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


Sigrdrifa's Lay 
The Nine Rune Songs 
by Yves Kodratoff 

This page is an old version. It will be rewritten very soon.


In so far as we have found so many engraved whole Futhark , I believe that it is reasonable to suppose that the runes as a group form a song, and that each one belongs to all the incantations. In this way, all the runes are at the same time runes of Joy, Victory, Magic (often called runes of Beer), Protection, Child-birth, Undertow (often called runes of the Sea or the Waves), Branches (often called runes of Limbs), Speech, and Spirit (often called runes of Mind). However, the texts insist that songs must be associated to their use, and that nine songs are possible. Keeping this fact in mind, it isn't absurd to suppose that certain runes are more intimately connected to certain songs.

In this section, I will try to regroup and interpret many texts relating to the magic of the runes. These will be the nine runic songs described by Sigrdrifa that she teaches to Sigurdr. In the same poem, some verses are also dedicated to the place where the runes are engraved, these verses were the key that allowed me to coherently attribute the runes to each of the nine runic songs. This is to be combined with allusions to the runic songs were made in the nine incantations that Groa sings to protect her son on his journey "to find Freya". Groa's incantations were therefore intended for a journey that is strongly reminiscent of those of the Siberian shamans towards the celestial fiancé. We will understand them much better if we see them as describing a shamanic journey and not as a travel in ordinary reality. Finally, and most importantly, the curses of Busla make explicit use of the runes. Obviously, this is black magic, and we study it only because it enlightens us to the meanings of the runes. Busla is the foster mother of a young hoodlum who has seriously broken the laws and who must be put to death. The fact that Busla comes to demand that the king free her adoptive son proves the importance of the power that a magician could possess: she doesn't hesitate to challenge a king for what is, actually, an unjust cause.

(note: Busla's curses are found in the saga of Bosi and Herraud, included in the Penguin edition of "Seven Viking Romances.")

The interpretation that I am using revolves around the understanding of the nine songs that allow for the correct use of the runes, this is why we will study each runic song, one after the other, in the order that Sigrdrifa taught to Sigurdr. However, before starting, I will explain the grouping of the verses that describes the places where we find the runes. (note: diverse translations give slightly different interpretations. The text below is based on Boyer's French translation. When it differs from Auden and Taylor's English one, and Genzmer's German one, this is noted in the text. Explanations are in parentheses and

 

They are engraved on the shield
That is found before the brilliant God,
On Arvak's ear
And on Alsvin's hoof, (the two horses that pull the sun's chariot)
On the wheel that turns
On Rungnir's chariot
On Sleipnir's teeth
And on the runners of the sled.
On the bear's paws
And on Bragi's tongue (God of poetic powers)
On the wolf's claw
And on the eagle's beak.
On the bloody wings
And on the bridge end
On the palm of the woman in labor (Genzmer: "on the (she)-healing hand"; Auden & Taylor: "on the palm of the child-loosener")
And on the path of comfort (Genzmer: "on the tracks of the she-helper")
On glass and on gold,
On the tutelary (guardian) signs
In wine, the wort of beer
And the beds of rest. (Genzmer: "on the seat of habits"; Auden and Taylor: "on mind's seat")
On Gungnir's point (Odin's spear)
And on Grani's breast, (Sigurdr's horse), On the Norn's nail
And on the barn-owl's beak.

It happens that this makes up exactly 24 places, which forces us to think that each place is given one rune of the elder Futhark.

(note: Here is the same poem given in the saga of the Volsungs. It shows 25 places where to carve runes, but the added "human flesh" is extremely improbable, it sounds very much like a late addition! They were cut on the shield.)

That stands before the shining god,
On Arvak's ear And on Alsvid's head
And on the wheel that stands
Under Hrungnir's chariot,
On Sleipnir's reins,
And on the sleigh's fetters.
On bear's paw
And on Bragi's tongue,
On wolf's claws
And on eagle's beak,
On bloody wings
And on bridge's ends,
On the soothing palm
And on the healing step.
On glass and on gold
And on good silver,
In ale and in wine
And on the witch's seat,
In human flesh
And the point of Gaupnir
And the hag's breast,
On the Norn's nail
And the neb of the owl.

