Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry 1472446267, 9781472446268

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Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry
 1472446267,  9781472446268

Table of contents :
List of figures vi
List of abbreviations vii
Acknowledgements viii
Introduction: script and sensibility 1
1. The writing’s on the wall: inscription and inheritance in Old English poetry 13
2. Releasing runes: riddles and revelation in the Exeter Book 49
3. Palm-twigs and runic glyphs: the ornamental textuality of runes 82
4. Re-scripting the past in Old Norse heroic poetry 118
5. Sacred script: myths of writing in the Poetic Edda 150
Conclusion: the shape of things to come 181
Bibliography 191
Index 209

Citation preview

Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry

Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry is the first booklength study to compare responses to runic heritage in the literature of Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland. The Anglo-Saxon runic script had already become the preserve of antiquarians at the time the majority of Old English poetry was written down, and the Icelanders recording the mythology associated with the script were at some remove from the centres of runic practice in medieval Scandinavia. Both literary cultures thus inherited knowledge of the runic system and the traditions associated with it, but viewed this literate past from the vantage point of a developed manuscript culture. There has, as yet, been no comprehensive study of poetic responses to this scriptural heritage, which include episodes in such canonical texts as Beowulf, the Old English riddles and the poems of the Poetic Edda. By analysing the inflection of the script through shared literary traditions, this study enhances our understanding of the burgeoning of literary selfawareness in early medieval vernacular poetry and the construction of cultural memory, and furthers our understanding of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon and Norse textual cultures. The introduction sets out in detail the rationale for examining runes in poetry as a literary motif and surveys the relevant critical debates. The body of the volume is comprised of five linked case studies of runes in poetry, viewing these representations through the paradigm of scriptural reconstruction and the validation of contemporary literary, historical and religious sensibilities. Tom Birkett is a Lecturer in Old English at University College Cork, Ireland.

Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry

Tom Birkett

First published 2017 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2017 Tom Birkett The right of Tom Birkett to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN: 978-1-4724-4626-8 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-60378-0 (ebk) Typeset in Sabon by Apex CoVantage, LLC


List of figures List of abbreviations Acknowledgements Introduction: script and sensibility 1



vi vii viii 1

The writing’s on the wall: inscription and inheritance in Old English poetry


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation in the Exeter Book


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs: the ornamental textuality of runes



Re-scripting the past in Old Norse heroic poetry



Sacred script: myths of writing in the Poetic Edda


Conclusion: the shape of things to come


Bibliography Index

191 209


1.1 1.2 1.3 2.1 2.2 2.3 3.1 3.2 3.3


The Franks Casket, front panel The Franks Casket, left panel Eþel rune. Cotton Vitellius A. xv, fol. 170r Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 124r Riddle 19(17). Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 105r The Runic Riddle in Cynewulf’s Juliana. Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 76r Fuþorc preserved in Cotton Domitian A. ix, fol. 11v Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 422, p. 4 The OE Rune Poem, as represented in George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (Oxford, 1705) Fragmentary sixth-century Bracteate from Skrydstrup, South Jutland (IK 166) including the formula words lauk=az and alu

16 19 37 59 63 74 91 94



© For kind permission to reproduce the images in this book, I would like to thank the Abbey Library of St Gall (for the cover image); the Trustees of the British Museum (for Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2); the British Library Board (for Figure 1.3 and Figure 3.1); Professor Bernard J. Muir and Exeter Cathedral Library (for Figure 2.1, Figure 2.2 and Figure 2.3); the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (for Figure 3.2) and the National Museum of Denmark (for Figure 4.1).


For the sigla used in citing individual runic inscriptions, see the bibliography. ASE ASPR BT CSASE CV EETS JEGP MSE N&Q OE OE Bede ON PLL RES SBVS SN

Anglo-Saxon England Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records J. Bosworth and T.N. Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Oxford, 1898) and T.N. Toller, Supplement (Oxford, 1921) Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England Richard Cleasby, Gudbrand Vigfusson and William R. Graigie, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1957) Early English Text Society Journal of English and Germanic Philology Phillip Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf (eds.), Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (London, 1993) Notes & Queries Old English Thomas Miller (ed.), The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London, 1890) Old Norse Papers on Language and Literature Review of English Studies Saga Book of the Viking Society Studia Neophilologica


This book was completed in two stages, at the University of Oxford and University College Cork (UCC). To the community of medievalists at Oxford I owe a debt of thanks for supporting and challenging my research in its early stages. Particular thanks are due to Malcolm Godden, Siân Grønlie, Stuart Lee and Eric Stanley for their criticism and advice, as well as to fellow postgraduate researchers at Oxford and further afield for many fruitful conversations. I am also indebted to Carolyne Larrington and John Hines for examining the thesis on which this book is based, and for their support in taking the research forward. Rory McTurk, who encouraged my interest in medieval literature at Leeds, deserves a special mention, but the biggest debt of gratitude is owed to Heather O’Donoghue, whose generosity as a supervisor and colleague is unsurpassed. Without her direction and constant encouragement, this book could not have been written. At UCC, I have benefitted from an incredibly nurturing department, and the input of numerous colleagues and students who can’t all be mentioned here. Particular thanks must go to Claire Connolly for her support of medieval studies in the School, to fellow medievalists Sarah Baccianti and Roderick Dale, and to the former post holders Éamonn Ó Carragáin and Elisabeth Okasha, from whose considerable knowledge I have been lucky enough to benefit. I would also like to thank Erika Gaffney at Ashgate and Kate Fornadel at Apex Covantage as well as the two anonymous readers who provided invaluable feedback. It goes without saying that all remaining infelicities in this book are entirely my own. The funding I received from the Arts and Humanities Research Council made it possible to undertake this research, as did research assistance from the Viking Society for Northern Research and the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences and School of English at UCC. I am also grateful for the grant provided by the National University of Ireland towards the cost of reproducing images. This book is dedicated to my ever-patient parents.

Introduction Script and sensibility

Since the earliest days of antiquarian interest in the script, the study of runes has been dogged by misinformation and by emotive responses to a writing system popularly understood as esoteric and mystical. Although scholars such as Ole Worm and the Englishman George Hickes took the first steps in establishing runology as a discipline as far back as the seventeenth century, the early study of runes was far from an exact science, more often than not bound up with the idiosyncratic agendas of amateur enthusiasts. That the term ‘runic’ was regularly used to refer to Scandinavian languages and even ‘northern’ sensibilities, ‘contrasting with the staid, formal and Classical “Roman” ’, is in many ways symptomatic of the misunderstandings that proliferated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,1 and it is perhaps no surprise that this ordinary script entered into the literary consciousness as an index of magic and barbarism. As late as the twentieth century we find sentiments such as that propounded in Alice Edwardes’ poem ‘Runes’, in which the line ‘startled Earth, awaking from her swoon’ is rhymed with the dramatic declaration that ‘Immortals! God alone may chant your Rune!’2 In fact, this single couplet features a litany of misconceptions about the script: a conflation of letters with spoken chants; an association of runes with reading the future; a link with the divine. Earlier in this same poem we are led to understand that ‘Burns in the rune our own fierce Parent Star’, an association with racial identity that came to the fore in the völkisch movement of 1930s Germany, and which saw runes co-opted by the architects of the Third Reich. Thanks in part to Tolkien’s more benign appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc as the basis for the writing system of his race of dwarves, runes had become a staple of fantasy fiction by the latter half of the twentieth century. The script also found favour amongst New Age fortune tellers, and the fact that a publication such as The Book of Runes: A Compass for Navigating in Turbulent Times can boast of having sold over two million copies highlights the persistence of such misplaced ideas.3 As the English runologist R.I. Page notes, such a pervasion of nonsense threatened to ‘lead the study of runes into contempt amongst the thoughtful’ and still casts a shadow over the discipline.4



Some of the associations that the writing system now holds in the popular imagination can be traced to ‘such romantic ideas as can be attributed to old age and strangeness’ as Bæksted points out.5 Yet, if we want to understand the history of misplaced sensibilities regarding the script, we must go back past the early years of runology, and the over-zealous use of runes by poets in the modern era, to the literary accounts of the script that preceded and at times informed these later responses – particularly the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons and medieval Icelanders. Rather than reading this poetic material as a contemporary account of the realities of runic writing, this book understands the use and representation of runes in medieval poetry as the first layer in the complex reception history of the runic script, produced by a culture contemplating the runic tradition from the vantage point of a developed literary culture. Through critical reading of the runic tradition reflected and re-presented in this earliest literature, we can glimpse a culture interrogating the parameters of its literary traditions, negotiating a complex scriptural heritage and establishing a poetic image of the script that has influenced the discourse to the present day.

Reading the runes In today’s parlance, the phrase ‘to read the runes’ has become a staple journalistic jargon term, meaning to predict the future through scrutiny of the present, illustrating just how ingrained the notion of runic sortilege has become. However, the original writers of runes were far more concerned with correct reading and apprehension of the written message than with predicting the future, and variations on the call to ráð rétt rúnar! (‘read the runes correctly!’) appear frequently in runic inscriptions from medieval Scandinavia.6 Indeed, the exhortation to ráð rétt seems to have become something of a stock phrase, common enough to be abbreviated as ra(þ)rt by one Ulfríkr, plying his trade in Rogaland (N 237), and for a rune writer in Hopperstad Church to sign off his inscription with a particularly curt r= =r ra=r (N 408). Such a plea for correct interpretation is also echoed in the literature of medieval Iceland. In one oft-cited episode the poet-hero Egill rebukes a farmer’s son for his poor command of the runic script, uttering a verse chastising incompetent rune carvers and pointing out the dangers of miswriting: Skalat maðr rúnar rísta, nema ráða vel kunni. Þat verðr mǫrgum manni, es of myrkvan staf villisk.7 [A man should not cut runes unless he knows how to interpret them correctly; it happens to many a man that he goes astray with an obscure rune-stave.]



This half-strophe expresses in no uncertain terms the importance of reading runes correctly, and although the episode is somewhat fanciful (with the miswritten runes identified as the cause of illness) the sentiment expressed by Egill seems to be authentic, and is even paraphrased on a rune-stick from Trondheim (N A142).8 The importance of not going ‘astray’ when reading runes is also expressed in the heroic and mythological poems of the Poetic Edda: the valkyrie Sigrdrífa refers to writing various categories of runes on amulets in unerring and unblemished form, and after a strange self-sacrifice carried out in order to gain knowledge of the runes in the poem Hávamál, Óðinn is said to enquire ‘Veiztu hvé rísta skal? Veiztu hvé ráða skal?’ (‘Do you know how to carve? Do you know how to interpret?’) (st. 144). The importance accorded to correct reading in the human world is reflected here in the concerns of the gods. In Old English poetry we also find an implicit challenge to read the runes correctly through their use as clues in riddles, Riddle 58(56) even describing them as ‘ryhte runstafas’ (‘true rune-staves’) (l. 15), echoing the term rúnar réttar referred to in inscriptions from Scandinavia and suggesting a similar concern with correct practice. For Cynewulf certainly, the ability to solve the runic puzzle was a matter of considerable import, as it was bound up with the revelation of his didactic message. Indeed, whilst the type of reading called for by the rune carvers, stressed by Egill and demanded by Cynewulf, has its roots in correct apprehension of the runic characters and interpretation of the message, there is clearly another dimension to these pleas for correct reading in the poetry. Egill is referring to the effects of runes carved wrongly, which in this literary context are granted the power to heal or harm; Hávamál goes on to refer to sacrifice and to the carving of runes ‘fyr þióða rǫk’ (‘before the origin of humankind’) (st. 145); and Cynewulf demands that the reader not only expands the runic logographs, but also interprets their message in terms of personal salvation. There is certainly more to reading the ‘runic imagery’, to borrow Seth Lerer’s term,9 in these literary contexts than avoiding mistakes in construing an inscription: in order to read them correctly it is necessary to interpret the literary and cultural value of the runes, appreciating the way they operate as meaningful signs (both graphical and literary) within the hermeneutical framework of poetic texts. This is a distinction between the sense of reading as a process of construing linguistic meaning from written signs (which must always be the primary focus of runology), and reading as a broader interpretative endeavour. If we fail to pay attention to the dynamics of the literary work when reading this runic imagery (or isolate the individual episode from the wider literary construction of the script), we are perhaps as culpable as runologists who offer an interpretation of an inscription without recourse to the material or archaeological context, and without reference to the wider corpus of inscriptions. Just as ‘it is important for the philologically-minded runologist . . . to become at least acquainted with other aspects of the monument than just its linguistic ones’,10 so must the reading of runes in literary



contexts be premised on an understanding of the whole work in its manuscript context, as well as the wider tradition into which it falls. This book sets out to read the runes in poetry on their own terms – as meaningful components of literary texts, rather than as a pale reflection of existential runic practice – and also to contextualise these poetic constructs by reference to the wider literary tradition. In doing so, it aims to shed new light on familiar poetic cruces, as well as to build up a picture of the role that runic inheritance played in the development of two dynamic literary cultures. Indeed, whilst comparisons between the literature of Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Scandinavia are often premised on vague analogues and a shared stock of Germanic tropes, the runic script represents a more tangible inheritance shared by both cultures. The differences between these literary cultures should not be understated, but with respect to runic heritage there are clear parallels. In Anglo-Saxon England – and particularly in Wessex where the vast majority of the surviving literature was produced – poets and scribes were looking back to a runic tradition that belonged to a past age, and that had been revived in the scriptorium for particular purposes and effects.11 In medieval Iceland we find a situation in which poets are not so much temporally removed from runic practice, as geographically dislocated from a runic tradition that was flourishing elsewhere in the Norse world. For whatever reason, the epigraphical tradition that we find evidence of in Greenland, the Northern Isles and most conspicuously in Norway, does not seem to have been fully translated to the context of Iceland, at least before the thirteenth century,12 and even then we seem to be dealing with ‘a uniquely Icelandic development . . . that differs in important respects from neighbouring traditions’.13 Although three centuries and a significant linguistic and cultural divide separate the two bodies of literature considered in this study, the position of the poets of Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland with respect to runic heritage is thus broadly analogous. Both literary cultures inherited knowledge of the runic system and the conventions associated with it, but viewed this literate past obliquely, as custodians of received tradition. Comparing the role of runic imagery in mediating and mythologizing the contemporary culture of letters in the poetry of AngloSaxon England and medieval Iceland can thus help us to understand how these two cultures responded in different ways to a specific feature of a wider Germanic inheritance. The runic legacy that is the subject of this book has been approached in the past from two main perspectives: that of the literary critic, more often than not interested in the role a particular runic strategy plays within a particular text, and that of the runologist typically concerned with the runica manuscripta tradition and the transmission of knowledge about the runic writing system. The study of runes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts could not have advanced without the seminal work of René Derolez, who produced the first comprehensive study of Anglo-Saxon runica manuscripta and the dissemination of runic material in England and on the Continent. However,



Derolez was himself rather dismissive of the use of runes in literary contexts, and devotes only a single closing chapter to the unsystematic use of runes by Anglo-Saxon poets presumed to be drawing on the fuþorcs and runic alphabets that were his primary concern.14 With respect to the Norse runica manuscripta tradition, there remains quite a bit of work to be done. Heizmann’s foray into the earliest manuscript material has been supplemented by Bauer’s survey of later manuscripts and detailed study of the Scandinavian rune poems,15 both drawing on the initial collection of manuscript runes in Bæksted’s corpus edition Islands runeindskrifter:16 Derolez’s planned study of the less uniform Norse material, reserved for a later occasion, did not materialise.17 Introductions to runology generally make reference to the runica manuscripta of England and Iceland, and occasionally include a discussion of the use and representation of runes in literature, although usually as an interesting side note to the practiced tradition.18 It is also probably fair to describe the runes that appear in Old English and Old Norse poetic texts as ‘marginal to general editorial interests’.19 The standard Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR) editions of Old English poetry provide only cursory (and sometimes erroneous) comments on the runic strategies on display, and even Anlezark’s excellent recent edition of the Old English Solomon and Saturn I, whilst including a comprehensive study of sources and analogues for the poem, does not attempt to set the runic Pater Noster in the context of the wider runic tradition.20 Dronke’s edition of the Edda is as insightful with regards to the representation of runes as it is to most aspects of Norse culture, and represents a great improvement on the minimalist textual apparatus of Neckel,21 but important poems such as Sigrdrífumál and Guðrúnarkviða II are missing from her three published volumes.22 The student must turn to Evans for a close analysis of the Rúnatal section of Hávamál,23 or to the excellent Kommentar of von See et al. for a comprehensive discussion of such slippery concepts as ‘victory runes’ and ‘ale runes’,24 but even here there is not the scope to draw these isolated references together and make sense of them as a whole. In the early twentieth century, Dickins did attempt to gather certain Anglo-Saxon ‘runic’ texts together into a rather misleadingly titled anthology,25 whilst A. Hacikyan made a start on a more reasoned survey of runes in poetry in a short article on the subject.26 On the Norse side, we have several studies of runes in Icelandic literature from the turn of the twentieth century,27 as well as a more recent survey of the material in Bæksted’s Målruner og Troldruner. This work draws on evidence from both runic inscriptions and Old Norse literature with the aim of dispelling the notion that runes were regarded as magical symbols by the societies that used them. One legacy of Bæksted’s study has been a more cautious use of the literary sources, many of which he reads as poetic distortions of practical procedures. However, he could also be accused of engaging in exactly the kind of approach that he vehemently criticised: namely straining the sources to fit a preconceived notion about



the role of the runic script. That said, the idea that accounts of the script in the Poetic Edda should be regarded as ‘mythical reflections of practical conditions of life rather than suggestions of the magic properties of the runes’ is salutary,28 and in many ways this study supports Bæksted’s contentions by understanding poetry as a response to the value of rather than the existential realities of runic writing. Elliott’s lively Runes: An Introduction combines serious runological scholarship with the kind of imaginative conjecture that Bæksted criticised, and some of his insights into the literary function of runes (as well as his speculations about the magico-ritual function of the script) were expanded upon in a series of articles relating to individual Old English texts.29 Unlike Elliott, who used his literary training to inform his work as a runologist, I draw a clear distinction between the special context of literature and the practiced runic tradition. This is a distinction maintained by Seth Lerer in his insightful Literacy and Power, a study that sets runic literacy in the wider context of Anglo-Saxon learning and recognises the importance of the script in establishing a ‘mythology of writing for a literate vernacular poetics’.30 Lerer’s approach, clearly influenced by post-structural criticism, is particularly significant in that it pays attention to the runic inheritance ignored in many studies of incipient literacy, and his chapters on the runic hilt in Beowulf and literacy and power in the OE Daniel will serve as vital points of reference throughout this book. However, in conflating runes with other imaginative images of script (such as illuminated letters) in an ambitious attempt to recreate the literate mentalities of an era, we lose sense slightly of what makes runic heritage distinctive in the Anglo-Saxon literary mindset, a question this book sets out to address. Pending publication of Victoria Symons’ eagerly anticipated monograph treating runes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts,31 Orton’s Writing in a Speaking World is the latest study to draw on runic material (both epigraphical and manuscript) in order to understand the ‘pragmatics of literacy’ in Anglo-Saxon England.32 In addition to addressing the evidence from the runic corpus and the ‘staggered start’ to the progress of literacy in England, he devotes attention to some of the most important Old English poetic contexts in which runes are used, including Cynewulf’s signatures and the runic riddles of the Exeter Book. The notion that certain manuscript runes exhibit ‘structural links with their original epigraphical function’ is approached from a different angle in Chapter 3 of the current study,33 but whereas Orton is interested in the marginal role of the script in the interface between epigraphical and manuscript literacy, I am concerned with the literary implications of this transfer of script between mediums, and the development of a consistent aesthetic of runic writing in the poetry. Studies by Bragg, Dewa, DiNapoli, Fell, Niles, Symons and Birkett take more targeted approaches to the use of runes in selected Old English poems,34 whilst articles by Dillman, Macleod and Markey indicate a degree of continuing interest in literary references to runes in the Old Norse tradition.35



It is clear that in its focus on the runic script as a system of signs that carry both linguistic and cultural meaning this book is influenced by recent developments in the study and theorising of writing, and that it engages with the wider orality/literacy debate in medieval textual studies. To a certain extent this book’s focus on a literary residue in medieval poetry presumed to be oral in origin serves to partially deconstruct the oft-perceived primacy of the oral-formulaic model of transmission: the use of runes in the Exeter Book riddles, for example, problematises Doane’s characterisation of Old English poetry as ‘never intended to feed into a lineage of writing’ and ‘extrinsic to its main existence in ongoing oral traditions’,36 whilst the internal references to runic writing in Eddic poetry put paid to the idea that these texts originate from a exclusively oral society. The mediation of oral poetry by Latin literacy and textual models has certainly been a fruitful area of enquiry, Pasternack and O’Brien O’Keeffe in particular bringing the concepts of ‘inscribed texts’ and ‘visible song’ to our attention,37 and the subject has benefited from the widespread recognition that ‘Latin texts and textuality supplied the models for most English texts’, even those judged to be composed within the native oral tradition.38 However, much less attention has been paid to the role of the runic script in the development of these hybrid modes of literacy, with the notable exception of the studies by Lerer and Orton mentioned previously. Although the runic script is alphabetic and functions in much the same way as the roman alphabet, the types of utterances, the conventions of rune carving and the material associations with runes were particular, and we are right to talk of runic literacy and runic textuality as distinct phenomena. Indeed, whilst earlier generations of runologists were keen to present the runic script as an exact equivalent to the roman alphabet, the distinctiveness of the runic medium and the particularities of runic literacy have themselves gained increasing attention in recent years.39 Whether authentic or created in the literary imagination, the legacy that this alternative textual tradition had on Old English and Old Norse poetry incorporating or evoking the script should not be disregarded, and the productive meeting of these two textual cultures in the poetry informs every approach in the book. The following study is broken down into five chapters, each of which represents a discrete but complementary reading of the runes in a selected group of poems. Chapter 1 focuses on the link between inscription and inheritance in Old English poetry, beginning with a discussion of the (limited) evidence for theoretical engagement with the origins of the runic script by Anglo-Saxon antiquarians. The Franks Casket provides a useful starting point for interrogating the syncretic narrative that developed in the process of integrating the runes with a Christian conception of scriptural heritage. Rather than representing an inert substitute for roman script, the runes are pointedly associated in the scheme of the Franks Casket with both Germanic and early Christian history, and with a particular prophetic register. A similar association between the script and Old Testament history seems



to inform the use of runic imagery in the OE Daniel and the representation of the runic sword hilt in Beowulf. In this latter case, the runes not only provide a warning to read their prophetic import correctly, but align the Germanic past with Old Testament history, and provide a test of the correct reading of scriptural history in the present. The runic reckoning in Andreas is based on a similar construction of the script as a prophetic Old Testament signifier that warns of the flood and indicates God’s plan for the people. Taken together, these poetic representations of runic inscription suggest some effort by learned Anglo-Saxons to understand runic heritage within a paradigm for Christian salvation history. Chapter 2 turns to address the co-option of runes as a book script within the context of the Exeter Book, an eclectic anthology of Old English poems that offers the opportunity to reconstruct the associations held by the script within a tenth-century community of scribes and readers. Runes are consistently used in the Exeter Book in the context of revelatory reading practices, an association with ‘unlocking’ that may be explained by reference to the venerable Bede’s extraordinary story of Imma and his unlocking chains. I suggest that Bede’s oblique reference to alysendlic (‘unlocking’) runes and the use of runes as solutions to many of the riddles in the collection represent two points on an intellectual continuum that associated the runic script with disclosure and revelation to the Christian initiate. The appeal of such a poetic association in the context of contemporary devotional reading practice is highlighted through an analysis of Cynewulf’s runic ‘signatures’ as a form of invested disclosure. Chapter 3 moves from a consideration of intellectual responses to runes in poetry to the aesthetic sensibilities that dictated their adoption in certain poetic contexts. The employment of the script for its unusual appearance suggests a truly antiquarian approach to runic heritage, but the alterity of this primarily epigraphical script also served as a productive means through which to draw attention to the written word as a material object. As well as serving to illustrate the hypostatised letters of the Pater Noster prayer, the use of runes in Solomon and Saturn I and an acute awareness of the ornamental qualities of the script may underlie the highly unusual portrayal of a ‘palm-twigged’ Pater Noster prayer. The rune poems of the Anglo-Saxon and Norwegian traditions are analysed with a similar focus on their expression of an ornamental textuality, highlighting the importance of shape and form to the guiding conceit of the poems, and even the unique layout of the OE Rune Poem on the page. The historicity or otherwise of literary references to runic practice is a topic of some importance to literary critics, historians and runologists alike, and Chapter 4 directly addresses the issue of the historical concordance between traditional rune lore and epigraphical practice. Using a case study of the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda – concerned with legendary figures from the Migration Period, but surviving in a thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript – the chapter compares references to runes in the poetry with



what is known of runic practice from an early period, looking in particular at the list of exotic rune types in Sigrdrífumál. I argue that the few overlaps between Eddic rune lore and the corpus of older fuþark inscriptions may arise from a blend of fossilised poetic association and sensitive literary reconstruction, whilst the more prosaic use of runes in Atlamál in Groenlenzko may represent the updating of runic heritage to reflect contemporary concerns. Chapter 5, the final chapter of this study, addresses the mythological poems of the Eddic tradition and in doing so foregrounds the role of the runic script in the interrogation of literacy and written authority. Approaching Old Norse mythology with a view to the cultural work that it performs, this chapter situates the myths of the origin and transmission of runes represented in Hávamál, Rígsþula and Sólarljóð within a paradigm of contemporary engagement with the written word and its symbolic currency. The inclusion of runes in the mythological complex is testament to their important role in benchmarking social progress and engaging with the possibilities and apprehensions associated with an increasingly literate society. Whilst the mythological account of runic inception tells us little about the realities of runic practice, it undoubtedly casts light on the cultural importance of runes both in pre-Christian and post-conversion society, and their role in the development of literate sensibilities.

A note on conventions Although drawing on epigraphical evidence, this study is not concerned primarily with the transcription and interpretation of inscriptions, and does not presume to inform this central business of runology. When making reference to runic inscriptions (and to runes in manuscripts) I follow the Swedish (Samnordisk runtextdatabas) standards: transliterations are thus given in bold, with a single hyphen, - , indicating an unreadable rune, an ellipsis, . . ., indicating a longer portion of missing text, round brackets ( ), for damaged runes which can still be read, and square brackets, [ ], for runes which cannot be read but can be conjectured from early readings. Following convention, the normalised text is written in italics, and an English translation is given in single quotation marks. The readings followed are for the most part that of the Samnordisk runtextdatabas, for inscriptions in the younger and medieval fuþarks,40 and the database of the Kiel Rune Project (Runenprojekt Kiel)41 for older fuþark inscriptions with reference made to the corpus editions of Krause and Jankuhn,42 and Tineke Looijenga.43 The various publications to which the runic sigla refer are listed in the bibliography. For inscriptions in the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc, Page’s transcriptions in An Introduction to English Runes are supplemented by reports of individual finds. The ASPR editions and line numbers are used for Old English poetry and Ursula Dronke (ed.), The Poetic Edda for the Norse material, with Gustav Neckel (ed.), Edda – Die Lieder des Codex Regius used for



Sigrdrífumál and Guðrúnarkviða I and II, three Eddic poems not covered in Dronke’s published volumes. When editions other than these are used they are referred to in the text, and all translations are my own unless otherwise stated.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6

7 8

9 10 11 12 13 14 15

16 17 18


R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 5. Alice Edwardes, Runes: And Other Poems (London, 1925), p. 10. Ralph Blum, Book of Runes, e-book edn (New York, 2012), Front Cover. Page, An Introduction, p. xiii. Anders Bæksted, Målruner og Troldruner: Runemagiske Studier (Copenhagen, 1952), p. 322. Notable examples include DR 222, U 847, U 11, N 352 and N 575, this last inscription from Gol stave church simply reading ra=þ rett ru(=n)a=r þesar Ráð rétt rúnar þessar. ‘Interpret these runes correctly!’, and exhibiting distinctly ‘meta-scriptural’ characteristics, Terje Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Woodbridge, 2005), p. 180. Sigurður Nordal (ed.), Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar (Reykavík, 1933), st. 48, p. 230. James E. Knirk, ‘Runes from Trondheim and a Stanza by Egill Skalla-Grímsson’, in Heiko Uecker (ed.), Studien zum Altgermanischen: Festschrift für Henrich Beck (Berlin, 1994), pp. 411–20. Whilst recast as a positive statement, this late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century inscription bears a remarkable similarity to Egil’s lausavísa, and Knirk argues it is ‘most likely that the runic verse preserves an older half-stanza that was remoulded by tradition or by the author of Egils saga’, p. 418. Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), p. 16. Judith Jesch, Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (Woodbridge, 2001), p. 37. Indeed, it is likely that there was no ‘native’ tradition in certain areas of England, including Wessex. See Page, An Introduction, pp. 16–37, p. 227, and the introductory discussion in Chapter 1 of this book. See Michael Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (Woodbridge, 2012), p. 130. Judith Jesch, The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015), p. 173. René Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (Brugge, 1954). All non-alphabetic runica manuscripta, including reference marks, abbreviations, scribal notes, signatures and poetic runes are treated together in his final chapter. See Wilhelm Heizmann, ‘Runica manuscripta: Die isländische Überlieferung’, in Klaus Düwel (ed.), Runeninschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung (Berlin, 1998), pp. 513–35; and Alessia Bauer, ‘Die späten Runica Manuscripta aus Island. Was versteht man unter málrúnir?’, Futhark 1 (2010): 197–223; and Runengedichte: Texte, Untersuchungen und Kommentare zur gesamten Überlieferung, Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia 9 (Vienna, 2003). Anders Bæksted (ed.), Islands runeindskrifter (Copenhagen, 1942). Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. lvi–lvii. General introductions to runes include Ralph W.V. Elliott, Runes: An Introduction, 2nd edn (Manchester, 1989); Klaus Düwel, Runenkunde, 4th edn (Stuttgart, 2008); Barnes, Runes: A Handbook; and most recently Martin Findell, Runes (London, 2014). R.I. Page, ‘Runic Writing, Roman Script and the Scriptorium’, in Staffan Nyström (ed.), Runor och ABC (Stockholm, 1997), pp. 119–36, at p. 134.



20 Daniel Anlezark (ed. and trans.), The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 28–9. 21 Gustav Neckel (ed.), Edda – Die Lieder des Codex Regius, 2 vols (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1962/68). 22 Ursula Dronke (ed. and trans.), The Poetic Edda, vols. 1–3 (Oxford, 1969–2011). 23 David A.H. Evans (ed.), Hávamál (London, 1986). 24 Klaus von See et al., Kommentar zu den Liedern der Edda, 7 vols (Heidelberg, 1997–2012). 25 Bruce Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples (Cambridge, 1915). 26 A. Hacikyan, ‘The Runes of Old English Poetry’, Revue de L’Université d’Ottawa 43:1 (1973): 53–76. 27 Björn Magnússon Ólsen, Runerne i den oldislandske literature (Copenhagen, 1883) and Finnur Jónsson, ‘Runerne i den norsk-islandske digtning og litteratur’, Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, ser. II, vol. 25 (1910): 283–308. 28 Bæksted, Målruner og Troldruner, p. 320. 29 See, for example, Ralph W.V. Elliott, ‘The Runes in The Husband’s Message’, JEGP 54:1 (1955): 1–8 and ‘Runes Yews and Magic’, Speculum 32 (1957): 250–61. 30 Lerer, Literacy and Power, p. 3. 31 Victoria Symons, Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (Berlin, Forthcoming). 32 Peter Orton, Writing in a Speaking World: The Pragmatics of Literacy in AngloSaxon Inscriptions and Old English Poetry (Tempe, AZ, 2014). 33 Ibid., p. 233. 34 Lois Bragg, ‘Runes and Readers: In and around “The Husband’s Message” ’, SN 71:1 (1999): 34–50; Roberta J. Dewa, ‘The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 39 (1995): 26–36; Robert DiNapoli, ‘Odd Characters: Runes in Old English Poetry’, in Antonia Harbus and Russell Poole (eds.), Verbal Encounters: AngloSaxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank (Toronto, 2005), pp. 145–62; Christine E. Fell, ‘Runes and Riddles in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Carole Hough and Kathryn A. Lowe (eds.), ‘Lastworda Betst’: Essays in Memory of Christine E. Fell with Her Unpublished Writings (Donnington, 2002), pp. 264–77; John D. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts (Turnhout, 2006); Victoria Symons, ‘Reading and Writing in the Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book’, Quaestio Insularis 12 (2012), 126–48; Tom Birkett, ‘Runes and Revelatio: Cynewulf’s Signatures Reconsidered’, RES 65:272 (2014): 771–89; and ‘Unlocking Runes? Reading Anglo-Saxon Runic Abbreviations in Their Immediate Literary Context’, Futhark 5 (2014): 91–114. 35 François-Xavier Dillmann, ‘Runorna i den fornisländska litteraturen: En översikt’, Scripta Islandica 46 (1995): 13–28; Mindy Macleod, ‘Bandrúnir in Icelandic Sagas’, in Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross (eds.), Preprints of the 11th International Saga Conference (Sydney, 2000), pp. 252–63; and Tom Markey, ‘Studies in Runic Origins 2: From Gods to Men’, American Journal of Germanic Linguistics & Literatures 11:2 (1999): 131–203. Other studies of individual poems will be referred to in the relevant chapters. 36 A.N. Doane, ‘Oral Texts, Intertexts and Intratexts: Editing Old English’, in E. Rothstein and J. Clayton (eds.), Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History (Madison, WI, 1991), pp. 75–113, at p. 86. 37 See Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995) and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990).



38 Martin Irvine, ‘Medieval Textuality and the Archaeology of Textual Culture’, in Allen J. Frantzen (ed.), Speaking Two Languages (Albany, NY, 1991), pp. 181–210, at p. 186. 39 For recent discussions of runic literacy see John Hines, ‘Functions of Literacy and the Use of Runes’, in Nyström (ed.), Runor och ABC, pp. 79–91; Judith Jesch, ‘Still Standing in Ågersta: Textuality and Literacy in Late Viking Age Rune Stone Inscriptions’, in Düwel (ed.), Runeninschriften, pp. 462–75; Terje Spurkland, ‘Scandinavian Medieval Runic Inscriptions: An Interface between Literacy and Orality?’, in J. Higgit et al. (eds.), Roman, Runes and Ogham (Donington, Lincs, 2001), pp. 121–8; and ‘Literacy and “Runacy” in Medieval Scandinavia’, in J. Adams and K. Holman (eds.), Scandinavia and Europe 800–1350 (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 333–44. 40 Samnordisk runtextdatabas. Institutionen för nordiska språk, Uppsala universitet. Accessed August 2016. 41 Runenprojekt Kiel database (Sprachwissenschaftliche Datenbank der Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark), Accessed August 2016. 42 Wolfgang Krause and Herbert Jankuhn, Die Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark, 2 vols (Göttingen, 1966). 43 Tineke Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Leiden, 2003).


The writing’s on the wall Inscription and inheritance in Old English poetry

There is little evidence from the corpus of Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions to suggest that runes – the written characters known to the Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain from the Continent – were associated with preChristian religious practice in England,1 and it is therefore hardly surprising that this alphabetic script was swiftly assimilated into the rich and capacious textual culture of the early Anglo-Saxon Church. The characters þorn and wyn(n) were co-opted from the fuþorc to serve as additional letters in the insular alphabet, and runes had a clear practical value as an alternative script particularly suited to epigraphy. The status that runes came to hold in Northumbria in particular is demonstrated by the use of the script on such significant monuments as the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses and St Cuthbert’s Coffin, whilst recent finds such as the eighth-century page turner discovered in Baconsthorpe in Norfolk suggest that runes may have fulfilled a more important textual niche within the Anglo-Saxon Church than has previously been recognised.2 Whilst Anglo-Saxon ecclesiasts saw no contradiction in using runes alongside the roman alphabet – indeed, the runic tradition seems to have gained a new lease on life within religious communities in the seventh and eighth centuries – Lendinara reminds us that the script also came to ‘represent an important feature of the Germanic inheritance in England’ which lent runes a special place in Anglo-Saxon literary history.3 Indeed, although the epigraphical tradition had all but died out in late Anglo-Saxon England, it is clear that the cultural memory of the script had not. Runes continued to be recorded in manuscripts and, at least in some quarters, to be closely associated with Anglo-Saxon heritage: as late as the eleventh century an innocuous reference to ‘ure stafas’ (‘our letters’) in a manuscript of the OE Bede seems to have inspired a scribe to pen a runic abcd directly beneath it.4 If the fuþorc itself needed little adaptation to serve the needs of a newly Christian community,5 the cultural narrative of the runic script must, like other features of a Germanic inheritance, have altered in the process of adoption by the Church. The origins of the fuþorc had to be understood within a Christian paradigm for history and salvation, and its relationship with the ascendant culture of Latin letters negotiated.

14 The writing’s on the wall It is easy to forget that scripts represent cultural signifiers as well as practical technologies, and that Christianity developed its own mythology of writing, underpinned by the authority of the revealed word of God and the reliance on scripture to promulgate the faith. Indeed, early Christian theologians such as Isidore of Seville inculcated a narrative of scriptural development that fluently blended pseudo-scientific enquiry with religious superstition, his Etymologiae giving voice to a learned belief that all scripts ultimately derive from God’s gift to Moses and the Israelites. Isidore, one of the most important scholars of the late Antique world, whose writings had already ‘won a rapid and widespread popularity in Britain in the seventh century’,6 was concerned to define writing as a practical technology of literacy, stating that ‘letters are tokens of things, the signs of words’.7 Yet he also clearly fetishises this divine endowment, identifying mystical letters amongst the Greek alphabet including T as ‘the figure of the cross of the Lord’.8 What is more, whilst his account of scriptural development reiterates the orthodox notion that Latin and Greek were the direct descendants of the sacred script Hebrew (and that Chaldean and Syriac scripts were invented by Abraham), he also integrates extra-biblical narratives into this syncretic paradigm, including the notion that Latin was first brought to the Italians by the nymph Carmentis.9 If the Augustinian take on universal history provided Anglo-Saxon ecclesiasts with a theological roadmap for the rehabilitation of the pagan past, it is Isidore’s brief history of the genealogy of scripts that would have served as the authorised paradigm through which to understand the particular inheritance of the runic writing system. The runic alphabet lay well outside Isidore’s Mediterranean sphere of interest, and his Etymologiae leaves the question of runic origins open to interpretation. There is, however, some evidence that Anglo-Saxon ecclesiasts did attempt to situate runes within this Christian model of scriptural development, if not through design then perhaps through general ignorance of the writing systems to which Isidore refers. For example, certain manuscripts of an Anglo-Saxon provenance answer both the need for a separate Chaldaeo-Assyrian alphabet and the lack of a theory of runic origins in Isidore’s scriptural history simply by labelling various runic alphabets as Chaldean or Assyrian, suggesting, perhaps, a conflation of traditions.10 Of greater interest, however, is the short De inventione litterarum tract compiled in the first half of the ninth century, most probably in a German centre with strong Anglo-Saxon connections.11 This tract draws on Isidore’s Etymologiae in discussing the origins of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets, and usually includes a discussion of the runic script (as well as Aethicus Ister’s invented alphabet) alongside these sacred writing systems. As Derolez points out in his comprehensive study of the De inventione tradition, it is in this particular context that ‘runes are really integrated into the system of Mediaeval learning’: one which understood the development of all writing systems in direct relation to universal history.12 One important mid-ninthcentury manuscript (St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 878) even contains what

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may represent a ‘preliminary state’ for the compilation of this De inventione tract, containing (along with the Abecedarium Nordmannicum poem) Hebrew, Greek and runic alphabets (see Cover Image) as well as extracts from Isidore’s Etymologiae.13 We can thus say with some confidence that an attempt to (more or less formally) align a runic inheritance with an authorised pseudo-history of scriptural origins did take place, and that the question of scriptural heritage was of interest within the communities in which runic material and exotic alphabets circulated. It is also clear that scholarly engagement with the origins of the script was limited, and that certain literate communities in Anglo-Saxon England may have been unaware of the distinction between scripts; relied exclusively on oral traditions about runes; or have simply regarded the runic script as a universal writing system of the ancient world, one used by both their Germanic ancestors and the biblical patriarchs. Cautious interpretation of the literary sources can perhaps help us to understand the limits of this integrative narrative and to assess the degree to which scholarly attempts to incorporate runes in a universal history of scripts are reflected in the imaginative realm of poetry. The four texts that form the focus of this chapter – the poems Daniel, Beowulf and Andreas and the runic legends of the Franks Casket – represent some of the earliest texts in the Old English corpus, and all point in their own ways to an underlying rapprochement of a Germanic inheritance with universal history, and to the placement of runes within a biblical paradigm for scriptural development. In particular, they suggest that the native fuþorc had been re-imagined as a script of Old Testament pedigree with clear prophetic import, seeding Christian potentiality within a Germanic textual inheritance. Whether through the runic writing on the wall in Daniel, or the narrative of the flood engraved on the runic sword hilt in Beowulf, these poems give voice to an understanding of the Anglo-Saxon runic inheritance as a symbol of Divine Providence.

The Franks Casket If there is one text-object that illustrates the complexities of cultural heritage in Anglo-Saxon England, it is the small whale-bone casket donated to the British Museum by the antiquarian Augustus Wollaston Franks. The iconography of the Franks Casket and its accompanying runic text have been the subject of countless critical examinations, with the more ambitious of these studies aimed at reading the various scenes of the Casket as a thematically unified whole.14 This is a particularly challenging undertaking due to the Casket’s blending of obscure episodes from Germanic legend with Roman and Jewish history and biblical narratives, including a famous diptych on the front panel featuring both Weland the Smith and the Adoration of the Magi (see Figure 1.1). An important component in this complex of cultural inheritance is the runic script itself, which accompanies the images on the four side panels and lid of the Casket.

16 The writing’s on the wall

Figure 1.1 The Franks Casket, front panel Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The four main runic legends on the Casket are all carved in relief around a central image, and in a remarkable demonstration of runic erudition, sections of these legends are variously carved upside-down and in retrograde fashion (compare the lower legend in Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2), whilst bind runes and several cryptic runes are employed on the left panel (Figure 1.2). There is even some indication that the layout was carefully planned to allow for 72 characters in each legend.15 Whilst this display of epigraphical virtuosity perhaps represents the apogee of the runic tradition in England, the influence of the scriptorium and a developed manuscript culture is also clearly in evidence. The artificer not only shifts to Latin in the relation of the flight of the Jews from Jerusalem in the first Jewish-Roman War, but appears to deliberately mimic a book script in the carving of this Latin titulus.16 What is more, the use of cryptic runes may itself ultimately derive from a predilection for such arcana in the scriptorium, including the notae Bonifatii in which vowels are replaced by a system of dots.17 The Casket is without doubt the product of a dynamic ecclesiastical centre – most probably produced by a Northumbrian monastic community for a royal patron18 – and presents an explicit intellectual challenge to the reader: to integrate the narratives and make sense of the relationship between text and image, which arise from an ‘ostentatiously erudite’ blend of different sources of eighth-century learning and culture.19 Runes had what we might call an ongoing ‘epigraphical currency’ in the eighth century, and it is hardly surprising that they should be used to render

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the legends on the Casket, that they added certain ‘elements of crypticism and decoration’ perhaps offering a secondary appeal.20 However, the fact that the Casket so clearly acts as an interface between Germanic and Mediterranean traditions should perhaps lead us to reconsider the role of the runes within this integrative scheme, and to understand the script as a meaningful element in the Casket’s syncretic symbolism. The legend on the rear panel is perhaps the most informative when it comes to understanding the script’s positioning in relation to the roman alphabet. This panel depicts the first war between the Romans and the Jews in AD 70, with the inscription relating directly to the scene, and telling us specifically that ‘Here Titus and a Jew fight’. The upper segment of the scene depicts the Romans led by Titus on the one side, and the fleeing Jews on the other side, the two segments connected by an arched structure usually interpreted as the Temple of Jerusalem. To the left of this structure is a scene depicting the Judgement of the Jews, a punishment prophesised by Josephus after a divine revelation, according to his account The Jewish War. Accompanying this scene is the runic inscription dom (‘judgement’), whilst in the bottom left of the panel, the Jews are forced into slavery, indicated by the inscription gisl (‘hostage’). It is important to recognise that the movement from the Old Testament covenant represented by the Israelites to the Roman world in which Christianity would take root is mirrored in a change of script – an imitation of a Latin book hand which suggests the transition to a new authority, and the artificer’s assumption that runes represent an older period of textual history.21 Runes are positioned as symbolic of scriptural history associated with the Old Testament, whilst the message they proclaim is one of God’s judgement on a people. The blending of runes and roman script on the rear panel serves as an obvious parallel to the meeting of Germanic and Christian narratives on the Casket as a whole. The character Ægili, who appears on the lid of the Casket defending a female against the attack of what appear to be giants, is not easily identifiable despite his name being provided in runes,22 although as Webster points out, overlaps in imagery suggest it was to be read as a Germanic counterpart to the Fall of Jerusalem depicted on the rear panel, and that it represents a parallel image of siege and defeat.23 There is no runic legend in the border to explain this scene: rather, we are expected to read it against a linked narrative from early Christian history on the rear panel, the use of runes to describe the Jewish Wars serving to further reinforce these connections between Germanic and sacred history. In a similar way, the use of runes to describe the scene of Romulus and Remus in exile on the left panel may be intended to stress the developed and oft-cited connection between these legendary progenitors of Rome, and the brothers Hengest and Horsa who were believed to have founded Anglo-Saxon England.24 Rather than drawing parallels through imagery, the use of runes itself provides the link between classical history and the story of Germanic migration from the Continent in the Casket’s syncretic programme. The story of Romulus

18 The writing’s on the wall and Remus is prophetic in that it looks forward to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church (as well as the fratricide committed by Romulus), but by relating this Roman legend in runes it also provides a foreshadowing of the settlement of Anglo-Saxon England. It is interesting that of all the scenes depicted on the Casket, the only one that is unequivocally associated with the gospels and with the message of salvation promised through Christ is that of the Adoration of the Magi on the front panel. This scene is clearly set in an illuminating contrast with the illusory material gifts of the Germanic hero Weland, a subtle juxtaposition that demonstrates the continuing relevance of pagan legend within a Christian community. However, it may be significant that the runic legend that surrounds this diptych does not refer to either of the scenes depicted, but relates the mournful life history of the whale out of whose bone the Casket is made. The riddle describes the whale as gasric (‘king of terror’), and we should note that the whale is a creature often associated with the devil (in the Exeter Book poem The Whale, for example): thus, this legend may represent the symbolic defeat of the Antichrist anticipated in the birth of the Saviour. It also recalls the Old Testament narrative of Jonah, which was reinterpreted in the New Testament as foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Christ.25 A further clue that the artificer is pointedly using the script as a bearer of symbolic as well as linguistic meaning is the fact that the runes run retrograde when referring to the fate of the whale, which may represent the fact that this leviathan ‘runs against nature’ as Webster suggests, offering a ‘verbal and visual commentary’ on the riddle that depicts the creature’s death and transformation into a speaking object.26 As Fell suggests, the reader is ‘caught up in a mournful life history’,27 the solution hronæs ban running vertically up the side of the casket even suggesting visually the beaching of the whale. The runic inscription, rather than pertaining directly to the nativity or the Germanic legend of Weland, is associated in both content and form with the mournful history of the whale as a type of the devil, with the story of Jonah, and with an Old Testament narrative fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ. These scenes are drawn variously from Germanic legend, Jewish and Roman history, and early Christian sources – juxtaposing scenes as various as the legendary world of Weland, battles with giants, the founding of Rome and the birth of Christ. Rather than deploying runes as a straightforward alternative to the roman alphabet within this ‘subtle narrative scheme’,28 what I suggest we are seeing here is the positioning of the script as both a symbol of a Germanic inheritance and as a conduit of biblical history, one that foreshadows later narratives and looks forward to the ascendancy of roman script. All the main runic legends on the Casket relate a mournful prehistory prior to the revelations of the gospels, and as Webster points out, the blurring of the lines between the pagan past of the Anglo-Saxons and early Christian history was ‘in perfect accord with the Church’s concept of universal history’, a scheme in which ‘events or tales of the past, in all their diversity, were part of that greater history which culminated in God’s

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message’.29 Runes, both on the Casket itself and as a motif within AngloSaxon poetry, represent a scriptural adjunct to this process of co-opting the literate past to anticipate God’s written revelation. Whether commissioned by a learned community conscious of the script’s Germanic origins and playing on the meeting of traditions, or representing a more basic understanding of runes as an older textual medium superseded by the arrival of Latin letters, the script came to serve as a useful symbol of a literate past, and of Anglo-Saxon participation in sacred history. This deeply syncretic agenda may extend to the remaining panel of the Casket, the left panel, which has proved the hardest for scholars to interpret, not least because of the deliberately cryptic inscription and the obscurity of the individuals Hos and Ertae who are described: Her Hos sitiþ on harmberga agl[.] drigiþ swa hiræ Ertae gisgraf sarden sorga and sefa torna. [Here Hos sits on the sorrow-mound; she suffers distress as Ertae had imposed it on her, a wretched den (wood?) of sorrows and torments of mind.]30

Figure 1.2 The Franks Casket, left panel Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

20 The writing’s on the wall It is difficult to speculate on the details of the lost Germanic story that seems to lie behind the inscription and the scene depicted, which may or may not be related to the legend of Sigurðr and Fáfnir. For our purposes it is clear that this is another episode that pertains to loss and exile, the repeated references to sorrow and a wretched fate in this inscription including two unique compounds: harmberg (‘mountain of affliction’) and sarden (‘sorrow-lair’). Indeed, Bouman quite aptly refers to Ertae as ‘an instrument of fate’, and we do not need to know precisely who this character is to understand that the inscription refers to a judgement and sentence, and that the use of cryptic forms in the inscription was a deliberate attempt at concealment of this message.31 It may be that of all the scenes on the syncretic Casket, this was the one that was hardest to reconcile with a narrative of Christian history. However, there has also been an intriguing suggestion that the scene (in common with the other panels) is also amenable to Judeo-Christian interpretation, Peeters suggesting that the panel can be read as ‘a pictorial illustration of the biblical Book of Daniel ch. 4 and ch. 5’, including Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and exile in the wilderness, and Belshazzar’s actions and death in the royal court.32 This interpretation is not entirely secure, and relies on some rather tenuous links between the wording of the Old English poem Daniel and the tituli surrounding the central animal, but Peeters is surely right that ‘we should not underestimate the special knowledge of “etymological” and biblical erudition’ in the monastic milieu, particularly in the context of a casket that so deliberately sets Germanic and Christian history in illuminating contrast.33 If there is indeed a reflex of the OE Daniel in this scene of wretched fortune, it perhaps also relates to the deliberate crypticism of the inscription which surrounds the characters and recounts their fate. We are perhaps supposed to discern the mournful legend of Hos / Nebuchadnezzar in the cryptic writing, just as Daniel – the preeminent interpreter of cryptic signs in the Judeo-Christian tradition – recognised the fate of Belshazzar in the inscrutable writing on the wall. If such a biblical referent indeed exists, it not only serves to confirm the subtext of judgement and prophecy in the overall scheme of the Casket’s runic inscriptions,34 but also provides a link with a literary representation of monumental writing in an Old Testament narrative, further confirming the Franks Casket’s location at the meeting point of traditions. It is easy to think of the link between runic epigraphy and manuscript runes as a one-way stream of influence – with runica manuscripta preserving information about a distant epigraphical tradition in an antiquarian setting, and with poetic ideas about the script having little influence on runic practice in the real world.35 However, it should be remembered that the Franks Casket is a self-consciously literary text which plays on the layered symbolism of image and text, and it is perhaps best understood as a snapshot of evolving traditions – evidence of the continuation of the runic tradition proper in eighth-century England, but betraying the influence of ideas about the runic script that would come to greater

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prominence in the literary mindset at a point when the epigraphical tradition was no longer current. One of the most important of these is an association of runic writing with pre-salvation history and with the foreshadowing of Christian revelation, a positioning of the script within universal history reflected with remarkable consistency in the poems Daniel, Beowulf and Andreas.

