“When runes become the gods”
Vincent Ongkowidjojo © 2012
The sagas and Eddas occasionally contain passages of rune lore. The picture that emerges is usually a magical one. Nonetheless, scholars are suspicious of seeing primarily magical powers in the runes. Similarly, a same suspicion is usually held against the use of runes in divination, however likely it may be.
The poetry of the sagas and the Eddas is rooted in an oral tradition that was designed to preserve initiate information. Taken together all these passages give insight in the magical reality of the runes. The available information may be incomplete, but given a second look remains consistent within the skaldic poetry, the myths and the sagas, and maybe even beyond that. Whether what is said in these verses is fact or fiction, it certainly serves as a source of inspiration.
Havamal 144 is a key verse in the interpretation of rune magic. It is embedded in a bigger passage, namely stanzas 142-145, most of which will be quoted. Havamal 144 hints to the use of runes in both magic and divination. The gods were consulted through divinatory means and runes played a role in communicating questions and answers. They embody the language that links two worlds.
Runes as gods
One of the theses in this article is that the runes themselves were seen as gods. The alphabet mediated communication between the earthly priest/magician and the gods, but the signs themselves allowed the magician to come into contact with the gods. According to the Havamal stanza, the runes were venerated and sacrificed in the same way as the gods. What is more, many of the runes carry the names of gods and godlike beings. This reveals that godlike entities were thought to exist behind the runes.
The Elder Futhark contains at least eight runes that directly refer to supernatural beings. These are Thurisaz, Ansuz, Algiz, Sowulo, Teiwaz, Berkana, Mannaz, Inguz and Dagaz. These characters are known from the myths. Possibly, the other runes refer to supernatural beings in an indirect way or in ways we have not explored yet.
Thurisaz is the name of a giant-like being. At the same time, the Old Icelandic Rune Poem suggests that we are dealing with a person of that name. Ansuz, too, refers to a class of beings, but it explicitly denotes Odin. Again, the Old Icelandic Rune Poem is very clear on this. Algiz is a deity known from the writings of Tacitus corresponding to the Alcis. Sowulo means ‘sun’ and was regarded as a numinous being with the same name. The Viking rune name Sól is the name of the solar goddess. Teiwaz is the name of a god later known as Tyr. Berkana is often translated as ‘birch’, but the word for birch is not quite the same. The n-morpheme in Berkana and Bjarkan points to a numinous being. Mannaz is known as Mannus from the writings of Tacitus. Inguz is the name of a fertility god, equated with Frey of later times. Dagaz features as the god Dagr in the Eddas.
Later in time, the Younger Futhark does not hide this tendency of personifying the runes. We have already met Bjarkan, which proves an interesting case. The Younger Futhark retains a name of no meaning. The word does not appear elsewhere and the kennings for this rune all support a meaning of ‘birch tree’. Yet, the word signifies the spirit of the birch tree. It seems likely that an original numinous being was alluded to. In comparison, the Old English rune alphabet, notorious for its Christian editing, simply has the word for ‘birch’ while the Gothic alphabet adheres to a word related to Bjarkan. More or less the same is true for Hagall. The Old Norse name for ‘hail’ is hagl, not hagall. Hagall is therefore supposed to incarnate a mythical person otherwise unknown.
And there is more. In late times, the aettir of the Futhark were named after the first rune of each aett. This happened under Irish influence. The Celtic Ogham alphabet is also divided in different groups, each group being named after its first letter. Hence the first group is called aicme beithe after the letter Beith. A similar pattern appears in the Younger Futhark where the groups are called Frey’s Aett, Hagall’s Aett and Tyr’s Aett. The names of the second and the third group correspond nicely to their respective initial rune. But the name of the first one is different and mentions Frey. This has led to the confusion that the Fehu rune was also called Frey. Nonetheless, this assumption might just be true and prove that individual runes were strongly associated with certain gods.
