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Vegvísir: The Truth of the ‘Viking Compass’

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The vegvísir is a commonly used viking symbol that's meant to stop people from losing their way. But is it actually from the Viking Age?

If you’re interested in viking imagery and symbolism, you will have undoubtedly seen the vegvísir.

Viking compass symbol

Literally “way” (vegr) “shower” (vísir), the symbol is meant to prevent the person carrying it from losing their way, and is known colloquially as “The Viking Compass” or “The Nordic Compass”.

It can often be seen on viking-inspired tattoos, jewellery and illustrations, and even in video games, such as Valheim. Which is strange, as it’s not actually a viking symbol at all.

Vegvesir in the video game 'Valheim'
Vegvesir in the video game ‘Valheim'

Norse compass or a Norse con? 

The vegvísir is featured alongside a number of other galdrastafir (magical staves) in the Huld Manuscript, which was written in Iceland by Geir Vigfusson in 1860. The text around it says:

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

“Carry this sign with you and you won't get lost in storms or bad weather, even in unfamiliar surroundings” (translation: Justin Foster)

This is the earliest instance of the vegvísir in existence. While 1860 seems like a long time ago, it’s still a far cry from the Viking Age, which ran approximately 793-1066.

Screenshot from the Huld Manuscript.
Screenshot from the Huld Manuscript.

To add some historical context, the 1860 presidential election in the US was won by Abraham Lincoln… but “the Abraham Lincoln Presidency Compass” has less of a ring to it.

The runic compass?

So, other than the obvious yet tenuous connection of “old and Icelandic”, how did the vegvísir become so associated with the vikings? 

In his video Vegvísir (wrongly called “Viking Compass”), Norse Scholar Jackson Crawford suggests that the appearance of the symbol may play a large role: 

“Sigils like ægishjálmur and vegvísir bear a certain visual resemblance to runic letters and as much as they use a lot of straight lines. Some of those particular straight lines taken together look a little bit like runes. You can arrange the ægishjálmur sigil in such a way that it has 24 points, which equates to the 24 letters in the elder futhark alphabet, but they are not runes because they do not represent letters or even words. And they might not be any older than the manuscripts in which they’re written down.” 

Read more: Viking Runes: The Historic Writing Systems of Northern Europe

The Viking revival

The historical setting of the time might also have played a role in cementing the vegvisir’s viking connection.

The 1800s in Europe was characterised by national romanticism, bringing with it the “Viking revival“, which saw a renewed interest in Norse history and mythology in the Nordic region as well as Germany, the UK and the US.

For example, Richard Wagner composed his opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which draws from Norse mythology such as The Saga of the Volsungs, between 1848 and 1874. The opera’s costume designer, Carl Emil Doepler, single-handedly kickstarted the association of vikings and horned helmets (so cheers for that one, Carl).

Read more: The Valkyries: Welcome to Valhalla

Therefore, it’s possible that the vegvísir was also an expression of national romanticism, or at least, have received more attention because of it.

Did the vikings use a real vegvísir?

The symbol might not be from the Viking Age, but did the vikings use a real vegvísir to find their way across the seas?

Wooden boat on a Norwegian fjord

As with most things related to the vikings, we don’t know for sure what they used to navigate (I know it’s frustrating, but that’s history for you). However, based on the knowledge and materials they had at the time, it’s possible that they used a solar compass

Again, however we do not know this for sure, and a solar compass would’ve had its limitations – particularly in the North, where the sun disappears in winter.

Give me a sign

Ultimately, much like horned helmets or the Vikings TV show, the vegvísir is aesthetically pleasing but has nothing to do with the actual vikings.

That said, it’s very common to see a vegvísir being used in daily life – particularly in German-speaking countries (wegweiser means “sign(post)” in German).

Did you know that the vegvísir was not actually a viking symbol? Does this change what you think of the vegvísir? Let us know.

About Jess Scott

Jess is a native Brit who lives and works in Oslo as a translator (from NO/SE/DA into EN), proofreader and copy editor. Much like Norwegians, she loves black coffee. Unlike Norwegians, she hates skiing. She is also technically a qualified viking, with a BA in Viking Studies, although there was a lot more reading and a lot less pillaging than she had expected. If you're interested in hiring her services - or are just really curious about what a Viking Studies degree involves - you can check out her website or reach her on LinkedIn.

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1 thought on “Vegvísir: The Truth of the ‘Viking Compass’”

  1. Thank you for this article, I enjoyed reading it. Wanted to find out how the vegvísir had to be used before buying one as wall decoration. Of cause I won’t right now.

    Reply

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