Uruz

 

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

 

Uruz carries a large range of meanings. She represents the wild bull, also called aurochs, whose strength, even at rest, is impressive enough to make you feel somewhat aggressed. This kind of powerful energy is not purely male and this rune also speaks of female strength, and of this sort of challenging relationship in which males as well as females are able to impress their adversary without visible aggression. This behavior has long been seen as not proper for the ‘real woman’ and reproved in folk tales. Modern feminism, however, promoted it and even made it ordinary – though it is still politically incorrect, but more for males than for females.

The runic view of the world speaks of a complex femininity where softness is a hoard of feminine wealth, belonging to rune Fehu. Fierceness, be it feminine or masculine, is contained in rune Uruz. This kind of well controlled violence might be more visible in female elders who look more for efficiency rather than tenderness. The couple Fehu-Uruz thus describes a many faceted individual with features that blend harmoniously so as to define a fascinating Old Germanic woman.

Uruz is also the sacred drizzle (or mud, or mead) that flows over the branches of the world tree in order to fertilize the vales below. In that, it represents also wealth, as Fehu does, but the wealth that Nature provides to humans rather than the more individualistic wealth represented by Fehu.

Uruz belongs certainly to the runes of the Branches, these runes from which healing charms can be written. It underlines how a medical doctor might be somewhat brutish whereas efficient.

 

Explanations

 

The word uruz evokes something primal, as does the German prefix ur-. It particularly designates the aurochs, a wild bovine now extinct, that lived free in ancient Europe.

 

Cognates:          English and French ‘aurochs’, German, ur- (primal, ‘of the beginnings’); German, Ur or Auerochs (aurochs)

 

Its original shape is a reversed V, uruzV. The shapes uruzV and uruzU show in equal number in the runic inscriptions dated 200-400. Shape uruzU start being met more often after 400. The sharp angled uruzUpointue start being met in 450 and will become afterwards the only one used.

 

The German Ur is itself an old form of Auerochs, which explains the connection between Uruz and aurochs. Looking at even earlier origins, these words are related to an Indo-European root meaning damp, and that leads also to the word meaning urine (keeping the ‘ur’ through the Latin language). Such data coming from historical linguistics should not be dismissed without thinking, especially when we would like to, because urine is improper to speak of. We know well now that it is nothing but an excretion, and that is the end of it. These linguistic information shows that our far parents, say the cavemen, did not think so, which might help understanding two facts. Firstly, we laugh or smile when we read the witches’ recipes containing urine, but it seems they were simply keeping very ancient knowledge about the ‘miraculous’ properties this liquid. Secondly, it is obvious for me that our ancestors, perhaps even unconsciously (but their way of speaking speaks for them), thought of rain, drizzle, and all fertilizing things falling from the sky as spouting out of a divine being – and they used the same word for the divine and the human liquids. This will help us understanding how it is possible that the same word, úr, may have so many different meanings in Old Norse, as we shall now see.

 

The Old Norse language brings in a set of related words with very different meanings, and we shall try to clarify their links. First, the name of this rune, as given by the Icelandic and Viking rune poems, is úr which means either drizzle or slag. Nevertheless, another Old Norse word, namely úrr, which cannot be viewed as totally different from úr, indeed means ‘aurochs’. To confuse these meanings a bit more, there is yet a third word, which is linguistically linked to úr, namely ýrr, that means either ‘bad iron’ or ‘female aurochs’. I think that, in Old Norse, the three meanings ‘aurochs’, ‘drizzle’, and ‘slag’ were considered as conceptually quite near to each other, even if this looks strange to us now [Note 1].

 

Old English rune poem:

ur aurochs is resolute, mightily horned.

a very bold (or dangerous) fighting beast with horns.

a stalker of the moors, this is a mighty being.

 

This is clearly a sort of hymn to the strength of this ancient animal. It reminds us of Native American myths of the buffalo, proud animals, endowing great amounts of food. For instance, John Neihardt’s book, Black Elk Speaks, describes the “offering of the pipe” by a supernatural woman. This published description alludes to the fact that the woman might be a white buffalo. But stenographic transcripts were kept that recorded exactly what Black Elk said (after translation by his son). These transcripts specifically say: “This woman was really a white buffalo. Thus the respect for the white buffalo.” The power of these animals which provide winter stocks, the aurochs, the bison, the bear and the moose is clearly asserted in the shamanic civilizations of Northern countries.

