It makes sense that this first ætt of the eight first runes would be one of the primal runes. They describe forces, or well defined ideas (called concepts) that are fundamental for humanity, even if they are not linked to the concept of the cosmos or the creation of our universe. The name I give to this ætt illustrates what I mean by this kind of intermediary level of power. Audhumla did no more than lick the ice off the first God (while she was feeding herself on the poisonous rime filling up Ginnungagap), she did not create this being. Her role is not the one of divine creator but that of someone who puts into evidence something preexisting yet hidden until then. This ætt comprises the eight following runes.
Fehu : rune of wealth, of soft femininity. Primal protection rune.
Uruz : rune of female and male strength, of the fertilizing waters dripping over Yggdrasil toward our world. Primal healing rune for a fast healing, without scars.
Thurisaz : rune of the giants, of male brutality, it puts to sleep the female magic powers. Primal rune of the brutality.
Ansuz : rune of the Æsir, seen as gods of magical speech and of cleaning mystics. Primal speech rune.
Raido : rune of the shamanic ride and the sorcerer’s drilling eye. Primal rune of shamanic magic.
Kaunan : rune of decay seen as an internal fire and of resistance to magical aggressions. Primal healing rune for a lengthy and painful healing.
Gebo : rune of confidence in partnership. Primal rune of the family life.
Wunjo : rune of comfort and physical pleasure. Primal rune of the happiness in life.
Fehu is the rune of wealth, positive and negative aspects included.
It is the very first rune, thus I associate it with the primal cow, Audhumla (Auðhumla), who licked our world out of ice, as described by the Nordic myths. She harmoniously fits in the scheme of the creation of the whole cosmos, symbolized by the ninth rune, Hagla.
The goddess Freyja is constantly associated with gold in these myths, and she is the one who brought the key to seidhr magic to the Æsir. Audhumla is the cosmic representative of this rune, while Freyja is its godly representative. Fehu is the key to the mysteries of Scandinavian magic.
Among humans, it emphasizes the power of feminine softness – in contrast to the feminine harshness that is emphasized by the second rune, Uruz. This power is seen as a delight for the masculine side of humanity, and as internal richness for the feminine one.
Many whimsical attributions as ‘rune of protection’ are given to Thurisaz or Algiz, for example. Well … if you are looking for protection, the Ljóðatal as well as mere good sense tells you that here lies before you the paramount rune of protection, Fehu, the first rune.
The cognates of Fehu in modern languages are: German Vieh (cattle) and English fee.
The rune poems changed Fehu, a name belonging to the runic inscriptions language, into Fé, Fee, Feu or Feoh, yet maintaining a similar meaning: it always means wealth. The association of cattle to wealth isn’t surprising since it comes from a time when wealth was better accounted for in heads of cattle than in gold or silver. As a striking example of the merging of these notions, De Vries’ etymological dictionary of the Old Norse gives the three meanings ‘cattle, property, money’ to the word fé. Therefore, like almost everyone else, we shall associate Fehu with wealth and with symbols of wealth. The possible meanings of ‘wealth’ are quite numerous, and we shall study some of its facets shown by the rune poems.
Its shape is , and has remained unchanged over time.
As for the other runes, the Norse rune poem is made of a drawing followed by two lines describing the rune. The poems will almost always ask for explanations and interpretation, and the first and the second lines seem to speak of two entirely different topics. Most people see in it a mark of inconsistency, while I will, inversely, try to find the hidden link between the two, a link that makes sense – a lot of sense- within the context of runic magic.
vældr frænda róge (wealth) [or fee, property] stirs strife in the household [or family, kindred]
fœðesk ulfr í skóge the wolf feeds in the forest
The introduction presents a copy of one manuscript, and you can compare with the Old Norse version given here, which is Wimmer’s. He calls fé this rune. The Abecedarium Nordmannicum calls it feu. As I said in my introduction, the name fé is obviously confirmed by many other texts that speak of the first rune of the Viking Futhark.
In this case, a link between the two lines of the Norse rune poem is easily found, though it directly illustrates no Northern myth. Common sense help us to understand this bond without resorting to mythology. It means that money problems divide relatives and that in the heart of each one lies dormant a wolf whose greed is quickly awaken to the good smell of money.
