It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.
This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.
At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.
Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.
I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.
*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different
Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His “Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork.
As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.
This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.
I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.
The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.
They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.
As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.
A multivalent symbol
While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.
It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.
However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule.
For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use.
The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol.
From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.
I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.
Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.