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Runes in pre-Christian Heathen Times

Updated: Apr 10

The word "rune" (or "runes") occurs 40 times in the Elder Edda, as opposed to 2 times in the Younger Edda. Most scholars, like Dr. Jackson Crawford consider the Elder Edda to be a Primary Source on Norse Heathenry, and the Younger Edda a secondary source. I agree. The attestations of Runes do occur more in the Codex Regius (The Elder Edda) than in Snorri's Edda, even if one were to take into account that the Elder Edda is almost four times the size of the Prose Edda. Snorri's frequency (or lack thereof) continues into his Heimskringla, where Snorri uses the word "Runes/Runes" a whopping one time. Heimskringla is much larger than the Elder Edda (the Codex Regius). While Snorri's Edda is much shorter than the Elder Edda, if we add Heimskringla to the Prose Edda, Snorri's writing is now considerably larger than the Elder Edda. I think it is a safe conclusion that Snorri, a writer in christian Iceland, could not get away with writing anything overtly Heathen in his time. I should not be surprised that there is over an 40 to 3 ratio of Rune mentions in the Codex Regius vs. Snorri. Saxo Grammaticus, in his Gesta Danorum, never uses the term "Rune/Runes." All this evidence, gives us a strong indication that christian writers have understated the Runes, showing the christian disdain towards the Heathen belief of Runes and their association with Odin's Wisdom and the concept of (magical) power. The Old Saxon Heliand also hints at the importance of Runes in the pre-christian Heathen mindset. The Heliand is a christian document written to convert the Heathen Saxons. This "conversion document" begins by explaining the "god-spell" (gospel of christ) is Secret Runic knowledge. Christian missionizing in Saxony began by referencing the Runes.

Egil's Saga is a source that is contemporary to Snorri. Therefore, the ten occurrences of the word "rune/runes" will be discussed as well. While some scholars believe that Snorri wrote Egil's Saga, others do not. I am leaning towards Snorri not being the author of Egil's Saga, due to the ten different references to runes, which is an over-abundance of mentions on runes compared to Snorri's confirmed writings (the Younger Edda and the Heimskringla.)

Since I studied archaeology at the Masters Degree level, I will also discuss archaeological finds in this article. Below is a map made by Berig, [based on Jansson (1987). Runes in Sweden, p. 186] showing Elder Futhark inscriptions (in weapons, jewelry, objects, and runestones) by location. Notice the absence of Runic finds in Iceland. One could argue then that Snorri would not grasp the importance of Runes outside of Iceland. This being said, since Snorri does mention the Runes, and Snorri is writing after Iceland had been christian for 200 years, I do not equate Snorri's lack of Runic mentions with the lack of Runic finds in Iceland. This could be debated.

What is a Rune? What is the meaning of the word "Rune"? The word "Rune" comes from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed word rūnō, meaning "secret" or "mystery." Related Germanic words are the Gothic rūna (secret counsel), Old English rún (mystery, secret), Old Saxon rūna (secret counsel), and Old Norse rún (secret, mystery, rune). [Orel, Vladimir E. (2003). A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-12875-0.] Therefore, the Old Saxon word "giruni", meaning "Runes", could be more than just an alphabet, but a secret mystery as well. While some have argued that Runes are not just an alphabet (or a "Futhark"), the clues in the Germanic languages imply that Runes were an alphabet. In early Germanic we have the word rūna-stabaz, which is a compound of rūnō (rune) and stabaz (staff). In Old Norse the word rúna-stafr, in Old English rún-stæf, and Old High German rūn-stab. These words imply that we had "(alphabet) rune staffs." Please note, Dr. Andreas Nordberg discusses Rune Staffs in his evidence for the dating of Yule (as well as literary evidence.)

Runes in the Elder Edda Hrafnagaldr Odins v2: "The forebodings of the Aesir suspected to be evil, treacherous Vaettar had the runes confounded."

*This verse shows that Runes had power, warning of a future calamity.

Vegtamskipa etha Baldrs Draumar v9: "To the prophetess he began a magic song to chant, towards the north looked, potent runes applied, a spell pronounced, an answer demanded..."

*This verse shows that Runes had power, and could be used against calamity.

Havamal 80: "Then ' tis made manifest, if of runes thou questionest him, those to the high ones known, which the great powers invented, and the great talker painted, that he had best hold silence."

*Runes are mentioned often in the Havamal. More than in any other book of the Elder Edda. Runes and wisdom/knowledge are seen as one.

