The Valknut is one of the most intriguing symbols that the Norse people have left behind. The name comprises of two root words, ‘valr’ which means ‘slain warrior’ and ‘knut’, which is rather more easily decipherable as ‘knot’. Thus, the Valknut is the ‘Knot of the Slain Warrior’.
The design of the Valknut is always a series of three interlocking triangles. Sometimes, the triangles are drawn in the Borromean style as three discreet but overlapping and interlocking shapes; however, the more interesting variation is an ingenious unicursal where a single, unending line completes all three shapes as one.
This ancient symbol is associated with the god Odin of Norse mythology. Odin was not only the ruler of all of the Norse gods but also the Norsemen’s god of war and of death.
Warriors who lost their lives in battle earned themselves a place in the grand hall overseen by Odin, Valhalla (Hall of the Slain) and became his adopted sons. In fact, ‘valr’ is the source of the English word ‘valour’ which we associate with great deeds of brave individuals.
Several depictions of the Valknut that have been unearthed from archaeological sites also bear the figure of Odin himself, or animals like the raven and the wolf that were his constant companions. That is the main reason why it is known as the symbol of Odin today.
This association with the dead and with the god of death have led to the Valknut being regarded as the symbol of a ‘Cult of the Dead’.
While this might seem accurate upon a cursory look, it is actually a shallow interpretation of something much more meaningful. The Valknut symbolizes the recognition of brave individuals in the prime of life who sacrificed themselves for the good of the clan.
Deciphering the Valknut, the Symbol of Odin
For a symbol that seems to have held such great importance and was associated with the chief god of the Norsemen, disproportionately little is known about its exact meanings and uses. This is because there is literally not a single written contemporary record that mentions the Valknut from the period when it was in use.
The Archaeological Record
In the absence of written records, we are forced to resort to interpretations of the symbol from the context within which it appears in archaeological relics. The most well-known of these is perhaps the Lärbro Stone or Stora Hammar.
The Lärbro Stone or Stora Hammar
This is a large monolith on the island of Gotland in Sweden that has several horizontal scenes from Norse mythology carved and colored into its front. The second of these from the top depicts a scene which features a Valknut.
At its very center is a figure who carries a spear and has a raven over his shoulder as he places his hands in blessing over a warrior interred in a burial mound. Above the warrior is a Borromean Valknut, indicating that he was slain in battle, and above it, another raven soars.
The conjunction of Odin’s symbol/the Valknut, a dead warrior, a burial mound, and a figure holding a spear and flanked by a raven while another lies overhead is significant for the identification of that figure – it can only be Odin, god of death. The spear he wields is Gungnir, which never misses its mark and the two ravens are Odin’s constant companions that travel the worlds to bring news to him.
The manner in which Odin’s hands are outstretched over the warrior may indicate that the god is offering his blessings as the burial mound of the slain hero is consecrated, or it may depict the way in which Odin is raising him from within the earth to lead him to his rightful place in Valhalla.
The Tängelgarda Stone
The Tängelgarda Stone was also discovered on the Swedish island of Gotland. It, features the Valknut created in its unicursal form and there is not just one but two depicted.
Odin is shown in the form of the classic Norse warrior, mounted atop a horse and bearing weapons and a shield. Behind him is a troop of warriors. The triangular spaces formed the first and second legs of Odin’s horse, and the second and third legs, are each filled with a Valknut.
Mysteriously, the third triangular space, formed by the third and fourth legs and the ground does not contain another Valknut but a simple triangle.
Three other prominent archaeological finds that feature the Valknut in its varying forms include the Norwegian Oseberg burial ship where it was inscribed upon a bedpost and found also on a tapestry, and a ring found in the Nene River in England.
Apart from these, the Valknut has been identified in East Anglia on burial urns, accompanied by depictions of wolves and ravens, further strengthening the link to Odin and the Norsemen.
Some scholars have suggested that the Valknut may be a representation of Hrungnir’s heart. Hrungnir is a character mentioned in the Prose Edda, from which we get a significant amount of insight into the world of the Vikings.
