The Valknut [Ask Me About Odin]
“I’ve read (in sources-I-can’t-remember at unrecalled times, unfortunately) that Odin’s valknut is a protective but dangerous symbol, and that one who wears it is marked for great trial or even death. Is this true?”
In a word, yes. In modern devotional practice, the symbol is traditionally worn by those who have been claimed by Odin, as a sign that we are willing to be sacrifices to Him at any time He should choose. The immediate impact of embracing the symbol is more likely to be sweeping life changes, inner transformation, and the sacrifice of comfort zones, than literal death; however there is—or ought to be—also an acceptance of the literal meaning of death as a sacrifice to Odin. Most of us who are His know that our deaths belong to Him just as our lives do, and that we will one day die at His hands. Some of us welcome that and even look forward to it as one might look forward to a night with a lover.
Historically, the valknut is a somewhat ambiguous symbol, and may signify a number of different things depending on who you ask. Archaeologists have found it depicted on picture stones, the earliest from the 7th century CE, in Sweden and England, and on the Oseberg ship burial in Norway. On these stones, it is typically surrounded by valkyrie-like figures, bears (underscoring Odin’s bear connection once again), warriors, and a figure carrying a spear and riding a horse, generally identified as Odin Himself. On one stone, a burial is also depicted. You can read a more detailed account of the various stones and associated symbols online here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos649.htm
From this evidence, it is generally accepted by scholars as a symbol of Odin, and the addition of warriors, valkyries and a burial make it a pretty safe guess that it was also associated somehow with sacrifice or death. Beyond that, though, there are many different interpretations of the symbolism involved. Hilda Ellis Davidson, for example, sees the valknut as symbolizing Odin’s power to bind and unbind: His ability, on the one hand, to tie battle fetters that blind and paralyze an enemy, or on the other hand to loosen the fetters tying the minds of His followers to ordinary reality through His gifts of battle frenzy, intoxication, and inspiration. Since the Norwegian name for the symbol literally means “knot of the slain,” Rudolf Simek theorizes a connection with death rites–perhaps practices similar to those described by the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlan and dramatized in the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. There is also a mention in Heimskringla (the history of the Norse Kings, by Snorri Sturluson) of sacrifices to Odin being “marked for Him with a spear,” although whether this meant the carving of a valknut into the flesh or simply a spear wound is not specified in the text.
But basically, yes, the valknut is rather a dire symbol, and among modern Odin-worshipers the meaning is taken as “insert spear here”; in other words, the person who wears it is “marked for Odin.” Of course this makes it a protective symbol too, but more in the sense of Odin protecting those marked for Him because no one other than Him has the right to kill us. My engagement ring to Odin was/is a handcrafted valknut ring, and when I married Him, I had a valknut tattooed on my back in indigo-blue, directly over my heart chakra, to seal my oaths to Him in blood. It is generally accepted in both mainstream Heathenry and among Northern Tradition pagans as a symbol of Odin first and foremost. It may have other associations too, but the connection with Odin is so strong that someone who is not sworn to Him for life may want to think very carefully about wearing the valknut in jewelry, much less getting a valknut tattoo. Oddly enough, I have had completely mundane people–in one case, a devout Christian–compliment me on my valknut jewelry. Of course, they knew nothing about its meaning (although the Christian did ask me–and I told her) but there is something compelling and almost hypnotic about the symbol itself, in its elegant simplicity.
The valknut can be a powerful meditative symbol, and I have come across several different conceptions for using it this way, including associating the nine points with the nine worlds or the “nine noble virtues.” None of these really ever clicked with me, perhaps because they did not key in to the strong “Odin-ness” of the symbol strongly enough for my taste. But then recently I was given a new way to meditate on it: while I was on my way to work one morning, Odin suggested to me that the points of the valknut could symbolize the nine great sacrifices He has made to progress along His path. “Nine?” I asked in surprise, since I normally only think of three (His sacrifice of an eye to Mimir’s Well, His ordeal on the Tree for the runes, and His abandonment of Gunnlod for the mead), but then a few more instantly popped into my head, and when He prompted me even further, I realized I could come up with nine. For you, the precise nine that prove significant may be different (I’m absolutely sure He has made more than nine major sacrifices in His life for the sake of wisdom and power), but for the purposes of meditating on the valknut the number nine is of course perfect, and the nine I am working with right now ended up being:
The Well (the sacrifice of mundane sight–or attention/focus–for greater vision)
The Tree (the sacrifice of His own life and blood for the Mysteries)
Gunnlod and the Mead (the sacrifice of love and honor for the power to bestow eloquence and inspiration)
The slaying of Ymir (the loss of innocence)
The binding of Loki (the sacrifice of His brother and friend)
Baldur (as opposed to the conventional idea that Loki simply murdered Baldur, many of us believe Baldur died in His father’s stead as Sacred King, and that Loki performed the actual deed so that Odin would not have to)
His exile from Asgard, whether it was willing or otherwise (the sacrifice of kingly dignity)
Seidhr (the ergi aspect of it, or the sacrifice of the conventional idea of manhood by way of “beating drums with the witches on the isle of Samsey,” a line from Lokasenna which is sometimes interpreting as meaning that He allowed Himself to have been “used as a woman” as part of learning to be open for seidhr. This is a controversial notion and one I have resisted myself in the past. But after examining it further, it is not something I would put past Him, in the hunt for power.)
And perhaps the greatest of all, the continual sacrifice of those He loves and favors. This is sometimes wrongly interpreted by outsiders (and by outsiders I mean those who are not His) as His betrayal of those who have put their trust in Him. However, in reality it is His sacrifice of His own reputation for trustworthiness, in order to hone His people as He must and then harvest each of us at the proper time. And it is not as though He ever deceives us in this; we are all aware that this is where the entire relationship is leading.
All in all, the valknut is a deeply enigmatic and potent symbol and there is much more that could be said about it. Much like the runes themselves, if you ponder it, it will speak to you.