|Anglo-Saxon ring with Runic inscriptions|
(8th-10th century CE)
In 98 CE the Roman historian Tacitus described the divination methods of the Germanic people:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices [typically by observing the movements of animals, especially birds and horses] and the casting of lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut [or fruit] bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the Gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices [Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, Oxford World’s Classics at 42].”
In this passage we seem to have the earliest recorded description of Germanic divination and, possibly, the use of Runic markings to do so. Tacitus does not refer to the Runic alphabet explicitly, only that strips of wood were marked “with different signs”. These signs could have been of anything, and certainly there is a possibility that they were not Runic at all but, perhaps supporting the case, the earliest archeological evidence of Runes dates from the second century CE – only one lifetime after Tacitus’ description. Professor Page of the University of Cambridge writes:
“Our earliest inscriptions in runes date perhaps from the late second century AD. Already they show mastery of the script and some variety of technique recording it. They are on metal as well as on wood. So mature are they that probably a century or so of runic history lies behind them. This would bring the invention of the runic alphabet back to near the beginning of the Christian era [ie, 1 BCE-1 CE], which is as close as we can get at present. Wherever and whenever they were created, runes soon spread over the Germanic world. By 500 AD they are found in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, with outliers in Germany, Poland, Russia and Hungary. They record different Germanic languages, and are cut, stamped, inlaid or impressed on metal, bone, wood and stone [Page, Reading the Past: Runes, University of California Press / British Museum, at 9-10].”
Thus it is close to certain that during Tacitus’ lifetime the Runic alphabet was already in use by the Germanic tribes. Tacitus’ description suggests that a number of “different signs” were used on the cut wood for the casting of lots, certainly there must have been quite a few used to enable “the casting of lots”. Based on the evidence we have it is difficult to assume what “signs”, other than Runes, could have been used. If these “signs” were not Runes then they have been lost to us. Given that Tacitus records that the Germanic tribes “attach the highest importance to the … the casting of lots” it seems unlikely that the “different signs” used in this process could have vanished without a trace. Thus, on the balance of probabilities, it is likely (though not entirely certain) that the “different signs” that Tacitus described were Runes, which are abundant amongst archeological findings, as opposed to some other group of signs, which are invisible to the archeological record
The origin of the Runes
|Medieval carving from Norway that may (according|
to Davidson) depict Odin. Source: John Erling Blad
This is all about as far back as the historical and archeological record of Runes takes us. Some scholars attempt to go back further and postulate the origin of the Runes. Some claim that the Runic alphabet was established by Germanic people living on the Italian border who based the Runes on an early form of the Roman, or even Etruscan, alphabet; some claim it originated in eastern Europe and was influenced by the Greek alphabet, and some claim it is indigenous to Denmark because this is where the earliest Runic inscriptions are found, but as Professor Page notes “the matter still remains unproven” (ibid at 9) and so we cannot know for sure how the Runes came to be, but we do know how the Norse, and thus perhaps more broadly the Germanic people, thought they came into being. The story is recorded in the Hávamál (Sayings of the High One), believed to have been originally composed in Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries, and said to record the words of Odin:
“Wounded I hung on a wind-swept tree. For nine long nights, pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin. Offered, myself to myself. The wisest know not from whence spring the roots of that ancient tree. They gave me no bread, they gave me no drink from a horn, I looked down; with a loud cry, I took up runes; from that tree I fell [a blend of two translations by Bellows and Bray respectively].”
Around the same time in England, or perhaps earlier, an Anglo-Saxon poem called Solomon and Saturn has this to say: “Who first set down letters?” to which the reply is “Mercurius the Giant” (cited in Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books at 141). Distinguished Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson suggests that this implies that Wodan, as Odin was known amongst the Anglo-Saxons, was associated with the founding of letters – for in ancient and medieval Europe it was usual to equate the Roman God Mercury (Mercurius) with Wodan. Within the Roman pantheon Mercury is the God of communication, words, letters, eloquence and divination, amongst other things. Thus it is almost certainly safe to assert that, to the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, Runes were specifically associated with Odin / Wodan, who was believed to have either invented or discovered them.
