Viking Symbols, meaning and origin
In this article, we will shed light on the most famous mythological symbols today and tell you a little more about their meaning. Any true fan of Viking culture likes to wear clothes and accessories with tattoos and symbols from Norse mythology. However, it is important to know the meaning of the symbol you are wearing, especially when some of these symbols are taken over by other modern movements.
After reading this article, you will be able to choose your Viking jewelry and clothing not only based on the appearance of the items you like, but also on their meaning.
Let’s get started!
THE IMPORTANCE OF VIKING SYMBOLS IN THEIR DAILY LIVES
Vikings saw Norse symbols as a link to fate and spirituality, the two things that were sacred to any Viking. Having fate on their side could mean the difference between life and death, and there is no need to waste words to emphasize the importance of the gods of Norse mythology in Viking times.
These are two reasons why Norse symbols were so important to Viking culture, and why almost every piece of Viking jewelry was associated with one of these symbols.
Since the Vikings sincerely believed that symbols held power, it is not surprising that they wanted to have them on hand in times of danger or uncertainty. They lived in heat, cold, wind and rain. They sailed the high seas, fought countless battles, and needed to believe that fate and the gods were on their side.
That is why the Vikings engraved these divine symbols in their jewelry, painted them on their shields, sewed them on their clothes and engraved them on their ships.
All because they felt that fate and their gods were on their side.
Today we will discuss the following Vikings symbols:
- the Nordic runes,
- the helmet of terror,
- Viking axe,
- Web of Wyrd,
- The Troll Cross,
- The long boat,
- Odin’s Crows,
- Boars and Cats,
If the symbol you are looking for is not here, then you can check our other blog posts, we may have covered it separately.
And now, without further ado, let’s begin our story.
In these illustrations from Pinterest, you can see on the left a woman with clothing and markings inspired by Norse mythology and on the right a man with the tattoo of the symbol Yggdrasil.
NORDIC RUNES, A VIKING ALPHABET
The word rune has its origin in the Old English word run (Old Norse runir), which means “a mystery or a secret”. Therefore, it is not surprising that runes were only used to convey special and extraordinary messages. Some Vikings even believed that runes had special powers.
Runes are very similar to letters, with one exception. In addition to being related to specific phonetic sounds, runes also have individual meanings, like glyphs in other ancient cultures. The Norse runic alphabets are named after the first six runes F, U, TH, A, R, K – the futharks. Historians have found that the earliest known futhark dates back to the period between the 2nd and 4th centuries.
As we have already mentioned, the Vikings used runes only in extraordinary situations. They did not use parchment to write down their stories, but passed them on orally from one generation to the next.
They did not use these divine symbols for anything, but when runes were used, they were carved only in wood or stone. That is why most of the stories about the lives of the most famous Vikings have been found engraved in rune stones.
Since the Vikings believed that runes had magical powers, it was common to engrave them on jewelry, shields and beads. They believed that these symbols would protect them and grant them victories in battle.
Norse mythology tells us that runes are not created by men, but are part of their divine world. They are as old as Yggdrasil, the tree of life, and are engraved on its trunk. The runes had such power that even Odin, the god of gods, was willing to suffer much to understand them. (Although that is a whole other myth)
Now back to our story.
These early runes are known as the Old Futhark and were used by many Nordic and Germanic tribes until the very beginning of the Viking Age. It was then that the Young Futhark slowly began to take its place. The Young Futhark had fewer runes (16 in total). However, because the transition was so slow, the runes of the Old Futhark that were no longer used continued to be used as glyphs.
Today, twelve centuries later, we can still interpret the Elder Futhark. In fact, most modern Viking jewelry uses this version of the runic alphabet, as it has more letters than the younger Futhark.
MJÖLNIR – NORDIC SYMBOL OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING
Let’s start our list with the most important (and most popular) of all Norse symbols: the hammer of Thor, or Mjölnir (Old Norse Mjǫllnir).
By the way, you can check out our article on Thor, the god of thunder and son of Odin.
