It is a well-known fact that Vikings decorated their artifacts with symbols and motifs of various shapes, textures, and sizes. Their artistic creations were never only for the art's sake, but always had a more profound and meaningful story behind it.
And since Viking symbols were mostly of a mythological and religious nature, you can easily assume that the main aspects of them were associated with the Norse gods. Today we would like to talk about the symbols connected to the god Odin, the oldest and greatest god of Aesir. We will try to mention every symbol connected to the All-father best to our abilities, but the particular emphasis will be on the most significant ones. Naturally, we are talking about the Mead of Poetry and the triple horn of Odin.
So secure your saddles, our fellow Vikings, since you're about to take a ride on Sleipnir, the fastest of all Norse horses. Straighten your shoulders for you are about to carry Huginn and Muninn, the wisest of the ravens on them, and of course, be prepared to drink the finest of mead there is – the Mead of Poetry.
Symbol of Sleipnir
We can easily say that the human need for creating symbols as signs of their unconscious ideas is as old as the origin of human life itself. Symbols have always been products of our psychological and spiritual lives, and as such, shaped our perception and broadened our horizons. Just like a language, a custom, or a folk tale, no symbol has a single creator – its origin and evolution belong to the collective spirit of the entire world.
It is important to bear in mind that the symbol's appearance and its secondary meanings differ significantly depending on the social circumstances it first appeared in. Having that said, it is evident that each part of the world could be tied with a group of symbols of its own, and Vikings' homeland is no exception.
In the following segments, we will give our best efforts to tell you a story of Norse symbols, their variations, and usage over the centuries, with a particular emphasis on the most famous one – the symbol of a Triple horn.
As we have already learned, Norse mythology played a massive role in Vikings' everyday routines. All the gods from their two pantheons, but especially Odin, were the topics of many conversations Vikings used to have. Having that mentioned, it is no wonder they believed that Norse deities interfered with their lives on a spiritual, as well as on a physical level.
Some historians even say that Norse mythology was so embedded into Viking society that it was oftentimes difficult to separate it from reality. According to them, the worlds of Viking gods and mortals were tied so closely that it is almost impossible to detach them ten centuries later. And symbols were the threads that bind them.
We all know that Viking nature could never allow these brave Norsemen to lead peaceful and repetitious lives. Yet the harsh climate of Scandinavia sometimes forced them to it. And we can only imagine how hard it must have been for an invincible Viking spirit to conform to something as inconsistent as the weather.
They needed to believe in something more significant to maintain their souls fearless, something that would bring them closer to their gods, something like the Mead of Poetry, for example. So whenever they disappointed Odin, and consequently Thor would send them a storm, instead of drawing sketches for their next raiding voyage, a Vikings would draw a symbol.
Although it might be true that during the Viking age, stories and legends of the past were passed on orally from one generation to the next, that doesn't mean Norse men were unfamiliar with the alphabet. On the contrary, they had their own so that no outlander could understand a word of it. Having that known, you wouldn't be surprised if we told you that their alphabet, commonly known as the runes, consisted of nothing but symbols.
Namely, Vikings were fond and fearful of all the old Norse deities. Yet, no god's or goddess' name could both excite them and disturb them, as much as the All-father's. Therefore, it is no wonder that most Norse symbols were associated with his existence.
We are all familiar with stories of Odin, the All-father who welcomed the bravest of the slain Viking warriors into Valhalla. But have we all heard of his knot?
Many experts and connoisseurs of old Norse symbology claim that the famous symbol of Valknut represented just that – a knot of a slain warrior who is ready to be greeted by Odin.
The symbol of Valknut consists of three intertwined equilateral triangles inside of a circle. Since the three triangles have nine angles, historians connect it with the nine worlds Vikings believed in. And the circle around them could be interpreted as a symbol of reformation, rebirth, and fertility.
When talking about Odin and his symbols, it would be unfair not to mention some of his closest companions, a pair of ravens - Huginn and Munnin. Their names meant 'thought' and 'memory' so it makes perfect sense that according to the sagas, the ravens' main duty was to fly across the worlds and provide their master with the information they gathered along the way.
According to the sagas, and danish historical writing named Gesta Danorum, there once was a man who was a direct descendant from both Odin and his ravens. You are probably familiar with his name and deeds since we are talking about Ragnar Lothbrok, both a legendary king and a character from Michael Hirst's TV series called Vikings.
Furthermore, Norse animals, with their supernatural powers, played a huge role in Vikings' pantheon. Therefore, the fact that the horse of Odin appears on so many of their symbols doesn't raise many eyebrows. Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse, carried the god Odin wherever his heart desired, much faster than any other living creature could. Legends of Sleipnir and his obedience to Odin are described in both Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, so how could a true Viking not pay him homage with a symbol of his own?
