Ancient Runic Magic


Runes are known as the set of Scandinavian and Germanic characters with which various alphabets are formed, according to the language and the region, which kept, within its use as a writing system, a magical-religious value when it was applied in certain events or places , and whose denomination has later been extended to the general, to any symbol with a relatively simple execution that has an intrinsic meaning and a mystical or magical value.

The word comes from the Germanic root run -, which depending on the language and region in which it was used and therefore adapted to its thought, can mean secret, whisper, poem, word and letter. As it can be seen, the etymology tries to go from the hidden to the most popular. However, not everything runic is, as many have claimed, magical or mysterious in nature: in fact, the oldest runic inscriptions, except for those isolated signs from the Bronze Age that have been claimed to be consciously engraved runes, which are known, are found on a comb where "harja" (comb) is indicated, and it was found in Vimose, on Funen, Denmark; and on a fibula (safety pin brooch) from Meldorf, Germany, in which, if it is true that they are runic characters (because there is still controversy), it could put "for her" or the name of the one who made the fibula; in any case, profane articles, both dating from the first century of our era, they are far from having runes as a magical element. For this reason, it should be better accepted, even among the general public, that it was both a magical system and a writing system, although it was from the 8th century with the Viking invasions when they took on more generalized use, and that consequently their magical use was relegated to superstition and tradition. An added value to the runic writing is the fact that each of the runic characters also refers to a word, which in turn had multiple interpretations, among them insinuating the magical-divinatory value by which they are known today.

The runes seem to be based on a kind of alphabet that brought together Phoenician and Etruscan characters, spread throughout German territory and later further north. However, the origin of runic writing, as in most cultures, is considered divine. In Swedish stone inscriptions from the 7th to the 10th century there are brief texts that speak of "divine rune" or "rune of divine origin". The Hayamal speaks of its divinatory use, and in the Rúnatal edda Odin narrates how he obtained the runes through his sacrifice, hanging nine nights from the universal tree without food or drink. On how they reached men, for some it depended on the proximity to the gods, and therefore only the priests of Odin could use them. The poem Rígsbula spoke of how Rìg/Heimdall, the guardian between the worlds, had fathered children with human women, and to one of them, Jarl, who stood out for his nobility in every way, taught him about the runes and their magical qualities. Archbishop Olaus Magnus (1555) includes in one of his works a story about Kettil Runske, a cunning man who managed to steal Odin's three runic staves and learn magic from them.

The magical uses of runes in ancient times date back to the 2nd century. Scholars consider that at that time runic magic was considered as everyday magic, available to everyone. It required a spiritual predisposition, but not deep learning of a shamanic nature, so that everyone could know some specific runic spell or remedy, which would fit with what has been explained so far, that is, that the runes were also a writing system that it unfolded into its grammatical side and its magical side. Runic inscriptions without apparent linguistic meaning have been found, but they show a repetitive pattern in their execution or the places where they appear.

One of them is the word "alu (ᚨᛚᚢ)", a spell that appears on runestones, amulets, weapons, funerary urns and bracteates (circular ornaments that the Nordic peoples wore around their necks), among many other objects. Its meaning has first been identified as "beer", while due to its little logic in certain contexts it has been tried to derive it in religious alcoholic ecstasy, in divine food, or through linguistic roots that indicate "amulets", "magic", " protection".

The spell ᚨ ᛚ ᚢ appears in the inscriptions in isolation or together with other formulas. Many consider that it was an amulet in itself, and not necessarily referring to any word or object. In Proto-Germanic reconstruction, *aluh refers to an amulet. Ochard (1997) believed that it could be related to the expression "ealuscerwen", a concept that appears in Beowulf (S. X?) which translates as "expel evil", referring to fear or pain, so it would be a protective character.

The repetition of the ansuz rune (ᚨ or ᚬ) also seems to have magical meaning, as inscriptions have been found containing the rune eight times in a row. Since one of the reconstructed meanings of the ansuz is "god", it has been wanted to see here an invocation to the main divinities of the Norse pantheon, the Æsir. Other meanings are "mouth", from which the invocation or power of the word is deduced, as well as "tree" (oak or ash), looking for a meaning of fertility.

Sigel (ᛋ), identified with the sun, was a symbol of power, similar to tyr, and its use is similar too. Algiz (ᛉ), on the other hand, and Berkana (ᛒ), are found continually repeated, however, although their meanings are that of "moose" and "birch", the magical value that could be given to them is still unknown, if could be interpreted as fertility or strength. This is also the case with the gyfu or gebo (X) rune, a rune generally identified as a gift or a friendly encounter. Naud (ᚾ), whose hidden meaning seems related to necessity, is also a rune that is frequently repeated, and that has been interpreted with magical power to help the ally and take away the enemy's chances.

Perthro (ᛈ), from the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, symbolizes the beginning and end of companies, so its layout implied the wish for a good end. Thurs (þ), the thorn, had some kind of erotic or sexual connotation, so drawing it repeatedly or in certain specific places had the character of a love spell, perhaps metaphorically, since it also had medicinal value against diseases . Fehu (ᚠ), initial of the runic alphabet, was also a symbol of wealth, so its inscription attracted prosperity in cattle, harvests, and special moments. Odal or Othalaz (ᛟ) was a common rune on protective amulets, and it continued to be a frequent drawing in rural folklore.

Many other runes or runic groups are repeated continuously or are traced in specific places with a possibly magical or at least shamanic value. It is probable that its repeated utterance produced what is called galdr, the vibrating sound that embodied the true divine runic meaning, the true spell, and it required a concrete versification of seven verses.

In addition, there are cases of bindrunes. Most of them serve to highlight proper names, positions or places, but also in the case of repetitions of runes for magical purposes, being Tiwaz the most common. Words whose meaning is not yet known and which appear linked have been tried to identify as spells, as well as "tree" runes, that is, linked by a cross, by branches or simple lines that mark the rhythm of reading . The Icelandic magical symbols wanted to join this family, but they are totally differentiable, since these symbols openly manifest themselves as spells and amulets in the grimoires that have come down to us, such as the Galdrabók (S.XVII), and non-earlier archaeological remains to the 8th century, as well as in Nordic sagas where its magical effects on warriors are mentioned, such as courage and protection, or maintaining moral rectitude and literally not getting lost, along with others of agrarian or witchcraft origin, which are compiled in the Icelandic Witchcraft Museum. However, it is worth noting that they often fulfill the magical idea of ​​the repeated rune or stem pattern.

There were spells of bad fortune (towards third parties, obviously) that were performed clandestinely, recording them or tracing them in places that were not very visible but close to the person whom the shaman or magician was seeking to harm. Some of these spells were known as myrkirstafir or "dark marks", bölstafir or "evil marks" and flaerstafir, or "unfortunate marks". In the Anglo-Saxon world, the equivalent was the so-called "conflict rune" or beadurun.

Runic writing, followed by one of these invocations, could cast a spell. For example, on the Stentoften runestone in Sweden (6th century), which was framed in a pentagram of smaller stones, a hidden inscription was found (for the stone was, it seems, intentionally turned upside down) in which the names of a clan and the message appear:

<<(...) I, master of the runes (?) hide it here (...) runes of power (...) infinite curse, (condemn to) an insidious death whoever this(...) break>>

The Glavendrup stone, from the 10th century, together with the Tryggevælde, erected and also engraved by the same runic master, a certain Soti, contain a sacred runic inscription, in which, however, it is indicated in the final part:

<<(...) Warlock (ræta, a word with a negative connotation, such as exile or outcast) whoever insults this stone or drags it to put it next to others>>

This shows that in the Scandinavian world there were also positive and perverted magical applications, and that whoever used magic in this way was rejected by the community.

Once the pagan religion was descending in faithful, the use of the Latin alphabet in favor of the runes also made its way. They endured in commemorative, monumental inscriptions, or epitaphs, such as that of Rök, which together with the memory of the dead son includes some epic verses and random runes that, it is believed, could refer to the name of some divinity. Inscriptions were also found that include repetitive formulas or the three magic words pistil, kistil, mistil, sometimes abbreviated as pppmmmkkkistil, similar to the abracadabra and "Ephesian words" of Mediterranean magic.