The origins of the word Mjolnir are a bit unclear, as various sources suggest different things. Let’s take a look:
One source suggests that it means “white,” symbolizing the color of lightning, while others say it means “thunderbolt.” Other sources say that Mjölnir means “fresh snow”, symbolizing the purity of the soul. Finally, some sources link Mjolnir to words such as “crush” or “crush”. Probably because of the power of the thing!
Let’s forget for the moment the meanings we mentioned above and take a look at what the real Vikings believed at the time. When a Viking heard thunder or saw lightning, he believed that Thor had used his mighty hammer to strike down another giant.
However, let’s not forget that Mjölnir was much more than just a divine weapon. Thor used his hammer for many purposes, including blessing people and things. For example, Thor used his hammer to bless newly married couples to ensure that they would have numerous offspring.
Snorri Sturluson described how Mjolnir was created in the second part of the Eda Prose, Skáldskaparmál. In short, Loki won a bet with the dwarves Sindri and Brokkr, and as a result, the dwarves made the most powerful of all hammers – Mjolnir.
In addition to being associated with thunder and lightning, the Scandinavians believed that Mjolnir was also a symbol of safety and protection. Here’s why:
As mentioned earlier, Thor used his hammer to bless people and to slay giants, thus protecting them. It is therefore easy to understand why the Vikings thought that Mjölnir was a symbol of protection and security. Moreover, this symbol is considered one of the most powerful warrior symbols of the Viking era.
Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of Mjölnir amulets in various Nordic archaeological sites and Viking tombs. This symbol was so important in Viking culture that Vikings continued to wear Mjölnir pendants with crosses even after they converted to Christianity.
VALKNUT – NORDIC SYMBOL FOR FALLEN HEROES
Known as Odin’s Knot, Valknut is undoubtedly one of the most famous symbols in Norse mythology. The word “valknut” comes from the words valr (meaning slain warrior) and knut (meaning knot).
Since Odin was the one who welcomed heroes killed in battle to Valhalla, many Viking tombs contained figurines related to Odin with the Valknut symbol drawn next to them. This is how Valknut became the symbol of Odin.
Of course, Valknut has a deeper meaning. The symbol consists of three triangles with nine corners. What can these corners mean? The answer is very simple. Each corner is associated with one of the nine worlds of the Norse universe. In addition, this symbol also represents the cycle of life through pregnancy and motherhood.
THE HELMET OF TERROR (ÆGISHJÁLMR ) NORDIC SYMBOL OF PROTECTION AND VICTORY
The helmet of terror or fear (in Old Norse Ægishjálmr) is a Norse divine symbol of protection and victory. Several sagas (including Galdrabók) mention that it was used not only by Viking warriors but also by dragons (which seems hard to believe, no?!). Nevertheless, Volsunga says that Sigurd took it after killing the dragon Fafnir.
As for the modern description of Ægishjálmr, it varies, and here is why:
Some sources claim that Ægishjálmr is a magical object, while others describe it as an invisible sphere of protection that instills fear in nearby enemies. One thing all sources have in common is that it was a magical symbol.
The eight linear shapes that run from the center of the symbol represent the space between the eyes. Each shape consists of the rune of protection and victory (rune Algiz) interspersed with runes of hardening (rune Isa).
Thus, the deeper meaning of the Fear Palm symbol could be to overcome all the obstacles that fate places in your path through the hardening of your soul and spirit.
VEGVISIR – VIKING COMPASS SYMBOL
The name of this symbol, Vegvisir, comes from the words “vegur” (meaning path) and “visir” (meaning pointer), and means “scout”. Vegvisir is very similar to Ægishjálmr, so many people think they are one and the same. Like the Helm of Awe, Vegvisir consists of eight “beams” that meet in the center. The only difference is that all the beams of Vegvisir are different, whereas Ægishjálmr has eight completely identical beams.
Vegvisir was one of the most powerful Norse symbols, and here is why.
The Vikings believed that this symbol had the power to show the right path to those who had gone astray. And yes, they had ways to help them find the desired direction, such as sunstones, but everyone felt at ease if they were in possession of a magical symbol as powerful as the Vegvisir.
Can you imagine the value of this kind of artifact in Viking times?
