Othala is the rune of ancestral property, of the links with our ancestors, and of our genetic inheritance. The Eddic poem, Skirnisför, as I understand it, asserts the importance of this genetic inheritance.
We naturally inherit thousands of things from our ancestors: then what is the magical inheritance symbolized by Othala? Quite surprisingly, this is all explained in very simple words in the small poem the OERP devotes to rune Eþel, which is the Anglo-Saxon name of the Old Germanic Othala. Under a trifling form, it explicitly states two primary ideas and implicitly one more.
The first explicit idea is that the most precious of our ancestral inheritances is freedom, a behavior that is a stubborn search for freedom or may I say an even slightly ‘stupid’ one (if I tell you that I am particularly proud of my own stupidity in that respect)? Be it the brute force of tyrannies or the subtle persuasion of advertisement, everything that hinders our freedom destroys our magical strength. I need however to hone down this statement. A Jew thrown in Dassau by the nazis is still ‘fey’, he is still inhabited by the magic of those who will soon die. As Christians say, he “did not sell his soul to the Devil.” In opposition, the poor guy, turned into an idiot by an excess of TV washed down with an excess of beer, is already a soulless living-dead. This need for freedom is what is meant by this statement of the OERP: “Native country is loved by each human, if there the moot holds.”
The second explicit idea is that each human being is right in trying to lead a most pleasant life, as long as no one else suffers from it. In other words, there is nothing like an “original sin” that sentences us to feel guilty while are we appreciating the small pleasures of life. No judge rulies each one of our intimate actions. There is no stupid God who cares if we have sex from the front or the behind. There is no equally mentally retarded Devil who cares about stealing a soul obviously useless to him. This is what means, in depth, the seemingly obvious OERP statement “that he enjoys justly and often the convenience of his sweet home.”
The implicit idea is that Othala is a magic carrying rune, that is, our ancestral inheritance is the magic. This is acknowledging that, even within the ‘worst’ of humans, rationality carries always more or less a hue of irrationality. It can be the wish of leaving something after one’s death, or a tiny feeling of emptiness when looking at the stump of a large oak, or only the frantic scare of death, all this belongs to irrational, magical behaviors.
Othala is thus the rune of our ancestral inheritance, magic. It completes and unifies the whole 24 runes Futhark, the one we have now finished studying.
Cognates: German Adel (nobility), Old English eðel (fatherland ), Old Norse óðal and öðli (ancestral property, patrimony), aðal, eðli, øðli and œði (nature, disposition), aðili (driver of a process), eðlingr and öðlingr (noble chief). As you can see, this root is found in many parent words linked to an inheritance, such as a genetic one or material possessions.
Krause attributes to this rune the meaning of “inheritance, ancestral property.” It is the rune of the link with the ancestors. As its Old Norse meanings exemplify, this patrimony can be held in our genes or in various belongings.
classical shape is
This rune, in spite of the scholars’ opinion, is explicitly cited in an Eddic poem, Skirnir’s journey (Skirnisför). In this poem, Skirnir, Freyr’s servant, has the mission of convincing the Giant maid Gerdhr to marry Freyr. At first, Gerdhr rejects the gifts of Freyr and refuses to marry him. It follows then that Skirnir makes threats and promises of curses if Gerdhr goes on refusing. These curses are no longer part of our culture and their wording is now hard to understand. In this case, it is particularly important to forget the inherent mixture of Christianity and rationality of our education.
This poem is made of 42 verses. Skirnir and Gerdhr meet each other in 16. Verses 19 à 22 tell of the gifts Freyr offers to Gerdhr to seduce her, and of her words of refusal. In verses 23 to 25, Skirnir threats Gerdhr and her father with a wondrous sword given to him by Freyr. Direct threats to Gerdhr start at verse 26 [Note 1]:
Tams vendi ec þic drep, With the taming wand I strike you,
enn ec þic temja mvn, still I will tame you,
mær, … maid, …
The first curse begins at verse 29. Its first four words could all be translated by ‘witchery’. The experts see here already an allusion to the runes while the text will describe later how Skirnir explicitly uses the runes.
Topi oc opi [Ma: œpi] (Witchery of …) madness and mad shrieking [if œpi: only ‘shrieking’]
tjasull oc óþoli, teasel and óþoli
vaxi þér tár meþ trega; they increase the tears with grief;
seztu niþr, sit down,
en ec mun segja þér I will tell you
svaran sús-breca the heavy sorrow [or the heavy ‘roaring of the braking waves’]
auk tvennan trega: and as well the double griefs.
