The runes are the "alphabet" of the ancient Norse peoples. But they were more than that. The word "rune" also meant "secret" or "mystery", and there is much evidence (the Sigrdrifumal, the Havamal, in Tacitus, etc.) that the runes stood for not just sounds but concepts that were used as a part of an ancient system of magic. But their use in magical systems is a topic that has been covered extensively elsewhere. What is never written about are the other, non-magical reasons for the symbology of the runes. We can clearly see that there were other purposes for this symbolism because of the rune poems, poems written in different times and places by users of the runes. These poems contain descriptions of the runes' meanings and usually also contain advice based on that meaning. So the runes' mysteries also were a sort of spiritual guide. (Let me be clear in stating that I am not claiming that this was the original or even primary purpose of the runes, just that it seems that they picked up this purpose at some point.)
The runes are more than just a series of mysteries. They are arranged into such an order that much of the mystery of the runes is in the various groupings they make. In truth there is no end to the possibilities of combination. An entire lifetime's worth of study of runic combinations and orderings awaits the serious student of the runes. But two in particular bear close scrutiny here: runic pairs and the three aetts. Looking at the runes two at a time reveals a further mystery not contained in either of the runes alone. And looking at the runes as they were ordered, in three groups of eight (aetts), reveals a further mystery. In this form the mystery of the runes forms three roads, as it were, of discovery. Three paths where one mystery leads into another, which leads to another still. As the runes as a whole are supposed to be representative of all things, following the mysteries of these roads will lead the athling on a journey through all things. This arrangement forms a sort of spiritual path for the growth of the athling. Below will be presented first the runes one at a time, then as pairs, and finally as three aetts.
Money is a comfort to everyone / though every man ought / to deal it out freely / if he wants to gain approval / from the lord. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Gold causes strife among kinsmen / the wolf grows up in the woods. - Old Norse Rune Rhyme
Money is the strife among kinsmen / and the fire of the flood-tide / and the path of the serpent. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
The literal meaning of this rune is "cattle," the main sign of wealth to most ancient European societies. Because of this it later adopted the meanings of "gold" and "money". It is the first of the mysteries encountered by the athling, which is hardly surprising as it is a rune of the material world, a rune of movable wealth, of possessions. There are primarily three lessons this rune has to teach as revealed in the rune poems and the name of the rune itself.
Lesson the first: "The wolf grows up in the woods." To the ancient Norse the wolf was the symbol of all the baneful things that dwell outside the lands of men, eaters of cattle and bringers of ruin. To raise cattle specifically (in fact to manage money in general) requires much attention, care, responsibility, and intelligence. Waste, greed, irresponsible management of one's wealth will all bring disaster. The first of the lessons of feh is this: good stewardship. The athling who is hobbled by material need, who is his own worst enemy, is one who can do nothing other than struggle for survival. Such a one will progress no further along the road of mysteries.
Lesson the second: "Gold causes strife among kinsmen." One's kinsmen (and kith) are, by virtue of proximity if for no other reason, in a position to bring either help or hindrance. Even if one manages his or her money well there are still other problems wealth can bring, and jealousy is chief amongst them. And even where jealousy between kin over money does not exist, differences in opinion of management of wealth can also lead to great strife. The second lesson of this rune is to beware these.
Lesson the third: the Anglo-Saxon rune poem counsels generosity. Money ought to be dealt out freely, for to show generosity is to win friendship and assistance in time of need. Thus money can be a source of power for, as the Havamal says "a gift demands a gift".
Of course this rune can be looked at more generally as well: just as "cattle" came to mean "gold" and "money" so it can refer to any sort of personal power such as health, physical strength, etc. The lessons of this rune apply to all these types of things. Feh tells us to learn, to control, to develop one's power lest that power become bane rather than boon.
Aurochs is fearless / and greatly horned / a very fierce beast, / it fights with its horns, / a famous roamer of the moor / it is a courageous animal. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
The aurochs was a species of ox widespread in ancient Europe. Though hunted to extinction in 1627, it was a most formidable creature (the name aurochs means Primal Ox). It was quite large, horned, and unlike the cattle of the feh rune it was aggressive and ferocious. They were hunted for food, sport, or as a test of personal power and luck (feh again), but they were never tamed.
This is a rune of raw transcendent power. It is a rune of the individual rather than a rune of social interaction. This is the second mystery of the runic path. To hunt the aurochs, which can be seen as a metaphor for taking on the worst the world has to offer in the way of opposition, requires taking on the attributes of the aurochs: bravery, power, ferocity. This rune teaches that the athling, in finding the power of the aurochs within, becomes a match for all the world has to offer.
Thorn is very sharp; for every thane / who grasps it; it is harmful, / and exceedingly cruel / to every man / who lies upon them. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Thurse causes the sickness of women; / few are cheerful from misfortune. - Old Norse Rune Rhyme
Thurse is the torment of women, / and the dweller in the rocks / and the husband of Vardh-runa. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
This rune has two nearly identical meanings: thorn and thurse. A thurse is a giant, a jotun, an enemy of both gods and men. It is a monster that torments women, a blindly destructive force of chaos. And a thorn, of course, can be seen as a little thurse (an easy analogy to see for anyone who has ever stumbled into a thorn bush!)
