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Common symbols within Norse/Germanic Paganism

 

Common symbols within Norse/Germanic Paganism

by Nate Verschoor

 Over the past few years there has been an increasing popularity and general interest about the Viking Age and Ancient Scandinavian culture. Popular shows on TV, video games, the ever-growing visual content on social media as well as the small businesses around the world selling Nordic/Germanic products. While this is, in my opinion a good thing for various reasons, there is most likely a good amount of confusion within the masses due to the heavy amount of symbolism used within this time period. To those who are only just finding their way in this culture and possibly even the spiritual/ritualistic viewpoint, some of these symbols may seem strange. This guide has been crafted to showcase nine of the more popular and widely-known symbols found within Norse/Germanic Paganism, what they mean, how they can be used in a spiritual/ritualistic way, and where they originate from, both within myth and archaeological finds.

Mjǫllnir

Arguably the most popular symbol is Mjǫllnir, more commonly known as Thor’s Hammer. The Old Norse word Mjǫllnir derives from the Proto-Germanic word Meldunjaz (root word being malanan: “to grind”).  According to Snorri Sturluson’s Skáldskaparmál, the second part of his Prose Edda1, Mjǫllnir was crafted by the dwarf brothers Brokkr and Sindri2 due to a challenge by Loki after he cut’s off the golden hair of Sif, Thor’s wife. The hammer was crafted with Sindri working the forge using magick and Brokkr working the bellows below, ensuring that the fire never dies. During the crafting process, Brokkr is bitten by a fly (thought to be Loki), and this causes him to stop working the bellows to wipe the blood form his eye, thus causing the hammer to have a shortened handle. In order to wield the mighty hammer, Thor uses his belt Megingjörð (Old Norse: Power-belt) and his iron gloves Járngreipr (Old Norse: Iron Grippers).

Over the years, there have been an incredible amount of findings of Mjǫllnir pendants/amulets within various countries in the Northern Hemisphere with most being found in the Scandinavian countries, as well as Iceland. Most of the popular Mjǫllnir products that can be purchased today from various vendors across the world are recreated productions of original pendants/amulets that have been found. The most popular versions we see are recreations of similar pendants found in Sweden, particularly in Skåne and Östergötland.

 

Drawing by Oscar Montelius of an amulet found in Östergötland, Sweden. (1906)

While depicted as a weapon, and it most surely is, Mjǫllnir also holds spiritual and magickal properties that can be used in ritual and ceremonial uses. It is a symbol of strength, power, protection, natural energy (storms, rain, lightning, etc) and masculine/phallic energy. The Thurisaz rune is often seen as a runic variation or symbolization of Mjǫllnir as well. While generally seen in good light, it also holds a chaotic side. The giants, associate and symbolized by the Thurisaz rune, are also connected to this hammer. The giant Thrymr once wield the hammer when he stole it from Thor in order to steal Freyja and marry her. It is interesting to note that even though the hammer was made by the dwarves and gifted to Thor, it is the one of the most powerful weapons in existence, the giants are very aware of it’s power, are not afraid of it, and desire to wield it. So there is a lot of give and take within this symbol on a spiritual level. It takes great strength to wield Mjǫllnir.

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1 – Old Norse text either written or compiled in Iceland in the 13th Century by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson

2 - Within Norse Cosmology, Brokkr and Sindri reside in Svartálfheimr, meaning “Home of the Black Elves”.  The Old Norse word Svartálfar means “black or swarthy elves” so it may be safe to assume that dwarves and black elves are synonymous with one another.

Ægishjálmur

The Ægishjálmur, most commonly known as the Helm of Awe, or Terror, is a very fascinating symbol. Even though it is associated with the Vikings and Norse magick in general, it actually was created well after most (if not all) of Scandinavia had already converted to Christianity. While the symbol itself may have connections and roots linking it to Norse pagan magick and symbolism, the golden age of the vikings was already dead and gone by the time of it’s “creation” or publication. The first instance where we see the Ægishjálmur is in the Icelandic grimoire Galdrabók3. Earlier versions of this symbol date back as far as the 1400s, and appear in much simpler forms with only four arms and no ISAZ runes running through each arm.  The only insight we have outside of the Galdrabók as to what this symbol actually means, and the purpose for it can be found in the poem Fáfnismál4.

