Origins of the “vegvísir” symbol

After publishing the very successful article regarding origins of the “kolovrat” symbol, I was requested to write a similar article about a symbol, which came to be known as “vegvísir” (literally “The pointer of the way”, “Wayfinder”) among those interested in Norse mythology. In this case, the situation is much simpler in comparison to other symbols. In the following article, we will take a look at various nowadays interpretations of the symbol, as well as its true origin.

Development of depictions of the “vegvísir” from 19th century till today.
Source: Foster 2013 – 2015.


Modern concept of “vegvísir”

Nowadays, “vegvísir” is famous among neo-pagans, musicians, reenactors and especially fans of TV series and other mass-production revolving around the Viking Age. We cannot omit its use in clothing industry, also often seen as a jewellery or tattoo. Reenactors tend to use it as shield decoration or costume embroidery. Among this inconsistent group of people, it is often accepted for “vegvísir” to be “a Germanic and Viking ancient magical rune symbol, which function was that of a compass and was supposed to protect the Viking warriors during seafaring, providing guidance and protection from Gods”. Such an interpretation can only be found in popular literature though, and in romantic fiction created in the past 30 years.


Vegvísir“ tattoo. Source: http://nextluxury.com/.


The origin of “vegvísir“

The symbol that we call “vegvísir” can be found in three Icelandic grimoires from the 19th century. The first and most important one of them – the Huld manuscript (signature ÍB 383 4to) – was composed by Geir Vigfússon (1813-1880) in Akureyri in 1860. The manuscript consists of 27 paper lists contains 30 magical symbols in total. The “vegvísir” is depicted at the page 60 (27r) and is marked with numbers XXVII and XXIX. It is complemented by another, further unspecified symbol and a following note (Foster 2015: 10):

Beri maður stafi þessa á sér villist maður ekki í hríðum né vondu veðri þó ókunnugur sé.”

“Carry this sign with you and you will not get lost in storms or bad weather, even though in unfamiliar surrounds.”

Among other very similar symbols which can be found in the Huld manuscript belong to the “Solomon’s sigil” (Salómons Insigli; nr. XXI) and “Sign against a thief” (Þjófastafur; nr. XXVIII).

The second grimoire known as “Book of spells” (Galdrakver) survived in a manuscript with designation Lbs 2917 a 4to. It was written by Olgeir Geirsson (1842-1880) in Akureyri during the years 1868-1869. The manuscript contains 58 pages, with “vegvísir” depicted on page 27 as a symbol nr. 27. It is accompanied by a text partially written in Latin, partially in runes:

Beri maður þennan staf á sér mun maður trauðla villast í hríð eða verða úti og eins rata ókunnugur.

“Carry this sign with you and you will not get lost in storms or die of cold bad weather, and will easily find his way from the unknown.”

The third grimoire is yet another “Book of spells” (Galdrakver), this time preserved in a manuscript with designation Lbs 4627 8vo. While the author, place and time of creation are unknown, we are certain that it was written in 19th century in the Eyjafjord area, which again is close to Akureyri. The manuscript consists of 32 pages and “vegvísir” is depicted on page 17v. Within the manuscript, we can also find more similar symbols than just the “Solomon’s sigil” and “Mark against a thief”. The text accompanying this symbol is rather unique, and the following translation is the very first attempt since the exploration of the manuscript in 1993. From the text it is clear the functionality of the symbol was conditioned by true Christian faith:

At maður villist ekki : geim þennan staf undir þinni vinstri hendi, hann heitir Vegvísir og mun hann duga þér, hefir þú trú á honum – ef guði villt trúa i Jesu nafni – þýðing þessa stafs er falinn i þessum orðum að þú ei i (…) forgangir. Guð gefi mér til lukku og blessunar i Jesu nafni.”

“To avoid getting lost: keep this sign under your left arm, its name is Vegvísir and it will serve you if you believe in it – if you believe in God in the name of Jesus – the meaning of this sign is hidden in these words, so you may not perish. May God give me luck and blessing in the name of Jesus.”

 

Symbols from manuscripts ÍB 383 4to (27r), Lbs 2917 a 4to (27), Lbs 4627 8vo 17v).

Along with other symbols, the “vegvísir” came to Iceland most likely from England, where star-shaped symbols can be tracked as early as 15th century, such as “The Solomon’s testament” (Harley MS 5596, 31r). The original symbols had their meaning in Christian mysticism. A more thorough research might confirm the use of sigil magic even in earlier periods.

The first literature containing the Icelandic version of “vegvísir” symbol along with translation to German was most likely an article by Ólaf Davíðsson on Icelandic magical marks and books from 1903 (Davíðsson 1903: 278, Pl. V). The second time the symbol appeared in literature was in 1940 with Eggertson’s book about magic (Eggertson 1940: column 49; Eggertson 2015: 126). It is often incorrectly believed that “vegvísir” is also depicted in “The Book of spells” (Galdrabók). This mystification appeared at the end of 1980s, when Stephen Flowers publicised his paper The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimoire, in which the “vegvísir” does indeed appear (on page 88), but only in a side note on Icelandic grimoires. So how comes the symbol is so popular these days?