This is the third mystery encountered by the athling. Its lesson is two-fold: "misfortune is integral to growth" and "fight fire with fire". The first lesson is gleaned simply from its existence in the rune row. To grapple with misfortune, to lie amongst the thorns, is a step from one rune to another. The reason for this lesson is obvious enough: "few are cheerful from misfortune". The athling who is beaten down by hardship and oppression, who cannot rise above them, has no energy to spend on further progress. The implication of this is to learn to remain cheerful, to be of high mood, no matter the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is a source of great strength, and more is spoken of it in the eighth rune. The second lesson is a little more subtle, but it is shown by two things: thorns and Thor.
While thorns are harmful and exceedingly cruel, thorn hedges are customarily employed to keep people and animals out of a field. They were also often used to protect sacred enclosures. Similar is the role of Thor. Thor is the protector of Asgard and Midgard, foe of the jotuns. But the name Thor comes from the same root word as the words thorn and thurse, and his power is the power of the thurse: destruction. To master misfortune, chaos, destruction accept them, use them, turn them back upon themselves and vanquish them.
Mouth is the chieftain / of all speech, / the mainstay of wisdom / and a comfort to the wise ones, / for every noble warrior / hope and happiness. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Ase is the olden-father / and Asgard's chieftain / and the leader of Valholl. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
While this rune has a couple of different meanings associated with it, they both embody approximately the same concept. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem gives the meaning of the rune as "mouth" and thus, by extension, "speech". The Old Icelandic rune poem gives this rune as "Odin" god of, amongst other things, speech and wisdom. Speech is a manifestation, a bringing of wisdom from the unmanifest, from the Outgarths, into Midgard. It is inspiration, Odin's gift. This rune counsels learning the ways of speech, the acquisition of wisdom, the winning of inspiration. There are many ways of learning these things, and many subjects covered by each of these concepts, far too many to be listed here. But the athling must learn, for wisdom and the means by which wisdom is brought into the world of things are necessary for further progress along the road of mysteries.
Riding is in the hall / to every warrior / easy, but very hard / for one who sits up / on a powerful horse / over miles of road. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Riding is a blessed sitting / and a swift journey / and the toil of the horse. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
This is the rune of the journey, of riding. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem speaks of the difference between armchair traveling and actually going out into the world. This speaks to the very heart of the counsel of this rune. Real world experience is necessary to the progress of the athling, and not just the kind of experience that can be gained in one's home town either. The athling must see the world, learn from it, suffer from it, gain as much experience as possible, let it forge him (or her) into something new.
Torch is to every living person / known by its fire / it is clear and bright / it usually burns / when the athlings / rest inside the hall. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Torch is the meaning of this rune, a light in a dark place. It is revelation. This is a different thing from the inspiration of ansuz. That rune speaks of wisdom, whereas this rune speaks of finding out, of obtaining knowledge. In reading the Anglo-Saxon rune poem it is also interpretable as a rune of safety and comfort, of brightness when resting inside the hall. The benefits of both of these things, learning and safety/comfort, are self-evident. And in truth they are not unrelated for it is by knowledge that safety and comfort are obtained (as wolves and other predators are kept back from the revealing light of the camp-fire).
Gift is for every man / a pride and a praise / help and worthiness / and of every homeless adventurer / it is the estate and substance / for those who have nothing else. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Gebo is gift, and the lesson there indicates the forging of a special kind of bond. "A gift demands a gift" says the Havamal. Especially in Old Norse societies it was the exchange of gifts that was the glue of social bonds. In fact a common kenning for lord was "ring-giver". So on the surface level this rune speaks to right action socially. It says that in accepting a gift one pledges one's troth to the giver. The Teutonic tradition of hospitality is founded on this understanding. Along the same lines, gebo is the concept underlying the forging of alliances between families by marriage, and the forging of peace treaties by the exchange of hostages. The athling must be able to properly interact with others to progress.
On a deeper level gebo is sacrifice, a gift offered to the gods. The gods are bound by the same laws we are, and in accepting our sacrifices they are bound to provide for us in turn. And of course the flip side of this is that in accepting the favors of the gods we owe them in turn. This is seen most strikingly in the case of Odin's men. The price of the victories he gives is his eventual "betrayal" and death. The athling must know how to sacrifice, must know what he stands to lose and to gain. This rune speaks to right action religiously. The athling must be able to properly interact with the gods to progress.
And perhaps on the deepest level of all gebo is a rune of the sacrifice of the self to the self. No other rune (arguably) speaks better to the true nature of the Odinic path. Like the Allfather on the World Tree, or at Mimir's well, or in pursuit of Odhroerir, the athling must be able to sacrifice himself, tear himself apart that he may be rebuilt along better lines. He must die, over and over again if necessary (and possible!) in order to live. It is often seen, in moments of crisis, how people can rise above themselves, transcend their limitations, grow enough to handle the crisis. This is the gift of crisis. To sacrifice one's self is to gain this gift, terrible though it is, and this is Odinic learning. The athling must be able to sacrifice himself to progress.
Joy is had / by the one who knows few troubles / pain and sorrows / and who to himself has / blessedness and bliss / and stronghold enough. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
"Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself eke soon wilt die." These are the words of the Havamal, the speech of the High One. Everything ends. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem (the mannaz verse) says that every man is doomed to fail his fellow, for every man is carrion, committed to the earth. A bleak view of the world. Such fatalism was quite common to our viking forebears. But Sigurd, arguably the hero who most embodied the "viking ideal" was supposed to have said:
"Ever the fearless but the fearful never will fare
well in a fight.
