the rune of the Frost-giants, called Þursar
in Old Norse, of the wild
men, of the primal manly strength. It is a protection rune for the warrior who
wishes to become identical to the most brutish beings. If you decide to use
this rune (or if you ‘draw’ it for divination) do not believe that this use or
this meeting might be trifling. At any rate, unless you already are a monster,
it will never bring you protection .
This rune enables to do harm to women (or to the feminine side of a male) by putting to sleep their magical power, as Sigrdrífa’s and Dornröschen’s powers were put to sleep by a thorn sting. This loss of magical power is several times described by the runic poems as a being a torture, not a painless sleep.
It generally emphasizes the masculine side of each gender and injures their feminine sides.
Cognates: Thurse (in German and French), which is the name of the Frost-giants. The Old Norse name of a Frost-giant is þurs (pronounced as ‘þuss’).
‘Not-a-cognate’: It has no known etymological link
with the name of the god Thórr. [Note 1].
Since so many people believe that Thurisaz is Thórr’s rune, I will spend some time to explain why I am so sure that this is a Christian tale, zealously accepted by our modern Pagans. A long sequence of small mistakes explains how what would have been a sacrilegious statement for any Thórr’s devotee became so popular. This tendency has been boosted by the success of the so-called ‘Armanen’ runes of de Guido List who calls ‘thorr’ the third rune. However, no skaldic, eddic or runic poem, no Old Norse commentaries, no runic inscription supports such a connection.
The Viking runic inscriptions write Thórr’s name as “Thurisaz - Uruz - Raido” (‘TUR’) while the Frost-giants’ one is written “Thurisaz - Raido - Sowelo” (‘TRS’). This ambiguity can explain how could happen the confusion Thor/Thurs. What I call ‘the Jesch method’ (see references of her works in the bibliography), that is, her way of tracking words meanings back and forth from the runic inscriptions to the skaldic poems, shows that what is written with a un ‘ó’ is very often rendered with a in the runic inscriptions. Since is classically the letter ‘u’, it can further explain how a confusion could take place. Yet another explanation can stem from the fact that the Old English Rune Poem used the word ðorn (thorn – and it indeed describes a thorny being, see below) in place of the word þurs. Then, mere copying mistakes confusing the last ‘n’ with an ‘r’ might have led to reading ðorr in place of ðorn.
Obviously, the full sequence of errors, during the history of the runic studies, making possible this confusion is a bit complex and I push its details to [Note 2] where a few objective information are provided. I will now illustrate my statement that the runic poems and their commentaries cannot lead us to a confusion between the god Thórr and the rune Þurs – as it is called in Old Norse.
Here is a set of kennings found, in Latin and in Old Norse, in the Þrideilur Rúna given just after the runic poems. It is a late version, which usually leads me to be cautious of this version. Inversely, it illustrates now that, even in the somewhat later versions of the runic commentaries, it is impossible to associate the Viking rune thurs (þurs) to the god Thórr. I give you below a kind of facsimile of this text the structure of which is kept, except that I added to it the Old Norse (ON) version in between [ ] when it would shed light on the Latin version.
Molestia machinator. Oddrunæ vir Furia-
rum parens Erymnis alumnis [ON: fostri gridar]. Procerus dæmon
[ON: här Tyr],
celsus capito, Athleta rupicula, Saxonum villi-
cus [ON: og hamra búe]. Heinis [ON: Heimis] vibrator (arbor lapidescens qva pro hasta spear usi sunt Gigantes) Geigis stuprator
Tussle maker. Oddrúna’s man, parent of the Furies,
Erymnis disciple [I guess Erynnis is meant here. The ON commentary means: ‘child of spite’]. High demon [ON: high Týr],
head upright [or proud], Athlete of the cliff, steward of the Saxons [ON: and he is able to change shape].
Heimis ‘flaunter’ (a javelin, the Giants are used to through stones on anyone in place of a spear), Geigis seducer,
Grimnir provoker [or ‘infuriater’].
In place of Geigis stuprator the ON text uses a sentence showing that the mild Latin seducer is actually a violent rapist: “hrumnir (the crippling one) œðridar (the rider of rapture) giœler (the screaming one).”
