How Do I Dare?
How am I warranted to take the artifact of an ancient culture and manipulate it into something different as I have done here? How am I justified in taking such a liberty?
The inventor of runes took just such a liberty when bringing Mediterranean letters north perhaps a century before Christ to redesign them for inscribing on wood and name them with native words--to appropriate them to the pagan Germanic culture. Around a millenium later an Anglo-Saxon poet takes further liberties in suppressing what is now unacceptable in the naive culture and making the rune-meanings conform to Christianity. So in this context of shifting cultural appropriations of this symbol-system perhaps my mere feminization of the rune poem is not so much a sacrilege after all
Much more daring, to tell the truth, is my suggestion that the rune poem is useful as an interpretive device for divination. This flies directly in the face of what many scholars prefer to think, that because evidence for runic divination in ancient times is minimal or as some argue, completely lacking, it never existed. Certainly our person-centered form of fortune-telling is relatively modern, and the use of the poem that I propose below, to explore one's own psyche, is quite contemporary. But does that matter? It is surely the insight that matters, and somewhere along the line of transmission, for whatever reason, the runes accrued the kind of evocative signification that provokes narrative 'readings' when they are arbitrarily juxtaposed. Their very adaptability to this end sanctions our use of them thus.
There are many ways to cast runes and many reasons for doing so. My book Rune Games (cowritten with Stella Longland and published by Penguin) offers some suggestions for technique. The easiest and often the most fruitful of these techniques is the three-rune method derived from chapter ten of Tacitus Germania. Having a question in mind, you cast upon a white cloth marked counters made from the wood of a nut-bearing tree. (Tacitus doesn't actually specify that the marks used then were runes, though it seems likely that they were.) From the jumbled assortment you randomly draw out three, one at a time. Then you read in them a narrative in answer to your question.
Here is a formula for interpreting your three runes: first for the question, second to cross it, third tells all. The second rune may "cross" your narrative like a gate that either opens or remains locked, depending on the context.
Read the runes freely, associatively. That is the secret of divination. Although you are projecting upon them responses from inside your head as these are evoked by the rune-meanings given in the poem and by the shapes, sounds, and even initials that the rune-signs represent, you will discover with practice that the runes can 'talk to you like spirits, like beings from somewhere outside who are (mostly) friendly and verbose -- but often they speak so directly to the point that it can get spooky.
Casting runes can be a means of finding out what you really think about something and since it places the problem out where you can look at it objectively it is an amazingly good problem solver. But also it can take you on a little quest, and the treasure at the end may be a self you hadn't thought of or imagined before. Let the runes lead. Explore those magic regions of the mind ...
What follows is a translation and feminization of the Old English Rune Poem that may be enjoyed as a poem or used for inward exploration.
Some notes follow the translation.
Notes on the Poem
The verse form of the translation is imitative, trying to capture an impression of the alliterative four-beat line of the original Anglo-Saxon meter.
The first six runes spell out futhorc, the name of the rune-list. The 24-rune futhorc is traditionally divided into three sets of eight runes: the Anglo-Saxons added further runes to provide for special sounds and vowel changes. I have added the traditional divisions to the poem.
The notes that follow are keyed to the name of the rune.
Ur-Ox The now extinct aurochs, a wild cow, urus in Latin.
Thorn The letter represents our th-digraph. The old Scandinavian rune poems give thyrs 'giant' as the rune name here, and the verse describing the rune suggests sex.
Hail This and the following stanza describe in expanded verse-lines (a five-beat meter) what I have called 'change runes.
Peorth I have retained the Anglo-Saxon name because its meaning is uncertain.
Sail This rune also signifies the sun.
Tir In what seems a general effort to depaganize the poem, the poet reduces the name of the sky-god Tiw to that of the planet Mars, described here on its narrow path along the ecliptic and used for navigation, not astrology. The name suggests a Scandinavian source for the rune-list since in Anglo-Saxon the god is named Tiw (as in Tuesday, equivalent to French Mardi, 'Mars' day'). Tir is the Scandinavian equivalent of Angl-Saxon Tiw.
Birch The Scandinavian 'birch' propagates by throwing out suckers.
Ing Ing is another god, here apparently represented as a constellation, perhaps Bootes with his 'Wain,' our Dipper.
Iar Probably the beaver, described as a fish by certain medieval writers so that beaver-meat is acceptable on fast days. Both wild animals mentioned in the Rune Poem are now extinct in England.
copyright © 1998 Marijane Osborn
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