Consisting of three interlocking triangles, its use has spread throughout the countries where Germanic peoples once lived, from the jersey of the German national team to tattoos to being adopted as a logo of a Swedish forest company.
The symbol, however, has a complex history that stretches from being inscribed on runestones in early medieval Scandinavia to its current misuse by white supremacists.
Valknut - modern term for an ancient symbol
The symbol that has been labeled the "Valknut symbol" – three interlocking triangles – with both unicursal or tricursal depictions popular – is a fascinating combination of the blending of history with the contemporary.
The symbol itself has been discovered on a wide variety of archaeological artifacts from Germanic peoples, though mostly in Northern Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia.
There is no mention of this term – to describe the symbol – in any contemporary sources dating from the early medieval period. It has been discovered on a wide variety of archaeological artifacts from this period, but the term itself is a modern Norwegian compound meaning "knots of slain warriors."
Scholars and academics are yet to conclusively discover the exact meaning of this symbol, and its definition is often wide open for debate.
Its origin, however, lies with the Germanic peoples.
The Germanic peoples are traditionally defined as Germanic-speaking peoples that once occupied Central and Northern Europe from antiquity to the early medieval period.
Their history can be traced back to the Nordic Bronze Age (1750 – 500 BCE); however, it was during the period of Roman expansion into Central Europe, from the 1st century CE, that these Germanic peoples entered the broader Roman consciousness thanks to border skirmishes, wars, and battles.
Following the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, these peoples (including the Goths, Saxons, Alemanni, and Franks) swept into the former Roman provinces to create newly independent kingdoms. The most powerful of these tribes were the Franks, who would create Francia incorporating much of modern-day France, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
Despite Roman propaganda that portrayed the Germanic peoples as "barbarians" and "primitive," many Germanic peoples lived in a complex and sophisticated society. Their religious practices, though differing slightly geographically, all shared similarities with what modern scholars have labeled "German Paganism."
With ancestral links to Proto-Indo-European religion, German paganism would be the basis for the development of the Old Norse religion in Scandinavia.
The Valknut symbol has been uncovered on various archaeological artifacts and objects used by Germanic peoples. The earliest known depiction discovered is on the Stora Hammars I stone in Gotland, Sweden.
Dating from the late 7th century CE, it shows a series of pictures with religious, mythological, and marital symbology. It is also depicted on the Tängelgårda stone; however, this depiction shows a scene of warriors holding rings with the symbol drawn beneath. One of the warriors is on horseback, and scholars have argued that this could be Odin.
Heading westward, the symbol has also been discovered in one of the most impressive archaeological finds of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) - the Oseberg Ship, buried near Tønsberg, Norway.
This well-preserved longboat has a treasure trove of Viking-era grave goods and human remains. A wooden bedpost, as well as fragments of tapestry discovered amongst the ships' grave goods, feature the symbol.
Finally, crossing the North Sea, a fisherman discovered a ring with the symbol on in the mid-19th century CE. Whilst spearing for a river eel, this fisherman uncovered a golden ring with the Valknut symbol etched onto it. The Nene River Ring, made of gold, was believed to have been forged sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries CE.
Some researchers believe that the Valknut symbol represents Odin's magical abilities. Photo: Alf Staaf / Shutterstock
Could it represent Odin?
Scholars and modern historians have not been able to conclusively disagree on the meaning of the Valknut symbol. Nonetheless, it is one of the most recognizable and widely spread images passed down to us from Germanic paganism.
What little we know about Germanic paganism, especially in Scandinavia, is largely thanks to medieval sources, mostly written in Iceland, from the 12th to mid-15th centuries CE. What became the Old Norse religion was steeped in a pantheon of powerful gods, priests, and ritualistic blood sacrifices.
Perhaps the most important God worshipped was Odin. One of his many hats (pun intended) was to ferry the spirits of the dead between the underworld and the world of the living, as well as host fallen warriors in Valhalla.
Furthermore, he was a powerful magician and shaman. He could, literally, use magic (seidr) to change the course of events or people's minds. This use of seidr by Odin has been described by some scholars in terms of weaving, spinning, binding, or loosening.
Odin could quite literally change men's minds, especially in battle, to become fearless or helpless. The Valknut symbol – with its knot-like appearance – could well represent Odin's magical abilities.
Best of the rest: Death, Hrunginr's heart, and the afterlife
The symbol has been heavily associated with death and the afterlife. The two picture stones on Gotland feature the Valknut symbol prominently.
On the Stora Hammars I, the Valknut symbol is depicted over a burial mound and below a raven. Nearby is a man with a spear – Odin – accompanied by a second raven.
There is no doubt that these ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Odin's companions, said to symbolize thought and memory, respectively. Behind the burial mound is a warrior hanging from a tree – a reference to the blood sacrifices that featured so heavily in Germanic paganism.
Furthermore, this was also a reference to Odin himself, who hung himself from Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, to gain knowledge of runes.
Another theory is that the symbol represents Hrungir's heart. Hrunginr was a jötunn (giant) made entirely of stone, who was defeated in a duel with Thor, according to Norse sagas. His heart was described as having an iconic three-pointed spiky design, similar to the Valknut symbol. The fallen stone giant was said to be the spirit of the night, winter darkness, and graves.
With the symbol possessing nine points, some scholars have argued these represent the nine worlds of Norse mythology. The three interlocking triangles could also symbolize the connection between Heaven, Hell, and Earth.
Other scholars have pointed out that it could be a symbol of reincarnation and that it may have protected dead souls against evil in the afterlife.
Whilst scholars disagree over the actual meaning of the Valknut symbol, it has seen a surge in popularity in recent times.
Heathenry is a modern religious movement that takes inspiration from Germanic paganism. As such, the Valknut symbol is used as a religious symbol of this new-age spiritual movement.
Somewhat disturbingly, however, is its adoption by white supremacists. The rise of white supremacy – especially in modern Scandinavia and the United States – draws heavily on Norse mythology and symbolism.
The Valknut symbol has been used by some white supremacists as a symbol of "Nordic power."
Given that the Vikings – who white supremacists hold up as paragons of Nordic might and power – have been scientifically proven to have been relatively multicultural and not all blonde-haired and blue-eyed - it is somewhat ironic that white supremacists would use such a symbol.
Whatever the actual meaning of the symbol is, and scholars may yet conclusively discover its true meaning, it appears that the Valknut symbol remains just as popular today as it was during the early medieval period.
For more on the misappropriation of Norse symbolism by far-right extremists, read an article featured on The Conversation here or The Atlantic here.
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