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Vegvísir (Path Guide)


This page is a portion of my main Galdrastafir Website to focus solely on the Vegvísir.

If you have any questions or want the latest information just ask me - I’ll answer as soon as possible. I can also help with tattoo design of Galdrastafir, Bindrunes, Runic writing and advice on their original meaning. I use only my own extensive research of authentic Icelandic manuscripts and related historic source writings.

Write to me:  justin-at-norsegraphics-dot-com
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Don't risk believing the misinformation and mistaken designs seen elsewhere on the internet.

The Vegvísir can be seen in the Huld Manuscript1 of 1860, translated to mean 'signpost', however the word is derived from two Icelandic words: veg and vísir. Vegur means road or path, and Vísir stands for the word Guide. The instruction given to this symbol has been translated as If this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.3

text from huld vegvisir
Beri maður stafi þessa á sér villist maður ekki í
hríðum né vondu veðri þó ókunnugur sá
Carry these staves with you and you won’t get lost in
storms or bad weather, even though in unfamiliar surrounds.
Huld Manuscript1 - Text from Page 60...   A collection by Geir Vigfússon ca. 1860

The design and translation taken from the Galdraskræða Skugga is similar. That version was transcribed in 1940 but taken from earlier sources. Unfortunately the author did not share what those sources were.

Fen Alraun speculates that the Vegvísir incorporates 8 different charms of protection on each stave; thus the overall charm becomes one suitable to defend against many kinds of obstacles that might cause one to lose one's way. He believes it is not necessary to understand the meaning of each stave: As long as the helm is written correctly every time it will still hold its power.

The Vegvísir has been called a Runic or Viking Compass and been described as a magical symbol of navigation connected with actual compasses.4. I am yet to find any reference to this sigil prior to the 1600s, so it should not be regarded as Viking. Even though the shape looks like a compass, that is just a coincidence - many galdrastafir appear on an eight spoked wheel. Meanwhile, the concept of an actual eight pointed compass used in navigation is only a very recent innovation.

While on the subject of debunking nonsense - Vegvísir is definately NOT an Ásatrú symbol - Ásatrú is a new age religion founded in the 1970s! Also it is not in the same category of magic as the Elder Fathurk runes used in esoteric runology (another modern day innovation).

There are many Vegvísir tattoos on Tumbler and Instagram/Iconosquare, almost all based on the Davíðsson or old Wikipedia versions. This does make for a more simple, less cramped style for tattooing, but I prefer accuracy over such shortcuts. There is also a version that is based on Björk's tattoo which is way off the mark. I speculate it was created using a very low resolution photograph of what is actually on her arm. Not only is it a poor rendition, the image has been rotated 90 degrees. Brent Barry has made a better version on his web site Brent Berry Arts and shows many other examples of his beautiful work featuring the Vegvísir (but they still lack those key elements).

vegvisir huld vegvisir davidsson vegvisir by flowers
Huld Manuscript 1 - Page 60
from Geir Vigfússon ca. 1860
From an essay 2
by Ó Davíðsson, 1903
From The Galdrabók 3
by Steven Flowers
Still WrongWorseTerrible
vegvisir by Brent Berry vegvisir by Sparrow vegvisir by mikaelfernstrom
On the Web 4
by Brent Berry
On the Web (Etsy)5
by SparrowHawk9
On the Web (Pinterest)5
by Mikael Fernstrom

In my revision of Vegvísir I have taken the best elements from the earliest versions. The Huld version is from 1860 and the Galdraskræða Skugga from 1940, however both of these are the collectors' impressions taken from earlier sources. As Huld is the oldest, I have redone that version and made it available in Wikipedia here I don't understand what happened that the Ó Davíðsson, 1903 version is so abbreviated, but I cannot trust it. I heed Egil Skallagrimsson's warning after finding a girl sick in bed and finding her the victim of a badly cast rune spell...

vegvisir huld vegvisir lbs 2817a vegvisir galdrakver vegvisir galdraskraeda
Huld Ms
ÍB 383 4to
Geir Vigfússon
ca. 1860
Lbs 2917 a 4to
Olgeir Geirsson
Lbs 4627 8vo
unknown author
from 19C
J Eggertsson

The shape of the symbol in the Huld Manuscript is square whilst the one from Galdraskræða Skugga is designed to fit in a circle. The drawing made for Ólafur Davíðsson that he included in his 1903 essay 20 differs considerably from both, leaving out several elements and a blurred copy of this appears in Steven Flowers' 1989 book The Galdrabók - An Icelandic Grimoire. Fen Alraun writes Little change is made to the power of the charm by making the staves all the same length. This effectively fits the charm inside a circle. There is no change to the charm because the symbols themselves have not changed. 10  However major omissions and variations make the Davíðsson version less credible. Unfortunately this has been even further simplified for a graphic version shown on old Wikipedia that others have copied.

In respect of what direction the symbol is drawn one commentator wrote It is not you who needs to see the design, it is the gods who will guide you, and they will see you as any observer would see you. I imagine that a reversed Vegvesir could possibly have the effect of steering you in the opposite direction to that desired. Fen Alraun offers a different view: The orientation of the charm shouldn't matter much, because this charm is about protection from 8 types of threats. It is not dependent on up, north or any direction.

