Symbols played a very significant role when it came to Nordic culture, from simply representing their faith and beliefs to invoking the power of their gods and striking fear in their enemies’ hearts.
The Vikings used symbols for varied reasons, but as history goes, if left unshared, relevance and meaning are eventually eroded in the minds of subsequent generations, which is why we have decided to conduct thorough research and share with the meanings behind some of the mean prominent symbols of the mighty Viking-age.
Runes (Norse Alphabet)
The Nordic Runes were the primary form of writing used by the ancient Germanic tribes, or the Vikings, as they are popularly known. The word ‘Rune’ translates directly to ‘Secret’ or ‘Letter’. Runes were commonly carved into stone or wood, which accounts for their angular structure. To the Vikings, runes were considered more than just letters but a representation of the mysteries of the cosmos as well. It was alleged that Nordic runes were used to invoke particular magical powers depending on which runes were used; each rune not only represented a character but also held a particular symbolic meaning.
These symbolic letters are found in Futharks, which are basically alphabets of all the characters, similar to those in the English alphabet. Historians and researchers have reported the existence of three distinct Futharks including the Younger Futhark, Elder Futhark, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. The most popular of these is the Elder Futhark, which consists of 24 characters and is believed to have been developed in the 1st Century. The Younger Futhark is believed to have been created at around 750BC and it consisted of 16 characters; this reduction in number of characters has been attributed to the change in phonetics in the Proto-Norse language over time. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc has 33 characters and is believed to have been created in the 5th Century.
There was a belief in the power of magic that was deep-rooted in ancient Norse mythology, particularly surrounding Nordic Runes. Magic was directly linked to the runes, which were in turn linked to supernatural forces of the cosmos and their influence to day-to-day life. Runes were used to alter destiny, which is why the ancient Norsemen carved them onto amulets and structures to invoke their magical powers into one’s life. The magical qualities of Nordic Runes can be inferred from Odin’s sacrifice, when he hung himself on the Tree of Life and gave up an eye to receive them. Some scholars argue that this symbolized the transition from normal sight to a more mystical and prophetic sight.
Valknut (Slain Warriors)
The Valknut (val-knoot) is a symbol that is made of three interlocking triangles and is one of the most significant symbols in Norse mythology. ‘Valknut’ translates directly to ‘Slain Warriors Knot’ and it was commonly used to honor the bravery and tenacity of fallen Viking warriors.
The three interlocking triangles of the Valknut were most commonly engraved on gravestones and runestones, usually alongside Odin, or animals that represented him such as the Wolf or the Raven.
There have been debates by historians on the origins of the Valknut symbol and a number of theories have emerged as a result. The Valknut is believed to be connected to Odin, the most powerful of all the Norse gods.
Odin was associated with wisdom, knowledge, ecstasy, poetry, and most relevant to the Valknut; war and the dead. It was believed that anyone who lived an ordinary life would find themselves in a shadowy abyss after death.
But those who lived a brave life, those who died in glorious combat, would have their souls carried by Valkyries into Valhalla where they would feast with Odin until the time came when they would join him once more in battle at Ragnarok.
It has also been suggested the nine points of the Valknut symbolize childbirth and that the placement of the symbol on gravestones symbolized reincarnation and the renewal of the spirit of the fallen.
Yet another theory suggests that the nine points were a representation of the 9 realms held by the Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, and that the Valknut was a symbol of faith in Nordic doctrines.
The origin of the Valknut symbol in Viking culture has not been ascertained, but what historians agree on is that the symbol was most likely used as a symbol that honored their fallen heroes.
Helm of Awe (Ægishjálmr )
The Ægishjálmr (eye-gis-hiowlm-er) is also known as the Helm of Awe or the Helm of Terror and was believed to be a mighty protective symbol used by Vikings. The Ægishjálmr was believed to be powerful enough to protect people from illness and disease.
The symbol was commonly worn between the eyes in blood or saliva and was also believed to strike fear and reverence in the wearer’s enemies as soon as they gazed upon him. The Ægishjalmur was also used to create a sense of self-motivation or self-awe, and most Viking warriors would inscribe it inside their helmets or on the noses of their shields before they deployed into battle. This was believed to inspire the wearer and keep him from harm at the same time.