Thórr is well known for flaunting his hammer, Mjöllnir, a name we cannot confuse with Heimis or Heinis. Grimnir is one of Ódhinn’s names, Thórr does not provoke nor infuriate Ódhinn while the Thurs are the sworn enemies of all the Aesir, therefore of Ódhinn. The Latin “steward of the Saxons” was an Old Norse “shape changer” and nowhere is Thórr described as a shape changer while the Trolls are often accused of being sorcerers who can change shapes. The only ambiguous ways of speech that can possibly designate Thórr are “High Týr” and “Proud head.” In the Latin version, Týr is described as a demon as are all other Heathen gods. The name of Týr is used in poetry in order to qualify any person to be singled out, man or God. This is why this hár Týr (här Tyr in the manuscript) visibly points at someone of gigantic size, a feature indeed common to the Giants and to Thórr. Similarly, Thórr’s pride is often alluded to in the Eddas (he can even be a little boastful). However, the Giants are themselves often aggressively proud.
Thórr’s considerable size and strength, and as soon as his continuous fight
against the Giants was forgotten in the people’s mind, he can obviously be
confused with a Giant. For instance, there is a Frisian folktale describing two
giants who have a violent contest. One giant sits on the cathedral ‘De Dom’ in
Another cause of confusion comes from our understanding of the word ‘troll’ because the sagas often call ‘troll’ a Giant. It happens that some ‘new trolls’ (say, these imagined during the Middle Ages) are nice little creatures or, at worse, they are mischievous and impish. The ‘old trolls’, that is our Giants, the Þursar, always are particularly nasty giants. The sagas several times describe the fight of the hero and a he- or she-troll. Another lost feature of our Giants is that the she-type is considered as an even better fighter than the he-type, as illustrated by Grendel’s mother of the epic poem Beowulf.
Chapter 2 described at length of the Frost-giants, the first Giant being created inside the waters rolling over the frost of Ginungagap, these Þursar whose name is obviously associated to this third rune. Everything that has been then said about them, their strength, their knowledge and intelligence, their genetic defects, the males’ ugliness and the females’ extreme beauty is now merged into this single word, Thurisaz.
This rune has been engraved in two forms, one is sharp, ; the other is rounded, . Both are equally frequent between years 200 et 700.
Norse Rune Poem: (normalized form due to Wimmer)
vældr kvenna kvillu;
kátr værðr fár af illu.
brings to women torture.
Few will be merry of ill [or difficulty]
Wimmer calls this rune Thurs (Giant). The runic poem states clearly that this rune carries the power of the Þursar who are able to cripple the women. Since all descriptions of the Frost-giants show them living a rough life, in harsh environments, I think there is no doubt that Thurisaz represents some kind of primitive male brutality, somewhat a reverse of Fehu, while Uruz is a transition between the two. The Frost-giants are these beings unable to practice Northern shamanism (called seidhr), hardly able to make use of the runes. They are protected by their brutish strength and their knowledge, both of such range that Thórr only, himself symbolizing strength, is able to oppose them. As for knowledge, Ódhinn needs to resort to cheating to be able to overcome the knowledge of the Frost-giant Vafthrúdhnir: he asks what himself, Ódhinn, whispered in the ear of dead Baldr, when he was carried on his pyre. The Þursar symbolize the “science without conscience” that destroys everything in its way. This helps us to understand why Thórr, as a representative among the Aesir of the brutish forces, could be associated to his worse enemies. You know why I oppose this confusion.
The second line harmoniously blends to the first one since this brutish destructive force brings often ill, and his rather disliked by most people. The Futhark, however, reminds us of the existence of this force and warns those who dare shunning its power.
Icelandic rune poem:
this is suffering [or torture] of the women,
The dweller of the cliffs,
The husband of Varthrún.
Wimmer again calls this rune Thurs (Giant). As an example of where Wimmer finds these names, here is the Latin commentary found in the Þrideilur Rúna. It provides the following kennings: Þúrs Rúpicola (‘Thurs’ the cliffs), múlierum formiðo (women’s terror) saxorúm incola (stones’ dweller) Varðrúnæ maritús (Varðrún’s husband). This Latin commentary adds no new information to the older Old Norse version of the Icelandic runic poem, but it confirms that the Icelanders of the 15-16th centuries did not confuse Thurs and the god Thórr.
