Understanding the Symbols

Every religion and culture has an iconography which is uniquely it’s own, and the Northern Tradition is no different. Common symbols found in conjunction with this religion are the Valknut, Mjolnir, Irminsul, magical staves (known as a galderstav, such as the Ægishjálmur & Vegvisir), Sunwheels (including solar crosses and the misappropriated swastika), etc. But what do they mean?


The Valknut



The Valknut, is one of the most traditional symbols associated in the community today with the Norse God Odin. Since ancient times this symbol has been used throughout the reach of the Germanic tribes in Europe. The symbol shows up in the grave goods on a bedpost and in a tapestry from the Oseburg Ship Burial (Norway), Anglo-Saxon cremation urns, and then the Tängelgarda Stone and Stora Hammer stones (tied to a depiction of human sacrifice) found in Gotland, Sweden.

The Tängelgårda stone from Gotland, Sweden.
Valknut carved into a bed post found in the Oseburg Ship Burial.

The term valknut is a modern invention (to describe an ancient symbol whose name did not survive to us), deriving from the combination of two Old Norse words: ‘valr’ (slain warriors) and ‘knut’ (knot). There are two kinds of valknuts, the unicursal, which is one continuous ribbon knotted upon itself, and the triple version which is made by entwining three separate triangles.

Some wonder if the symbol might be the hrungnishjarta (Hrungnir’s heart), which is attested in Skáldskaparmál. In the story we are told the jotun (giant) Hrungnir had a stone-hard heart with three sharp pointed corners. But we’re not sure.

The valknut is used today as a symbol first and foremost of Odinic worship by those who honor the Norse God Odin, who is also known as the All-Father, the God of Poetry, the God of Warriors, a God of the Dead, the God of Magic and Runes, the God of Wisdom, a God of Ecstasy, etc. The symbol is also sometimes used in modern times as a generalized symbol of faith for those who honor the Aesir, the ancient Gods of the Germanic & Scandinavian peoples, such as Heathens, Germanic Pagans, Northern Tradition Pagans, Anglo-Saxon Reconstructionists, Asatru, Odinists, etc.

While we may not know exactly what this symbol represented to ancient peoples, the symbol seems to show up next to engraved figures we think may be Odin or tie to Odinic symbolism often times either on artifacts from the grave, or depicting death or even human sacrifice. This is why some scholars theorize the valknut symbol may specifically tie to funerary customs in its historical context.

In modern times the prevailing theories are that the cumulative sum of all three triangles’ sides (nine) represent the nine nights that Odin hung on the World Tree Yggdrasil. The World Tree, Yggdrassil, in turn connects to all nine worlds (Midgard, Musplelheim, Niflheim, Asgard, Vanaheim, Jotunheim, Swartalfheim, Alfheim, and Helheim) of this tradition’s cosmology.

Respected scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson sees the valknut as associated with Odin’s abilitily to bind and unbind. She writes in her Gods and Myths of Northern Europe: “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.”

Yet others see it as a symbol of the dead. One of Odin’s role does seem to be as a psychopomp for the dead, and it could very specifically tie to some funerary practice or custom, or perhaps some afterlife belief. Some think it may more specifically tie to the battle-slain, and/or of those humans slayed in blood sacrifice to Odin. This later possible interpretation is why some in the community say wearing or having this symbol tattooed is like saying “insert spear here” as it’s essentially a big bull’s eye target painted on you for death or ill-luck, or divine attention from Odin to be brought to bear. Others in the community see this superstition regarding the image as silly.

We have only one instance of the symbol used on jewelry in antiquity, in the Nene River Ring (found in England). It’s an odd occurrence as well in the archaeological record, as the ring features two bezels with engraved designs. One is the valknut, the other may be a celtic motif with a cross in the middle. Because of the frequency of occurrence of the valknut symbol in connection to death scholars are hesitant to state that this was commonly worn. There are speculative theories it may have been a memorial ring, or was used as like a memento mori.