According to historians, the very first mention of The Helm of Awe is in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse poems that gives some insight into Norse mythology and beliefs.
In the Book, a poem titled ‘Fafnismal’ tells the tale of a havoc-wreaking dragon known as Fafnir. Fafnir was indestructible because he wore the Helm of Awe in the middle of his head, which kept him safe from anything that would seek to harm him.
Note, however, the Ægishjalmur was regarded more as the symbol of protection rather than an offensive one. In the modern age, Germanic folk and people of Nordic ancestry use the symbol in reverence to their forefathers, as a symbol of protection, or for the purpose of demonstrating their faith in Asatro (ancient Nordic religion). Today the Ægishjalmur is commonly worn in the form of pendants, rings, bracelets, and tattoos.
Vegvisir (Viking Compass)
The Vegvisir is also known as the Runic Compass or the Viking Compass. This symbol is made of eight rune staves and was primarily believed to be a symbol of guidance and direction. ‘Vegvisir’ directly translates ‘Way Finder’ or ‘Sign Post’ in the Icelandic language and was believed to have been used as a compass by the Vikings whenever they navigated unchartered waters.
Although the Vegvisir was branded the ‘Viking Compass’ and has been associated with Viking voyages around the world, it is unclear what the original source of the symbol is. On one hand there is the is the Huld Manuscript compiled in 1880 by Geir Vigfusson and on the other, there is the Galdrabok, an Icelandic grimoire that could be as old as 400 years.
The Vegvisir is mentioned in the Huld Manuscript as a symbol of guidance and protection in a single sentence that loosely translates to; “Whoever wears this symbol shall never lose his way in storms or bad weather, even if he has no sense direction”.
The Galdrabok is a compilation of Icelandic spells in vivid detail; the book also describes the Germanic gods of the time as well as how the Vikings perceived cosmology. According to the Galdrabok, the Vegvisir is a symbol of guidance and protection and would ensure that the wearer “Never gets lost” and that they “Always find their way back”.
On that aspect the two sources seem to agree and it, therefore, becomes less important what the original sources was; what is more important is that there is no doubt that the Vegvisir was used as symbol of guidance and protection, most likely during Viking voyages and expeditions.
The Gadrabok, however, goes into further detail by prescribing that the symbol should be drawn in blood on a person’s forehead, just like the Ægishjalmur.
Triskele (Horns of Odin)
The Triskele, also known as the Triple Horns of Odin, consist of three interlocking horns, namely Odrœrir, Bodn, and Son. Today, the horns represent a commitment and faith to the Asatru faith. Historically, however, the Triple Horns featured in numerous mythological stories surrounding Odin as well as Viking toasting rituals. The primary story surrounding the horns involve Odin’s quest for Odhroerir, an enchanted mead that was brewed from the blood of Kvasir.
The actual details surrounding the incident vary but the consensus is that Odin used his wits to procure three horns of the brew over a three-day period. Odin supposedly stayed with the giantess Gunnlod in her cave and had intercourse with her for three nights, and by doing so, he gained access to her mead. After the third day, Odin fled in the form of an eagle and returned to Asgard. According to the Poetic Edda, anyone who drank Gunnlod’s mead automatically became a Skald.
The word ‘Triquetra’ is also known as the ‘Trinity Knot’ and the name ‘Triquetra’ is Latin for ‘Three-Cornered’ and even though the exact origin of the symbol has not been identified, the Triquetra has been found on Indian burial sites that date back as far as 5,000 years ago.
The symbol has also been found on Germanic coins from the 8th Century and on a variety of ancient Northern European objects; from combs to saddle bows. Some of these carvings were simple while other were intricate and detailed, for example, the Funbo Runestone found in Uppland, Sweden.
Historians believe the Trinity Knot held religious meaning to the Vikings especially since it bears resemblance to the Valknut symbol associated with Odin, the most revered god in Norse mythology. However, as much as we know that the Triquetra was most certainly religious, the exact meaning of the symbol to the ancient Vikings is difficult to pinpoint.
