The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018
If one has access to the voluminous scholarly works on rune magic, one is at once struck by the abundance of numerological interpretations. Underlying these studies seems to be the assumption that mere numerical patterns (real or imagined) are enough to indicate the “magical” nature of an inscription. The weakness of these works lies in the fact that the authors never tell us how these patterns are magically effective, nor do they tell us much of the indigenous Germanic number lore that would be necessary to understand these inscriptions in this way. From a purely historical point of view, it even seems doubtful that runes were ever used as numerals at all. No clear example of such usage exists, and when numbers are expressed in the inscriptions, they are always spelled out in words. (This is not to say that there was no sacred or magical tradition of number lore that was a thing altogether separate from the use of “profane” numbers.) The runo-numerological scholars believe that the runemasters of old used both rune counts (counting the total number of staves in an inscription, line, or phrase; e.g., :: = 3) or rune totals (counting the total of the numerical values assigned to the staves by virtue of their positions in the row; e.g., :: = 4 + 21 + 2 = 27).
The question arises: are these practices legitimate in view of the general lack of historical evidence for them? The answer is yes on two grounds: (1) the historical evidence generally has been handled badly, and the scientific case (especially for rune counts) needs to be kept open; and (2) in the spirit of living innovation consistently expressed by the elder runemasters, we new runers should feel free to incorporate and develop tally lore in our system regardless of its historical position. It is not our aim merely to copy older practices but rather to extend them in ways harmonious with the tradition. Our treatment of runic numerology, or tally lore, is informed by deep knowledge of the uniquely Germanic number lore (usually ignored by earlier scholars in favor of foreign systems) and by the spirit of intuitive innovation.
Numerical patterning makes an inscription more effective in the realms corresponding to those indicated by the key number. This is simply a part of the laws of systemic empathy necessary to magical working in general. The willed act of consciously shaping operative communications on ever more subtle levels has a powerful intrinsic effect for magical work. In other words, for a magical working to be effective it must be in a form—a code if you will—that the object of the working will be able to “understand” and respond to. Numerical pattern is a subtle level of this encoding process. This is one of the more obscure parts of the answer to the Odian question “Knowest how to carve?”
On the other hand, there is an important passive side to this active aspect. One must also be able to answer the question “Knowest how to read?” That is, the runer must be able to understand the runes when they are presented to him—to the mind's eye, as well as to the body's eye. Therefore, skill at tally lore is also a tool for subtle, illuminative magical work (runecasting).
One thing that has always kept rune tally lore from becoming fully effective has been the general effort to try to make it fit into Mediterranean numerology as practiced by the Greeks, Hebrews, and others. Although the Germanic number system is similar to that used by the Greeks (both being ultimately derived from Indo-European), there is an important shift of emphasis from two to three and its multiples that results in a quasi-duodecimal system for the Germanic peoples. This is why we have “eleven” and “twelve” and not, as we would expect, something like “onteen” and “twenteen.” There is an underlying system with an emphasis on twelve and its multiples in the ancient Germanic number system, one that also underlies the tally lore of the runes. When an ancient Saxon in England heard hundred, he thought of, in our terms, 120 “things”—teontig (ten-ty = 100), endleofantig, (eleven-ty = 110), and so on. This latter term even survives in some southern American dialects as “elebenty.”
That number values were in some measure a part of the ancient runic tradition is obvious from the nature of the systems of runic codes (see chapter 7). The runic system, as discussed in chapter 9, and the whole of runic cosmology have a strong numerical basis. Within the runic system certain key numbers stand out. Three and its multiples are obvious—the three airts (aettir) of the runestave, for example. Three is an essential cosmic binding number on the vertical numinous axis, a formula that connects what is “above” and “below” with the here and now. Three and all of its multiples contain this root value.
Four and eight have a similar effect on the horizontal plane of nature. The symbolism of these number groups is already clear when one looks at the airt arrangement of the runestaves.
In a spherical and multidimensional sense, the numbers twelve and thirteen are of central importance (see chapter 10). These are at the core of the runic system, and each contains a unique and distinct mystery. In other words, thirteen is not merely twelve plus one. The essence of thirteen is something independent of twelve (this is the central “breaking point” in both the runic system and in the Germanic number system).
The ultimate number of wholeness is twenty-four. It contains a sense of entirety, although it is also subject to significant multiplications. In this regard, the formula 24 x 3 = 72 seems to be of particular import. This value of wholeness for twenty-four was even retained once the system had been reformed. One of the greatest testaments to this fact is the mysterious “twenty-four things” on which runes are to be carved in Sigrdrífa's instructions to Sigurdhr (see the “Sigrdrífumál” in the Poetic Edda).
Essentially, there are four systemic key numbers: thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, and twenty-four. Each expresses an aspect of totality. In addition, all prime numbers—those that are independent, free, and isolated unto themselves—express an aspect of the magical will of the runer.
Nordic Number Lore
To some extent the runic tables of interpretation1 reveal a good deal of lore concerning the meanings of number and numerical relationships among the runes. However, as a detailed reading of the oldest texts of Germanic lore shows, there are certain specific powers of characteristics of numbers that the aspiring runer should know. These characteristics are quite often different from those of Mediterranean numerology.
