The ancient Vikings had their own methods of finding their final destination. But their compasses were much more than a guiding device.
When settlers first arrived in Iceland in 874CE, they brought the Old Norse religion with them. This included belief in and worship of the Æsir and Vanir, the Gods of the Norse religion. It also incorporated ideas about magic and how it could be utilized for personal success in a variety of ways. The original inhabitants and their descendants developed a series of Icelandic magical staves; symbols to channel magic. These staves have become intertwined with Norse mythology today, so the symbols appear in many places. One of the most popular of these staves is Vegvisir, or the Viking Compass.
How do you pronounce Vegvisir?
Pronounced “VEGG-vee-seer”, this word translates to ‘sign post’ or ‘way finder’. It is an eight-pointed shape, with each point having a unique design. It is one of many Icelandic magical staves, or galdrastafir, which were supposedly used to channel magic in specific ways. There were sigils for protection, strength, guidance and assistance with specific tasks or areas of life. In many cases, the symbols were made by combining the runes that made up the Old Norse alphabet
. They were drawn onto specific areas of the body or physical objects, such as the side of boats or buildings. Despite Iceland officially being Christian since the 10th century, Old Norse mythology has survived and is undergoing a resurgence.
What does the Viking Compass mean?
The Viking compass does not necessarily date back to the Viking era, which ran from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Vegvísir is mentioned in the Huld (Hidden) Manuscript, collected together in the late 19th century by Geir Vigfusson. The Manuscript is a collection of 30 magical symbols from various times and explanations of their purpose. Vegvísir’s intent is described as follows:
“If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.”
And so, the symbol was drawn onto the forehead to ensure that the person didn’t get lost when leaving home. Supposedly, it was drawn with blood.
It’s possible that the symbol did not exist at all during the Viking age. It’s more likely that it appeared much later, and was borrowed by the Nordic people from elsewhere in Europe. Nonetheless, it carries a heavy importance in Icelandic culture today. The Old Norse religion has seen a resurgence in the Nordic countries in recent decades. In 2017, over 1% of Icelanders belonged to Ásatrúarfélagið
(The Ásatrú Fellowship), which was the religion of the Vikings. This religion involves the study of the Old Norse Æsir gods, such as Oðinn, Þórr and Loki.
As a result, Norse mythology and everything connected to it has risen in popularity. This has manifested in visual art, music, jewelry, decoration, and business. Björk, the famous Icelandic singer, had Vegvísir tattooed on her arm in 1982, bringing the symbol into the mainstream. In 2020, Vegvísir can be seen in paintings, as tattoos, as decoration, and on bracelets and necklaces. Even if it has no actual connection to Viking culture, a connection has certainly been created. As a result of the association, Vegvísir and other Norse protection symbols have a strong significance in Iceland.
Vegvisir vs Aegishjalmur
Due to it looking fairly similar, Ægishjálmur
, another magical stave, is sometimes confused with Vegvísir. In fact, Ægishjálmur not only looks different, but it also serves an entirely different purpose as a magic channeler.
Also known as the ‘Helm of Awe’, Ægishjálmur (pronounced “EYE-gis-hiowlm-er”) is also an eight-pointed magical stave. But unlike its Way Finder cousin, the Helm of Awe’s eight trident points are all traditionally identical. Additionally, the symbol contains a circle in the center. It was drawn onto the forehead to protect the warrior who wears it and strike fear into the enemy. In the Poetic Edda, composed and compiled by Snorri Sturluson, the Helm of Awe was worn by the dragon Fafnir. The dragon attributed his success in guarding his treasure hoard to his wearing of the Helm of Awe. The poem states:
The Helm of Awe
I wore before the sons of men
In defense of my treasure;
Amongst all, I alone was strong,
I thought to myself,
For I found no power a match for my own.
As it happens, the warrior Sigurd slew Fafnir and took Ægishjálmur, presumably a physical object, for himself.
Other Icelandic Staves
If one wanted the selected symbol to have the desired effect, it was very important to follow the instructions correctly. The staves had to be drawn in the right place and in some cases a spell had to be uttered. Let’s take a look at some of the other staves you may see around Iceland.
This sigil is specifically for protection against thieves, however, it doesn’t stop you from being stolen from. Rather, it will show you the face of the thief. You first had to carve Þjófastafur (Thjofastafur) onto the bottom of a wooden bowl. Then you fill the bowl with water and flowers from the yarrow plant. After reciting a certain charm, the thief’s face will be revealed in the water.
This stave offers protection from drowning and should be worn under the right arm. Drowning would have been a real danger for Icelanders; fishing has always been a significant part of its culture. From 1940, swimming lessons became mandatory for all children in Iceland. The death rate from drowning gradually lowered, and today there are very few deaths by water in the country. Since basically, every town in Iceland has a public swimming pool or hot springs
, everyone has a safe place in which to learn.
Gapaldur and Ginfax
These staves are used solely for assistance in the sport of Icelandic wrestling, known as Glíma. They were painted on paper or wood and placed in specific spots in one’s shoes to be sure of victory. Gapaldur went under the heel of the right foot, and Ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot. Of course, the question is- what if both combatants wore the magical staves in their shoes?
Whichever of the staves most appeals to you, you will likely find a piece of jewelry depicting it. Or, if you’re really committed, you could just have the stave tattooed onto your skin. See how many of the Nordic symbols you can spot as you travel around Iceland
. Look for them in company logos, artwork, and on souvenirs in gift shops. One thing is for sure, the prominence of these symbols will continue to grow. The Ásatrú Fellowship is the fastest-growing religion in Iceland. A temple is currently under construction in Reykjavík and will be open to all when it is complete.