Fáfnismál : 16

The fear-helm I wore | to afright mankind,

While guarding my gold I lay;

Mightier seemed I | than any man,

For a fiercer never I found.

 

Ægishjálmur shown in the Icelandic Grimoire, Galdrabók. (1600s)

It is implied that the wearer of this helmet is to receive some sort of magickal protection, as well as to induce fear in others. Even though this symbol is also called the “Helm of Terror”, the runes depicted in it, in my opinion, lean towards this symbol being a visual interpretation of a physical object rather than a magickal sigil or a weapon used against another. The two main runes found within are Algiz and Isaz. Algiz is often associated with protection. Isaz is the rune of ice and is associated with stillness of the mind to induce clear mental focus. Taking into account these two runes individual meanings, it makes more sense that the Ægishjálmur be seen as visual representation of a protective piece of armor or a symbol carved to invoke the power of this helmet, rather than an esoteric magickal sigil on it’s own.

While there is a commonly accepted “use” for the Ægishjálmur as a symbol of protection and to ward off ones enemies, there is also a much deeper esoteric way to incorporate it into your spiritual work. Working outwards from the central axis, each arm is met with nine lines. Three at the base of the arm within the circle, three crossing the arm, and three at the top of the arm. Nine, of course, being a sacred number as well as a representation of the Nine Worlds. The arms of the Ægishjálmur, topped by Algiz and crossed by Isaz, act as a polarity of each axis between life and death. The significance of this is that since Algiz is a rune that represents life and death, and Isaz is a rune that represents stasis and meditation, this symbol, on an enigmatic level, can be used as guidance to travel between worlds during ritualistic praxis.

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3 – Icelandic for “Book of Magic or Spells”. Written in Akureyri, Iceland around the 1600s. The book, “En isländsk svartkonstbok från 1500-talet” was first published in 1921 by Natan Lindqvist.

4 – Eddic Poem found within the Codex Regius, “Kings Book,” manuscript written around the 1270s.

Vegvísir

The Vegvísir is one of the more popular symbols found surrounding Norse/Viking culture in the modern world, but, like the Ægishjálmur, it was most likely created well after the Viking Age. It is also a symbol that we know very very little about. It first appears in the Huld Manuscript5 but only offers very little information on what this symbols means, and there is unfortunately no clear origin in its creation, or who created it. The word Vegvísir is a compound word of two Icelandic words, vegur and vísir, meaning “road/path” and “guide” respectively. Vísir comes from the Old Norse word vísa meaning “to show or point”.

 

Vegvísir shown in the Icelandic Grimoire, Huld Manuscript. (1600s)

While there may not be very much information offered about the symbol, the information we do have is very direct. On page 60, the Vegvísir can be found with the following inscription…

Huld Manuscript : 60

 “Beri maður stafi þessa á sér villist maður ekki í hríðum né vondu veðri þó ókunnugur sé.”

“Carry this sign with you and you will not get lost in storms or bad weather, even though in unfamiliar surrounds.”

This symbol is very obviously a directional guide, hence it’s popular common name, the “Viking Compass.” However, there is no historical records or archaeological evidence that supports the idea that this symbol was actually worn or adorned during the Viking Age, especially considering it appears well after that time period. Today, it is a popular symbol to wear as jewelry or have tattooed as a way to guide oneself through life.

When approaching the Vegvísir in ones spiritual work, it helps to view this symbol as it’s namesake says, as a compass. Each direction points towards a specific location within the Norse Cosmos. It is a magical stave of direction and a guide to those enduring harsh weather. It essentially is a compass in which all directions are given. N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, and NW. When taking the cosmology of the Nine worlds into consideration, each stave has a certain meaning within the darker aspect of Norse magic.

N – Gives direction to the frozen realm of Niflheimr, with Isaz, The rune of

ice, being its predominant rune.

S – Gives direction to the molten realm of Múspellsheimr, with Sowilo, The rune

of the sun, being its predominant rune.