It is extremely difficult to make this attribution in a coherent manner, but what made this task easier is the fact that this poem contains implicit separations in 9 sections, in the following way:

They are engraved on the shield that is found before the brilliant god, on Arvak's ear and on Alsvin's hoof, (3 places) On the wheel that turns under Rungnir's chariot, on Sleipnir's teeth, and on the runners of the sled (3 places)

On the bear's paws and on Bragi's tongue (2 places) On the wolf's claw and on the eagle's beak (2 places) On bloody wings and on the bridge's head (2 places) On the palm of the woman giving birth and on the path of comfort (2 places) On glass and on gold, on the tutelary signs (3 places) In wine, the wort of beer, and the beds of rest, (3 places) On Gungnir's point and on Grani's breast, on Norn's nail and on the barn-owl's beak. (4 places)

This is why I will associate one song to each of these sections, with the same number of runes as places in the section. For each runic song, we will study the verse where Sigrdrifa talks about them (in the order she pronounces them in); the place where we find them engraved; Groa's corresponding incantation; and those of Busla's curses that use one of the nine runic songs. Obviously, given the weakness of the available sources my arguments carry less weight at times. It is the coherence of the entire group that seems to me to be very convincing: we have a number of weak arguments, but I have succeeded in organizing them together in a way that is not contradictory.

Runes of Joy

Sigrdrifa tells Sigurdr:

Tree of the gathering of suits of armor
I bring you magic,
Mixed with power and fame,
Strong with powerful incantations
And runes of Joy.

(note: The version used above is the one of the Edda. Here is the one found in Volsung's saga.

Beer I give you,
Battlefield's ruler,
With strength blended
And with much glory.
It is full of charmed verse
And runes of healing,
Of seemly spells
And of pleasing speech.)

In this verse, Sigrdrifa does not describe the runes of Joy, she only notes their existence. I have found three runes of Joy, by using nothing but common sense, Jeran, Wunjo, and Gebo. Jeran brings the new year, and a runic poem explicitly states that it brings joy to mankind. Wunjo is the rune of bliss, and the Old English runic poem even calls it 'joy'. Lastly, two runic poems speaking of Jeran allude to generosity. In this way, Gebo, rune of generosity, perfectly completes this triplet. Of all the possible places to engrave them, itseemed to me that wine, beer wort, and beds of rest were the best suited to joy. The joy of celebration in the wine of the good harvest for Jeran, the joy of everyday life in beer for Wunjo, and the joy of married life (sexual joy) in bed for Gebo.

We will see which of Groa's songs can be associated to Joy by studying the following runic song. If one rune can carry the joy that we ask of the Spirits, the same one will be the messenger of bad luck, the inverse of this happiness, in a curse. The meaning of the runes is perverted and inversed in this way in Busla's curses.

Busla's fifth curse says:

Let you be in your bed
As in a straw fire,
On the high seat
As on the high waves;
You deserve even worse:
If you want to satisfy your manly
Desire with a girl
Therefore lose your goal!
Do you want more?

Gebo is engraved "on the beds of rest", thus its perversion will be used to prevent rest in this bed. The high seat is a sign of grandeur and therefore Jeran, rune of the primitive king, is used to diminish the power of those we want to curse. Lastly, sexual joy will be made impossible by the perversion of Wunjo, normally the rune of seduction and sexual pleasure.

Runes of Victory

Learn the runes of Victory
If you want to win victories.
They must be engraved on the blade,
On the sheath and the guard,
And invoke Tyr twice.

(note:Version found in Volsung's saga:

Victory runes shall you know
If you want to secure wisdom,
And cut them on the sword hilt,
On the center ridge of the blade,
And the parts of the brand,
And name Tyr twice.)

This poem clearly states that Tyr must be called twice to bring about a victory, but it does not state that Tiwaz must be engraved on the sword. We will see further on that Tiwaz is better integrated in another place, mostly because of the runic poem that is associated to it. Victory is obtained by engraving the runes of Victory and by invoking Tyr twice in the poem composed with the inscription of the runes. Tiwaz is certainly a rune linked to victory, but it is not a 'rune of Victory' per se. We will see further on why I have called it a rune of Protection.

