Divination 2, Question 6
Describe the primary sources available regarding your chosen symbol set, explain the place of inspiration in your interpretations, and describe how the synthesis between historical source work and inspiration plays in your personal practice.
(min. 1000 words)
The primary sources for the runes begin with the obvious: runic inscriptions themselves. These inscriptions are quite numerous (Norway has over 1000 inscriptions on its own), with about 5,000 known inscriptions and new ones being found all the time. Many of these inscriptions have been collected and translated in books, and are easily available to any student.
Another great primary source for runes are the rune poems. There are several rune poems, with most people focusing on the "big three": the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, the Icelandic Rune Poem, and the Norwegian Rune Poem. These poems give the rune, the rune's meaning, and a poetic phrase about what the rune's meaning is. Because the three are in general agreement, they show a common understanding of the runes and their meanings. The variations within them make things interesting, though, as one poem might call a rune "auroch" and imply strength, while another poem might call it "dross" and imply weakness. The source material, then, is often cloudy in terms of what is meant in each case.
A third primary source of information is the sagas and eddas that are available to us from Iceland and the other Scandanvian countries. Of particular interest is the Havamal or "Sayings of the High One," which is a poem supposedly dictated by Oðin himself, who sacrificed himself to obtain the runes. In this poem, we learn what it takes to carve the runes, as well as what the runes are capable of. Some of the uses he indicates for the runes include calming the wind, breaking fetters, winning the love of a maiden, and even putting out fires.
The Volsungasaga also has a long section on runes and the magic they can work. Here, Brynhild mentions runic magic that can secure wisdom, keep the seas safe, bring help when needed, and poison a cup of drink. Several of the actual spells are described, such as carving the Tyr rune twice on your sword for wisdom.
Egil's saga is perhaps my favourite source of runic knowledge, and contains this gem, too: "None should write runes / Who can't read what he carves." In the same chapter, we are shown how to properly dispose of runes: carve them off and burn the shavings. We are also shown directly that runes can cure or cause sickness.
There is also an Icelandic grimore called the Galadrabok which includes many runic spells, such as the wonderfully useful "Helm of Awe." While this grimore is a late entry to our source material, it is also a wonderfully "hands on" sort of book, giving us access to the rituals and magic that surrounded the runes at the time of the writing. It is an
indispensable source for anyone interested in runic magic.
Our only primary source from outside the Germanic world about runes is Tacitus, who also gives us our only really concrete reasoning for divination by runes as we know it today. In chapter 10 of the Germania, Tacitus mentions that a branch of a fruit-bearing tree was cut up, and symbols were cut into the branch, and then the pieces were thrown in a method of
sortilege. Of course, we don't know if he was talking about runes or not (we don't even know if he was talking about Germans or not!), but it can't be overlooked as a source for runic information.
When it comes to my own interpretations of the runes, I find myself always beginning with the original source material, most often the rune poems. If I am having difficulty determining what a rune means, I always start by looking up the rune poem (in the original language, if I have it handy). This offers me a solid base line for understanding each rune and its interactions with the other runes and with the cosmos (and the querant, of course). I find it vitally important to always start with this basic understanding from the lore, because it helps keep me grounded, objective, and honest. The meanings of the runes can be (and too often have been) twisted to reflect the wishes of the diviner, rather than the will of the gods.
Over the years of working with the runes, I have also obtained a sort of internal knowledge of this symbol set: the meanings have morphed in certain ways so that their use as a communication tool with me has developed, as all languages do. While the runes themselves retain their special meanings in my view, they have often come to speak more verbosly to me during divination than I have often expected.
The discrepancy between rune poems often helps to create a situation where my personal interpretations of the rune pulled are vitally important. Consider the rune Kenaz, which means "torch" in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, but means "ulcer" in the Norwegian and Icelandic poems. When I draw Kenaz, I search my soul for the meaning of the rune, listening closely to the internal voice that this rune communicates with. If I am pulling this rune during a public ritual, I might consider the ritual as a whole: what does this rune mean in context? If the ritual has gone well, if the Grove is closer as a family than when we started, then I will likely read the rune as "torch," because the connotations of that interpretation are specifically about the folk coming together in a positive light. If I sense there is something more to be done, however, I might read it as "ulcer," and make it clear that something is amiss.
There are also times when an entire reading is so at odds with the traditional interpretation that I have to read each rune in the context of the others, rather than as individuals. Here, too, I start from the rune poems, but I once drew Wunjo, Laguz, and Mannaz, and the inspiration struck me like a bolt of lightning, and I could only interpret this reading in one way. I announced, "It's raining men, and we should enjoy them." It seems flippant, but that was the only interpretation I could find in the spread. It had nothing to do with the rune poems, other than that the runes lined up generally with the meanings in the poems (Laguz as "overflowing," Manaz as "men," and Wunjo as "joy"), but I found it as the only possible interpretation.
In general, the synthesis between my personal practice and the historical source work is pretty straight forward. I don't stray far from the historical basis, and I always rely on it to form my initial interpretation. Still, there are times when I recognize that this, like any language, can be fully interpretive, and sometimes things mean something other than what they literally say. Because of that, I find myself well balanced as a rune-reader.
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