E – Gives direction to the black forests of Járnviðr, with Ehwaz, the rune of eitr,

being its predominant rune.

W – Gives direction to the massive lands of Jötunheimr, with Thurisaz, the rune

of the giants, being its predominant rune.

Given the significance of the location of important landscapes within the nine worlds, The Vegvísir acts as a spiritual guide and a sigil of one's journey with emphasis on the direction taken. As the main directions of north, south, east and west give a complete vision of its path's meaning, combining two directions into one gives the user a more powerful sense of enlightenment. For example; as N is

the path to Niflheimr, and W is the path to Jotunheimr, the two directions combined into NW give emphasis on the Isaz and Thurisaz runes and when combined, create a “bind-direction” as would the two runes complete a bindrune.

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5 – Compiled in Akureyri, Iceland in 1860 by Geir Vigfusson. It also appears in a second grimoire (only known by it’s catalog number, ‘Lbs 4627 8vo’) said to be written in the 19th century in Eyjafjord, Iceland.

Huginn and Muninn

Ravens played an integral part in Norse culture and are deeply rooted into the heavily symbolic nature of Scandinavian paganism. First attested to in the Poetic Edda, we learn of two specific ravens named Huginn and Muninn. Huginn, meaning thought, and Muninn, meaning memory, fly across Midgard each morning and then fly back to Odin’s throne to share with him what they have seen. This is attested to by one of Odin’s many names, Hrafnaguð, Old Norse for raven-god. It can be argued that these two ravens are spiritual manifestations of Odin’s mind or tying into the Norse concept of fylgja. An individual’s fylgja, or spirit guardians, usually take the form of various animals and accompany the individual through life.

Grímnismál  : 20

“Thought and Memory,

my ravens, fly every day

the whole world over.

Each day I fear that Thought might not return,

but I fear more for Memory.”

Being that ravens are carrion birds, they were often seen circling the skies whenever battles occurred. This was interpreted that Odin was present at the battle or choose slain warriors to take to Valhalla. To kill an opponent in battle was known as feeding the ravens. Ravens are synonymous with battle and have been expressed in various Old Norse kennings6.

 Bergir hræsævar - Taster of the corpse-sea

Hrafnvíns - Of raven-wine

Svanr blóðs - The swan of blood

Valgammr - The corpse-vulture

Dǫkkvalir dolgbands - The dark falcons of the battle-god

Veiðivitjar vals - Hunting-visitors of the slain  

 

A plate found on a helmet dating back to the 7th century said to depict Odin upon Sleipnir being accompanied by Huginn and Muninn.

 Historically, ravens as a part of Viking life took on many forms and uses. They were used to navigate the seas, they would circle hunters in the sky as a way to find food, and if appeared, they were considered a sign that Odin was near and listening. If a raven appeared after a sacrifice was done in his name, it was seen as a sign of approval and that Odin would favor them.

Archaeological findings depicting ravens from across Scandinavia date back as early as the fifth century. Artifacts found depicting ravens include various jewelries, tapestries, war banners, ship heads, armor, etc. The 9th century skaldic poem Hrafnismál7 (Old Norse meaning Raven’s song) tells the story of an unnamed valkyrie and a raven speaking of the life and military endeavors of the first Norwegian king, Harald Fairhair.

In Norse spiritualism, the raven is considered a symbol of death, wisdom and intelligence. The direct connection between ravens and Odin further solidifies this belief as they have become synonymous with one another. Ravens are travelers and can venture between the nine worlds with ease, making them perfect totems for meditation and ritual work for ones altar.

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6 - a compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with metaphorical meaning

7 - A fragmented poem by the Norwegian skald Þórbjǫrn Hornklofi found in Heimskringla (Old Norse King’s Sagas) written by Snorri Sturluson in 1230.

Valknut

The word “Valknut” is a compound word that means “knot of the slain” and was introduced in modern Norway well after the Viking Age had already ended. The Valknut is a symbol that has been most often associated with Odin because of his position as the god of war, and has been seen on various objects found across Scandinavia. It appears on two runestones found in Gotland, Sweden: the Stora Hammars I stone and the Tängelgårda stone. It has also been found on the famous Oseberg Ship on the famous fragmented tapestry and an ornate wooden bed post in Tønsberg, Norway. The symbol shows three triangles interlocked in either a unicursal or a tricursal form.

