Runes: for divination
or magic ?
The title of this book needs to be justified as presently
it isnt common to use the runes for healing. Mystical
books on runes have clearly shown that, today, their use is
essentially for divination. The runes are arranged in a specific
system, and the seeker is asked to choose several of them. By
interpreting the runes chosen, the rune reader helps people
to better understand their difficulties, to better guide their
life. Used this way, rune readings are similar to tea-leaf readings
or tarot card readings. We never see how they can be used for
The widely accepted belief in
the divinatory abilities of the runes comes from a Latin text
written by Tacitus:
For omens and the casting
of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in
casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of
a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they
mark with different signs and throw them completely at random
onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the
consultation is a public one, or the father of the family
if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking
up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and
reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on
them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation
that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation
by the taking of auspices is required.
This text may illustrate
that the Germanic people were adept at magic, but it doesn't
show how the runes were used. A Roman such as Tacitus would
interpret divination as it was used in the Greek/Latin culture.
Therefore, we can't be certain that he understood exactly what
was going on in the Germanic culture.
Another reason for the
confusion about the use of the runes could be attributed to
the Celtic Oghams. The druids were known to use all sorts of
divinatory methods, from observing birds in flight to watching
the convulsions of a victim stabbed in the back. In particular,
the story of Etain, well known in Celtic mythology, attests
to the use of the Oghams as a method of 'seeing'. In this case,
the druid Dalan uses the Oghams to discover that Etain had been
married to a God. The writings about the peithynen or "the
Elucidator", also known as the Druids' wheel, describe
a type of divination which used branches or staves that had
poems (or maxims) carved on them in Oghams. Transferring an
interpretation from the Oghams to the runes is certainly possible,
but there is no justification for doing so.
One thing is consistent
in the runic texts, they all show an active use of the runes.
One of the few texts that alludes to the throwing of sacred
branches is Gautrek's saga, and clearly the runes in this case
aren't used to foresee the future, but to control it:
The King, Vikar.... came
up against extraordinarily adverse winds and they stayed
near small islands for a long time. They threw [some
sort of] "fate" sticks in order to
diminish the winds. The result was that Odin demanded that
a man from the company be chosen by a draw and be hung as
After these magical pieces
of wood were thrown, the storm calmed itself and Odin demanded
the sacrifice of one of the passengers on the boat. This does
not describe an example of divination, because clearly, the
priest already knew what he wanted to achieve and without a
doubt, simply waited to pay the due price, a sacrifice to the
High One in this case. The runes of the Elder Futhark, like
those of the Younger Futhark, serve as a mediation between humans
and Gods, a means of asking the Gods to grant a favor.
In the Gisli Surssson saga,
we find an example that looks casual enough, but it works in
a similar way. The hero of the saga, Gisli, wants to meet up
with his brother who refuses to open his door to him.
Gisli takes a stick, carves
runes on it, and throws it inside. (His brother) sees it,
catches it, looks at it, then he gets up, goes out, and
welcomes Gisli ...
This is not exactly what we
would call miraculous, and certainly no great sacrifice was
called for. But regardless of the price to pay for this tiny
miracle, it does demonstrate that the effect of the runes is
not to foresee, but always to obtain a result since in this
case, Gisli did try to speak to his brother first through the
door but without any success.
Runes carved on a 'pole of infamy'
are also attempting to alter reality. An example of this has
reached us thanks to the Vatnsdoela saga. The goal in this case
is to curse those who break a solemn promise:
This one will be infamous
to all and never find company with honest people. He will
incur the wrath of the Gods and he will carry the name of
We find the following runic
text in Egil Skallagrimsson's saga:
I place here a pole of infamy
against King Eric and Queen Gunnhild and I direct this curse
to the guardian spirits of this country, so that each of
them will be lost, unable to find their way until they have
successfully driven King Eric and Queen Gunnhild out of
This demand is far more significant
than the preceding one, but it is similar in the sense that
it relates to shaping the future, and not to predicting it.
In Gretti's saga, we find a
sorceress who wants to cause Gretti's ruin. In order to do so,
we are told that she took her knife and carved runes on a stump.
She reddened them with her blood and muttered a magical spell.
Then she turned counter clockwise around the stump and recited
powerful magical spells. Since this sorceress wants to be certain
that she will be able to harm Gretti, before she begins the
final spell, she spies on him and listens to him speak so that
she can discover his weak point. When she finally does carve
the runes that will bring about Gretti's ruin, she is sure of
herself, and knows that she only needs to follow the proper
steps to succeed.
Runes are also alluded to in
other sagas. But in each case they either request that an event
happen, or they assert and consecrate something (as for example
in stating: "this ship is captained by ...").