This runic poem thus confirms Thurisaz’ anti-female role and that the Frost-giants live in harsh conditions (here, cliffs). They live also in the mountains and snow and ice are part of their natural environment. Varthrún is the name of a giantess: this kind of metaphoric description, we already called a kenning, is usual in skaldic poetry [Note 3]. Her name is quite meaningful since varð means, as ward does, a guardian or a seal and rún is a rune. Thus, Varthrún could be the seal or the guardian of the runes. Unfortunately, we know nothing else of Varthrún, it is thus impossible to guess what is the lost myth which spoke about her.
Relative to the fourth line of the Icelandic rune poem, the word Saturnus obviously points at the ancient Greek god who has been beaten by Zeus. This story has a similarity with the relationship between Thórr and the Giants which should not, however, lead us to confuse the two myths. The Old Norse word þengill again means ‘king, chief’. Its Germanic root evokes the fact that a þengill is a clever tactician or a good manager.
the OERP totally modified the meaning of the word: Thurisaz becomes Dorn,
spelled ðorn in Old English so that
it may also be written as ‘dhorn’. It is then logical to ask why they are
looked upon as one and the same rune. Here are the usual reasons: 1. their
names, without being real cognates, show some linguistic links; 2. They have
the same rank in the corresponding Futharks: Rune Thurisaz/Thurs/Ðorn is
always in the third place in the Germanic ancient Futhark and in the Old English
Their graphical shapes are identical;
Old English Rune Poem:
ðorn [thorn] [this is also a kenning for ‘Giant’] [Note 4] is fiercely sharp to the bondmen [Note 5], grasping [it brings] evil,
Exceedingly adamant with humans who rest with it.
This sharp thorn reminds us of the ‘sleeping thorn’ with which Ódhinn stung Sigrdrífa in order to punish her mutiny. Here again, the female powers are put to sleep if not killed. As for Sigrdrífa, she will even be forfeited of her Valkyrja standing and will have to become married. It may seem unclear why these warriors go resting in the thorns. A link becomes perfectly clear when we think that a she-warrior, rather than of a he-warrior, has been changed in a bondwoman: The faulty she-warrior painfully feels the sharpness of the forfeiting thorn and as Sigrdrífa (and, later, the Dornröschen of the Grimm tales, also called ‘Briar-Rose’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’), she will be unconscious a long time due to these thorns. My interpretation is confirmed by the way Saxo Grammaticus reports the answer made by a maid to a Giant’s marriage proposal:
Which sensitive maid would like to be a Giant’s prostitute? or could stand his colossus’ bed? Becoming the wife of a demon and knowing that his seed generates monsters? How could her wish to share the bed of a Titan? Who would sting her fingers with thorns? Who would give to mud untainted kisses? Who would like her soft body to be locked in a hairy and ill-matched embrace? When your being refuses it, the voluptuous pleasures cannot be reached. The women’s desires cannot match a monster’s love!
This text alludes to thorns and shows again that they have been linked to a negative influence of thorns on the well-being of the women.
Yet another facet of the Giants’ powers is the ability to own a kind of protection during battle. They are shown as being immune to the Aesir’s attacks and Thórr is the only God who can crash them under the gigantic strength of his blows. This recalls the end of the human warriors who carry protection charms: They resist any attack by a sword since iron cannot bite them. They however stay under the rule of some natural laws since their skin cannot be cut but their bones, under the skin, can be broken by a strong enough blow.
Third verse of the Ljóðatal [Note 6]
I know a third
If I must, by great need,
Bind the sons of the dispute.
I blunt the cutting edges of my foes
Nor their weapons nor their slyness can bite.
Note how much naturally this third verse is associated to Thurisaz since the Giants resist the cutting edge of the swords. This is a kind of late argumentation justifying the choice I did to associate the verses of the Ljóðatal to the runes having the same rank.
For instance, we find the following tale in the Harvard’s saga (Hávardhar Saga Ísfirdhings). Two saga’s characters, Atli and Thorgrímr, are fighting. Thorgrímr is not affected by the edge of Atli’s sword. Then Atli states: “You are troll-wise, Thorgrímr, and not a human since iron does not bite you.” In the Icelandic sagas, trolls, giants and Þursar are all one. We find a similar example in Arrow-Odd’s saga (Örvar-Odd saga). The hero of the saga is fighting the “ugliest man he ever met” but none of them is able to wound the other one. Oddr then states: “Each of us can say the same of the other, that is, he seems to be a troll rather than a human.” These statements clearly show that the Middle Ages Icelanders still kept in mind the idea that a Giant would resist the cutting edge of a sword.
Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf illustrates
the same fact. This poem has been made during the eighth century and, in spite
of being very Christian, it contains many Heathen references and many allusions
to the ancient Germanic way of life. Beowulf is in charge of ridding the
(line 424) …
wið þam aglæcan,
with him ready to fight,
ðing wið þyrse.
a trial against the þurs.
ond nu wið Grendel sceal,
and now with Grendel I must [be]
I alone meet
Beowulf decides to kill Grendel with his bare hands and he will finally take the better over Grendel by tearing his shoulder out:
(line 815) …
(for this) dire monster;
a deadly wound appeared,
burst asunder the joints.
A wound was ‘obtained’
him on eaxle wearð
on his shoulder ‘ward’
the sinews broke,
[The ‘ward’ of a
shoulder is a poetical way to speak of the set of muscles protecting
(‘warding’) the bones].
This shoulder is displayed as a token of victory in the hall the
(line 1519) …
þæt hire on hafelan
so that on her head
[sung her] greedy war-song.
þæt se beadoleoma
to scathe the life,
ðeodne æt þearfe;
the prince at need;
(line 1533) …
his hands mighty grip.
‘granted’ a mighty
hond sweng ne ofteah,
and stroke without restraint,
the decorated sword
ða se gist onfand
Then the guest found
refused to bite,
ac seo ecg geswa
and also its edge failed
[his] strength to be trusted,
As you can see, Beowulf at first ‘grants’ his sword to Grendel’s mother, but he has to fight her bare-handed, the second Þurs who is magically protected from the sword edge.
All this explains why the Northern people would believe that the Þursar were protected from sword wounds by a charm, and that the third of Ódhinn’s songs is associated to Thurisaz. This explains as well how it could become a rune of protection against swords for a warrior. War makes of humans kind of monsters when they are full of warring fury as might be Ódhinn’s berserkers. In this way they can be identified, at least for some time, to these monstrous Giants. Note how much specialized is this kind of protection. It happens that many persons believe that Thurisaz or Dorn are protection runes of general use, particularly for women! This belief contradict everything we know of Thurisaz, except if the person, man or woman, his fighting with a deadly rage and wishes to become identical to a Frost-Giant. If you don’t’ really believe in rune power, this has no real importance. Inversely, if you sincerely believe that runes carry a magical power, and you do not look upon you as being a monster, then the protection changes into a self-curse, certainly the most efficient of all curses.
Quite arbitrarily and recently, the God Thórr and the Frost-giants became confused in such a way that the word ‘thurs’ became ‘thor’. Guido List’s Armanen runen, at the beginning of the 20th century, confirmed this tendency since he dares call ‘thorr’ the third rune. I do not think that Thórr’s systematic murdering of Giants is a feature to worship the most and I would naturally be happy to bring together the God and these ‘monsters’. In spite of this feeling, I must acknowledge that no skaldic, eddic or runic poem, no Old Norse commentary, no runic inscription support this reconciliation of the Frost-giants and Thórr.
