Questioning the meaning of Norse “runes”

The Roke Runestone, with runic inscriptions, in Sweden (wikipedia.org)

The runes figure prominently in the Norse and Viking world.  They are the written alphabet of the Norse.  The runic alphabet is often called the ‘futhark’, the sound of the first six letters.   With the ‘futhark’ the Norse had their only written accounts (at least, til the Christians came).  Because each letter of the ‘futhark’ corresponded to a specific sound they were used all over the Norse world for that specific sound, regardless of what language they used.  In other words, in the north if you read a runic inscription it would come out as sounding like Old Norse.  In England, it would sound like Old English.  This means that the ‘futhark’ were used for different languages and dialects.  In other words, the ‘futhark’ is not a language in itself but was a sound-based alphabetic system used by the different dialects and languages of the Norse world so they can write inscriptions primarily.  In general, it seems that the runic alphabet was used only for ‘formal’ writing, such as on stones as a memorable or on coins.  The ‘futhark’ did not lend itself well to writing sagas or great accounts.

I have always felt, though, that the ‘futhark’ is not what it seems.  Most certainly they were the letters used by the Norse to write things down.  There is much evidence of this.  But what I have questioned is the ‘magical’ significance of the runes.  Due to various reasons there has been great speculation that there was great magical significance to the ‘futhark’ and that they were ‘magical’.  In fact, I’ve heard of some people using them similar to a deck of tarot cards and in the same ways!  This has always made me wonder.

The  24 letter “elder futhark”, the oldest runic alphabet (ancientscripts.com)

Nowadays, “runes” is taken to mean the alphabetic system, the ‘futhark’.  In actuality, the word may actually refer to something like a ‘secret’, ‘whisper’, ‘mystery’, ‘speech’, or even ‘song’.  This has made me wonder if many references to runes in the Norse sagas may mean something else other than the ‘futhark’, as these definitions suggest more than an alphabetic system.  It seems, to me, that the association of the ‘futhark’ with the alphabet came later.  But, thinking that “runes” means the ‘futhark’, we tend to immediately assume that this is what it is.  As a result of this thinking, it seems that we have been misled giving the “runes” more influence than it really had.

The accounts state that spells or charms were engraved on things (such as bark, the teeth of horses, swords, etc.) to work magic but we do not know, for certain, if these symbols were of the ‘futhark’ necessarily (at least, as far as I know).  At this time, I am unaware of anything that has been found that has a spell on it, or curse for that matter, written in the ‘futhark’.  In addition, I’m unaware if they’ve found something that even has just a single letter from the ‘futhark’ on it at all (assuming its been used for magical reasons).   All the runes I’ve heard of are all inscriptions . . . far from magical usage.  Things like this further make me think that the name “runes” may refer to far more than the ‘futhark’ alphabet.

Even the famous account from the ‘Hovamal’, where the Norse god Odin is said to of “taken up the runes”, after hanging himself for nine days, does not specifically state the ‘futhark’ was what he “took up”.  In fact, it seems to suggest that what he “took up” was much more than a symbol (that is, a letter from the ‘futhark’).

It speaks of other things:

  • Spells, prayers, songs, poetry.  Immediately after he is said to of “taken up the runes” it mentions that he had learned nine spells, or songs, from Bolthorn.  In addition, he speaks of taking a drink from Odrerir, one of the vessels containing the ‘mead of poetry’.  This suggests that there is more to the runes than the symbols of the ‘futhark’.  In other words, things like spells, songs, and such play a big part in it.  Its also interesting that, after Odin is described as receiving the runes, the ‘Hovamal’ goes on to describe 18 spells or songs, none of which entail the use of a symbol, such as from the ‘futhark’.  But what are these spells, prayers, songs, or poetry?  Looking at the accounts it seems that the Norse seem to speak of “prayers”, “spells”, “songs”, and “poetry” as if they were one.  As a result, I am not really certain what these consist of.  It appears, though, that by the end of the Viking era everything had scaled down to “poetry”.  This, of course, is what has survived.  But, because of its association with the earlier magical and religious context, there was often an ‘aura’ of mystery with this poetry and the men who said them:  the skalds.  I have written an article about this called “Thoughts on Skaldic poetry and the Norse god Odin“.  It seems to be the case that, at least early on, “runes” entailed the use of song and spells.
  • That the gods made “runes”.  It states that they were made by representatives of the Aesar (Odin), elves (Dainn), dwarfs (Dvalinn), and the giants (Asvidr).  In other words, they are a manifestation of the whole spiritual reality.
  • The “cutting” and “carving”.  This appears to refer to making some sort of symbol, or even an inscription, onto something, probably for magical reasons.  What this was specifically is not stated.  But it makes mention of “staves” (“stafi” in Old Norse) which may refer to a stick of wood.  In this case, the symbols would be inscribed on them.  This may very well be the case.  There’s also a possibility that “staves” may refer to a verse or stanza of song or poetry.  In other words, it may be a reference, perhaps, to reciting something.  In fact, is it possible that this refers to the reciting of something “cut” or “carved” in a piece of wood?  Its interesting that, in the same stanza of verse where the “staves” are mentioned, it mentions that the gods “cut” and “carved” the “runes”.  Maybe they kept holy songs on pieces of wood that were recited, and were considered written by the gods?  Therefore, when one “cuts” or “carves” one is really reciting what the gods “cut” or “carved”.  Its also possible that this is a reference to reciting a specific song associated with a god, written on a specific piece of wood?  Perhaps this is why different gods were said to create the “runes” (see previous entry) . . . maybe each god had, at one time, a special song that was carved in wood and recited?  Its difficult to say.  All this appears to describe conditions before the Viking era.
  • The “staining”, “tinting”, making “trial”, “offering”, and “sacrifice”.  This shows that there was probably, at least in the early years, some form of sacrifice associated with the “runes”, as the “staining” and “tinting” seems to refer to putting the blood of the sacrificial animal upon the inscription, probably by filling the inscription with blood.  This would, no doubt, sanctify it and give it its power.  This practice does not appear to of been used during the Viking era, at least as far as I know.  Also, since there is a sacrifice this may show that this is associated with Odin, as he was associated with sacrifices of all sorts.   Its not surprising, then, as he is the one credited with the discovery of runes.
  • The asking of something.  This appears to refer to the asking of something from the gods.   In some ways, this goes right back to the first entry above.  The ‘Hovamal’ states:  “Better a prayer not said than too big an offering”.  Its interesting that nothing is said of symbols, the ‘futhark’, or anything else, only prayer and offering.  In fact, this seems to show what “runes” are probably most about:  the asking of the gods for something.

In all this, nothing is said about what may have been inscribed or written down (if it was at all) nor is there any mention of the ‘futhark’ (at least, as far as I can tell).  It’s just as plausible that the symbol inscribed may of been something else other than the ‘futhark’, perhaps one made up on the moment?  But what the ‘Hovamal’ seems to describe is not the ‘discovery’ of “runes” necessarily (such as the ‘futhark’) but a ceremony or ritual that, as part of its process, may use some symbol.  In other words, there’s more than the symbol involved here. Its for this reason that I tend to think that the name “rune” may actually refer to something more like a special ceremony or ritual more so than the ‘futhark’.

Because of the nature of the accounts of the runes it makes me think that “runes” may actually mean using a ‘sacred power’ in some way, through a ceremony or ritual, to effect a change:  magic.  This, then, would show that the name “rune” is a reference to a magical ceremony or ritual itself, and not necessarily to the ‘futhark’ itselfThe ‘futhark’, or any symbol for that matter, would only have been used as needed, as a tool of the ceremony (that is, magic).

If this were the case it would mean that the name “rune” may actually refer to a ceremony or ritual, possibly possessing a multiple of qualities such as these:

  • A secret knowledge about ‘sacred power’.
  • The use of specific symbols (such as the ‘futhark’), usually by inscribing.
  • The use of ceremony and, possibly, sacrifice.
  • The use of spells, prayer, and song to ask the gods for something or to affect a change.

