Sunday, October 6, 2013

Travel Well

There is a Norse charm called the Vegvísir.  It comes from the Huld Manuscript, which was collected in Iceland in approx. 1860, but allegedly contains much older information. The Vegvísir (Iclandic for "sign post") is intended to provide the holder of the charm with the ability to pass through rough weather without getting lost.

[Edit, May 2014: The original Huld Manuscript image is given below by request.]
The internet has tons of images of this charm. Most of these images are photos of tattoos, already indellible in someone's skin. Unfortunately, I found all of them to be wrong. Looking at the original manuscript will reveal that there are lines making up the Vegvísir symbols that are not present on the internet versions. So if you plan to make and use this charm, particularly in a permanent capacity (like a tattoo), you will want to get it right.

The Vegvísir is made up of eight staves radiating from a center point. Each of the staves terminate in a combination of lines that make up a symbol. It is speculated that these symbols are created in much the same method as bind runes, but instead using the Ogham tree alphabet.

The original drawing of this charm in the Huld Manuscript is represented as fitting inside a square. The staves of the charm at 2, 5, 7 and 10 o'clock are longer than the others so as to fit into the imagined corners of the square. However, 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.


This popular block-line representation is a good example of what you will find online:

But when we draw the charm from the original manuscript in the same block-line style, we see this:
It may be difficult to see the differences, so let's compare them side by side. The popular charm is on the left, while the correct charm is on the right; the differences are indicated by the red arrows.
These changes may not seem like much. But given the subtleties of both the Rune and the Ogham alphabets, the addition or subtraction of a single line can completely change the meaning of a stave.

Do yourself a favor before your next tattoo. Make sure that the magickal symbol you are going to be wearing for the rest of your life is the symbol you think it is. 

If you would like a clean version of the correct Vegvísir that is large and free of red arrows, just write to me at fen.alraun@gmail.com and I will send it to you. DO NOT PUT YOUR EMAIL IN THE COMMENTS SECTION!


Note, 9/6/2014: I have modified the original, high res drawing to create a version that is square and without any interior circle, just as is the original manuscript drawing. It is also available by email request. I can also provide a cleaned-up, high contrast version of the original manuscript image. However, I will not be your tattoo designer. If you want to modify what I send you, that's up to you, but please don't ask me to modify the designs to be exactly what you want. 

Note, 9/13/2014: I want to address a couple of questions that I get rather frequently about this charm. Before I do so, I should note that no one has yet interpreted this charm with any confidence. What I state about this charm is based solely on my experience with charms in history, folklore and contemporary magickal studies (both eclectic and ceremonial).

The idea that the symbols at the end of each stave come from Ogham, which is an Irish magical alphabet, originally seemed unlikely. The Gemanic people had their own alphabet that they believed to be divine. Replacing it with another seemed preposterous. However, I should note that there is no indication that this charm is any older than 1860. The Huld Manuscript has been claimed to represent information that is older than its date, but that is only speculation by one contemporary author. So it is highly possible that the manuscript writer was influenced by scholarship on the Ogham alphabet.

The rest of the manuscript likely includes all of the information to understand the charms themselves. It gives 379 lists of numeral systems, runes and symbolic alphabets. Some appear to be based on runes, but those toward the end of the work appear to take major influence from the angelic symbols created by the writings of Dr. John Dee in the late sixteenth century, which had a profound impact on the Rosicrucians and nearly every Western Mystery school since his time. As the nineteenth century was experiencing a surge in interest in mysticism, this is not surprising.

Modern representations of this charm show it with two elements that were not present in the original image. The first is a central ring, which is generally empty. My own thoughts on this variation is that its presence does not change the symbol. The ring simply represents the self, as would the converging lines at the center of the charm. In the same way that a zero holds the same value as a blank space, an empty ring would represent the same meaning as no ring at all.

A second common design seen these days is an outer ring of runes. This is merely a design choice and bears no meaning to the usefulness of the charm. Most often, this ring is simply the whole runic alphabet written clockwise around the outer edge - the equivalent of writing ABCDEFG...XYZ around the outside of the design. To the contemporary eye, this design may appear like a preschool mnemonic device for the alphabet, (which would not be a very adult tattoo). But to the ancient Germanic people, their system of writing was more than that, it was a gift of divine symbols. To represent them as a design in this manner might be considered quite wonderful. As for using the design with the Vegvísir, my personal opinion is to keep any charm unadorned and un-disturbed by markings that do not belong. 

I was questioned in the past if the charm must be presented in any particular orientation. I do not believe that it must. Most charms that are directional have some kind of indication of their orientation. Most often, this is a string of text, the reading of which promotes a logic to the orientation of a charm. Where that kind of indication is not obvious, the charm will have a symbol to indicate the top. Most of the time this is a symbol for the divine, which is commonly represented near the top as a gesture of respect. This is seen frequently in the seals of Solomon as a small six-rayed star. Runic writing was regularly written in any direction. It has been found written from top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right, right to left, in spirals and labyrinths. The goal of runes is to communicate by presenting information. Those who are literate have been taught to understand context and do not need to apply rules of orientation. Based on this, I do not believe that orientation is important. I believe the charm is intended to ward against 8 kinds of threats to promote safe travel, so long as the symbols on each stave are correctly drawn.