In order to decide that the runes of Victory should be Sowelo, Dagaz and Ehwaz, I first considered that the main rune of Victory is Sowelo. There is a constant tradition of associating Sowelo to victory and, even more convincingly, the Words of the High One associated with Sowelo say that this rune allows for the undamaged return from battle. Further, the Icelandic poem calls it the "clouds' buckle", so that Sowelo fits very well in the first of the three places described by Sigrdrifa: the shield that is found before the brilliant god. I could not then leave Dagaz isolated far from Sowelo, this is why I placed it on Arvak's ear. Lastly, the third place, Alsvin's hoof, is related to a horse, and a runic poem on Ehwaz says that the steed is proud of its hooves. This is why I found that Ehwaz was the best rune for this place. I will restate that I am perfectly aware of the fact that I am playing with very weak arguments and that the whole construction must be considered in order to see its strength.

None of Busla's curses are associated with the runes of Victory. In fact, she never threatens the king with losing a battle. Two of Groa's blessings allude to victory, one is on potential enemies:

I sing for you in the fourth place:
If you run into enemies
Who wait for you on your path,
Let their will be bent
To that which is good for you,
That their spirit become conciliatory

The other one is a victory over a giant:

I sing for you in the ninth place:
If you fight
With a giant of the proud spear
Let your heart give you good advice
And let your lips pronounce good speech.

In both cases, there is a victory without battle, but by conciliation. Both verses can designate joy or victory. Good sense may have called for attributing this last verse to the runes of Speech, but we will see that I prefer to follow what the High One says, than good sense.

In order to decide between Joy and Victory, I went over a more complicated argument. First, the second verse refers to a giant, and therefore, can be considered as an allusion to Thurisaz. In this case, Thurisaz could very well be associated both to Joy and to Victory. It could have, then, a double association, rune of Magic, as we will see later, and rune of Joy or Victory. It is unthinkable to associate Thurisaz with Joy, which is why, I will choose Victory. Thurisaz would be, therefore, a rune of Magic and a rune of Victory. By this reasoning, the second verse will be associated to Victory, and, consequently the first to Joy.

Runes of Magic

It is amusing to note that the description Sigrdrifa makes of the runes is a bit ambiguous. Boyer's translation says that they serve to betray the wife of another; Auden and Taylor's translation, like that of Genzmer, says they serve to prevent being betrayed by the wife of another.

You must know the runes of Magic.
(Boyer : If you want the wife of another Betray the faith, and feel confident)
(Auden et Taylor, Genzmer : Let the wife of another Not betray your confidence)
On horn, they must be engraved
And on the back of the hand
And mark Need on the nail.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Ale runes shall you know
If you desire no other's wife
To deceive you in troth, if you trust.
They shall be cut on the horn
And on the band's back
And mark the need rune on your nail.)

My opinion is that both translations are correct. The ambiguity of the text comes from the cleverness of the poet to directly show that the runes can have two types of uses, in particular the runes of Magic. Boyer's translation, emphasizes a use of black magic, where we harm others, and those of the other translators emphasize a use of white magic where we protect without trying to harm. In any case, in both of the translations, we can understand the sexual innuendo, hinting at relations with another's wife. I believe that this is a serious error. Remember that the verse of the High One concerning Gebo explicitly classified women as virgins or married, which is not necessarily exhaustive. This shows us the importance given to these texts about the explicit status of women. The expression "the wife of another" can therefore be seen as a declaration of social status and nothing else. I suppose then, that the text is saying that no married woman (the "wife of another" is only there to exclude non-married women) can betray your faith if you use the runes of Magic (or that you can betray them all, according to the black magic interpretation). We will understand this text better if we place them in a shamanic vision, in particular of a woman instructing a man on the art of magic. Firstly, it is generally with "the wife of another" that you learn magic, simply because a young woman is not yet in a position to give such a great teaching. I suppose also, that this text tells us implicitly, in speaking of the wife of another, that you don't need precautions if you learn from your own wife. But, during this teaching, you place yourself in a position of complete dependence on this teacher, and if she betrays your confidence, you are lost. In a somewhat obsolete English, the word "mistress" still kept the ambiguity present in Sigrdrifa's runic song since it meant both a woman leading a house and a woman having intercourse with a man without being married to him.

The runes of Magic are essentially those that allow, without risk, the acceptance of the teachings of another's wife. This is what explains perfectly a text so obscure that it seemed incomprehensible, and even risky. Here we are now at its original solemnity: only accept the teachings of a married woman after having sealed your agreement by drinking with her from a horn marked with runes of Magic, mark them also on the back of her hand, and mark Naudiz on her nail! Notice also that my interpretation renders quite intelligibly the otherwise clumsy verses of Volsung's saga:

Ale runes shall you know
If you desire no other's wife
To deceive you in troth, if you trust.