How to hold joy in the heart in the face of death? How can a man or woman be glad in the midst of failure? Sigurd speaks of joy as a source of strength, a tool for assistance in one's efforts (ever the pragmatists, our spiritual ancestors). But such a thing is easier said than done. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem says "Joy is had by the one who knows few troubles, pain, and sorrows and who to himself has blessedness and bliss and stronghold enough." This kind of joy is easy to come by when circumstances are good and for most people it is the only source of the emotion they ever find. How do you feel joy when you've been diagnosed with terminal cancer? How can you be glad when you learn the woman (or man) you love hates you and is walking away? How can your mood be high when you don't even know where your next meal is coming from?
Clearly the kind of joy Sigurd was talking about is not the kind of joy that depends on circumstance. And obviously enough if it doesn't come from the outside then it comes from the inside, like Volsung, Sigurd's grandfather, shows. At the beginning of the Volsunga Saga king Volsung has been warned that an invitation from king Siggeir might be a trap. He says:
"Yet, shall a king hear murder when a king's mouth
King Volsung is wise. He goes to king Siggeir's with a whole heart. His joy comes from performing right action, not from a need of safety, of having made the correct choice. His joy depends on himself, who he knows he can rely on and not the outside world, which he may not be able to rely on. This kind of joy, not depending on outside circumstance, cannot be taken from him by outside circumstance. And king Siggeir does betray him. He sends an overwhelming host to meet King Volsung, killing him.
Volsung gambled and lost. But even his death did not shake him. He did not cry out, or wail, or complain, or regret. He fought, performing the deed at hand -
"Till all his limbs were weary and his body rent and
What mattered to Volsung were his actions, how he bore himself. The things that were important to him were how he performed, not what the world did to him or failed to do for him. And so even in failure he succeeded at failing gloriously. He could be trusting because being a trusting person meant more to him than what awaited him at Siggeir's hands. He could be brave because bravery was more meaningful than safety. He could accept, even embrace death because living well was more important than living long. He was unencumbered by fear, or worry, or weakness because his strength and gladness depending only on his making the right choices, not on how those choices turned out for him.
If all that matters to the athling is how well he bears himself, is making decisions well rather than having to make the "right" ones, is giving the deed at hand his or her all, then the athling always has reason for joy. The only one needed to do these things is the self. No one and nothing can ever let the athling down, for external events do not matter. This joy can never be lost, and the strength that comes from this joy will be always present. Live right and even if the athling do not succeed smashingly he or she will fail gloriously, as a hero.
Wunjo, pictorially, is the weathervane. And this represents the true source of joy, which is harmony with one's environment, moving with it as the weathervane moves with the wind. This is a great and subtle form of strength, one often neglected by the modern world. The usual conception of strength is of something hard and unyielding, like a board. But apply enough force and the board will snap, as there is an upward limit to how much it can resist. The strength of wunjo is like a feather falling through the air. No amount of force can break it for it offers no resistance.
Lastly, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem contains a hint of how joy in all circumstances might be obtained. It says that joy is had by one who has blessedness and stronghold enough. On the surface this is joy in material possesion. But it can also be read as contentment with what one has. If any house is stronghold enough, if no attachment is made to a specific set of material circumstances, then joy will follow regardless of material circumstance.
Hail is the whitest of grains, / it comes from high in heaven / showers of wind hurl it / then it turns to water. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Hail is a cold grain, / and the shower of sleet / and the sickness of snakes. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Hail is hard and cold and destructive. "Showers of wind hurl it," sleet and storm accompany it. To be caught in a hailstorm is like being caught in a rain of rocks from the heavens. But unlike the destructive force of thorn this is not a chaotic force but a natural one, part of the order of the world. After the destruction the hail turns to water, nourisher of man and crops alike. This is an important lesson to the athling. Everything is a tool. Everything furthers. Even something so totally destructive and harmful as hail leaves something usable behind. The athling must come to understand that there is nothing that cannot be of benefit if properly understood and approached. When this lesson is grasped in fullness it can be seen that there is no failure, for every loss is an opportunity for gain. Even a complete failure offers the knowledge of what not to do in the future, and so brings the athling one step closer to success. (This is the reason for the saying in modern science that no experiment is a failure.) Striving leads to failure, failure leads to wisdom, wisdom leads to maturity, maturity leads to success. When a thing is broken into pieces the opportunity, which did not exist before, comes into being of being able to build a new, stronger thing in its place.
Need is constricting on the chest / although to the children of men it often becomes / help and salvation nevertheless / if they heed it in time. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Need is the grief of the bondmaid / and a hard condition to be in / and toilsome work. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
This rune represents both need, a requirement for a thing that is absent, and the needfire, an old ritual that involved the starting of a fire by friction alone. (The shape of the rune itself is of two sticks being rubbed together.) It was meant to magically meet some desperate circumstance such as failing crops or sick cattle.
There is an old maxim that says that the solution to any problem can be found within the nature of the problem itself. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem shows one way in which this can be accomplished. Merely to be aware of suffering in some way is to become aware of the existence of a problem, a thing that is wrong. Awareness is a warning, and so is a chance to solve the problem before it wreaks too much harm. And of course it is in analysis of a problem that the solution to it is found.
Need is "toilsome work," like the ritual of the needfire itself (ever tried starting a fire with friction?). This hardship is a stress, a hurtful thing, a constriction of the chest. It is also a source of energy and resourcefulness. Necessity is the mother of invention. The very need itself can fuel the will to overcome it, it can inspire creativity. Pain is an effective goad, for one will work hard indeed to get away from it. As such it is a source of energy, the energy needed to succeed. This is the source of the transcendence spoken of in the gebo rune.
