Since the Vikings were mainly warriors and seafarers, who lived in rough weather conditions of Scandinavia, it is no wonder why the compass is such an important symbol of Icelandic culture. Today, we will shed light on this absolutely essential symbol of Viking religion - the symbol of Vegvisir.
But first, let's take a closer look at symbols in general.
Meaning of Symbols in Various Religions
Religious symbols had various purposes throughout history, but they mainly served as a moral compass, constantly reminding people of their beliefs. Symbols also had the power to directly convey the word of God, break spells, give protection, and provide guidance in the darkest of times.
A single religious symbol often had the opposite effects within itself, and therefore, it provided a dual value to those who believed in them.
For example, the initial purpose of the Star of David was to chase away the evil spirits. Still, it eventually became the symbol of martyrdom and strength - the most generally recognized symbol of Judaism.
In Christianity, the cross symbol is believed to be a sign of both suffering and salvation. And according to the Chinese philosophical beliefs, the ancient symbol of Yin and Yang represents the contrary yet complementary forces of life. And the scriptures from Prose and Poetic Edda suggest that the symbols in Norse mythology were no different.
It is important to remember that a symbol is tightly connected to the society in which it first appeared. Still, it also has to be a term philosophically broad enough so that we can apply it to our lives ten centuries later.
Why are Symbols Important?
Some anthropologists say that symbols are the universal marks representing specific ideas and objects depending on the cultural context in which they appear. Others claim they are so deeply rooted in our unconscious minds that there would be no intelligent life without them. But they can all agree that the symbols have existed from the beginning of humankind.
Whether you believe it or not, symbols are, and always have been, all around us.
Sometimes we notice them immediately, and sometimes they hide in plain sight, simply waiting to catch our attention. For example, even everyday objects such as a mirror, a purse, or a knife have symbolic meanings of their own.
In literature, you can find that a mirror represents vanity or a passage through one's soul, that a purse is a universal symbol of wealth, and that the symbol of a knife usually stands for betrayal.
Although human minds responded to symbols more immediately before the scientific revolution, it is needless to say; they are still connected to every aspect of our lives.
Through colors, sounds, patterns, and signs, symbols have forever shaped our outlook on the world. And whether in medieval imagery or modern logos, they have remained a foundational expression of meaning and ideas that are often worth more than a thousand words.
Important Symbols in Norse Mythology
If you ever felt so drawn to the Viking history that you started to dream upon becoming a part of it, you can take our word for it, that you are not alone. And who could ever blame you?
Although marked with bad weather, blood, and raids, the Viking age is still believed to be a glorious era of Scandinavian and especially Icelandic history. Let's take a look at some of the most important symbols of Norse Culture.
Up until they adopted Christianity between the 8th and 12th centuries, Vikings believed that the universe was divided into nine worlds. In the center of them was a giant tree of life - Yggdrasil. Icelandic tradition suggests that Yggdrasil symbol was the interconnection between all the opposing forces. Once Ragnarok comes, it will create a new life and ensure that the world will function properly once again. Having that said, it is no wonder why the Viking symbol of a Great Tree was of such importance for the Norse people.
According to the Old Norse Faith, another famous Viking symbol was Valknut, also known as the heart of Vala, the nature of Hrungnir, or simply - Odin's knot. Although Valknut is mainly associated with the so-called father of the Old Norse gods, it is written in the sagas that the true meaning of Valknut has little to do with Odin directly. Together with the runes, the Valknut symbol was primarily used as an embellishment on Icelandic monuments and tombs, representing the cycle of life.
It is a common misconception that Viking history is only preserved in oral form. Even though they preferred to transmit their poems, myths, and legends from one generation to the next, it is no secret that Vikings could express themselves in a written and vocal manner.
Viking alphabet, commonly known as futhark, consisted of angular characters called runes. Among other symbols, runes were written on either wood or stone, and the Vikings believed they had magic powers. Interestingly, each runic sign meant a special letter, while it also had particular meaning as a word.
Perhaps the most famous symbol of the Viking age is the magic hammer of Thor, which was used both as a powerful weapon against thunder god's enemies and as a magic instrument that could grant shelter to the one who carries it.
Stories about Mjölnir were written in many Icelandic stories, poems, and sagas, but the modern version of it can be found in Marvel comics and movies. Although the symbol of Thor's hammer has various meanings and interpretations, to the Vikings, it was a universal symbol of protection and vitality.
Many mythical animals were known for their magic powers during the Viking age, but it is safe to say no creature was like Sleipnir, Odin's 8-Legged Horse. Incomparably fast and brave, Sleipnir was the ideal animal of the Viking world. And not only that, the sign of Sleipnir had a deep meaning, symbolizing courage, stability, persistence, and integrity.
Another magical symbol significant for Viking history is the emblem of victory, know as Aegishjalmur, which translates into the Helm of Awe from the Icelandic language. Aegishjalmur consists of eight branches located around a single circle, a central point of the symbol.
During the Viking era, it was believed that Aegishjalmur symbol had magic powers in times of war and for that reason, it was often drawn on a person's forehead before each battle. The term Aegishjalmur consists of an Icelandic word 'aegis' meaning shield and the term 'hjalmr' meaning helm.