Finally, as you can guess, a good many people identify this malevolent thorn to a supposedly malevolent erected penis. This provides a nicely ultra-feminist image opposing the sweetness of feminine Fehu to the harshness of masculine Thurisaz! We must acknowledge that this image is partly in accordance with a Northern tradition where the word ‘thorn’ is often used to speak of the masculine sex without any hint at malevolence, however. Thus, on the one hand, the word þorn, thorn, is associated to a penis in several ways. On the other hand, this association is never derogatory to this ‘thorn’ (as opposed to the case where ‘thorn’ is associated to a Giant, as we already have seen). In old poetry, for example, the kenning Freyja þorna [Note 7], the ‘Freyja of the thorns’ stands for a woman and the Goddess Freyja is not really famous for hating the male sex, erected or not. Modern poetry can designate a woman by þorngrund, þornreið (the ground of the thorn; the travel of the thorn). The reference to a travel is quite positive and reminds us of the “way of the delicious viper” we have seen with Fehu. The reference to the ground evokes more fertility than brutality. No reference to malevolence is there, and this is confirmed by the sagas dealing with this topic. There is one saga telling the story of a cursed penis, and the curse would make of it a so huge item that the cursed man (who dared to lie to a powerful sorceress who seems to have been quite humorous!) was unable to have sex with his wife. This item is spoken of as a topic of jokes rather than horror, and the wife finally divorced with benefit. In another saga, inversely, a woman watches the naked hero and mocks the relative small size of his penis. The hero reacts by proposing to show her what he can nevertheless do with it, and the saga concludes that the bargain satisfied both. In other words, this ultra-feminist interpretation of Thurisaz seems to me opposed to the tradition of a proud and honored Germanic woman who is not humiliated by the males, and thus considers their sex more as an interesting toy that a hurting weapon. The malevolence of thorny Thurisaz is not a physical one. It is rather a tool to use in order to deprive the woman of her magical ‘charm’, to put it to sleep, as happened to Sigrdrífa and Dornröschen.
[Note 1] Again about the accents: The name of God Thórr is written with a ‘long o’, ‘ó’, and I’ll always respect this spelling when I speak of this God. When I report of the way other people spell it, I use their spelling, thor, torr etc
[Note 2] It is always very
hard to track back the origin of an old legend. Here is the objective
information I could gather about it. Firstly, the name ‘Thor’ for this rune
is attested in a runic alphabet you can find in a book carrying the seal
Gustaf III of Sweden, ‘therefore’ very likely published around 1780. Its name
is Suecia antiqva et hodierna
(Antique and modern
This informs us that this letter is represented by a Latin ‘D’, that it sounds like a ‘th’, that two shapes are possible, one sharp and the other rounded, that its name is “Thor v [ = vel, ‘or else’, in Latin] Thuss.” This is a non-commented alphabet, thus we do not know from what originates the name ‘Thor’, and if it has any link with the name of the God Thórr. This however proves that from the 18th century on, this rune has been indeed associated to a word identical to Thórr’s name. This enables us to understand from where comes this ‘tradition’ which claims what would have been seen as sacrilegious to a 10th c. Thórr devotee. The origin of the forms ‘Thuss’ (= the way ‘thurs’ was pronounced) and ‘Thor’ can be understood through Ole Worm’s works, as we shall now see.
The famous Swedish scholar Ole Worm published in
The sign ‘long s’ followed by a ‘short s’ (it looks like a kind of β) usually replaces a double ‘s’. The versions ‘duss’ and ‘thuss’ certainly find their origin there. Remember that ‘thuss’ is a possible pronunciation of the word ‘thurs’. You note that the version ‘Thor’ has not yet been invented but we can easily understand how a ‘Thors’ could be changed into a ‘Thor’. This gives us a direct link with the version of Suecia antiqva et hodierna. Note also that “Stungin Thyr” hints at the Anglo-Saxon version thorn since the word stunga means ‘a wound made by a pointed object’. Worm provides also a comment associated to each rune. Here is the beginning of the one provided for this third rune:
The Latin text means : « Specter (who) dwells in the mountains, the form of which is comparable to the one of the dwarves and the giants in antiquity, …” This describe a population of mountain dwarves or giants, not at all God Thórr.
Finally, in the same book, Worm provides a complete printed version of the Norse runic poem. Here is the part for rune ‘duss’. The original is written in late runic letters and, as usual, does not say the name of the rune but shows its shape, as you can see below.
This version is very similar to Wimmer’s normalized version I provided above. Thus, it does not allude to the God Thórr.