 

Because of its physical strength, the aurochs seems to be obviously linked with a masculine power symbol, and I do not at all reject at all this view. As much as Fehu seems to me dedicated to softness, ‘thus’ to femininity, within the context of a warrior civilization, Uruz, dedicated to strength, seems to be symbolizing something common to both female and male natures. First, in Old English the word ur is not limited to the male aurochs: female aurochs must have been as impressive as male ones. Yet another argument I want to use is due to Maria Gimbutas. I am well aware that it is fashionable to despise this author – at least by some in the US, and I am definitely in agreement that she has often pushed her feminist hypotheses beyond the limits of absurdity. However, while her association of the bull’s horns to the internal feminine reproduction system (uterus together with the Fallopian tubes) might seem ridiculous, you must realize that certain representations of bull horns have been completely deformed in order to make them look just like the internal female reproduction tract. The Old English rune poem, by mentioning the aurochs’ horns twice, seems to hint at this association between the masculine bulls’ horns and the feminine internal reproductive organs. Both are symbols of strength, a visible one for males, a hidden one for women.

 

  We shall now study the Norse and Icelandic rune poems where words with multiple meanings are used, and lead to many parallel interpretations of these poems.

 

Norse rune poem :

uruzVik comes from brittle iron. [uruzViker af illu jarne]

often runs [or glides] the elk on hard-frozen snow [opt loypr ræinn á hjarne]

 

Wimmer associates the name úr to this rune and translates it by Schlacke, which means dross or impurity. Obviously, he tries to find a translation which makes “good sense.” As already said with the rune Fehu, several other manuscripts concur with the name úr (or ‘ur’ when they omit the accent). In modern Icelandic, the word úr means only ‘drizzle, rain shower’, but Old Norse still carries the meaning of dross, and it could even be a preposition meaning ‘out of’. We must not either forget that the word úrr means aurochs in Old Norse. You will then  at once envision that, under a mask of simplicity, this first line represents a score of meanings, all the more since ‘bad iron’ (illu jarne) will as well take several meanings, as we shall see.

 

   An analysis of the first line of the Norse rune poem :

 

In order to understand how all these meanings can coexist we must at first refer to the sixteenth stanza of the Icelandic poem, relative to the rune Ýr which begins with :

uruzIsler bendr bogi [is drawn bow]

ok brotgjarnt járn, etc. [and brittle iron]

 

Wimmer associates the word ýr to this rune. This poem says that a canonical kenning for ýr is  brotgjarnt járn, exactly: ‘an iron eager to break’. This word is very similar to úr, that is, the same preposition meaning ‘out of’, a bow, a yew tree, and a rain shower. The nearby word, ýrr, means ‘brittle iron’.  You see that the words úr and ýr have many similarities, plus the property of taking another meaning when they receive a supplementary ending ‘r’. Forgetting these facts amounts to believing that the skald ignored his Old Norse language, and was not able to catch all these different meanings at first glance. Thus, we have to read this first line as :

Drizzle OR dross OR aurochs come from brittle iron OR bow OR yew tree OR drizzle.

None of the possible combinations make real sense for a rational Christian. In particular, two combinations are simply trivial : the obvious ‘drizzle comes from drizzle’ and the one chosen by Wimmer ‘dross comes from brittle iron’. Inversely, for a lover of Northern paganism, three other combinations make a great deal of sense.

 

A. First sensible combination:

‘Aurochs comes from [the] yew tree’

means that the aurochs lives in an evergreen forest, which perfectly balances the second line declaring that elk lives in frozen environment.

 

B. Second sensible combination :

‘Drizzle comes from [the] yew tree’

can be understood if we recall that the world tree, Yggdrasil, might well be a yew tree, as we already so often argued. Remember then that one of the main mythological poems of the Edda, The seeing of the seeress (Völuspá), speaks thus of the world tree :

                        ... Yggdrasil,

The proud sacred tree,

Covered with a white slime,

From which comes the dew

That runs down below in the valleys.

 

We shall come back to this poem while studying rune Ihwaz. We shall now only point out that Völuspá tells that a sort of drizzle comes from Yggdrasil and flows on our Midgard in order to make it fertile. In other words, the rune poem states clearly, at least for someone with an open mind, that Uruz IS this sacred water flowing from Yggdrasil leaves. That this fecund water enables life on Earth and Uruz seems to me to be associated with all the kinds of deep fecundity forces, male and female ones. The Finnish poem Kalevala speaks also of a fecundating fluid flowing from the trees for the welfare of humanity. This happens when a witch doctor sends his son to gather the components of some medicine he wants to prepare.

                        ... He sent

His son into the workshop

To prepare a balm

From these bails of hay,

From the points of those with the thousand leaves

Who spills honey on the earth,

From where flows a brooklet of mead.

 ...

He meets an oak tree,

He asks this oak tree:

Do you have honey on your branches,

Or mead on your bark? ...

 

Here, Scandinavian white mud is called honey and mead, and it drips “from the points of those with the thousand leaves”, that is to say from the leaves of a tree.

The concept of a tree providing a nourishing fluid is not reserved to the Northern countries, nor to the Viking times since a Theban grave of the 15th century BC shows a female character, standing on a pomegranate tree and supplying humans with a liquid. Here is how I see this symbol:

 

treeee

 

The Goddess supplies humans with a sacred ‘drizzle’.

Inspired by the Panhesy grave, Thebe, 15th century BC.

 

 

C. Third (almost) sensible combination, even more unexpected than the first two ones, is :

‘drizzle comes from brittle iron’.

 

It could be understood by considering the myth of the creation of iron, as described by the Kalevala :

The daughters... expressed their milk upon the earth,

Letting their breasts burst ...

She who expressed black milk,

From her, was born soft iron;

The one that expressed white milk,

From her were made all things steel;

She who poured out red milk,

From her we obtained cast iron.

 

The Kalevala says, then, that one form of brittle iron (cast iron) comes from a ‘drizzle’: the one sent from the Goddesses who sprinkle the earth with their milk. This is exactly the inverse of what this third interpretation is proposing. Alternately, it is also possible that the Scandinavian version opposes the Finnish one by stating that what comes from a drizzle is only dross: this would be a partly different possible combination : ‘dross comes from drizzle’. This myth coming from a non-Germanic Northern civilization shows however a link existing between some kind of drizzle (here a milky one) and ferrous metals. As far as I know the details of this myth have been lost and they remain a mystery, it is impossible to decide which is the exact version.

 

   Analysis of the second line of the Norse rune poem:

 

I have already said that the first line, understood as « Aurochs comes from the yew tree,” describes the aurochs’ dwelling while the second line describes the one of the elk. This is why I suggest that the whole verse addresses all the wild and powerful animals living in Norway. In any case, the rune of the elk, Algiz, being left out of the Viking Futhark, this second line means that rune Úr - the Viking Uruz - collects some of Algiz’s features. We shall now examine some Old Norse puns around the word hjarn in order to help us understand which properties of Algiz were transferred to Úr.

This second line says that the elk runs á hjarne, and hjarn means a névé, an English technical term of Swiss origin for a field of snow which does not become a glacier because it is not thick enough. Now, if the elk runs toward the névé, then á is followed by the accusative case, and this reads á hjarn, and if the elk runs upon the névé, then á is followed by the dative case, and this reads á hjarni. Obviously, poetical license allows us to identify á hjarne and á hjarni, as the scholars did. As in the case of gata seen with Fehu, I would however like to leave room for another hypothesis, by reading another word, hjarni, which, in both cases, would give á hjarna and could be transcribed into á hjarne as well. The problem is then that hjarni means ‘brain’ which is senseless here within the context of our civilization. Another pun, a less obvious one, would be to read the word hjáræna, giving á hjárænu, thus showing the same grammatical difficulty as the others. This word is an adjective meaning ‘completely crazy’ : please wait for the comments of rune Algiz before judging me as being yet another hjáræna !

 

The three kennings given by the Icelandic poem all seem relative to the rain, at least in the classical translations, all of them stemming from Wimmer’s.

