The Helm of Awe

Helm of Awe Ægishjálmr

The Helm of Awe (Old Norse Ægishjálmr, pronounced “EYE-gis-hiowlm-er”) is one of the most mysterious and powerful symbols in Norse mythology. Just looking at its form, without any prior knowledge of what that form symbolizes, is enough to inspire awe and fear: eight arms that look like spiked tridents radiate out from a central point, as if defending that central point by going on the offensive against any and all hostile forces that surround it.

Such overpowering might was apparently what this magical symbol was intended to produce. In the Fáfnismál, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the havoc-wreaking dragon Fafnir attributes much of his apparent invincibility to his use of the Helm of Awe:

The Helm of Awe
I wore before the sons of men
In defense of my treasure;
Amongst all, I alone was strong,
I thought to myself,
For I found no power a match for my own.[1]

The Ægishjálmr as represented in the Galdrabók
One of the representations of the Ægishjálmr in the Galdrabók

This interpretation is confirmed by a spell called “There is a Simple Helm of Awe Working” in the collection of Icelandic folktales collected by the great Jón Árnason in the nineteenth century. The spell reads:

Make a helm of awe in lead, press the lead sign between the eyebrows, and speak the formula:

Ægishjálm er ég ber
milli brúna mér!

I bear the helm of awe
between my brows!

Thus a man could meet his enemies and be sure of victory.[2]

Like most ancient Germanic symbols, the form of its visual representation was far from strictly fixed. For example, the 41st spell in the Galdrabók, a seventeenth-century Icelandic grimoire, includes a drawing of the Helm of Awe with only four arms and without the sets of lines that run perpendicular to the arms.[3]

Linguist and runologist Stephen Flowers notes that even though the references to the Helm of Awe in the Poetic Edda describe it as a physical thing charged with magical properties, the original meaning of the Old Norse hjálmr was “covering.” He goes on to theorize that:

This helm of awe was originally a kind of sphere of magical power to strike fear into the enemy. It was associated with the power of serpents to paralyze their prey before striking (hence, the connection with Fáfnir). … The helm of awe as described in the manuscript [the Galdrabók] is a power, centered in the pineal gland and emanating from it and the eyes. [In Aristotle and Neoplatonism, sources for much medieval magic, the spirit connects to the body via the pineal gland, and the eyes emit rays of spiritual power.] It is symbolized by a crosslike configuration, which in its simplest form is made up of what appear to be either four younger M-runes or older Z-runes. These figures can, however, become very complex.[4]

The connection with the runes is particularly apt, because a number of the shapes that comprise the Helm of Awe have the same forms as certain runes. Given the centrality of the runes in Germanic magic as a whole, this correspondence is highly unlikely to have been coincidental.

The “arms” of the Helm appear to be Z-runes. The original name of this rune is unknown, but nowadays it’s often called “Algiz.” The meaning of this rune had much to do with protection and prevailing over one’s enemies, which makes it a fitting choice for inclusion in a symbol like the Helm of Awe.

The “spikes” that run perpendicular to the “arms” could be Isa runes. While the meaning of this rune is more or less unknown due to the confusing and contradictory information supplied by the primary sources, it seems reasonable to speculate that, since “Isa” means “ice,” its inclusion in the Helm of Awe could have imparted to the symbol a sense of concentration and hardening, as well as a connection to the animating spirits of wintry cold and darkness, the fearsome giants. This connection is made more likely by the fact that the dragon Fafnir occupies a role in the tales of the human hero Sigurd analogous to that occupied by the giants in the tales of the gods. Such connections are necessarily speculations, especially since the markings that may or may not be Isa runes are, graphically speaking, nothing more than straight lines, which makes them that much harder to positively identify. Nevertheless, the tenacity of the connections here is quite striking.[5]

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[1] The Poetic Edda. Fáfnismál, stanza 16. My translation. The original Old Norse reads:

bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari
hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.

[2] Flowers, Stephen, editor and translator. 1989. The Galdrabók: An Icelandic Grimoire. p. 100.

[3] Ibid. p. 47.

[4] Ibid. p. 121-122.

[5] These interpretations of the Algiz and Isa runes are based on the Rune Poems, which can be found in English translation at Ragweed Forge. See also my page on The Meanings of the Runes.

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