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Reconstructing Pre-Christian Runic Magic

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It’s no secret that the subjects of magic and mysticism are a bit of a hot-button topic among Heathens. Arguments for or against aside, one thing I think most Heathens of any persuasion can agree upon is that there is a LOT of poorly researched, misunderstood, or outright BS sources out there on the subject of “Rune Magic”. In fact, for a community so committed to research and preservation of history, it’s somewhat remarkable exactly how much of the modern concept of runic magic has no historical basis in Heathenry whatsoever! It’s not even that the knowledge isn’t out there, it’s just that so few people ever bother to go looking for it.

 

Historical Context

Before we get into examples and practical application, it’s important for us to examine a bit of the context surrounding the subject of pre-Christian magical inscriptions. The Elder Futhark became popular around the 2nd century CE, a little less than two thousand years ago. There are older inscriptions, but they’re fairly rare, as Futhark had not really caught on yet. Since continental Scandinavia was nominally converted to Christianity just before 1000CE, I’ll be using that as a sort of ‘soft cap’ for the purposes of this exploration. This means that every example we have here of pre-Christian magic inscriptions originates in a span of only about 800 years. During those centuries the spoken language, the runes, and the conceptualization of written magic changed significantly over time. The inscriptions that have survived can often be rather difficult to translate, but of those that we can read, many can be broken down into a few very loose categories. Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees break these artifacts down into five ‘elements’, in “Runic Amulets and Magic Objects“, which I’ll use here due to their practical efficacy. These are not exclusive categories, merely common elements.

  1. Rune Sequences: Coded rows of runes, or series of repetitive runes.
  2. Naming Expressions: Either a single name or sometimes a more ritualistic phrase like “I am called X, maker of XYZ”.
  3. Charm Words: Formulaic keywords like *Alu, *LaukaR, *Lina, *Auja, or *Laþu.
  4. Symbols: Triskelia, Swastikas, and other common deific motifs.
  5. Item Descriptions: Usually part of a phrase identifying the object it’s on. “This horn is XYZ” “This buckle was made by X”



 

Identification and Classification of Magical Runic Inscriptions
Case Study: The Lindholm amulet (2nd-4th century CE)

Runic amulet carved on bone
The Lindholm amulet (2nd-4th century CE)

ᛖᚲᛖᚱᛁᛚᚨᛉᛋᚨᚹᛁᛚᚨᚷᚨᛉᚺᚨᛏᛖᚲᚨ᛬
ᚨᚨᚨᚨᚨᚨᚨᚨᛉᛉᛉᚾᚾᚾᛒᛗᚢᛏᛏᛏ᛬ᚨᛚᚢ᛬
ek/erilaz/sawilagaz/hateka OR ek/erilaz/sa/wilagaz/hateka
aaaaaaaazzznnnbmuttt:alu:

The first line here would fall into MacLeod’s Category 2. Regardless of which translation one chooses to use, the first line is most certainly a self-identification of the author. In this case, for the sake of clarity, we’ll use the translation favored by the University of Copenhagen’s study on runic inscriptions. “Ek erilaz sa Wilagaz hateka” or “I am a runemaster, I am called Crafty”.

 


Theory

Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees compare the practice of ritualized naming in runic inscriptions to other contemporary cultures that would have been in contact at the time, tracking the cultural and linguistic drift. When combined with other elements of MacLeod’s formulaic categories, this idea of Naming Expressions helps us to form a kind of ‘ritual grammar’. Like an element of sentence structure reserved for use in a highly specific context. In “Runes and Their Secrets”, Stoklund theorizes that this more ritualized self-identification was intended as a focus, making the named party the ‘subject’ (in the linguistic sense) of the runic sentence.


 

Rune Sequences

One of the notable features of runic writing that can really throw off modern readers is the lack of ‘doubled’ letters. For example, if you were to try and spell out the word ‘letters’ in the same way one would with runes, you’d get something like ‘LETRS’. The exception to this rule seems to be one of the more common examples of what would later be dubbed ‘rune magic’, falling into MacLeod’s Category 1. A perfect example of this can be seen in the second line of the Lindholm amulet. aaaaaaaazzznnnbmuttt

While we can’t identify the intent behind each of the repeating runes on the second half, two can be identified via context, being frequent themes seen throughout the archaeological record as well as the Lore; and those are the repetitions of the Tiwaz rune and the Ansuz rune.

Klyver stone runic inscription (4th century CE)

One noteworthy example of both of these comes from the Klyver Stone, known for being one of the only full listings of all 24 Elder Futhark runes in sequential order. This is followed by a bindrune representing six repetitions of the Tiwaz rune, and four repetitions of the Ansuz rune, all worked together into a single shape.

coin-like metal disc with runic inscription
5th bracteate featuring 3 ‘stacked’ tiwaz runes

We can also see this in later (post conversion) literary sources. For example Sigrdrífumál (Poetic Edda), we see what might be a literary representation of this idea put into practice. When the Valkyrie Sigrdrifta tells Sigurd to carve ‘victory runes’ into his sword and chant the name of Týr twice. Similarly, Skírnismál (Poetic Edda) has a passage which references a runemaster, saying: “A Thurs rune I carve for you, followed by three staves”. Even the 16th-century Galdrabók (the author of which would have had no knowledge of the Lindholm amulet) references writing eight “áss runes” (the later form of the Ansuz) as a magical incantation. These later sources would usually be considered rather suspect, particularly Galdrabók, but this specific trend seems to be supported by a large body of archaeological evidence.

 

 


Theory

The repetition of these runes is generally thought to have been a form of invocation or supplication. Appealing to Týr/Tiwaz or in the case of the Ansuz, the gods in general. The Ansuz rune was linguistically associated with the Æsir and the concept of divinity itself; *ansuz being the proto-germanic word for deity. While we know that several of the other runes were used in this way based on a number of early migration period artifacts, the meaning behind most of them has been lost. We can see the concept at work on the Lindholm amulet on the Algiz and Nauđiz runes, but even if we accepted the common translations (‘Elk’ and ‘Need’, respectively) we lack the context of additional examples which would allow us to determine their intent in this sequence with any certainty. If you wish to take later sources into account, accepting post-conversion concepts as potential continuations of older pre-Christian ideas, then a decent case could be made for the use of repeated Thurs rune as a reference or supplication to Þórr.


 

Runic ‘Charms’

This is the third Category of MacLeod’s identifying characteristics, and it’s also one of the most prolific types of ‘magical’ inscriptions found on pre-Christian artifacts. Unlike the runic sequences that we’ve discovered, many of these keywords are actually translatable. This can give us a much clearer idea of intent than the more generalized theories regarding the inscription types mentioned above. In fact, you’ve already seen one of these ‘charms’ in use, via the Lindholm amulet. At the end of the second line, one word is set apart from the rest of the runes.

᛬ᚨᛚᚢ᛬/”ALU”

Now before I give any kind of definition for the term Alu, let me just say that entire books have been written on the subject and the history of the term is a tangled and sordid mess of linguistic theorizing, cultural drift, and more than likely some ancient miscommunications based on similar sounding terms in different language groups. TL;DR, it’s bloody complicated. Luckily, we can at least review the term as it was applied in the context of our runic artifacts, as well as other (more easily translated) terms used in a similar way. Stoklund’s study at the University of Copenhagen notes the etymological connection between the term Alu and what would later become the English word ‘ale’, but suggests that the word may have taken on a second meaning when the migration era Germanic tribes encountered votive objects among the northern Etruscans. (Among whom, the term Alu means something like ‘dedication’ and was frequently scribed into religious items.) It is possible that the term once simply referred to ale or beer, but due to how similar the two terms sounded, the Germanic tribes may have adopted new meanings to an older term. Similarly, the practice of creating bracteates was adopted shortly thereafter.

coin-like metal disc with runic inscription
Bracteate amulet (DR-BR9) (Image courtesy of Arild-Hauge)

Alu may be the most common ‘charm’ we’ve found, but it’s hardly the only one. Another example of a runic charm would be *Laþu. Roughly translating to ‘invite/invitation‘ this charm word can be found on a number of bracteates, like the one pictured to the left. In that example, the bust of an apparently human figure sits in the middle while the surrounding runes spell out frohila laþu “Freyr’s Invitation”.  Another such example comes from the Fløksand Paring Knife, which bears the inscription: lina laukaR f. In this example, we have a bone cleaning knife marked with Lina, “flax”, LaukaR, “onion/leek”, and a lone *fehu runeLaukaR has been associated with fertility via a number of historical finds and Lore references, but in the context of a meat-knife, that would be rather out of place. The current prevailing theory is that the blade was marked with things that were known to have preservative powers. Flax oil can help preserve wood or fabric, though it was not commonly used at that time. However, wrapping foods in linens in order to keep them fresh slightly longer was a common practice. Meanwhile, onions were known to help preserve food and treat certain ailments. The lone F remains a topic of some debate, with some arguing that it’s a reference to *fehu (cattle) while others insist that there is simply not enough evidence to determine what might have been abbreviated or intended by the solitary letter.

These so-called ‘charms’ can be found either as a part of a more complex inscription, on their own with no other context or even in simple repeating patterns. Some bracteates feature nothing but an image and an ‘Alu’. Others have unending circular patterns, like DR-BR6 from the National Museum of Denmark, which simply reads: Laukaz alu Laukaz alu. (

(Yes, there is actually a magical amulet which arguably says “…Beer Onion Beer Onion Beer Onion….”.)


Theory

There are a fair number of terms that are generally accepted to be a part of this category, but only a few are seen repeatedly. 

ᚨᛚᚢ*Alu: Alternately beer/dedication/or just ‘magic’ depending on the context and the scholar you’re consulting. The common trend with this charm word was to use it either as a stand-alone word OR use it to conclude a ‘magical’ inscription. On its own, it’s often thought to have been a protective phrase; however, it should be noted that this is a somewhat overused explanation among anthropologists looking to define an obviously ritualistic item.

ᛚᚨᚢᚲᚱ*LaukaR/Laukaz: Onion/leek. Onions were known for their preservative and medicinal properties, as well as their association with fertility. It is generally believed that items inscribed with this term were usually trying to convey these properties. One historical example includes a necklace bearing the name of a husband a wife wishing them success in bearing children, which is concluded with two L runes that have been interpreted as abbreviations for LaukaR. In this context, ‘leek‘ may also have functioned as a type of euphemism.

ᚨᚢᛃᚨ*Auja: Alternately translated as luck/destiny, this charm is generally seen in conjunction with a Category 2 ‘Naming Expression’, and is almost always interpreted as a desire for ‘good fortune’.

ᛚᚨᚦᚢ*Laþu: Translated most often as “invitation”, *Laþu appears frequently with proper names, often those of deities.

Less Common Charm Words

ᛚᛁᚾᚨ*Lina: Mostly often translated ‘flax’ or ‘linen’, comparative folklore studies have led most scholars to hypothesize that the ancient proto-Norse people valued these substances for their ‘preservative’ element. (Linen can protect your food from pests, and flax oil is an excellent hardwood preservative.) 

ᛖᚱᛁᛚᚨᛉ *Erilaz: ‘Rune-Master’, or ‘Rune-Writer’, this term is occasionally translated as ‘wizard’ due to its magical implications. This term is almost always found in the context of a ritual Naming Expression, as it is a title.


 

Late Magical Inscriptions

Runic inscription from belt buckle
Strand Buckle (700 CE) Image from Arild Hauge

Later amulets dating, from about 600 CE on, seem to hold to similar conventions but become steadily easier to translate. Statements of purpose or intent become more plainly spoken in many cases, as in the case of the Strand Buckle. The inscription, siklisnahli, breaks down into “siglis ná/ hlé”. The ná is an abbreviation, and thus the buckle is generally interpreted either as “Jewel/Treasure is shelter/protection from the dead.” or “Jewel/Treasure is shelter/protection from Need”. So even in these later pieces, we still see familiar themes, like MacLeod’s 5th category “Item Description”. As time went on, the inscriptions began to follow more recognizable speech patterns, especially as the population shifted from Proto-Norse and Elder Futhark to Old Norse and the Younger Futhark runes. This buckle was made during this transitional period, hence its use of mixed rune types.

Ancient Mysticism VS Modern Anachronism

The very phrase ‘rune magic’ can often be a bit of a misnomer, at least when applied to pre-Christian examples. While modern Heathens often place great mystical importance on each individual rune, such does not seem to have been the case among the ancient germanic peoples. The magic doesn’t seem to have been inherent in the symbols themselves, but the words (or sounds) they preserved. While a few like Tiwaz had their own associations, in general, the mystical meaning behind an individual rune on a carving had more to do with it being an abbreviation for something in most cases. The focus of this guide is on Pre-Christian runic magic, meaning that I excluded practices which developed post-conversion. This is why there was nothing on ‘rune casting’ (a practice which only dates back to about 1900) which is based on tarot reading and a very loose description from Tacitus about ‘drawing lots’ to see fortunes. That is also why there was nothing on Galdrstafir. The vast majority of Galdrstafir only date back to between 1600-1700 CE, in the grimoires of Icelandic Christians.

APPLICATION EXAMPLE:

(Disclaimer, this is a purely theoretical application in the context of a modern Heathen and should not be mistaken for an entirely historical recreation. This is just a quick example of one potential application of the knowledge in this article.)

Let’s say little Timmy the Heathen wants to create a necklace that will help him deal with bullying at school. He wants to feel strong, so that he won’t be cowed so easily the next time he feels cornered. The first thing that comes to Timmy’s mind when thinking of bravery and protection is Thor. So Timmy decides that is how he is going to accomplish his goal, by calling upon the courage and strength of the thunderer. 

Looking at historical examples, he finds the inscription frohila laþu. Timmy isn’t sure how to write Thor in proto-germanic, but he knows the Old Norse is Þórr. A quick search finds that the older word laþu changed to laða by the time Old Norse rolled around. So Timmy decides to go with Old Norse runes and writes Þórr laða. “ᚦᚯᚱᛚᛅᚦᛅ”. He then decides that he wants to be more specific, emphasizing the attributes he wants. Taking a note from the Stacked Tiwaz bracteate, he chooses to emphasize Thor in the same manner. He wants to include Thor’s children as well, whose names all represent specific things he wants, but his necklace only has a limited amount of space. He chooses to include his children by abbreviating their names. Móði, Þrúd, and Magni become ᛘᚦᛘ, leaving the second part of the inscriptions reading ᛘᚦᛘ. Then he closes off the text with a traditional ending for Rune Sequence inscriptions, alu. This leaves little Timmy with a necklace that reads:

ᚦᚯᚱᛚᛅᚦᛅ

ᛘᚦᛘ᛬ᛆᛚᚢ᛬


Closing Thoughts 

As a parting note, one important detail that should be kept in mind with these concepts is that the terms being used in most of these inscriptions would have been in the mother tongue of the person who carved them. As the language changed, so did the terms and ideas found in the written inscriptions. The perceived ‘power’ of the words had nothing to do with them being mumbled in some ancient, half-forgotten tongue, like Harry Potter. Technically, it would be entirely appropriate for an English speaker to write their inscriptions in English.

With the exception of bind runes or untranslatable terms, many of these inscriptions were the equivalent of taking out your belt and scratching “This Buckle Protects Bob Porter From Harm” on the inside, and then putting it on. The perceived power of the runes seems to have been the power of writing something down. The act of creating permanent words, in an age when most were not literate, where ‘secret’ knowledge could be gained more easily by those who knew how to read, was its own kind of magic. This is probably something that’s best to keep in mind when attempting to move from theory into application. It’s more important that the person who is carving the runes knows exactly what it is they’re saying than to try to use the most archaic language possible. That said, part of the impact of these items would have been the fact that it displayed literacy in a world where that was still rare. Additionally, several of our later inscriptions (Like the Strand Buckle, above) are specifically written so that they would only ever be seen by the author, even when worn.  If one wanted to recreate that effect, then using a language that few people will be able to easily read could certainly accomplish that.

If a coherent and consistent ‘system’ of runic inscription magic ever even existed, (unlikely), it’s doubtful that such a thing could ever be fully reconstructed. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t study those elements of the practice which have been preserved, and even apply them ourselves.


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