Those who would read the sacred runes,
given by the gods,
that Odin set down
and the sage stained with color,
are well advised to waste no words.
from, "The Sayings of the High One," in The Poetic Edda
(translated by Patricia Terry)
It begins with the wind among the branches. That's how it always starts. Something moves in the boughs. Something stirs and shakes and finally drops to the ground and is caught up, carried away, and remembered.
I was writing when the storm started but soon had to turn off the computer. The storm increased and strong winds shook the trees, and so I set my work aside for the night. Heavy rain buffeted the house and a branch fell to the ground in my mid-Michigan yard. The next morning I found the branch where it had fallen around the boles. Looking at it, I saw it was shaped like a letter of the runic alphabet: feoh, the rune for wealth, the first letter. I looked up briefly into the boughs where all the letters danced on the leafless branches, then down to the roots where words twisted below the soil. I picked up the rune and carried it away.
Runes are primal letters. I say 'primal' because even though their historical development begins in the second or third century as adaptations of the Roman or Greek alphabet, they are certainly evocative of (if not partially based on) the natural forms found in the forests of ancient Europe. So the shapes of the these letters connect us to the First Forest, and move our minds closer to a time when the patterns of the land could be expressed creatively as signs and symbols, when letters might stand for many things: a sound, an embodiment of place, a spell, a fate.
The name "rune" originates in words meaning "secret," and is applied to letters of various early Northern European alphabets, but "rune" may also mean "a poem, charm, or spell." So when we talk of runes, we are speaking of objects that have multiple meanings, signatures of both sound and symbol. The "secret" may reside not so much in a hidden meaning (though runes have many), but in a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the secret and sensual sides of language and landscape. In this sense, each single rune creates a palimpsest, a layering of phonetics, poetry, and power built up over time. When inscribed, runes are intended to endure. They record things that must be remembered or heeded. Runes are the letters and words that must not be lost or "wasted." They embody and express the essential knowledge of the Northern tradition.
On my desk is a piece of antler carved with runes. It's a reproduction I've made of the earliest runic inscription carved in England, a small piece of red deer antler found at an Anglo-Saxon settlement in Suffolk. Translated, the inscription reads wohs wildum deora/n, and means grow/s wild animal. On the surface, the meaning of such an artifact appears simple. It tells the source of the piece of antler: grown on a wild animal. But there may be another story here. As we'll see, runes were often carved as spells or charms, and so we might interpret these runes as a request for the sympathetic power of the red deer that once sported the antlers to increase and bestow its growing strength upon the owner of the charm. It may also be a fetish used in hunting, meant to increase the number of game animals brought into the vicinity of the hunter. So, even the simplest runic text may carry several meanings. In this way, runes —as both letters and charms— remind us of the inherent potential in language and alphabets to exert an individual will on the wider world, to call a desire into being.
Where did people first learn about using runes magically? What are the sources of rune lore? To investigate the mythic and cultural origins of the runes, we must look to the poems of the Elder Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of pre-Christian poems, or lays, originating in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway sometime between the ninth and early thirteenth centuries. Patricia Terry's, Poems of the Elder Edda, is superbly poetic, and I have adapted my translations largely from this version. The poems of the Edda were collected and compiled in a manuscript called the Codex Regius around 1270 AD. Much more than merely entertaining stories, the Edda poems are true mythology, singing the origins of the Northern world to life. Here are runes and riddles, songs and spells, chants and charms. The lays are filled with prophecy and practical instructions, ranging from the laws of hospitality to spells for dispersing "hag-riders."
The story of the runes begins in the boughs, in the Havamal, or "The Sayings of the High One." One of the first poems in the Edda, it tells the story of Odin's ritual sacrifice "of himself to himself," his quest for knowledge, and his finding the runes. This god — who is variably called the All-Father, Grimnir (The Masked One — for often, like the runes, he shrouds himself in mystery), and a hundred other names — pierces himself in the side with a spear and hangs for nine nights in a windswept tree. He does not eat or drink. Then the vision comes and he reaches down, catching up the runes, finally falling from the tree. "Thus," he says,
I grew wealthy in the ancient lore,
became rich in wisdom
Brought forth words from the words I found,
verses springing up where I sought them.