Casting the Runes
Casting the Runes
It follows that if we are interested in performing divination using a genuinely ancient Germanic method we can cast lots in the manner described by Tacitus, thus:
- Use cuttings of wood, from a nut or fruit bearing tree, which have been marked with Runic letters.
- Throw these at random onto a white cloth.
- Pray to the Gods relevant to the matter, such as Odin (patron God of Runes) as well as any other Gods who can help us attain what we are seeking. If we want success in love we should also pray to Freyja. If we want our crops to grow well we should pray to Freyr. If we want calm weather before sailing we should pray to Thor, and so on. Tacitus does not state that an offering should be made at this time but certainly the usual practice in Roman polytheism is to make an offering at the same time as a prayer (unless the prayer specifically defers the offering to a time when the prayer is answered), and we know that the Viking Rus did this as well, so making an offering at the time of the prayer may be opportune. A symbolic cup of mead, or honey, or food (bread and onions are known to be traditional) or drink (eg, milk) sweetened with honey, may be good choices.
- The person who seeks an answer should not look at the Runes when selecting the Runes, rather the eyes should be averted by looking “up towards heaven”. Three Runes should be selected, one at a time.
Women and Runes
|"The Seer" from The Wildwood Tarot|
The womenfolk amongst us (and I am one) may now be wondering if this is a rite in which women can partake? The answer is definitely yes. The plain fact is that Runes were the writing system of choice amongst the Germanic people and thus they were used for mundane purposes (such as recording the owner of an item) as well as holy. Runes do not appear to have been restricted to certain types of people – indeed the fact that Tacitus describes that any male head of the household may cast lots (which we assume equates to Runic divination), not to mention the hundreds of varied examples of Runic writing which have been discovered, suggests the use of Runes was widespread. Women are mentioned by name in some Runic inscriptions, Runic inscriptions have been found on what were clearly women’s items and women often took the initiative in raising Rune stones (Page, Reading the Past: Runes, University of California Press / British Museum, at 26, 37 and 51). What is more, both the Gripisspa and the Atlakvida (of the Poetic Edda) mention women reading, cutting and teaching another how to read the Runes. Clearly then, Runes were not off limits to women.
We also know that Germanic women were not expected to take a back-seat in matters of religion. It is true that in the extract above from Tacitus’ Germania specific reference is made to the male head of the household conducting private rites of divination, however when he speaks of the “priest” (sacerdos) conducting public rites it is entirely possible that in at least some instances the priest who conducted these rites was a woman. The notion that only men can be priests was completely unknown to pre-Christian Germanic societies. On the role of women in Germanic religion, Tacitus wrote that the Germanic people:
“believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions … we [Romans] witnessed how Veleda was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna and a number of other women [Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, Oxford World’s Classics at 41].”
So we can say that in Germanic societies women were sometimes religious leaders, though a more accurate term for these women would probably be that of shaman rather than priest (Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books at 118-119), and that there is no evidence to suggest that women were somehow prohibited from using Runes. It follows then that Runic practices should not be thought of as somehow confined to the realm of the masculine.
The next question becomes which Runic alphabet, or Futhark, as it is commonly called, do we use? Ancient Germanic society had no centralised institutions which standarised the Runic alphabet. Inevitably then, we need to speak of Futharks, and not as if there was one rigid alphabet used uniformly by all Germanic tribes during the 1000 years or so that Runes were in widespread use. However, generally the Elder Futhark (which has 24 letters) is preferred by contemporary readers of the Runes, which is logical, and so I will do the same. Note that some of these Runes were changed, entirely replaced or removed from subsequent Runic alphabets, such as the Anglo-Saxon Futhork (= 31 letters), the Younger Danish Futhark and the Younger Swedo-Norwegian Futhark (= 16 letters in both cases).
Rune name: Fehu
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter F
Rune meaning:* wealth, cattle (which were equated with wealth before the creation of coinage), money, goods, property.
Rune name: Uruz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter U
Rune meaning:* wild ox / aurochs; associated with fierce courage in Old English; associated with slag in Old Norwegian and icy drizzle in Old Icelandic (cited in Pollington). May be interpreted as representing virile / masculine strength. This Rune can be written differently, usually with just two strokes.