Icelandic rune poem:

UrNorv is the clouds' tears,

The destruction of harvest,

The hatred of the shepherds.

umbre [for imbre]                    vísi

 

Wimmer again gives the name úr to this rune but he now translates it by drizzle because iron dross cannot, obviously, be the clouds' tears. Note this is specifically one of the descriptions found in the Kalevala ! Anyhow, Wimmer’s choice of two very different translations for the same word, úr, clearly indicates that scholars try to find a translation that ‘makes sense’. We can be happy with this effort, except that ‘making sense’ here means understandable for them, academics raised in a Christian civilization, even if they became atheists later. Making sense for a peasant Pagan of the 10th century might be vastly different. I try here, within the limits of my obviously incomplete knowledge of Northern Paganism but with the depth of my empathy, to discover what could make sense for such a Pagan, as seen with the example of grafseiðs gata discussed with rune Fehu.

  It is obvious to see why drizzle is the cloud’s tears, and it is necessary to go back to the Kalevala to understand that iron dross ‘is’ created from the cloud’s tears. For the second verse, it is quite possible to see here an allusion to harvest time, where a really long and continuous drizzle may cause it to rot. Still, I am very unhappy with this interpretation since a drizzle is indeed a hassle and increases the peasants’ amount of work : harvesting must be hurried up, it has to be dried afterwards. Nevertheless, it destroys the harvest very seldomly, if ever. As for the third one, I wonder why a drizzle might be hated by the shepherds! This is simply absurd.

Thus, to ‘make better sense’, why not reading the second line as :

UrNorv úrr [aurochs] is the destruction of harvest

since the  aurochs would eat and trample the harvest? In the same vein of thinking, I guess that the third line is a generalization of the second one : all the large wild animals, especially the carnivorous ones, bears and wolves, must have been a target of hatred for the shepherds. This is still true nowadays, it must have been worse when these animals were a real threat to the tamed herds.

The fourth line of the Icelandic rune poem, Latin imber means ‘rain shower’ which goes as ‘clouds’ tear’ and Old Norse vísi means both ‘leader’ and ‘cleverness’. The title of vísi speaks of the cleverness and knowledge needed to become a leader, it can be translated by 'the master of the army'.

 

  It comes as a good surprise that Ljóðatal helps us to confirm a link between the second rune and water, obviously within the context of Pagan civilizations.

 

Second stanza of Ljóðatal:

I know a second

which is needed by the son of men,

those who want to have a doctor’s life.

 

Medicine and water

 

Let us, at first, consider the links between medicine and water. Balneology has been of constant use in the Greek and Latin civilizations, and Celts and Northerners would be aware as well of this way of using water.

The Kalevala explicitly  states :

Water is the oldest of ointments

The drizzle of waterfalls is the most ancient katsehista [sorcerer’s look – see Note 2]

Similarly, Celtic  civilizations seem to have been using water’s healing power since Cuchulain himself was cured by bathing in various waters :

Cuchulain was lying sick, and Senoll Uathach the Hideous and Ficce's two sons were the first to find him. They brought him with them to Cornwall where they treated his wounds and washed them in water from the river Sas, for his comfort, in water from the river Buan, for his firmness, Bithslan for lasting health, in the clear Finnglas, the brilliant Gleoir, the rash Bedc; in the Tadc, the Talamed, the Rinn and the Bir, in the sour Brenide and the narrow Cumang; in the Celenn and the Gaenemain, the Dichu, the Muach and the Miliuc, the Den, the Deilt and the Dubglas. When Cuchulain bathed in these waters ...

 

When we reach rune Laukaz, we shall see that this name is problematic and causes a dispute within the academic world of scientific runology, and we will then discuss it at length. Norse medicine, instead of water, seems to have used, as a disinfectant, these vegetables with a stinging taste, such as leeks, onion, garlic and perhaps others that are no longer in normal use such as bear garlic, still eaten at Springtide in some parts of Austria. Norse medicine would also use its smell in order to diagnose open wounds of the digestive track. Nevertheless, the name given to this rune by Wimmer is lögr (water) and the Old English Rune Poem (OERP) explicitly calls it lagu, water. Inversely, Krause calls it laukaz (leek or garlic). Without arguing now one way or the other, we can observe that there is some confusion in this rune name. It probably has shifted from being a ‘disinfectant vegetable’ to ‘water’. I only want to underline that the disinfecting power of water, even if it is not recalled in the Edda, seems to have been part of the medical knowledge of the ancient Germans.

