The runes evolved and were never standard
To my mind, there is an elementary misunderstanding in many (perhaps most) of the books on runes currently available, outside the specialist academic works. This is the treatment of “the runes” as if there were a fixed set of signs with some immutable core of “meaning” assigned to them, some changeless essence which can be captured and reduced to a key-word or two. Runes, being the product of human intellectual effort, have been subject to the same evolutionary processes as any other aspect of material or ideological culture: they have changed and grown, just as the societies which used them changed and grew. This fundamental fact appears to have been overlooked in a great deal of the popular literature.
Ref: Runes: Literacy in the Germanic Iron Age by Stephen Pollington 2016
The runes evolved and were never standard
The enigma of Oδinn
In order to appreciate runic origins, one must be familiar with the mythology surrounding them. It is also useful to have an understanding of Germanic Cosmology in order to see how our Teutonic ancestors regarded the origins of the runes. What would be gained from this is an improvement of the lay individual’s perception of how the Gods and Goddesses interrelated with each other as well as acquiring a good working knowledge of all the jargon used within Norse Mythology. The lay reader would therefore be able to get inside the minds of the Norsemen and the thinking behind their folklore. You see, by drawing on and interpreting the relevant source material it is just possible that there may well be some grains of truth within the myths that might give us a clue as to how the runes actually originated.
Norse myths and legends were recorded mainly in Iceland and Norway in the Middle Ages. One recorder of these stories, or Sagas, was a Christian Icelandic scholar called Snorri Sturlusson (C.E.1179-1241) who wrote both the Prose and Poetic Eddas, which retells graphically the Scandinavian myths. Snorri’s Edda consisted of eddic poems and skaldic poetry written around C.E.1220. His works are among the most important sources of knowledge about Nordic mythology. Snorri was murdered for political reasons.
Saxo Grammaticus was another recorder, from Denmark. Saxo wrote his Gesta Danorum or The Deeds of the Danes also in C.E.1220, but unlike Snorri, Saxo lacked the fervour and passion that Snorri had for the Nordic Gods and Goddesses, and presented them as human beings who, by clever deception, euhemerised themselves as divinities. Saxo furthermore disapproved strongly of the roles of the goddesses of the North, often debasing and portraying them as greedy nymphomaniacs who played a subservient role to that of the male gods. It is important to realise also that all these stories themselves may not have been committed to paper until a millennia after the event.
A particular story may survive in fragments in several different sagas. The popular belief or story of how Odin created the runes is not to be found in any one saga and even when the relevant splinters are reassembled, the picture is still incomplete. For our purposes, most of the relevant material is contained in two sagas; the Havarmal, vs.138-164 and in the Sigrdrifomal, vs.13-14. You should attempt to read and reread these until you are familiar with them. But bear in mind that this is just one translation and interpretation of sagas that were first spoken perhaps two thousand years ago.
Symbols are as old as antiquity itself and I suggest that what we understand to be runic signs long existed before the Aesir war bands had ever heard of them. It is a good possibility that Odin afterwards adapted the symbols he came across in the land of the Vanir, thus creating and further developing these ancient symbols into the runes.
The sagas tell us that this was through a process of self-sacrifice, by which he became wise. He then sought the process of inspiration, by which he became all-wise. No single saga relates Odin’s quest for us, although there is a lot of relevant material. The following narration is then, through necessity and relevance a condensed version of the more important elements in the tale of how Odin achieved the wisdom of the runes. It goes as follows:
A nomadic horseback warring tribe invaded the land of the Vanir. These tribesmen were fierce and came, according to Snorri Sturlusson, from Asia, and were consequently called the Aesir. Having realised that foreign invaders infringed their tribal lands, the Vanir, who were normally peaceable, was not about to relinquish their native lands without a fight. Thus the Vanir warred with the Aesir in defence of their sacred homelands.