Havamal 113: "Of runes I heard discourse, and of things divine, nor of graving them were they silent, nor of sage counsels, at the High One's hall."

*Odin most likely is the great talker here.

Havamal 139: "In bitter hates invoke the moon; the biter for bite-injuries is good; but runes against calamity; fluid let earth absorb."

*This verse shows that Runes had power, and could be used against calamity.

Havamal 141 (Odin's Rune Song): "No one gave me bread, nor a horn to drink, downward I looked, to the runes I applied myself, wailing I learned them, and then I fell down."

*This verse shows that Runes were associated with wisdom. When Odin hung himself to gain wisdom, he learned the Runes.

Havamal 144: "Runes thou wilt find, and explained characters, very large characters, very potent characters, which the great speaker depicted, and the high powers formed, and the powers' prince graved."

*"To grave" runes, means "to carve" runes.

Havamal 159: "For the twelfth I know, if on a tree I see, a corpse swinging from a halter, I can so grave and in runes depict, that the man shall walk, and with me converse."

*"To grave" runes, means "to carve" runes.

For Skirnis ethr Skirnismal v36: "Thurs I cut for thee, and three letters more: ergi and oenthis and othola. So I will cut them out, as I have cut them in, if there need shall be."

*Technically, here we do not have the word "rune." What we have is four names of specific runes, which to me, must be counted as mentions of runes). This being said, rune carving (or graving) is shown as important, a part of Heathen thought.

Rigsmal v33: "Rig walking: runes he taught him, and his own son declared him, whom he bade possess..."

Rigsmal v40: "But the young Kon understood runes, aefin-runes, and aldr-runes; he moreover know men to preserve, edges to deaden, the sea to calm."

Rigsmal v42: "He with Rig Jarl, in runes contended, artifices parcticed, and superior proved; then acquired Rig to be called, and skilled in runes."

Knowledge as well as power is associated with runes in Rigsmal. Runes are also portrayed as a "skill."

Hyndlulioth v5: "Now of thy wolves take one from out the stall; let him run with runic rein."

*With a rein inscribed with runes.

Solarlioth v61: "I saw those men who much envy harbour at another's fortune' bloody runes were on their breasts graved painfully."

Solarlioth v72: "Here are runes which have engraven Njord's daughters nine..."

*To grave a rune means to carve a rune.

Helgakvitha Hundingsbana Onnur v10: "...when in val-runes the slaughter he announces."

Helgakvitha Hundingsbana Onnur v32: "Odin alone is cause of all the evil; for between relatives he brought the runes of strife."

*There are runes that have power to cause strife.

Sigutharkvitha Fafnisbana Fyrsta etha Gripisspa v17: "She to thee Powerful one! Runes will teach all those which men ought to know and in every man's tongue to speak, and medicines for healing."

*There are runes that have power to heal.

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v6: "You must know victory-runes if you will have victory, and you should engrave them on your sword's hilt, some on the chapes, some on the guard, and twice in the name of Ty."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v7: "Beer runes you must know if you will not betray another man's wife..." Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v9: "You must know help runes if you will help..."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v10: "You must know sea runes if you will have a secure float..."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v11: "You must know branch runes if you would be a leech, and know how to heal wounds..."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v12: "You must know speech runes if you will no one will have bad speech towards you..."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v13: "You must know thought runes if you will be wiser than all other men."

Sigrdrifumal: The Lay of Sigrdrifa v19: "Those are book runes, those are biarg-runes, and all beer-runes, and all power-runes, for those who can, without confusion or corruption, turn them to his welfare. Use, if you have understood them, until the powers perish."

*These passages make clear that the Runes have various powers over several different things: beer, speech, the mind, warfare, power, etc.

GuThrunarkvitha Fyrsta: The First Lay of Dudrun v23: "Then Brynhild said, "May the hag lack spouse and children, who you Gudrun has caused to weep, and this morning, given the runes of speech."

*Speech Runes, that have power to help people speak.

Drap Niflunga: The Slaughter of the Niflungs (first paragraph): "Gudrun was aware of the treachery, and sent them word in runes not to come..."

*Here the runes are just an alphabet for writing.

Atlamal in Groenlenzku v4: "She carved runes, Vingi falsified them before he gave them..."

Atlamal in Groenlenzku v9: "Kostbera was wise, she could interpret runes and read letters..."

Atlamal in Groenlenzku v12: "I have interpreted the runes that my sister carved..."

*Here the runes are just an alphabet for writing.

