The Vikings were famed navigators who traversed the rivers, seas, and oceans the world over, from Ireland to Baghdad, from Spain to the Russian steppes.
The Viking Compass?
Found amongst the other magical symbols and galdrastafir (Old Norse for "magical staves") found in The Huld Manuscript was a symbol that is of particular interest. The Vegsvísir – literally vegr (way) and vísir (to show) – is said to be of great use for travelers as it prevents the holder from ever getting lost. Under the symbol, the following description is given:
“Beri maður stafi þessa á sér villist maður ekki í hríðum né vondu veðri þó ókunnugur sá.”
Carry this sign with you, and you won't get lost in storms or bad weather, even in unfamiliar surroundings.
This symbol is widely believed to have been a 'Viking Compass' – used by peoples in Viking societies to help them on their travels. Yet there is wide academic suspicion of the fact that this even existed during the early medieval period. That said, magic and symbolism were important aspects of many Viking societies. Before we delve into more about "The Viking Compass," we first need to understand the role that magic played in Viking societies during the early medieval period in Northern Europe.
Norse Magic in Viking societies
People living in Viking societies, like so many pre-modern cultures, firmly believed in the existence of magic – both malign and beneficial. This form of magic (seiðr) was related to both soothsaying and the shaping of the future. In Norse mythology, this magic was closely associated with both Odin, the god of war, sorcery, and poetry, as well as Freya, who had the ability to see into the future.
The old Norse religion – mostly forms of paganism – also saw the extensive use of runes and skaldic poetry. Runes were carved onto weapons, jewelry, and amulets, and even, after the proliferation of Christianity into Scandinavia, church walls!
So it is quite probable that people in Viking societies did believe in the magical power of symbols.
In Viking times, runes were often carved onto weapons, jewelry, and amulets. Photo: Ksenia Yakovleva / Unsplash
Navigating in a pre-modern era
There were, perhaps, no greater early medieval explorers and navigators than the Vikings. Quite literally, they explored the entire so-called "known" world. They traveled extensively in Western Europe, from the Frankish realms down to Al-Andalus, masterfully navigated the river systems of Eastern Europe and the Russian steppes, and even crossed the vast north Atlantic Ocean to reach what is now modern-day Newfoundland in Canada. They did all of this without GPS, satellites, or even more basic navigational skills like a compass or a map!
For the Vikings that took to the water on longships, there was a firm belief that the Gods would guide and help them. The use of magic symbols, like the Vegsvísir, may well have been used as well as offerings to the Gods beforehand and to consult the local witch/seeress (Völva) for advice and information on the upcoming voyage.
Vikings often took long and dangerous maritime journeys, so there was a need to cover all their bases and seek as much advice, information, and magical protection in order for them to undertake a safe and prosperous journey.
Is there any actual historical evidence, though?
Historians and academics have widely dismissed the use of Vegsvísir by Viking-era sailors, navigators, or explorers. This is largely due to the fact that The Huld Manuscript was written by Icelandic author Geir Vigfusson in 1860… a mere eight or so centuries AFTER the end of the so-called "Viking Age."
So how did this Icelandic symbol written in the 19th century get tangled up with Norse Vikings 8 centuries before? Context is everything. The 19th century was a period, in European history especially, characterized by national romanticism. This was also the time of the first "Viking revival." One only has to look at the operas of Richard Wagner, written during this time, to see the renewed interest in old Norse mythology, sagas, and lore. Furthermore, the 19th century was also the time that old Norse sagas were being translated into other languages (particularly English and French) for the first time.
For the untrained eye, the Vegsvísir does have some structural aesthetics with old Norse runes and symbols. This renewed interest in Viking culture, during the 19th century, inadvertently absorbed the Vegsvísir as being from the early medieval period.
With little historical evidence, other than one Icelandic manuscript dating back to the 19th century, there is little doubt that Vikings did use the Vegsvísir to navigate across much of the Western Hemisphere. Since it first appeared more than a century ago, the Vegsvísir is now used on a wide variety of illustrations, jewelry, clothing, and even tattoos!
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