[This series of blog posts on the runes is based on a talk I gave at the Black Flame PDX event in Portland, OR on April 27, 2019]
Part I can be found at https://infernalgeometry.com/2019/12/27/runes-I.html
Part II can be found at https://infernalgeometry.com/2020/01/22/runes-II.html
Working With Runes
We do not have a great deal of specific information on how the runes were historically used as an operative tool. However, among our reconstructions and best guesses informed by historical authenticity and scholarly rigor, certain patterns emerge again and again. This is in contrast to much of Mediterranean and later medieval magic, which took place in cultures that were widely literate and whose magical forms were based more on the written word than on an oral tradition like the runic one. We can’t recreate the past, regardless of how much we try, because that is not where we live; what we can do is to use as much of the same operative technology as we are able to uncover and recreate, and use this technology based on meaningful interactions relevant to our current understanding and cultural contexts.
In ALU, Thorrson writes:
Tradition is of decisive importance in work with the runes because it acts as an objective touchstone for the authenticity of efforts made by both individuals and groups. […] Lore is not fundamentally based on the personal revelations of myself or anyone else. By nature this Runic Tradition is rooted in what is verifiable and objective. […] Our focus on Tradition is not an attempt to revive dead forms of practice of dead historical manifestations. We seek to awaken what is real – eternal, great, and beautiful – slumbering within us.1
One of the better attested approaches is the use of inscribed formulas to convey magical intent. Among other things, these can be used to sanctify an object, to use an object as part of a curse, or to enlist the object in causing or preventing the occurrence of some phenomenon. In a culture where literacy was rare and carried with it a perception of being something magical or at least extraordinary, writing or carving the formula into physical existence added a potent dimension to the operation by imprinting the intent onto the very fabric of the material universe. [This power behind writing is still relevant today, where to write or carve something by hand onto a physical medium carries the weight of going beyond the ordinary.]
Three common formulas in inscriptions are the erilaz formula, repeating specific runestaves either three or eight times, and the alu formula.
Let’s look at the erilaz formula first. The name Erulian – from what may either be a Germanic tribe or at least a group somewhat akin to what we would now call a guild, becomes synonymous with “runemaster”. 2 The name is found in inscriptions usually as part of a statement about the carver’s worthiness and qualification. For example, on the famous Lindholm bone amulet, the inscription reads: ek erilaz sá wíligaz ha(i)teka: “I, the eril (rune master) am called the crafty one.” The runemaster identifies himself with the transcendental archetype of “rune mastery”, with the proof being in part his ability to inscribe runes at all; by doing so, he declares his kinship with the source of this magical stream, and by extension, declares himself for the duration of the operation to be acting as Óðinn. You become a god by doing things that gods do.
Another formula uses the repetition of certain runestaves some significant number of times in an inscription, most often three or eight. This approach is commonly used in formulas of desire, and also in curses. For desire, the formula is for calling a specific concept to the runemaster. *Fehu, signifying movable wealth, is a common one of course. The rune *Naudhiz (“Need”) is found repeated 8 times in curse formulas, calling forth unfulfillable need upon one’s enemies. Alternately, the runes *Ansuz and *Tiwaz are repeated to invoke the favor – or attributes – of the gods Óðinn and Tyr respectively.
The formula ALU is common as well, appearing in over twenty Elder Futhark inscriptions. The Proto-Germanic word *alu is the root of our modern English word “ale”, and in its original form refers to any intoxicating drink. The root is also related to the Hittite *alwanza, meaning “to enchant”3, implying that the associations with this phoneme run very deep in multiple regions of ancient Indo-European culture. ALU typically occurs at the end of runic formulas and is used to sanctify the foregoing words, sealing their magical intent and making sacred both the inscription and the object it is inscribed on. This mirrors the practice of pouring out sacrificial ale to sanctify a stone or the ground, which is well-documented in the Germanic world.4 Making things sacred by separating them from the natural order, and modifying them through an act of will, is a fundamental function of the gift of divine consciousness in the Germanic cosmology, exemplified through the triple god Óðinn-Vili-Vé.