One of the most recognizable Nordic symbols which shows three interlocked horns. It is the symbol of Odin. It comes from the story where Odin acquired the mead of poetry.
He managed to convince her to give him one sip from each horn which contained the blood of Kvasir, a being born of the combination of Aesir and Vanir saliva. Kvasir was the wisest man alive. At one point, he was killed by dwarves and his blood was mixed with honey. Thus, the mead of poetry was created.
In order to get the mead, Odin managed to seduce giantess Gunnlöð. He managed to convince her that he is in love with he and they spent three nights together. Each night, Odin managed to convince her to give him one sip of the mead. What she didn't know was that he drank a whole horn with each sip.
After a third such sip, Odin managed to become a master of poetry. After he tricked Gunnlöð, he turned into an eagle and managed to escape unscathed, before the giantess understood what was going on. It is just one of many Norse mythology stories, but the symbol itself represents poetic inspiration and wisdom.
Is Vegvisir from the Viking age?
Now, for the main reason why are we here today.
The first thing that is important to mention is that Vegvisir is actually not from the Viking age. The origin of the vegvisir is from the Icelandic grimoires. To clarify, the Icelandic grimoire is a book of spells and various things connected to magic. One source is Huld manuscript and the other is the Icelandic book Galdrabok.
Since Huld manuscript comes from the 19th century and Galdabrok comes from the late 16th or early 19th, it is safe to say that Galdrabok is the oldest mention of vegvisir symbol.
As we know, the Viking age lasted until the 11th century, and since the earliest mention of vegvisir symbol is from the late 16th century, we can say with certainty that vegvisir symbol comes at least 500 years after the Viking age (and probably a little bit later)
Vegvisir Meaning: Viking Symbol of Guidance
Vegvisir got its name by combining the Icelandic words vegur (road or path) and visir for which the closest translation in this context is ''guide''. Its more basic meaning is signpost or wayfinder. From this, we can get the meaning of vegvisir - runic compass.
So, how is this compass used?
Well, it's used magically. It shouldn't be confused with an actual Viking compass.
Of course, as skilled sailors, Vikings were used to traveling across open bodies of water, and for that, they had to use something to navigate. Early Viking compass was one of the most recognizable Viking achievements. This isn't that.
As we said, vegvisir is an item of Norse magic. It is supposed to be carried by someone going through storms or bad weather.
How do we carry vegvisir symbol you might ask?
Well according to the Huld manuscript, it is supposed to be drawn in blood on one's forehead. Of course, not many people today would commit themselves to such a sacrifice for a little bit of magical protection but we should look at the time context.
Before electricity, the internet and GPS, and every modern invention that we use today in order to get home safely, people had to get creative. If one had to carve a vegvisir symbol in order not to lose one's way, one would do it.
When it comes to the meaning of the hands of vegvisir, it is not entirely clear what they mean, but since there are eight of them - the most probable explanation is that they represent cardinal points - worlds of the Norse mythology. Every hand represents one world and the middle part is Midgard, the world in which we live.
Icelandic Magical Staves
Vegvisir symbol is not the only magical symbol used. Huld manuscript compiled all magical staves that are used.
Their uses are various and are some of the most significant windows to history of the ordinary man of that age.
Well, as we can see why were the runes used, we can see what ordinary people needed. There are of course those connected to war (as are Helm of Awe and Skelkunarstafur), there are those which protect you against all sorts of magic. I
n the end, there the most ordinary ones which we could easily use even today - Nábrókarstafur for the endless supply of money, Kaupaloki to prosper in business, Veiðistafur for luck in fishing, and, of course, the endless problem - Að unni, the sign which is worn by the man when he wants to get a girl.
What is the Purpose of Vegvisir Today?
Since the origin of the vegvisir symbol in the Huld manuscript, its purpose has changed. Nowadays, many who use the symbol don't use it for its original purpose as a pathfinder. Today it is often used as one of the most recognizable symbols of Norse mythology and paganism in general (the irony is that it was created long after pagan times).
One thing at least remains similar to the original use in Iceland. As we have already said, vegvisir symbol was carved on a forehead.
Well, rarely you could find it on someone's forehead, but quite often you could find it carved on the body. Yes, today, vegvisir is often tattooed. It is one of the most common Norse-related tattoos (aside from probably Mjolnir and Helm of Awe). Even Icelandic singer Bjork has vegvisir tattooed on her left arm.
To be honest, it is not such a bad idea for a tattoo. Who wouldn't like a symbol which is supposed to guide you through life. Of course, by that, we don't mean through storms or bad weather, but in a more metaphorical sense. Who doesn't need a little bit of guidance in their life?
Vegvisir Meaning: The Bottom Line
So, now you know. When you see that someone has vegvisir tattooed, you are completely in the right to ask them the true origin of the sign.
If the answer is ''oh, it's a Viking symbol, it's very cool'', it's not only your right but also an obligation to correct them since the only part of that sentence that is correct is that it's very cool.
So, vegvisir is not a Viking symbol, it's Icelandic symbol. It's not a symbol, it's a magical stave. At the end, score a touchdown by explaining that it's a compass, but also not a compass really. Maybe even ask them why don't they have it on their forehead.
At the end of our journey through the magical world of symbols, we hope that you've learned something new and that you had fun.
Until vegvisir points us to our next meeting, skål!