Old English Rune Poem

Old English Rune Poem

Source: Rune Poems With English Translation

The Old English rune poem, dated to the 8th or 9th century, has stanzas on 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. It stands alongside younger rune poems from Scandinavia, which record the names of the 16 Younger Futhark runes.

The poem is a product of the period of declining vitality of the runic script in Anglo-Saxon England after the Christianization of the 7th century. A large body of scholarship has been devoted to the poem, mostly dedicated to its importance for runology but to a lesser extent also to the cultural lore embodied in its stanzas.

The sole manuscript recording the poem, Cotton Otho B.x, was destroyed in the Cotton Fire of 1731, and all editions of the poems are based on a facsimile published by George Hickes in 1705.

Old English rune poem
Reproduction of the 1705 copy of the poem by George Hickes.

Rune names

The rune poem itself does not provide the names of the runes. Rather, each stanza is a riddle, to which the rune name is the solution. But the text in Hickes’ 1705 publication is glossed with the name of each rune. It is not certain if these glosses had been present in the manuscript itself, or if they were added by Hickes. According to Wrenn (1932), “Hickes himself was quite candid about his additions when printing the Runic Poem. […] there can be little doubt that Hickes, as Hempl long ago [1904] suggested, added the marginal rune names and rune values deliberately”. Consequently, the Old English rune poem is no independent testimony of these rune names which were borrowed by Hickes from other sources such as Cottonian MS Domitian A.ix 11v. It is, however, the only source which provides context for these names. Jones (1967:8) argues that the additions attributed by Wrenn and Hempl to Hickes were in fact those of Wanley, who originally transcribed the text and presumably arranged it into stanzas.

f f /f/ *fehu “wealth, cattle”
u u /u(ː)/ ?*ūruz aurochs” (or *ûram “water/slag”?)
th,þ þ /θ/, /ð/ ?*þurisaz “the god Thor, giant
a a /a(ː)/ *ansuz “one of the Æsir (gods)”
r r /r/ *raidō “ride, journey”
k k (c) /k/ ?*kaunan “ulcer”? (or *kenaz “torch”?)
g g /ɡ/ *gebō “gift”
w w /w/ *wunjō “joy”
h h ᚺ ᚻ h /h/ *hagalaz “hail” (the precipitation)
n n /n/ *naudiz “need”
i i /i(ː)/ *īsaz “ice”
j j /j/ *jēra- “year, good year, harvest”
ï,ei ï (æ) /æː/(?) *ī(h)waz/*ei(h)waz “yew-tree”
p p /p/ ?*perþ- meaning unclear, perhaps “pear-tree”.
z z /z/ ?*algiz unclear, possibly “elk”.
s s ᛊ ᛋ s /s/ *sōwilō “Sun”
t t /t/ *tīwaz/*teiwaz “the god Tiwaz
b b /b/ *berkanan “birch”
e e /e(ː)/ *ehwaz “horse”
m m /m/ *mannaz “Man”
l l /l/ *laguz “water, lake” (or possibly *laukaz “leek”)
ŋ ŋ ŋ ᛜ ᛝ ŋ /ŋ/ *ingwaz “the god Ingwaz
o o /o(ː)/ *ōþila-/*ōþala- “heritage, estate, possession”
d d /d/ *dagaz “day”

Of these sixteen Old English names, ten are exact cognates of the Scandinavian tradition (Feoh, Rad, Hægl, Nyd, Is, Ger, Sigel, Beorc, Mann, Lagu). In addition, the names of the Ur and Cen runes correspond in form but not in meaning. The name Eolhx is without counterpart as the corresponding Scandinavian rune has inherited the name of the Eoh rune. The names of the two runes recording theonyms are special cases. For the Os rune, the poem suggests Latin os “mouth” only superficially. The poem does not describe a mouth anatomically but the “source of language” and “pillar of wisdom”, harking back to the original meaning of ōs “(the) god, Woden/Odin“. The Tir rune appears to have adopted the Scandinavian form (Týr, the Anglo-Saxon cognate being Tiw). However, tīr exists as a noun in Old English, with a meaning of “glory, fame honour”. Perhaps involving the original meaning of Tiw, the god associated with fame and honour; also interpreted as “a constellation”, “lodestar” because of the stanza’s emphasis on “fixedness”. The name of the Old English Þorn rune is thus the only case with no counterpart in Scandinavian tradition, where the corresponding rune is called Þurs.

The good agreement between the Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian poems instils confidence that the names recorded in the Anglo-Saxon poem for the eight runes of the Elder Futhark which have been discontinued in the Younger Futhark also reflect their historical names.

Gyfu
“generosity”
Wynn
“bliss”
Eoh
“yew”
Peorð
(?)
Eh
“horse”
Ing
(a hero)
Eþel
“estate”
Dæg
“day”

Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon poem gives the names of five runes which are Anglo-Saxon innovations and have no counterpart in Scandinavian or continental tradition.

Ac
“oak”
Æsc
“ash”
Yr
“yew bow”
Ior
“eel”(?)
Ear
“grave(?)”