The first line is now presented under its normalized form “Tópi ok ópi” which introduced no double meaning. The teasel, now called tjösull, Latin dipsacus, is a thorny plant similar to a thistle. The use of this word is explained by the poem itself. Verse 31 predicts Gerdhr’s loneliness by comparing her to a thistle (þistill) growing on a roof, and the teasel even more strongly evokes solitude with its long wiry and thorny stem ending with a floral envelope including long bracts, stiff as prison bars. I do not yet comment on the word óþoli; it will receive a thorough explanation further on.
Tjösull (Dipsacus fullonum, fuller’s teasel) and Cirsium eriophorum (‘ass’s thistle’)
Two ‘thistle’: none of them belongs to the genre ‘thistle’ (carduus).
Thistle can be very thorny but the teasel (tjösull, Latin: dipsacus), looks very much like a prison with its purplish flowers smothered by a prickly green hat.
Scotish and US donkeys eat yet another ‘ass’s thistle’, Onopordon Acanthum, now called ‘Scotch thistle’ in England and ‘Scotch-cotton thistle’ in the USA. French donkeys say they prefer the tilted thistle (carduus nutans). The implied pun is here to emphasize that, even today, the floras fail to give uniform names to the plants. That the Edda askr might have been a yew is not at all as surprising as the scholars feel it is!
These beautiful drawings were made by Marjorie Blamey and are published in The illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe, Blamey and Grey-Wilson, Bath Press, 1983.
Verses 30 to 35 contain a sequence of cursing threats, without explicitly calling on magic as did verse 29. Skirnir is even rude by stating that Gerdhr will never drink anything but hland gefi, she-goat piss. More seriously, these verses contain two pieces of information preparing the ultimate threat of verse 36, the one leading Gerdhr to stop resisting.
One of these threats states that if she refuses to live with Freyr, she will have only two choices. Either she will lead a lonely life, or she will live with a man of her own race, a giant. This threat looks extremely racist. That Gerdhr herself seems to share this racism is explained by the fact that the skald specifies that this giant will be both genetically deficient (he has three heads) and is wicked (he neglects her and gives her urine to drink).
Another threat describes Skirnir preparing himself to perform ultimate magic, he is going to score runes on a magic wand. He has chosen a gambantein in the forest. The word teinn means a twig of a living tree. In its magical use, this word is rather used in the composed form hlautteinn where the twig is dipped in sacrificial blood and then shaken in order to see the future from the shape drawn on the floor the blood droplets. In the present case, no foreseeing is involved. Skirnir’s purpose is to bewitch Gerdhr in loving Freyr. The skald had thus to use another word than hlautteinn. Classical translations speak of a “magic wand.” The word gambr can mean a ‘wanton talk’, and a gambantein might be a ‘rambling twig’, i. e. a wand by which states of conscience akin to madness can be reached. Anyhow, verse 32 makes known that Skirnir very carefully chooses this wand on a hrár viðr, a young tree. The gathering itself is certainly done carefully since Skirnir states, “I went in the forest to get a gambantein, and I got a gambantein.” (Til holtz ec gecc … gambantein at geta, gambantein ec gat.) All this takes place in a magical and solemn environment hard to render with simple words as the skald does.
By all this, Skirnir puts pressure on Gerdhr and he is now ready to deliver a final thrust to her, the runes. It is striking to notice that all along the first verses Gerdhr is quite sarcastic to Freyr’s proposal. Suddenly, after verse 36, she becomes very kind and says she did not believe she could start loving [or choosing] one of the Vanir.
Let us now see what this verse 36 says, translate it, and then explain why Gerdhr changes her mind so quickly.
The runes she is threatened with are:
Þurs ríst ec þér Þurs carve I for you
oc þriá stafi: and three runic inscriptions
ergi oc æþi [Mö: œði; Ge: øþi ] sexual fury and madness fury
oc óþola; and óþola;
Þurs obviously is rune Thurs, ON name of rune Thurisaz. As we have seen when studying this rune, it is harmful to women, it puts their magical power to sleep. Gerdhr is certainly not devoid of magical power and Skirnir is a wise person, better to disarm a foe before fighting her or him.