The OE Daniel The Old English poem Daniel, which survives in a single – perhaps defective – copy in the Junius Manuscript,36 treats the first five chapters of the biblical Book of Daniel, dealing with the exile of the Hebrews and the reign of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, as well as the persecution of the three youths Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael.37 Daniel himself is introduced in the poem as a wise man coming to judgement in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court (ll. 149–51) and interpreting his dreams, and later striding into the hall to advise his successor Belshazzar about the enigmatic written message that appears on the wall. By focusing on history rather than on the prophetic visions that make up the second half of the Book of Daniel, and breaking off before the dramatic account of the Lion’s Den in Daniel 6, the Old English poem stresses Daniel’s role as astute advisor to powerful kings, illustrating the importance of the correct interpretation of signs (tacen or beacnu) and the folly of failing to recognise or adhere to God’s law. Preeminent amongst the scenes of interpretation in this poem (and indeed, within the Book of Daniel itself) is the reading of the writing on the wall that appears during Belshazzar’s feast, a memorable episode from the Old Testament narrative that has entered into everyday parlance. We are dealing with a display script that speaks to the irrevocable destruction of a people, characterised by Karkov as ‘a trace of God’s Judgement that looks forward to its enactment’,38 and in today’s political landscape, the phrase ‘the writing’s on the wall’ seems to be used of any situation in which there is a clear indication of impending doom. In relaying this famous episode, the Old English poem tends to follow the Old Testament narrative fairly closely, although it appears to have more in common with the Greek Septuagint than the Vulgate in several of its details.39 Whatever the direct source for the poem, it represents an inventive recasting of a biblical narrative by a poet well-versed in the traditional world of oral poetry. In the poem it is made clear that Belshazzar is guilty not only of a sacrilegious act in ordering the sacred vessels of the Israelites to be used as wine cups at his feast, but also of pride and direct hostility towards God in boasting gramlice (‘tauntingly’) that his armies were higher and more mighty than the Lord of the Israelites (ll. 712–16). God’s retribution is preceded by an act of written signification that highlights the king’s inability to recognise manifest truth. The poem first recounts how a divine hand interrupts the celebrations to write a riddlic

22 The writing’s on the wall message on the wall, and later tells of the summoning of Daniel to interpret the meaning that is lost on the Babylonian elders. Him þæt tacen wearð þær he to starude, egeslic for eorlum innan healle, þæt he for leodum ligeword gecwæð, þa þær in egesan engel drihtnes let his hand cuman in þæt hea seld, wrat þa in wage worda gerynu, baswe bocstafas, burhsittendum. (Daniel, ll. 717–23) [The sign appeared to him where he stared, awesome before nobles within the hall; that he had spoken lying words before the people, when in terrifying manner an angel of the lord let his hand come there into that high hall, wrote on the wall a mystery of words, crimson letters, for the city’s inhabitants.] In the Old English poem, the words referring to the immanent overthrow of Belshazzar by the Medians (represented in the Vulgate as Mane, Thecel, Phares) are not themselves related, even though the interpretation of this enigmatic message is given additional prominence as Daniel’s final act in the poem. The message is presented ‘to þam beacne burhsittendum’ (‘as a sign to the city’s inhabitants’) (l. 729), and the emphasis on the writing as a communal display of divine will in the Old English poem only serves to highlight the fact that this is a message that the people are themselves not able to read: even the runcræftige men (‘rune-skilled men’) can only gaze in awe at the terrifying letters. It takes Daniel, the model explicator of signs, to read through the confusion and make sense of a signifier that is undeniably awesome in its material presence but unclear in its meaning. Indeed, Daniel is summoned to the court of Belshazzar with the explicit intention ‘þæt he him bocstafas / arædde and arehte hwæt seo run bude’ (‘that he might read and interpret the letters, what the mystery [or rune] proclaimed’) (ll. 739b–40), the emphasis on reading as well as interpreting priming us to recognise the interdependence of medium and meaning. The fact that Daniel does not, in the end, relate the riddlic message in the poem – but only interprets the meaning of the writing as sign – adds to the impression that the underlying symbolism of the letters was as important to the poet as the construal of the words themselves. There are several clues within the symbolic complex of bocstafas and worda gerynu that suggest we are being pointed towards a particular category of inscrutable writing that would resonate with the Anglo-Saxon audience of the poem, and that was drawn from the tradition of runic writing. As a runologist deeply suspicious of any link between runes and magic, Page was reluctant to see the reference to the ‘inscrutable characters’ that appear

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on the wall as reference to the runic script, and he is right to caution that the Old English run has a wide semantic range.40 In the phrase ‘hwæt seo run bude’ the word could be used in the sense of ‘secret council’ or ‘knowledge’ unconnected with writing – something that we always have to bear in mind when this term is used, as opposed to the less equivocal runstæf. However, Page, and to a certain extent also Christine Fell in her influential essay ‘Runes and Semantics’ are perhaps both guilty of taking their respective arguments too far in an attempt to divest runes of any association with esotericism.41 Whilst several of their conclusions are still valid, we should note that several inscriptions have come to light in recent years in which OE run clearly is used in the modern sense of ‘runic character’, problematizing their rejection of the term’s close association with the script.42 In the case of poetic uses of run, it stands to reason that when the word occurs in the context of writing – here writ large across the palace wall – the runic script is going to loom large in the reader’s imagination. Similarly, when we are told that runcræftige men cannot interpret the writing, it brings to mind the runic riddles directed specifically to rynemenn in Exeter Book Riddle 42, and the particular abilities needed to read a cryptic runic message. When Daniel is implored to read and interpret what the run proclaimed, the fact we are dealing explicitly with a written message consolidates the impression that the poet is directing his audience to think of the writing on the wall as a kind of runic inscription – not as a naturalistic scene of carving runes, but as a site loaded with runic symbolism. At the very least, the poet is introducing allusions to the runic script as an important constituent of what Lerer refers to as a ‘visually striking evocation of the various technologies of literacy’, which may together contribute to an ‘genuinely un-interpretable’ riddle.43 Whether or not the poet was conscious of the distinction between the runic tradition and the exotic writing systems of the Near East, his conflation of a native literary inheritance with an Old Testament scene of writing has the effect of acculturating the script to sacred history. By creating this composite image of inscrutable writing he provides his audience with a means of understanding the unreadable letters of the biblical narrative within a specifically Anglo-Saxon interpretative complex. Within the poem’s evocative description of inscrutable writing, the allusion to baswe bocstafas (or ‘crimson letters’) is particularly striking. Basu is an adjective sometimes used to render Latin purpura, and particularly purple clothing, although it is also used to describe the poppy, and ‘crimson’ or ‘red’ seem the most appropriate translations in certain cases.44 Anderson argues that this phrase has crept into the Old English as a ‘compositional accident’, in which the purpura of the Vulgate (referring to the regal garments promised to the person who can read the inscription) have been recast as the colouring of purple letters, giving little credit to a poet who seems to be otherwise extremely competent in his reworking of the Latin sources, both biblical and liturgical.45 In making this assertion, Anderson dismisses earlier suggestions that the baswe bocstafas might be linked with

24 The writing’s on the wall the reddened runes of the Scandinavian tradition, and he gives particularly short shrift to Farrell’s association of red letters with Germanic runic practice of ‘a mystic and sacred nature’.46 Remley, in a further attempt to explain the strange reference, links the ‘inky purple’ letters to the Greek Septuagint with its additional detail of writing in soot or plaster over a lamp, although he also concedes that the reference may be an ‘anachronistic allusion to the medieval practice of rubrication’.47 Lerer also dismisses a primary association with the world of runic epigraphy in his discussion of this scene of writing, and firmly connects baswe bocstafas with rubricated letters.48 Although acknowledging the scriptural resonances of the word run in this context, in Lerer’s reading the crimson letters are associated with the antiquarian context of the runica manuscripta rather than the material world of runic inscription, the poet responding to a ‘climate of associations’ in which the study of writing was ‘associative rather than systematic’.49 The explicit reference to the obscure characters as bocstafas seems to support the contention that the field of reference is indeed one of book learning. However, we should remember that these are letters that are manifestly not functioning as a book script when daubed across the wall, and thus bocstafas cannot refer to anything more narrowly defined than ‘letters’ in this context.50 If they are to be imagined as rubricated letters drawn from a manuscript tradition, they are also clearly monumental in their appearance – writ large on the wall in a very public setting. Bearing in mind this clear epigraphical context, it is worth pausing to reconsider whether the complex of imagery that the poet presents us with includes incised and reddened runes. Farrell is certainly right that the idea of reddened runes occurs often in Old Norse literature, to the extent that it seems to have taken on something of a stock association. In a particularly memorable scene in Grettis saga, one of Grettir’s many antagonists, the witch Ðuríðr, carves a runic curse on a tree stump and reddens it with her blood before launching it off towards the island of Drangey where the hero of the saga has taken refuge.51 Here the poetic image of cutting and reddening runes on a stump is paralleled in the effect of the curse, which sees Grettir cutting his own leg when he takes an axe to the cursed driftwood, leaving him lamed when his enemies assault his island hideout. The eponymous hero of Egils saga also notably reddens runes with his blood in order to expose a poisoned drink, whilst ‘reddened runes’ are specifically mentioned in Guðrúnarkviða II, and the idea of staining runes is bound up with the skills demanded of a runic initiate in the Eddic poem Hávamál. Of course, the idea of reddened runes – if not the sensational image of using blood to colour them – also has a basis in runic practice, and several Viking Age rune stones make explicit reference to reddened runes.52 To give one fairly unequivocal example, the first part of a Viking Age inscription from Överselö in Södermanland, Sweden (Sö 206) reads Hér skal standa steinar þessir, rúnum ro[ð]nir ‘Here shall these stones stand, reddened with runes’.53 Traces of red pigment have also been

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found on several inscriptions, hinting at the fact that at one time ‘the runes, the decorative motifs, and the pictures all shone in bright colours’.54 Jansson also highlights the practical basis for colouring runes to make inscriptions more legible, and many Scandinavian rune stones are now picked out with rust-red paint for this very reason, a practice that is particularly common in Sweden. There is some (albeit limited) evidence that runic monuments in AngloSaxon England were similarly painted: a Viking Age rune stone from St Paul’s churchyard has been reconstructed based on traces of pigment discovered on the stone, and Page points to the engraved slabs from Maughold on the Isle of Man and possibly the Collingham Cross as further examples of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions that show traces of red colouring.55 It is rare for pigment to survive on rune stones that have been exposed to the elements, but Moltke argues from the evidence of the St Paul’s stone that ‘every rune stone’ must once have had its letters picked out with colour.56 Even if this is an inference taken too far, it seems reasonable to assume that elaborately decorated stone monuments such as the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses were originally painted, and it is not improbable that their inscriptions were highlighted with red pigment following the Scandinavian tradition. Indeed, perhaps the closest evidence we have for a continuum of association in Anglo-Saxon England is the reference in the Ruthwell Cross runic passages to the staining of the cross with blood from Christ’s side. This is an image intended to be enhanced by the fact that these lines are themselves engraved in runes on the side of the cross, an image that would be doubly striking if the inscription had originally been picked out in red in the manner of the Scandinavian rune stones. We also have the (albeit Continental) evidence of an early eleventh-century manuscript which prefaces a runic alphabet (and isruna tract) with the information that it is the practice amongst the nordmanni to use runes ‘cum minio colore’ (‘with bright red colouring’) for their songs.57 In light of this range of evidence for associating epigraphical runes with red colouring, it certainly seems hasty to dismiss a connection between the baswe bocstafas in Daniel and the image of reddened runes. Furthermore, the colour of blood-reddened stone is something that explicitly falls within the compass of OE basu. The one example we have of the related Old English verb *(ge)baswian (‘to stain purple/red’) is used specifically to describe blood-stained stones in an Old English account of the torture of St Mark, the Old English Martyrology relating how the saint was dragged across stony ground so that ‘ða stanas wæron gebaswad mid his blode’ (‘the stones were stained crimson with his blood’).58 It seems likely that in combination with the references to enigmatic writing and to runcræftige men, we are being presented with the striking image of baswe bocstafas to evoke a native runic tradition in the rendering of the Old Testament narrative. Whether or not we conclude that the runic allusions in this episode of Daniel are drawn primarily from the world of rune carving or from the

26 The writing’s on the wall more learned runica manuscripta tradition, antiquarian developments in the scriptorium undoubtedly help to contextualise the poet’s decision to employ a runic register to talk about the famous writing on the wall. Anglo-Saxon fuþorcs and runic alphabets (which constitute the vast bulk of the runica manuscripta material) are most often found accompanied by exotic scripts labelled as Egyptian, Syriac and even Chaldean, and in manuscripts containing pseudo-scientific material.59 The most celebrated example of this kind of encyclopaedic collection is the early twelfth-century manuscript Oxford, St John’s College MS 17, which gathers together on a single page (fol. 5v) an extraordinary collection of spurious alphabets and cryptic writing systems alongside four rotae used for calculating Easter and the course of the sun.60 We should also note that not only were runic and exotic non-runic writing systems circulated together, but that there was often little distinction made between them. This extreme confusion is indicated most clearly in the labelling of various exotic pseudo-scripts as Syriac or Chaldean, and conversely for labelling non-runic alphabets as runes. Derolez notes one twelfth-century manuscript in which runes are directly labelled as Chaldean, and another of the early eleventh century in which runes are referred to as Syriac – and as Arabic and Alanic!61 Manuscripts dating back to the early ninth century (including those of the De inventione tradition), whilst often including runes alongside spurious alphabets labelled as Egyptian, Chaldean and Assyrian, at least seem to avoid direct mislabelling of runes as a Mediterranean script. The fact that spurious writing systems (and indeed, runic alphabets) are most prominent in Continental manuscripts (with a particular clustering in Northern France),62 and the fact that the egregious mislabelling of runes seems to occur only in later examples, might suggest that the confusion was associated with ‘an age that had lost all sense of the runic system’.63 Our poet, however, writing at a relatively early date and perhaps not as immersed in Latin learning as Lerer suggests, may simply be assuming that the script used by the Anglo-Saxon ancestors – and still employed in certain contexts – was the same as that used by the Old Testament patriarchs. We should note that the Chaldeans are not able to read the letters presented to them, and a further possibility is that the poet is directly or indirectly associating runes with the sacred Hebrew script – the script of Daniel and the captive Israelites. Runes often circulated alongside Greek and Hebrew in addition to the spurious alphabets, and in at least one case they came to stand in for Hebrew in an illustration of this script. A liturgical manuscript of the mid-eleventh century includes runes labelled barbarice and replacing Hebrew or Aramaic characters in a Latin titulus cruces referring to ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, above a miniature of the cross.64 Although a much later example, in its conception this titulus perhaps bears comparison with the rear panel of the Franks Casket, in which runes seem by implication to be associated with the Jewish people, and the roman script with the ‘replacement of the Old Covenant by the New’.65 Whether the poet of

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Daniel is directly influenced by the scriptural confusion in runica manuscripta, or is giving voice to the assimilative cultural narrative that gave rise to such misunderstanding, is unclear, but evidently Daniel reflects a similar tradition of conflating runic characters with the scripts of the Old Testament (both real and invented) within a learned environment. Of course, there is little indication that such a poetic tradition reflects a similar association in the world of rune carving: the man named Ludda who recorded the repairing of a brooch, and the individuals who left Anglo-Saxon graffiti on the pilgrim route to Rome were not concerned with prophetic statements set in stone as a warning to the populace. Rather, in the poetic register we are faced with a complex of imagery drawn as much from cultural memory as from the observed realities of the runic tradition. What is important is to recognise is that Daniel merges Old Testament history with a scriptural semantics borrowed at least in part from the tradition of runic epigraphy. To sum up, runes might simply have been mistaken for Chaldean by a poet some way removed from the runic tradition and drawing on the same hazy understanding of scriptural history evinced in Anglo-Saxon collections of alphabetical arcana. The poet may also have seen little contradiction in borrowing from what they knew of the epigraphical runic tradition (including reddened runes) and using this to help realise a mysterious written message that prophesises the destruction of a people. It is a critical commonplace that Anglo-Saxon poets working with Christian subjects unavoidably recast their material using the language, imagery and expressive economy of heroic verse. Indeed, the criticism sometimes laid at the poet of Daniel – namely that they took as a subject the less important ‘historical’ section of the Prophetical Book of Daniel – is itself an accommodation to the tastes of Old English narrative poetry, as are the relocation of the final scene to the ‘hea seld’ (‘high hall’) (l. 721); the martial boasts of Belshazzar; and the shift from a court of concubines, wives and soothsayers to a comitatus of ‘hæleð in healle’ (‘heroes in the hall’) (l. 728). It could be argued that the oblique allusions to runic writing throughout this scene are therefore wholly consistent with the poet’s efforts to recast the narrative in a vernacular heroic style. The decision to employ a runic register might therefore have been a practical one intended to present an exotic narrative within a field of allusions that an Anglo-Saxon audience could relate to. However, the implications of this conflation of cultural capital in Daniel – the decision to use a native register for the preeminent written message of the Old Testament – are somewhat more profound. By associating God’s prophetic warning with runic writing, the poet is tacitly suggesting that the Anglo-Saxons have inherited a scriptural legacy that accords with Old Testament history. Without making this connection explicit enough to expose any flaws in the synthesis, runes become the script through which God revealed himself to the people, and Daniel, the arch-interpreter of God’s revelation, becomes a reader not just of divine mysteries, but of runic symbolism. This sequence of associations must

28 The writing’s on the wall have appealed in an Anglo-Saxon intellectual milieu in which runes were steadily becoming the preserve of a monastic in-group who might think of themselves as the inheritors of Daniel, a figure Lerer refers to as the ‘poet of the boceras’.66 But it also suggests a fundamental re-conceptualisation of scriptural history, inculcating the idea that the runes were not simply an epigraphical script imported to England by pagan ancestors, but that they represent a scriptural antecedent to the gospels and to the revelations of the New Testament. That runes, in other words, were divinely sanctioned as a precursor to the copying of scripture. The poet, as already noted, does not relate the ‘message on the wall’ itself, and one editor has pointed out that this ‘may indicate that the poet was more interested in the general meaning of the writing than its literal interpretation’.67 I would be inclined to go further and suggest that the poet places emphasis on both the universal applicability of the prophetic written message and the symbolism (rather than the content) of the written symbols in order to maintain its relevance to an Anglo-Saxon audience, implicating the reader in a further consideration of ‘hwæt seo run bude’ (‘what the rune proclaimed’). The Anglo-Saxon ecclesiast was not simply being invited to interpret the baswe bocstafas in terms of a prophetic Old Testament script, but also to understand the runic tradition as a whole in terms of its momentous foreshadowing of their own developed textual culture. This meaning does not depend on working knowledge of the runic script as a writing system, but on a common conception about the place of the runic script within a literate mythology.68 If, as I have been arguing here, the poet of Daniel recasts the story of the writing on the wall in order to express a common understanding of runic heritage, we would expect such an association between runes and prophetic Old Testament writing to be expressed elsewhere in the poetic corpus, and I will go on to examine Beowulf and Andreas as texts based on a similar literary construction of the script. However, there is one further tantalising piece of evidence from the runic corpus itself which must be mentioned to close this discussion of the poem, and which suggests that the Book of Daniel may have come to be closely associated with runic writing in the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination. A silver clip recently discovered near Honington, Lincolnshire, and dated by Hines to the second half of the eighth century, includes a runic inscription identified as an Old English paraphrase of the Benedicite Canticle of Book 3 of the Vulgate Daniel, equivalent to lines 362–4 of the Old English poem.69 As Hines points out, this extraordinary find – probably an object used in liturgical ritual – has wide-ranging implications for our understanding of Anglo-Saxon literary history and particularly the relationship between Azarius (which also includes this canticle), the Junius poem and the eighth-century Anglian liturgical tradition from which the canticle most likely arose.70 It also hints at the complex background to the runic imagery identified in Daniel, and the various currents of tradition that merged in Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical culture. At the very least it should

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make us cognisant of the fact that knowledge of runic epigraphy (and not merely runic esoterica) was circulating in the same intellectual milieu as that from which the earliest Old English translations from the Book of Daniel arose, and that runes were seen by at least one religious community as an appropriate script to render liturgy based on the Old Testament narrative. If Peeters is right that the rear scene on the Franks Casket also refers obliquely to the exile of Nebuchadnezzar, we then have three surviving texts in which runes are implicated in Anglo-Saxon interpretations of the Book of Daniel.71 Hines points out that the embedding of the canticle in two longer Old English poems some two centuries after the writing of the Honington inscription ‘implies more than a merely occasional or casual interest in the Book of Daniel’.72 Perhaps this sustained interest in the biblical narrative also led to it serving an important role in the reconciliation of Anglo-Saxon scriptural heritage with biblical history, allowing ecclesiasts to read their own literate past through the writing on the wall. Beowulf A comparable association between the runic script and the transmission of prophetic knowledge from an Old Testament past underlies one of the most famous scenes of reading in Old English literature: Hrothgar’s scrutiny of the runic sword hilt in the epic poem Beowulf. The correspondences between this episode and the writing on the wall in Daniel include the deployment of a very particular set of signifiers – including an association between runes and the foreshadowing of Anglo-Saxon history, the implication of the script in the downfall of a people, and the misreading of heirlooms by Old Testament actors ignorant of their symbolism – which together point not only to ‘a sophisticated metaphorics of inscription’, but also to a shared understanding of scriptural history.73 A careful reading of the runic imagery in this crucial scene in Beowulf can help us to clarify not only the poet’s understanding of scriptural inheritance, but also one of the key dialectics in the poem: namely the Christian poet’s attitude towards the pagan ancestors, or what Williams refers to as the merging of ‘native cultural memorialization of a Germanic past with Christian propaganda’.74 The runic sword that Beowulf recovers from the Grendel-kin’s underwater lair is one of several weapons described in lavish detail throughout the course of the poem, and associated explicitly with the workmanship of ‘former days’. Yet it is clear that even when set beside such venerable heirlooms as Hrunting, the hæft-mece that Unferth loans to Beowulf, this artefact represents a much older and more semiologically complex legacy. From the moment Beowulf discovers the ancient sword, it is described in terms of its monstrous lineage and great size. It is both an ‘eald-sweord eotenisc’ (‘an old trollish sword’) (l. 1558), that can be lifted only by the strongest of warriors, and explicitly referred to as the ‘best of weapons’ (l. 1559). It is, in every sense, the weightiest of signifiers.

30 The writing’s on the wall The figurative heft of the sword hilt – all that is left of the weapon after the blade melts away on contact with the blood of Grendel – is emphasised by the number of lines lavished on its description. We first learn that the sword hilt bears its own textual-iconographic narrative when it is passed into the keeping of Hrothgar, as a symbol of Beowulf’s victory against the monsters: Hroðgar maðelode, hylt sceawode, ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh, gifen geotende, giganta cyn (frecne geferdon); þæt wæs fremde þeod ecean dryhtne; him þæs endelean þurh wæteres wylm waldend sealde. Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod, geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht, irena cyst, ærest wære, wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. Ða se wisa spræc sunu Healfdenes (swigedon ealle) . . . (Beowulf, ll. 1687–99) [Hrothgar spoke; examined the hilt, the old heirloom. On it was inscribed the origin of ancient strife, after the flood, the rushing sea, destroyed the race of giants (they fared terribly): that was a people estranged from the eternal Lord. The Ruler gave them final retribution for that through the welling of water. So it was correctly marked through runic letters on the sword-plate of shining gold, set down and related for whom that sword, best of blades, was first made, with twisted hilt and snake-like patterns. Then the wise one, son of Healfdene, spoke: all fell silent.] Critical attention to this eald laf (‘old heirloom’) has been dominated by the degree to which the poem represents an authentic material-cultural legacy. The sword has been compared to individual finds from England and Scandinavia, and the peculiarities of its decoration explained by reference to the archaeological record,75 with the proviso that some aspects of this scene, including the apparent depiction of the biblical deluge within the confines of a sword hilt, are ‘puzzling in the extreme’.76 Indeed, the very fact that the sword blade melts away to leave only the hilt (a depiction which may be understood as an uncanny acceleration of the ravages of time) has been interpreted as reflecting the documented practice of burying a bladeless sword.77 The fact that ample evidence exists for the carving of runes on weapons in both Scandinavia and England has led some commentators to see the runic inscription on the hilt as a further naturalistic representation of early Anglo-Saxon material culture, and there are indeed several engraved

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weapons from the Anglo-Saxon corpus bearing the owner’s or maker’s name. The famous tenth-century Thames scramasax includes the personal name Beagnoþ inlaid on the blade alongside an Anglo-Saxon fuþorc; the poorly rendered inscription on the mid sixth-century Ash-Gilton sword pommel probably includes a personal name, and has been reconstructed as Sigimund ah (‘This belongs to Sigimund’);78 whilst the Chessel Down scabbard plate includes what is probably a masculine personal name translated tentatively by Bammesberger as ‘(this sword is, was) made, produced by, for Æcca’.79 This latter inscription illustrates that the difficulty of construing the oblique case in Beowulf is reflected in the corpus: either translation of hwam in the statement from the poem ‘[Swa wæs] gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht’ (‘[so it was] related by / for whom that sword was made’) (l. 1696) would be appropriate, and the ambiguity may itself reflect the difficulty of interpreting runic dedications. Although there are some grounds for reading the runic dedication as a realistic representation of runic practice, and the account of the feud with the giants that precedes it as a separate pictorial representation,80 we should remember that there is nothing resembling a depiction of the antediluvian giants in any surviving Anglo-Saxon artwork. Thus, the idea that inscribed imagery was used to relate the story on the hilt is perhaps as implausible as the notion that this information was relayed in runes. Lerer, in the most comprehensive reading of the hilt to date has robustly challenged the separation of the runes and iconography in this depiction, associating the verb writan (as well as the verb gesetan and phrase rihte gemearcod) with runic epigraphy, and specifically the Scandinavian tradition of commemorative rune stones.81 I would argue that the plausible ‘correct marking’ of runic characters that closes the passage is a means by which to anchor the scene in the realities of a material-textual inheritance, and that we should understand the whole as an impressionistic depiction of a writen (‘inscribed’) legacy. Indeed, as a term that may carry both the sense of preserving through writing and destroying through carving and ‘cutting through’, the use of the verb writan adds to our sense that this runic inscription is in some way implicated in God’s retribution and the destruction of the giants.82 The fact that we are not told who is named by the runes further reinforces the idea that the information relayed is less important as a signifier than the runic writing itself, which is bound up with the warning that Hrothgar discerns in the hilt. If the archaeological or material-cultural approach to the runic hilt has been a productive line of enquiry, in recent years an increasing number of studies have moved away from this approach to focus on the literary and textual implications of the moment that the runic hilt is ‘read’ in the poem.83 Disrupting the narrative of this oral poem with a scene of textual decipherment raises questions about the intertextual dynamics of Beowulf; it also leaves us in doubt about the degree to which Hrothgar is able to interpret the layered Christian symbolism presented to us as literate observers. As a

32 The writing’s on the wall literary, visual and material text that precedes the great oratory of Hrothgar, it dramatises the meeting point of oral and literate modes of composition, and in what Lerer refers to as ‘a Derridean twist’, inserts writing at the origins of the performed poem.84 Furthermore, as a scene involving the recovery of a runic artefact of great antiquity, the episode represents one of a continual series of backward glances in a poem which, as Frank points out, is remarkable for the extent to which the actors themselves have a developed sense of their own history.85 As Christie notes, the verb sceawian (‘to look at’, or ‘consider’) which interrupts Hrothgar’s speech can in fact be said to embody the key hermeneutic action of the poem itself: ruminating on the underlying presence or traces of the past.86 For the external audience, then, the recovery and reading of the runic hilt serves as much more than a semi-plausible depiction of Scandinavian material-textual culture – it is a depth sounder, propelling us, for the briefest of moments, outside the poem’s present and revealing a biblical context as old as the giants and cosmic in its scope. In order to understand the symbolic import of the runic script within this scene, it is necessary to understand the allusion that the hilt makes to the flood that destroyed the race of giants, and their relationship to the original owner of this runic sword. When we first encounter the hilt in the Grendel-kin’s cave, it is described repeatedly in terms of its great antiquity and alien nature – it is giganta geweorc (‘the work of giants’) (l. 1562) and too heavy for anyone but Beowulf to lift. Similarly, when it is passed into the keeping of Hrothgar, the sword is described as enta ærgeweorc (‘the ancient work of giants’) (l. 1679) and wundor-smiþa geweorc (‘the work of wondrous smiths’) (l. 1681), a referent that could apply equally to the giants of Norse mythology as the biblical gigantes. However, it is at the moment when Hrothgar pauses to examine the hilt that we are given a more precise context for this ancient civilization of gigantas. The poet imagines them as the antediluvian race of giants estranged from the Lord and punished by the deluge,87 a narrative referred to in Genesis 6:4–7, where they are described as the product of a union between the sons of God and the daughters of men.88 The term used in the Vulgate – gigantes – is a translation of the Hebrew designation Nephilim, a label of uncertain etymology designating a race of wicked individuals who were variously thought to have their origins in a union between the daughters of Cain and the fallen angels, or a union between the same daughters and the sons of Seth in various apocryphal traditions.89 As both Kaske and Mellinkoff point out, apocryphal Noachic material, and the traditions surrounding the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch in particular, may have influenced the Beowulf poet’s conception of both the ancient giants destroyed in the flood and their flesh-eating progeny, including the Grendel-kin. The dual emphasis the Beowulf poet places on the past greatness of the Grendel-kin’s antediluvian forebears and also their estrangement from God suggests that he understood the gigantas very much

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along the lines of the reference in Genesis 6 to ‘mighty men of old, men of renown’ – a civilization capable of creating wondrous legacies such as the ‘best of swords’, but singled out for destruction due to their defiance of the Creator. We are told that the hilt relates the ‘origin’ of ancient strife, a reference that probably refers to the wickedness of the antediluvian giants, but may encompass the fratricide of Cain or even the fall of the rebel angels. We also learn that the flood destroyed these giants, but it is clear that both the material record of this struggle and the monstrous races themselves (including the Grendel-kin) must, in fact, have survived the cataclysm. Davidson on the one hand rationalises this apparent contradiction by positing an earlier non-Christian tradition surrounding the sword – perhaps analogous to the much-discussed scene in Grettis saga in which runes are used to relate the story of killing a troll – which the poet overlays with a slightly incongruous Christian narrative.90 Cohen, on the other hand, characterises the paradox of the (non)destruction of the giants as a mythical necessity for an adversary that must always return, suggesting that the ‘uncanny . . . narrative temporality’ of Grendel serves only to compound his monstrous identity.91 The failure to relate the name of the owner of the sword only adds to the uncertainty of this temporal scheme, although in the context of the reference to a survivor of the flood it could well point to Noah’s son Cham (or Ham), an individual often linked with the figure of Cain in both patristic and insular sources.92 The conflation of these antediluvian and post-diluvian figures was one way for medieval commentators to navigate the problematic survival of monstrous races after the flood,93 the confusion seemingly extending to the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript, who corrected one instance of cames to caines in the description of Grendel’s ancestry (l. 107), and who actually wrote camp for ‘Cain’ in the relation of the fratricide that led to the outlaw of Grendel’s forebears (l. 1261).94 If the poet seems to be attempting a partial reconciliation of different traditions concerning the ancestry, destruction and post-diluvian legacy of the giants, the runes are clearly implicated in this complex of imagery. The first thing to note is that runes are once again being associated with biblical prehistory – and with antediluvian knowledge which survives to tell the story of the ancestors who were part of God’s plan before the revelations of the Patriarchs. Interestingly, there is also a precedent in both patristic and insular sources for the survival of documents inscribed before the flood. Carney notes that the engraved plates in Beowulf may be closely related to an apocryphal legend circulating in Ireland (in the Poem of 50 Questions) in which columns of different materials were engraved with secret knowledge (or stories associated with the race of Cain in The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which would survive the cataclysm.95 A tradition of knowledge – specifically profane knowledge held by Noah’s son Cham – surviving the flood by means of inscriptions on stone and metal sheets is also referenced by Cassian in his Conferences, as Orchard points out.96 If it is unclear whether the Nephilim

34 The writing’s on the wall survive the flood, their written legacy certainly does, to be taken up by the Grendel-kin and preserved as an heirloom: a kind of gecyndboc (or ‘book of origins’) for the current state of these estranged creatures. Significantly, the runic hilt not only transmits knowledge of antediluvian origins, but also looks back to the flood itself from a post-diluvian vantage point and recalls God’s final act of retribution against the giants. It is, as Lerer points out, a retrospective ‘document of destruction’ made by a descendant of the routed giants in full knowledge of their defeat,97 but it also serves as a ‘prophetic inscription’, which emphasises the fact that this is the only sword that will be able to dispatch Grendel and his mother in the poem’s present.98 The Grendel-kin’s preservation of an heirloom already implicated in the destruction of the monstrous races is an irony that is seemingly not lost on the Beowulf poet, who pointedly describes the melting of the sword following the decapitation of Grendel in terms of unbinding wælrapas (‘deep-water bonds’) (l. 1610), echoing the flood that destroyed the giants. The runic hilt thus represents a wilful failure to make use of the knowledge of what happens to those who are foreign to the eternal Lord and who frecne geferdon (‘fared terribly’) (l. 1691) as a result, and implicates Beowulf in a continued corrective against this monstrous lineage. The fact that this allusion to the destruction of a proud race is relayed in runes is not incidental, and accords with the nature of the prophetic writing on the wall in the OE Daniel, suggesting a similar conflation of runic heritage with biblical history. However, there is more to this scriptural symbolism than its link with a vaunting race of giants in the deep past or the failure of the Grendel-kin to recognise the prophetic symbolism of the runic inscription; after all, the heirloom is recovered in the present of the poem, and we also observe Hrothgar in the act of gazing on this message from former times. Earlier I drew attention to the fact that the naming of an owner in runes may represent the only realistic element in this scene of reading. However, this naturalistic motif also contributes to the sense of continued prophetic reverberations in the world of the poem. Lerer suggests one particular symbolic resonance to this act of naming, arguing that the hilt represents ‘an evocative assemblage of traditions to portray a pre-Christian commemorative text’, situating the name within the tradition of memorialising inscriptions on rune stones.99 However, another facet to this act of memorialising in the poem (and indeed to the memorial function of rune stones) is the issue of inheritance, and the connection that alluding to the former owner creates in the present. Hrothgar is pointedly positioned as the recipient-owner of the sword, and this transference of possession is stressed repeatedly throughout a passage that Brodeur singled out to showcase the intricate use of variation by the poet around this very theme.100 We are told explicitly of the hilt that ‘hit on æht gehwearf / æfter deofla hryre Denigea frean’ (‘it passed after the defeat of devils into the possession of the Lord of the Danes’) (ll. 1679b–80), and a few lines later that the heirloom ‘on geweald gehwearf woroldcyninga / ðæm selestan’ (‘passed into the ownership of the best of worldly

The writing’s on the wall


kings’) (ll. 1684–85a). Far from being gratuitous, this repeated emphasis on the transfer of ownership is vital to our understanding of the scene’s central dynamic. Hrothgar is taking possession not only of the sword as a symbol of victory, but also its prophetic message warning against the presumption of the giants. The central question is whether the king is indeed able to understand the prophetic implications of the runic hilt that have been so carefully presented to the reader of the poem. As several commentators have pointed out, Hrothgar’s examination of the engraved heirloom is necessarily partial and limited in its comprehension: the scrutiny of a wise man grasping at a truth that he does not have the resources to fully apprehend. He cannot be expected to read the narrative of the flood in its full implications, scriptural history constituting ‘intellectual knowledge, conveyed by human instruction and hence unavailable to even the noblest pagan’.101 Whilst Orchard follows Goldsmith and others in arguing that Hrothgar’s sermon is ‘evidently inspired’ by the hilt’s depiction of ‘overweening ambition laid low’, I am not sure that the source of the king’s inspiration lies in his comprehension of the imagery or the implications of the runic inscription.102 For Hrothgar, I suggest, the hilt symbolises nothing more or less than the fall of an ancient civilization, its message implicit in the fact it is a lafe – a ruined legacy of giant men. Indeed, stripped of the biblical context provided to us through the poet’s interpretation of the sword hilt, his sermon on pride looks less like a Christian homily produced by a man ‘transfigured by the wonder of his new conviction’103 and more like an old warrior’s frustrated attempt to articulate the workings of fate. With the benefit of the poet’s ‘explicitly scriptural’ gloss about the flood, we are given the opportunity to read the runic inscription on a level that only a Christian audience is afforded, and moreover to judge Hrothgar’s failure to understand the prophetic import of the hilt.104 Hrothgar is certainly a ‘god cyning’ when measured against the internal ethics of the poem, and we can be in no doubt that he and Beowulf are adversaries of the monsters, aligned with the Noachites rather than the kin of Cain. However, we should remember that the external audience is privy not only to knowledge of the flood and the wider context of biblical history, but also to the proleptic information that this worldly king’s attempt to create an Eden-like utopia through the building of the ‘best of halls’ will ultimately be thwarted. It is the tragedy of the poem that the ancestors are on the right side of the Great Feud, but that operating in a heroic world and with only the benefit of ‘natural knowledge’105 they are closer to ‘the mighty men of old’ who forged the sword than to the poem’s Christian audience. By naming the long-dead owner, the runes are very clearly implicated in the endelean (‘final end’) of proud dynasties, a fate that we know awaits Heorot and that is later predicted for the leaderless Geats. Indeed, the poet often ‘undercuts the mood of exaltation with forecasts of disaster to come’, these ‘dark hints and sombre prophecies’ in many ways characterising the attitude of a Christian audience towards the heroes of old.106 If we are encouraged to see the giants as a preeminent race brought down by their excessive

36 The writing’s on the wall pride, we must surely be asked to see the ancestral heroes who take up their material-textual remainders in a reflected light – at the very least as the inheritors of a hopeless creed based on warfare, material gain and worldly reputation.107 However eloquently Hrothgar sermonises against the pride that he sees in the symbolism of the sword hilt, he is just as incapable of reading the writing on the wall or making use of the negative exemplar of the destruction of ‘mighty men of old’ as the hapless king of Babylon.108 In granting his protagonists a monotheistic religion and an innate understanding of natural law, the poet in many ways seeks to flatter the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, even as he highlights the gulf between the perspective allowed to the heathen protagonists and the Christian audience of the poem. Indeed, whilst the complex of imagery surrounding the runic hilt may draw on a tradition connecting Cham’s engraved messages with communicating ‘the seeds of perpetual wickedness to later generations’,109 the hilt also serves to inscribe God’s presence in pagan Germanic history. It is highly significant that this story of the flood is buried – or seeded, to borrow Cassian’s term – in the Danish landscape, and that it relates a biblical myth using a Germanic writing system that can be read in the present. Whilst the runic hilt speaks to the eventual destruction of all who remain ignorant of God’s law, it thus also brings the feuding Scandinavian tribes within the compass of biblical prehistory, and underwrites their eventual conversion. Indeed, the image of baptism is repeatedly evoked through references to the original flood, through the extended simile of the melting hilt and the unbinding of water through Divine Providence, and in Beowulf’s descent and re-emergence from the mere.110 In short, both the ancestors and the script they used have been inserted into Old Testament history, the runes represented as an antediluvian script bearing knowledge from before the flood that anticipates the salvation of the Germanic tribes and that demands to be read correctly. Hrothgar’s scrutiny of the hilt is bookended by speech indicators, and the pause between the statements ‘Hroðgar maðelode’ (l. 1687) and ‘ða se wisa spræc’ (l. 1698) may represent the experience of the hilt in what Lerer specifies as ‘reader’s time’, a break in the narrative as the king contemplates the hilt which is equivalent to our own assimilation of the lines and contemplation of their symbolism.111 Indeed, the reintroduction of the deferred speech act with the adverb ða (‘then the wise one spoke’) suggests that the poet was concerned to accentuate this delay, and that the reader is expected to participate in the perusal and interpretation of the hilt alongside Hrothgar. If we are in any doubt about the connection the poet makes between the king’s receipt of this runic legacy and our own, the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript makes it abundantly clear through the use of a runic abbreviation on the manuscript page, testing the ability of their reader to interpret runic symbolism in the present. The runic abbreviation occurs on fol. 107r of the Nowell Codex, in the first line of Hrothgar’s speech that follows his perusal of the runic text (Figure 1.3).

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Figure 1.3 Eþel rune. Cotton Vitellius A. xv, fol. 170r Source: © The British Library Board.

Runic abbreviations are used only on two other occasions in the manuscript (interestingly enough in the context of guarding people and treasure in both cases), and the deployment in this context is clearly deliberate: it is a provocative act of inscription that implicates the Anglo-Saxon reader in the reception history of the runic script.112 It is noteworthy that the rune used in this context stands for its conventional name eþel, meaning ‘homeland’, which itself reinforces the connection between the reader and the ancestral lands depicted in the poem. Fleming is right to point out that the rune can therefore be understood as ‘a sort of archaicism, an heirloom which itself is part of the same past that is celebrated in the poem’,113 and the deployment of a runic abbreviation in this passage certainly draws attention to the fact that the Germanic material-textual legacy of runes survives in the AngloSaxon present. However, the runic abbreviation also completes a line of transmission that goes back well beyond the poem’s sixth-century setting, to the perceived antediluvian origins of the inscription recovered in the poem, dramatising the receipt of a much older textual legacy. By realising the issue of runic reception in concrete form on the manuscript page, we are presented with a parallel to the challenge that Hrothgar faces within the poem, in terms of how we read the past and how we make sense of its material and textual remains. It is hard to conceive of a more intriguing symbol of runic heritage and its complex resonance in Anglo-Saxon England than this sequence of runic recovery, runic transmission and runic interpretation, in which the reader of the Beowulf manuscript is directly implicated. I would suggest that this

38 The writing’s on the wall layering of reception points to the important role of runes in a revisionist and reconciliatory history of the Anglo-Saxons. In Beowulf, runic writing is reconceived as a script of antediluvian pedigree which underwrote the receipt of Latin literacy and Christian scripture, and which transmits a particular kind of knowledge in the present: both admonitory and prophetic. The challenge to the reader is whether we, unlike Hrothgar, can ‘read the runes correctly’ and interpret the prophetic symbolism of the runic hilt with the benefit of our enlightened position in the Christian present. Andreas The connections between Beowulf and the Old English poem Andreas have long been noted, and considering the influence that the heroic epic seems to have exerted on the later poem, it is perhaps not overly surprising that we see a similar network of associations at play in the representation of the runic script. Andreas, recorded in a single copy in the Vercelli Book, relates the story of St Andrew and his mission to rescue Matthew from captivity in Mermedonia, before he is imprisoned and tortured, and eventually converts the population with the help of a divinely sanctioned flood. Criticism of the poem has focused on the ways in which the poet adapted his source (almost certainly a lost Latin version of the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias); the blending of the conventions of heroic diction with Christian narrative; and of course the links between this poem and Beowulf,114 as well as its connection to Cynewulf’s Fates of the Apostles which follows it in the manuscript.115 Discussion of the overlaps between Beowulf and Andreas has naturally intersected with the wider debate on oral transmission, and several recent studies have emphasised not only the direct textual influence of Beowulf, but also the wider importance of literacy in both the composition of the poem (as ‘a literate mind acting on the product of an oral mind’)116 and in the internal thematics of the text. Lerer, in a short digression on Andreas, highlights the importance of writing in a text that opens with a reference to Matthew as the first to write the gospel (ll. 10b–13) and which polarises Christian scripture and the pernicious writing of the Mermednonians throughout,117 whilst Fee has gone as far as to suggest that writing ‘is the prominent unifying activity of Andreas’.118 The runic script itself appears in a fairly unambiguous reference to the Mermedonians’ use of tags to mark out the captives they would cannibalise. The Acts of Andrew and Matthias refers to ‘tickets’ (tabulae in the Latin Casanatensis) tied to the victims’ hands, which reckon out the thirty days until they are to be murdered. In the Old English poem, this calculation is specified as being written ‘in runes and in reckoning’: Hæfdon hie on rune ond on rim-cræfte awriten, wæl-grædige, wera ende-stæf;

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hwænne hie to mose mete-þearfendum on þære wer-þeode weorðan sceoldon. (Andreas, ll. 134–37) [They (the Mermedonians), slaughter-greedy ones, had written in runes and in reckoning the final end of the men; at what point they had to become sustenance for the food-needful ones in that nation.] Irving suggests that there is an incongruity in the representation of these cannibalistic wælwulfas as ‘tidy-minded bureaucrats’, which is partly resolved by reorienting their literate practices as the customs of ‘demonic rune-wizards’.119 This observation is sensitive to the literary construction of the poem, but seems to be rooted in a misconception about the widespread magical function of runes. As we have seen, the idea of runes as a writing system associated with Old Testament peoples (or indeed with the monstrous races) has its own poetic consistency, and there is no need to involve sorcery in the equation. Indeed, there is no suggestion that the runes actually cause the death of men, or that they are magical in and of themselves: rather, they are the medium for a terrible message. It is also clear that the writing here shares many similarities with the runic hilt in Beowulf and the crimson writing on the wall in Daniel, pointing towards a people’s destruction. This close link between runes (as writing) and providential forewarning is reinforced in the Old English poem through the use of the phrase ‘wera ende-stæf’ (‘the final fate of the men’) (l. 135b), a grim pun on the literal meaning of ende-stæf as the ‘final letter’. The irony here is of course that the Mermedonians have actually inscribed their own destruction through their torture of Christ’s apostle: rather than counting down to the ‘appointed feast’, at which the cannibals intend to carve up their victims in a gruesome parody of writing,120 the runes point to God’s intervention and the purging of the city through a divine flood. Like the hapless Chaldeans, the Mermedonians failed to realise that runic writing falls within the divine scheme and foreshadows New Testament revelation: in this case they are explicitly condemned as being ignorant of Christ, for which reason they ‘nyston beteran ræd’ (‘knew no better plan’) (l. 1088b). Indeed, their macabre corralling and labelling of living flesh for later consumption is clearly counterpointed in the poem by the sacred sign of salvation, that same ‘wuldres taken / halig of heofenum’ (‘sign of glory, holy from heaven’) (ll. 88b–89a), which appears to Matthew in his prison and which in turn reckons out the twenty-seven nights until his rescue. Against this divine signification the efforts of the Mermedonians to affect agency through writing runes, casting lots and torturing the apostle appear risible. Even their spears are rendered pliable as wax at God’s command (l. 1145), in a striking transposal of another technology of literacy: the wax writing tablet and stylus point. In short, the Mermedonians understand the

40 The writing’s on the wall mechanics of writing and the authority that resides in the use of script, but not the true source of this power. However much they ponder – sitting ‘sundor to rune’ (‘apart with runes / in contemplation’) (l. 1161), they are incapable of recognising the deeper symbolism of their writing as an antecedent to scripture. Again, there is an explicit parallel set up with the spiritually literate man of God, who himself experiences revelation, having ‘mid Dryhten oft . . . rune besæton’ (‘often sat apart at runes / in contemplation with the Lord’) (l. 627). Later in the narrative, after Matthew’s rescue and the capture and torture of Andreas, we are given a further explicit paradigm for scriptural uses and abuses. The saint, presumably locked in his prison cell, perceives ‘under sæl-wage sweras unlytle, / stapulas standan, storme bedrifen’ (‘great heavy pillars standing under the ground, weathered by storms’) (ll. 1493–4). The half-buried pillars referred to here bear more than a passing affinity to the apocryphal legend of plates of different materials that survived the original flood, discussed in relation to Beowulf. In common with the giant’s sword, these pillars are similarly discovered on the wall in the hero’s moment of need;121 they are also described as the ancient work of giants (l. 1495); and in a further indistinct parallel with the runic hilt in Beowulf, they are explicitly connected with a flood of ‘wæter wid-rynig to wera cwealme’ (‘widerunning water to kill men’) (l. 1507). In this case the pillars are explicitly attributed to the authorship of ‘wuldres God’, and we are informed that the stone that Andreas addresses was once engraved with the ‘ryht æ’ (‘true law’) (l. 511b) of the Ten Commandments. It is from these buried pillars – literally embedded in the foundations of the city – that Andreas, through divine agency, commands a deluge to pour forth and drown Mermedonia. As in Beowulf, there is a clear baptismal symbolism connected with the flood, linking the original deluge with the ritual of conversion and in turn looking forward to the cleansing of another monstrous race.122 It is no passing coincidence that both the hilt and the engraved pillars are subterranean objects – they both represent powerful symbols of a forgotten past buried in the landscape and underwriting God’s divine plan for the population. In this case the cannibalistic Mermedonians are converted and brought into the domain of the early Christian Church: a collective baptism that is only raised as a future possibility for the heathen heroes in Beowulf. In both cases, however, the associative complex surrounding the runic script and its misreading is remarkably consistent and vital to our understanding of scriptural providence. The inability to read runes correctly and to recognise their role as tacn that prefigure the ascendancy of scripture literally marks out the condemned in Andreas. In the flooding of the city of Mermedonia, we are told that the fæge swulton (‘the doomed ones died’) (l. 1530) – the ‘doomed ones’ here characterised by their obscene and miscalculating use of runes and inability to read the divine covenant written, very literally, on the wall.

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Conclusion The parallels between the writing on the wall in Daniel, the runic hilt in Beowulf, and the runes and reckoning in Andreas are developed enough to suggest a shared poetic construction of runic heritage. Most striking is the notion, repeated across the three poems, of runes possessing a prophetic symbolism that is misread by populations unaware or neglectful of the teaching of Old Testament prophets or the truth of scripture. There is little attempt in any of these poems to portray runes as inherently pagan or to suggest that their use is in any way proscribed. However, there is definitely a sense that the script is associated with a particular (and limited) category of knowledge appropriate to pre-Conversion societies. On the Franks Casket the runes are more than simply a transparent conduit for the inscriptions: they also form part of the syncretic dialogue of the Casket itself, the runes on the rear panel pointedly associated with the fate of the Jewish people and the intrusion of roman book script marking the ascendancy of a new phase in scriptural history. The reddened letters in Daniel provide a public warning through their material signification, the complex of runic symbolism in some ways standing in for the words of the message itself, which is not related. The runes on the hilt in Beowulf communicate knowledge from before the flood, and by emphasising the fate of the original hubristic owner, provide a warning whose implications can only be properly understood by a Christian audience reading the runic symbolism in the present. Finally, the runic calculation in Andreas is used to predict and reckon out the grisly end of the Mermedonians’ captives, but the ignorance of its users is highlighted by the fact that they are unwittingly using runes to measure out the days to their own destruction. In each of the texts, the runes are situated as a script with Old Testament pedigree and with clear figurative import, but which maintain a connection with the tangible textual inheritance of the Anglo-Saxons. As Derolez astutely observes, Anglo-Saxons ‘knew [runes] much in the same way as they knew the famous deeds of their legendary heroes. They were part of the intellectual pattern which existed in each member of a class or community’.123 In other words, runes connected the audience with the inheritance of scriptural history in a way that would not be afforded by reference to the Chaldean, Hebrew or even Greek letters that circulated alongside them in collections of exotic scripts, appealing to a specifically Anglo-Saxon heritage. Rather than creating distance between the present and the runic tradition of early Anglo-Saxon England, the use of a runic register in these three poems about ‘former days’ has the dual effect of bringing Anglo-Saxon scriptural inheritance into line with Old Testament history and writing the Germanic peoples into the world represented by scripture. An Anglo-Saxon audience is being invited to understand the message to the Shinarites and Daniel’s interpretative excellence in terms of reading reddened runes, and to see Old Testament truths reflected in the receipt of runic heirlooms from the

42 The writing’s on the wall ancestral landscape, already engraved with Christian history that they are now in a position to fully understand. To paraphrase the figurative crux of Andreas, runes are not made irrelevant or diabolical by the Mermedonians’ abuse of their signification: if they are read correctly, the runic reckoning points directly to conversion. It is perhaps not overly surprising that in the process of situating runes in an Old Testament framework, the common referent of runic inscriptions in the poetry became one of prophecy and admonition. The foreshadowing of Christ and the gospels in Old Testament narrative, or as Ælfric puts it in his Preface to Genesis, understanding ‘how the old law was a signification of things that are to come’124 formed one of the central tenets of early medieval exegesis, and as Ælfric makes clear in his Treatise on the Old and New Testaments, one of the clearest distinctions between the ealde gecyðnis and the niwe gecyðnis is that the Old Testament bears witness to the deeds of doomed men, demonstrating ‘þæt hig fordemde sindon’ (‘that they were therefore condemned’).125 If one way of understanding the place of runes in scriptural history was to associate them with the old covenant, it is entirely fitting that they are portrayed in the poetry as instructing through prophetic messages and condemning those who cannot recognise God’s presence in the world. Although the tradition of runic epigraphy flourished alongside the dynamic culture of letters in the early Anglo-Saxon Church, the writing had perhaps been on the wall for runes since the arrival of a Latinate book culture in England. By the time these poems were copied in the tenth century the runic script had become a writing system rehabilitated by the antiquarian imagination, revived in the scriptorium to fulfil a cultural desire for origins, and used in poetry to evoke certain sentiments and to promote particular reading practices. The integration of the runic script with a Christian paradigm for scriptural history almost certainly had little demonstrable impact on runic practice, beyond further sanctioning the script for use by Anglo-Saxon ecclesiasts. However, what the consistent association between runes and figural or fateful writing does serve to demonstrate is the fact that poetry develops its own conventions of representation that play a role in mediating cultural responses to runes. The following chapter addresses an association that may have developed in the wake of this retrospective positioning of runes in scriptural history, with the focus turning from the function of runes as signifiers of God’s presence inscribed in Anglo-Saxon history, and towards their role as a conduit for Christian revelation in the present.

Notes 1 For a survey of the epigraphical and literary evidence, see R.I. Page, ‘AngloSaxon Runes and Magic’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 27 (1964): 14–31; see also Eric Stanley, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism (Cambridge, 1975) for a criticism of earlier efforts to mine a thoroughly Christian literature for evidence of pre-Christian practice.