In Northern mythology, the theme of wealth causing family strife is particularly well illustrated, as shown by Sigurdhr’s saga (called Siegfried in the German speaking world) wherein Sigurdhr kills the dragon Fáfnir because he is told to do so by Fáfnir’s brother, Reginn, who is Sigurdhr’s spiritual father. Sigurdhr learns from birds singing near him that Reginn wants to kill him, and the opposite happens, Sigurdhr kills Reginn. We are left here with an excellent example of the quarrels that can occur among relatives, but this story doesn’t stop here, it goes on causing many other tragedies in this family, as you can read in the Edda, the saga of the Volsungs, and in the Song of the Nibelungen (Nibelungenlied), a classic in Germanic literature (you will find on my site a version of it in English, German and the original Middle German text, put in a line to line correspondance). This is why, according to the Prose Edda, gold is called “the metal of discords”.
It thus seems that the second line bears little mythological connection to the first. In order to get its full meaning, we must recall the myths associated with the wolf. They are many of them, and here, the link between a wolf and a wood reminds us of the first half of Völuspá’s 39th stanza. This poem is frequently known by its Old Norse name (Völuspá means ‘the Foretelling of the Seeress’) and it is one of the most famous Eddic poems. These four lines describe a wood into which a crone bred (fœddi) Fenrir’s broods. In our line, it feeds ‘himself’ (I mean that fœðesk is a reflexive form of the verb fœða) and you can see that the same verb is used, although in two parallel meanings. Any skaldic poet, obviously aware of Völuspá and reading the rune poem, could not avoid drawing such a link. It follows that the second half of the stanza tells us which of the wolf myths is evoked, and it does it very explicitly: it says that one of this brood will tear the moon from the sky. We shall come back to this important myth while studying rune Sowelo. There are many Northern myths describing one or two wolves that swallow the moon or the sun, or both. Here, this myth is associated with wealth, we can therefore guess that it carries two parallel teachings. The first one is that greedy wealth will destroy our world, the second one is that Fehu, rune of our world creation, carries within itself the germs of world destruction.
Wealth potentially being both a benediction and a curse is particularly well illustrated by a short squabble between Thórr and Ódhinn as reported in Gautrek’s Saga. Gautrek is judged by the Gods for his behavior where he had followed the demands of Ódhinn who now wants to reward him, but Thórr wanted to be, so to say, Gautrek’s father and has been rejected by Gautrek’s mother, thus Thórr wants to punish him:
Ódhinn said: “I grant him an abundance of possession.”
Thórr said: “I impose on him a state of dissatisfaction with all that he possesses.”
As you can see, the rune poem emphasizes some negative aspects of wealth, what can be called Thórr’s view of wealth. Let us consider also Ódhinn’s view. The name of the rune itself, Fé, does not automatically carry all this negativity. For instance, the Goddess Freyja and other women are very often associated with wealth. First, let me emphasize that modern thinking such as “Oh! Women are indeed often a cause for strife!” is totally absurd within the Heathen Germanic context. In this context, it is absolutely out of question that women could be property of any kind or that their wealth could belong to someone else than themselves, and they do not cause strife in this civilization, as property does, in all civilizations and especially within the Old Norse and Old Icelandic ones, as their sagas often show. Actually, if I scan my memories of the whole set of the Norse and Icelandic sagas, I remember cases where men fight over a woman, but these cases are not many, and there is an approximately equal number of cases where women fight over a man. This being recalled, I can safely say that the many connections existing between wealth and femininity are exemplified in Skaldic poetry. This kind of poetry systematically replaces a word by complex images (or metaphors which are called kenning in the Norse literature [Note 1]) and uses them in poetical language to illustrate and replace the word. There is an unbelievably large variety of such metaphors that replace the word for ‘woman’ with a kenning referring to the woman as gold, or a gold symbol or bearer. Some simplified examples are ‘golden island’, a ‘Goddess of wealth’, a ‘Valkyrie of the gold’, a ‘golden country’, etc.
The Icelandic rune poem is a sort of poetics which gives three kennings. We shall now try to make sense of these kennings, given that several parallel interpretations are probable: As opposed to the general scholarly attitude toward these poems, trying to find their one ‘true meaning’ would be futile.
is strife in the household [or [Note 2] trouble among relatives]
the fire of the sea
[or as well – depending on the Old Norse versions: men’s delight where ‘men’ means here ‘males’]
ok grafseiðs gata.