Despite the fact that every symbol of Odin always portrayed the core values of a Viking age, not many of them had a meaning as powerful as Gungnir. Sagas often mention Gungnir as the All-father's magical spear that would always come back to him, wherever he threw it. But for a Viking, the symbol of Gungnir was much more than a drawing of a weapon. It represented strength, spirituality, and knowledge of Odin every Viking aspired to gain.
Odin and his companions
As Geri and Freki have a special place within our hearts, so they must have a special place within this article as well.
When someone mentions a wolf in the context of Norse mythology, the first thing that pops up in our heads is probably no one but Fenrir, an evil son of Loki and Angrboða, who will swallow the Sun and the Moon once the Ragnarok comes.
Playing such a huge, yet so negative role in Norse legends, Fenrir surely does take all the spotlight on himself. Just as much as he gives a bad name to the other Viking wolves, fortunately, some of us haven't forgotten of Geri and Freki, the famous wolves of Odin.
Although both their names meant 'greed,' there was nothing that would tie them to that attribute. They were, in fact, the most faithful and obeying companions Odin had, who helped him fight anyone who stood on his way.
According to some theories, the story of Odin and his wolves was essential to the Norse men for one additional reason. It served as an example of mutual love and respect between a man and an animal, and therefore, it made the relationships they nurtured with their dogs even more meaningful.
Finally, we come to the story of the most remarkable Viking symbol, the Triple Horn of Odin, and the mead inside of it– the story of Triskelion.
The origin of the word 'Triskelion' is oftentimes a subject of many debates. However, most linguists and historians can agree that it probably derived from the old Greek term 'Triskeles,' which meant 'three limbs.' In the old Norse version of the term, its original meaning was slightly altered, and it namely stood for a Triple Horn of Odin.
Triskelion was of great importance for many civilizations, and every single one of them brought its elements to it. Yet, although the meaning of this triple horn might be changed through time, it was a universal symbol of inspiration and energy.
It frequently seems impossible to talk about Odin and his wisdom and not to mention how he gained it in the first place. As you probably imagine, it has a lot to do with his previously mentioned horn full of mead - the Triskelion.
The Tale of Odin and his horn was mostly passed on orally, from one generation to the next, but since Vikings wanted to make sure it will never be forgotten, they wrote about it in their sagas, as well. In the next segment, we will give our best efforts to tell you this story as truthfully as we can, just as our Viking ancestors once used to tell their loved ones...
...Once upon a time, a man was born from the spit of the two tribes of gods, Aesir and Vanir. Being a descendant of all the gods, this man gained great powers and knowledge. His name was Kvasir, and he knew the answer to any question asked.
Many creatures became jealous of Kvasir and his extraordinary abilities, so one day, they decided to kill him. Although unsuccessfully, many gods and men tried to kill him for ages, it was only two dwarves called Fjalar and Galar that eventually managed to do so.
Instead of simply killing him, Fjalar and Galar decided to use his body, thinking it would still have some of its magical powers after the execution. They drained the blood from Kvasir's body and mixed it with honey in the attempt of making a magical mead. The dwarves then poured the mead into three horns and named them Óðrœrir, Boðn, and Són.
Several years later, the dwarves decided they were ready for the other mischief. They drowned a giant called Gilling in order to steal his boat. Gillig's wife became inconsolable, and his son Suttungr couldn't control his rage.
But when Suttungr finally caught the dwarves, he soon realizes he had much more to gain from them alive than dead. The dwarves told Suttungr about Óðrœrir, Boðn, and Són, three drinking horns that would make their owner omniscient. Suttungr agreed and let his daughter Gunnlöð guard the horns.
This story quickly spread amongst the gods and humans, and the triple horn became the subject of many interests. When it came to god Odin, he knew he had to find his way to possess it.
At that time, giant Suttungr and his brother Baugi dealt with severe issues on their farm. Their slaves have recently gotten into an argument and killed each other, so no one could help them achieve all the tasks. Once Odin heard of it, it came to him to disguise himself as a slave named Bolverk and offer his help to two brothers.
Odin impersonated a slave during the entire summer, but once the winter came, he asked to be paid not in silver, but something far more valuable. He asked to drink from the three horns.
Odin managed to persuade the giantess Gunnlöð to give him one sip per each horn. Odin, however, tricked Gunnlöð and drank all the mead from the horns, in just three sips. After that, Odin was given enormous powers and knowledge. In order to escape from the angry giantess, he turned himself into an eagle and flew away into the sky.
And that was how the old Norse legend of the triple horn of Odin was born.
It is sometimes hard to tell which of the two is older, the story of a triple horn of Odin, or its symbol. Did Vikings see this Celtic symbol that reminded them of a horn and made up a story that would go along with it? Or did they know about the story and started putting it into art? Either way, a symbol and its story cannot be taken out of context, for only together, they make a whole.