Egill Skalat maðr rúnar rísta
nema ráða vel kunni.
Þat verðr mörgum manni
er um myrkvan staf villisk.
- Egil’s Saga, Chapter 73 (74 in Bjarni)
No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well
Many a man goes astray
around those dark letters
- translation by Bernard Scudder.

Notwithstanding my earlier comments about esoteric runology not applying here, there does appear to be runes taken from the Younger Futhark of 800AD, up to and including the Modified Danish Futhark of around 1300AD. The best indicator of the runes used in the Vegvísir are the two dots used in the Up-Right pointing stave. The only runic alphabet that I have found which uses dots is the Modified Danish Futhark.12 It is possible that rune meanings can be derived from poems written for each rune character, and we can speculate that the designer of Vegvísir borrowed these meanings to add significance to the overall symbol.

Thurisaz Rune Gebo/Gyfu Rune Mannaz/Man Rune
Þ:Thurs G : Gebo M : Mannaz / Man / Maðr (Madhr)

The Þ rune (pronounced th) is Thurisaz or Thurs. Tyriel of Rune Magic writes that, among other things, Thurisaz means Giant and is representative of Thor and his hammer, protecting Asgard from the thurses (Norse Giants) 13   The Norse god Thor had power over natural forces. Those natural forces in this case would be storms or bad weather. Whilst that meaning may fit, it is difficult to argue that the circle at the end of the Vegvísir’s Up-Left pointing stave is a double sided Thurs.

The G rune in the Elder Futhark is Gebo and means gift. This rune was dropped in the Younger Futhark but returned in the subsequent Medieval and Danish Futharks with a new shape and this may be what is being symbolized in the Up-Right pointing stave. Gebo refers to balance and equilibrium. How this relates to not getting lost is not very clear. Perhaps if one is dizzy and confused you could easily become lost, so this rune is present to ensure that does not happen?

Whilst it is possible to think the Þ or G runes have been incorporated in the Vegvísir, it is undoubtedly clear the M Maðr rune has been. This rune has taken many forms, but other than the Elder Fathark form (which can be ignored as it had not been used for hundreds of years at the time of the Vegvísir’s creation) all other later versions of this rune can be superimposed somewhere onto this symbol. The most common from at the time of around the 15th century was Madr Rune 1. The Huld, the Galdraskræða Skugga and several other manuscripts all list dozens if not hundreds of runic alphabets that attest to that.

Rune Poem
A portion of MS AM 461 12mo fols, pp 15v-16r. Mid 16th century.
Click on the manuscript to toggle on and off image enhancements.
Icelandic Rune Poem
(in Old and Modern Icelandic)
TRANSLATION  16, 17, 18
Madr er manz gaman
molldar auki
og ski pa skreytir ij
Maðr: er manns gaman
ok moldar auki
ok skipa skreytir. ( ... )
Maðr: is man’s delight (/joy)
and earth’s (/dust’s) increase (/augmentation)
and ships’ painter (/adorner).
Norwegian Rune Poem
(in Old Norse)
Maðr er moldar auki;
mikil er græip á hauki.
Man is an increase (/augmentation) of the dust;
great is the claw of (/at) the hawk.

Bernard King writes This rune stands for man, either the individual or the race, and it was thought to possess powers for defence and protection.21 His view regarding this rune’s powers is unique, however it is otherwise universally agreed upon. Most commentators also add that it refers to the person and those closest to them, i.e. the family. From the poems we get augmentation of the earth/dust, which to me is talking about the middle ages farmer ploughing the soil, enriching it with fertilizer, on his farm - his home, where he lives with his family. It is here that he wants to return, if lost at sea or in wild weather. If he is a trader, it is he who would keep the Vegvísir drawn on parchment and kept close to his chest, before setting out on long journeys.

Another common theme explains the first line of the Icelandic poem: mutual pleasure experienced under the sign of Mannaz is the pleasure of communicating and sharing. Yves Kodratoff makes an attempt to interpret the Norwegian poem, believing the first line speaks of man’s birth rising out of dust and the second line of death and being carried off the battlefield by Odinn’s mythological hawk. Sweyn Plowright has translated moldar as Mould in its meaning of soil/earth, as in the grave24.  These interpretations again bring us back to the Madr Rune 1 Maðr/Algiz Life and Madr Rune 2 Yr Death runes.

On a pragmatic level the rune poems were of the time when the Elder Farhark was still in use and they were more of a memory tool than anything else. The Icelandic version has lines which are simply other ways of saying man. The first line of the Norwegian poem does the same, and the second line is just a bit of nonsense to provide a rhyme. It is purely conjecture that centuries later the galdramann designed Vegvísir chosing Maðr as its key rune based on runic poems.

There is one key that does tie it all together, i.e. the Vegvísir design, its meaning and the Maðr rune: In Hávamál, part of the Poetic Edda, verse 47 in Icelandic is as follows:

Ungur var eg forðum, fór eg einn saman, þá varð eg villur vega;
auðigur þóttumk, er eg annan fann, maður er manns gaman.