It is interesting to note that we engrave the runes of Delivery in the palm of the woman in labor. The two powers of women, the magic of spiritual life and the magic of reproduction, each take up a side of the hand.

In order to find out which are the runes of Magic, I first accepted that Naudiz, the rune of the Norns, must be the principal rune, and this is explicitly stated by Sigrdrifa, this time not for an invocation, but for engraving it. Then, in Busla's curses, I choose the verse talking about the Norns, and I considered that the other curses constituted runes of magic. The sixth curse says:

Let the Dwarves, the Giants and the witch Norns
The Little People and the Trolls
Burn your house;
Let the Giants hate you,
Let the stallions rape you,
Let the straws pick you,
Let the storms shake you.
Be assaulted by all evils
If you do not follow my will!

We see here that at least five runes were called. As the poem of Sigrdrifa never presents more than four places for each rune, it would be clearly impossible to place all five runes. These runes were engraved

On Gungnir's point (Odin's spear)
And on Grani's breast, (Sigurdr's horse), On the Norn's nail
And on the barn-owl's beak.

It seems clear that it is Naudiz that is engraved on the Norn's nail. The Norns were called as the beings who would burn the house, we see them as making up part of the elementary brutal forces associated with the dwarves, giants, trolls and dwarves. Moreover, Norns are well-known for shaking human lives as if they were simple tree leaves taken in a storm, and they seem to be called here to shake the king's life in a similar way. Lastly, according to my hypothesis, it will be they who would have invented the runes. Therefore, as they are the women who taught the runes to men, is it in fact wise to "carve Naud on their nail" as we have already seen about the women that teach the runes.

The first verse, "that the dwarves, .... Burn your house" calls on the perversion of Hagla, normally capable of protecting against fire. Despite this clear calling of Hagla, I will class it later with the runes of Spirit. In the same way as Tiwaz is both a rune of Victory and a rune of Protection, Hagla has the double nature of Magic and Spirit. To be hated by giants calls on the rune Thurisaz. This rune is certainly one of the runes most able to carry mysterious forces, and it is the one that is 'fatal for women', that is to say that it is the one that prevents them from using their magic. This rune is certainly placed on Odin's sword, him who stung Sigrdrifa with a magic thorn to make her sleep. Sigrdrifa, pricked by this thorn, will lose her independence (she must marry, emphasizes the Edda) after having been wakened from her magical sleep, and she must teach Sigurdr the secret of the runes. The transformation of the meaning of Thurisaz from Thurse to Thorn in the Old English poem becomes now completely understandable.

To be raped by a stallion is a clear allusion to the adventure of Loki as he sires Sleipnir. We have linked homosexuality and Loki to the rune Othala that becomes the second rune of Magic. I see it as engraved on Grani's breast, the stallion that conveys in this way, at the same time the humiliation of rape, and the imprint of supreme wisdom. To be picked by straw refers directly to Algiz, this mysterious 'elk-sedge' that gives wounds so strong that they affect your spirit. I place it on the beak of the barn owl, who is traditionally associated with wisdom, and therefore with spirit. Algiz, affecting the intellect, must be also a rune of intellectual healing, a rune of Branches. This is why I believe it is reasonable to give it the double association with Magic and Branches.

Lastly, Groa sings:

If the painful cold weather
Finds you there up high in the mountain, Let the mortal cold
Move away from your body,
Let your being be saved!

We only find here a simple allusion to the Frost Giants (called also the Thurses) whose frost freezes you, this says again that Thurisaz can protect against this evil.

Runes of Protection

Thor's sign must be traced on the cup
And to protect from evil
Throw an onion into the drink;
Then, I know that evil never
Mixes with mead.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

For the cup shall you make a sign
And be wary of misfortune
And throw leek into the liquor.
Then, I know that, You will never get
A potion blended with poison.)

We have already used this verse in Chapter 2 to link Thor and Laukaz. In any case, Laukaz was linked to protection as we have already seen in many examples. Tiwaz was also linked to protection since it is the rune of Tyr, who protected the Gods from Fenrir (and there lost his right hand), this is why it seems to work well with this song. Further, Busla's first curse says: Let the tutelary spirits be led astray

Let violence reign,
Let the stones sway
Let the world shake,
Let there begin a new climate,
Let calamity reign.