The sequence of interpretation mistakes I am exposing here are explained by analyzing the Runic lexicon, Specimen Lexici Runici, published in 1650 by Magnús Ólafsson and Ole Worm. In this lexicon, you will find no word as ‘Dors’ or ‘Thors’. You will however find a masculine name, þuβa, unambiguously written with two adjacent ‘s’ runes: , the Latin meaning of which is: Semidæmon. As an example of use of this word, the author cite Gretti’s saga as follows: “Fyrer dalinum ried þuβa blendigur sa þorer hiet.” The present day normalized version of this citation is (Grettis Saga, ch. 61): “… fyrir dalnum hafi ráðið blendingur, þurs einn sá er Þórir hét, …”. The old and new version bearing the same meaning: “ the vale was driven by a troll (blendingr = a half man, half giant being, an ‘intermingled’) a þurs who was named Þórir.” As you can see, the þuβa of the 1650’s became a þurs in the modern version, but there is more important. What is really striking is the mistaken Latin translation given by Ólafsson et Worm: “Convalli præfuit Thorerus consanguineus gigantum,” that is: “Thórr parent of the giants drove the steep-sided vale.” I can guess that the Latin version of the name þorer or Þórir was the same as the Latin for the God Thórr, namely Thorerus. Thus, with a name confusion, a small mistranslation (blendigur does nor exactly mean consanguineus) and a large mistranslation consequence of they forgetting to translate ‘hiet’ (= he was named), Ólafsson and Worm suggest to their Latin readers that the God Thórr is a blood relative to their ‘þuβa’ that is to say, the Frost-giants, in turn defined as semi-demons. The Frost-giants are indeed semi-demons within the Northern tradition but confusing them with Thórr is wrong.
Now you see how a sequence of small mistakes could lead us to the large mistake of confusing the þursar and Thórr. Add to all this the misunderstandings caused by the fact that all Heathen Gods have been looked upon as demons by the Christian scribes (see above the kenning in the Þrideilur Rúna the name of the God Týr translated to Latin by dæmon), and it becomes easy to understand the confusion between the God Thórr and the Frost-giants. Ólafsson and Worm’s book proves this confusion took place before 1650, but Worm’s book proves also the name of the third rune was not yet confused with Thórr’s name in 1636 since the form ‘Thors’ given by Worm could be taken as the genitive of Thórr, but all the names are obviously given in the nominative case. After 1636, some commentators believed themselves very clever to be able to build the chain “Demon = Thórr = Thors = third rune,” that is quite obvious, but as I have shown to you, they based their reasoning on false premises.
[Note 3] The poems found in the Icelandic sagas and cited in the chapters of this book are examples of skaldic poetry. This poetry systematically uses metaphors, called kennings as we have seen, and its rhythm is carried by alliterations rather than rimes. These alliterations unfortunately cannot be translated if the meaning of the poetry is to be kept, they however cause the singular beauty of the skaldic poetry.
In case of a replacement of one single word by another single word, the proper skaldic term is not ‘kenning’ but ‘heiti’. In order to avoid an accumulation of technical terms, I will in the following improperly use the word ‘kenning’ in place of ‘heiti’.
[Note 4] The Eddic poem called ‘In praise to Thórr’ (Þórsdrápa), is explained and commented in detail on my web site (though I have to partly revise this translation!), uses the les expressions Þorns niðjum (the offspring of the thorn), svíra Þorns (the neck of the thorn), í þornrann (in the house of the thorn). Obviously, the word thorn refers to a Giant as shown by the context of the poem.
It seems that our ancestors would have been exceedingly wary of thorns,
in such a way that we can hardly imagine. This is attested by the polysemic
Irish word for hawthorn, úath or huath, meaning hawthorn, the Ogam letter
H, and terror. As lines 1177 and 1178 of the Auraicept say: “… huath -i-
sce: no ar is uathmar hi ara deilghibh.” (“… huath, i.e., hawthorn [scé in standard Irish]: or because it
terrifying due to the sting of its thorns”). We would hardly now qualify
hawthorn as ‘terrifying’.
We would hardly now qualify hawthorn as ‘terrifying’.
[Note 5] During the Middle Age, a bondman is a vassal who has to take arms at the request of his overlord. I thus call a ‘bondman/bondwoman’ any person who partly gave up his/her freedom, for another reason than just receiving a regular income, as a servant does. This social position is in between a free person and a slave. As we shall see with the runes Wunjo and Mannaz, this is one of the meanings of the Old Norse man (Old Norse for English ‘man’ is maðr).
[Note 6] As the other translations, this translation of Hár Sayings is mine. I try to stay as close as possible to the words original text. It happens then that my translation is loaded with several possible meanings. I however feel my own translation more poetical, it carries better the magic of the text than the academic translations. I can only hope that you share my feeling!
[Note 67I did find, after some efforts, the expression þorna þungra in a drápa by Einarr Gilsson (14th c.). The context enables us to identify this Þungra (the heavy one!) with Freyja.