What is it? Basically the Helm of Awe is an 8-branched radial symbol, known commonly as a "stave-rune". There are actually a number of different radial stave-runes or "Helms of Awe", each being an 8-fold repetition of a single rune. The most common one seen today (largely thanks to the survival of the Icelandic Sagas) is an 8-fold repetition of the Elder Futhark Algiz rune, with triple crossbars on each of the 8 copies. Since Algiz is basically a rune of protection (the branching prongs of the symbolic elk-horn keeping danger at bay), repeating the rune 8 times in all directions serves the purpose of blocking or evading attacks from all directions, both the obvious and the concealed. In this sense it may also be used by runenmeisteren as a powerful esoteric charm against malevolent psychic attacks.
What does it mean?
The description of this object or symbol as a "helm" most likely originated in one of two ways: (1) first, as a bind-rune painted on circular wooden shields, with a radial pattern of symmetric Algiz runes arrayed around the central bushing, and (2) second, as a largely sorcery-based metaphysical protection for one's head (and thus one's life) rooted in the mysterious shamanic type of Norse magick known as seiðr which also had analogues in Scythian and Getic traditions. Both theories have merit, and it is possible that the real history of this symbol took some input from both realms of Germanic magick. The rune-origin and seiðr -origin theories are here explored.
The Runic Theory
One of the most obvious ways to arrive at the construction of the Ægishjálmur is to use runes. In this case, the rune in question is suggested by most scholars to be the "Elder" Futhark rune Algiz or Algir, representing either an Elk due to its pronged antler-like shape, or the obscure legendary plant known as "elk-sedge" which was rumored to be similarly spiky. The stave of the Algiz rune is then extended and adorned with three cross-bars, signifying augmentation or amplification of a particular energy in Icelandic Galdrastafir magick. Originally the angular straight branches of Algiz may have been retained in the Ægishjálmur as they are in a couple of simpler "guarding staves". However by the time this stave was written down in the late medieval Grimoires of Iceland's Christian era, the "forks" had become curved like a pitchfork. The angular "pitchfork" staves in other symbols like the Vegvísir may have evolved from these.
The shape of Algiz, as you may already know, also resembles the Maðr rune in the Younger Futhark, as well as the Armanen Man rune, both of which refer to man, masculinity, strength, vitality, augmentation of self, and increase in magickal powers. Though none of these meanings are necessarily "military" in the same sense as Algiz being symbolic of a weapon, the Elk's antlers, they do reflect a similar concern with strength, courage, and a good defense, whether magickal or physical. Though not the same rune as Algiz (their "Elder" Futhark equivalent is, oddly enough, the twin-staved Mannaz), they do have the same symbol-shape and thus point to a similar upward or outward-expanding assertive nature.
|"Primitive" form of the symbol with straight branches, |
commonly seen printed on heathen T-shirts
Interestingly, the Ægishjálmur appears in one of the oldest Norse sagas, the Volsunga saga, whose settings are based not in Iceland or Denmark, but deep in Continental Germanic lands, which in Bronze Age times extended far east of Germanic regions today. The entire realms of the Goths, Rugii, and Teutons once extended out past modern Poland into the regions today part of Ukraine and Russia, and their neolithic ancestors even had links with the Caspian Sea and Greater Iranid peoples, millennia before Magyars, Avars, and Khazar Turks intruded into the Volga region and violently wrenched the North and South solar cultures apart. The early generations of the Volsung clan lived in this region of Dacia or Dahaea, traversing modern Ukraine and Romania, which was inevitably retconned to "Hun-land" in later re-tellings of the saga before it was written down.
