Old Norse magical symbols, and ones that aren’t (Viking Esoterica, Part 3)
A while back a friend on Facebook shared a link to an interview with Björk from 1988. In the video, she’s talking some endearing nonsense about televisions and lying poets. But what struck me immediately was the tattoo on her upper arm.
I’ll cut to the chase; this strange, eight-legged thing is a Galdrastafur, or Icelandic Magical Stave, and this particular one is the Vegvisir, which is meant to keep one from losing their way. The literal translation is veg, “way” + visir, “guide”. It seems to have been tempting for translators to relate it to German Wegweiser, “signpost”, but while it comprises cognate terms, this is incorrect. It has also been characterized as a “Viking compass”, because of its eight legs, but this is also wrong. There is a wide variety of these staves, with my personal favorite being the Smjörhnútur, which protects one from butter created through witchcraft. I might even have gotten a Björkesque tat of it but unfortunately, it’s a bit nondescript; it just looks like a pentagram with a vertical line down the middle (below). Additionally, as a fencer, I don’t cotton much to the idea of someone jabbing me with a sharp metal object without my being allowed to jab back.
Unfortunately, for those interested in the historical lore of the Vikings, these are not. In fact, they are from a much later date, apparently from around the 15th–19th centuries, with the majority of the corpus coming from the 17th, so in historical terms it would be a mistake on the order of attributing Leaves of Grass to Dante Alighieri. As with the other elements of Nordic esoterica that I’ve discussed in this series, this is partly because of the appropriation of these symbols by various groups, and in particular, Neo-Pagans, though it should be noted, also black metal groups.
The best known Galdrastafur by far is the Ægishjálmur. Performing a quick Google search for it returns “about 166,000 results”, more than triple the population of 50,400 in Iceland in 1703.
Indeed, in addition to many a tat, it has seen increasing use in Vikingy settings of late, appearing in particular on round wooden shields. And again, this is a massive anachronism. It is true, however, that while never used by Vikings, these signs do incorporate elements of runes and pagan symbols.
The place in history of the Galdrastafir matches more closely with the Maleus Malefacarum. The emphasis on witchcraft is a demonstration of the turning back toward superstition of a people who have nominally accepted the Christian faith. Similar to the pentacles of the Clavicula Salomonis or the magical signs, even including some figures quite similar to Galdrastafir, on this scroll I took a picture of in the Tyrolian Museum of Folk Art (Tiroler Volkunstmuseum), Innsbruck.
It’s even shown in a Wikipedia article labeled as ægishjálmr (sic, should be Œgishjalmr), with the article’s name having been backformed from Icelandic into Old Norse. To be fair, this word does exist in Old Norse, it was just never used to refer to this symbol, as it did not exist. Instead it literally meant: “helm of terror”, which was appears to be skaldic language for a terror-striking glance rather than a physical object.
Let me quickly note that Icelandic, which some mistakenly think is synonymous with Old Norse, features several changes to both orthography and pronunciation, including -r → -ur for strong masculine noun endings, made, one imagines to avoid the difficulty in pronouncing a consonant as its own syllable, but it also creates an –ur/-ir pluralization that is linguistically abhorrent. Other North Germanic languages simply dropped the ending, e.g., the Old Norse form of my name is Stigr (the e simply representing a modern spelling variant which the Novelist with the Dragon Tattoo also used).
Back to the Eddas, we read in Fáfnismál:¹
“Ægishjalm bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.”
“Ægishjalmr bergr einungi,
hvar skulu vreiðir vega;
þá þat finnr, er með fleirum kemr,
at engi er einna hvatastr.”
“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.”
“The fear-helm surely no man shields
When he faces a valiant foe;
Oft one finds, when the foe he meets,
That he is not the bravest of all.”
The conversation is clearly not about an actual helm—shielding against a helm sounds entirely absurd barring an unlikely headbutting reference—but the fear the dragon Fafnir instills in mortals. The place of the word hjalmr in the kenning is locating the cause of fear in the head, or more specifically, the face and eyes.