Others see it as being symbolically similar to both the triskele, as well as the triple horn symbol found on the Snoldelev Stone in Denmark. Whatever the original meaning of this symbol, the modern day community unmistakably recognizes it as a symbol of Odin, and via it’s connection as a symbol of our religious path as well. Both it and mjollnir (the Thor’s Hammer) are our most well recognized symbols used today.


Mjölnir

Probably one of the most popular symbols of our faith, if not the most popular symbol, is the mjollnir – Thor’s hammer. In the lore, especially among the Eddas, we find many stories of Thor using the hammer in the defense of the Gods and people, killing the enemies of Asgard with his mighty hammer.

Mjölnir

We’ve been finding jewelry in the archaeological record for many, many years which we long suspected and theorized were Thor’s hammers, and for decades modern Heathens have been wearing their hammers in honor of Thor as such. A more than 1000 year old pendant was found in 2014 from Købelev (in modern Denmark), which proved that this long held supposition was in fact accurate. The pendant bears an inscription that when translated states “this is a hammer”. Perhaps it’s unpoetic, but it is at least clear.

Mjolnir with inscription “this is a hammer” found in 2014

There are many runestones found in Denmark and Sweden, bearing both a depiction of mjolnir but also an inscription entreating Thor to hallow or protect. In the archaeological record, it’s one of the few symbols we do clearly see worn as pendants and necklaces by the ancient peoples. In fact during the period of conversion, it appears ancient jeweler’s were hedging their bets, there’s at least one example of the same mold holding both the ability to make crosses, as well as cast hammers. Some scholars theorize that the seeming popularity of such jewelry was in direct defiance or as a defensive response to the wearing of crosses by Christians during the tumultuous time of conversion. In fact the majority of such evidence of mjolnir necklace and pendants comes from lands that during the time the archaeological artifact dates to were in contention with Christianity. As such it may be possible that mjolnir’s were not widely worn until the ancient peoples had the ever-encroaching Christianity to contend with.

Etymologicaly, the word connects back to Icelandic verbs for crushing and grinding. In addition to this, there are two other theories with other possible connotations of meaning as well. It may root to the theorized Proto-Indo-European root word mele, which gives us the Latin maleus and the Slavic molot which mean hammer.  Or it may root to the Russian word molniya and the Welsh word mellt, both words can be translated as lightning. Since Thor is associated with Thunder and lightning this connection would make as much since as the other connections from the mythological standpoint of our lore.

Today, as then, the symbol is worn by us in the Northern Tradition as a symbol not only of Thor, and a symbol that invokes Thor’s protection, but also as a symbol of our faith when we are surrounded by other faiths. This is the ONLY symbol we know for a fact was worn as an expression of religious faith in antiquity from the Northern Tradition umbrella.


Irminsul

The Irminsul is a historical item known in antiquity (but whose symbolic iconography has not survived into the present day). Additionally, this was a communal symbol of some size, and unlike mjolnir we have no reason to believe it was ever worn. Instead it appears to be a communal symbol, or perhaps a God Pole (idol of a God) erected in honor of the Gods.

the modern Irminsul

The Irminsul, in the Old Saxon language means mighty pillar, and it may connect to a possible god of the Saxon tribe by the name of Irmin as well. The existence of Irmin is at best a supposition and is by no means absolute based on surviving historical sources, but there are modern polytheists who do worship and honor him. Some scholars who do accept the possibility of this god, think Irmin could potentially be another name for Odin. Since there are theories that the Irminsul may be a symbolic representation of Yggdrasil, this theory would indeed make sense within the cosmological framework and obvious connection between Odin and Yggdrasil. Yet still other scholars propose that perhaps Irmin is an aspect of the God Tyr. Others look to Tacitus’ Germania and mentions of the “Pillars of Hercules”  and see associations with Thor. What does Hercules have to do with anything? Well you have to understand that the Romans were fond of likening other cultures to their own, this is known as interpretatio Romana. Romans were known to sometimes identify the Germanic Thor with their Hercules. Regardless of the fact which God this symbol may have been intimately connected with or not… the fact remains it was indeed a symbol of their religion and by extent tribal identity.

