"To the Unknown God", Friedrich Nietzsche (1864)

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Once more, before I move on
and set my sights ahead,
in loneliness I lift my hands up to you,
you to whom I flee,
to whom I, in the deepmost depth of my heart,
solemnly consecrated altars
so that ever
your voice may summon me again.

Deeply graved into those altars
glows the phrase: To The Unknown God.
I am his, although I have, until now,
also lingered amid the unholy mob;
I am his—and I feel the snares
that pull me down in the struggle and,
if I would flee,
compel me yet into his service.

I want to know you, Unknown One,
Who reaches deep into my soul,
Who roams through my life like a storm—
You Unfathomable One, akin to me!
I want to know you, even serve you.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864

Published with kind permission from the translator, Michael Moynihan. Drawn from Alain de Benoist, On Being a Pagan. Arcana Europa, 2018.

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist

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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.

 

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum


*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.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

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.

 

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

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.

 

The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

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. 

Conclusion

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.



Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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In Defense of Magic (Norse metaphysics pt.1)

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Hey kid, wanna hear about magic in Viking and medieval Scandinavia? This is the first article in what will eventually be a whole series on magic and metaphysics in the Viking and Norse world. In it, I'll offer explanations and explorations on key subjects and terms, such as galdr (chants and incantations), seiðr (let's just call it “textile-magic” for now) and gandr (spirit emissaries). There will be magical projectiles, incantations, sigils and symbols, voodoo doll-like effigies and fetishes, divination, supernatural sodomy, and the massive can of worms that is runic magic. Dear lord, I will most definitely step on a few toes, but hopefully I will give more than I take away.

The viking and medieval world was full of magic, for protection, harm, to predict future events and communicate with forces and spirits. Naturally, all was integrated into how they made sense of the world around them, which was full of unseen entities. A lot of the terms we'll get into have some level of overlap, and grants us a glimpse of the taboos, beliefs and symbols that shaped their day to day experiences.

I presently aim to cover the most important bits of Viking and medieval magic over a span of several months, but I won't shy away from covering the zany world of contemporary spirituality and new religious movements either. Will there be Nazi occultism? Minoan runic sex cults?? Ancient aliens??? Who knows! It all depends on how far down the rabbit hole I decide to go.

The magic of magic

Now, magic is an extremely fascinating subject, but it is sadly misrepresented (and -understood) in public discourse. This warrants an introductory rant to kick us off, which will also serve to clarify my academic and philosophical stances and biases on the subject.

Firstly, I do not consider the notion of magic to be primitive in itself, but rather a feature of human psychology that may manifest itself in various forms of belief and behavior. The Vikings like any other pre-modern society, was not populated solely by superstitious twits who naively wasted their time and resources on self-deceptive practices that never actually worked. They wholeheartedly did believe in its existence, and they certainly felt that it granted them some benefit. Yet, perhaps not in the way people tend to think. Conversely, absence of witch trials is by no means evidence of a lack of magical thought in modern Western society. There's no need to turn to the occult: As an anthropologist might tell you, you'll find endless examples of pseudo-magical thoughts and practices by throwing a brief glance at the world of business and advertisement.

Fantastic and vivid descriptions of magical wonders, as well as their strange and wacky physical effects, are as old as the hills, and I'm sure that snake oil salesmen and quacks of all sizes have always thrived withi.n our ranks. This doesn't take away from the fact that magic has always encompassed a wide range of functions, ideas, and practices beyond whatever hocus pocus our minds might usually consider magic in a strictest sense. A magician may offer counseling and meditation therapy, strengthen social bonds, give pep-talks, and so on. Besides this, there may be many other culture-specific functions of magic that are difficult to pin down and properly discern. Even in the twilight realm of magic and medicine we find, at the very least, the time-tested and scientifically proven placebo effect. 

If we are to talk about naive magical notions, then basing one's entire perception of magic on, say, Lord of the Rings says more about the modern reader, than it tells us about the witch doctor.

Believers in magic: village idiots of popular histor

Magic is commonly used as a cheap trick to demonstrate a supposed lack of sense and logical thought, particularly in past societies. Contemporary cultures with strong magical traditions, especially the non-industrialized, are thought of as intellectually or philosophically deficient. There's no room for such nonsense, or so we're told, in the world of scientific materialism and Cartesian rationalism. 

Subjectively, I simply don't think this true. Rather, it shows the arrogance of Whig history at its very basest. That is to say: The idea that history is something akin to a bumpy train ride, ever rolling towards inevitable moral truths and intellectual progress. Every year is de facto better than the last, as we await a coming state of societal perfection. I'm no historian of ideas, but people guilty of such thoughts do tend to pity those poor souls unfortunate enough to be born in the horrid, dark chapter of human history colloquially known as the past

 

Such an attitude neither helps us understand how past man thought, nor does it bring us any closer to understanding ourselves (except, perhaps, for shedding light on intellectual snobbery). I am not about to unleash a crackpot narrative of a past paradise, but I will scoff and pass judgment on those who squarely pass water in the faces of the giants whose shoulders they stand on.

 

In my unrewarding struggle to defend past man against slander, the supposed mental simplicity of medieval and ancient people is probably what I hear the most, whether we are debating art, ethics, or religion. Mind you, this does not correlate with low education: There are many academically trained, talented individuals who treat anybody born before the 18th century as downright dumbasses. So it's not characteristic of lacking intelligence or education, by any means – but I do believe it is a distinguishing mark of someone lacking historical literacy, and perhaps a basic grasp of human psychology.

 

I hope I'm not too crass. It's obviously no crime to disagree with (or not care about) the beliefs of people who died ten centuries ago. But it is important to realize, despite any chronologically imbued misanthropy that, anatomically, their brains were no different than ours. It's unlikely that a random person born in the 10th century was any dumber than you, unless you are some kind of genius. Either way, the psychology of magic is probably as old as mankind itself. Irrational as it may seem, there are probably rationally justifiable, Darwinian reasons for its presence in the human brain. It won't ever disappear, but if it should I highly doubt its loss would be an enhancement to human life.

The academic study of the history of magic, it should be noted, is a fairly young and marginal discipline. Traditionally, Old Norse scholarship seemed more interested in how and when to distinguish magic from religion. When reading older works in particular, they often have an ethnographic tinge, and scholars seldom demonstrate any particular interest or competency in the history of magic proper. Luckily, a lot of great research has been published in recent years, which we shall dive into in future parts of this series!