How runes were and weren’t used in magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 2)
In the late ’90s I started hearing about cool, new, cordlessly connected devices and all the neat things they could do. They bore a strange name that gave me pause as to how it related to their functionality. Then I saw their logo and put it all together.
Let’s start with the blue, somewhat oblong round that the glyph sits on. This is the shape that rune tiles have been given in modern systems of cleromancy—there’s no evidence I know of for the shape being used during the Viking Age (793–1066). Little is known historically of this system of divination, except that “slips” or “chips” of wood were used. Tacitus describes it thus:¹
Augury and divination by lot no people practice more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them.
The “cutting into small pieces” of “little boughs” seems to have been loosely interpreted at some point as slices, perhaps cut at a slight angle and so yielding the type of shape you see in the Bluetooth logo. Indeed, runosophy—the use of Norse runes in esotericism—was the main vehicle for their appropriation beginning around the turn of the last century into Germanic romantic nationalism, Nazi occultism, and eventually modern neopaganism. Without any particular historical evidence for the practice, a set of interpretations of the runes was created by Austrian occultist Guido von List in his 1906 work Das Geheimnis der Runen (The Secret of the Runes), and experts would “cast the runes”, reading them in a way similar to tarot cards.In order to better do so, small, slightly oblong tiles typically with rounded corners and made of wood or fired clay were made each bearing one of the runes. You can still buy a set of these from many new age vendors. This ahistorical mumbo-jumbo is where the shape used in the Bluetooth logo originates—a major points reduction.
Next, this angular glyph without horizontal strokes clearly fits the description that I gave of runes in Part 1. Again, as per the Italic origin of the runes I recounted there, the symbol bears a strong resemblance to the Latin majuscule ⟨B⟩. However, if you look through the various runic alphabets, you will not find this among their letters. So what is it? Maybe it is a Younger Futhark bjarkan (⟨b⟩), with the angled lines that form the “loops” and meet in the middle of that letter simply continuing beyond the staff. ⟨B⟩ for Bluetooth—makes sense, right?
This is actually a figure known as a bindrune. Simply put, a bindrune is a ligature of two or more runes, in this case the runes corresponding to ⟨h⟩ and ⟨b⟩. So ⟨b⟩ is for “bluetooth”—but why ⟨h⟩? Well, the bindrune actually represents the initials of Haraldr Blátǫnn Gormsson (c. 958–c. 986). Ericsson seems to have named it after him, trying to hearken back to their Viking roots as well as referring to the king’s accomplishment of uniting the tribes, just as they aimed to unite communication protocols. Bluetooth is an Anglicization of Blátǫnn, though I’ll note that Old Norse (ON) blár actually refers to a range of dark colors, including blue, blue-black, and black. Bluetooth sounds cool, however, while Blacktooth would have suggested tooth decay which is actually the likely source of Haraldr’s heiti or byname.
Many say that monograms like this one for Haraldr Blátǫnn, magical formulae, and even secret messages are encoded in bindrunes, but as with most matters Norse, it’s important to understand what is fantasy and what is fact, even if fantasy is your interest.
In fact, among Younger Futhark inscriptions, there are not many examples of bindrunes. Of those that have been discovered and analyzed, most seem to bear no particular significance. But as I mentioned in earlier there is clear evidence that runes were thought of as magical, to such an extent that Icelandic preserves “magical symbol” as a meaning of the word, and in Faroese, it simply means “magic”. Even in ON the word also means “secret”. There are other tantalizing clues in the lexicon:²
- Aldrrún: “life-rune”: a charm for preserving life
- Bjargrún: “birth-rune”
- Bokrún: rune carved on beechwood
- Brimrún: “sea-quelling-rune”
- Gamanrún: “gladness rune”; gaman is also “fun, amusement”; the first part cognate with English game
- Hugrún: “thought-rune” makes you smart
- Limrún: “branch-rune” charm of healing
- Málrún: “speaking-rune” spell to improve one’s tact
- Manrún: “love-rune”
- Meginrún: “mighty rune”
- Ǫlrún: “ale-rune”
- Sakrún: “strife-rune”
- Sigrún: “victory-rune”
- Valrún: “Welsh-rune”, riddle, obscure language
The Sigrdrífumál section of the Poetic Edda contains one of the lengthiest descriptions of the various kinds of magical runes, and in fact many of the above words are hapax legomena therein. Unfortunately the text remains fairly general, simply describing what each type of runic magic is for, with few exceptions. Even among these exceptions, it typically says where the runes are to be drawn, rather than specifically what or how. We learn that bjargrúnar go on the palms and “spanning the joints”; brimrúnar go on a ship’s stem, its steering blade, and its oars; limrúnar are cut into bark and the branches of trees whose limbs bend to the east.
Indeed, the verse features a crescendo of places to write runes that includes: a shield, Arvakr’s ear, Alsvinn’s hoof, a chariot wheel, Sleipnir’s teeth, the straps of a sleigh, a bear’s paws, Bragi’s tongue, a wolf’s claws, an eagle’s beak, bloodied wings, the bridge’s end, freeing hands, merciful footprints, glass, gold, amulets in wine and wort, the welcome seat, Gúngnir’s point, Grani’s breast, the Norns’ nail, and the owl’s nose-bone. It’s hard to understand the relative scarcity of runic inscriptions given this extensive catalogue.