This symbol was of immense value as the Vikings often sailed into the unknown, and having this special tool at their side to guide them was invaluable. This is why most Viking ships were “decorated” with the Vegvisir symbol.
THE TRISKEL SYMBOL OF THE HORNS OF ODIN
The symbol of the Triskele (also known as the Horns of Odin) consists of three linked drinking horns. The meaning of the Triskele is still a bit unclear. The most common belief is that it tells how Odin stole the mead from the poet. The drinking horns are called Boðn, Óðrœrir and Són. This symbol has a unique value for all those who worshipped Odin.
The two oldest discoveries of the Triskele symbol date back to the 8th or 9th century. The oldest discovery is in Sweden, on the Larbro stone, and it is believed that these discoveries date back to the 8th century. The other discovery of this rune is related to the 9th century Snoldelev stone (found in Denmark).
In modern culture, this symbol is often worn by artists and writers seeking inspiration, because of its connection to the artistic virtues of Odin and the Mead of poetry.
THE VIKING AXE – A NORDIC SYMBOL OF BRAVERY AND STRENGTH
Viking axes were the most used and famous of all Viking weapons. They were built in different sizes, from one-handed battle axes to two-handed battle axes. Many battle-axes had a hook-shaped lower part of the blade that allowed warriors to pull the shields and limbs of their enemies with ease.
If you’re wondering why the Vikings preferred axes to swords, here’s the answer:
Making an axe took far less time and iron (not to mention skill) than making a sword. In addition, every farm had to use an axe to chop wood every day. For these reasons, the Vikings practically grew up using axes, which made them one of the most feared warriors. Even long after the end of the Viking era, the descendants of the Vikings remained famous for their skill with the axe.
The symbol of the axe represents strength and bravery. Its deeper meaning can be interpreted as the ability of a person’s heart or spirit to overcome all obstacles on his or her path in life.
YGGDRASIL – THE TREE OF LIFE
Yggdrasil is a vast mythical tree that grows in the middle of the cosmos and connects the nine kingdoms of the Nordic universe. The tree grows from the well of Urd and symbolizes the creation of life from water, which is why it is called the tree of life.
Yggdrasil is one of the main Nordic symbols that indicates the mutual connection of all things in the Nordic universe. But we will come back to its deeper meaning a little later.
Yggdrasil plays a crucial role in Norse mythology, and here are some reasons why:
For starters, the gods preserved their youth by eating Yggdrasil fruit. Also, the tree of life plays a vital role in preserving the Norse universe after Ragnarok. According to a myth, a man and a woman will hide under its trunk and survive the final battle, after which they will populate the world again. Another important part of Nordic history is linked to Yggdrasil. It is a place where Odin hanged himself during his quest for wisdom.
The symbol of Yggdrasil has also been used by many ancient civilizations to symbolize the connection of all things in the universe.
For the Vikings, it represented the cycle of life, the cosmos, a link between fate and time, and above all, harmony.
All in all, this symbol is certainly not just another Norse symbol, it is one of the most influential symbols of the Norse faith.
GUNGNIR – ODIN’S SPEAR
Odin’s spear, Gungnir, is a symbol closely linked to Odin. It was made by the best of the dwarven craftsmen, who also created Skidbladnir, the ship of Freyr, and the golden thread of Sif’s (Thor’s wife) hair.
Gungnir is a powerful artifact inscribed in magical runes, so it will never miss its target. It is quite extraordinary, but what else can you expect from a weapon wielded by the god of gods himself!
This symbol had many different uses in Viking times. Here are some of the most common:
In his quest for wisdom, Odin had to stab himself with Gungnir and hang himself on Yggdrasil for nine days before the runes revealed themselves to him. This is the reason why the Vikings used spears to stab and hang their sacrifices to Odin.
Another interesting thing related to the Gungnir symbol is that the Vikings would throw their spears over the heads of their enemies while shouting “Óðinn á yðr alla! (“You all belong to Odin”). They hoped to gain Odin’s favor and win the battle.
But what does this have to do with Odin, you may ask?
