Second ætt: Hagala’s family and the creation of the cosmos

 

The eight runes of the second ætt are the ones of our natural environment and of our relationship with this environment, as they have been understood by the pre-Christian Nordic scholars.

 

The three runes of the cosmos

 

Hagla or Hagala is the rune of hail, the one of the icy ‘big bang’ that drove the creation of cosmos, of the purifying cold.

 

Naudiz : rune of the unavoidable destiny, and of the dread of facing one’s destiny. Rune of cosmos’ ending, still icier than its creation, the ragnarök.

 

Isaz: rune of the ice bridge that links the living’s dwelling to the one of the dead’s.

 

The five runes of the relations between humankind and its surroundings

 

Jeran: Freyr’s rune, of prosperity brought by the year’s harvest and of the happy relationship between humankind and their ‘small world’. Rune of the mature sorcerer helping the beginners in magic.

 

Ihwaz or Iwaz: rune of the yew and of the world’s tree, Yggdrasil, that keeps in place our world. It symbolizes sturdy manliness, a constantly renewed marital love, a sane mind, someone you can rely upon. Yggdrasil is by itself a part of our universe and it symbolizes plant life.

 

Pertho: rune of Mother Night (thus of the winter solstice), of the big storms dues to the furious hunt (improperly called ‘wild hunt’ – thus of the disruption in weather conditions). It is also symbolizes a woman open to her surroundings.

 

Algiz: rune of the elk, of insanity and sanity that run within the human brain. The elk symbolizes animal life.

 

Sowelo is the rune the ‘she-sun’, in charge of keeping the delicate balance of the universe, of feminine warmth.


 

 

Hagla (or Hagala)

 

A summary of what the Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts tell us about this rune

 

Hagla is the rune of hail, purity, coldness, whiteness, it masters fire. In a deeper and more ominous way, it is the rune of the creation of the cosmos amidst an icy ‘big bang’.

 

It has two inflexions, soft Hagala and sharp Hagla. I tend to call it Hagla when I want to express its sharp strength, when it “shatters the helmets,” as a runic inscription claims. We can use Hagala as a protection rune and a rune for purification, though not without risk as it is based on violence. Hagala is also the typical rune to protect us against another power, the one of fire.

 

Explanations

 

Cognates: German, Hagel (hail); English, hail.

 

It’s carved form is either Hagla1, or Hagla2. The shape Hagla1 and its variation Hagla3 are typical in Scandinavia from 175 to 700. Inversely, Hagla2 is found in greater numbers on the continent and in Great Britain, but few are found before the year 400.

 

As a kind of warning that we shall meet a new face of reality in this new ætt, we observe a steep change when going from the eighth rune to the three runes that follow it. Gebo and Wunjo are good fortune runes for humans while Hagla, Naudiz and Isaz are symbols of the brutality of space and time towards humans.

 

I have seen quite often some confusion about the naming of this rune. A general principle about rune naming is the obvious fact that runes belong to a language, the one of the runic inscriptions. Their names are chosen by scholars, specialists in historical linguistics, who make use of their knowledge of both the ancient languages and the whole context of the many different names attributed to these runes in later and better-known languages, such as the Old Norse or Old English. Taking advantage of all this knowledge, they were able to build a grammar, typical of the runic inscriptions. In this grammar, the root of most of the words ending by a vocal receives a final ‘z’ in order to mark the nominative case (what we call in modern grammars: the subject of the verb). This letter ‘z’ is carved in runic as rune Algiz of the ancient Futhark, therefore these words end with a ihwazVik. Why is it so? Simply because this form of writing is quite often met in the runic inscriptions and the linguists made a rule of this regularity. This is why, or at least I guess it is why, several books giving a mystical description of the runes insist on calling this rune Hagalaz or Haglaz. The specialists, however, have observed an instance of the name of this rune, carved in the beginning of the 6th century, on the so-called ‘Kragehul spear-shaft’. In runic letters, it is written as HAGALA and it is a nominative. They noticed the lack of ‘Z’ at the end of this word, found it to be a noticeable exception to their grammar rule, and took it into account because they would never dare correcting the spelling of such a rune master as the one who wrote the Kragehul inscription. It so happens that this inscription begins by a classical “ek erilaz …” (me, the rune master …) which shows that the rune master deliberately avoided (not by ignorance or laziness) a ‘z’ at the end of Hagala. I also use Hagla, even though this form is not found in any actual runic inscription of the same period as the Kragehul spear-shaft, because it is a simple inflexion of Hagala. Hagla is nothing but a harsh way of saying the softer Hagala.