However, surrounding the land of the Vanir lay the homes of the Giants, mutual enemies of both the Vanir and the Aesir. Realising that their strength lay in unity, the Vanir and the Aesir sued for peace, hostages were exchanged and each tribal member sealed the truce by spitting into a kettle. The Vanir sent to the Aesir as hostages: Niordr and his children, Frey and Freyja. In return, the Aesir sent to the Vanir; Hoenir and Mimir. Mimir, we learn, was Odin’s uncle, and something of a sorcerer. Even at this stage in his development, Odin too, was a sorcerer to reckon with. The spit from the kettle, containing the entire wisdom of the two great races was turned into a man whom the gods of the Aesir called Kvasir.
Kvasir was extremely wise. He went forth into Middle Earth, teaching mankind and paving the way for Rig, who would come after him. Kvasir’s knowledge was legendary so much so that the jealousy of two dwarves; Fiallar and Gallar, was aroused. They slew Kvasir for his blood, which they blended with honey and brewed into mead. This mead was called the Holy Mead or Mead of Inspiration (Odhroerir/Odh-ruh-rir). Any person drinking of the potion would become wise. Any wise person drinking a draught would become all wise.
However, as with most gifts, there was a price to pay. The murderous dwarf s were caught and punished, not for the death of Kvasir, but for the murder of a giant and his wife whom they had killed as well. The giant killed was called Gilling and it was his son Suttungr who punished the dwarfs. The price of the wergild (form of compensation) was the mead of inspiration that the dwarfs had deposited inside three vessels: Odhroerir (Inspiration), Son (Offering) and Boden (Expiation). Suttungr secured the mead under a mountain and set his daughter, Gunlod as a sentinel to ward over them.
Now, Oδinn had two ravens called Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) who reported to him the fate of men on Middle earth. When Odin realised the fate of Kvasir, he left his lofty seat in Asgard, called Hlithskjolf, and set off in pursuit of the holy mead. Eventually, Odin encountered nine peasant giants who were cutting hay for a farmer. The farmer, a giant called Baugi was Suttungr’s brother. Odin tricked the peasant giant farm workers into a quarrel, which concluded with the deaths of all nine.
He then applied to Baugi for their job. In payment for his work, Oδinn asked Baugi for access to Gunlod ‘ s chamber. Baugi was reluctant, but when faced with a lost harvest, he agreed. Odin succeeded in his task after which Baugi took him to the mountain. However, no opening presented itself to Oδinn and Baugi and so Oδinn produced a gimlet or awl called Rati. Odin asked Baugi to bore a hole through the rock into Gunlod ‘ s chamber. Rati, like Rig, was an alter ego for Heimdallr who was later rewarded by Odin for his help.
Once inside the mountain, Oδinn seduced Gunlod and was granted one sip of the Holy mead. Odin did not swallow the drink, however, and was able to drain the contents of all three containers.
Aided by the power of flight, Oδinn escaped from the mountain back to Asgard but was hotly pursued by Suttungr. The Gods, however, were expecting Oδinn’ s return and were able to destroy Suttungr with fire. Odin safely discharged the mead into three containers. Despite the truce between the Vanir and the Aesir, the Vanir became very suspicious of Mimir’s magical abilities, and promptly killed him. Mimir’s head was then returned to the Aesir where Oδinn, lamenting his loss, preserved his uncle’s remains with herbs and spells. The head thus became oracular, and Oδinn set the token up over one of the three magical wells on the world Ash tree called Yggdrasil. In other versions of the story, Oδinn turns Mimir’s skull into a vessel to store or drink the mead from.
All the versions agree, however, that some of the mead ended up in the well or in a vessel next to the well. The three vessels are now called: Heiddraupnir (light dropper) which was Mimir’s skull, head or well; Hoddrofnir (treasure opener) a horn; and Odhroerir (exciter of the heart) which was probably another horn since horns tended to be found in pairs whereas there could only be one skull. The three wells each belonged to the three Norns or Wyrd sisters.
The first sister was called Urdr (norn of the past), the second Verdandi (norn of the present) and Skuld (norn of the future). Despite the obvious similarity between the words skull and Skuld, the well of the future was where Oδinn installed Mimir’s head and the mead of inspiration. Skuld means: “I have killed and shall make recompense”, as both Kvasir and Mimir were unjustly slain. The head of Mimir was an oracular devise and as such is connected to the well of the future. When Oδinn eventually took up the Runes, we learn that they too had oracular powers. Is there a possible association with the norn of the future, Skuld?
