Medieval Runes - Historical Lore

The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018

Medieval Runes
Historical Lore

(1100—1600 C.E.)

The Viking Age was drawing to a close around 1050, and by 1100 the period characterized by the vigor of the Viking raids was over. Christianity was becoming the official cult of the court and eventually of most of the people. But we know from historical sources for this complex period that the Christianity they practiced was in many cases not really orthodox, and in fact their religion represented a kind of mixed faith of Asatru and Christianity.

Denmark had officially become Christian in the late tenth century; and although the Norwegians maintained a long struggle against the alien creed and political structure, Norway was officially secured by the Christian camp by the early eleventh century. In Sweden the story is more complex. There apparently had been a number of Christians in Sweden (Irish slaves who did not abandon their ways) from the early Viking Age, and various missionary expeditions sent into the country during the eleventh century exposed pagan ideas to many Christian formulas that found their way into heathen practice. But Sweden did not officially become Christian until around 1100.

In this period of tenuous and irregular beginnings much of the organized tradition of the runic cult was destroyed along with its larger religious framework. However, a number of factors, such as the comparative lack of Christian indoctrination of the Scandinavian clergy, a historically tolerant attitude, and the remoteness of the whole region compounded by the inaccessible outback districts, combined to make fertile ground for the survival of runic traditions among the farmers and lesser nobility.

For an in-depth look at the culture of the Germanic world and how the old pagan forms survived the Christianization process see The Northern Dawn (Arcana Europa, 2018). It is too often thought that either the old ways were entirely destroyed by the Christianization process, never to be recovered, or conversely that the ancient customs continued unbroken in some secret enclave. The truth is more complicated, and more fascinating than either of these extremes.

During the Catholic period the runes were brought into the service of the Church itself—or so it would seem. However, this was somewhat of an unholy alliance because the medieval runemasters were still largely in possession of the elder lore, albeit in a fragmented state. Magic was still their principal function, although they were also increasingly used in profane communication. But without an organized cultus in support of the runic tradition, it steadily declined throughout this period. However, the kernels of the tradition were preserved through rote formal learning of names and forms, sometimes in the context of profane writing. This process was carried out unconsciously in all parts of what had been greater Germania, and we will see evidence of this throughout our discussions. Besides this disparate formal survival—guided by the webwork of wyrd—the indwelling runic pattern survived as the “blood” of the ancient Erulians still coursing in our veins. The mysteries are virtually encoded in the pattern of what might be called our “collective unconscious.”

The Reformation, which began in Sweden in 1527 and officially a bit later in Norway/Denmark in 1536, brought both blessings and a terrible curse. The blessings generally came about because of the growth in Swedish nationalism in the middle of the sixteenth century that promoted all aspects of indigenous culture. The doctrines of storgoticism were formulated from widespread beliefs by the last Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, about 1554. The curse came with the wave of intolerance that followed after the Protestant wave had been absorbed. This resulted in the persecution of all practitioners of the old ways, especially those of the peasant class and country folk.


Figure 3.1. Dotted futhark.

The ambiguity of the sixteen-stave row developed in the Viking Age posed little difficulty to the initiated runemaster and served very well for esoteric practices because it remained organically within the systematic runic structure. However, as the level of training slipped, the ambiguity of the sixteen-stave row was somewhat altered by the introduction of “dotted runes” (ON stungnar rúnar) beginning as early as the end of the tenth century in Denmark. At first this was an occasional addition of a point to clear up any possible ambiguity in the inscription. Although this practice makes it obvious that “profane” interpretations of the runes were assuming more importance, for at least two hundred years more the sixteen-stave row, sometimes in the “dotted” form, was the rule.

These dots were placed on or near the stave to distinguish it phonetically from its contrasting opposite in a natural class, for example, b:p, t:d, k:g (distinguished from one another by voicing). The oldest dotted runes with their phonetic values appear in figure 3.1.

This development became more “Latinized” until it was finally codified during the reign of Valdemar the Conqueror (1202—1241), when a true “runic alphabet” was formulated. That is, a stave was given for every letter in the Roman alphabet as it had been adapted for writing the contemporary Scandinavian dialects.


Figure 3.2. A runic alphabet.

In Norway the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the runic alphabet shown in figure 3.2 in general use. A similar thing happened throughout Scandinavia, including Iceland, during the Middle Ages, where a little after 1100 Ari inn Fródhi and Thóroddur Rúnmeistari created an expanded standardized Futhorkh to compete with the Latin script.

Medieval Inscriptions

In this epoch we begin to see many more different uses and depictions of runes and rune magic. Many of the old traditions continued in some conservative areas, while new uses of the runes, often replacing Latin letters, were introduced. Also, stories about runes and rune magic abound in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iceland, where we can be sure the runes were indeed used in arcane arts.


Figure 3.3. Solar wheel/cross sign.

The memorial runic bauta stones continued to be a lively tradition on Gotland until after 1700! And although they were superficially Christianized, there remained much in them, both in their symbology and in their deeper structure, that reminds us of the old way. It is probable that those with knowledge of esoteric runelore were also not unwise concerning their hidden meanings at this time.