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2 See John Hines, ‘New Light on Literacy in Eighth-Century East Anglia: A Runic Inscription from Baconsthorpe, Norfolk’, Anglia 129:3–4 (2011): 281–96. 3 Patrizia Lendinara, ‘The Germanic Background’, in Philip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne (eds.), A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Oxford, 2001), pp. 121–34, at p. 125. 4 This note appears in the lower margin of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 41, p. 436. 5 On the possibility that the script underwent a process of modification at the hands of seventh-century ecclesiasts, see David Parsons, Recasting the Runes: The Reform of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (Uppsala, 1999). 6 P.H. Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge, 1990), p. 265. Blair also points out that Isidore was himself writing in an age of transition, and his model for the assimilation of pagan history must have resonated in the intellectual climate of eighth-century Northumbria, pp. 284–5. 7 Stephen A. Barney et al. (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, 2006), bk I, ch. iii, p. 39. 8 Ibid., p. 40. 9 Ibid., pp. 39–40. 10 See René Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (Brugge, 1954), p. 430. 11 Ibid., p. 374. For a detailed survey of the manuscripts in question, see pp. 279–384. 12 Ibid., p. 83. 13 Ibid. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6250, dating to c. 810, is another manuscript in which runes (in a mixed Greek / Runic signature) feature in close proximity to Isidore’s Etymologiae, demonstrating that runic lore was of interest to more than one ninth-century copyist of Isidore’s work. See Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 407–8. 14 See, for example, Marijane Osborn, ‘The Lid as Conclusion of the Syncreatic Theme of the Franks Casket’, in Alfred Bammesberger (ed.), Old English Runes and Their Continental Background (Heidelberg, 1991), pp. 249–68; Leopold Peeters, ‘The Franks Casket: A Judeo-Christian Interpretation’, Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 46 (1996): 17–52; L. Webster, ‘The Iconographic Programme of the Franks Casket’, in J. Hawkes and S. Mills (eds.), Northumbria’s Golden Age (Stroud, 1999), pp. 227–46; and Alfred Becker, Franks Casket. Zu den Bildern und Inschriften des Runenkästchens von Auzon (Regensburg, 1973), esp. pp. 95–115. 15 See Becker’s rather controversial study, Franks Casket. For a more restrained numerological reading, see Marijane Osborn, ‘The Seventy-Two Gentile Nations and the Theme of the Franks Casket’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 92:3 (1991): 281–8. 16 Thomas Klein, ‘Anglo-Saxon Literacy and the Roman Letters on the Franks Casket’, SN 81 (2009): 17–23. 17 See R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 87. 18 See Webster, ‘The Iconographic Programme’, p. 245 and James Lang, ‘The Imagery of the Franks Casket: Another Approach’, in J. Hawkes and S. Mills (eds.), Northumbria’s Golden Age (Stroud, 1999), pp. 247–55, at p. 251. 19 Leslie Webster and Janet Backhouse (eds.), The Making of England: AngloSaxon Art and Culture AD 600–900 (London, 1991), p. 103. 20 Elizabeth Okasha, ‘Script-Mixing in Anglo-Saxon Inscriptions’, in Alexander R. Rumble (ed.), Writing and Texts in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 62–70, at p. 68.

44 The writing’s on the wall 21 See Leslie Webster, The Franks Casket (London, 2012), p. 41; on this ‘pictorial message of a new world order’ see also Webster, ‘The Iconographic Programme’, p. 239. 22 It has been suggested that he may be the brother of Weland (Egill in the Norse sources); that the scene depicts the Trojan War and an Anglicised version of the name Achilles; or that it represents an angelic defender of the soul, drawing on imagery from the Old English Psalms, Osborn, ‘The Lid as Conclusion’, pp. 262–3. 23 Webster, The Franks Casket, pp. 38–9. 24 For evidence of the Anglo-Saxon interest in this narrative, see Carol Neuman de Vegvar, ‘The Travelling Twins: Romulus and Remus in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Jane Hawkes and Susan Mills (eds.), Northumbria’s Golden Age (Stroud, 1999), pp. 256–67. 25 Webster, The Franks Casket, p. 35. 26 Leslie Webster, ‘Visual Literacy in a Protoliterate Age’, in Pernille Hermann (ed.), Literacy in Medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian Culture (Aarhus, 2005), pp. 21–46, at p. 42. 27 Fell, ‘Runes and Riddles’, p. 273. 28 Webster, The Franks Casket, p. 15. 29 Leslie Webster, Anglo-Saxon Art (London, 2012), p. 96. 30 This is first of the translations given by Page, An Introduction, p. 179. 31 A.C. Bouman, ‘The Franks Casket: Right Side and Lid’, Neophilologus 49 (1965): 241–9, at p. 247. 32 Peeters, ‘The Franks Casket’, at pp. 30–1. 33 Ibid., p. 25. 34 Peeters also points out that the text of the right panel of the Casket ‘without a doubt, spells out tribulation and hard times’, ‘The Franks Casket’, p. 27. 35 On the relationship between epigraphical and manuscript runes see René Derolez, ‘Epigraphical versus Manuscript English Runes: One or Two Worlds?’, Academiae Analecta 45:1 (1983): 69–93 and David Parsons, ‘Anglo-Saxon Runes in Continental Manuscripts’, in Klaus Düwel (ed.), Runische Schriftkultur in Kontinental skandinavischer und angelsächsischer Wechselbeziehung (Berlin, 1994), pp. 195–220. 36 Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, c. 1000. 37 On the structure of the OE Daniel and its relation to the poem Azarius in the Exeter Book, see R.T. Farrell, ‘The Unity of Old English Daniel’, RES 18:70 (1967): 117–35. 38 Catherine E. Karkov, Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2001), p. 140. 39 Paul G. Remley, Old English Biblical Verse (Cambridge, 1996), p. 239. This is particularly evident in the emphasis on the desecration of the sacred vessels to the exclusion of other extraneous details about Belshazzar. 40 Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Runes and Magic’, pp. 14–31. 41 Christine Fell, ‘Runes and Semantics’, in Bammesberger (ed.), Old English Runes, pp. 195–229. 42 See, for example, Hines, ‘New Light on Literacy in Eighth-Century East Anglia’, pp. 291–2. 43 Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), p. 127. 44 The Durham Glossary, for example, refers twice to the bare / bara popig, whilst an Old English gloss of the eleventh century (in MS Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale, 1828–30) also refers to baso popig. These three references probably refer to the common poppy, despite glossing unrelated Latin plant names. See n. ‘popig, basu’, in Peter Bierbaumer et al. (eds.), Dictionary of Old English Plant Names (2007–9), Accessed August 2016.

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45 Earl R. Anderson, ‘Style and Theme in the Old English Daniel’, ES 68:1 (1987): 1–23, at pp. 12–13. On the unified theme of the poem, see also Graham D. Caie, ‘The Old English Daniel: A Warning against Pride’, ES 59:1 (1978): 1–9, at p. 1. 46 R.T. Farrell (ed.), Daniel and Azarius (London, 1974), p. 135. See also R.W.V. Elliott’s discussion of ‘blood-red colouring’ used in support of this association, Runes: An Introduction, p. 19, note 3. 47 Remley, Old English Biblical Verse, pp. 323–4, note 239. 48 See Lerer, Literacy and Power, pp. 139–41. 49 Ibid., p. 141. 50 See also the reference in Solomon and Saturn I to carving bealwe bocstafas on a weapon, discussed in Chapter 3. I am grateful to Daniel Anlezark for pointing out this contradiction. 51 Guðni Jónsson (ed.), Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Íslenzk fornrit VII (Reykavík, 1936), ch. 79. 52 For evidence of the colouring and decoration of rune stones, see Sven B.F. Jansson, Runes in Sweden, trans. Peter Foote (Stockholm, 1987), pp. 153–61. 53 The sixth-century ecclesiast Venantius Fortunatus also refers to the painting of the ‘barbarous rune’ on wooden tablets, although this reference may indicate nothing more than his ignorance of actual runic practice. See Page, An Introduction, p. 100. 54 Jansson, Runes in Sweden, p. 153. 55 R.I. Page, ‘The Old English Rune Eoh, Íh, “Yew-Tree” ’, in David Parsons (ed.), Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes (Woodbridge, 1995), pp. 133–44, at p. 142, note 34. 56 Erik Moltke, Runes and Their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere, trans. Peter G. Foote (Copenhagen, 1985), p. 324. 57 Vatican Library, MS Urbinas lat. 290. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 317. 58 Christine Rauer (ed.), The Old English Martyrology (Cambridge, 2013), p. 87. 59 For a preliminary list of manuscripts containing such spurious alphabets, see Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 274–5. 60 See ibid., pp. 26–34. 61 Bamberg MS Msc. Part. 13/2 and Munich MS Lat. 14436. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 274–5. 62 Ibid., p. 275. 63 Ibid., p. 273. 64 Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13067, fol. 17v. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 414–16. For the Christian tradition of representing Hebrew, see Ilia Rodov, ‘Hebrew Script in Christian Art’, in Geoffrey Khan (ed.), Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, vol. 3 (Boston, 2013), pp. 462–77, at p. 462. 65 Webster, The Franks Casket, p. 38. 66 This is the term Lerer uses to describe the appeal of Daniel to ecclesiasts engaged in reading and exegesis, and influenced particularly by Aldhelm’s remarks on Daniel in his De Virginitate which ‘realign the prophet in a context of an English monastic education’, Literacy and Power, p. 128. 67 Farrell, Daniel and Azarius, p. 33. 68 If Karkov is right in her suggestion that the blank space on p. 211 of the manuscript was intended to be filled with an illustration of this scene of writing, it raises the intriguing possibility that an illustrator might have been called upon to reconcile such a complex series of allusions, Text and Picture, p. 140. 69 John Hines, ‘The Benedicite Canticle in Old English Verse: An Early Runic Witness from Southern Lincolnshire’, Anglia 133:2 (2015): 257–77. Hines acknowledges that a wider range (725–825 AD) cannot be ruled out, but that a date outside these limits is ‘most implausible’, p. 269.

46 The writing’s on the wall 70 In particular, in the possibility of refining Remley’s important study of the liturgical sources for the Canticle in the Junius poem and the date at which it was rendered into Old English verse, and responding to the ‘difficult questions’ the received text of Daniel raises, Old English Biblical Verse, p. 379. See Hines, ‘The Benedicite Canticle in Old English Verse’, pp. 272–3. 71 Peeters, ‘The Franks Casket’. 72 Hines, ‘The Benedicite Canticle in Old English Verse’, p. 270. 73 This is a term that E.J. Christie uses to refer to the collective language of incision and writing, ‘Writing’, in Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling (eds.), A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies (Oxford, 2012), pp. 281–94, at p. 282. 74 David Williams, Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory (Toronto, 1982), p. 10. 75 Most studies of the archaeological context of the poem discuss the runic hilt, including R. Cramp, ‘Beowulf and Archaeology’, Medieval Archaeology 1 (1957): 57–77; H.R. Ellis Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature (Oxford, 1962), pp. 135–42; S.C. Hawkes and R.I. Page, ‘Swords and Runes in South-East England’, Antiquaries Journal 47 (1967): 11–18; surveys by Catherine M. Hills, ‘Beowulf and Archaeology’, in Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (eds.), A Beowulf Handbook (Lincoln, 1997), pp. 291–310; and Leslie Webster, ‘Archaeology and Beowulf ’, in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson (eds.), Beowulf: An Edition (Oxford, 1998), pp. 183–94. 76 Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 138. 77 See Webster, ‘Archaeology and Beowulf’, who references Davidson’s study. On the unusual image of the melting sword and its possible thematic relation to Hrothgar’s sermon, see Sri Viswanathan, ‘On the Melting of the Sword: wælrapas and the Engraving on the Sword Hilt in Beowulf’, Philological Quarterly 58 (1979): 360–3. 78 See Page, An Introduction, pp. 167–8. Jantina Helena Looijenga alternatively reads the Ash-Gilton inscription as ??emsigimer????, which may be construed as ‘I am Sigimer [victory-famous]’, Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150–700: Texts & Contexts (Groningen, 1997), p. 162. 79 Alfred Bammesberger, ‘Ingvaeonic Sound Changes and the Anglo-Frisian Runes’, in Bammesberger (ed.), Old English Runes, pp. 389–407, at p. 402. 80 This is the interpretation favoured by Cramp, ‘Beowulf and Archaeology’, p. 66. 81 On the use of these terms in the construction of an ‘aesthetic of the rune’, see Lerer, Literacy and Power, pp. 167–70. 82 See Allen Frantzen, ‘Writing the Unreadable Beowulf: “Writan” and “Forwritan,” the Pen and the Sword’, Exemplaria 3:2 (1991): 327–57, at p. 333. 83 The most extensive studies of the runic hilt are Lerer’s chapter in his Literacy and Power, pp. 158–94 and Annina Seiler, ‘The Function of the Sword-Hilt Inscription in Beowulf’, in Sarah Chevalier and Thomas Honegger (eds.), Words, Words, Words: Philology and Beyond (Tübingen, 2012), pp. 181–97. Other recent analyses emphasising the importance of the hilt include Marijane Osborn, ‘The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf ’, PMLA 93:5 (1978): 973–81; Frantzen, ‘Writing the Unreadable Beowulf’; Michael Near, ‘Anticipating Alienation: Beowulf and the Intrusion of Literacy’, PMLA 108:2 (1993): 320–32; and Christie, ‘Writing’. 84 Seth Lerer, ‘Beowulf and Contemporary Critical Theory’, in Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (eds.), A Beowulf Handbook (Lincoln, 1997), pp. 325–40, at p. 338. 85 Roberta Frank, ‘The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History’, in Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (eds.), The Wisdom of Poetry (Kalamazoo, MI, 1982), pp. 53–65 and pp. 217–77, at p. 53.

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86 Christie, ‘Writing’, p. 291. 87 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 1999), points out that this deluge ‘could also represent the flood caused by the letting of Ymir’s blood’, in which all but Bergelmir and his wife were drowned, p. 20. 88 Swift Edgar (ed.), The Vulgate Bible, Vol. I: The Pentateuch (Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 26–9. 89 On the different interpretations of this union in relation to Beowulf, see R.E. Kaske, ‘Beowulf and the Book of Enoch’, Speculum 46:3 (1971): 421–31, esp. pp. 426–7 and Ruth Mellinkoff, ‘Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part I, Noachic Tradition’, ASE 8 (1979): 143–62, esp. pp. 145–9. For a discussion of the sources that the poet was drawing on in outlining Grendel’s post-diluvian lineage, including the Book of Enoch, see Ruth Mellinkoff, ‘Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part II, Post-Diluvian Survival’, ASE 9 (1980): 183–97. 90 Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 141. 91 Cohen, Of Giants, p. 21 and p. 25. 92 Johann Köberl speculates that the hilt names Heremod and anticipates this allusion to the conceited king in Hrothgar’s sermon, ‘The Magic Sword in Beowulf’, Neophilologus 71 (1987): 120–8. For an extended discussion of the tradition linking antediluvian and post-diluvian figures of pride, see Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the BeowulfManuscript, rev. edn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), pp. 67–85. 93 See Mellinkoff, ‘Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part II’ for an extended foray into this ‘hidden hinterland of ideas’, p. 196. 94 Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 69. On the confusion of proper names by the scribes of Beowulf, including that of Eotan (Jutes) and eoten (giants), see Leonard Neidorf, ‘Scribal Errors of Proper Names in the Beowulf Manuscript’, ASE 42 (2013): 249–69. 95 James Carney, Studies in Irish Literature and History (Dublin, 1955), pp. 113–14. 96 Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, pp. 67–8. See also Andy Orchard, A Critical Companion to Beowulf (Woodbridge, 2003), p. 140. 97 Lerer, Literacy and Power, p. 159. 98 See Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 141. 99 Lerer, Literacy and Power, p. 167. 100 See Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley, CA, 1959), p. 47. 101 Osborn, ‘The Great Feud’, p. 974. 102 Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 67. See also Margaret Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf (London, 1970), who argues that the ‘engraving of the antideluvian war upon the sword hilt’ and the sermon against pride are connected, p. 183. 103 Roberta Bux Bosse and Jennifer Lee Wyatt, ‘Hrothgar and Nebuchadnezzar: Conversion in Old English Verse’, PLL 23 (1987): 257–71, at p. 270. 104 Osborn, ‘The Great Feud’, p. 974. 105 The explicit statement that the Danes ‘metod . . . ne cuþon’ (‘did not know the Creator’), has been dismissed as an interpolation by Thomas D. Hill, ‘The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf ’, in Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer (eds.), Companion to Old English Poetry (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 63–77. However, it is consistent with the lack of knowledge implicated in the reading of the hilt. 106 Fred. C. Robinson, ‘Beowulf ’, in Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 142–59, at p. 152. 107 Near argues that this scene also ‘anticipates the advent of an intruding technology that promises to undercut the psychological foundation of an entire way of life’, ‘Anticipating Alienation’, p. 329.

48 The writing’s on the wall 108 On the resemblance of Hrothgar to this proud Old Testament figure, see Bosse and Wyatt, ‘Hrothgar and Nebuchadnezzar’. 109 Iohannis Cassiani Conlationes bk VIII, ch. xxi, translated in Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 68. 110 On the developed baptismal imagery of the mere, see Allan Cabaniss, ‘Beowulf and the Liturgy’, JEGP 54:2 (1955): 195–201; M.B. McNamee, ‘Beowulf: An Allegory of Salvation?’, JEGP 59:2 (1960): 190–207, at pp. 195–7; and Vaughan Black and Brian Bethune, ‘Beowulf and the Rites of Holy Week’, Scintilla 1 (1984): 5–23. 111 Lerer, Literacy and Power, p. 164. 112 On the use of runic abbreviations in Beowulf, see Inmaculada Senra Silva, ‘The Rune Ēþel and Scribal Writing Habits in the Beowulf MS’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 99 (1998): 241–7; Damian Fleming, ‘Eþel-Weard: The First Scribe of the Beowulf-Manuscript’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 105 (2004): 177–86; and Birkett, ‘Unlocking Runes?’, pp. 107–8. 113 Fleming, ‘The First Scribe of the Beowulf-Manuscript’, p. 181. 114 For a balanced discussion of this vexed question, see T.A. Shippey, Old English Verse (London, 1972), pp. 114–28. 115 For a recent discussion of the links between the two poems, see Jason R. Puskar, ‘Hwa þas fitte fegde? Questioning Cynewulf’s Claim of Authorship’, ES 92 (2011): 1–19. 116 Anita Riedinger, ‘Andreas and the Formula in Transition’, in Patrick J. Gallacher and Helen Damico (eds.), Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture (Albany, NY, 1989), pp. 183–92, at p. 183. Riedinger suggests that this is the work of ‘an indisputably literate poet’, p. 183. 117 Lerer, Literacy and Power, pp. 53–4. 118 Christopher Fee, ‘Productive Destruction: Torture, Text, and the Body in the Old English Andreas’, Essays in Medieval Studies 11 (1994): 51–62, at p. 52. 119 Edward B. Irving, Jr. ‘A Reading of Andreas: The Poem as Poem’, ASE 12 (1983): 215–37, at pp. 218–19. 120 On the developed connection between writing and physical violence in the poem, see Fee, ‘Productive Destruction’, in which he argues that the Mermedonians ‘ “write” upon Andreas’s body his identity as a type of Christ’, p. 51. 121 Irving, ‘A Reading of Andreas’, p. 234. 122 On the typology of the flood, see Alexandra Bolintineanu, ‘The Land of Mermedonia in the Old English Andreas’, Neophilologus 93 (2009): 149–64, at pp. 159–60. 123 Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 426. 124 Richard Marsden (ed.), The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novi, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2008), p. 4. 125 Ibid., p. 201.


Releasing runes Riddles and revelation in the Exeter Book

In the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, the cognitive processes associated with intellectual revelation are often configured in terms of physical binding and releasing, whilst the related concept of the mind as enclosure ‘must have been part of the standard hermeneutic repertoire for many insiders to the culture of Old English poetry’.1 The poet of The Wanderer famously compares the mind to a treasure chamber, and relates how it is incumbent on the lonely exile to ‘modsefan . . . feterum sælan’ (‘seal his mind enclosure with fetters’) (ll. 19a and 21b). The motif of unlocking the wordhord suggests in turn a measured and targeted disclosure of this intellectual treasure-house for particular effects. In Andreas both the Apostle and Christ ‘unlock’ their respective word-hoards to divulge wisdom, whilst the chief priest of the Mermedonians is said to unbind his hordloca (‘treasure-enclosure’) for the destructive purpose of fashioning enmity (ll. 671b–72a), the implication of such instances of unlocking being that the speaker ‘chooses his words, and makes them work’.2 Amongst the Exeter Book poems that are the subject of this chapter we find the poet Widsith mustering his impressive knowledge of Germanic legend and unlocking his treasury of words in anticipation of material reward, whilst the poet of Vainglory is taught to recognise Christ by a ‘beorn boca gleaw’ (‘man wise in books’) (l. 4a) who unlocks his wordhord for the purposes of Christian revelation. In the Exeter Book poem The Order of the World the studious man is advised to ‘bewritan in gewitte wordhordes cræft’ (‘write in the mind the craft of the word-hoard’) (l. 19), suggesting that written letters also play a role in this physical understanding of knowledge retrieval and mental process. Indeed, perhaps the most elaborate expression of cognition as a mechanical process of unbinding occurs in Riddle 42(40) of the Exeter Book, a poem that makes use of both the concept of the mental enclosure and the image of a written key that unlocks understanding: Ic seah wyhte wrætlice twa undearnunga ute plegan hæmedlaces; hwitloc anfeng


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation wlanc under wædum, gif þæs weorces speow, fæmne fyllo. Ic on flette mæg þurh runstafas rincum secgan þam þe bec witan, bega ætsomne naman þara wihta. Þær sceal Nyd wesan twega oþer ond se torhta Æsc an an linan, Acas twegen, Hægelas swa some. Hwylc þæs hordgates cægan cræfte þa clamme onleac þe þa rædellan wið rynemenn hygefæste heold heortan bewrigene orþoncbendum? Nu is undyrne werum æt wine hu þa wihte mid us, heanmode twa, hatne sindon. (Riddle 42[40])3 [I saw two wondrous creatures openly, in outdoor play, fornicating; the fair-haired one received a female fullness, proud under her skirts, if this ruse worked. I may, on the floor, through rune-staves reveal to men, to those who are book-wise, both the names of those creatures together. There shall be Need twice, and the bright Ash, once in a single line, two Oaks, Hail twice too. Who may with key’s craft unlock the fastenings of the door to the hoard, which hold the riddle craftily against rune-men, its heart concealed by cunning bonds? Now it is revealed to men at wine how by us the two downcast creatures are named.]

Here the specific key that is offered to the reader wishing to overcome the elaborate dissembling strategies adopted by the poser of the riddle is a sequence of rune names that must be written out and rearranged to identify the fornicating creatures. If we combine the two nyd runes with æsc, two ac runes and two hægel runes, we arrive at the solution HAnA and Han, hana and hæn (‘cock and hen’), which the poet envisages being written on flette (‘on the floor’) (l. 5) in a parody of the actions of the two downcast animals. The riddle is presented as a challenge to rynemenn (‘rune-skilled men’), reinforcing the notion that the ‘key’s craft’ referred to here is synonymous with the application of the written clue, and that the solution is specifically undyrne (‘revealed’), through the runic characters named in the passage. One might assume on reading the opening to this riddle that we are dealing with a volkrätsel – characteristically bawdy, dealing with everyday creatures engaged in ut plega (l. 2) and presented to ‘werum æt wine’ (l. 16) – and yet the poem later refers explicitly to bookishness and to the intricate orþoncbendas (l. 15) of the poem, and demands that the riddle be solved through the application of runic literacy. It could be that a once-learned riddle perhaps suffered ‘modification to fit popular taste’ as Baum suggests,4

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


but I would argue that this conceit actually works through a deliberate juxtaposition of these expectations: of oral and visual puzzles, of private mental process and social performance, of the bawdy and the intellectual. The image of cæg cræft (l. 12) is a perfect expression of this mutability, lewd in that it puns on the intercourse of the two creatures, material in its depiction of physically unlocking the bonds of the riddle and employing a vocabulary of intellectual dexterity taken from ‘a learned, and possibly monastic conception of understanding’.5 The fornication in the riddle extends beyond the ‘splicing’ of the hana and hæn, or indeed the literal conjoining of the graphemes that make up their names. It gives birth to a riddle that is poised indefinably between these categories, drawing on the concepts of the mind, the womb and the riddle as enclosed treasure-hoards, and as Lerer suggests, ultimately focused on ‘interpretation itself’.6 Runes appear within seven Old English riddles, and as clues written alongside several more. In such riddling contexts the use of runes is usually characterised as playfully cryptic, and the script represented as an arcane writing system employed for the purpose of hiding the solution and compounding the difficulty of the riddle. The fact that the riddle is resolved, or unlocked, when the runes are read correctly is usually glossed over in favour of reading the runes as ‘ambiguity incarnate’.7 However, in its direct reference to runstafas as the key to unlocking the riddle, Riddle 42(40) makes explicit a feature of the runic puzzles which is only implied elsewhere: the fact that the runes represent the site where the meaning of the riddle is unlocked and the solution revealed. This seems to suggest a somewhat different positioning of the script within the mechanics of cognition, raising the possibility that the written rune might itself have come to be associated with cæg cræft and the mechanical apparatus of revelation: with disclosing information, rather than concealing it.

Releasing runes: a literary precedent Bearing in mind the conventional representation of mental process as a sequence of binding and unlocking, it would seem a natural development for a rune used in a riddle solution to be conceptualised as a key that unlocks meaning, and the association between runes and cæg cræft that we find in Riddle 42(40) may result from the script’s application in this particular context. There are, however, several indications that a close association between runes and releasing or unlocking has a basis in the broader cultural construction of the script. There are several hints in Old Norse mythology that the idea of releasing runes may have a more venerable ancestry. First of all, the unlocking of chains and the breaking of fetters on hands and feet are abilities credited to Óðinn in Hávamál, the god stating that ‘ef mér fyrðar bera / bond at bóglimum, / svá ek gel / at ek ganga má’ (‘if men fasten bonds on my limbs, I chant so that I might go free’) (st. 149). This reference to the god’s skill to release bonds occurs in the fourth strophe of the Ljóðatal


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

section of the poem – a list of charms or spells known to Óðinn – and it has a close connection with the myth of the discovery of the runes that directly precedes it in the poem, a connection discussed further in Chapter 5. A broader attribution of ‘releasing’ skills to the Norse god is also suggested by Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga saga, when he mentions Óðinn’s ability to open mounds to reveal treasure and, rather more prosaically, lost cattle.8 Finally, runes are associated with another kind of releasing – childbirth – in the outlandish catalogue of runic lore in Sigrdrífumál, addressed in Chapter 4, in this volume. Here the runes are referred to as biargrúnar (‘assisting runes’), the poem telling us that they must be carved on the palms and joints ‘ef þú biarga vilt / oc leysa kind frá konum’ (‘if you want to assist and to release infants from women’) (st. 9). Such vague allusions to the releasing properties of runes, recorded in the thirteenth century and subject to the vagaries of poetic reconstruction, hardly constitute a concrete link between runes and unlocking, and to suggest a direct connection between Norse myth and the use of runes in a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical setting would be stretching credulity. However, when we come across a reference to unlocking runes in the writing of the venerable Bede, the most important scholar of the early Anglo-Saxon Church, we are obliged to give the idea more credence. The remark about releasing letters that Bede makes in his Historia Ecclesiastica is, at first sight, an innocuous one. The story concerns the young Northumbrian militem named Imma and his uncanny ability to unlock chains, and is one of the most memorable and frequently cited narratives from the Historia. This has in part to do with Bede’s judicious blending of contemporary politics with miracle story, and with the particular vividness of his account of these events, which are of a miracle type not common amongst contemporary hagiographical writings. Much criticism has been concerned specifically with the interface between the pagan past and the Christian present that seems to underlie this account, and with the obscurity of his reference to litteras solutorias, generally translated as ‘loosening letters’ or ‘written spells’ and associated in the Old English translation with knowledge of the alysendlic run(e) (‘releasing rune[s]’). What follows is a summary of the story, highlighting its important details. In the year 679, Bede relates a battle that took place between the Northumbrian King Egfrid and King Ethelred of the Mercians near the river Trent. During the battle a young warrior by the name of Imma is stunned and left for dead on the battlefield. After coming around, he sets off in search of his Northumbrian kinsmen, but does not get far before he is captured by the Mercians and taken to an earl of the ruling King Ethelred. The earl treats him well, tending his wounds, feeding and entertaining him. Once he has recovered, however, the earl orders him to be bound to prevent his escape. This cannot be accomplished, as each time the bonds are placed upon him they miraculously fall off. His captor is confounded, and asks

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


Imma whether he has about him any ‘written charms’, such as are spoken about in fabulous stories: Interea comes, qui eum tenebat, mirari et interrogare coepit, quare ligari non posset, an forte litteras solutorias, de qualibus fabulae ferunt, apud se haberet, propter quas ligari non posset. (Historia Ecclesiastica, bk 4, ch. 22) [Meanwhile the nobleman, who kept him prisoner, was astonished, and asked him why he could not be bound, and whether he possessed any written charms to protect him from binding, like those mentioned in fables.]9 Imma tells his captor that he knows nothing of these things, but that he has a brother who is a priest, and who regularly performs masses for the absolution of his soul. The earl sells Imma to a London trader, who is similarly exasperated by his inability to bind his captive. Imma eventually obtains a ransom and is released, at which point he is able to confirm his suspicions that his brother, believing him dead, had been singing masses at exactly the time his bonds were liable to become unlocked. Bede, concerned to rationalise his selection of material for inclusion in the Historia, informs the reader that he has decided not to pass over this extraordinary episode in silence, ‘because the relation of the same will be conducive to the salvation of many’ (bk 4, ch. 22), although he is also uncharacteristically vague about his sources for this miracle, claiming to have heard the story from an anonymous ‘someone’ who himself heard it first-hand. Colgrave points out that this is one of only a handful of ‘mere fairy-tale wonders’ in the Historia, and in contrast with the treatment of other exceptional miracles such as the appearance of an angel on horseback related in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, the author makes no attempt to justify this event.10 Whether or not Bede was responsible for Christianising the miracle, its inception seems to lie in popular folklore, and as Lerer intimates, the whole episode represents a rather staged process of cultural appropriation, dramatising the meeting of two world views, and writing the Christian into the ascendancy.11 The credulous captors have been hearing too many fabulae, or ‘fabulous stories’, and such a primitive means of explaining the world through operative human agency, through ‘a power occult in its operations, but worldly in its ends’,12 is firmly relegated to the past in favour of prayerful intervention. As Page points out, the phrase litteras solutorias may refer ‘to a letter or document, or characters or words’,13 and it may well be deliberately vague, perhaps even constituting ‘an act of literary suppression’.14 Bede certainly did not want to give voice and substance to those very fables he was denouncing, and his reference does not even specify the script to which he is referring. Fortunately for us, the Old English translator of the Bede,


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

probably working during or shortly after the reign of King Alfred,15 does elaborate, and here a connection with runes is made explicit: Ond hine ascode hwæðer he ða alysendlecan rune cuðe, and þa stafas mid him awritene hæfde, be swylcum men leas spel secgað and spreocað, þæt hine mon forþon gebindan ne meahte. (OE Bede, bk 4, ch. 23; p. 328) [And he asked him whether he knew the releasing rune(s), and had with him the letters written out, such as men tell idle tales of and speak about, so that he could not be bound.] As we saw in the previous chapter, it is not always clear whether a reference to OE run refers to the script or to the extended sense of ‘mystery’ or ‘counsel’, but here the fact that the ‘releasing rune’ translates Bede’s litteras solutorias and is connected explicitly with ‘stafas . . . awritene’ (‘letters written out’) leaves us in little doubt that the reference is to the script – a poetic image of runes as letters with the power to loosen the captive’s chains.16 One manuscript of the OE Bede has a slightly different reading of this passage, giving us the alyfedlican rune (‘permitted runes’) and þa stanas (‘the stones’) for stafas.17 Orton reads MS þa stanas as þas tanas (‘the twigs’), linking this with a reference to Woden’s wuldortanas (‘glory-twigs’) in The Nine Herbs Charm which cause a serpent to shatter into pieces.18 Even in the one version of the OE Bede that doesn’t reference ‘unlocking’ runes directly, we thus have a reflex of yet another story linking writing (inscribed twigs in this case) with the properties of ‘breaking open’. The fact that the translator and copyists of the Bede give us an insight into their understanding of this tradition is intriguing, particularly as this is not the only account which expands on Bede’s tight-lipped account of the fabulae. Ælfric, writing in the late tenth century, also references the story of Imma in his Sermo de efficacia sanctae missae, a homily discussing the power of the mass to intercede for those in purgatory.19 According to the most recent editor of Ælfric’s Homilies, ‘the Old English translation of Bede’s work seems here to have had no influence on his rendering’, suggesting that he extrapolated the runic connection independently from the reference to litteras solutorias in the Latin text.20 Here there is no equivocation: the ealdorman asks the captive ‘hwæðer he ðurh drycræft oððe ðurh runstafum his bendas tobræce’ (‘whether he broke his bonds asunder through sorcery or runic letters’).21 It is tempting to link this collocation with the reference to Óðinn’s ability to unlock chains in Hávamál, and to cite it as an example of an abiding connection between runes and the magic arts in Anglo-Saxon England, as Elliott does.22 However, we should remember that Ælfric is once again deriding the credulous ealdorman, and highlighting the fallacy that lies behind connecting ordinary letters with sorcery. What we can say for certain is that the idle notion of ‘releasing runes’ was current enough to be

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


dismissed by both the translator of the venerable Bede and by the deeply orthodox Ælfric. As Page points out, there are very few references to the use of runes in Anglo-Saxon writings, and this paucity of references is precisely the reason the episode referring to litteras solutorias has become both ‘commonly quoted and highly valued’.23 I suggest that it would also have served as an important literary reference point for Anglo-Saxon antiquarians themselves, working with a script about which they had book-knowledge, but not necessarily practical experience. The notion of unlocking runes, as I have argued elsewhere, may well have amounted to a cultural maxim, an association that had lost much if not all of its original meaning, and that would have been reinforced as the runic script came to be used in particular niche roles within a developed scribal culture.24 Just what impact this popular conception of the script came to exert on runic practice in the scriptorium will be the focus of the remainder of this chapter, re-reading the famous runic puzzles in the Exeter Book in light of this most enduring of fables about the script.

Releasing runes in the Exeter Book The Exeter Book25 represents a unique case study for the use of runes within a discrete community of Anglo-Saxon copyists and readers in the late tenth century. The first reference to the Exeter Book is in the list of donations to the Library of the recently founded Exeter Cathedral by its first bishop, Leofric, in 1072; however, the manuscript was copied in the second half of the tenth century, when the seat of the Bishopric lay at Crediton. Conner makes a convincing case for Exeter itself as the most likely place of copying,26 whilst the most recent editor agrees that the combined evidence points towards either Exeter or Crediton, and dates the manuscript to c. 965–975.27 This highly eclectic manuscript is invaluable for our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literary culture: it not only bears witness to hundreds of unique poems, but also to entire genres of Old English poetry – including the elegies and Old English riddles – about which we would be otherwise be largely ignorant. The intended audience of the Exeter Book and the rationale for its compilation (perhaps in an earlier exemplar) is hard to reconstruct with any certainty, not least because it includes such a diversity of genres, from the lengthy Christ poems to the catalogue of Germanic legendary figures presented in Widsith. However, Muir argues that with the possible exception of these lists of Germanic figures ‘there is little reason to believe that any of the poems in the anthology dates from much before the Alfredian period’.28 Whilst the manuscript still poses many questions for the critic, it is safe to say that the Exeter Book represents a snapshot of the poetry that was circulated, read and valued by a tenth-century religious community shortly before and after the Benedictine reform, and that its contents ‘reflect the culture of the periods encompassed in its production’.29


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

One of the many remarkable features of the Exeter Book is the extensive use of the runic script within the manuscript. The runes wyn(n) and þorn are of course adopted as additional letters of the insular alphabet (as ƿ and þ), and were used in vernacular English manuscripts until well into the postConquest Period. Certain runes, including wyn(n), are also used as abbreviations for their proper names in the Exeter Book, as they are in a number of Old English manuscripts. On occasion, these unusual logographs may constitute meaningful elements of the texts under discussion. More unusually, the Exeter Book also includes a sub-category of runic riddles which – like the cock and hen riddle quoted earlier – make reference to rune names as an aid to solving the riddles, or incorporate sequences of runes into the poetic line as visual clues. Outside the riddles, we have the impenetrable sequence in The Husband’s Message, and Cynewulf’s runic signatures in Christ II (The Ascension) and Juliana, all three demonstrating a sophisticated runic hermeneutics. Evidence that this was a community of runically literate readers comes in the form of dry-point runes scratched into the margins of the riddles, including one sequence which Page reads as an exasperated reader’s comment on the difficulty of the riddle it accompanies. All of these uses of runes have a precedent elsewhere: Cynewulf’s signatures in the Vercelli Book; abbreviations in a diverse range of manuscripts, including three of the four major poetic codices; and runic ephemera in a fairly extensive corpus of runica manuscripta, particularly associated with Anglo-Saxon activity on the Continent. Yet, the Exeter Book is nonetheless exceptional in terms of the sheer preponderance of runes appearing in a single manuscript, appearing to adhere to the Exeter Book’s own maxim that ‘ræd sceal mon secgan rune writan’ (‘advice must be spoken, runes must be written’).30 Furthermore, the fact that runes appear in each of the booklets that Conner identifies as reflecting three distinct stages of copying before and after the Benedictine reform of Exeter in 968 suggests that the runic script maintained its importance to this scribal community throughout a period of significant intellectual upheaval.31 We must also remember that the Exeter Book was produced in a South-Western environment far removed from the centres of runic epigraphy in Anglo-Saxon England, and we must therefore properly understand this as a reception context rather than a clear continuation of an English epigraphical tradition. Runes are being written and read, and often deployed in a highly sophisticated interplay of ideas about language and cognition, but they do not function as an inert (or natural) substitute for roman letters within the pages of the manuscript. When runes appear, it is as letters revived for particular literary effects, premised on their physical alterity as a script, and influenced by the network of associations that had become associated with their use in the scriptorium. The predominant association brought to bear in the Exeter Book is that of the unlocking motif, the runes deployed in order to implicate the reader in a particularly ‘revelatory’ reading practice.

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


Runic abbreviations In a previous study published in the journal Futhark, I identified a curious pattern in the apparently mechanical practice of using runes to stand as abbreviations for their common names: namely, a close association of runic abbreviations with contexts of physical, intellectual and spiritual disclosure.32 In this article I suggested that this association with unlocking should lead us to reassess the rationale for using runes in the more celebrated contexts of the riddles. The best place to begin such a reassessment is with a discussion of those runic ‘abbreviations’ that appear in the particular context of the Exeter Book. The use of runes as logographs arises from the fact that the runic characters, in addition to representing individual phonemes, also carried conventional names. This is similar to the Greek alphabet with its alpha, beta, gamma sequence; however, unlike the Greek nomenclature, the names of the runic letters were meaningful common or proper nouns. Several of these, including the runes named man(n)/mon (‘man’) and dæg (‘day’), were in regular use and thus provided scribes with an effective shorthand: the rune could be written instead of the name itself. We thus find, for example, the name Solomon in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 41 being represented as Solom, the rune o (eþel) being used three times in the copying of Beowulf, and the use of the rune wyn(n) as an abbreviation on three occasions in the Vercelli Book. These uses of abbreviations are hardly common or consistent enough to serve much practical purpose, unlike the use of the maðr rune in the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda where the rune is employed forty-five times in the single poem Hávamál.33 The only consistent application of these so-called abbreviations in Anglo-Saxon England occurs in the glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Durham Ritual, both produced by the same tenth-century glossator, Aldred. In these contexts, we are justified in referring to these runes as ‘abbreviations’, as there is some attempt to systematise the use of the runes dæg and man(n)/ mon alongside an array of non-runic brevigraphs. Further study of Aldred’s particular (and idiosyncratic) use of abbreviations is needed, but it is nonetheless clear that this ‘systematic use on a small scale’ is unusual, and that the runes were used as part of the glossator’s individual strategy for manipulating the space available for his Old English text.34 The labelling of single runes in other Old English manuscripts as abbreviations used in ‘an almost offhand way’35 or characterising them as ‘nothing more than a shorthand practice’ is, however, far more problematic.36 A rune that appears once in a text in which it could have been employed scores of times is, as Derolez points out, ‘exceptional’, and particularly so when there is no clear palaeographical rationale for the use of such an abbreviation.37 We have already seen that the eþel rune in Beowulf serves to connect Hrothgar’s scrutiny of the runic hilt with the reception of runic heritage in the present: we are dealing not with systematic abbreviation, but with the conscious deployment of runic logographs for a particular literary effect.


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

In the Exeter Book only two such stand-alone logographs occur, and in one case the connection with releasing runes could not be clearer. Riddle 91(87) contains a single runic abbreviation, and is the second riddle in the Exeter Book with the solution ‘key’. Min heafod is homere geþuren, searopila wund, sworfen feole. Oft ic begine þæt me ongean sticað, þonne ic hnitan sceal, hringum gyrded, hearde wið heardum, hindan þyrel, forð ascufan þæt mines frean mod ?W? freoþað middelnihtum. Hwilum ic under bæc bregde nebbe, hyrde þæs hordes, þonne min hlaford wile lafe þicgan þara þe he of life het wælcræfte awrecan willum sinum. [My head is forged by a hammer, wounded by a skilfully made tool, scoured by a file. Often I swallow up that which sticks against me, when I must thrust the hole in the rear, girded by rings, hard against the hard, expel that which protects my lord’s heart’s joy in the middle of the night. Sometimes under my beak I draw back the guardian of the hoard, when my lord wants to take hold of the remains of those whom, by his will, he ordered to drive out from life with slaughter-craft.]38 In common with all the lewd riddles in the collection, the poet presents us with a sequence of highly suggestive imagery that must be discarded to arrive at the correct solution: that this is an elaborate depiction of the unlocking of a chest or door, related from the perspective of the thrusting key. The riddle follows the standard anthropomorphic sequence, giving us the back-story for the manufacture of the material object before moving to a description of its main activity, and incorporating an account of its utility to humankind. We also learn about the lord whose shadowy presence lurks in the background of the poem, and the battle between the key and the guardian of the hoard mimics at a domestic level the deadly conquest by which the key’s master won the prize which he jealously contemplates ‘in the middle of the night’ (l. 7b). We are left to speculate on what this appropriated lafe might be (perhaps the gold we would associate most closely with a guarded hoard, perhaps a sexual conquest), but we do know that it is treasured as the lord’s mod-wyn(n). Understanding that the rune is used here not as a scribal shorthand, but as a pointed textual reference at the heart of the poem allows us to appreciate another facet to this carefully crafted riddle. The rune – with its unlocking associations – acts as a further species of key revealing the solution. Its shape even resembles the typical casket or hollow-stem key

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


shape with a protruding bæc, a visual referent that we still recognise today and which stares up at us from the page as we interpret the riddle. Its use in the phrase ‘heart’s joy’, describing what is locked away, also subtly draws attention to the close association between the key and the lord’s coveted treasure. We might wonder whether his heart’s joy is in fact the key itself, which allows him to jealously guard his coveted possessions like a dragon protecting his hoard. There could hardly be a clearer expression of the continuing currency of the idea of ‘unlocking runes’ expressed in the OE Bede than this pointed inclusion of a runic clue in a riddle about a lock and key. The only other stand-alone runic abbreviation in the Exeter Book occurs in The Ruin, a poem that has long been associated with the riddle genre and which directly precedes the final sequence of riddles in the Exeter Book. In this case the runic logograph occurs halfway through the poem (see Figure 2.1), in a sequence describing the transformation of the once-glorious city into a desolate ruin: Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige, heah horngestreon, heresweg micel, meodheall monig ?d? dreama full – oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe. (The Ruin, ll. 19–24) [Bright were the city buildings, the many bathing halls, the wealth of lofty arches, the great martial sound, many a mead-hall full of human joys – until fate, the mighty one, transformed that.] The rune in question most closely resembles the dæg rune (d) rather than the man(n)/mon rune (m). However, there can be little doubt that man(n)/ mon is intended in order to alliterate across the half-line with meodheall monig. It may be that the copyist of the Exeter Book or an earlier exemplar made a mistake in copying, not recognising the distinction between the two runes, or that it was an error introduced when the rune was first written

Figure 2.1 Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 124r Source: © Exeter Cathedral Library / Bernard J. Muir.39


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

down. If the latter case, we have to ask why a scribe not entirely well-versed in the runic script would introduce an erroneous rune as an abbreviation, the answer perhaps being that including a runic character for literary effect was the prevailing impulse, and not the need to save space with a wellknown abbreviation. Indeed, the oft-abbreviated word þæt is written out in full later in the same line, suggesting that economy of space or effort was certainly not the primary consideration. We should also recognise that the word abbreviated is itself a very common one, used three times in the proceeding poem (The Husband’s Message) and not once abbreviated, despite this being a poem about a runic communiqué. Why then, should it appear in The Ruin? A connection with unlocking is not immediately apparent. We are dealing, after all, with the lengthy ravages of time, and with a wistful comparison between an imagined city teeming with life and the present lafe, or remnants, of this collapsed civilization. The first thing to note is that the use of the rune in The Ruin may serve as a signal to the reader to treat this poem in the same way as the riddles that surround it in the manuscript: as a poem to be unlocked. It is also worth considering the binary system that operates throughout this poem, namely the repeated contrast between enclosure and exposure. The former city, perhaps the Roman city of Bath,40 is described in terms of its ingenious conception: the builder ‘in hringas . . . gebond / weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre’ (‘ingeniously fastened the foundation walls with wire into rings’) (ll. 19–20); the bright bosom of the hot pool is entirely enclosed by walls; it is a city held together by the orþonc ærsceaft (‘ingenious ancient work’) (l. 14) of giants. Set against this imagined splendour, we have the present reality of gaping open space, emptied treasuries, unbarred gates and exposed masonry. It is not inconceivable that the rune is used with such a wholesale ‘breaking open’ in mind, particularly as the imagery of unlocking gates and breaking fetters is very similar to the mechanics of cognitive enclosure and disclosure that we saw unlocked with a runic key in Riddle 42(40). The specific word abbreviated by the rune – man(n)/mon – may itself be relevant to the interpretation of the poem, perhaps supporting Johnson’s notion that the poem’s central dynamic involves bringing ‘stone ruins and human beings into [a] polar relationship as symbolic reflections of each other’,41 or perhaps simply highlighting ‘man’ as the site of reconciliation between imagined past and observed present, ‘as creator and demolisher, artificer and riddle-solver’.42 Like the runic cyphers considered later, the rune in The Ruin is not simply a brevigraph, but a meaningful constituent of the poem’s theme and effect. Runes in the Old English riddles Despite centuries of learned interest in the Old English riddles, a workable definition of what constitutes a literary riddle is surprisingly difficult to locate. We could do worse than follow Abbot’s concise characterisation

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


of the genre as ‘a periphrastic presentation of an unmentioned subject, the design of which is to excite the reader or hearer to the discovery of the meaning hidden under a studied obscurity of expression’.43 Of course, both in the case of Latin enigmata, which often circulated with appended solutions, and folk riddles with solutions that were common knowledge, the notion of an ‘unmentioned solution’ is problematic. However, this requirement seems to hold true in the case of the Old English riddles, which at least maintain the illusion of discovery through elucidation. The challenge may be notional, but the process always involves the reader in a conceptual re-alignment as they reconcile the riddle’s imagery with the solution. To put it another way, riddles must be answered, and ‘riddles without answers are never really riddles’.44 Murphy, in one of the most recent critical studies of the Exeter Book riddles, characterises this relationship as a ‘binary structure’ of riddlic proposition and solution, and suggests that identifying patterns in the way this occasionally fractious relationship is expressed provides the best means of classifying and offering correct interpretations of these Old English poems.45 One category of riddle that Murphy does not single out for analysis is the runic riddle, which is curious as this particular sub-category of enigma seems to offer something unique within the binary structure of the riddle. This is because the riddles incorporating runes contain their own solution, providing, in several cases, the ‘satisfying click of an answer’s key’.46 Even when presented in anagrammatic form or as an additional cryptographic puzzle, the runic clue offers the possibility for definitively responding to the riddlic proposition. We have already seen how the runes of Riddle 42(40) provide the answer hana and hæn, narrowing the range of applicable answers to a single correct solution, and giving us a key that resolves the considerable ambiguity of the poem: as the poet tells us emphatically, nu is undyrne (‘now it is revealed’) (1. 16). Another riddle in which runes serve to resolve a potentially ambiguous, or multi-referent, solution is the extraordinary Riddle 24(22) dealing with a ‘wondrous creature’ which mimics the sounds of other animals: Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wræsne mine stefne, hwilum beorce swa hund, hwilum blæte swa gat, hwilum græde swa gos, hwilum gielle swa hafoc, hwilum ic onhyrge þone haswan earn, guðfugles hleoþor, hwilum glidan reorde muþe gemæne, hwilum mæwes song, þær ic glado sitte. ?X? mec nemnað, swylce ?a? ond ?R? ?O? fullesteð, ?H? ond ?i? Nu ic haten eom swa þa siex stafas sweotule becnaþ. (Riddle 24[22]) [I am a strange creature, alter my voice, sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes screech like a goose, sometimes


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation yell like a hawk, sometimes I mimic the ashen eagle, the war-bird’s cry, sometimes with a kite’s call in my throat I speak, sometimes with a seagull’s song, where I sit in happiness; g they name me, likewise æ and r. o supports h and i. Now I am named, as these six staves clearly show.]

The ability of certain song birds to simulate other bird calls (as well as car alarms) is well-known, and the riddle concerns itself with just such a wunderlicu wiht, changing its voice in imitation of various animals and birds, and employing a string of verbs with a distinctly onomatopoeic character: beorcan, blætan, grædan, giellan (‘bark, bleat, cry, yell’). The bird appropriates these different verbal registers, literally speaking with another creature’s voice in its mouth (l. 6), and when the poem is read aloud the reader’s vocalisation of these onomatopoeic terms imitates the ventriloquism of the creature described. By using runes rather than the roman alphabet to name this creature, the poet mimics the dissembling strategies of his subject, not only changing written form, but playing with the very notion of oral expression emphasised in the body of the poem: if the audience hears and recognises the rune names in performance, they need to turn them back into written characters in order to unlock the solution. Indeed, the runes provide the only means to pin down the name of the creature which inhabits these many personas – higoræ, a word used to gloss Latin picus, and almost certainly referring here to a jay.47 The runes are arranged as an anagram, and thus constitute a riddle within the riddle, but one which leads to a definitive exposure: as the creature says, ‘Nu ic haten eom / swa þa siex stafas sweotule becnaþ’ (‘now I am named / as these six staves clearly show’) (ll. 9–10). The runes act as the key which reveals what the poem (and the jay itself) does its best to hide, reconciling the shifting registers in a single solution: it is, to borrow a term used by Salvador Bello, the most direct of ‘direct clues’.48 The runic riddles are not always so comprehensively resolved through the runic puzzle. The shortest runic riddle in the collection is the much anthologised and discussed Riddle 75(73) in which the solution seems to be written backwards: Ic swiftne geseah dnlH

on swaþe feran

[I saw a swift-one go along the track. dnuh] Beneath this short poetic utterance, or perhaps dividing two lines of what may represent a single riddle, appears the four-letter solution to the poem, written from right to left in runes.49 Whilst most editions silently emend the solution to hund, or ‘dog’, the runes actually read dnlh (‘hlnd’ when reversed). The l is perhaps the result of an error in reproducing the not wholly dissimilar u rune, but it has also been suggested that it represents the word hælend (‘saviour’) with the vowels removed, employing a cryptographic practice

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


similar to that used on the right panel of the Franks Casket.50 I am not convinced by this interpretation, or Williamson’s notion that it represents hland (‘piss’), resolving this and the following riddle as male and female urination, and prefer the solution hund.51 This is because the reference to hund does exactly what the reversed runes do in the magpie riddle: they narrow down an impossibly broad category (almost anything could travel quickly along a path) with a key that at least partially resolves the imagery. The solution to the following riddle referring to a lady sitting alone may also refer to a dog – again, the image is so broad that it could refer to just about anything. It may not be a very good riddle, but it does show how much power to make or unmake a riddle was invested in the runes: all hope of making sense of the impossibly obscure image lies in the runic key. The runes here act rather like the antidote to the neck riddle – the most famous being Óðinn’s clinching question in the Saga of King Heiðrek, ‘what did Óðinn whisper in Baldr’s ear before he was taken to the funeral fire?’ (st. 73) – a puzzle that is impossible to solve without the runic deus ex machina.52 Riddle 19(17) describing the journey of a horse, man and hawk with the aid of a series of runic cryptograms, gives some credence to the fact we are dealing with an animal in the short Riddle 75(73), but also reminds us that we should not always take this initial solution at face value. This riddle presents several sequences written in runes, with the order of letters similarly inverted (see Figure 2.2). The opening lines of the poem demonstrate the strategy that is applied throughout, and refer to another creature running swiftly along the road: Ic on siþe seah ?S R O H? hygewloncne, heafodbeorhtne, swiftne ofer sælwong swiþe þrægan. (Riddle 19(17), ll. 1–3) [On the road I saw sroh, proud of mind, bright of head, running very swiftly over the plains.]

Figure 2.2 Riddle 19(17). Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 105r Source: © Exeter Cathedral Library / Bernard J. Muir.


