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This article appeared in Web of Wyrd number 7

 by Alby Stone

A number of Viking monuments feature a curious design known as the
valknut, the "knot of the slain" or, more loosely, "the knot of death".
On an 8th century CE picture stone from Hammers in Larbro, Gotland, it
consists of three interlocking triangles. This stone, now in Stockholm's
National Historical Museum, is divided into several panels; one of the
central panels, in which the valknut occurs, depicts several motifs that
suggest some sort of connection with the cult of Odin - an eagle, a
flying figure - possibly a valkyrie - holding a ring, a man being hanged
from a tree and a group of three warriors - with shields and upraised
swords - led by a fourth man who seems to be holding a large bird of
some kind. The valknut is adjacent to the eagle and below it are two
men, one with a spear, who appear to be engaged in placing a corpse
inside what looks like a burial mound. Between them and the hanged man
is what appears to be another, smaller, valknut of the same design. This
type can also be seen on a rather splendid golden ring discovered near
Peterborough, Cambs, and currently on display at the British Museum in
a cabinet labelled as containing Anglo-Saxon "secular" metalwork.
Another picture stone from Gotland (Tangelgarda also in Larbro) has a
panel showing a rider being welcomed by a woman holding a drinking horn
with four men who are holding rings. The woman may be a valkyrie, a
"chooser of the slain", one of whose functions was to serve ale to the
Warriors in Valhalla, another pointer to the cult of Odin. The rider has
a valknut behind his head and there are two more among his horse's legs.
On this stone, which can also be seen at the Swedish Museum, the valknut
is made up of a single line, interlaced to make three triangles.

Similar to the Tangelgarda design, but slightly more rounded, is that
carved onto one of several "hogback" monuments at Brompton, Yorkshire,
and probably dating from the 10th century CE. The end-beasts of this
particular hogback - these monuments are based on Viking Age houses
(although to this eye they have more than a passing resemblance to long
barrows) and the end-beasts are situated at what would be the gable ends
- are easily identifiable as bears, again suggesting the cult of Odin,
who was patron of the Warriors known as berserkr or "bear-shirts". The
purpose of the hogbacks is uncertain; no graves have been found with
them so they were certainly not tombstones. Hogbacks with undecorated
ends at Lythe in Yorkshire exactly match the shafts of crosses found at
the same site, indicating that the hogback formed a composite monument
with a cross at each end. In this case the hogback is certainly a
religious monument and it seems fair to suppose that the Brompton
hogback and its fellows, and similarly ended hogbacks elsewhere, are
also religious structures, albeit of a different faith.

The Brompton hogback has five valknuts in a row. The Brompton style
valknut also occurs on each of the four arms of the Gosworth Cross
(Cumbria), on both faces. The shaft of the cross strangely enough has
scenes from heathen myth, and the only remotely Christian looking scene,
which has been rather desperately identified as the Crucifixion, seems
to owe more to the rune-winning ordeal of Odin described in the heathen
poem "Havamal" than it does to the New Testament. The same type of
valknut appears on the shafts of crosses at Sockburn (Co Durham),
Lastingham, Hawsker and Brompton (all North Yorks). On the last, three

of these valknuts are arranged in a triangular pattern.

A fourth type of valknut, rather different from those described so far,
occurs on a stone cross from Andreas on the Isle of Man and is now in
the Manx Museum, Douglas. This version is basically a simple knot "tied"
in such a way as to retain the basic tripartite structure of the
versions mentioned above. Unlike the others it is not a closed structure
but its identity as a valknut, while mildly contentious, is not really
in doubt. The scene in which it appears shows a man, evidently Odin,
holding a spear pointing downward as he is devoured by a great wolf. An
eagle perches on the man's shoulder and the valknut is at his side. The
same design appears elsewhere, on a stone discovered in 1822 at Gosforth
and now incorporated into the structure of the local church. It is
between the back legs of a horse. On a picture stone from Alskog, in
Gotland, it occurs twice among the eight legs of Odin's horse, Sleipnir.
Despite this seeming wealth of examples and the diversity of styles the
valknut itself has remained enigmatic. It seems to be associated with
horses, particularly with the steed of Odin, and the cult of Odin in
general. Motifs associated with the symbol include the hanged man,
valkyries, bears, and the scene from Ragnarok on the Manx Cross, all
indicating some connection with Odin. According to HR Ellis Davidson,
the valknut also appears on the funeral ship excavated at Oseberg,
Norway in 1904, and on the tapestry found in that vessel, indicating
some sort of funerary association.

