Tattoos of Europe: Norse Mythology and Symbolism

Tattooing in Europe is an old practice.

The earliest evidence of tattooing was found on Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy, who sports a total of 61 tattoos featuring simple dots and lines and presumed to be an early form of acupuncture.

A collection of tattoos discovered on Ötzi, Europe's oldest mummy
Ötzi the Iceman’s Tattoos

One section of Europe that has had a significant influence on tattooing is Scandinavia, or more specifically, the early Norsemen.

The mythological tales of the Norse-Viking period carry with them various symbols that held powerful meanings for the Nordic people, and these symbols have become a staple in modern tattooing.

For instance, interlocked triangles remains one of the most popular tattoo designs – would you like to guess where this symbol comes from?

Why the Norse, of course!

Norse Mythology and Symbolism

The symbols used by Norse people were extremely varied, with each symbol carrying a powerful meaning and story.

Wolves were used to symbolize protection, crosses were used as protection from trolls, and the runes – which remain popular among spiritual communities – contained multiple symbols that were thought to have magical powers that could be tapped into by gifted rune readers.

Many of the Nordic symbols were worn as amulets. Some of these symbols became extremely popular, and are now worn in a similar way – as tattoos!

Let’s find out what these ancient symbols mean!

Yggdrasil: The Tree of Life

Yggdrasil is a massive ash tree that sits at the centre of the cosmos. It is the pillar that supports all life and is the tree upon which the horse of the highest god, Odin, is bound.

Considered to be extremely holy, this tree is visited by the gods to hold their assemblies.

The branches and roots of Yggdrasil extend far and wide, to Asgard, home of the gods, and all the way down to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, and various creatures reside in Yggdrasil – from dragon serpents and eagles to stags and squirrels.

Read more about dragon serpents at Dragon Tattoos and their Meanings

The Tree of Life holds all the nine worlds according to Norse mythology and is thus thought to represent the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth.

Valknut: Odin’s Knot

Made up of three interlocked triangles, the Valknut is a powerful symbol and one of the most popular ones to come from Norse mythology. The word ‘Valknut’ comes from ‘Valr’ meaning ‘slain warriors’ and ‘knut’ meaning ‘knot’.

This symbol was found carved into various objects of the Nordic people, including tapestries, rings, picture stones, and bed frames. It was also found on burial monuments, such as the tomb of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.

The symbol’s meaning is disputed. Some think it represents the heart of the jötunn Hrungnir, who was slain by Thor using his hammer Mjölnir.

Others think the symbol represents ‘mental binds’, linking it to Odin’s ability to lay bonds upon the minds of men to make them helpless in battle. One other interpretation of the symbol is that it represents death, stemming from its use in religious practices.

In modern times, the Valknut has taken on even more meanings as it has come to be associated with various different groups for political, religious, and social purposes. One of the most popular modern meanings for the Valknut is ‘hope‘.

Aegishjalmur: The Helm of Awe

The Aegishjalmur is a symbol with eight arms radiating out from a central point and ending in trident-like spikes.

The symbols that make up the Aegishjalmur are very similar to shapes found in runes, indicating this symbol holds magical power.

The arms of Aegishjalmur are linked to runes that are thought to represent protection and prevailing over one’s enemies.

This symbol features in Norse mythology as being used by the dragon Fafnir, giving him so much power that he became invincible.

This symbol is also called the Helm of Terror, further indicating how frightfully powerful it is thought to be.

Mjölnir: The Hammer of Thor

Mjölnir has become an extremely popular symbol in modern times thanks to its inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its history goes much further back.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

The hammer of Thor is one of the most powerful weapons in Norse mythology, thought to be capable of levelling mountains.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Modern versions, such as Marvel’s also incorporates runic inscriptions into Mjölnir’s design, further adding to its power.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Mjölnir has an uncharacteristically short handle for a hammer and is thus wielded with only one hand. The reason is that while the hammer was being forged, the trickster Loki attempted to foil its creation, causing a manufacturing defect.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Thor wielded Mjölnir in battle, defeating giants and banishing the forces of chaos.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

He also, however, wielded the hammer at religious events and ceremonies – this time using it to impart blessings. Mjölnir is thus also associated with fertility, prosperity, and abundance.

Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Svefnthorn: Sleep Thorn

Though it is mentioned frequently throughout Nordic literature, the Svefnthorn’s actual form and meaning are not entirely clear.

Svefnthorn, the Sleep Thorn

The most common version of this symbol is four harpoons, and across all its interpretations the Svefnthorn has one common use – to put one’s enemies into a deep sleep that they may never awaken from.

Svefnthorn, the Sleep Thorn

Its depictions in Nordic tales are similar to the story of Sleeping Beauty, where a princess is pricked by a needle and forced into an enchanted sleep that only her prince is able to awaken her from.

Svefnthorn, the Sleep Thorn

Other versions of the Svefnthorn state that this symbol would be carved into an oak and placed under the head of the person who is meant to stay asleep. They would be unable to wake up until the carved oak is removed.

Gungnir: Odin’s Spear

Gungnir, meaning ‘swaying one’, was a powerful spear fashioned by the Dwarves and obtained from them by Loki. The spear was said to be so well balanced that it could strike any target regardless of the wielder’s skill, earning it the title of the ‘spear that never misses its mark‘.

Gungnir, Odin's Spear

Odin wielded this spear both while hunting and in battle. He famously attacked the wolf Fenrir while wielding Gungnir.

Gungnir, Odin's Spear

Gungnir was said to have runic symbols engraved onto its point, much like other spears of the Norse people, thus adding to its capabilities.

Gungnir, Odin's Spear

Due to its power and the fact that it was wielded by Odin, Gungnir is considered to be a symbol of authority and lordship, as well as might and military prowess.

Huginn and Muninn: Odin’s Ravens

Huginn, meaning ‘thought‘, and Muninn, meaning ‘memory’ or ‘mind‘, were two ravens that flew over Midgard (or Earth) and conveyed important information to Odin.

Neo-traditional Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens

Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens

Odin is frequently depicted with his ravens perched on his shoulder. They were his eyes and ears, his helpers that were with him even when he rode into battle.

Illustrative Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens, and Odin's portrait

Watercolour Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens

Many interpretations exist around the origins of Huginn and Muninn. A very common one links them to shamanic rituals, believing that Odin had the ability to send his ‘thought’ and ‘mind’ to shamans while they were in a trance.

Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens and Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life

Others have linked this idea back to the Norse concept of the hamingja and the ‘shapeshifting soul‘.

Irezumi Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens

Huginn and Muninn: Odin's Ravens and Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor

Triskelion: Odin’s Horns

Another symbol that features in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Triskelion is a symbol that has existed across various European cultures.

In Norse mythology, the tale of the Triskelion comes from when Odin drank the mead of poetry using the three horns Óðrœrir, Boðn and Són.

These horns held the mead since the time two dwarves killed a wise man and poured his blood mixed with honey over the horns.

Thus, the horns, as well as the mead, became a symbol of wisdom and inspiration. All who drink from these horns are said to become scholars.

The three horns interlocked together to make up the Triskelion.

* * *

And there you have it – meanings of some of the most popular tattoo designs – explained!

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