Ice is very cold / and exceedingly slippery / it glistens, clear as glass / very much like gems, / a floor made of frost / is fair to see. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Ice is the rind of the river / and the roof of the waves / and a danger for fey men. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Beautiful and dangerous, ice is the eleventh mystery met by the athling. It is "a danger for fey men", "exceedingly slippery". Ice cannot be crossed quickly, wildly, recklessly. It takes control, balance, subtlety as it were. This is the lesson of this rune, to learn this sort of subtle balance and control, lest the ice everyone encounters periodically in life prove a hazard.
Harvest is the hope of men, / when god lets, / holy king of heaven, / the earth gives / her bright fruits / to the noble ones and the needy. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Good harvest is the profit of men; / I say that Frodhi was generous. - Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme
Good harvest is the profit of all men, / and a good summer, / and a ripened field. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Jera is the rune of the harvest, reward for the year's work. The right relationship between effort and time is the lesson for the athling here. To do things in the correct order, at the fitting time is to get a fruitful harvest. And furthermore the inference is that work must be conducted in harmony with the natural order, with the outside world. Seed planted in autumn will not grow. Fields must be watered in the dry seasons, water must be witheld in the rainy ones. The athling must learn the right times to plant (begin striving), and the right times to water (tend to one's labors), and the right times to leave fields fallow (when to leave a situation alone), and the right times to harvest.There is a lesson to be learned here for interpersonal interactions: if work or effort is conducted in harmony with others, fruitful harvest will result. To attempt to run over others or strive against them is like striving against the seasons, planting at the wrong times. There is a similar lesson to be learned from this rune that applies to spiritual practice as well: harmony must be sought with the outside world, the world that is interacted with, for fruitful practice. To seek to establish harmony only with the instincts and subconscious desires of the self (the goal of many modern Western spiritual endeavors) will bring no more harvest than that from seed scattered randomly and abandoned.
Yew is on the outside / a rough tree / and hard, firm in the earth, / keeper of the fire / supported by roots / a joy on the estate. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Yew is a strung bow / and brittle iron / and Farbauti of the arrow. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Death and life together. Death from life, life from death; yew is the cycle of life, death and rebirth on every level. As such it is a rune of the revelation of orlog. The yew tree can be cut down and a new tree will sometimes be reborn from the stump of the old. As such the yew is a symbol like the phoenix, risen from its own ashes. The vikings also had a ritual that involved lying under the yew for a night. The yew's bark exudes a toxic gaseous chemical and is capable of killing a person so sleeping. But if it does not, wild hallucinations and visions fill that person's head, bringing inspiration from the world of the dead. Death from life (the poison) and life from death (the inspiration). Many yew trees exude, when cut, a red sap that looks like blood oozing from the wound. Because of the great strength and flexibility of yew wood bows were often made from it. As both a weapon and an instrument of hunting it is thus a tool of both death and the preservation of life. It is no wonder that the yew is one of the strongest contenders for the identity of the world tree Yggdrasil, that Odin hung himself on to "die" and in so dying discover the runes.
The lesson of this mystery is this: the old must be swept away to make room for the new. For new birth there must be death. The yew is not newborn without the death of its previous self. The deer dies, the hunter, eating it, lives. To become master of the runes Odin's old self, that was not master of the runes, had to die. There are several ways this mystery can be of benefit to the athling. It suggests learning hunting, or the martial arts, as representatives of this lesson. It could be understood through a philosophical or religious understanding of death, and the consequences it has for living, and the athling could hear this rune as a call to seek or develop such a thing. To understand death, to not fear death is to be free in a way that very few are, for it gives the benefit of extraordinary courage, and also serenity. Also this rune could be understood as a call to the life of the ascetic, one who finds transcendence in pain, or "death" in its many guises (spiritual death and rebirth, death of the self or ego, death of all comforts - fasting, taboos, mortification, etc.). This is the path of the Odinist (in many cases), the seidh-man, the berserk, the volva. However the athling comes to understand this mystery, understood it must be.
Lot box is always / play and laughter / among bold men / where the warriors sit / in the hall together. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
The meaning of this rune is somewhat debatable, but lot-box seems to be the most likely, and is certainly suggested by the shape of the rune. Also, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem speaks of the beer-hall, and play and laughter among bold men. The play of the beer halls, as has often been described from Tacitus onwards, was gambling, which is consistent with the lot-box interpretation.
There are three ways the lesson of this mystery can be rendered.
1): Divination. The view our spiritual ancestors had of luck was that it was the revelation of what had gone before, orlog. Thus Perthro is a rune of the revelation of orlog. To learn to reveal orlog is to learn to divine, and this mystery is thus the mystery of divination. There are many techniques of divination, from casting runes (written on lots), to bird omens, to sitting under the hood, to the prophecies of seeresses and seers. The athling, if such is his or her bent, should learn a form of divination.
2): Cause and effect. The revelation of orlog is a revelation, via effects, of the causes that have gone before. This is a scientific understanding of phenomena, and the athling should, to the extent of his or her ability, strive to understand the world from a scientific point of view, to understand what cause produces what effect. After all, knowledge is power.