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

The swift creature is, of course, OE hors (‘horse’), which the runes name in reverse. As with the magpie riddle, the rune names are integrated into the alliterative line, but in this case the poem takes this integration a stage further. As the quoted lines demonstrate, the cluster of runes beginning with the rune named sigel completes the alliterative half-line following ‘siþe seah’, whilst the lone H (hægel) forms an alliterating pair with hygewloncne (see Figure 2.2) Not only are the initial sound values of the reversed names integrated with the scheme of alliteration, but in thoroughly mind-taxing fashion, the runic words are twice split between lines, with the initial character of the second segment of the word also complementing the alliteration in the new line. In this case the individual runes are not enclosed by points (a convention in the Exeter Book indicating when runes should be expanded), but the rune names are nonetheless required to be voiced to complete the poetic line. As DiNapoli points out, to solve the riddle necessarily means ‘to shatter the poem as a metrical construct’, the runes serving to ‘map out the conceptual and linguistic (and almost visual) fault line along which this fracture must occur’.53 The four sequences of runes in this riddle are sorh, nom, agew and cofoah, which when reversed read hors, mon, wega (or wiga) and haofoc (‘horse’, ‘man’, ‘warrior’ and ‘hawk’), immediately suggesting a hunting scene, a solution that was favoured by many critics until the discovery of a further dimension to the complex runic cryptogram. The first letters of each of these reversed words actually spell snac(c), the Old English word for ‘a swift-sailing vessel’,54 and lending support to Williamson’s earlier proposal that the whole poem refers to a ship, the horse referencing the kenning sæmearh (‘seahorse’); the bright head indicating a decorated prow; the nægledne (‘nailed one’) pointing to a ‘nailed clinker’; and the hawk representing the sail.55 Griffith, who identified this acronym, is right to point out ‘the unlikelihood of a random permutation of letters coincidentally spelling out a word for the favoured solution’, and to note that the swiftness of the object described and the reference to a warrior fit with the type of vessel described.56 I might also add that the description of the ‘widlast . . . rynestrong’ (or ‘strongly flowing wide road’) may point to the rivers or estuaries that shallow-draft war-ships were able to navigate, whilst the hildeþryþe (‘strength in battle’) carried on its back (of which the rune sequences mon and wega are a part) supports Bitterli’s contention that ‘the author was perhaps thinking more specifically of a swift war-ship’.57 The runes thus work on a series of different levels: logographically within the poem’s alliterative line, as individual clues to the different components of the riddle’s solution, and as an anagram giving the overall solution snac(c). Although dismissed by some early critics as a redundant and facile exercise in reading backwards – Tupper described the runes as ‘pointless Anglo-Saxon logogriphs’58 – the careful layering of the runic solution makes for one of the most intellectually rewarding poems in the collection. The

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


runes may destroy the metrical structures of the poem and ensure it cannot be realised off the page, but they also provide a perfect key that resolves the fragmented imagery of the riddle with a deeply satisfying ‘click’.59 This is not quite the case with the companion poem Riddle 64(62). The riddle once more enacts a process of what Dewa refers to as ‘linguistic dislocation’, employing a variety of cryptograms in which pairs of runes form the initial two letters of the word.60 Although there have been a variety of solutions proposed for this riddle, it is very similar in conception to Riddle 19(17) and deals with the same tropes of horse, man and hawk. This might mean that it should also be read as a ship riddle, as Williamson suggests, and his interpretation has influenced the following translation: Ic seah ?W? ond ?i? ofer wong faran beran ?B?e?, bæm wæs on siþþe hæbendes hyht ?H? ond ?A? swylce þryþa dæl, ?Q? ond ?e? Gefeah ?f? ond ?a? fleah ofer ?6 S? ond ?p? sylfes þæs folces. (Riddle 64[62]) [I saw w and i (wicg, ‘a horse’) travel across the plain, bearing b and e (beorn, ‘a man’). h and a (hafoc, ‘a hawk’) was for both on that expedition the lifter’s joy, likewise a part of (the) war-force. þ and e (þegn, ‘a warrior’) rejoiced; f and æ (fælca, ‘a falcon’?) flew over ea s and p (ea-spor, ‘a water-track’?) of the people themselves.] If we expand the runes to their common names as the pointing – a punctus before and after the rune – suggests we should, the poem makes little sense: the first line would read ‘I saw joy and ice travel over the plain’. In common with Riddle 19(17), the poem needs to be solved in several stages, and here the runic key provides the first two letters of various common words. We can be reasonably sure that this is correct, as the sequences that emerge are very similar to those of the earlier riddle, containing reference to a wicg (‘horse’), beorn (‘man’), hafoc (‘hawk’) and þegn (‘warrior’). The final sequences are more difficult to interpret, but as the word beginning with fæ is something that flies, fælca (‘falcon’) seems a reasonable suggestion, and the diphthong ea represented by the rune may represent a word in its entirety: namely ea (‘river’). If we remember that Riddle 19(17) also made reference to swift-running water, the image of the falcon (or sail) flying over the flowing water is very appropriate. I agree with Williamson that a suitable word for the final pair is spor (‘tracks, traces’), and the suggestion that this is a compound word (perhaps the unattested ea-spor [‘water-track’ or ‘wake’] as Williamson suggests) does seem to be supported by the pointing before, but not following, the rune ea: a ‘single exception’ to a rule adhered


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

to throughout the manuscript.61 Once we have worked out what these individual runic clues mean, the second level of interpretation involves reading them together as a composite image of what we must construe as a war-ship, with its sail envisaged as a bird of prey bearing the sea-stallion and its crew over the water, and leaving a foaming trail in its wake. Of course, here we lack the final level of interpretation: there is no ship name encoded in the runes, and for this reason I think we are dealing with a less accomplished attempt at what may have been a popular riddle subject. Several commentators have pointed out that there is no call to saga hwæt ic hatte at the end of this riddle: however, the presence of the runic key may itself stand in for this call, signalling that this is a poem to be unlocked. The role of runes in solving the riddles does not need to be made explicit, as it does when a nonrunic sequence is used as a clue in Riddle 23(21). Here the poet tells us in no uncertain terms that the word agof ‘is min noma eft onhwyrfed’ (‘is my name back-to-front’) (l. 1), a direction towards the unlocking of the poem that is not necessary in the case of the runic clues. Wilcox points out that the individual runic sequences in Riddle 64(62) do not represent ‘ultimate solutions’, but rather point to a further puzzle that must be resolved.62 The fact that the runes do not seem to conform here to what is expected of a runic riddle (namely, that the runic clue should unlock the final solution) may have led one Anglo-Saxon reader to cry foul, and to scratch a dry-point comment in the margins of the poem. This short runic message in the right-hand margin of fol. 125v reads bunrþ, a sequence that Page interprets as an exasperated comment on the difficulty of the accompanying riddle: if non-initial vowels are added, we can reconstruct the phrase Beo unreþe! (‘Be merciful’)!63 Whether or not Page’s clever suggestion is correct, the strange inscription almost certainly responds to the ‘absurd difficulty’ of the runic riddle it accompanies.64 The close connection between runes and riddle elucidation is perhaps clearest in the two riddles that demand the riddle be solved using the runic script. We have already seen how Riddle 42(40) dramatises the poet’s writing of a runic clue on the floor, mimicking the sport of the cock and hen in the dirt and ultimately providing the names of the two shameful creatures. Riddle 58(56) of the collection ends with a similar appeal to solve the riddle using runes, and to name the curious one-footed creature which ‘wætan ne swelgeþ’ (‘swallows no water’), but which ‘fereð lagoflod on lyfte’ (‘carries the watercourse into the air’) (l. 12), the poet stating that ‘Þry sind in naman / ryhte runstafas, þara is Rad foran’. (‘Three true runes are in my name, of which rad is the first’) (ll. 14b–15).65 Dietrich first proposed the solution ‘drawwell’ (or perhaps more precisely ‘draw-sweep’, the implement used to take water from a well), a solution which has been accepted by most subsequent critics.66 The part that the runes play in making this solution manifest is clear, even if the Old English name for well-sweep is not recorded elsewhere. The solution here relies on the conventional name of the rune R (rad, ‘riding’ or ‘harness’) and the fact that it can both represent the letter ‘r’ and

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


the whole word logographically. Building on a suggestion by Williamson, Niles proposes that the runic clue thus points to an Old English compound word R ROd or *rad-rod (‘draw pole’), using the rune logographically in the first part of the compound, and as the first letter in the second element rod.67 Whether or not this solution is the correct one, Niles is surely right that ‘the riddle has to be answered in its own tongue as encoded in runes’:68 the reader is explicitly directed to reveal the answer to the poem through ryhte runstafas (‘correct rune-staves’) (l. 15a) and the solution relies on correctly apprehending the logographic features unique to the script. This poem, in common with the ‘cock and hen’ riddle, creates an interface between the internal use of runes in the manuscript and an external audience presumed to be at least partially literate in the script. Here we see the ‘revealing rune’ not only drawing attention to itself as a clue on the page, but also understood as the appropriate medium for solving riddles outside the confines of the book. Further evidence of a readership literate in both the practical use of runes and in their symbolic value as a script uniquely suited to revealing information, comes in the form of several dry-point runic clues incised next to the riddles. Three of these marginal runic clues appear in sequence alongside (or between) Riddles 5(3), 6(4), 7(5) and 8(6). The S which follows Riddle 5(3) probably serves as a clue to the first letter of the solution scyld (‘shield’), whilst the similar rune that follows Riddle 6(4) almost certainly refers to the rune name sigel (‘sun’) and to the solution of this riddle about a creature which burns the living when close to the earth. It may also point forward to the solution of the next riddle, 7(5), usually interpreted as a swan (OE swon). The following runic character (resembling a c rune, or C) most likely refers in turn to the solution of Riddle 8(6) perhaps ceo (‘chough’) or cuscote (‘wood-pigeon’), although the solution is usually given as ‘nightingale’ because of the reference to singing in the evening, Williamson concluding that the strange sign probably represents a post-medieval attempt at a ‘rune-like’ letter for nightingale.69 Indeed, whilst it is clear that the marginal annotator(s) are drawing on the same association between the script and the revealing of solutions that causes them to be used within the ‘authorised’ context of the riddles, it is important to remember that these marginal clues are not authorial and may at times be misleading. There is, however, at least one case in which the marginal runes have served a key role in solving an otherwise obscure riddle. Various solutions have been proposed for Riddle 17(15), a poem treating a strange object that is both filled with treasures and spits out darts from its swollen belly. These include Dietrich’s ‘Ballista’,70 Holthausen’s bæcern or bæchus (‘bakery’)71 and Shook’s blæchorn (‘inkhorn’),72 the latter suggesting that the riddle refers to the object swallowing quills and spitting out ink. All these solutions are influenced by the runes l and B drawn in the space between Riddle 16(14) and Riddle 17(15), including the conjectured word *beoleap proposed by Osborne73 in support of the solution ‘bee-hive’ put forwards by Bierbaumer and Wannagat.74 More recently still, Murphy


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

uses the marginal runic clues in support of his argument that this riddle has a connection with Samson’s bee’s-nest-in-a-lion’s-carcass, ‘the enigma par excellence in the Christian tradition’, going on to propose the solution ‘leo and beo’ (‘lion and bee’).75 As he points out, this solution has the advantage of taking the runes in the correct order in the manuscript, the l being placed above the b. It also gives the final statement that ‘men gemunan þæt me þurh muþ fareð’ (‘men remember what passes through my mouth’) (l. 11) an additional resonance, perhaps referring to the riddler and ultimately to Samson himself. The marginal runes have thus served as a means to elucidate what is an otherwise obscure subject, and are doing exactly what the marginal annotator intended: loosening the bonds of a riddle which, like the bee-skep, is ‘eodorwirum fæst’ (‘fastened with wire enclosures’), but ‘innan gefylled / dryhtgestreona’ (‘filled inside by a peoples’ treasure’) (ll. 2–3). The Husband’s Message The Husband’s Message follows Riddle 60(58) in the Exeter Book, and it is sometimes read as a companion piece to this riddle’s portrayal of a pipe (or perhaps pen), which ‘ofer meodubence muðleas sprecan’ (‘speaks mouthless over the mead-bench’) (l. 9). The scribe himself seems to have been unsure quite what to do with this generically slippery poem, copying it out as if it were three separate riddle-length texts, and we are perhaps not in much of a position to criticise this decision. Although there is no direct appeal to ‘say what I am called’ in The Husband’s Message, the poem does contain an ‘implied challenge to the reader’,76 and as one recent commentator points out, we can perhaps best understand it ‘as a type of enigmatic text whose job is to obscure meaning as much as potentially reveal it’.77 However, the presence of a runic clue, presented as a means to ‘aþe benemnan’ (‘name an oath’) (l. 52), suggests that the poet is either actively presenting us with the keys to the poem’s solution, or playing with the developed notion of runic revelation on display throughout the riddles. Although much about The Husband’s Message is unclear (such as the identities of the speakers and the journey that the message takes) it is apparent that we are dealing with the vocalisation of an inscribed message, possibly a type of rúnakefli, from the relation of the treocyn (‘kind of wood’) (l. 2) it started life as, to its engraving (l. 13) and the representation of the runic communiqué itself.78 The fact that the poem refers to the engraving of a beam (a word usually used for a large piece of wood such as a tree or cross) need not imply either that the poem is referring to the engraving of the mast of the ship on which it arrives, as is Niles’ contention,79 or that the author was necessarily ignorant of runic practice as Bragg suggests.80 It would be curious for the object to be named directly as a rúnakefli, particularly bearing in mind the poem’s close affinity to the riddles: indeed, we might expect that the word ‘will run counter to its usual context of use’ in this enigmatic poem.81 Certainly the poet may be trying to make contemporary practices

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


appropriate to the early, possibly legendary, setting of the poem, what Bragg calls the ‘retrojection of later uses of runes into the prior age of runic epigraphy’.82 But whether an authentic depiction of epigraphy or not, it certainly refers to a literacy event that would have been comprehensible to the tenthcentury audience, if not with respect to practiced runic communication, then in terms of the ways in which runes signified as written characters. If The Husband’s Message is indeed configured as a riddle, there are seemingly two solutions demanded: the recognition that this object is a rune-stick, and the interpretation of the cryptic message itself, seemingly the more challenging of the two puzzles. The message which ends the poem reads as follows: Ofer eald gebeot incer twega, gehyre ic ætsomne ?S?R? geador ?6?W? and ?d? aþe benemnan, þæt he þa wære ond þa winetreowe be him lifgendum læstan wolde, þe git on ærdagum oft gespræconn. (The Husband’s Message, ll. 50–55) [Concerning the old vow between the both of you, I hear joined together s with r and ea, w and d to name an oath, that he will keep the agreement and pledge of friendship whilst he lives, that which you two often spoke of in days past.] This runic message has been interpreted in a bewildering variety of ways, the most important contributions summarised by Klinck.83 These include applying most of the cryptographic strategies used in the riddles, including reading the runes as an anagram for sweard – a variant spelling of ‘sword’ – or for the unattested personal name Dwears, or with vowels removed and a substitution of s for c to render ‘Eadwacer’ (a somewhat fanciful attempt to link this poem emphatically with Wulf and Eadwacer). Elliott, alternatively, suggests reading the runes as logographs, which the pointing does suggest, although his conceptual sequence ‘Follow the sun’s path across the ocean, and ours will be joy and the happiness and prosperity of the bright day’84 represents a significantly ‘telescoped’ message. The fact that it may also ‘involve reading a considerable amount into the runes’ is not necessarily a valid criticism, but it is true that almost any message could be recreated using this technique.85 Pairs of runes representing compound words or concepts have also been proposed, Kock suggesting s and r should be expanded and joined as sigelrad; ea and w compounded as earwynn; and m as mon.86 The rune sometimes read as a poorly made m (perhaps influenced by the fact that the word mon(n) seems appropriate to include in a ‘husband’s’ message) is actually d, or dæg, and we thus have the pairs ‘sunroad’ and ‘joy of the earth’, and then the word ‘day’, three concepts which


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

could conceivably represent the elemental witnesses to the oath as Kock suggests, or alternatively a dæg between earthly joy and heaven, perhaps representing the state of matrimony. Williamson’s argument that the runes pose a further ship riddle – with the compounds sigelrad (‘sun-road’) earwynn (‘earth-road’) and mon (‘man’) presenting us with the question ‘What flies through the heavens, takes joy in riding the sea and bears a man?’ – is another intriguing suggestion, but seems to have little to do with the framing narrative of a message sent between lovers, or with the oath that the runes are supposed to name.87 In an informative discussion of the media of the HM, Foys suggests that ‘an unambiguous message just isn’t there’; instead the runic characters are ‘indistinctly echoing the constituents of desire that frame the lord’s message’.88 In other words, the runic enigma productively resists resolution and draws attention to the perils of (mis)communication. It may be that the poet is deliberately playing with the expectations for resolution set up in the riddles, and frustrating our attempt to unlock this deeply personal message. However, I think the solution to this riddlic poem might actually be staring us in the face. If we recognise the consistent association of the runes throughout the Exeter Book with different forms of conceptual unlocking, there is perhaps no need to attempt the hermeneutical contortions needed to create a word or coherent sequence from this collection of runes. The runes do not reveal information in this case – telling us the object is a ship or sword or dæg of matrimony – but are the solution. The answer to the riddle posed by the husband’s message is ‘(runic) writing’ – a medium that allows communication between separated speakers, that can travel long distances, that can name an oath and (like a signature or close-one’s handwriting) provide a sign of authenticity, and that contains a narrative within its material form that speaks of the origins and journey of the crafted object. It would be impossible to distil the entirety of the resonant communicative act presented in the poem into a single runic anagram, and instead the physical presence of these releasing letters throws us back onto the poem itself, which is the revealed message. Equally, there is no call to name the riddle subject or to saga hwæt ic hatte because the runes in a sense name themselves, standing figuratively for both the clue that makes a solution tenable and the solution itself. Page is right in a way when he suggests that the runes function as a fundamentally inscrutable sign of ‘the authority of the message’,89 but they also stand as a developed emblem of written communication and disclosure. The medium, in this case, is the message itself. The Cynewulf riddles in Christ II and Juliana The concept of ‘releasing runes’ undoubtedly receives its most sophisticated expression in the runic colophons bearing the name Cynewulf, which are appended to the poems Christ II (The Ascension) and Juliana.90 The runic riddle on the poet’s name is the only definitive feature linking these

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


Cynewulfian poems in the Exeter book – one a sophisticated exposition of the Ascension narrative and its doctrinal significance, and the other a lively account of the passion of an early Christian female martyr. The same runic conceit links these two Cynewulfian poems with Elene and The Fates of the Apostles from the Vercelli Book, and all four signed poems share a concern to link the runic riddle with the sententia of the preceding poem and with a personal call for the reader to contemplate the fate of their individual soul.91 Very little is known about the individual named Cynewulf (or Cynwulf in two of the poems, lacking medial -e-), and it is not my concern here to add to the ‘tiresomely repetitious similitude’ that characterises criticism of the Cynewulf runic riddles in particular.92 The idea that the poet wove the name Cyn(e)wulf into the poem in order to retain a degree of proprietary control over his own work has been questioned in several recent studies, as has the conventional label of this runic conceit as a signature, with all that this term implies about authorial copyright.93 My reading of the runes in Christ II and Juliana has implications for our understanding of the poet’s purpose in writing the colophons: however, the focus in this short excursus will be on how the runes function as a riddlic conceit that exploits the script’s association with cæg cræft and riddle solutions for overtly didactic ends. In each of the runic colophons the poet exploits the logographic potential of the runes in order to weave a name into the poetic line whilst also ensuring that the letters of this name stand out from the surrounding text. However, each of the four surviving Cynewulf riddles works in a slightly different way and poses a unique challenge for the reader. This is the first indication that we are not dealing with a signature positioned for ease of recognition, but rather with a riddle that needs to be solved through the active participation of the reader. Most commentators, working from the assumption that the runes conceal information, suggest that the challenge here is to recognise the name Cyn(e)wulf under the obscuring guise of an arcane script. Yet in both Christ II and Juliana the name is written sequentially – not in reverse, or as an anagram or initialism as is characteristic of the riddle clues – and it clearly stands out from the surrounding text. In other words, the name presents itself openly, and the real challenge implied by the runes is therefore not one of recognition. Rather, the runic conceit draws attention to itself as a key to unlocking the spiritual meaning that lies at the heart of each didactic colophon. Christ II (The Ascension) is the first of the two poems in the Exeter Book that include the Cynewulf riddle. The primary source for this poem is a homily on the gospels by Gregory the Great, which includes the famous image of the leaps of Christ, from his first descent into the womb to his return to the heavenly home. The poet skilfully navigates Gregory’s idiosyncratic discursive style to produce a poem that, if not as intellectually ambitious as his source, is sensitive to its homiletic and liturgical imagery and is deeply invested in establishing the eschatological significance of the Ascension for both the Christian ministry and the individual penitent. The


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

colophon in which the Cynewulf runes appear is a unique addition to the homiletic material and, as Warwick Frese points out, it serves to effectively yoke the three Christ poems into ‘tryptychal coherence’.94 The runic riddle itself follows a short biographical interlude, in which the poet strikes a penitential pose and represents himself as a sinning everyman awaiting judgement with trepidation.95 The runic riddle thus marks a turn towards the theme of universal judgement, the Cynewulf poet linking his own model for penitence with a direct appeal to the reader to contemplate the transitory nature of this læne life and the final leap that each individual must make at the Day of Judgement: Þonne ?c? [cen] cwacað, gehyreð cyning mæðlan, rodera ryhtend, sprecan reþe word þam þe him ær in worulde wace hyrdon, þendan ?3? [yr/yfel] ond ?n? [nyd] yþast meahtan frofre findan. Þær sceal forth monig on þam wongstede werig bidan hwæt him æfter dædum deman wille wraþra wita. Biþ se ?W? [wyn(n)] scæcen eorþan frætwa. ?u? [ure] wæs longe ?l? [lagu] flodum bilocen, lifwynna dæl, ?f? [feoh] on foldan. þonne frætwe sculon byrnan on bæle . . . (Christ II, ll. 797–811a) [Then c [torch] will tremble, will hear the King, the ruler of the heavens, speak and pronounce fierce words to those that earlier in the world obeyed him poorly, whilst they might most easily in y [bow/sin] and n [need] have found comfort. There shall many a man, afraid and exhausted on the plains, have to wait for what terrible punishments he will adjudge to him according to his former deeds. The w [joy] of earth’s riches will be gone; u [our] portion of life’s pleasure has long been enclosed by the l [water] of the seas, our f [wealth] on the earth. Then riches shall burn in the fire . . .] For the reader of the Exeter Book, familiar with the use of runes as clues that unlock riddle poems, this conceit must certainly have drawn attention to itself as a site of revealed meaning, ostensibly divulging the name of the poet who composed the epilogue. However, the poet makes no appeal here to be named or remembered in his reader’s prayers, but rather ends this riddle by explicitly stating his didactic purpose: ‘ic leofra gehwone læran wille / þæt he ne agæle gæstes þearfe / ne on gylp geote’ (‘I wish to teach each beloved one that he neither neglect the need of the spirit, nor cast it in ostentation’) (ll. 815–17a). The idea that we are being prompted to celebrate the legacy of the named poet stands in a somewhat awkward relationship to this earnest

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


desire to avoid ostentation. It also contrasts directly with the sentiment of the colophon, which explicitly condemns earthly trappings – joy of earth’s riches, life’s pleasure, wealth on the earth – to burn in the conflagration. Whilst the runes signal that this is a riddle to be unlocked, the real challenge posed to the reader is to break up this surface ‘signature’, expanding each rune to its proper name in order to make sense of the underlying message. We must recognise that cen (‘the torch’) will tremble, that lagu (‘water’) will enclose the earth, that wyn(n) (‘joy’) in earthly trappings will be gone, reading beyond the ostentation of the letters themselves to reveal the spiritual meaning of the passage. The challenge becomes even more apparent when the conventional rune names cannot be made to fit: the u-rune, for example, is designated ur in the OE Rune Poem, meaning ‘aurochs’, a now-extinct species of wild bull. In this context the near homophone ure (‘our’) must be intended instead. Similarly, there is ongoing debate as to the word designated by the y-rune, Niles suggesting that yfel is more plausible than the conventional rune name yr (‘bow’), and even that nyd (‘need’) should be construed as niþ (‘wickedness’).96 In short, whilst the name is writ large across the page, the challenge asked of the reader is to reject this embellishment: to read away from Cyn(e) wulf and to reconstruct the message of salvation through engaged, contemplative reading.97 By dissolving the name in this way to reveal the sententia of the passage, we are enacting the very process of earthly dislocation called for in the colophon. The poet is borrowing the developed association of the runes with revelation to signal that something important is being divested: not his ownership of the poem, but its underlying message that we should ‘gæstes wlite . . . georne biþencen’ (‘earnestly contemplate . . . the appearance of the soul’) (l. 848–9). Juliana is widely regarded as an inferior poem within the Cynewulfian canon, a heavy-handed rendition of a typically overblown martyr’s life. However, its success lies in the poet’s dextrous adaption of his style to suit this particular genre, and in the model for saintly intercession provided by the colophon. Once again, this closing section of the poem turns rather abruptly from the death of the saint to contemplate the end of days, the runes directly engaging the reader in the conceit, and prompting us to contemplate the applicability of the narrative to a fate that is both universal and individual: ‘Geomor hweorfeð ?c?, ?3? ond ?n? [cyn?] Cyning biþ reþe, sigora syllend, þonne synnum fa ?e?, ?W? ond ?u? [ewu?] acle bidað hwæt him æfter dædum deman wille lifes to leane. ?l?f? [leof?] beofað, seomað sorgcearig.’ (Juliana, ll. 703b–09a)


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation [Miserably c, y and n [Cynewulf/mankind] will depart. The King, granter of victories, will be fierce when, stained with sins, e w u [ewes/ Cynewulf] await(s) fearfully for what he will adjudge to them/him as a reward for life according to former deeds. l f [a beloved one/Cynewulf] will tremble and sway, afflicted by sorrow.]

It is immediately apparent that this runic riddle works in a different way to that of Christ II, the runes appearing in clusters that spell out individual words (see Figure 2.3). The conceit relies on the fact that the name Cynewulf can be broken down into meaningful elements cyn ‘mankind’ and ewu (which may be a Northumbrian variant of the plural e(o)we ‘ewes’), whilst the final pair may signal a word with initial l and final f, perhaps leof (‘beloved one(s)’) with medial vowels added.98 Thus we have three collective nouns which emphasise the universality of judgement: ‘mankind’ will depart miserably; the ‘ewes’ (or by extension the flock) will await fearfully; and even the ‘beloved ones’ will tremble at the approaching judgement. Rather than revealing the name Cynewulf at the point where the poet stresses the severance of body and soul, the conceit emphasises the universal applicability of his call for saintly intercession and the need for each person to prepare for Judgement Day. As Sisam argues, each cluster of runes could also stand for the whole name Cynewulf,99 and the two ways of reading the riddle are not necessarily incompatible. Cynewulf, the representative individual, is modelling the experience of monna gehwone (‘every man’) (l. 718b) and emphasising through this clever dislocation of his name the fact that God ‘scrifeð bi gewyrhtum / meorde monna gehwam’ (‘appoints a reward for each individual according to deeds’) (ll. 728b–29a). In this poem there is a direct appeal to the reader to remember the poet ‘bi noman’ (‘by name’) (l. 720b), suggesting that on one level the disclosure is directed towards revealing the name of the poet in order that we might pray for their soul. And yet, by turning his name into a universal emblem of the

Figure 2.3 The Runic Riddle in Cynewulf’s Juliana. Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, fol. 76r Source: © Exeter Cathedral Library / Bernard J. Muir.

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


individual’s fate, the riddle of the runes reveals something more profound. To unlock this passage we have to read away from the broken runic name and towards the universal, reinforcing the theme of judgement for ‘monna gehwone / gumena cynnes’ (‘every man of the race of men’) (l. 718b–19a) through a moment of engaged reading. In both these Cynewulfian riddles, close attention to the way the runes work – and the process that the reader must go through in order to make sense of the passage – reveals a sophisticated co-option of the ‘releasing’ motif to serve a didactic purpose. Through the runes the poet reveals not only a name, but also the central message of the poem: that earthly ostentation is fleeting, and that earnest contemplation of the soul is needed to prepare for judgement. In the manner of a runic riddle, the characters that spell out Cyn(e)wulf signal themselves as a revelatory crux, but here the key unlocks not just the name of a bird or the image of a ship riding the waves, but the anagogical message of the poem. Enacting the duality of the Latin term revelatio, in which something is both uncovered and re-veiled, the poet disappears in the process of unlocking this most cunningly crafted of riddles.

Conclusion The picture emerging of the literary conception of runes in Anglo-Saxon England is a complex one, and as readers of Old English literature we should not be tempted into easy platitudes about what runes ‘meant’ to Anglo-Saxon poets and scribes. The alysendlic association might well be fully compatible with the idea of runes as an arcane script appropriate for riddling, the dual mechanism of the riddle being one of concealment as well as disclosure. However, it is important to note that despite their frequent characterisation as opaque and mysterious letters, runes are rarely used to compound the difficulty of the text, and more often than not represent either the solution to the riddle, or the metaphoric key to unlocking the meaning of the poem. Occasionally this conception of runes is made explicit, as in the overt characterisation of the runic conceit as an unlocking mechanism in Riddle 42(40) or the deployment of a runic logograph in Riddle 91(87) with its solution ‘key’; at other times the runes stand in for the absent call to solve the riddle, represent the only means to solve an otherwise impenetrable enigma, or appear as clues provided by readers playing the same game of guided revelation. Finally, The Husband’s Message and Cynewulf’s runic riddles exploit this close association with riddle solutions to engage the reader in a process of invested disclosure, in which the runic clue prompts the reader to look beyond the surface solution to the underlying message. I suggest that the oblique reference to alysendlic (‘unlocking’) runes in the OE Bede and the use of runes as the revelatory crux of these riddle poems in the Exeter Book thus represent two points on an intellectual continuum that associated the runic script with disclosure and revelation. Recognising this association as one of the more prominent ideas in the


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation

complex cultural construction of the script can perhaps help us to move away from the entrenched idea that runes were used to hide and obscure information. This is a preconception that permeates critical responses to the runes in the Exeter Book, from notions of the secret import of The Husband’s Message to the idea that Cynewulf concealed his name in runes – even when the evidence suggests the opposite. If the close association between runes and the concept of unlocking is accepted, it raises the question of how such an association developed. On the one hand, we have seen that the idea of ‘releasing’ seems to have been broad enough to encompass the magical breaking of chains, the cognitive process of unlocking cunning poetry and the revelation of spiritual truth. If we allow that the allusions to Óðinn’s releasing abilities indeed refer to runic skills, and that Bede intended runes when referring to litteras solutorias, then it is tempting to say that the tradition of releasing runes is a venerable one, and even that it predated the Christian co-option of the script. However, as emphasised in the last chapter, there is little in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions that suggests rune carvers attached operative meaning to the script. Stories about the alysendlic rune may have been circulating in the Age of Bede, just as myths about the divine origins of the runes were circulating in a Christianised Iceland, but there seems to have been a clear distinction between this background of fables and the practical application of the script in everyday contexts. Whether or not the unlocking association had a basis in pre-Christian conceptions of the script, it would almost certainly have developed in the scriptorium as a literary concept connected to the idea of revealing meaning from written characters. As Page points out, ‘Ælfric’s Wessex is devoid of epigraphical runes’, and we might say the same of the Wessex in which the Exeter Book was compiled, or even the Wessex at the turn of the tenth century when the OE Bede was first translated.100 In this West Saxon context the experience of reading runes would have come almost exclusively from manuscripts, perhaps coloured by the runic traditions of the Danish settlers.101 In such an antiquarian context, the symbolism of the script, and the fabulae promulgated by sources such as the OE Bede, would have exerted more of an influence on their deployment than a halfremembered and geographically distant epigraphical tradition. The widespread use of runes in the Exeter Book would in turn have become part of this cultural construction of runes for later readers, and encouraged an even closer association between runes and revelation within learned antiquarian circles, including Ælfric’s own reformed and deeply orthodox milieu. The releasing association must have been particularly appealing within a community dedicated to unlocking the truth from scripture and making hidden meanings manifest. Ælfric talks in his Grammar of the power of linguistic training to open up the world of learning, stating that ‘ðe stæfcræft is seo cæg, ðe ðære boca andgit unlicð’ (‘grammar [lit. letter-craft] is the key

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


which unlocks the meaning of books’),102 and the Exeter Book itself returns again and again to the link between written words and revelation: from the Wanderer sitting sundor æt rune (‘apart in contemplation’ [lit. ‘at runes’]) (l. 111b), to the bookworm that swallows letters and knows nothing of their power. But perhaps the clearest indication of why such a conception of the script might have appealed to Anglo-Saxons ecclesiasts is found in the poem Solomon and Saturn I, a poem that is the focus of the following chapter, and which refers to written letters as a vehicle for revelation, capable of speaking a gospel and associated with unlocking the soul from the bonds of the devil, ‘ðeah he hie mid fiftigum / clusum beclemme’ (‘though he fasten it with fifty bolts’) (ll. 70b–71a).103 Against this intellectual backdrop, which situated writing as a form of disclosure and scripture as God’s word made manifest, the runic script – perhaps understood only by those antiquarians invested in the culture and mission of the scriptorium – provided an appropriate symbol of the power of exegetical reading to unlock hidden meaning. It should come as little surprise that one manuscript witness of Solomon and Saturn I uses runes to represent the very prayer which ‘ða halgan duru heofona rices / torhte ontynan’ (‘brightly opens up the holy doors of the kingdom of heaven’) (ll. 37–38a). Runes had become synonymous with disclosure, to those who possessed the key.

Notes 1 Britt Mize, ‘The Representation of the Mind as Enclosure in Old English Poetry’, ASE 35 (2006): 57–90, at p. 90. See also Britt Mize, ‘Manipulations of the Mind-as-Container Motif in Beowulf, Homiletic Fragment II, and Alfred’s Metrical Epilogue to the Pastoral Care’, JEGP 107:1 (2008): 25–56. For a wider discussion of the language and metaphorics of the mind in Old English poetry, see M.R. Godden, ‘Anglo-Saxons on the Mind’, in M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 271–98 and Antonina Harbus, The Life of the Mind in Old English Poetry (Amsterdam, 2002). 2 Mark C. Amodio and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (eds.), Unlocking the Wordhord (Toronto, 2003), p. 4. 3 For ease of reference, I use the Krapp and Dobbie numbering of the riddles, with the alternative numbering proposed by Williamson following in parentheses. 4 Paull F. Baum (trans.), Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, NC, 1963), p. ix. 5 Seth Lerer, ‘The Riddle and the Book: Exeter Book Riddle 42 in its Contexts’, PLL 25:1 (1989): 3–18, at p. 10. 6 Ibid., p. 4. 7 Robert DiNapoli, ‘Odd Characters: Runes in Old English Poetry’, in A. Harbus and R. Poole (eds.), Verbal Encounters (Toronto, 2005), pp. 145–62, at p. 161. 8 Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson (ed.), Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla, vol. 1 (Reykjavík, 1941), ch. 7. 9 Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (eds. and trans.), Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Oxford, 1969), p. 402. 10 Bertram Colgrave, ‘Bede’s Miracle Stories’, in A. Hamilton Thompson (ed.), Bede: His Life, Times, and Writings (Oxford, 1935), pp. 201–29, points out



12 13 14 15 16

17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

28 29 30 31


Releasing runes: riddles and revelation that these events are, ‘from the first, popular creations’ which ‘satisfy the craving for tales of marvels’, p. 204. The miracle of unlocking chains may have been deemed acceptable due to the patristic precedent of the unlocking of the Apostle Peter’s chains. Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), pp. 37–40. We might add that Bede judiciously skirts around the defeat of the Northumbrians in the battle, richly compensating them with a spiritual victory led by Imma’s brother, a Northumbrian monastic. DiNapoli, ‘Odd Characters’, p. 147. R.I. Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Runes and Magic’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 27 (1964): 22. Lerer, Literacy and Power, p. 39. Sharon Rowley suggests a ‘paleographical window’ between c. 883 and 930, The Old English Version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (Cambridge, 2011), p. 2. Page rather dogmatically insists that run could still refer here to ‘charm, secret document, esoteric practice’, An Introduction, p. 111. However, see Peter Orton’s alternative assessment of the evidence, ‘Sticks or Stones? The Story of Imma in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41 of the OE Bede, and Old English Tan (Twig)’, Medium Ævum 72:1 (2003): 1–12, at p. 4. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, p. 304. Orton, ‘Sticks or Stones?’, p. 6. Malcolm Godden (ed.), Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, Text (Oxford, 1979), pp. 204–5. Malcolm Godden (ed.), Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: Introduction, Commentary and Glossary (Oxford, 2000), p. 538. Godden, Ælfric’s Catholic Homiles, Text, p. 204. R.W.V. Elliott, ‘Runes, Yews, and Magic’, Speculum 32 (1957): 250–61, at p. 250. Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Runes and Magic’, p. 21. Tom Birkett, ‘Unlocking Runes? Reading Anglo-Saxon Runic Abbreviations in Their Immediate Literary Context’, Futhark 5 (2014): 91–114. Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501. Patrick W. Conner, Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth Century Cultural History (Woodbridge, 1993). Bernard J. Muir (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Exeter, 2002), p. 3. For the alternative attribution to Glastonbury or Canterbury, see Richard Gameson, ‘The Origin of the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry’, ASE 25 (1996): 135–85, and more recently Robert M. Butler, ‘Glastonbury and the Early History of the Exeter Book’, in Joyce Tally Lionarons (ed.), Old English Literature in Its Manuscript Context (Ann Arbor, MI, 2004), pp. 173–216. Muir, The Exeter Anthology, p. 40. See also Conner’s chapter on ‘Poetry and Cultural History’ in his Anglo-Saxon Exeter, pp. 148–64. Conner, Anglo-Saxon Exeter, p. 95. Maxims I, l. 138. Patrick W. Conner, ‘The Structure of the Exeter Book Codex (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501)’, in Mary P. Richards (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: Basic Readings (London, 2001), pp. 301–16. Conner suggests that the three booklets represent three separate stints by the same scribe at Exeter, with each booklet representing a more or less ‘self-sufficient unit’ with regards to source material and genre. His theory has not received universal acceptance: see particularly Gameson, ‘The Origin of the Exeter Book’, pp. 135–85. Birkett, ‘Unlocking Runes?’, pp. 91–114.

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33 GKS 2365 4to, fols 5–14. 34 See René Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (Brugge, 1954), p. 402. 35 DiNapoli, ‘Odd Characters’, p. 145. 36 Dieter Bitterli, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo–Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto, 2009), p. 83. 37 Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 402. 38 Expanded runic abbreviations are highlighted by use of italics, both here and in all subsequent translations. 39 I am grateful to Bernard J. Muir for permission to reproduce images of the Exeter Book from The Exeter DVD: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry (Exeter, 2006). 40 For a summary of the evidence see Anne Thompson Lee, ‘The Ruin: Bath or Babylon? A Non-Archaeological Investigation’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 74 (1973): 443–55. 41 William C. Johnson, Jr., ‘The Ruin as Body-City Riddle’, Philological Quarterly 59:4 (1980): 397–411, at p. 398. 42 Birkett, ‘Unlocking Runes?’, p. 106. 43 H.H. Abbot (trans.), The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Cambridge, 1968), p. i. 44 Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA, 2011), p. 34. 45 Ibid., p. 35. 46 Ibid., p. 40. 47 BT has ‘a magpie or a woodpecker’, p. 535. However, Craig Williamson argues that the higoræ is most likely a jay, famous for its ability to mimic the calls of other birds, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977), pp. 207–9, a designation confirmed and elaborated upon by Bitterli, Say What I Am Called, pp. 91–7. 48 Mercedes Salvador Bello, ‘Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle No. 74 Reconsidered’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 97 (1996): 17–29. 49 Riddle 76(74) reads ‘Ic ane geseah idese sittan’ (‘I saw a lady sitting alone’), and is read by Williamson as a continuation of the preceding riddle. 50 Stephen Pollington, The Rudiments of Runelore (Hockwold cum Wilton, 1995), p. 64. 51 Williamson, The Old English Riddles, pp. 354–5. 52 Christopher Tolkien (ed. and trans.), Saga Heiðreks Konungs ins Vitra (London, 1960), p. 44. 53 DiNapoli, ‘Odd Characters’, pp. 153–4. 54 BT, p. 890. 55 Williamson, The Old English Riddles, p. 186. 56 Mark Griffith, ‘Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym’, N&Q n.s. 237 (1992): 15–16, at p. 16. 57 Bitterli, Say What I Am Called, p. 89. 58 Frederick Tupper, Jr. (ed.), The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston, 1910), p. 108. 59 As Jonathan Wilcox points out, the third-person poem ends with the call to ‘Saga hwæt ic hatte’ (‘say what I am called’), and he suggests that the elaborate conceit is nothing more than a punning distraction from the request to name the poet, ‘Mock-Riddles in Old English: Exeter Riddles 86 and 19’, Studies in Philology 93 (1996): 180–7, at pp. 185–7. 60 Roberta J. Dewa, ‘The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 39 (1995): 28. 61 The Exeter Book, ASPR III, p. xxiii.

80 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78

79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation Wlicox, ‘Mock-Riddles in Old English’, p. 186. R.I. Page, quoted by Williamson in The Old English Riddles, p. 327. Ibid. The manuscript reads rad furum, emended by most editors. F. Dietrich, ‘Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs’, Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum 11 (1859): 448–90, at p. 477. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, pp. 89–92. Ibid., p. 92. Williamson, The Old English Riddles, p. 156. Dietrich, ‘Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs’, p. 465. F. Holthausen, ‘Zu altenglischen Denkmälern’, Englische Studien 51 (1917): 180–8. Laurence K. Shook, ‘Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium’, in J. Reginald O’Donnell (ed.), Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis (Toronto, 1974), pp. 215–36. Marijane Osborn, ‘ “Skep” (Beinenkorb, *beoleap) as a Culture-Specific Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 17’, ANQ 18 (2005): 7–18. Peter Bierbaumer and Elke Wannagat, ‘Ein Neuer Lösungsvorschlag für ein Altenglisches Rätsel (Krapp-Dobbie 17)’, Anglia 99 (1981): 379–82. Patrick J. Murphy, ‘Leo ond Beo: Exeter Book Riddle 17 as Samson’s Lion’, ES 88:4 (2007): 371–87, at p. 384. John D. Niles, ‘The Trick of the Runes in the Husband’s Message’, ASE 32 (2003): 189–223, at p. 213. Martin K. Foys, ‘Media’, in Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling (eds.), A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies (Chichester, 2012), pp. 133–48, at p. 139. Whilst there is no concrete evidence of the use of rúnakefli in Anglo-Saxon England, we should always bear in mind the fact that ‘organic materials such as wood or bone survive only in tiny quantities and in exceptional circumstances’: indeed, we would hardly imagine the use of rune-sticks was a widespread practice in medieval Scandinavia if it were not for the remarkable discoveries at Bryggen in Bergen. See John Hines, ‘Grave Finds with Runic Inscriptions from Great Britain’, in Düwel (ed.), Runeninschriften, pp. 184–96, at p. 187. Niles, ‘The Trick of the Runes’, pp. 189–223. Lois Bragg, ‘Runes and Readers: In and around “The Husband’s Message” ’, SN 71:1 (1999): 34–50. Foys, ‘Media’, p. 141. Bragg, ‘Runes and Readers’, p. 46. Anne L. Klinck (ed.), The Old English Elegies (Montreal, 1992), pp. 207–8. Ralph W.V. Elliott, ‘The Runes in The Husband’s Message’, JEGP 54:1 (1955): 1–8. Klinck, The Old English Elegies, p. 208. Ernst A. Kock, ‘Interpretations and Emendations of Early English Texts’, Anglia 45 (1921): 105–31, at pp. 122–3. Williamson, The Old English Riddles, p. 316. Foys, ‘Media’, p. 145. R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 101. For an extended discussion of the ‘revelation’ motif in the colophons to all four Cynewulf poems, see Tom Birkett, ‘Runes and revelatio: Cynewulf’s Signatures Reconsidered’, RES 65:272 (2014): 771–89. For a discussion of revelation as a structuring principle in Cynewulf’s Elene, see Jackson J. Campbell, ‘Cynewulf’s Multiple Revelations’, Medievalia et Humanistica 3 (1972): 257–77.

Releasing runes: riddles and revelation


91 The poem Guthlac B is sometimes attributed to the same poet on stylistic grounds, but lacks the runic riddle. 92 Dolores Warwick Frese, ‘The Art of Cynewulf’s Runic Signatures’, in Warwick Frese and Lewis E. Nicholson (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation (Notre Dame, 1975), pp. 312–34. Reprinted in The Cynewulf Reader, pp. 323–46, at p. 324. For a comprehensive survey of the date and provenance of the Cynewulf poems, see the studies by R.D. Fulk, ‘Cynewulf: Canon, Dialect and Date’, in Robert Bjork (ed.), The Cynewulf Reader (London, 2001), pp. 3–21 and Patrick W. Conner, ‘On Dating Cynewulf’, in Robert Bjork (ed.), The Cynewulf Reader (London, 2001), pp. 3–21 and pp. 23–56. 93 See, for example, Jacqueline A. Stodnick, ‘Cynewulf as Author: Medieval Reality or Modern Myth?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 79 (1997): 25–39; Jason R. Puskar, ‘Hwa þas fitte fegde? Questioning Cynewulf’s Claim of Authorship’, ES 92 (2011): 1–19; Birkett, ‘Runes and revelatio’, pp. 771–89, and most recently Jill Hamilton Clements, ‘Reading, Writing and Resurrection: Cynewulf’s Runes as a Figure of the Body’, AngloSaxon England 43 (2014): 133–54. I follow Niles in referring to Cynewulf as ‘the Cynewulf-poet’ to avoid ‘mistaking for flesh-and-blood reality what is really no more than a rhetorical effect’, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 310. 94 Warwick Frese, ‘The Art of Cynewulf’s Runic Signatures’, p. 340. 95 On the concern with remorse that appears to link the four colophons, see Robert C. Rice, ‘The Penitential Motif in Cynewulf’s Fates of the Apostles and in his Epilogues’, ASE 6 (1977): 105–20. 96 Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 292. 97 In this interpretation I depart from the reading of Hamilton Clements, who suggests that the reassembling of the dislocated signature represents ‘a simulacrum of the wholeness that Cynewulf himself anticipates’, ‘Reading, Writing and Resurrection’, p. 136. 98 This is a word used to address both singular and plural subjects, and ‘continues this image of people under the care of God’, Birkett, ‘Runes and revelatio’, p. 788. 99 Kenneth Sisam, Cynewulf and His Poetry (London, 1932), pp. 21–2. 100 Page, An Introduction, p. 112. 101 On the distribution of runic inscriptions in the British Isles, see Page, An Introduction, pp. 16–37, who returns to ask the question ‘why are there no epigraphical runes in Wessex?’ at the close of his study, p. 227. The majority of new finds are confirming that the main areas of runic activity lay in the North and East of England. 102 J. Zupitza (ed.), Ælfric’s Grammatik und Glossar (Berlin, 1880), p. 2, ll. 16–17. 103 All quotations of Solomon and Saturn I are taken from Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues.