Archaeological and written accounts of these mighty pillars seem to be relegated solely to Germania. In the 8th Century document, the Royal Frankish Annals, we learn that during the Saxon War campaign Charlemagne repeatedly orders the destruction of the Irminsul.  Destroying it would strike a mighty blow because it was an iconic symbol of the might of their gods and the power of their culture. From the description provided in this record and taking into account modern geography, scholars believe that this holy site would be located in the Teutoburg Forest near Obermarsberg, Germany. By Church tradition, a stone pillar was dug up in this area in the 9th Century and moved to the Hildesheim Cathedral. This particular Cathedral, and others in Germany,  would commemorate Charlemagne’s victory and destruction of the Irminsul during the fourth Sunday of the Catholic Lent season. Poles would be erected with a separate cone or pyramid shaped box atop them that the youths were encouraged to knock down.

In the 9th Century document, De Miraculis sancti Alexandri, we are provided with another written account of the Irminsul where it is described as an erected wooden pillar worshipped outdoors. There are of course other accounts as well, but their relevancy and description leaves a lot to be desired.

While there’s no firm proof of such a connection, I personally believe that the tradition of the “May Pole” which is a heavily Germanic custom to begin with, is indeed connected to the Irminsul by means of a shared umbrella tradition. If we look to accounts involving Thor’s Oak, the holy groves of the Gods as described in Adam of Bremen and in passing in Tacitus’ Germania it all appears to be of enough sameness to derive from a similar tradition. While the Irminsul appears to be confined in occurrence to Germania, we do have in Norse derived sources references to God poles and nithling poles. These may be a related cousin-like custom as well, ultimately all deriving from the same source. To this end in the 1990s a German town imagined their own version of an Irminsul, a pole with a solar cross atop it.

An ‘Irminsul’ erected in Harbarnsen-Irmenseul area in modern Germany.

So what exactly does an Irminsul look like? The simple answer is we don’t know. Some think it was simply a pole, perhaps with an idol carved upon it or placed onto it. Others envision it like a ‘T’ shaped pole where the top is depicted with decorative branches. This later symbol is more commonly used by modern polytheists today based on the controversial Externsteine relief, which most scholars feel is NOT a representation of the Irminsul.

Externsteine relief

Regardless of what the Irminsul may or may not look like, symbols are ultimately what we make of them. Modern day polytheists when they use this symbol, tend to see it as a great universal symbol. Usually it is used to represent the coming together of those of the Northern Tradition to worship our Gods. They do tend to think of this great and mighty pillar as a representation of Yggdrasil, and therefore the symbol through which we are connected to the 9 worlds of our cosmology.


Ægishjálmur

While our religion is at its heart an agriculturally derived religion, there was without a doubt focuses on military cultuses, and aspects of military life that also comprised the pre-Christian lives of ancient Heathens. Afterall, a culture needed both food to sustain it as well as the ability to defend itself (or for some to also wage war against others).

Ægishjálmur (the most well known variant)

The Ægishjálmur or Helm of Awe (aka The Helm of Terror) refers to an item attested to in the sagas of yesteryear. While its translated name might suggest that it’s speaking about an actual physical helm or helmet made of sturdy stuff… it’s earliest written account refers to a magical charm on animal skins used as a head wrapping, and late as something more akin to a helmet we think of with military armor. It’d be centuries after conversion with these written accounts before we have any sort of iconography attached to the concept. doesn’t appear that the symbol originally was such. 

Throughout the lore (oldest extant records are mostly coming post the Viking Age) there are instances of magical charms used to affect the sight. In Eyrbyggja saga, Katla (a skilled seidhkonna) casts a form of magic upon her son Odd to hide him from his pursuers. Each time the men search the house, instead of seeing him they see some other object instead. Believing a trick is at play, or that ‘they have had a goatskin waved round our heads’ they bring in another magic worker, who puts a sealskin over Katla’s head to negate her magic making Odd visible. We see this again in both Reykdoela saga and Njals saga, where goatskins are wrapped around the head for magical purposes.