Gunnars Slagr v10: "Kostbera, who was Hogni's wife, said the runes were falsely carved." *Here the runes are just an alphabet for writing.

Runes in the Prose Edda (Snorri)

There are two mentions of Runes in the Prose Edda. Both are in Brage's Talk, ch3 (How Njord Got Skade To Wife). Therefore, to be blunt, these two word occurrences of the word "runes" do not occur in Gylfaginning nor Skáldskaparmál. Brage's Talk Chapter 3: "In runes and songs we wrap the gold up by calling it the measure, or word, or tale, of these giants. Then said AEger: It seems to me that it will be well hidden in the runes."

My thoughts: In Aldsidu we have debated if runes are more than just an alphabet, but also unknown mysteries. I can see the same discussion here.

Runes in Heimskringla: The word "rune" occurs once in the entire Heimskringla. Ynglinga Saga chapter 7: "He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news. In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called charms, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths." My thoughts: Here Snorri is discussing Odin. Snorri is showing that Odin's great teachings were done in Runes.

Runes in Egil's Saga (a Saga contemporary with Snorri):

The word "rune" occurs ten times in Egil's Saga. Here is a breakdown of these ten word occurrences, which are in four different passages.

Egil's Saga Chapter 44: Bard bade him drink and stop that jeering. Egil drained every cup that came to him, drinking for Aulvir likewise. Then Bard went to the queen and told her there was a man there who put shame on them, for, howsoever much he drank, he still said he was thirsty. The queen and Bard then mixed the drink with poison, and bare it in. Bard consecrated the cup, then gave it to the ale-maid. She carried it to Egil, and bade him drink. Egil then drew his knife and pricked the palm of his hand. He took the horn, scratched runes thereon, and smeared blood in them. He sang: ’We write runes around the horn, Redden all the spell with blood...’

Egil's Saga Chapter 60: "This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse."

Egil's Saga Chapter 75: "’Runes have been graven,’ said Thorfinn; ’a landowner’s son hard by did this; and she is since much worse than before. But can you, Egil, do anything for such ailments?’ Egil said: ’Maybe no harm will be done by my taking it in hand.’ And when Egil had finished his meal, he went where the woman lay and spoke with her. Then he bade them lift her from her place and lay clean clothes under her, and they did so. Next he searched the bed in which she had lain, and there he found a piece of whalebone whereon were runes. Egil read them, then cut the runes and scraped them off into the fire. He burned the whole piece of whalebone, and had the bed-clothes that she had used hung out to air. Then Egil sang: ’Runes none should grave ever Who knows not to read them; Of dark spell full many The meaning may miss. Ten spell-words writ wrongly On whale-bone were graven: Whence to leek-tending maiden, Long sorrow and pain.’ Egil then graved runes, and laid them under the bolster of the bed where the woman lay. She seemed as if she waked out of sleep, and said she now felt well, but she was weak. But her father and mother were overjoyed. And Thorfinn offered to Egil all the furtherance that he might think needful."

Egil's Saga Chapter 79: "The man who had graved the runes for Helga dwelt not far off. It now came out that he had asked her to wife, but Thorfinn would not give her. Then this landowner’s son would fain beguile her, but she would not consent. So he thought to grave for her love-runes, but he did not understand them aright, and graved that wherefrom she took her sickness."

Conclusions on Runes in Egil's Saga: Egil uses the runes to fight poison, as well as inscribing runes on a Nithpole to add a curse (magical power) to the Nithpole. Egil removes runes from whalebone and burns the bone, to end their power, and also uses the runes as a healing spell laying them under a bed to heal a woman. Egil even writes "love runes" which were intended to have the power for one to fall in love. Egil's Saga shows runes had the power to curse and heal, and were clearly an alphabet.

The Old Saxon Heliand: There are two word occurrences of the word "Rune/Runes" in the Old Saxon Heliand. The Old Saxon Heliand opens with the following passage. In this passage, the very god-spell (gospel) is reckoned with the Runes.

Here is the second passage on Runes in the Old Saxon Heliand:

Conclusions on Runes in the Heliand: The Heliand equates Runes as the spoken "god's spell" (gospel) which is the (magical) power of christ. The implies that Runes had magical aspects to the Saxons. The fact that the most important prayer in christendom was shown in the Heliand as "Runes" could mean that spoken Runes also had a power/magical significance. However, it is hard to come to any more conclusions than these, considering that the Heliand was a christian conversion tool and not a Heathen writing.


