Few symbols produce as much controversy within the Old Norse community as the one we call Vegvisir (“Wayfinder”). Historians hate it, and tattoo artists love it. Why? Well mostly because we can’t really connect it with the Vikings that so many people want to connect it to, and probably because it looks and sounds really intriguing.
With all of this confusion going around the internet about the Vegvisir, I wanted to clear up as much as I can by walking you through exactly what we know about this symbol, what it means, where it comes from, and whether or not it is actually connected to the Vikings.
So if you’ve ever considered a Vegvisir tattoo, piece of jewelry, or poster on your wall, read this first and learn what you’re getting into.
First off, how does Vegvisir look?
I’ll be the first to admit it; Vegvisir is a damn cool symbol:
It can be described as four lines crossing each other in the middle, with different — but similar — symmetrical symbols and patterns decorating the ends of each line.
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What are these symbols and patterns then? Well, it’s hard to say. It could be based on runes such as maðr (ᛘ) or yr (ᛦ) which can be found on each line, but the little variations don’t make much sense to most experts in the Old Norse language and Younger Futhark runes.
Some say that they might be cardinal points like a modern compass would have, while others attribute all kinds of meanings to them that are connected in some way with finding one’s way.
Vegvisir Origin & Meaning
The earliest known mention and depiction of the Vegivisir was in the Icelandic Galdrabok from the 16th century, released in a more recent and wildly popular English iteration by Stephen Flowers in 1930.
Here’s what the Galdrabok says about the meaning of Vegvisir:
If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.
The book described dark heathen arts banned by the Christian church, and books like it were generally found in the homes of self-proclaimed pagans (i.e. folks believing in the Old Norse gods) and church-proclaimed witches (i.e. folks believed to be witches).
There is some proof that the symbol found its way to Iceland from England, and then there are others who claim it’s a symbol deeply rooted in Christian folk practice and belief.
For example, the symbol is displayed and described in “The Solomon’s testament” from 15th century England, and is described as a Christian mysticism symbol.
Was Vegvisir used by the Vikings?
There is no archeological or documented proof from the Viking Age that would support a connection between the Vegvisir and the Old Norse Scandinavians. The first documented proof of the symbol’s existence was at the very earliest created in the 15th or 16th century by Icelandic dark arts mystics, and more reliably as late as 1860 in the Huld manuscript.
That said, I do believe that the Vegvisir has held some meaning to the people of late medieval Iceland who carried it with them in their books about the dark heathen arts, as well as anyone who feels drawn to it and guided by it today.
But that does not actually prove that it was in use in the Old Norse world.
So, it more than likely wasn’t connected to the Vikings. And why exactly? Well, primarily because we haven’t seen it on any of the tens of thousands of objects with symbols that have been left behind and dated back to the Viking Age.
Not a single runestone, not a single longship, not a single piece of jewelry, not a single weapon, and not a single piece of armor. Not until it shows up in Iceland around 1500 (around 500 years after the Viking Age ended) as part of a book about dark arts that are banned by the Christian church.
And in my experience the Vikings were very artistic and expressive, drawing, inscribing, chiseling, and in every possible way displaying the symbols they used and believed in (see my article on Old Norse symbols and runes that they for sure used). So I’d guess that they would probably have wanted to display a symbol as meaningful as the Vegvisir.
Because for Vikings a guide and mystical compass that will show you the way, even when you’re lost, would carry a whole lot of meaning. But not one of them chose to display it on their ship, shield, helmet, or tool. And these items were often full of all kinds of symbols that seemed to carry some meaning to them.
If you’re still not convinced, have a listen to what Old Norse specialist Dr. Jackson Crawford has to say about the symbol (well worth a listen if you’re into Old Norse history):
Why is Vegvisir so popular?
The Vegvisir symbol is extremely popular today among neo-pagans and Vikings (yes, the TV series) enthusiasts alike, perhaps because the meaning ascribed to it is very attractive to modern-day Norse romantics.
After all, why wouldn’t Vikings have a symbol that would help them find the way on the vast open seas?
It makes for one hell of a tattoo as well, which Icelandic artist Björk even seemed to think (getting one herself and wrongly claiming it was connected to and drawn in the foreheads of Vikings).
So tattoos and Björk are ar least partly responsible for the popularity of the symbol, with tattoo artists around the world gladly inking the mystical-looking lines onto paying customers.
And why not? Like I said, it’s a very well-designed symbol with a powerful meaning attached to it.
Is the Vegvisir connected to the Nordics?
While it likely didn’t exist during the Viking Age, despite many people wanting it desperately to, it is still a symbol that seem to have been documented in the Nordic region and beyond from the 16th century an onwards.
On top of the Icelandic manuscripts that could at least partly be from around 1500 CE, there is also Swedish manuscript from the later half of the 18th century referring to the Icelandic ones.
That said, the symbol itself is thought to have its roots in 15th century England within Christian mysticism circles, so calling it Nordic might not be that accurate either.
What if I still want to use the Vegvisir in a tattoo or jewelry?
I’d like to end this guide to the Vegvisir by saying that while the symbol might not be connected to the Norse world directly, I still think it carries a powerful and intriguing meaning.
And after all, to each their own! If a Vegvisir can provide you with guidance and some form of happiness, and you’d like to wear it on a piece of jewelry or even as a tattoo — go right ahead!
If it’ll help someone find the way or motivate them in any way, then I’d say it still carries plenty of meaning for them.
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