Fehu

Cognates: German Vieh (cattle) and English fee (payment).

 

For this first rune, I would like to discuss the reasoning behind the association of the meaning of this rune to its name. Since this reasoning is the same for all runes, I won’t go later into as much detail. I have consulted various etymological dictionaries, mainly Kluge (etymological dictionary of the German language), and De Vries (etymological dictionary of the Old Norse language). Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that, in reality, scientific runology has been proceeding in another, more complicated way: given the names of the runes found in (relatively) late texts, what could the Proto-Germanic root be for these names? This is a com-plex discussion that I won’t get into here. Except when there is disagreement among runolo-gists, I will accept these rune names without dispute, and explain directly their meaning in Proto-Germanic. A complete discussion of the names of the runes is found in Palomé's paper cited in the references.
Kluge's etymological dictionary states that the origin of the German word ‘Vieh’ (‘cattle’) is indeed the Germanic root ‘fehu’. The meaning of this rune is clearly ‘cattle’. I have also noted that the origin of the English word ‘fee’ (as in payment) is Old English, feho. Saying ‘fehu’ and 'feho’ stem from the same root, even more ancient, seems likely. Thus the English and German languages have diverged while each preserved an aspect of Fehu.
This possible common etymology is certainly in agreement with the runic poems that changed Fehu to Fé or Feoh, yet maintaining a similar new meaning: it always means wealth. The as-sociation of cattle to wealth isn’t surprising since it comes from a time when wealth was counted not only by the amount of gold one had but also by the heads of cattle: De Vries gives ‘cattle, property, money’ as the meanings for the Old Norse ‘fé’. Therefore, like almost everyone else, I associate Fehu with everything that represents wealth and with symbols of wealth.
Its form is , and has remained unchanged over time.

Fehu and Nordic mythology

There are many hypotheses on the reasons that are behind the "strange" ordering of the runic letters in the Futhark, and why it differs so much from all other known alphabets. In particu-lar, Fehu looks like it is so much out of place to some people, that there is even a theory (largely scorned by scientific runology) that claims that Fehu is actually the last rune of an hypothetical "Uthark". Not only shall I not follow this theory, but it seems to me that since Fehu means 'cattle' it would be obvious to associate it with the primal cow, named Auðhumla, Auðumla, or Auðhumbla , who created our Universe by licking and thus melting the original universal ice, as we shall see in more detail in the next chapter. And since this primal cow is at the origin of our universe, it is not surprising that its rune would be the very first one.

Also supporting this association of Fehu and Auðhumla, the name Auðhumla finds its origin, as De Vries says, by the conjunction of two roots. One is Old Norse ‘auðr’ meaning ‘property, riches’ and the second one is the root *humala- meaning ‘hornless’. Thus, De Vries suggests that Audhumla might mean ‘the rich hornless cow’. Since Tacitus (Germania 5) reports that some Germanic tribes had hornless cattle, this stresses the importance of Auðhumla’s lack of horns, in connection with the riches it brings. The importance of the horns will be stressed for understanding the second rune, Uruz which is associated to a bovine with big horns. Thus, Fehu and richness are associated with non-aggressive features.

I would also like to discuss another topic of dissension among the ‘runesters’ (I call ‘rune-masters’ the antique rune writers, and I give the name runesters to modern rune writers like myself). I have been long wondering why so many attribute a value of fertility to this rune, and associate it to the God Frey. There is no obvious reason for such an association, while rune Jeran (and perhaps, as we shall see, rune Ingwaz) plays this role in the Elder Futhark. Rune Ar of the Younger Futhark also plays this role perfectly, so I don’t see why Fehu should be Frey's rune, except due to an error of reasoning which I will now explain. Derolez notices that late Icelandic literature refers to three groups of runes, or aett of runes, called Freys aett, Hagals aett, Tys aett. Since the last two names refer obviously to the first rune of the aett, the same "must" hold also for the first one (at least many people seem to have thought so), hence Frey had to be associated to rune Fehu at this time. This kind of ‘logical’ reasoning bears little evidence since we do not know why the first aett was, at this time, called Freys aett. At any rate, and even supposing that the Icelanders of post-Renaissance times associated rune Fé to Frey, this attribution is totally absent from all the more ancient texts as we shall see below that all allude to riches, and not to fertility.


Texts related to Fehu

Viking Runic Poem

fé (wealth) causes trouble among relatives;
the wolf lives in the forest.

Icelandic Runic Poem

fé (wealth) is trouble among relatives
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.

Anglo-Saxon Poem Beowulf

Sigemund it was who had slain the dragon,
the keeper of the hoard; the king's son walked
under the grey rock, he risked alone
the fearful conflict;...
his weapon transfixed
the marvelous snake, struck in the cave-wall,
best of sword; the serpent was dead.