Some of the remaining runes still come very close to being numinous beings. Because the veneration of trees was widespread in those times, it would follow that a rune like Eihwaz would equally be categorized as a god. Maybe the same holds true for Pertho, although the interpretation of this rune is uncertain. Except for trees, other pieces of landscape were venerated. In this respect, Laguz might personify the sea itself. And then there are Gebo and Ehwaz. These names form the root of known divinities. Gefjon is a goddess known from Norse mythology related to Freyja. Epona is a goddess known from Celtic mythology, but would render the unattested proto-Germanic form Ehwana. Both names are formed by the n-morpheme.
|Wunjo||/||Sowulo||Goddess Sol||Dagaz||God Dagr|
Chances are that the other runes, too, represent supernatural beings. Possibly, they were considered to be the incarnation of the concept they referred to. The rune staves consequently embody the intelligent powers behind the rune concepts. Contact with a certain god would result in a thoughtform that would in its turn incarnate in a symbol. All three are therefore aspects of a Rune. According to Havamal stanza 80, the runes were created by the gods themselves. Connotations of the Old Norse word for creating are to make ready and to clothe. Possibly, the runes were meant to be the vehicles of manifestation of the gods. The symbols either represent themselves in the physical realm or in the imagination.
An exegesis of Havamal 144
Although the word rune is not even mentioned in Havamal 144, its context and first line is evidence enough for its application in rune magic. The stanza brings up eight ways to interact with the runes.
Veistu hvé rísta skal? Veistu hvé ráða skal?
Veistu hvé fá skal? Veistu hvé freista skal?
Veistu hvé biðja skal? Veistu hvé blóta skal?
Veistu hvé senda skal? Veistu hvé sóa skal?
Do you know how to carve? Do you know how to read?
Do you know how to colour? Do you know how to challenge?
Do you know how to pray? Do you know how to offer?
Do you know how to send? Do you know how to sacrifice?
The stanza portrays a procedure of working with runes. Once all the actions are put together an image emerges in which a ritual is organized to craft and load runes in order to communicate with the spirit world. The procedure ties in with surviving texts on the making of divining lots and is indicated by words such as blótspann. The ceremonies described include animal sacrifice and the casting of lots (Ynglingasaga, Landnamabok).
Analyzing stanza 144, an interpretation becomes difficult because it remains unclear whether all or some of the verbs relate to rune magic. The first two lines deal with rune casting proper, but the second half of the stanza seems to refer to the ritual that frames the rune casting. The words of the second half do not normally apply to runes nor are there any real parallels where these verbs are related to runes. Besides, the actions may relate to all kinds of lot casting and sacrificing and not just the runes.
We assume that the second half of the stanza also relates to runes. This view is supported by its inner coherence and by the surrounding stanzas. This perspective facilitates an interpretation but we will have to allow that the runes were considered to be numinous beings or spirits. This interpretation exceeds seeing the runes as merely the coded language of the gods. It makes them the gods themselves. The runes themselves become the object of sacrifice and the recipient of prayer.
A short overview of the different verbs might be helpful. Linguistic information is mainly based on what is found in An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Cleasby and Vigfusson.
Rísta means to cut and is said of carving something in wood. In a runic context, it stands for carving the letter shapes in either wood or stone. The same word is used to describe the process of carving an idol. With this in mind, the line may be translated as ‘do you know how to craft the idol of a Rune’. Many other words are used to denote runic writing, such as skora ‘to score’ and merkja ‘to mark’. The word for idol (skurð-goð) is based on the same root as skora.
Ráða is cognate with to read, but specifically means to interpret, explain. The act of interpreting dreams is termed raða drauma. In a runic context, it plausibly refers to a divinatory act. However, the first meaning of this verb simply relates to giving counsel; and secondary to consulting. The line from the stanza might be read as ‘do you know how to consult the runes’. This creates a more open attitude towards the nature of the runes. Are the runes consulted as a symbol-based oracle or are they beings you enter into a dialogue with?
Fá means to draw or paint. It refers to the colouring or staining of the runes after they have been carved. On stone, traces of red, blue, yellow, white and black have been found. The most common pigments were red ochre, white lead, red lead and soot. Presumably, wooden runes were coloured, too. It is generally assumed that wooden runes were reddened with sacrificial blood to apply life force on the object. This is how Egill Skallagrimsson performs rune magic in Egilssaga. In Grettissaga, too, the runes are stained with blood to effect magic.