The stage is now set for us to see how Oδinn became wise, then all wise. The Havamal tells how Oδinn hung on the World Tree around which the whole of Germanic Cosmology revolved, for nine days and nine nights. He was given neither food nor horn to drink and was wounded with a spear.
On each of the nine nights, he visited one of the nine branches or rafters of the tree. On each branch hung one of the nine worlds and in each of the nine worlds; Odin found one of the nine runes. Exhausted but wise, Oδinn returned from his ordeal and visited the well of Mimir.
At this point the Sigdrifosmol takes up the story. Oδinn stood by the well, which was close to the precipice that overlooks the Germanic netherworld, Hel. He wore a helmet on his head and held the sword Brimir in his hand. He pledged an eye to Mimir to be allowed to drink and to swallow the mead of inspiration. The general belief was his left eye but the sagas do not specify. Oδinn hid his eye in the well and took a draught of the Holy Mead. Odin now became all wise, one work led him to another, and one Rune led to another. Oδinn now had eighteen runes developed from his existing nine and there can be little coincidence that after this episode the Havamal proceeds to describe eighteen rune charms (Harvamal vs .146-163),
After his nuministic experience, Oδinn broke a branch off Yggdrasil or the tree of life and fashioned from it his famous spear shaft, Gungnir. Since Gungnir is elsewhere referred to as being an ashen spear, it is logical to conclude that the Tree of Life is an Ash tree and indeed it is called the World Ash in other sagas. This was not the first spear in the saga however. Oδinnstarts his torment by being impaled upon a spear whilst he was suspended in the tree. This spear would seem to compliment the other, one to start the ordeal and one received as token at the end.
In conclusion, consider that Oδinn had 2 spears!
Ash tree,” O.E. æsc “ash tree,” also “spear made of ash wood,” from P.Gmc. *askaz, askiz (cf. O.N. askr, O.S. ask, M.Du. esce, Ger. Esche), from PIE base *os- “ash tree” (cf. Arm. haci “ash tree,” Alb. ah “beech,” Gk. oxya “beech,” L. ornus “wild mountain ash,” ” Rus. jasen, Lith. uosis “ash”). Ash the preferred wood for spear-shafts, so O.E. æsc sometimes meant “spear” (cf. æsc-here “company armed with spears”).
Hermann Ernst Freund: Odin (1828)
Born near Bremen, Germany, Freund was trained as a smith before studying at the Art Academy in Copenhagen where he was awarded all four silver and gold medals. As an early proponent of romantic nationalism, Freund was the first Danish sculptor to work with Nordic mythology, creating 12 statuettes including Loki (1822), Odin (bronze 1827) and Thor (1829), all inspired by ancient Greek and Roman mythological works
The staff of sorcery
A fragment of an Eddic poem Hárbarδzljód (20) suggest that Oδinn got a magic staff (gambantein) from a giant named Hlébarδr. We learn from Skáldskaparmál (4) and Þórsdrápa that the god Þórr borrowed his staf from a spell working giantess, Griδr. A mythical hero of Fjölsvinssmál (26) named Svipdagr tried to obtain a staff from a witch-giantess named Sinmara (Simek 2006:285). In all three cases, the staffs seem to have a particular connection with the giants. It actually seems that they were a product of their hands. This is also clearly suggested in Fjölsvinnsmál (26), where we read that the god Loki (under the name of Lopt) made a magic staff named Lævateinn (Simek 2006:185). An iron staff or sorcery (járnstafr) held by a giant is also mentioned in Olaf’s saga Tryggvasonar (33).
In Styrbjarnar Þattr, Eiríkr receives a staff (reyrsproti) from the god Oδinn and during a battle this item transforms into a spear (Turville-Petre 1975:47) A similar event also occurs in Gautreks saga (7). This is particularly interesting since it seems that spears appear to have a strong connection with the staffs of sorcery. Lotte Motz (1996:84) has interestingly touched upon this problem in one of her books:
“Since Oδinn does not use his spar as an aggressive weapon, but as a magic instrument, since it alternates with a reed, it is possible to assume that the spear had [been] the magic staff, which is held by the sorceress. The change from reed into deadly weapon is indeed valid in Icelandic texts”.
