Runes & Bones: Divination in Pre-Christian Scandinavia

In this video I shall speak about runes and bone-casting for divination purposes. Were runes or runiform symbols carved on bones and used as an oracular art among pre-Christian Scandinavians and throughout the Nordic Middle Ages? What about Casting the Bones?

Tacitus speaks of a divination method among certain Germanic tribes which we could place in the category of Cleromancy as being a “divination” method by the casting of lots. Cleromancy is more of a form of sortition/selection than an actual divination process; an outcome is determined by the casting of lots, usually the rolling of dice. This process is often used for simple Yes or No questions, but also to decide which course of action is to be taken. What Tacitus discribes is indeed Cleromancy among some Germanic tribes of the 1st Century CE: casting of lots which consist in picking up a tree branch and divide it into small pieces, marking them with signs and casting them to determine if the tribes should or should not engage in a conflict or battle. This same process was recorded among Slavs of the early Middle Ages and also in Denmark since at least the 10th century. The case of Denmark was to determine from which pantheon a person had favour from or which god had been offended, a simply method of chosing between two sides, as the casting of lots were to determine between the Christian God and the Pagan Gods.

Concerning the use of dice, I think it is worth the mention of a divination method called Astragalomancy, which is a form of divination that uses dice specially marked with letters or numbers. Astragalomancy comes from “astragali”, which are talus bones (ankle bones) usually of sheep and goats. So in this case we have the casting of bones for divination purposes, but bones were not the main tool. The idea here is having any surface to mark numbers or later and create game pieces. So this divination process is by the use of game pieces rather than bone casting. Some game pieces were made of bone, but not all game pieces were made of bone. So Astragalomancy is divination through game pieces. Archaeologically speaking, this was a divination method usually found in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern contexts, but it’s entirely possible this method may have spread into other geographical places, including among Germanic peoples by the several cultural exchanges throughout the ages.

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