Well, during the Aesir-Vanir war, Odin threw Gungnir on the heads of the Vanir gods, shouting “You are all mine!”. Now you understand the idea…
To summarize, in Norse mythology, Gungnir is a symbol related to Odin. He represents inspiration, skill, courage, precision, strength, concentration and wisdom.
WYRD CANVAS – SYMBOL OF THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
The Vikings believed in many things, one of which was that no one can escape their fate, not even the gods. The idea of fate was so fundamental at the time that the Scandinavians used six different words for it. This deep-seated belief that the outcome of every situation in life was already determined is something that gave the Vikings their legendary courage.
In Norse mythology, the beings who shape fate are called the Norns. They live under the world tree and guard the well of Urd (fate). It is there that the Norns weave the magical tapestry of the web, which will determine the fate of all beings.
The Wyrd Web symbolizes the tapestry. There is no written evidence that this symbol was used in Viking times. The symbol consists of nine intersecting lines, within which all the runes can be seen.
As the runes resided in the Well of Urd and had the power to show the past, present and future, it was believed that when a person looked at the Wyrd Web symbol, they could also see the past, present and future.
THE SWASTIKA – A SYMBOL OF LUCK AND HOLINESS
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the swastika? Of course, World War II and Nazi Germany. Yet, this symbol was created centuries ago and was often associated with sanctity, continuity, power and luck. It appears in the iconography of several ancient civilizations.
In the Nordic religion, its significance was linked to Thor. The swastika was often engraved on objects to bring luck and sanctity to their owners.
Many symbols from Norse mythology have been taken up in different movements, giving them a new meaning.
The Svefnthorn is one of the Norse symbols that is mentioned quite often in the Viking sagas, such as the Volsunga saga, the Hrolf Kraki saga and the Gongu-Hrolfs saga.
Most of the magical properties of this symbol were different in each myth, except one. The only power that Svefnthorn possessed (in all the tales) was his ability to put enemies to sleep. For example, Odin used Svefnthorn to put Brunhild (Valkyrie) to sleep.
THE TROLL CROSS – NORDIC SYMBOL OF PROTECTION
This symbol originated in Sweden and was carved in the form of the rune Othala. The troll cross was a magical amulet that protected the wearer from trolls and dark magic.
The Vikings believed that wearing this symbol decreased the chances of encountering danger in their path. It is considered a symbol of protection.
THE DRAKKARS – THE NORDIC SYMBOL OF THE VIKING MENTALITY
We all agree that the Vikings were great and fearless warriors. However, they had an additional asset that gave them a considerable advantage over their enemies: their longships.
The unique design of their ships was ahead of its time. With its incredibly shallow draft, the maneuverability of Viking longships was unmatched. This is precisely what made the Vikings so superior in terms of mobility and military dominance. They were able to use the same ships to navigate the ocean and use the rivers to navigate inland, practically knocking on the enemy’s door.
Do you know who else was able to do that in the 8th century? Well, nobody.
Apart from the advantages mentioned above, longships were built for speed. They could use the power of the wind to sail, or row with oars if the wind was not in their favor.
With their longships, the Vikings had an element of surprise on most occasions. As there are records of Vikings sailing to England, Iceland, the Mediterranean, and even Greenland and North America, you can imagine how unprepared their enemies were for the battles ahead. It took a long time for even the most powerful countries in Europe to adapt and defend themselves against Viking attacks.
Viking longships are also known as “dragon ships”. This is not surprising, as they wreaked unseen destruction at the time, and most of them had bows carved in the shape of a dragon’s head.
The Skíðblaðnir and the Nalgfar are the two most powerful ships in the Nordic universe. The Skíðblaðnir was a magical ship that belonged to the god Freyr. It was big enough to carry all the Asgardian gods. They used it quite often on their journeys on sea, land and even in the air. The ship was built by the best dwarven craftsmen so that it could be folded to fit in the owner’s pocket. A magical ship, indeed!
The other ship, Naglfar (Old Norse for “nail farer”), was built with the nails of the dead! And who could own this ship if not Hel, the goddess of death herself! There is a prophecy about this ship that says that when Ragnarok comes, it will carry Loki and his army of giants to attack Asgard.