Old English Rune Poem

Wealth is benefit to all men;
yet every man must share it freely,
if he wishes to gain glory before the lord.

Old-English Rune Poem, as translated by Marijane Osborn

Funds are effective for folk everywhere
But she must generously share who hopes
To cast her lot for the Lady
to deem.

First runic stanza of the Havamal

The first charm I know is unknown to rulers
Or any of human kind:
Help it is named, for help it can give
In hours of sorrow and anguish.

Saint Hildegard

It is good and useful for man to always have wood from of this tree [the hornbeam, "Carpi nus Betulus"] near him. Indeed, when the hornbeam and the other trees that are images of prosperity, burn in the fireplace of a house, aerial spirits and diabolic illusions will leave because they are sensitive to their powers. If someone wants to sleep overnight in the forest, or to take a nap there, and he lies under a hornbeam or in its shade and sleeps there, crafty spirits will be much less able to work against him with their tricks of illusion and their horrors. In fact, if he wants to avoid diabolic horrors, man can lie and rest under all trees in nature that contain prosperity, but especially under the hornbeam.

Gautrek’s Saga

Odin said: "I grant him an abundance of possession."
Thor said: "I impose on him a state of dissatisfaction with all that he possesses."

Sigrdrifumal (runes of Protection)

They are engraved ...
On gold, ...

Groa’s Blessing

I give you the first song,
They are all-powerful,
Vrind sung them for Vani [this line is not clear and still a matter of discussion among scholars]
Throw above your shoulder
That which annoys you,
Drive your own life!

 

Discussion of the Texts

The viking rune poem gives, in two verses, a description of the rune that almost always asks for an interpretation because the first and the second verse appear to refer to different subjects. You could simply see an incoherence, but instead, I try to find a hidden bond between two ideas that today are considered very different, but that are intimately linked to runic magic.

fé (wealth) causes trouble among relatives;
the wolf lives in the forest.

Common sense makes these understandable without resorting to mythology. It means that money problems divide relatives and that in the heart of each dozes a wolf whose avidity wakes quickly to the good smell of the money. In Nordic mythology, this theme is particu-larly well illustrated, as we shall see in Sigurdr’s saga when he kills Fafnir the dragon because Fafnir’s brother, Regin, (Sigurdr’s spiritual father) tells him to. Sigurdr learns from birds singing near him that Regin wants to kill him, and the opposite happens, Sigurdr kills Regin. We are left here with an excellent example of the fights that can happen among relatives, but the story of this gold doesn’t stop there, it goes on causing many other horrors in this family, as you can read in the Edda and in the "Song of the Nibelungen", a classic of Germanic lit-erature. This is why, according to the Edda, gold is called "the metal of discords".

To understand the second verse, remember that by preparing Sigurdr’s murder, the assassins, who are also his brothers in combat, eat wolf and snake to give themselves the 'right' to carry out their crime. I suppose that by acting this way, they temporarily lose their human quality and they authorize themselves to perform actions that would otherwise be impossible. The myth gives a sort of wild greatness to the common sense interpretation, but it doesn’t change its meaning.

The Icelandic rune poem gives three images (or metaphors which are called « kennings » in skaldic litterature) that can be used in poetical language instead of the word that they illus-trate. Therefore, the Icelandic poem is contained in a sort of poetical art. Now I will try to make sense of these images.

fé (wealth) is trouble among relatives
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.

Because of these kennings, a poem, instead of using the word « wealth, » can replace it by « trouble among relatives, » « fire of the sea, » or « path of the serpent. » We have already, more or less explicitly, explained these three images. The discord between relatives is a con-stant in the sagas of Sigurdr, Brunhild (called Sigrdrifa when she is still a Valkyrie) and Gu-drun.

It’s a classic kenning to replace the word ‘gold’ by "flame of the river" or "fire of the sea"(1) . In this image, another danger of wealth is noted. It is its mirage aspect that, as the reflection of the sun resting on the water, dazzles but does not feed the soul. The ‘cold’ aspect of light that is given off by gold is what is emphasized in this skaldic poem:

Never shall the snow scales melt under the fire of the surging path of the eel.

The "surging path of the eel" is the sea, the "fire of the sea" is the gold, and the "snow scales" represent metal silver. This means, therefore, that silver does not melt under the light of gold, in other words, this light has no heat.