3): Gambling. Tacitus records that the Germanic tribesmen would keep gambling until they had gambled away even their own freedom. A part of the reason for this is that they viewed luck as something that was, to some extent or other, under the control of the individual (a tradition of thought that continued even into the Middle Ages, where a king's luck might be "lent" to a messenger, and even to this day, where we have the saying "a man makes his own luck"). Thus gambling was in this way like a battle, where the man with more luck-skill wins. Agree or disagree with this view, the athling should study this concept and learn what he or she can from it. The athling should also come to learn the ways of his or her own luck
Elk's sedge has its home / most often in the fen / it waxes in the water / and grimly wounds / and burns with blood / any man / who in any way / tries to grasp it. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
The meaning of this rune is perhaps the most debatable of any in the Elder Futhark. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem gives it as "elk's sedge" (a form of sharp-edged grass). But there are also equally valid reasons to believe it came from the old english eolh (elk), the gothic algis (swan, possibly), the proto-germanic algiz (protection), and the gothic alhs (sanctuary).
How then to render the mystery of this rune in intelligible, useful form? Look for commonalities. And there are plenty. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem describes elk's sedge as a plant well able to protect itself, it's tough fiber and sharp edges cutting anyone who grasps it. The elk, like its namesake plant, is also a thing well able to take care of protecting itself (the stave shape does suggest, among other things, the horns of the elk). Swan also carries an implication of protection, albeit indirectly. The valkyries are known sometimes as swan-maids, and can take the form of swans (or is it the other way around?). And there is much mythological description of valkyries providing chosen heroes protection (at least up until the time comes for Valhalla). Combined with the possiblities of sanctuary and protection, this rune obviously has to do with protection. This is certainly how most modern authors define it.
It should be borne in mind, though, that this is still conjecture. There is at least one other interpretation that most of the above possibilities will bear. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem can be read as a description of a commotion caused by one who has foundered into the sedge grass. Swan, too, might mean something different. An old Scandanavian idiom "it swans me" means the speaker has been struck with inspiration. And valkyries, swan-maids, are also known for carrying inspiration and learning from the realms of the gods to chosen mortals. And the word sanctuary does not just imply protection. It also implies a place where the gods can be reached, through prayer or sacrifice. So it would not really be stretching interpretation too much to render this rune as communication, especially with the realms beyond Midgard.
The best way for the athling to approach this rune might be a combination of these views. The mystery is primarily one of protection, but it comes with an implication of communication (especially with the worlds of the gods). A person warned of the approach of an enemy by rustling grass is protected from that enemy. The protection the valkyries provide is often a timely warning, or instruction in battle-magics, or some other form of information. The sanctuary is a place of safety and communion with the gods. The athling who can defend himself, especially via awareness, is unassailable, able to continue along the road of mysteries at will.
Sun is by seamen / always hoped for / when they fare far away / over the fishes' bath / until the brine-stallion / they bring to land. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Sun is the light of lands / I bow to the holiness. - Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme
Sun is the shield of the clouds / and a shining glow / and the life-lond sorrow of ice. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
This rune is the rune of the sun's rays. A guide, a hope, a protector, banisher of the night, destroyer of ice, sig is the active power of the sun. The vikings may also have seen the sun's rays and the lightning bolt as being the same phenomenon (and a bolt of lightning certainly is suggested by the stave shape). In this case this rune also represents Mjollnir, Thor's hammer, the lightning bolt, destroyer of the enemies of gods and men. In any case this is a rune of victory for the forces of weal. The triumph of day over night, of summer over winter, of Thor over the jotuns. As the athling strives towards victory, he or she should know how to obtain it. The nature of the sig rune must be cultivated within the athling. A spiritual quality akin to the sun's spirit must be nurtured, that the athling become able to resist the dark and the cold when immersed within them.
Tyr is a star, / it keeps faith well / with athlings, / always on its course / over the mists of night / it never fails. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Tyr is the one-handed among the Aesir / the smith has to blow often. - Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme
Tyr is the one-handed god / and the leavings of the wolf / and the ruler of the temple. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Tyr was originally held highest among the gods, the original sky-father, supplanted in this position by Odin at a later date. He is a warrior god, and though often equated with the Greek Ares, has much more in common with Athena. He is a god of martial skill, moral rectitude, honor, law, social order, bravery, and absolute justice. As shown in the story of how he lost his hand, he is a god who values the letter of one's word as the heart of honor (as opposed to the more Odinic view of the spirit of one's word as central to honor).
The mystery of this rune is the mystery of Tyr. The advantages of Tyr's approach to life are many. His unyielding, inflexible nature gives him great power and skill in battle. It gives him high standing in society, honor, and renown. It enables him to effect the binding of the Fenris wolf, and so save the worlds of gods and men from certain destruction. There are disdvantages to this approach as well, though. As mentioned in the section on wunjo, that which cannot bend can be broken. Great, unswerving focus can bring great strength, but it can bring many missed opportunities. To see only the road ahead is to not see those to the side. How the athling relates to, what the athling learns from the mysteries of Tyr is a matter of individual decision. But it is a decision the athling must face, for in making it the athling gains greater control over his own effectiveness in the world.
Birch is without fruit / but just the same it bears / limbs without fertile seed / it has beautiful branches / high on its crown / it is finely covered / loaded with leaves / touching the sky. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Birch twig is the limb greenest with leaves / Loki brought the luck of deceit. - Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme
Birch twig is a leafy limb / and a little tree / and a youthful wood. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
This is the mystery of the birch. There are several important things to realize about the Teutonic beliefs about the birch when considering the nature of this mystery.