This confirms Tiwaz as a rune of protection, since it is one of the tutelary signs as the runic poem specifies it. Lastly, this curse that will bring desolation to men seems to me to be a clear perversion of Fehu, rune of richness. In addition, Fehu is explicitly shown as protecting from distress and persecutions in the Words of the High One.

Sigrdrifa engraves these runes
On glass and on gold,
On the tutelary signs.

Tiwaz is naturally inscribed on the tutelary signs, and Fehu on gold since it is linked to richness. I admit that I would have preferred to inscribe Isaz on glass, making it therefore possibly also a rune with a double attribution, Protection and, as we will see, a rune of Undertow. In any case, the only free place for Laukaz is glass. It is possible, without being certain, that it is an allusion to the links between Laukaz and water, and to the transparency of water.

As for Groa, the verse referring to protection is logically the first of her blessings for her sons, but it is obscure, and I associated it to the runes of Protection only because she advised throwing that which seems sinister above your shoulder, a classical gesture associated with protection against evil.

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!

Another God associated with Protection, in particular Protection against bad weather, is Njšrd. We have already noted that the prose Edda says that he has powers over the wind, and he calms the sea and fire. He is the one we must invoke for navigation and fishing....

Busla's curse explicitly speaks of a change of the weather that in effect could well be the result of Njšrd's anger. As we have associated Njörd to the rune Ingwaz, this last one could also be a rune of Protection. It would have then a double nature, Protection and Spirit.

Runes of Delivery

You must know the runes of Delivery
If you want to help a woman's labor,
And deliver the baby from her womb;
You must firmly trace them on the palms, Clasp her wrists,
Success will come by imploring the Disir.

(note: as already explained, the Disir represent the mild side of the Norns, i.e., destiny seen as less compelling, not so much a need as a driving thread)

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Aid runes shall you learn
If you would grant assistance
To bring the child from the mother.
Cut them in her palm
And hold her hand in yours.
And bid the Disir not to fail.)

The runes of Delivery are certainly the two runes of feminine power, Pertho and Berkanan, that we find from Sigrdrifa, on the palm of the woman in labor and on the paths of comfort. Pertho is found on the palm of the woman delivering, and Berkanan on the paths of comfort.

When Busla curses a man, it is therefore not surprising that she doesn't use these runes.

If Groa uses these runes to bless her son, she does so in a very obscure way. This is why I am associating, without great conviction, the following verse to the runes of Delivery:

I sing thirdly for you,
If your life is threatened
By the flow of the river,
let hršnn and hrid
Go astray towards Hel,
And let them dry up in front of you.

Hršnn and Hrid are two rivers, but I admit that I don't see a relationship between them, the delivery of the woman in labor, and a man blessed by his mother.

Runes of Undertow

You need the runes of Undertow
If you want to save from shipwreck
The steed of the seas;
We burn them on the keel,
And on the blade of the rudder;
Engrave them also on the oars;
The undertow will not be so strong,
Nor the waves so gloomy
That you only arrive at the port.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Wave runes shall you make
If you desire to ward
Your sail-steeds on the sound.
On the stem shall they be cut
And on the steering blade
And burn them on the oar.
No broad breaker will fall
Nor waves of blue,
And you will come safe from the sea.)

An obvious rune of Undertow, at least from the Words of the High One, is Isaz whose role is to calm the sea. The other seems to me to be Ihwaz, but I use here the myth of Is in which an oak, (protector of the city of Is against the sea), plays the role of tree of the world. These runes are inscribed:

On bloody wings
And on the bridge end.

In order to understand the significance of bloody wings, we must refer to a fact stated in the history of the Danes by Grammaticus. A man dreams four times that three birds come out from inside his wife. Three times, they come and rest on his hand, but the fourth time, the smallest of the birds comes with bloody wings. His wife is very satisfied with this dream which she sees as a sign that they will have children. Bloody wings, are therefore, considered as a sign of fertility, that we can easily associate to Ihwaz from my point of view, since I consider it the rune of spousal seduction. We can easily imagine that the bloody thighs of a woman having just given birth were compared to bloody wings. I find this strong image beautiful, and full of love for the woman who has just suffered so much. Ihwaz would be, then, inscribed on bloody wings, and Isaz, then on the bridge end, which is confirmed by a runic poem saying that Isaz is a "large bridge".

