent academic debates on the symbol.
Despite the discussion surrounding its true form and meaning, its purpose seems to be to cast someone into a deep sleep from which we do not know if they will wake.
Web of Wyrd: Weaving Fate
The concept of Wyrd is a bit tricky to understand. It is multifaceted and is the root of our modern English word weird. The concept, however, is more easily connected to the Anglo-Saxon world than the Viking world.
Wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon term that does derive itself from the Norse word Urd, and it is here that we can draw some connection to the Vikings. Urd is the name of the eldest Norn (female beings who control and create fate).
The Norns are of course connected to Norse mythology, and reside in a realm within the Tree of Life. The Well of Urd is also in Asgard, the realm of the Gods.
I explore the Web of Wyrd in more depth over here in my post on The Irresistible Forces that Shape all Events.
Old Concept, New Name
It is more likely that this symbol of interconnected lines was known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and perhaps carried back to the North by raiding Vikings. Like a few of the other symbols mentioned, this one does not directly appear in any of the saga literature.
It is surprisingly difficult to find information on this symbol. It does not appear to be the main focus on many academic articles, and while it appears in some books, they are not peer reviewed, or published by universities, so their contents cannot be taken as gospel.
Dragon Ship (The Viking Long-ship)
A well-known symbol of the Viking era are the incredibly long, shallow ships that were used to cross oceans. The term viking, actually refers to sea-faring raider, and it not technically a word that would be used to describe a group of Scandinavian people (thought that is an entirely different blog post).
I do tend to view it as an acceptable word, as we call those who engage in the act of plumbing, plumbers, and those who raided, raiders, so why not those who go viking, Vikings. But believe me, this term is the subject of many heated discussions and we will return to it in another post.
Evidence of Long-Ships
The Viking ships, however, were more widely recorded, depicted, and even unearthed. This means that we have known about these ships for the last 1200 years through chronicles of those attacked, sagas, and surviving runestones, or ship burials.
The Norse sagas describe huge ships, measuring 35 meters long. Modern scholars refuted their existence, but in 1997 one such leviathan was found 40 kilometers west of Copenhagen. It was far larger than previous long-ships found, and lent credence to the saga literature which had accurately described this large class of Viking warship. Until this find, the ship was as mythical as the dragon, whose name it bore.
The use of animal heads on ships began in Scandinavia as early as the Bronze Age (2000 to 500 B.C.). This is when the shape of Scandinavian ships started to take on the shape of the eventual longship. They had high posts at both ends which would have had spirals, or animal heads. Art from the Bronze Age also depicts serpents and dragons hovering over boats.
Lost with Advancements in Technology
The ships persisted into the 15th century, but as shipbuilding advanced, the shallow ships, that exposed those aboard to the elements, were retired in favor of more comfortable watercrafts that could allow for cabins. The dragon therefore, was relegated yet again to the stuff of legends.
The purpose of the serpent or dragon head was as a potent weapon. Seeing the large dragon head emerge from the fog on an English shore would certainly provoke fear. It was also bred from the pre-Christian era, so one might assume that it could have been designed specifically to antagonize the Christians. While serpents in the pagan past are quite common, and can represent the continuity and non-linear cycle of life, the Christians had their own serpent symbols, which were far more sinister.
Sleipnir, The Eight-Legged Horse of Odin
Odin’s mighty steed. This eight legged horse is the result of a union between the trickster god Loki and a horse named Svadilfari. It is Loki, however who birthed Sleipnir. This has given rise to some interesting studies on the gender fluidity of Loki, who takes on both masculine and feminine traits in the Norse literature. Sleipnir, of course is magical, and able to both run over water, and fly through the air.
Interestingly enough, when I first began my PhD, I took an Old Norse language class at the University of Iceland and the story “Loki and Svadilfari” was the first short story we translated. It was a fun story, and yes, in the end, Loki is completely taken by Svadilfari and the two produce a child, who turns out to be the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
A Magical Gift to the Gods
Sleipnir is then given to Odin as a gift. While some of Loki’s children were cast as negative characters, Sleipnir has no such stigma. According to Edda, Sleipnir will be ridden by Odin during Ragnarok,which is a great honor. Sleipnir will then need to aid in the fight against his family, when Loki and his other children, who are closer to monsters, need to be defeated by the gods and their chosen knights.
As we have seen through some of these descriptions, Viking symbols and their meanings can sometimes date back to the pre-Viking era, and may have influenced their use during the Viking Age. The Elder Futhark runes exist throughout the Germanic world, and continued to find use by the Vikings, which then graduated to the younger Futhark runes. Some symbols, particularly those surrounding the god Odin really come to life through the saga literature. Finally, we have also seen that some symbols are only loosely connected at best.
For more of Sleipnir’s story, go check out my post dedicated to this eight legged creature here.
No matter their age, these ancient viking symbols remain wildly popular in todays society. This ancient culture continues to captivate the minds of people all over the world. Their history inspires great dramas and epic films, their art inspires designs we continue to use in our everyday lives, and their courage to cross oceans inspires us to dream.