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Valknut, or Valk..not

This is a symbol consisting of three interlocking triangles and appears on a wide variety of archaeological finds from the Germanic people. But despite its widespread use, the actual meaning behind this symbol is somewhat undecided.

One chapter of the Prose Edda contains the following description of the heart of the Hrungnir (a stone made giant and obnoxious drunk); “Hrungnir had a heart that was famous. It was made of hard stone with three sharp-pointed corners just like the carved symbol hrungnishjarta.” This would suggest that the Valknut is not actually a symbol at all, but a depiction of a stone heart of someone later slain by Thor.

Valknut is actually a modern Norwegian word that means “knot of those fallen in battle” and was introduced by Norwegians who lived long after the ancient Norse.

So if it’s not to do with Odin, then why is it so often recognised as him?

The Valknut is found in archaeological materials that are of death (runestones and ship burials). Alongside it, you will very often find depictions of Odin, or of animals associated with Odin (horses and wolves for example).

Hilda Ellis Davidson, a Cambridge scholar and Folklorist had a theory that has essentially bought along the modern idea of Odin’s connection. She suggested that the Valknut was actually a depiction of Odin’s power over man; “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” Davidson (1990:147). As Odin is closely connected with the gathering of fallen warriors to his hall Valhalla, the Valknut is assumed then to be a symbol of glory in death.

Editors hypothesis

Although most of this Norse 101 blog is designed to be as factual as possible, I have long had further speculation that indeed neither theory is wrong, but just not complete. I invite you to indulge me as I write this conjecture below.

First, let us look at Valhalla. This is a hall in which Odin resides over, preparing the fallen he (or let’s be honest; the Valkyrie) has collected from battle. The basic premise of this hall (that has been documented) is that the warriors are training for the final battle at Ragnarok. But it is the manner of this training that we must pay further attention to. What is supposed is that the warriors battle until only one is left standing, then Odin resurrects the warriors who enjoy a huge feast, to repeat this all again the next day.

But, it is well recognised by many ancient traditions that you feast before, not after, battle. Which brings me to my second point.

Hrungnir’s story is a superb and probably well recognised one of its time. Hrungnir took a bet with Odin on their horses. A somewhat foolish wager when you consider that Sleipnir is an 8 legged horse and considerably faster, so of course Hrungnir’s steed Gullfaxi loses. At some point (and likely to celebrate Odin’s win) Hrungnir enters Asgard but during the celebration, he becomes drunk and obnoxious. The Gods quickly bore of him and request that Thor battles him. Thor with Mjölnir in hand dispatches Hrungnir and there ends his tale.

Hrungnir has been translated to mean “brawler” or as ‘big person, strong man’. So when slain in battle, where else would he end up but in Valhalla, the exact hall to which the intoxication of his death occured. See where we are going with this yet?

If we take the fact that the Prose Edda was collated by Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century, the chances are it is closer to the truth, thus suggesting that the symbol is in fact Hrungnishjarta. But why then would it be on the runestones, burial ships and other common death-related items?

Perhaps it is in reference to a bigger picture. Not multiple symbols of one God, but in fact the depiction of a full story. Under this hypothesis, perhaps the mourner is offering a hope for their afterlife; drink and eat until you are intoxicated, battle until you fall, and repeat in Odin’s hall. To Valhalla we hope you go.

Far-right misappropriation

Valknut is a symbol often stolen by far-right groups, predominantly due to the “glory in violence and battle” philosophy. The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) state that “Nonracist pagans may also use this symbol, so one should carefully examine it in context rather than assume that a particular use of the symbol is racist.”

We are strong believers that education is key. Unlike the 1940’s, we now have access to vast amounts of information at tip of our fingers. As long as we can continue to counter with facts and education, we can hold those wolves at bay.

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