This active use of the runes
is found in relatively recent texts and customs, such as in
"Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser" written by S. Grundtvig
between 1853 and 1883. This collection of popular Danish poems
contains 18 that mention runes. They show how to use them to
calm floods, immobilize animals, seduce a partner, bring on
deep sleep, ease birth, etc., but not even once is there an
allusion to a divinatory use of the runes. In the same way,
Deichman in 1794 (cited by Léon Pineau "Chants populaires
scandinaves", 1898) explains two practices that were common
in his time. The first is that
it's a belief today, still
common in the region of Himmelsbjaerg that, if the runes are
engraved on a small piece of wood and if it is placed under
the tongue of a corpse, the dead will talk.
The second is:
When the Icelandic want to
harm someone, they take a piece of wood, the length of two
or three fingers. They engrave on it magical characters and
the make their blood run upon them. After this, they go to
the tomb of a corpse ... [following this is a cursing
ritual that I have no desire to repeat].
In any case, there is no allusion,
not even a subtle one, to a divinatory use of the runes.
My purpose by this long argument,
is not to say that it is absurd to use the runes for divination,
but to show that this is a more recent use that was certainly
not practiced "since time immemorial" as many mystical
books on runes state without batting an eye.
When knowledge of the future is what is desired, the magical
means that was used was the seidr and not the runes. Many texts
mention the work of a vlva or a seeress who performs a
seidr to determine the future.
For example, in the Vatnsdoela
saga, the hosts prepared a feast according to their ancient
custom for conducting a seidr. This was being done so that the
people could know their destiny. A Lapp vlva was asked
to attend the feast so that she could perform the seidr. The
Lapp, dressed in great gear, occupied the high-seat at the feast.
People went forth to ask their future and ask questions about
their destiny. For each of them, she prophesied their future.
For a similar example of this
use of the seidr (and this is the only example of a seidr conducted
by a Scandinavian male), we turn to Gisli Sursson's saga:
Thorgrim the Nose was paid
to perform a seidr that would locate a murderer, thus preventing
him from getting away healthy and safe, even if others tried
to help him. In return, Thorgrim was given an ox that was
nine winters old.
He began the seidr, preparing
for it as usual and building a scaffold. He completed the
seidr with all his spells and evil-doings, ... [effectively
locating the murderer.]
This text is certainly contemptuous
towards the use of seidr, but it does show that Thorgrim the
Nose was able to use seidr successfully to accomplish his task.
To complete this discussion
of seidr, we must also consider the examples of seidr which
attempt to modify the future, and we have many instances of
those in the sagas. In particular, there are many examples where
Lapp shamans have performed the seidr as they were requested,
correctly anticipating the future. The text tells that when
they have been asked to perform a seidr in order to retrieve
an object, they failed. Despite their efforts, they were incapable
of physically modifying reality.
We can see that the role of
the seidr is twofold: to anticipate the future and, where possible,
to modify the world of physical reality. The role of the runes,
as the sagas and Eddic texts illustrate, is to affect physical
reality, to consecrate a possession, or claim some power, but
never to foresee the future. An appendix to this chapter will
discuss this point in detail.
Healing and runes to
The focus of this book is to
study the runes as they relate to health and well-being. The
runes were grouped into nine rune songs (see later in this chapter),
of these nine songs, four are dedicated to health. Runes of
the Branches, as those of the physicians, are of primary importance
here. Delivery runes are used to help in childbirth and they
also relate directly to the medical area. Runes of Protection
aid in preventing sickness. The runes of Joy are also included
with the healing runes because they are powerful in the prevention
of sickness. The five remaining songs of the runes are :
Victory, Undertow, Magic, Speech, and Spirit. I deeply believe
that each rune can be used to influence health (with the exception
of Othala, and this will be explained later), complementing
the rune typically assigned for this purpose. We will examine
the twenty-four runes of the Elder Futhark to see what particular
effect each of them can have on health. It is important to note
that no text describes this specific healing use of the runes.
I have used the runic texts to arrive at a meaning for each
rune, and from this meaning, I have associated a particular
healing power to each rune.
What is striking about the ancient
runic texts, (ie those referring to the rune, such as the Icelandic
and Irish sagas, Celtic and Germanic legends, the old-English
poem Beowulf, etc.), is their extreme lack of details concerning
health. A rare example of a healing treatment is found in the
Icelandic saga of Glum the Murderer. It tells the story of a
woman whose close relative has been killed.
She asks to see the corpse
and they show it to her. She then takes her relative and
lays him gently in a cart. And when she gets back home,
she cleans and bandages his wounds.
She did all this so well
that when she was done, he started to speak.
This is an extraordinary miracle
that well deserves to be told. However, when someone is simply
hurt, the sagas often only explain what the end result of the
injury was, and they do not discuss the care that has been provided.
The only reference that I could find to a doctor or healer of
any kind is in the saga of the Men of the Vapnfjord.