The origin and meaning of the symbol are extremely difficult to discern,
as is its association with Odin. Obviously it has a decorative value as
distinct from its symbolic meaning. The valknut has been used as a motif
by Scandinavian weavers since the Viking Age. Indeed, it is recognised
as a traditional design in that part of the world quite apart from its
alleged occurrence on the Oseberg tapestry. Davidson opines that it is
related to the Celtic triskele, the three-legged symbol most familiar as
the emblem of the Isle of Man and linked with the Irish God of the sea,
Manannan. The triskele is essentially a variety of the swastika, a
common enough cosmological symbol, but neither can be said to possess
the characteristic interweaving of the valknut. While it may be unwise
to dismiss a possible relationship between triskele and valknut, it
must be said that any resemblance is purely superficial, lying solely in
their tripartite structures. Structurally the valknut has more in common
with the Celtic triple spiral motif which is also found on Old English
and Pictish artifacts and much older objects. Unfortunately there is a
dearth of hard evidence for the mythological or religious significance
of the triple spiral, which tends to occur within wholly abstract or
symbolic designs, but it occurs within funerary contexts and has been
linked with the female principle by various scholars. The various types
of valknut, their contexts aside, share two important characteristics:
they are tripartite and they are constructed by
interweaving or interlinking.

Davidson also postulates a link with the bindings that occur in Norse
tradition. The best known examples of this are probably the binding of
Loki following his betrayal of Baldr; the binding of Baldr himself, a
theme that found itself into Scandinavian and Old English interpre-
tations of the Crucifixion; the binding of the wolf Fenrir; the ritual
binding of sacrificial victims, as partly confirmed by the discovery of
bound corpses in the peat bogs of northern Europe; and the Herjoturr or
"war fetter", a kind of paralysis that Odin and the valkyries were said
to be able to inflict upon unfavoured warriors in the heat of battle. To

these we might add the hangman's noose characteristic of the double
sacrifice - simultaneous hanging and stabbing - known to have been used
in the cult of Odin and a method of ritual killing that accords with
the condition of a number of bog corpses. One bog discovery, the severed
head of a man discovered at Osterby in Denmark, is very interesting; the
hair on the right side of the head is gathered into an elaborate knot
that looks very much like a valknut.

Tacitus, writing at about the time the Osterby man is believed to have
met his end, about the 1st century CE, tells us that the warriors of the
Suebi (a generic name for the Germanic tribes inhabiting the region now
occupied roughly by north western Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands)
tied their hair in such a knot, and a number of Roman monuments depict
Germanic warriors with the same hairstyle. It would be reasonable to
suppose that this hair-knot marked a warrior as a follower of an early
form of Odin in his role of war god. (See the author's article on
"Heretical Hairdos" in Talking Stick magazine Spring 1992 for a further
discussion of pagan hairstyles and the symbolic significance.)

The noose found around the neck of the Lindow Man unearthed from a peat
bog in Cheshire a few years ago consists of a sliding knot in a cord
knotted at each end, making a triple knot. A similar noose was found on
a body in a peat bog at Borremose, Denmark but the noose found on
another Danish corpse, from Tollund, is much simpler. Dr Anne Ross and
Dr Don Robins, along with the Danish archaeologist Professor P V Glob,
believe that these nooses are related to the Celtic torc, and note that
a number of torcs seem to be designed to look like garrottes. They
suggest that the corpses from Tollund and Borremose were sacrifices to
Nerthus, a goddess mentioned by Tacitus, and that the torc was an
attribute of that goddess. Tacitus also tells us that certain warriors
of the Chatti wore iron collars that would not be removed until they had
killed their first enemy, although many chose to wear them until they
died. In their case the collar probably indicated they were dedicated to
a god of war as opposed to a goddess of peace and plenty like Nerthus.
It would be rash to state unequivocally that the collar and torc
represent stylised versions of the noose or garrotte - but it is an
attractive proposition. However, torcs and collars are not valknuts, and
only the nooses found on Lindow Man and his Danish counterpart can
possibly be construed as being such.

It seems fairly certain that the valknut has a cultic or religious
significance and a particular association with death, as it name alone
indicates. The Andreas Cross shows the death of Odin, himself the Lord
of the Dead Warriors of Valhalla, and on the Alskog stone the valknut
appears by the feet of Sleipnir, the steed on which Odin, and also
Heimdall, rode to the land of Hel. It is seen by the hanged man and in
the funerary scene on the stone from Hammars and on the Tangalgarda
stone the rider seems to be receiving a welcome to the realm of
the dead. The scenes often include female figures who appear to be
valkyries or maybe even the death goddess Hel herself. The presence of
the valknut on Viking Age crosses in England and on the Brompton hogback
hints at a retention of this element of heathen iconography among the
adherents of the new cult.

The valknut is certainly part of the iconography associated with Odin
but that fact alone brings us no nearer to its meaning. Representations
of Odin and scenes from myths pertaining to him are common enough and
their components are usually readily identifiable. If the valknut does

stem from the cult or mythology of Odin, then it must represent
something that cannot be given a pictorial rendering, either because of
a taboo or simply because it just cannot be pictured in anything but an
abstract form.

The form is tripartite and interwoven; the context is mortuary, Odinic
and Otherworldly and it has both equine and feminine associations. This
set of conditions is peculiar to the mythology of the World Tree and can
be related to certain beings associated with it. The World Tree is
Yggdrasill or "The Steed of the Fearful One", which makes it a doublet
of Sleipnir. It has three roots which link the worlds together.
According to Snorri Sturlson, each root leads to a well or spring;
Hvergemir in Niflheim; Mimisbrunnr "in the direction of the frost
ogres", and Urdabrunnr "in the sky", the Well at which the three
Nornir gather to decide the fates of humans and gods alike.