Some sources say that the symbol of a horn with three interlocking lines is perhaps as old as the Neolithic era. Since then, signs of it were found on various artifacts made of either metal or stone all over Europe. Greek mathematician Archimedes even writes about a triple horn in his book from 3rd century BC, called 'On Spirals.' The Horn symbol's meaning varied from one civilization to the other, yet it had several repetitive elements.
For example, the symbology of a number three remained constant during the entire course of time; a Triskelion was a relevant motif. This could only mean that the numerological element of this symbol played the main part in its meaning.
Number three is perhaps one of the most important numbers in the history of humankind. Pythagoras himself used to say it was the noblest of all digits, and German mathematician Gauss easily agreed. Number three is significant for both science and religion, for both medicine and alchemy. Therefore, it is no wonder; many consider it an 'angel number.'
There are three edges of a triangle, three primes in alchemy, three patriarchs of the Bible, three Buddhist jewels, three heads of a Slavic god Triglav, Jesus rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion and his ministry lasted for three years, card number three in Tarot represents the source of life, the soul consists of three parts according to Kabbalah, etc. As you can see, examples of this social phenomenon are nearly endless.
That being the case, it doesn't come off as shocking that number three was of such great importance for the Vikings, as well.
The story about the triple horn of Odin certainly wasn't the first one that revolved around the number three. For example, the bridge Bifrost has only three colors; in the Temple at Uppsala, there were statues of three Norse gods; before Ragnarok comes, there will be three long winters without a summer between them, and three red roosters will announce the beginning of it.
But there must be something extraordinary about the symbol consisting of these three horns of mead you probably think, since otherwise, we'd rush through them – just like through the rest of the symbols. What is so distinctive about this symbol, you may wonder. Don't you worry, fellow sons of Odin, the explanation is on its way!
In the late 12th century, a famous Icelandic poet called Snorri Sturluson wrote in Prose Edda one of the greatest folk stories of an entire Viking age. It was the story about Odin, and that time he drank the Mead of Poetry.
What makes this saga so special is that its scribe provided us with the myth and connected it with the symbol of a triple horn. According to Sturluson, all of the three horns could provide you with a piece of excellent knowledge, but only the middle one, called Óðrœrir, was filled with the Mead of Poetry and could turn the one who drank from it into a skald.
The rest of the drinking horns could not only provide you with the general knowledge of the world but could encourage, purify, and inspire whoever got in touch with it. In other words, Óðrœrir could not only make you smart and knowledgeable but, more importantly – wise.
Having that known, it is no wonder that the old Norse poets, commonly known as skalds, were so fond of this particular symbol. Although these three interlocking horns could ameliorate anyone, regardless of their occupation, skalds believed that warrior or a farmer could never use the Mead of Poetry for its accurate divine purposes.
It is somewhat unclear whether Sturluson wrote this story in its original form or added some of his elements. Namely, in his poem Skáldskaparmál he writes about how Odin escapes from the giantess Gunnloð in the form of a raven, right after he took the triple horn. Sturluson suggests that some of the mead fell out of the bird's beak during the flight all over the lands of Ásgarð. The mead fell on many gods and humans and blessed them with great wisdom and creativity.
Yet not all the mead fell out the raven's mouth. As you remember, some of it had previously been consummated and digested by Odin, so it fell as feces. Sturluson says that the ones who got spattered with this type of mead were forever cursed to be bad poets and pseudo-intellectuals.
Knowing it, we can see why medieval historians have such a hard time with this remark's origin. It could easily have been just another version of the folk story about the triple drinking horns, but it could also be a part of Snorri Sturluson's imagination. And although both versions are highly likely to be accurate, historians like to believe that the second one is more accurate. In that case, Sturluson would be a poet and skald, a satirical critic of the medieval Norse artists.
And although we might be several centuries late to receive the gift of the omniscient mead directly from a triple horn of Odin, there are many ways we can still be blessed with the magical powers of this symbol. Apart from jewelry and clothing, many household items feature a symbol of a triple horn.
Our recommendation would be getting a horn or a cup with these three horns on it. Since that is how you could come close to feeling whatever Odin felt when he first got in touch with the poetic mead. Or, if you already have some creative abilities of your own, a pen with a Triskelion on it wouldn't be a bad idea. That way, anything that comes out of your hand will be coming directly out of the all-wise triple horn.
Here we are, our fellow Vikings, almost at the end of our journey through time. We can only hope that our stories about Odin and his symbols were everything you hoped to hear regarding our friends from the past.
But fortunately, not all endings have to be sad - this one, for example, is everything but that. This one can only mean that it is time for us to get the horns out of our cupboards, fill them with mead, and reminisce about our ancestors' times. So if you have any particular thoughts, leave a comment and let us know, and in the meantime...
Comments will be approved before showing up.