Runic magic

In addition to being a writing system, runes historically served purposes of magic. This is the case from earliest epigraphic evidence of the Roman to Germanic Iron Age, with non-linguistic inscriptions and the alu word. An erilaz appears to have been a person versed in runes, including their magic applications.

Runic Magic

In medieval sources, notably the Poetic Edda, the Sigrdrífumál mentions “victory runes” to be carved on a sword, “some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and name Tyr twice.”

istorically it is known that the Germanic peoples used various forms of divination and means of reading omens. Tacitus (Germania 10) gives a detailed account (98AD):

They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices and casting lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-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 prayer 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 auspices.

The Ansuz and Tiwaz runes in particular seem to have had magical significance in the early (Elder Futhark) period. The Sigrdrífumál instruction of “name Tyr twice” is reminiscent of the double or triple “stacked Tyr” bindrunes found e.g. on Seeland-II-C or the Lindholm amulet in the aaaaaaaazzznnn-b- muttt, sequence, which besides stacked Tyr involves multiple repetition of Ansuz, but also triple occurrence of Algiz and Naudiz.

Many inscriptions also have meaningless utterances interpreted as magical chants, such as tuwatuwa (Vadstena bracteate), aaduaaaliia (DR BR42) or g͡æg͡og͡æ (Undley bracteate).

Alu is a charm word appearing on numerous artifacts found in Central and Northern Europe dating from the Germanic Iron Age. The word is the most common of the early runic charm words and can appear either alone or as part of an apparent formula. The origin and meaning of the word are matters of dispute, though a general agreement exists among scholars that the word either represents amulet magic or is a metaphor (or metonym) for it.

A few Viking Age rings with runic inscriptions of apparently magical nature were found, among them the Kingmoor Ring. The phrase “runes of power” is found on two runestones in Sweden.

The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with a stacked bind rune combining six Tiwaz runes used to invoke the god Tyr and four Ansuz runes to invoke the Æsir.

The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) presents Sigurd with a memory-draught of ale that had been charmed with “gladness runes” (stanza 5),

Biór fori ec þer /brynþings apaldr!
magni blandinn / oc megintíri;
fullr er hann lioþa / oc licnstafa,
godra galdra / oc gamanruna.
“Beer I bring thee, tree of battle,
Mingled of strength and mighty fame;
Charms it holds and healing signs,
Spells full good, and gladness-runes.”

She goes on to give advice on the magical runes in seven further stanzas. In all instances, the runes are used for actual magic (apotropaic or ability-enhancing spells) rather than for divination:

  • “victory runes” to be carved on the sword hilt (stanza 6, presumably referring to the t rune named for Tyr),
  • ølrunarAle-runes” (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife; naudiz is to be marked on one’s fingernails, and laukaz on the cup),
  • biargrunar “birth-runes” (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth),
  • brimrunar “wave-runes” (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder),
  • limrunar “branch-runes” (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees “with boughs to the eastward bent”),
  • malrunar “speech-runes” (stanza 11, the stanza is corrupt, but apparently referred to a spell to improve one’s rhetorical ability at the thing),
  • hugrunar “thought-runes” (stanza 12, the stanza is incomplete, but clearly discussed a spell to improve one’s wit).

The Poetic Edda also seems to corroborate the magical significance of the runes the Hávamál where Odin mentions runes in contexts of divination, of healing and of necromancy (trans. Bellows):

“Certain is that which is sought from runes / That the gods so great have made / And the Master-Poet painted” (79)
“Of runes heard I words, nor were counsels wanting / At the hall of Hor” (111)
“Grass cures the scab / and runes the sword-cut” (137)
“Runes shalt thou find / and fateful signs” (143)
” if high on a tree / I see a hanged man swing / So do I write and color the runes / That forth he fares / And to me talks.” (158)

Other oft cited sources for the practice of runic divination are chapter 38 of Snorri Sturluson‘s Ynglinga Saga, where Granmar, the king of Södermanland, travels to the Temple at Uppsala for the seasonal blót. “There, the chips fell in a way that said that he would not live long” (Féll honum þá svo spánn sem hann mundi eigi lengi lifa).

Another source is in the Vita Ansgari, the biography of Ansgar the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, which was written by a monk named Rimbert. Rimbert details the custom of casting lots by the pagan Norse (chapters 26-30). The chips and the lots, however, can be explained respectively as a blótspánn (sacrificial chip) and a hlautlein (lot-twig), which according to Foote and Wilson  would be “marked, possibly with sacrificial blood, shaken and thrown down like dice, and their positive or negative significance then decided.”

Egils Saga features several incidents of runic magic. The most celebrated is the scene where Egil discovers (and destroys) a poisoned drink prepared for him, by cutting his hand and cutting runes on the drinking horn, and painting the runes with blood. While the motif of blood painted runes also appears in other examples of early Norse literature it is uncertain whether the practice of painting runes with blood is merely a literary invention or whether it had precedence in magical practice.

See also