On Norse Symbolism


Introduction

With the recent infamy of a certain person and the controversy surrounding a certain church and its members, Norse symbolism is again under attack.
Since the Viking raid on Lindisfarne the image of the Norse has often been negative, and this negativity was only reinforced due to the Nazi use of Norse religion and symbols.

In the last decade or three, however, this has slowly begun to change with the increased interest in both mythology and historical accuracy. With research societies like Hurstwic, professors like Jackson Crawford, films like The 13th Warrior (1999), Beowulf (2007), Pathfinder (2007), 1066 (2009); shows like Vikings, American Gods, Norsemen; games like Battle for Asgard (2008), and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020), Norse history and fiction has arguably entered a renaissance in the Anglosphere, and the stain left behind from the 1940s has slowly begun to fade, despite the odd Neo-Nazi appearing every few years.

Now we have a Q-anon crazy and a white supremacist group in the news within a month of each other, and the mentions they receive in articles and ‘news’ videos, like the recent Rolling Stone and Insider pieces, and news reports covering the recent invasion of the US Capitol Building and the Asatru Folk Assembly Church in Minnesota links them with everything Norse, as if the medieval Scandinavians, historical and modern pagans/heathens, and general scholars are all Nazis and white supremacists.

This is the worst kind of Guilt by Association.
We do not associate all Americans with the KKK, all Greeks with the Golden Dawn, all Koreans with the Kim dynasty, all Germans with Hitler, nor all Japanese with Tojo. This Venn Diagram is far from a perfect overlap.

I’ll not detail the despicable insanity being linked to an entire cultural group; others such as Wolf the Red, Ocean Keltoi and Aliakai on Twitter and YouTube have produced videos and threads on the white supremacist heathens known as the Völkisch, Folkish, Neo-völkisch, and Neo-folkish movements. I want to discuss the symbology which has been, in my view, stolen, and bring a positive light to it again. The images in question are the famous Hammer of Thor: Mjölnir; the more recently popular Valknut; and the oft heard of, if rarely seen as body art, Yggdrasill. To contrast, I will then briefly detail one of the icons that IS directly linked to supremacist movements and the Nazis: The Black Sun. Finally, I will cover the evidence we have for Norse tattooing culture.

Before we begin, however, I’d like to point out something in all the drama which has been overlooked by many, myself included: the buffalo headdress worn by the same idiot with Norse tattoos. This is in no way related to the Norse; they neither wore horns that we have evidence of, nor had access to buffalo. Depictions of horned Vikings have been found to almost exclusively be English propaganda from the eighth century demonising the Viking invaders or be based on those images. The buffalo, however, is a North American animal, and its horns have been used by some people of the First Nations in ceremony for untold centuries. I know very little about the culture and history of the indigenous peoples of America; US history was not part of my schooling as a New Zealander, and the tropes of “Cowboys and Indians” didn’t make it here either, so I’ve never studied them out of personal interest. That said, I do not imagine that any would appreciate a symbol of their culture being associated with an attention seeking supremacist or conspiracy nut who tried to interrupt their votes being accounted for. I hope that someone with knowledge on the topic cares to write or record something on the buffalo headdress so I can learn from this, rather than merely rage.

Mjölnir

Mjölnir is perhaps one of the most well-known Norse symbols. Well representative of how vague and nebulous, how broad ranging and old, and how varied Norse symbology can be, and made popular in recent years thanks to Marvel Films and Comics, Mjölnir is the weapon of choice of the god Thor. It is these days popularly represented by a rectangular forging hammer thanks to Marvel Comics but was popularly depicted in the years 500-1200 in a more stylised manner, almost an anchor in shape in most of Europe, but more Christian-crucifix-like in Iceland.

There is some evidence of it being worn as a charm or indicator of membership in the cut of Thor, but almost all the examples extant from history seem to arise as a response to the Christian norm of wearing a crucifix as Christianity began to increasingly spread into previously heathen regions. Most surviving examples are of steel or iron, but it is unknown if wooden pieces existed; had they, they would have all eroded with time by now. It is particularly odd, however, that the Norse would choose a hammer as the weapon of a god; there is next to no evidence of them using hammers in warfare.