Firstly, the birch is a highly sacred tree. A birch goddess has always played an important part in the religion of our paleopagan ancestors, from the Nerthus of the Germanic tribes, described by Tacitus, to the later Bertha or Perchta, and possibly including Freya (Nerthus' daughter). Nerthus brought fertility to the land during her twice yearly processionals. A ritual followed these processionals where the cart used to carry her was cleansed and then those who cleansed it strangled or drowned in a grove of birches. Perchta led processionals of devotees possessed by the dead, and other variations of the birch goddess such as Huldra and Bertha led the Wild Hunt. Other legends speak of woodwives or "huldrafolk" as being the quarry of the Wild Hunt led by Odin. The birch goddess brings both life and death to the land as a part of the natural processes of the year. Birth and death, becoming and passing away. Fertility and harvest. In a related vein the birch goddess is also known for giving out gifts and rewards during the Yule season, especially to children and women who have fulfilled their household duties.
Secondly, in a related manner, the ancient Norse viewed the budding of the first leaves on the birch as the signal to begin the year's planting.
Thirdly, there are many ancient rituals involving scourging with birch sticks. Cattle were sometimes hit with them to make them fertile. Young men and women were also hit with them on Walpurgis in some places for the same reason. And Odin often left birch twigs at the homes of naughty children at Yule to punish them with.
The mystery of the birch is the mystery of the numinous force, the "life energy" of the world, which gives health, well being, and luck. The athling must cultivate it, seek the blessings of the birch. This rune says to the athling: "be aware, plant your seed when the signs are right, rewards will follow". But this rune also says to the athling "harvest when the time comes". This is the mystery of new beginnings, that come from something else's ending. The athling must let go of anything and everything (even himself, as those who die in Nerthus' grove do) in order to make way for the new. This mystery counsels the athling to become like a leaf in the autumn, able to all at once let go of its hold on the tree and fall. Then in the spring the athling can become the new leaf; fresh, and young, and full of vitality, ready to continue the road of mysteries.
Horse is, in front of the jarls / the joy of athlings, / a charger proud on its hooves: / when concerning it, heroes - / wealthy men - on warhorses / exchange speech / and it is always a comfort / to the restless. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
This is the mystery of the Horse, a powerful runner, a faithful companion to Man, a help in all endeavors from travel, to farming, to war, to sport. A part of the nature of this mystery is that of trust and loyalty such as that a rider has for his horse, as well as that a horse has for his rider. (Any good horseman knows that this is the only way to effectively guide a horse; only fools with no skill for horse handling use whips or spurs.) Ehwaz is the bringing of power under the guidance of wisdom. This is important to the athling in three ways. Firstly, it is his own power that he must learn to guide; the internal wild, raw, free power that lies within. Secondly, it is the relationship with the fylgja that this rune says to cultivate (for the relationship between hero and fylgja can be seen as an analogy for that between horse and rider). It is with a trusting, loyal relationship with that being that the athling is carried, like on a horse, to victory, success, and power. Thirdly this rune advises that the athling must be sure to bring the power of the external tools he uses under his guidance, to not leave them to chance, or to others. In this way he or she might have the power he or she needs at the ready, when he or she needs it.
Man is in his mirth / dear to his kinsmen / although each shall / depart from the other / for the lord wants to commit / by his decree / that frail flesh / to the earth. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
This rune means "man". In one sense this is a rune of fellowship, as implied by the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon rune. It is also a rune of mortality, as implied by the same poem. In this sense this rune tells the athling something of how to deal with his own mortality, to "seize the day" in mirth and fellowship, before his frail flesh is commited to the earth. "Gather the rosebuds while ye may." This is an important lesson for the athling.
But it is not the only lesson of this rune. There was a god Mannus of the German tribes, the progenitor of the three races of man (jarl, carl, and thrall or noble, free-man, and slave). The Norse legends had this progenitor as Heimdall, under the name of Rig. As the divine progenitor of man and as the warder of Bifrost, the bridge between the realms of men and the realms of the gods, Heimdall is the link between the human and the divine. Thus this is also the rune of transcendance, of reaching beyond the human to the divine. There are many ways this can be done. Prayer, of course, and divination are both ways to touch the realms of the gods. Joining the Wild Hunt at Yule, or processing with the Perchten (the dancers in Perchta's train) is another. The berserkergang is a third. Others will make themselves clear to the athling with research.
Ocean is to people / seemingly unending / if they should venture out / on an unsteady ship / and the sea-waves / frighten them very much / and the brine-stallion / does not heed its bridle. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Water is that which falls from the mountain; as a force; / but gold objects are costly things. - Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme
Wetness is churning water, / and a wide kettle / and the land of fish. - Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Laguz is water, the ocean, that which flows. There are two faces to this mystery. One is as the provider of fish, as described in the Icelandic rune poem, the road to other lands where plunder might be obtained by the viking, the road to new homes for the settler. In this aspect laguz represents the road to plenty. The other face is a danger, a wrecker of ships, a drowner of men, the endless abyss. Laguz is the road of adventure, ever-changing, full of danger and treasure. It leads to new opportunities both bright and dark. The athling is thus advised to become a sailor, as it were, someone who knows how to travel upon this road, someone who can make the brine-stallion heed its bridle. To put it simply, to venture into the abyss the athling must learn to swim.
Ing among the East-Danes was first / beheld by men, until that later time when to the east / he made his departure over the waves, followed by his chariot / that was the name those stern warriors gave the hero. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Ing was the name of an ancient hero considered to have fathered several royal houses. It is quite possible that Ing is the name of the god known as Frey, which is actually a title meaning "lord". (Stories of Ing's reign show him at least as a Frey-like figure, known for plenty, peace, etc.) It is also quite possible Ing is the mortal consort of Nerthus described by Tacitus, who rides with the goddess during her procession, bringing peace and plenty to the land, who then travels over the water to the goddess' sacred island, where he is killed. This is certainly suggested by the Anglo-Saxon rune poem. Lastly, -ing was also used as a suffix to a male name, and denoted "son of".
