Sunday, 18 January 2015

Thunor's Hammer on the Runic Dover Grave Slab.

Whilst reading Nigel Pennick's The Book of Primal Signs, 2007 recently I encountered a drawing of the runic grave slab found in St Peter's Church, Dover in 1810 and is now housed in Dover Museum. The slab bears the following runic inscription: Gyfu or Nyd, Ior, Is, Sigel, Lagu, Haegl, Ear, Rad, Daeg.

Professor R.I. Page interprets this inscription as a personal name; Gislheard. Clearly he interprets the first rune as Gyfu rather than Nyd but it is ambiguously inscribed. I completely disagree with his interpretation that the second rune is "the ambiguous rune 'i' with its early value of a high front vowel." (An Introduction to English Runes, 1973). The second rune which is shown very clearly in the drawing from Pennick's book, is Ior. The third rune he draws as Eoh but it is clear from Pennick's drawing to be a badly inscribed Is rune. However the end result of either interpretation is the same, the man's name Gislheard.

What is of additional interest is the engraving of a hammer like symbol along the full length of the slab:

"An Anglo-Saxon runestone found at Dover has an image that may represent the hammer of Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon version of Thor, though in outline shape it resembles some form of brooch of the same period, demonstrating the mutability of forms and their interpretation." (The Book of Primal Signs)

Pennick also states that "this glyph is called Ul by Herman Wirth, who likens it with rock carvings a thousand years earlier". The Ul rune is a mediaeval rune and does not belong to a traditional Aett although Nigel Pennick does suggest that they could be incorporated as a fifth Aett added to the Northumbrian Futhorc (see Secrets of the Runes, 1995). Ul is sacred to the Frisian God Waldh.

Professor Page however does not interpret the image on the slab as a hammer though:

"The stone is large roughly oval slab some 190 cm (75 inches) long. In relief is a cross on whose arms the name appears, cut upside-down with respect to the design. The stone is well weathered and probably came from a churchyard. It is fairly clear that this is a slab to cover a grave."

What does not appear to have occured to Professor Page is that a supposed xtian cross which is "upside-down" is not a xtian cross at all. I bring to mind the controversy regarding the Icelandic Wolf Hammer which appears superficially to be an invereted cross. Stylistically and graphically it is a hammer resembling a judge's gavel and indeed the same type of hammer is portrayed in the hands of Thor in the Eyraraland Thor bronze scupture which is contemporary with the Foss Wolf Hammer.

Also the reader will notice that the bottom of the hammer engraving is rounded. This is a typical feature of Anglo-Saxon Thunor's Hammer depictions.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Original Magical and Divinatory Use of the Runes

I read the most incredulous thing in a book recently in which the author(s) derided the use of the runes for purposes of divinination, stating instead that they were a way of life , went on to make some disparaging remarks about magic and chicken bones and damned those that taught otherwise! Well this may surprise the aforementioned author(s) but the pre-xtian Germanic peoples did in fact practice magic and moreover the use of the Runes were a primary tool in accessing advice from the preternatural realm. The first clear reference to what appear to be Runes is contained in Germania 10:1:

"They attend to auspices and lots like no one else. Their practice with lots is straightforward. Cutting a branch from a fruit tree, they chop it into slips and, after marking these out with certain signs, cast them completely at random over a white cloth. Then a civic priest, if the consulation is official, or the head of the family, if private, prays to the gods and, gazing up at the heavens, draws three separate slips: these he interprets by the previously inscribed mark. If the lots are opposed, consultation on that matter is over for that day; but if they allow, the confirmation of the auspices is still required." (Rives translation)

"For omens and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required."(Mattingley/Handford translation)

The priest or the rune reader confirms the reading via other means such as the calls and flights of birds and the interpretation of the neighs and snorts of sacred horses. So it is clear from Tacitus that the ancient Teutons relied heavily on these magical and divinatory practices. That however does not make them unique but it does demonstrate that the runes originally had a magical character and origin which was confirmed a millenium later in mediaeval Iceland in the Eddas and Icelandic Sagas.
Of course Tacitus does not use the term runes as this most likely was unknown to him. The term Tactitus uses is notae (signs). Whether these notae resembled the Common Germanic or Elder Futhark runes no one can say but Dr Stephen Edred Flowers in his Runes and Magic points out that the Meldorf brooch (ca. 50 CE, Schleswig) does contain "inscriptions of probable runic character". The brooch thus dates 48 years prior to the publication of Germania.

Another thing that strikes me as interesting about the Germania reference is the fact that the runes could be read and were read not just by priests but by the head of the household. This being the case it would suggest that runic knowledge was far more widespread than is currently appreciated. Also it causes us to question how this fits in with the notion of the more specialised Rune Master.

The method of reading the runes referred to in Germania is in my opinion one of the simplest and yet most effective. There is a danger that by introducing too much complexity into our systems that we move away from the numionous to the human realm; something we must avoid doing.