Friday, November 24, 2017

the Runes (part 4)

This commentary, in several parts, was sparked by a recent request to create a set of rune marked tiles as a custom order. 

The first time I wrote a commentary on the topic of 'Mystic Runes' was back at the very start of this blog (December 12, 2006).
The second part was seen recently 'the Norse Runes' (November 22, 2017)
The third part was seen recently 'the Historic Use of Runes' (November 23, 2017)
NOTE: My intention with this series is to place the topic of Runes and Rune Lore into a purely archaeological context.

Evidence of 'Mystic Runes'

Again, what can we find in actual archaeological evidence?
• As stated several times : There are no existing objects - as tiles with single rune marks on them.

• There are a number of objects which have short runic letter groups on them. Typically scratched on the back of a decorated metal object (*). These tend to be from the early Migration Period (so not within the 'Viking Age' itself).
Migration period golden bracteate of Type C ... from Djupbrunns, Hogrän parish, Gotland, Sweden.
A bracteate (G 205) from approximately AD 400 that features the charm word alu with a depiction of a stylized male head, a horse, and a swastika, a common motif on bracteates. (1)
Some are just groups of letters, some single words. As most often the letter groupings don't translate into known language words, it is unclear exactly what they might have intended to mean. The grouping ALU (as above) is seen on more than one object, but again as a 'word' itself has no direct known meaning.
Many inscriptions also have apparently meaningless utterances interpreted as magical chants, such as tuwatuwa (Vadstena bracteate), aaduaaaliia (DR BR42) or g͡æg͡og͡æ (Undley bracteate), g͡ag͡ag͡a (Kragehul I).
Alu is a charm word appearing on numerous artifacts found in Central and Northern Europe dating from the Germanic Iron Age. The word is the most common of the early runic charm words and can appear either alone or as part of an apparent formula. (2)
There are however a very limited number of written references :

• The most significant reference is by the Roman historian Tacitus :
Tacitus (Germania 10) gives a detailed account (98AD):
They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices and casting lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips these they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state's priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayer to the gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking auspices.[1] (2)
 This does at least suggest the outline of a practice, with the objects employed at least briefly described. (*) It is unclear from the description if Tacitus is giving refers to a 'single use' object set, or a more permanent, retained collection.
• There are a number of historical written references to the use of 'runes' as charms or to enhance objects :
The most prolific source for runic magic in the Poetic Edda is the Sigrdrífumál, where the valkyrie Sigrdrífa (Brynhild) presents Sigurd with a memory-draught of ale that had been charmed with "gladness runes" (stanza 5),
Biór fori ec þer /brynþings apaldr!
magni blandinn / oc megintíri;
fullr er hann lioþa / oc licnstafa,
godra galdra / oc gamanruna.
"Beer I bring thee, tree of battle,
Mingled of strength and mighty fame;
Charms it holds and healing signs,
Spells full good, and gladness-runes."[6]
She goes on to give advice on the magical runes in seven further stanzas. In all instances, the runes are used for actual magic (apotropaic or ability-enhancing spells) rather than for divination:
  • "victory runes" to be carved on the sword hilt (stanza 6, presumably referring to the t rune named for Tyr[7]),
  • ølrunar "Ale-runes" (stanza 7, a protective spell against being bewitched by means of ale served by the hosts wife; naudiz is to be marked on one's fingernails, and laukaz on the cup),
  • biargrunar "birth-runes" (stanza 8, a spell to facilitate childbirth),
  • brimrunar "wave-runes" (stanza 9, a spell for the protection of ships, with runes to be carved on the stem and on the rudder),
  • limrunar "branch-runes" (stanza 10, a healing spell, the runes to be carved on trees "with boughs to the eastward bent"),[8]
  • malrunar "speech-runes" (stanza 11, the stanza is corrupt, but apparently referred to a spell to improve one's rhetorical ability at the thing),
  • hugrunar "thought-runes" (stanza 12, the stanza is incomplete, but clearly discussed a spell to improve one's wit).[9] (2)
It should be carefully noted that the source, the Poetic Edda, is known from its earliest written form, the Codex Regius, created about 1270 in Iceland. This is certainly a Medieval, post Christian, document. (**)
The Poetic Edda also recounts the story of O∂in acquiring his skill at foretellling the future / divination through the use of Runes.
The Poetic Edda also seems to corroborate the magical significance of the runes the Hávamál where Odin mentions runes in contexts of divination,[dubious ] of healing and of necromancy (trans. Bellows):
"Certain is that which is sought from runes / That the gods so great have made / And the Master-Poet painted" (79)
"Of runes heard I words, nor were counsels wanting / At the hall of Hor" (111)
"Grass cures the scab / and runes the sword-cut" (137)
"Runes shalt thou find / and fateful signs" (143)
" if high on a tree / I see a hanged man swing / So do I write and color the runes / That forth he fares / And to me talks." (158) (2)
Within a purely archaeological context, there remains the lack of supporting objects. In both in the texts quoted above, and scattered through other recorded Sagas, there are descriptions of runes or rune like symbols being marked on objects to alter their potency. The problem remains that the actual artifacts from the Viking Age do not show these marks. (***)

(*) The 'Accidents of Preservation' effect may be distorting our view here. 
• Objects of cast metals, commonly jewellery items, are both valuable and durable. For those reasons (and the related cultural practices - both historical and more modern), these type of objects tend to dominate as archaeological finds.
• Tacitus specifically gives 'nut tree branch' as the material. Typically medium density woods, there is of course the very real possibility that any such objects that did once exist have not physically survived. 

(**) All the problems of conversion of a much older, oral work into a written form do come to play here. Certainly it should be remembered that the oldest written form is some 300 years after the generally accepted end of the 'Viking Age' proper.

(***) I freely admit that this is a rather sweeping statement! 
It is based primarily on my own examination of literally thousands of objects from the Viking Age over a period of study going back to the later 1970's. This has included both academic and more popular books, and personal viewing of major exhibits (including actually working on several) and museum collections in both North America and Europe.
If any readers can contribute references to specific objects bearing 'power runes' I would be in their debt!

(1) Wikipedia - Runes
(2) Wikipedia - Rune Magic

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

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