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs The ornamental textuality of runes

Runes do not belong in manuscripts. Although well-suited to engraving on durable surfaces such as metal and stone, the angular script did not lend itself to cursive writing, and whilst early antiquarians harboured a belief that Germanic poetry was originally set down in runes and that many extensive runica manuscripta had been lost, there is little evidence that a concerted effort was made to co-opt runes as a book script.1 The famous Codex Runicus (AM 28 8vo), a manuscript of Scanian law written around 1300 and entirely in runes, is a notable exception, but here the script is almost certainly chosen in full awareness of its novelty as a display script: it represents a late and abortive ‘revivalist phenomenon’.2 When runes appear as an occasional book script they are immediately recognisable as ‘other’, the angular nature of the runic characters giving them a markedly different aspect to insular hands. Indeed, sometimes their curious appearance seems to be the sole criterion for their employment. This is certainly so in the case of runes used as reference marks to number quires or to link marginal material to the body text, where their unusual shape is the sole criterion for their (limited) utility.3 Runes also served a minor role as a display script in certain short titles and superscriptions,4 one of seven uses of Anglo-Saxon runes that Page identifies in his discussion of runic writing in the scriptorium. Runes make an appearance in the display letters of the Gospels of St Chad, for example, where they certainly seem to be used as a script ‘suited to decoration rather than ease of reading’.5 Such uses seem to draw almost exclusively on runic alphabets (rather than demonstrating firsthand knowledge of the fuþorc) and the runes are often mixed with Greek characters or other exotic alphabets, reflecting the same confusion between script systems that we saw in Chapter 1. Runes were also seemingly valued for their display qualities in several scribal colophons, where they usually transcribe Latin text: according to Derolez, this last usage ‘proves that the scribes considered the runes only as an ornamental . . . alphabet’.6 The visual alterity of the runes also plays a key role in the poetic contexts that are the focus of this study. Many of the Exeter Book riddles rely on the fact that the runes stand out from the manuscript page, allowing the reader to easily distinguish a sequence such as higoræ from the text that surrounds

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


it, and we have seen how Riddle 91(87) makes use of the resemblance of the wyn(n) rune to a key in order to guide the reader towards the solution. Cynewulf also plays on both the visual alterity of runes and the idea of permanence – as well as the illusion of perpetuity provided by memorial inscriptions – in signature conceits that, like the runic riddles, ‘depend on being seen for their effect’.7 Finally, the eþel abbreviation in the Beowulf manuscript – discussed in Chapter 1 – similarly draws attention to itself as a vestige of an older form of literacy which connects the reader with the receipt and reading of the engraved sword hilt. In each of these cases the physical appearance of the script on the manuscript page is a fundamental constituent of its meaning, introducing materialtextual associations from outside the world of the book. Even when runes are not present on the page, the ornamental qualities of the script often become the focus of the allusion to the writing system. In the OE Daniel, for example, the associations brought to bear in the oblique reference to the script include the carving and colouring of runes on stone and the permanence of the monumental inscription, whilst Riddle 42 directs the reader to envisage, if not actually perform, the marking out of the runic clue on the floor. Not only does the runic script draw attention to its graphical alterity, but it also carries with it associations with display that arise directly from the material world of rune writing and the particular textuality of runic inscriptions. The concept of a specific ‘runic textuality’ is a useful in that it draws attention to the particular features of runic inscriptions that allow them to work (and signify) as texts, highlighting the semiotics of the medium as well as the content of the message itself. After all, whilst written texts are often characterised by the information they communicate (whether it be a loveletter or a conference programme), it is the fact that they ‘elicit our attention to the precise terms of their presentation’ that marks out the text itself as an object of study.8 It is not hard to see how both the ‘precise terms of presentation’ and the experience of reading a medieval rúnakefli or a Viking Age rune stone in the Ringerike or Urnes style – and perhaps ‘reading’ is not even an appropriate term, as Spurkland points out – might differ somewhat from the reading of a manuscript page.9 We must take into account the design in which the text operates, the way the text is laid out within this design and the physicality of the material itself as constituents of the overall meaning of the inscription. As Jesch points out, a memorial stone is at least partly defined by the durability of the message and its capacity to long outlast the memories of individuals, each incised letter still standing tribute to its commemorative capacity more than a millennium after the runes were first carved.10 A rúnakefli in turn represents a form of text that can be engraved with a knife in an idle moment and that is highly portable, the writing surface undoubtedly limiting the utterance in certain ways, but also supplying the sort of material back-story intimated in The Husband’s Message. It is also clear that conventions of textual representation from manuscript


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

culture influenced the layout and conception of runic texts, the imitation of a manuscript page on side A of the Jelling II Stone (DR 42) representing the most striking example of such cross-fertilisation.11 My contention is that when runes are used in manuscript contexts we also have to think about the transfer of a specific runic textuality into the environment of the book.12 One of the key differences between the textuality of runic inscriptions and the manuscript page is the tactile dimension of epigraphy and the close association of runes with the material object. Indeed, the distinctive appearance of the runic script has itself been linked to material considerations, the angular aspect of runes and near absence of horizontal lines suggesting that it was developed specifically for carving on wood, where the horizontal risks being lost in the grain. One of the first literary references to runes, in an epistle by sixth-century Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus, refers to the script in terms of its textual medium, the poet suggesting to his neglectful correspondent that he might try alternative means of writing to him if he were bored of roman letters: Barbara fraxineis pingatur runa tabellis quodque papyrus agit, virgula plana valet [Let the barbarous rune be painted on tablets of ash-wood, and what papyrus can do, that a smoothed stick is good for]13 Epigraphical runes are defined here in direct contrast to the writing practices of the classical world, both in terms of writing material and mode of execution. Indeed, the verb pingatur (inf. pingere) means ‘to decorate’ or ‘embellish’, as well as to stain, colour or paint, relating runes to the visual arts rather than to Latinate literacy. As Spurkland has argued, this characterisation may not be entirely unwarranted, the runic script representing a ‘literate, visual means of communication while the decoding of the Latin alphabet still stood with one foot in orality’, and runes themselves ‘mediated from eye to eye’.14 Indeed, it might be that even illiterates could ‘read’ the runes to a certain degree – at least in terms of understanding their value in specific cultural contexts – and perhaps ‘it was simply enough that they were seen’, the ‘visual impact of the word . . . itself a symbol’.15 Dry-point inscriptions such as those identified in the Exeter Book perhaps represent a halfway state between epigraphy and book-writing, and do introduce a tactile element to the page. But even when runes are written with pen and ink, I suggest that aspects of a specifically runic textuality would have accompanied the use of this alternative script. As Spurkland points out, ‘handling runes one was still conscious of the handicraft, you were “carving” or “incising’’’,16 and this ‘different mentality’ may also have received expression on the manuscript page. Although transferred to vellum, runes might still imply engraving, or – to use an appropriate expression of written permanence – setting words in stone. Such associations would not

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


have depended on a working knowledge of runes as an epigraphical script, or even direct encounters with runic artefacts. It would be enough to know that runes were once carved in stone and etched onto weapons, and for this association to be firmly engraved in the poetic imagination. Whilst scribal signatures may simply be exploiting these material associations to ‘engrave’ a name on the manuscript page, the poets of the Exeter Book riddles were able to exploit the script’s contrastive ornamentality in a more productive way, initiating a lively discourse on spoken and written language through their use of characters that stood out on the page. There are moments, however, where the alternative textuality of the runes is more firmly embedded in the internal texture of the work and even contributes to the hermeneutics of the poem itself. We have already seen how the Cynewulf riddles actively resist the idea of ‘ornamentality’, moving us from what Halsall identifies as a strong association with memorial inscriptions and the preservation of a name in an enduring medium,17 and towards the rejection of such surface display. This chapter will focus on three less well-documented cases where the ornamental textuality of runes may have had an impact on either the conception or reception of the poem. The runic Pater Noster in Solomon and Saturn I represents an unusual literary context in which the physicality of written letters becomes the central conceit, the runes recorded in one manuscript of the poem contributing to the expression of a personified script, whilst the rune poems of the Anglo-Saxon and Norwegian traditions also engage with the shape and appearance of the script in their riddling presentation of the rune names. Together, Solomon and Saturn I and the rune poems provide us with an opportunity to recognise the particularities of a runic textuality reflected in literature, in terms of the distinctive aspect of the script, the appearance of individual runes, and the materiality of wood, metal and stone with which runic writing was closely associated. Solomon and Saturn I The poem widely known as Solomon and Saturn I is one of three linked dialogues between the Old Testament patriarch Solomon and the widely travelled Saturn (here understood as a Chaldean elder) surviving in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 422.18 The dialogues – two of which are in verse, divided by a short prose sequence – may represent a collection of texts dealing with the same theme, or constitute a unified prosimetrical work.19 Together they present the reader with a veritable catalogue of arcane learning, with affinities in style (although not in subject matter) to the wisdom poems of the Norse tradition, including a detailed and eclectic presentation of ancient history and lore, and a delight in the mysterious power of words. However, the bulk of the material is certainly not Germanic in origin, and despite a long tradition linking the dialogues with both Norse literature and with an obscure tradition of Oriental lore, its true source of influence


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

probably lies somewhat closer to home in the sapiential Hiberno-Latin tradition, ‘mediated through catechetical treatises and learned miscellanies’ such as the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae.20 The first of the poetical dialogues is perhaps the most accessible as it revolves around a single (although highly elaborate) discourse on the Pater Noster prayer and the power of godes cwide (‘God’s utterance’). Exceptionally in the case of Old English poetry, a portion of Solomon and Saturn I survives in another tenth-century manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41), and fortuitously this marginal (and incomplete) text includes the opening of the poem that is missing from the damaged copy of MS 422. Neither manuscript is an autograph copy and the relationship between them is far from clear: although the marginal text in MS 41 is the later witness, dating to the early eleventh century, it is certainly not copied from MS 422. Among other indications, it includes a line missing from the earlier manuscript and lacks the runes that appear in MS 422 as illustrations of the Pater Noster letters, suggesting that it represents an independent line of transmission.21 The runes that accompany the personification of the Pater Noster in MS 422 are a striking feature of the poem. Although they appear in the earlier and more complete of the two witnesses of Solomon and Saturn I, they are nevertheless dismissed by Page as a late, decorative addition,22 Anlezark pointing out that the runes are extrametrical and suggesting that they therefore ‘represent a visual feature of [MS 422] rather than a rhetorical element of the poem’.23 However, we must also be aware that as an extrametrical feature, the runes would also have been liable to redaction in the copying of MS 41: indeed, this witness is a heavily abbreviated marginal text, and the spatial constraints would have made the inclusion of ornamental runes from an exemplar something of a luxury. Furthermore, whilst the runic equivalents for the Pater Noster letters are missing in this version, the scribe does make use of a runic abbreviation to render Solomon’s name. It is possible that the scribe was inspired to use an unusual runic abbreviation because of display runes in his exemplar, and we should at least entertain the notion that the earlier version in MS 422 bears witness to an established tradition in which the Pater Noster prayer is closely connected with the runes. The assumption that the runes are at most a visual curio, or afterthought, has led to a slightly dismissive attitude to the role they play in the reception of the poem, and they have not been given the critical attention they deserve in any edition of the poem to date.24 Kemble, whilst providing extensive source material and background information to the first English edition of the Solomon and Saturn dialogues, does not attempt to rationalise the inclusion of runes, simply referring the reader to his general discussion of the script elsewhere.25 Menner devotes somewhat greater attention to the runes, using them as evidence for his belief in the blending of Northern superstitions and Oriental lore in the poem, and describing the runes as ‘the last vestige of an ancient pagan Germanic tradition’; he goes on to suggest that their deployment in the context of an efficacious prayer is due

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


to a deep-seated belief in their magical potency, the power of the rune ‘as familiar a tradition to the English as the power of the letter had been to the Hebrews’.26 There are perhaps some grounds for seeing the reference to reciting the Pater Noster prayer instead of incising wællnota heap (‘a mass of slaughter marks’) (l.161b) on a weapon as a contrastive re-alignment of traditions similar to Bede’s story of Imma, and this is an idea I will return to at the end of this discussion of the poem. However, the use of the runic script to represent the Pater Noster prayer is insufficient evidence to support Elliott’s sweeping assertion that the personified runes thus represent ‘a learned adaptation to Christian use of the age-old belief in the magic efficacy of runes’.27 As Menner himself makes clear, there is a developed tradition of inscription magic in the Hebrew and Christian traditions,28 and we certainly do not need to look to runes for the impulse to fetishise the power of the written word. To his great credit, the most recent editor of the poem both advises against the ‘counsel of despair’ concerning the obscurities of the text, and, in his extensive analysis of the poem’s sources and analogues, firmly rejects the influence of superstitious rune magic, instead suggesting the Pater Noster conceit results from a ‘sophisticated literacy’ arising from specialised knowledge of writing, as well as familiarity with the learned discourse on letters reflected in Isidore’s Etymologiae.29 However, Anlezark’s avowal, following Page, that the runes ‘were not a feature of the poem as originally written’, and were simply ‘a symptom of transmission in circles interested in alternative alphabetical systems’ deserves further scrutiny.30 If the runes were indeed an afterthought (and this is far from clear), they were added for a reason by a scribe who considered them appropriate to the conceit of anthropomorphised letters in Solomon and Saturn I. As O’Keeffe points out, whether authorial or scribal, they ‘add another stratum to the meaning of the poem’ and undoubtedly contribute to the realisation of the Pater Noster conceit.31 Indeed, we might wonder why the scribe did not employ letters from any one of the actual or invented alphabets of the Near East if ostentatious decoration and ornamental obscurity were his only aims, particularly bearing in mind the poem’s preoccupation with the Orient and the ‘larcræftas . . . Libia and Greca, / swylce eac istoriam Indea rices’ (‘learning of Libya and Greece, and also the history of the kingdom of India’) (ll. 2a–4). We have seen that Hebrew, Greek and exotic ‘Saracen’ alphabets were certainly circulating in late Anglo-Saxon England, sometimes alongside the runic script, as in British Museum, MS Cotton Domitian A. ix.32 If runes were chosen for their appearance in preference to another exotic alphabet, we should at the very least ask why this should be so. The fact that we are operating in an Old Testament landscape and that Saturn is explicitly referred to as a Chaldean might suggest that we are dealing with the idea of runes as a prophetic Old Testament script, explored in Chapter 1. The impulse to render Solomon’s (prescient) description of Christ’s prayer in runes may thus arise from an impulse similar to the poet’s


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

decision to ‘runify’ the writing on the wall in the OE Daniel: namely, a tradition aligning the runes with Old Testament prophesy and the revealed word of God. However, there is another impulse at work in the conceit of Solomon and Saturn I that deserves consideration: namely the preoccupation of the poem with the physical word of engraved and ornamented letters. The main rationale for the use of runes in this poem is, I would argue, textualmaterial: arising from a close connection between runic epigraphy and the central conceit of written characters that assume physical form. In considering this visually oriented textuality, we might even be able to rationalise the ‘extraordinary’ and unparalleled ‘tendency to hypostatize the Pater Noster itself, and consider it capable of a person’s actions’.33 The palm-twigged Pater Noster The conceit of the Pater Noster dialogue is certainly driven by a concern with the shape and form of the written letters. The poem opens with a statement of Saturn’s knowledge of books and gebregdstafas (‘woven letters’) and an expression of his desire to be taught ‘modes, oððe mægenþrymmes, / elnes oððe æhte [oððe] eorlscippes’ (‘of the mood or power, strength or possession or nobility’) of the palm-twigged Pater Noster (ll. 10–11), immediately situating the prayer in terms of its character, rather than its content. As O’Keeffe points out, the prayer’s power is ‘described but not called forth’, and the words that the letters encode are not themselves revealed to the pagan Saturn.34 This concern with outward form is highlighted early on in the poem when Saturn enquires about how the Pater Noster should be conceived of in the organ of the mind, and Solomon’s response stresses the beauty and the physicality of ‘Cristes linan’ (l. 17), as well as its material effects: Gylden is se Godes cwide, gimmum astæned, hafað sylfren leaf. Sundor mæg æghwylc ðurh gastes gife godspel secgan. [. . .] næfre hie se feond to ðæs niðer feterum gefæstnað; ðeah he hie mid fiftigum clusum beclemme, he ðone cræft briceð, ond ða orðancas ealle tosliteð. Hungor he ahieðeð, helle gestrudeð, wylm toweorpeð, wuldor getimbreð. He [i]s modigra middangearde, staðole strengra ðonne ealra stana gripe. Lamena he is læce, leoht wincen[d]ra, swilce he is deafra duru, dumbra tunge, scyldigra scyld. (ll. 63–65 and 69b–79a)

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


[Golden is the word of God, set with precious stones, [it] has silver leaves. Each one may alone through the spirit’s gift speak a gospel . . . the devil never fastens [the soul] deep enough with fetters; although he bind it with fifty bolts, it sunders the craft and completely breaks open the cunning devices. It subverts hunger, harrows hell, dissipates the surge, builds glory. It is more courageous than the earth, stronger in its setting than the grip of all stones. It is physician to the lame, light to the short-sighted, and also door to the deaf, tongue to the dumb, and shield of the sinful.]35 This ostentatious description of the power of the prayer opens with a striking image of letters cast in precious metals and recalling the filigree decoration of deluxe prayer books or gospels. Jonassen is right that the primary reference here is to the illuminated book,36 but the passage also continues the sustained preoccupation with metalworking instigated by Saturn’s offering of thirty pounds of pure gold as payment for knowledge at the start of the poem (ll. 14b–15a), and expressed through images as various as the casting of the foundations of the world in gold and silver (ll. 31–32), and the smelting and purifying of the blood through prayer (ll 43–48).37 In the materially oriented passage quoted we progress rapidly from jewelencrusted letters to the image of smashing open the fetters and bindings of the devil, to the dense weight of stones and shields. The reference to the prayer being stronger in its foundation than ‘ealra stana gripe’ (‘the grip of all stones’) (l. 76) is a particularly striking image. We might imagine it to refer to the grip a heavy rock appears to have on the ground, or read it in terms of the Pater Noster’s power to overcome the ‘heard gripe hrusan’ (‘hard grip of the ground’) (l. 8a) that embraces the physical body in The Ruin. However, in the context of a catalogue of references to written text, we might also be encouraged to envisage a monument and the ‘grip’ the stone exerts on letters incised upon its surface. We might recall that in the famous bookworm riddle (Riddle 47(45)) the noun staðol is used explicitly to refer to the writing surface, the phrase ‘þæs strangan staþol’ (‘the strong foundation’) (l. 5a) referencing the manuscript page which the thiefin-the-night gobbles up. Here in Solomon and Saturn I the reference to the prayer being ‘staðole strengra ðonne ealra stana gripe’ (l. 76) might also be gesturing towards the particularly strong ‘foundation’ or ‘placement’ of the engraved word. The quoted passage also leads us to think in terms of the interface between the oral characteristics of language, and the physical manifestation of the prayer which is the focus of this poem. The written prayer is a door to the deaf, and tongue for the dumb: a physical replacement for the loss of speech. The reference to the writing as leoht wincendra (‘a light to the shortsighted’) may also be an allusion to the tactility of written language, which relays its message visually but also via the sense of touch. Runes, particularly when incised on stone, are relatively easy for readers to trace with their


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

fingers, and the textual referent here might well be an object engraved with the Pater Noster prayer. The appearance and tactility of the written prayer is also gestured towards in the curious description of the Pater Noster as gepalmtwiged (‘palm-twigged’) an image not clearly paralleled in any other source and never adequately explained.38 As ‘the symbol of victory over the Devil’, the palm branch has obvious figurative import, but the notion that such a close connection between the letters of the Pater Noster and the palm symbol may have come about because an inscribed tablet was ‘decorated with the actual branches of Palm Sunday’ is very questionable, particularly as the connection is so close that the reader is exhorted to pray directly to ðæt palmtreow.39 I suggest that the unique ‘palm-twigged’ descriptor is instead directly related to the appearance of the written prayer, focusing our mind upon the written form of the letters as the branches of the palm tree. Runes undoubtedly stand out as a particularly angular writing system, and the distinctive aspect of the runic script is encoded in the language used to describe individual runic characters. Runologists refer to the uprights and diagonal protrusions of runes as staves and branches; the type of cryptic rune where lateral strokes issue upwards from the main stave are referred to in Icelandic treatises as kvistrúnar (‘twig-runes’) and the variety of cryptic runes on the Hackness Cross (similar to the hahalruna recorded in the isruna tract)40 are conventionally described as ‘tree-runes’. The central characteristic of the palm branch is, of course, the shape of diagonal fronds issuing from a central stem, and the recourse to this highly unusual and specific descriptor may well relate to the distinctive aspect of the runic script. There is certainly no proximate reference to the Latin or Greek alphabets as ‘palmtwigged’, and the appellation would not make much sense. The aspect of roman letters is very unlike that of the runes, as a comparison of the two script systems in this fragment from London, British Museum, MS Cotton Domitian A. ix (late-tenth-century, with eleventh- or twelfth-century additions) makes clear (see Figure 3.1). The unique applicability of the ‘palm-twigged’ descriptor to the runic script provides the first clue that we should regard the runes as fulfilling more than a supplementary role in the poem. We should also bear in mind that there is a clear tradition in medieval Scandinavia of evoking the Pater Noster in runic inscriptions, from numerous exhortations to ‘say a Pater Noster for the soul’ on grave monuments and in stave church inscriptions, to rúnakefli with the prayer itself inscribed, such as N 615 from Bryggen in Bergen, dated to ca. 1198 and N A173 from Trondheim, dated to the period 1150–1200.41 In a recent article on the subject, Zilmer lists more than thirty-five Scandinavian runic Pater Noster inscriptions, representing a sizable corpus, including a lead tablet from Ulstad in Norway inscribed with the whole prayer (N 53).42 There are no runic Pater Noster inscriptions surviving from Anglo-Saxon England; indeed, there is little evidence beyond the problematic reference in The Husband’s Message to runes being inscribed on rúnakefli. However, the Bryggen, Trondheim and Tønsberg runes survived only due to very

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


Figure 3.1 Fuþorc preserved in Cotton Domitian A. ix, fol. 11v Source: © The British Library Board.

particular conditions, and it is difficult to imagine that runes were not carved on rúnakefli at an earlier date in both Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England: runes were, after all devised for incising into wood. It is tempting to suggest that an inscription of the Pater Noster in runes – perhaps inscribed as a charm to be worn, as is the case with several of the Scandinavian prayers – could have inspired the epithet gepalmtwiged. But even the fuþorcs and runic alphabets circulating in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and almost certainly used as the source of the runes copied in MS 422, might have inspired the same appellation once it was decided to represent the Pater Noster letters using this angular script. If the repeated reference to the written ‘palm-twigged’ Pater Noster is indeed influenced by the runic script, then we might also entertain the possibility that a specifically runic textuality has some bearing on the personification of the letters of the canticle in the poem. Animated letters The central conceit of Solomon and Saturn I – the personification of the individual letters of the Pater Noster prayer – is notable for its very graphic


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

depiction of the battle between the written characters and the agents of the devil, relating in some detail the injuries the individual letters may inflict on their adversaries: . . . prologa prima ðam is ?p? P? nama; hafað guðmæcga gierde lange, gyldene gade, and a ðone gr(im)man feond swiðmod sweopað; and him on swaðe fylgeð ?A? a? ofermægene and hine eac ofslihð. ?t? t? hine teswað and hine on ða tungan sticað, wræsteð him ðæt woddor, and him ða wongan brieceð. ?e? e? hiene yflað, swa he a wile ealra feonda gehwane fæste gestondan.’ (Solomon and Saturn I, ll. 89–97) [Prologa Prima that is named p .P.: that warrior has a long staff, a golden goad, and stout-hearted, always swipes at the grim fiend; and A .a. follows on his track with overpowering might and also strikes him down. t .t. also injures him, and stabs him in the tongue, wrings his neck, and breaks his jaw. e .e. harms him, as he will always stand fast against every fiend.] This passage parades a grotesque corporality akin to the masochistic portrayal of the body in the poem Soul and Body II. Not only do the letters stand fast against the enemy, show courage and deal strong strokes, but they trip the fiend and dash his cheek against strangne stan so that his teeth scatter (l. 114), and shatter his limbs on the flint floor, the letter flaying the devil ‘tuigena ordum / sweopum seolfrynum . . . oððæt him ban blicað, bledað ædran’ (‘with the points of twigs, with silver rods . . . until the bone blinks through and the veins bleed’.) (ll. 142–4). We might even think of the palm-twigged letters as being akin to the ‘silver scourges’ that were used in extreme forms of self-mortification, the ninth-century Trewhiddle scourge being a good material parallel, as Anlezark points out, and evidence of an undercurrent of violent asceticism within the Anglo-Saxon Church.43 However, within this graphic portrayal it is easy to lose sight of the graphical: the fact that these are personified letters, the word made tangible in an expression of the physicality of written script. There are also certain clues that the violence perpetrated is not simply an undirected exuberance, or an expression of the severe aesthetic of self-mortification, but that it pertains to the particular textuality of the prayer. The letter , for example, attacks the devil’s mouth, spearing his tongue and breaking his jaw, which is a pertinent image of the victory of the written word over the speech of the devil, particularly in light of the reference to the Pater Noster being ‘dumbra tunge’ (‘tongue for the dumb’) in the earlier exposition. Similarly,

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


the actions of the letter make a clear statement about the physicality of the written word: Ðonne ?S? S? cymeð, engla geræswa, wuldores stæf, wraðne gegripeð feond be ðam fotum, læteð foreweard hleor on strangne stan, stregdað toðas geond helle heap. Hydeð hine æghwylc æfter sceades sciman . . . (Solomon and Saturn I, ll. 111–116a) [Then ?S ?S? comes, leader of angels, staff/letter of glory, he will grip the wrathful fiend by the feet, propel his cheek forward against strong stone, and strew teeth around the host of hell. Each one shall hide himself in the shadow’s half-light.] In this portrayal the poet ‘fixes the relationship between power and speech’, not only silencing the devil, but doing so through the ‘double understanding’ of letters as both material entities and repositories of speech.44 The poet describes the letter as ‘wuldores stæf’ (‘the staff/stave of glory’) (l. 112), playing on both the staff of office that may be thought of as a weapon in the battle with the devil, and the secondary meaning of ‘letter’ or stave. The devil’s mouth once again bears the brunt of the assault, his cheek dashed against the rock and teeth scattered amongst the denizens of hell.45 It is interesting that at this point we also have a recurrence of the image of the ‘strong stones’, here as a foundation against which to beat the devil into silence, perhaps leading us to think again of the resilient textuality of words engraved into stone. This image of epigraphical permanence stands in direct contrast to the ‘sceades sciman’ (‘the shadow’s shade’) (l. 116), which is the preserve of those who have failed to recognise the inviolability of God’s word. In fact, the lexis of the Pater Noster passage as a whole is one of pronounced materiality, of flint (l. 100), stan (l. 114), teeth and bone, shafts and spears, blades, arrows, silver scourges, and ‘twigena ordum’ (‘the points of twigs’) (l. 142). Set against this is the corporeal fragility of the devil, the oral register of mouths and tongues, and the mutability of hell and its servants, who change colour and plumage (ll. 150–51), break apart at the assault of the letters, and flee backwards into the shadows. In this context we can perhaps read the graphic scourging of the devil and the ‘deorra dynta’ (‘dire strokes’) (l. 122) inflicted by the letters on the bodies of the fiends as a kind of triumphant textuality, a victorious ‘body writing’ to use a term with Barthesian overtones, incising God’s interminable word on the shifting registers of the devil. As the runes appear alongside the roman letters in the poem, and are ‘supplementary’ in semantic terms, they have often been relegated to the ‘fairly trivial’ use of runes in ornamental titles and scribal notes.46 However, such a designation ignores this striking material personification of the characters and


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

unusual emphasis on the extra-linguistic attributes of the graphemes, both of which are absolutely central to the poem’s conceit. The runes, although seemingly written in the same ink as the body text, stand out from the page because of their size, the space afforded to them and their angular aspect (see Figure 3.2). The difference between the roman characters, largely indistinguishable from the surrounding text, and the bold and visually distinct runes, is perhaps a distinction not only of form but also of textual function, the runes gesturing towards the unique physicality and materiality of the engraved word and thus representing an extension of what Anlezark calls ‘a highly literate playfulness’ into the realm of runic textuality.47 The actual form of the written letter seems only rarely to have influenced the personification of the Pater Noster characters, most notably ‘g se geapa’ (‘the crooked g’) (l. 134). Kendrick has drawn attention to the animate and corporeal qualities of illuminated letters as an analogue for the hypostatized letters,48 and Jonassen points out that the personification of the letters in Solomon and Saturn I may have been inspired by perusal of the illuminations in a manuscript such as the Book of Kells.49 However, we have seen that one of the primary textual referents in the poem is to engraving, and in certain cases it may be the attributes of the incised runic letter that are being exploited. Jonassen himself argues that the breaking of the Devil’s feet is inspired by the ‘diagonal leg’ of : yet it is the Anglo-Saxon minuscule that is used in the manuscript alongside the r-rune (R), suggesting that the visual referent here is the runic character.50 Similarly, it seems to me that the pointed head of t which ‘on ða tungan sticað’ (l. 94) refers to the rune

Figure 3.2 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 422, p. 4 Source: © The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


rather than the flat-topped and rather un-menacing Anglo-Saxon majuscule. The t-rune (t), which Niles correctly points out ‘visually resembles a spear point or arrowhead’, certainly reinforces the personification of the character as a weapon, and it is just about conceivable that A may also ‘resemble a poker or goad’.51 Furthermore, the ‘fast standing’ e-rune (e) might draw this personification from the fact that it is twin-staved (a feature of only four of the Anglo-Saxon runes), the twin-staved d-rune (d) also sharing the characteristic of being ‘steady’ in the combat (l. 137). In other cases, the description seems to exhibit no apparent reference to the shape of the letter or to incline towards the attributes of the alphabetical symbol. The designation of prologa prima as a rod with a golden goad might pertain to the bulbous-headed roman

, if it pertains to the shape at all; whilst the designation of and in both cases as ‘geap stæf’ (‘crooked letters’) (l. 124) probably refers to the curved roman characters, as Anlezark points out.52 It may be a little unfair, however, to suggest that because it is the rune named ġer (‘year’) (L) that is used to represent rather than the expected rune named gifu (‘gift’) (g), the scribe must be ‘insensitive to the kind of verbal games enjoyed by the poet’.53 If the appearance of the runes is what interested the scribe (or the poet) in this context, then L might make a better choice graphically because of its greater resemblance to a spear or goad. Furthermore, by avoiding g the poet/scribe ensured that all the Pater Noster runes had vertical uprights, perhaps to accord with the unusual designation of the prayer as ‘palm-twigged’. As well as an occasional connection to the physical appearance of the runes, there may also be a conceptual influence discernible in the very idea of treating the letters as the words they begin, a conceit Anlezark suggests is invited by the first letter being referred to using the nonce-form prologa prima (perhaps meaning ‘initial letter’).54 The naming of as habitus may, for example, account for the description of this letter’s elaborate apparel. Anlezark also recognises that such bilingual punning is developed in the OE Rune Poem, but does not allow a connection between the naming of the runes and the naming of the Pater Noster letters,55 Niles also pointing out that the conventional rune names have ‘no role to play’ in the metrics of the poem.56 This metrical supplementarity accords with my impression that the runes are provided as ornamental cues whose form rather than linguistic value is primary. However, in terms of the guiding conceit of personifying individual letters, the tradition of granting meaningful names to runic characters provides an analogue that should not be overlooked, and that may have had as great an influence on the conception of this extraordinary poem as the Irish interpretation of the Pater Noster as protective lorica. Ways of seeing: from the blade to the page Perhaps the clearest indication that the poet had runic textuality in mind when composing Solomon and Saturn I comes in the closing passage, in


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

which we return to a more generalised account of the manifold powers of the prayer. In the final lines of the poem the poet offers us the curious image of the devil inscribing on a man’s sword ‘wællnota heap, bealwe bocstafas’ (‘a mass of slaughter marks, doleful letters’) (ll.161b–2a), which are said to curse the weapon. In contrast, Solomon tells us that the Pater Noster should be sung when drawing a blade for battle, and the palmtreow prayed to for protection. The reference to bealwe bocstafas would almost certainly have brought to mind a pre-Christian runic tradition, perhaps even the carving of ‘victory runes’ upon a weapon.57 We have already seen that the palm represents a conventional symbol of a Christian victory over the devil, and here we have the first and only use of the noun ‘palm-tree’ as a metonym for the written prayer itself.58 We thus have a direct replacement of an (apparently) proscribed practice of engraving runes on weapons – shown to be a devilish act marking out doomed men – accompanied by an encouragement to visualise the palm-twigged Pater Noster as an alternative prayer for protection is recited. The bealwe bocstafas and the gepalmtwiged letters represent, I suggest, two contrasting ways of framing the same script in relation to its visual characteristics: the one traditional and relying on a misplaced belief in the power of letters themselves, and the other based on the figurative power of letters used to represent the word of Christ. The warrior is explicitly warned against drawing out the engraved weapon because of its aesthetic allure, ‘ðeah ðe him se wlite cweme’ (‘though the appearance be agreeable to him’) (l. 165b), and instead directed to link the distinct appearance of the runic script to the branches of the palm. The runes in the manuscript are thus made to appeal to the eye as a symbol of Christ’s victory over the devil, fully rehabilitated in terms of their ornamental referent as well as their wider cultural symbolism. It is clear that knowledge of the runic script played a role in shaping the literate sensibilities of the poet of Solomon and Saturn I. If the runes in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 442 were indeed appended later in the poem’s transmission, it is perhaps significant that despite being ‘supplemental’, the runes are given prominence by preceding the roman letters on the page. Yet, it is perhaps more likely that they are an authorial feature that has been left out in the fragment of the Pater Noster found in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 41, redacted by a scribe copying in the margins and more conscious of the limited writing space than the complex visual dynamics of the poem. Rather than ‘having nothing to do with the original composition’,59 they seem to have provided an important stimulus towards the particular visual and material orientation of the poem, and helped in turn to emphasise the tangible dimensions of the written word for the reader. Whether or not we recognise the runes as playing a formative role in this unusual expression of physical, animated letters, the presence of this steadfastly epigraphical script on the page certainly helps to reinforce the power of writing ‘to objectify, to hold, to fix, to hide’.60 These are characteristics of writing (and of a ‘transitional literacy’) that O’Keeffe suggests have

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


an impact on the written transmission of the text itself, the scribes of the two variant manuscript witnesses performing the dual roles of ‘languageproducer’ and ‘visual-reproducer’ with one foot firmly in the world of oral composition.61 According to this paradigm of nascent literacy, the reader was expected to participate in voicing the texts with minimal visual cues, bringing the vessel of the written word to life through oral performance. However, the runes in MS 422 complicate this picture in that they represent purely visual cues, drawn from the world of epigraphy and intended to stimulate the reader’s eye rather than engage their oral-formulaic faculties. There is no doubt that this is a poet who is extraordinarily sensitive to the tangible construction of the written word, placing hypostatized letters in conflict with the vacillation of the devil’s speech and hammering home the image of God’s word set in iron and stone. Lacking a precedent for the visual conventions and cues that we now associate with poetry written in the vernacular, this highly literate poet attempted something more radical to express the unique qualities of written text. They borrowed from the material world of runic inscription, and in doing so physically co-opted an ornamental textuality of palm-twigged runes and engraved metal into the poem, forging the runic letters within the pages of the book.

The OE Rune Poem As Jonassen has argued, the personification of the letters in Solomon and Saturn I is not so very different from the guiding conceit of the OE Rune Poem ‘in which letters can stand for individual humans or [their] activities’.62 The hypostatization of the fuþorc in the Rune Poem is conceptually rather different, of course, with the runes defined by their conventional names, and their ‘characters’ determined by the associations these names carry. Thus, whilst many of the letters represent concrete nouns, such as ur (the ‘aurochs’), described as a ‘moor-stepper’ who fights with great horns, several letters represent more abstract concepts, such as nyd (‘need’), described in terms of its oppressive nature, which can be transformed into a benefit by humankind. Jonassen is right, however, to recognise the essential connection between the impulse to personify the Pater Noster letters, and the implicit characterisation of letters through their names in the rune poems: both are conceits in which the letter itself is given a form of self-expression, and both use the runes as visual referents for the reader. There are numerous ways in which the OE Rune Poem might be approached and analysed within a study of runes in poetry. Indeed, in terms of runic nomenclature, it might well be considered ‘the most instructive . . . of all documents we possess’, and it is undoubtedly a well-crafted piece of literature in its own right.63 Read as a series of riddles, the poem might support the association of runes with riddling play and revelation, as outlined in the previous chapter. It might also be contextualised in relation to the wisdom poetry tradition in Anglo-Saxon England or to Latin alphabet poetry, or by


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

close comparison with the Norwegian and Icelandic rune poems. However, one feature of the OE Rune Poem that often escapes the attention of critics is its unusual concern with form and structure, both in terms of the influence of the form of the runic characters on several of the accompanying descriptions, and the poet’s unique attention to the structure of the poem, which even extends to encoding the traditional arrangement of the fuþorc into ættir by means of varying stanza length. Although the original manuscript of the OE Rune Poem, Cotton Otho B. x, was damaged beyond recognition in the disastrous fire at the Cottonian Library in 1731,64 the poem had already been transcribed and a version printed in George Hickes’s Thesaurus, mistakenly described by the author as a poetical description of ‘runarum Danicarum’. Hickes makes it clear that the text had been updated, ‘Latinis additis ex adverso elementis, ad ostendendam runarum potestatem, una cum iis nominibus quibus appellantur ipsae runa’ (‘Latin letters having been added beside to show the force of the runes, together with those names by which the same runes are called’),65 but whether these ‘additions’ were the editor’s own work or already a feature of the text he copied is unclear from this account. Halsall points out that the earliest manuscripts of the Norse rune poems do not ‘spoil the intellectual game’ by including rune names, and follows Derolez in concluding that the names were appended to the original poem by an early annotator with access to a now lost Anglo-Saxon fuþorc.66 As for the roman equivalents for the runes, they correspond directly with the fuþorc from Cotton Domitian A. ix (fol. 11v) printed on the following page of the Thesaurus (compare Figures 3.1 and 3.3) and thus also appear to have been added for ease of reference along with certain variant rune forms taken from this same source.67 Most critics agree that these linguistic aids represent material added by later annotators, which is an important consideration, as it suggests that the original copyist intended the poem as a riddlic game of recognition, the runes themselves serving as visual clues in the absence of their names.68 Spatial semantics: the structure of the poem In terms of the layout of the poem, we are perhaps not as far removed from the manuscript context as the editor’s tinkering with the linguistic apparatus might suggest. Whilst we must acknowledge that the partial facsimile is ‘not a very trustworthy substitute for the manuscript evidence’, there are some indications that it followed the manuscript in several important respects.69 We can see that his printing of the fuþorc from Cotton Domitian A. ix on the following page of the Thesaurus remains largely faithful to the surviving manuscript, at least in terms of the shape and relative size of the runes and layout of the fuþorc in horizontal lines. As Halsall points out, ‘Hickes appears to have made no attempt . . . to perform any of the usual editorial tasks’ when preparing the Rune Poem for printing, and it therefore seems unlikely that he deviated to any great extent from the copy provided by

Figure 3.3 The OE Rune Poem, as represented in George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (Oxford, 1705)


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

Wanley, who was himself ‘an extraordinarily skilled palaeographer with a habit of making, not merely copies, but what amounted to hand drawn facsimiles of Old English texts’.70 We can thus give some credence to the idea that the poem was (unusually for Old English verse) laid out in stanzas with the rune beginning each verse, as in the reproduction of the Rune Poem from Hickes’s Thesaurus (shown in Figure 3.3). This stanzaic structure is reinforced by the use of hanging indents (most likely an editorial intervention when setting the type) and also by the use of a triangle of dots to denote the end of each description. This latter feature is likely to have been copied by Wanley from his exemplar as it occurs in several manuscripts of a tenth-century Winchester provenance where it is ‘used only at the ending of discrete entries’,71 a convention that concurs with the insular development of the distinctio punctuation mark ‘used to indicate a final pause where the sententia . . . is complete’.72 This emphatic concluding punctuation mark would have demonstrated visually the stanzaic structure of the poem, and it provides further evidence that the poem was laid out on the manuscript page with unusual attention to the structure of the text. The unusual stanzaic form of the OE Rune Poem probably arose directly from the conceit of treating each letter of the fuþorc in turn, or what Acker refers to as the ‘unavoidably subdivided nature of an abecedarium’,73 and led to a series of unconnected ‘vignettes’ that are discrete enough to be considered as separate poems.74 However, the poet seems to have gone further in their spatial experiment than simply breaking the poem into separate stanzas (and clearly delineating this on the manuscript page): they also varied the length of these stanzas in order to emphasise the structure of the fuþorc itself. The stanzas vary between two and five lines in length throughout the poem, and the first thing to note is that the first eight stanzas represent a consistent sequence of metrically regular three-line stanzas, broken with the description of the ninth rune (named hægel) in a two-line hypermetric stanza. This change in stanza length would be fairly unremarkable if it were not for the fact that there is a traditional division of the runic writing system at the same point. The twenty-four character older fuþark was divided into what are known as ættir, or groups of eight characters, a tripartite division that is probably an early feature of the alphabet, as it is indicated on a number of early inscriptions, including the fifth- or sixth-century Vadstena and Mariedamm bracteates.75 This division enabled a form of cryptography in which a rune could be represented by two figures (denoted by a series of marks), one referring to the ætt (or group in which the rune occurred) and the other referring to its position within this group. The Latin isruna tract records several variants of this cryptographic system,76 and there is evidence that it was used in Anglo-Saxon epigraphy, most notably in the tree-runes of the badly damaged Hackness Cross, dating to the eighth or ninth century. Curiously, this division is not often represented in manuscript fuþorcs, with the notable exception of the fuþorc in Cotton Domitian A. ix where the

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


first, second and third groups are separated by one, two and three dots (see Figure 3.1).77 Halsall has previously pointed out that the varying length of stanzas in the poem seems to be linked to the division of the fuþorc into these groups of eight, a feature most apparent in the consistency of the first ætt.78 We can also see that the final ætt appears to be indicated by another pair of stanzas that break a sequence of four line stanzas and indicate the final runes of the Germanic older fuþark (named in the OE Rune Poem as eþel and dæg).79 This variation in stanza length and its relation to the ættir may be represented as follows, with the relevant breaks in the sequence underlined: 3333333│22333343│34444433│43335 The concluding stanza of the poem is also highlighted quite clearly by its unique length of five lines, giving the poet additional space to drive home his portrayal of human mortality and the return of the body to the ear (‘earth’). The poet was even prepared to adjust the traditional order of the fuþorc here to end on what Page refers to as a ‘dying fall’, rather than finishing with the rather didactically unprepossessing ‘eel’ (or ‘newt’).80 It has further been suggested, more conjecturally, that the first ætt was prioritised in some way – perhaps as a sequence particularly important to a Germanic world view, perhaps because like the ‘abc’ it was simply learned and written first. It is interesting to note in this connection that of the four surviving AngloSaxon fuþorc inscriptions listed by Page, the Vale of Pickering disc represents only the first ætt (with the addition of three vowels) and the Brandon pin-head reproduces only the first two ættir, suggesting a prioritising of the first eight and sixteen runes respectively.81 Like us, the Anglo-Saxon poet who composed the Rune Poem may not have fully understood the reason for the priority and unity of the first eight runes, but nonetheless have faithfully represented received rune lore in the poem. It has also been speculated that the pairing of the ninth and tenth runes by describing them both in two-line hypermetric verses reflects a negative association shared by these two runes.82 It is clear that the two runes are linked in some way as the only two-line expositions in the poem, perhaps simply because hægl (‘hail’) and nyd (‘need/constraint’) are difficult names to put a positive spin on. The hypermetrical construction of the hægl stanza may also serve a literary function according to Halsall, the ‘crowded couplet’ perhaps ‘intended merely to accentuate the rapid movement and change involved as hail goes through its various manifestations’.83 However, it is difficult to apply the same argument to the following stanza, with its tenuous didactic message about how ‘need/constraint’ can be transformed ‘niþa bearnum / to helpe and to hæle gehwæþre’ (‘as both a help and salvation to the children of men’) (l. 28). It is possible that the poet is stressing the definition of nyd as ‘physical constraint’ by the short length of the stanza on the page, but it may also be that the poet is attempting to remain faithful to an aspect of


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

received rune lore, signalling a traditional pairing of these two runes, whilst adapting their message to fit with the scheme of ‘Christian bowdlerisation’ at work elsewhere in the poem.84 It would be unwise to further speculate about the significance of these curious variations in stanza length, and it is enough to concede that there is evidence of both the poet’s mimicking of the internal structure of the fuþorc through this formal feature of the poem and also of attempts to manipulate stanza length for literary effects. This reflects a degree of sensitivity to the physical construction of the poetic text largely unprecedented in Old English literature, and directly inspired by attention to the unique structure of the runic writing system. The form of the runes We have already seen that the individual runic characters of the OE Rune Poem were almost certainly not accompanied by the linguistic paraphernalia included in Hickes’s Thesaurus, and that they would have been given additional visual prominence in the absence of the roman letters and rune names. Although Halsall suggests that the segregation of the runes in a separate column is one of the few ways in which Hickes may have interfered with the copy provided by Wanley,85 it is hard to imagine that the runes were arranged very differently in the exemplar, particularly as the page layout makes remarkably few concessions to the sensibilities of a modern reader of verse. The runes stand out on the page not only by dint of their alterity and prominent size, but also due to the layout of the characters in a vertical column separated from the body of the poem, a distinctive mise-en-page that draws the eye first to the rune and then to the accompanying verse exposition which the reader has to use to name the character. Because the individual characters open each stanza of the poem and are highlighted in such a striking way on the page, they become the focal point of the discourse – not only as answers to the series of riddlic expositions, but as illustrations of the image being portrayed in verse. It is thus perhaps not a great surprise that on occasion the physical appearance of the rune seems to complement or influence the poetic description of the rune name. The shape of the rune Q (þorn) is the clearest example of such visual reinforcement, the written character looking distinctly like the ‘ðearle scearp’ (‘extremely sharp’) (l. 7) object that is described in the poem. Indeed, it has even been suggested that this connection between the rune shape and the thorn was the reason for the adoption of this name in preference of the Germanic *þuriaz, or ‘giant’, named þurs in the Scandinavian rune poem tradition.86 Certainly, for alphabet reformers seeking a new ‘Christianised’ name for the rune, the shape may have acted as an important stimulus. Working systematically through the poem, further connections between the shape of the rune and the accompanying characterisation can be seen. Whilst the ‘phallic appearance of the rune’ is somewhat questionable,87 the

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


form of the second rune ur (‘aurochs’) (u), does suggest the horns of an aurochs, and may explain why the accompanying stanza makes repeated reference to the horns: the creature is both oferhyrned (l. 4) and ‘feohteþ mid hornum’ (‘fights with its horns’) (l. 5). As both Dickins and Halsall point out, the Anglo-Saxon poet had probably not seen this Continental animal itself, but may have seen trophies made from its horns.88 As a creature existing in the imagination as disembodied pair of horns, the shape of the rune would have been even more resonant to an Anglo-Saxon reader. The name of the rune y (denoting \x\ in Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions) is similarly drawn from a world outside the experience of most Anglo-Saxons, and is represented here as part of the compound eolx-secg, a term that is used elsewhere to gloss Latin papiluus / papillus (or ‘papyrus’),89 and which here describes a plant which grows in the marsh and bloodies the hand of anyone who tries to touch it. The exact way in which the first element eolx should be construed is not entirely clear – it may be related to OE eolh (‘elk’, cognate with Proto-Scandinavian *algiz) and thus refer to ‘elksedge’ – perhaps a name for a type of reed or rush that ‘wexeð on wature’ (‘grows in the water’) (l. 42a).90 Critics have noted the fact that parts of the description could apply to the elk as well as the barbed plant, in particular the wounding of men that try to lay a hand on it, the connection perhaps being between the characteristically branched horns of the animal and the barbs of the plant that ‘wundaþ grimme’ (‘sorely wounds’) (l. 42). Interestingly, both of these features are highlighted in the shape of the rune which the reader is attempting to name (y), the poet perhaps emphasising the ability of the elk-sedge to wound and draw blood because of the rune’s resemblance to a barbed plant. The designation of the t-rune (t), as ‘tacna sum’ (‘a certain sign’) (l. 48) is an adaptation which may have been intended to defuse the rune’s preChristian associations, the rune being named after the Norse god Týr in the Scandinavian tradition and both the Norwegian and Icelandic poems alluding to the god’s sacrifice of his hand to the wolf Fenrir. In the AngloSaxon context, whilst the common meaning of the homophone tir as ‘fame’ or ‘honour’ could have been riddled upon – a strategy of redirection used in the stanza pertaining to os91 – here the description appears to refer to ‘a guiding star or constellation perhaps named after the God’.92 In several manuscripts of the Icelandic Rune Poem the rune Týr is glossed by Latin Mars, an association perhaps reinforced by the ‘marked similarity of the rune t to the symbol for the planet [Mars]’.93 However, there is perhaps a further influence of form on the accompanying description, which characterises the celestial object not only as a guiding sign, but one that ‘healdeð trywa wel’ (‘holds its faith well’) (l. 48) and ‘a byþ on færylde’ (‘always holds its course’) (l. 49). Osborne is right to point out that this may refer to ‘the planet Mars as it holds dependably to its path along the ecliptic’, but the repeated emphasis on direction in the description may also have been influenced by the shape of the rune, which Osborne herself points


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

out resembles an ‘upward pointing arrow’.94 Although the arrow did not carry the associations with navigation that it does today, it is certainly intuitive to see the arrow shape as having a directional impulse, and it is little surprise that this ‘certain sign’ is described in terms of its straight and true course. The final three runes in the OE Rune Poem are all additions to the common Germanic fuþark, and the description of one of these, at least, seems to have a link to the shape of the rune. The riddlic exposition of the character J as a river-fish which takes is food on land and lives happily surrounded by water has left much room for debate concerning the appended name iar (corrected in Hickes’s copy to ior in accordance with the fuþorc of Cotton Domitian A. ix, Figure 3.1). Blomfield suggests that the name is ‘completely phonetic’, in which case the stanza would simply represent a personification of a random word beginning with this sound,95 and critics have proposed solutions as disparate as Niles’ ieg (‘island in a river’)96 and Schwab’s ‘horse’, imagined in both the white crests of the waves and the land-dwelling mammal.97 Elliott’s suggestion that the description actually refers to the following rune name ear, which can mean either ‘sea’ or ‘earth’, is also clever, but unnecessarily complicated.98 I agree with Griffith that the central conceit of this stanza is the ‘paradoxography’ of ‘the fish out of water eating on land’, which he points out is also a marked characteristic of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis.99 We are surely looking for an amphibious creature, and perhaps the simplest solution is to settle on the designation ‘eel’ or ‘newt’, both suggestions proposed by Dickins.100 Indeed, the shape of the iar rune (J), accords well with the second of these solutions, resembling the profile of a long creature with four short legs. Whether or not the poet is referring to a codified (but now obscure) rune name or simply riddling on the resemblance of a completely phonetic rune to an efete (‘newt’), the form is surely pertinent to this enigmatic description. Like ur, eolx-secg and the realigned tir, the more obscure runic names seem to have left the poet more reliant on the mental image of the letter-form and its shape upon the page. Research into the pictographic roots of certain Chinese characters has shown that the visual element of the letter introduces certain additional cognitive processes into the act of recognition and reading.101 Indeed, when confronted with symbols of any kind that are cast in relief and discussed individually, the mind inevitably latches onto form as an essential hermeneutical crutch, and in the case of the OE Rune Poem the prominence of the runic characters on the page would have encouraged the reader to pay particular attention to the runes as letter forms rather than transparent linguistic cues. To suggest that such visual reinforcement plays a role in the descriptive hermeneutics of the OE Rune Poem and the posing and solving of the riddle lends little support to the misplaced idea that the runes developed as pictograms, a view that still appears now and then in popular engagements with the script. It is natural, however, that the appearance of the runes may have influenced a poet who set out to describe each letter

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in turn. As we shall see, the Norwegian rune poem tradition offers further evidence that the shape of these ‘ornamental’ runes had a direct impact on the poetic treatment of the script.

The Norwegian Rune Poem Although the precise terms of the relationship between the OE Rune Poem and its Scandinavian counterparts is still disputed, there is no doubt that the Old English, Norwegian and Icelandic poems represent a clear point of crossover between literary traditions. Whether or not we posit the existence of a Germanic ur-poem from which the three distinct traditions evolved,102 or understand that the connections ‘rest upon the independent use of traditional popular material’,103 it is clear that the conceit of the poems – a riddlic exposition of the conventional names of the runes – is a shared one, and that the poets draw on a common stock of gnomic wisdom and lore. For this reason, no special case needs to be made for considering the thirteenthcentury Norwegian treatment of the runes alongside the OE Rune Poem, and it serves as a natural bridge to the medieval Scandinavian tradition that will be the focus of the final chapters of this book. The original early thirteenth-century manuscript, or manuscripts, of the Norwegian Rune Poem suffered a similar fate to Cotton Otho B. x, being destroyed by a fire in the University Library of Copenhagen in 1728. Two copies were made in the late seventeenth century by the antiquarians Árni Magnússon and Jón Eggertsson,104 Ole Worm publishing a slightly earlier transcript of the poem in his Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima (1636) that differs in certain details, raising the possibility that he was working from a different manuscript witness. In addition, Bauer in her Runengedichte, and Page in his essay ‘On the Norwegian Rune Poem’ have both drawn attention to a number of seventeenth-century manuscripts that offer ‘alternative and quite early readings that link loosely . . . to [Worm’s copy] but seem unlikely to derive from it’.105 By calling into question the existence of a definitive text of the poem, both Bauer and Page have problematised earlier readings of the poem based on the Wimmer and Dickins editions, and we must be cautious about basing arguments on literary minutiae that may have varied within the tradition. However, as Page points out, ‘most verses in the standard editions can be relied upon for substance’, and the few significant variants will be acknowledged in the following analysis.106 The Norwegian Rune Poem treats the reduced Scandinavian younger fuþark and consists of sixteen strophes, each of two lines. The metre relies upon both alliteration and end-rhyme, representing ‘a variant of the group that Snorri Sturluson termed runhendur’ according to Clunies Ross.107 It is generally regarded as inferior to the OE Rune Poem in terms of its intellectual scope and overall poetic accomplishment, particularly due to the often jarring conjunction of imagery in the exposition of individual runes. The first two strophes illustrate the conceit used throughout, and the layout aims


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

to give the runes rather than their names prominence, in accordance with the earliest copies of the thirteenth-century manuscript: f vældr frænda róge; føðesk ulfr í skóge. (Fé)

f causes discord among relatives; the wolf grows up in the forest. (Wealth)

u er af illu jarne; opt løypr ræinn á hjarne. (Úr)

u comes from bad iron; the reindeer often lopes over the firm snow. (Slag)

The rather clunky end-rhyme used in this poem tends to be avoided by many practitioners of Old Norse poetry, and it is not a feature of its most celebrated forms; indeed, the use of a verse form commonly (although perhaps mistakenly) regarded as unsophisticated has only reinforced the notion that the poem is of small literary merit. As in the OE Rune Poem, the various stanzas of the Norwegian Rune Poem represent discrete treatments of each individual rune, although there is even less effort to find commonality within this catalogue of conventional names, and occasionally the reader is hard pressed to find a connection even between the two statements presented in a single stanza. For example, the relationship between the observations that ‘slag/sparks comes from bad iron’ and that ‘the reindeer often lopes over the compacted snow’ in the second stanza appears tangential at best, possibly exhibiting some shared idiomatic value that a contemporary reader would recognise, such as an association between brittle iron and hard frozen snow. It is also hard to see what immediate relevance the image of the running deer has to the úr rune, although the connection is actually delightfully simple, as we shall see. Although certain of the rhyming couplets appear to exhibit little continuity of sense, there are some notable exceptions that suggest a more developed poetic sensibility. For example, a number of apparently unrelated lines exhibit subtle connections when viewed as balancing or probing contrasts rather than sequential lines, relying on the ‘juxtaposition of apparently disparate material’ for their effect in the manner of the hjástælt or ‘abuttal’ technique outlined by Snorri Sturluson in his Skáldskaparmál.108 The qualification of the statement that ‘wealth causes discord amongst relatives’ in the first line of the poem by the truism that ‘the wolf lives most often in the forest’ is a thoughtful one, the implication being that although wealth and civilization (and indeed, relatives) may be a source of strife, this should be weighed against the primordial dangers of the forest. The second observation is positioned to speak to the initial gnomic statement and to give us pause for thought about the absolute value of received wisdom. Similarly, the statements that ulcers are the curse of children and that death makes a corpse pale (st. 6) are connected beyond the obvious relationship of illness causing death: the colour of the ulcer may be likened to the appearance of the corpse, the one lividity prefiguring the other.