By the time we begin to see the helm of awe mentioned as a physical helmet in the lore and history of this evolving culture, we see it most predominantly used in Medieval European manuscripts that can be as much as 300 years later than earlier manuscripts that only speak of types of magic used to trick the sight. It is for this reason that I personally believe that contemporary writers of the time in conjunction with milieu common in other types of Medieval Literature (like various stories in the Arthurian mythos, including Chretien’s stories which were written in the 12th Century), were focusing on knightly warfare and were elaborating upon older occurrences and adjusting the meaning to suit their poetic license. In the Völsunga saga (13th Century manuscript), Fafnir taunts our hero Sigurd that he has used the Ægishjálmur. After Sigurd later kills both Fafnir and Reginn, among the loot he acquires the famed helm. Another 14th Century source, the Sorla þáttr also speaks of the Ægishjálmur, warning that Ivar should NOT look into Hogni’s face because he wore the helm of awe.

While we have textual mentions to the Ægishjálmur, our first surviving occurrence of it as an actual symbol doesn’t occur until it begins to crop up as a magical stave in a number of grimoires. The grimoires were penned down (depending on the manuscript) between 1600 and the late 19th Century. Similar to my theory about the cultural milieu of late Medieval Christian Europe changing the Ægishjálmur from an animal skin head wrapping, to a helmet associated with military armor, scholars theorize that the magical staves in the grimoires arose out of a cultural milieu influenced by continental European customs during the Renaissance (and perhaps some of the customs arising from the English Monastaries of the 14th century). We find the Ægishjálmur appearing as a magical stave specifically in grimoires such as the Galdrakver, Galdrastafir, Galdrabok, etc.

It’s important to note that across the width and breadth of grimoires, we have a variety of magical staves identified as the Helm of Awe, some seem similar to one another, and others appear radically different. Ræveðis at galdrastafir.org referenced the various grimoires and then made web friendly downloadable images to use of the Ægishjálmur variations. The gallery below shows you the known variations.

At it’s core the Ægishjálmur is a charm for protection, sometimes as a means to make you invisible, sometimes as a means to seemingly make you impervious to attacks, or as a terror tactic (making you seem scarier than you are). Today many heathens may opt to use this sigil as a protective charm to ward a house, or as a tattoo on their body to both represent their heathen beliefs and for protection as well. I’ve even heard of currently serving soldiers in our armed forces, who have made the mark on the inside of their helmets. While today there are some pagans and polytheists who may use the symbol not only for protection but sometimes also as a symbol of faith, it’s important to realize in the historical sense this symbol never seems to have been used as a symbol of religious expression, and the earliest iconography as a symbol only dates to around the 1600s. The symbol quite simply comes to us centuries after conversion, which is why some heathens think it’s bunk and won’t use it at all.


Vegvisir

The term Vegvísir means in Icelandic ‘guidepost’ and is sometimes colloquially called today a Runic or Viking Compass. Its etymology roots to two Icelandic words: vegur (way, road, path) and vísir (guide, path). It is a magical symbol (not a religious one) of navigation and may (though this is highly speculative) be connected with actual compasses. The symbol is one of the Icelandic magical staves, and it appears in some historical sources (centuries after conversion): the Huld manuscript (dated around 1880) and the Icelandic Galdrabok grimoire circa 1600s (which was a summation by several different authors of various folk magic and spells known to them at the time). Scholars theorize that the magical staves (including Vegvísir, and Ægishjálmur) arose out of a cultural milieu influenced by continental European customs during the Renaissance.