[Usual translation: the way of the serpent.
Alternate personal translation: the riddle of the open grave of seidhr]
aurum [gold] fylkir [king]
As you can see, each verse of Icelandic poems has a fourth line made of two words. One is a Latin word giving the name or meaning of the rune, the other a Norse word describing the social role associated with the rune.
Except for this somewhat mysterious clause ‘delight of the males’ in some versions of line two (which will be dealt with while discussing the meanings of line three), the first two lines recall the Norse rune poem. The discord between relatives is a constant theme in the sagas of Sigurdhr, Sigrdrífa (also called Brynhildr in some Eddic poems, and Brunhild in the Nibelungenlied) and Gudhrún. For those of you who are really interested in the runes and do not know these stories well, I recommend (re)reading the Eddic poems relative to the destiny of the Nibelungs.
The third line carries several meanings. Wimmer translates it by:
“and the way of the ‘fish of the grave’ (the serpent)”
It follows that all scholars after him translate grafseiðs gata by: “the way of the serpent.” However, even this simplification is ambiguous. Moreover, I have to explain the strange translation I have provided. We will then discuss at length the meanings of the two words of this last line.
Remember first that these kennings can replace in a poem the word ‘wealth’ by ‘trouble among relatives’, ‘fire of the sea’, or ‘path of the serpent’. This way of speaking must have been very familiar to the cultivated person of that time, while its meaning is quite obscure to us. This shows the gap between their understanding and ours. This is also why I want to analyze each line in such detail: When they are understood, they will provide a deep understanding of these people’s ways of thinking and therefore a deeper understanding of what the runes meant to them.
For instance, note that the kennings for gold, such as ‘fire of the sea’ or ‘flame of the river’ are very ordinary ways of speaking in the Viking civilization [Note 3] and hint at the likeness between gold and a mirage. In that, gold, similar to the reflection of the sun sinking in water, shines but brings no warmth. This lack of warmth is well underlined in the following skaldic verse:
Never shall the snow scales
melt under the fire
of the surging path of the eel.
The ‘surging path of the eel’ is the sea, the ‘fire of the sea’ is the gold, and the ‘snow scales’ represent metal silver. One of the meanings of this is that silver does not melt under the light of gold, in other words, that gold’s reflected light brings no heat.
I in no way claim that classical translations are wrong, I simply claim that other interpretations are possible. This is clearly why it is interesting to analyze the meaning of these translations. The ‘way of the serpent’ is in itself a complex expression that shows three possible meanings.
I have already explained (in chapter 2) that it can be seen as the way followed when serpent or wolf flesh is eaten in order to leave one’s humanity and perform non-human actions.
I prefer, however, another interpretation where the ‘serpent’ is in fact a dragon, often described as amassing great wealth, such as Fáfnir did. Referring to dragon as being a ‘serpent’ is ordinary in the Viking culture. For instance, a Skaldic poem cited in the Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Föstbræðra Saga - chapter 23) uses the metaphor ‘the bond of the snake’ for gold. Gold links Fáfnir to his den, it is also the path into which he is carried by his destiny. Similarly, the Old English poem Beowulf, in a digression, describes part of Sigurdhr’s life (he is called here Sigemund) where the dragon is called a worm. Here is a textual translation, with the Modern English words exactly under the Old and in the same order: The way Old English poetry is organized has been preserved and each line is cut in two half lines. It is a bit difficult to read but you can notice the words that have been kept in modern English.
Upon Sigemund sprang
a doom* no little
syþðan wiges heard
after that the battle hard
worm he had killed,
He under harne stan,
He under the hoary stone,
The atheling born,
Hwæþre him gesælde
However (to) him happened
ðæt þæt swurd þurhwod
that the sword (went) through furiously
the wrestling worm,
þæt hit on wealle ætstod,
the hit on the wall still stood,**
draca morðre swealt.
the drake died a violent death.