In homosexual behavior among men, ergi serves to point at the one who is buggered. When applied to a woman, it says she appreciates it and ‘therefore’ she is extremely aroused. As an insult, it means a woman who cannot control her sexual desire. In the Ljóðatal, Ódhinn speaks of two runes that can be used to sexually excite a woman. They are the rune of the secular pleasures, Wunjo, and the rune Ihwaz able to make the wise woman ‘lose her head’. It seems to me thus probable that Skirnir has carved a rune like Ihwaz, called Ýr in Old Norse.
The three forms æþi, œði, øþi are equivalent and can mean either ‘nature, character’ or ‘mad fury’. As we shall see, the next rune, óþola, is the one of the inherited character. Thus, the meaning ‘mad fury’ is the most probable. The rune representing the concept of madness is Algiz. In spite of having no Norwegian Futhark equivalent, this rune must represent æþi.
Even though the time when this poem was composed is still disputed, it may contain ancient sayings as the tales do, using words the meaning of which is hardly understandable. I assume that the way of speaking “æþi, œði, øþi, óþola” is very ancient and refers to knowledge we can only guess about, as I am presently doing by interpreting these words using the ancient rune names. I therefore see no principle opposition to óþola being a reference to a rune lost in the Viking Futhark.
The scholars interpret the word óþola as obviously being composed of privative ó, followed by the verb þola, the whole is said to mean “non patient.” Here is a second case where I oppose the academic world: This interpretation seems totally absurd to me. Here is my argument for this out of the way position.
Firstly, the etymological dictionary of de Vries, and Kock und Meissner give only one meaning to þola: dulden, i. e., ‘to suffer’. Gering adds the possibility ertragen (to bear), as does Kuhn who finds in the Codex Regius three instances of ‘to suffer’ and one of ‘to bear’ [Note 2]. Cleasby-Vigfusson gives ‘to bear, endure, suffer’ as a first meaning and ‘to feel at rest’ as a second one. Nevertheless, a parent word þol is translated as ‘patience, endurance’ by Cleasby-Vigfusson. This word is attested in several sagas but is absent from the poetic texts, this is why it is ignored by the authors cited above, except Kuhn who, significantly, cites it without providing an actual instance of it in the Codex Regius. The meaning of ó-þola (ó privative) is thus most certainly ‘to suffer not’ (expressing a kind of blessing) of rather than ‘to bear not’ (expressing a kind of mild curse). As we shall see, the double meaning itself is enough to preclude the interpretation ó-þola.
Secondly, Erik the Red saga (chap. 8) describes a particularly impatient person by using a privative form, ódæll. This form is based on the adjective designating someone of good temper and happy in life, the adjective dæll.
Thirdly, the interpretation ó-þola assumes thus that the skald, who could express impatience in at least one unambiguous way, used an ambiguous word meaning something like ‘you will not suffer’ and ‘you will have no patience’ formulating in this way a curse that looks also like a blessing? Moreover, is this ridiculous clumsy curse supposed to have convinced Gerdhr on the spot? All this is absurd.
This is why I propose to return to the more obvious meaning of the ancient rune Othala (or may be Othola … if we follow the Skirnisför). This meaning was not accepted by the academics, I suppose, because they could not make sense of a meaning like óðal. They should have though, because the text itself explains why óðal or even aðal are quite possible. Gerdhr is giantess and it is her giantess nature (her aðal) to couple with a giant. Skirnir uses this destiny to threaten her in the verses 31 and 35. If this takes place, then her genetic inheritance (her óðal) will show in her children. The malediction simply states that she will fully inherit of her giantess nature, with all the consequences she is well aware of. In contemporary society, this would be equivalent, for example, to predict that a person whose family tends to show cancers will die young from cancer. Sorcery tends to be very efficient at this kind of foreseeing!
Skirnir then gives Gerdhr another chance: We understand that these runes, although already carved, have not yet been hallowed, Skirnir can still make them disappear.
svá ec þat af-ríst, then I ‘un-carve’
sem ec þat á-reist, what I have ‘already-well-carved’
ef gjöraz þarfar þess. if this becomes useful.
It is almost impossible to know what ‘to un-carve’ exactly means. It certainly implies a complex process we shall now try to decipher.
At first, note that rísta means ‘to cut, to carve, to scratch’: The runes have been written by Skirnir on his gambantein by scratching them on its surface. The prefix af before a verb usually introduces the same opposition as the prefix in the couple ‘to do / to undo’. Skirnir thus says he is able to cancel the effect of the runes he has just carved. At the end of this section I will provide a detailed explanation of what this ‘uncarving’ process is, and its implications for magic.
