Monday, June 30, 2014

Runes 101 - Runes in Mythology - The Saga of the Volsungs

Two weeks ago, I reviewed Jesse Byock's translation of The Saga of the Volsungs and I promised to come back to it to talk about the appearance of Runes in the story.  The Runes actually play two important parts in the story, though their first mention is merely the statement that Regin, Sigurd's foster father, taught Sigurd the Runes.

However, I note this not only because it is the first time we see the Runes in the story, but also because Byock points out (reminds us) in his own notes in the book that Runes "had both practical and magical uses."  In fact, this story presents both aspects of the Runes and that is where I want to focus.

In chapter 21, Brynhild shares her knowledge of the Runes with Sigurd.  She recites 14 verses that include at least six types of Runes as noted in the list to the right.

Brynhild's expression of the Runes presents their magical side and talks of spells and how to use them properly.  Aid Runes, for instance, are used to help with child birth and she claims that they are to be cut into the mother's hand and then the Rune carver must take her hand into his/hers and "bid the Disir not to fail".

In another verse, she mentions Tyr when speaking of victory Runes and even says that they should be cut on the sword's hilt on the blade's center ridge.  She never calls this Rune Tiwaz, yet we know that Tiwaz was carved on many swords and is Tyr's Rune.  To be sure, one of the enigma's that surround the Runes is that they are not mentioned by name in many instances.

There is an exception to that in Brynhild's Rune knowledge though.  When discussing ale Runes and the goal of keeping a neighbor's wife at bay, she states that ale Runes are to be carved on your horn and the back of your hand... and Naud (Nauthiz - the need Rune) on your fingernail.  This is one of the few places where a Rune is actually named, even then, she may just be saying "the need rune", but we know that is Naud (Nauthiz).

Using the Runes for "practical" purposes, as opposed to the implied magic of Brynhild's Runes, Gudrun carves a message in Runes to warn her brothers that her husband, King Atli, plans to take Sigurd's treasure from them.  The king's messenger reads the message and changes the Runes to make it appear as though Gudrun wants her brothers to accept her husband's invitation.  With the letter Gudrun sends a ring tied with wolf's hair, which her brother, Hogni, initially sees as a warning until the messenger gives him Gudrun's note, which he altered.  Although Hogni does not recognize the changes, his wife, Kostbera does.  She can tell the Gudrun's message has been falsified.

Interestingly, the story says that Kostbera uses her wisdom to discern what the Runes truly said.  When she figures it out, she wakes her husband to tell him not to go on the trip to see King Atli.  She says:
"You cannot be very skilled at reading runes if you think your sister has asked you to come at this time.  I read the runes and wondered how so wise a woman could have carved them so confusedly.  Yet, it seems that your death is indicated underneath.  Either Gudrun missed a letter or someone else has falsified the runes."
The Saga of the Volsungs is not a happy one, but it does offer concrete examples of both uses of the Runes, along with dragon slaying, great battles, and great deceit.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Summer Solstice Runes

Saturday marked the first day of summer (up north) - the solstice.  Last year, I wrote about Runes for the Solstice and decided to inquire about this powerful time of year once more.  While last year's post was more about making the most of the energy and power of the solstice, this year, I asked more about being with the solstice, connecting with it.  The Runes offered their usual keen insight, including a reminder that last year's question still applies.

The first Rune they gave to me was Dagaz, the day Rune.  There is not a more appropriate way to begin to address my question, than there is with the day Rune.  It reminds us simply that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year.  We should acknowledge the time we have to get things done; whether it's work or play, Dagaz lights the way and helps us see things more clearly.  In a way, this enhances our ability to be aware of this energizing time of year.  We can enjoy the warmth and feel hopeful not only about what lies ahead, but about what we've accomplished so far.  In essence, we can be in the present without worry of the past or what the future holds.

Fehu is the cattle Rune, representing money and prosperity.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about Runes for You and Fehu came up there as the Rune from Verdandi (the present).  HOw timely that, as Dagaz tells us we can be in the present, we draw Verdandi's Rune from two weeks ago.  In that post, I focused on the Rune poem meanings for this Rune and the idea of spreading the wealth/equity.  However, it is important to remember that, in today's world at least, wealth and prosperity can mean far more than simply money.  Given this high energy time of the year and Verdandi telling us to share the wealth, we should focus on sharing all forms of it, not just money - being kind to others, spreading joy and positive energy, doing even small things that could have a big impact.  What wealth do you have that you can extend to others?

