You can watch the video about this subject in here: [The Runestaves]
To establish a context, I’ll start with the history behind the rune staves, but let’s not go that far back in time. To better understand the rune staves, we must understand the historical background of Iceland during the Middle-Ages, for that is the historical line I draw here because it was a time of great changes in the Scandinavian pagan mind.
Iceland was first settled in the latter decades of the 9th century, mainly by Norwegians and their Celtic thralls (slaves). These Norwegians came to this unpopulated island to seek political and religious freedom, running away from a monarch who was “hunting down” pagans – King Haraldr hárfagra (fair-hair). This king was still a pagan, but under the political influence of Christian Europe he set about to conquer Norway and bring it under a Christian-style monarchy. The new Icelanders set up a social order deeply rooted in their native heritage, so the land was ruled by local priest-chieftains, goðar (sing. goði). The Icelanders practiced the religion brought with them – their polytheistic Germanic heathenism – which is a religion that allows as much individual freedom as possible. Of course there were a number of Christians among the Celtic thralls brought to Iceland, and even some of their masters converted to the faith. The Icelanders originally tolerated such religious differences, but eventually Christianity was accepted as the official religion of Iceland due to a variety of social, economic and religious pressures of the Iceland’s foreign contacts who had all become Christians. The acceptance of Christianity by Icelanders was highly formalistic, so the old practices were maintained, in private, even though certain aspects were forbidden, in public.
The individual freedom of their native faith allowed Icelanders to compose works about certain aspects of their spirituality. In terms of magic, manuals were scarce in the beginning but there was still a lot of oral tradition and practices which survived within the families, and of course the Sagas and the poems. The written records we have of such magical practices were written during Iceland’s Catholic period; the social and religious realities were very much different, great changes had occurred, and obviously the mixture between paganism and Christianity greatly influenced the people who composed these works. Hard to say how far the reliability of such accounts go, but in terms of magic, and cultural aspects in general, the Catholic period in Iceland wasn’t that radical. Luckily, one of the traditional areas of Germanic magic survived in some parts of Scandinavia as late as the 19th century, and this area is “rune-magic”.
In pagan times the runic sorcerers/magicians, were well known and honoured members of the society. Traditionally these people were members of a social order interested in intellectual and/or spiritual pursuits. Now, the general technique of rune magic during pagan times consisted of 3 steps: 1) Carving the symbols in an object; 2) Colouring them with blood or dye; 3) Speaking a vocal formula over the staves to imbue them, load them, with magical power. We have several examples of this technique in Old Icelandic literature, this kind of magical work can be read in “För Skírnis” or “Skírnismál”, a poem in the Poetic Edda; we have an example there of a curse, for instance. Or in the Egil’s Saga, in order to detect poison in his drinking horn, Egill drew out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand, he rubbed the blood in the horn which was carved with runes and changed an incantation. So the runes are symbols of power, but in order to awaken that power, one must give part of him – blood – life itself and probably all the ancestral history printed in the blood, all the knowledge of the ancestors, and also an incantation, giving breath to it, the breath of life, a sort of spiritual part of yourself and the
uniqueness of your voice. Remember that Galdr is exactly that, the power of the voice, and in Norse mythology that was the gift Odin gave to mankind – the breath of life – and through sound powers are awaken, be that the power of suggestion, persuasion or invoking/summoning, hidden forces.
Of course during the Catholic period elements of the ancient native heritage and the new foreign religion were being syncretized. The pagan elements in magical tradition would naturally be diminished over time. Nevertheless, the old techniques must have continued in a way for many generations. Many features of the pagan tradition were kept alive for a long time, but then we start to see this magic changing when demonic entities and orthodox figures appear in spells. Of course there came a period in Iceland when magic was absolutely forbidden and written materials were destroyed, but a few books survived, remarkably, and it’s from those written sources we know about magical work in ancient Scandinavia.
Now, putting this historical introduction aside and let’s move on to the rune staves. We have all heard about magical symbols, objects, talismans at least once in the context of magic and ancient religious practices, such a subject is often heard, so now let’s try to understand the runes as talismans, or placed in objects that might help in any kind of magical work.
In the Norse/Germanic traditional paganism, runic talismans for magical work are often constructed in the form of staves, which surprisingly, (or maybe not that surprising) this kind of work is also very similar with the magical practices using Ogham – the Celtic alphabet. The runes for spellcasting, or runestaves for magical work, usually are handled in series of three or more according with their influences. Most staves consist in either three of five runes, because it is easier to manage, anything longer than this can be very confusing, not just to the person who is using the runestaves, but also for the powers a person is working with. Things are normally kept as simple as possible. Before someone chooses the runes, they must know if the talisman they are about to create is a permanent charm or if it is intended to have a finite effect. This is something that people had to ponder deeply before creating such a talisman, because the purpose of these talismans are to create an event or to attract something to the person or to any one that owns the talisman, after the event occurs, the spell is done and the talisman has no further purpose, and as such, the talisman must be removed from this world, burnt or destroyed in any way, according to the Norse traditional magical practices. So this is why the majority of the runestaves were created in either parchment or wood, to easily destroy them.