The Triquetra is also known to have been used by Christians. For example, the Norse Kings of York (modern-day England), struck the symbol on their coins. Nevertheless, it is likely that these Kings reinterpreted the Triquetra the symbol from Asatru, the ancient Norse religion, and gave it a Christian perspective after they had converted. This comes as no surprise; after all, St. Patrick merged Christianity with Celtic beliefs after his return to Ireland, centuries after the Viking-age ended.
Today, the Trinity Knot is associated with Norse/Celtic culture and has been popularized in the media by TV shows such as ‘Charmed’ and in pop culture in the form of pendants, bracelets, rings, and tattoos.
The exact meaning of the word ‘Mjolnir’ (myol-nair) in the Old Norse language is not ascertained. Some historians believe its has a meaning to the effect of ‘That which Smashes’ while other believe it means ‘Lighting’, and yet others believe it means ‘White’ (like the color of lighting).
Regardless of what meaning you prefer to go by, they all relate to the symbolism behind the legendary Hammer of Thor, god of thunder. Mjolnir was used to crash giants and monsters who would seek to destroy Asgard and the world of men; Thor would use the Hammer to crush the skulls of these monsters and it was believed that the hammer was so strong that it could level mountains. But apart from destroying giants and monsters, Mjolnir was also used to hallow people and things. For example, a couple whose marriage was consecrated by Mjolnir were assured fertility and protection from chaos.
In fact, the Vikings would often wear Mjolnir as an amulet and engrave it in their houses for divine protection from all manner of evil. Even after a large population of the Viking community converted to Christianity, the tradition never ceased and Viking Christians would wear Mjolnir alongside the crosses around their necks.
Today, Mjolnir is used by the Neo-Paganism faith known as ‘Heathenism’ in Germany as a symbol of protection. Also, people with Viking ancestry still wear the symbol to pay homage to their ancestors or to indicate their subscription to the Asatru faith.
Viking Axe (Norse Weapon)
The axe is the most prominent weapon associated with the Viking age. Historically, every single Viking male owned an axe since childhood. Axes were not only used in agriculture and everyday tasks like splitting wood, but were also used as a weapon during raids and during battle. This tool was favored by the Norsemen due to its ease of use and maneuverability and in time the Vikings gained a reputation for their dexterous use of the weapon in combat. The axe quickly became a symbol of strength and audacity and it struck fear in the hearts of the enemy when they saw it.
A Viking’s axe could mean the difference between life and death for a Viking and, as such, it was always kept in pristine working condition and was never more than just a few steps from its owner. Axes were also objects of status and some Norsemen would ornamentally decorate their axes or etch symbols on the flat side of the blade to send out a particular message. Some axes even had inlays of precious metals such as gold and silver, which was a display of wealth and social standing. From splitting wood, to building, and combat, the axe was truly a versatile tool to the Vikings. Furthermore, the Viking axe also represented the tenacity of Viking ancestors who conquered new worlds and bent them to their will.
Yggdrasil is perhaps the hardest Viking symbol to pronounce, but surprisingly it is simply pronounced, ‘ig-druh-sil’. The Yggdrasil is also known as the ‘Tree of Life’ and according to Norse mythology the cosmos is composed of nine distinct worlds/realms.
The gods live in Asgard, the giants live in Jotunheim, the humans live in Midgard, and so forth. Connecting all these realms is the Tree of Life; it is the frame that holds the universe up, the source of all life, and all realms rest on its branches and roots. Norse mythology was extremely complex, but the Tree of Life is the family-tree that brings everything together.
Yggdrasil is an ever-green Ash tree that rests in the middle of Asgard, where the gods live, and its branches stretch out and above to the other realms.
Yggdrasil’s weight is supported by three colossal roots; the first root is in Asgard and this is where the gods hold their meetings. The second root is in Jotunheim, the world of the giants. While the third root is Niflheim, the ‘Mist World’, which is the darkest and coldest place in the universe. In Niflheim, a dragon, Nidhug, chews at the root of the Tree of Life, putting all life in the cosmos at risk.
Perched at the very top of Yggdrasil is an eagle, and the eagle and the dragon are mortal enemies. It is believed that a squirrel named Ratatosk conveys messages between the two foes by running up and down the tree, which keeps their rivalry perpetually alive.