Vegvisir (one of the more widely known variations)

The Huld manuscript in particular was penned during a time when many folklorists like Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) were going out into the rural countryside, trying to pen the old stories, songs and history down before it was lost. With folk tradition it’s hard to say how long something has been used in an area, but even with the very late appearing Huld manuscript we see suggestive evidence that it may contain old folk practice (though syncretized through the centuries via the varying cultural and religious influences that had occurred in the area). Another symbol, the aforementioned Ægishjálmur, not only appears in this manuscript, but it is also mentioned in various sagas, post the Viking Age. This suggests a possibility that the concept of the vegvisir symbol (if not these iterations of such) may be older than their earliest known appearances in the grimoires. Like the Ægishjálmur, there are several documented variations (all come centuries after conversion) of the vegvisir. Ræveðis at galdrastafir.org referenced the various grimoires and then made web friendly downloadable images to use of the vegvisir variations. The gallery below shows you the known, identified variations.

We know from the Galdrabok that the symbol would be inscribed in blood on the forehead of the person using the charm so that they will not become lost, and therefore could find their way.

I’ve heard that some folks more familiar with the nuances of navigation have studied the (more common variant) symbol and determined that what appears to be a bunch of weird shapes and squiggles, appear to correspond to methods of navigational measurement. At least it’s quite easy to see the directional markings of North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, and North West.

‘Viking’ Sun Compass

We do have two examples of a navigational Viking Sun Compass in our known archaeological record. While the items from the archaeological record don’t look like the magical symbol, somehow to me at least it still seems to be a ‘spiritual’ cousin. The archaeological sun compass has 32 marks, this quite clearly ties to the 32 point marine compass used in modern times. The 32 points are comprised of the main cardinal points, the intercardinal points, the half points, and the quarter points. The first ‘Viking’ compass was discovered in Greenland (1947), and the second was discovered in Poland (2000). Both date to around 1000, which is late in the Viking Age—the time of contention and conversion between the indigenous religion and the encroaching Christianity.

Marine Compass with 32 Points

Based on the seafaring accounts found in the sagas, we learn in Hrafn’s Saga that the Vikings navigated by using a ‘sunstone’. When we combine this knowledge with the actual archaeological relics… we discover an effective means of navigation. Scientists/scholars today theorize that the ‘sunstones’ mentioned in the sagas was most likely stones native to the territories of the Vikings (such as cordierite and optical calcite), which had polarizing effects. This meant that even on a cloudy or foggy day, that if they could just get a bit of a patch of clear sky at the appropriate zenith… the light would reflect through these stones when set against the compass and show the way.

Famously today Icelandic songstress Bjork has the symbol tattooed on her arm. Though it’s important to note that to my knowledge the symbol is a part of her cultural heritage, and NOT used with any religious shout out to the Northern Tradition. As she told Rolling Stones Magazine in 1995 about the vegvisir tattoo: “it’s so I don’t get lost.”

Bjork

This symbol is a magical charm, and not a religious symbol. This symbol comes to us centuries after conversion. It’s only really in recent decades that we begin to see it used within the modern pagan and heathen communities, but in the last 10 years it has begun to start showing up and becoming far more widespread. Some people wear an amulet of it, some opt to have it tattooed upon them, they may get a keychain fob of it, put a decal on their car, put a patch of it on their backpack, all so they can always find their way home. Others find it a bunch of late appearing poppycock and completely unrelated to our religious tradition.


Sunwheels (Solar Crosses & Swastikas)

From ancient sources going back thousands of years, we have two types of sunwheels present in the archaeological record. The first is known as a solar cross, which is a circle bisected by a horizontal, and a vertical line arranged in the shape of a cross. The other incorporates the sowilo rune (which literally means ‘sun’) and may be known as a fylfot or swastika (which infamously was misappropriated by the Nazi party in World War II). Variations of this later type of sunwheel can incorporate a varying number of sowilo runes (two or more) into its symmetrical design.