For a very thorough page of scholarship on the Vegvísir, as well as other similar charms, see Joseph's work at: http://users.on.net/~starbase/galdrastafir/galdrastafir.htm

I've had many requests for the "correct" Vegvísir drawing over the past year. I would love to see some of the tattoos that are now carrying this correct charm around the globe. If I send you the drawing of the correct charm, please send back pics of your completed tattoo. 

Update 10/31/2014: Merry Samhain and a Happy Pagan New Year to all! Mexx, one of my readers, has agreed to provide a pic of his new Vegvísir tattoo! I think it turned out really well (the symbol on the right). It is coupled with the Ægishjálmur, which is customarily called "the Helm of Awe" (on the left). They are great examples of using the runic alphabet as a decorative border. Thanks, Mexx!
Mexx with correct Vegvísir on the right


Update 6/22/2015: Thanks to Google, some of the updates I have been doing lately got wiped away. So I apologize if your tattoo was erased. I'm going to try to put them back.

Here is the tattoo of Rodrigo from Brasil. He elected to go with the original manuscript lines. Classic and powerful!

Rodrigo's Vegvísir 

This is what Rik from Rotterdam chose. He decided that the round design was right for him. It looks great!

Rik's Vegvísir 

One of my readers, Cheradenine, sent an image of his tat, which he got several years ago. Thanks for sharing!

Vegvisir on Cheradenine

Randy went with the square design. It turned out great!

Randy's Vegvísir
Natalie put one on her leg! Safe travels!
Natalie's Vegvísir
Here's Charith's Vegvísir, done with some shading. Well done!
Charith's Vegvísir

Update 11/14/2016: Over the years of thinking about this charm, I played with the idea that each stave might represent a ward against one of eight different kinds of threats to travel. But in recent months my mind has taken a different path. Since it is a charm against getting lost, I began to speculate that each stave is a door key or charm of orientation to travel the 8 Norse world (Earth, Midgard, is the center, so it doesn't have a charm). In other words, perhaps this is a charm for trance/journey work for use by a Northern Shaman. I've decided that the possibility of this could only be determined by "translating" or uncovering the meaning behind each stave.


However, I'm also considering that there may not be any meaning for each separate stave. Perhaps each stave is not a separate charm with its own meaning and only together do they create the charm against getting lost. That mentality may be driven by the idea of bind runes, which the staves on the charm very much resemble. Bind runes are charms made of several other glyphs, each with their own meaning when alone. In this case, the whole charm, simply is the whole charm. We wouldn't look at the letter P and ask, "what does the round bump mean?" or "then what does the lower stalk under the bump mean?" We would simple take it for what it is, as a whole. The Vegvísir, though a complex arrangement of lines and curves, is the entirety of the charm. Breaking it apart would be just as useless as breaking up the letter P into its parts but expecting to still read the sound in that letter.

Here's How Becky's tattoo turned out. I think the foot was a highly appropriate place to put her tat.

Vegvísir on Becky's foot

Ismael put it in the center of his back. How wonderful!

Ismael's Vegvísir

Dagmar used the design directly from the manuscript. Very well done.

Dagmar's Vegvísir
And Melody did the same. This is becoming a very popular design of this charm.

Melody's Vegvísir



Update: 8/25/2017: There are one or two points that I feel it important to state obviously, because so many of my fellow online writers seem unable or unwilling to do so. I have already mentioned these accurately above, but I hope to make these points abundantly clear here. 

First, the earliest known date for the Vegvísir is 1880, which is the age of the text in which it was first found. That text is the Huld Manuscript. The charm was not part of the Galdrabok and anyone claiming that is in error. The charm was published at the end of Stephen Flowers' 1989 work The Galdrabok: an Icelandic Grimoire, after his translation of the actual Galdrabok, in an appendix called, "Appendix A: Other Icelandic Sources." Flowers specifically gives the date of the charm in that text, but so many readers hungry to find some nugget of ancient knowledge seem to gloss over the date, incorrectly attributing this charm to the Galdrabok itself. There have been other representations of the charm, but always later than the Huld Manuscript.

Second, Flowers writes of the date of the Huld manuscript, "The material contained in these spells is, however, much older, as can be seen when compared to the contents of the Galdrabok" (p. 83). Based on what comparison? His claim should more correctly be characterized as his own speculation. He cites no sources and does not describe his comparative methodology. I find it a feature of poor writing to state a speculative claim as if it was fact. A good writer assumes that the reader might not be able to follow the trail of logic being presented, so one should describe it. Simply writing "as can be seen" is an assuming way of sounding scholarly while placing the burden of executing the comparison with the reader, thus side-stepping any need to specify the comparisons directly. It's obfuscation at its best. It would be more accurate to claim, "I believe the material contained in these spells is, however, much older, after a comparison to the contents of the Galdrabok." He should then reveal what comparisons led him to this conclusion.