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Ægishjálmr: the Symbol Called the Helm of Awe

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

ÆgishjálmrI found the attached symbol in a book years ago and had it tattooed - it was described as a sign for irresistibility. I was told by someone else that the symbol is called the Ægirshjálmur or Ayjershjelmet. Supposedly it is a symbol from the Viking Age, drawn by some Vikings on their forehead before they went to battle to make them unkillable. What is the real story of this symbol?

(signed) Tattooed and Confused

Gentle Reader:

The name of this symbol is ægishjálmr, which when literally translated means "helm of awe" or "helm of terror". It is used in various places in the sagas, where it can have many other meanings, such as "countenance of terror" or "overbearing nature".

Ægishjálmr The term ægishjálmr probably did not refer to a real, physical helmet originally, but rather originated in the use of a special kind of magic called seiðr. Seiðr could be used to affect the mind with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear. The ægishjálmr is a special subset of seiðr magic called sjónhverfing, the magical delusion or "deceiving of the sight" where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are. The role of seiðr in illusion magic is well-documented in the sagas, particularly being used to conceal a person from his pursuers. Part of this power may have been due to hypnosis, for the seið-witch could be deprived of her powers by being deprived of her sight, and the effect faded when the victim left the presence of the seið-practitioner.

Eyrbyggja saga (ch. 20) uses this motif. A woman called Katla, skilled in seiðr, wished to save her son Odd from a band of men determined to kill him. As the men approached the house, Katla told Odd to sit beside her without moving, while she sat spinning yarn. Arnkell and his men searched the house, but saw nothing beside Katla but a distaff. They returned a second time, to find Katla in the porch; she was combing Odd's hair, but it seemed to them that she was grooming her goat. The third time Odd was lying in a heap of ashes, and they thought it was Katla's boar sleeping there. Each time they left the house they realized that a trick had been played on them, or 'a goatskin waved round our heads,' as Arnkell put it, so that Katla could not try the same deception twice. Finally Geirríðr, another woman skilled in seiðr and a bitter enemy of Katla came with the men to help them cut through the deceptions. When Katla saw the rival seið-wife's blue cloak through her window, she knew that sjónhverfing or illusion would no longer work. She hid Odd inside the dais, but Geirríðr popped a sealskin bag over Katla's head, negating her spell casting abilities, and both Odd and Katla were taken and killed.

An essential portion of this technique seems to have involved wrapping an enchanted goatskin around the head of the victim (Reykdoela saga, ch. 14), or over the witch's own head (Njáls saga, ch. 12). A related magic was the magical technique called the huliðshjálmr, the helmet of hiding or invisibility. The method for invoking the huliðshjálmr varied, from placing hands atop the head of the person to be concealed, to throwing magical powders over them or other means. In another instance, the special hood worn by the seið-witch was used to render another person invisible while wearing it (Vatnsdoela saga, ch 44).

The most famous appearance of the ægishjálmr is in Volsungasaga chapter 18:

Enn mælti Fáfnir: "Ek bar ægishjálm yfir öllu fólki, síðan ek lá á arfi míns bróður, ok svá fnyýta ek eitri alla vega frá mér í brott, at engi þorði at koma i nánd mér, ok engi vánm hræddumst ek, ok aldri fann ek svá margan mann fyrir mér, at ek þættumst eigi miklu sterkari, en allir váru hræddir við mik."

Sigurðr mælti: "Sá ægishjálmr, er þú sagðir frá, gefr fám sigr, því at hverr sá, er með mörgum kemr, má þat finna eitthvert sinn, at engi er einna hvatastr."


[And Fáfnir said, "An ægishjálmr I bore up before all folk, after that I brooded over the heritage of my brother, and on every side did I spout out poison, so that none dared come near me, and of no weapon was I afraid, nor ever had I so many men before me, as that I deemed myself not stronger than all; for all men were greatly afraid of me."

Sigurd said, "Few may have victory by means of that same ægishjálmr, for whoever comes among many shall one day find that no one man is by so far the mightiest of all."]

Some believe that Fáfnir wore the ægishjálmr symbol on his forehead, between his eyes.

By the Middle Ages in Iceland, after the close of the Viking Age and the introduction of Christianity, certain types of magic continued to be practiced by Icelandic master-magicians. The belief in the ægishjálmr continued, and it was believed that the symbol should be cut into lead and then thrust between one's eyebrows, then the user should recite "Ægishjalm eg ber milli bruna mjer," ("Ægishjalm I carry between my brows"). Victory in battle or conflict was supposedly assured thereafter.

It is interesting to note that the concept of the "helm of awe" came to be understood as a physical object, a helm worn upon the head. In this guise, the ægishjálmr supposedly could confer invisibility upon the wearer.

Richard Wagner used the idea of the "helm of awe" as well. In his Ring Cycle the ægishjálmr appears as the Tarnhelm, and it can not only make the wearer invisible, it can also allow the wearer to shape-shift or even teleport.

What the ægishjálmr is not is a magical symbol for irresistability in the sense of being irresistable in love. The ægishjálmr might make one irresistable in battle, but not in the bedroom.




Bibliography

  • Volsungasaga Old Norse Text. Accessed 17 December 2005.

  • The Story of the Volsungs (Volsungasaga English translation). Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #29. Accessed 17 December 2005.

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