If this is the case, as the myths seem to strongly indicate, then not only are the trappings of Germanic culture likely older than a "Germanic" identity, they may well have primal Aryan origins. Indeed, the motif of the Ægishjálmur 's simpler "cousin", the four-spoked Korshjálmur or "cross-helm", is almost identical to elements of solar patterns seen on Persian, Armenian and Kurdish woven dreamcatchers and some village rugs, which indicates a common cultural origin. This symbol is also a sunwheel or sun-cross variant, which links it to even more powerful and more misunderstood solar symbols, all of which long predate Christianity.
|Similar pattern in Armenian or Persian rug|
In that case, the Ægishjálmur being a runic-derived symbol is not only likely - it may actually be the other way around - that some runic symbols like Algiz were derived from the Ægishjálmur or at least shared a common origin! Remember, while the runes themselves - the energies and magickal principles embodied in the various runic symbols - are held to be Odin's discovery in times "before men had the ability to reason", nevertheless the actual symbols themselves that we call "runes" today have evolved, and some may indeed have been derived from older solar symbols. We are not dogmatists about the precise "originality" or "continuity" of the outer symbols themselves (though they do tell us much about the "runes" or secret powers they represent even by their shape). Maybe they predate the Ægishjálmur , or maybe it predates them. Either way, the ultimate root-nature of the transcendent runes themselves, that is, the creative energies behind the symbols, is not in doubt, and our wisdom and skill in magick is not diminished in the slightest.
The idea of Ægishjálmur being a combination of 8 radially arranged Algiz runes with amplifying triple-cross lines and a central circle, is not far-fetched at all - and being essentially a magickal symbol for invincibility in battle, it is definitely related in purpose to the reported nature of Algiz, since the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, which renders Algiz as Eolh, or the Elk, indicates this rune represents a prickly and dangerous thing never to be touched:
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
Quite a terrible "sedge" indeed. And the Elk-sedge is thus a primally appropriate motif for the basic units of the Helm of Awe, such that composing the symbol from these Algiz or Eolh runes will strike fear into all foes, such that their wounds in battle will be ghastly and they will flee in fear of massive blood loss.
A person carving this symbol into any sort of sacred object in ancient times, or even into their own flesh, would have to be a warrior or at least on in severe need of a warding-spell to drive away all who approached them. Of course today there are millions of cheap mass-produced amulets for sale on the internet featuring the Ægishjálmur or the Algiz rune, not carved or Galdr-enchanted, but simply cast in pewter or some nameless "white metal", which show no respect for this deadly-serious martial past. But merely buying and wearing one of these, does not make one a master of either the rune or the Ægishjálmur's power, just like buying and wearing a Valknut medallion does not make one either an Odinist, a warrior, or even one who is prepared to become a warrior, face death and go to Valhalla to fulfill their honor.
It could theoretically be possible to also construct an Ægishjálmur from Maðr or Man runes, though the distinction would be moot to all but the carver or painter of the symbol who chanted the name of Man rather than Algiz, as their original angular forms are visually identical.
The Seiðr Theory
If the "Helm of Awe" referred to a metaphysical "helmet" of invisible magick, anchored to the physical world by the radial symbol, it would indeed be appropriate for this to be a seiðr construction. As in the Sagas, the Helm is typically painted in the center of the forehead, in the spot where many old Aryan traditions, both northern and southern, tend to depict the Third Eye in their mystical iconography. In that sense, it can be said to tap into some of the most primal energies of the universe through one's Third Eye, and then project an activation of pure living force (which come call the Od or Odic force) to either form a healing aura, or one of pure terror, depending on the intent and emotion channeled.
The precise workings of seiðr are largely lost to time, though there are reports of modern magickal groups attempting a reconstruction of the practice, after some members' long years of study in related Indo-European disciplines.
Seiðr itself, however, had many different uses. It could be used to both help and harm. Traditionally among Viking-age warriors and rune-masters however, it was feared and even despised as a "dark art" used by malevolent witches to possess the target's mind and trap them in webs of forgetfulness, delusion, or terror. they were alleged to create illusions of wraiths or visions of disaster so terrifying that the victim often became insane, suicidal, or simply lost the will to live.
However, not all applications of seiðr were harmful or malevolent to the subject. Ægishjálmur in particular was intended as a sacred stave or protection for the warrior, to strike terror into his enemies and make him utterly fearless of the possibility of his own death, thus all but guaranteeing him absolute victory. Nevertheless, Ægishjálmur is, like nearly all effective magick, very much a "dual-use technology". It can be used to protect a loved one from harm, but it can also be used to cause great harm to others in an unprovoked attack. Much like the honor-combat tradition of Holmganga was intended to prevent the decay of society through dishonor, slander and tribal feuds, but could also be abused by thuggish individuals to "legally" steal land and possessions from elderly or poor farmers. Eventually, much like this led to Holmganga being banned in Norway, the abuse of seiðr apparently led to its instruction being highly restricted by the Viking age, aside from its later suppression by Christianity - and very little of it was passed down beyond the 13th century CE.