Groa and Busla confirm the use of runes of Undertow without bringing any new information:

Here is what I sing for you in the sixth place
If the sea attacks you
More furiously than you have ever heard,
Let the wind and the waves
Be docile for you
And grant you a happy journey.

As for the curse, she only describes some technical details of the difficulties that can be encountered at sea.

Runes of Branches

You must know the runes of Branches
If you want to be a doctor
Who knows how to probe wounds;
On bark you must engrave them
On the twigs of a tree
The large branches of which stretch toward the East.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Branch runes shall you know
If you wish to be a healer
And to know how to see to wounds.
On bark shall they be cut
And on needles of the tree
Whose limbs lean to the east.

The runes of Branches can certainly also be called the runes of Trees, where the tree is the one of life. This is why they are associated to doctors. The rune Uruz, according to the Words of the High One, is rightfully the one of doctors, but I think that Kaunan, rune of putrefying flesh, is evidently linked to illness, and therefore to its healing. As I have already said, I associate Uruz more to illnesses of the soul, those treated by 'medicine women' (I use this expression as an allusion to the 'medicine men' of the Native Americans) as shamans, and Kaunan to the illnesses of the flesh, treated by physical means.

The runes of Branches are engraved:
On the wolf's claw
And on the eagle's beak.

Uruz being associated to the primitive forces is appropriately found on the eagle's beak who, as the Siberian tales tell us, is sent by the Gods to teach its art to the first shaman. Therefore, the wolf's claw is left for engraving Kaunan. The wolf, being a carrion eater, its claw often dips in the putrefaction that evokes Kaunan.

Uruz, being linked to shamanic treatment, also serves to protect against Spirits of the dead, which explains Groa's blessing:

Here is what I sing for you in the eighth place: If you are surprised outside

At night on a dark path,
I wish for you to avoid
The evil that could make you
A dead Christian woman.

Busla's second curse only makes allusion to physical illness:

I wish you illness
In your breast
That venomous vipers
Gnaw your heart,
That your ears
Are forever deaf,
And your eyes
Are crossed outward!

Kaunan evidently corresponds to "vipers who gnaw the heart" and therefore Uruz, according to the second part of the curse, would be also responsible for illnesses of the blood organs.

Runes of Speech

You must know the runes of Speech
If you don't want anyone
To be able to harm you by hatred;
You must work them,
You must weave them,
You must gather them
To the Assembly
There where the swords are pulled
Before the just tribunal.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Speech runes shall you know
If you want no repayment
In hate words for harm done.
Wind them,
Weave them,
Tie them all together,
At that thing
When all shall attend
The complete court.)

Ansuz is the rune that breaks links, according to the Words of the High One. Otherwise, having become 'the mouth' in the Old English runic poem, it seems evident that it is one of the runes of Speech.

Groa uses Ansuz's power to unbind the fetters:
Here is what I sing for you in the fifth place,
If they put chains on you
Around your ankles.
To your joints
I shall tell a magic freedom
That will make the bonds of your legs jump.

Busla doesn't use the runes of Speech in a verse, but, among the six warriors with which she threatens the king, she includes the rune Ansuz, as we will see soon. Ansuz breaks the links, therefore its perversion must serve to enchain in a curse.

The other rune of Speech is Mannaz, the rune of relations between humans, as is emphasized by this beautiful verse, already cited, from the Words of the High One, seemingly without connection to the runes:

The torch lights another torch,
The flame feed the flame,
Man knows man by speech,
The idiot does not know how to be recognized.

This verse makes speech a fire that spreads from man to man creating humanity, confirming our attribution of Mannaz to the runes of Speech.

Lastly, the runes of Speech are engraved on Bragi's tongue (the God of Poetry), which obviously evokes Odin and Ansuz. They are also engraved on the bear's paw. We have discussed the Native American myths which link bear and man. From them, it follows that Mannaz is exactly in its place there.

The runes of Speech, linked to poetry and therefore to the magical power of the group of runes, should play a particularly important role. Snorri Sturluson, in his Hattatal, describes the primordial form that orders the skaldic poetry and insists on its importance in these terms: This form is fundamental for all kinds of poetry, just as the runes of Speech constitute the most important type of runes.

It is very well possible that, in these conditions, runic magic is intimately linked to the complex alliterations of skaldic poetry. Including this magic in our civilization demands a great effort in order to find such a rhythm in our modern language.