Passages from Havamal indicate that the colouring was accompanied by chanting. Havamal 80 and 142 connect the act of colouring with the name Fimbulthul. This name refers to Odin and means ‘the Great Chanter’. A þulr is a cultic functionary associated with recitation. We therefore assume that fá included singing. Any verbal action is not indicated in the stanza, but must have been present.
Þat er þá reynt, er þú að rúnum spyrr
þeim er gerðu ginnregin
ok fáði fimbulþulr;
þá hefir hann bazt, ef hann þegir.
This you will find when you look for the runes
Those that come from the Regin
They are created by the Ginn-Regin
And are coloured by Fimbulthul
It is better if one keeps silent
Rúnar munt þú finna ok ráðna stafi,
mjök stóra stafi,
mjök stinna stafi,
er fáði fimbulþulr
ok gerðu ginnregin
ok reist Hroftr rögna.
Runes you will find, and divining staves
Very great staves, very strong staves
They are coloured by Fimbulthul
And made by the Ginn-Regin
And carved by Hropt of the Regin
Freista is a word that means to try one’s strength or to try one’s luck, challenge. It usually indicates a competitive context and involves two parties. From a mystical point of view, this verb has a slightly different meaning. It is used in the context of summoning and questioning a spirit. This has a divinatory ring to it. Examples are found in Voluspa 28 and Hyndluljod 6. In Voluspa, Odin commands the volva to speak, wanting to know the outcome of Ragnarok. In order to do this, he looks the volva in the eye. This discloses the hidden meaning of freista and, in modern practice, may include active imagination and scrying. As this particular volva can be identified with a well, a modern reconstruction might involve staring into water. The sacrifice of Odin’s eye supports this view.
In Hyndluljod, Freyja awakens the giantess Hyndla to ask her about hidden information. Both passages are paralleled by the story of Balder’s Dreams. In this tale, Odin awakens a dead volva and forces her to answer his questions. I assume that the technique of freista is implied. A similar motive is known from the sagas. The tale of Hauks þáttr hábrókar from Flateyarbok describes how the wooden image of a god, Lytir, is first carried to the temple to invite the presence of the god and then taken to the king to question this god. The questioning of the idol must be compared to our present Havamal line. In Greek mythology, the story comes to mind in which Odysseus digs a pit and sacrifices sheep to summon the dead and ask them about the future. With this in mind, we might translate the line with ‘do you know how to question the runes’, do you know how to make them do what you want. There is a hint of challenge in this. The magician must be able to try the power of the runes in such a way that they release their energy to his benefit.
Ein sat hon úti þá er inn aldni kom
yggjungr ása ok í augu leit:
Hvers fregnið mik? Hví freistið mín?
Allt veit ek, Óðinn, hvar þú auga falt,
í inum mæra Mímisbrunni.
Drekkr mjöð Mímir morgun hverjan
af veði Valföðrs .
Someone sat outside when the Old One came
The terrifying Áss and he looked her in the eye:
“About what do you want to be informed by me? Why do you challenge me?
I know very well, Odin, where you hid your eye
In the famous Well of Mimir
Every morning Mimir drinks the mead
From Valfather’s pledge
The primary meaning of biðja is to beg. The word has a ritual connotation and refers to an act of supplication. Basically, the gods and the spirits are asked for a boon. A request like this always implied payment. Offerings were made to the gods. The verb that describes the act of making offerings is gefa and simply means to give. In a runic context, a prayer would be said to the Runes. Therefore, it looks like the runes were regarded as higher powers capable of fulfilling a mortal’s wishes. The mention of this verb strongly suggests that the runes were seen as godlike beings. A more sensible translation of this line would run like ‘do you know how to ask the runes to do your bidding’.
The verb blóta describes the performance of a ceremony commonly known as a ‘blot’. In the old days, the blót was a ritual of worship. It usually included a sacrifice which was meant to feed the gods. At the same time, the animal sacrificed represented the deity in question and its blood was used to bless the congregation by sprinkling. The blood was also smeared on the walls of the temple if it was done indoors or on a tree if it was done outdoors. Sometimes a sacrifice was conducted for a specific reason: for peace or victory, long life, a good harvest or a fair wind. All these imply an act of supplication. More common were the annual blots that intended to gather the family/community and commemorate the ancestors or honour the personal gods and spirits. These annual feasts are identified as Winter Nights, Yule and Summer Finding, which might have been either or all Easter, Walpurgisnight and Midsummer.