The Ægishjálmur belongs to a special type of seiðr practice known to the Vikings-age Norse as sjónhverfing, a colorful term which translates as "sight-deceiving" or illusion charms. In this method, the seiðr -practitioner warps the mind of their target so that they believe illusions to be real, or fail to see things for what they are. This art was used to create lifelike illusions and hide one thing behind an illusion of something else, particularly in hiding a hunted man from his pursuers. In Iceland, unlike in mainland Scandinavia, this art would have had to be especially potent if practiced outdoors, due to the lack of tree cover making concealment in the guise of nearby objects very problematic. The art of "sight-deceiving" doe not so much make one invisible as it hides them in plain sight, in the guise of various easily overlooked objects - a bit like how Frodo's cloak in The Lord of the Rings does not actually make him invisible, but rather takes on the mottled and worn appearance of a typical rock when used to hide its wearer, thus making him impossible for foes to tell him apart from any of the millions of small boulders in the area. The base-structure of this magickal ability may have been a sort of hypnosis, an art that was already understood and practiced for thousands of years. Indeed, much like hypnosis, it was possible to counteract the silent spells of a seiðr-witch by depriving her of her sight, or at least separate her sufficiently from the subject of her spell that she was not able to see him, due to natural barriers and terrain and such. Also, the effect of this illusion-based form of seiðr faded when the subject (or the victim, depending on the usage of seiðr bring practiced) was out of sight of the seiðr-practitioner.
A similar magickal technique, and one that may be directly related to the Ægishjálmur, was the spell called the huliðshjálmur, the Helm of hiding, which made one invisible to enemies. The ritual for the huliðshjálmur could vary, from putting your hands on top of the subject's head as if putting a helmet on their head, to throwing possibly psychoactive powders over them to slow down their heart rate and movement, and there may have been a variety of other means. Though not referred to as a helmet even in a mystical sense, the Vatnsdoela saga (chapter 44) mentions that the special pointed hood worn by the seið-master or mistress, resembling the pointed caps of the Scythians and Sarmatians, was said to have the power to make others invisible while the seið-master was wearing it.
Therefore, the usage of the Ægishjálmur symbol may have been as a protective "sigil" painted on a person's head as a magickal "helmet" to strike dread into his foes and make their hands and weapon strikes unsteady so that they miss his head, without the spell needing to actually function as deflective armor. Much like the huliðshjálmur spell which uses "deception of sight" to make the user invisible, the Ægishjálmur can be used to activate illusions which make them appear mighty and terrifying to all that view them, commanding the immediate loyalty of friends and causing foes to cower or run.
Enn mælti Fáfnir: "Ek bar ægishjálm yfir öllu fólki, síðan ek lá á arfi míns bróður, ok svá fnyýta ek eitri alla vega frá mér í brott, at engi þorði at koma i nánd mér, ok engi vánm hræddumst ek, ok aldri fann ek svá margan mann fyrir mér, at ek þættumst eigi miklu sterkari, en allir váru hræddir við mik."
Sigurðr mælti: "Sá ægishjálmr, er þú sagðir frá, gefr fám sigr, því at hverr sá, er með mörgum kemr, má þat finna eitthvert sinn, at engi er einna hvatastr."
[And Fáfnir said, "An ægishjálm I bore up before all folk, after that I brooded over the heritage of my brother, and on every side did I spout out poison, so that none dared come near me, and of no weapon was I afraid, nor had I ever seen so many men before me, and yet deemed myself stronger than them all; for all men were greatly afraid of me."
Sigurd said, "Such an ægishjálmr, few will by means of it gain a likewise victory, for whoever comes among many shall one day find that no one man is by so far in excess the mightiest of all."]
