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Unicursal form of Valknut–the Triquetra Knot

 

Tricursal form of Valknut–the Borromian Rings

 

The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new).  A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles.  Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden).  The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.

A relief carving of human sacrifice from the Stora Hammars stones of Lärbro (circa 8th to 11th century)

Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones).  The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin:  a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead.  To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree.  The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure.  Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice.  Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil.  In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups.  Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!

The valknut as closed 3-link chain–a modern topological configuration not used by Vikings

In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology.  Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists.  Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim.  However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants.  The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir.  He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).

Frost Giant (from "Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology" by Mary Foster)

Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated.  many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.

Loki

The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous.  Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead.  Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength.  Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.

Odin and Gunnlöd

The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead.  The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together.  Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry.  The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth.  All poetry we have is sour and ersatz.  Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…

Giantess Gunnlöð, daughter of Suttung (Anders Zorn, oil on canvas)

The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity.  They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil.  Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves.  One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight.  One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence.  The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree.  Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).

This illustration should clarify things (sorry it's not in English).

Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity.  Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post).  Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.

The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim.  This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences.  The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and , slew him and cut him apart).  Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger).  Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants.  But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.

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