It is easy to conceive how Gerdhr admires the powers of these Gods who handle the runes so well, and she is seduced by at the idea of sharing this power with Freyr. However, she knows magic herself, therefore she does not give in because she weighs her benefits in the marital status. What, I believe, goes strikes her heart is the huge risk accepted by Freyr when he dares to use such ‘black’ runic magic to force someone he loves to change opinion. It may be that she gives in before the runes are hollowed forever. Then, the ‘white’ or ‘positive’ rune magic will merge them into one unique being in a kind of mad love where Freyr himself loses part of himself. It may be that she refuses, and there are again two cases: The curse either succeeds or fails. If the curse succeeds, then Gerdhr will indeed become a three headed Thurse’s wife and she will get nothing else but goat’s piss to drink, and she will bear monstrous children – she is then completely lost to Freyr. If the curse fails, this is because Gerdhr, or some of her kind, brings to the fore enough magical power to counter this curse. We have very few observations of a sorcerer’s failure; all of them, however, bear witness that to the death of the failing sorcerer, as Freyr will, in this case. To summarize, this rune magic might succeed or fail, in both cases Freyr puts his life at stake for Gerdhr’s love. All this is said in a very compacted way and the poem leaves unsaid some of the steps I just described. We understand nevertheless that Gerdhr is deeply moved by the intensity of Freyr’s love. As long as Freyr did not go as far as a runic curse, a real life commitment, Gerdhr could be dubious about Frey’s sincerity since so many of the Æsir already dealt with giantesses as sexual toys. I assume that Gerdhr was not so adverse to marry Freyr as she cunningly claims at the beginning of the poem, and that she outmaneuvered him in pushing him to this extreme decision to ‘dirty his hands’ in rune magic for her sake.
In conclusion, that Freyr uses here the rune of the ancestral inheritance is not at all surprising. Inversely, ó- (privative) þola is a nonsense that does not take into account the magical role of the runes. It then seems clear that the óþoli found in verse 29 has the same meaning: Skirnir threatens Gerdhr with furious madness, isolation (by speaking of teasel) and of an upsurge of her genetic inheritance.
We find in this poem the unique example of rune magic in which rune names are explicitly given. Besides, by some in-between reading, we can guess how to carry on a rune based galdr, as we have already seen and as we shall make more precise after the analysis of the
if there the moot [or the ‘thing’] holds,
and that he enjoys justly and often the convenience of his sweet home.
Put aside the somewhat preaching form of this poem and listen to its muffled growling of a riot in response to the abuse undergone by the ‘modern’ human beings living in Europe ever since the Middle Ages. It claims that we must love our country provided it holds free men’s meetings, that is, the Icelandic thing [Note 3]: “Native country [or ancestral home] is loved by each human, if there the moot [or the ‘thing’] holds.” It also says implicitly that on the contrary, if no thing ever takes place, as is the case in tyrannies and rotting democracies, then loving one’s country is meaningless, and a riot is legitimate. In other words, it tells us that our most precious inheritance is the moot among free human beings. Under a softer form is thus hidden that eþel, the most precious ancestral property, is this unbreakable stubbornness of saying no, no and still no to that which oppresses our freedom. This tyranny may be exerted by brute force, blackmailing our family, by smothering social constraints or by a subtle propaganda: None of them can happen in front of a free assembly of human beings.
Again, in a perhaps too naive style, the second sentence claims that the second precious inheritance is our right to lead an easy and happy life. With a quiet self-confidence, it rejects all those life theories that claim the contrary. I mean those that consider that our primary ancestral inheritance is a flaw, an “original sin.” On such a basis, we can build nothing but remorse and guilt in a way that poisons all kinds of human relationships. That is what is rejected by this apparently naive OERP.
This Anglo-Saxon poem, in spite of all the softening it certainly underwent in the course of time, goes on to deliver us an assignment of freedom and of self-acceptance.
What exactly means Skirnir when he speaks of ‘ungraving’ some runes? In order to better understand what this af-rísta process might mean, we shall analyze in depth a famous example provided by chapter 73 of Egill’s saga.
This saga tells us of a youngster who was willing to seduce a young maid and who carved for her clumsy runes, only succeeding in making her sick. Egill is called to help. We shall detail the successive steps of the process he undertakes. Each step must be seen as a part of a complex process; each step does not become efficient until the whole process is completed.
Step 1. He finds runes engraved whalebone under the maid’s pillow.