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


We might also look for a mythical or literary context to explain certain non-sequential lines. A relationship between the seemingly unconnected statements that riding is worst for horses, and the following piece of information that ‘Reginn sló sværðet bæzta’ (‘Reginn forged the best sword’) (st. 5) can perhaps be provided by the clear reference in Fáfnismál to Sigurðr’s loading of his horse Grani with treasure shortly after dispatching Reginn with his own sword. Snorri Sturluson explains in Skáldskaparmál that this is the origin of the kenning ‘byrðr Grana’ (‘burden of Grani’),109 the centrality of this image confirmed by the prominent depiction of Sigurðr’s horse loaded with treasure on the famous Ramsund carving. There may also be a connection in the thirteenth stanza between the statements that the birch ‘er laufgrønstr lima’ (‘is the most green-leaved of limbs’) and the fact that ‘Loki bar flærða tíma’ (‘Loki supported prosperity with deceit’), Loki having killed Baldr using a dart fashioned from green mistletoe.110 The oblique nature of both connections forces the reader to actively interpret stanzas which can best be appreciated as variations on the literary riddle. These examples seem to suggest a rather more sophisticated approach than the haphazard conjoining of rhyming statements. Recognising an additional concern with the shape of the runes helps to make further sense of the confusion, and particularly those B-lines that seem to bear no relationship to either the preceding statement or the rune name itself. The theory that the poet at times makes reference to the shape of the written character rather than the rune name is not new; it has been mooted by Liestøl111 and Neuner112 amongst others, and most recently put forward by Louis-Jensen, who identifies a ‘pictographic principle’ at work in the poem.113 Each of these studies is premised on the notion that the Norwegian Rune Poem originally served as a mnemonic device intended to help a budding rune writer to remember the names, sound value and the shape of the sixteen runes. To illustrate this connection with the shape of the rune, we can look at the example of the fourteenth stanza treating the rune maðr (‘man’), which includes a B-line that is particularly difficult to reconcile with the image preceding it. The reference to a hawk’s talon in the second line simply has no conceptual link with the statement that ‘(Maðr) er moldar auki’ (‘man is an augmentation of earth’), or indeed with the rune name itself. However, as Liestøl first suggested, it is possible that the second image could be referring to the shape of the rune maðr (Y), as an outstretched talon, providing a comment about the form of the rune in question. Liestøl also refers to the eleventh stanza treating the sól rune, which refers to the sun being the light of the world and to kneeling before divine judgement. Here he suggests, less convincingly, that the rune sól (S) resembles a man kneeling in prayer – if, that is, it is rotated 90°. It is just about plausible that a reference to the shape of the runic character may help to explain the strange reference to ‘kneeling’, although the idea that this obscure connection could assist with remembering the correct way to write the rune in question is doubtful. The third of Liestøl’s examples has a more solid foundation, and explains the rationale


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

behind the B-line in the couplet ‘ (Hagall) er kaldastr korna, / Kristr skóp hæiminn forna’. (‘Hail is the coldest of grains, / Christ created the ancient world’) (st. 7). Rather than representing a benign platitude, a poetic spacefiller as it were, the (doctrinally erroneous) reference to Christ creating the world might well have to do with the rune’s affinity to the Christogram, a ligature of the Greek letters and

, for which it appears to be substituted in certain inscriptions, including examples from Maeshowe and Urnes stave church.114 Neuner built upon Liestøl’s discovery by proposing a further link between the B-line and three other runic characters; ís, ræið and Týr. The first of these rune stanzas, describing ice in terms of a bridge, and then referencing a blind man who must be led, exhibits some continuity of sense between the A and B lines – a blind man might indeed find it hard to walk across something as treacherous as an ice-bridge – but Neuner also suggests a visual link to a walking stick that may be used by the blind.115 The comments that ræið (‘riding’) is worst for horses and that Reginn forged the best sword might be connected by an allusion to Grani’s burden, but Neuner also suggests that the rune ræið (r) physically resembles a severed anvil,116 a peculiar contention, but one that becomes slightly more attractive when reference is made to the representation of the anvil on the Ramsund rune carving (Sö 101).117 The stanza accompanying the runic character Týr provides us with another fusion of apparently disparate ideas, the clear reference to the one-handed god in the A line appearing to be unconnected to the B line referencing the fact that a smith often has to blow (st. 12). There is no clear association between Týr and smithing, and Neuner suggests – again rather unconvincingly – that the reference is to the forging of Thor’s hammer Mjǫllnir, a shape which could conceivably be seen in the long-branched form of the t-rune (t).118 However, the platitude that a smith ‘often has to blow’ is hardly enough of a stimulus to bring this specific episode to mind. Louis-Jensen also disagrees with this interpretation, questioning whether a reader would be inspired to recall Mjǫllnir over any other forged object, instead offering the interpretation that this rune represents the wooden part of a pair of bellows, a shape I also find hard to see reflected in the rune. A closer connection with the form, however, may be seen in the characterisation of the god by his one-handed appearance in the A-line, representing a subtle allusion, what Liestøl terms ‘eit slags teiknspel’, to the fact that the Týr rune represented in all early copies of the poem is the single-branched, or æinendr (st. 12), form (t) of the long-branched t-rune (t).119 If we see the reference to shape not as a description of the rune for those with only a rudimentary knowledge of the fuþark, but as a reference to the runic letter on the page, such a playful allusion makes sense. Louis-Jensen has made three additional suggestions that she believes conform to a ‘pictographic principle’ at work in the poem. One of these concerns the rune úr (u) which appears to join two unrelated ideas, the fact ‘slag/sparks comes from bad iron’ and that ‘the reindeer often lopes over

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


the compacted snow’ (st. 2).120 Connecting the reference to smithing in the A-line to the purported reference to shape in the B-line, she suggests that the allusion is to the horseshoe, which the reindeer lacks, taking the verb løypr itself to mean ‘slip’,121 rather than making reference to Worm’s (suspect?) variant reading ‘Opt sliepur Rani a hiarni’, most likely a distinctive Icelandic variant version which Page translates as ‘often the ski slithers on the frozen snow’.122 Whilst the connection between iron-smelting and the reindeer is an ingenious one, I think it is too complicated to support a ‘pictographic principle’ based on mnemonic recall of the shape of the rune. In actual fact, the reindeer print itself closely resembles the úr rune, leaving a distinctive mark wherever it passes ‘á hjarne’ (‘over compacted snow’) (st. 2). There is no need to look further for a connection between the unexpected image and the rune shape. Louis-Jensen’s suggestion that the B-line of the first stanza, which states that ‘the wolf dwells in the forest’, is making reference to the shape of a forest tree seen in the rune fé (f), again seems to be too vague to support a mnemonic function, although it may represent a riddlic allusion to the rune on the page. Similarly, working on a new reading of the stanza relating to the b-rune (b) (named bjarkan, or ‘birch’), and translating ‘Loki bar flærða tíma’ as ‘Loki bore/gave birth to the breed of deceit’ (st. 13), Louis-Jensen suggests that ‘the association meant to be called forth by the B-line is to the silhouette of a pregnant woman as a symbol of female fertility’.123 I do not so much want to question the validity of this ingenious reading, as the principle that an oblique reference (perhaps to Loki birthing the foal Slepnir) could help a reciter of the poem to remember the shape of the rune. However, if we leave behind the notion that this text functions primarily as an oral-mnemonic training text, and concentrate on its literary realisation in the thirteenth century, such riddlic allusions to shape become more tenable. Rather than representing a lingering mnemonic residue, I suggest that these subtle references to the shape of the runes are directed towards an audience that is already well acquainted with the script – either as runic literates or readers presented with the rune forms on the page – and who can thus enjoy un-riddling the oblique connection. There are, as far as I can see, two more stanzas that might be said to work in this connection. The relationship between the rune named óss (‘estuary’) (o) and the twin statements that the river mouth ‘er flæstra færða’ (‘is most often for journeys’) and that ‘skalpr er sværða’ (‘a scabbard is for swords’) (st. 4), is an obscure one, perhaps relying on the way in which a scabbard opening resembles a mouth.124 The connection is perhaps made more tenable by the form of the rune óss (o). The twin branches meeting the stave could be construed as either a river meeting the sea, or the mouth of a scabbard. Again, such a poetic image is not really distinctive enough to serve as a guide to the shape of the rune, but it certainly works as a playful allusion to the letter on the page. Similarly, when treating the rune named lǫgr (‘water’) (l), we should recognise that the representation of liquid as ‘fællr ó fjalle foss’


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

(‘a waterfall which falls from a mountain’) (st. 15) is a very specific image, which may arise from the resemblance of the vertical stem of l to cascading water. In other words, the written rune may act as a visual complement to the poetic description. The theory that there is a mnemonic principle at work in the poem is undoubtedly attractive, but the references to shape are simply not systematic enough to work in this respect. Neuner suggests that a regular connection between shape and B-line may have been lost in transmission of the poem, but if that is the case we would still expect those couplets that do still preserve this tradition to exhibit connections that are easy to identify.125 References to a man kneeling in prayer that must then be inverted, to a severed anvil by reference to the sword that cleaved it, or indeed to the silhouette of a pregnant woman by allusion to Loki’s antics, are simply not direct enough to aid in the recollection of rune-forms. Rather than stressing the poem’s mnemonic function and its embodiment of a ‘pictographic principle’, it is perhaps more accurate to understand the allusion to shape as one of many ways in which the individual characters are represented within a poem that is more riddlic in character, and textually oriented, than has been recognised in the past. If we choose to see it as a more complex work – oral in conception, but inflected by a developed literary sensibility – then it is much easier to account for the presence of obscure idéassosiasjoner, the poetic connections between images stressed by Olsen.126 In certain cases the prime allusion is to the shape of the rune, in others to the place the rune name has in the complex of Old Norse myth, or to a body of received wisdom. The task for the reader is to unravel the allusion in each case, to work out what the connection is, and to reconcile apparently disparate or unconnected images. Viewed in this way, there is not a single line that can be dismissed as a poetic space-filler. As is the case with the OE Rune Poem, the characters on the page serve as the locus for a series of riddles on form, name and nature, the shape of the rune playing a key role in the realisation of the poem’s conceit.

Conclusion As Halsall points out, ‘much of the effect of any Old English poem containing runes depends upon the distinctive appearance of the rune symbols in contrast to the ordinary insular script on a manuscript page’,127 the script defined against the logos of the roman body text. As well as ensuring the script retained some value for display purposes, the distinctiveness of runes may also have introduced a visual disconnect within a text of ‘regularly formed characters lined up like bricks in a wall’128 that helped to turn the display features of the script into something more productive. The visual imprint (or physical presence) of runes in Solomon and Saturn I and the rune poems seems to have inculcated a heightened attention to the texture, appearance and material context of the written word, and indeed the structure of the written text. In Solomon and Saturn I the ornate runes

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


become the visual correlative to the representation of personified letters, and knowledge of the runic tradition may even have influenced the central poetic conceit of hypostatising the Pater Noster prayer and depicting it as ‘palm-twigged’. In the OE Rune Poem not only do the written characters serve as the visual locus for each riddlic stanza, but in certain cases influence the poetic description of the rune name. Furthermore, the structure of the fuþorc appears to have inspired the poet to experiment with the manipulation of textual space, including varying stanza length to spatially encode the ættir divisions. In the Norwegian Rune Poem a connection between form and literary content can be traced even more clearly, several stanzas alluding directly to the shape of the rune on the page. The runes in these poems are examples, I would argue, of what Eagleton refers to as Barthes’s ‘double’ sign, a signifier ‘which gestures to its own material existence at the same time as it conveys a meaning’.129 By doing so, it focuses attention on the word, and the text, as a physical entity. Neither the Icelandic rune poem, best characterised as a ‘rhetorical lexicon’,130 nor the earliest surviving witness to a rune poem tradition, the Abecedarium Nordmannicum, demonstrate any clear attention to the form of the written characters. In the case of the Icelandic tradition on the one hand, the rune names are preserved in the context of a culture of skald-craft, and the fuþark provided a convenient list for a poet (or poets) to exercise their erudition and trot out a list of kennings relating to the name.131 The runes themselves might as well be invisible. The Abecedarium Nordmannicum, on the other hand, is a short piece of mnemonic verse found in a ninthcentury manuscript composed in an admixture of Low and High German, and probably originating from a missionary school at Fulda.132 It thus treats the fuþark from a distance, and as Halsall points out ‘there is no significant resemblance between this inept alliterative jingle and any of the other three rune poems’.133 However, in a chapter so closely concerned with the ornamental value of runes, and the effect their unique appearance had on writers and readers of verse, a closing comment should be made about the runic note inserted in the ninth-century manuscript below the opening line of the rhyme. This marginal sequence, written using the runes of the Abecedarium Anguliscum (an Anglo-Saxon fuþorc) recorded on the same page (see Cover Image), was transcribed by Grimm as wreat shortly before the manuscript was damaged by a chemical reagent. Derolez notes that the word has been interpreted as an unusual form of the verb writan, ‘to write’, and that it may correspond to the form uuritan, which appears later in the rhyme itself.134 If this is so, it may be indicative of a common response to the ornamental quality of runes in manuscripts: a heightened awareness of script as script. Whether this runic commentator was knowledgeable about the runic tradition or not, the presence of the alternative script on the page seems to have inspired them to make a self-referential allusion to the act of writing, and in many ways this marginal runic comment serves to neatly characterise a textuality


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

that had come to be defined as much by the outward appearance of writing as by the content of the utterance itself.

Notes 1 For example, Ole Worm prints the Old Norse poems Höfuðlausn and Bjarkamál in runes in his Runer, seu, Danica literatura antiquissima (Copenhagen, 1636), reflecting a conviction that runic poetry was at one time the norm. See René Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (Brugge, 1954), pp. xxxvi–ii. 2 Britta Olrik Frederiksen, ‘The History of Old Nordic Manuscripts IV: Old Danish’, in Oscar Bandle et al. (eds.), The Nordic Languages: An International Handbook of the History of the North Germanic Languages, Vol. 1 (Berlin, 2002), pp. 816–24, at p. 821. As Frederiksen indicates, there is another manuscript dating to 1300–1350 (SKB A 120) in which the Planctus Mariae (Mariaklagen) is written in runes: however, ‘the two runic manuscripts in no way form an organic link between the runic script culture of the Viking Age and medieval Latin book culture’, p. 821. 3 See Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 402–3. Page also refers to two manuscripts connected to Canterbury (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 214 and MS 173) that use runes in this manner, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 198. 4 See for example the large ornamental inscription in London, British Museum, Harley MS 1772 (4), Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 404. 5 R.I. Page, ‘Runic Writing, Roman Script and the Scriptorium’, in Staffan Nyström (ed.), Runor och ABC (Stockholm, 1997), p. 124. 6 Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 403ff. See also some more recently identified ornamental colophons in ‘Runica Manuscripta Revisited’, in Alfred Bammesberger, Old English Runes, pp. 85–106, p. 94. 7 Roger Lass, ‘Cyn(e)wulf Revisited: The Problem of the Runic Signatures’, in Graham Nixon and John Honey (eds.), An Historic Tongue (London, 1988), pp. 17–30, at p. 28, note 4. 8 Leroy F. Searle, ‘Emerging Questions – Text and Theory in Contemporary Criticism’, in Raimonda Modiano et al. (eds.), Voice, Text, Hypertext (Seattle, 2004), pp. 3–21, at p. 4. 9 Spurkland suggests that ‘reading’ is a term oriented towards Latin literacy, and that we would do better to refer to ‘interpreting’ runic inscriptions, ‘Scandinavian Medieval Runic Inscriptions: An Interface between Literacy and Orality?’, in J. Higgit et al. (eds.), Roman, Runes and Ogham (Donington, Lincs, 2001), pp. 121–8. See also Terje Spurkland, ‘Literacy and “Runacy” in Medieval Scandinavia’, in J. Adams and K. Holman (eds.), Scandinavia and Europe 800–1350 (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 333–44. 10 Jesch draws our attention to the fact that ‘the utterance consists of the whole monument, its physicality and visuality, its location and durability, and its text’, ‘Still Standing in Ågersta: Textuality and Literacy in Late Viking Age Rune Stone Inscriptions’, in Düwel (ed.), Runeninschriften, p. 473, a concern with textuality echoed by Kristel Zilmer, whose study of monumental inscriptions recognises ‘the importance of looking at various levels of expression’, ‘Viking Age Rune Stones in Scandinavia: The Interplay between Oral Monumentality and Commemorative Literacy’, in Slávica Rankovic et al. (eds.), Along the Oral-Written Continuum (Turnhout, 2010), pp. 135–62, at p. 136. 11 See Else Rosedahl, ‘Jellingstenen – en bog af sten’, in Ole Høiris et al. (eds.), Menneskelivets mangfoldighet (Århus, 1999), pp. 235–44.

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


12 See Orton, Writing in a Speaking World, and particularly Chapter 4 ‘From Inscription to Manuscript Text’, for the broader stylistic and pragmatic impacts of epigraphy on poetic texts. 13 Carmina vii. 18., trans. Page, An Introduction, p. 100. 14 Spurkland, ‘Scandinavian Medieval Runic Inscriptions’, p. 128. 15 Leslie Webster, ‘Visual Literacy in a Protoliterate Age’, in Pernille Hermann (ed.), Literacy in Medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian Culture (Aarhus, 2005), p. 38. 16 Spurkland, ‘Scandinavian Medieval Runic Inscriptions’, p. 127. 17 Maureen Halsall, ‘Runes and the Mortal Condition in Old English Poetry’, JEGP 88:4 (1989): 477–86. 18 Helmut Gneuss dates this manuscript to s. x1 or x2/4 or x med, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (Tempe, AZ, 2001), p. 38. See also N.R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), no. 77. Most commentators agree that the manuscript is a product of the mid-tenth century and the South-West of England, Anlezark arguing for a Glastonbury provenance for Solomon and Saturn I, and for Dunstan as a possible author, The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 56–7. 19 Daniel Anlezark suggests an anthology of Solomon texts in his edition, a view reiterated in a recent article ‘The Stray Ending in the Solomonic Anthology’, Medium Ævum 80:2 (2011): 201–16, whilst Heide Estes argues for a ‘scribally if not authorially single work’, ‘Constructing the Old English Solomon and Saturn Dialogues’, ES 95:5 (2014): 483–99, at p. 497. See also Patrick P. O’Neill, ‘On the Date, Provenance and Relationship of the “Solomon and Saturn” Dialogues’, ASE 26 (1997): 139–68. 20 Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 15. For an extended discussion of possible Irish analogues to the poem, see Charles D. Wright, The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature (Cambridge, 1993), esp. pp. 233–56. 21 Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, pp. 6–7. 22 Page, ‘Runic Writing, Roman Script’, p. 126. 23 Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 29. 24 The runes have been discussed in several critical studies of the poem, the most important of which are K. Melling, ‘A Proposed Reconstruction of Runic Line 108a of Solomon and Saturn’, NM 77 (1976): 358–9; Marie Nelson, ‘King Solomon’s Magic: The Power of a Written Text’, Oral Tradition 5:1 (1990): 20–36; and Frederick B. Jonassen, ‘The Pater Noster Letters in the Poetic Solomon and Saturn’, Modern Language Review 83:1 (1998): 1–9. Brief references to the runes are made in Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), p. 58 and in Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, pp. 221–2. 25 John M. Kemble, The Dialogue of Solomon and Saturnus (London, 1848), p. 132. 26 Robert J. Menner (ed.), The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (London, 1941), p. 49. 27 Ralph W.V. Elliott, Runes: An Introduction, 2nd edn (Manchester, 1989), p. 56. 28 Menner, The Poetical Dialogues, pp. 45–8. 29 Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, pp. 29–31. 30 Ibid., pp. 28–9. 31 O’Keeffe, Visible Song, p. 58. 32 Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 3–6. 33 Menner, The Poetical Dialogues, p. 42. 34 O’Keeffe, Visible Song, p. 59. 35 Anlezark translates the personal pronoun he used throughout this passage (and probably referring to the masculine noun cwide) as ‘he’ rather than ‘it’, which


36 37 38

39 40 41

42 43 44 45

46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs complements the idea of the word as logos, and an interpretation of the prayer as an image of Christ himself, The Old English Dialogues, p. 105, note to line 63a. Jonassen, ‘The Pater Noster Letters’, pp. 1–9. See also Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter (Columbus, OH, 1999) for a discussion of the medieval tradition of investing letters with ‘the bodily trace of a living . . . presence’, p. 35. On the specialised vocabulary of metalworking used throughout the poem, see Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, pp. 10–11. Wright points out two references to the Pater Noster as a flourishing tree (in the Catechesis Celtica and the Vienna commentary), but concedes that these are both related to the parable of the mustard seed, The Irish Tradition, p. 237. Thomas D. Hill suggests confusion between palma (‘palm tree’) and palmes (‘shoot, green branch’) by an Anglo-Saxon grappling with unfamiliar flora, further suggesting that the descriptor palmtwigode might have referred to holy branches and overlapped with a tradition of runic sortilege, ‘The “Palmtwigede” Pater Noster: Horticultural Semantics and the Old English Solomon and Saturn I’, Medium Ævum 74:1 (2005): 1–9. Menner, The Poetical Dialogues, p. 43 and note 41. Page, An Introduction, pp. 83–6. For a discussion of the runic Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers from Norway, including these two inscriptions, see Terje Spurkland, ‘How Christian Were the Norwegians in the High Middle Ages? The Runic Evidence’, in Kristel Zilmer and Judith Jesch (eds.), Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity (Turnhout, 2012), pp. 183–200, esp. 192–7 and Kristel Zilmer, ‘Christian Prayers and Invocations in Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions from the Viking Age and Middle Ages’, Futhark 4 (2013): 129–71. Zilmer, ‘Christian Prayers’, p. 151. Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 109. O’Keeffe, Visible Song, p. 57. This is perhaps a more literal conception of the ‘violence of the letter’ than Derrida had in mind, but it may represent a further co-option of the negative potentialities of the written word that he finds expressed throughout the Western tradition, De la grammatologie, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1997), pp. 101–40. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 426. Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 29. See Kendrick, Animating the Letter. See Jonassen, ‘The Pater Noster Letters’. Ibid., p. 1. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 222. Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 109. Ibid., p. 109. Ibid., pp. 50–1 and p. 107 note 89a. For alternative suggestions concerning the meaning of this phrase, see Clive Tolley, ‘Solomon and Saturn I’s “Prologa Prima” ’, N&Q 57:2 (2010): 166–8. Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, p. 107. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 222. Nelson makes reference to the possibility that this practice refers to victory runes, ‘King Solomon’s Magic’, pp. 32–3. See the following chapter for a detailed discussion of the category of ‘victory runes’. See Menner, The Poetical Dialogues, pp. 43–5; Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ASPR VI (New York, 1942), p. liii, note 2; Anlezark, The Old English Dialogues, pp. 99–100. K. Sisam, ‘Review of Menner (ed.), The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn’, Medium Ævum 13 (1944): 28–36, at p. 35.

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67


69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78

79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87


O’Keeffe, Visible Song, p. 59. Ibid., p. 67. Jonassen, ‘The Pater Noster Letters’, p. 6. John M. Kemble, ‘On Anglo-Saxon Runes’, Archaeologica 28 (1840): 327–72, at p. 339. Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, p. xlvi. George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (Oxford, 1705), p. 134, trans. Maureen Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition (Toronto, 1981), p. 24. Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 25; Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, pp. 24–5. For the suggestion that Hickes or Wanley were responsible for these additions, see George Hemple, ‘Hickes’s Additions to the Runic Poem’, Modern Philology 1 (1903): 135–41, restated in Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 23. However, R.I. Page suggests that this linguistic material was already present in the MS, perhaps added by the sixteenth-century antiquarian Robert Talbot, ‘AngloSaxon Texts in Modern Transcripts I: The Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 6 (1973): 69–85. For the argument that stanzas of the OE Rune Poem ‘were intended as riddles, the answers to which were the respective rune-words’, see C.L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (London, 1967), p. 163. More recently, Niles refers to the ‘strongly riddle-like character’ of the original poem, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 263, whilst Paul Sorrel, ‘Oaks, Ships, Riddles and the Old English Rune Poem’, ASE 19 (1990): 103–16 outlines in more detail the stylistic affinities between the Rune Poem and the Exeter Book riddles. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 18. Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, pp. 26–7 and p. 23. Ibid., p. 31. M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 303–4. Paul Acker, Revising Oral Theory (London, 1998), p. 36. Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 50. Ög 178 and Nä 10 (IK 377, 1 and 2). See Page, An Introduction, p. 82. See the extensive discussion of the isruna tract and related cryptographic systems in Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, 89ff. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 10. See the discussion of stanza structure in Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, pp. 49–52. Halsall notes that the regular format of three-line stanzas is shared by the Icelandic Rune Poem and the Versus Cuiusdam Scoti de Alphabeto, and is thus unlikely to be ‘the product of accident’, p. 49. Ibid., p. 52. See Page, An Introduction, p. 76. On the additional ‘pyrotechnics’ of this final stanza, including transverse alliteration and parallelism, see Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 162. See R.I. Page, ‘Rune Rows: Epigraphical and Manuscript’, in Alfred Bammesberger and Gaby Waxenberger (eds.), Das fuþark und seine einzelsprachlichen Weiterentwicklungen (Berlin, 2006), pp. 216–32, at pp. 217–20. Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 119. Ibid., p. 120. In the redirection of runes such as Týr and Ing which had clear pagan associations, for example. See T.A. Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge, 1976), p. 19. Ibid., pp. 26–7. Elliott, Runes: An Introduction, p. 46. Ibid., p. 51.


Palm-twigs and runic glyphs

88 See Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems, p. 12, and Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 106. 89 Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 131. Shippey suggests it may be a local name referring to sedge or Norfolk reed ‘once a dominant species in the English Fenlands’, Poems of Wisdom and Learning, p. 135, note 9. However, Bierbaumer et al., Dictionary of Old English Plant Names rule out the identification of the plant with the elk, based on the fact that it is the forms eolug- and ilug- which occur in three of the five glosses. 90 It may be that the rune name was originally *algiz / eolh and that the new sound value of the rune in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, represented by Latin , was simply appended as a suffix to the name as Page suggests, An Introduction, p. 71. 91 The same rune is named óss (‘god’) in the Icelandic Rune Poem, but the near homonym of Latin os (‘mouth’) provides a way for the Anglo-Saxon poet to sidestep the pagan associations. 92 Page, An Introduction, p. 72. 93 Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 136. In several manuscripts of the Icelandic Rune Poem the rune Týr is glossed by Latin Mars. 94 Marijane Osborn, ‘Tir as Mars in the Old English Rune Poem’, ANQ 16:1 (2003): 3–13, p. 4 and p. 10. 95 See Joan Blomfield, ‘Runes and the Gothic Alphabet’, SBVS 12 (1941–2): 177–94 and 209–31, at pp. 219–20. 96 See Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems, p. 273. 97 Ute Schwab, Die Sternrune im Wessobrunner Gebet (Amsterdam, 1973), p. 68. 98 Elliott, Runes: An Introduction, p. 54. 99 Mark Griffith, ‘A Possible Use of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis in the Old English Rune Poem’, N&Q 57:1 (2010): 1–3, at p. 2. 100 Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems, p. 23. 101 Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing (London, 2001), p. 173. 102 Halsall challenges the prevailing notion that all three poems go back to a Germanic grundform, arguing that connections are explained by the inheritance of ‘ordinary rune lore’ and ‘the shared word-hoard of alliterative formulas’, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 38. More recently, Margaret Clunies Ross has argued that the tradition developed in consistent ways when measured against the prevailing literary trends in England, Norway and Iceland, ‘The AngloSaxon and Norse Rune Poems: A Comparative Study’, ASE 10 (1990): 23–39. 103 Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, p. xlviii. 104 Royal Library, Copenhagen, MS Bartholiniana D, p. 818 and Royal Library, Stockholm, MS Papp., fol. 64 respectively. 105 Alessia Bauer, Runengedichte: Texte, Untersuchungen und Kommentare zur gesamten Überlieferung, Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia 9 (Vienna, 2003) and R.I. Page, ‘On the Norwegian Rune Poem’, in Wilhelm Heizmann and Astrid van Nahl (eds.), Runica, Germanica, Mediaevalia (Berlin, 2003), pp. 553–66, at pp. 558–9. 106 Ibid., p. 566. 107 Clunies Ross, ‘The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems’, p. 31. 108 Ibid., p. 31. 109 Anthony Faulkes (ed.), Edda: Skáldskaparmál (London, 1998), I, p. 47. 110 See Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems, p. 35. 111 Aslak Liestøl, ‘Det norske runediktet’, Maal og Minne (1948): 65–71. 112 Bernd Neuner, ‘Das Norwegische Runengedicht – was sich hinter den zweiten Zeilen verbirgt’, in Marie Stoklund et al. (eds.), Runes and Their Secrets (Copenhagen, 2006), pp. 233–45.

Palm-twigs and runic glyphs


113 Jonna Louis-Jensen, ‘The Norwegian Runic Poem as a Mnemonic Device: The Pictographic Principle’, in ‘Preprints to the 7th International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Oslo 2010’ research/publications/7th-symposium-preprints/louis-jensen.pdf. Accessed August 2016. 114 Liestøl, ‘Det norske runediktet’, p. 67. 115 Neuner, ‘Das Norwegische Runengedicht’, p. 238. 116 Ibid., p. 240. 117 Ibid., p. 240, note 20. 118 Ibid., p. 239. 119 Liestøl, ‘Det norske runediktet’, p. 70. The Norwegian Rune Poem refers to the 16 rune younger fuþark, of which there were two variants, so-called shorttwigged (or Norwegian/Swedish) and long-branched (or Danish) runes. The rune used to represent the unvoiced alveolar plosive [t] in the extended medieval fuþark is identical with the short-twigged rune ᛐ. 120 Inmaculada Senra Silva argues convincingly that the use of úr here may be metaphorical, and refer to ‘a “rain” of glowing iron sparks’ coming from bad iron, ‘The Names of the u-Rune’, Futhark 1 (2010): 109–22, at p. 121. 121 Louis-Jensen, ‘The Norwegian Runic Poem’, p. 4. 122 Page, ‘On the Norwegian Rune Poem’, p. 564. 123 Louis-Jensen, ‘The Norwegian Runic Poem’, p. 4. 124 The variant produced by Runolphus Jonas in 1651 creates a rather convenient semantic association between ships secure in the river mouth and a sheathed sword, Page, ‘On the Norwegian Rune Poem’, p. 562. 125 Neuner, ‘Das Norwegische Runengedicht’, p. 243. 126 Magnus Olsen, ‘Bemerkninger til det Norske Runedikt’, Maal og Minne (1948): 72–5, at p. 72. 127 Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 46. 128 Kendrick, Animating the Letter, p. 38. 129 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1996), p. 118. 130 Marijane Osborn, ‘Hleotan and the Purpose of the Old English Rune Poem’, Folklore 92:2 (1981): 168–73, at p. 168. For a discussion of the Icelandic Rune Poem’s complex textual history, see R.I. Page, The Icelandic Rune-Poem (London, 2009). For the parallel development of the Norse rune poem traditions, see Clunies Ross, ‘The Anglo-Saxon and Norse Rune Poems’ and the discussion of the Scandinavian tradition in Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, pp. 33–8. 131 Page, The Icelandic Rune-Poem, p. 1. 132 St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 878, p. 321. See Page, The Icelandic Rune-Poem, p. 82, and the cover image of this volume. 133 Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem, p. 35. 134 Derolez, Runica Manuscripta, p. 79. If the first character is read as þ rather than w this gives us the word þreat, ‘troop, violence’: however, no adequate rationale has been offered for such an allusion.


Re-scripting the past in Old Norse heroic poetry

Runes in the Poetic Edda As a body of work, the mythological and heroic poems of the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda undoubtedly constitute the superlative source of literary engagement with runes, dealing with everything from the mythical origins of the script to the skills deemed necessary for the rune carver.1 Whilst the Codex Regius manuscript dates from the second half of the thirteenth century,2 individual poems are of varying date and provenance,3 and as Gunnell points out, ‘it is highly questionable whether the manuscript reflects the “original composition” . . . of any of the works it contains’.4 Whilst it is widely accepted that ‘the genesis of the Eddic poems covers a considerable space of time, perhaps from the 9th to the 13th century’,5 the heroic poems that are the focus of this chapter take their characters and setting from a much earlier period, dealing with semi-historical figures such as the fifth-century warlord Attila the Hun and the fourth-century Gothic king, Ermanaric. The mythological material also reflects traditions that are on occasion demonstrably older than the date at which the poem was presumed to have been composed. Whilst the oldest of the poems may represent the products of a pre-Conversion society in which the myths and legends related had an active social and religious currency, it is also likely that some of them – Atlamál in grœnlenzko for instance – represent late reworkings of traditional material, revealing not only ‘the hand of the creative literary artist’, but also the shifting sensibilities of a Christian audience.6 There is a clear evolution in the Codex Regius manuscript between the first sequence of poems, which deal almost exclusively with the gods, and the sequence of poems beginning with the three Helgi lays and ending with Hamðismál which focus on the internecine conflicts of the Völsung and Niflung dynasties. However, the distinction between the mythological poems and the so-called heroic lays – a distinction recognised in the following chapters – is one of degrees rather than absolutes, the traditional labels suggesting a division that is ‘unwarrantably sharp’.7 The mythical and heroic sequences bleed into one another at numerous points, the protagonists of Vǫlundarkviða occupying a space somewhere between the mythological and

Re-scripting the past


the legendary and ‘difficult to place in either of the two main categories of Eddic poetry’,8 whilst the poem Sigrdrífumál, which falls squarely in the heroic section, is dominated by sequences of arcane lore and an account of the mythical history of runic writing with a clear affinity to the origin myth in the poem Hávamál. Any literary analysis must be wary of rigidly circumscribing material such as this. In reading the portrayal of runes in the heroic lays from a different perspective to that used to treat the mythological poems in the following chapter, I am not suggesting that we should isolate these poetic treatments of runes from one another. Rather, these final chapters serve as alternative critical lenses through which to view the runic material of the Edda as a whole: assessing it in relation to practiced tradition on the one hand, and as a theoretical engagement with the social implications of writing on the other. However, as Finch points out, it has ‘long been an axiom that all Germanic heroic poetry derives from some historical event’,9 and a concern with the occasional vague relation the heroic cycle bears to real events and individuals, including the ‘remarkable resemblance’ of Atli’s death to the death of Attila the Hun recorded by the historian Priscus, does in some way serve to differentiate the heroic from the mythological poems.10 The bulk of the heroic poems of the Edda deal with the legendary history of the Goths, Huns, Gjúkungs (probably the Burgundians), and the Franks (through the Neustrian King Chilperic, or Hjálprek).11 These legends ‘reveal dim and very much transformed memories of historical persons and episodes’, with the basic chronology of the period reversed in the heroic cycle and with characters from different centuries allowed to interact on a vast legendary stage.12 Yet however confused the chronology, the sixteen poems of the Sigurðr cycle are consistent in drawing on a body of stories that arose on the Continent during the Migration Period, and in incorporating figures who reigned from the late fourth to the early seventh century. This was a period when the older fuþark was in use (both in Scandinavia and areas of Continental Europe), so it is not inconceivable that certain features of the rune lore in the Edda preserve traditions as old as the stories themselves. Of course, it does not necessarily follow that vestiges of historical practice will accompany the use of historical characters and settings, but as Lindow notes, the redactor was apparently concerned to present a historical progression ‘from the sacred prehistory of the gods to the human prehistory of the heroic poetry’, and we might expect the runic material to reflect this progression from divine abstraction to human concerns.13 The heroic landscape is, after all, a human landscape, however exaggerated, and the runic topoi at work in these poems may also be premised on a semblance of runic practice in the existential world. A critical reading of the runes represented in the heroic poems against the surviving corpus of runic inscriptions thus has the potential to contribute to one of the prevailing discourses in Eddic studies, and to inform our understanding of the way runic material was preserved and transmitted. Antonsen’s caution that ‘nearly 1000 years separate


Re-scripting the past

the manuscript from the inscriptions’ is, of course, to be heeded at all times, and the way the poetry negotiates that curious historical lag will be at the forefront of the following discussion.14

Runic writing in the Migration Period Whilst it stands to reason that the fuþark was developed prior to the first evidence for its use,15 the earliest surviving runic inscriptions date to the first or second century AD. Many of the early inscriptions are clustered in southern Scandinavia, although whether the script was developed here or closer to the borders of the Roman Empire is a matter of ongoing debate.16 The Danish runologist Erik Moltke, whilst favouring a Danish origin for the runes, notes that early inscriptions are found ‘as far east as Poland and as far west as Burgundy and England – broadly speaking, that is, in the whole territory occupied by Germanic tribes, permanently or impermanently’.17 Within the corpus of older fuþark runes we might follow Looijenga in distinguishing geographical clusters of inscriptions from Denmark, the Scandinavian peninsula, present-day Germany and Frisia (the latter with close links to the earliest Anglo-Saxon inscriptions), as well as noting a small sub-group of Gothic inscriptions dating from the earliest period and a larger South Germanic group from the sixth century.18 However, rather than trying to tease out runic activity associated with the confusion of different tribes represented in the heroic poems (a nigh-on impossible task), it makes more sense to compare the poetry with the complete corpus of inscriptions from what Looijenga refers to as the earliest, or ‘archaic’, period of runic writing up to c. 700 AD.19 The use of the older fuþark came to an end in the seventh century in Scandinavia with the development of the reduced sixteen-rune younger fuþark, and the Continental tradition ends for good around this same time. There is some justification for viewing the period prior to these developments as distinct in the history of runic writing, particularly due to the relative uniformity of the script system used across a wide area. The inscriptions themselves are less uniform, but runes appear to have been used in a restricted range of contexts that excluded public discourse or the recording of events, suggesting that runic writing was ‘marginal to society’.20 The corpus of older fuþark inscriptions is characterised by short sequences of runes that are often hard or impossible to interpret, by script imitation, and by ‘texts [that] have individual, private, intimate and ritual meanings’.21 Whilst the script was certainly invented for the purposes of representing language (rather than for ritual or magical applications), it is notable that ‘memorials, political and administrative texts should be lacking’, at least amongst the Continental material, and that writing seems to have played little role in trade.22 Although we should be wary of the inevitable bias in the small fraction of material that has survived, older fuþark inscriptions ‘certainly do not indicate a well-established communicative tradition’ and literacy was probably restricted to an elite.23

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Older fuþark inscriptions appear on most durable materials, particularly precious and base metals, and to a lesser extent bone, stone and wood. The majority of the earliest inscriptions are found on portable objects, with bracteates and weapon inscriptions representing particularly prominent sub-groups within the corpus. Personal names feature extensively, often as marks of ownership, as well as labelled objects such as combs, and a number of genuinely unintelligible inscriptions where the presence of the writing itself seems to have been important.24 We would thus expect literature preserving genuine runic traditions from the Migration Period to give prominence to short, obscure inscriptions of a private rather than public character and to make reference to prominent sub-groups such as the weapon and bracteate inscriptions. We would also expect certain uses of runes that developed in later periods – including correspondence and memorials with an inheritance function – to be absent from the poetry. Of course, just because certain types of text do not exist in the relatively small corpus of surviving older fuþark inscriptions, we cannot discount the fact that they were never written or that examples won’t be found in the future that change our perspective on early runic literacy. The following survey – focusing on the runic catalogue in Sigrdrífumál – will be cautious in its reference to negative evidence of this kind, and concentrate on those indistinct and fleeting moments where the poetry and the material evidence for writing runes appears to overlap, in order to gauge the particular historical awareness the composers of these poems either possessed, or professed. In doing so I aim to reassess the value of literary material which Looijenga suggests provides ‘supplementary but indispensible information’ to the runologist, and demonstrate the rather different attitudes to runic heritage expressed in the poetry of Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland.25 Sigrdrífumál Of all Eddic poems, Sigrdrífumál is the most cited by runologists, and its catalogue of rune types has even been drawn on in support of the interpretation of older fuþark inscriptions.26 However, the runic catalogue is rarely analysed as a whole, with the poem as the starting point.27 This may be due to a number of factors. First of all, it is a decidedly untidy text, consisting predominantly of advice about runes and social conduct in ljóðaháttr metre, but including narrative sections in fornyrðislag and several prose cementing buttresses, and recognised as ‘an extraordinary piece of patchwork’ even by early translators.28 Furthermore, it has lost its ending in the great lacuna of the Codex Regius manuscript, and must be reconstructed based on the confused prose narrative of Vǫlsunga saga and much later paper manuscript copies of the poem. It is also fair to say that because of the enthusiasm with which it has been read by runic revivalists with wild ideas about the efficacy of the runes, it has also become something of a minefield for the more sceptical literary critic. It is particularly imperative, therefore, that the rune lore it purports to transmit be examined with a critical eye.


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It should be noted that the sequence of runic pedagogy that comprises thirteen of the poem’s thirty-seven strophes is seemingly not integral to the narrative that runs throughout the Sigurðr cycle: the hero is not mentioned by name during the catalogue of advice, and at no point does he put into practice the runic advice he is vouchsafed here. This catalogue of uses for runes which begins with the charming of the mead in st. 5 and transitions to a series of gnomic statements from st. 20 could, therefore, be understood as traditional rune lore that has been shoehorned into the Sigurðr narrative.29 The context in which such material would originally have circulated is impossible to reconstruct with any certainty, but several critics have noted the affinity of the runic advice to the mythical-gnomic wisdom dealt with in Chapter 5 in this volume,30 McKinnell suggesting that Sigrdrífumál shows ‘some signs of rather late composition’, and that it betrays the influence of Óðinn’s self-sacrifice for runic knowledge in Hávamál.31 However, whilst the runic section of Sigrdrífumál is not essential to the narrative sequence, it does mark an important moment in the symbolic initiation of the hero into sacred knowledge, perhaps demonstrating the continued favour Sigurðr enjoys from Óðinn – the great accumulator of arcane lore – and perhaps serving to bridge the gap between the mythical world of runic origins discussed in Chapter 5 and the benefits of runic knowledge to humankind. Sigurðr’s pursuit of both practical and numinous knowledge is not out of character either, coming as it does after the exchange of wisdom in Fáfnismál and his acquisition of the ability to understand the speech of birds. It is certainly interesting that runes play such a prominent role in this catalogue of what is most necessary for the ‘maple-tree of keen weapons’ (st. 20) to know, and on a conceptual level this may be due as much to the superiority of the written word in preserving and fixing knowledge (as well as the influence of a literate mentality interpreting received traditions) as it is to do with the perceived magic power of runes. The first reference to the script in the poem is to runes used in the enchanting of beer, a drink that is not only ‘magni blandinn oc megintíri’ (‘blended with magic and great glory’), but it is also said to be full of ‘lióða oc líknstafa / góðra galdra ok gamanrúna’ (‘spells and healing letters, good charms and runes of pleasure’) (st. 5).32 This seems to me to represent a series of vague allusions to the potency of the drink rather than a reconstruction of a genuine runic charm, although the runes may have an important conceptual role to play. As Quinn points out, the conceptualisation of knowledge as a liquid is common throughout the Eddic corpus, along with the idea of a drink which can have a ‘transformative effect on the verbal powers of the recipient’ or conversely make them forget that which they know.33 In this particular case we see the meeting of oral and literate traditions: the material technology of writing is dissolved into the traditional conception of knowledge as liquid to create an ‘emulsion’ which ‘has the power to instil the benefits of the valkyrie’s recitation into the drinker’s memory’.34 We may want to imagine

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the written runes as somehow playing into the idea of inscribing or making permanent the knowledge that is proffered: playing a symbolic role in fixing the advice. Whilst this meeting of letters with an avowedly ‘oral’ conception of knowledge-transfer might suggest a relatively early date for this strophe, we have to be aware of the possibility that a later redactor may have blended runes and beer in this stanza to provide a segue between the narrative of Sigrdrífa (and the proffering of a memory drink to the hero) and the catalogue of uses for runes that follows. The account that comprises stanzas 6–19 of the poem, listing various rune types, is more specific as to the application and effect of the characters, and it is at this point that I think we can start making certain tentative comparisons with the runic tradition proper. The treatment of runes in Sigrdrífumál may be broken down into individual categories ranging from victory runes to speech runes; followed by the myth of the appropriation of the runes; the catalogue of twenty-four situations in which runes can be carved (apparently related by Mímir’s head); and a final summary which introduces a few further rune types. It is worth noting that whilst the majority of these categories of runes are mentioned only in this poem, gamanrúnar are referred to Hávamál sts 120 and 130, and a sixth- or seventh-century inscription from Björketorp in Sweden (DR 360) makes reference to ginnrúnar (‘runes of power’), suggesting that the designation of particular rune types was not itself a late development. The following analysis will treat the rune types in the order they appear in the poem, paying particular attention to the intriguing concepts of ‘victory runes’ and ‘ale runes’. Victory runes and weapon inscriptions Sigrúnar þú skalt kunna, ef þú vilt sigr hafa, ok rísta á hialti hiǫrs, sumar á véttrimom, sumar á valbǫstom oc nefna tysvar Tý’

(Sigrdrífumál, st. 6) [Victory runes you should know, if you want to have victory, and carve them on the sword hilt, some on the blade-ridge of the sword and some on the flat parts, and name Týr twice.] Victory runes are one rune type mentioned in the poem that has at least some basis in the early use of the script. The tradition of inscribing weapons with runes was evidently practiced during the Migration Period: Looijenga lists eleven weapons or weapon-parts in her Continental corpus, the third most common runic object after the bracteates and brooches,35 whilst Runenprojekt Kiel lists forty-four older fuþark inscriptions on weapons (including defensive weapons such as shields). Even allowing for the fact that weapons are more likely to be preserved in the ritual deposits that have furnished us


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with many of the oldest inscriptions, they clearly represent a significant class of inscribed objects from the Migration Period. It is unclear exactly which part of the sword the term valbǫst refers to, but the carving of runes on the hilt, blade and scabbard of a sword all have archaeological precedents. Three of the finds from the deposit of military equipment in Vimose bog in Denmark include a third-century sword-chape (DR 205) which refers explicitly to the blade itself,36 a sheath-mount (DR 207A)37 and an inscribed spearhead (DR MS1995;334B).38 The fact that several runic spearheads survive from an early period is interesting in light of the reference later in Sigrdrífumál to engraving runes ‘á Gungnis oddi’ (‘on the point of Gungnir [Óðinn’s spear]’) (st. 17). There are a number of spearheads dating from the second to the fourth century which are engraved á oddi: some of these even seem to refer to the name or characteristic of the weapon, and inscriptions such as the Øvre Stabu spear (KJ 31), which has raunija(z) meaning ‘tester / trier’, were perhaps intended to enhance the weapon’s efficacy. Amongst the small corpus of Gothic inscriptions, the Dahmsdorf-Müncheberg lance (KJ 32) has the inscription ranja clearly marked, meaning ‘router’ or ‘thruster’, whilst the early third-century Kovel spearhead (KJ 33) reads tilarids, meaning ‘thither-rider’, perhaps referring to the flight of the thrown spear.39 Indeed, if we group these together with the Mos spearhead from Gotland (G 269) with its inscription gaois ‘barker?’ as Harris suggests, ‘then four of Krause’s five early lance heads are engraved with agent nouns of threatening import’.40 Whether or not these are to be regarded as ‘victory runes’, the fact that operative inscriptions are found on a weapon type mentioned in the poem raises the possibility that we are dealing with a reflex of early runic practice. The reference to inscribing runes on shields in st. 15 of Sigrdrífumál is also applicable to inscriptions from the Migration Period. Three shield-mount inscriptions were discovered in a single weapon deposit at Illerup bog, dated to 150–350 AD, and although these seem to be of the prosaic maker’s mark / owner’s name variety,41 the inscription aisgzh on the Thorsberg shield-boss (DR 8), dated to the third century, may use the h-rune logographically to mean hagalas (‘of hail’), Antonsen suggesting the reading aisgz h, ‘Challenger of the hail [i.e. of spears and arrows]’.42 Whilst there is no invocation of victory in this inscription, there is a clear conceptual overlap between a weapon given a name that stresses its efficacy in combat and the notion of runes carved to ensure success in battle. Perhaps the closest we get to a weapon inscription explicitly connected to a dedication for victory in battle occurs on a third-century sword-chape from Vimose (DR 205), interpreted by Looijenga as reading ‘may the lake have Aala sword’ and referring to a war-booty offering; here it is presumably engraved and dedicated after the victory has taken place.43 The poem mentions the naming of Týr in connection with victory runes, and it is unclear whether this is simply a two-fold invocation to the god to bless the blade, or if the rune named Týr is imagined as being carved. Simek’s

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assertion that ‘in Migration Age runic inscriptions . . . the T-rune frequently appears as a sign of magical significance’44 perhaps slightly overstates the case, but it is true that a stacked or repeating *tīwaz rune does occur in several older fuþark inscriptions, probably as a repeated invocation of the god of war.45 However, few of these t-runes actually occur on weapons, and the nearest approximation of this practice amongst the earliest inscriptions is a twice repeated t-rune on another sword-chape from Vimose, reading . . . / ttnþ (DR MS1995;334A). This does not seem to represent a phonetically oriented inscription, and might conceivably be said to agree with the pronouncement to ‘nefna tysvar Tý’ (‘name Týr twice’) in the poem, but it hardly provides compelling evidence for the real-world application of the advice in Sígrdrifumál. If we widen our gaze to include Migration Period inscriptions from early Anglo-Saxon England, however, we come across a number of sword fittings inscribed with runes, including the sixth-century Chessell Down scabbard plate with its largely unintelligible inscription, and the Ash-Gilton sword pommel, which may even include OE sige (‘victory’) as part of a name element in an otherwise garbled inscription.46 Most intriguingly of all, we have a late-sixth century sword pommel from Faversham ‘on each of the two sides of which occurs the pattern ǀtǀ engraved and blackened with niello’.47 Although there are a number of objects where this shape seems to occur as part of a decorative pattern, including on the Holborough spear, in this particular case Page acknowledges that there is a ‘remarkable coincidence’ between the two-fold cutting and the ‘two-fold invocation to Týr for victory in the Scandinavian poem’.48 Where might such a ‘remarkable coincidence’ between runic practice in sixth-century England and medieval Icelandic poetry depicting Germanic legendary history leave us? We might conceivably be dealing with reconstructed knowledge of inscriptions from the Migration Period based on weapons engraved with maker’s or owner’s marks from later periods, yet this would not explain the specific reference to the two-fold invocation of Týr. It is also possible that the idea of weapons inscribed with Týr could be a back-formation based on the name of the rune and the god’s association with war – a reasonable conjecture about early runic practice, in other words. The poem’s apparent accuracy with regard to the parts of weapons that were engraved could similarly represent an educated guess: the apparent specificity of the constructions véttrim and valbǫst might well result from the demands of alliteration, as von See et al. suggest,49 whilst the blade and hilt of a sword are obvious places to imagine runes being carved. However, perhaps the most plausible explanation is that some reflex of Migration Period practice was encoded in the poetic idiom, and was transmitted along with other more-or-less authentic details about the heroic society depicted in the poem. This is one of those rare and unsettling moments where poetic abstraction and historical practice seem to coincide, leading us to wonder what else amongst this strange ‘index of magical possibilities’,50 might also


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represent a distorted echo of lost traditions. Such connections are, however, never straightforward, as demonstrated by the following curious association between beer, leeks and runic amulets.

Ale runes and the alu formula Ǫlrúnar scaltu kunna, ef þú vill, annars qvæn vélit þic í trygð, ef þú trúir; á horni scal þær rísta oc á handar baki oc merkia á nagli Nauð. (Sígrdrifumál, st. 7)

[Ale runes you should know, if you don’t want another’s wife to deceive you in your trust, if you have faith; they should be cut on the horn and on the back of the hands, and nauð marked on the nail.] The reference to ǫlrúnar in this poem is one of the few places where Migration Period practice and medieval poetry have consistently been used to inform one another, with misleading results. Specifically, a connection is often made between this category of ale runes and a formula word alu, seemingly exclusive to early inscriptions, and found on weapons, stones, ceramics and a significant number of gold bracteates.51 The only things that can be said for certain about this formula word are that, first, it was used across a wide geographical area during the Migration Period, and second, that it bears a significance beyond that of an everyday appellation. Whilst the common connection of alu with ON ǫl, OE ealu, PDE ‘ale’ has often been contested, most recently in studies by Markey52 and Mees,53 none of the alternatives have as yet found a consensus of acceptance amongst scholars.54 Suggestions include Polomé’s connection of the term with Hittite alwanzahh (‘to bewitch’) and Greek aluein (‘to be beside oneself’);55 the contention that it relates to the precious mineral alum;56 and Mees’s suggestion that the curiously uninflected word may represent a dedicatory term borrowed originally from Rhaetic and meaning something along the lines of ‘written dedication that brings luck’.57 Most recently, Zimmerman has reassessed the semantic disconnect between alu as an amuletic formula and ON ǫl (‘ale’) and stressed the link between beer and gift-giving in a ritualised drinking culture.58 But whatever the anthropological basis for connecting intoxication with either ritual or gift-giving, it is certain that the course of philological enquiry has been profoundly influenced by the references to ‘ale runes’ in Sigrdrífumál. What is seldom pointed out in the many allusions made to the poem is that there is actually a fundamental disparity between the conception and function of ǫlrúnar in Sigrdrífumál, and the connections made between ale and ritual with regards to the alu formula.

