The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018
Historical Rune Magic and Divination
Too many modern rune-magic schools have been forced, either by their ignorance of the timeless traditions or by their inability to gain access to the traditional mysteries, to ignore or to forget the true runic sources handed down to us in lapidary splendor by our ancestors. In this chapter we shall explore the actual runic corpus for evidence of rune magic as it was practiced by the ancients.
The hoary documents carved in stone and metal are but the visible fossils of a living process of runecraft. The literary accounts help us flesh out this process to a great extent, but to understand it one must ultimately plumb the depths of runelore.
Runic inscriptions represent messages—sendings—of a mysterious nature. They are complex and symbolic communications, which are only sometimes “legible” in the sense of natural language. More often their messages are far more obtuse. However, through a careful analysis of the evidence we may come to some meaningful conclusions on some of the ways rune magic was practiced in days of yore.
As far as operative magical acts are concerned, we can divide the types of runic formulas into seven categories: (1) messages in natural language, (2) symbolic word formulas, (3) futhark formulas, (4) magical formulaic words (e.g., luwatuwa), (5) runic ideographs, (e.g., galdrastafir), (6) numerical formulas, and (7) the runemaster formulas.
Sendings in Natural Language
Because the runes enabled them to communicate directly with that other (objective) reality, the runemasters could simply write runic messages in natural language to effect some alteration in the environment. These were often magico-poetic vocal formulas symbolically given objective reality through the carving ritual. The most famous of these have been the curse formulas (to prevent the desecration of a grave or holy site) and formulas intended to hold the dead in their graves. “The walking dead,” or aptr göngumenn, were a real concern for ancient Northmen. What is sometimes forgotten about this phenomenon is that these corpses often were actually reanimated through the will of some magician and sent to do damage to the community.
In the elder period some of the most noteworthy examples of this kind of magical working are the curse formulas found on the stones of Stentoften and Björketorp in southern Sweden (both from around 650 C.E.). The texts are closely related, so here we will give only the clearer Björketorp example, which reads: ūtharba-spā! haidR-rūnō ronu falhk hedra, gina-rūnaR, ærgiu hearma-lausR, ūti ær wela-daude sāR that brtR. This formula can be translated: “Prophecy of destruction! A row of bright runes hid I here, magically loaded runes. Through perversity, [and] without rest, on the outside, there is a deceitful death for the one who breaks this [stone monument].” By means of the runemaster's will, and by the power of the runes to communicate that will into objective reality, the legalistic curse formula simply says that whosoever breaks down or disturbs the holy site is cursed unto death by the deceptive power (wela-) of the rune-master. (See also the discussion of the Lund talisman on page 32.) Because no judge or executioner is present—and the potential wrongdoer was certainly not literate—the death sentence is carried out purely by magical means. (The stone setting of Björketorp is still intact, by the way.) This triangular arrangement of stones was apparently a ritual and legislative site, as no grave has been found in the area.
Word Formula Sendings
Another, more terse form of magical communication was effected by single formulaic words packed with great and multilevel symbolic powers. In the elder period some of these words were alu (ale, ecstatic psychic force),1 laukaz (leek),2 ehwaz (horse), lathu (invocation), auja (good luck), ota (terror), and perhaps even rūno (rune), secret lore itself.
Many times those words would be inscribed in isolation on various objects in order to invoke the power of the concept the word embodies into the object, or more generally, into the vicinity of the object. Each of the words mentioned above carries with it enormous psycho-magical force and meanings that were very close to the surface for our ancestors but now perhaps lurk in the archetypal depths within us. Alu comes from an ancient Indo-European concept of ecstatic power and the magic performed by means of that power. It is undoubtedly related to the Hittite term alwanzahh, “to enchant.” This basic meaning was then transferred to the sacred, ecstasy-containing substance of the holy ale used in the sacrificial and magical rites of the Germanic folk. In ancient times laukaz was a general term for many plants belonging to the genus allium (garlic, onion, leek, etc.). These plants hold great health-giving and preserving powers. Also, the leek is especially known for its fast-growing, straight, green stalk—a magical symbol of increase and growth in force and vitality. The magical power of the “horse” concept in Germanic lore is well known and complex (see the E-rune). As a runic word formula it is a sign of transformative power, a symbol of Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged horse, and of the vital strength of the horse in the horse/man relationship (::).