Longship (Viking Ships)
The Viking’s Long Ships were the primary mode of transportation for the ancient Norsemen. In the 1st Century, the Long Ships were small in size but by the 10th Century the boats had become significantly larger and had come to be known as symbols of terror that struck fear in the hearts of other European communities whenever they docked on their shores. The Viking would use the ships to explore new lands, pillaging and plundering any communities they encountered on their quests.
Long Ships had a shallow draft, which gave them the versatility to tread shallow rivers. They were also quite long, which is how they got their name, being over 150 feet in length. However, by the 19th Century, Long Ships had become obsolete and had been replaced by larger ships that were capable of carrying more goods and merchandise with fewer crew members.
The significance of the Long Ships to the Vikings cannot be underestimated; they were a significant part of the Viking lifestyle and, more often than not, a Long Ship represented the owner’s wealth and personality. As a matter of fact, the Viking Long Ships were so important that most Vikings were actually buried in them for use in the afterlife.
The Raven holds a very special place in Norse mythology; even Odin, the mightiest of all gods is referred to as the ‘Raven god’. This is due to his association with the Ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who are constantly seen perched on his shoulders. His two feathery companions fly away at dawn to gather information from all nine realms and return to Odin during supper at Valhalla to tell him all that they have seen and heard.
Huginn and Muninn have also been referred to extensively in the Poetic Edda, a compilation of poems that is believed to have been compiled as far back as the 10th Century. Various monumental landmarks such as the ‘Thorwald’s Cross’ also depict Odin with ravens on his shoulders, which indicates that the symbolism of the raven was a very central part of Viking culture and beliefs.
Ravens have also featured in stories of the Valkyrie. The Valkyrie were female figures who got to decide who was to live and who was to die in battle. Slain warriors would be carried to Valhalla in Asgard where they would feast with the gods as they waited to join Odin once more at the final battle at Ragnarok.
A 9th century poem titled Hrafnsmal describes a meeting between a Valkyrie and a raven where they discuss the life and fate of the first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair.
The significance of ravens in Viking culture is clear to see based on how many times it appears on helmets, shields, carvings, and banners; even Viking legend, Ragnar Luthbrok rode with a raven banner into battle.
Historians believe the Vikings intended to invoke the power of Odin and give them foresight, knowledge, and wisdom in all their endeavors.
Today, the raven symbol is still used in Viking festivals such as the festival of Up-Helley-Aa as well as on ornaments and body tattoos.
Very few animals on the planet invoke the mixture of emotions inspired by the wolf. The wolf is an intelligent and elusive creature that is shrouded in a cloud of mystery that inspires either hate or admiration, depending on who you ask.
Like the raven, the wolf is also associated with Odin. According to Norse mythology, Odin was believed to have two wolf companions, Geri and Freki, both meaning ‘the greedy one’ or ‘the ravenous one’. Odin would give them all his food from the table in Valhalla since all he needed to survive was mead and wine. The wolves would follow Odin wherever he went and would rush ahead of him in battle to gather information and return back to him to alert him of the situation, giving Odin a tactical advantage over his enemies.
There was also the legend of Fenrir Wolf, who was the son of Loki and the giantess, Angrboda, and brother to Hel, the goddess of the underworld. The Fenrir wolf was at first kept peacefully in Asgard but when the gods realized how big Fenrir was growing on a daily basis they decided to chain up in order to protect themselves, but he broke every chain.
Odin, therefore, sent a message to the dwarves who forged a leash called ‘Gleipnir’, which was as light as a feather but stronger than any metal.
Legend has it that Fenrir will escape at Ragnarok and kill Odin after which Odin’s son, Vidar, will kill Fenrir. This contrasting depiction of the wolf in Norse mythology brings about a conflicted perception of this majestic creature. But what is undeniable is that the wolf is a symbol of power, intelligence, wisdom, and ferocious tenacity.
8-Legged Horse (Sleipnir)
Sleipnir is Odin’s steed and is considered in Norse mythology to be the best among horses. Sleipnir carries the All-Father on numerous quests, leaving everyone awestruck by his size, speed, and strength. Sleipnir is a large muscular horse that has eight legs as opposed to four, and his lineage explains his aberrant form and immense power. Some works of art depict Sleipnir with eight separate legs while some depict the horse with extra legs shackled to each one of his regular legs. He has a grey coat with streams of a darker gray on his tail and mane. In one of the stories surrounding this mighty creature, the Valkyrie mandated that Nordic Runes be carved onto the horse’s teeth.