We believe the author Stephen Flowers played the main part in propagation of the symbol, thanks to the intense promotion of his paper during the beginning era of the Internet. That was in times of growing interest in Old Norse culture and emerging re-enactment community. Those interested in the topic, arguably due to lack of better resources than on purpose, based their research on the best available book with symbols that had a certain feel of authenticity due to being based on Icelandic origin. With its increasing popularity, the “vegvísir” also became an attractive article for online shops targeting this particular market, as well as for Icelandic tourist shops (see Tourism on Iceland), which still promote the “vegvísir” as an “authentic Viking symbol” due to commercial reasons. Another notable promoter of the symbol was the Icelandic singer Björk, who had it tattooed in 1982 and began to describe it as “an ancient Viking symbol, which seafarers painted with coal on their foreheads to find the correct way” since 1990s (gudmundsdottirbjork.blogspot.com). This caused “vegvísir” to become a part of tattoo artists’s portfolios, and at the moment the two mentioned influences intersected, the symbol became one of the most often tattooed motives in the neo-pagan, musical, re-enactment and Old Norse interest communities.

It is important to note that nowadays the circular variants, sometimes accompanied by rune alphabet, are the most used, although the original versions were of squarish shape and are without any runes.


Conclusion

The symbol known as “vegvísir” is Icelandic folk feature borrowed from continental occult magic “Solomon’s testament”. It is about 160 years old and its use is limited to the 2nd half of 19th century in an Icelandic city of Akureyri. The only literary sources we have from the Icelandic tradition are few mentions in three manuscripts, which are based on each other. The “vegvísir” is not a symbol used or originating in the Viking Age, and due to the 800 years gap should not be connected to it. The original Icelandic “vegvísir” is of square shape, with the circular variants emerging in the 20th century. Its current popularity is tied to the spread of the Internet and strong promotion in an on-line medium, that is easily accessible by the current users of the symbol.

I would love to express my thanks to my friends who inspired me towards composing this article, as well as those who provided me with the much-needed advice. My gratitude goes to Václav Maňha for the initial idea, to Marianne Guckelsberger for corrections on the Icelandic text and to René Dieken for providing me with various English sources.


I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Literature

Davíðsson, Ólafur (1903). Isländische Zauberzeichen und Zauberbücher. In: Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde 13, p. 150-167, 267-279, pls. III-VIII.

Eggertson, Jochum M. (1940). Galdraskræða Skugga, Reykjavík : Jólagjöfin.

Eggertsson, Jochum M. (2015). Sorcerer’s Screed : The Icelandic Book of Magic Spells, Reykjavík : Lesstofan.

Flowers, Stephen (1989). The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimoire, York Beach, Me. : S. Weiser.

Foster, Justin (2013 – 2015). Vegvísir (Path Guide). In: Galdrastafir: Icelandic Magical Staves. Available at:
http://users.on.net/~starbase/galdrastafir/vegvisir.htm

Foster, Justin (2015). The Huld Manuscript – ÍB 383 4to : A modern transcription, decryption and translation. Available at:
https://www.academia.edu/13008560/Huld_Manuscript_of_Galdrastafir_Witchcraft_Magic_Symbols_and_Runes_-_English_Translation

5. dubna 2019

23 komentářů: “Origins of the “vegvísir” symbol”

  1. When you say the original is square in shape, was there a source for this? (apologies if I missed it). I assume hoping for a drawing is too much… sometimes it’s hard to believe in something so old.

  2. “To avoid getting lost: keep this sign under your left arm, its name is Vegvísir and it will serve you if you believe in it – if you believe in God in the name of Jesus – the meaning of this sign is hidden in these words, so you may not perish. May God give me luck and blessing in the name of Jesus.”
    So guys I didn’t understand… Does it have some connections with Christian religion, as hidden sign for Jesus Christ?

  3. >“The first […] was composed by Geir Vigfússon […] in Akureyri in 1860.
    >The second […] was written by Olgeir Geirsson […] in Akureyri during the years >1868-1869.
    >The third. […] While the author, place and time of creation are unknown, we are >certain that it was written in 19th century in the Eyjafjord area, which again is close >to Akureyri.”

    I don’t quite understand why the text of the third grimoire (which was supposedly written after the first two) has more severity than the other.
    Since it mentions Jesus but was written years after the first two the “vegvísir” shouldn’t necessarily be of christian origin.
    Or are you focusing on the changing shape of the symbol rather than the origin and I misunderstood something?

    >“Along with other symbols, the “vegvísir” came to Iceland most likely from England, >where star-shaped symbols can be tracked as early as 15th century, such as “The >Solomon’s testament” (Harley MS 5596, 31r). The original symbols had their >meaning in Christian mysticism. A more thorough research might confirm the use of >sigil magic even in earlier periods.”

    I don’t understand the connection between Solomon’s symbols being in those grimoires and christianity. Solomon was jewish, lived from 990 – 931 BCE (The Viking age started ca 200 years later). How and when did information travel from Israel to Scandinavia?