Indeed, Mjölnir appears to have evolved into a hammer as the Norse moved into the Iron Age. Based on linguistic evidence in the Eddas, Thor’s weapon appeared as a hammer in approximately this time frame, so it is possible that the shift to a hammer occurred as the sounds and sparks produced from blacksmith’s workshops more closely resembled Thor’s description in the tale of Ragnarök where he brings the Thunder, and the blacksmith’s strength likely resembled Thor’s, further strengthening the connection. The hammer also suggests a connection between the honest workman’s hard labour and Thor’s own straightforward honesty and care for mankind; he alone among the gods was known as the friend to man, and called not warriors but hard workers to his hall upon their ddeath. Before the Iron Age, though, Mjölnir seems to have evolved from an earlier and more weapon-like symbol, an axe.

Depictions of axes in carvings and examples of axe-head shaped pendants stretch as far back as the early bronze age. Some made of silver, and some showing evidence that they were used alongside other pendants to start fires. It is surmised that these axe pendants bridge the gap between the even earlier stone carvings of a god bearing an axe found across Northern Europe, and the later iron/steel pendants, which increasingly took on hammer shapes through the Iron Age. There is speculation that the axe, perhaps a better and more iconic weapon for warfare of the time while still being a workable tool, was representative of the Thunder Bringer via its ability to kill and requirement of strength to wield, and the pendants likewise his symbol through their ability to produce fire and resemble a great weapon. Though even the axe may not have been Thor’s first weapon.

The oldest possible evidence we have of Thor symbology is in stone age art of a god who wields a club. Across Europe in both stone age rock carvings and paintings, we see near stick figures of great size holding clubs in earlier images and axes in later. What links these otherwise separate seeming figures with their different weapons together is the commonality of a rather particular, triangular hat which vanishes in Thor symbology by the Iron Age, except for in Iceland, and their depiction in very similar scenes.

So, with Thor and his Hammer tracing their lineage to the late stone age and across Northern Europe, we can see that they are one of the oldest symbols in European history.

But what did worship of Thor and the wearing of his symbols entail?

Before the Iron Age we have little evidence beyond burials, and until the admittedly late Eddas and Sagas (which can be linguistically evidenced to having existed orally nearly unchanged since the 300s), and the Gesta Danorum in the 10th to 12th centuries, we have perhaps a handful of Roman writings on the Germani and other Northern European tribes in the third to fifth centuries. However, we do know that Thor was not merely a weather god; his association with thunder comes from one line in the story of Ragnarök where his arrival is heralded by thunder and he gives his life slaying the monster Jörmungandr, who sprayed half the world with venom and poisoned the sea; he was not just a god of war, an association gained from his prodigious use of weapons, slaying of the Jötnar, and worship by warriors; he was a protector, and judge of personal worth.

Thor appears to have been a protector of the family, the home, the tribe, and honour; he gave challenge to, and killed, any who would invade or abuse his home, took bloody vengeance upon those who tricked him or harmed his family, and challenged his followers to prove their honour in similar ways. This is all notably shown in several tales, such as Lokasenna, where after an insult match Thor threatens to crush the head of Loki after the latter references Thor’s wife, the goddess Sif, to insult the gods in general. In Skáldskaparmál, Sif’s head is shaved by Loki while she is asleep as a prank. Thor recognises the handiwork of his oft-times counterpoint and demands that Loki either find a way to replace her famous hair. Hair was a particularly valuable and important representation of status in Norse society, with criminals and outcasts having their heads completely shaved, and Sif’s was especially important symbolically as she was a fertility goddess; her hair is said to have represented her power over the fields. Loki was only able to replace Sif’s hair by tricking the dwarves into forging new magical hair from gold. Thor’s promised response for Loki’s failing to replace Sif’s hair, was a torturous death. Thor was, to be honest, blunt, brutal, and simple. 

But he had a habit of putting himself in danger to defend; of willingly, voluntarily, even joyfully, protecting and guarding the health and honour of his family. There is little to no evidence of unnecessary aggression from him, except against the metaphorical representatives of Chaos, disorder, and destruction; the Norse equivalent of the Greek Titans; the aforementioned Jötnar.

So, Thor was a protector who expected his people to prove their honour by likewise putting themselves in danger protecting others or taking vengeance upon wrongdoers and monsters. He was a god who respected strength in various forms and cared not for class. Mjölnir, acting as his symbol, represented the home, safety, protection, power, honour, family, and a sense of retribution. A fitting symbol for a culture of warriors and farmers obsessed with personal valour.

Valknut

The next symbol, the Valknut, is somewhat at odds with Mjölnir. It is old, but possibly not as old. It is associated with an arguably more important god (Thor’s father, Ođin), but used more by modern heathens than those of history. Its meanings are deceptively simple, but vague.

The Valknut is the symbol of three overlapping or integrated triangles and is commonly found now on jewellery and clothing representing the Norse faith in general. Historically it is found in stories, notably the Prose Edda where it is said to be the three-part, stone heart of the Jötunn named Hrungnir who was killed by Thor for abusing the hospitality of the gods by drunkenly declaring he would bury their home and steal the goddesses. It is also found on older, large stone tablets called stelae, each of which represents a differing scene from various myths, only some of which are understood. Of those that are understood, the Valknut is always associated with depictions of the god Ođin. It is variously interpreted that the Valknut represents a form of magic associated with Ođin; either that of binding, of granting battle madness, or that of death and moving between the realms of life and death.

Unlike Thor, Ođin was not a simple god. Often called (among hundreds of other names including the “High One”) the All-father, he is seen as leader of the gods and compared with Zeus and the Abrahamic god. It is important to note, however, that Ođin was quite different. Yes, like Zeus he was one of the first gods in his religion and he did lead them at times, but he was not a king like his Greek counterpart; he was followed for his wisdom, knowledge, magic, and his acumen in battle. From poems such as Grímnismál and the Völuspá, we can see he was regularly doubted and questioned, got into arguments with the other gods, and was often bested by them in some way or another, but he knew things that no other did and was the only one with a plan for saving some remnant of the world when it came to its end at the final battle, Ragnarök. He summoned half of the greatest warriors who died in battle to his hall of Valhalla, but also had the goddess Freyja take half to her hall, Fôlkvangr for them to prepare for Ragnarök, he learned magic, strategy, and brought the runes into the world to learn more in order to try and prevent or delay his own personal doom and the doom of the world. His title, All Father, may give the idea that he was the creator of all things, like the Abrahamic god, but this is not the case. Ođin was never alone when he created, and the creation of many things is attributed to other gods, such as Heimdallr. All Father is, according to linguistic analysis, a misinterpretation of his title Alfađr, which likely should be translated into something like “All Organiser” or “All Sorter”, as he sets guidelines for behaviour and for rule, and organises and arranges the cosmos as he goes on his journeys to learn all. Yes, he does have many children and had a hand in the creation of mankind, but he is not the father of all the gods, nor the sole father of humanity. Yes, he is wise and guides many in a fatherly manner, but he is a god of war; his name even stems from Ođr, meaning rage and madness, and his cult is said to have been dominated by Berserkers on top of warriors and raiders hoping he would choose them to serve in Ragnarök, the End War. And so, we see that in being situated with Ođin on the stelae, the Valknut represents power, death, madness, and the transition between the realms.

Some have seen similarities between the Valknut and its older cousin, the Triquetra, and other similar three pointed or thrice repeating symbols known as Triskeles (singular triskelion), and spiral motifs from across the Indo-European cultural sphere. Many of these symbols have either represented heroic deeds or heroes themselves, death, the realm of the dead and travel to and from it or were used to represent a variety of triplicities in cosmology and theology. And so, though we have no direct evidence to the exact meaning of the Valknut, the surrounding related cultures and the context in which they are found in Norse culture give us grounds to interpret it as a symbol of the realms of life, death, and the connection between them.

As it is associated with both Thor and his father, Ođin, one might expect it to have been a common symbol amongst the old Norse, but it was a common belief, known thanks to a number of stories in the Sagas, that invoking the High One, drawing his attention by wearing his symbols, and having him gaze upon you with his one eye is to call him to test your worth as a warrior, often in deadly fashion. In the modern age, the combination of the symbol’s simpler and more eye-catching geometry than other Norse symbols with the increased conversion to heathenry and paganism of people from faiths which have a singular representation often of a singularly powerful deity means that the Valknut has become more popular now than it was even at the historical height of Norse cultural power, the Viking era, especially amongst those who take Ođin as their patron deity.

Thus, we see that the Valknut is both simple and complex, represents death and life, magic and power, the All Father, and the religion as a whole in its modern context. Strangely, despite an attempt to co-opt Norse mythology into a symbol or source of Germanic pride and uniqueness, the Nazis of the 1930s-40s appear to have not taken it on, choosing another symbol from Proto-Indo-European culture to be their standard, the swastika. Though it is popular among the modern Folkish movements mentioned earlier, it is popular in almost every field connected to Norse mythology and religion now, and so cannot be used to indicate affiliation.