This symbol is clearly connected to the Goddess Sunna, she whose chariot draws the sun in it’s path across the sky. Sunna (or Sol) is described in our tradition as the Goddess who in her chariot drawn by horses guides the sun in its track, as her brother Mani similarly drives the moon coursing through the sky. We have no actual depiction in the archaeological record of Sunna herself, the closest we come is the Trundholm sun chariot (1400 BCE) from the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 500 BCE) found in Denmark (Odsherred), which depicts the sun (not the Goddess) being pulled by a horse drawn chariot, and the wheels of the chariot are clearly in the form of solar crosses, or sunwheels.

One side of the sun disc has a bunch of swirls, and it has been suggested by scholar Klavs Randsborg, that mathematically the swirls seem to correspond to synodic months, so it may be a type of calendar. The Trundholm Sun Chariot is also not an outlier in the archaeological record, for we’ve found other related seeming objects. At Jægersborg Hegn (also in Denmark) we found a remnant of a similar sun disc, the National Museum of Denmark posits an intriguing question with it, could it have been a part of a sun chariot like the one found in Trundholm too?

A few years ago I was privileged to be able to visit the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen to see not only the Trundholm Sun Chariot in person, but also the museum’s vast collection of artifacts from both the Viking Age, but also the Nordic Bronze Age and it’s sun cultus items. I was struck by the gold offering bowls from the Mariesminde find. We also see somewhat similar gold bowls with swirls from Borgbjerg (near Sorø). They were gold bowls with sun swirls adorning them, several featured figurative horse head and neck handles. I was immediately reminded of Sunna and her chariot. We also have the Eberswalde Bowls from Brandenburg, Germany (though these did not have horse necked bowls).

The burial find of the Egtved Girl, shows a female figure with a belt that appears to be a sun disc, there is some speculation that she may have been a priestess of a sun cult. (We know in the last two years of her life she traveled extensively). In this case Klavs Randsborg also believes astronomically the annulus of the swirls on the sun disc of her belt also represented the progress of solar time. Also in the Boeslunde region there was a curious discovery of around 2000 gold wire spirals, each about an inch long. Flemming Kaul, a curator with the National Museum of Denmark theorizes it may have been part of religious regalia worn by someone serving in ritual roles like a priest.

The Nordic Bronze Age based on surviving evidence is very much characterized by a widespread Sun cultus, and golden colors usually from bronze objects. These Nordic Bronze Age (1700–500 BCE ) objects predate the time period we typically examine as Heathens: beginning with the Iron Age of 500 BCE as Germanic tribes were in contact with the Roman Empire, through the time of Germanic Migration (typically 375 – 568 CE, though some historians prefer a broader range of 300 – 800 CE). The Iron Age ends around 800 CE with the start of the Viking Age and the raid at Lindisfarne, and lasts until the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE. But the Nordic Bronze Age is the directly preceding time period, the descendants of said people would have been among the Germanic tribes. As the myth syncs, it’s to my mind a reasonable assumption of continuous worship.

In the Germanic tradition, Sunna, is not only the Goddess that draws forth the Sun, but is linked with healing in the Second Merseburg Charm (aka Horse Cure Charm) as well. The Merseburg charms are the only examples of pre-Christian Germanic belief recorded in the Germanic language. The manuscript it appears in dates somewhere in the 9th or 10th Century. In the source, Baldr’s horse has been injured, and so the Gods and Goddesses present (Odin, Frig, Fulla, Sunna, & Sinthgunt) render healing aid to the horse.

Not only do we see in the Trundholm Sun Chariot the solar wheel shape, but the concept of wagons tied to holy items persists as well with the processional tradition. Wagon processionals that have sometimes been depicted, as with the Osebug Ship burial tapestry, with the other type of sunwheel: the swastika.