It seems likely that this is a rune of male fertility, a counterpart to the feminine fertility of berkana. The mystery of this rune can be likened to the male orgasm: power that is built up over time by entrance into the feminine and suddenly released all at once, when "death" follows. This is certainly like the story of Nerthus' consort, who enters the goddess' chariot, brings increasing fertility as they travel, and is suddenly slain in a ritual act that ensures that fertility remains in the land for the year. This build-up and release of power and the acceptance of the death and waiting for next year's rebirth that follows, is an important lesson for the athling. This mystery shows the athling how to focus his (or her) power all into a moment, so that its power and focus, its effectiveness is greatly increased. But afterwards the athling must "depart over the waves" for a time.
Day is the lord's messenger / dear to men / the ruler's famous light: / mirth and hope to the rich and poor / useful for all. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Dagaz is the mystery of day. However this is not the same concept of day as meant in modern english. Twenty-four hour periods were counted by nights by the old Norse (where the term fortnight, meaning two weeks, comes from). To them a day would mean the period from sundown to sunup as well as the period from sunup to sundown. Thus day has the implication of transition from the one to the other. Indeed this can be seen more clearly in that the Old Norse name of this rune, Dagr, means also twilight (either the am or pm twilight).
The mystery of dagaz is that of the twilight, the union of day and night, the change of a thing into its polar opposite. Dagaz is the resolution of paradox, the point of view that contains both perceived opposites. This mystery shows that there is nothing that cannot be understood, if one only stands at the right point of view. It implies a continuation of the process begun with kensaz and perthro (revelation of hidden things, revelation of orlog). Dagaz is the revelation of hidden unity. It is a gestaltic understanding, the kind sought by Odin on the tree. In fact, the Odinic model is one of the best models for seeking the understanding given by dagaz.
Estate is very dear / to every man / if he can enjoy what is right / and according to custom / in his dwelling / most often in prosperity. - Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
This rune can be rendered "home", "estate", or "inheritance". It is that which is passed down through time, along right and proper channels of inheritance. It is orlog's reward. The mystery of this rune is the inheritance of the whole runic system. If the athling heeds the mysteries, follows the three roads as they should be, then his reward is odal, the spiritual inheritance of the mysteries, and the power that comes with it. At the end of the journey the athling comes home.
There is much information to be gained by looking at the runes two at a time. The first thing one notices is that the runes are arranged in such a way that every two, starting with the first rune, form a pair of closely related concepts.
Feh and Ur
Feh is the tame cattle, or possessed power. Ur is the untamable aurochs, a form of wild cattle, or raw wild power. Feh and ur, the possesed and the possesor. Increase of feh is an increase of the amount of and control over one's personal power. An overload of feh, too much of an increase to be managed, leads to ur, wild untamed power. From one point of view this is a bad thing, for it can lead to a loss or destruction of all one's personal power. From another point of view it could be a good thing, if one can channel this wild power as discussed in the section on ur. In other words, an overabundance of feh can lead to a tapping into of ur. Another thing this pairing has to say is that the right stewardship of one's cattle can sometimes require the force of ur, in protection.
Thorn and Ansuz
Thorn is the thurse, a force of destruction and chaos. The counterbalance to this is the next rune, ansuz, a force of creation, the godly opponent of the thurse. The instruction this pairing gives is as simple as it is obvious, that interaction with the one requires the assistance of the other, as the gods and the thurses themselves are interdependant.
Raidho and Kensaz
This pairing says that revelation is found in travelling, or in a wide range of experience and hardship. Likewise it says that the journey itself requires knowledge, the light of the torch at times.
Gebo and Wunjo
Right sacrifice involves the removal of what is unnecessary. The loss of the unnecessary results in joy and harmony. And it is also shown by this pairing that it is joy that provides the fuel, the will to sacrifice (for no one would deliberately lose without a gain of some kind to compensate).
Hagl and Nyd
Hardship requires will to endure. This part of this pairing is obvious. But remember that the hail of Hagl contains the water that can nourish the crops. This is a good metaphor for the remainder of the mystery of this pairing, for it shows us that the fire of the will is found in the very hardship that gives rise to the need.
Isa and Jera
The winter half of the year and the summer half, fallow and fertile times. The rune jera marks out the cycle of growing, but the two of these together mark out the larger cycle or dormancy and vitality. Their pairing also relates another pair of matched concepts: the static and unchanging, and the moving and everchanging. The way to break free from binding ice, this pair counsels, is to plant seed and wait for it to grow, and harvest in time.
Eihwaz and Perthro
Both of these runes are intimately connected with the runes as a whole, as a system. Eihwaz speaks of the way the system itself was revealed, to Odin, on the world tree. Perthro speaks of the way the system of runes reveals orlog, by divination. Together these concepts form the basis of the Odinic way of knowing.
Algiz and Sig
Protection and victory. The second cannot be had without the first. Algiz will lead inevitably to Sig, as the counsel of the valkyries brings victory.
Tyr and Berkana
Warlike nature and healing nature. Right, natural action socially and right, natural action in the world of nature. As Tyr is a war rune and a rune of the legal system, Berkana is seen as a complement also in its meanings of "numen" and "luck" for victory at neither war nor law can be had without these things.
Ehwaz and Mannaz
Horse and man. Power under the guidance of the intellect, itself exalted into something more by bridging into the realm of the gods. There is no better expression that I could think of on my own for as near a state of perfection as is possible in the mortal realm. The mysteries of these two runes together describes its obtaining.