By the late Viking Age, with the increasing presence of organized Christianity, the awe-inspiring spells of seiðr had been driven far underground. But certain types of magick were still practiced by Icelandic vitkar or wizards, and this was often considered less "foul" by churchmen than the supposed abomination of a woman practicing magick, for the Christian doctrine of fear towards spiritually powerful women as "evil temptresses" were already infamous in Europe. The male vitkar, on the other hand, gradually became amalgamated with the figures the Church syncretistically painted as "good wizards" to make itself more palatable to a magickal culture, such as Santa Claus and Jesus Christ himself. However the belief in the Ægishjálmur lived on, being reinterpreted as a Galdr-stave and hence a runic symbol, thus less obviously seiðr-related and more akin to the indigenous scripts of Nordic countries, and thus far harder to excise from the cultural soul of the people. The Viking vitkar believed that the symbol should be cut into lead or copper, stained, and then pressed between one's eyebrows (in which case it would need to be rather small), then the user would recite the words "Ægishjalm eg ber milli bruna mjer," ("Ægishjalm I carry between my brows"). Victory in battle, or at least a severe demoralizing blow to the enemy, was then assured.
Richard Wagner borrowed the idea of the "Helm of Awe" as well. In his Ring Cycle, which was heavily influenced by the Volsunga saga, the Ægishjálmur appears in the guise of an actual helmet, the Tarnhelm, and it not only makes the wearer feared in battle and invisible, but also enables him to shape-shift into terrifying creatures as Fáfnir did, and even to travel great distances in an instant - indicating that Wagner may have been one of the first modern people to depict teleportation in his art. Whether the ancient Norse believed the Ægishjálmur (or something similar) conferred any such instant-travel ability is unknown, though it is possible that such abilities, or at least their illusion, were within the real of highly advanced seiðr masters.
It must be emphasized, however, that the Ægishjálmur is primarily for defense or war. While one tends to see many online listings of cheap pewter Ægishjálmur talismans for sale, labeled "irresistibility in battle", I must emphasize the "battle" part here. Ægishjálmur is not is a magickal symbol for making one irresistible in any other sense, such as the oft-mistaken assumption that is also makes you irresistible in love (there are runes and bind-runes for that however, though I do not teach them freely to just anyone as they are very dangerous if abused). Also, while many online sellers offer "cute" chrome-plated pendants with an Ægishjálmur surrounded by a ring of "Elder" Futhark runes, there is no evidence that they were ever used together historically (though given its simple symmetric design, the Ægishjálmur may indeed be that old), and there is also no proof that Ægishjálmur was worn around the neck as a necklace. In any case, the Ægishjálmur is a spell to make one irresistible in battle, not in the bedroom.
There is the question of whether the Helm of Awe was actually worn as a talisman on the forehead at all, or whether it was actually tattooed. While there are no archaeological hints of tattooing this symbol, no "bog bodies" and such with Ægishjálmur tattoos on their skin, there is also nothing to indicate that this idea was in any way shunned or disregarded by Norse warriors. So if you want to get one tattooed, that is your call. In our time it's probably not the best idea to put it on your forehead though, unless you want to be striking fear (or just uneasiness) into everyone that looks at you.
If you do get this symbol tattooed on your skin, or take the easier step of buying one of the many different styles of "Helm of Awe" pendants or talismans out there on ebay, etsy and so forth, don't panic - even though this is the "Helm of Terror", it's mainly a protective symbol against enemies and is not known to have any directly harmful effects of symbolism towards non-belligerents. It's not strictly a warrior symbol, as in the Lore it was used in other contexts too, such as Katla protecting her son. However it is a sign that you are not afraid to fight for what is yours. The equally popular Valknut, on the other hand, should probably be avoided as a tattoo design for the vast majority of people. It was carved into the chests of slain warriors as a mark of Odin and of their journey to Valhalla to train and fight in his army of heroes against the destructive forces of chaos when Ragnarok comes- a noble fate only reserved for those who fell in battle, rather than dying of natural causes. However it follows as a corollary that warriors who used this symbol in life, considering themselves followers of the way of Einherjar, the most difficult of the Odinic paths, and they fully accepted and indeed perhaps welcomed the possibility of dying a very violent and painful death.