Rune name: Thurisaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the sound TH
Rune meaning:* giant, monster, demon, goblin; in Old English it denotes a painfully sharp thorn.
Rune name: Ansuz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter A or O
Rune meaning:* God. Almost certainly denotes Odin, “the origin of all language” (cited in Pollington), and hence all that is associated with Odin, including prosperity. This Rune can be written slightly differently, for example, in reverse form. This Rune is similar to later Anglo-Saxon Runes denoting the Ash tree (a sacred tree).
Rune name: Raido
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter R
Rune meaning:* riding, carriage, wagon, wheel, vehicle.
Rune name: Kaunan
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter K
Rune meaning:* burning wood or torch in Old English; ulcer in Old Norse. Likely associated with fire, hence radiant light. Reflecting the manyfold associations of fire (it can bring warmth and light but also pain and destruction) this rune also has an association with pain and death. This Rune can be written differently.
Rune name: Gebo
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter G
Rune meaning:* gift.
Rune name: Wunjo
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter W
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter H
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter N
Rune meaning:* need, necessity, extremity, difficulty, adversity. This Rune can be written differently, a bit more like a lower case letter T.
Rune name: Isaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter I
Rune meaning:* ice, an aspect of winter; life and/or the potentiality of life exists in ice.
Rune name: Jaran
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter J
Rune meaning:* year, good year, fruitful part of the year, harvest. This Rune can be written differently.
Rune name: Iwaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the sound IH / IW
Rune meaning:* Yew tree. A sacred tree to the Germanic people, associated with both bending and strength, apparently many bows were made of Yew, which are “a trusty piece of wargear on a journey” (cited in Pollington). This Rune can also be written in reverse form. Note that in later Futharks this symbol denoted ice.
Rune name: Pertho
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter P
Rune meaning:* unclear, possibly a fruit tree? Possibly something made from a fruit tree, whose wood would be considered lucky; associated with enjoyment in the beerhall so perhaps gaming items such as chessmen or dice. May be interpreted as being associated with chance and luck. This Rune can be written differently.
Rune name: Algiz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter R / Z
Rune meaning:* uncertain, possibly elk, possibly protection. The name is similar to the twin Gods of war mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania, the Alcis, and so may indicate the same, thus similar to the Roman Castor and Pollux, twin Gods of camaraderie. In later Futharks this symbol denoted Yew when upside down.
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter S
Rune meaning:* sun. Note that this figure is essentially one half of a Swastika, which symbolises the sun, destroyer of ice, bringer of light and hope. It can be written differently, for example, in reverse.
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter T
Rune meaning:* the God Tiwaz / Tyr, God associated with bravery, manly honour, victory and protection. Also possibly associated with the sky; in keeping with Tyr's likely status as a celestial God.
Rune name: Berkano
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter B
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter B
Rune meaning:* Birch twig / Birch. May be interpreted as being associated with spring, or youth, or fertility, as Birch trees are among the first trees to sprout leaves as spring approaches.
Rune name: Ehwaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter E
Rune meaning:* horse (an especially sacred and useful animal to the Germanic people), a “comfort to the restless” (cited in Pollington), associated with high status warriors and nobles.
Rune name: Mannaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter M
Rune meaning:* man, person.
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter L
Rune meaning:* water, lake, thus may denote unknown potentiality and possibly the place from which life originates and returns.
Rune name: Ingwaz
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the sound NG
Rune meaning:* the God Ing (fertility God, thus fertility, especially of a masculine kind). The later Anglo-Saxon version of this Rune is more ornate.
Rune name: Othalan
Equivalent in the Roman alphabet: the letter O
Rune meaning:* hereditary land, heritage, possession, inherited property.
For interpretations of runes see also norse-mythology.org/runes/the-meanings-of-the-runes. Based on my own experiences I suggest keeping a record of your readings, as sometimes interpretation becomes clearer with the passing of time.
* Based on Bandle (Ed), The Nordic Languages: Volume 1, Walter de Gruyter; Looijenga, Text and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, academia.edu; Page, Reading the Past: Runes, University of California Press / British Museum; Pollington, Rudiments of Runelore, Anglo-Saxon Books.