Step 2. Egill catches their meaning (“Egill las þær”, the proper meaning of the verb lesa, preterit las, is ‘to catch’), and he …
Step 3. “telgdi hann af rúnarnar (undoes notches in the shape of runes) » where the form ‘telgja af’’ is grammatically identical to the af-rísta we already analyzed. This undoing is similar to Skirnir’s one since telgja means ‘to hew wood or stone with a knife’. Egill thus “undoes notches in the shape of runes”, as Skirnir did.
Step 4. After that, he “scratched them while they were falling in a fire.”
Step 5. He burns the bone on which the runes were carved and airs the sick lady’s clothes.
Step 6. He voices a poem, usually seen as a simple poetical piece, while it rather a step of the magical undoing he is presently performing. It amounts to a galdr as he has already done several ones during his life. In this case, it is a healing galdr instead of being a cursing galdr (as in the ‘poem’ where he calls the ‘landalfr’, the country elves, to curse king Erik, ch. 58 of Egils Saga) or a protection galdr (as he did to expose the poison in a drink, Egils Saga ch.44).
This poem is very famous:
Skalat maðr rúnar rísta, This human should not carve runes
nema ráða vel kunni, unless he can properly read them,
þat verðr mörgum manni, this happens to many human beings
es of myrkvan staf villisk; to be lost because of these dark letters;
sák á telgðu tálkni I saw in the hewed whale bone
tíu launstafi ristna, ten secret letters engraved
þat hefr lauka lindi which of the lauka lindi
langs ofrtrega fengit. the long sufferings arose.
Immediately after, the saga continues:
Egill reist rúnar og lagði undir hægindið í hvíluna, þar er hún hvíldi;
Egill carved runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying.
Egill explains how dangerous it is to use runes that you are “not able to read.” Dear readers, I hope you realize that the goal of this chapter is to teach us how to properly read the runes, how to properly understand their meaning. You see that it amounts often to see them as teachers of a philosophy of life and of ethics. You also see that, even when no rune poem is available, we track their meaning in ancient Northern texts and in the old folklore.
This poem shows one main translation difficulty with the meaning of lauka lindi. The problem has two causes. For one, the translators visibly find cumbersome this lauka (plural genitive of laukr, that is ‘of the leeks’ – refer to rune Laukaz). For two, the word lind ou lindi can take two meanings. It is a lime tree or a girdle. We can thus call the sick maid a ‘lime tree of leeks’ or a ‘girdle of the leeks’. All experts translate by ‘lime tree of leeks’ or even forget this annoying ‘lauka’, and directly translate by lime tree, and feign to find obvious that it means ‘a woman’. The cause of these choices is so complex that I had to explain it in [Note 4]. Anyhow, this ‘lauka’ cannot be forgotten by the honest reader, and it alludes to this young maid’s internal strength, her viridity [again: see rune Laukaz]. She also imparts this viridity to her surrounding – the sexual side of it is obvious but not primary. This viridity enables to efficiently fight aggressions and we have seen that rune Laukaz is in charge of magical fights against all kinds of aggressions done with a poison. Egill cleverly adapts general kennings for a woman to the particular case of a recovering one by hinting that she ‘carries a belt of leeks’. In order to explain why, I need to recall at first that all kennings for a woman are clearly laudatory and even often enthusiastic (see [note 2]: this attitude is illustrated in some one thousand ways by the skalds). For a modern mind, this ‘belt of leeks’ is at best funny, which perhaps explains why the academics have been so standoffish toward this meaning. When I explained rune Laukaz, I almost heavily insisted on the point that, in the context of ancient Germanic traditions, the word laukr is also always clearly laudatory. It is exact that poetical kennings describe a woman as a carrier of gold rather than as carrier of vegetables! Egill, who lives in a civilization where ‘girdle of the leeks’ is laudatory, boldly contrives creating an unusual picture, valid for a galdr duration. Note that this kenning calls for both the maid’s viridity and the leek’s healing power. Forget your prejudices against the poetical use of vegetables, and feel awe in front of Egill's magical poetry!
Step 7. As the above citation shows, immediately after this galdr Egill carved (new) runes (Egill reist rúnar cannot mean something else) that we can assume to be healing runes. This text keeps silent about which runes he carved.
Step 8. He puts them under the sick maid’s pillow and she then recovers.
This completes the eight steps of a healing ceremony as described by Egill’s saga.