All of the Magical Staves are essentially material manifestations of Abracadabra—meaningless mummery whose effect, if any, is psychological. These signs essentially represent an evolution: Before writing, there were symbols, then, when writing was created it was magic in itself, as we have seen in our discussion of runes. The defixiones of the Romans, the papyri (πάπυροι) of the Greeks, are magical formulae that are written simply using words—sometimes accompanied by magical charakteres, but the formulae take primacy—and indeed, even in Sumerian, one of the first written languages, apotropaic tablets, as well as ones bearing curses fit this pattern. It is only later, when words are no longer obscure enough that symbols return.
udug’khulne alaḫulne puakuba!
May the evil udugs and the evil alas tremble!
In this Sumerian incantation, an udug is a ghost/ demon of the desert, mountain, sea, and tomb, while an ala is a demon of suffering; the two are often mentioned together. In both cases, but particularly the latter, the descriptor khul—“evil”—seems fairly redundant.
So did the Vikings use magical symbols other than runes and bindrunes? Yes, there were a few.
The best known of these is the Thor’s Hammer (Þórrshmmarr). This is often shown as a simple, T-shaped emblem of the thunder god’s weapon. Some say this might be a cross variant, like a Tau cross, but the crosses found in post-Christian Scandinavian carvings are of a fairly distinct type, and the serpents that also tend to appear with the Þórrshamarr don’t make sense to Christian symbolism, whereas Þórr is a dragonslayer of some renown.
Even as late as the turn of the last century, a T shape was traditionally carved above doorways in southern Tyrol (I’m not sure why the Tyroleans keep turning up here…), for protection from many kinds of evils but storms in particular. In runic carvings it is clear that it is an invocation of the god to hallow and protect.
The so-called valknutr is another one. So-called, because the term is actually a modern coinage, while its true name is unknown, although many point to this passage as referring to it, and personally, I agree:²
hrungnir átti hjarta þat, er frægt er, af hǫrðum steini ok tindótt með þrimr hornum, svá sem síðan er gert ristubragð þar er hrungnishjarta heitir.
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.
The image is rendered either as three interlocking triangles similar to the Borromean rings or as a unicursal trefoil knot. There are not many attested, but here’s one:
There is also this image from the Snoldelev Stone in Ramsø, Denmark, which is literally three interlocking horns, and might be either another variant, or the specific sign referred to in the passage above:
There are various lines of thinking on the symbol’s use, mainly in association with Oðinn, and possibly relating to his ability to bind and unbind minds. If the hrungnishjarta name is correct, however, there is also a connection to Þórr, as the slayer of this jǫtunn: The “troll”, Hrungnir, had entered Valhalla (Valhǫll), gotten drunk and was wrecking the place, so they called Þórr. Þórr threw his hammer, and Hrungnir threw his weapon, a massive whetstone. Mjǫllnir shattered the whetstone and slew the giant, with shards raining down on Midgard (Miðgarðr) to become flint, and one jagged chunk lodged forever in Þórr’s head.
The Marvel folks seem to have opted for what is perhaps a more elegant version, known as the triquetra, using the symbol on their Thor’s hammer, but which is not found in Viking art:
The other symbol that the Vikings clearly used, is unfortunately one that can never be taken back: it is the swastika:
It appears on several bracteates like this one, which also includes the alu formula, so showing that it bears a charm. The swastika is also associated with Þórr, and indeed, may simply have been another depiction of mjǫllnir.
Through all three parts in this series, we have seen that Norse esoterica is a minefield of misinformation and appropriation by Neo-Pagans and Nazis. Even beyond this, much of the material has been mishandled and misrepresented. I’m often down with the “rule of cool”, but It’s important to at least understand if you’re taking liberties with historicity, and definitely if you’ve been duped by reappropriations. It’s also important to understand the context of how these things were used, and to take care in how you represent them—even simply doubling sól, the runic equivalent of s, might make someone think you’re into Gene Simmons.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- I’ve used the translation from Henry Adams Bellows, The Poetic Edda, 1936 here.
- This passage comes from the Skáldskaparmál section of the Snorra Edda, as translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, 1916; emphasis mine.