One that finally gets a bit more specific is about the ǫlrúnar which guard against another man’s wife betraying one’s confidences, which, honestly seems like an overly specific set of conditions to have a whole type of rune-magic devoted to. It also sounds like pretty shady business, and I can’t help but feel like a guy who needs this charm deserves what’s coming to him. But the passage is interesting because of how specific it gets:
[…] á horni skal þær rísta
ok á handar baki
ok merkja á nagli nauð.
It says that the ale-runes must be
[…] cut on the (drinking) horn
the backs of the hands
and nauð marked on the nails.
The charm sounds fairly absurd: while a rune-carved drinking horn might be common enough, the guy whose hands are bleeding from where he’s freshly gouged runes into them, and nauð—the ⟨n⟩ rune—scrawled on every nail just might have something to hide. Unless, I suppose, that was the height of fashion and all the cool Viking kids were doing it—actually it does sound pretty Goth. But we do learn that a normal runic letter ⟨n⟩ was used for part of this charm.
The verse continues:
Full skal signa
ok við fári sjá
ok verpa lauki í lǫg;[…]
Meaning that into the cupful both “… laukr and lǫgr should be thrown…” to complete the charm against such “poisoned mead”. Taken literally, these words mean “leeks” and “water”, respectively, so some have taken “water” to mean the drink, and “leeks” to be an herbal remedy to accompany the runic charm. I completely disagree with this interpretation—none of the other passages mention components other than runes, and this pair of words are also both names for the ⟨l⟩ rune. This, together with the command to write runes “on amulets in wine and wort [i.e., beer]” among the places to write runes seems to make it pretty clear that this was a runic charm added to a drink. Some similar elements appear in Egil’s Saga, where it is related that he cuts his hand, carves runes into a drinking horn, and then “colors the runes” with his blood. The horn, since it contains poison, explodes.
There is yet another passage that seems to point in this same direction:³
If you want to triumph,
And cut them on the sword’s hilt;
Some on the fuller,
Some on the valbǫst,
And twice name Týr.
Now Týr is both one of the Æsir as well as the name of the rune corresponding to ⟨t⟩. Some have interpreted the verb nefna (which I gave its literal meaning, “name”, above) in the last line as “call upon” or “say”, but again, the verse seems to very specifically deal with runic charms and writing, rather than prayer. Further, skaldic writing tends to want to vary words and not repeat them too often, so verbs that clearly refer to the writing of runes used in the Sigrdrífumál are “cut”, “mark”, and “burn”. In fact, the most commonly used one, rista (cut) is never used more than once in any given verse, and it appears near the beginning of the above passage, so I think I’m on safe ground saying that nefna also refers here to writing ⟨t⟩ runes.
So, having gotten past the confirmation bias, we come to the fact that repeated týrs are in fact found in historical inscriptions. In fact, multiples of runes appear to be a commonly used magical formula. For example, the Lindholm Amulet bears a runic text reading:
ek erilaz sa [w]ïlagaz haiteka:
The first part is a declaration by the rune master: “I am Erilaz, I am called the crafty”. It is interesting in that it strongly associates the carver with Óðinn, the discoverer of the runes: This form of emphatic self designation is similar to those the god often uses in the Grímnismál, and the heiti, “crafty”, is also one associated with Óðinn. Thus it is clear that the runemaster is calling upon, or more likely, embodying this patron god of runes for the creation of this amulet.
The second part is a magical formula. It ends with alu, which I’ve already noted is a marker for such formulae (alu also means “ale”, and mead and ale are often associated with magic). The repeated letters are also common in inscriptions as well as written descriptions. The string of óss (⟨a⟩) runes used in this one is fairly common and may stand for the naming of a certain group of gods, as “god” is the literal meaning of the rune.⁴ In fact there appear to be a set of sacred numbers used in the repetition of runes: three, eight, nine, and 13. The runes that are known to be so used are þurs (⟨þ⟩), óss, nauð, and týr. In fact, just prior to the alu, we see the týr rune repeated three times.
We also find these ⟨t⟩ runes, which instead of being repeated as in the above example, are stacked, thus creating a bindrune. These are found with either three (Sjælland bracteate 2) or eight (Kylver Stone) stacked runes and resembling an evergreen tree (and one imagines that there might also have been bindrunes of nine and 13):⁵
Returning now to the laukr/ lǫgr-runes in the ǫlrúnar, I have already hypothesized that this is a glyph, which is to be written on something and then added to a full cup of drink. Extrapolating from the sigrúnar, we can interpret the use of two names of the ⟨l⟩ rune as describing a stacked bindrune in a figure such as:
And so this type of repeated and/ or stacked rune seems most likely to have been used in charms, while the other examples that are attested likely represent either scribal flourishes or even attempts to correct the error of omitting a letter—certainly an option preferable to throwing the whole works away and starting again. So while the bindrune used in the Bluetooth logo is cool, it’s unlikely that monograms such as this were used historically.
So until next time (ahistorically),
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, c. 98 AD, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Lisa Cerrato trans., 1942.
- The last entry cannot help but recall Rotwelsch, which I mentioned here.
- I’ve seen valbǫst translated variously, but is most reliably described as a decorative metal plate on the hilt of a sword.
- The Lindholm Amulet inscription is in Proto-Norse/ Elder Futhark, but I’ve used the Old Norse/ Younger Futhark rune names here for the sake of clarity.
- My image here is based on Sjælland bracteate 2.