* [or destiny, fame]
** [his sword went furiousl through the worm and hit the wall behind, and stood still (was stuck) in it]
As you can see, twice the dragon (draca) is called a worm (wyrm), and it is the shepherd of a hoard in its cave made of whitish-grey (hoary) stone.
The Gesta Danorum also contains a text associating the ‘serpent’ to wealth:
Not far off is an island rising in delicate slopes, hiding treasure in its hills and ware of its rich booty. Here a noble pile is kept by the occupant of the mount, who is a snake wreathed in coils, doubled in many a fold, and with tail drawn out in winding whorls, shaking his manifold spirals and shedding venom. If you would conquer him, you must use your shield and stretch thereon bulls’ hides, and cover your body with these skins, nor let your limbs lie bare to the sharp poison; his slaver burns up what it bespatters. Though the three-forked tongue flicker and leap out of the gaping mouth and with awful yawn menace ghastly wounds remember to keep the dauntless temper of your mind; nor let the point of the jagged tooth trouble you, nor the starkness of the beast, nor the venom spat from the swift throat. Though the force of his scales spurn your spears, yet know there is a place under his lowest belly whither you might plunge the blade; aim at this with your sword, and you shall probe the snake to his center. From there, go fearless up to the hill, drive the pickaxe, dig and ransack the holes; soon fill your pouch with treasure, and bring back to the shore your ship loaded.
All this shows that the ‘path of the snake’ is the path followed by the dragon, a great hoarder of wealth.
There is a third way to understand this third line. I obtained it by combining the later version of the second line (‘men’s delight’) and the Latin commentary given by Þrideilur Rúna:"deliciæ viperæ via": the road of the delicious viper. This combination makes obvious the sexual allusion. Rather than a Victorian and improper pseudo-decency shown by some runologists, there is nothing wrong with recalling that women’s sex is indeed the ‘way’ of men’s ‘delicious viper’. Loving sexual relationships are by themselves full enough of magic to emphasize that the delight is shared by both sides. Thus, rune Fehu pays homage to the feminine sex, and praises its richness. There is some irony at seeing most mystical approaches to the runes state that the first 8 runes (i.e., the so-called first family, or ætt, of runes) are related to the God Freyr, i.e., to masculinity, while it should be related to femininity and the Goddess Freyja [Note 4].
Moreover, this rune is the first of all the versions of all observed Futharks and it seems obvious that it should be linked to the beginnings, in some sense. For most complex living organisms, the entrance into life is by the way the female sex. Thus going from an almost smutty thinking up to the symbols upon which it is based, this rune represents the beginning of our world. In Northern mythology, the cow Audhumla (Auðumla or Auðhumla or Auðhumbla) licked the ice into which the first giants were standing. The name Audhumla finds its origin, as De Vries states, by the conjunction of two roots. One is Old Norse ‘auðr’ meaning ‘property, riches’ and the second one is the root *humala- meaning ‘hornless’. Thus, De Vries suggests that Audhumla might mean ‘the rich hornless cow’. Since Tacitus (Germania 5) reports that some Germanic tribes had hornless cattle, this stresses the importance of Audhumla’s hornlessness, in connection with the riches it brings. This etymology, together with the various comments about Fehu’s link to wealth and delight, underlines the enriching, delicious, motherly features of femininity (look at an old representation of Audhumla below!), and that is, its non-aggressive aspects. The next rune, Uruz, speaks explicitly of a bovine, but this one owns « powerful horns ». This is why I see in these first two runes the symbol of two complementary aspects of femininity. We shall come back to this in treating Uruz, especially when speaking of rare images of the feminine sex, that is the sheela-na-gig engraved on the capitals of quite many Great Britain churches.
Audhumla (with big horns, though – her name, given by the 8 first runes of the text in the insert - is here Auþumbla) licking a bewildered Giant out of the ice. Note the fertilizing milk she pours over the world.
[Downloaded from the site of the Copenhagen Royal Library, their manuscript Ny kgl. S. 1867 4Âº - Sæmundar og Snorra Edda – Sept. 2006]
The word seiðr, used here as a noun modifier (a genitive), carries really two very different meanings. It can be either the meaning chosen by Wimmer, the one of a kind of fish (the coalfish), or it is a magical behavior that will be described at length in the next volume of this book. To make it short, let us say now that it is a kind of Northern shamanism special to the Viking civilization.