Runes of Spirit

You must learn the runes of Spirit
If you do not want the sword
To support your argument.
The Crier has screamed them,
He has cut them,
He has conceived them
Of the liquid
That runs drop by drop
From Heidraupnir's skull,
From Hoddrofnir's horn.

(note: Version found in Volsung's saga:

Mind runes shall you learn
If you would be
Wiser than all men.
They were solved,
They were carved out,
They were heeded by Hropt.)

In this verse, Sigrdrifa attributes the responsibility of the invention of the runes to Odin, the Crier of the Gods. I don't know who Hoddrofnir is, and what his horn (from which one drinks) has to do with this. I suppose that Heidraupnir's skull is an allusion to the "learned head of Mimir" where Odin in fact finds his wisdom. The first three verses are explained by the fact that a litigation before the Assembly could always be regulated by the sword. If we are persuasive enough, we are therefore capable of influencing our adversary so that force is not needed.

We must insist on the fact that the interpretation of these verses: "a case intelligently presented will be unchallengeable" is contrary to the spirit of the behavior that the Icelandic had at the assembly. We see in the sagas, cases perfectly well presented, that are lost simply because one of the opponents used his strength, that which is always his right. This is why I believe that spirit here absolutely does not mean capacity to think, but strength of persuasion. The adversary must be convinced that right is not on his side, otherwise he could always feel wronged, and if he feels he is in a position of strength, he can decide to solve his arguments by the sword.

By "Mind" (as in Volsung's saga translation), our modern comprehension hears intelligence, the capacity for mathematical abstraction, this is why I called these runes, the runes of Spirit which renders better this shamanic context where we place ourselves. We have also just said that abstract intelligence would be contrary to the way in which the sagas described the many cases of litigation regulated by combat. The runes of Spirit are the ones that put you in contact with the Spirits, those who will favor a good shamanic journey, not that capacity for abstraction. The primordial rune of Spirit will be therefore Raido, the rune of journey. Hagla is the shamanic rune par excellence since it stands the test of the flames; it is both a rune of Magic and a rune of Spirit. Lastly, Ingwaz is the only rune for which the runic poem describes a journey, it completes this trinity.

Raido is obviously engraved on the wheel that turns under Rungnir's chariot. The meaning of the word 'sleipnir' is 'who goes forth sliding' so is close enough to a sled. Hagla and Ingwaz can also be both easily found on Sleipnir's teeth as on the runners of the sled.

Groa only makes one allusion to Raido :

Here is what I sing for you in the second place When you are forced
To make your way
Let, on all sides,
The locks of Urd protect you,
When torments overpower you.

I don't know exactly what the locks of Urd are. The Norns lived close to the source of Urd, we could suppose that to be protected by the locks of Urd signifies being protected by the decisions of destiny, that it to say, to have a chance.

Busla's fourth curse is a bit more detailed:

As you ride
Let the reins pull free,
Let your horse stumble
Let your mount fall.
Let each hollow path
Lead you
Into the hands of Trolls.

The first verses are relating to Raido, but those who wish that "all paths lead to the Trolls" evokes the depart of the God Ing towards the East, the land of the Thurses and Trolls.

Busla's Six Warriors

Busla's curses end with the calling up of six warriors, who are six runes:

Of strangers six
The names are here:
What they might mean
You must make clear:
Solve this riddle,
But if you fail
To satisfy me,
The dogs of Hell
Will tear you body ...

Just after this poem, the text shows a graphical message beginning by a group of six runes:

  • Raido, rune of Spirit linked to the shamanic journey: Let your spirit be incapable of journeying!
  • Ansuz, the rune that breaks links, it must therefore serve to enchain in a curse: Let my curse chain you forever!
  • Thurisaz, rune of the 'elementary' magic of the frost giants. It ices the body: Let your body freeze!
  • Viking representation of Mannaz, another rune of Speech that was not used in the curse: Let you lose all your friends!
  • Viking representation of Kaunan: Let your body rot!
  • Uruz, rune of Branches: Let the Spirits of the dead rot your soul!