In making the choice of using Hagla, I considered the meaning of the Kragehul inscription. W. Krause translates this inscription by:

I, rune master, son of Muha, I am called Asgisls (asgisls = hostage of one of the Æsir) [Note 1] Gebo Ansuz [three times] effective magic of Gebo Ansuz. Helmet breaking Hagala I hallow to G” [meaning: I hallow the helmet breaking Hagala to G].

This inscription is obviously an aggressive charm designed for increasing the power of the spear owned by G [Note 2]. Were the rune master to say Hagla, it would emphasize the violent side of his charm, which contradicts the generosity introduced by Gebo. This explains why he or she chose to say Hagala. As you will now see, the rune poems insist on the violent side of this rune, and this is why I use the name Hagla in translating these poems. Obviously, the inflexion chosen should suit the side of the rune we would like to throw light on.

 

As a last preliminary remark, we must still notice that all poems say that it is the rune of hail. This is the first occurrence of a phenomenon of Nature we meet. In this ætt, we shall meet five other runes that are obviously related to a manifestation of Nature, viz. ice (Isaz), the crop of the year (Jeran), the yew (Ihwaz), the elk (Algiz), and the sun (Sowelo). As a consequence, we shall try to discover why and how the two runes of this ætt which we did not cite yet (the one of fate, Naudiz, and above all mysterious Pertho) could also be describing some kind of natural phenomenon.

 

Icelandic rune poem:

hagallNorv is a cold seed,

A shower of sleet,

And sickness of the snakes.

grando. [hail] hildingr [warring king]

 

Wimmer calls this rune hagall, while the Old Norse word for ‘hail’ is hagl. This is easy to explain because several other Old Norse manuscripts give this name to this rune. For instance, the Latin commentary of Þrideilur Rúna says:

 

Hagall Grando [Hagall Hail], algida seges [cold field of corn]

Globorum pluvia: vermium morbus [shower of balls: sickness of the worm]

  Note the Latin algida seges which uses the fact that a field of corn is a large amount of seeds, as a strong hail shower can produce a ‘field’ of hailstones. This kind of strong hail shower is an impressive and even dangerous phenomenon. This is why I believe the rune poem links Hagall to the most violent forces of nature.

The third line uses a classical kenning of skaldic poetry calling the winter “the enemy of the snake,” as said by Snorri Sturluson. Another classical image, a heiti [Note 3], is to call a dragon, a serpent or worm. Thus, the Latin word vermis (a worm – here as a genitive plural: vermium) is exactly the Old Norse snákr (serpent), that is to say a dragon. The dragon, a fire creature, is said to be unable to stand hail.

There another possible explanation of the opposition between Hagala and the serpent. In chapter 2, we underlined that snake meat is eaten by those wanting to get free of their sworn word. Hagala can be seen as a purifying chilliness, as opposed to purification by fire, used to forbid this food. In this case, Hagala is a purity symbol. This disinfecting cold looks like a medical treatment of warts by burning them with liquid nitrogen. Without being ever submitted to such a cold, people of the North must have known temperatures around -50 Celsius, cold enough to burn.

 

Norse rune poem:

hagallNorv is the coldest seed.

Christ gave shape to the ancient dwelling.

 

Snorri Sturluson, in his Language of poetry (Skáldskaparmál) provides an impressive list of heiti, the alternate ways of speaking that were available to the skalds. Among many Pagan heiti, he also gives a few for the Christ, one of them is: “creator of the sky and the earth,” which perfectly fits the rune poem. Nevertheless, you can see how often cold is mentioned in these poems. Remember also that Ymir, the first giant was born, so to say, from the ice, and that the whole world was built out of the various parts of his body. All this suggests a link between Ymir and the ‘shaping of the ancient dwelling’. It seems to me that we face here an obvious and simple christianisation of the original line such as:

Ymir gave shape to the ancient dwelling.

