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home / articles / the mystic & esoteric / foreknowledge

Foreknowledge

This article was posted originally in 2005. It is an attempt to study the modern use of the runes in divination and the claims of 'old runestones' and how they were used.

Germanic Divination

rune stones, fact or myth?
Since the beginning of time, mankind has tried to foretell the future by means of divination or other magics. To know if the next winter would be harsh, to see if the hunt would be successful or to judge if it would be prudent to attack a neighboring tribe. In more recent times, divination is finding it's way back through neo-heathen practices. Tarot, I-ching, pendeling, throwing of bones and the likes are often encountered when one browses the neo-pagan books and websites. Another major divination form comes from our very own Germanic roots: the runes.

Although the runes knew a (w)holier practice in the past, today they are mainly consulted to foretell the future of diviners and loved-ones. Thanks to writers as Ralph Blum, Edred Thorsson, Nigel Pennick and Freya Aswynn, runes are common and much loved amongst neo-pagans. If one would read these books, one would quickly get the impression that the use of runes for divination was an ancient and much used practice amongst the Germanic tribes and the throwing of rune-stones to be a legacy of old, now reintroduced into the modern pagan society. However, is this really true?

If we look at the lore we have today, we should be inclined to say no. In fact, one would have a heck of a time finding a source that specifically states the runes are to be used for divination. It would seem our ancestors may have used the runes for foretelling purposes on occasions, but they seemed much more fond of other ways to see into what is to come.


Animals

The number one method of predicting the future is to watch the movement of animals. Behavior of certain animals in certain directions and paths was seen as a fairly certain way of determining the outcome of future events and striking enough to base decisions on. Tacitus mentions the use of horses as the main auspice in which the Germanic tribes put their faith [1]. These horses were specially kept in sacred groves and were always white, a color which was considered most holy amongst most Indo-European peoples [2]. The snorts and neighs of these horses, as well as their general movements, were to give insight into events to come and were interpreted by priests. Horses, according to Tacitus, were considered to be the intimates of the Gods, whereas the priests themselves were merely servants of the Gods.

Another popular method of divining was to observe the calls and flights of birds. It is possible that interpreting the signs and calls of birds was taught to all warriors and priests [3] and it is also mentioned in the Rigsþula [4] as a skill that can be learned and worthy of a king. Another mentioning of understanding the language of birds is mentioned when Sigurd slays the dragon and accidentally tastes of it [5]. Instantly he understands the language of the birds, which warn him about the pending doom that is to come. It is quite possible that the language of birds was seen as communication with the Gods themselves. We often encounter tales of Gods traveling in bird-form and we know the ravens and crows were associated with the walkuren and possibly the Idisi. In folklore we encounter a vast amount of superstitions that deal with encounters of ravens, crows and other birds. Each of them foretelling different events to come and granting advise to base decisions on.

Although birds and horses are mostly addressed in the texts and poems, we can tell from folklore that other animals were considered to be signals from the future as well. For example, when one hears a cricket, this would mean that someone in the house will die. The cricket's song would bring death to him or her. Another superstition tells us that the way that a dog howls can either indicate a fire to come or a death. And yet another superstition foretells that if dogs fight at a wedding, the happy couple will follow their example in the near future. [6] Whether or not these superstitions have a history in heathen religion is of course hard to tell, however noting the abnormal amount of animal signals indicated in the preserved texts and folklore, we can certainly not dismiss them.


Sacrifice

If not watched for their movements and sounds, many an animal was given as an offering to the Gods to give notice of events to come. Ritual sacrifice in order to determine the outcome of battle is mentioned many a time in several texts. Whether or not the sacrifice is given to influence this outcome or to see the outcome itself is often harder to determine. In particular Wodan is often described as receiver of many offerings to determine the outcome of the battle. Humans seem to have been the main sacrifice given to this God of victory [7] along with horses, whereas the Gods of the lands (Fro and Fruwâ) were gifted with boars and sows [8]. It is interesting to note that the type offering often had a connection with the deity himself. For example the boar is considered holy to Lord Fro as is the sow to the Fruwâ. The horse however is often associated with Wodan in the myths as being connected to Sleipnir. The human sacrifice can be linked with Wodan's connection to the realm of the dead.

