Credit: Galdrastafir.sigil

What is the Vegvisir Symbol? The Viking Compass

Symbols from the Nordic and Viking landscapes have grown increasingly popular in recent years, particularly among jewelry makers and tattoo artists

Growing interest in Viking lore, inspired by movies, television shows, and books, has sparked a new passion for runes and glyphs that stretches far beyond the borders of Scandinavia. 

One particular symbol you may be familiar with, if you’ve watched the show “Vikings,” or seen a Bjork concert, is the “Vegvisir symbol.” Otherwise known as the “Viking Compass,” the Vegvisir symbol is a complex, yet beautiful design, associated with discovery and exploration. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the Viking compass. 

What is the Vegvisir Symbol? An Introduction

The Vegvisir, known as the Viking, Runic, or Nordic compass, is a complex symbol made up of eight runic “staves.” There are a number of different variations of the design scattered throughout popular culture, but in each one, the symbol features eight crossing lines, with images at the end of each stave.

Some people believe the symbol was used as a kind of compass in the Viking era, as the word “vegvisir” literally means “wayfinder” or “signpost” in Icelandic. 

Unfortunately, as we’ll discuss below, it’s difficult to know exactly where the symbol came from, or whether it had anything to do with the Viking culture. 

Despite uncertain origins, the Vegvisir has become a popular symbol in both Scandinavia, and around the world, appearing on Vegvisir rings and pendants, in viking-inspired tattoos, and even in video games, such as “Valheim”.

What does the Vegvisir symbol mean?

As mentioned above, the word Vegvisir means “signpost” or “wayfinder”, which is why it’s typically referred to as a viking or Nordic compass. 

Tradition says the Norse people once believed wearing a Vegvisir symbol would help to guide them safely to home wherever they went. Some even say the Vikings may have painted these symbols on their ships when exploring the oceans. 

Runes are a powerful part of viking mythology, which could be why the Vegvisir is so commonly associated with the Viking community. However, the rune staves in the Vegvisir symbol don’t appear to have any clear meaning. 

They may be based on runes such as maðr (ᛘ) or yr (ᛦ), but there are many variations of the symbol which make it difficult to discern their exact purpose. Some people think the shapes on the symbol are intended to simply act as cardinal points, similar to the points a modern compass might have.

Others believe the Vegvisir runes have a deeper inherent meaning connected to spiritually helping human beings “find their way” through life. 

The Origins of the Vegvisir Symbol 

One of the things that makes the Vegvisir symbol so complex is its uncertain origins. While it’s often referred to as the “Viking compass”, there’s little evidence that the Vikings ever actually used such a symbol themselves. The first recorded description of the Vegvisir comes from the Icelandic “Huld” manuscript, written several hundred years after the Viking age (in 1860).

The manuscript, produced by Geir Vigfússon says that anyone who carries the Vegvisir sign will never lose their way, regardless of storms or bad weather, even if they’re completely lost. 

Before this description, there are no known depictions of the Vegvisir in viking history. The symbol hasn’t been found on any ancient runic stones, in cave drawings, or on Viking jewelry.

Interestingly, references to the Vegvisir did appear in another ancient Nordic text, known as the “Galdrabok”. This grimoire details a variety of ancient spells and provides insights into the early notions of magic in the pagan world. 

In the Galdrabok, the Vegvisir is also described as a symbol designed to help people find their way. It’s seen as a symbol of protection and guidance, and the book advises drawing the vegvisir in blood on a person’s forehead, to prevent them from getting lost. 

This depiction of how to use the Vegvisir symbol has something in common with the Viking symbol of protection, the Aegishjalmur, or the “Helm of Awe”. This could be part of the reason for the confusion around the symbol’s origins. 

Was the Vegvisir Ever Used by the Vikings?

It’s difficult to say for certain whether the Vegvisir was used by the Vikings or not. 

There’s no documented or archeological proof from the Viking age to support the idea that the symbol was actually used as a Viking compass. However, the information we have about the Vikings is still somewhat limited, despite decades of archeological discovery. 

However, the symbol definitely has Nordic origins, and may have held significant meaning for some of the Nordic cultures to emerge after the Vikings, such as the medieval Icelanders. These individuals carried the symbol with them frequently, and wrote about it in books about the pagan arts. 

Why is the Vegvisir so Popular Today?

Whether it can be linked to Viking heritage or not, the Vegvisir symbol has certainly become a popular design in recent years. It’s particularly common in tattoo designs chosen by neo-pagans, and fans of pop culture shows like “The Vikings”. 

The origins of the design might be a little murky, but the meaning of the symbol still resonates with people throughout the world today. We’re all looking for protection and direction in life, and the Vegvisir is the perfect symbol for that quest. 

The Vegvisir Symbol: FAQ

How old is the Vegvisir?

It’s difficult to determine the exact age of the Vegvisir symbol. The first reference to it was found in the Huld manuscript, produced in 1860. However, some people do believe the origins of the symbol date back much further, into the ancient Viking era.

How do you pronounce Vegvisir?

The most common way to pronounce the word is “vague-vee-seer”, with a significant amount of stress on the first syllable. 

What are Vegvisir tattoos?

Vegvisir tattoos are popular in the modern world, thanks to the impact of pop culture on the Viking and Nordic landscape. A vegvisir tattoo can be produced in a number of different formats, but it’s usually intended to symbolize direction and protection for the wearer. 

Bjork, the Icelandic singer, chose to tattoo the symbol on her arm, saying she wanted to ensure she would always find her way safely back to Iceland. 

What do the symbols around the Vegvisir mean?

The original symbol depicted in the Huld manuscript is an image featuring eight inter-crossing lines, with different decorative elements at the each of each line. Sometimes the Vegvisir is drawn inside of a ring of symbols, or surrounded by a circle. However, it’s uncertain what the symbols actually mean. 

What is Vegvisir jewelry?

Alongside Vegvisir tattoos, vegvisir jewelry is also relatively common in the modern world. The most popular item is the Vegvisir ring, which is usually made from silver, and features the symbol engraved on the top of the piece. 

What is the difference between Vegvisir and the Helm of Awe?

Both Vegvisir and the Helm of Awe share an eight-spoke shape. However, the Helm of Awe has less variety in terms of rune designs on the end of the staves. The Helm of Awe was also intended to protect the wearer by striking fear into the hearts of enemies, rather than guiding them back home.

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