Runic Codes - Historical Lore

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

Runic Codes
Historical Lore

One of the most remarkable aspects of the complex “runic system” (see chapter 9) is the possibility of creating various runic codes. The aett system itself makes this complexity possible. This system essentially consists of dividing the entire futhark into three sections or rows. In the elder period there were three rows of eight, as seen in figure 7.1.

It is also known from evidence found in five manuscripts that the Old English Futhorc could be divided into these groups, plus a fourth group of four staves, as shown in figure 7.2 on page 73. The Old English system clearly shows that the first twenty-four runes in the rows were considered an organized whole to which the extra four (five or more in later times) were “eked out.”

There is also the later Norse system of aett divisions. Here things get quite curious. The reduction of the rune row from twenty-four to sixteen made an equal division into three groups impossible. So two rows had five and another had six. The row was initially divided in the manner indicated in figure 7.3 on page 73. However, for the construction of runic codes in the Viking Age, this order was usually altered to that shown in figure 7.4 on page 73. Such reordering for cryptic reasons may also have been an archaic practice inherited from the older time.


Figure 7.1. Aett divisions of the Elder Futhark.

The basic idea behind most runic codes founded on the aett system is a binary number set, one which represents the number of the aett (in the case of the elder system a number between one and three), and the other which represents the number of the runestave counted from the left (for the elder period a number between one and eight). A simple example would be 2:8 = :Image : (second aett, eighth stave). There are many methods for representing this binary code; in later times the only bounds seemed to have been those in the imagination of the runemaster. Although it was in the Viking and Middle Ages that the art of runic cryptology seems to have reached its peak, the system was certainly known from the beginning of the tradition. The Vadstena/Motala bracteates are the oldest representations of the Elder Futhark divided into aettir, but there are also perhaps as many as six elder inscriptions that seem to have some kind of runic code in them.

The ring of Körlin bears the symbol :Image: along with the inscription : Image:. The latter is clearly a reversed alu formula, while the former could be a runic code for 2:1 (i.e., second rune of the first aett = :Image:). The stave as it stands is, however, also a bind rune of A + L. This combined with encoded form renders another alu formula. This gold ring dates from 600 C.E.


Figure 7.2. Aett divisions of the Old English Futhorc.

So any method of graphically representing two numbers could be used to write cryptic runic messages. But of course, the “reader” must be familiar with the aett system and all of its intricacies to be able to interpret the message. Other possible runic codes of this kind in the older period are seen on the stone of Krogsta (ca. 550 C.E.), part of which appears: Image:, to be read from right to left as SIAINAZ. This makes no linguistic sense. But if we read the:Image:rune as a code stave for 1:1 = :Image: (with reordered aettir, then it makes sense as stainaz (stone). This identifies the object, or it could be the name of the runemaster.


Figure 7.3. Aett divisions of the Younger Futhark.

In the inscriptions, code runes are also rare in the English tradition. We do know of the special aett divisions and one inscription, the stone of Hackness (carved sometime between 700 and 900 C.E.). The formula resulting from its decipherment, however, makes no linguistic sense.


Figure 7.4. Cryptic reordering of the aett division of the Younger Futhark.

Among the most widely practiced of the dozens of known forms of cryptic runes are the isruna, is-runes. These are known from a medieval German manuscript written in Latin, called the “lsruna-Tract.” An example (figure 7.5 on page 74) of this runic code system, which spells out the name Eiríkr, is found on the Swedish stone of Rotbrunna in Uppland.


Figure 7.5. Is-runes of Rotbrunna.

This latter system may be the key to the passage on rune magic quoted from Egil's Saga (chapter 72) on page 66. There Egill speaks of “ten secret staves carved,” which were supposed to be scratched in an attempt at a healing working. A good ideographic formula for such a working would be :Image:, and úrr, for energy and vital force. A way of putting these into cryptic, and therefore more magically potent, form in is-runes is shown in figure 7.6a. But the unskilled farm boy carved one too many staves, and the resulting formula (figure 7.6b) was hurtful. Figure 7.6b gives (energy, heat) to thurs (gigantic, destructive force)—a formula inappropriate for a healing rite, to say the least. Note also the traditional effect of the TH-rune on women alluded to in the Old Norwegian Rune Poem and Old Icelandic Rune Rhyme! By carving one too many staves in this cryptic formula, the uninitiated rune carver caused the opposite of the willed effect: Skal-at madhr rúnar rísta, nema rádha vel kunni. . . .


Figure 7.6. Left: Reconstructed healing formula in is-runes (a total of nine staves); right: Farm boy's is-rune formula (a total of ten staves).

Besides the aett cryptograms, there are a variety of ways to conceal the natural language message of a runic formula. Phonetic values could be shifted along the futhark order, so that :Image: = F,:Image: = U, :Image: = TH, and so on. Single runes could be used logo-graphically for their names; for example, in the Poetic Edda the stave :Image: is sometimes written as a substitute for ON madhr (man). Single key words also can be abbreviated in various ways. When a single rune stands for a word other than the rune name, we get a glimpse of the hidden lore of the esoteric system of alternate rune names, a subject of ongoing research in the Rune-Gild.

Other common ways to obscure or alter the natural language message are (1) leaving out certain runes (e.g., all of the vowels), (2) scrambling individual words, (3) inscribing the whole text, or just parts of it, from right to left (although this is sometimes so common that it seems to be a regular option), (4) substitution of special non-runic signs for certain staves, and (5) use of elder runes in younger inscriptions.

The magical (operative) effect of these runic codes is clear. They were not meant (originally, at least) to confuse human “readers.” They were intended to hide the runes, and what is hidden has effect in the hidden, subjective realms. Thus, an operative link is made between the subjective and objective realities, within the god-sprung framework of the lore of the runes.