As if Fehu's notion of giving to or sharing with others wasn't enough, Ehwaz is our final Rune.  The horse Rune, signifies many important and practical aspects to life that relate to interacting with others and forming relationships, such as loyalty, teamwork, and partnerships.  In this way, Ehwaz supports Fehu, by saying, "We are all in this (life's journey) together."  And, we should try to make the journey a pleasurable one for everyone by doing our small part.  It may even be that the attributes of Ehwaz are the wealth we can spread.

The summer solstice is a powerful time of year. We can make the most of its energy by coming together to share all forms of prosperity, which connects us with this solstice's power and enriches us and those around us.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Runes 102 - Book Reviews - The Saga of the Volsungs

If you type "Saga of the Volsungs" into your search engine (aka - google it), there will be no shortage of links to this famous and important saga.  Not only did the Vikings carve this story into the Ramsund Runestone in Sweden, but it inspired the likes of Richard Wagner, William Morris, and JRR Tolkein.

While all three of these artists were inspired more broadly by Norse mythology and history, this book in particular influenced Wagner's opera Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Morris' epic poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, and Tolkein's narrative poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

Moreover, this story has been translated into multiple languages over the years and retold in different versions, including edited summaries.

What is it that is so inspiring about this saga?  It could be any number of things from the more obvious dragon slaying to the more subtle influence of women interpreting dreams and carving Runes.  Maybe it's the relationships. Volsunga Saga is a true-to-form saga, detailing multiple generations of Volsungs and explaining the relationships of their allies and enemies alike.  It is loaded with Viking battles and victories and wealthy kings and fair women.  It even has magic potions and shape shifting. So, what's not to love?  The story is quite fascinating.

Of course, as I said, if you do an online search for it, numerous versions of it will come up.  I chose the version I read for one main reason.  It was translated by my former Old Norse Professor from UCLA, Dr. Jesse Byock and I trust him.  That, I'm sure makes me biased, but I enjoyed The Saga of the Volsungs nonetheless.  Naturally, I liked the story.  However,  the introduction was really helpful in laying the foundation, providing context in the larger back drop of Norse/European society at the time, and noting the story's more recent influence on music, literature, and art.  There were also some useful notes and other sections at the end of the book.

As for the translation itself, Byock does an excellent job of painting a clear story while maintaining the historical presentation.  In other words, he didn't turn it into a contemporary interpretation, rather maintained the original voice in a way that makes it easy to read and follow.  This is a tough spot to find.  I have read versions of other historical writings that have stuck so close to the original version that I could not relate to the story and found myself researching ancient words just to make sense of it.  In other instances stories have been so modernized as to lose any sense of their historical significance.  That is not the case here.

It's harder to review the translation of a story that already exists than it is to talk (or write) about original works, but this is one story that has been handled well by the translating author.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the story are the Runes, a topic I will discuss more soon, so stay tuned for that.  For now, if you want an easy and enjoyable book to read while learning about about historical Norse culture, I recommend putting The Saga of the Volsungs (aka - Volsunga Saga) on the list.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Runes for You

After a completely crazy week and the need to let go and forget it over the weekend, I realized that I could not write the post I had planned, because I did not have the time to finish the book I'm currently reading to review.

However, because the Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld always have wisdom to share, I called on them through the Runes and asked them what knowledge they would like to tell me about your past, present, and future - 'you' representing both you personally and the larger societal you.  Yes, a Norn cast for you.  Here is how they lined up:


Urd, representing your past, showed Laguz.  In this instance, the water Rune represents your past and and you must consider that past as part of your life going forward.  Just as water nourishes you, so too does your past, though in a very different sense.  Where water provides for your physical existence (by drinking it, using it water food, and for cleanliness among other things), your past provides mental nourishment.  Your past experiences have taught you lessons and prepared you for each step forward that you take.  Coupled with this are the mysteries held in a deep or stormy sea.  They can be scary, but you cannot be afraid to try new things; remembering that all of your life experiences up to this point have helped to prepare you for the next challenge you face, the next choice you make.

