Runic Inscriptions of Östergötland, Sweden, no 156, at Tingstad church between Norrköping and Söderköping

Uncovering the Mystery of the Runes

I’ve avoided discussing the runes too much because they’re such a massive topic, almost as big on their own as it is to share major poems and tales of the Edda and explain the stories behind Thor and where he came from. Of course, avoiding the subject entirely, or treating the runes as some great mystery can perhaps provide them with some level of mystery that goes a bit further than the original intention. So here’s a brief introduction, with a poem that introduces them, as well.

Elder-FutharkThe runes, obviously, are a writing system. They were originally carved in rock, in wood, sometimes inscribed on other media via other methods, but generally, the runes were (and are) characters that represent sounds, just like the modern alphabets that are more widely used today. The Germanic runes evolved over time, and evolved differently in different areas – they were slightly different in Anglo-Saxon Britain than they were in Iceland, and different than they were in ancient Germany. They evolved from a set of characters first created, most likely to establish a Germanic alphabet similar to but separate from ancient Italic alphabets (obviously with quite different intentions from the more literate, literary Mediterraneans), to a younger “Futhark” used by the Vikings, to a system of characters still used in Iceland at the time of the Christian conversion in 1000, until it eventually fell out of use as a language except for a very few specialized uses.

rune carvingsEach rune, though, was also a named marker in a part of a system of magic. The rune represented part of nature, and magic as understood by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples was an attempt to change nature by use of the human will. The runes were part of that process. When etched upon bark, bones, antlers, or other media, they could be cast and used to divine the future. But runes don’t just tell the future. You can use the runes to create the future, by magic. Words create reality – words are sacred, and powerful, and should not be uttered lightly. Inscribing them onto objects, like stones, or trees, is a powerful act. And some manners of using runes such as combining multiple runes into a single rune, called bind-runes, can be a powerful way of making the world bend to your will, perhaps making an object a protective talisman, or another a curse upon those who touch it or look upon it.

The runes are especially associated with Odin, who has sacrificed greatly for knowledge of the runes and other wisdom. In particular, to gain knowledge of the runes and their magical powers, Odin made a sacrifice to the god of wisdom and magic. That god is Odin himself. And the only sacrifice sufficient to gain such knowledge can be self-sacrifice. So Odin hanged himself from the world tree Yggdrasil, pierced by a spear, and hung nine days and nine nights, losing himself in a trance of sensation beyond our mortal knowledge. And he came to know the magic of the runes, their power as writing instruments, as representations of nature, how they can bind objects and the future together to change the world.

"Odin Hanging on the World-Tree" by Franz Stassen, illustration in Die Edda: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen by Hans von Wolzogen, 1920.
“Odin Hanging on the World-Tree” by Franz Stassen, illustration in Die Edda: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen by Hans von Wolzogen, 1920.

Odin passed his knowledge on to humanity, and so we got to know the meanings of each rune, how they could be used, and so on. He sacrificed himself for our gain as well as his own (never trust Odin to do anything for altruistic reasons). But the subject is of course much larger than this article. Understanding the way the ancients understood “magic” and its relationship to the runes is its own article and beyond; understanding each rune individually, in the elder “futhark,” the younger “futhark”, and so on, could be its own article. Aside: like the word “alphabet”, “futhark” is just a jumble of the first few runes pronounced out loud so that you have a name for them. The first runes sound like “f”, “u”, “th”, “a”, “r”, and “k”, just as “alpha” and “beta” are the first letters of the Greek alphabet.

For today, a poem, which may aid in understanding the system. Multiple cultures used the runes, and there are a few different poems that have been passed down which explained what each rune meant. For today, we’ll take the Icelandic rune poem, because of Icelandic’s close relationship with Old Norse, and my own affinity for the text.

eldrfuthark

The translation is from Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples by Bruce Dickins, in 1915. I’ve also included the original Old Norse, because I think that’s valuable in the case of showing off the original language of the runes themselves.

Icelandic Rune Poem

English Translation

Wealth
source of discord among kinsmen
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.

Shower
lamentation of the clouds
and ruin of the hay-harvest
and abomination of the shepherd.

Giant
torture of women
and cliff-dweller
and husband of a giantess.

God
aged Gautr
and prince of Ásgarðr
and lord of Vallhalla.

Riding
joy of the horsemen
and speedy journey
and toil of the steed.

Ulcer
disease fatal to children
and painful spot
and abode of mortification.

Hail
cold grain
and shower of sleet
and sickness of serpents.

Constraint
grief of the bond-maid
and state of oppression
and toilsome work.

Ice
bark of rivers
and roof of the wave
and destruction of the doomed.

Plenty
boon to men
and good summer
and thriving crops.

Sun
shield of the clouds
and shining ray
and destroyer of ice.

Týr
god with one hand
and leavings of the wolf
and prince of temples.

Birch
leafy twig
and little tree
and fresh young shrub.

Man
delight of man
and augmentation of the earth
and adorner of ships.

Water
eddying stream
and broad geysir
and land of the fish.

Yew
bent bow
and brittle iron
and giant of the arrow.

Old Norse Original

Fé er frænda róg
ok flæðar viti
ok grafseiðs gata
aurum fylkir.

Úr er skýja grátr
ok skára þverrir
ok hirðis hatr.
umbre vísi

Þurs er kvenna kvöl
ok kletta búi
ok varðrúnar verr.
Saturnus þengill.

Óss er algingautr
ok ásgarðs jöfurr,
ok valhallar vísi.
Jupiter oddviti.

Reið er sitjandi sæla
ok snúðig ferð
ok jórs erfiði.
iter ræsir.

Kaun er barna böl
ok bardaga [för]
ok holdfúa hús.
flagella konungr.

Hagall er kaldakorn
ok krapadrífa
ok snáka sótt.
grando hildingr.

Nauð er Þýjar þrá
ok þungr kostr
ok vássamlig verk.
opera niflungr.

Íss er árbörkr
ok unnar þak
ok feigra manna fár.
glacies jöfurr.

Ár er gumna góði
ok gott sumar
algróinn akr.
annus allvaldr.

Sól er skýja skjöldr
ok skínandi röðull
ok ísa aldrtregi.
rota siklingr.

Týr er einhendr áss
ok ulfs leifar
ok hofa hilmir.
Mars tiggi.

Bjarkan er laufgat lim
ok lítit tré
ok ungsamligr viðr.
abies buðlungr.

Maðr er manns gaman
ok moldar auki
ok skipa skreytir.
homo mildingr.

Lögr er vellanda vatn
ok viðr ketill
ok glömmungr grund.
lacus lofðungr.

Ýr er bendr bogi
ok brotgjarnt járn
ok fífu fárbauti.
arcus ynglingr.

 

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