Each of the foregoing symbol words has a physical counterpart in the natural world. However, there is also a series of concepts that are more abstract. It might be best to consider rūno and lathu together. Both may ultimately refer to a vocal activity on the part of the magician—that is, the vocally performed incantations (galdrar) that were intended to call magical forces into objective reality and that were certainly secret in nature and kept hidden from the non-initiate. The word lathu is ultimately related to the English term to load, and it can be understood in the dynamistic sense of a loading of magical force into an object, or the “invitation” (see German Einladung) of divine beings into the area. As another example of the fact that rūno was not understood to be synonymous with letters or written characters, we can present the reading of the simple runemaster formula on the Freilaubersheim brooch: Bōso wræt rūno (Boso carved the rune [singular]). There are other examples that show that the word rune was used collectively to mean “secret lore” or “magical incantation” throughout the elder period. The term auja refers to a concept very similar to that of hailagaz (holy), as it generally means “to be filled with divine or holy power” and hence the well-being and good fortune derived from that state. The opposite side of magical might is referred to by the rather obscure formula ota, which is derived from the archaic form ōhtan (awe, fear, dread; related to ON ægi- in the name of the magical ægishálmr [the helm of awe]). These terms, formulated in staves and therefore subject to ritual manipulation, are thought to be the magical media through which linkage was made between the complex subjective reality of the runemaster and his gild and the objective reality, thereby bringing about conditions in accordance with the will of the “master of the mysteries.”
One of the most conspicuous types of rune-magic formulas is that of the complete or abbreviated futhark (see the examples from the elder tradition in chapter 1). Such inscriptions also were common in the Viking Age and especially in the Middle Ages. In some rare cases it may be that the futhark was carved for teaching purposes, or merely “for practice.” However, this certainly could have been more readily accomplished in other, less time-consuming ways. But for the most part the futhark appears to have had a magical function. The symbolism of the rune row is at least twofold: (1) it is the collection of all essential things, and (2) it is in a special, set order. It is the symbol of the order of essential things. Bringing order (cosmic, natural, or psychic) to a given environment (subjective or objective) is certainly a common enough motive for the performance of magic.
Rune Formulas and Magical Formulaic Words
If the futhark formula is a symbol of order, then the so-called nonsense inscriptions are symbols of disorder, or of a non-natural order of some kind. We call rune formulas those sequences of staves that seem random and unpronounceable or repetitive. Examples of this kind of formula are especially plentiful on bracteates. There are also those sequences that are pronounceable but that form no known word in the Germanic vocabulary of natural language. These “words” may indeed be from the “language of the gods,” a non-natural language received directly from another world. Famous examples of such words are, luwatuwa, suhura-susi, anoana, salusalu, foslau, and later suf-fus. Some may be “decoded,” some not. These are but the few remnants of a non-natural, magical language shared by Odin and his earthly Erulians—a language to which access must again be won. Such words were probably first received and spoken by magicians (seidhmenn) in trance states and subsequently passed on in the tradition as a part of the vocabulary of magic. Their use in runic formulas is again understandable in terms of the “objectifying principle” of the runes.
In theory the only kind of character that could qualify as an ideographic rune is a stave of the futhark that stands for its name (i.e., a logograph) or for a word within its field according to scaldcraft. However, there are also certain types of galdrastafir (magical signs) that were originally made up of bind runes (staves superimposed one on another) and often highly stylized. We have already met with examples of these on the Sievern bracteate, the Pietroassa ring, the Gummarp stone, and the amulet of Kvinneby. These ideographic runes actually represent a kind of alternate encoding of secret meanings to conceal them further. But the motive for this concealment, this hiding, was not to make the text more difficult for other humans to read—few inscriptions, especially the elder ones, were ever meant to be “read” at all. Quite to the contrary, it was intended to make the text more pleasing to and more empathetic with the hidden realms. The more meaning that could be concealed in a terse manner, the more powerfully empathetic the magical message of the runemaster was for the objective, but hidden, other reality of the eight outer worlds.