The first fully-conscious, self-aware god in Norse myth is actually a tripartite god embodying different aspects of consciousness. This is the trio Óðinn-Vili-Vé. The proto-Germanic roots of these names are *Wôðanaz, *Wiljon, *Wîhaz, meaning “master of inspired mental activity”, “divine will”, and “sacrality”. These three Gifts, in the traditional Indo-European manner where gifts are not merely dispensations of unearned grace but rather are part of an exchange between equals, show the essential components of a consciousness made truly sovereign. These are 1) the ability to receive and harness inspiration, 2) to cultivate a will capable of acting divine, and 3) making things sacred by separating them from the natural order and ascribing to them meaning and significance.
The tripartite Óðinn, Vili, and Vé become the model, or Form, from which other Æsir, or gods of consciousness, derive and also are the model to be emulated by humans in developing these same qualities within themselves. This is part of the inner meaning behind Óðinn’s epithet Alfödr, or All-Father.
The rune *Ansuz has a name which is the proto-Germanic word for a god. This name later becomes Áss (plural Æsir) in Old Norse. Óðinn, as the first independent and self-aware being, is often referred to in runic inscriptions as the *Ansuz or Áss.
Ansuz_ is the capacity for consciousness inherited from the gods (Æsir) through our human ancestors. This capacity gives us the power to rule as true sovereigns in Midgard, if we learn the way of the Áss, of Óðinn, which is bound to the idea of the Runes as constituting a symbolic grid-work of the elements of abstract thought and consciousness.
The Norns and Divination
Divination per se is not strongly attested. We do have first hand accounts from Julius Caesar – in De Bello Gallico – and secondhand accounts from Tacitus – in Germania – referencing some sort of divinatory practice using carved twigs, but these are not necessarily runic in nature. Keeping in mind that these accounts stem from near the beginning of the earliest timeframe when we can surmise that runestaves were beginning to be used, it’s just as likely that these are remnants from some pre-runic practices that may have been later integrated into the runic tradition in some fashion. Ideas about divination as “reading the future” are not really part of how it seems runes may have been used; there are other much better documented techniques for reading omens, such as studying the flight of birds, reading entrails, etc.
A more fruitful perspective for specifically divinatory uses of runestaves is using them to suggest ways in which the psyche might reconfigure itself, connecting with an understanding of Wyrd. To begin to understand Wyrd we must look at the Norns as a whole. A Left Hand Path approach to divination requires an open-ended and non-fixed future, and this is precisely the cosmology that the Norns fit within.
Wyrd is the Old English equivalent of Urðr, who is one of the Norns, the female beings in Old Norse mythology who rule the destiny of individual humans. Their names are Urðr (or Urth), Verðandi, and Skuld. Urðr is the past tense form of the verb verðen, meaning “to turn” or “to become”. Verðandi is the present participle of the same verb, signifying what is turning or become at this moment. Skuld is from a different verb, and is cognate to our modern English word “should”. The Norns live near the base of the world tree Yggdrasill, and draw water from Urðr’s well to nourish the roots of the tree.
One peculiar feature of the Germanic languages, contrasting with the rest of Indo-European languages, is the lack of a true future tense in their verbs.
For example, in English (both old and modern), we have verb forms that indicate the present (“I sing”), and the past (“I sang”), but we have to combine words to make a synthetic future (“I will sing”, “I am going to sing”, “I shall sing”). Notice that these synthetic future forms include the present tense of the main verb – in this worldview the future is merely a present that has not yet become part of the past.