The verb specifically means to worship by means of sacrifice. According to surviving textual material, it is known that sometimes waterfalls or other sacred places were worshipped. This suggests that these places carried a numinous energy. The same must hold true for the runes if we interpret this line as ‘do you know how to worship the runes with sacrifice’. It might simply mean that the runes were blessed with sacrificial blood at some point, but it might equally mean that the runes were seen as much more than only forces, but indeed as independent intelligences.
At other times, ‘blots’ were organized to perform divination. This is deduced from words such as blót-spánn and dreyr-stafir. These lots were cast to consult the gods (Germania, Vita Willibrordi, Vita Ansgari). The Old Norse word blót-fé means ‘enchanted object’ denoting at one time something sacred and sometimes something cursed. It signifies a spirit possessed object.
A blót case that might interest us is told in Heimskringla. A certain king Aun desires to live unnaturally long. He wishes it so much that he is prepared to sacrifice his own sons for prolonging his life. And this is what he does. Every so many years he sacrifices one of his sons to Odin and gains a few more years. In this case, the blot is not just an act of worship, but rather a magical act for personal gain. However, all the necessary components are present. A request is made to a god and in return the god is fed life force. The idea of giving was central to Ancient Germanic society and was firmly rooted in the Viking mind, as we read in passages from Havamal, such as stanza 145. Intertribal relations, diplomacy and politics were based on the principle of equal exchange. The Viking peoples were as much merchants as anything else, but this naturally defined their relationship with their gods, too. In this respect, Hyndluljod 4 reveals that biðja and blóta belong together. A request necessitated an offering.
Þórr mun ek blóta, þess mun ek biðja,
at hann æ við þik einart láti;
Thor I will have to give an offering, him I must pray to
So that he will ever be well-mannered to you
Senda is cognate with to send. It is also used as a synonym for casting, throwing, or hurling, maybe of a spear or arrow. Sending implies a message that needs to be carried. The word is very intentional in its implication; however, it also evokes the basic model of communication of sender, message and receiver. The action intends to send the runes on an errand of your desire. This is quite different from plain divination but comes nearer to the practice of magic. A word of interest derived from senda is sending. The latter can mean a plain message but it can also refer to a spirit summoned by a sorcerer sent on its way to do harm to a person. Therefore, in a magical context, senda entails a spirit, maybe a rune spirit, sent off to do your bidding. In this case, a rune might be thrown in a certain direction, or even toward a certain symbolic target to activate its use.
Senda is used in a runic context in Sigrdrifumal. The passage speaks of how Odin comes to Mimir and asks him about the runes. Then, Mimir sums op all kinds of different objects on which the runes are inscribed. His recitation reminds us of the ritual role of the þulr. After his sayings, the text explains what happened to these runes. Initially, they were inscribed on twenty four objects. Then, their power was transferred to the Sacred Mead, which is Odrerir. The runes become the medium embodying the qualities of these sacred objects. Through the runes, these qualities are transferred into the Mead. The mead can then be drunk or offered. The transference of power is done by scraping the symbols off the material that they were carved on. This scraping does not occur in our Havamal stanza but does relate to the next verb sóa, with which senda is paired. Finally, the runes are sent on their ways. In other words, the abstract qualities inherently present in the sacred objects are available for the whole world. It is not known who or what sends the runes, but it is known for whom they are destined. The stanza is quoted below. There is a real sense of direction in this sending. The passage reminds us a little of the story of the war of Aesir and Vanir. When ultimately a truce is declared, all parties agree that hostages need be exchanged to seal the pact. In this myth, the exchanging of hostages is also explained as an exchange of qualities. On a symbolic level, a higher level of synthesis is reached among the gods through this exchanging. It remains uncertain that the Sigrdrifumal passage refers to this myth, but it could be, because of Mimir’s mention.
