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Magic Runes

Among the most ancient Elder Futhark inscriptions there are a few words that appear pretty often, but what they actually mean is unclear. According to a subtle remark by R. I. Page, in runology, like in too many other knowledge areas, the following principle has been extensively used as a guideline: “Whatever cannot be readily understood must be sorcery.” Indeed, it is quite tempting to declare that runic formulae, which have no clear explanation, were used with magic purposes. However, in this case such attribution is more or less justified. Certain words (called formulaic) do seem to have been used for magic, even though, in the words of J. H. Looijenga,

“Nobody really knows what these words refer to and why they frequently appear on bracteates.”

Bracteates are gold single-sided disk-shaped pendants manufactured in the 5th and early 6th centuries in Scandinavia. Their use is also unclear: they may be interpreted as regalia, political or diplomatic gifts. In any case, bracteates reflected high social status of their owners. Researchers agree that they are in fact imitations of imperial medallions of the Constantinian dynasty, which are thought to have often been used as magical amulets. According to A. Andrén, the four formulaic words in runic inscriptions may reflect four words frequently used on Roman medallions: dominus, pius, felix, augustus (‘lord,’ ‘upright,’ ‘fortunate,’ ‘worthy of honor’). The formulaic or magic words in runic inscriptions are as follows: alu, laukaR, auja, laþu, ota.

alu runes

alu literally means ‘ale,’ but why writing these runes on a stone and bury it in a mound face down? This is what was actually done with the Elgesem rune stone (Norway). It is supposed that alu refers to the state between the world of the living and the dead, some kind of extasy or trance caused by an intoxicating drink. Thus the word might have been connected with death-cult, since the dead were often buried with a drinking vessel in order to enable them to participate in the eternal feast. May be alu replaced or symbolized such a vessel. The word ealuscierwen (Beowulf, line 769) contains the same root. It denotes the state of the warriors who stayed in Heorot while Beowulf fought Grendel, and almost certainly means ‘mortal fear’. E. C. Polomé links runic alu to Hittite *aluwanza-, ‘affected by sorcery’. Below: bracteate Djupbrunns-C, Gotland (Sweden), hoard find. Runes alu run from right to left, swastika.

Djupbrunns bracteate

The other magic word found in runic inscriptions is laukaR:

laukar runes

laukaR means ‘garlic, leek’ and the magical use of these runes might have been connected with the notions of growth, fertility and sexuality. A bracteate with these runes might serve as a magical amulet protecting against evil. Some researchers explain this by the fact that garlic was often used as a medicine or antidote.

auja runes

The possible meaning of auja is ‘good luck’ or ‘hail’. These runes are interpreted as referreing to ‘fortune,’ ‘wealth’ or ‘possession’. Amulets containing auja might be used for protection. Part of inscription on two identical Raum Køge-C bracteates reads: gibu auja, ‘I give luck’ or ‘I give protection’. Enigmatic gagaga on Kragehul I spear-shaft is sometimes interpreted as meaning gibu auja repeated three times.

lathu runes

laþu means ‘invitation’. These magic runes appear only on bracteates. Their use seems to be connected with the calling of supernatural forces.
Another word that is possibly formulaic is ota:

ota runes

This word is etymologically related with ON ótti, ‘fear.’ The inscription on the two bracteates found in a grave in Donaueschingen (Schwarzwald, Germany) reads: alu ota.

Copyright notice: photo of Djupbrunns Bracteate used in this article is public domain.

58 comments… add one
  • Carolyn Martin

    I’d like to know who the god is associated with the love rune? My husband and I are getting this tatted. Thanks for any help.

  • Alison

    Hi I’ve Just Got My Viking Runes Can U Tell Me What It Means When U Have 2 of The Same Please How Do U Know Which One Means What … Many Thanks ..

  • RunaEira

    Hi!

    Were symbols from the Elder Futhark ever used in random combinations? I would like to a tattoo of four runes that do not spell anything but mean something to me individually. Would this be incorrect to place them all side by side?

  • Alex

    Hi. I am looking for a warrior rune for protection and bravery. My friend is looking forward to get a tattoo done of it. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  • Rosa

    Greetings everyone,

    I hope someone can find the time to assist me with a search for on-line, reliable material with detailed information about Runes usage in healing, both physical and spiritual.

    Thank you, in advance for your assistance.

    Kindest regards,
    Rosa

  • Richard Watkins

    Hello Vikingrune,
    Quality site. I am brewing some Ale and would be interested in ale runes and their use
    the wiki reference to Siegfried suggests that they are used in homage to Tyr

    Charms it holds and healing signs,
    Spells full good, and gladness-runes.”

    I know of the use of the Tyr victory rune but would guess it is not suitable
    could you point me in the direction of a primary source? I appreciate your time if you can.
    cheers,
    Richard

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Richard. Actually, we do not know what runes are meant in Sigrdrífumál as ale-runes, birth-runes, wave-runes, branch-runes, speech-runes and thought-runes. They might have been incantations or magic formula related to these topics or individual signs such as bindrunes. Elder Futhark formulaic word alu is etymologically realted to ale and it certainly had some magic significance or use, but we know nothing about it, either.

    • Mark LaPolla

      You might want to try the wunju ruin, which means joy or gladness. It was dropped form the Fuþark because of w’s shift to u. Since there was a u-rune already, winju, now unjo was dropped. It looks like this: http://runelore.it/images/rune%20wunjo.png

      See Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions for further reading.

  • Viki

    Hello,

    I was wondering if inguz means male fertility or of it means new beginnings. Because I’ve looked all over and I see one definition and then I see a different one.

    Also, could you tell me what is a viking symbol for good luck? Thank you!

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