This healing ritual is described with outstanding precision, so well hidden under simple words and such a beautiful poem that it tends to be ignored. Note how a great sorcerer as Egill scorns all kind of hocus-pocus and runs his ritual in a humble and efficient way. Note also that no blood magic is used here: runic magic is not systematically bloody as claim those I believe to over-react to the sick fear our civilization toward blood.
This shows that the hallowing of the runes does not need to be bloody: A galdr can also mark out the exact role of the runes. In Egill’s case, his galdr is a healing galdr. This is not fixed, and depending on the galdr, the rune power can be neutral (it is an undirected call to its power), it can call for acceptance (what is called ‘white’ or ‘positive’ or ‘protective’ magic), it can call for rejection (what is called ‘black’ or ‘negative’ or ‘aggressive’ magic). In Skirnir’s case, when he proposes to erase the runes, he claims to be able to pronounce an acceptance galdr, which has been unfortunately forgotten. In other words, the runes have been carved and Skirnir says to Gerdhr: “Here are the runes I used, should I keep them or scrape them off, and write new ones? If you accept Freyr, then these new runes will be hallowed by an acceptation ritual. This means that, if you accept Freyr, he will also formally accept you.” We have to understand that Gerdhr does not change her mind as fast as the poem makes us believe: The skald speaks to people who were knowledgeable in magical rituals and they obviously knew better than we do the ritual that took place between verses 36 and 37.
I cannot explain all this better than by proposing to listen to a galdr I partially put on my website (the whole galdr is not made public), where the runes Mannaz and Ingwaz are used in three different ways. As another examples, you will also find three different galdr for Naudiz, depending on which Norn is called upon. Consult the page
Insofar as Othala is the rune of ancestral inheritance, it directly concerns those who wish to ask something from their ancestors. Several poems describe how the heroe visits his or her ancestors in search of a magic sword. We have just seen an example of this behavior with rune Dagaz, when quoting the poem Hervör’s Chant where the young maiden Hervör goes in the hillock where her father is buried in order to ask him for his sword. There are several Danish versions of this myth, found in the popular Danish songs collected by Sven Gruntvig (1853-1883), where a boy recovers a precious object. In the same vein, there are many tales where children, deprived of their heritage, will ask for justice from a dead relative who had tenderly liked them. These tales are always strongly Christianized but remain obvious stories of necromancy. A very touching version of these myths is the one of the mistreated children who go on their mother’s grave (Puymaigre’s 1885 Folk-lore, Walloon version).
Quand c’est v’nu à la fosse, à deux genoux s’ sont mis.
- Douce Vierge Mari’, not’ mèr’ n’est-elle point ci ?
Aussitôt la parol’, la terre s’est ouvrie ;
La mèr’ prend le plus p’tit, à son écour l’assit, …
- Reva-t-en, mon enfant.
Va t’en servir ton père et ta marâtre mère, …
Et si ell’ te demande qui t’a si bien appris :
- C’était ma pauvre mèr’, qu’elle est en terre pourrie.
They came to the pit, on their two knees they set.
- Sweet Holy Mary, is not our moth’r around?”
At once the word, the earth open’d.
The moth’r holds th’ smallest, sit him on her lap, …
- Go back my child.
Go serve your father and your mother stepmother …
And if she asks who taught you so well:
- T’was my poor moth’r, (‘that’) she is rotten in earth.
In general, however, the dead accommodate their visitors curtly. For example, Léon Pineau (Vieux chants populaires scandinaves, 1898) gives us a Breton version of the woman who finds back her husband in his grave. He rejects her with a mere hint to tenderness.
Elle a poussé de si hauts cris …
(qu’elle) s’en fut trouver son mari.
Ma femme, ma femme, retire-toi :
Ta bouche sent le souci,
Et la mienne le pourri, …
She howled so loud
(that) she could join her husband.
My wife, my wife, withdraw:
Your mouth smells marigold,
And mine stinks rotten, …
The Edda shows us that even when the necromancer is a God, Ódhinn or Freyja, the awakened dead are hardly pleasant with whoever disturbs them. Saxo Grammaticus gives us an example where a giantess magically awakens the dead, but in this case one she does not know and whose reaction is much more aggressive!