The topic of runic numerology will be addressed in great detail in chapter 11. At present, let it suffice to say that numerical pattern is another form of concealment, with the same motive as other forms of “magical hiding” in the Germanic tradition.
Any nonmagical interpretation of the many runemaster formulas seems absurd. It is clear that when the runemaster carved the staves of the formula ek erilaz fāhidō rūnō (I the Erulian [ = runemaster] colored the rune) he was not merely performing some elaborate form of graffiti (although certain psychological processes may be common to both acts). Runemaster formulas represent documents of transformative magical acts in which the rune magician assumed his divine aspect for the performance of some working. It is quite possible that with runemaster inscriptions we are dealing with the remains of but one fraction of a more elaborate ritual process. A runemaster formula could give force to a rite working together with the formula, or it could be the whole of an operant working in itself. In the latter case one will usually find that the runemaster designates himself with various magical names (which are often very similar to some of the holy names of Odin). One of the most famous examples of this is provided by the Järsberg stone in central Sweden. It reads: ek erilaz rūnōz wrītu. Ūbaz haite, Hrabanaz haite, “I the Erulian carve the runes. I am called the Malicious-one ( = Ubaz), I am called the Raven.” This stone, not attached to any grave and probably originally part of a ritual stone arrangement, is then charged by the force of the runemaster in this threatening aspect of “the malicious one” and “the raven.” Through the linkage of these foreboding aspects with the site, he is able both to fill it with magical force and protect it from desecrators.
Without the written sources, especially in Old Norse and Latin, we would have a difficult time scientifically determining the nature of historical rune magic as practiced from about 100 C.E. Onward. These accounts, and certain words used in them, give us a key to the structure of runic ritual and provide contexts for certain types of magical acts with runes. There are, however, limits to this evidence. First of all, the texts in question begin to be common only in the Middle Ages, and although they surely represent much older material and reflect archaic practices, we should be aware of this time discrepancy. Second, the saga accounts are, after all, integrated into narrative tales and may have some degree of literary convention built into them. But both of these points are minor when viewed in the broad scope of the tradition. Rune-magic acts apparently were common enough in the Viking and Middle Ages that they form natural parts of the sagas, and they are presented in what might be for some a surprisingly matter-of-fact way.
In part three of this book we will explain in some practical detail how the modern runer can engage in runic divination. It is our purpose here to explain something of the history of the art and craft.
When the Germanic peoples began writing in the same manner as the Greeks and Romans, they called the graphs with which they performed this task “runes.” Each rune represented a mystery, and a certain principle of esoteric lore was attached to it. (This is not surprising since the people who developed and maintained this system were also the custodians of other intellectual and religious material in the culture.) Beyond this, the system itself could be used to represent natural language and thus phonetically preserve the magical formulas themselves. These runes—or runestaves—became “whisperers of secrets.” Through them—silently and over great spans of time and distance—communication could be effected. Symbolically, this could also be said of their ability to effect communication between the very realms of existence—from gods to humans, from humans to gods and even to the natural realms.
The importance of this should be obvious to anyone who is interested in either magic or divination. The runes, although not a language in the usual sense of the word, do constitute a metalanguage. A metalanguage is a symbolic system through which meaning can be transmitted above and beyond that of which the natural language is capable. Poetry also does this. Indeed, classic Germanic poetry very likely grew out of runic divinatory practices.
By means of this metalanguage the runecaster can carry out a meaningful dialogue with his or her environment—inner and outer. This aspect is at the root of the real meaning of the word “rune.” Also, all this makes much more sense when understood within the ancient Germanic cosmology of multiple worlds—and their psychology of multiple souls.
Runecasting in History and Literature
Without the written sources, especially Old Norse and Latin texts, it would be difficult to determine the nature of historical runecasting in any scientific way. These accounts, and certain words used in them, give us many clues to the structure of runic divinatory ritual and provide contexts for acts of divination in general. There are, however, limits to this evidence. First, these texts only became common in the Middle Ages, and although they surely represent much older material and reflect archaic practices, we should be aware of this time discrepancy. Second, the saga accounts are integrated into narrative tales and may have some degree of literary convention built into them. Both of these points, however, are minor when viewed in the broad scope of the tradition.