The word gata is understood by the scholars as a form of the word gátt, meaning either a sort of rabbet in which the door fits when it is closed, or the space covered by a door opening and closing, thus being the logical translation of ‘way’ given to this technical word in normal English. This translation, however, is not certain since this word should be in its nominative form here, and should thus be written as gatt [Note 5] or gátt in the manuscript instead of gata. As a consequence, parallel to the scholarly translation, we should also consider the word gáta which is a nominative as it should be, and which means ‘riddle’. Obviously, the ‘riddle of the coalfish’ is senseless, and this explains why it has been rejected by the scholars, while the ‘riddle of the seidhr’, that is the ‘riddle of Northern shamanism’, makes a lot of sense for everyone, and especially for me who will spend a whole chapter of the forthcoming third volume of this book in attempting to explain what exactly is this form of shamanism.
The word grafa means a grave. There are several uses of this word in composed words such as grafseiðs. One of these uses describes a fierce Old Norse way of life. The grafgangsmaðr was a punishment executed on a slave couple who had married against their master’s consent, and who would subsequently become bankrupt. Their master has then the right of putting them in an open grave until one of them would die, the surviving one being allowed to leave.
This influences my alternate translation of the third line: Fehu is
grafseiðs-gáta: The riddle of the open grave of seidhr.
‘Open grave’ can be understood in several ways that demand a very good knowledge of seidhr practice. For the time being, we can say that this way of speaking tells us that seidhr practice includes mysteries, that Fehu his a key to these mysteries, and also perhaps that this practice includes the harsh sacrifice of your own best loved weakest half, as in grafgangs-maðr where the slaves are forced to sacrifice their most beloved weakest half.
As for the fourth line of the Icelandic rune poem, the Latin word aurum means ‘gold’ which underlines the link between Fehu and wealth. The Old Norse word fylkir means ‘leader of an armed gang’ or ‘king’ in poetical language. The word fylki means ‘district’ or ‘gang of fighters’, thus the title fylkir does not directly imply wealth but rather land ownership and warring ability.
We shall now study the Old English rune poem [Note 6] that certainly endured more alteration over time than the Scandinavian versions since the Anglo-Saxon civilization became Christian much earlier than the Scandinavian one. Its scholarly translations emphasize its Christian moralizing feature. My own translation fights this tendency [Note 7].
Here is what this poem looks like
byþ frofur. fira gehwylcum. sceal ðeah manna
gehpylc. miclun hyt dælan.
gif he wile. for ðrhtne domes hleotan :.
My translation is as follows:
feoh (wealth) [or cattle, or movable property] is for all a benefit,
though each should share much
if he wants to cast by lots [or obtain] a destiny [or a doom] in front of the master.
For this first rune, I’ll also give you Marijane Osborn’s ‘feminist’ translation (find the rest on my site, for instance) since I was struck by the fact that simply adopting a feminist point of view gives back its original meaning to this first stanza:
Funds are effective for folk everywhere
But she must generously share who hopes
To cast her lot for the Lady to deem.
The third line can obviously be translated by “if he wants to obtain glory in front of the Lord,” which makes more sense in a Christian context. Remember that the Foretelling of the Seeress (Völuspá) is one of the most famous Eddic poems. It tells us that dwarfs created human shapes that were without destiny. Sharing one’s wealth is a way to become human, thus to create one’s own destiny which, all considered, precisely means “to win the Lord’s glory” for a Christian. Skaldic poetry constantly recalls that generosity is an essential feature of the war leader, otherwise stated, the one who creates his own destiny. Note that the Northern leader needs not to be charitable but generous. Superficially, these two qualities appear very similar but generosity elevates the one who practices it, while charity humiliates the one who receives it. He who “wins the glory of the Lord,” behaves with humility, while the one who “obtains a destiny from the master” keeps his pride, and his “Lord,” for example Christ or Ódhinn or his “Lady,” for example the Holy Virgin or Freyja, are more honored by their generosity than by their charity.