Let’s get back to the “real” Viking ships.
Let’s be clear. The longships were not “real ships” as we can imagine them today. They were simply larger ships, whose “sailors” were fully exposed to wind, cold and heat. The Vikings were able to touch the water with their own hands by simply bending down!
And these are the types of boats that the Vikings used to cross the ocean! Can you imagine that?
This kind of commitment, courage and desire to venture into the unknown can only be understood by true Vikings. We, who are in love with their heritage, can only try to imagine it, and dream of being there on one of those magnificent ships.
So what do these ships symbolize?
Nothing less than the Vikings themselves and everything about them. Their mentality in general.
SLEIPNIR – ODIN’S EIGHT-LEGGED HORSE
Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse, probably the most famous horse in Norse mythology, which belonged to Odin. He is incredibly fast and can move on water, air and land.
He was conceived when Loki turned into a mare to sabotage the construction of the walls surrounding Asgard, by seducing Svaðilfari, a stallion of the giant who built the wall. This makes Sleipnir the brother of Fenrir the Wolf, and Jörmungandr, the World Serpent.
Archaeological findings show that many ancient civilizations (before the Viking era), from Korea to Northwest Europe, used symbols of eight-legged horses. This symbol was used to describe the passage of a soul from life to the afterlife.
For the Vikings, however, the Sleipnir symbol had more significance. It was used as a sign of speed, luck for travelers and transcendence. It was a favorite symbol for travelers and those seeking spiritual enlightenment.
ODIN’S RAVENS, Muninn & Huginn
Among the animals most often associated with the Vikings, the raven deserves its place on our list. If you are wondering why ravens were so popular with the Vikings, here is the answer:
Odin had two ravens named Muninn (meaning “memory”) and Huginn (meaning “thought”). They would only leave him to fly around the nine realms and gather information that they would then whisper in Odin’s ear. The importance of ravens in Norse culture is illustrated by the way Odin is usually depicted. Very often you will come across a piece of art depicting Odin with his two ravens sitting on his shoulders.
Another reason for the popularity of the raven symbol is a Viking whose popularity has increased nowadays thanks to the TV series Vikings. He lived in the ninth century and claimed to be a descendant of Odin himself. His name was Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar’s armies used raven banners and were never defeated under this banner.
Countless myths tell of Ragnar’s adventures throughout Europe. Wherever he went, his raven banner followed him. After Ragnar’s death, his sons Ubbe and Ivar used their father’s banner to lead the great pagan army to conquer England.
The raven’s banner continued to bring victories until 1066. It was then that Harald Hardrada, also known as the “last Viking”, lost his last battle, ending the Viking era.
As for the meaning of this symbol for the Vikings, it was used to represent Odin, wisdom, intelligence, insight and glory in battle. Today, however, it is used to symbolize the two centuries of Viking domination and exploration.
BOARS AND CATS – NORDIC SYMBOLS OF FYLGJA
From Norse mythology and art we know that many gods had their spirit animals, called fylgja. For example, Odin had ravens, Heimdall had rams, Thor had goats, etc.
As far as boars are concerned, two Norse gods had them as fylgja. These were Freya and her brother Freyr. Freya’s war companion was a boar called Hildisvini (meaning “fighting pig”), while Freyr’s boar is called Gullinbursti (meaning “golden hair”).
The symbol of the boar was synonymous with happiness, peace and abundance for the Vikings.
In addition to having a boar for her fylgja, the goddess Freya also had black or gray cats that pulled her chariot on her travels. Some historians believe that Freya’s power to make cats work together was a sign of female influence (a key topic in Norse culture).
For the Vikings, the cat symbol was a sign of blessing, or the character of Freya with all her virtues, such as magic and wisdom, abundance and beauty, love and desire, etc.
BEAR – SYMBOL OF THE BERSERKERS
There are few things that Vikings fear, and bears are one of them. As one of the strongest and fiercest animals, bears made even the bravest Viking recoil. They are super strong, deadly and massive, with fur that can withstand almost any weapon of the time.