There are no clear examples in the archaeological record of runestaves carved for divinatory purposes, but most likely this is due to the fact that they were scratched on perishable materials. Or, perhaps, they were ritually destroyed after use as a matter of normal procedure. It is another surprising fact that there are no direct, non-mythological references to the act of runecasting in Old Norse literature. Despite all this, and chiefly based on linguistic evidence and parallel accounts in historical texts, we can be fairly certain that the practice was known.
Linguistic evidence is rich and is of two kinds: words for the tools of runecasting and terms that originally must have been characterizations of the results of runecastings.
Actual pieces of wood on which individual runes or runic combinations were carved (and usually colored with blood or red dye) were known in Old Norse as hlaut-teinar (sg., hlaut-teinn; lot twig) (also known by Snorri Struluson as blood twigs), and hlaut-vidhar (lot woods). The original use of the Germanic term stabaz (stave, stick) perhaps had to do with the fact that runes were carved on pieces of wood that were most probably used in divinatory practices. The terms rūno and stabaz were so intertwined by this practice that the words became synonymous. An interesting piece of corroborating evidence is found in the Old English word wyrd-stæf (stave of wyrd or weird)—an obvious reference to divinatory use.
Old Germanic dialects are full of compound words that refer to various types of runes/staves. Some are technical descriptions (ON málrúnar [speech runes], ON blód-hgar rúnar [bloody runes], Old High German leod-rūna [song rune], etc.); whereas others give an indication of the reason for which they are to be worked (ON brim-rúnar [sea runes—to calm it], bjarg-rúnar [birth runes—to help in it], etc.). However, among these there are some designations that seem to classify the results of a runecasting. Some are auspicious (ON líkn-stafir [health staves], ON gaman-rúnar [joy runes], ON audh-stafir [staves of riches], ON sig-rúnar [victory runes]); whereas others seem in-auspicious (ON myrkir stafir [dark staves]; ON böl-stafir [evil staves]; OE beadu-rūn [conflict rune]; ON flaerdh-stafir [deception staves]). Of course, in many cases the passive readings of these terms could be turned around to active workings.
As far as the actual practice of runecasting is concerned, the best description is provided by Tacitus writing in chapter 10 of the Germania (about 98 C.E.). Formerly, there might have been a debate as to whether the notae, signs, mentioned by him actually could have been runes, since the oldest inscription was thought to date from about 150 C.E. The discovery of the Meldorf brooch (about 50 C.E.), however, provided hard evidence that the runes were known from before the time when the Germania was written. The account by Tacitus may be translated:
To the taking of auspices and drawing of lots they pay as much attention as any one: the way they draw lots is uniform. A branch is cut from a nut-bearing tree and cut into slips: these are designated by certain signs (Latin notae) and thrown randomly over a white cloth. Afterwards, the priest of state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family, if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and while looking up into the sky, takes up three slips, one at a time, and interprets their meaning from the signs carved on them. If the message forbids something, no further inquiry is made on the question that day; but if it allows something, then further confirmation is required through the taking of auspices.3
In The Conquest of Gaul (Book I, 53) Caesar, writing in about 58 B.C.E., also mentions “consulting the lots three times” (ter sortibus consultum), so this must have been an important aspect of Germanic divination.4
Three Eddic passages also give significant magical—and rather cryptic—insight into runic divinatory practices. All occur in mythic contexts. In the “Völuspá,” st. 20: “(the Norns) scored on wood, they laid laws, they chose lives, they spoke the ’fates’” (ON ørlög). While in the “Hávamál,” st. 80, we are told that “it is proven when you ask of the runes, which are sprung from the gods” (ON regin, divine advisors). In the “Hávamál,” st. 111, there is the instructive passage:
It is the time to sing
on the stool of the theal
at the well of Wyrd—
I saw and I thought
I saw and l spoke
heeded the lore of Hár
of runes I heard it spoke
nor thought I of readings
at the hall of Hár
in the hall of Hár
so I heard it said.
This passage not only gives indication of the objective picture of what the ritual procedures were—as Tacitus the outsider also could do—but it also gives us insight into the subjective, inner processes within the mind of the runecaster. This is something only an insider, only someone who was actually skilled in runecasting, could have done.
