Alright y’all lovely witches, we’re taking it back a bit, back to my original column in the newsletter, back to the runes. Lately I’ve been busy being a working mother of two beautiful nearly ten month old baby girls and my practice has slipped through my fingers a bit. I know, you’re like Lily, get your shit together. I’m trying! So to begin this journey of getting my magical shit back together, I’m going back to the runes, back to where my spiritual journey didn’t begin, but where it began to solidify in my adulthood.
Fuck, wait. Adulthood? Damnit, y’all. As my mother pointed out the other day, I’m now a nearly 30 year old mother of two with a mortgage and multiple retirement funds. When the fuck did that happen?
As many do, on my runic journey so to speak, I started off reading Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes, a book I wouldn’t really recommend these days as the text left me unsatisfied. I wanted more. Where did the runes come from? Who used them? How do we know their meanings? In my research I was led then to the history of the European runes and to the rune poems.
If y’all have listened to me rant and rave before then you know that the Elder Futhark is the oldest of the rune alphabets and can be found on artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 8th century. The futhark consists of 24 letters often broken up into three sets of eight called Aetts- old Norse for Clan (Byock) and is thought to have originated from Old Italic scripts: maybe Etruscan or Latin. Some early estimates put the Futhark at 100 BCE while late estimates theorize that the Futhark was developed around 100 CE. Scholars believe the Elder Futhark was created by one person or a small group of people who came into contact with the Roman army. It is generally agreed that the Futhark was developed directly due to Roman influence. One theory suggests the alphabet was created by the Goths (“Britannica”).
A small note: The Viking age in Europe lasted from the late 8th century into the 11th century. The Elder Futhark pre-dates this era.
So if we aren’t 100% sure on the origins of the futhark, what do we know? Well, we think we know the order of the Elder Futhark thanks to the Kylver Stone, a flat limestone dating to the 5th century which was found in 1903 near a farm in Kylver, Gotland, Sweden during the excavation of a cemetery. The stone was originally found laying down, as it had been used to seal a grave, and when flipped was found to be inscribed with the (we think?) complete Elder Futhark (“Britannica”).
The runes are also discussed in the Poetic Eddas, specifically in the Hovamol, a gnomic collection of poems, where Odin explains how he gained knowledge of the runes. Stanzas 139-146 are the Runatal, Odin’s Rune Song. Henry Adam Bellows believed parts of this poem to be remnants of an ancient oral tradition, but the only surviving copy is in the 13th century Codex Regius.
Below is Odin’s description of his trial to gain knowledge of the runes.
“I ween I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
To Othin, mysef to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.” (Bellows)
Now what really struck me during my research is that there is currently no evidence to conclusively suggest that the runes were ever used for divination. During the Sigrdrifumol in which Brynhild the Valkyrie is found by the hero Sigurth, she teaches Sigurth the magic runes (Bellows). So clearly the runes were thought to have magical uses, but are not attested as having divinatory uses.
Sigrdrifumol stanzas 6-12
“Winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.
Ale-runes learn, that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know thou never shalt see Thy mead with evil mixed.)
Wave-runes learn, if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.
Birth-runes learn, if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.
Branch-runes learn, if a healer wouldst be,
And cure for wounds wouldst work;
On the bark shalt thou write, and on trees that be
With boughs to the eastward bent.
Speech-runes learn, that none may seek
To answer harm with hate;
Well he winds and weaves them all,
And sets them side by side,
At the judgment-place, when justice there
The folk shall fairly win.
Thought-runes learn, if all shall think
Thou art keenest minded of men.” (Bellows)
So the runes for divination seem, to me, to be a pretty modern concept. The Futhark originally was an esoteric alphabet.
Oh, did I mention we don’t know the names of the Elder Futhark? WELL WE DON’T. OR. WE KINDA DO? The rune names of the Elder Futhark have been lost, but scholars have reconstructed the names based on attestations in the three runic poems which contain the younger rune alphabets (Anglo-Saxon Futhorc 5th-12th Century CE and the Younger Futhark 9th-12th Century CE). Now, that doesn’t means researchers are pulling shit outta their asses (I think), they have meticulously reconstructed the names we know the runes by today from these younger futharks as well as the gothic alphabet.
The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and Younger Futhark are preserved in three poems: the Norwegian Poem, the Icelandic Poem, and the Anglo-Saxon Poem and are theorized to have been mnemonic devices to remember not only the rune names, but culturally important information (Acker).
If you’re setting off on a runic journey, I strongly encourage you to read these poems yourself and meditate on the runes. By exploring these poems I crafted my own meaning for the runes of the Elder Futhark. Because I’m not a scholar and I’m allowed to make shit up (I’m not really making it up) as long as I don’t try to pass it off as fakelore.
Because fakelore is bullshit. Literally.
Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. Routledge, 1998. Print.
Bellows, Henry Adams. The Poetic Edda: The Heroic Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007. Print.
Byock, Jesse L. Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas. San Bernardino, CA: Jules William, 2013. Print.
“Kylver Stone | Runic Stone, Sweden.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.
“Runic Alphabet | Writing System.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.