Odin's experiences are decidedly shamanistic. Without food, he seeks a vision, an otherworldly experience that will convey poetic and oracular power. It's important to remember that unlike other gods of literacy (the celtic Ogma, for example), Odin didn't make the runes, he found them: a strong statement about the ability to quest and to look to the natural world for inspiration. In finding the runes, Odin becomes the master of letters, the god of prophecy, but also the god of death and the gallows. These seemingly disparate associations support the belief that knowledge won through vision is always in part ancestral, always somehow related to both the gods, the land, and the dead. Odin's title, "the High One," refers not only to his position as head of the Norse pantheon, but also his hard won perspective, hanging as a sacrifice from the tree boughs. One-eyed, he sees into both this world and the Other, into the lands of the both the living and the dead. As Rune-winner, he becomes the god of magic because he can both create power and make it permanent (and therefore transferable to others) through the use of letters.
The Havamal includes a recitation of the wisdom Odin won, questioning and advising the reader/listener on the necessary skills of rune-craft:
You will find the runes
and learn to read them in the proper manner,
written by the wise
made by the old gods
Odin's hard-won wisdom.
Can you write them? Read them?
Can you paint them? Prove them?
Know you how to wish? How to worship? How to summon? How to sacrifice?
It's clear from the Havamal that the runes are not merely letters, but essential and intricate parts of a highly poetic and magical system of knowledge. Most importantly, such learning was not only the provenance of the gods, but of clever mortals as well; runic knowledge was something that could be mastered and passed down. The text continues by giving a mysterious list of the kinds of runes gained by or known to Odin. These seem to allude to various types of spells that people might aspire to learn for themselves, including runes for healing, binding, dispersing "hag-riders," protecting, reviving the dead, and blessing. It is unclear whether or not these runes are referring to single signs or letters, or to longer inscriptions where runes are used in combination to spell out verbal charms. This list encourages us to remember that letters and words can be used to shape and direct power. In the ancient Northern world then, language and letters are not passive, but deliberate invocational constructions that request, encourage, invite, or compel the chaotic world to bend toward human desires.
Runes were a way of exerting control over monumental, cthonic forces, and as such, their carvers often called upon powers as terrible as the creatures they were meant to threaten or destroy. Throughout the lays, the power of runes was both respected and feared. Good characters could carve frightening runes, and even giants (for the Edda is rife with them) trembled at the power of such spells. In the story of "Skirnir's Journey," a giantess named Gerd is compelled to give her favors to Frey, son of Njord, the old Vanir sea god.
The story opens with a heartsick Frey. His parents send Skirnir, a servant, to enquire about Frey's melancholy. Skirnir goes swiftly to the giant's land to win Gerd for Frey. He woos in kind terms first, offering her golden apples and rings of gold. These and more she refuses. Then Skirnir threatens her with a rune-carved sword, starvation, imprisonment, and the wrath of Odin and Thor. But it's not until he threatens her by saying,
I have carved for you a Troll-rune and three others besides:
lust and lewdness and frenzy,
but each one will be erased
if the need for them is gone.
Only then does Gerd call Frey a "fair youth," filling a cup with mead for him. Only after the most dreaded runes are carved does she submit to the less than romantic words of Skirnir and turn her heart to consider the young son of the Vanir.
Even when no written letters of the runic alphabet are specifically described, certain charms and songs may still be referred to as "runes," an indication of their continuing connection with earlier, simpler forms of verbal magic and symbolic poetry. This kind of song was particularly popular in medieval Finnish sagas. In these stories, eldritch knowledge was hoarded and preserved in rune-songs; in songs and stories the cleverest people gained their prowess, becoming masters of memory and verbal performance. Perhaps the most famous of such people was the fabled Vainamoinen of the Kalevala. In Keith Bosley's epic translation (Oxford Press) we learn of Vainamoinen: part hero, part creative god, a song-master and poet of great power and intelligence. In the Kalevala, the story of "The Singing Match" opens with Vainamoinen practicing his craft:
He sang day by day,
night by night he recited
those deep origins which not all the children sing
only fellows understand
in this evil age, with time running out.
Later in the story, he battles Joukahainen, a young and promising (though arrogant) aspirant to Vainamoinen's title as song-master. What's particularly interesting about this account is the incident that begins the battle of words: Joukahainen will not step aside on the road and give Vainamoinen the respect owed his age and position. Here we see that tradition and rune-lore are the especial province of the old, and that wisdom is to be won by living life correctly, by respecting the sources of knowledge. After bantering words for a time, Vainamoinen finally loses his patience with the rude young man and begins to utter runes-songs of terrible power:
. . . the lakes rippled, the earth shook
the copper mountains trembled
the sturdy boulders rumbled
the cliffs flew in two
the rocks cracked upon the shore.
