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Nordic Magic Healing:
runes, charms, incantations, and galdr

 
Runes and Healing 
by Yves Kodratoff

"And, all along their way - she taught him the runes, upon her white hand."
Danmarks Gamle Folkviser


Runes are magical tools; tools for all aspects of life.

They can be used, and were used, (as runic inscriptions attest), in many ways: for war, for love, for prosperity, etc. We are going to explore the runes and the Galdr (songs) associated with them. To begin this exploration, I want to give you a glimpse at how the runes were actively used in the past by using examples from an area that interests me very much - healing.

The following three rune poems summarize the magical use of the runes to affect the health of another.

Those who carve without knowledge
Should not write the runes
[
for] Great misfortune will follow
When the secrets are misused
I have seen ten letters carved
Out of a bent bone
They brought on the pain
That tortured the young girl.

This is one of Egil Skalagrimsson's poems, as told in the saga that describes his life. The runes that this poem refers to were carved into a whale bone in an attempt to seduce the young girl who is spoken of in the poem, but instead they only served to make her ill. Besides the technical error of having chosen the wrong runes, this is an attempt at black magic, since it used the runes to force someone to act against their will. Whenever runes are carved for someone, that person must be made aware of what is being carved for them, they must agree with the carver, and they should participate in the creation of the poem that requests their healing.

Using the runes is dangerous, but using them with an impure heart is even more dangerous.

In this next poem, we find a unique example of how a healing should be done. This runic poem was found at Sigtuna on a copper plaque that dates from the end of the 11th century.

Demon of the fever of wounds,
Lord of the demons,
Now you must flee,
You have been discovered.
Three kinds of pain on you, wolf.
Three times the misery, wolf.
|||, the rune of Ice.
These ice runes will be your only joy, wolf.
Enjoy the seidr well.

This important poem will be discussed later in detail, with particular attention given to seidr, the shamanic voyages practiced by Norse shamans.

Unfortunately, we can find many examples of what not to do: using the runes for black magic or for harming others. This book will not explain, and does not desire to explain, how to practice black magic. Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to try to hide this aspect of their use. Busla's curse, found in the saga of Bosi and Herraud (where it is called a 'prayer'), is a very striking example of this use, although there is no evidence that these verses were carved in runes.

I wish you pain
in your breast,
that venomous vipers
gnaw your heart,
that your ears
are deafened forever,
and your eyes
point forever outward!

 

Runes: for divination or magic ?

The title of this book needs to be justified as presently it isn’t 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 healing.

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 a sacrifice.

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 Peace Violator!

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 land.

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.

 

Non-runic divinatory methods

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 všlva 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 všlva 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 heal

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 healed him.

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 around it.

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 knowledge.

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 later on.

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 year.

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.

 

Go on to 'The Runes and Their Songs'

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