Of Urðr (Urth), Paul Bauschatz in The Well and the Tree writes:
She is most frequently referred to as the Norn of the past, and there is much to recommend this, as long as we keep in mind that the past is not one third of a past-present-future trinity. The Germanic past is more accurately a realm of experience including all of the accomplished actions of all beings, men, gods, etc. It is ever growing, and it has a direct, nurturing, sustentative effect upon the world, which men experience as life, just as the water from Urth’s Well nurtures Yggdrasil. The relationship implies a continual, supportive intrusion of past upon present existence. Events, conditions, and predicaments of present life are, therefore, influenced by the realm of Urth.5
The well, which is replenished in part by the water and mud that drips from Yggdrasill, is both an active source from which water arises, and a passive source that collects and stores. The myth describes the continuous activity of this cycle, and the unknown roots of a natural well or spring signified a source of deep mystery in the nature of Becoming. As the past influences present events, also when action takes place in the present its results then become part of the past, and this process both nourishes the past and draws further inspiration from it into the present.
From the “Völuspá” in the Poetic Edda:
One is named Urðr
The other, Verðandi,
– scores they did cut –
Skuld, the third one.
They created the laws,
They established the lives of children of men
and marked the paths of their destinies
The phrase “scores they did cut”, which seems to apply only to Urðr and Verðandi, has been interpreted as referring to Runes by various Eddic scholars. These are the mysteries that will influence the unfolding of an individual’s destiny, especially those influences that remain forever hidden.
The Hávamál in line 111 further clarifies that runes are often spoken of at the Well of Wyrd in the context of the gods coming together to counsel. As the entirety of the past cannot be known to any one individual, and one’s Wyrd is intermingled in the Well with that of others, this deep past becomes an enduring Mystery that affects which actions can be taken in the present. The runes provide an avenue of study of the deep past, both personal and trans-personal, and its ongoing effects.
Stephen Flowers writes:
The Æsir do not accept the cosmic order as they inherit it. They rebel and overthrow the old order and establish a new cosmos, refined in a rational and conscious way. They do not create the world so much as they reshape it to be more rational and beautiful. This mythology is not something best understood or used as a descriptor of something that ‘happened’ in a historically defined ‘past’. Rather it is a myth about how consciousness – the gift of the Æsir – must evolve, come into being and act in the world in order to do the work of the Æsir in Midgard. This is the actual advanced purpose of galdor and of the Runes (the articulation of symbolic sound).
In closing, here are some suggested resources for further study. With more than a century of well-sourced, scholarly information about the runes – covering them from historical, religious, magical, linguistic, and typographical angles – there is a lot to choose from that has validity because it draws on the actual, documented tradition and cites sources for the same.
Edred Thorsson (aka Stephen Flowers)
- ALU: An Advanced Guide to Operative Runology (Weiser, 2012)
- The Big Book of Runes and Magic (Weiser, 2018); combines material from Futhark, Runelore, and The Runecaster’s Handbook
- Runes and Magic: Formulaic Elements In the Older Runic Tradition (Rûna-Raven, 2012 [3rd Ed.])
- The Alchemy of Yggdrasill, found in Blue Rûna (Lodestar, 2017 [2nd Ed.])
- Rudiments of Runelore (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008 [2nd. Ed.])
- Runes: LIteracy in the Germanic Iron Age (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2016)
Michael Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (Boydell Press, 2013)
Raymond I. Page, Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Boydell Press, 1995)
Ralph Eliott, Runes: An Introduction (Manchester University Press, 1959)
Jan Fries, Helrunar: A Manual of Rune Magick (Mandrake of Oxford, 1993)
Michael Kelly, Aegishjalmur: The Book of Dragon Runes (Order of Apep, 2011)
Thorrson, Edred. ALU: A Handbook of Advanced Runology (2012), 31. ↩
Elliot. Runes: An Introduction. (1959), 13. ↩
Polomé, Edgar. “Beer, Runes and Magic.” _Journal of Indo-European Studies 24:1-2 (1996), 99-105. ↩
Thorrson, Edred. ALU, 9. ↩
Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture (1980), 15-6. ↩