Then it happened that, during the travel undertaken by her companion [Hadingus, saxonized in Hadding by the English translators], she [the daughter of the giant who has been foster father to Hadingus. She also took care of him, and she later became his enthralled lover] had to spend the night in a house where the funeral of a deceased host was celebrated in sorrow and sadness. She grasped the opportunity to practise magic: she wanted to evoke the dead’s soul, and had Hadingus place under the dead one’s tongue some horrible verses carved on wood, and thus forced the dead one to speak this unbearable song: “Be shamed and be cursed whoever has torn me from Hell! Who brought me back from darkness … that one, for price of her lack of consciousness will bitterly cry. Be shamed and be cursed whoever has torn me from Hell! When the black plague of a monstrous swirl will have forcefully emptied your entrails… [your] articulations torn off by a wild nail, you then Hadingus, you will preserve your life… but your wife, being soiled by her crime, will alleviate my ashes, herself becoming ashes… Be shamed and be cursed whoever has torn me from Hell!”
There remains a popular practice of this ancient testimony, reported by P. Deichman (1794) (quoted by Pineau):
When Icelanders wish evil on somebody, they take a rather long piece of wood, from two to three fingers wide. They carve magic letters in which they make their blood run. After that, they go to a grave and insert this stick down to the corpse. They believe that the dead one comes to them and they then order him to do which evil they wish upon their enemy. It is however necessary to hasten stating your wish to the dead, otherwise they could speak at first, and would kill you.
This practice enables us to understand what happened to the giantess described by Saxo. She has been a bit too slow in speaking first and, instead of “forcing the dead one” to submit to her will, she has “forced the dead one to speak an unbearable song.” The “magic characters” engraved by the necromancers in order to compose their “horrible verses” are probably the runes dedicated to the magician Gods, Ódhinn, Freyja and Freyr. When addressing one’s own ancestors, rune Othala can certainly also be used.
To summarize, either you do not believe in the reality of necromancy and see it as a ridiculous ceremony within which desires and reality are confused, or you believe in it, and then you have to see it as powerful magic which does as much evil to whom ever practices it as it does to whom it is directed. I want to stress that the innocent children described above, who will kneel on the tomb of their mother, actually use the explicit magic of an invocation to the Holy Virgin, and they as well will ask their dead mother to act against someone, namely their stepmother. I realize quite well that it is a so-called ‘defense magic’, but I do not think it possible to draw a clear line between defense and attack when personal relations are concerned. I do not especially put anathema on necromancy, but I wish to denounce the false good faith of the false innocent ones, I wish that we all be conscious of what we undertake.
This is why I believe that it is necessary to be extremely careful in our behavior as a practitioner of the worship of the ancestors. The Greek and Latin pagan religions, the dominant religions and even the Wicca, have got us used to begging for favors from the Spirits or from the divinities, instead of honoring them for what they are, asking them nothing but accept our reverence. It follows that a ceremony at first intended to honor the ancestors can turn very quickly to necromancy, as soon as favors are required from the ancestors. The myths tell us that, in this case, it may not always be dangerous, but that it is very often perceived by the dead as an undesired intrusion. Homage turns to confrontation.
There also exist many testimonies of the voluntary returning of the dead, in particular of parents, visiting the living. In general, these visits do not announce anything good. The tradition wants that, for a certain period of the year, Samain among Celts and Yule among the Scandinavians, the two populations can mix without danger. The popularity of the festival of Halloween shows that the sharpest of oppositions of the Christian Churches could not break down the popularity of the bond between the living and the dead.
Othala opens the doors between the world of the dead and that of the living.
[Note 1] There exist several
versions of the runic words used in this text. I’ll give you the main ones. The ON text I propose to
you is Rask’s (1818) Skirnisför. When
it is significant, I put between [ ] Möbius’s (1860) emendations as [Mö: ‘emendation’], for example [Mö: Skirnismál], and Gering's (1922),
for example [Ge:
[Note 2] Cleasby-Vigfusson: Richard Cleasby, Gudbrand Vigfusson, William Craig, An Icelandic-English dictionary, 1874-1962.
de Vries: Jan de Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Leiden, 1961.
Gering: Hugo Gering, Glossar zu den Lierdern der Edda, Paderborn, 1923.
Kock und Meissner: E. A. Kock und R. Meissner Skaldisches Lesebuch (Teil 2: Wörterbuch), Halle 1931.
Kuhn: Hans Kuhn, Edda, Die Lieder des Codex Regius, (II. Kurzes Wörterbuch), Heidelberg 1968.
[Note 3] In ancient Pagan Iceland, the Heathen Gods’ priests have also been local leaders. They would call this meeting (the þing) where that had a judicial power since they would decide on the dispute put in front of the þing.
[Note 4] As announced, the whole thing is not simple.