Frazer (1911:32) mentions an interesting South-Slavic belief according to which, trees that grow on graves are considered as a fetish. He adds, that whoever breaks a twig from it hurts the soul of the dead but gains thereby a magic wand, since the soul embodied in the twig will be at his service” (Frazer 1911:33) This provides yet another piece of evidence that in many cultures items such as staff of sorcery could indeed be perceived as actual persons or parts of persons.
Miclar manvélar ec hafδa viδ myrcriδor,
Þá er ec velta Þær frá verom
Harδan iotun ec hugδa Hlébarδ vera,
Gaf hann mér gambantein.
Enn ec vélta han ór viti,
Mighty love-spells I used on the witches
Those whom I seduced from their men;
A bold giant I think Hlebard was,
He gave me a magic staff,
And I bewitched him out of his wits
Anglo-Saxon Finglesham Buckle: Note that the figure depicting Odin has TWO spears....not one as generally believed. After his nuministic experience, Odin broke a branch off Yggdrasil and fashioned from it his famous spear shaft, Gungnir. Since Gungnir is elsewhere referred to as being an ashen spear, it is logical to conclude that the Yggdrasil is an Ashen tree and indeed it is called the World Ash in other sagas. This was not the first spear in the saga however. Odin starts his torment by being impaled upon a spear whilst he was suspended in the tree. This spear would seem to compliment the other, one to start the ordeal and one received as token at the end.
Woden and Oδinn are not the same god (or are they?)
Perhaps it remains a little short-sighted to broadly assume as many do in Anglo-Saxon heathenry reconstructions that Woden and Oδinn (and Wotan, Oðinn, Wotanaz, etc.) are the same deity, and yet they are not. I could be wrong but such contradictions tend to always lead to much confusion. Are the two gods actually the same? Quite possibly yes but with cultural and time distance differences. But the cultural distinctions between an Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Woden and a Norse interpretation of Oδinn are important and informative, because they present different faces, aspects, and influences. This edges into theoretical metaphysics and admittedly has issues with evidence, off course. Here is the crux of the matter: In approaching the differences between Woden and Oδinn, we’re forced to rely on comparative studies between Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, which understandably has pitfalls and dangers all their own. Many Heathens, even steadfast Anglo-Saxonists, have to plug holes (make stuff up) in their mythology using later cultural source material. But this is dangerous. One cannot simply plug the Old Norse Oδinn mythological knowledge with Woden’s character and expect it to work, at all. There are significant cultural, social, and environmental factors to consider in the development of Anglo-Saxon myth that do not exist within the Norse experience. it has been argued that Anglo Saxon Woden is not the same as the Oδinn of Northern Europe by as far as archaeology goes, it has to be remembered that the Oδinn of Northern Europe was brought to England by the then Oδinn followers of Old Europe.
Dr Janina Ramirez examines the Finglesham Buckle, a gilded Anglo-Saxon artefact featuring an engraving of Odin, and enthuses over its weight, appearance and craftsmanship. A clip from the BBC Four documentary 'Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons
The Eight Ceremonies
'Three roots there grow in three directions under the ash of Yggdrasill; Hel lives under one, under the second, the frost-giants, the third, humankind.' 2011 Ursula Dronke in The Poetic Edda, Vol. III “The Lay of Grimnir”
Veiztu hvé rísta skal?
Do you know how one must carve them?
Veiztu hvé ráða skal?
Do you know how one must construe them?
Veiztu hvé fá skal?
Do you know how one must tint them?
Veiztu hvé freista skal?
Do you know how one must test them?
Veiztu hvé biðja skal?
Do you know how one must supplicate?
Veiztu hvé blóta skal?
Do you know how one must sacrifice?
Veiztu hvé senda skal?
Do you know how one must send off the soul?
Veiztu hvé sóa skal?
Do you know how one must stop up the breathe?
Hávamál stz 144
Can you perform the eight ceremonies of your creed, the secret writing, the wishing prayer, the muffled silence? Does thou know runes?