The path of the snake can be interpreted of two ways. On one hand, it is the one that is fol-lowed by eating wolf or snake. I prefer, however, the other interpretation, where the 'serpent' is in fact a dragon, that legends often describe as amassing great wealth, such as Fafnir. Else-where, a skaldic poem from the saga of the sworn brothers (in chapter 23) uses the metaphor "the bond of the snake" for gold. Gold links Fafnir to his den, it is also the path that takes him to his destiny. Similarly, the Old English poem Beowulf, in a digression, describes part of Sigurdr’s life (then called Sigemund) in these terms :

It was Sigemund who fatally wounded the dragon,
The guardian of the treasure; the son of the king walked
Under the gray rock, risked himself alone In the terrible combat;
... his sword pierced on the spot
The marvelous reptile, hit in the great cavern,
The best of swords; the snake was dead.

In this poem the dragon is called both a reptile and a snake. The path of the snake is the path followed by the dragon, a great hoarder of wealth.

The Gesta Danorum also contains a text associating the 'serpent' to wealth:

"Not far off is an island rising in delicate slopes, hiding treasure in its hills and ware of its rich booty. Here a noble pile is kept by the occupant of the mount, who is a snake wreathed in coils, doubled in many a fold, and with tail drawn out in winding whorls, shaking his manifold spirals and shedding venom. If you would conquer him, you must use your shield and stretch thereon bulls' hides, and cover your body with these skins, nor let your limbs lie bare to the sharp poison; his slaver burns up what it bespatters. Though the three-forked tongue flicker and leap out of the gaping mouth, and with awful yawn menace ghastly wounds remember to keep the dauntless temper of your mind; nor let the point of the jagged tooth trouble you, nor the starkness of the beast, nor the venom spat from the swift throat. Though the force of his scales spurn your spears, yet know there is a place under his lowest belly whither you might plunge the blade; aim at this with your sword, and you shall probe the snake to his center. From there, go fearless up to the hill, drive the pickaxe, dig and ransack the holes; soon fill your pouch with treasure, and bring back to the shore your ship loaded."

The Old English rune poem, written a bit later, is very much influenced by christianity, and also a bit of a moralizer.

Feoh (wealth) is benefit to all men;
yet every man must share it freely,
if he wishes to gain glory before the lord.

This poem is not insisting on the dangers of wealth, but instead on a usage of wealth that pre-cisely provoked the first indignations of the Reform, the fact that a person could buy back his or her faults by paying a redemption to the Church, that the glory of the Lord could be earned (with money). I want to emphasize that the moral of the Old English rune poem is very con-ventional. I will systematically try to find, when possible, the hidden meanings of this poem. In this precise case, I must confess that I would rather say that wealth is "the way of the snake", as a good Pagan, rather than to make it some preachy preaching to the rich.

The name of the Fehu rune is Fé in the Viking rune poem, and it is the first rune cited in the poem. This is why, as I have said, I associate it to the first stanza of the Havamal:

The first charm I know is unknown to rulers
Or any of human kind:
Help it is named, for help it can give
In hours of sorrow and anguish.

Runic poems, certainly under the influence of the Sigurdr and Gudrun history, have favored the negative aspect of wealth. Odin, well before them, is fortunately here to remind us of its positive aspects.

Conclusion

Fehu is the rune of the cattle, the primitive non aggressive animal force, wealth, with all nega-tive aspects of the wealth, but also the internal wealth that is the best aid against distress. It is linked, not to a Nordic God, but to the mythical original cow, Auðhumla, whose name, meaning ‘hornless wealth’, is so near to Fehu.

Medical role

It is to be invoked each time that one feels like a "pauper", in other words, when you feel de-void of any strength, without energy. It allows you to reconstruct your internal strength. Actually, every sick person is missing some energy, so that makes Fehu the ‘universal’ rune that can always be used in healing. For composing galdr, like the ones I gave in the first vol-ume, I systematically avoided using it in order to show some examples that were a bit diffi-cult. In practice, the goal is not to write a book, but to heal, so it is good to add Fehu (in the most appropriate place possible) in each of the galdr you create for helping a patient.

Note (1) This image is so classic that we find, in a skaldic poem (Chapter 9, in the saga of the sworn brothers), the following metaphor is used: « candlestick of the sea » to mean ‘a rich man’. In fact, with the flame of the sea being gold, the one who carries the gold carries « the flame of the sea » just as a candlestick carries a flame. Snorri Sturluson gives an explanation of the origin of this image : The Sea God, Aegir, had invited all the Aesir to visit him. The Gods were seated in Aegir’s hall, and Aegir had pieces of luminous gold brought forward which he placed in the middle of the hall in order to light it « as a fire would do », says the legend.


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Fehu Uruz Thurisaz Ansuz Raido Kaunan Gebo Wunjo
Haglaz Naudiz Isaz Jeran Ihwaz Pertho Algiz Sowelo
Tiwaz Berkanan Ehwaz Mannaz Laukaz Ingwaz Dagaz Othala