All in all, senda means that the power of the runes is released in a certain spatial, albeit possibly cross-dimensional, direction. Whether we must think of the runes as spirits or mere energies we cannot say. The term can be applied to both.
Allar váru af skafnar,þær er váru á ristnar,
ok hverfðar við inn helga mjöð ok sendar á víða vega;
þær ro með ásum, þær ro með alfum,
sumar með vísum vönum, sumar hafa mennskir menn.
All were shaven off – that were carved on
And cast into the Holy Mead – and sent on the wide ways
They are with the Aesir – they are with the Alfar
Some are with the wise Vanir – some of them, human beings have
Sóa is a verb that only appears four times in the Old Icelandic corpus. There are, however, derivative words, such as són, sónar-göltr and sónar-dreyri which help explain its meaning. Apart from the stanza discussed and the next one connected with it, stanza 145, the verb occurs in Havamal 109, where it is told how Odin steals the mead from Suttung. The giant pursues Odin and arrives in Asgard, but once he enters, the gods surround him and kill him. The verb sóa is used. This means that much more was going on then what we know from the story, because a ritual act is implied. The fourth mention of the verb is found in Heimskringla in the story of Domaldi, Ynglingatal 15 stanza 8. When king Domaldi reigned a severe famine occurred. Many sacrifices where carried out to turn the spell, but to no avail. They sacrificed bulls at Uppsala, but it did not help. In the end, the chieftains under Domaldi’s command decided that king Domaldi himself had to be sacrificed to improve the harvest. They kill him and stain the altars with his blood. Here, too, the verb sóa is used. Nonetheless, the prose text of this passage employs blóta. In both cases the victim is taken against his will. Both passages also speak of a person, not an animal. This reminds us of the story of Aun that also employed blóta to describe the event.
Sóa is akin to the noun són which word means atonement and refer to a ritual of peace offering. The example myth of such a ritual would be the war of Aesir and Vanir. Interestingly, the story explains són on different levels. Apart from exchanging hostages, the truce also includes the brewing of the Sacred Mead. This holy drink is contained in three vessels, Odrerir, Son and Bodn. The middle one is named after són, atonement, and directly refers to the truce that was thus ritually installed. We might argue that the gods had only to spit in the cauldron to brew this són, but another part of the myth discloses that the mead was eventually divided among the three vessels by killing Kvasir. Kvasir was created from the spit of the gods and represents the manifestation of the synthesis of Aesir and Vanir. He is praised as a god of wisdom and travels about to dispense it. One day he is invited by a duo of dwarves who slay him and catch the blood. Yet again, the person is slain involuntarily.
The subject of a són is always a victim. Each time, too, the sacrifice is performed or decided on by an assembly of priests. Suttung is slain by all the Aesir. Domaldi’s sacrifice is decreed by the assembly of his chieftains. The situation of Kvasir is a little different. The god is created by the spittle of the entire assembly of Aesir and Vanir, but the actual killing is carried out by only two dwarfs.
When we translate myth into reality, the sacrificial deity is represented by a totem animal. According to the description of Cleasby-Vigfusson, the són ceremony was performed at Yule Eve. A boar, termed sónar-göltr, was led into the hall symbolizing the solar deity Frey. Hands were put on its bristles and oaths were taken. Afterwards the boar was sacrificed and possibly its blood was used for blessings. After the sacrifice, divination took place. Such a ceremony was described by the compound sónar-blót and was intended to reestablish peace of some kind. At the same time, sónar-blót is interpreted as an oracle which meaning fits Havamal 144. The reconstruction is based on material from Ynglingasaga, Hervarar Saga and Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar.