It’s interesting to see that those who had such practices had a very conscious view about the subject itself. In the sources and also what comes from oral tradition and folk accounts, people couldn’t expect, sitting at home, for the effects of the magic they performed to happen simply because there was magic at work. There was an understanding that things don’t magically happen, so there was this idea that the runestaves, and even bindrunes or any other kind of magical work, helped to create or attract an event in someone’s life, and everything in this world to be attracted to something must be near it or have any kind of contact with it, like a magnet attracts iron, so if people created a talisman to find a job, for example, they needed to go out
there, search for a job, to take physical action, and the talisman will help its owner, it will help in attracting that event into that person’s life.
One tricky aspect about runestaves is that when someone creates them, they have to make sense, the sense that expresses the intention regardless of the direction the runes are read – left to right or backwards.
So, as you can see, in the old northern European societies, it was common to use runic symbols and combinations of runes for different magical purposes. Most of the symbols and spells used in the incantations of the bidding of runes, appear to have been for the use of simple daily problems in the life of the common folk, at least that’s what was left not only in written sources but also archaeological evidences. For instance, we have many examples of talismans and runestaves for catching a thief or to overthrow an enemy. Surprisingly, the ones to catch thieves were very common and abundant, which might indicate a connection to the economical background of ancient Scandinavia, when people’s wealth was measured in the quantity of cattle, and stealing cattle was fairly easy so there was probably a lot of thievery in these aspects. Anyway, other runestaves helped heal livestock, whilst others look at cursing the animals of another (again, the importance of cattle and the measurement of wealth). It was also common to create charms to help preserve food and ale, staves to bless the bearer with strength or courage, or symbols to help with fishing or prevent death by drowning. The bidding of runes, charms, staves and so on, were also commonly created to protect a person while in battle, to enhance the durability of a shield, the deadly strike of a weapon or the flexibility of a bow.
However, the people in the 17th century in Iceland faced more difficulties in agriculture, herding and hunting and fishing, rather than the troubles of war. With long dark winters, little arable lands for crops, and icy seas, life was unforgiving. Luck seemed to have an important role in that society, and the inhabitants would do what they could to influence their fortunes themselves. In times of famine, neighbours would be tempted to steal from each other, and disputes would often end in violence of course. Reputation and the ability to intimidate seems to have been an important factor in survival, and many staves were created to allow the bearer to do this or cast back negativity upon their perceived attacker. So this was the time when a lot of runestaves, talismans, magical symbols, were created for these specific troubles of this era – the 17th century.
The 17th century in Iceland was marked by an event, when Denmark established a trade monopoly over Iceland so that the island could no longer trade freely with whomever it pleased. This resulted in a time of economic hardship (1602). This was also an age when Christianity had great influence in the European societies. Witchcraft was still used by some but in secrecy, as folk remedies for instance. This was not like in the beginning when Norwegians settled in Iceland and there was a certain religious freedom; now things were different in terms of witchcraft, it was much more restricted, illegal even. The staves appeared to have been drawn by using the Norse runes and later mediaeval and renaissance occult symbols. They were at least influenced by later charms used on mainland Europe, as we have seen already, the period when paganism
and Christianity were being syncretized. But during the 17th century in Iceland, it was a time when the Christian faith and the old Scandinavian faith was much more mixed together to create almost a new magical tradition, when compared to the early traditions. Icelandic society never forgot their past, their traditions, fortunately, so some charms that accompany certain staves mention the Old Norse gods such as Odin and Thor, whilst others mention Solomon, Jesus and Mary and other Judeo-Gnostic formulas. The system seems to be an interesting blend of old and new magical beliefs. During the periods of transition between religions, Odin was still appealed to or mentioned, but his role had shifted from being the All-father figure to that of a sorcerer. The Christian God had taken the place of the Father of men on earth, so the old gods started to be used for magical purposes, and Odin lost the connection with death, war and creation, and started to be the god associated with wisdom and witchcraft.
Folk magic went underground and its practices became hidden. Some records that still exist of the staves, and their uses and other magical practices by the Icelanders, were made by the courts during the trials of witches. Ironically, it is this act that has preserved some of the old customs to this day. Without being recorded, they would simply have been forgotten or would have died with their practitioners. But how well were they transcribed? It’s very likely that the true knowledge of such magic has been completely forgotten. However, after so much time in secrecy, these magical practices returned. It was only in the last century that it became safer to explore the practices of folk magic throughout Europe. Whilst still frowned upon as superstition and nonsense, the Icelandic staves have seen a surge in popularity. Many of the staves are used in art and decorative wares, whilst some people have taken to having them tattooed onto their bodies. The Icelandic staves have evolved over the centuries, and while certainly incorporating Norse runes, they cannot be considered exclusively of “Viking” culture as they are influenced by other esoteric practices from mainland Europe and beyond.