The symbol was first attested in the Prose Edda in Skáldskaparmál. It is here where we are given the only real piece of information on the symbol’s meaning and what it may represent.

Skáldskaparmál : Pg 117

“Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir's Heart.”

Here we are given the name of a giant named Hrungnir8.

A jötunn made of stone, Hrungnir (Old Norse: Brawler) owns the horse Gullifaxi9 (Old Norse: Golden Mane), which is eventually given to Magni10 when he is killed by Þórr11. After a bet with Óðinn about whose horse was faster, Sleipnir13 or Gullifaxi,  Hrungnir is invited into Ásgarðr14 to have a drink. Soon after, he becomes drunk and begins threatening to burn Ásgarðr, kill all the gods, and take Freyja15 and Sif16 to keep for himself. The other gods call in Thor who attacks and kills Hrungnir with his mighty hammer Mjǫllnir.

 

The Valknut (Hrungnir’s Heart) found on the Stora Hammars I runestone in Götland, Sweden. Dated back to the 7th century.

 In magick, the Valknut can be seen as a symbol of polarity. On one hand it can be a symbol of the gods, or a symbol of the giants on the other. This symbol has the potential to be used as a tool for balance between worlds, both light and dark. It is an interwoven triad sigil with each individual triangle representing life, time and death. Life, is represented by the three brothers Óðinn, Vili and Vé17. Time is represented by the Norns Urd, Verðandi and Skuld18, and death is represented by the children of Loki and Angrboða19, Hel, Jørmungandr and Fenrísulfr20.

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8 – Old Norse: Brawler.

9 – Old Norse: Golden Mane. A fast and magnificent horse that is just as fast on land sea and air.

10 – Old Norse: Mighty. Brother of Móði.

11 – Thor. God of thunder, protecter of Midgard. Son of Odin.

12 – Odin. All-father. Chieftan of the Æsir.

13 – Old Norse: Slippy; the slipper. Eight-legged horse of Odin. She is the foal of Loki.

14 – Asgard. Old Norse: Enclosure of the Aesir

15 – Old Norse: The Lady. Wife of Óðr, mother of Hnoss and Gersemi. A Vanir goddess.

16 – Wife of Thor. Known for her long golden hair.

17 – Sons of Borr. Borr is the son of Búri, an early ancestor of the Æsir.

18 – Weavers of fate. They represent past, present and future.

19 – Old Norse: the one who brings grief. Wife of Loki, and mother of monsters. She lives in the forests of Járnviðr.

20 – The goddess of the underworld, the world-serpent and killer of Thor, the monstrous wolf who devours Odin at Ragnarök.

Trollcross

Believe it or not, the Troll Cross is not actually a Viking symbol, nor did it originate in the Viking Age. Although it certainly looks like one, and is often sold as one, the Trollcross actually originates in the 1990s in Dalarna, Sweden when smith Kari Erlands began making trollcross pendants after claiming she discovered one in her grandparent’s home. She says it was a common symbol found around homes to offer protection to ones home and to ward off malevolent magic. However, there has not been any archaeological evidence found to support this claim.                                                                   

Trollcross jewelry

Even though it may not be an “ancient” symbol, it is certainly a symbol that can be interpreted and used to invoke ancient magick. The Trollcross can be used in ritual as a way to connect with all monsters that can be found in Norse mythology. The Old Norse word Tröll that means can be applied to and mean a variety of things such as fiends, demons, werewolves and giants (jötunn and thurs21). In left hand path magick, the trollcross is used to connect with the darker side of Norse magick and commune with the giants, as opposed to the gods. Keep in mind, this is purely theoretical and metaphorically speaking as there is no real historical evidence to back this this theory.

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21 – Old Norse: Þurs. The first beings to be born into existence when the rivers of Niflheimr, the frozen world to the North flowed into Ginnungagap, the great void, and clashed with the boiled steam and scorching fires of Múspellsheimr, the world of fire to the south giving birth to the first being and thurs giant Ymír (Aurgelmir).

