In "De inventione litterarum"
(found in René Derolez, "Runica Manuscripta", p. 355)
one note precedes each of the rune sections of the A and B texts:
"With these letters they
[the nordmanni, i.e. Danes] 'signify' their
songs, incantations and divinations [for] they are still given
to pagan practices" (A);
"They gave the names runestabas
[rune-staves] to these letters, I believe,
because by writing them they used to bring to light secret things"
Only the first of these notes attributes
divination to the runes without ambiguity, as a possible use among
others. Moreover, those are notes, (i.e. late additions), made by
someone who can be reasonably supposed to be a scholar, hence very
knowledgeable in the Latin habits, which would hamper his objectivity.
Now, if we look at the rest of the
evidence, we shall see that each of them might have been describing
another operation, namely a type of request for an allowance, rather
than a divination.
Caesar ("Gallic Wars")
reports that one of his friends, Gaius Valerius Procillus was on
an embassy to the German leader Ariovistus; they treated him as
a prisoner of war and cast lots three times, in his presence, to
decide whether to put him to death at once by burning, but each
time the lots came out so that the execution was postponed.
This text shows that the lots cast were done
in order to ask some kind of permission to kill a man. One could
see a divination ("Will nothing bad happen to us if we kill
this man?"), but the text itself describes something else.
Tacitus, in "Germania"
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.
Most of the text hints at a divination,
until one reaches the last sentence which says that divination was
done in another way. Tacitus goes on by describing the process by
which these Germans would foresee: by interpreting the neighing
of a sacred white horse. Again, the lots seem to be cast here in
order to ask for permission, not to foresee.
Alcuin's Vita Willibrordi describes
the old Frisian legal practice of determining whom "the god"
judges guilty by the casting of lots three times, three days in
succession. Once more, we see a practice that asks for permission,
and not a divination.
Rimbert's Life of Ansgar tells how
the Swedish king Anund suggested that the Danes cast lots to discover
if it were indeed the will of the gods to destroy the town Birka,
a place in which great and powerful deities had been worshipped:
As his words were in accord
with their custom they could not refuse to adopt the suggestion.
Accordingly they sought to discover the will of the gods by
casting lots, and they ascertained that it would be impossible
to accomplish their purpose without endangering their own welfare
and that God would not permit this place to be ravaged by them.
Again the text is quite clear in
showing that the Swedes asked if they could be allowed to destroy
Birka, and it was denied to them.
The Eddic poems refer to the runes
several times, almost always to act on someone, healing, seducing,
bewitching, against evil (stanza 137 of Havamal) or the like. There
are two instances in the Havamal where runes are cited without showing
a direct action on reality.
One is stanza 80 of Havamal. Larrington's
That is now proved, what you
asked of the runes,
of the potent famous ones
which the great gods made (Boyer says: "the Powers",
not "the gods")
and the mighty sage stained,
then it is best for him if he stays silent.
If this stanza means anything at
all, it means that it is better not to speak of what is learned
by the runes, which precludes a divination use.
The second one is stanza 111, which
says (Larrington's translation):
It is time to declaim from the
at the spring of fate;
I saw and I considered,
I heard the speech of men;
I heard talk of the runes nor were they silent about good counsel,
at the High One's hall, in the High One's hall;
I heard them speak: ...
And the poem goes on until stanza
164, giving good advice to a person named Loddfafnir, and teaching
him eighteen possible uses of the runes, (we shall discuss these
in detail when studying each rune in turn, in the next volume).
None of the teachings given to Loddfafnir speak specially of the
future, it is simply plain good sense (for instance: "on mountain
or fjord should you happen to be traveling, make sure you are well
fed"). Anyhow, it is clear that this second stanza explicitly
describes runes as providing good advice, which fits perfectly well
with the role of 'asking for permission I found earlier.
The conclusion is that two attested
different roles for the runes can be found. One is to change physical
reality, the second one is as advice-givers. It looks like the runes
were used to ask what the price was to pay for achieving some result.
If the price was too high then they were 'forbidden' to perform
the desired deeds. It is easy to see how this use can be looked
upon as foretelling, but it is of a completely different kind than
foretelling as it is practiced today.