From spiritual and religious representations to divine protection on the battlefield and even the ability to put one's enemy to sleep, Viking symbols had a wide variety of purposes for all aspects of life.
A very Norse writing system
Historians, scholars, and academics have traditionally not exactly portrayed Vikings as having great linguistic intelligence.
Yet peoples in Viking societies, especially in the Scandinavian Peninsula, can lay claim to developing a highly unique and sophisticated writing system: the runic alphabet.
A rune is, after all, merely a letter in this alphabet that developed, from the mid-2nd century CE, amongst the Germanic peoples living in what is now Scandinavia.
The Elder Futhark was a runic writing system that may have been influenced by Roman culture. It was widely used by Germanic peoples across Northwest Europe and Scandinavia during the "Migration Period" (ca. 100 – 500 CE). Photo: petr sidorov / Unsplash
There was a set of three runic alphabets that broadly coincided not only with the rise of the Vikings but also with the long and slow process of the Christianization of Scandinavia. Scholars have labeled these as:
1) The Elder Futhark - from c. 150 – 800 CE
2) The Anglo-Saxon Futhark – from c. 400 – 1100 CE but especially used by the Anglo-Saxons in what is now the British Isles
3) The Younger Futhark – c. 800 – 1100 CE
Though much is known about these three sets of runic alphabets, they all have been influenced by both the Greek and Phoenician alphabets.
From the 24 characters used in the Elder Futhark, the number of runes decreased until only 16 were used by the time period of the Younger Futhark. This decrease in runes coincides with the evolution of the spoken language from Proto-Norse to Old Norse.
READ MORE: What was the language of the Vikings?
Scholars view this process as the penultimate stage of development of the North Germanic dialects before their divergence into the different medieval Scandinavian languages.
Regardless of the Viking's unique linguistic developments, the majority of people in Viking societies had some sort of basic knowledge of the runic alphabet.
Yet symbols were often needed to convey a short, direct form of knowledge transfer, communication, or meaning. They were the everyday written shorthand that the vast majority of the population – who were more likely farmers than fierce warriors – knew and understood.
Some had their basis in the runic alphabet, whilst some had their origins in the myths, legends, and lore of Norse paganism and the sagas.
According to some experts, ornate Thor's hammer artifacts were a clear marker of people who still worshiped the Norse gods when Christianity began to take root in Scandinavia. Photo: Carsten Musch / Shutterstock
Mjölnir: The hammer of Thor, protector of people
One cannot stress just how important this symbol, the hammer of Thor, truly is to both the Vikings themselves and to an understanding of the Vikings.
According to Norse mythology, Mjölnir was the hammer of the god Thor, who was associated with thunder, lightning, storms, fertility, and the general protection of mankind. Not only did Thor use this hammer to vanquish his foes but also for consecration, bringing people into the spiritual realm.
Mjölnir thus protected the very specific (a couple's new marriage) or the very existential (helping Thor to guard the cosmos against giants); therefore, it is no surprise that it is the Norse symbol of protection.
Many Vikings used to wear an amulet of Thor's hammer into battle, and many Viking burial grave excavations had uncovered warriors buried with these amulets.
The tradition didn't stop after the arrival of Christianity into Scandinavia, as many recently baptized Vikings continued to still wear a Mjölnir amulet into battle.
Svefthorn: Sleepy snoozin'
Though this symbol is mentioned throughout many of the sagas, especially in the Sagas of the Völsunga and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, it has a slightly different appearance in each one.
Yet all the sagas mention this symbol's magical property to be able to put an enemy to sleep.
The symbol – though used by humans – was also used by gods. In the Sagas of the Volsung, it is Odin who uses this symbol to put the Valkyrie, Brynhildr, into a powerfully deep sleep.
She, of course, remains in a deep sleep until Sigurd heroically comes to wake her up and rescue her.
An illustration of the triple horn of Odin with added ornaments. Photo: Bourbon-88 / Shutterstock
The triple horn of Odin: Magic and mead
Symbols of Norse Gods were popular and prevalent throughout Viking societies and literature. The triple horn of Odin or Triskelion. This symbol features three interlocking horns that represent three horns in Odin's quest for Odhroerir, also known as the "Mead of Poetry."
In this myth, two dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, murder the first human created by the Gods, Kvesir, from a combination of the spit of the Æsir and Vanir.
This disgusting drool led to Kvesir having sublime knowledge and being the font of all wisdom. However, the dwarves wanted this insight, murdered him and mixed his blood with honey, and poured it into three horns, Odhroerir, Boðn, and Són.
The mead was then guarded by a giant, and Odin used his cunning to be able to have a sip of the mead for three days.