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It stands to reason that the term ǫlrúnar used in the poem should be read in the context of such compounds as limrúnar and biargrúnar alongside which it is found, all appellations which make reference to a particular target or effect of the operations of runes. ‘Ale runes’ are so named because of their connection with protecting or affecting the drinking horn, just as brimrúnar are connected with protection at sea and sigrúnar with victory. Looijenga’s assertion that ǫlrúnar should not be translated as ‘ale runes’, but rather be understood to refer to ‘the actual writing in runes of the formulaic word alu’ seems to overlook this poetic convention.59 It is true that there is a more sustained preoccupation with ǫlrúnar in the poem than with most other types of rune, and there is a confusing reference to ‘allar ǫlrúnar’ later in Sigrdrífumál which suggests that this is a blanket designation for various sub-genres of runes and formulas applicable to a wider frame of reference.60 However, this might be accounted for by the fact that runes are portrayed as having a variety of different operations with regard to drink in Old Norse literature, the protagonist of Egils saga revealing poisoned drink with his runes, but the runes on the horn proffered to the heroine in Guðrúnarkviða II apparently intended to enhance its ability to obliterate painful memories. In all cases the primary referent of these ale runes is to the drinking vessel, and it is surely this particular operation that gives them their name in the poem. This observation is important in distinguishing the poetic tradition from the world of epigraphy. If the runic formula alu did derive from the word for beer (for whatever reasons), in the world of runic inscriptions it seems to have had a much wider frame of reference only indirectly connected to ale, found on objects such as arrowheads, a comb and a cremation urn. In contrast, the concept of ǫlrúnar in the poetry seems to trace its descent from the very particular application of runes in protecting the drinking vessel. As McKinnell et al. point out, even if ǫlrúnar is linked to alu etymologically ‘it does not prove that this interpretation was the original one’, and the development of a category of ‘ale runes’ may well represent a medieval misreading of earlier runic traditions.61 Ale runes are associated in the poem with preventing beguilement by another’s wife, an application not immediately associated with drink. However, whether read in light of the poisoning of Sinfiǫtli by Borghildr earlier in the legendary cycle, or referencing a generic association between women and cup-bearing in the Germanic tradition, the connection between beer and beguilement by ‘another’s wife’ is not that difficult to reconstruct. There is ample evidence to suggest that a central role performed by noble women in Germanic societies was the offering of a ceremonial cup or drinking horn to guests: the cultural significance of this role evinced, for example, by the kennings for ‘woman’ that refer exclusively to this ritual, and with Sigrdrífa herself portrayed on the eleventh-century Drävle Stone (U 1163) offering a horn to Sigurðr. In a highly ritualised and formal environment, the proffered horn would be difficult to refuse and the damaging consequences of


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drinking are outlined in no uncertain terms later in Sigrdrífumál, ale and songs characterised as ‘sumom at bana, sumom at bǫlstǫfom’ (‘killers of some, calamity for some’) (st. 30). In addition to Borghildr’s poisoning of Sinfiǫtli, Queen Gunnhild is also instrumental in the attempt to poison the hero of Egils saga, and Guðrún distorts this role in the most macabre manner in Atlakviða in grœnlenzka, the poet punning on her approaching Atli with a drink mixed with his children’s blood ‘at reifa giǫld rǫgnis’ (‘to render the prince his reward’) (st. 33). A great deal could be written about the exploitation of this central role by women marginalised in other ways from the heroic comitatus (or, indeed, exaggerated anxieties about this role amongst male authors), but it suffices here to recognise that the connection of ǫlrunar with beguilement by women probably stems from the role of ‘another’s wife’ in Germanic drinking culture. The application of runes to prevent such beguilement is fairly straightforward, the poet telling us ‘á horni scal þær rísta oc á handar baki / oc merkia á nagli Nauð’ (‘they should be cut on the horn and on the back of the hands, and nauð marked on the nail’) (st. 7). Interestingly, rather than being marked on the palm, as might be expected for a charm that worked privately, the rune is to be marked ‘á handar baki’: on display, and out of contact with the drink itself. If this is indeed a genuine tradition, one might speculate that the efficacy of this particular application arose from an outward demonstration that the drinker was prepared for mischief! The reference in the poem Guðrúnarkviða II to the carving of runes on a horn is similarly outlandish, the poet telling us: ‘Vóro í horni hvers kyns stafir / ristnir oc roðnir – raða ec ne máttac’ (‘There were in the horn various kinds of runes carved and reddened – I could not read them’) (st. 22). At least here the runes are confined to the horn itself, and as we saw in the discussion of the crimson letters in the OE Daniel, the idea of reddened runes is not, in itself, that sensationalist, or necessarily a late development. Indeed, it may be significant that the verb often used to refer to writing runes in early inscriptions is *faihijan (originally meaning ‘paint’ or ‘colour’).62 As for the historicity or otherwise of either reference, it is very hard to determine. Bone was a material that was regularly carved upon in all periods, and we have some evidence of runes carved on drinking horns. Most of these are medieval, however, and simply name the owner or maker,63 but there is a very early bronze fitting from a drinking horn found at Illerup alongside a number of inscribed weapons (DR MS1995;339), which provides some evidence that drinking horns were considered suitable objects to bear runic inscriptions. There is also the famous example of runes carved on one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus (DR 12), although this inscription was almost certainly of the prosaic craftsman’s signature variety.64 The most compelling candidate for a protective sequence occurs on a medieval horn from Hamarøy in Norway (N 538), reading rooo: this is certainly nonsense, although whether a protective variety of nonsense, it is impossible to tell. If we take Guðrún’s statement that ‘raða ec ne máttac’ (‘I could not

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read them’) (st. 22) at face value, it might gesture towards to unintelligible sequences of runes – a category that appears frequently in the corpus of older fuþark runes – but it may equally reflect an Icelander’s own attitude to a tradition which they had difficulty reconstructing. The incising of a nail does not seem too farfetched; it represents, after all, the same material as the horn, but the reference to runes carved on the back of the hand, and later on the palms (st. 9) is perplexing. Did the poet envisage that they were incised, and drew blood, or were they simply to be painted on the skin? Either way, this is not an application that would leave any evidence and it is not wise to speculate on whether this ‘advice’ was ever acted upon. The rune to be inscribed on the nail is at least specified, as nauð, and what little we know about this rune comes from the rune poems discussed in Chapter 3. The association is a negative one, as you would expect from the name, which Cleasby and Vigfússon define first of all as ‘need, difficulty or distress’, with the secondary meanings of ‘bondage’ (as in ‘seldr i nauð’, or nauð-kván; an ‘unwilling wife’) and ‘labour, of women’.65 This semantic range is unified by the word’s generic association with constraint, McKinnell et al. suggesting its secondary meaning may have been ‘strong (sexual) compulsion’.66 There is perhaps a further nuance to the poetic associations of this rune discernible in the Icelandic Rune Poem, which refers to nauð as ‘þyjar þrá’ (‘suffering /constraint of the bondswoman’).67 Unlike the Norwegian poem, which refers to the need of a naked man, and the Old English poem which talks in general terms of the constraint of ‘niþa bearnum’ (‘the children of men’) (l. 27) the earliest manuscripts of the Icelandic poem very pointedly refer to nauð in terms of female enslavement. Do we have here another rune name, like þurs, that carried poetic associations particular to women? It is perhaps interesting that in their discussion of this term McKinnell et al. suggest this sexual aspect of nauð, ‘referring particularly to the sexual dependence of a woman’ most likely ‘arose only during the high Middle Ages’,68 perhaps indicating that its use to constrain the mead-bearing woman in this poem is a late association. That said, the nauð rune does appear occasionally in repeated sequence in inscriptions, some of them quite early. Reference is made to níu nauðr (‘nine nauðs’) to combat sickness (envisaged as wolves) on the eleventh-century Sigtuna Amulet (U Fv1933;134), which may be conceived of as nine nauð runes, a phrase repeated on the Ribe Healing Stick (DR EM1985;493), dating to c. 1300. Von See et al. also mention an early inscription on an animal bone which consists of a thrice-repeated n-rune (ᚾ).69 Here they are referring to the much-discussed Lindholm Amulet (DR 261), a shaped bone of the fifth or early sixth century with a clear cultic significance, which includes a repeated sequence of nauð runes in an inscription by a ‘crafty eril’, and which ends with the charm word alu. Even the ever-sceptical Bæksted concedes that this inscription must have a magical import.70 There may, therefore, be some evidence for a tradition of sorts from the earliest period of runic writing in which the nauð rune was carved for magical/coercive ends,


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and even in connection with the word alu. Whether or not this tradition survived independently of the poems and was reintegrated with the heroic material in medieval Iceland, it does seem to be based on the echoes of traditional rune lore.

Ale runes and laukr Full scal signa oc við fári siá oc verpa lauki í lǫg: þá ec þat veit, at þér verðr aldri meinblandinn miǫðr. (Sigrdrífumál, st. 8)

[The full cup should be signed over, and protected against mischief, and a leek thrown into the drink, though I know this: that for you there will never be mead blended with harmful intent.] The signing over or consecration of a cup is another vague reference to what may again have been a superstitious means of preventing poisoning,71 and brings us to the rather complex issue of the leek’s role in this maddeningly suggestive blend of runic tradition and literary reconstruction. As mentioned in the discussion of alu, the poisoning or drugging of drink is a reoccurring theme in the heroic lays. Most memorable is the scene in Vǫlsunga saga and the prose summary of the death of Sinfiǫtli, Frá dauða Sinfiǫtla, which relates how Borghildr poisons Sinfiǫtli in revenge for the death of her brother. The hero realises his drink has been spiked but is honour-bound to drink it after his father taunts him and offers that memorable nugget of paternal wisdom ‘Lát grǫn siá, sonr’ (‘Let your moustache strain it, son!’)72 Sigrdrífa’s runic instruction provides the more sensible advice that the cup should be ‘við fári siá’ (‘protected against mischief’) (st. 8); the advice that laukr, or ‘leek’, should be thrown in the mix (st. 8) probably represents another homely piece of wisdom, albeit approximate in its efficacy to straining poison through the moustache. Laukr seems to have been a blanket designation for members of the Allium family, including onion and leek, as well as garlic. These pungent vegetables have been invested with protective properties by many cultures, and in Old Norse literature the leek in particular has great symbolic import, sometimes standing in for vegetation in general, as in Vǫluspá,73 and as testified by the designation laukagarðr for a monastic ‘herb-garden’.74 Sometimes it appears to symbolise virility, as in the reference to Sigurðr standing out from his peers in Guðrúnarkviða II like ‘grœn laukr ór grasi vaxinn’ (‘a green leek grown up from the grass’) (st. 2).75 Perhaps because of its phallic appearance, a connection exploited by the delightfully suggestive Exeter Book Riddle 25(23), the leek also seems to serve as a symbol of fertility, and to be exploited as a charm word in some circumstances. Macleod and Mees suggest that the short Icelandic tale Vǫlsa

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þáttr, in which linen and a leek are used to conserve and support a horse’s penis, preserves a fetish about the leek which conveys ‘a general sense of fertility’,76 but Simek points out that ‘in this particular case the leek would appear to have been used as an antiseptic . . . and the linen as a bandage’,77 reminding us that the leek also held a practical medicinal value. As McKinnell et al. point out, although the supposed anti-venom property of garlic is an obvious fallacy, members of the allium family were also used to ‘treat all sorts of fractures, ruptures, swellings and inflammation of limbs’,78 and there is actually some medical basis for using garlic as an antimicrobial.79 As for the close connection between leeks and beer, we can draw on the rather prosaic association made in the anonymous eleventh-century skaldic poem known as Sveinsflokkr. Here the homely serving of ‘lauk eðr ǫl’ (‘leek and ale’) is used as a pointed contrast to the extraordinary bloody Sunday morning encounter between Tryggvi Óláfsson and Sveinn Álfífuson,80 suggesting that ‘lauk eðr ǫl’ was a rather common and homely combination.81 There is, therefore, some precedent for the unlikely partnership of pungent laukr and ale, the last example cited here suggesting its routine use. There is certainly nothing sexual or ‘productive’ about putting a laukr in a drink, and this is one place in the Eddic poems where we could leave the reference alone as a diverting piece of pseudo-medical wisdom about sterilising beer, if it were not for evidence of a connection with laukr in the world of rune carving. There are a number of runic inscriptions, almost exclusively bracteates from the Migration Period,82 that refer to laukaz, either as a term standing alone – as for example in the case of the Års bracteate (IK 8) – or in combination with other meaningful words or elusive sequences of characters.83 Looijenga lists a total of fifteen bracteates which feature laukaz or an abbreviation of this word, with two more uncertain cases.84 The prevalence of the ‘leek’ formula suggests it was a popular protective word, similar to the sequence alu, alongside which it is found in a number of inscriptions (see Figure 4.1).85 The term is also found in abbreviated form, such as on the Hammenhög bracteate (IK 267) and with letters inverted on LyngeGyde (IK 298). It is less clear whether ᛚ standing alone, as in Nebenstedt I (IK 128), or in a repeated sequence, as with the Fyn II bracteate (IK 249), can be regarded as an abbreviation of this formula, or indeed whether the rune was ever named laukaz. However, it is safer to assume that laukaz functions in the same vein as alu: a word with superstitious import written in runes, rather than as a concept associated with any single rune. It is worth noting in this connection the fact that a later strophe of Sigrdrífumál also refers to the carving of runes ‘á gulli oc á gumna heillom’ (‘on gold and on the amulets of men’) (st. 17), which we might further associate with the gold bracteates of the Migration Period, of which more than one thousand have been found, including more than two hundred with inscriptions.86 A further hint that the rune lore recorded in this poem may be obliquely referring to these gold amulets and their formula words comes in the form of another reference to the categories of ǫlrunar (as well as bjargrúnar,


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Figure 4.1 Fragmentary sixth-century Bracteate from Skrydstrup, South Jutland (IK 166) including the formula words lauk=az and alu Source: © National Museum of Denmark.

meginrúnar and bókrúnar/bótrúnar), which it is suggested can be made use of by those who at heillom hafa (‘have them on amulets’) in unerring and unspoiled form (st. 19). If the reference to writing runes á gumna heillom is indeed an oblique reflex of bracteate inscriptions containing runic formula words such as alu and laukaz, it might even suggest that this material originates from the relatively short period in which bracteates with these formulas were produced – namely from the groups H2 and H3, which Axboe dates from c. 475 to c. 525.87 The central question here is whether we read the reference to leeks in ale in the rune lore of Sigrdrífumál in light of the early bracteate evidence, which suggests a cultic and, most importantly, runic connection, or whether we consider it to be an aside inspired by the context of poisoned drink and coming from a pseudo-medicinal frame of reference. This seemingly peripheral question actually has consequences for dating (and even locating) the material of the poem, as this particular charm word appears only in Scandinavia, with the youngest laukaz inscription dating to the early sixth century – broadly coeval with the society depicted in the poems.88 In light of the connections between victory runes and weapon inscriptions discussed earlier, it is not impossible that we are dealing with the largely uncorrupted transmission of rune lore from the Migration Period. However, we have seen that the connection between leeks and beer existed without reference to runes, and that there is a tradition of connecting runes with drinking horns elsewhere in the literature. The fact that these three elements – runes, ǫl and laukr – all having a connection to bracteates, should come to be entangled

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in Sigrdrífumál is not necessarily an indication that the poem and the runic advice it contains survives intact from the earliest period of runic writing. The fortuitous link with early practice might have been arrived at by an Icelandic poet attempting to create his own heady blend of rune lore through the imaginative reconstruction of fragmented traditions. From sea runes to speech runes Whilst the analysis so far has focused on possible links with runic practice in the Migration Period, the majority of rune types in the poem are difficult to associate with any particular era of runic writing, and on occasion may be best characterised as projections of medieval runic practice onto the distant past, with the material embellished in the same way as the largerthan-life heroes of the narrative. The brimrúnar (‘sea runes’) to be carved ‘á stafni’ (‘on the prow’), ‘á stiórnar blaði’ (‘on the rudder’) and ‘leggia eld í ár’ (‘set with fire into the oar’) (st. 10) represent just such a plausible – if slightly outlandish – category, with some literary and runic analogues. There is a reference to an oar inscribed with verses in the longer version of Flóamanna saga,89 and reference made by the seventeenth-century bishop Þórður Þorláksson, author of Grønlands Beskrivelse, to a rune-inscribed oar that washed up in Greenland.90 More reliably, a runic inscription from Bryggen in Bergen dated to c. 1332 (N B249) seems to be written on what Liestøl et al. refer to as a miniature oar.91 In these cases, the runes are used to relay information rather than representing protective symbols (both the oar described in Flóamanna saga and the miniature oar from Byggen in Bergen relate skaldic verses, the former explicitly referring to rowing and the sore hands that resulted). In contrast, the idea of burning the letters into the wood in Sigrdrífumál probably represents a poetic counter-balance to the water the oar will be contending with, and suggests literary abstraction. It is a curious fact that the name of the rune ár in the younger fuþark (taken to mean ‘year, fertile season’ in the Norwegian Rune Poem) is a homonym for ‘oar’ or ‘rudder’ in both Old Norse and Old English.92 Perhaps the idea of a category involving rune-inscribed oars was inspired by the name of the tenth rune, or indeed by the so-called skiprúnar, a variety of cryptic runes that seem to have been popular in medieval Iceland.93 As with all these poetic categories, the lack of evidence for the carving (or burning) of runes on oars does not prove that they were not used in this connection in the Migration Period, but contemporary Icelandic notions about the script may also have been projected back into the heroic past. It is almost impossible to assess the venerability of the rune lore in Sts 9, 11, and 12, progressing, as Larrington suggests, ‘to a more abstract kind of rune’, and dealing variously with biargrúnar, limrúnar, málrunar and hugrúnar.94 St. 9 presents us with a bodily engraving similar to those envisaged as being operative against beguilement, this time in relation to childbirth. The marking of the midwife’s palms presumably allows the rune to be


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in contact with the newborn, but what the significance of the clasping of the liðo (‘joints of the body’), refers to is unclear. The handling of the baby to determine foetal birth injuries involving mechanical trauma may well have been a practical procedure, but such interventions would have been of limited scope, and it is not surprising that after recourse is made to experienced hands, a prayer is then to be offered to the dísir (st. 9). A late-fourteenthcentury rune-stick from Bryggen in Bergen (N 631) is inscribed with a Latin charm and is also probably intended to assist with a difficult birth, appealing in this case to the mothers Mary and Elizabeth, and perhaps representing a Christianised version of these biargrúnar.95 Such practices probably have their origin in earlier Germanic traditions, but there is no firm evidence of the use of runes in such a connection before the Medieval Period. The category of limrúnar similarly relies on deferral of healing to another living being, in this case the tree of the wood ‘þeim er lúta austr limar’ (‘whose branches bend east’) (st. 11), a practice Hollander refers to as ‘sympathetic magic’.96 The use of runic inscriptions in association with healing certainly predates the copying of the Eddic poems; reference is made to lifrúnar and bótrúnar on an eleventh century copper plate from Skänninge (Ög NOR2001;32), whilst Sigtuna has provided us with an eleventhcentury copper amulet containing an elaborate curse against wound-fever and the ‘þursa drottin’ (U Fv1933;134) as well as a rib-bone from c. 1100 (U NOR1998;25) which seems to refer again to fighting riðu (‘fever’), and according to MacLeod and Mees at least, to ‘fucking’ the sorcerer involved.97 The Canterbury Rune Charm ‘viðr œðravari’ (‘against blood-vessel pus’) dates from roughly the same period, whilst numerous inscriptions from the later Medieval Period refer to healing, often with a clear Christian dimension.98 The concept of runes used in healing charms is thus well established in the epigraphical corpus, but what these few examples make clear is that the conceit of healing runes existed throughout Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia, and was not by any means particular to early runic sensibilities. If the reference to limrúnar is difficult to associate with any period in particular, the reference to málrúnar (‘speech runes’) which follows may be more applicable to medieval Scandinavia. The term málrúnar occurs in the heading to a number of late versions of the Icelandic Rune Poem, presumably referring to the mnemonic function of these verses.99 It is also used in a single inscription (DR Til5), found at Lund in Denmark and dating from perhaps as early as the late eleventh century. This inscription can be normalised as Bóndi risti málrúnu, árar ara eru fjaðrar (‘Bóndi carved runes of speech, eagle’s oars are the feathers’), and the association with expounding a kenning may further hint at the poetic or elucidatory nature of the term málrúnar. Such ‘spoken runes’ may be envisaged here in Sigrdrífumál as runes which somehow invest the user with preternatural eloquence, drawing inspiration from the reference to carving runes on Bragi’s tongue in st. 16. This would correspond with their use in Guðrúnarkviða I, where the term seems to refer to the protagonist’s unlocking of her (rather extensive)

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word-hoard (st. 23). However, the reference could also be rather prosaic, in line with the later use of the word in Icelandic to refer to ‘plain-language runes’:100 that is, referring to a communicative sphere in which the weaving and placements of words was highly regarded.101 This sphere of operation is specified as ‘þingi, er þióðir scolo / í fulla dóma fara’ (‘the assembly, where people must go in full judgement’), an apparent reference to the procedures of a court hearing.102 Although the þing itself almost certainly has early roots,103 early inscriptions rarely have any legal or inheritance function,104 unlike the numerous Viking Age inscriptions which often appear to document inheritance claims and property ownership,105 and the characterisation of speech runes by reference to legal proceedings may suggest a conflation of later uses of literacy with the legendary heroic world of the poem. Mímir’s runic catalogue Á scildi qvað ristnar, þeim er stendr fyr scínanda á eyra Árvacrs oc á Alsvinnz hófi . . . (Sigrdrífumál, sts 15/1–2)

[On a shield [he] pronounces them cut, that which stands before the shining one; on the ear of Arvakr and on Alsvinnr’s hoof . . .] Following a brief reference to hugrúnar, an abstract concept of ‘mind-runes’, the poem moves into the myth of Hroptr and Mímir’s head. This runic sequence – which is in fornyrðislag metre, and metrically distinct from the majority of the poem – presents a veritable catalogue of runic abstractions, ranging from the near-plausible to the grotesque, although whether sts 13/3 to 18 represent a complete sequence borrowed from elsewhere or a further collation of disparate sources is unclear. Added to the category of conceivable uses of runes might be those carved on the wheel of a chariot, the hoof of a horse, on an animal’s tooth, claw or beak, on the harness or strap band, on the arch of the bridge and seat-back and of course ‘á gleri oc á gulli oc á gumna heillom’ (‘on glass and on gold and on the amulets of men’) (st. 17), a reference discussed earlier. The reference to carving ‘á brúar sporði’ (‘on the end of a bridge’) (st. 16) may also be of interest, due to the connection between writing runes and raising a bridge in Viking Age memorial contexts. The building of a bridge was a charitable act that benefited the community, as well as representing the passage of the soul to heaven, and a number of rune stones refer to the construction of a nearby brú, or ‘bridge’. If any connection can be drawn here, it might again point to Viking Age traditions influencing the poem, although Byock suggests the alternative that this particular image is ‘probably a reference to Bifrost’, a referent that would be in keeping with the mythological allusions throughout this sequence.106 As interesting as such indistinct points of connection are, it is hard to escape the manifestly picturesque nature of the catalogue as a whole. Indeed, as there


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is a clear mythological framework to sts 13–19, it is to be expected that at this point the runes should become most clearly poetic fabrications, such as the runes carved on the ears of Árvakr and the breast of Grani, as well as the thoroughly peculiar reference to runes carved on Sleipnir’s teeth.107 A number of images are clearly nothing more than abstractions, such as the carving of runes ‘í víni oc í virtri’ (‘in wine and in beer mash’) (st. 17) – another reference to runes on the drinking vessel perhaps – on bloodied wings (for which I can offer no explanation), and carved on Bragi’s tongue. Bragi, as characterised by Snorri, was the son of Óðinn and ‘ágætr at speki ok mest at málsnild ok orðfimi’ (‘famous for wisdom, and most of all for eloquence and his way with words’),108 and this reference obviously gestures towards his charmed tongue. Indeed, what becomes apparent from this list of carved objects is that the rune is more often than not simply associated with that which is most important or representative of the creature or material on which it is carved: the claw of the bear, the wheel of the chariot, the connecting point of the bridge to the land, the point of the spear, and so on. This is interesting in so much as it points to what was deemed essential about an object or character; it might suggest, for instance, that the rune-engraved ears of Árvakr had a certain importance in the complex of Old Norse myth that has been lost to us. The connection of the fingernail to the norns is also understandable if read in relation to the infant-releasing biargrúnar of st. 9, bearing in mind the reference in Fáfnismál to the direct role of the norns in childbirth.109 As guides to the actual uses of runes, however, none of these references appear to have much to recommend them, even though the fact that some of the animals concerned belong to a world of experience outside of Iceland might point to a relatively early date. These include references to the wolf, bear and owl, none of which are native to Iceland,110 although Hallberg is right that ‘such touchstones can only be used with the utmost care’.111 A more intrinsic piece of evidence for an early date, and one that should also be treated cautiously, is the fact that the twenty-four situations for carving related here seem to correspond to the twenty-four characters of the older fuþark.112 If this is more than just coincidence, it gestures towards a period in which the older alphabet was still in use, although it is clear that the twenty-four character system was still known about after the adoption of the younger fuþark, as evidenced by its use on the ninth-century Rök Stone.113 How long such knowledge persisted is unclear, but it is notable that the rune poems all refer to younger systems, and it would be to the sixteen-rune fuþark that a late development of this mythical sequence would surely refer. If it is an early catalogue, as I believe it is, we should probably understand it as an attempt to parallel the twenty-four characters of the older fuþark with twenty-four situations in which Óðinn recognised that runes could be carved, but without a clear correspondence between particular runes and individual objects. The point of including this list in Sigrdrífumál is obscure, but the poet probably considered it to be bound up with the initiation of the hero into mythical history. This list forms a mythical

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backdrop to the rune types previously described to Sigurðr – emphasising the notion that the effective uses of runes in the human world is paralleled in the pronouncements of Óðinn to the gods. Whilst this catalogue might represent one of the very oldest parts of the poem, it is also the part most clearly concerned with mythical abstraction and can thus tell us little about the realities of runic practice in the Migration Period, the one exception perhaps being the aforementioned amulets, the only object type explicitly associated with humankind.114 Indeed, it should be noted that there is a tacit recognition of the inappropriateness of certain of these rune types for human use even within the poem itself, the following strophe switching to the past tense, and relating the scattering and sharing out of runes amongst different beings: Allar vóro af scafnar, þær er vóro á ristnar, oc hverfðar við inn Helga miǫð oc sendar á víða vega. Þær ro með ásom, þær ro með álfom, sumar með vísom vǫnom, sumar hafa menzcir menn. (Sigrdrífumál, st. 18) [All were scraped off, those which were carved on, and stirred with the sacred mead, and sent about on disparate paths. They are amongst the Æsir, they are amongst the elves, some are with the wise Vanir, some with humankind.] This is an account of inception rather than of application: if we are to understand the preceding catalogue of twenty-four runes as being bound up with a conception of the script prior to distribution amongst gods, elves and men, then the poem is in fact signalling that many of them do not have a human referent. I take sts 13 to 18 to constitute a myth of runic transmission retold by Sigrdrífa (including a mythical precedent for her serving a memory drink blended with runes), and with the catalogue of runic carving representing a paraphrase of the ‘sanna stafi’ spoken by Mímir’s head. This would explain the otherwise awkward transition between tenses, and perhaps the slightly discordant recasting of certain tropes found elsewhere in the poem, such as hands which deliver infants and runes written on a fingernail. The fact that it seems to be paraphrased material with a mythical rather than a heroic referent may also account for the fact that it is not quoted in Vǫlsunga saga, even though the saga clearly betrays a ‘fascination with the mysticism of runes’ and includes the fifteen strophes of runic advice given to Sigurðr.115 Whether the originator of this utterance is configured as Sigrdrífa, the disembodied head or the shield itself does not alter the fact that this catalogue belongs to a preternatural frame of reference, explicitly signalling to the reader that this is mythical history rather than practical rune lore.


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Book runes, runes of power and the prerogative of speech The poet concludes the runic exposition in Sigrdrífumál with a summarising strophe, introducing various other categories of runes with the demonstrative þat. Here the concept of bókrúnar is introduced, a type which may represent ‘book runes’, but is probably a mistake for bótrúnar (‘healing runes’).116 If the first of these is indeed the intended meaning, then the reference is undoubtedly late as it must pertain to the runica manuscripta tradition: the earliest evidence of writing ‘book runes’ is from the eighth century. In this same passage we have another reference to allar ǫlrúnar, and similarly vague references to bjargrúnar (‘helping-runes’) and mætar meginrúnar (‘valuable power-runes’) (st. 19), followed by some prosaic advice about writing, in the same vein as the ráð rétt! formula and Egil’s admonishing of those who do evil through careless rune writing. The reference to mætar meginrúnar is paralleled in Grípisspá, in the prediction about what Sigrdrífa will teach the hero, but this confirms nothing except that Grípisspá is a late derivative poem which ‘seems to have been deliberately composed in the thirteenth century to serve as a framework for the poems that follow’.117 The runic section of Sigrdrífumál concludes with the direct address ‘Nú scaltu kiósa’ (‘now you must choose’) (st. 20), a challenge directed to the listening hero but also, by proxy, to the wider audience of the poem. The valkyrie offers a simple choice; ‘sǫgn eða þǫgn’ (‘speech or silence’) (st. 20). The hero answers, of course. Without the prerogative of speech and the ability to benefit from the sacred knowledge he has imbibed, he would be no properly functioning hero. After being taught húgrúnar and málrúnar Sigurðr is equipped with the necessary skills of cognition and eloquence, and is told ‘hafðu þér siálfr í hug!’ (‘you can make up your own mind!’) (st. 20). As recipients of this evocative poetic recasting of runic tradition we have the same prerogative as Sigurðr to be discerning about the way we read this rune lore. It is impossible to reconstruct the ‘disparate paths’ (st. 18) that this material took to reach us in the form it does in Sigrdrífumál, but we should perhaps not be surprised that amongst the poetic abstraction we find certain overlaps with runic practice from the earliest period, as well as reflexes of contemporary developments and sensibilities, telling us much about the agglomerative nature of the poems. Thus, whilst the material cannot be thought of as an accurate reflection of the rune lore that circulated during the Migration Period, neither does it represent a wholesale medieval fabrication of earlier traditions. Bearing in mind the poem’s consistent preoccupation with ale runes and with the ‘sacred mead’ as the medium of transmission of rune lore from the divine to human spheres, we might borrow an appropriate term from the brewing trade, and think of this patchwork of a poem as the end product of a lengthy process of decoction. Elements of early rune lore have been drawn off into separate contexts, blended with other traditions and developed ‘on disparate paths’, and eventually gathered together by a poet who was as much conservator as artificer, and who aimed to convey an authentic flavour of the heroic past.

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The ‘missing’ runes in Atlakviða A pair of poems that can perhaps help to contextualise the recasting of the runes taking place in Sigrdrífumál are the linked poetic treatments of the fateful invitation of Gunnar and Hǫgni to the court of King Atli in the poems Atlakviða and Atlamál in grœnlenzko. The first of these two poems – the only pair to deal with the very same narrative sequence in the Poetic Edda – is undoubtedly the earlier of the two, and perhaps one of the earliest of all the Eddic poems. Atlamál in grœnlenzko, however, represents a late reworking of the legend, and the compiler’s attribution of the poem to Greenland (first settled towards the end of the tenth century) finds support in the reference to a white bear in the dream sequence – a species common in Greenland, but unlikely to have reached Iceland unless as a caged curio.118 It is likely, if not certain, that the poet of Atlamál drew on Atlakviða in their treatment of the narrative, which relocates the dramatic action from a savage Continental landscape to a more domestic setting in which familial relationships play an increasingly important role, dreams are leisurely interpreted, a trembling slave is set free rather than brutally dissected and the court of Atli is simply described as a bú (‘farm’). These and other adaptations (including the reference to a polar bear) point to a composition date in the twelfth century, and suggest that the poem may have been reconditioned to speak to the realities of the Norse colonies.119 The adaptation that interests us here is a minor one, but with important implications for our understanding of the re-scripting taking place throughout the Poetic Edda. St. 8 of Atlakviða relates a subtle warning that Guðrún sends along with the delegation from Atli inviting to her brothers to come and share in the wealth and land of the Huns. The warning consists of a ring wrapped in the hair of a heiðingi (‘heath-dweller’, or ‘wolf’), and interestingly, whilst Gunnar correctly reads this as a warning that their road is wolfish, he still decides to depart on the journey ‘af moði stórum’ (‘for great spirit’) (st. 9). In Atlamál this spectacularly ineffective intervention by Guðrún is configured rather differently, with a runic message substituted for the wolf’s hair, and a miniature narrative of writing, defacement and interpretation introduced to the poem. This narrative takes its cue from the treacherous semiotics of the wolf-hair, but introduces a literate dimension: a runic warning written by Guðrún is intercepted by Atli’s messenger, Vingi, and distorted, perhaps changed to look like a summons, rather than a warning that the brothers will die if they take up the invitation.120 We also have the introduction of a cautious reader in the form of Hǫgni’s wife Kostbera, who spells out the letters of the inscription in the firelight (st. 9) and questions ‘hvat þá varð vitri, / er skyldi vilt rísta’ (‘how it came about that a wise one / should go astray in writing’) (st. 12). Kostbera, who has discerning knowledge of runes (st. 9) and understands the potential for written messages to be altered in transmission, concludes that either the literate Guðrún has missed out a letter, ‘eða valda aðrir’ (‘or this is the doing of others’) (st. 12), telling her imprudent husband that she has read the runes and uncovered the underlying missive


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that the journey will lead to ‘bani ykkarr beggja’ (‘the deaths of both of you’) (st. 12). Hǫgni brushes this aside as a woman’s fussing, and whilst in Atlakviða the brothers rise heroically to meet the implied challenge of the wolf-hair, here the hero is diminished by his pig-headed refusal to listen to the advice of his literate wife. Andersson suggests that this runic sub-plot is genuinely old, and posits a ‘lost north German or Saxon lay’ as a source for this alternative detail in the narrative.121 We should note that the engraving of a personal object such as ring (rather than, say, a rúnakefli) is consistent with runic practice in the Migration Period. However, there are several reasons to doubt the antiquity of this episode, not least the fact that there is nothing resembling a runic communiqué in the corpus of older fuþark inscriptions. Although it is not impossible that such formal correspondence in runes took place in the Migration Period, and that future additions to the relatively small corpus will change our impression of the types of literacy that were practiced, the representation of the script as a practical means of communication within a literate community does not ring true, either in the context of surviving older fuþark inscriptions or the rune lore presented elsewhere in the Edda. Furthermore, the introduction of the ‘human byplay’ of the defacement and attempted reading of the runes in a thoroughly domestic setting fits with the updating of the legendary narrative throughout the poem.122 It is likely that this plot detail thus represents a historically naïve adaptation which unintentionally reflects the realities of twelfth-century society: re-scripting the legendary past in light of contemporary runic sensibilities.123 If the runic sub-plot was indeed introduced in the process of modernising the Eddic narrative in Atlamál in grœnlenzko, we should perhaps consider whether the Norse colony of Greenland provides an appropriate context for such an adaptation. Around 170 inscriptions have been found from Greenland, and on a wide variety of objects, the earliest dating from the eleventh century. Although there are no runic communiqués represented amongst the corpus, Imer notes the preponderance of runes on portable domestic items, particularly objects associated with textile production.124 This comparably large corpus might be compared with the rather meagre collection of runes from Iceland, a tradition that for whatever reason ‘effectively begins in the thirteenth century’ and that may have been re-introduced from Norway.125 The naturalism of the narrative of runic communication in Atlamál (particularly when compared with the outlandish treatment of runes elsewhere in the Edda) almost certainly arises from the poem’s reworking in a society such as Greenland where runic writing was a form of everyday communication, and practiced within a rural community such as that represented in the poem. Greenland also developed several peculiarities in the use of runes that set it somewhat apart from its main trading partner, Norway. These include the distinctive Greenlandic u form, ü, as well as divergent r forms, whilst Greenlandic epigraphy also seems to be unique in largely eschewing the

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roman alphabet.126 Whilst these differences should not be overstated and we should understand runic writing in Greenland as ‘a normal means of communication within this whole Norse complex’,127 there were enough variants in place throughout the Norse colonies that we might imagine the issue of misreading long-distance communiqués such as those found at Bryggen in Bergen to have been of relevance.128 What is more, the runic episode in Atlamál seems to reflect the realities of a culture engaged in overseas transactions, a key change to the narrative of Atlakviða being that the brothers travel by boat to Atli’s court. All this makes the context of twelfth-century Greenland – completely reliant on overseas trade with Norway, with a flourishing culture of writing runes on portable objects and developing several local idiosyncrasies in the tradition of rune carving – seem particularly apposite to the development of this poetic dramatisation of defaced messages and careful reading.129 It is easy to imagine a scene in which a twelfth-century Kostbera puzzled over an inscription by the firelight in Gardar, trying to work out what a runic missive from the Western Settlement or from the Norwegian homeland meant, and not knowing if it was a poor rune carver, variants in standard practice or something more sinister that had confused the reading of the message. Of course, such a scenario is pure speculation: but the fact is that the introduction of this naturalistic scene of reading and writing to the legendary heroic narrative makes sense in the context of the North Atlantic littoral in a way that it does not in the landscape of the Migration Period. If the runic colouring in Atlamál is a late interpolation – whilst seeming to fit neatly with the material-cultural world of the heroic past – it should perhaps give us reason to question the antiquity of the rune lore recorded elsewhere in the Poetic Edda. What sets this reference apart is not necessarily its plausibility – it is feasible that runes were carved on a horn as in Guðrúnarkviða II, and that they were marked on the nails as in Sigrdrífumál – but rather that in Atlakviða we have a demonstrably older source with which to compare the runic episode in Atlamál, and a lack of evidence for runic communiqués from the period which it purports to represent. It highlights the fact that runic heritage could very easily be invented to be both plausible in a heroic setting and to accord with the concerns of the present, whether that involved an outlandish miasma of rune lore intended to evoke a legendary past, or the retrojection of everyday runic concerns onto the thrilling canvass of the Migration Period.

Conclusion The runic material recorded in Sigrdrífumál (along with brief references in Guðrúnarkviða II and Grípisspá) might be said to correspond broadly in historicity with the treatment of the semi-legendary characters that appear throughout the heroic corpus, such as Ermanaric, Attila, Theodoric and Gundahar. A period of time ‘half as long again’ as anything that can be


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envisaged separated the world of the legendary heroes from Icelandic society in the mind of the poet of Hamðismál, and this gulf allowed for the elevation of heroes to epic stature, and the re-contextualisation and distortion of the genuine traditions about runes that found their way into the legend. Through the fossilisation of certain poetic expressions and associations in the legendary cycle we encounter both ‘archaeological objects which would not necessarily have been known to the scribes’130 and more unsettling moments where the poet seems to have acted as a conduit for long superseded traditions, such as in the accurate depiction of runic engraved weapons, associations with laukaz known to us only through the obscure sequences of characters on bracteates and apparent reflections of a twenty-four character fuþark. Of course, the runic material has been overlaid in certain instances by a veneer of contemporary practice, of carvings on oars, of málrunar, even an error based on the use of runes as a book script in medieval Iceland. And yet, when compared with the obvious recasting of the runes in Atlamál, it is perhaps remarkable how little the rune lore presented elsewhere in the heroic cycle has taken on the colouring of medieval runic practice. Where, we might ask, are the homely or Christian objects in the catalogue of inscriptions in Sigrdrífumál, the communicative and transactional rune-sticks found in such abundance at Bryggen in Bergen,131 the memorial inscriptions that any travelled Icelander would surely be aware of? It is true that in thirteenth-century Iceland a poet might have been somewhat insulated from the runic tradition flourishing elsewhere in the Norse world, and might have taken more stock of received traditions and antiquarian lore than the living epigraphical tradition. Poets in Iceland may have been less inclined than the Greenlandic poet of Atlamál or the AngloSaxon poet of Beowulf to update received material to reflect contemporary perceptions of the script. However, the absence of typical medieval uses of runes amongst the rune lore in the Edda may have less to do with the desire to preserve distant traditions from the Migration Period, or with lack of knowledge of the flourishing runic tradition in other parts of Scandinavia, than with the keen interest Icelanders seem to have taken in creating credible and internally consistent fictional histories, whether it be the age of settlement in Iceland, or the distant imagined heroic past, populated by savage, hyperbolic heroes. I suspect that it is the interaction of a consistent aesthetic of plausibility which avoids the most obvious anachronisms, to borrow O’Donoghue’s characterisation of ‘saga-society’,132 with the gathering together of venerable traditions fossilised in oral transmission, which has led to a certain consistency in the arcane rune lore of the Edda. Indeed, whilst it is Atlamál which most clearly exploits what Glauser refers to as ‘counter memories’, or the possibility ‘for fictional texts to take up alternative versions of the past’,133 the collecting together (and perhaps deliberate archaising) of obscure material that we see in Sigrdrífumál may also represent the manipulation of cultural memory for literary ends. The more

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antiquated, outlandish and magically operative the rune lore preserved in Eddic poems, the more evocative it would be of a distant heroic past. Some of the rune lore may thus be authentic, but deliberately selected for its difference from the everyday practice represented, for example, in several of the Icelandic sagas. It goes without saying that we must be very cautious about using even literature of demonstrable antiquity to inform our understanding of early runic practice. Yet, whilst it is tempting to agree with Larrington’s assertion that ‘the literary notion of practical applications for runes cannot be connected with their historical uses as evidenced by surviving rune inscriptions’, this survey has perhaps served to demonstrate that the deeper into the snakepit you descend, the more complicated and unsettling the view becomes.134 Ultimately, perhaps the most that can be said about the historicity of these runic references is that the antecedent to the script used in thirteenth-century Iceland has, after all, been correctly linked to the Germanic tribes of the Migration Period, and to a culture in which literacy was in its infancy, and writing a rarefied, private and (at least partly) mysterious affair.

Notes 1 Royal Library, Copenhagen GkS 2365 4to, c. 1270. 2 The Codex Regius shows some signs that it is a copy of an earlier manuscript, the ‘careful use of space on the last few leaves’ and ‘irregularities in the second Helgi section’ suggesting that a written exemplar may have been used, Andreas Heusler, Codex Regius of the Elder Edda (Copenhagen, 1937), p. 16. 3 For a historical survey of attempts to establish a relative chronology for the poems, see Bjarne Fidjestøl, The Dating of Eddic Poetry (Copenhagen, 1999). 4 Terry Gunnell, ‘Eddic Poetry’, in Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2005), pp. 82–100, at p. 94. 5 Peter Hallberg, ‘Eddic Poetry’, in MSE, pp. 149–52, at p. 149. 6 R.G. Finch (ed. and trans.), Vǫlsunga saga (London, 1965), p. xxxiv. 7 E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964), p. 9. 8 Peter Hallberg, Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse, trans. Paul Schach and Sonja Lindgrenson (Lincoln, NE, 1975), p. 61. 9 Finch, Vǫlsunga saga, p. xxxii. 10 Ursula Dronke (ed. and trans.), The Poetic Edda, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1969–2011), p. 32. 11 Brunhildr is herself possibly a reflex of the Visigothic regent Brunhilda of Austrasia who died c. 613. 12 Hallberg, ‘Eddic Poetry’, p. 151. 13 John Lindow, ‘Mythology’, in MSE, pp. 423–6, at p. 424. The division between the two sequences in the Codex Regius manuscript is indicated by a prominent capital at the opening of the first Helgi lay. 14 Elmer H. Antonsen, ‘Rengði þær Vingi (Am. 4.2) “Vingi Distorted Them”: “Omitted Runes” – A Question of Typology?’, in Edgar C. Polomé and Carol F. Justus (eds.), Language Change and Typological Variation: Vol. I (Washington, 1999), pp. 131–8, at p. 135. 15 Consistency in orthography and the use of the fuþark amongst the earliest witnesses suggests its origins may be significantly older. See Elmer H. Antonsen, ‘Zum Ursprung und Alter des germanischen Fuþarks’, in Ernst Dick and Kurt Jankowski (eds.), Festschrift für Karl Schneider (Amsterdam, 1982), pp. 3–15.


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16 For the debate concerning the origins of the runic script, see for example Erik Moltke, Runes and Their Origins: Denmark and Elsewhere, trans. Peter G. Foote (Copenhagen, 1985), pp. 38–69; Richard L. Morris, Runic and Mediterranean Epigraphy (Odense, 1988) and Bengt Odenstedt, On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script (Uppsala, 1990). A summary of the debate is provided by Henrik Williams, ‘The Origins of Runes’, in Tineke Looijenga and Arend Quak (eds.), Frisian Runes and Neighbouring Traditions (Amsterdam, 1996), pp. 211–18. 17 Moltke, Runes and Their Origins, p. 38. 18 The older fuþark inscriptions are also sometimes grouped on the basis of language and dialect, e.g. in Elmer H. Antonsen, A Concise Grammar of the Older Runic Inscriptions (Tübingen, 1975). 19 Tineke Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Leiden, 2003), p. 20. 20 Michael Barnes, Runes: A Handbook (Woodbridge, 2012), p. 34. 21 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 20. 22 Ibid., p. 20. 23 Bengt Odenstedt, ‘Om ursprunget till den äldre futharken’, Saga och Sed (1984): 77–116, at p. 116. 24 For the complete corpus of older fuþark inscriptions, see the searchable online database of Runenprojekt Kiel, Accessed August 2016. 25 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 15. 26 These range from Page’s remarks on the ‘remarkable coincidence’ between the depiction of victory runes in the poem and the carving of t-runes on the Faversham sword pommel, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 92, to Jansson’s rather uncritical quotation of the poem in his discussion of inscriptions of magic import, Runes in Sweden, trans. Peter Foote (Stockholm, 1987), p. 15. Bernard Mees suggests that the pervasive connection between ale and the common runic formula alu in the critical discourse is itself an anachronistic projection based primarily on references to ǫlrunar in this poem, ‘Alu and Hale’, Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association 5 (2009): 107–31. 27 One exception is Tom Markey’s article ‘Studies in Runic Origins 2: From Gods to Men’, American Journal of Germanic Linguistics & Literatures 11:2 (1999): 131–203, which makes extended reference to the poem. 28 Henry Adams Bellows (trans.), The Poetic Edda (New York, 1923), p. 387. Joseph Harris suggests that the different components of the patchwork ‘reflect diverse cultural periods’, containing material of an ancient pedigree but with Christian influence particularly discernible in sts 33–4, ‘Sigrdrífumál’, in MSE, pp. 581–2, at p. 582. 29 In Vǫlsunga saga a series of verses (sometimes referred to as Brynhildarljóð), approximate but not identical to Sigrdrífumál, sts 5–21, appear in the prose narrative, with the effect that the discrete nature of the material is even more pronounced. 30 Klaus von See et al. (eds.), Kommentar zur den Liedern der Edda, 7 Vols (Heidelberg, 1997–2012), V, p. 526. 31 See John McKinnell, ‘The Evolution of Hávamál’, in Donata Kick and John D. Shafer (eds.), Essays on Eddic Poetry (Toronto, 2014), pp. 59–95, at p. 77. 32 Gamanrúnar (lit. ‘pleasure-runes’, but perhaps with the extended sense of ‘joyful conversation’) also appear in Hávamál, st. 130, in connection with the advice of a woman. 33 Judy Quinn, ‘Liquid Knowledge: Traditional Conceptualisations of Learning in Eddic Poetry’, in Rankovic with Melve and Mundal (eds.), Along the OralWritten Continuum, (Turnhout, 2010), pp. 183–226, at p. 183.

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34 Ibid., pp. 190–1. 35 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 269. 36 Side A of the chape reads makija, ‘easily made out as the accusative singular of an ia- stem meaning “sword” ’, Moltke, Runes and Their Origins, p. 100. 37 This illegible inscription may represent an imitation of runes. See Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 171. 38 The inscription reads wagnijo, probably referring to the tribe of the Vangiones from the Middle Rhine area. Looijenga, Runes around the North Sea, p. 44. 39 This is the interpretation given by Krause and Jankuhn, Die Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark, p. 79. 40 Joseph Harris, ‘Old Norse Memorial Discourse between Orality and Literacy’, in Rankovic with Melve and Mundal (eds.), Along the Oral-Written Continuum, pp. 119–33, at p. 121. However, see Looijenga, who is sceptical that sense can be made from this inscription, Texts and Contexts, pp. 336–7. 41 Illerup I (DR MS1995;334C) reads swart¶a, which may be a nickname for the owner (or possibly the blacksmith), Moltke, Runes and Their Origins, p. 95. Illerup II (DR MS1995;336B) reads niþijo tawide ‘Niþijo made’, and Illerup III (DR MS1995;336C) renders what is most likely the personal name Laguþewa, Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, pp. 154–5. 42 Antonsen, A Concise Grammar, p. 30. 43 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 114. 44 Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Cambridge, 1993), p. 337. 45 On the fourth century Kylver Stone (G 88), for example, and the Raum Køge / Seeland II bracteate (IK 98), an inscription that concludes with a triple-stacked t-rune. 46 See Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 276, who tentatively suggests the interpretation emsigimer ‘I am victory-famous’, possibly linked to the Proto-Norse personal name Segimerus. 47 R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd edn (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 80. 48 Ibid., p. 92. 49 von See et al., Kommentar, V, p. 554. 50 Carolyne Larrington, A Store of Common Sense (nineteenford, 1993), p. 88. 51 In a recent study, Ute Zimmermann, identifies nineteen secure examples of alu found on bracteates, and around a dozen more examples carved on various other objects ‘Bier, Runen und Macht: Ein Formelwort im Kontext’, Futhark 5 (2014): 45–64, at pp. 45–6. 52 See Markey, ‘Studies in Runic Origins 2’, p. 190 in particular. 53 Mees argues that ‘a connection of runic alu with Old Germanic ale seems more to represent philological near-enough-is-good-enough guesswork than it does a formally developed linguistic postulate’, ‘Alu and Hale’, p. 109. 54 See Jonathan B. Conant, ‘Runic ALU – A New Conjecture’, JEGP 72 (1973): 467–73 for a summary of the various possibilities. 55 Edgar C. Polomé, ‘Notes sur le vocabulaire religieux du Germanique’, La Nouvelle Clio 6 (1954): 40–55. 56 Laurits Saltveit suggests that this bitter mineral was used as a medicine and had a prophylactic (or more conceptually protective) function, ‘Die Runenwörter laukaR und alu’, in J. Askedal et al. (eds.), Festskrift til Ottar Grønvik (Oslo, 1991), pp. 136–42, at pp. 139–41. 57 Mees, ‘Alu and Hale’, p. 121. 58 Zimmermann, ‘Bier, Runen und Macht’, pp. 45–64. 59 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 196. 60 Conant’s conjecture is that the homonym shared with alu (beer) may actually have been allu, ‘all’, ‘Runic ALU’, p. 472.


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61 J. McKinnell et al., Runes, Magic and Religion (Vienna, 2004), p. 91. 62 For example, the Rö rune stone (KJ 73, second to fourth century) from the Swedish island of Otterö includes the pronouncement that stainawarijaz fahido ‘Stainawarijaz carved / coloured’, whilst the fourth-century Einang stone from Vestre-Slidre in Valdres, Norway (NKJ 63) refers to a certain Gudagastir, who rūnō faihidō ‘painted runes’, Terje Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Woodbridge, 2005), p. 42. On the evidence for the colouring of runic inscriptions, see Jansson, Runes in Sweden, pp. 153–61. 63 Such as N 455 reading A: inga B: . . . s ÷ asmundar÷son ÷ a mik Inga . . . Ásmundarsonr á mik ‘Inga . . . Ásmundr’s son owns me’ or the object known as ‘Gånge-Rolfs Drikkehorn’ (X ItUOÅ1979;229) reading andres ¶ gerdi mik Andrés gerði mik ‘Andrés made me.’ 64 The inscription on this beautiful horn, melted down by thieves in 1802, read [ek hlewagastiz ÷ holtijaz ÷ horna ÷ tawido ÷] Ek Hlewagastiz Holtijaz horna tawido. ‘I Hlewagastiz Holtijaz (son of Holt?) made the horn’. 65 CV, p. 446. 66 McKinnell et al., Runes, Magic and Religion, p. 140. 67 Page, An Introduction, p. 36. Page translates ‘þyjar þra’ generically as ‘servant’s grief’, The Icelandic Rune Poem (London, 2009), p. 36, yet CV point out that the ‘r’ in þýr is a feminine inflexion, p. 756, and þyjar is defined by Johan Fritzner as træl-kvinde or ‘slave-woman’, Ordbog over det gamle norske sprog, vol. 3 (Oslo, 1896), p. 1060. 68 McKinnell et al., Runes, Magic and Religion, p. 141. 69 von See et al., Kommentar, V, p. 560. 70 Anders Bæksted, Målruner og Troldruner: Runemagiske Studier (Copenhagen, 1952), p. 40. 71 von See et al. discuss the term signa, suggesting that it may represent a syncretic magic process influenced by consecration with the sign of the cross, Kommentar, V, p. 562. 72 Finch, Vǫlsunga saga, ch. 10, p. 18. 73 ‘þá var grund groin grœnom lauki’ (‘then the ground was grown over with green vegetation’) (st. 4). 74 See Guðrún P. Helgadóttir, ‘Laukagarðr’, in Ursula Dronke et al. (eds.), Specvlvm Norroenvm – Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre (Odense, 1981), pp. 171–84. 75 In Guðrúnarkviða I the same expression is used, but with geirlaukr (‘garlic’) (literally ‘spear-leek’) in place of grœn laukr. 76 Mindy Macleod and Bernard Mees, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Woodbridge, 2006), at pp. 103–4. 77 Simek, Dictionary, p. 187. 78 Mckinnell et al., Runes, Magic and Religion, p. 97. 79 See, for example, the preliminary findings from the AncientBiotics Project that an Anglo-Saxon medicinal recipe using garlic and onion is effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), ‘AncientBiotics – a medieval remedy for modern day superbugs?’, http://–amedieval-remedy-for-modern-day-superbugs.aspx. Accessed August 2016. 80 See M. Townend, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Ólafr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005): 251–79, at p. 255. 81 Townend suggests that there is a dual contrast with the battle set up here, between both the serving of beer and leek and the attending of church on a Sunday morning, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Ólafr’, p. 255.

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82 A notable exception is the Fløksand knife (N KJ37), which evinces a connection between linen and leeks from as early as the fourth century AD in its inscription lina lauka=z f lina laukaz ‘linen (and) leek, property’, with the final rune possibly used logographically for its name *fehu. 83 On the formula words which appear on bracteates, see Wilhelm Heizmann’s most recent survey ‘Die Formelwörter der Goldbrakteaten’, in Wilhelm Heizmann and Morten Axboe (eds.), Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit – Auswertung und Neufunde (Berlin, 2011), pp. 525–602. 84 Looijenga, Texts and Contexts, p. 200. 85 IK 166 (fig. 10) includes alu and laukaz, whilst IK 149,1 additionally contains the formula laþu, as well as an undetermined sequence gakaz. 86 Morten Axboe, ‘Die Chronologie der Inschriften-Brakteaten’, in Wilhelm Heizmann and Morten Axboe (eds.), Die Goldbrakteaten (Berlin, 2011), pp. 279–96, at p. 296. 87 Ibid., p. 710. 88 As Morten Axboe points out, whilst alu has a wide distribution, ‘laþu and laukaR are limited to southern Scandinavia’, Brakteatstudier (Copenhagen, 2007), p. 149. 89 Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (eds.), Flóamanna saga (Reykavík, 1991), ch. 24. 90 Cited by Bæksted, Islands runeindskrifter, p. 31. 91 Aslak Liestøl et al., ‘Drottkvæt-vers fra Bryggen i Bergen’, Maal og Minne (1962): 98–108, at p. 106. 92 Looijenga notes this in connection with the OE rune name iar, Texts and Contexts, p. 145. 93 For example, skiprúnar are drawn out and named amongst other inventive cryptic runes below the A-text of the Icelandic Rune Poem in AM 687 d 4to, fols 1v–2r. 94 Larrington, A Store of Common Sense, p. 88. 95 The inscription may be translated as A: ‘Mary bore Christ, Elisabeth bore John the Baptist. Receive redemption in veneration of them.’ B: ‘Go out, hairless one (= child). The Lord calls you into the light.’ 96 Lee M. Hollander (trans.), The Poetic Edda, 2nd edn (Austin, 1962), p. 236. 97 MacLeod and Mees, Runic Amulets, p. 121. 98 Ibid., p. 162. 99 R.I. Page, The Icelandic Rune-Poem (London, 2009), p. 16. 100 Moltke, Runes and Their Origins, p. 460. 101 In the final section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson refers to málrúnar as being the most important kind of runes, Anthony Faulkes (ed.), Snorri Sturluson: Edda: Háttatal, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1991), pp. 4–5. 102 von See et al., Kommentar, V, pp. 571–2 relate this reference to the description of an assembly in Egils saga, ch. 57, where runes are carved on hazel poles used to mark out the sanctuary area. The reference to ‘going / moving in judgement’ may refer to the movement of the participants in the trial. 103 Simek suggests that its origins lie ‘far back in history’, pointing out that the sanctity of the þing is recorded as early as the second century, Dictionary, p. 313. 104 The Pietroassa neck ring (KJ 41) with its reference to the inheritance of the Goths, is one possible exception. 105 The ninth-century Forsa rune ring (Hs 7) is generally regarded as ‘the oldest law-rule in Scandinavia’, Stefan Brink, ‘Law and Society’, in Stefan Brink and Neil S. Price (eds.), The Viking World (London, 2008), pp. 28–9. 106 Jesse Byock (trans.), Saga of the Volsungs (London, 1999), p. 118.


