Whilst we know now, with the smug comfort of 21st-century hindsight, and modern scientific and technological knowledge, that magic is not real, this was not always the case.
Rewind over a thousand years, and you'll find that people in Viking societies, spanning vast regions from Canada to the Black Sea and from the Arctic Circle to southern France, held a profound belief in the power of magic.
Theirs was a culture where magic was omnipresent, though not necessarily always visible.
Magic played a significant role in these societies, from the seers (known as Völvas) who practiced divination and communicated with spirits to blóts – ritualistic sacrifices held to appease the Norse gods – through to the rich tapestry of Norse mythology full of magical elements and beings.
It was so deeply ingrained in Viking culture and society that it added a level of mysticism to an otherwise deadly, dangerous, and sometimes mundane existence.
However, the most practical form of magic, one that could be seen daily throughout villages, was the use of runic symbols for protection.
The Helm of Awe, or Aegishjalmur, though often associated with Viking protective magic, is a symbol that can only be traced back to the Huld Manuscript, written in the mid-19th century. Photo: Cloudy Design / Shutterstock
The Huld Manuscript, the Helm of Awe, and the Wayfinder
The study of the use of Viking symbols for protection is sadly one of those areas where history and myth become entangled, where fact and fiction are hard to separate.
A quick search on the subject, and you will be struck by two striking symbols – the Helm of Awe (Aegishjálmur) and the Wayfinder (Vegvísir).
Both seem to have a striking similarity to many runic symbols used by people in Viking societies; however, there is a small catch – the history of these two symbols can only be traced back a little more than a century, long after the last Viking ship sailed.
The Huld Manuscript, as named by modern historians, is a compilation of Icelandic magical staves (symbols) written in 1860 by Geir Vigfusson.
In an era of romantic nationalism, Vigfusson wanted to look back into Iceland's glorious Viking past (where it was once an independent island nation) to inspire a new generation of the richness of Iceland's cultural heritage and history.
Many of the symbols that we may glancingly associate with being used by people in Viking societies for protection date only to the mid-19th century when this book was compiled.
In this book, the Helm of Awe (Aegishjalmur) features as a symbol that was meant to strike fear into an enemy with a mere glance.
However, though the symbol is very modern, it is mentioned in the Norse sagas.
In the Volsunga saga, an early saga about the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, the "Helm of Terror" is among the treasures Sigurd claims from the dragon Fafnir's hoard after defeating him.
Snorri Sturluson also references it in the Poetic Edda, noting its use to "frighten mankind."
Another supposedly ancient symbol is the Vegvisir – the Wayfinder.
This magical symbol – first attested in the Huld Manuscript – was said to help the bearer reach their destination throughout rough and inclement weather.
Some speculate that this symbol may have had origins that fused Christian and "pagan" ideology, but this has yet to be conclusively proven.
The manuscript provides guidance that if this sign is used, the bearer shall never "lose their way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known." Take that, Google Maps!
The Valknut symbol is prominently featured on the Stora Hammars I stone, a Viking Age runestone located in Gotland, Sweden, appearing alongside images of Odin with his spear, a raven, and scenes depicting a burial and hanging. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
What does the archeological and historical record say?
Contrary to being just symbols in a 19th-century manuscript, substantial archeological evidence indicates that people in Viking societies used symbols for protection.
Given that a small – though fearsome – minority of people in Viking societies saw regular battle and conflict, there was a need to instill some fear and protection in these warriors.
A connection to the god Odin has been suggested and this symbol may have been used as a talisman for courage, adding to its spiritual significance.
Perhaps one of the most popular symbols used for protection – thanks in no small part to recent Hollywood adaptations – is Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir.
The Norse God of Thunder and Lightning – whose role also included protecting mere mortals – had a magical hammer, Mjöllnir, at his disposal to smite his enemies near and far.
Archeologists in Sweden recently discovered an amulet in the shape of Mjöllnir at a dig site, suggesting that people in Viking societies may have used such amulets symbolically for protection, possibly invoking the help and guidance of Thor.
Archeological evidence suggests that Vikings indeed used symbols for protection, as seen in finds like the Valknut symbol and amulets resembling Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir. Photo: Alejandro M. Ferrer / Shutterstock
Decorative and protective
Separating fact from fiction, mythical creations from historical reality can often be tricky when discussing the symbols used by the Norse for protection.
Their genuine awe, fear, and belief in magic led people from Viking societies to invest in symbols for protection, enabling them to seek help from the Norse gods.
These symbols were not merely decorative; they often held profound spiritual significance.
Symbols have been discovered in ancient and modern literary works and at several archeological sites throughout what was once known as the "Viking world."
These symbols were forged with a fusion of Norse mythology, magic, and practicality. They symbolized a deep connection and affinity for the magical and mystical realm, offering a tangible and symbolic defense against the uncertainties and insecurities of their challenging, ever-changing world.
Visit Live Science at this link to learn more about the recent discovery of the Mjöllnir amulet in Sweden.
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