Vainamoinen sang at Joukahainen, chanting:
saplings on his collar-bow
a willow shrub on his hames . . .
sang his blaze-browed horse
to rocks on a rapid's bank . . .
He sang him in a swamp up to his waist
in a meadow to his groin
in the heath up to his armpits.
While they may seem excessive, Vainamoinen's punishments serve as reminders to both Joukahainen and the reader: do not overstep your position, remember the earth and your relationship to it, do not rise too high in your estimation of yourself. Vainamoinen's spells use words of stopping and binding, and so caution us about the perils of moving too quickly in life or in learning. Wit and wisdom, Vainamoinen might tell us, are slowly won through watching both the world and the wise.
But not all references to runes are to be found in medieval myths and song-poems; they become the stuff of chronicle and ethnography as well. Later writers of the sixteenth century made reference to rune-using people to add wonder and a sense of "otherness" to their descriptions of "primitive" cultures. Olaus Magnus, in his massive ethnography, A Description of the Northern Peoples (published originally in 1555 and more recently by the Hakluyt Society, edited by P.G. Foote in 1996), includes rare and fascinating insight into the use of runes among people living on the edges of northern Europe.
Often legendary, these accounts include numerous references to magic and folklore. In such texts, runes found on ancient stones told of the time of giants in certain regions, while other inscriptions recorded stories and epitaphs of clever heroes and magicians, carrying their reputations forward through time. In his chapter on the "alphabet of the Goths," Magnus writes,
From a primeval age, when there were giants in the northern lands, long, that is, before the Latin letters were invented . . . the kingdoms of the North had a script of their own. Evidence of this is furnished by stones of extraordinary size attached to the tombs and caverns of the ancients. If anyone doubts that this was accomplished by the strength of giants in very early times, let him go there and see greater and more staggering wonders that any piece of writing could promise or provide.
And later he speaks of memorial stones:
Their sites were wonderful, their arrangements even more so, but most wonderful of all are the inscriptions. They have been put there for a variety of reasons: when the stones are marked with letters [runes] and put in a long, straight line, they mark the contests of champions; square stones show the fights of cavalry squadrons; rounded ones indicate the burial of near kinsmen . . . .
He records the use of staves, long flat pieces of wood carved with runes:
From these engraved sticks we can perceive the implements with which, in very ancient times before books were in use, they found with unfailing success the properties and influences of the moon, the sun, and other heavenly bodies.
These staves were likely not carved with lengthy texts, but with runic tables representing the planets and their associations; not stories then, but small and enduring marks that stood for all the motions of the heavens and the earth.
Even in Magnus's time, on the borders of northern Europe, people existed who still used runes, or who remembered those who did in song and story. These people, known to us through Magnus's chronicles, still venerated the ancient songs and wove the old magic up from the ancestral ground. For these rune-wise people, myth and history blended together. Following suit, Magnus makes little distinction between myth and history in his chronicle. For most of recorded history, legends occupied the frontier between myth and history — that place where people might decide for themselves what was true and what wasn't. Most often, "truth" was awarded to the story best told, and a fine telling carried its own authority. Magnus revels in such legends, many of which feature the power of runes as both memorials and as magical signs. One tells of a wizard named Gilbert who by means of magic was bound fast by Kettil, his master, for his insolence. Magnus tells how it was done:
a small staff, engraved with certain Gothic characters was thrown towards him by his master and when Gilbert caught it in his hands he remained fettered and unable to move. Nor could he free himself when applied his teeth to it, for it was as if they were stuck together with an adhesive pitch . . . .
The wizard Gilbert may still be found in a deep cavern below an island on Lake Vattern. Those runes not only hold the wizard in the earth, but also bind a story in memory to a particular landscape.
Another legend tells of a magician of the North named Holler. Very grand was this wizard and skilled in rune-craft. While a fascinating account on its own, this story also harbors at its heart a metaphor regarding the nature of language itself. Magnus relates that the wizard, Holler
attained a grandeur among the gods equal to that of Odin and achieved such fame in his use of weapons and conjuring that instead of a ship to cross the seas, he employed a bone, which he had engraved with fearful spells, and on this he skimmed over the waters in his path as speedily as he could have done with wind-filled sails.
Like Holler's rune-bone "boat," stories are great travelers too, and so are letters. They change over time and by the handling of many people. Simultaneously they reflect the beliefs of particular cultures while maintaining ideological connections with their long journeys. So when the runes arrived in Britain with the Saxons, they retained something of their magical Northern origins. In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem (other versions exist from Iceland and Norway), we see the nature of the runes still expressed as associative and perhaps divinatory signs, but in the metaphors of another, newer land.