There are other historical accounts by Christian observers which tell us little more than that the number three was of great importance.
The runes were of course also widely used for operative magical purposes. A verbal derivative, Old Norse rýna (to work magic with runes, or to inquire), shows the close link between illuminative and operative acts. Also, terms that often may seem to indicate the coming to pass of certain events (e.g., sigrúnar [victorious outcome]) also can be used to bring about this state through operative action. “Victory runes” are carved and/or spoken to inject objective reality with their power.
At this time perhaps a word should be said about the true and exact meaning of such terms as “victory runes,” “ale runes,” “birth runes,” “sea runes,” and the like found in abundance in Old Norse, Old English, and Old High German. Many lay investigators (and some scholars) have generally sought to identify such terms with specific runestaves for example, victory runes :: and/or ::, the former based on the famous Eddic passage in the “Sigrdrífumál,” stanza 7 (where Sigurdhr is told to “call twice on Tyr for victory”), and the latter on the “skaldic link” between Old Norse sig (victory; or modern German Sieg for that matter)—and the S-rune. Both suppositions have some merit, and their appeal is not to be denied. However, they do not delve deeply enough into the complex lore surrounding the word rune to be able to explain the ways these terms were used. If we always keep it in mind that the old Germanic word rūno primarily means mystery and that it is derived from a vocal concept (whisper, roar, etc.), the possible breadth of such terms becomes clearer. Sig-rúnar are not only runestaves that either signify or bring about victory but also the galdrar, or whole poetic stanzas, that work to the same ends. From this the use of these terms developed to indicate normal speech that might have the same effects; for example, Old Norse gaman-rúnar (joy runes) became an expression for merry talk, and Old Norse flaerdh-stafir (deception staves) became a way of saying seductive words. That into late times the ideas of rún (rune), stæf (stave), and galdr (incantation) were sometimes virtually synonymous is shown by the Old Norse pairs of compounds líkn-stafir (healing stave), líkn-galdr (healing spell), and val-rúnar (death runes)/val-galdr (death dirge).
Actual runic carving rituals are depicted several times in Old Norse texts. The saga accounts have the advantage of showing us how the runes were used by magicians in everyday situations, and some cryptic Eddic passages give clear indications of the mytho-magical pattern on which these rites were based.
The “Hávamál,” stanza 142, provides a representation of the process of a runic risting (carving) rite as archetypally performed by the Great Runemaster, Odin:
Runes wilt thou find
and read the staves,
very strong staves,
very stout staves,
that Fimbulthulr [ = Odin] colored
and made by the mighty gods
and risted by the god Hroptr [ = Odin]
The greatest account of a human runemaster which has survived is that of Egill Skallagrímsson (Egil's Saga). Once Egill detects poison in his drinking horn (chapter 44):
Egill drew out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand, then he took the horn, carved runes on it and rubbed blood on them. He said:
I carve a rune [sg.!] on the horn
I redden the spell in blood
these words I choose for your ears. . . .
The horn burst asunder, and the drink went down into the straw.
Later in the same saga (chapter 72) Egill heals a girl of sickness caused by ill-wrought runes. The laun-stafir (secret staves, i.e., coded runes) were carved by a peasant boy trying to cure her, but it only made her sickness worse. The whalebone on which the characters were carved was found lying in the bed!
Egill read them and then he whittled the runes off and scraped them down into the fire and burned the whale bone and had all the bedclothes that she had thrown to the winds. Then Egill said:
“A man should not carve runes
unless he knows well how to read:
it befalls many a man
who are led astray by a dark stave;
I saw whittled on the whalebone
ten secret staves carved.
that have given the slender girl
her grinding pain so long.”
Egill carved runes and laid them underneath the pillow of the bed, where she was resting; it seemed to her that she was well again. . . .