Web of Wyrd

The Web of Wyrd, like the Trollcross, doesn’t officially appear until the 1990’s on the cover of “Helrunar: A manual of Rune Magick”, written by German occultist Jan Fries. It is interpreted as the interwoven web of fate for all men and gods. It is stylized as three groups of three intersecting lines and emphasizes the sacred number of 9, which in Norse mythology symbolizes the Nine Worlds22. It is a symbol often associated with The Norns, and represents fate, the past, present and future. Sometimes referred to as Skuld’s Net.

  

Web of Wyrd

The Web of Wyrd can be used in magick as a meditational tool for contemplation, seeking guidance, and to receive knowledge beyond the mortal world. This symbol acts as a portal between time and space and is able often used as a central altar point to draw energy from when casting runes.

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22 – Asgard, home of the Æsir gods, Alfheim, land of the elves, Svartalfheim, land of the dark elves (dwarves), Midgard, land of men,  Jotunheim, land of the giants, Vanaheim, home of the Vanir gods, Niflheim, primordial world of ice,  Muspelheim, primordial world of fire, and Helheim, the underworld and the home of the dead.

Irminsûl

The Irminsûl, compound word meaning Great Pillar in Old Saxon, was a pillar-like object that was considered sacred in Germanic Paganism among the Saxons. The Old Norse form of Irmin is Jörmunr, which is another name for Óðinn. In the Royal Frankish Annals23, it tells of Charlemagne24 describing the destruction of the chief seat in Saxon religion, the Irminsûl. It is said to be a great wooden pillar that was erected and worshiped under an open sky and is believed to represent the all-sustaining pillar, which could be interpreted to be the Saxon equivalent of Yggdrasill, the Nordic axis of the cosmos and the tree of life (axis mundi).

An illustration of the Irminsûl, by Wilhelm Teudt. (1929)

Tacticus wrote in his book Germania25 describing what is called the Pillars of Hercules located on the Northern coastal lands of ancient Frisia, which is now in modern day a large part of the Netherlands. It is said to be called the Pillars of Hercules because at some point in time Hercules did in fact visit this area. Comparisons between the Irminsûl and the Jupiter Columns built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries in Rhine have also been made. The Irminsûl has been argued to have been named after Irmin, a Saxon god who has been linked to either Tyr or Odin. However, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support this god was worshiped or even existed among Saxon belief and may very well just be a reconstructed deity since it seems more likely that the Irminsûl was the Saxon representation of Yggdrasill.

23 – Latin chronicle from the 8th and 9th century accounting of the history of the Carolingian monarchy

24 – Charles The Great I. Carolingian Emperor and King of the Franks from 800 AD – 814 AD

25 -  A historical and ethnographic book published in 98 AD on the various Germanic tribes living outside the Roman Empire.

Sun Cross

The sun cross, or sun wheel, is a prehistoric solar symbol that dates back as far as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Sun Cross being interpreted as a solar symbol appeared in the 19th century when Rudolph Koch published the “Book of Signs” in 1955 where the “Sonnenkreuz” appears. Archaeological evidence dating back to the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 – 500 BC), such as ritualistic Lur horns, ceremonial helmets and the Trundholm Sun Chariot, have been discovered and are being displayed in the National Museum of Denmark. Various petroglyphs in Sweden, Norway and Denmark featuring the sun wheel have also been discovered.

 

Nordic Bronze Age petroglyphs found in Tanumshede, western Sweden.

In magick and spiritual work, the Sun Cross, along with various sun/fire runes, can be used as a way to invoke and manifest solar energy. Being that it is also called the Sun Wheel, it can be used to symbolize Sól, the goddess of the Sun who guides her chariot every morning pulling the Sun across the sky.

 

 

 

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3 comments


  • Wonderful article! Thank you.

    Lori on

  • This is a very impressive article. As a history major, I really appreciate the references and the explanation of each individual symbol. I also love that there are blogs on your website to help teach others. It’s makes it a one stop shop!!

    Danielle Olson on

  • Awesssoooommmeeee detailed read! Greatly appreciated for someone rather new to Heathen Paganism

    Rick on

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