 

Uruz and medicine

 

This second stanza hints at the curing properties of this second rune or, at least, at the necessity to be able to cure sickness. This reminds us that healing has long been a female specialty, even though it was not for females only, before the increase of male power. As an instance within the Northern civilization, the prose Edda provides us with a list of the twelve Gods and of the twelve Goddesses of the Æsir. It underlines that the Goddess Eir is “the best of the healers” which means that this Goddess is the one of medicine. In France, as another example, we observe a very late forbiddance of medical activities performed by women : it took place during the beginning of the 13th century (nevertheless, King Saint Louis went crusading  - thus late in the 13th s. – accompanied by a female surgeon !). The cause is to be found not in religion only, both Christian churches and the Universities played an essential role in the male dominance of medicine. This kind of ancient female-favoring unbalance in the arts of medicine is also underlined by one of the most ancient healing charms discovered in the walls of a church in Merseburg: the so-called Merseburger Zaubersprüche (‘words of magic’) and dated from the 10th century. There are two Merseburg charms: The first one was given in Chapter 2, and here is the second one :

Phol and Wodan rode in the wood,

There to Balder’s foal, the foot was set right.

There Sunthgunt uttered it, [and] Sunna, her sister.

There Fija uttered it, [and] Volla, her sister.

There Wodan uttered it, as [only] he understood it:

So bones set right as blood set right as limb set right:

Leg to leg, blood to blood, limb to limbs,

as if glued were.

Wodan is the West-Germanic name of North-Germanic Ódhinn, and we can only guess who is Phol.

 

The first volume of this book describes at length the healing charms, this is why I want only to point here that four females and one male contribute together to the healing of Balder’s foal. The text might be understood in such a way that Wodan surgically put the bones together, but we can also understand that the charm itself did the job, otherwise why should it take place before the surgery? (in other words, it should take place after).

 

  Uruz is certainly not the only medicine rune.The Saying of Sigrdrífa describes a whole set of healing runes, she calls the runes of the (tree-)Branches and she describes as follows:

You must know the runes of Branches [limrúnar]

If you want to be a doctor

Who knows how to care the wounded;

On bark you must engrave them

On the tree of the tree [baðmi viðar]

The large branches of which lean toward the East.

 

I also translated Old Norse baðmi viðar word for word : “the tree of the tree.” Viðr is the usual word for speaking of a tree and baðmr is a poetical word for a tree. The Eddic poem Völuspá, for instance calls baðmr the tree of the world, Yggdrasil. I do not mean that the skald would have implied that healing takes place by physically using Yggdrasil but that the healer, in a sense, has to ride an yggdrasil, a horse of terror, or at least a baðmr, a sacred tree. Besides, according to Cleasby-Vigfusson, the compound word, baðmr viðar might mean that the tree is blossoming, which indicates when the branch should be cut and engraved with runes. In this analysis, and as always, I claim that skalds and healers obviously knew all of these different meanings and would understand them all at once. Otherwise stated, this poem tells us that the Branches runes have to be carved on the Eastward branches of tree, this tree must be the sacred tree, a representative of Yggdrasil, and perhaps the twigs on which they are carved are cut while the tree blossoms.

 

  I clearly hypothesize that Uruz is the main Branches rune.

 

The importance of medical knowledge, in particular midwifery obstetrics, is underlined in a poem already cited in the Introduction : Rígthula, where the God Rígr (most often seen as an incarnation of Heimdalr) teaches the runes to his son who thus

Acquired knowledge of the runes …

moreover, he knew

how to deliver babies …

Here, this knowledge belongs to a nobleman who thus reaches the medical status of a woman since midwifery, until it became obstetrics, was restricted to the female side until very late, were it only for avoiding the so-called “indecency” associated with a man seeing female genitalia.

