As is often the case, some symbols are more commonly known than others within the iconography of any religion or magical tradition, and in this regards the Northern Tradition is no different. The Vegvísir, is a magical symbol of navigation and may also be connected with actual compasses. The Vegvísir literally means in Icelandic ‘guidepost’ and is sometimes colloquially called today a Runic or Viking Compass.
Vegvísir also can be found in the late 17th century Icelandic manuscript known as the Galdrabok (it’s essentially a grimoire). Here it is a symbol of magic. We know from the manuscript that the symbol would be inscribed in blood on the forehead of the person using the charm so that they will not become lost and find their way. This is similar in nature to other symbols or magical practices we see described in the lore written at the time of the Christian conversion. The Aegishjalmr, which I’ve written on previously, is another symbol from a similar magical practice.
I’ve heard that some folks more familiar with the nuances of navigation have studied the symbol and determined that what appears to be a bunch of weird shapes and squiggles, appear to correspond to methods of navigational measurement. At least it’s quite easy to see the directional markings of N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW.
We do have two examples of a navigational Viking Sun Compass in our known archaeological record. While the items from the archaeological record don’t look like the magical symbol, somehow to me at least it still seems to be a ‘spiritual’ cousin. The archaelogical sun compass has 32 marks. The first was discovered in Greenland (1947), and the second was discovered in Poland (2000). Both date to around 1000, which is in the middle of the Viking Age (800-1300)—the time of contention and conversion between the indigenous religion and the encroaching Christianity.
Based on the seafaring accounts found in the sagas, we learn in Hrafn’s Saga that the Vikings navigated by using a ‘sunstone’. When we combine this knowledge with the actual archaeological relics… we discover an effective means of navigation. Scientists/scholars today theorize that the ‘sunstones’ mentioned in the sagas was most likely stones native to the territories of the Vikings (such as cordierite and optical calcite), which had polarizing effects. This meant that even on a cloudy or foggy day, that if they could just get a bit of a patch of clear sky at the appropriate zenith… the light would reflect through these stones when set against the compass… and show the way.
The compasses do have a margin of error and were not necessarily precise to the standards we think of today. But the Vikings most likely would have used the compass as a tool combined with other sources of information. While at this time any possible connection between the magical symbol and the actual sun compasses are tenuous at best… in a society that clearly was known as travelers who reached as far west as North America, as far east as parts of Asia, and reached into the Middle East being able to orient oneself and find the way would have been valued and important.
Famously today Icelandic songstress Bjork has the symbol tattooed on her arm. Though it’s important to note that to my knowledge the symbol is a part of her cultural heritage, and NOT used with any religious shout out to the Northern Tradition.
Today the symbol is only used by a small minority of those in the Northern Tradition, and is usually worn as a magical charm, and not used as a religiously significant symbol. Some people wear an amulet of it, have it tattooed onto them, I’ve heard of a soldier marking it on the inside of his helmet, and of someone else who cut out their own vinyl decal of it for their car.
Previous articles in the Understanding the Symbol series: