Ansuz is the rune of the foremost of the Æsir, Ódhinn. It is quite interesting to notice that one of the oldest descriptions of this God makes of him a poet more than a warrior, as he has been often described later. We usually observe in films and popular literature that the Viking society is seen as one of wild brutes. Much earlier, Saxon Grammaticus, who obviously hated the Heathen Northern Gods, would also say “Where is the one called Odin the war seeker, this one who sees through one eye only?” This shows Ódhinn as being a warring person, and even as a quarrelsome one looking for new war to fight.
This rune concerns the ‘new’ Gods, the Æsir, as if opposing Thurisaz and Fehu. Thurisaz is relative to the primitive and brutish strength of the Giants, and Fehu is linked to the non-warrior Vanir representing the power of softness.
Ansuz shows us unusual features of Ódhinn and the Æsir, that is their poetic power in everyday life, magic and death, their deep concern for freedom, and their power to provide this freedom. This freedom is mostly an inner one, and includes the purification obtained by leaving aside our own ego.
Ansuz evokes Ódhinn and the Æsir as Gods of poetry, speech, and inner liberty. It portrays Ódhinn as a champion of peace, almost as a Buddhist, and leaves aside all of his aggressive features.
Snorri and the scalds often call Thórr by the name Ásathórr, which makes him ‘typical of the Æsir’. Besides, the Specimen Lexici Runici published in 1650 states that the name As points to Ódhinn or Thórr. This belief is obviously ancient but does not mean that Ansuz would be Thórr’s rune as well, since this assumption contradicts everything stated by the runic poems and the Edda.
Cognates: in German and in French the gods Asen and Ases, called Æsir in modern English, as it was in Old Norse. The singular form is Áss, pronounced something like ‘aoss’ [Note 1].
Krause translates the word ansuz by: “Ase, human refined by experience.” This evokes at once Ódhinn, whose experience has been particularly traumatic since he had to hang from Yggdrasil nine days in order to gain the knowledge of the runes.
Its shape is always or except in the OERP which introduces three shapes in order to take into account three different vocals of the Old English. We shall later meet these variations when studying the links between these additional Old English runes and some of the ancient Germanic Futhark, the ones we are studying now.
The Icelandic poem also uses images that strongly recall Ódhinn.
is the ancient creator,
and king of Ásgardhr,
and lord of Valhöll
Wimmer calls this rune óss, and translates this word by “Os (der Ase, Odin).” These three kennings point at Ódhinn who is often called ‘the old one’ in the Edda, who is the king of the Æsir’s citadel, Ásgardhr, and who is the absolute master of the Valhöll, the hall of half of the warriors dead in combat. The Latin commentary, Þrideilur Rúna confirms explicitly this hypothesis by stating
“Os [est] oðiñús [Os [is] óðinn] princeps Gothós [chief of the Goths] aúlæ inferiorum imperator [emperor of hell’s castle]. Asgarthiæ rex [king of Ásgardhr].
In this commentary, the rune is called Os, and it is directly given as being a representative of Ódhinn. The word Goth is a classical way to say a man, and among Ódhinn’s names, several contain the word gautr, meaning ‘Goth, man’. The Valhöll is called here ‘hell’s castle’, an obvious christianization. The shape of the rune varies also a little, it becomes: .
In the fourth line of the Icelandic rune poem, the word Jupiter points at the Roman Jupiter (i.e., Greek Zeus), that is, the God who won over the ancient God, Saturn, and took his place. Similarly, the Æsir tried to replace the old Gods named Vanir and actually replaced the Giants who were slaughtered by Thórr. The Old Norse word oddviti is composed with odd, ‘tip, spear’ and of viti which means here ‘the one who shows, who knows’. The title oddviti evokes the knowledge the chief should show about the weapons. Besides, a war tradition speaks of Ódhinn’s spear: It has to be thrown over the heads of the enemy (and fall behind the group of enemies) in order to claim the start of the fight. In this context, the verb oddvita means as well ‘to show the spear’. This is the only place where Ódhinn’s warring ability is found in the rune poems. This is noticeable as long as the usual legend pointing to him as the main warring God!
We can now analyze the meaning of the poem. Ódhinn is also the typical shaman God, a specialist in shamanic journeys, as described in chapter 2. These journeys represent spiritual power, that opposes secular power which is symbolized by the sword as in the Norse rune poem.
(normalized form due to Wimmer)
er flestra færða för
(Classical translation: river mouth is the way of most journeys
Personal translation: one of the Æsir is the travel of the most earnest of the travels.
en skalpr er sværða. but a scabbard [is] of swords.
Wimmer again calls this rune óss, he however translates it now by Flussmündung, that is ‘river mouth’ or ‘estuary’. It is true that ON óss means ‘river mouth’ or ‘god’ (the canonical word for ‘Heathen God’ is áss pronounced ‘aoss’ or even ‘oss’, as is the word óss).
I previously emphasized that all this “makes sense.” Nevertheless, Wimmer himself translates Icelandic óss by ‘Ase’ while ancient Icelanders and Norwegians have spoken the same language, Old Norse. Frankly, I call it dishonest a scholar to not provide heaps of explanations when translating in two different ways the same word, in the same language, symbolized by the same drawing, appearing at the same place of a poem speaking of the same topic. I give you in [Note 2] what Wimmer should have said in order to attempt to justify his choice. Moreover, his translation of the lines is at the least disputable. The two words that are used, singular nominative för and plural genitive færða, both mean ‘travel’ and the meaning ‘a way’ of för is unknown. I have to acknowledge that this translation is universally accepted by scholars. In spite of this, I find there is too much incoherency here and, for the first time, I have to reject the scholars’ translation, even though their knowledge of the ON tongue is much better than my own, because the mistake they cover up by their influence is too obvious.
My translation of this first line may sound strange to a contemporary person. Remember, however, that we are studying a poetical text and repeating a word twice, as in ‘the travel of the travels’ is a classical way to stress the importance of a word. We already met this stylistic form in studying rune Uruz. When studying rune Dagaz, we shall also meet the expression rökkr rökkra, found in Hyndluljóð, which explicitly uses the same word twice in order to emphasize the darkness of this ‘twilight of the twilights’.
The word fleistr is a superlative of ‘much’, the translation ‘almost all’ is thus correct. We can also use its figurative meaning, as expected in poetry, the one of ‘who perfectly communicates’, thus my translation by ‘the most sincere’.
This first line thus can take four meanings I assume to have been at once understandable to the listeners of skaldic poetry, used to the scalds’ verbal acrobatic feats as they must have been.
- Meaning 1. Translation : “river mouth is the way of most journeys.” It states the obvious, especially since óss also means the exit of a harbor. This translation is obviously condescending to a scald able to utter such a triviality.
- Meaning 2. Translation : “river mouth is the way of the most sincere journeys.” The scald alludes to the Nordic habit to burn the corpse of important persons on a boat, pushed in the sea when it burns. The most sincere journey is then the funeral one.
- Meaning 3. Translation : “one of the Æsir (Ódhinn) is the travel of the most earnest of the travels.” The scald alludes again to the funeral travel, and underlines Ódhinn’s psychopomp feature when he carries to his Valhöll his half of the warriors killed in battle. Two of his names bear witness of this role: Valfödhr (or Valfadhr – the father of the killed), and Valgautr (the Goth of the killed). As you see meaning 3 simply makes meaning 2 more precise.
- Meaning 4. Translation : “one of the Æsir (Ódhinn) is the journey of the most earnest of the journeys.” The scald possibly alludes to seidhr, the Nordic shamanic journey, mastered by Ódhinn after he had been taught by Freyja. This interpretation thus claims that Ódhinn is the medium through which seidhr is practiced. I personally do not use Ódhinn as such a medium, I prefer to use Freyja. Inversely, I presume that many women could well make use of Ódhinn to this purpose.
The meaning of the second line depends on the one given to the first line.
- Meaning 1 induces a similar triviality since a sword should often travel in its sheath. This statement does not deserve being carefully saved from the pergament scraper.
- Meaning 2 alludes to the daily battles of Ódhinn’s fighters in the Valhöll: their swords often ‘travel’ out of their sheaths.
- Meaning 3 induces the same interpretation as meaning 2. Meanings 2 and 3 can be summarized by the following translation of the ONRP:
is the last travel of the brave warrior
His sword, however, will not stay useless after his death.
- Meaning 4 is very different. It describes a mystical journey made by a living being. Seidhr can be used either to foresee (it is then today called ‘oracular seidhr’) or with the goal of acting on the world of ordinary reality. The power associated with these activities may become intoxicating and many mystics, be them shamans, warlocks or priests, have been tempted to confront their mystical power with secular ones. The second line is here to tell them that this attitude is unwise. The second line calls them back to reason, telling them that mystical power should not head on oppose the secular one, that magical reality is successful only if used in cooperation with secular (‘ordinary’) reality. In order to express these ideas directly, I suggest yet another translation of the ONRP
is the journey of the völva and the seiðmaðr,
They should never forget how fast a sword can travel out of its sheath!
The second line can also recall the necessary accordance between the rational and the irrational worlds and be thus formulated:
is the journey of the völva and the seiðmaðr,
Their strength should balance the one of the swords.
The OERP evokes another side of Ódhinn, the one of poetical power: he is the being who knows the perfect speech:
Old English rune poem
Os God [or mouth] is fount of each discourse, support of wisdom and help [or compensation] for the wise one, rest and refuge to each nobleman.
The translation of the Anglo-Saxon word os by ‘mouth’ is the one provided by most scholarly editions of the OERP. Inside the academic world itself, some oppose this choice: They draw the attention on how improbable this derivation of the word os from the Latin is. It is much more probable that it would derive from the Germanic root ans* meaning God. For instance, Maureen Halsall translates the OERP os by ‘mouth’ while she translates the Abecedarium Nordmannicum os (in Old Low German) by ‘pagan god’. Be it in Old English or in Old Low German, their Latin origin has equal low probability. Their only difference is that the OERP contains a commentary which is more meaningful for the rational mind when os is assumed to mean ‘mouth’, and the Abecedarium Nordmannicum has no commentary for this rune. Here again, the translation by mouth is deeply condescending to the poet able to utter such triviality. This is why I take sides with the scholars who assume a Germanic origin to the word os in the OERP. Besides, as recalled in chapter 2, the famous myth of the poetry mead makes of Ódhinn the God who bestows good speech upon the good poets, and the OERP clearly alludes to this myth, in accordance with a translation by ‘god’. In order to complete this demolition of the scholarly translation of os by ‘mouth’, look at the rest of what Os is. A mouth is not, while the God endowing them with poetry obviously is, “support of wisdom and help for the wise one, rest and refuge to each nobleman.”
The OERP clearly emphasizes that Ansuz belong to the ‘song’ of the speech runes (málrúnar). Of these runes, Sigrdrífa says to Sigurdhr that he has to know them so that no one can harm him by a long-lasting hate. The ON texts says precisely:“heiftum gjaldi harm,” w. for w. , “by deadly fights could provide you with worry.”
The fourth verse of the Ljóðatal is also harder than it seems to understand. Ódhinn speaks of Ansuz powers, that of his own rune. When hanging at the world-tree, he has been “handed over to himself.” By this process, he was ‘delivered’ to himself with the two meanings of this verb: ‘to hand over’ and ‘to make free’. This is how I interpret this fourth verse:
Fourth verse of the Ljóðatal
Þat kann ek it fjórða:
I know a fourth :
ef mér fyrðar bera
if to me the army carries
[if soldiers put on me]
bönd að boglimum,
the bonds on the twisted limbs
[bonds on my twisted limbs]
svá ek gel,
then I howl [or I caw]
at ek ganga má,
so that I can go away,
sprettr mér af fótum fjöturr,
spring out of me, out of my feet, the fetters,
[the fetters jump off my feet]
en af höndum haft.
still of the hands the handcuffs.
[and also the handcuffs jump off my wrists]
The interpretation of this stanza calls for the famous first verse of the Ljóðatal in which Ódhinn describes the sufferings by which he paid for the knowledge of the runes. Its two most obscure lines are:
... ok gefinn Óðni, ... et obtenu par Ódhinn,
sjálfr sjálfum mér, ...
and granted by Ódhinn,
self self-to to-me, …
I hereby give a pseudo English translation in order to stress how this modern language is still nearly able to speak Ódhinn’s words.
Many classical translations properly say ‘given’ since gefinn is the past participle gefa, ‘to give, to pay, to grant, to give out, to forgive’. It does not mean to perform an offering as some translators wrongly assume it does. The ambiguity of ‘to give’ in the Old Germanic languages is very well illustrated by the difference between English ‘gift’ and German ‘Gift’. The two words have an identical origin, while it means ‘poison’ in German. It makes impossible to accept, in the old tongue, the innuendos of ‘offering’ that the English word ‘gift’ has taken on over time. These seemingly petty linguistics reveal one basic difference between the Northern Pagan and the Jewish-Christian-Islamic-Buddhist religions (we will call now ‘the great religions’). In these religions, the concept of offerings is central to the religious spirit, as shown by the high demand for offering made by these Churches to their followers; and it is dramatically underlined by Christ’s death, he who offered himself in order to “redeem humankind.” There is no such idea in Ódhinn’s self-giving: He is an egoistical pagan who ignores everything of Christian charity. For this reason, I cannot believe that Ódhinn offers himself to himself. He ‘delivers himself’, he becomes himself, he fulfills his destiny. He also does not aim as high as “redeeming humankind.” The sufferings described in this first verse of Ljóðatal are not supported by altruistic intentions; he is simply forced to stand all this suffering in order to obtain knowledge. In his case, the ‘fetters of the suffering’ burst out when this knowledge reveals itself.
This incites us to further understand, when the speech runes “burst out the fetters,” that they bring freedom to the prisoner, a prisoner of the social links and of oneself: They bring freedom to the body, the mind and the spirit. Obviously, this verse only speaks of fetters, of physical links. Poetry often hides, nevertheless, deep universal meanings under a mundane camouflage.
This certainly makes of Ansuz a rune of freedom but also of detachment, and I would like to discuss somewhat more what kind of detachment is spoken of here. Among ‘the great religions’, the Christian one asserts in the strongest way the importance of cutting links with social constraints and thereby disconnecting from the pleasures of the flesh, and calls this attitude: detachment from the earthy pleasures. As I keep hinting to throughout this chapter, and as rune Wunjo clearly shows, the Runic view of detachment does not care about these great religions’ concepts and it puts the emphasis on what seems to be a contradiction, as the one defined in the fourth verse of the Ljóðatal. In a sense, the ancient Northern philosophy meets here the Oriental one, as it is exemplified by the Zen approach to serenity, which is permeating the Buddhist view of life. Both present as a worthwhile goal the effort to forget one’s ego. The apparent contradiction is that by forgetting yourself, these philosophies promise you that you will find yourself. The Christian theory seems less contradictory: It says that by forgetting yourself in Christ, you will find Christ, which sounds indeed more logical. Now, what the Runic philosophy claims is that the Christian view is logical in words only, and wrong in experience. Non-verbal experience teaches that you miss your goal by aiming too high, that aiming at a union with God is by itself a manifestation of your ego. By aiming at the mere self, experience teaches humankind that you can truly reach a purified self. I believe that it comes from one of the main human features, that we are the sternest judges of ourselves. Why it is so I cannot begin to understand, but it is so, with exception to some people we, rightly or wrongly, call monsters, criminals or even non-humans. While we are reaching ourselves, we are at the same time passing judgment on ourselves, and no one is sterner than oneself to oneself. Without a need for being as spectacular as Ódhinn’s revelation, this “granting of oneself to oneself,” can be and should be performed by everyone who feels prisoner in their own mind. Ansuz and the runes of speech are the ones that help us to do so.
Since we only studied texts relative to Ódhinn, you could believe that the Northern tradition reserves Ansuz power to males. This is wrong and contradicted by two other ancient evidences. The first one is the second Merseburg charm. It speaks of the idisi, a word that clearly points to the Disir, of which we said that they often are the Norns’ softest facet.