Our fourth source of information is the Saying of Hár (Hávamál). As we announced it, the first rune of the Futharks being Fehu, we shall associate with it the first verse of this part of the Saying of Hár, called Runatals Þattr Oþins in the first (1818) complete edition of the Edda. I have already translated the first three lines of this verse at the beginning of the introduction. Now, let me give you a strictly word-for-word translation of the last four lines (as in the 1860 Möbius edition of the Old Norse version of this poem) since they are so important and so much fantasized about:
Hjálp heitir eitt, Help [or even Saver] is called one
en þat þér hjálpa mun while that to you help misses
við sökum ok sorgum against charges and sorrows
ok sútum görvöllum. and griefs all kinds.
The rune poems, certainly under the influence of Sigurdhr and Gudhrún’s history, favored the negative aspects of wealth. Their ancestor Ódhinn is fortunately here to remind us of its positive aspects. In view of the legends about these terrible Viking warriors, it is quite amusing – and with a shortcut you can now understand – to note that the epitome of the Viking male, Ódhinn reminds us of the helping or even saving properties of female softness. This explains also why I claim that Fehu is the primary rune of protection.
 This kind of complex metaphors is so important in the poetry of the Nordic countries between approximately year 850 and year 1300 (era of the acknowledged skaldic poetry) that I will adopt this word from now on. The Icelandic (and Old Norse) nominative plural of this word is kenningar, but I prefer to consider it as an English word, and I use only two forms, singular kenning, plural kennings.
In contrast with most scholars, I do not like to use, as scholars tend to do, the Old Norse nominative plurals. I believe this habit stems from the fact that the nominative plural tells you which declension it belongs to, a very useful habit only in dictionaries.
 In the following, this ‘italic [or …] between brackets’ will always mean that I provide a comment or an alternate version relative to the word s just before the [.
 This kenning is such a classical one that it was used in otherwise unitelligible forms. For instance, a skaldic poem found in the Chap. 9 of The Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Fóstbræðra Saga) uses the kenning ‘giver of the wave’s beacon’ to mean a rich man, since the ‘wave’s beacon’ is obviously gold, its giver is a rich person. Snorri Sturluson explains the origin of this kenning : the Sea God, Ægir, invited the Æsir to his hall. The Gods took seat in Ægir’ hall, and he had shining gold put in the middle of the hall in order to light it “as would do a fire,” says the legend.
 The oldest definition of the runic ætt I could find is in Jón Ólafsson’s Runologia (1752), where he describes three rows of runes he calls Thrí-deilur, thus emphasizing the meaning of this word: ‘three-divisions’. Of the first he says: “þesse ætt heiter fes ætt” (this ætt is named the ætt of fe). Of the second: “aunnur [read önnur] heiter hagals ætt,” (the next is called the ætt of hagal), and of the third: “þridia heiter tyrs ætt” (the third is called the ætt of tyr). This gives us the names of the three Old Norse ætt, viz. Fé, Hagal, Týr. There is no allusion to Freyr (nor to Freyja, obviously) to qualify the first ætt.
It is nevertheless possible to understand how a sequence of small errors could lead to this mistake, certainly later than 1752. Ole Worm’s book, Runir seu Danica literatura antiquissima, published as early as 1636, provides a list of possible names for the first rune: “Fe, Fie, Fir, Feyer” and adds a bit later that it is pronounced as “Fee.” As long as the first rune of the ætt gives it name to the whole ætt, Worm allows commentators to claim that the first ætt is the one of Feyer. Yet another error leads to read Frey or Freyr in place of Feyer, and here we are. This error is found in the Geats’ alphabet given by Suecia antiqva et hodierna (Ancient and modern Sweden), published around 1780. It gives as name of the first rune: “Frey vel Fie” (vel means ‘or, as well’ in Latin).
 Remember that I emphasized at the very beginning of the introduction that the accents might mean something very significant. The manuscripts give some of these accents, but they also omit them quite often.
 This poem is known from 1696 Hickes’ Thesaurus, which gives a fac simile of a manuscript known as Cotton MS. Otho B 10, destroyed by the fire in 1731. My own presentation precisely follows this fac simile except in the rendering of the printed letters. For instance, the letter ‘w’ was written at the time like a kind of ‘p’. I present it here as the usual today’s ‘w’.
 As an example, here is Maureen Halsall’s version of it:
Feoh (wealth) is benefit to all men;
yet every man must share it freely,
if he wishes to gain glory before the lord.