Laguz and Ing
Water and Nerthus's consort, who went over the water at the end to his death. This pair describes the focusing of power, and the consequenses of that focusing. It describes also the method for crossing the abyss of laguz, which is that same dynamic fertility and focused energy of Ing, together with the acceptance of consequences this rune denotes.
Dagaz and Odal
Both these runes describe the passing of something over into something else. Dagaz describes the passage of night into day (or vice versa) and Odal describes the passage of property from one set of hands to the inheriting set. The pairing implies that the heritage of Odal can be truly gained only by a whole, or gestalt, understanding of the whole system of the runic muysteries.
The runes are traditionally presented in three rows of eight (aett means both eight and row). Each of these rows represents one of the paths to knowledge that the athling must follow. Experience of the first road leads to the second road. Completion of this road leads to the third road.
The first aett is named for Freya, after the sound of the first rune, f. This is the road of knowledge and power. Feh is the mastery of personal power and knowledge of its control, or right stewardship. This leads the athling to knowledge of and mastery over the power of the aurochs, in ur, and self-knowledge that results from the welling up of this rune within the athling. This raw power leads easily enough, via the path of unbalance, to the chaos and destruction of the thurse, which is the blind unknowing power of destruction. This necessitates the aid of ansuz, the powers (or Powers) of knowledge and creation that are the Aesir and especially Odin. Contact with the Odinic nature stimulates, either through a sympathetic upwelling of that nature from within or by example, that nature in the athling. This necessitates travel, journeying, learning and experiencing the world, as Odin is the greatest of travellers. This is the rune Raidho, which is journey, an expenditure of power angainst the indifferent or hostile powers of the external world in search of knowledge, kensaz. The revelation the torch brings teaches the necessity of sacrifice, the casting away of one's own power in one form or another. And this leads to Wunjo, which is a whole new form of knowledge and power; the knowledge of joy, the power of a feather falling through the air. The first road indicates the quest of the athling for knowledge and power, from mastery of its external and internal forms, to contact with and changing by the divine forces and the knowledge and power they have to offer, to the quest on the road and the true revelation it gives, to the casting aside at last of the power the athling has so struggled for, only to gain even more in return.
This aett, too, is named for the first rune sound. It is possible there once was a god named Hagl, or something similar, but if this is so, all knowledge of him is lost. This is the road of the revelation of orlog, of what has gone before. It is a deeper seeking of knowledge (and the power knowledge brings) than that gained by the first row. Indeed, each rune of the second row can be seen to contain in itself all the runes of the first, in different combinations of importance and order. The first rune of this road reflects the lessons that ur, thorn, raidho, and gebo all gave in combination: hardship. The second rune of this row reflects in a way the lessons of feh, ansuz, kensaz, and wunjo. This initial pair is the revelation of the orlog of the first road. It is by hardship that the athling finds the will to rise to meet his circumstances, and to gain the rewards therefrom. Additionally hagl is the revelation of the orlog of the weather (or of course of any large system beyond the scope or control of the athling, where harm is to be found). And nyd is the revelation of the orlog of the athling himself (or herself). It is the revelation of who the athling is within, what the athling has made him- or herself. If the athling has the right knowledge and power, the right learning, the "Right Stuff", his orlog will be that of the need-fire. The next rune, isa, reveals the orlog of expenditure of effort. After the struggle of the first runes one is balanced atop the ice, still and serene or one falls beneath it, still in the sense of stilled, unable to go further. It is also a rune of the revelation of the orlog of the small, for it is attention to small details both external and internal that one maintains balance on ice. Jera is the revelation of the seed, the orlog of the crops. Here the athling learns a lesson that is both very simple to state and very difficult to really put into practice: plant the seeds that are desired. Do not plant the seeds that are not desired. When the athling has gone through the refinements of will, control, and discipline these first runes call for he is ready for the revelation of the next rune, the apprehension of the runes as a whole, the revelation of the orlog of the entirely unknown. When the athling has learned how to obtain this revelation, he is able to use the revelation of perthro, which is revelation of that which is hidden by means of the revelations of eihwaz. This contact with the worlds of the unknown readies the athling for the rune algiz, the rune of the revelation of the orlog of one's own environment, both physically and metaphysically. This leads to sig, the revelation of orlog in conflict, which was the basis for the ancient and medieval "trial by combat" wherein victory showed the will of Odin.
Named for the first rune of the row, this is the road of conflict. Each of the runes of this row can be seen as containing each of the runes of the second, in different combinations. Tyr is the mystery of the skills of conflict, both in the martial sense and the social / legal one. This leads to the rune berkana, which is the resolution of conflict. Resolving conflict leads to conflict's opposite, which is ehwaz, a partnership. As discussed above, ehwaz leads to mannaz, which can be seen as the idealized self, the whole self, linked with the gods, which is also an anti-conflict mystery. And then on the other hand, it is conflict that returns man, as stated in the rune poem, to the dust. Integration with the worlds outside and above the self leads to laguz, the road as conflict, because it is only such a whole person that can fearlessly conquer the sea. Ing is a rune that resolves conflict in many ways. Weapons or conflict of any kind were not allowed in Nerthus' ritual, nor in Frey's temple. But Ing was also a hero, a warrior, and this is also the mystery of focused power, which is a great resolver of conflict as well, but in a different way. Dagaz is the ultimate resoution of conflict, in the conceptual sense, and this road of conflict leads in the end to odal, inheritance.
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