I do not pretend to have completely resolved the enigma of the runes associated with these nine songs. It was not easy to match the runic poems and the runic songs. However, I can tell you that you could do as I did, try to improve the disposition that I have outlined here, modifying a place or a rune. You would see very quickly that you would be introducing a contradiction between the four fundamental texts. For example, if we inverse the verses of the High One relating to Ansuz with those of Naudiz, (one possibility that I evoke in speaking of the rune Naudiz), we completely destroy my structure. This being, I have followed four constant threads. The first is to use only good sense where the texts are feeble. The second is that my 'good sense' is founded on a shamanic interpretation of the runes. The third is to use the Words of the High One as distributed by Guido List, i.e., in the order of the Viking runes. If we modify this distribution, we will arrive at results that are very different. Fourthly, I divided the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark into nine groups for each song, and these groups are distributed in 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, as per the places attributed to the runes by Sigrdrifa. There again, if we modify this distribution, we will find other results.

You should not miss noting that none of my arguments of attribution are indisputable. This is what made the entire enterprise so difficult. I also tried to be honest in my arguments. If anyone has any information that I have ignored and which contradicts my order of the runes, they could make the corrections themselves. I would like to point out that I would be thrilled if someone could bring to my attention any texts that I am ignoring and that will shed a better light on these mysterious runes.


Conclusion : interpretation of the magic session in Gautrek's saga

Gautrek's saga says:

At midnight, Horsehair-Grani woke up his adopted son, Starkad, and told him to follow him. They took a small boat and ended up on a small island. They walked through the forest until they reached a clearing. Here, a small crowd was assembled. Eleven men were seated on chairs and the twelfth was empty. Horsehair-Grani took it and all there greeted him as if he were Odin. He announced that the members of this court must decide Starkad's destiny.

Thor made a speech and explained: "Alfhild, Starkad's grandmother, preferred Asa-Thor, a giant of extraordinary intelligence, as the father of her son. I condemn Starkad to be childless, having neither son nor daughter, so he will be the last of his line."

Odin responded: "I grant him a long life of three human lives." Thor said: "During each of his lives, he will commit a terrible crime".

Odin responded: "I grant him the best weapons and the best clothing". Thor said: "I impose upon him a life where he has no land nor lordship."

Odin said: "I grant him an abundant estate." **(I still don't know what should go here)

Thor said: "I impose on him a state of dissatisfaction with all that he possesses."

Odin responded: "I gift him of courage and victory in each of his battles." Thor responded: "I impose on him that he gets severe wounds in each of his battles."

Odin said: "I give him mastery over poetry, so that he speaks his poems as though he were speaking naturally."

Thor said: "He will forget all the poems that he had made".

Odin said: "I grant him the ability to deeply impress the best and most noble men".

Thor said: "Simple men will hate him".

The members of the court announced they ensured all that was just said would be and the session was ended.

What we have here is an account of a typical sorcery session. Each of the twelve principal Gods take their place on a seat in front of a crowd of believers. One person, namely the adopted father of Starkad, plays the role of Odin and another plays the role of Thor (also called Asa-Thor). It seems Thor wanted to marry Starkad's grandmother and his wish was rejected for an "extraordinarily intelligent" giant. He seeks vengeance on her grandson, who is protected by Odin. In the battle between Odin and Thor, we can see how each rune can be used to bless or curse, depending on the intent. Thor ruins or lessens each blessing with a curse, I suppose, using the same rune as Odin, but in its negative sense. Clearly, the first of Thor's curses seems well deserved to Odin and it is not coupled with a blessing.

As we have seen in chapter 2, the giants are enemies of the Gods, and they carry what we would call nowadays genetic defects. Therefore, cutting the line of descent of this giant is not a curse in Odin's view, but a simple protective measure. However, he obviously believes Starkad is deserving of some compensation.

Following this comes six pairs of blessings/curses much like Busla's six warriors and six curses:

  • Runes of Branches are linked to the first blessing-curse pair as they are the runes of long life.
  • The second pair grants the protection of weapons which is the role of the runes of Magic, mainly through the role of Thurisaz.
  • The third deals with wealth, and therefore the runes of Protection, mainly under the influence of Fehu.
  • Courage in battle comes from the runes of Victory.
  • Mastery of poetry comes from Ansuz and the runes of Speech.
  • Lastly, the gift of persuasion belongs to the runes of Joy, as in the last pair.

This runic interpretation is not even hinted at in the text, with the exception of the similarity of the six blessings/curses to Busla's six curses. The thread that leads me to this understanding is factually thin, but it fits very well within the Nordic religious context.


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