The above information connects són to another myth. Voluspa hin skamma 7-10 elaborates on the birth of Heimdal and links his origins to the sacrificial boar. Moreover, the passage draws a parallel with the creation of Kvasir. Specifically stanza 10 is of import here. It states that Heimdal waxed by three magical ingredients, namely the power of the earth, the coolness of the sea and the blood of the sacrificial boar. We can imagine that these were qualities added unto him in the ritual of his birth as explained in the foregoing stanzas of the poem. In a mythical context, we might think of Njord, Frey and Freyja acting as sacrificial priests. They are identified as such in Ynglingasaga. Moreover, Heimdal is described as ‘the Vanir alike’. The ceremony is set on the shoreline. There they have the blood of the boar drip unto nine waves and Heimdal is fathered. A similar tale is found in Greek myth, where the magical horse Pegasos is born by the blood of the Gorgon Medusa dripping onto the ocean’s waves. Another account from Greek mythology is the story about Iphigeneia who is the subject of a sacrifice to appease the goddess Artemis. We can interpret both Medusa and Iphigeneia as the involuntary victim. Interestingly, as with Heimdal, Pegasos was created at the ‘edge of the earth’. Remember that this was also the place where the gods created man. The Norse anthropogenesis and the birth of Heimdal might well be vestiges of a rite of consecrating idols.
A last reference brings us back to Norse mythology. The sacrificial killing of Ymir by Odin and his brothers has the looks of a són ritual. Ymir is a victim of sacrifices and the sacrificial act results in a new order.
As with the previous pair of actions, senda and sóa belong together. The sending away of the summoned force necessitates a sacrifice or destruction of sorts. One ritual example known from ancient times must be mentioned in this context. In Ancient Germanic times, warriors prayed to their gods before battle and promised them the war gear of the enemy and possibly hostages in return for victory. From many archaeological sites, weaponry is found in bogs and lakes. Some of these weapons bear runic inscriptions with the names of tribes on them. But all of these weapons were bent and destroyed. The picture that emerges is that symbolically the subdued tribe was somehow sacrificed by breaking the weapons and throwing them into a lake. This act combines senda and sóa. The destruction of the weapons symbolizes the sacrificing of the tribe, which relates to sóa. The throwing into the lake should be taken as a literal translation of senda. The promised gift is sent to the spirit world. If both terms apply to the runes, then we must infer that they were destroyed in order to release their power. This is what the ‘scraping’ means in the Sigrdrifumal stanza. Inscribing runes on a lot compares to runic inscriptions on the war gear of an enemy. In this way, the lot becomes the manifestation of a god.
Ins hindra dags gengu hrímþursar
Háva ráðs at fregna
Háva höllu í.
At Bölverki þeir spurðu, ef hann væri með böndum kominn
eða hefði hánum Suttungr of sóit.
The day after, the Ice Giants went
– To be informed about the advice of the High One – in the hall of the High One
They were looking for Bolverk, whether he had come to the gods
Or whether he had been sacrificed by Suttung
Voluspa hin skamma 10a
Sá var aukinn jarðar megni, svalköldum sæ ok sónardreyra.
So he gained from the might of the earth – from the very cold sea and from the sacrificial blood
It is possible that the different techniques of this stanza all relate to one big ceremony, but it is equally possible that they refer to separate modes of working with runes. Of the techniques described only a few relate to the physical representation of the runes. Most verbs however imply a conscious entity behind the ceremonial work. Words such as freista, biðja, blóta, senda and sóa would have the runes as the subject of veneration. Rísta and fá remain within the sphere of simple rune crafting, but as a matter of fact, the same words simultaneously denote the crafting of idols. Ráða refers to divination and the interpretation of signs, such as the runes, but at the same time it means consulting the gods – and these can be taken as the spirits behind the runes. The verb senda can be interpreted as relating both to simple runes or numinous beings. It might only refer to runes as a medium to get a message across, or it might refer to runes as the agents of materializing your statement of intent.
The interpretation of the key verbs mainly reveals two things. Firstly, that the actions are paired. Secondly, that the runes were subject to the same worship as gods. The idea that the actions must be interpreted by twos is strengthened by the stanza following Havamal 144.
Betra er óbeðit en sé ofblótit,
ey sér til gildis gjöf;
betra er ósent en sé ofsóit.
It is better not to pray than to worship too much – ever a gift looks for a gift
It is better not to send than to sacrifice too much
This passage makes it quite clear that the verbs must be interpreted by twos. Havamal 145 only covers the second half of stanza 144, but the remainder can be reconstructed. What emerges elucidates the connections between pairs of verbs.
[Better not to carve at all than to read the signs too much
Better not to paint at all than to provoke too much]
Better not to make a request at all than to give too much offerings
Better not to send at all than to waste too much
The first pair consists of how runes are carved and then read. The first needs to be done to do the second. This is also the most material phase or method of working with runes in the stanza. In my opinion, the line implies that new runes were made every time.