It happened that the Idisi were sitting, here and there,
Some took off fetters, some stopped the host,
Some loosened the fetters,
Jump off links, take off bad spirits!
You see that, as the Valkyries, these Idisi play a military role on top of their freedom-giving role. This poem already decreases the feeling of male domination due to Ódhinn’s domination in the Eddas. The male/female balance, so typical of the ancient Germanic civilization, starts being restored.
There is another witness of this balance in the Galdr of Gróa (Grógaldr). The witch Gróa protects by a galdr her son who goes traveling:
Here is what I sing for you in the fifth place,
If they put chains on you
Around your ankles.
To your joints
I shall tell a magic freedom
That will make the bonds of your legs jump.
It is obvious that each rune song is important in some respect. It is however noticeable that Snorri Sturluson, in his Háttatal, where he explains the metrical rules of skaldic poetry – he does not explain rune magic at all - points out, as an obvious fact, after the description of a particular rule: “This rule is a primary one for all poetical forms, as the speech runes are the most important of the runes.” As you see, this remark does not attribute a greater ‘power’ to the speech runes but gives them the feature of being primary and useful to all other rune songs. This importance can be witnessed very late, during the last French trials for witchery, as described in chapter 2. One of the tried women, in 1689, as a proof she was not a witch claims: “I have no speech!” (Je n’ai point de parole !). Thus, the importance of speech in sorcery is still attested at the end of the 17th century [Note 2].
Snorri Sturluson’s note underlines that working with the runes asks for more than carving them, hallowing them - possibly with your own blood. It is also necessary to utter them, to sing or shout them. This is why I put so much emphasis on the galdr and the incantations in volume 1 of this book. You must be aware that speech is necessary, but it can also destroy magic. An imprecise or pompous speech will ruin your effort. Poetical is the word that describes such an easy speech. Here lies the difficulty. Many who believe they drunk of the mead of poetry received, in reality, the drops that went from Ódhinn’s behind. Do not believe I am boasting, I am myself very conscious of my own shortage of poetical power. I simply underline that I am not the only one to show this default. When people, especially young people, speak of magic, they seem to believe it is easier than the classical, painful way of ordinary reality. They should be aware that magic is as ‘easy’ as poetry: Many believe to be good at it, very few actually are.
[Note 1] English speakers clearly have a problem using the singular since they pronounce the ‘á’ as an ‘a’. That a God may be an ‘aoss’ is not at all insulting.
[Note 2] Wimmer should have been explaining that he borrowed this meaning from Ole Worm. Here is a more complete story.
We already have seen, with rune Thurisaz, that Ole Worm’s 1636 Runir seu Danica literatura antiquissima managed the disappearance of the Giants’ name (Thurs) by replacing Durs par Duss. He used the same deception on the fourth rune by giving to it the names Oys or Ois, together with other possible names, Os, Oahs, Or. It started then, as in the Anglo-Saxon Futhork, to represent a sound ‘o’ instead of the sound ‘ao’. Finally, Worm provides for this rune the meaning of Ostium fluminis, that is river mouth, as Wimmer’s Flussmündung.
We can then assume that Wimmer, obviously aware of Worm’s works, found here his Flussmündung, and all scholars after him. The runes thurs et áss of the Norse Futhark have been butchered by Worm and this is not so surprising since they are the two runes whose names recall the old pagan beliefs, and cannot be discarded as mere folklore.
Ólafsson and Worm’s (published 1650) Specimen Lexici Runici defines the word As by “God, Odin the main of the Æsir, or else Thor, the stronger of the Æsir.” The God Thórr had been already rejected among the semi-daemons, the Trolls. It was even simpler to eliminate Ódhinn by replacing As by Os.
[Note 3]. You may be already convinced of the role of speech, and feel that I insist on obvious things. Notice however the difference between a mere statement of opinion and an evidence. None of the two cases I cite here are due to a sorcerer trying to describe his/her claimed power. Both are witnesses of what seem to have been accepted knowledge at dates distant of almost 5 centuries.