Norse mythology is a rich and vibrant source of tales, myths and legends. It has provided us with some iconic gods, monsters, and even symbols. One of the most controversial and mysterious of these symbols is the Valknut. The Valknut is a symbol shrouded in mystery, and it is still the cause of much debate today. Composed of three interlocking triangles, it is not entirely clear what exactly the symbol represents, but it has been found on many Viking Age artifacts, so it was clearly of some importance. In this article, we will discuss the origins, variations, and theories surrounding this emblem.
The Origins of the Valknut
There are numerous variations of the Valknut, although two specific configurations are by far the most common styles found. The first is the tricursal variant. This features three triangles interlocking with each other, each with their own separate shape. The second variant is unicursal, using a singular line to create the three interconnected triangles.
Unicursal (left) and tricursal (right) variations of the Valknut symbol. (Enyavar / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Valknut is a name only given to the symbol recently. It’s a compound word from Norwegian that means ‘knot of those fallen in battle’. The words varl meaning ‘slain warrior’, and knut, meaning ‘knot’ were combined to make Valknut. Archaeologists and historians had to give the symbol a name, because it appears farther back than any documented name for it. So why did modern archaeologists ascribe the ‘slain warrior’ meaning to the Valknut symbol?
In the archaeological record, the Valknut appears exclusively in connection with the cult of the dead. The symbol is found on several runestones on the Swedish island of Gotland. These were raised stones with runic inscriptions , often erected beside a grave. The Valknut has also been found on grave goods, including on a wooden bed from the Oseberg ship burial in Norway. The Oseberg ship was one of the most important archaeological finds in Viking Age history , based on the preservation quality of the ship and its grave goods.
An Anglo-Saxon ring from the eighth century also features a Valknut. This ring has been preserved in the British Museum. Symbols similar to the Valknut have also been found on cremation urns of Anglo-Saxons, another Germanic people closely related to the Norse. This suggests that the Valknut may have originated far earlier than the Viking Age.
Norse image stone Lärbro Tängelgårda I showing Odin and two representations of the tricursal form of the Valknut. ( Public Domain )
The Valknut’s Association with Odin
Another argument for the association of the Valknut with fallen warriors is how often it is depicted alongside Odin, one of the most prominent gods in Norse mythology. Even when Odin is not shown alongside the Valknut, other symbols closely associated with him are found. For example, the Anglo-Saxon urns feature depictions of horses and wolves, animals that are often companions of Odin in the Norse tales. In Norse mythology , Odin ferried the spirits of the dead to the underworld and then back to the world of the living. He was also the leader of hosts of the dead, such as the warriors of Valhalla and the Wild Hunt .
A section of the Stora Hammars I stone in Gotland, Sweden depicts a valknut in a central, dominant position, appearing alongside figures interpreted as Odin. (Berig / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Odin was also one of the most powerful magicians in Norse mythology. He and his attendants frequently used magic that is described as binding or unbinding. As historian H.R. Ellis Davidson put it: “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” (as cited in McCoy, The Valknut ). According to her, the Valknut serves as a symbolic expression of this idea.
Other Theories about the Origin of the Valknut
There are also other, less satisfying theories regarding the Valknut. For example, in Goddess of the North , Lynda C. Welch argues that the Valknut is an ancient symbol of the female divinity, and that the three interlocking triangles represent the three aspects of the goddess: mother, daughter and grandmother.
Another theory is that the Valknut is in fact Hrungir’s heart. Hrungir was the brawler in the poem Edda by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. The warrior Hrungir battled Thor and was killed by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Hrungir’s heart is described as “made of hard stone and pointed with three corners, just like the carved symbol which has been called Hrungnir’s heart ever since” (as cited in McCoy, The Valknut) .
Thor slays the giant Hrungir with his hammer Mjolnir. ( Public Domain )
While Edda’s description of Hrungir’s heart does point out that it is triangular, this is the only tenuous connection, making it unlikely that this is the real origin of the Valknut. The archaeological record also does not match up with this theory, since the symbol is often portrayed with Odin, and absent references to Hrungir. Given this evidence, it is well accepted that the symbol is related to Odin and his power to bind and unbind. There is also a consensus that the Valknut has something to do with death and the transition between life and death. The whole picture, however, is not at all clear. What we know is so general that one specific meaning cannot be attributed to the symbol.
Today, the symbol is the cause of much controversy. Its captivating design has made the Valknut a popular design for tattoos, jewelry, and even some logos, such as the German Football Association logo.
Logo of Deutschen Fußballbund, the German Football Association (Lutz Dierbach / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Unfortunately, the symbol has also been used by some white supremacist groups . This has led some to claim that the Valknut is a hate symbol. Others believe the symbol is an iconic part of North European culture and shouldn’t be considered a symbol of hate. For the most part, this has remained true, with the symbol not being considered offensive, despite attempts to appropriate it.
Top image: The Valknut symbol has transcended time, remaining popular today. Source: danlersk / Adobe Stock
By Mark Brophy