Thorvard was a man who was
thought of very highly in his community and he was considered
to be the best physician in the district . One evening,
a man broke his leg on the farm, and Thorvard was sent for.
So, Thorvard came and bandaged the leg. The man then said
to Thorvard, "My wounds are to the point where, thanks
to your assistance, we can take care of it by ourselves,
but I know that Thorkel is hurt, that he has nobody to care
for him, and that he is weakening. I ask you to join him
and to heal him." Thorvard agreed to this and [went
to Thorkel's place]. He approached Thorkel and
said, "I would like to see your wound, because I have
heard that it goes badly." Thorkel allowed him to see
it and Thorvard spent seven nights with him, and the state
of the patient improved each day. Thorvard went away, and
for his care, Thorkel gave him a horse and a silver bracelet.
This salary must have been extraordinary
since it is mentioned in the saga, but there are no details
at all about how the wound specifically was treated.
Another medical treatment, though
an unsuccessful one, is found in Grettir Saga. When Grettir
is wounded, and his wound obviously starts to gangrene, his
brother Illugi treats him. The saga says simply:
Illugi watched him day and
night, taking care of nothing else.
The saga of King Hrolf and his
Champions describes a similar type of recovery.
King Hrolf had received
two wounds to his arms, and a major injury to his head which
caused him to lose an eye.
These injuries weakened him for some time, but Queen Yrsa
In the tale of Egil and Asmund,
we are given some details about surgery. Egil has lost a hand
in a fight, and a friendly dwarf dressed the stump so well that
"soon the pain was completely gone. In the morning the
wound was healed." The dwarf then makes a sword that has
a hilt in the form of a socket and he fixes it on Egil's arm.
Later in the tale, Egil meets an old giantess who has kept the
hand that was cut off, wrapped in "life-herbs". She
offers to help Egil: "If you'll risk letting me reopen
the wound; I'll try to graft the hand on to the arm". The
tale goes on:
She took the socket off
his arm and deadened the arm so that Egil didn't feel any
pain when she trimmed the stump. Then she put life-herbs
on it, wrapped it in silk and held it firmly for the rest
of the day. Egil could feel the life flow in. The old hag
put him to bed and told him to stay there until his hand
was healed. It was fully healed in three days, and now he
found the hand no stiffer than it had been when the arm
was still whole, though it appeared to have a red thread
One can always claim that this
description is only a fantasy. Still, the details on the pain
killers and the disinfectants (the "healing-herbs"),
the bandage and quiet time necessary for recovery, altogether
look very much like the tip of an impressive iceberg of medical
We can conclude that some people,
at least, must have had medical knowledge, even of a rather
technical kind, but we are never given any details about how
healing takes place.
Christian texts often provide
miraculous examples of healing, where the touch of a hand, or
the blessing of a saint are enough to heal. For example, the
venerable Bede goes into great detail on the miraculous properties
of the blood of a saint, or the water that has washed the bones
of some other one. All his stories strongly evoke Paganism,
but he never goes into detail about how the saints perform their
miracles. Nevertheless, this is not proof of a lack of medical
knowledge, since according to Bede, John, the Bishop of York,
obviously demonstrates this kind of knowledge. One day the Bishop
of York arrives at a convent of nuns and he is told of a young
nun who is very ill. After being informed that this nun had
recently been bled in the arm, he asks the Abbess when the bleeding
had been practiced. When he discovers that it took place on
the fourth day of the moon, he growls roughly to Abbess Heriburg:
You have acted most foolishly
and unwisely to carry out a bleeding on the fourth day of
the moon. I remember the Archbishop Theodore, of blessed
memory, said that it was very dangerous to bleed at a time
when the light of the moon and the pull of the tide is increasing.
Because the Abbess then pleads
with him so strongly, the bishop agrees to go to the nun's bedside.
He then utters a prayer over the sick nun and he gives her his
blessing. The nun heals immediately, and this is as much as
Bede tells us.
Fortunately, all this medical
knowledge is not completely lost. Many medical treatises dating
from before the 17th century have recorded this knowledge. For
example, the National Library of Scotland holds 83 Gaelic manuscripts,
of which 29 are medical treatises containing several hundred
pages of medical prescriptions. Obviously, this part of the
library, considered uninteresting by scholars, has not often
been translated from Gaelic and the rare translations that exist
are not published for the public. It is true that many of these
ancient practices have been lost, and that many of the christianized
Pagan practices lost their credibility becoming merely superstition.
Whenever they finally become accessible, we will have a lot
of fishing to do from this great pond of knowledge.
The Siberian shamanic tradition
is somewhat more precise and does provide some details on the
processes necessary for recovery. However, the written records
concerning their healing practices have always only described
the extremely miraculous. For example, how to treat a cold was
of no concern to the authors of these great traditional texts.