Sacrifice, however, was not limited to these type of animals. Archeological finds have shown a multitude of animal carcasses that were given to the Gods and spirits. Dogs, goats, birds and chickens are but a few of the types of animals found [9]. Although we have evidence that jewelry and other types of sacrifices were sometimes given, the majority of sacrifices are connected to blood. The Germanic word for sacrifice itself (bluot) is linked to our modern word blood and thus indicates the necessity of the use of blood in pleasing the Gods to obtain information or a favor. The Gods seem to favor such behavior as well if we look for example to the Víga-Glúms saga, wherein it states that Fro, when asked to grant a favorable sign, took the life of an ox.


Signs

If such a sacrifice was accepted, the Gods would often grant the people a sign. Such a sign would tell the people whether or not the sacrifice was accepted and what the result was. In the case of pure divination, this could be the answer to the question proposed. In the case of asking the Gods for a favor, it would suggest whether or not the favor would be granted. Often these signs were in the form of an animal one would meet, or perhaps a symbol recognized in the clouds. Sometimes it would entail a dream or a meeting with a stranger. Often something that would remind the person in question of the God(dess) they sacrificed to.

However, in some situations this kind of sign could also be asked for without the sacrifice and ritual. We read in the Landnámabók about a practice some of the Norse settlers formed when arriving at Iceland. When their boats would come close to the shore, they would throw the High Seat Pillars that held up the center of their house (which were presumably dedicated to Donar) in the water. Where the pillars would wash ashore, the sailors would then settle. Seeing this as a favorable sign from Donar himself, which guided them on their journey and kept them safe. This belief went so far, that when Lodmund the Old threw his pillars overboard and lost sight of them, he instead settled on a piece of land he deemed favorable instead. After a long period however, he heard of his High Seat Pillars and where they washed ashore. Without any hesitation he gathered his things and moved to this new location, cursing his old home and land in hopes of regaining the favor of Donar for his insolence [10].


Dreams

Such signs could also manifest themselves in the forms of dreams. In this case it was believed that relevant information or warnings were passed on to the dreamer by the Gods or spirits. Unlike what one might suspect, these kind of dreams were rarely symbolic or cryptic. Most of them were pretty straightforward in it's information. For example there is the account in the Laxdæla Saga in which Olaf the Paecock killed one of his oxen. That night a huge woman appeared to him in his dream and told him he had slaughtered her son. For this she would repay him by taking the life of one of his sons, Kjartan [11]. The fact that the landelf (as she presumably was) appeared as a huge woman is not uncommon. There are several accounts of walkuren and landwights appearing as huge - and sometimes hideous and horrible - women, often when in an angry state. Their messages or foretellings were oft straightforward and clear in it's message. Only later on, when dream-interpreting through the means of symbols from outside cultures became popular, were such dreams truly considered prophetic.

To better understand the dreams, one could consult a dream-interpreter. He or she could help understand the meaning and also it's validity. In the above case of Olaf the Peacock, many an interpreter was consulted, but only the ones that told Olaf to dismiss the dreams were considered valid by him. Some dreams however were slightly more symbolic and called for an expert to help in deciphering the message contained in the dream. Often these interpreters were considered wise-man and consulted in more than just dreams. Such wise-men could also help in inducing such dream behavior, as did Thorleif Spake when Halfdan the Black consulted him [12]. The advise given by Thorleif was to sleep in a pigsty, which Nora Chadwick suggests is figurative for a burial mound [13]. The sleeping or sitting on a burial mound would be helpful in getting into contact with the ancestral spirits or the landwights, but could also help in getting inspiration for example a good poem. Particular popular with kings, seers and poets, this practice is recorded quite a few times and is also to be found found in the myths of our Celtic neighbors [14].


Trance and Magic

Differing from dreams, one could also get visions from the Gods or spirits by using certain trance magic often mentioned as spá or seið. These kinds of trances were mostly practiced by women who would enter a trancelike state through the singing of others around them, whilst seated on a 'high seat'. Once such a state would be reached, the spá-woman or volva would be able to answer all questions asked. Sometimes the answers would be straightforward, at other times the answers would be in the form of riddles, which could be interpreted by an assistant.

Such women could foresee the past and the future, but also what was hidden at present time. In one account a spákona (spá woman) is asked to discover two boys who were hiding from a wicked king trying to kill them. The spákona would have told him, were it not that the boys sensed her magic and managed to throw gold into her lap as a bribe [15].

Although perhaps most famous, divination through trance and magic was not privileged only to the spá- and seiðkona's. Other forms of trance can be found in another form of divination called 'sitting-out'. A ritual in which one would sit outside - usually at a fire - wearing the hide of an animal. Hides most mentioned are those of goats and bears, but it is not entirely clear whether certain hides were considered more appropriate. By staring into the fire one could reach a trance in which messages could be interpreted by reading the flames. Another possibility was to leave the body and travel with the soul. Often one would take on the form of an animal (probably associated with the hide) and travel around. The form of the soul is called the hame (Oldnorse Hamr) and it is what the soul looks like when traveling the world of men without the body [16]. Although it is often believed that the hame resembles the form of one's Folga (Oldnorse Fylgja), which is often a female or a type of animal, this did not always have to be the case.