Since the Vikings always tried to bend nature to their will, it is not surprising that some Viking kings had bears as pets. The Vikings who settled in Greenland even ended up exporting bear furs and even polar bears throughout Europe to anyone who had enough money to pay for their goods.
Another connection to bears comes from the berserkers. These were Viking warriors who fought in a state of ecstatic fury and frenzy. Berserkers often fought in front of the shield wall, to inspire their allies and terrify their enemies with their bravery.
The word berserker derives from Old Norse words meaning “bearskin” or “bearshirt”. This only strengthens the written evidence suggesting that berserkers entered battle wearing bear armor or without any kind of armor. Either way, the berserkers were undoubtedly warriors who made a difference on the battlefield.
The bear symbol represented incredible strength, fury, courage and warrior spirit. It is now quite easy to understand why the Scandinavians were fascinated by bears, isn’t it!
WOLF SYMBOL – FENRIR THE GIANT WOLF
The symbol of the wolf has contradictory meanings in Norse mythology. It can symbolize both the best and the worst in people. For example, the symbol can be a sign of teamwork and bravery or a sign of the wrath of nature, the power that even the gods of Asgard could not fight against.
What is the reason for these conflicting meanings? Let’s see…
There are some important wolves in Nordic folklore. The most famous is undoubtedly Fenrir, the wolf who was so powerful that even the gods were afraid of him and therefore decided to imprison him (these attempts resulted in many complications). However, it was predicted that Fenrir would break free from his magical bonds at the beginning of Ragnarok. The wolf will wreak havoc on the world, eventually devouring the sun and moon, and even Odin himself.
Now you probably understand the “worst of the worst” part of the meaning of this symbol. Now let’s look at the other side of its meaning (the “best of people” part):
Two other wolves play an important role in Norse mythology. They are not as evil as Fenrir, and they accompany Odin, the father of fathers, in his adventures. Their names are Geri and Freki.
In addition to its direct connection to animals, the wolf symbol is also linked to the Viking warriors known as úlfheðnar (which means “wolf skin”). It is unclear whether úlfheðnar was a synonym for berserkers or another type of Viking warrior altogether. Some sources suggest that úlfheðnar fought in small packs, unlike berserkers who fought alone in front of the shield wall. We will never know for sure.
However, one thing is certain. Wolves were of the utmost importance to Odin, and Viking warriors believed that they could channel the power of this symbol, which gave them strength and courage in the battles to come.
DRAGONS – NORDIC SYMBOL OF GREATNESS
Norse mythology has many myths involving dragons and giant snakes. Even Viking longships are known as “dragon ships”, which is a testament to the importance of dragons in Norse culture.
However, let’s pause for a moment to explain what the word “dragon” meant to the Vikings. To the Vikings, dragons were far from the dragons we imagine today (the giant, terrifying beasts with broad wings that breathe fire and wreak destruction). Most dragons were more like snakes, and only a few had wings and the ability to breathe fire.
On the other hand, some dragons in Norse mythology were more than just terrifying monsters. They were themselves cosmic forces. One such creature was Níðhöggr (which means “curse smiter”). He resides at the roots of the World Tree, waiting for the beginning of the Ragnarok.
Another great “dragon” of the Norse universe is Jörmungandr, the World Serpent. Its body is so large that it can encircle the entire world and bite its own tail. Forming a very famous symbol also “the Ouroboros” representing a snake or a dragon biting its tail. A symbol of the infinite and the eternal beginning.
Fortunately for Viking heroes like Beowulf and Ragnar Lothbrok, not all dragons were as big as Jörmungandr, as many myths tell that Vikings faced different dragons.
Finally, we must mention one of the most intriguing dragons in Norse mythology, Fáfnir. Fáfnir was a dwarf who turned into a dragon because of his treachery and greed. He sleeps on a vast golden horde and is considered one of the most intelligent and powerful dragons in the Norse universe.
So what is the meaning of the dragon symbol?
This symbol represents greatness in many forms. Great strength, great danger, great destruction and great wealth are some of the things the dragon symbol represents.