I introduce at first the bibliographical information necessary for understanding my translation of Egill’s lauka lindi.
It is necessary at first to know where the accepted kennings come from. They are found in the Eddic and Skaldic poems. These poems are obviously found in manuscripts that are spread all over Europe. This is why the usual reference is published books containing these poems. As for the Eddic poems, I already cited the editions of Rask, Möbius, Gering etc. As for the Skaldic poems, the basic reference is Finnur Jónsson, Den Norsk-Islandiske Skjaldedigtning, Copenhagen, 1908-1912, often called following its first three letters, ‘Skj’. This edition has been criticized by a Swedish scholar , E. Kock who published his own version in Ernst A. Kock, Den Norsk-Isländska Skaldediktiningen, Lund 1946-1949. You will soon understand why I need to explain all that. Though being older, the undisputable superiority of Jónsson’s work is connected to the two different presentations it provides. Part A shows the texts as Jónsson has read them, with no interpretation. Part B shows the same texts, as Jónsson has understood them. He slightly modifies the word ordering but he emends them often so that the text makes sense for him. This part B also provides in its footnotes a ‘prose’ version where the words are put back in the ordering they would have in a prose text. It provides also a Danish translation. The web as well gives an edition of the whole body of the skaldic poems. Its essentially reproduces Kock’s version, http://skaldic.arts.usyd.edu.au.
The basic reference gathering (almost) all the existing kennings is due to Rudolf Meissner, Die Kenningar der Skalden, Bonn 1921. I counted around 60 kennings in each page of this book, which means a gross total number of some 23 000 kennings. The part devoted to kennings for a woman covers 16 pages, that is, some 1000 kennings. Notice that the references given by Meissner are relative to the part B of the Skj, which means that these kennings are given in the part that Jónsson interpreted. I never saw any patent mistake in Meissner’s translations. The above cited website, skaldic.art, provides a list of 2915 kennings grouped as Meissner did, but with a different content: It completes Meissner more than it reproduces it. These kennings are given together with a complete translation that sometimes seems strange to me. For example, I saw the word fólk translated by ‘battle’ while this word means either ‘folk’ or ‘host’.
Now then, why do all scholars translate the lindi of lauka lindi by ‘elm tree’? Two causes are possible and both are not very probable, and they certainly are independent of each other. To combine them in believing that their combined probability is increased shows a gross misunderstanding of probability laws.
The first cause is linked to the frequency of the kenning comparing a woman to a tree, specifically to an elm tree. She is mainly compared to a pine-tree, in 32 different kennings. Then come the elm tree with 12 kennings (among them lauka lindi) and the oak with 11 kennings (among them lauka eik). Then follow the willow, 6, the birch, 4, fir and the apple tree, 1. It follows that when we meet a kenning containing lind it is probable that this lind be the elm-tree. Now, remember that the word used in the present kenning is lindi, instead of lind, the experts have decided that lind can show an exceptional declension case, as if it were a feminine lindr, which would indeed give lindi in the dative and accusative cases. This argument is credible but totally ad’hoc. It should not be used as a proof in a further reasoning claiming to be rational.
The second cause is based on the existence of the kenning, lauka eik (the oak of the leeks), for a woman. The word eik means nothing else than oak, which implies there is no need to take into account the second meaning of lindi, a belt, in a similar kenning. The complete kenning, as indicated by the footnotes of the part B of the Skj is blið lauka eik (the sweet oak of the leeks). The same version is given by Kock. This kenning is found in in verse 4 of a laukavisa (Skj B, p. 96 – Kock vol. 1, p. 56) of Gísli Súrsson and it approximately dates to 950. It is therefore an indisputable authority in matter of kennings. By looking at the part A of the Skj, we observe that the word met in the manuscripts is not lauka, but laukar, a plural nominative. It is thus perfectly possible to claim that the kenning lauka eik is not undisputedly attested. As the supposed dative of lindi, it cannot be a part of a rational argument.
In conclusion, I can ‘charge’ Egill of having been a genius poet, able to fuse two images for the young maid he was healing. She has been sick and Egill calls upon a ‘girdle of the leeks’ that will protect her from the harmful runes, as a magical armor could. She will heal, and take back her lean and elegant shape she had before her sickness, and again become strong and fertile has an elm tree. In this sense, she is indeed an ‘elm tree of the leeks’.
It is extremely striking and significant that all this magical poetry would be due to the adjunction of a mere ‘i’ at the end of lind!