Lots and runes

Other magical ways of foreknowledge can be found in the casting of lots. Like many other cultures, the Germanic tribes often used lots to let fate's voice be heard. Recorded are such terms as Blótspánn (sacrificial chip) and Hlautteinn (lot-twig) that indicate a special type of chips or lots to determine the future. These lots were then marked, possibly with sacrificial blood - which would explain the word blót - and shaken and thrown like dice [17]. Such a description is also given by Tacitus who writes how a priest or the eldest of a family would go to the forest, cut down twigs from a fruit-tree and mark them with symbols. These twigs would then be thrown on a white cloth after which the diviner would pray to the Gods. After prayer he would blindly pick three pieces from the cloth from which the future events could be read [18].

Naturally we would be inclined to interpret these markings as runes. However this may not be the case. The archeological findings of the runes place the first Germanic runes around 150 AD, whereas the writings of Tacitus is dated at around 98 AD. Furthermore, the writings of Tacitus are considered - by some scholars - to be based on earlier works, mainly from Pliny The Elder who wrote about his travels amongst Germanic tribes in 77 AD. Considering the very few findings of runic writings from that period of time (150 AD), we must question whether or not the runes were known by all of the Germanic tribes at that time. To understand this more thoroughly, we should consider the origins of the runes. If the general accepted theory that the runes did indeed come from Roman writings is valid, then we can safely assume that these marking have little to nothing to do with the runes of later on [19]. If we accept the somewhat less accepted theory that the runes are of Germanic origins, then we must assume that the runes were kept as a secret by the priests or by certain cults as we do not have any findings dating the runes to an earlier age than 150 AD. Just as the runes would later (700 AD) develop into a more common system of writing [20], so too could the runes around 150 AD have developed from their secret and occult use to a more general use amongst the tribesmen. If this latter is the case, then we should still question the words of Tacitus as no archeological finds so far indicate the use of the rune before 150 AD.

The question of the runes used in divination thus remains. The runic verses of the Eddic lay Hávamál reveal no direct use of the runes for foreknowledge. This poem does reveal the use of runes in a different ritual, that of letting the dead speak [21]. Such forms of dead telling of the fates to come can also be found in other poems of the Edda (Baldrs Draumar and the Voluspa). However this kind of use of the runes would indicate a form of magic ritual rather than the use of runes in the throwing of the lots as is common today.

It is thus with good reason that we may question whether or not our ancestors actually used the runes in divination. Certainly the neo-pagan forms of rune-stones and several forms of throwing and marking are newly created and have no base in history whatsoever. However, this should not throw us of our feet. The fact that our ancestors may or may not have used the runes in the holy arts of foreknowledge should not directly stop us from using the runes as divinational tools. They are magical and holy markings and why should they not contain the powers to foretell that which is to come? Having said that, I do believe it to be wise to follow the example of our ancestors and learn the various ways of foreknowledge as it would seem that our ancestors were very capable of determining the future in more than one way.


References

1. Germania, Tacitus - 10.2
2. Teutonic Mythology IV, Jacob Grimm - (Supplement) Ch. 5
3. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson - 87
4. Rigsþula, Poetic Edda - verse 42
5. Fáfnismál, Poetic Edda - verse 31-40
6. Teutonic Mythology IV, Jacob Grimm - Appendix I.
7. Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum IV, Adam of Bremen - 27
8. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson - 50
9. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson - 56-57
10. Landnámabók IV, Ari the Learned - Ch. 5
11. Laxdæla Saga - 31
12. Heimskringla, Halfdanar Saga svarta, Snorri Sturluson - 7
13. Dreams in Early European Literature N.K. Chadwick - 41 as mentioned in Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Davidson - 141
14. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson - 130
15. History of the Danes VII, Saxo Grammaticus - 217-218
16. Germanic Heathenry, James Hjuka Coulter - 56
17. The Viking Achievement, Peter Foote and David M. Wilson - 401
18. Germania, Tacitus - 10.1
19. Runen. Een helder alfabet uit duistere tijden, A. Quack and M. Philippa
20. Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700, J.H. Looijenga - 4.1
21. Hávamál 157, Poetic Edda.


 


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