In the Sigrdrífumál, the valkyrie Sigrfriída lists in various parts of the edda the use of runes in magic, but as direct magic and not as a system of divination. In the fifth stanza she speaks of good spells and runes of joy, in relation, curiously, to beer (ale, like the alu spell of unknown meaning), in the sixth, she carves victorious runes on the hilt of a sword (the three tyr?) and even, in the following stanza, "ale/alu" runes to avoid bewitching or poisoning, along with the naudiz and laudiz runes for protection; in the eighth and ninth stanza, birth runes for childbirth (biagruna), water or wave runes for protection are mentioned, respectively. In the following stanzas, runes carved on trees for healing purposes (limrunar, on trees that must have branches bent to the east), runes of good speech (malrunar) and runes of ingenuity (hugrunar).

With regard to divination, the element for which they are best known in the esoteric world, in the Hayamal (vv. 79-158) Odin speaks of the runes as healers, diviners, and also of their magical capacity to achieve communicate with the dead. Presumably these characteristics were part of the Scandinavian belief in runes, in addition to the elements already mentioned. In the saga of the Ynglings of Snorri Sturlusuon (XII century), where the succession of the kings of the Swedish territory is narrated, it is mentioned that in the temple of Uppsala, destroyed around the XI century by the Christian movements to eradicate paganism , one of the kings went to the blót (seasonal festival) and was told that he would not live long, "because of the way the tokens had fallen", which were inevitably interpreted as runes. Later references to Nordic paganism have indicated that, indeed, there were various divination systems consisting of throwing stones, bones or wood and interpreting their position... and it was immediately assumed that they must have incorporated painted or carved runes.

Among the Nordic populations, the magical and oracular knowledge of the runes remained in the hands of the vitkar, figures that are similar to shamans due to their precision and closeness to the gods and the social group, and who also knew about prayers, stories and herbs. In modern Germanic or Norse neo-paganism, this religious charge can sometimes be found. Not to be confused with an erilaz, who knows the runes but in a less spiritual sense, since apart from performing certain spells, he was apparently mainly responsible for engraving runic symbols in stone, which entailed a certain precision. This figure has been analyzed as a kind of priest who was aware of the needs of the druhtinaz, the warrior community in charge of economic, political and social power, while the women, also knowledgeable about magic at a deeper level, would be in charge of the general community welfare. Many have seen in the erilaz the position granted to certain noble layers after a magical-religious initiation.

The runic alphabets were divided into ætts, groups of phonemes that were named by their initial letter. The name received by the alphabets corresponded to the phonetic pronunciation of the initial letters, therefore, generally, futhark in the Germanic and Scandinavian sets, and futhorc in the Anglo-Saxon system.

There were several runic systems that evolved, but the one that has come down to us as magical has been a new one, based on the Armanen futhark, which Guido von List devised in the 20th century, choosing the runes he preferred among all those of the old Scandinavian and Norse runic alphabets. For modern divination, this is the model to follow, but if we focus on antiquity, the runic divinatory interpretations that modern scholars deduce are guided by the Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems, which collect the interpretation of nineteen runes, and Anglo-Saxon, which brings together the first twenty-nine of the futhorc, the futhark of the Anglo-Saxons. They are perhaps the most relevant texts that have come down to us that give a good account of the meanings of the runes at a cultural and religious level, which makes them an important pillar in Asatru neopaganism and for the studies on Scandinavian magic.

(Following this link you can read: Ancient runic meanings)

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com

-MacCulloch, J.A. The celtic and scandinavian religions. Cosimo Classics, New York, 2005
-Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, PENN (Pennsylvania University Press), Philadelphia, Oxford, 2011.
-Orchard, Andy, Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassel, 1997
-Pulsiano, Phillip, Medieval Scandinavia: an enciclopedia, Garland Publishing, New York, London, 1993

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