The possible nature and identity of the laun-stafir are discussed in chapter 7. One of the most remarkable uses of runes is in the preparation of the nídhstöng (cursing pole). Details on its preparation are given in at least two sagas. Again Egil's Saga (chapter 57) gives one example:
. . . Egill [came) up on to the island. He picked up a hazel pole [ON stöng] in his hand and went to a certain rock cliff that faced in toward the land; then he took a horse head and set it upon the pole. Then he performed an incantation [ON formáli] and said: “Here I set up the niding-pole, and I direct this insulting curse [ON nidh] against king Eiríkr [Bloodax] and Gunnhild the queen”—then he turned the horse head in toward the land—“I turn this insulting curse to those land-spirits [ON land-vættir] that inhabit this land so that all of them go astray, they will not figure nor find their abode until they drive king Eiríkr and Gunnhildr from the land.” Then he shoved the pole down into a rock crevice and let it stand there; he also turned the horse head toward the land and then he carved runes on the pole, and they said all the incantation [formáli].
This may be compared to the description of the nidhstöng given in the Vatnsdæla Saga (chapter 34):
The brothers waited until three o'clock in the afternoon, and when it had come to that time, then Jökull and Faxa-Brandr went to Finnbogi's sheep stall, which was there beside the fence, and they took a pole [ON súl] and carried it down below the fence. There were also horses that had come for protection from the storm. Jökull carved a man's head on the end of the pole and carved runes in the pole with all those incantations [formáli] that had been said before. Then Jökull killed a mare and they opened it up at the breast and put in on the pole, and they had it turn homeward toward Borg. . . .
Another famous account of rune magic is found in the Grettir's Saga (chapter 79) where we read:
[Thuridhr] hobbled . . . as if guided to a spot where there lay a large stump of a tree as big as a man could carry on his shoulder. She looked at it and asked them to turn it over in front of her. The other side looked as if it had been burned and smoothed. She had a small flat surface whittled on its smooth side; then she took her knife and carved runes on the root and reddened them in her blood, and spoke spells over it. She went backwards and widdershins around the wood and spoke very powerful utterances over it. Then she had them push the wood out into the sea, and said it is to go to Drangey and Grettir should suffer harm from it.
One clear example of rune magic performed by a god is also present in the Poetic Edda (“Skírnismál,” or “För Skírnis,” st. 36):
A thurs-rune I for thee,
and three of them I scratch
lechery, and loathing, and lust;
off I shall scratch them
as on I did scratch them
if of none there be need.
Here, of course, the divine messenger of Freyr, Skírnir (the Shining-one), is threatening Gerdhr the etin-wife with a curse if she will not agree to become a bride of his lord. This whole poem has many Odinic elements in it; for example, the viewing of the worlds from Hlidhskjálfr, Odin's high seat, by Freyr and the traversing of the worlds on a horse by Skírnir. Certain interrelationships between Freyr and Odin are explored in chapter 13.
From the historical examples given thus far it is clear that runes could be used to heal as well as to harm. But aside from the mysterious and shamanistic initiatory ritual, were there any other forms of wisdom magic or rituals for self-transformation? The answer is yes. But because of the natural preoccupation with conflict in the sagas—they are, after all, stories intended as much to entertain as to recount “historical” events—such rituals are rarely mentioned. When looking at this question, one must remember that the primary purpose of illuminative runecasting was such a transformational process. The runecaster is literally in-formed by the communication and is not merely a passive and objectified receiver. That is why true runecasting should not be treated as a profane “game” or done casually by noninitiates. The most remarkable runic ritual of wisdom working is found in the “Sigrdrífumál,” which after recounting the twenty-four mythic locations for runes to be carved (sts. 15-17), gives us this invaluable formula in stanza 18:
All [the runes] were scraped off,
that were scratched on,
and blended into the holy mead,
and sent out upon wide ways.
This gives the actual ritual formula for the draught of wisdom, which can be performed imitatively or symbolically.
Although we could wish for more details and examples of the performance of rune-workings in the old Germanic literatures, we must take heart in the fact that so much exact information has been left in the fragments we do have. There is enough to enable us to reconstruct with great historical accuracy the physical circumstances of operative runeworkings and to some extent illuminative (divinatory) ones.
The operative formula was a threefold process of (1) carving the staves, (2) coloring them (with blood or dye), and (3) speaking the vocal formáli that accompanies the graphic forms. This latter step may take many forms, for example, the intoning of rune names, words of power related to the working, the actual words represented by the inscribed staves, or similar poetic forms. The fourth aspect of the operative process is the scraping off of the staves from their material medium in order to destroy or transfer their force. This is the simplest form of the ritual we have in explicit representations. However, that more complex ritual forms were sometimes involved in runeworkings is strongly suggested by the “Hávamál,” stanza 144:
Knowest thou how to carve [rísta]?