The swastika is a symbol sacred to many world religions, you’ll find it used among Buddhism, Hinduism (where it is found in the Rig Veda, adorning their temples and more), Jainism, Greco-Roman architecture and jewelry, and other Asian and Indo-European cultures and religions. Even found in archaeological records for some ancient cultures found in Northern Africa. Depictions of the swastika appear on various sundries including jewelry, runestones, swords and spears, cremation urns, etc. throughout Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon finds. The symbol has even cropped up closer to home for most Americans, in that it was a sacred symbol of several Native American tribes including the Navajo (Diné), Apache, and Hopi. One of the earliest examples dates to the paleolithic around 13,000 BCE, and has the symbol carved into a bird figurine made from mammoth ivory, which was last on display in a museum in the Ukraine (I’m not sure about it’s current status since Russia’s invasion).

How does one symbol seemingly appear globally? Well one theory posited is that it may have simply come from observation of the stars in the Northern Hemisphere. The North Star or Pole Star, also known as Polaris is visible year round from anywhere on earth North of the equator (assuming clear skies). The star (or the constellation it’s part of Ursa Minor) has been a key component for navigation by land and sea for multiple millennia. Near Polaris is the constellation of Ursa Major, written about by Ptolemy in 2nd Century CE. It’s main seven stars comprise what we call the Big Dipper today, and in other cultures was called the Wagon, the Plough, The Great Chariot, The Seven Seers (from the Hindu Sapta Rishi Mandal). As an aside, think of the Trundholm Sun Chariot and those solar cross wheels and now think of the name of some of these constellations: Chariot and Wagons have been found with solar cross wheels. The constellation of Ursa Major when viewed in the Northern Hemisphere seemingly throughout the course of the year rotates around the pole star (or the North Star known as Polaris). The sense of this rotation is like a pinwheel being blown slowly over the course of a year.

This video gives you a sense of the celestial movement

It’s important to note that just as the earth has a daily rotation, and a yearly revolution around the sun, our solar system rotates within our galaxy, and our galaxy rotates as well. This means all the other heavenly bodies are in motion too. So over time constellations and their positions change. Also consider that constellations will appear differently based on where on earth you are viewing them from. Polaris today is the nearest and most visible pole star, but that wasn’t always the case. At one point the entire constellation of Ursa Minor or the Little Dipper (which Polaris is part of) was used for navigation instead. Ursa Minor in it’s dipper like appearance similarly rotates around that center pole. So the swastika symbol as it appears globally is believed to derive from Ursa Major (Big Dipper) or possibly Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper).

Ursa Major (purple) & Ursa Minor (green) revolve around Polaris (red).

For many of us we forget just how prevalent the stars really are in the night sky. Most of us live in areas of high light pollution, meaning the city lights (business and home lighting, street lights, traffic lights, headlights and brakelights, etc.) drown out stars that otherwise would be viewable to the human eye. But in antiquity that wasn’t a problem, and even today you can still find dark skies (a light pollution map is handy for this) and see the milky way with your own eyes. Just remember the amazing photos you see of the Milky Way utilizes long exposure techniques, including some setups with gear specially mounted on rotators that counteract the spin of the earth to do super long exposures. Most modern cameras start to capture star trails after 8-10 seconds (it varies by the camera model’s specs, and the lens/telescope used). The human eye can never hope to capture near that effect. Major metropolitan cities rarely see a dozen or so stars, as you transition out into suburbia or smaller cities you may get a hundred or so stars. But truly dark sky sites can see more than 5,000 stars. So to ancient and even pre-historic man the stars would have been a major part of their experience on a near daily basis (weather permitting).

Light Pollution Impacts Our Ability to View the Stars



The word swastika derives from svastika a much older word from the Sanskrit language, which etymologically is comprised of words meaning both good and well-being, and thus the symbol can be interpreted to mean that it is a charm or blessing for good health. The Norse/Germanic Goddess Sunna, is tied to both drawing the sun in her chariot, but to healing as well. Since the Northern Tradition sprung from an agriculturally focused society, they viewed the year as broken up into only two seasons: summer and winter. Winter was the time when food was scarce, when disease ran rampant and illness, malnutrition and the cold weather took lives. Summer was seen as a time of not only warmth, but a time where food was more abundantly available.