The second pair consists of how to colour and test the runes. This step is a little mystical, because freista implies the summoning of a spirit in order to extract information from it. If it is true that both verbs are ritually connected, then the summoning is done by colouring the runes. We usually assume that this is done with blood. Consequently, fá means to give life to a slip of wood or a piece of bone. By applying the life force on a physical object, the spirit is able to come through and manifest in the object. It is not clear whether blood was intended in the verb fá; it means just to paint. Nonetheless, according to my above interpretation, it might have accompanied the naming process.
The third pair consists of entreating the runes and making offerings to the runes. This is a model of working with spirits well known from any tradition. You make a request and you leave an offering. That is the deal. But working with the spirits and filing a request practically entails a trance state. Some form of formal ritual may have framed the prayer of supplication. In modern work, it would include chanting and drumming.
The last pair consists of sending and sacrificing. Places of worship included ponds and rivers and other kinds of bodies of water. The petitioner comes to a river or a well and asks the spirit of the water to do this or that. As a payment in advance a coin is tossed in the well. In the old days, not just coin was tossed in the well, but weapons as well, sometimes even human bodies. They were the barter to pay the debt. Tossing something in a well relates to both senda and sóa. They would almost be synonyms then. A rune may be shaved off, which is the sacrificing of the rune, and then sent on its way by the flow of the river or through the depths of the well, which would be the sending. The energy is released. The sending is a real letting go. However, in case this last pair represents the payment section of the contract, then the sending and sacrificing would only happen after the desired result shows.
Staging the ceremony
Given the above interpretation, it is tempting to see one complete ceremony hidden in the words.
Some context is still missing but can be put together from other material. Two aspects have already been mentioned. Firstly, the colouring of the runes involved naming or chanting the runes. At that point, the priest/magician would become a temporary incarnation of Odin Fimbulthul. In a modern working, this would be preceded by an invocation. Secondly, talking to the spirits involves a trance state. The gods/spirits can only descend across the planes of reality so far. The priest/magician must be able to meet them on their own grounds and change his consciousness to the level of awareness of the spirit world. As suggested above, this is achieved by chanting and drumming, and possibly dancing, recitation, or plain meditation.
Now, after the runes are physically prepared, they become the housing of the spirit of the rune invoked, or provoked. We can also say that the rune spirit is born into the wooden slip with the carved symbol. The slip is given life by the act of staining the wood with blood. The whole rite corresponds to the Viking Age name giving ceremony. The heathen baptism consisted of mainly these two aspects. The baby was sprinkled with water and then given a name. The sprinkling of water corresponds to the painting and the name-giving to the recital of the rune name. The sprinkling ceremony sometimes included a present for the kid and possibly fortunetelling such as is found in the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty.
The notion of giving life to a piece of wood as a spiritual act must have been fairly common among the Viking. First of all, the creation myth explains how the gods make man and woman from two logs of wood. Secondly, Havamal 49 relates how Odin gave his clothes to two wooden men in the field. He says that after that they looked like real men. Both stories are presumably based upon the use of idols in temples and homes. A ritual of consecration must have existed which made these wooden idols come alive. Such a consecration rite might have consisted of sprinkling the idol with sacrificial blood and then naming the god. Similar rites are known from other traditions, the most well known being the ritual of Opening the Mouth and the Eyes of Ancient Egypt. As a matter of fact, rites such as these may inspire the reconstruction of Northern tradition rites.
Váðir mínar gaf ek velli at
rekkar þat þóttusk, er þeir rift höfðu;
neiss er nökkviðr halr.
My clothes I gave on the meadows – to two men of wood
Heroes they seemed, when they wore a coat
Full of shame is the naked hero
Prayer and worship must have been central to the rite, because it answers the why of the ritual. It pictures the contract that is established between the two parties. A deal is struck between a human person and a discarnate being. Both parties want something that the other can provide and on these terms the contract is build. The spirits are fed and in exchange they work to fulfill the person’s desires. Food and drink are the most common and practical stuff given to the spirits in Ancient Scandinavia as much as anywhere else. When a sacrifice was performed, the meat was boiled and given to the gods. Alcoholic drinks such as mead and ale are likewise appropriate.