One (1) is the number of beginnings of root causes and solitary force. It is rare in operative runecraft and in mythological references.
Two (2) is the number of cooperation of the redoubled working of tandem forces. In operative work it is sometimes used to strengthen, especially physically. In mythological lore it shows the power of teamwork between complementary pairs: Huginn/Muninn, Geri/Freki (Odin's wolves), Árvakr/Alsvidhr (team of horses that pulls the Sun's wain), or the divine tandem Odin /Loki.
Three (3) is a “holy number” that is vastly represented in lore. It indicates a complete functioning process process and is the root force of dynamism. In runecraft, three is used to complete and to quicken things—to move things to action. In the mythic lore threes abound; for example, Urdhr-Verdhandi-Skuld, Odin-Vili-Vé, the three “roots” of Yggdrasill, and the three containers of the poetic mead, Ódhrœrir -Són- Bodhn.
Four (4) is a number of stasis, of solidity and waiting. It contains power, and this is one of its chief operative uses. In myth we learn of the four harts that chew the leaves of Yggdrasill and of four dwarves Nordhri-Austri-Sudhr -Vestri at the four cardinal directions.
Five (5) is the number of ordered time and space. The ancient Germanic week was five nights long—called in Old Norse a fimmt—which was also the interval of time one had to respond to a legal summons. It is rarely found in mythological lore, but for operative purposes it is a powerful invocatory formula.
Six (6) is the number of vibrant life and strength. This can be used to create or destroy. It is rarely found in mythic contexts.
Seven (7) is the number of death and passive contact with the “other worlds.” A seven-night interval (ON sjaund) is traditional between death and the performance of funeral rites. Not often seen in mythology. Some mythic occurrences seem to have been influenced by astrological lore.
Eight (8) is the number of complete manifestation of wholeness and perfect symmetry. Its chief significance can be found in the eightfold division of the heavens (see chapter 6). It is the number of spatial ordering. Eight is abundant in mytho-magical lore, mainly as a way to list things, for example, the eight woes and their remedies. (“Hávamál,” 137), the eight runic operations (“Hávamál,” 144), and the eight “best things” (“Gríminismál,” 45). All of these texts are to be found in the Poetic Edda.
Nine (9) is the “holiest of numbers” and the root of psycho-cosmic powers. It lends its force to any purpose. It is the number of life eternal and death unending. Nine transforms what it touches, yet it remains eternal within itself. Its use abounds in myth and magic. Just to name a few of many examples of the use of nine: nine are the worlds of Yggdrasill, nine are the nights Odin hangs upon it and is thereafter taught nine mighty songs, nine is the number in which the valkyjur often appear to the Erulian.
The two main ways in which runes may be manipulated as numbers are outlined in an operative context in Futhark (especially on pp. 102—104). These two methods involve computing the rune count (by adding the number of runestaves) and the rune total (by adding the numerical values of each of the runestaves). For example, one side of a famous and complex runic formula from around 500 C.E. (the Lindholm amulet) may be seen in figure 11.1.
Figure 11.1. Side B of the Lindholm amulet.
The rune count usually indicates the realm in which the formula is to work, and the rune total shows the subtle aim or final willed outcome of the formula. These two numbers are further analyzed by adding their digits to come up with a “tally” key number (reduced to a number between one and twenty-four) and by finding multiple values to arrive at “multiple” key numbers. These numbers refine the values already demonstrated by the rune count and total, and show the “magical instruments” by which they work. For example, an analytical table for side B of the Lindholm amulet appears in table 11.1.
By using these subtle ways to “read the runes aright,” we see that in the most esoteric terms the inscription in figure 11.1 expresses the pure ordered (5) will of an Erulian vitki (47) working with craft (6) within the whole objective universe (24) toward manifestation (10).
To conclude this chapter on number we must speak to the most mysterious example of numerical symbolism in Germanic literature: stanza 24 of the “Gríminismál” in the Poetic Edda, which reads:
Five hundred doors
and forty withall,
I know to be in Valhöll:
eight hundred lone-warriors [ON einherjar]
go through a lone door
when they fare forth to fight the wolf [ = Fenrir].
Many scholars and mystics alike have been struck by this stanza. On one level the numerical analysis would seem to be 540 x 800 = 432,000—which just happens to be the number of years in the Kali Yuga in the scheme of Hindu cosmology. This has led historians to conclude that there may have been a good deal of borrowing of ideas from Indo-Iranian culture in the North, or that we are faced with an example of ancient Indo-European lore common to both cultures from prehistoric times.
Table 11.1. Numerical analysis of Lindholm amulet (B).
However, from an indigenous point of view, it must be remembered that when a Norseman said “one hundred” he had in mind 120 in our terms—therefore the formula from the “Gríminismál” would appear:
five hundred ( = 600) and forty (40) = 640 ( = 16 x 40)
eight hundred ( = 960) ( = 24 x 40)
and the multiplication of the two numbers would result in 614,400 ( = 40 x 15,360). That two systemic key numbers (16 and 24) are present, and that there is an apparent instance of intentional multiples of forty, all seem to point to an independent and internally coherent Germanic number symbology. The final unlocking of this mystery is yet to come.