In any case, Christ or Ymir, this poem says that Hagla is the material from which the world was built, as far as Nordic mythology is concerned. Then, call it Hagala, Christ or big bang (it might help a Christian or a rationalist feeling more at ease), Hagla in this mythology is at the origin of the universe, an origin believed to have taken place in the middle of an icy whirl. Our modern imagination, I believe, insists on associating the origin of our universe to an intense heat while the Northern mind associates it to an intense and fierce cold.

 

OERP:

Hægl [hail or hail storm] is the whitest of the seeds;

it falls whirling from heights of the sky,

And it whirls in gusts of wind; then it transforms into water.

The OERP seems to be simply saying again the same things. Nevertheless, it insists on whiteness more than on cold, thus it evokes purity as did the last image of the Icelandic poem. An Eddic text explicitly confirms the importance of Hagla whiteness: The so-called Gestumblindi riddles describe hail as

Such as white birds

Fly the stones, …

 

The last line of the OERP seems to express the triviality that hail melts into water. This is true, but this water is the icy water that symbolizes the origin of life, it is a very special one. The prose Edda describes the creation of Ymir as follows:

Ok þá er mættist hrímin ok blær hitans, svá at bráðnaði ok draup, ok af þeim kvikudropum kviknaði

And here met rime and breeze heating, thus it [the rime] melted and dripped, and of these quick drops it [the rime] took life …

Thus, far from uttering a triviality, the OERP reminds us of this special water that became life by heat and quickness. I gave you here a literal translation. Notice the last two words which are very similar and translated in two quite different manners. They both stem from the root kvik, the same word as Old English (OE) cwic which became our ‘quick’. Both, however, do not mean at all ‘quick’ but they mean ‘living’. In order to see a link between cwic (living) and quick, we have to look, in the OE language, at the verb cwician, meaning ‘make quick, create’. In Old Norse, we get help from the word kvika, one of the meanings of which is ‘water spurting out of a spring’. We can link these ideas to entropy, a more modern way of speech, by remembering the ideas of Boltzmann, the splendid scientist who created statistical thermodynamics and who died insane due to his good colleagues’ scorn. Rime, deprived of entropy, was just a dead thing but from somewhere the exactly necessary amount of entropy was provided, so as life could begin. The Christian must thus understand that our Northern biblical credo is not “Let light be, and light was,” it is rather “Let entropy be, and entropy was.” Both are bit too emphatic and were uttered much before Science could address these topics. You can see that they deeply express different choices about the relationship between Science and Religion.

In the same order of ideas, it is striking to notice that all versions that describe where Lancelot will meet Iweret speak of a cold fountain (ein brunne kalt) as does the most primitive version in Mittelhochdeutsch, Lanzelet. This water is not so much holy as it is full of power, as is the magic drink that Grímhildr serves to Gudhrún, full of the power “of the icy cold of the sea” (svalköldum sæ). As you see, the seemingly trivial

it whirls in gusts of wind; then it transforms into water

of the OERP means

The beginning of the times

was a whirl of icy hail

unbearable heat stroke it,

melt it, gave it speed

quick and shaken

it became life.

I merge here what the poem says explicitly with what we know of the Ancient Germanic vision of life’s creation.

 

Hagla is the ninth rune of ancient Futhark, but Hagall is the seventh of the Old Norse poem, we therefore associate to it the seventh runic verse of the Ljóðatal .

Seventh verse of the Ljóðatal :

I know a seventh:

If I see the hall

In flames around my bench mates,

They are not so strong

That I could not be guarded against them

When I sing-howl this galdr.

