Every culture creates symbols to represent the abstractions of its mythology, its language, even its comedy. Norse cultures were naturally no exception and, thanks to the effective and rapid expansion of its people through the voyages of the Vikings, spread throughout the reaches of Northern Europe to survive for a thousand years or more. A quick visit to a decent tattoo parlor – or even an Avengers flick – will remind of the effectiveness of Norse symbols, and the mind-capturing quality still so intriguing today.
When discussing Norse symbols, one should begin with that original set of characters making up the alphabet. The Runic Alphabet (or “Futhark”) was used to communicate written language from approximately 200 BC. Today, it is thought that Futhark is a derivative of an Old Italic written language with certain adaptation due to the specialized phonemes of Norse languages, though the actual path of the linguistic evolution is unknown.
The mythical explanation of the runic alphabet’s creation is just about as wild as ayou’d expect, coming from Norse/Viking mythology: Wanting to gain the literacy and powerful magic of the Norns (read on for more on these beings), Odin hung himself on the life-tree Yggdrasil and remained in state between life and death for nine days (!) so that the secretive runes might reveal themselves to him.
Skuld’s Net may not necessarily be the most visually arresting in Norse symbology, but its background is quite impressive. The Skuld for whom the symbol is naed was a Norn, a being who knew the ultimate fates of all the Norse gods. Skuld’s Net is therefore a symbol to this day of interwoven time, of connections between past, present and future. Note, too, that every character in the original runic alphabet may be found within the lines of Skuld’s net. Very cool.
As both the literal and metaphoric center of the universe in Norse myth, the tree Yggdrasil is well-represented in Viking Era symbols. Yggdrasil appears in many different fashions among Viking art and technology from detailed to minimalistic.
Thanks to the Marvel Comics movies, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir has never been more well-known worldwide – but this symbol was used popularly in Scandinavian countries since Norse times. Based on archaeological findings, the wearing of Mjolnir pendants was particularly in vogue in the 9th and 10th centuries. Despite the apparent inherent difficulties in assimilating the Mjolnir symbol into Christian society (i.e. a Mjolnir pendant usually resembles an upside-down cross, seriously taboo in Christian practice), folks wore these pendants through the second millennium, though it came to known in places as the “wolf hammer” or the “dragon’s hammer.”
Just as Thor has his hammer, so too does Odin carry a mystical weapon. Gungnir or Gar, the spear of Odin (with the advance of technology later becoming the sword of Odin), always hit its mark and always returned to the thrower. For some reason not as compelling as Mjolnir, Gungnir was nevertheless quite common as a design in Viking times.
Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir is clearly the most well-known of animals in Norse mythology, and some believe that the beast’s origins may be older than anything in Norse mythology. Archaeologists have found representations of Sleipnir on all manner of objects, and the steed appears fairly frequently in the Eddas and other recordings of the myths
Then there’s Odin’s horn. Now get your mind out of the gutter – and into the drinking hall, because this symbol’s all about the alcohol and concomitant partying! In a classic example of a triskele (see below) given a Viking spin, this symbol is comprised of three Viking drinking horns wound in spiral fashion – perhaps the most commonly-seen of all Norse/Viking symbols in 21st-century tattoo parlor flash.
The Vegvisir, a.k.a. the runic compass, was a symbol used by sailors, always a superstitious lot in any culture, thought to provide a safe voyage once written. Modern speculation reckons that Viking sea captains may have used sundial-like technology for naviagation; nowadays, the vegvisir is drawn (or designed or tattooed) in hopes of receiving spiritual guidance.
“The Helm of Awe” may well be the single longest-lasting Norse/Viking/Scandinavian icon of all. Its origin and origin period are unknown, and modern-day pagans still wear the symbol. At center is a circle, with between four and nine tridents radiating from the center point. Some Vikings carved the protective symbol into their helmets and warrior-types were still using the emblem into the 16th century.
Talking about awe (and shock), consider the nidstang (or curse pole). Imagine a hobbyhorse, except made with a real horse’s head at the top. And with a much longer pole. And with the purpose not of play but rather to mount in the ground, pointing in the directoion of a mortal enemy that one wishes to immortally curse.
Though the irminsul, a stylized pillar, remains a symbol used by pagans of today, its exact significance remains unknown to anthropology; connections to Yggdrasil and/or the god Tyr are theorized. Used from the earliest days AD, the original irminsual was destroyed by 800 AD.
The Valknut is a Norse symbol of disputed meaning and significance today. “Valknut” may be translated as “heart of the slain”, and the image of three interlocking triangles is often – but not always – found in areas of funerary activity. Similar to the valknut is “Hrungnir’s Heart,” named for the giant of Norse myth and is described in the epic Eddas as “made of hard stone with three sharp-pointed corners identical to the carved symbol…”
The troll cross came into being after the peak of Viking colonial expansion and the sprad of Christianity throughout Scandinavian lands. The troll, a creature born in Scandinavian folk tales, was warded off by one of these iron amulets somewhat reminiscent in design of Viking fire-steels.
The Yule Goat (or Julbock) was the symbol of winter festivals among Norse people before the dominance of Christianity, after which the animal became part of Christmas traditions in various forms: Through the centuries, the yule goat could be portrayed as a trickster punishing bad kids or as a familiar for Santa Claus himself. Some theorize that the story of Santa’s magic reindeer originates with tales of the goats that pulled Odin’s cart.
Odin’s Cross (or the Solar Cross) based on a cross set inside a circle and thought to be one of humanity’s oldest abstract symbols; the shield knot, which can be traced back to Mesapotamia but is most familiar now in its Celtic/Norse form; and the triskele, or triple spiral, commonly seen in Nordic symbols in various froms, most popularly as Odin’s Horn.