Now it is clear from a number of references that these three wells are
in fact only one under three different names. A consideration of their
locations clinches the argument. Hvergelmir is the primordial well,
situated in the north, according to Snorri's account of the creation of
the cosmos. The nature of the "frost ogres" means that they can also be
located in the cold north, and the central point of the revolving sky is
also in the north, at the Pole Star.  The Nornir derive their collective
name from an archaic word meaning "north" which also denotes "that which
is below" (compare English nether, be-neath).  The name of the goddess
Nerthus (a goddess of the earth) reported by Tacitus may also be so

While the Nornir each have individual names in England, they go by the
name allocated to the eldest in Norse Tradition. The elder of the three
is called Urdr by the Norse, which is cognate with the Old English
"wyrd", hence the three "weird sisters" of Shakespeare. Thus they are a
three-in-one being in the same way as the Irish war goddesses known as
the Morrigna. Like the other, inevitably triadic, Indo European fates,
the Nornir spin and weave destinies.  One of them is also named as a

This brings us back to Odin, himself a shaper of destinies. In the
"Gylfaginnning" section of Snorri's "Edda" he appears in a triadic guise
and is credited with having taken a drink from the well at the centre of
the world, one source of his wisdom. Odin acquired the wisdom of the
runes while hanging on the World Tree and could obtain information from
the dead. The latter - apart from those worthy fighters chosen to
carouse in Valhalla until Ragnarok (the Twilight of the Gods) and those
who ended up in the paradisal Odainsakr, or abode of the righteous dead,
the hall Gimle - resided with the dread goddess Hel in the underground
realm variously known as Niflhel, Niflheim or simply as Hel located in
the far north. This goddess of the dead was said to be Loki's offspring,
conceived and born while he was in the form of a mare following a
dangerously mischievous escapade.

Actually she can be traced back to proto-Indo-European times and her
original name has been reconstructed as Kolyo, "the coverer". As Bruce
Lincoln puts it in his book, "Death, War and Sacrifice" (1991), "Her
domain is underground and she physically conveys her victims thence by 
fixing a snare or noose on their bodies and dragging them down. Her
bonds regularly fall upon the foot or neck of the victim, the same
places where domestic animals are fettered. The deceased are thus led

away like animals by Death, in whose bonds they may struggle, but which
they cannot escape, caught in her snares and dragged under."

Lincoln presents an impressive body of evidence to support this summary,
from Ancient Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, India and Iran. The theme has
altered from place to place and from one age to another but the essence
has remained. He also notes that the Middle High German term for a noose
was "helsing", which he translates as "Hel's Sling". He argues that
German sacrifice by hanging, generally related to Odin or Woden, was
actually a ritual enactment of the seizing of the victim by the goddess
of death. Given the mutual concerns of Odin, Hel and the Nornir, it
seems to make little difference either way.

In Old English texts the term "wyrd" is, despite its other connotations,
frequently used to denote death rather than a structured and unfolding
future that is suggested by the functions of the Nornir and their Greek
and Roman counterparts. There is of course an intimate relationship
between the two concepts and death is after all the fate of every being.
Scandinavian myth makes it clear that there are only two things which
the gods cannot avert; fate and death. In Norse myth the name of the
senior Norn is Urdr, a word in Old Icelandic that can also denote a
burial mound or cairn. "Beowulf" and other texts characterise wyrd as a
weaving of webs but the word usually means nothing less than the moment
of death, or at least the events leading up to death. 

The "Beowulf" motif is revealing, however; it has already been noted
that the fates tend to be spinners or weavers and in this instance there
is also the idea of a snare, which can refer back to the Indo-European
goddess of death as described by Lincoln. Like Hel, the Nornir reside in
the far north, at or near the celestial axis and like her they reside
"below ground", where the World Tree has its roots. The Nornir determine
life, span and the time of death, while Hel takes the dead to her cold
bosom. All these characteristics are shared to some extent with Odin, as
is their femininity, apparently adopted by Odin in order to engage in
seidr - the natural magic of womankind.

At the very least, Hel and the Nornir are closely related, perhaps even
deriving from the same proto Indo-European goddess, and Odin has
acquired some of their characteristics by virtue of his association with
the cosmic centre, the structure of which reflects their own nature. If
the valknut symbolises anything then, it is probably either wyrd, death,
or perhaps even the Nornir themselves, who are more or less the same as
wyrd anyway. Exactly when the valknut would have come to represent these
is difficult to estimate. Certainly the examples here all date from the
Viking Age and appear to range in time from about the 7th to the 10th
centuries CE. I am not aware of any valknuts of a significantly earlier
date. It is interesting that in England the use of the valknut seems to
have died out with the establishment of Christianity and the consequent
decline of heathenism. The Nornir are not represented pictorially
anywhere in the Germanic world, which is rather surprising. A panel of
the Franks Casket shows three hooded figures who might be intended as a
likeness of that fateful trinity, but it is by no means certain. Until
any conclusive artifacts come to light the truth of the matter must
remain as uncertain as the workings of the Fates themselves.

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