We have no details on treating these minor ailments, except
for treatments using plants. For example we have treatments
such as those recorded by the Holy Hildegard in the twelfth
century. We will come back to her particular charms in detail
You could ask yourself why I
am not using the charms from "Galdrabok" translated
into English by S. Flowers, or "Danmarks Gamle Folkviser"
translated into French by Léon Pineau in 1898. It is because
the ones presented in these works are so allusive to healing,
don't describe a precise process, and are so christianized ("recite
three Our Fathers", for example), that I don't know how
I could 're-paganize' them while still keeping their essence,
as is possible with the charms of the Scottish Highlands and
oddly enough those of Saint Hildegard.
A notable exception can be found
in the early chapters of the Kalevala that describe how an old
man was capable of healing the first hero of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen.
Väinämöinen hurt his knee with an ax, and was unable to heal
himself. Later on, I will be sharing this beautiful text with
you which contains a slightly christianized version of what
the shamanic tradition suggests for healthcare. We will follow
Väinämöinen in his recovery. The link with the runes is simple:
recovery takes place when several poems have been said. In Finnish,
the word for poem is "runo", and so for me this makes
the identification of poetry and runes complete. A proper runic
work would then ask for these songs to be engraved in runes
on a branch. The Kalevala does not mention this, but nothing
prevents us from doing so for ourselves.
Finally, in the last two chapters
of this book I will give you a method, which agrees with the
runic texts, for using the runes to heal. Of course, this is
primitive medicine, based on songs, dances and pleas (also termed
as "supplications"). Healing is done by addressing
the Spirits (or the Gods, and here, that will be Odin or other
Nordic Gods), by casting out bad spirits, and by aiming to return
the lost parts of the patient's soul. Both the patient and practitioner
must therefore attempt (humbly) to re-establish a dialogue with
their primitive selves. However, this method never contradicts
the application of modern health care techniques, except those
that cause a long unconscious state, or that prevent patients
from deciding for themselves.
Our main sources of poems for
pleas and charms will be: the Kalevala, whose chapter 17 is
a goldmine of charms for expelling bad Spirits; the magical
charms from the Scottish Highlands; the Anglo-Saxon charms;
and those from Lithuania. Some runic inscriptions from the Middle
Ages (namely: the Canterbury charm, the stick and cranium from
Ribe, and the Sigtuna tablet) also contain poems that we shall
use. In a somewhat peculiar way, our sixth main source of magical
charms is the work of Saint Hildegard. Indeed, Saint Hildegard
and her remedies are well known, especially because of physicians
that are passionate about her work. These physicians are happy
to recommend the consumption of spelt (an ancient cereal of
high nutritive quality), but they are a bit less enthusiastic
when the remedies of the saint call for an owl beak and the
urine of toad. They all become silent with the numerous magical
nature-invocations that she recommends. For example, a general
remedy can be prepared as follows:
When the leaves of the beech
do not appear again completely, go close to this tree, seize
a branch with the left hand, and while holding a small knife
in the right hand, say, "I cut your tartness, because
you purify all humors that entail the man on error and injustice
paths; by the living Word that made man without regret."
With your left hand, hold
a branch while you are saying this, then cut it with a steel
blade and keep this branch all year long; and do this each
Saint Hildegard, working in
the twelfth century and although crystallized in christian devotions,
is an image of the behaviors of her time, still impregnated
with magic. The invocations of the saint all make calls to the
christian God, obviously, but they are not any less magical
in nature, and, in comparing her invocations to the ones that
were current in the seventeenth century, they clearly maintain
such freshness that one can only suspect that most of their
Pagan strength can still be felt. This is why I will quote all
the charms of Saint Hildegard, since this aspect of her work
has scarcely been discussed until now.
Primitive medicine used pleas
and supplications, actions of grace, and herbal concoctions
to heal. Modern medicine has perfected herbal concoctions beyond
anything previously imaginable, but it has failed on two important
points that the defenders of soft medicine criticize. The first
is that one can not always heal completely, sometimes it is
necessary for the patient to learn to live with sickness. It
is necessary to confess that remedies based on plants do not
always give an immediate result, but they allow a gentle treatment
that lasts a lifetime, while modern remedies all tend to be
relatively traumatic. The second is that we are also made of
Spirit, it is necessary to nurse the soul of the patient as
much as the body and intellect. This is what the healer tries
to do with medicine based on magic. It addresses the souls of
patients much more than their body, and it processes distant
causes more than immediate causes. Where various ceremonies
of capital importance are considered infantile by rationalists,
supplications and actions of grace, incantations, poems, and
dances ensure a complete recovery when it is possible.
In the following chapters, you
need to know the meaning of each rune in order to follow the
way I suggest using them. This is why you will find now a presentation,
that has been kept as short as possible, where you will find
a brief interpretation for each rune, particularly concerning
their medical usage. Volume 2 provides an indepth discussion
of the meanings and etymology of the runes.