    Thank you in advance for a reply!
    Tuhan

    • Hello,

      thanks for your message. Let me express myself more clearly – the symbol was never used by Old Norse people of the Viking Age. Of course, Vegvísir is Christian in origin. It was created in Iceland, but the general of sigil magic came there from England. It is quite simple.

      Best regards
      Thomas

  4. Either “Viking Age” or more recent. Strictly 19th cent. Icelandic with Christian influence or no, it is still considered a powerful symbol. And, yes, Stephen did influence alot of present day “Asatruar” stave knowledge with his works. Up til then, all that available was very “New Age” Ralph Blum and his rune interpetations (“blank rune/ I Ching approach”) Or contend with “common” accusation of being a Nazi if you have any interest in Runes.

    • Hello Laurie,

      I do not question the strength of the symbol for various communities or the Stephen´s achievements. My goal was to describe the symbol to broader audience and disconnect it from Viking Age.

      Thank you for the read. Have a wonderful weekend!

      Best regards
      Thomas Vlasaty, author

  5. Hello,

    You said “The original Icelandic “vegvísir” is of square shape” and I was wondering if you could post an image of what you are talking about seeing an internet search seems to come up with so many versions and I have no idea what one is the one you are referring to.

  6. Such a disappointment to find that the vegvisir is a relatively common invention, promoted by people’s imagination. I am not influenced by modern media. Of Danish descent I am always interested in Viking history, and Old Norse. I like the look of the vegvisir, and read brief descriptions of what it is, and its origin. I’m glad to have stumbled upon your article, and got a little better educated. I was about to order necklaces for my adult grandchildren, for a fun thing to have. Lesson learned : do homework so as not to unknowingly join in the current media hype. I would love to give them something authentically Old Norse (replica, of course) rather than something created for adults in which to dress up, and watch television shows.

    • Dear Carol,

      thank you so much for a nice feedback. Let me know if I can can help you with an authentic replicas.

      I love to hear that you are in fond of my websites.

      Have a lovely day!

      Best regards
      Thomas, the author

  7. Do you believe there is a link between the christian description of the third Vegvisir and its depiction with a longer bottom line?

  8. Thanks for all your hard work!! I’ve been listening to Dr. jackson Crawford on youtube teach about old Norse language and culture, and its refreshing to see so many people, like you too, learning about the real history that we know of with these things.

    Great article, sir!

  9. Gah. I just got a drinking horn with Vegvisir on it. I guess this explains fairly firmly why I could never find any source as to which end’s symbol was which realm. >:/

    Well, here’s my ultimate question. Though created by Christians, is it valid to claim it as something of our own? Not of our make obviously, but to claim it from them? I don’t know, perhaps it is simply buyer’s remorse, and feeling a bit lied to. What in the world does the Futhark around Vegvisir translate to anyway? I can’t get anything straight out of it. Did they just slap a bunch of runes on it and call it a day?

    Tell it to me straight sir.

    -Kara

    • Dear Kara,

      can I see the photo of the horn? Then I can judge what it says.

      It is a common practise to re-use old letters and symbols. It is not necessarily bad to do so, but I find claiming it is historically accurate a false and unfortunate act.

  10. Hey folks,
    I have read the whole article to the end. As a sailor who wants to make a traditional world tour in the coming period (without chartplotter, GPS etc.), does anyone know what the 8 signs on this symbol mean?
    Greetings from Turkey.

    • Hello Ercan!

      My knowledge does not reach that long, I am sorry. Given the meaning of the whole sign, they could represent the cardinal points, maybe? I am sorry I cannot be of more help.

      Have a nice day!
      Thomas

  11. Hi,

    I’m catholic and recently I’m really interested in foreign symbols and the meanings of them. I was thinking about getting a vegvísir tattooed not just cause it’s meaning, but also as a tribute to Björk. And hearing so much about occult symbols etc that they are everywhere and as a catholic i should avoid them, I’m wondering if vegvísir is one of these symbols. Do you know anything about it?

    • Hello Klara,

      thank you very much for your feedback. I myself come from one of the least religious country in the world, so it is not fair for me to give any advices in this problem. It seems that the Icelandic symbols including vegvísir never were part of the official faith (which is protestantism, by the way), it was part of folk lore and folk interpretation. In other word, I do not recommend to use it, especially if you a deeply devoted catholic. This is my interpretation of the original meaning, which was transformed over the time into “Viking symbol” meaning (which is also not very pro-catholic).

      Thank you one more time! If needed, write me again.

      Best regards
      Thomas

      • It is on the other hand a symbol rooted in Christian folk practice and belief. So it would be very valid for a Christian to reclaim from neopagans. Although, for a catholic it might not be reccommended to tatoo a Protestant symbol.

  12. Christian in origin, really find it funny that many norse neopagans have become so attached in a Christian 19th century symbol. It really shows that they need to research and actually try and find sources for their “beliefs”. From an outsider perspective many of them really looks like they have only watched vikings tv show and buy merch from various “viking” sites. Sadly no interest in actual pre-Christian germanic myth and Spirituality.

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