Knowest thou how to read [rádha]?
Knowest thou how to color [fá]?
Knowest thou how to test [freista]?
Knowest thou how to ask [ bidhja]?
Knowest thou how to offer [blóta]?
Knowest thou how to send [senda]?
Knowest thou how to sacrifice [sóa]?
The terminology of this stanza is clearly connected to runeworkings, but only the first three technical terms are purely runic—to carve, to color, and to read (i.e., to interpret runestaves in divinatory workings). The other five terms are more usually designations for processes in sacrificial rites. In Old Norse, freista means to test, to put to the test, or to perform. This testing may be the search for signs or omens to corroborate or confirm the results of illuminative workings common to the practice of Germanic divination. Bidhja indicates the mode of correctly requesting divine action or “feedback,” and the last three terms refer more directly to the modes of actually sending sacrifice to the god(s). All of this leads us to believe that sacrificial rites were sometimes performed as an integral part of a runeworking.
As far as the ritual form of runecasting is concerned, the Old Norse texts are rather silent. The Northmen, of course, knew a variety of illuminative techniques, many of which are classed as seidhr (shamanic, i.e., trance-inducing rites). Runecasting is more analytical and galdr-oriented. Because it is known that runes were in evidence in the Germanies during the first century C.E, and because the account given by Tacitus in chapter 10 of the Germania is so detailed and contains elements confirmed by later, more fragmentary descriptions, we can be virtually certain that in that passage we possess an authentic formula for runecasting. The basic structure of the working would have been:
1. Cutting and scoring of staves.
2. Calling on the Norns (or other gods).
3. Casting the staves (onto a white cloth).
4. Calling on the gods.
5. Choosing of (three) staves.
6. Sitting on the theal's chair.
7. Reading of the staves.
8. Confirmation by omens, etc.
In the annals of ancient Germanic magic there is an alternate form of magic known as seidhr. In later times this acquired a sinister reputation, but this is probably mainly because it was primarily (but by no means exclusively) practiced by women. In the mythology it is said (Ynglinga Saga, ch. 7) that Odin learned this skill from the Vanic goddess Freyja. Virtually everything we objectively know about the practice of seidhr is summarized in A Source-Book of Seidhr (Lodestar, 2015). It is not our purpose in this book to outline the practice of seidhr, as we are focused on runic practice. But it is worthwhile discussing the basic idea of seidhr due to is general importance.
The etymology of the word seidhr is uncertain. Its etymology certainly has nothing to do with the idea of boiling (seething). It most likely refers to some sort of vocal performance. A review of all of the literary references to this practice shows that a vocal performance—either singing of certain songs to attract spirits or magical songs (seidhaeti) meant to cause direct effects—is a prominent part of the tradition.
Perhaps originally those kinds of magic that later came to be classified as seidhr were traditions practiced in the so-called “third function” of the Indo-European culture and religion. This magic belonged to the farmers and herdsmen, of the craftsmen and smiths, of the musicians and even entertainers. Their magic was powerful and unique, and evidence generally shows that it was dominated by female practitioners. As the Indo-Europeans moved into Europe several millennia ago, this type of magic was assimilated to local forms of magic belonging to what has been called the people of Old Europe.
This field of Germanic esoteric tradition is not very well documented. It is for this reason that anyone trying to revive its practice should take special care to make use of what is known about it. It is especially tempting to fill in the gaps of the unknowns with ready-made solutions from other cultures. This method can cause many treasures to be lost.
An analysis of the material we have shows that trance was induced by songs sung by assistants, and the performance usually took place on top of a high platform or elevated space. Any percussion was perhaps done by striking a wooden box, which contained the practitioner's talismans and holy objects. The practitioner enters a trance state and remains silent while in this state, which involves the loss of normal waking consciousness. Upon return to normal consciousness the seidhkona or seidhmadhr (seid-woman or seid-man) then soberly recounts the information gained from the entities while in the trance state. This generally describes the process of sooth-saying by means of seidhr.