Viking symbols play a large role in their iconography, just as they do in all societies. Symbols are cultural shorthand, a sign that conveys layers of meaning about the culture. The pagan Vikings used symbols to represent their gods, beliefs and myths.
Cultural symbols can take any form, such as sounds, gestures, words, pictures and images. Most of the Vikings symbols we know about were carved on runestones, swords, axes and other items precious to the Norse people. The sagas refer to amulets the people wore, such as Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. In the article on Viking art, we learned that the Vikings loved decorating the items around them, their weapons, bowls, tools and combs. They used their symbols in the decorative arts, in weaving, bone carving and in jewelry.
While some Viking symbols remain mysterious in that we don’t know exactly what they represent, but others have clear meanings. Many Vikings wore Thor’s hammer on thongs around their necks. Jewelry, runestones and valuable weapons were often engraved with the symbols that resonated the most with the Vikings: The Valknut, the Helm of Awe and Thor’s hammer.
Viking Symbols: The Valknut
In the illustration you can see two Valknut symbols: three interlocking triangles that represent Hrungnir’s heart or the heart of the slain. Hrungnir is a legendary giant, discussed in Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas. The Valknut probably signifies the afterlife. The nine points of the three triangles symbolize the nine worlds of the Vikings, which will be discussed in the section on Norse mythology. The Valknut is representative of Odin, the father God of the Vikings, and his power of life over death. The Valknut is often carved on funerary steles and memorial runestones.
Viking Symbols: The Helm of Awe
The term aegishjalmr means the helm of awe or terror. The symbol was used most often in magic to induce delusion or forgetfulness. A special form of magic called seior was used to create illusions or to prevent people seeing things as they really are. Thus, this symbol was used to hide someone from his or her pursuers. It is mentioned often in the sagas as being used by women who performed this kind of magic. The Helm of Awe might be engraved onto a goatskin, which was then thrown over the head of the fugitive. Even after the advent of Christianity, belief in the aegishjalmr persisted.
Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir
Mjolnir means lightning, and Thor’s hammer indicates the god’s power over thunder and lightning. Mjolnir, a magic weapon, always came back to Thor when he threw it. Wearing Thor’s hammer as an amulet of protection was quite common as this was probably the most popular of all the pagan Viking symbols. Even during Christian times, from A.D. 1000 on, Vikings wore Thor’s Mjolnir as well as a cross on a chain or thong around their necks.