Translation (by W.H.Auden & P.B.Taylor)22 :

Young and alone on a long road, Once I lost my way:
Rich I felt when I found another; Man rejoices in man.

Should we keep the notion of Maðr being at the heart of Vegvísir, we can construct a stave portion as Madr Rune 1 plus Madr Rune 2 to get Madr Rune 3 (which just on its own is another version of the Maðr rune). Add Madr Rune 4 and you have Madr Rune 5. This appears often in Vegvísir, but also is frequently seen in other Galdrastafir. In this context, perhaps it means nothing more than person, as in this charm applies to you. Or it may relate to my initial comments regarding the tvimadur shaped Thor/Jesus symbol seen in so many galdrastafir?

Another simple solution can be deduced from other occurences of the Madr Rune 3 sign in past manuscripts. In the following example, although the spell given is for a horse, it is obviously intended to provide protection:

Protection sign

Madr Rune 3 þennan staf á að merkja á
hest lend annaðhvort með
tjöru eða klippa á lendina
og varnar þvi að hestinum hlekkist á
og á við meiðslum og hrossasótt.

- Image taken from Rún, page 75

Madr Rune 3 mark this sign to the
horse loins either with
tar or clip the loins
and prevent your horse having an accident
with injury and colic.

- my own very literal translation

The square shaped Madr Rune 6 Maðr may be what the magician had in mind for the end of each stave. However there is also stave modifiers as discussed above. This would then have the user gain from the energy flows. In this instance I would favour Thorson’s definition of power ... caught and held. In addition, the Madr Rune 7 triple cross lines could be the Madr Rune 4 Maðr drawn thrice, or more likely is the stave modifier being used to amplify the magical energy.

It also occured that scribes wrote using cipher runes. These were written as codes using the Futhark divided into three groups called ætts, and using the number of which ætt and which character along, using dots, lines or curves, they could indicate which rune was meant.

Huld P30
Huld Manuscript 1 - Page 30

In Viking and later times this kind of code was especially prevalent in Iceland using Younger Futhark as key. This put the position of the 'M' rune in the third row third along and in cipher 'branch' rune style is in the Huld Manuscript as shown above within lines 132 and 133. Fashioned as straight lines we would again get the Madr Rune 7 triple cross lines used in the Vegvísir.

Freya Aswynn offers one final twist. She tells of two myths relating the origins of mankind. The first is from the circa 98 AD book The Germania by Tacitus and tells of the god 'Mannaz' fathering three earthborn sons which lead to the three West Germanic tribes. The second is the story 'Rigsthula' from the Poetic Edda. In this the god Heimdal begets a son each to three earthly women which lead to three race classes; thralls, peasants and warriors.23  This may give further significance to the Madr Rune 7 triple cross lines.

Bibliography and References:
  1. Huld Manuscript, ÍB 383 4to by Geir Vigfússon, 1860
  2. Isländische Zauberzeichen und Zauberbücher (an essay) by Ólafur Davíðsson, 1903
  3. The Galdrabók - An Icelandic Grimoire by Stephen Flowers, Samuel Weise Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1989
  4. Various versions of Vegvisir based on Bjork's tattoo - Brent Berry Arts
  5. Galdrabók by various scribes, circa 1600
  6. Understanding the Galdrabók & Creating Original Designs by Greg Crowfoot, 1994
  7. The Poetic Edda English, transl. W. C. Green, 1893, and English, transl. Henry Adams Bellows, 1936
  8. The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Runes by Nigel Pennick, Element Books Ltd, Rockport MA, 1999
  9. Robert Blumetti, Twelve Questions from The Hex Factory, 2012
  10. The History of Icelandic Sorcery from Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
  11. Ægishjálmr: the Symbol Called the Helm of Awe from The Viking Answer Lady, 2005
  12. Travel Well by Fen Alraun, 2013
  13. Understanding the Symbols by wyrddesigns, 2010
  14. Runes in Denmark - Unknown author
  15. Runes Secrets - Study Community by Tyriel et. al.
  16. Introduction to the Runes: Younger Futhark (Chart) by Sunna Blalock
  17. Google Archive: Ægishjálmur (Helms of Awe) by Brad Lucas
  18. Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples by Bruce Dickins, 1915
  19. Die Runenschrift by Ludv. F. A. Wimmer, 1887 (Rune poems translation and notes by Yves Kodratoff)
  20. The Icelandic Rune-Poem by R I Page, 1998
  21. Danske runeinnskrifter fra vikingtiden Danish runic inscriptions of the Viking Age
  22. The Elements of Runes by Bernard King, 1997
  23. maður er manns gaman Wikipedia verse description with multiple translations; and
    Poetic Edda - Hávamál complete verse with two translations (incl. Auden & Taylor)
  24. Northern Mysteries and Magick: Runes & Feminine Powers by Freya Aswynn
  25. The Rune Primer: A Down-to-Earth Guide to the Runes by Sweyn Plowright
  26. Northern Magic: Rune Mysteries and Shamanism by Edred Thorsson
  27. Witchcraft in Iceland by Matthías Viðar Sæmundsson

© 2013 – 2022, Justin F.