The Anglo-Saxon rune poem was recorded around the ninth century and provides a compact expression of runic lore in poetic form. The allusions are, for the most part, pre-Christian, but in some cases may contain Christian connections as well, a frequent result of a Christian scribe's involvement with non-Christian texts. Much of what we currently know about the runes and how they function as ideograms (letters or signs that symbolically represent abstract concepts) comes from these early poems. Each part of the poem records an individual rune sign, its name, and the object or concept embodied by it.
My rather free translation derives from the original Anglo-Saxon poem, references from several unattributed secondary sources, as well as the translation by Bruce Dickins found in Runic and Heroic Poems. I have included here only the first twenty-four poems for the original letters of the runic alphabet (the complete Anglo-Saxon poem contains additional stanzas, as runes were added to reflect changes and additions to the basic alphabet).
But what in the world does the poem mean? Well, the poem's meaning largely depends on what specifically you wish to know. Would you learn of letters? Here are all their names and shapes displayed. Perhaps you're interested in the ideas and metaphors associated with each letter and a way to remember them? Here are their names translated into ice, sun, day, and hail — things that reside about you all the time, making memory easy. Would you ask what things are most important in the early Northern world-view? Here are objects and feelings and states of being. Do you wish to know the future? Are you sure? Odin always looked to the future and never seemed to like what he found there. But if you're brave, here are runes of fate. Choose one.
The poem is essentially (and perhaps necessarily) mysterious. This was most likely part of the intention of the original authors, but the poems may also have grown more obscure through time. This ambivalence of meaning is important. It allows for questions and encourages the reader or listener to bring something of themselves to the table of interpretation. The obscurity of the poem is almost certainly related to our own distance from the time of its origin, but there is always the possibility that we may, through careful and creative consideration, unlock its hidden meanings. While runes often supply answers to questions (as memorials, recording the ancient events of a specific place), rune poems make us want to ask questions. With the rune for HORSE we may ask, what does it mean to travel upon the land, considering the progression of place quickly, in succession, like an unfolding tapestry? Why is the rune for SUN so closely associated with the sea? Is this an observation of a sea-faring people only? Or may it also refer to the habits of ancient gods, the Sun-father, the Sea-mother, and their personal felicitations? Whatever our interpretations, the rune poem — and indeed, the runes themselves — help us to heed history and the song of the soil, to observe carefully and closely the living world around us, to remember those that have gone before, and to travel with intention out upon the storied lands, leaving our marks, our stories, for those who will follow.
- Bosley, Keith, The Kalevala, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
- Davidson, H.R. Ellis, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, (New York: Penguin, 1990)
- Magnus, Olaus, A Description of Northern Peoples 1555, 3 vols. (ed. P.G. Foote), (London: Hakluyt Society, 1996)
- Orchard, Andy, Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, (London: Cassell, 1998)
- Page, R. I., Reading the Runes, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1987)
- Palsson, Hermann, and Edwards, Paul, Egil's Saga, (New York: Penguin, 1976)
- Pennick, Nigel, The Secret Lore of Runes and other Ancient Alphabets, (London: Rider, 1991)
- Smiley, Jane (Preface), The Sagas of the Icelanders, (New York: Viking, 2000)
- Terry, Patricia (translator), Poems of the Elder Edda, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)
About the Author: Dr. Ari Berk is a writer, visual artist, folklorist/mythologist, screenwriter, and film consultant. His publications have included works on myth and ancient cultures, as well as popular books for both children and adults. Ari’s most recent titles are Death Watch, Mistle Child and Lych Way (The Undertaken Trilogy) which the School Library Journal called "reminiscent of the classic gothic works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson"; Nightsong (illustrated by Loren Long); The Secret History of Giants (winner of a NCTE Notable Award), The Secret History of Mermaids, and The Secret History of Hobgoblins. Ari holds degrees in Ancient History and American Indian Studies, as well as a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Culture. He has studied at Oxford University in England and, at the University of Arizona, was mentored by Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday. He currently sits on the advisory board of the Mythic Imagination Institute (Atlanta, Georgia). Ari and his wife, Renaissance scholar Dr. Kristen McDermott, currently live at the edge of a wood in the heart of Michigan. They are both professors in the English department at Central Michigan University. Visit him on the web at: www.AriBerk.com
Copyright © 2002 by Ari Berk. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.