Runes In Viking Age Iceland

So late last night, as I was finishing up a third edit of my Seidman for Harmony Ink (note that the name of the novel had to be changed to remove the “ð” for ease of spelling, so people can search on the name), I discovered that I’d been using the rune names found in popular books on runes.

If you’ve ever read any books like this, such as Futhark or Runelore, both by Edred Thorsson, or Taking Up The Runes by Diana Paxson, you’re probably already familiar with names such as Laguz, Ansuz, and Jera.  Well, the fact of the matter is, nobody really knows for certain that these names were ever used for the runes.  They’re proto-Germanic, which means that linguists derived them by applying their knowledge of the way languages evolve over time, coming up with what they think the names of the runes could have been in the distant past.  But there is no actual record of these names.

What we do have, are rune poems, written in Old English, Old Norwegian, and Old Icelandic.  These are poems written towards the end of the Viking Age — 8th or 9th century — and they give us lists of the runes, along with mnemonic phrases which where presumably used to remember their meanings.  For instance, in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, we find:

[Đorn] is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.

If you remember the verse, then you can remember what the rune Þorn represents.  Unfortunately, the translations of the poems aren’t always particularly memorable to modern English speakers, but they do tell us what the runes were called in the 8th and 9th centuries.  And many believe that the poems hint at the deeper occult meanings of the runes.

Since Seidman takes place in 10th-century Iceland, my characters would most certainly not be referring to the “L” rune as Laguz.  Instead, they would call it Lögr.  This might not trip up readers, but I think using the Old Icelandic names will actually add to the realism of the setting.  There is always the danger of taking it too far, of course, and boring or confusing the reader with details about the language and culture of a particular time and place. but I think readers also have a sense of what feels generic.  A specific detail dropped in here and there can bring the setting to life.

I only use a few rune names in Seidman, but for anybody interested in the subject, I’ll throw out a little information here:

By the 9th century, Icelanders were using a runic alphabet that had been simplified to just sixteen runes, as opposed to the twenty-four you usually come across in rune books.  These were:

And this is the Icelandic Rune Poem, with the names of each rune (in the order above) in brackets:

[ = Wealth] source of discord among kinsmen and fire of the sea and path of the serpent.
[Úr = Shower] lamentation of the clouds and ruin of the hay-harvest and abomination of the shepherd.
[Þurs = Giant] torture of women and cliff-dweller and husband of a giantess.
[Óss = God] aged Gautr and prince of Ásgarðr and lord of Vallhalla.
[Reið = Riding] joy of the horsemen and speedy journey and toil of the steed.
[Kaun = Ulcer] disease fatal to children and painful spot and abode of mortification.
[Hagall = Hail] cold grain and shower of sleet and sickness of serpents.
[Nauð = Constraint] grief of the bond-maid and state of oppression and toilsome work.
[Ís = Ice] bark of rivers and roof of the wave and destruction of the doomed.
[Ár = Plenty] boon to men and good summer and thriving crops.
[Sól = Sun] shield of the clouds and shining ray and destroyer of ice.
[Týr = Týr] god with one hand and leavings of the wolf and prince of temples.
[Bjarkan = Birch] leafy twig and little tree and fresh young shrub.
[Maðr = Man] delight of man and augmentation of the earth and adorner of ships.
[Lögr = Water] eddying stream and broad geyser and land of the fish.
[Ýr = Yew] bent bow and brittle iron and giant of the arrow.

This particular English translation was done by someone on the Ragweed Forge Website.

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