It is clear from these writings, that in pre-christian Heathen times, runes were seen as an alphabet with healing and cursing powers. They were mysteries that Woden hung himself to gain, as well as a runic alphabet with powerful attributes.

Many scholars have argued that to the far larger lower castes of Heathen society, Thunar (Thor) was more popular than Woden (Odin). The tiny upper class was more literate, and according to these scholars, Woden was more popular in the upper class. To the majority of the Heathen lower castes, the God associated with the Runes was indeed one filled with mystery and unique knowledge, as much of the lower castes were not literate.

I am now leaning towards Snorri not being the author of Egil's Saga, but obviously this is debatable. Egil's Saga clearly has more discussion on runes than all of the Prose Edda and Heimskringla combined. Older writings than the Prose Edda, like the Elder Edda and the Heliand, seem to place a greater emphasis on runes than Snorri. Scholars have debated authorship of Egil's Saga, and this debate will not be settled with my blog article on runes. Nonetheless, since Egil's Saga is contemporary to Snorri, and it was also written in Iceland, it does give a "different" perspective on the runes than the Prose Edda and Heimskringla. It is clear from the Elder Edda, the Heliand, and Egil's Saga, that the runes were indeed an alphabet with powerful attributes, as carving and speaking runes conveyed power.

Archaeological Rune finds in Old Saxony

All Saxon graves form the 6th through 8th centuries are super easy for archaeologist to identify as Saxon. The Saxons of Old Saxony were all burying their dead (if they were not cremated) by laying the head to the south, and feet to the north. This is something that the Saxons and only the Old Saxons did, making their graves easy to prove that they were Saxons. Let us look at a runic find, in Old Saxon lands, with almost 500 total graves, with heads in the south, feet in the North, with the finds dated to the mid-400s, i.e. the fifth century, proving that these tribes were "Saxons" when Bede states the invasion of England was happening!

For evidence that the Saxons buried their dead in a south to north position, see German Archaeologist Sven Schild's article:

Liebenau: An Old Saxon Cemetary In Liebenau 312 cremation graves were found with cremation in 338 burials. All cremations were done on pyres made of wood. The remains of the fire were left at the cremation site and covered with sand. The ashes were only occasionally put in Urns. There were fragments of ceramic vessels presumably added to the fire at the cremation sites. There were 143 body graves in which the deceased were buried in coffins or wrapped in blankets and furs. It was noticeable that there were hardly any graves of children and young people. In the graves from the 4th and 8th centuries, the dead were buried in a north-south direction, with the head mostly facing south. This without doubt places the Runic find here, dated in the fifth century, to the Saxons. Source:

Liebenau is in south central Old Saxony, in the modern German Bundes (State) of "Lower Saxony." This is without doubt well within the borders of Old Saxony. Here is an English translated Website of a German reconstructionist website, discussing a silver-plated copper disk, originally part of a sword-belt, found at Liebenau, which had the Elder Futhark Runes "RAUZWI". This is their website on what these Runes mean:

The Meldorf Brooch The Meldorf Brooch is a Runic find that scholar's and archaeologists accept as Old Saxon, from Meldorf, which was in Old Saxony. Meldorf was in the northern part of Old Saxony, what many call "original Saxon homelands." Some people feel that the Meldorf Brooch contains the earliest Runic inscription ever found, and if so, this means Old Saxony produced the world's oldest Germanic Rune find to date so far. Meldorf is in the modern German Bundes (State) of Schleswig-Holstein, the this "brooch" or "fibula" was found in 1979. The Meldorf Fibula is dated to the mid first century AD and contains Elder Futhark Runes. Here is an image of the Runes:

Below is an image of the Thorsberg Chape, which while found in southern Denmark is originalluy from Old Saxon lands and deposited most likely as war spoils from Old Saxon tribes to the south (or "proto-Old Saxon tribes.") The Runes are once again of the Elder Futhark and broken into these elements: owlþu, meaning "the glorious", þewaz meaning "servant" or it may be a cognate to Old Norse Ullr. Therefore, the translation could me "priest/servant of Ullr" or "servant of the glorious one." This is the first side, the reverse side is "ni waje mariz" meaning "not ill of fame", or to be put more simply "famous." The whole translation then on both sides would mean: "Wolthuthewaz is well-renowned," or "the servant of Ullr, the renowned." (1)

(1) Mindy MacLeod, Bind-Runes: An Investigation of Ligatures in Runic Epigraphy, Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska sprak, Uppsala Universitet, 2002, ISBN 91-506-1534-3, p. 51, note 17

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