Swastikas before the Nazis

Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology describes the traditional folk practices for Midsummer celebrations in the areas where the Norse Gods were once (and in some cases still are) honored is to set a sunwheel (or a wagon wheel) on fire. In some cases the wheel was simply lit locally and incorporated into the Midsummer bonfire. In other cases people trekked out into the countryside, found a hill, set the sunwheel on fire, and let it roll down the hill as they chased after it, people cheering as they watched it roll along it’s fiery way, as vegetation caught fire. Sometimes mini-fires were set in the fields, as a way of directly burning in offering the crops that the sun had helped to grow, or fragrant herbs were tossed into local bonfires instead.

It is possible, that just as Native American tribes would regularly set clearings on fire for the sake of agriculture and to lure bigger game to lush fields, that the selective burning on the fields may have also been conducted not only as an offering, but potentially to help the land so that future crops were more bountiful. As we learned after Mt. Saint Helen’s blew its top, fire is actually a healthy part of nature, as it can help fuel rapid growth and renew the land. This is why the Forestry Service has now abandoned their previous policy of total fire suppression in the fight against wildfires. Sometimes they will now let forests burn because it is healthier for the forest in the long run to do so.

While there’s no doubt both types of sunwheels–solar crosses and swastikas–connect to the Goddess Sunna (within the Northern Tradition), some scholars including Hilda R. Ellis Davidson theorize that the swastika may be also connected to Thor, and therefore the symbol was a representation of Mjolnir. HRED supports this theory by looking to the neighboring tradition of the Finnish Sami. On the shaman drums, it wasn’t uncommon to see a depiction of a man holding either a hammer or axe, or a swastika symbol. This male figure is identified as the Lappish equivalent to Thor, their Thunder God Horagelles. The symbol is comprised of two or more sowilo (𐌔) runes, (the same side by side sowilo runes which resembled lightning bolts that were misappropriated by the Nazi SS). While this connection is less direct than with Sunna, it is to my mind a viable possible connection. Although I would posit a later appearing connection with Thor, and that the symbol was always closely associated with the Sun, and therefore Sunna.

Today, while many Heathens recognize both symbols, many Heathens tend to shy away from the use of the swastika symbol and instead use the solar cross symbol. This shyness with the swastika is firmly rooted in the atrocities performed by the Nazis in World War II. Today, the swastika tends to be far more associated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist hate groups. For this reason many of the Native American nations have chosen to avoid the use of this symbol in their own cultural crafts (many choosing to retire the symbol during the 1940s). Most Americans have forgotten it’s use in America prior to the rise of Nazism.

Fruit packaging, a Coca-Cola pendant, and a pack of cards all from the US
Fruit packaging, a Coca-Cola pendant, and a pack of cards, all from the US

“Coca-Cola used it. Carlsberg used it on their beer bottles. The Boy Scouts adopted it and the Girls’ Club of America called their magazine Swastika. They would even send out swastika badges to their young readers as a prize for selling copies of the magazine,” he says. It was used by American military units during World War One and it could be seen on RAF planes as late as 1939. Most of these benign uses came to a halt in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power in Germany.”

Mukti Jain Campion, BBC News

Today the symbol is banned in Germany except when used in historical context. Yet the symbol is still clearly used on both the Finnish Air Force insignia, as well as in connection with the office of the Finnish President. Of those modern Heathens who do use the symbol, many do so in the privacy of their own homes, or in subtle ways. There are some who do fully embrace the symbol trying to reclaim it and educate in the process, but they are a minority.

5 thoughts on “Understanding the Symbols

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    1. You’d have to chase the words back, if they all have the same root from either a known verifiable language from which they all derive (which in this case we cant chase back far enough), or you start going into the less firm theoretical languages like proto-Germanic. It gets complicated. Some of the words in other neighboring languages seem to connect with color, like shining and white (so very much the color of lightning) some are sounds like grinding.

      I think it’s probably likely, but academically we can’t say yes this was definitely so in this case.

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