Yggdrasill

Yggdrasill is the World Tree, a giant ash tree which, depending on your interpretation of the Eddas and Sagas, either holds our world and the other realms together, connects them, is them, or merely represents them in some cosmological form. Something often not discussed is its etymology and the meaning of the name; Ygg, or Yggr, is one of Ođin’s many names and means ‘the terrible one’, a reference to his rage and power, with Drasill being both one of the words for horse in and a hangman’s gallows. No matter which poetic interpretation was intended by the Norse, both fit as Ođin was said to ride an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir up and down the rainbow to visit all the realms and was said to have hung himself from the branches of the World Tree to gain the knowledge of the Norse script, the Runes. Yggdrasill is thus a symbol of the world, the unity between the elements of Norse belief, and a symbol of Ođin.

The one tattooed on the subject of my ire is heavily inspired by Celtic knotwork art. The main reason for this is there are very few actual depictions of Yggdrasill in Norse art before the 1800s when an interest in Norse mythology began to take hold and inspire artists looking for a change from the then standard Christian iconography. As such, beyond covering its description in the Eddas and Hávamál (the collection of poetic yet practical advice attributed to Ođin) as the largest tree in existence, housing the nine (or more) realms, various creatures and Wells of power, there is not much to say about Yggdrasill’s appearance, but for one thing. In 1929 a German amateur archaeologist proposed that a medieval relief, the Externsteine relief, in a town in Northern Germany was a representation of Yggdrasill. The relief is of Christ being lowered from the cross by a man who is standing on either a bent over plant or a chair. This amateur archaeologist, however, decided to reconfigure this plant/chair into a T shape, and for no known reason linked it with Yggdrasill via a still debated origin theory for the tree, described below, by calling it Irminsul. After he became a member of a Nazi party think-tank run by Heinrich Himler, his symbol was used as part of the iconography of the Nazi Party formed, pro-Aryan-identity, Völkisch (Folkish) group known as the German Faith Movement, which Himler hoped would replace Christianity as the religious identity of Germans. This strange T-shaped plant has remained in use by a minority of neo-pagans/neo-heathens, most of whom are the white supremacist Folkists.

The origins of the actual Yggdrasill and its meaning are mired in speculation, as is what happens to it after being burned at Ragnarök. Currently a number of scholars argue that it is a shamanic symbol similar to many found across Eurasia; some say it is perhaps meant as a map, as some of the directions and positions of the realms mentioned somewhat correlate to those of where various peoples lived at the time; and yet others argue that it was a mirror in myth of how the Germanic peoples worshipped in forests, as the gods meet at the foot of Yggdrasill each morning.

One theory still argued from the 19th century puts it as a mythicised representation of a great tree or wooden pillar named Irminsul. Irminsul was a place where Germanic tribes would meet for an uncertain purpose each year, and which was ordered destroyed by the Christian war lord Charles the Great of the Frankish empire; otherwise known as Charlemagne. There are several mentions in the Royal Frankish Annals of Charlemagne’s orders to destroy this meeting place during the Saxon Wars (772-804ad) where he extended his empire into modern Germany, though it’s exact description and location are described variously.

Roman writers such as Tacitus may also have referenced the meeting place, describing a pillar of Hercules in Frisia (just North East of modern Belgium), but only two brief mentions remain.

Thus, we see Yggdrasill is the least used of the three symbols, the least understood, and the one with the most insane and yet tangential attempt at use in propaganda which never took off. This, however, contrasts with our final symbol; known in English as the Black Sun.

Sonnenrad

Sonnenrad, the Black Sun, is explicitly a Nazi symbol. It does not appear in the archaeological record before being installed in a castle owned, or at least under the control of, and renovated by Heinrich Himler and his army adjacent, labour-based, voluntary employment organisation.

Himler used this organisation to refit Wewelsburg Castle into a school/training facility for the SS and its officers, and to house another school or study centre, perhaps on the advice of occultist Karl Maria Wiligut, which was little more than a propaganda mill trying to build a mythic origin and identity for the Germanic peoples from pseudo-history and pseudo-science. Here, the Germanic Faith Movement was born, as were many of the problems we have in modern scholarship for researching anything to do with early Germany, Northern Continental Europe, Scandinavia, or anything connected to Norse history. This group had their fingers in every pie from archaeology and studies of the Arthurian Mythos and “ancestral studies” (basically ancestor cults) to rune worship and crypto-zoology; they combined examples cherry-picked from history with half-baked race theories, mythology, and mysticism.