Sleipnir was born of Loki and Svaoilfari, the giant stallion who was commissioned to build the fortification at Asgard. Loki took the form of a mare and was impregnated by Svaoilfair and despite his parents being the god of mischief and a stallion from the banished race of giants, Sleipnir was accepted by the gods and, in time, proved to be a noble ally. Contemporary literature and works of art don’t acknowledge Sleipnir as much as they do other characters in Nordic mythology but he has made several cameo appearances in Marvel comics.
The dragon struck fear in the hearts of Vikings for centuries; the dragon is a symbol of terror and sometimes they used the symbol to strike fear in their own enemies. The Vikings sailed across Northern Europe between year 800 and 1000, pillaging and colonizing every civilization they encountered. The Vikings used ships called ‘Drakar’, which translates directly to ‘Dragon Ship’, which was to indicate that they were unstoppable in their quest.
The dragon has been depicted as the Midgard Serpent, Hel, god of the underworld and brother to Fenrir. The dragon has also been depicted as Nidhug, a malicious dragon that chews on one of the roots of the Tree of Life. Norse poems found in collections such as the Poetic Edda and Saga tell tales of brave gods and humans who dared to face these monstrous and seemingly indestructible creatures.
Several other dragons have been mentioned in Norse mythology and none of them were pure of heart, so it is easy to understand why they were almost always viewed as destructive monsters. However, as much as dragons were associated with chaos, destruction, and disorder, they also represented a change in Norse culture; the death of the old in order to pave a way to the new. They also commanded respect in the Vikings, who often viewed them as symbols of power.
Vikings would often ride into battle with dragon symbols on their helmets, shields, and banners in order to evoke the strength and ferociousness associated with this mythical creature. It is, therefore, safe to say that, like the wolf, the dragon symbol had a love-hate standing in Viking society, being despised and revered in equal measure.
Boars (Bear, Cats and More)
The Vikings had a harmonious and symbiotic relationship with nature and this is evident from the fact that a lot of their spiritual beliefs were based on the natural world. The ancient Norsemen believed that certain animals had special and unique traits that closely associated them with different gods and goddesses depending on their specific traits. The ancient Vikings claimed that these animals appeared to them in dreams and visions as bearers if wisdom and prophetic knowledge. The following are just a few of the animals that appear in Norse mythology.
The bear is considered by many historians to have been the greatest and most sacred of beasts in Norse mythology. The bear was considered to be similar to humans in terms of temperament and personality; they are highly adaptable, curious, brazen, persistent, and intelligent creatures. They were also considered to have an innate awareness to the values of honor and fairness.
The boar is closely linked to the gods Freyr and Frejya and was considered to be a symbol of protection. The boar was mostly used by warriors; the symbol of the boar would form the crest on shields and helmets and was believed to have the ability to keep warriors safe from harm on the battlefield. The boar is also believed to have introduced the ancient Germanic tribes to the art of agriculture by teaching them how to plough the ground before planting seeds, which makes the boar a symbol of sustainability and longevity as well.
The Stag was Freyr’s primary totem symbol in Norse mythology. The symbol represented more than just masculine and aggressive qualities; its spread-out antlers represented a symbol of nobility in the wild due to their similarity to the branches of a tree. Additionally, the annual shedding of antlers also represented cyclical growth and renewal.
Common knowledge would have us believe one thing: that the Vikings were uncultured and illiterate barbarians who were only interested in the plunder and conquest of other civilizations. But research has proven that Vikings were also skilled in poetry, in fact, numerous documents left behind by the Vikings have been discovered all over Europe. Wooden carvings and intricate metallic ornaments with enigmatic runes and symbols have also been discovered in ancient Viking territories, disproving the notion that the Vikings were irrational knuckleheads whose sole purpose was world domination.
As much as some symbols in the Nordic culture still remain a mystery, devoured by time, we hope this article has helped shed some light into what life and culture was truly like for the ancient Vikings.