The Helm of Awe

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The name of this symbol is gishjlmr, 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".

It is said to be able to be used on ones forehead with saliva or blood. Within the symbol is Algiz as shown by the images which is the rune of protection. In the center is the circle most likely representing one's self surrounded by protective energy. This was a very powerful symbol from the pagan era, it is indicated to be used in battle as well as protecting the wielder in general from magickal or physical attack including the abuse of power.


(The use seen above of Aegishjalmur on a pagan style leather helmet Image from the The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft)

gishjlmr The term gishjlmr probably did not refer to a real, physical helmet originally, but rather originated in the use of a special kind of magic called seir. Seir could be used to affect the mind with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear. The gishjlmr is a special subset of seir magic called sjnhverfing, the magical delusion or "deceiving of the sight" where the sei-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are. The role of seir 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 sei-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 sei-practitioner.

Eyrbyggja saga (ch. 20) uses this motif. A woman called Katla, skilled in seir, 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 Geirrr, another woman skilled in seir and a bitter enemy of Katla came with the men to help them cut through the deceptions. When Katla saw the rival sei-wife's blue cloak through her window, she knew that sjnhverfing or illusion would no longer work. She hid Odd inside the dais, but Geirrr 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 (Njls saga, ch. 12). A related magic was the magical technique called the hulishjlmr, the helmet of hiding or invisibility. The method for invoking the hulishjlmr 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 sei-witch was used to render another person invisible while wearing it (Vatnsdoela saga, ch 44).

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

Enn mlti Ffnir: "Ek bar gishjlm yfir llu flki, san ek l arfi mns brur, ok sv fnyta ek eitri alla vega fr mr brott, at engi ori at koma i nnd mr, ok engi vnm hrddumst ek, ok aldri fann ek sv margan mann fyrir mr, at ek ttumst eigi miklu sterkari, en allir vru hrddir vi mik."

Sigurr mlti: "S gishjlmr, er sagir fr, gefr fm sigr, v at hverr s, er me mrgum kemr, m at finna eitthvert sinn, at engi er einna hvatastr."

[And Ffnir said, "An gishjlmr 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 gishjlmr, for whoever comes among many shall one day find that no one man is by so far the mightiest of all."]

Some believe that Ffnir wore the gishjlmr 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 gishjlmr 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 "gishjalm eg ber milli bruna mjer," ("gishjalm 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 gishjlmr supposedly could confer invisibility upon the wearer.

Richard Wagner used the idea of the "helm of awe" as well. In his Ring Cycle the gishjlmr 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.

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