The rooms of the castle were redesigned and renamed based on these premises. One study room was named the “Grail Room”, another “King Arthur”, yet others “Henry the Lion”, “Aryan”, “Westphalia”, “Course of the Seasons”, “Teutonic Order”, “Younger Christian”, and more. All were decorated with dark oak, runic inscriptions, and swastikas, select weapons, and seemingly random prehistoric artifacts dug up and not quite verified. In the centre of what became known as the “General’s Hall” or “Hall of Generals”, Himler had the first physical instance of the Sonnenrad installed; a dark green stone mosaic in the white and grey marble floor, two circles pierced by twelve stylised “S” runes reaching through to a solid central disc.

No one knows what the intent or symbolism behind it was; Himler and his compatriots took that to their graves. There is some debate about it being based upon Iron Age Merovingian decorative discs dating from the 3rd to 8th centuries, and some on the possibility of it being based on other Sun Wheels found across Eurasia. The 12 radially arranged S runes are said to represent the rays of the sun, times of the year, the 12 Apostles of Christ or the 12 Angles sent to Earth by the Abrahamic god. The number three and three sets of three, were of common importance across Europe, as evidenced by the triskeles, before the spread of Christianity, but mythological or symbolic sets of 12 come from the Levant and Mesopotamian regions. This Levantine set of 12 is said to have affected the Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies previously, with the forced limitation of their pantheons to 12 gods each, despite there clearly being more, and it is possible, with his attempt to mesh history, mythology, symbology and other studies from across Eurasia to form a “unique” German identity, that Himler was doing the same with the Black Sun; attempting to combine Christian symbolism with Norse.

To make matters worse, since the fall of the Nazi regime, attempts by Occultists and Norse historians to “save” anything relating to their fields from the touch of Himler have retroactively included the Black Sun as another assumed legitimate symbol appropriated by the Nazis. This means that Neo-Nazis, new age spiritualists, legitimate historians, and modern reconstructionist pagans have all used (accidentally or purposefully) a Nazi symbol, to varying degrees.

Most of the above modern groups have begun to correct that mistake and disavow the symbol, but some have not, be that out of ignorance, arrogance, or worse.

One symbol I have seen which is very similar to the Sonnenrad is a Sun Wheel representing Ođin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. It is almost identical to the Black Sun, but instead of 12 S runes it has eight. I have been unable to find any scholarly information relating to this symbol, so it is possibly unrelated to, yet also possibly an off shoot of, the Black Sun.

Conclusion 

From the mythology surrounding the Norse gods and the history of Norse symbols, it is easy to see that no symbol of Norse origin involved in the recent controversy is rightly attached to supremacy, and ironically it is the only “Germanic” symbol which is related to hate that is not one worn by the Qanon Moron who stormed the US capitol. Mjölnir is a symbol of protection, Valknut one of power and the connection between life and death, Yggdrasill one of the world and how all is connected. The focus of my ire has been shown by others, notably Wolf the Red on twitter, to be a Christian who self identifies and works as a shamanic spiritual healer. His use of Norse symbols, badly tattooed though they may be, and Buffalo headdress is eclectic at best. His support and advocacy of Qanon conspiracy theories degrades these symbols in every way imaginable. In totality, it suggests a similarity to the insane desperation and desire for uniqueness and strength that Himler and other Nazi Party leaders showed. But what is most important in my mind is that none of the symbols he has used have been symbols of racism or hate, save for their attempted theft by fringe extremists in American prisons, gangs, and the AFA, who all ignore the truth of history and Norse culture.

I will not stand by as history or culture are perverted by attention seeking idiots and racists. 

As per the international agreement between modern heathen groups known as Declaration 127, based on stanza 127 of the book of Norse poetry known as the Hávamál (the Words of Ođin): 

“When you see misdeeds, speak out against them, and give your enemies no friđ.”

There can be no friđ, no peace nor acceptance, for fascists or racists.

Hail the All Father.

-T. Matthews.

Husband, father, language teacher, medievalist, and Norse Heathen.

@Socchi_Kurokawa on twitter.



Categories: News

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