The “holy signs” (ideographic symbols) that would appear on these stones often seemed to have a mixed significance. The cross was usually equal-armed and sometimes appeared with a solar wheel in its midst, as shown in figure 3.3.

This motif, and elaborations on it, was continued until the end of the period in question. It has been speculated that this kind of cross was a substitute for the ægishjálmr (helm of awe) sign that had appeared in similar contexts in the heathen period. A typical example of the post-Christian bauta stone is provided by the Upplandic Morby stone (figure 3.4). It follows a peculiar tradition that developed at this time (early in the Christian period, ca. 1050—1150) of building a bridge for the dead relative and raising a memorial stone that also makes reference to the bridge—all of this being done for the sake of the dead one's soul (ON önd or sál). The staves of the Morby stone can be transliterated:


Figure 3.4. Morby stone.

khulu lit kira bra f(u)rant kilau[h]a tatur sin[a] uk sum ati ulfr ubir risti

These runes are easily translated: “Gudhlaug had this bridge built for the soul [ant = önd] of Gillaug her daughter whom Ulfr had married. —pir carved [the runes].” The stone is “signed” by —pir, one of the most famous runemasters of history.

The practice of making runic talismans (taufr) continued into the modern era, and they were certainly popular throughout the medieval period. But because they were often carved in wood (and usually on very small pieces) and increasingly were being written on parchment, very few of them survive. Also, runemasters sometimes would destroy the talismanic objects once their work was done, and many were destroyed because of the post-Reformation persecutions of magical runemasters.

An example of a magical talismanic object from the medieval period is provided by a rib bone (ca. 30 inches long) that was found in the old church at Särkind, Östergöt-land, Sweden, and which dates from the fifteenth century.

This bone probably functioned as a göndr (magical wand), and it bears the complex inscription seen in figure 3.5 on page 41.

The first part of side A is to be transliterated thaet tae refen (this is the rib bone). The second complex is made up of a manifold bind rune of uncertain meaning. It could conceal the name of the magician, or it could be a combination of certain runes for magical effect. This side of the inscription is concluded with a bold hagall rune, which in the esoteric school of this period would have had well-developed cosmic significance as the image of the World Tree and the seed of the multiverse. The three R-staves on side B are intended to formulate and guide the magical power generated by the vitki, as is clear from the esoteric lore surrounding the :Image:.


Figure 3.5. Wand of Särkind.

Besides these archaic and sacred uses of the runes, they were also being employed in new and profane ways in common communications. We know that this was increasingly the case throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the late saga literature often mentions the sending of runic messages on rúnakefli (rune sticks). Hákons saga Hákonarson in the Heimskringla mentions this several times. But the greatest evidence for “runic correspondence” was found in the excavations of the dock district in Bergen, Norway, where dozens of these messages were actually found. Some are as simple as a “note” from a wife telling her husband to come home from the local tavern and some are as intriguing as an example that dates from the early thirteenth century, which may be translated as follows:

I want to ask you to leave your party. Carve a message to Olaf Hettusveinn's sister—she is in the nunnery at Bergen—and ask for advice from her and from her kinsmen, when you want to come to terms. You are surely less stubborn than the earl. . . .

This is followed by a set of staves that have not yet been satisfactorily interpreted but may be transliterated: atu:kena:nu:baetu. It is possible that the message carries an encoded secret meaning; however, on the surface this is clearly an appeal from a member of one party or faction to a member of another, asking the recipient to leave his side and come over to that of the sender, but this is to be done secretly through a third party (the woman in the convent).

Runestaves were also increasingly finding their way onto the written page. At first this was part of an effort by some (such as Ari and Thóroddur, mentioned above) to develop the runes as an alternative to the Roman alphabet. There were probably many manuscripts written in runestaves, but only one lengthy one remains to us, the so-called Codex Runicus. The staves, or runelike signs, also were used ideographically in some manuscripts, standing either for the rune name or for some other symbolic quality. In the Codex Regius (the MS that contains the Poetic Edda) : Image : is often used as a substitute for the word madhr (man). There were also many manuscripts that contained lines written in runestaves and several treatises on runes—for example, the one by the German scholar/monk Hrabanus Maurus. Also, the important evidence of the Galdrabók cannot be forgotten because it represents runes and runelike “staves,” secret runes, and the like, firmly within a magical context.

The rune poems are prime examples of the use of runestaves in manuscripts, but we will examine them separately in chapter 8.

It is only in the manuscript of the Laws of Skaane (Skaanske Lov)—or as it is more descriptively known, the Codex Runicus—that any surviving attempt at a substitute of runestaves for Latin letters is found. The manuscript probably dates from the fourteenth century. Later attempts to “revive” the runes as a utilitarian script were carried out by antiquarians, some of whom were quite serious and virtually “neo-pagan” in their beliefs (see Johannes Bureus, on page 44).

Besides these uses, the runes were widely employed in the construction of “prim-staves” or “rim-stocks,” which worked as perpetual calendars. These seem to have the nominally Christian function of computing festival days, but the fact that runes were almost exclusively used in the construction of these objects from at least the fourteenth century all the way into the eighteenth shows the eternally living nature of runelore in the Scandinavian lands.