Nordic mythology is full of fantastical creatures, magic, and glorious heroes and villains. Icelanders have preserved knowledge of the Old Norse religion, even though the country has been officially Christian for 1000 years.
You will see Old Norse magic symbols throughout Iceland, in the form of paintings, tattoos, and company logos. One very well-known Icelandic magical staves or symbols is aegishjalmur, written as Ægishjálmr in Old Norse.
Aegishjalmur Meaning and Pronunciation
Aegishjalmur, 'helm of awe', is a Norse symbol shaped like interlocked hands, palms down—one atop the other. Aegishjalmur is one of the best-known Icelandic magical staves (galdrastafir).
The galdrastafir were symbols believed to have a range of powers, whose effects would be different depending on their shape. These could offer many kinds of assistance, such as fertility, guidance through a storm, and protection in battle.
Pronounced “EYE-gis-hiowlm-er”, this particular Icelandic rune was used to protect warriors and to instill fear in their enemies. The name can be broken down into two parts: ‘ægis-’ meaning of terror/awe, and ‘-hjálmr’ meaning helm or covering. The Helm of Awe, or Aegishjalmur, first appeared on a Viking stone in England from 958-1020 CE.
It consists of eight points resembling tridents with curved prongs, all pointing outwards, and a circle in the center. The Helm of Awe's arms form Elhaz runes, signifying physical, mental, and spiritual protection.
It was mentioned in a collection of Old Norse poems known as the Poetic Edda, by Snorri Sturluson. In the poem, the Helm of Awe was a physical object taken from the dragon Fáfnir’s hoard.
Fáfnir was once a dwarf, who turned into a dragon after becoming cursed by the treasure he guarded. He used Ægishjálmr to defend his treasure against those who would try to steal it. The hero known as Sigurd slew the dragon and took Ægishjálmr from him.
Aegishjalmur, or the 'Helm of Awe', is a Viking emblem for Protection, often worn like Thor's hammer Mjollnir. The symbol was utilized in later centuries and was worn between the brows of warriors to assist them in battle. It was perceived as a charm, that once drawn over the forehead would work its magic.
Aegishjalmur vs Vegvisir
You will see several Icelandic staves that closely resemble Ægishjálmr, but subtle differences give them unique meanings.
While Ægishjálmr is the Helm of Awe, Vegvísir is known as the Icelandic compass. Its name means ‘Way Pointer’ or ‘Signpost’; with Vegr being "way" and Visit "shower"; it also bears eight tridents pointing outwards.
As its name suggests, Vegvísir ensures that the person who wears its sigil will not get lost. They will find their way even through storms, or if they don’t know the way to their destination. It has become quite popular in tattoos, jewelry, and media like Valheim. The Vegvisir was first documented in Iceland's 1860 Huld Manuscript, with no known earlier records.
The Vegvisir, known as the Norse or Viking compass as well, has eight rune staves extending from a center, symbolizing guidance. These tridents, however, bear square prongs as opposed to curved, and each of the tridents has a unique design. This differs from the eight points of Ægishjálmr, all of which are generally identical.
Summing up, Vegvísir, with 8 arms, offers protection for travelers, while Ægishjálmur, or Helm of Awe, symbolizes protection and triumph. Around it, you can find some runes such as Elhaz or Algiz runes, signifying physical, mental, and spiritual protection.
Other Icelandic Symbols
Icelandic runes symbolize spoken/written power, knowledge mastery, and mythic symbolism, with Sagas affirming their magic. Here are some of the most popular ones:
This symbol is again similar to the two mentioned above, but each of its arms are more elaborately designed. It is said to grant the wearer protection from evil and a better chance of good health. It is said to have been drawn onto the chest using blood.
Gapaldur and Ginfaxi
These two staves serve a very specific purpose: to ensure victory in Icelandic wrestling, known as Glíma. Ginfaxi, an Icelandic fertility rune, was placed under the left foot for glíma wrestling, ensuring victory alongside the gapaldur rune.
Note that you must have both runes for them to work, and they will only work for Glíma. You will see these two symbols on the walls of many Brazilian jiu-jitsu studios around Iceland.
This is a different magical stave, made up of four symbols in a line. It is a way for the bearer to dream of unfulfilled desires. This symbol, along with the others mentioned above, is a subject of debate among historians.
It may be that many galdrastafir had very different meanings during the Viking area, or did not exist at all. Some have no written record before the 17th century, leaving them open to influences from other cultures and religions.
Either way, in the modern day, they are associated with the Old Norse religion. They are seen as very significant to some contemporary Icelanders, whether in the form of belief, art, or both.
This is not an Icelandic rune; rather, it features in the stories of the Æsir—the pantheon of Norse Gods. Mjölnir has become a most prominent symbol in modern-day Nordic countries, owing to the resurgence of the Ásatrú religion.
Mjölnir is the Hammer of Þórr (Thor), who is the God of Thunder and the son of Óðinn (Odin). The hammer is said to be one of the most powerful weapons to ever have existed. It was created by the two Dwarven smiths Brokkr and Sindri and the characteristic short handle was a construction mistake.
For those who haven’t seen the Marvel movies, Mjölnir has been popularised by Marvel’s Thor. It has become a faith symbol for followers of Ásatrú, and is seen on many pieces of jewelry and tattoos. It can be interpreted as representing many things, from destructive power to protection from evil.
Yggdrasil, the 'Tree of Life' in Norse myth, connects nine realms and embodies life's origin from the Well of Urd. Also known as the world tree, Yggdrasil basically connects the nine realms of the Norse cosmos.
The realms of the Gods are highest on the tree, on the top-most branches. The underworld, or Hel, is at the roots, and Midgard, where humans live, is at the tree’s base.
Different creatures live in each of the realms, something that is explored in Marvel’s Thor series. As with Mjölnir, the image of Yggdrasil is used in jewelry, art and tattooing among Icelanders.
In the thirteenth century, Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, which is a collection of Germanic mythological stories. This collection of stories is studied in Icelandic schools today. This gives the natives an insight into the beliefs of the Old Norse religion. Fortunately, this knowledge managed to survive 1000 years of Christianity, which spread throughout Europe and converted most Icelanders.
These symbols have been open to so much interpretation that you will rarely see two designs the same. Your level of belief in their utility will determine whether you take artistic license or insist on them being accurate.
One thing is for sure, that these symbols will continue to grow in popularity in Iceland. The Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) continues to increase in size, now accounting for over 1% of the country’s population.
Eager to know more? Uncover the secrets of Norse mythology and Viking culture on a captivating Viking Age walking tour in Reykjavík. Explore ancient legends and history firsthand!
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.