Communicating with the Runes
In communicating with the spirits we must keep in mind that two worlds need to be bridged. This is mainly achieved by the trance state. However, the spirit, too, must make an effort to come through. We cannot coerce a spirit to come to us much the same as we cannot coerce another person to visit us. We can however invite them through worship. Nonetheless, it is my personal opinion that if you work with gods and runes, the symbols used will grant the practitioner invariably access to the being behind the name or the symbol. The name or the symbol automatically brings you into contact with this god. But how and when he or she will respond to your prodding is still his or her choice.
The practice of communication with the spirit world, the nature of the contract and the setting of a ceremony such as is implied by the words of Havamal 144 may be better realized once we see it as a simple model of communication. The model consists of a sender and a receiver and the message that needs to be transmitted. Obviously, the sender is the priest/magician and the receiver is the god or rune spirit. Simply put, the content of the message is what the priest desires of the spirits. It is generally defined in communication models that people all live in their own realities. They have different associations with words, ideas and concepts. In addition, an individual’s personal reality is always coloured by his mood, which makes any message or interpretation subjective. This makes effective communication difficult. In the case of working with spirits, we are literally speaking about different realities. Some kind of shared space, both physically and metaphorically, has to be present in order to effect communication at all. The physical aspect is set by the ritual format of a ceremony. In his imagination, the priest/magician travels to a location known to the spirit, for example Valhalla. Only from that point onwards does it make sense to transmit the message. According to models of communication, all messages are transmitted by symbols. Runes are symbols, but so are words. The words of an invocation and the words of a prayer are only symbols. Moreover, they hide the meaning you want to get across. On the other hand, because the spirits are not physically present, symbols such as runes help clothe an otherworldly answer. Whether the priest/magician then interprets the message correctly is entirely dependent on his skill, sensitivity and intuition. What the priest wants to get across can be misunderstood by the spirits, too, because the words and symbols are only the medium of the message. In reality, it is emotion which will represent the true content of the message, and this is what the spirits naturally pick up. If the consciously worded request and the unconsciously expressed emotions are incongruent, the words will always fail. Feedback will determine whether communication was effective or not. In the case of divination, this would mean a right interpretation of the signs which can be verified after the event has taken place. In the case of a request, one has only to wait for the results. If no result ensues, your magic has failed – or more correctly expressed, the communication has failed. If a result happens, you can gauge the efficacy of communicating with the spirits by the degree to which the result matches your specific request.
|Subjective reality||Shared reality||Metaphysical reality|
|Physical realityTemple||TranceImagination||Subtle realitySpirit World|
|INTENTION||=> => => food/energy => => =>||(contact)|
|(result)||<= <= <= answer/fulfillment <= <= <=||FEEDBACK|
In Havamal 144, we are possibly dealing with two different ceremonies. The first two lines relate to divination and the second two lines relate to magic. A divinatory ceremony would summon the gods to gather their advice. This is induced by the verbs ráða and freista. A magical ceremony summons the gods for acting on a human’s behalf. The words biðja and senda seem to indicate this. But in both cases, something is wanted, and we cannot exclude that a ceremony of magic would also include divination. Many reports from the sources seem to indicate this. In the least, the communication model will always be present, and the ceremony itself, which is unfortunately not described, can be reconstructed on this model.
A rite may be constructed that includes all eight actions and enacts them in the order in which they appear. Before anything happens, an intention is formulated. A rite like this presupposes a question. First, a set of runes is made. Next, one or more runes are selected through divinatory means. The selected runes are sprinkled and named. Then the person needs to go into a slight trance to contact the rune spirit. At this point, an invocation is helpful. This phase of the rite may also include scrying and the active use of the imagination to contact the spirit. Then the second half comes. A prayer is voiced that formulates the request. Next, the rune spirit is fed energy. Possibly, food is shared. And last but not least, the spirit is sent on its errand by throwing the rune or its shavings into natural water or breaking the rune slip. After that, the remainder of the rune set serves no more purpose and is destroyed.