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


Runes and Divination
by Yves Kodratoff

(appendix to Chapter 1 of Nordic Magic Healing, volume 1)

I found three sources that describe, without ambiguity, the use of staves (upon which runes might have been written) in order to perform a divination.

In "The Book of Settlements", (originally Landnamabok, which describes how the Icelandic land was distributed among its first inhabitants, number 198 of the Sturlubok version, translated by H.Palsson and P. Edwards, University of Manitoba Press, 1972), we find:

There was a man called Onund the Sage who took possession of land above Merkilgill... When Eirik was going to take possession of the valley to the west, Onund cast the divining rod to find out when Eirik would set out to make his claim. Onund got in first [and] shot a tinder-arrow across the river to claim the land...

The word translated by Palsson and Edwards as 'divining rod' is "bltspn" ("blspn" in other versions). Blot is a sacrifice and spn or spn (linked to English 'spoon') has several meanings, including that of sticks.

In the Ynglinga saga Chap. 38, King Graumar goes to Uppsala to make a sacrifice:

Then the oracle of the staves foretold him that he would not live much longer.

The word used in this text is: spnn = 'sacrificial stave', as we have already seen.

In these two instances, each text is certainly describing a divination using sticks and it is entirely possible that runes had been written on them. It is also possible that the author of these texts did not understand completely that the sticks decided (or changed the future) rather than simply announced future events.

In "De inventione litterarum" (found in Ren Derolez, "Runica Manuscripta", p. 355) one note precedes each of the rune sections of the A and B texts:

text A

"With these letters they [the nordmanni, i.e. Danes] 'signify' their songs, incantations and divinations [for] they are still given to pagan practices" (A);

text B

"They gave the names runestabas [rune-staves] to these letters, I believe, because by writing them they used to bring to light secret things" (B).

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" says:

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 translation says:

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 sage's high-seat,
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.

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