 

As for obstetrics, we obviously miss historical portrayals of the delivery act. Even though there exist scarce explicit depictions of female genitalia, the famous sheela-na-gig of British churches capitals, the delivery itself is totally missing. These sheela-na-gig show either a sketch of a woman with an open vagina, either a grinning woman opening her own, as if to show its inside, as the one drawn below. Obviously, male scholars’ reaction to this “horrible and obscene” sight, as these pitiful males word it, has been the one of recognizing a devilish entity ready to swallow, body and soul, her viewer – or whatever else, monstrous. On the other hand, modern obstetrics cuts, sanitizes and stitches back up when the vagina has not distended enough at the end of the delivery and there is risk of the baby’s head tearing it. There is thus a tendency to forget nowadays the ancient technique that did not cut the woman, but would stretch at length the opening by pressing it slowly and tenderly, with the side of the hand or with two fingers. I observed a wise woman doing this job and this is indeed a normal, usual and even ordinary action of the wise woman who esteems the body of her client. Seeing something obscene or funny there is a shame akin to mental retardation. Thus those horrible sheela-na-gig whose genitalia has been seen as obscenely gaping by academic imaginations full of disgust for the woman’s body, are almost certainly nothing but delivering women who apply to themselves the only way to avoid their sex being torn up by their baby’s head. As it is famous in France (only among the learned ones, I must confess) that some of the bas-reliefs and the occidental rose of Notre de Dame of Paris are alchemistry lessons, it should be finally acknowledged that the sheela-na-gig are teachings in obstetrics, a knowledge necessary to each woman who wants to avoid the birth sickness following delivery and caused by her wounds.

 

sheela

 

A drawing of one of the many Sheela-na-gig engraved on several capitals of British churches.

 

Any woman using her knowledge in everyday life has since long been made devilish by all kinds of authorities. The sheela-na-gig are merely an extreme case of such an invented devilry. This kind of character is of plenty in the Russian tales, there named Baba-Yaga. In the tales of Brittany, she is called Mamm-en-Diaoul, also named in Grimm’s tales “the devil’s mother.” In the Kalevala, we meet an ogress, Syöjätär, who generates a dreadful ‘snake of the waters’ by spitting on the wave. In Beowulf, she is Grendel’s mother, water-being even more dangerous than Grendel himself. When we consider the full French version of the tale Dornröschen (La belle au bois dormant, ‘Sleeping beauty’ published almost 150 years earlier), then we meet the Charming Prince’s mother, an ogress who tries to eat her grand-children and daughter in law. In short, this is a very classical character, one readily forgotten in our modern civilization, that is, a female character who is not made of only softness and deliciousness. Rather, she is a dangerous woman, an aggressive one, or simply an powerful one. Such are the sheela-na-gig whose sex is no longer ‘the way of the delicious viper’ but the mysterious and imposing way of the creation. In my opinion, Uruz is a symbol of these quite harsh female features (harshness goes ‘without saying’ for men as well in a warrior’s world) and the couple Fehu-Uruz provides thus an appalling concept of what is full femininity in the ancient Teutonic civilization.

As a kind of conclusion, I’d like to insist that healing is not at all, in this ancient Northern civilization, a process full of kind sweetness: The main healing rune is not Fehu, but Uruz. As an illustration of this statement, here is the description of a woman healing another woman (who was obviously about to die during a miscarriage) as told by Oddrún’s lament. Her name means: sharp ended rune, and the title of the Edda poem is Oddrúnargrátr or Oddrúnarkviða.

 

Hér liggr Borgný

Here lies Borgný

of borin verkjum, …

with full sufferings …

 

 

ríkt gól Oddrún,

powerfully shrieked [gól] Oddrún

rammt gól Oddrún

bitingly shrieked Oddrún

bitra galdra

(she shrieked) bitter galdors

at Borgnýju

for Borgný

 

 

þat nam at mæla

Then started to speak

mær fjörsjúka,

the maid sickness-stricken

svá at hon ekki kvað

literally : (So she a sob said

orð it fyrra.

a word ‘her together’ the first.)

 

[That is: Thus with a sob,

 

she said her first word.]

 

The care as well as the healing suggests an extremely rough process.

 

Notes

 

[1] A similar triplet of words will be seen again with rune Laukaz or Laguz. It seems that the concepts of leek, lake, and law were quite close in Old Norse, as opposed to what they have become today.

 

[2] The Finnish word katsehista means ‘something coming from the sorcerer's eye’. It comes from katse, to look, and hista, small demon.