Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Valknut - a symbol of sacrifice

The word valknut is a neologism: it is formed in modern times through combination of valr, ‘the dead’ or literally ‘the fallen’1 and knut, ‘knot’. However the symbol is very old and dates back to Viking times and probably even further. Valknut is a Viking symbol of three interconnected triangles. The triangles may be joined in two ways: either as Borromean:

or unicursal:

Note that other types of geometric "valknuts", such as closed three-link chain, the triquetra, or the "Penrose triangle" never occur in the original Viking ornaments. One should keep that in mind when using the valknut in Viking tattoos or runic tattoos, since only the above two designs are genuine Viking-age valknuts. 

There are a few modern variants of the valknut, which, however, may be considered valid even though they are not identical to the archaeological forms. Most spectacular of these is a version which combines both the Borromean and unicursal forms into a sort of "Grand Valknut":

In essence this is two valknuts in one, forming twelve corners instead of the regular Borromean valknut's nine. While this complex version is not historical, in the sense that there's no archaeological evidence for it having been used as a symbol (and quite honestly, just try staring at this thing for a couple of minutes and see if your head doesn't hurt). However if it were ever used in the past in any Indo-European warrior tradition, one would imagine that this type of valknut would only be for the most legendary and perfect warriors (in every aspect) who only appear once in a century or more - an Arhat's knot, so to speak. Esoterically, the twelve corners in the design would point to the God of war, Tyr - the ultimate warrior, whose rune, symbolizing sacrifice and victory at all costs, is the 12th rune in the Odinic or "Armanen" system of 18 holy runes.

However, if one is going purely for accuracy to the surviving history and artifacts, only the first two types of valknuts are historically authentic (and in our time of total reliance on technology, I doubt one can even still find a warrior worthy of the "Arhat's knot" anyway, as strength alone is far from enough).

Consider the Borromean triangles type, which occurs on the Stora Hammar rune stone.

Stora Hammar runestone

Here above the valknut we see a raven, Odin’s symbol. Below the valknut is probably a burial mound. A dead warrior is put there by someone with a spear, followed by giants and accompanied by another raven. The spear is probably Gungnir, Odin’s weapon, and the figure holding it is most likely Odin. The other sign of Odin’s presence is a warrior hanged on a tree to the left of the mound. All the symbols around the Valknut, which is in the central position here, point to the valknut as a symbol of a warrior's death and to Odin as a god of slain warriors who welcomes these Einherjar into Valhalla.

The unicursal type of valknut (which can be drawn with one stroke) appears twice on the Tängelgarda stone:

Once again we see the warrior motif, with a warrior on a horse (i.e. a ritter or knight) stepping over the valknuts (symbolizing, perhaps, triumph over death iteslf by embracing the noble Odinic path of fearlessness towards death) followed by armed servants or retainers (note the daggers or Seaxes on their belts) bearing arm-rings or oath-rings. This is similar to other processions in those Indo-European cultures untainted by herder mentality, in which tribute-bearing warriors carrying such valuable rings proudly and willingly followed a great Jarl or Warrior-King (instead of being dragged in chains as slaves, as in the art of Greco-Roman or Semitic societies).

Here we see Scythian warriors bearing tribute to Darius the Great of Persia at Takht-e-Jamshid ("Persepolis").  Once again, there is a horse and oath-rings, though here the horse is not ridden as it is a gift for King Darius. You can see them wearing similar long cloaks and the same sort of straight Seax-type dagger as in the Viking carving. The name Seax or Sax (Sakhu in eastern Aryan tongues) must be very old indeed, predating the divergence of eastern and western Indo-European peoples, as both the Saxons and the Scythians (Saka) took their name from this weapon. Very few other cultures in history allowed vassal nations the honor of bearing their arms in the presence of the King - and nearly all of them had an Indo-European heritage. Darius was himself a highly successful general with a dizzyingly long military career spanning over thirty nations and kingdoms.

The valknut itself, however, does not appear on artifacts outside of Northern Europe, though again, this may not mean the symbol was unknown to other Indo-European peoples and traditions further south and east. The trifos or triskelion was far more widespread among these cultures however.

Other instances of the valknut in Viking ornaments are Lärbro stone, River Nene ring and a bedpost found on the Oseberg ship. However, knot of the slain is not the only possible interpretation of the valknut. It is also called Hrungnir’s heart. This name is based on a description found in the Prose Edda:

Hrungnir had a heart that was famous. It was made of hard stone with three sharp-pointed corners just like the carved symbol Hrungnir’s Heart (hrungnishjarta).”

In fact "Hrungnir's heart" was the original name by which the valknut was known in ancient times. When a particularly valiant and fearless warrior fell in battle, it was customary for his tribe to cut the Hrungnir's heart into the skin of his chest with a knife, to mark him literally on the heart as one of the Einherjar, the fearless warriors of Odin, so that the Valkyries may more easily identify him and take his soul straight to Odin's hall in Valhalla (or, if Freyja chooses him instead, for she gets the first pick of the slain warriors, then he is taken to her hall Folkvangr – either way, to prepare for the final battle of Ragnarok.)

That's the literal, exoteric meaning, anyway. The original metaphysical meaning and function of the valknut's elements, the three interlocking triangles, is not wholly clear. The number three is a very common magick number in many cultures. However, in a Scandinavian context, three multiplied by three might designate the nine worlds (the Borromean valknut has nine corners), which are united by the Yggdrasil tree, which is said to have three main roots. Likewise, Odin, to whom the valknut is intimately linked, is said to have performed a ritual of self-sacrifice upon Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to win the Runes, of which he specifically mentions 18 in number (a multiple of nine). In modern times of course, the valknut, like Triquetra and Horn Triskelion, is often interpreted as a symbol pointing to Germanic Heathen (and more specifically, Odinist) convictions.

It also stands for extreme bravery and a willingness to die in a fight or sacrifice one's life to protect family and folk. The vast majority of Odinists and Ásatrúars discourage anyone who is not of their faith from getting a valknut tattoed on their skin – it's a serious statement of the Odinic path someone has chosen in life, and it can often be a lonely and harsh one. Not every runenmeister (let alone every Ásatrúar) ends up making this level of commitment to Odin's path. And those who do, are well aware that offering yourself as potential Einherjar material means accepting the risk that you may well die a very painful death.

The following is commentary of some Ásatrú watchers who decided to add their two cents to the issue:

When in reference to the Valknut, dedicating yourself to Odin doesn't always mean making him your “patron god” but it means that you have made the choice to be a warrior, never run away, fight to the death if necessary and enter Valhalla as Einherjar upon death. The Valkyries look for that symbol on the dead to decide if one should be taken to Valhalla, or left to see Hel.

This is a very serious symbol, not for cowards, the hall of Odin is not for cowards, if you're willing to "Do right and fear no one" then this symbol is for you, if not, then don't wear it, or someone might come by and take it from you, along with whatever it's attached to.

The Valknut is the symbol of the Einherjar, representing their dedication to the AllFather until the time of Ragnarok.The 'knot of the Slain' as it is also known. Only those in true and dedicated in service to Odin should don this sacred symbol as tattoo. Spiritual warriors of Valhalla, Einherjar, are chosen by Odin at birth, once AllFather has placed his mark upon you, your life belongs to him. From that moment your life will never be an easy one, each trial and tribulation throughout your years is your testing ground as designed by him to strengthen and enlighten you in the ways of the Northmen who are destined to stand with Odin at the final battle. Some are gifted with sight to recognise their condition and rise to this great privilege and challenge. Others will live out their lives whinging and whining about their miserable lives. The unworthy will always exclude themselves!

Those who wear the Valknut have pledged an oath to Odin himself [whether they realise it or not] to live their lives as a warrior, and woe to him that breaks that oath!!

'”That I advise you secondly, that you do not swear an oath unless it is truly kept; terrible fate-bonds attach the oath-breaker; wretched is the pledge-criminal.'” - Sigrdrifumal 23.

A hall she saw standing far from the sun, on Nastrond; its doors looked North; drops of poison fall in through the roof vents, the hall is woven of serpents spines. There she saw wading in turbid streams men who swore false oaths...."- Voluspa 38 and 39.

Finally; “For those whom have donned the sacred sign and then either disregarded it, or changed their mind...they shall surely lose their mind, or suffer a violent death and then be cast out by AllFather Odin, to dwell in Nastrond, in Hel's darkest quadrant.” (quote unknown)

As for buying valknut amulets, the opinions are divided. Some Ásatrú -oriented Runenmeisteren take the view that it's forbidden for anyone who's not serious about dedicating at least part of their lives to Odin. Others on the more esoteric path of runic spirituality take the view that an amulet by itself does not a commitment make. Whether you buy or wear one or not, in my mind it is the same - more or less harmless. It may signal that you are of a warrior path, at least for the time being (that said, at least understand what it means and that it's not something to take lightly), but even in worst-case scenario, it's not permanent and can still be removed from your neck if you ultimately change your mind. (However if you are not Ásatrú, Odinist, or even Heathen in a general sense, there's no reason to wear it - if you don't believe in the faith and its Gods, why wear its deeply meaningful symbols?)

However, whereas a valknut pendant can be taken off, tattoos are permanent and basically like signing in blood. You are marking your own flesh permanently with the holy Knot of the Fallen, of the warriors oathed to Allfather himself, and literally writing Odinism into your blood, beneath the skin! The valknut is not a universal obligation, even most Heathens do not go as far as tattooing it, and those who do are firmly convinced that Odin has called to them. It is a marker that you are willing to follow the often difficult and dangerous Odinic path. Make sure you know for certain, if you are or if you are not. And if not, then don't get it done.

1 Note that “fallen” refers to falling in battle, i.e. getting killed by an enemy – NOT fallen in the sense of being corrupted or “sinful” as in a Christian context.


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  4. "The unworthy will always exclude themselves." How interesting....

    1. It is very true. You will see who is worthy of being marked with the Valknut, and who isn't, when they are faced with a fight or a real hardship. Anyone who is not a warrior at heart should not be marking themselves with the Heart of Hrungnir. It is a magnet for trials and conflicts. Even most hardcore Asatruar don't get it tattooed, that should say something.

      It's strange how little common sense people have when it comes to Indo-European symbols. Most people wouldn't tattoo a cross if they're not Christian, or the Shahada if they're not Muslim. But I see people tattooing valknuts who are not warriors, or runes without knowing the meaning.

      I personally am not a fan of tattoos, though I respect people's choice to get them if they know what they're doing. But many people don't. The other I noticed some guy showing off his Vegvisir tattoo with Elder Futhark runes, but he can't name the symbol or any of the runes! He marks himself permanently and can't even explain what the symbol is! On youtube you see these pathetic videos of scrawny "safe space" keyboard warriors bragging about their Valknut tattoo. Just guess what happens when they run into a real Einherjar, or their Wyrd tests these mewling puppies in some other way.

  5. Brilliant and interesting article. I'm glad you brought up the fact that these symbols have a deep meaning to the modern day practitioner/believer.