Tuesday, December 12, 2006

on Runes...

from a recent discussion on Norsefolk:
" Wouldn't it beg the question of the Literate person? If (the runes) were an alphabet, did people actually use them to "write" or are they just symbols used by the local shamen only? I can see using a protective one or so as a pictorial symbol, but unless the average man (or woman) read them, would you have more than one or two on an (object)?"

The types of objects we find runes on - and what those runes actually say, certainly suggests a wide basic level of literacy. Is not 'knowledge or the runes' considered one of the 'nine basic skills' mentioned in the Havemal?

We find rune stones used as markers for property, and as memorial texts. Not very effective if the casual passerby can't read them! Also consider the numourous 'Thorfin was here' type markings found all over the known world. What about the wide range of everyday messages found on birch bark slips found at Viking Age Novgrod in Russia? All these suggest both males and females over a fairly wide range of social levels are both writing and reading runes as simple text - with no ritual implications at all. This tends to prove that at least a basic functional literacy existed in Norse culture. Perhaps not to the 'read a book' level that we employ today - but at least at a 'read the signs' level. (I compare that with exactly the way many of those reading this can actually read runes themselves- puzzling out each letter to gather the meaning of a text - not reading runes as you are reading this message!)

There is a tendency to cast a modern eye on past ritual practices and enshrine them as Religion, with the modern method of a professional being required (the Priest) to carry them out. I suggest instead that in Norse culture, the practices that involved communications to Powers existed on several layers. There were rituals that were part of the everyday - and could be carried out by almost any one. There were also 'more significant' ceremonials which were undertaken by specific individuals for a group (heads of households for example). Then there were certain rituals known only to dedicated practitioners (the 'wise women' of the sagas for example).

The magical use of runes is a particular problem. The completely modern concept of 'casting the runes' (use of markers as divination) is not supported by a single piece of archaeological evidence. There have been partially burned slips of wood bearing partial runic texts found, suggesting that communications to the gods may have been burned - to 'bare the text to heaven'. I have been told by a reliable university professor that the first description of 'casting the runes' was in fact written out of thin air by a friend of his in the mid 1950's who needed money while on sabbatical - as a complete fabrication. Over the years I have been absolutely amazed at the number of people who continue to insist that their set of carved stone or wood markers represents an accurate ancient practice. At the very least, in the absence of a single artifact sample, how could your possibly claim authenticity, much less knowledge of the actual use and meanings?

Years back, I was given a large set of 'runes of power' that were (honestly) stated to be ancient Icelandic magical symbols. The only problem is that in the interveining years I have NEVER seen a single one of these on actual Norse artifacts. On top of that - if these symbols actually represented lost arcane knowledge, how would anyone modern know the meanings?

The truth is that we can speculate all we want - but we are looking at practices that represent a completely dead tradition. Speculate all we want, but we can never really KNOW what was done during the Viking Age - by whom and to what purpose.


PS - Check the source! Virtually ALL references that clain to detail Norse ritual practice will start quoting each other - and come to a dead end sometime about 1880.

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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