 

This rune therefore symbolizes the shamanic resistance to heat. A classical theme of the shamans’ stories describe them getting out of a fire without harm. The most famous of them is the Vanir Goddess Gullveig described in the Völuspá. She visited the Æsir

oc í höll Hárs

and in the hall of Hár,

hána brendu;

they burned her;

þrysvar brendu,

three times they burned her,

þrysvar borna,

three times born,

opt, ósjaldan;

often, not seldom;

þó hón enn lifir.

though she still remains [in her body].

Notice the last word of this stanza, usually translated by the verb ‘to live’. Out of context and due to the fact that the verb lifa means indeed ‘to live’, it can be wondered where my baroque translation comes from. In order to understand why, it should be first noticed that this verb means also ‘to remain, to stay’. Moreover, the word líf means ‘life, body’ and the word lifr means ‘liver’, thus recognized as a vital part of our body, as is the liver. When we want to compare the two ways of speaking of life, the kvik we met above, and the líf we now find, it is a poor translation that confuses the two words, and this is why I translated it by “she remains in her body.”

It seems that the shamans receive purification during this process. This is usually understood as purification by fire, which is a familiar concept. We should ‘explain’, however, why they do not burn. Since the shamans who survive fire get out of this trial shivering with cold, they must have been submitted to a deep freezing and protected ‘because of’ this freezing. In view of the purifying properties of Hagala, I would then say that they have been cleansed by the coldness they had to build in themselves in order to resist the flames. The shaman capable of this feat goes again through the process of the creation of life, hinted at by the OERP, as we have just seen, and due to the harsh contact of ice and heat.

 

 

Hagla

 

Hagla shatters helmets

 

I hardly like to force logical coherences between runic concepts because they describe a mystical world that needs not yield to the laws of logic but, remarkably, the cosmos is here created by a frozen explosion and our world, undoubtedly already created implicitly during this big-bang of ice, exists, caged in ice – the ice ‘logically’ resulting from this big-bang. Our universe, a tiny part of the cosmos, is revealed only after Audhumla dissolved the ice by licking it (or, depending of the versions, after some intense heat melted it). What Audhumla or ‘intense heat’ comes from is not explained, but this question obviously arises for all deities creating the cosmos or the universe. At least, Audhumla is a kind of deity more modest than those currently in place, she only revealed the existence of the world, she did not create it. Associated to Fehu, she is the image of a female softness, of origin unknown, which would have given birth to our universe, without creating it, just as a woman harbors and nurtures then ‘reveals to existence’ her infant without the notion creating it.

We thus observe that Scandinavian mythology proposes a vivid vision but coherent of the creation of the cosmos and the creation of our universe. I must confess that the drawing shown with Fehu reminds me of famous Benjamin Rabier’s “laughing cow” which decorates so many melted cheese boxes! Moreover, this creation calls upon natural forces and not on an all-powerful creative God. Beyond any personal religious context, I find these myths infinitely more sensitive, and more credible, than the myths of the great revealed religions.

 

          Notes

 

[1] The English language shows here a small difficulty at speaking of the Northern gods. Their collective name, a plural, is Æsir in Old Norse (pron. ‘a-e-seer’), but the singular form of this word is Áss (pronounced ‘aoss’ or even ‘oss’). Since the letter ‘á’ does not exist in English, and even if the meaning ‘donkey’ is understood, this is a much-undignified way for speaking of Gods. As a consequence, the English singular of Æsir became the odd ‘one of the Æsir’. Note that the German and the French use ‘Ase’ (pronounced ‘aze’) instead of ‘one of the Æsir’.

 

[2] This inscription could obviously deserve lengthy comments… Gebo Ansuz can be understood as alluding to the generosity of “one of the Æsir,’’ namely here Ódhinn, who throws his spear above the enemy’s head in order to assert that he is ready to fight. As well, this mysterious Mister G. could be the rune Gebo itself.

 

[3] A kenning is a metaphoric way of speech, which replaces a single word by a set of words - sometimes an impressively large set! For instance, ‘the flame of the fishes’ dwelling’ is a middle-sized kenning for ‘gold’. A heiti replaces one word by another. Keeping with a similar instance, using ‘flame’ instead of ‘gold’ would be a heiti.