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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Runes for Magic - the history


"Songs and runes then can do very great things. They are able to kill and bring to life, as well as prevent from dying; to heal or make sick, bind up wounds, stanch blood, alleviate pain, and lull to sleep; quench fire, allay the sea-storm, bring rain and hail; to burst bonds, undo chains and bolts, open mountains or close them up, and unlock treasures; to forward or delay a birth; to make weapons strong of soft, dull the edge of a sword; loop up knots, loose the bark off a tree , spoil a crop; call up evil spirits and lay them, to bind thieves...The Rûnatal, Sæm. 28-30, specifies eighteen effects of runes ". Grimm, Teutonic Mythology

Rune magic is a controversial topic in modern Heathenry, often accused of being New age-y or not genuinely Heathen, but it is actually something about which we have a good amount of evidence. Runes are mentioned in Norse and Germanic myth in connection to magic fairly often and fairly explicitly. The greatest challenge in a modern setting is that not all the references are easily interpreted and some of the runes referenced are not clearly identifiable with the named runes we know today. As Grimm says in his Teutonic Mythology:
"The olden time divided runes into many classes, and if the full import of their names were intelligible to us, we might take in at one view all that was effected by magic spells." (Grimm)
We do know that to use rune magic the rune or a series of runes was usually carved or painted on something. Grimm tells us, "They were painted, scratched or carved, commonly on stone or wood, 'run-stones, runstaves'; reeds served the same purpose." (Grimm). In Egil's Saga Egil saves himself from a poisoned drink when he carves a rune on a drinking cup and chants over it; the cup bursts, spilling the poison on the ground. Sigdrifamal list a series of runes and their uses, including carving Tiwaz twice on the hilt of a weapon for victory:
"6. Sig-runes thou must know,if victory (sigr) thou wilt have,
and on thy sword’s hilt grave them;
some on the chapes,
some on the guard,
and twice the name of Tý." (Sigdrifamal)
   The story also goes on to discuss "Beer" runes to carve on a drinking horn and the backs of your hands, with Nauthiz scratched on the fingernails, to keep other's from telling your secrets. "Help" runes are drawn on the palms of the hands of a midwife or her assistant to aid a mother in childbirth, and prayers to the disir are recommended. "Sea" runes must be carved on the prow and helm of a ship and burned into the oars for safety at sea. "Branch" runes are used, drawn on bark and leaf, to aid in healing. "Speech" runes are used for eloquence and "Thought" runes for wisdom.
   The challenge, obviously, is working out which rune is a "beer" rune and so on. Different modern authors and practitioners will have differing opinions on which should be what, and its important to keep in mind that it is all educated guess and experimentation. The "Sea" rune that works for me may not be the "Sea" rune that another person uses, and that is natural; certainly there was variation a thousand years ago as well.

References:
Grimm, Teutonic Myth http://www.northvegr.org/secondary%20sources/mythology/grimms%20teutonic%20mythology/03801.html
Sigrdrifumal http://www.northvegr.org/the%20eddas/the%20poetic%20edda%20%20-%20thorpe%20translation/sigrdrifumal%20-%20the%20lay%20of%20sigrdrifa%20page%201.html

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