The Meanings And Symbolism Behind Viking Tattoos

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Vote up the Viking symbols you'd totally get tattooed on yourself. 

Whether or not Vikings had tattoos isn't entirely clear, but popular culture definitely tells us they did. At least one historical account seems to substantiate this. When he encountered the Rus - Scandinavians in Eastern Europe and Russia - Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan (c. 879-960) noted that "from the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth." 

Both history and conventional wisdom hold that Scandinavians and their descendants adorned their bodies with symbols, sigils, and staves - all with specific meanings and importance. Runes were also used to convey information. The characters of the Younger Futhark system were prominent during the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries and are most closely connected with the so-called Viking Age. They have their origins in the aptly named Elder Futhark and gave way to derivatives like Anglo-Saxon runes. 

But what did these sigils and runes look like? And what did they mean? 

Information comes from magical and mythological manuals assembled between the 12th and 17th centuries. Called grimoires or galdraboekur, these collections contained folklore tales, spells, runic symbols, and staves - the tools used by magicians. The Galdrabok provides information about Old Icelandic magic and is where we can find the closest thing to what a Viking tattoo may have actually looked like. 

Take a look and vote up the Viking symbols that have you ready for your next tattoo. 

Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

  • 1
    510 VOTES

    The Valknut

    With three triangles locked together, the Valknut is considered a symbol of death. It has shown up on numerous runestones and grave goods, but the term valknut is a modern creation. It means “knot of those fallen in battle.”

    Based on where the Valknut has been found, the symbol seems to have ties to the Norse god Odin. It is carved and drawn near images of horses and wolves, similarly associated with Odin. 

    510 votes
  • Vegvisir
    Photo: Geir Vigfússon / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    491 VOTES


    The Vegvisir stave appears in the Huld manuscript of the Galdrabók, a source that dates to the 19th century. One line of text accompanies it:

    If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.

    The word vegvisir combines two Icelandic terms, vegur and visir. The former means “path” while the latter means “guide.” Whether or not Vegvisirs was used during the Viking Age isn't clear, but the stave has come to symbolize protection.

    491 votes
  • 3
    315 VOTES


    Mjolnir, or Thor's hammer, is exactly as it sounds - the hammer of the Norse god Thor. The power of the hammer makes it a tool of destruction as well as an instrument of blessing, strength, protection, and power.

    Thor's hammer Mjolnir (also called Mjolner) appears in numerous Scandinavian sources. In the Prose Edda, it's referenced numerous times, including in the poem Hymiskvitha:

    The son of Othin, | once more to see;
    From their caves in the east | beheld he coming
    With Hymir the throng | of the many-headed.

    He stood and cast | from his back the kettle,
    And Mjollnir, the lover | of murder, he wielded;

    So all the whales | of the waste he slew.

    “Whales of the waste” is a poetic term used for giants.

    315 votes
  • Veiðistafur
    Photo: Ræveðis / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    294 VOTES


    Nordic fishermen were known to use the Veiðistafur - one of a variety of magical staves - to bring them good luck.

    294 votes
  • 5
    238 VOTES

    Helm Of Awe

    The Helm of Awe - a common Icelandic stave called Ægishjálmr in Old Norse - holds significant spiritual meaning and power in Norse mythology. Nine versions of it exist, with the Helm of Terror as the most recognizable. Sometimes, Helm of Awe and Helm of Terror are used interchangeably. 

    Each of the helms serves specific symbolic purposes. Some helms have four arms, while others have eight. One Helm of Awe type is used to get the affection of a girl. The user must draw it on their palm with saliva when meeting the girl in question. It's important to be fasting at the time. Another option is to carve it into cheese or bread and give it to the girl to eat. 

    In the “Fafnismal” in the Poetic Edda, the dwarf (who eventually becomes a dragon) Fafnir uses the helm as a means of protection against Sigurth: 

    The fear-helm I wore | to afright mankind,
    While guarding my gold I lay;
    Mightier seemed I | than any man,
    For a fiercer never I found.

    Sigurth replied:

    The fear-helm surely | no man shields
    When he faces a valiant foe;
    Oft one finds, | when the foe he meets,
    That he is not the bravest of all.

    The latter then took the helm and defeated Fafnir.

    238 votes
  • 6
    215 VOTES

    Algiz (Elhaz)

    Algiz is also called Elhaz, Eolh, and Ihwar. Like the latter Nordic rune, it is similarly associated with yew trees, but it also represents elks, protection, and spirituality.

    This rune is connected to the Valkyrja, also known as the Valkyries. These mythical figures wore swan feathers, which lends Algiz to a connection with swans as well.

    215 votes