We continue our journey through different mythologies to find all the stories about writing. This time it’s the turn of Norse mythology and the invention of runes. In the Poetic Edda, we are told that the god Odin (dedicated to wisdom and magic, among other things) hung himself on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights, not receiving any kind of food or drink. This was a kind of self-sacrifice to himself that granted him the revelation of the runes. Since then, runes were used not only as a writing system, but also in magic and divination.
Odin fan art, taken from: https://odindevoted.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/giving-blood-to-the-runes/
Another poem in the Poetic Edda tells us how the runes were transmitted to humans. Heimdall, son of Odin and god guardian of Ragnarök (Fate of the Gods), showed the runes to one of the sons he had from human women: Jarl, father of the noble class. However, another tradition recorded by Olaus Magnus in 1555, says that a man called Ketill Runske stole three staffs from Odin with runes on them and in this way he learned to read the runes and perform magic with them.
Stele with runic writing 11th cent. Upsala, Sweden.
Runes are especially interesting because of all the uses given to them. They are not only letters (i.e. signs of an alphabetic writing system), but they also have meanings by themselves, usually related to magic. For example, the rune Tiwaz can work as a call for Týr (the god of war) to grant victory in battle, the Fe rune is used for happiness and wealth, etc. This magic inherent to the runes and given by their names is one of the reasons they were perceived as magic symbols, making them important for magic rituals and divination in contemporaneous esoteric groups as well.
They were also used within the Nazi ideology, not only because of their Aryo-Germanic roots but also because of the symbolism behind them. Runes had a revival in the late 19th-early 20th centuries with the mystic and völkisch author Guido von List, who published Das Geheimnis der Runen (The Secret of the Runes). But it was mostly due to Heinrich Himmler, who was interested in runic symbolism, that these symbols made it into Schutzstaffel (SS) propaganda: the very insignia of the SS are two Sig runes and the SS-Ehrenring (SS Honour Ring or Totenkopfring “Death’s Head Ring”) had several runic signs on it.
SS propaganda with two sig runes.
But my favourite modern use of runic signs is, without doubt, their adaptation to create writing systems for fantastic populations, like Tolkien’s dwarves. He created the dwarfish writing based on the Anglo-Saxon runes and since then an aura of fantasy has been added to the ancient and mystic atmosphere that surrounds them. This might be the reason why so many authors, directors and even game designers have used them as both written and magic symbols since The Hobbit came out. And so, runes have returned to the fantastic and mythological realm in our modern days.
Map of the Lonely Mountain with dwarvish runes.
For more information about runes see:
Findell, M. (2014) Runes. London
Simek, R. (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. A. Hall. Woodbridge
Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. A. Faulkes, 1995.
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)