In it, Hrungnir’s heart is described as being ‘made of hard stone with three sharp-pointed corners’.
Whilst this may be a general description of the Valknut in terms of shape, this single reference does not carry adequate weight for it to be regarded as the consummate answer to questions about the Valknut. Moreover, the absence of any reference to Odin weakens its relevance.
The Practice of Seidr
The intricate design of the Valknut – which is a complex shape that can be made from a single unicursal line – renders upon it an association with mental trickery. This trickery was given a very specific name by the Norse – Seidr.
Seidr was a form of witchcraft or magic that the Norse both feared and held in high regard. It was described as a means of altering reality to an observer, akin to creating holograms and visions meant to mask reality from them. Importantly, the chief practitioner of Seidr was Odin.
In battle, it was believed that Odin could put mental binds upon the enemy, obfuscating them and spreading terror within their midst. On the other hand, it could also be used for the opposite effect, giving the Viking warriors clarity of thought and action in the chaos of the battlefield.
So Much Evidence, So Little Confirmation
Importantly, none of these attempts at deciphering the Valknut from interpretations of their depictions has been entirely successful.
Our understanding of its meaning from the words of learned scholars is simply conjecture based on analysis; it lacks the confirmation that would come as the result of writings from the time and people who used it.
The Power of Three
The individual styling of a Valknut may vary but it always consists of three interlocking triangles. Three triangles of three vertices each – there was definitely some power that the number ‘3’ held for the Norse people.
The number three has always featured prominently in both ancient and modern religions. Across millennia and across cultures spread over the world, it has been taken to represent:
- the three stages of the Universe – Creation, Preservation and Destruction
- the three planes of existence – Heaven, Earth and Hell;
- the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
- the three basic elements – air, water and fire;
- the three periods of time – Past, Present and Future;
- the three periods of life – infancy, adulthood and old age;
- the concept of Body, Mind and Spirit.
The number three also features significantly in Norse mythology.
The Norns, the Three Goddesses of Destiny
There are three goddesses of Destiny: Urd (Fate), Verdani (Present) and Skuld (Future). Together, they spin the threads that dictate the events and actions surrounding every god, giant and dwarf.
The Three Worlds and the Three Roots of the Tree of Life
Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life, has three roots. One root leads to Asgard, home of the gods, one to Jotunheim, the realm of the Giants, and the last to Niflheim, the Underworld. There were three wells, one under each of the roots.
Threes in the Story of Creation
The Norse sagas tell of a time before the worlds of gods, giants and men were created. Here, three distinct areas existed –
- Niflheim – Land of mist
- Muspelheim – Land of fire
- Ginnungagap – the void between Niflheim and Muspelheim
It was in Ginnungagap that the first being was created. He was not a god but a Jotun (giant). His name was Ymir. After him came Buri, the first of the gods. Buri’ grandchildren, the three brothers Odin, Vili and Ve came later and slayed Ymir.
The three brothers created the first man and woman, each giving the mortals a unique capability:
- Odin breathed into them life.
- Vili gave them intelligence and the ability to move.
- Ve gave them the five senses.
The Three Classes of Society
Heimdall is the god who guards the Bitfrost bridge, the only way to enter Asgard. He is credited with creating the three classes of society – serfs, peasants and the nobility. He did this by sleeping with three mortal women from three different families. Each woman bore the progenitor of one class of men.
The End of the Worlds – Ragnarok
The giant Loki who lived with the Aesir gods had three children with the giantess Angrboda – Hel, who rules Niflheim, the Underworld; Fenrir, the giant wolf and Jormungandr, the Midgard (world) serpent.
At Ragnarok (Twilight of the Gods), a cataclysmic series of events will end with Fenrir killing Odin, Jormungandr killing Thor, and trigger the end of all the worlds.
Additionally, there are nine worlds on Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. The three triangles with three vertices each may allude to all of existence in that regard.
From this series of elements of the Norse sagas, we know that the number ‘3’ was an essential part of their traditions and beliefs, both negative and positive. The presence of three triangles in the Valknut simply gives it another perspective or another clue from which attempts have been made to decipher its meaning and use.