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

The New Old English Rune Poem for Women 
Expressed in Modern English by Marijane Osborn

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The Old English Rune Poem of circa 1000 AD is a very masculine poem, referring exclusively to men and their activities, yet oddly enough it avoids all reference to warfare as well as to gods and women. It is as though the poem had been devised for a community of pacifist monks, and indeed comparison with other sources suggests that the pagan gods have actively been excised. Feeling that women might once have possessed a pagan oral counterpart to this text or something similar I have recast it chiefly by the simple expedient of changing the gender of the pronouns in a translation that attempts to retain the gist of each rune meaning while directing it toward women's interests. I have also tried to re- imagine the rune verses in the context of an early Germanic woman's world - so far as such a world can be recovered but in a way that allows these meanings to be equally applicable today.

Do I believe that the ancient letter-list called runes contains a magic that can help us? In a sense I believe the rune-meanings are like keys that can fit the locks of our psyche, opening its doors to show us the magic within. By magic I mean real power, power to change and enhance our lives and affect the lives of others around us if after seeing our wand of power we have the will to grasp it.

There is something else in the runes as well. Through them we can tap into the ancient sources of Northern European culture, the ancient native culture of many of us, seeking a tribal origin that is in many ways like that of the Native American, awakening our own tribal memory.

Third, there is the place of women within that culture, women with powerful voices. We tend to think today, in the context of our modern post-Victorian culture, that women are gaining a voice in society for the first time in history. But it seems that before Christianity brought Mediterranean influence with it to silence women and put them in their place (lower than men), the women of early Germanic society were not only allowed to speak but expected to offer good advice in all sorts of situations, especially political ones. Thought to have a prophetic voice, the lady of the clan not only took care of the treasures in the coffer, she also had a treasure-store of wise words that it was her duty to display on appropriate occasions. In whatever way it is used, whether for rune-casting, personal meditation, or simple enjoyment, I hope that this newly translated and ‘regendered’ poem from ca. 1000 AD will help to restock that ancient treasure in our depleted coffers.


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.

Casting Runes

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.

Marijane Osborn
Reykjavik and Davis, 1991

The New Old-English Rune Poem for Women

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

(ur) The Ur-Ox is brave. She bristles with horns,
And fiercely will she fight with them,
Stomping her moors, a striking creature!

(orn) The Thorn is sharp, a throbbing evil
For a woman to grasp, grim in the extreme
For one who likes to lie among them.

(os) The Open Mouth emitting words
Can prop up wisdom, impress the wise,
And ease the hearts of everybody.

(rad) Riding under a roof is soft,
More strenuous high on a stallion pounding
Powerfully down long paths for miles.

(cen) The Kindled Torch is clearly known
by its gleaming flame. It glows most often
where regal women rest within.

(gyfu) Giving is a grace that gains respect
and honor for the giver; those owning nothing
find it a help when perhaps there's no other.

(wyn) To one Winning Joy, woe is unknown.
Sheltered from sorrow, she will have
Bright fruits and bliss and buildings enough.

(hgl) Hail is whitest of grains. It whirls from the sky
whipped by the wind, then as water it trickles away.

(nyd) Need is a band that narrows the breast, yet also
Turns into an omen of help, if heeded in time.

(is) Ice is cruelly cold and slippery.
It glistens like glass, gleams like a jewel.
A floor made of frost, fair to the eye.

(ger) Summer is good when the goddess delights
in letting the meadows leap into fruit,
a harvest for great and humble alike.

(eoh) Yew on the outside is an unsmooth tree,
but firm in her wreath of roots she stands,
guarding fire, good for the home

(peor) Peorth is some sort of p1aying, a game
where women meet like warriors to sit
and drink a little and laugh together.

(eolhx-secg) Elk-sedge makes a mire her home,
waxes in water, wounds most grimly,
burning with stripes of blood whoever
tries to get a grip on her.

(sigel) A Sail lifts high the hope of those
who ferry it over the fishes' bath
till the horse of the sea makes harbor at last.

(tir) Tir is a glorious guiding sign.
Keeping faith well, its course is true
across the dark night. It never fails.

(beorc) Birch bears no fruit, yet budding forth
her shoot without seeding, has shining branches
high overhead in a helmet laden
with leaves that glitter against the sky.

(eh) The Horse among women: a winsome sight
stepping out proudly when pretty ladies
prance around him, praising his looks—
and to her who's uneasy he's ever a comfort

(man) A Man with wit is warmly adored.
Yet each must abandon the best of friends:
the chooser of the slain will cherish too
that body doomed to the dark earth.

(lagu) Water to landsfolk is a long thought
if they must go on the galloping ship,
and high waves scare them half to death,
and the horse of the sea heeds not his bridle.

(ing) Ing was first noticed by northern eyes
among the East Danes, then moved away
over the waves. His wagon followed.
The Hardings gave that hero his name.

(eel) Home to the heart of her is dearest
who there by right and reason enjoys
frequent harvest in a house of her own.

(dg) Day is a much loved messenger.
That glory above brings gladness and hope
to rich and poor, with purpose for all.

(ac) Oak on this earth is useful to farmers
as fodder for swine; swimming on
the gannet’s bath, she gambols with the waves
who test her timber's true endurance.

(sc) The Ash soaring high overhead inspires
those who watch it hold well to its place,
whatever forces may fight against it.

(yr) The Bow enhances a horse, but it pleases
best by the arch of the arrow's sure
journey to its
target, a gem of a weapon!

(iar) Iar is a riverfish, ranging always
for food on land, though fair is her house
lapped round by water, and she lives there happily.

(ear) Dust is a dreadful doom for us all.
But certain it comes, when the cooling flesh,
the body, must cling to the clammy earth,
bleak, to that bedmate. Bright fruits fall,
Joys evaporate, vows all break.

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

You can visit Marijane's homepage by clicking here

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