It is written in the Galdrabok — a 16th-century Icelandic book of spells — that carving a vegvísir, aka a runic compass, into a person’s forehead would prevent them from ever losing their way. Believe it or not, this practice is still in place today, but instead of using a blade to inscribe it on someone’s skin, it’s done with tattoo machines. Of the many Nordic symbols handed down through the ages, vegvísirs are by far the most popular in the realm of body art (Bjork even has one). In short, there’s no better talisman to have on your person when your cell service goes out and GPS ceases to exist.
The ornate shapes at the vegvísir’s tips are similar to the acronyms we use for primary and cardinal directions in English: N, E, S, W, NW, etc. The passage about the vegvísir — i.e. “guidepost” — from the Galdrabok translates to resemble how one might describe a compass: “If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.” Though the mysterious power of the emblem echoes how compasses work, the lore surrounding vegvísir most likely comes from sunstones, as opposed to modern ones that use the magnetic field of Earth.
Because of its origins, calling a vegvísir a “runic compass” is a bit of a misnomer, but it’s not nearly as bad as calling it a “viking compass” — a mistake that people frequently make. There’s no historical evidence supporting the claim that the vegvísir appeared during the Viking Age (it first showed up around 400 years afterward), yet the symbol’s frequently attributed to the marauding explorers by pairing it with imagery like bearded warriors in horned helmets or putting it on the sails of longships. It’s not the most egregious of anachronisms, but if you showed a vegvísir to a viking while asking directions, he more than likely would just kill you alongside not knowing what the fuck you were talking about.
In keeping with the longstanding tradition of misappropriating the vegvísir, the rune has unfortunately been adopted by white supremacist groups as part of their “proud aryan heritage” in recent decades. The vegvísir wasn’t originally envisioned as an emblem of prejudice, but similarly to the case of the swastika, Nazism has tainted its significance. This is not, however, to suggest that everyone who rocks a runic compass is a racist cuck. Most tattoo collectors who have a vegvísir on their bodies value it for its original meaning: the only thing they hate is getting lost.
To see more meaningful symbols, make sure to follow all of these artists on Instagram. Should you want a vegvísir tattoo of your own, have one of them design the runic compass for you.
This was Deciphering the Sacred, our series where we unpack the meaning of mystical symbols that appear in the realm of tattoos. We hope you enjoyed learning about the vegvísir. To find out more about other magical figures, make sure to check out some of our other posts about Unalomes, Metatron’s Cube, Sri Yantra, Dharmachakras, Ouroboros, and The Flower of Life.