Over the years, and throughout the different Norse lands, it appears that not all these qualities was needed.  In the ‘Saga of Hervor and King Heidrik the Wise’ the daughter of Angantyr, Hervor, goes to his burial mound and states numerous “poems” or songs, much like a prayer, as if to conjure up her dead father.  After he awakes he makes an interesting reply, ” . . . what drives you to call so?  Brimful of bale-runes . . .”  But, yet, all that she did is state poems or songs.  There were no symbols, no inscribing, no writing, no ‘futhark’, no sacrificing, no “staining”.  All she did is to state a ‘poem’, much like a song.  These poems or songs were apparently like an incantation to conjure up the dead.  This is a form of magic.  The “bale-runes” could very well refer, then, to this magical act of conjuring up the dead, not to the ‘futhark’ itself.  As mentioned above, no use of the ‘futhark’ is mentioned.  If this were the case it would suggest that any magical ‘act’ may be considered a “rune”, regardless of how it is done, be it through song, through sacrifice, through symbols, or a combination of these.  Its all magic and, therefore, a “rune”.

But if the “runes” truly means more than the ‘futhark’ then it would show that the magical significance of the ‘futhark’ has been largely overestimated and that the very word “rune” has been misinterpreted.

I am also of the opinion that one of the reasons for this misunderstanding is because of the Christian conversion.  When the conversion took place the ‘futhark’ became associated with the ‘old way’, the ‘heathen way’.  It became associated with the Norse pagan gods which is based in their heathen devil-inspired ‘magic’.  As a result, it set the stage for this association:

‘futhark’-Norse gods-heathenism-magic

Because of this, the ‘futhark’ would be viewed as more as an aspect of pagan magic and religion.

Personally, I think the ‘futhark’ were primarily symbols representing sounds initially, just like any alphabet system.  It appears that their use may of come up from the south sometime after the birth of Christ (as some of them resemble letters used in the Mediterranean area) suggesting that they were not something inherent with the Norse.  Since the Mediterranean’s did not view these as magical it would suggest that they weren’t originally viewed or intended as being ‘magical’ by the Norse, as they would of used them in a similar way.  The use of runes as symbols for magic would of appeared later. 

Because the runes were so easily “converted” to magic I’m inclined to think that there already existed, in the Norse culture, a tradition of using ‘symbols’ as part of spell and magic before the runes even appeared.  Whether these were part of a standard set of symbols (such as the ‘futhark’) or personal symbols we’ll never know.  Once the ‘futhark’ appeared, and began to be used, they may have adopted some of the symbols for the purpose of magic.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the reasons why this happened is that the runic inscriptions were viewed by the illiterate population who could not read it (which was probably most of the people) as ‘magical’ in itself.  This could very well of “inspired” them to use the symbols for that reason.  All this appeared to take place during the Viking era and possibly some centuries before it.

This would show that there were actually two “currents” of runes that developed:

  1. The use of runes as an alphabet, which is probably what it was intended for.  This would of been used by the more ‘educated’ people who could read and write it.
  2. The use of runes for magic purposes.  This would probably be used by the common people who were illiterate and could not read the ‘futhark’ alphabet and gave it magical meaning.

But, as time went on, and the old ways became forgotten, and the ‘futhark’ became a ‘dead language’, making its value as an alphabet somewhat forgotten.  People began to associate the runic inscriptions, which they could not read, with the heathen ways . . . that is, with its association with magic.  As a result, the runes became associated with magic in the minds of the people.  Only later, with the work of historians, does its importance and value as an alphabet become apparent.  But its association with magic lives on with much of the population.  The association with magic was even given a bit of a ‘jump start’ by the ‘New Age Movement’ in the 1970’s, where people began to use it as if it were some divining tool and such.

But, it seems to me, that the name “runes”, as when “Odin caught up the runes” probably originally refers to a knowledge of how to do magic (which may or may not of used the ‘futhark’) and not a reference to the ‘futhark’ alphabet itself. 

(I’ve written of other aspects of runes in this article:  “Thoughts on the historical progression of the image of Odin . . . the creation of a “conglomeration god”“.)

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Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Religion and religious stuff, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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