Verdandi gave me Fehu, the cattle Rune, which symbolizes your present and equates generally to finances.  The Rune poems for Fehu are quite interesting, for while they all clearly call it money, the Old Icelandic and Norwegian poems point out that it causes quarrels among kinsmen, and the Old English poem almost counters that with the suggestion of sharing your good fortune with others - keep things somewhat equitable (perhaps to avoid quarrels and conflict).  I think this is indicative of our current society, where the wealth is being concentrated among the few.  Now is the time to take the lessons from your past and apply them to your current situation.  There are any number of sayings I could call on here to make this point.  How about Margaret Mead, who said. "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world.  For, indeed, that's all who ever have."  This calls the idea of personal responsibility to the fore.  Add to that, "It is better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction" (by Diane Grant), and you have a very powerful opportunity presenting itself.

Skuld offered Raido, the riding Rune.  Having just looked at Raido a few weeks ago, it is fresh in my mind.  Following on Verdandi giving us Fehu, Skuld showing Raido signifies change - a journey.  Essentially, your future should experience a change, it should be different from your present.  However, as we know, this is not a done deal with the Norns.  This is what should be, but only you can make it so.  You will never get where you want to be if you don't consciously undertake the challenges life presents.  You must take the reins and move or you will be moved in a direction you do not wish to be carried.  I will end with a quote from my Raido post, because it flows perfectly with the wisdom we have received from Urd and Verdandi.  In support of her sisters and through Raido, Verdandi says, "Don't just sit there while life happens to you; don't allow yourself to be a victim of your circumstances.  Take charge of where your life leads you." 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Runes 403 - Rune Interpretations - The Waiting

I have to laugh as I begin this post about 'the waiting', because my first inclination was to write that I have been 'waiting' a long time to write it.  It also brings to mind one of my favorite songs of the same name, The Waiting, by Tom Petty wherein he assures us that the waiting is the hardest part.  Given this truth, I asked the Runes what they wanted to show us about managing the waiting.  How do we address that moment in time, that part of the process, when we feel the momentum wanting us to move forward, but we must resist and wait for someone else to make the next move?


The three Runes I drew in response to this question get right to the heart of the matter.  Although Ansuz's meaning in this situation and as the first in the draw may seem unclear at first, a short pause clarifies it very well.   When we see Ansuz, we relate it to the gods, particularly Odin. Of course, it is always good to have Odin with us from the start, but it means more than that here.  I view Odin as stepping in only at critical moments, which signifies to me that this is one of those moments and drawing a Rune that represents him reiterates the importance of waiting through it.

However,  there is another meaning for this Rune, that of an estuary, which is equally important. As I've mentioned before, an estuary is a place of transition between rivers and the ocean, placing us in a position of transition and making 'the wait' a necessary part of it.

That being said, Ansuz has one other meaning that lends us the best way to manage this time.  We know that Odin places significance on the situation and that we are in the middle of a transition, but how do we manage it?  The third meaning associated with this Rune is communication, which tells us that, instead of doing nothing while we wait, we can prepare for the next step, for that moment when the waiting ends and the next step in the process begins.  It is that preparation that will carry us through not only the waiting period, but the next step as well.

Why is that important?  Why should we prepare, especially if we might be unsure what the next step will bring?  Raido, the riding Rune, as the second Rune in this draw tells us that the waiting is part of the journey.  It highlights the transition we are in and that we must approach it in an intentional way, but it also says that waiting does not negate our ability to move. This lends support to what Ansuz says about preparing for the next step this journey is leading to. We can sit and let 'the waiting' happen to us and fill us with angst or we can take control of 'the waiting' so that we are ready when it ends.  Besides supporting the latter, Raido assures us that greater movement is on its way; it is coming and the better prepared we are, the better able we will be to manage it and complete this transition phase smoothly.

The final Rune, Berkana, unquestionably tells us that the result of actively waiting (doing what we can to prepare for the next step while we are waiting for others to move) leads us to a beginning.  Berkana represents the birch tree, and the Old English Rune poem, in particular, highlights one of the most interesting aspects of this tree - though it doesn't flower or bear fruit, its boughs are green and beautiful.  This fits well into our journey's transition and tells us that, even though there is no obvious flowering in our process, the end result will still provide a full bloom.  We just have to wait for it... actively wait.