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Divination 2, Question 2

Describe the division of sacred and profane use for this symbol set in cultural context (i.e. how was the symbol used in everday life, and how was it used in religious contexts?). If you find no such division, explain why you think that the set was either entirely sacred or entirely profane in the culture. (min. 300 words)

The runes themselves are both sacred and profane in their use, though I suspect that they were more often used in profane settings than sacred ones.

Runes, as an alphabet and form of communication, were not really designed for writing as we know it. They were designed for carving (Page, 6), limiting their audience from the masses to only those who knew the runes. No literature of any length is recorded in runic inscriptions, so we might logically think that the alphabet originated as a magical one.

The best example of the runes being used in magic is also the one most of us read first: the Havamal. Lines 146 to 164 are often considered to be runic spells, and indeed, that is quite likely. (Hollander, 37-40)

The Voluspa, in stanza 20 (Hollander, 4) provides our only evidence of divination using runes in the lore, but it is rather unclear that this is indeed what is being done. Tacitus, on the other hand, in Agricola chapter 10, indicates that the casting of lots was done for divination, and this sounds suspiciously like runes.

Runes were inscribed on weapons, too, which was known to give them magical powers. one spearshaft has the translated words, "I am the erilaz of Ansugisalaz. I am called Uha. I give protection, I give protection, I give mighty protection. . . hail. . ." (Antonsen, 36) This inscription indicates that the spear, named Uha, gives protection to the one who wields it, and, presumably, damage (i.e. "hail") to one who faces it.

Tools, too, could be inscribed for magical properties. One inscription on a whetstone, translating as "Wet this stone, horn! Scathe, scythe! Lie, that which is mown down!" (Antonsen, 55) This inscription is designed to give the stone the power to empower farm tools to speed the harvest.

Runes, though, were also used profanely. We find them carved into markers for goods for sale (Page, 8, 7). These give the owner's name, and occasionally a tally of what has been sold, and are designed to be stuck into the item.

The inscriptions on weapons also had a profane purpose, one of marking the ownership over the weapon. It would be one thing to say you own a sword, and it is another to say that your sword is inscribed with runes. It created a sort of prestige.

Tombs were often marked with runes. While some might see this as a sacred action, it was no more sacred than modern tombstone inscriptions are: they serve a very functional purpose.

Also, runes were occasionally used to send messages in the form of letters. Of course, the letter usually was not very long (often a paragraph or two, max), but many of these communications are definitely secular in nature rather than sacred. (Page, 8)

The runes were used for the teaching of alphabets, too, as evidenced by the rune poems: each of these likely serves the primary purpose of teaching the runes, mostly in the same way a modern grade school does: creating poems or lists of things that begin with that letter. It's interesting to consider that the "lore" we believe we are studying for divinatory and magical meanings is nothing more important than "A is for Apple, B is for Bear."

Finally, we have to think about the largest body of runic inscriptions, which can mostly be translated as, basically, "Thorsson wuz here." They are generic graffiti of the sort (and, often, spelling capabilities) you find on picnic tables at state parks.

As both alphabet and magical language, you can see a definite distinction between the use of runes as sacred and their use as profane. It is easy to think of runes as a "magical alphabet", but we need to remember that by far the majority of uses appear to have been entirely profane.


Anonymous. "Havamal" in The Poetic Edda. Trans. Hollander, Lee M. 2001

Antonsen, Elmer H. A Concise Grammar of the Older Runic Inscriptions. Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. 1975

Page, R. I. Runes. London: British Museum Publications. 1987.

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Life of Agricola and The Germania. William Francis Allen, ed. Boston: The Athenaeum Press. 1913.


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