As he was allowed only one sip per day, he would, in fact, empty each horn, drink all the mead, and then escape by turning into an eagle.
The triple horn of Odin was used as a symbol of artistic or poetic inspiration and wisdom.
The web of Wyrd: The interconnectedness of time
There is no doubt that this is one of the lesser-known symbols used in Norse lore and mythology.
Yet the web of Wyrd, sometimes also labeled by modern audiences as "the matrix of fate," is said to represent how the past, present, and future are all interconnected and interdependent.
The web is comprised of nine staves that contain all the runes symbolizing all the possibilities of the past, present, and future.
The web was woven by the Norns, who were said to be creators of destiny in Norse mythology, and is sometimes also referred to as "Skuld's nest," the name of one of the Norns.
Gungir: A Norse boomerang and a cassus belli
This is another symbol associated with Odin that pops up throughout the Norse sagas, myths, and legends.
Gungir is the name of Odin's magical spear, forged by dwarves who were the most skilled metal forgers in the entire universe. Gungir never missed its target and – like Mjölnir – was a sort of Norse boomerang that always returned to its owner.
The war between the Aesir and the Vanir, which starts as a sort of prologue for Norse mythology, was said to have been started because Odin hurled Gungir.
This act of hurling a spear over the head of one's enemies was often copied by Viking warriors pre-battle in an effort to gain the protection of Odin.
Yggdrasil is one of the most prominent representations of Norse paganism. Photo: Jozef Klopacka / Shutterstock
Yggdrasil: Tree of life
One of the more powerful representations of Norse paganism, and the faith of many peoples in Viking societies, is Yggdrasil, the Norse "tree of life."
This tree was said to be an immense and sacred tree that connected the nine realms of the universe, including Asgard – the realm of the Gods, and Midgard – the realm of us mere mortals.
It is first mentioned in the Poetic Edda compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, and it is described as a giant ash tree.
Odin was said to have sacrificed himself by hanging himself from this tree whilst it is also the location where the Gods would hold court daily.
Each of its three huge roots stretches into the realms where the Æsir and Jötnar live and also into Niflheim.
Adam of Bremen mentions that there was a giant sacred tree next to the Norse pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden.
Furthermore, this idea of a sacred tree, often seen as bringing good fortune and luck, was celebrated in some areas of Scandinavia and Northern Germany until well into the 19th century CE.
Aegishjalmur: Ward off evil and aggression
Next on our list is a rune stave widely known as a Viking symbol of protection. Aegishjalmur derives its name from a combination of two Old Norse words: Aegis (shield) and Hjalmr (Helm).
Yet this helm was not a physical helmet. This symbol was often drawn on Viking warrior foreheads for both a sense of protection and to instill a level of fear in their enemies.
It was also seen as a powerful talisman to ward off evil and aggressive rulers.
A physical "helm of awe" is part of the booty that Sigurd takes from the dragon Fafnir's lair following the beast's mighty demise, as mentioned in the Völsunga Saga.
Despite the Christianization of the Viking societies, this symbol was often used along with Christian rituals right into the early modern period (c. 16th century CE) of Icelandic history.
It is now found on the seal of the Icelandic county of Strandasysala.
Huginn and Muninn are two ravens in Norse mythology, famous for being Odin's helpers, or informers, to be more specific. Photo: asa tru / Pixabay
Swastika: Sacral meaning but overshadowed by later interpretation
For modern audiences, the swastika is one of the most repugnant symbols, full of anger, intolerance, racism, and bile.
However, the swastika design has been traced back to artifacts found from various cultures in the Neolithic Period.
Yet its adoption by Germanic peoples, from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval Period, interests us here.
The swastika was said to be a symbol of good luck and one of the most prominent lucky charms in Norse culture.
It was also used as a symbol for consecrations and blessings by people in Viking societies.
Yet its misappropriation by Adolf Hitler as a symbol of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945 CE and its recent use by Neo-Nazis have destroyed this Viking symbol of good fortune and luck.
Huginn and Munin: The twin ravens of Odin
Odin was said to have two ravens, Huginn and Munin, as messengers who often sat on his shoulders.
They would fly around the entire world throughout the day to return at night to recount everything they had seen and witnessed.
They were also able to communicate with humans, having the ability to speak any language.
They are not named by accident, as Huginn and Munin mean "thought" and "mind," respectively.
It is thought that these two avian messengers were projections of Odin's consciousness. Ravens were revered in Norse culture and often proudly portrayed on war banners used by the Viking ruling and warrior elite.
We have also devoted a whole article to one of the most popular Viking symbols, the Valknut, available to read here.
For the darker side of the contemporary use of Norse symbolism, read an article by The Conversation here.
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