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107 Tǫnnom, ‘teeth’, is replaced by taumum, ‘reins’, in the MS of Vǫlsunga saga, a mistake in Finch’s opinion, Vǫlsunga saga, p. 38. 108 Anthony Faulkes (ed.), Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, 2nd edn (London, 2005), ch. 26, p. 25. 109 In this poem the hero asks Fáfnir ‘hverjar ro þær nornir / er nauðgǫnglar ro / ok kjósa mœðr frá mǫgum’ (‘which are those norns who help women in need and favour mothers over infants?’) (st. 12). The attribute of nauðgǫnglar might be connected in some way to the nauð inscribed on a nail in Sigrdrífumál. 110 Gunnell points out that stags and nuthatches are two other non-native species that appear in the heroic poems, ‘Eddic Poetry’, p. 94. 111 Hallberg, Old Icelandic Poetry, p. 28. 112 von See et al., Kommentar, V, p. 580. 113 The Rök Stone (Ög 136) bears nine lines written using the older fuþark, as well as cryptic runes. They may be used here to challenge the reader, to display the carver’s virtuosity, or to fit with the references made to Migration Period history in the inscription, specifically to Ðióðríkr and the Hreiðgotar. 114 Amulets may, however, represent something of an interface between the human and the divine; note the many bracteates believed to depict Óðinn, K. Starkey, ‘Imagining an Early Odin: Gold Bracteates as Visual Evidence?’, Scandinavian Studies 71:4 (1999): 373–92. 115 Judy Quinn, ‘Trust in Words: Verse Quotation and Dialogue in Völsunga saga’, in Árman Jakobsson et al. (eds.), Fornaldarsagornas struktur och ideology (Uppsala, 2003), pp. 89–100 at p. 91. 116 See McKinnell et al., Runes, Magic and Religion, pp. 131–2. The category of bótrúnar (‘healing runes’) is attested in a Swedish inscription on a copper sheet dating from c. 1000–1100 (Ög NOR2001;32) and also in a fourteenth-century rune charm from Bryggen in Bergen (B 257) in which both bótrúnar and bjargrúnar are carved against elves, trolls and ogres. 117 Gunnell, ‘Eddic Poetry’, p. 89. 118 See Dronke, Poetic Edda, I, p. 110 and R.G. Finch, ‘Atlamál’, in MSE, p. 24. 119 Dronke, Poetic Edda, I, p. 111. Carolyne Larrington points out that ‘the harsh frontier conditions in the colony, so distant from the courtly world of Continental European literature, might have prompted the poem’s recasting’, The Poetic Edda (Oxford, 1996), p. 217. For the runic episode’s applicability to the Greenlandic context, see Tom Birkett, ‘A Cautionary Tale: Reading the Runic Message in Atlamál in grœnlenzko’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 9 (2014): 1–18. Other studies of individual poems will be referred to in the relevant chapters. 120 See Bæksted, Målruner og troldruner, pp. 99–110 for an overview of the sometimes bizarre attempts to identify exactly how the inscription might have been altered. 121 See Theodore M. Andersson, ‘Did the Poet of Atlamál Know Atlaqviða?’, in Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason (eds.), Edda: A Collection of Essays (Winnipeg, 1983), pp. 243–57, at pp. 247–9. 122 Dronke, Poetic Edda, I, p. 100. 123 See Birkett, ‘A Cautionary Tale’. 124 Lisbeth M. Imer, ‘The Tradition of Writing in Norse Greenland – Writing in an Agrarian Community’, in Hans Christian Gulløv (ed.), Northern Worlds – Landscapes, Interactions and Dynamics (Copenhagen, 2014), pp. 339–51, at p. 347. 125 Barnes, Runes: A Handbook, p. 130. 126 Lisbeth M. Imer, ‘The Runic Inscriptions from Vatnahverfi and the Evidence of Communication’, Journal of the North Atlantic 2:2 (2009): 74–81, at p. 75.

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127 Marie Stoklund, ‘Greenland Runic Inscriptions’, in Claiborne W. Thompson (ed.), Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Runes and Runic inscriptions (Ann Arbor, MI, 1981), pp. 138–47, p. 144. 128 Whilst nothing that can be described as a runic communiqué has been found in Greenland, Stoklund points out that Bergen was its main supply port, ‘Greenland Runic Inscriptions’, p. 144, whilst Imer notes that the runic inscriptions recovered at Bryggen bear the closest similarities to the Greenlandic material, ‘The Runic Inscriptions from Vatnahverfi’, p. 76. 129 See the conclusions in Birkett, ‘A Cautionary Tale’, pp. 14–15. 130 Ibid., pp. 93–4. 131 Thirteenth-century Icelanders may well have been part of this textual community: as James Knirk points out, ‘Norwegian runes from Bergen and Trondheim sometimes apparently attest to the use of runes by Icelanders who traded in Norway’, ‘Runes and Runic Inscriptions’, in MSE, pp. 545–52, at p. 551. 132 Heather O’Donoghue, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (Oxford, 2004), pp. 41–2. 133 Jürg Glauser, ‘The Speaking Bodies of Saga Texts’, in Judy Quinn et al. (eds.), Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World (Turnhout, 2007), pp. 13–26, at p. 21. 134 Larrington, A Store of Common Sense, p. 88.


Sacred script Myths of writing in the Poetic Edda

Myths in transition Whilst the term ‘myth’ has a wide semantic range in modern English, in the context of the Old Norse–Icelandic literature from which virtually all our knowledge of the Scandinavian pre-Christian belief system derives, a myth can be defined as a story inclined towards the gods,1 involving divine or supernatural agents and located in an alternative temporal or spatial landscape – and even when overlapping with lived experience, ‘always a world apart’.2 This is not to say that mythical narratives do not invoke a shared social reality or that an individual myth cannot have a clearly defined function within a particular culture, helping to establish hierarchies, reinforce social customs and delineate relationships between people and the natural world. However, unlike other literary forms popular in medieval Iceland, mythological poetry does not adhere to an aesthetic of naturalism, and the relationship between myth and reality is one of association rather than imitation. One way in which myth might relate to lived experience is through the encoding of certain ritual practices in the narrative, which may once have been acted out as an element of pre-Christian religious practice.3 In an effort to clarify this relationship, the social anthropologist Sir James George Frazer famously sought to relate myth to magic ‘in the relation of theory to practice’, and to understand the role of mythical narratives in justifying fossilised social customs.4 Whilst his views fail to account for the value accorded to mythical narratives well after the religious system is superseded, they are still useful in highlighting a complex dynamic of referentiality through which myth evolves and feeds back into the lived world. The comparative study of mythology – an approach that emphasises the repetition of certain narratives and mythic themes across culturally diverse societies – has often sought to understand this referentiality in terms of archetypes of human belief. These archetypal stories, rather like the dream symbols identified by Jung, serve to make sense of the world on a figurative level rather than to represent it directly. Indeed, like dreams, individual myths often invest concepts or objects used dispassionately in the sphere of

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everyday life with symbolic import, and the two schemes of recognition are quite capable of interacting on a variety of levels. We only have to think of the disconnect between the Norse myth of the mead of poetry, a narrative which strongly associates the drink with sacred knowledge and the divine origin of the poetic arts, and the thoroughly irreverent drinking bouts represented in the sagas, to understand how the sacred and profane can coexist within the same cultural space. The existential world is enriched, essentialised and interrogated by myth, but not necessarily at the level of lived experience. When attempting to understand the portrayal of the runic script in the myth cycle, it is important to recognise this essential disconnect between myth and practice. The individuals writing inscriptions in pre-Christian Scandinavia may have been very familiar with stories about the origins of the script, and valued the runes as reginkunnar (‘derived from the gods’), but used them for perfectly ordinary communicative acts. Instead of comparing these representations of the script to the surviving inscriptions (as theory directly influencing practice), it is thus necessary to think about how the myth of a sacred script relates conceptually to the social function and status of writing. One important role that myths play is aetiological: helping to explain the origin of natural phenomena, social structures and important skills or processes. As far as runes are concerned, we can appreciate this aetiological function most clearly in Hávamál, which provides a myth of origin for the script, and also in Rígsþula, which dramatises the transmission of this technology to an elite in the world of men. Sólarljóð, a late pastiche of Eddic poetry, represents a transmission of a different kind, with the runic symbology adapted to a Christian frame of reference. Taken together, these three narratives constitute a fairly comprehensive mythical framework addressing the movement of the script between three overlapping schemes of representation – sacred/Germanic, secular and Christian – and expressing the symbolic value of the script within each frame of reference. The value of engaging with these three interpretations of sacred script is that it allows us an insight into a culture’s relationship to the written word in process. As Clunies Ross has done much to demonstrate, an origin myth pertaining to a technology such as writing not only serves an explanatory function, but is ‘socially and intellectually engaged’, expressing the role of this construct within the society, and also helping to construct that reality.5 What is more, myths continued to perform cultural work – establishing norms and boundaries, articulating anxieties, reinforcing the importance of inherited traditions – within the society that recorded and transmitted the poetry. This ability of myth to adapt to the evolution of behaviours and processes, as well as expressing universal truths about the link between literacy and power, ensured the continued relevance of these poems for their readers and copyists long after the conversion of Iceland. If we acknowledge the social relevance of the mythological material, and read the sacred narrative as an intellectual response to an important cultural development, the reason


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for the endurance and reinterpretation of a runic mythology becomes much easier to understand. Indeed, this narrative of origins and transmission may still have valuable things to say about the nature of writing and its role in organising and authorising the existential world.

Back to the origins Nam ek upp rúnar, I took up the runes œpandi nam. took them crying out. (Hávamál, st. 139)

It is probably true to say that every literate culture has developed a myth of origins which explains the ascendancy of their particular writing system in very different terms to the reality of borrowing and adaptation that has characterised the history of script development. Indeed, it is important to bear in mind just how extraordinary a scientific watershed the linking of language to written signs actually was, phonetic writing perhaps only invented on one (or possibly two) occasions in the whole span of human history.6 It is easy to understand why an aetiological myth might develop to explain such an important technological innovation, especially when a writing system is adopted by a society for the first time. It is also understandable that myths of origin typically situate writing as a divine creation, it being quite natural ‘to seek a relationship between language and religion’ and for the adoption of a script to be envisaged subsequently as a gift from a divine being, in many cases serving to reconfirm and solidify spiritual truth.7 Not only does the mythical narrative explain the genesis of the technology, but to a certain extent also helps a society to assimilate and claim control over this important source of cultural capital, in full recognition of the intimate connection between literacy and agency. It is therefore unsurprising that we see variations on a similar theme throughout world mythology. The Sumerians believed writing to be one of the central divine arts brought to Earth by the god Enki; the Egyptians credited the scribal deity Thoth with teaching hieroglyphs to humankind; and the Maya believed that the foremost of their gods, Itzamna, was responsible for creating writing, his impressive portfolio also including the invention of timekeeping and the dividing and naming of the world. Similar associations are also found within the classical tradition, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus portraying the alphabet as a gift from Zeus to the muses,8 whilst the myth that Hermes/ Mercury was responsible for the invention of writing was common across the Greco-Roman world.9 There is also a rather different tradition in nonHomeric sources which traces the origin of the Greek alphabet to Palamedes, an enigmatic figure associated with the creation of other graphic systems such as numbers and musical notation.10 In Chapter 1 we saw how writing was understood as a divine endowment within the Judeo-Christian tradition, with theologians from Augustine to Aquinas entrenching the misplaced

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theory that all scripts ultimately evolved from Hebrew. Such historical misconceptions are, however, largely overlooked when talking about the roman alphabet’s rise to ascendancy. The idea that the alphabet is the well-spring of rational Western thinking, and the end product of a series of false starts and half-scripts hobbled by the superstitious sensibilities of their practitioners, perhaps lies at the root of this apparent absence of a popular mythology. Somewhat paradoxically the most pervasive ‘alphabet myth’ of the present age may therefore be one that subsumes mythical history in the service of an unburdened narrative of rational Western progress. Of course, the fact is that myth (or indeed superstition) has little or no bearing on the functionality of a script to represent spoken language, even if it sometimes influences the uses to which writing is put, and the fact that the runic script is accompanied by a myth of divine origins is neither exceptional nor indicative of a primitive conception of writing. As Spurkland points out with typical acuity, the myth of Óðinn’s acquisition of the runes is not altogether removed from Blake’s depiction in his Jerusalem of ‘the wond’rous art of writing’ gifted to humankind ‘in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave’.11 The sacred and mystical sensibilities that appear to be expressed in the Norse poetic tradition have, however, come to play an inordinately important role in the popular reception of the runic script, and the sequence of allusive strophes to which we owe our knowledge of this myth of origins include some of the most quoted lines of Old Norse verse: Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á nætr allar nío, geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðni, siálfr siálfom mér, á þeim meiði, er manngi veit hvers hann af rótum renn.

I know that I hung on a windy tree for nine full nights wounded with a spear and given to Óðinn, myself to myself on that tree of which nobody knows from what roots it ascends.

Við hleifi mik sældo né við hornigi. Nýsta ek niðr. Nam ek upp rúnar, œpandi nam. Fell ek aptr[a]ð[r ú]tan. (Hávamál, sts 138–9)

They gave me no bread nor drink from a horn. I looked downwards. I took up the runes; took them crying out. I fell back from without.

These two strophes occur towards the end of Hávamál (‘The Sayings of the High-One’), an abstruse poem of some 164 strophes attributed to Óðinn and dealing with various categories of knowledge, both sacred and gnomic. There has been much debate about the date and provenance of the poem,12


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and at least two lines seem to date back to the tenth century or earlier, as they are echoed by the skald Eyvindr skaldaspillir in his praise poem Hákonarmál.13 Hávamál as a whole has long been recognised as lacking internal unity, and as Larrington summarises, it is probably ‘a redaction of several different poems united by the theme of wisdom and by the central figure of Odin’14 although the case has also been made for a closer relationship between the various sections.15 Rúnatal (‘The List of Runes’), from which the earlier quotation is taken, is one of these constituent parts, and presumably had a life independent of the poetic context in which it has come down to us, perhaps as a popular myth about Óðinn’s self-sacrifice which may have been adapted and transmitted in a variety of ways.16 Indeed, a number of runic inscriptions, including those of the Sparlösa and Noleby stones, the latter dating from the sixth century, use variations on the phrase ‘runes derived from the gods’,17 suggesting that the basis of this myth was well established from an early date, and as Larsson points out, not confined to West Scandinavian literary culture.18 One valid way of explaining the narrative of sacrifice and knowledge acquisition in Rúnatal is as a dramatisation of ritual bound up in an initiation into the written word,19 although this reading tends to downplay the poetic value of the poem as a literary interpretation of mythical history. It is perhaps more profitable, in my view, to pick apart the ritual mosaic in order to get a sense of how it relates to the perception of writing, than to attempt to reconstruct any kind of schema for religious practice. Indeed, even if we accept that the text may have been related to sacrifice or initiation practices, it is a ritual infused with the literate sensibilities of its practitioners: a ritual of introspection, bodily incision and written transmission. The prominence of the myth in the Poetic Edda (following the sweeping mythical history of Vǫluspá in the Codex Regius manuscript) is perhaps in itself testament to the esteemed value of writing within the society in which it circulated, an innovation of such importance that Óðinn is willing to endure terrible suffering in order to obtain it, hanging for ‘nætr allar nío’ (‘for nine whole nights’) (st. 138) on a tree exposed to the elements, wounded with a spear and deprived of food and water. Many critics have seen a direct parallel between this sacrifice and the crucifixion – the central salvific event in Christian history – although others have argued convincingly that the primary referent is the world tree, Yggdrasill, rather than the cross.20 Even if Christian influence is discernible, the sacrifice is configured along very different lines to the crucifixion: in stark contrast to Christ’s redemptive suffering, with humankind as its object, Óðinn’s is a singularly self-reflexive sacrifice, the poem portraying the god in a lone struggle for hidden knowledge. If there is an indirect echo of the central Christian narrative in Óðinn’s sacrifice, it is all the more remarkable that control of writing becomes the objective of such a pivotal event. Indeed, we might regard such a mythical response as an expression of just how important writing was to the promulgation of Christianity, Óðinn’s sacrifice not only paralleling the central moment of Christian theology, but in doing

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so claiming control over the technology most important to its dissemination. Of course, we could also view the centrality of this myth in terms of the status that runic literacy conferred on individuals in Germanic tribal society, even if the impact of this technological appropriation in this earliest period seems to have been marginal. Although the process of taking up the runes is associated explicitly with becoming wise and prospering (st. 141), one cannot escape the fact that the script’s adoption is also configured as a sacrifice involving terrible physical suffering. If this emphasis on trauma is not directly influenced by the crucifixion narrative, we might be tempted to read it as a mediated expression of the great cultural changes that the adoption of literacy would effect in the Medieval Period; amongst which might be counted a weakening of collective memory and a loosening of the bonds of oath and oral history. It is also tempting to read this episode as an illustration of the dictum that writing ‘seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind’, and to understand it in light of Lévi Strauss’s famous account of the ‘writing lesson’ given to the Nambikwara tribe, whose illiterate leader was immediately sensible of the potential to use writing to exclude his fellow man and consolidate his position of power.21 Read in this way, the violent genesis of the script might gesture towards the threat posed by writing to the shared culture of oral wisdom stressed elsewhere in Hávamál – in the list of spoken spells or the aphorisms that make up the bulk of the Gestaþáttr and Loddfáfnismál sections of the poem, for example – and the need to mitigate this threat by granting it divine origins. However, it is also possible to view the trauma and violence experienced in this episode simply as a measure of the esteem in which writing is held. We should bear in mind that this is not the only sacrifice made by the gods. Vǫluspá (st. 28) and an elaboration by Snorri Sturluson in Gylfaginning relate how Óðinn sacrificed an eye at Mímir’s well in order to gain wisdom and knowledge from its waters, the physical loss of sight a rather apt sacrifice in an exchange for inner wisdom.22 Clunies Ross argues that the runes taken up during Óðinn’s sacrifice are in fact one amongst many ‘intellectual raw materials’ (including the mead of poetry) that the god acquires, bringing ‘certain “this world” skills to bear upon them so that they become socially useful’.23 Reading the sacrifice in terms of a mediatory response to an important technological advancement provides a useful model that can be applied elsewhere in the episode. Indeed, just as the loss of an eye in Mímir’s well might itself express the fact that ‘writing provides a spatial coordinate for language, and a temporal dimension for it’, and that ‘the visual sense becomes of paramount importance in learning’,24 careful attention to the semantics of the sacrifice reveals a close association with the mechanics and processes of writing. In other words, the poem not only serves to incorporate the runic script into the mythological complex and integrate it into a sacred narrative, but in the process engages with socially relevant questions about how writing functions and what it represents.


Sacred script

The introspection of the sacrifice may be the first indication of an engagement with the mechanics of writing, in addition to its symbolic value. The poet is at great pains to emphasise the isolation of the sacrifice, Óðinn not only engaged in an isolated pursuit of knowledge but dedicated rather cryptically ‘siálfr siálfom mér’ (‘myself to myself’) (st. 138), and receiving no communal approbation of his act. The private interaction between the initiate and the written word is also referred to in st. 141, through the rather cryptic statement that ‘orð mér af orði / orðs leitaði’ (‘a word from a word sought another word for me’). The exchange is configured exclusively between the word and the individual, the repetition of ON orð with varied inflections even dramatising the transformation of the word at the level of morphology. Indeed, ‘the word’ here not only constructs, but also constitutes the subject, the ‘other word for me’ that is sought after in this sequence perhaps representing the written form of the name that becomes possible with the acquisition of literacy. Through adoption of the runic script, the word now has a physical form, allowing for a different understanding of language – not as mutable, immediate and contingent on presence, but as something that can be fixed and transmitted through time and space. It is worth remembering that spoken communication, at least until the advent of recording technology, always required a speaker to be present. In contrast, writing ‘entails the complete loss of the actual situational context of the spoken utterance’ and means that a statement can be repeated in exactly the same form across a vast temporal and spatial divide.25 Runic inscriptions may have been read aloud, or interpreted in a communal setting, but a literate individual could also sit and ruminate, or receive communication from absent individuals, with nobody else present, not only marking the beginning of a revolution in the recording and transmission of information, but perhaps also even allowing for an ‘inward turn’ towards ‘interiorized stages of consciousness’.26 Even if early runic literacy was too limited in its applications to effect any great change in cognition or the organisation of information in society, this is not to say that the implications of engraved language were not apparent. Indeed, as Clunies Ross points out, the runes are positioned here as granting the gods ‘the now accepted advantages of literacy: the recording, storage and reorganisation of information for later use’.27 Within the myth cycle, desirable accomplishments are often associated with an appropriate physical loss, Óðinn’s sacrifice of an eye ‘explaining’ inner vision, and an apparent sacrifice by Heimdallr of an ear, or hearing in Vǫluspá (st. 27) undoubtedly related to his ability to sound the gjallarhorn at Ragnarǫk. In fact, Óðinn’s physical wounding with a spear and hanging from a tree is a trauma equally pertinent to the adoption of a script developed for engraving with a sharp point on wood, the god interposing himself between the material and the blade, and literally becoming incised in the process of ‘taking up’ writing. Rather than being initiated into knowledge by an interlocutor, Óðinn is physically inscribed without another person being present, consolidating the impression that this curious self-sacrifice is bound up with

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the private transmission of knowledge afforded by written communication. Furthermore, the fact that Óðinn is said to cry out as he takes up the runes may be a reflex of the idea that ‘the carrier of information . . . holds a voice that can be set loose’ as Malm suggests,28 and it is also a reminder of the most primitive form of communication, language-less and infant-like, as the next stage of linguistic evolution is dramatised. If he ‘falls back’ from somewhere outside, or ‘beyond’ ordinary perception, we might think of it in terms of the panoramic insight afforded by his liminal position, where the beginnings of language and the revolutionary potential of written communication, with all it can transmit from the unremembered past, are poised in sharp relief.29 It is interesting, in light of both the emphasis on writing as a medium for knowledge transmission and the historical realities of scriptural borrowing, to note that this is not in fact a myth about the invention of runes: rather, as Van Hamel observes, ‘they are there . . . and Óðinn desires to submit them to himself’.30 Óðinn certainly acquires the runes from an external source, perhaps through connection with the spiritual spheres, reaching down into the otherworld where so much of cultural value to the gods seems to have been obtained, and we are therefore dealing with a myth of reception.31 In st. 140 we are told that in addition to taking up runes the protagonist learns nine spells from Bǫlþorn, a shadowy character who appears to be Óðinn’s maternal grandfather,32 and is granted a drink of the ‘precious mead’ of poetry. The spells, runes and mead seem to be three distinct but complementary elements in the transmission of sacred knowledge: spoken, written and ‘liquid knowledge’ transfer,33 all of which are explicitly associated with personal growth. In possession of these combined benefits Óðinn recounts how he began to blossom ‘ok fróðr vera / ok vaxa ok vel hafask’ (‘and to be wise / and to grow and to flourish’.) (st. 141). The adoption of runic writing is inextricably linked here with personal development, refracted through the figure of Óðinn, but reflective of its value in the world. The following strophe again gestures towards the technical aspects of writing, addressing an initiate in the present who is inheriting the legacy of the sacrifice: Rúnar munt þú finna ok ráðna stafi, miǫk stóra stafi, miǫk stinna stafi, er fáði fimbulþulr ok gørðo ginnregin ok reist Hroptr rǫgna. (Hávamál, st. 142)

Runes you must find and the interpretable letters, very great letters, very strong letters, which the great sage stained and the mighty gods made and Hroptr of the gods carved out.34

Although the language of this passage is certainly reverential, referring to runic letters as ‘interpretable or meaningful’, ‘large’ and ‘strong’ leaves room to interpret this as statement of the power of literacy in the real world,


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rather than referring to the magical operation of runes. Indeed, the gods and the ‘great sage’ are said to stain, make and carve the runes, all processes that reflect the reality of runic practice and that can be read as an expression of the parameters of literacy mediated by its sacred context. The identification of a named runemaster amongst each grouping of elves, dwarves and giants immediately follows this account (st. 143), tracing the script from its genesis amongst the gods to its adoption by various lower orders of being. The poem does not refer to an equivalent runemaster amongst the human world, although we shall see that the acquisition of runes by humankind in Rígsþula places a similar emphasis on the link between literacy and an individual gaining the right to a new name. Indeed, naming is always the first impulse of the literate, and the fixing of authorship remains a singularly powerful facet of the written word, the signature itself representing ‘the reflexive sign par excellence’.35 The majority of runic inscriptions include a personal name, whether it be a memorial for the dead, a mark of ownership, or simply a statement that a certain person can (and does) write. In addition to enacting the dissemination of runic knowledge from the Æsir to the lower orders of being, the naming of these ancestral individuals in the poem – Dáinn for the elves, Dvalinn for the dwarves, Ásviðr for the giants – perhaps arises from the ability of the ‘potent letter’ to establish and codify identity, or, indeed, to name things into being, a privileged function that we see operating most clearly in the human world of Rígsþula. The process of delineating the characteristics of the runic script is continued in st. 144, and takes the form of a series of rhetorical questions. What clearly begins as a depiction rooted in the particularities of runic writing – carving, interpreting, staining, testing out – soon appears to descend into cultic abstraction, in the form of asking, sacrificing, sending and destroying. In fact, these questions are so strongly associated with a pagan world view that one umbrella organisation for American neo-pagans announces dramatically that ‘the following are not recommendations, Alfather commands that you know the following’ [my emphasis]:36 Veitsu hvé rísta skal? Veitsu hvé ráða skal? Veitsu hvé fá skal? Veitsu hvé freista skal? Veitsu hvé biðja skal? Veitsu hvé blóta skal? Veitsu hvé senda skal? Veitsu hvé sóa skal? (Hávamál, st. 144) [Do you know how to cut? Do you know how to interpret? Do you know how to colour? Do you know how to try out? Do you know how to ask? Do you know how to sacrifice? Do you know how to dispatch? Do you know how to destroy?] Although these questions do read like a list of requirements for the initiate into rune lore, it is also worth pausing to interrogate the ritualistic

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credentials of this particular strophe. Liberman is correct to point out that the verbs in the strophe might refer to different activities unrelated to rune carving,37 but it seems highly likely that a strophe dealing with runes at its beginning, and the skills needed to write them, should continue with this same referent throughout. This does not, however, mean that sacrifice was an integral part of a runic initiate’s skill-set, and it is possible to read it in a way that privileges writing over rite. Indeed, the degree of ritual significance one places on the final four commandments actually depends very much on the force of meaning attached to the verbs in question. The first of these ambiguous verbs, biðja, means ‘to ask’ or ‘to pray’, the first sense complementing the skills necessary for learning writing and interpretation of the written word, whilst the second fits more firmly into a scheme of cultic abstraction. Similarly, the verb senda, if meaning simply ‘to send’ or ‘to deliver’, might refer to the impulse of written communication, although it has an extended connotation of ‘offering’ in the context of sacrifice.38 The translation ‘dispatch’ perhaps achieves a similar balance between registers, allowing for sacrificial connotations without demanding them. Indeed, there appears to be a rather studied duality at work in most of these statements, which associate the runes with ritual, whilst also retaining a scriptural association. The verb blóta is translated as ‘sacrifice’ by Larrington, and is usually used to refer to cultic sacrifice, or to worship through sacrifice.39 The final verb, sóa, is of the same ilk, meaning ‘to sacrifice’, ‘make an offer’ or in more modern usage, ‘to squander’.40 We may of course be dealing here with the runes’ ‘proper use in sacrifice and magic’,41 yet knowing how to sacrifice or destroy may also resonate with writing practice, perhaps referring to scriptural elision and erasure. This is certainly a key feature of rúnakefli, sticks that could easily be scraped clean with a blade, burned or defaced, a process dramatised in the poems Skírnismál and Sigrdrífumál. It would not be wise to labour the point, however, or to suggest that there is no religious association whatsoever in this passage, which probably had a ritual function of some kind at the time these strophes were composed. Indeed, runic literacy may well have empowered a priestly class through associations with access to sacred knowledge, and we have to wonder why Snorri Sturluson did not include this myth in his great work on Icelandic poetics, particularly as the first strophe of Hávamál is quoted in Chapter 8 of Gylfaginning, and as he clearly drew heavily on the material at various points throughout his Edda. It is possible he saw Óðinn’s sacrifice as an important pagan ritual that was best left unrecorded, or he may simply have been wary of such an enigmatic sequence, one that blends the sacred and the practical basis of writing to such a profound degree. The final strophe of Rúnatal cannot be anything other than a directive pertaining to sacrifice, even though it echoes the ‘skills’ outlined earlier. It is linked to the preceding strophe through their shared allusions to sacrifice, although it does not continue the málaháttr metre of st. 144 (the opening


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five lines are in ljóðaháttr and the remainder in fornyrðislag metre), and it is unlikely that they were composed together.42 Betra er óbeðit en sé ofblótit – ey sér til gildis giǫf. Betra er ósent en sé ofsóit. Svá Þundr um reist fyr þióða rǫk, þar hann upp um reis er hann aptr of kom. (Hávamál, st. 145)

Better not to have prayed than to over-sacrifice – a gift requires paying for. Better not sent than to slaughter excessively. So Þundr inscribed before the origin of humankind there where he rose up when he came back.

The commands not to sacrifice or slaughter too much are cast as maxims carved by Thund (or Óðinn) ‘fyr þióða rǫk’ (‘before the origin of humankind’) (st. 145). Two things may be said about this. First, despite the ritual content of these lines, we might regard the runes simply as recording devices for this advice, symbols that allow the transmission of Óðinn’s knowledge across a great time span. This is perhaps the basis of their magic. Second, the reference to carving ‘before the origin of humankind’ or alternatively ‘before the close of men’s history’43 (l. 145), may hint at the ability of writing to record and transmit knowledge across time. The written word, after all, allows the speaking of things past, and the power of Óðinn’s words comes from their ability to transcend the limited memories of men – to exist at both the origins and the close of history. This is probably the same referent that explains the one mention of runes in the list of charms (Ljóðatal) that follows, in which the script is said to be coloured and carved in order to raise the dead (st. 157). It is small wonder that writing – with its capacity to long outlive the writer – becomes the mode of operation for a spell which enables the dead to talk. The statement that Thund (or Óðinn) carved ‘þar hann upp um reis, er hann aptr kom’ (‘there where he rose up, when he came back’) (st. 145) probably refers back to his sacrifice and descent from the tree in st. 139, bringing Rúnatal, and this splendidly abstruse myth of runic origins, to a close. Hávamál as a whole, and the Rúnatal section in particular, represent elusive amalgamations of poetry, myth and natural law, the obscurity of the referents encouraging misguided speculation about the operations of so-called rune magic. However, as this analysis has stressed, the enigmatic effect of this section of Hávamál is perhaps not due entirely to our lack of knowledge about the pagan past, or the obscurity of the ‘ritual’ referred to. To a certain degree it is contrived by the poet, who carefully selects language that can work in two different registers. We can also see that this sacrifice and myth of origins reflects on some level the real-world operation of writing and the possibilities afforded by literacy: even if we understand it as the exposition

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of a sacred ritual, it is a ritual inspired by the practicalities, symbolism and mystique of the written word. In terms of the overall composition, or compilation of the poem, it is probably safe to say that the concept of writing, and the concept of knowledge designated by the word ‘rune’, are factors that link otherwise incongruous sections together, perhaps as important a compositional factor as the figure of Óðinn, who is inextricably linked with writing, sorcery and secret knowledge of all kinds.44 It is clear that within Hávamál writing is portrayed as more than simply an ordinary event, and is associated in various ways with semi-secret knowledge, enlightenment and enchantment.45 There is certainly a degree of exclusivity implied in the association of the All-Father with the origins of runes, an exclusivity that serves the interests of those initiated into the literate elite, and, indeed, the interests of those invested in the textual culture of thirteenth-century Iceland where the myth came to be preserved. Yet, in addition to elevating the status of writing, this myth of origins also hints at why the written word deserves such approbation. The sacrificial narrative is not simply a genuflection to the awesome power of writing: it is a myth constructed around the special attributes of the written word. Underlying many of the apparently sacred associations are the ordinary characteristics of writing, including its ability to name and immortalise, to record history and transcend the present, and perhaps most importantly, to convey information via visual signs that can be read privately. The power of writing is rooted in its operations, although such operations are restricted to those initiated into rúnar reginkunnr (‘god-derived runes’). The social implications of the acquisition of this technology become clearer when we turn to look at the myth of its transmission to the human world.

From Gods to Men Þá ǫðlaðiz ok þá eiga gat Rígr at heita, rúnar kunna.

Then he got possession and then gained the right to be called Rígr to have knowledge of the runes. (Rígsþula, st. 46/5–8)

Whilst Hávamál enacts the taking up of runes by Óðinn and introduces writing as a divinely sanctioned practice, Rígsþula (‘The List of Rígr’) dramatises the transmission of this knowledge to the human world and pertains more directly to the social dynamics of writing. Rígsþula cannot strictly speaking be referred to as a poem of the Poetic Edda, as it is found copied between Háttatal and the ókennd heiti section of Skáldskaparmál in a fourteenth-century manuscript of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.46 The myth that the poem relates is treated nowhere else – if we discount certain vague references to Heimdallr, linked with the character Rígr in the prose introduction to the poem47 – and it is rare for a mythological poem to deal so


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intimately with the relationship between humankind and the gods. Despite these caveats, it is usually included in editions of the Poetic Edda, and it fits the criterion of an Eddic poem in respect of its treatment of mythological material and in many stylistic features, including the predominant use of fornyrðislag metre.48 The poem tells the story of the engendering of three social classes of humankind, brought about by the visit of the god Rígr to the representative households of slaves, commoners and the nobility, and following this the emergence of a ruler from amongst the aristocratic class. The tripartite division of humanity in the poem is often said to reflect an early stage of Scandinavian cultural development. Dumézil even suggests that the colour symbolism connected to the various estates represents an ancient social order ‘almost superimposable on the Indo-Iranian structure’,49 although he achieves this superimposition with some shifting or displacement of the Norse ‘castes’ and their respective deities, and his arguments have not gone without criticism.50 Although elements of the myth might have an ancient pedigree, the dating of the poem tends to fluctuate between the poles of the tenth and thirteenth centuries, with no consensus having yet been reached. One view suggests that the power struggle between Jarl and Konr ungr reflects the fraught succession of King Hákon Hákonarson by his son in thirteenth-century Norway, whilst Amory argues that the ‘peaceful domestic atmosphere’ of the poem is more fitting for the post–Civil War Period.51 Those who settle on an earlier tenth or eleventh-century date often point out that the myth of the engendering of the first king is pertinent to the unification of Norway under Haraldr hárfagri. None of these arguments preclude the existence of a mythical framework of much greater antiquity, and the myth as it is presented in Rígsþula may well have been subject to a variety of influences – including that of Celtic or Hiberno-Norse literary culture and Anglo-Saxon biblical commentary – or indeed ‘frequently adapted and augmented to fit prevailing politics and fashions’.52 We must bear in mind that a myth so amenable to reworking is unlikely to have continued to represent an obsolete social structure; in terms of cultural applicability it ‘belongs to the present’.53 Bagge, however, makes a very good case for the applicability of the myth to the Viking Age, reflecting ‘a society of petty chieftains among whom the king is gradually emerging as the greatest and most powerful’,54 and his argument is supported by Nerman’s dating of the poem to around the year 1000 based on the material culture it portrays.55 But perhaps the poem also found a new relevance in relation to the polity of thirteenth-century medieval Iceland and the events leading to the rise of Norwegian royal hegemony and the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli. It is perhaps best therefore to view the runic sub-plot of Rígsþula in terms of a broad mythic applicability – not wholly removed from the political climate of the time it was composed and transmitted, but having a more abstract relationship to power structure: something that ensured its continued relevance.

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The role that the runic script plays in this origin myth has been largely overlooked, although it forms an important sub-plot in the latter half of the poem.56 After sleeping with the wives of the three households and engendering the different ‘castes’, Rígr continues his divine intervention in human affairs by returning to the child he conceived with the aristocratic Móðer and Faðer, teaching him runes, declaring that he is his son and granting him the name Rígr in addition to his own given name Jarl. The fact that the runes only appear with reference to the third and highest estate is interesting in as much as it is consistent with both the association of runes with an Odinic elite in Hávamál, and with what little we know of early runic practice. As we saw in the previous chapter, early inscriptions are found predominantly on high-status objects, suggesting that literacy was socially restricted in its use, although we should always be aware of the limits of the surviving evidence.57 There does, however, seem to be a position of status associated with rune carving that is referred to in several early inscriptions – namely the title erilaz. This term is usually translated as ‘runemaster’, although there is some contention about whether this is a title used exclusively in connection with runes, or if it represents a social title related to OE eorl and ON jarl, the estate in question here.58 A number of Viking age inscriptions also make reference to a jarl, although in none of these is the jarl explicitly identified as the individual who himself carved or commissioned the runes. Two stones refer to an Earl Hákon, one raised in memory of a marshal, a certain Vrái (Sm 76),59 and one in memory of the son of an earl, named Ôzurr (U 617). Another medieval inscription mentions the death of Earl Erlingr in Nidaros (N 564) whilst a ‘stubborn earl’ is spoken of in a lengthy piece of correspondence from Bryggen in Bergen (N B368), and a battle involving the followers of an unspecified earl is recorded in a rather fragmentary inscription on a bone from Oslo (N A33).60 Perhaps of most interest here is an inscription from Maeshowe in Orkney (Br Barnes24), which may be normalised as Jórsalafarar brutu Orkhaug. Hlíf, matselja jarls, reist (‘Jerusalem-travellers broke Orkhaugr. Hlíf, the earl’s housekeeper, carved’).61 Whilst the ‘housekeeper’ of the earl may have been a position of some status, the fact that the jarl is mentioned only in reference to a subordinate who herself carves, strongly suggests that mastery of runes was no longer associated with an aristocratic elite (or indeed, with a male sphere of influence), as it seems to be in Hávamál and again here in Rígsþula. In stark contrast to the expectations set up by the position of runes in a poem identified as ‘brutally aristocratic in its ideology’,62 a number of Viking Age rune stones also contain indications of lower-status rune writers, including an inscription dated to the tenth century which refers to góðr karl Gulli, a man who begot five sons (Ög 8), and an Uppland rune stone which is raised after GæiRmund karl (U 659). The runes from Bryggen in Bergen were most certainly carved by a merchant class, again more readily comparable to the karl (‘free man’) estate, and it is probably fair to say that by the


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Medieval Period runes were used by a broad section of the community. A late Gotlandic inscription (G 36) even refers to Óli, the son of a slave, carving runes, apparently commissioned by his master, Bótgeirr. Whilst the social divisions of society are still obviously very much in place (and perhaps even more entrenched) in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Scandinavia,63 there is little lingering association of runes with privileged knowledge or with an Odinic upper class detectable in this situation.64 The poem’s reference to an elite in possession of runic knowledge is thus a demonstrably old tradition, certainly archaic at the time that the poem was written down, and in all likelihood already old-fashioned during the Viking Age. The fact that the association is maintained in this poem which carefully delineates a class structure may, therefore, be a reflection of the ideological import of writing as a key indicator of power: not the abstract associations with sacred initiation that we saw expressed in Hávamál, but specifically its role in authorising the elite and their claims to ancestral land. Not only are the runes consistently associated with the highest estate in the poem, they also become the most important defining characteristic of this ruling class, and the means by which a leader is selected from amongst their number. Indeed, the teaching of runes to Jarl is immediately followed in the poem by an act of naming and endowment: Kom þar ór runni Rígr gangandi. Rígr gangandi, rúnar kendi; sitt gaf heiti, son kveðz eiga; þann bað hann eignaz óðalvǫllu, óðalvǫllu, aldnar byggðir (Rígsþula, st. 37)

From the woods there came Rígr walking. Rígr walking, taught runes; gave him his own name, declared he was his own son. Then he told him to acquire allodial land, allodial land, an ancient homeland.

The teaching of runes precedes and is essential to the granting of rights to title and óðalvǫllu (‘allodial / inherited land’), raising the possibility that the poem is referring obliquely to both the means by which a name may be set down and attain concrete form, and to the role of writing in claiming (or certifying) inheritance. Indeed, when the crow goads Konr ungr into war with Danr and Danpr in the final strophe of the poem, it is with reference to his own óðal, and once again follows on directly from the favoured son’s demonstration of his mastery of runes. Interestingly, the term óðal appears on several Viking Age rune stones, such as U 130 which refers in no uncertain terms to the fact that Er þessi býr þeira óðal ok ætterfi, Finnviðar sona (‘This estate is the allodial land and family inheritance of Finnviðr’s sons’) and Sö 145, which refers to two brothers raising a stone to their father Tóki

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who owned half an estate alda(?) i oðali(?) (‘as ancestral allodial land’).65 There is no doubt that elaborate memorial inscriptions – particularly those explicitly stating the relationship of the sponsor to the deceased – played a key role in proclaiming inheritance in the Viking Age; indeed, in her comprehensive survey of early medieval rune stones, Sawyer argues that ‘almost all inscriptions reflect inheritance and property rights’.66 The sequence of imagery in this strophe can best be understood in terms of such a tradition – Jarl is taught runes, given a name, proclaimed as son and authorised in his claim to ancestral land. There may well be a reflex here, not of the content or formal features of written inheritance customs, but of the existence and importance of just such a tradition. The primacy of runic knowledge in the poem – and its intimate association with legacy and land claims – is further demonstrated in the process by which a leader is selected from amongst the sons of Jarl and Erna. The introduction of a wife from ‘úrgar brautar’ (‘over wet wilderness roads’) (st. 40) suggests the intermarriage of different groups or tribes, and in its transition from the archetypes of the mother and father towards a more realistic union, the poem brings the issues of succession and inheritance into sharper relief. Whatever the precise connotations of the script in the poem, mastery of rúnar by the youngest of the sons is once again the sole criterion that singles out an inheritor, a symbol of such cultural weight that it leads to a rare (although not wholly unprecedented) case of ultimogeniture. St. 43 refers to the twelve sons of Jarl and Erna collectively learning the skills of war, developing from the more childish pursuits of playing and swimming together. There is no differentiation between the athletic brothers until the conjunction of exception which begins the following strophe, ‘En Konr ungr / kunni rúnar’ (‘But the young Konr knew runes’) (st. 44). Knowledge of runes emphatically distinguishes the youngest son from his elders, hinting once again at the value of the script in transferring rights to land and power. The fact that the youngest son inherits the kingship also fits with the poem’s dramatisation of human progress as a generational development from the oldest Ái and Edda of the thrall class, to the grandparents of the karl estate and the younger aristocratic Faðer and Móðer, engaged in leisurely pursuits and showcasing key social advancements (including literacy). Runes are markers not only of ritual investiture, but also the collective progression of humankind – granting them a power that is at once shrouded in sacred associations and testament to the value of writing in a secular model of succession. Most commentators have extrapolated that the ævinrúnar and aldrrúnar which the young Konr is said to know are magic characters that preserve life (protective charms, in other words).67 It is interesting, however, that they have also been the focus of attention for those mining the poem for any evidence of Christian influence, as ON ævin is often used to refer to the ‘eternity’ of the afterlife. It is not hard to see how the former connection is arrived at, as Konr is said to know how to blunt swords, to allay the ocean,


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to quell fires and to calm sorrows. However, it should be recognised that (as with the spells that follow the Rúnatál section of Hávamál) these abilities are presented in addition to his knowledge of runes, introduced with the statement that ‘meirr kunni hann’ (‘he knew more’) (st. 44). Indeed, if less emphasis is placed on the modifying context of the seemingly magical abilities which Rígr possesses, it would be quite possible to read the two types of runes rather differently. The compound ævinrúnar (‘runes of eternity’) could well refer not to the ability to grant eternal life, but rather to the enduring, essentially everlasting, nature of a written inscription in contrast to the spoken word, whilst aldr can refer to circumscribed life, old age or even everlasting time.68 The two terms are used together in a number of instances with this connotation, for instance in the stock phrase ‘um aldr ok ævi’ (‘for ever and ever’), and the poet may well be alluding to runic monuments which endure from one generation to the next, complimenting the focus on inheritance in the poem. Indeed, we know that longevity was an attribute of monumental writing recognised by rune carvers, due to the existence of such inscriptions as the Runby Stone (U 114), which refers to the monument standing at minnum manna, meðan mænn lifa (‘in memory of the men while man lives’).69 The idea that the runes have the power to preserve life may also be connected to the social dimension of writing. Konr ungr is in the process of progressing beyond the warlike basis for kingship represented by his father, and all the skills that are attributed to him are conciliatory: blunting swords and quelling fires, rather than bringing his people into conflict. Fleck has already acknowledged the existence of a ‘knowledge criterion of significance’ in the poem’s dramatisation of succession, and drawn attention to the importance of the phrase ‘rúnar kendi’.70 However, he designates this knowledge as ‘numinous lore’, necessary for initiation into the secrets of sacred kingship, and perhaps overlooks a more obvious knowledge criterion: literacy. Of course, Konr inherits more than just an everyday script from his divine grandfather, and the poet may well be drawing on the ‘implication of all arcane knowledge’ attached to the runes in poems such as Hávamál.71 But in the context of a poem that concentrates so heavily on the intimate connection between naming and social position, and most crucially, on the etymology of the term konungr itself, the criterion of linguistic authority is exceptionally prominent. Read in this light, Konr’s competition with his father, in which it is said that he ‘rúnar deildi’ (‘contended in runes’) (st. 46/2) and demonstrated his skill by means of brǫgð (‘deft movements or tricks’), may constitute a contest of runic knowledge in a narrow sense, with technical prowess rather than numinous knowledge at the fore: Konr may be imagined as visibly demonstrating his skill in runes, and out-playing his father in a written contest. Dronke is right that we have no evidence of an analogous contest in ‘literal runes’; indeed, we would hardly expect to see this myth directly reflected in the runic corpus.72 However, the episode does have some affinities with

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events in Grettis saga, which Looze suggests makes use of runes within ‘a conscious meditation on saga textuality’.73 Indeed, the skill in runes that Grettir flaunts throughout the saga is eventually turned against him by the sorceress Þuríðr, who carves malevolent runes into a tree-trunk that Grettir will cut for firewood. The episode also resonates with a famous inscription in the Maeshowe burial chamber (Br Barnes20) in which the carver refers to himself as ‘That man who is most rune-skilled west of the sea’. Not only does this runic exhibitionist go on to boast that he cut the runes with the legendary axe of Gaukr Trandils sonr, but part of the inscription is written using cypher runes as if to demonstrate the various ‘tricks’ that this runeskilled Viking possessed. Whilst we should regard runic literacy as a valued competency in its own right,74 it is clear that in Rígsþula mastery of the written word has a symbolism that far outweighs its practical applications in medieval Scandinavian society. By out-writing his father in a contest of runic skill, Konr claims the prerogative over language, and proves himself through an attribute that has a direct bearing on his right to rule. Read against the backdrop of Viking Age runic monuments proclaiming inheritance rights and the explicit association of the script with divine (patriarchal) authority in poems such as Skírnismál, it is hardly surprising that they become such an important symbol of kingly investiture in Rígsþula. After all, what greater power is there than the ability to voice and silence at will? It is not merely idleness that the poem is demonstrating when Konr ungr is said to have ridden through the forest firing arrows that ‘kyrði fugla’ (‘silenced the birds’) (st. 47) – a phrase referred to again in the admonition of the crow. Rather, it serves as a direct counterpoint to the preceding strophe in which he gains the right to know the runes, control of language meaning that he can also deprive others of speech. Konr ungr not only demonstrates the intellectual attributes of the scholar king, with access to sacred knowledge and control over the óðal, but he also takes on the divine right to name things into being, the superlative indicator of authority. As von See et al. point out, unlike Jarl, the ‘young’ Konr comes to runic knowledge of his own accord,75 or at least without the intervention of the deity, seemingly representing a stage in the mythical progression of the poem in which humankind begins to learn for itself and to recognise its agency, or in which kingly autonomy is legitimated by divine will. Rígsþula is, in sum, a poem deeply invested in the social dynamics and status of literacy – authorised by the gods, but applied here in a human sphere. It is worth remembering that the poem is referred to as a þula, or list, and that it provides a folk etymology for a number of terms, most prominently konungr, but also Rígr (linked to Old Irish rí), and the names Danr and Danpr (a patrimony seemingly invented to account for the Danes) and the various lists of offspring from the slave and karl class. As Johansson suggests, this alone provides a rationale for its inclusion in the Codex Wormianus, a compilation of grammar, poetics and rhetoric.76 But in addition to linking social constructs with linguistic inheritance, it is also deeply invested


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in the role that language, and specifically the written word, plays in the process of establishing and reinforcing these constructs. Although we might take issue with Ong’s sweeping statement that writing itself is ‘a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate things to itself’, writing certainly has a long history of being used to extend authority and consolidate power, from Egyptian hieroglyphs recording great victories, to the cataloguing of conquered territory in the Doomsday Book.77 Johnson is right to recognise that ‘what enslaves is not writing per se but control of writing’, and, we might add, control of the myths that relate to writing and reinforce the uses to which it is put.78 In fourteenth-century Iceland – the context in which the poem was recorded in the Codex Wormanius – we are at some remove from Viking Age inscriptions supporting inheritance, or indeed from the association of runes with the erilaz and a restricted sphere of literacy. But the dynamic between writing and authority would have been all the more prominent in the Age of the Sturlungs, in which the Norwegian crown was consolidating its control over Iceland, particularly through the imposition of written law codes. Placed towards the end of the manuscript, Rígsþula was perhaps included not as a further demonstration of poetic method or rhetorical trope, but as a poetic illustration of the cultural importance of language and literacy, a theoretical compliment to the lists of verse forms and heiti that form the bulk of the codex. Whether the incorporation of runes is inextricable from the conceit of the poem and relatively early, or represents a later engagement with the script from the perspective of a dynamic culture of letters in medieval Iceland, the reason for the inclusion of runes should be sought in the surviving poem’s conceptualising of linguistic agency.

The afterlife of myth heiðnar stjörnur fáðar feiknstöfum.

stóðu yfir höfði þeim

heathen stars stood over their heads, painted with baleful runes. (Sólarljóð, st. 60)

It is hard to establish a clear dividing line between the transmission and reception of Old Norse myth. All the major sources – including, of course, the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda – were written down long after the conversion of Iceland, and properly represent the afterlife of a mythology. The compilation of Snorri’s Prose Edda is certainly indicative of the continued importance of myth in allowing access to the literary heritage of the Icelanders, and late poems in the Eddic tradition, such as Hugsvinnsmál, Hrafnagaldr Óðins and Sólarljóð, testify to the evolution of traditional forms. The ‘mythic process’ certainly did not stop with the conversion, either in terms of the ways in which post-conversion poets making use of pagan myth ‘found such traditions meaningful in their own lives’,79 or in terms of

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the development of a Christian mythology which came to fulfil the social roles of earlier codified narratives. The new faith was by no means inimical to the fuþark as a functional script, and we have seen that runes were successfully adopted for use in Christian contexts, both in Scandinavia and at a much earlier date in AngloSaxon England, where the runes were quickly ‘rendered innocuous through adaptation’.80 If the epigraphical milieu adapted quickly to the realities of the new religion – with inscriptions such as the Jelling II Stone raised by Harald Bluetooth even serving to commemorate and publicly authorise the conversion – poetry may also have played its role in mediating this transition and interrogating its terms. In Chapter 1 we saw how in certain Anglo-Saxon circles the runes came to be understood within an Isidorean paradigm for scriptural development, and how the poetry may have helped to align a runic inheritance with sacred history. In Scandinavia, the close association of runes with the pagan gods in poems such as Hávamál and Rígsþula perhaps made the literary rehabilitation of the script even more pressing, not least in order to appropriate an important source of cultural capital. In other words, myths of the literate past could be manipulated to authorise the literate present, and speak to a religion codified through the canonical books of the bible. Sólarljóð (‘The Song of the Sun’) is perhaps one of these surviving mediatory texts, and it is the final poem that I will consider in this discussion of the sacred inflection of the script.81 It consists of a series of exempla and counsels followed by an enigmatic account of the narrator’s own death and his vision of the afterlife, including the torments of hell and an image of Christ as sólar hjörtr (‘the hart of the sun’) (st. 55). The poem is clearly influenced heavily by the Eddic wisdom tradition, whilst also containing at its core a Christian dream vision, a genre popular across Europe in the late Medieval Period.82 The earliest manuscripts of the poem date to the seventeenth century, but we can be reasonably sure that it was composed in the thirteenth century, by a cleric ‘as sensitive to the poetry of Old Norse paganism as he was devout in the Christian faith’,83 a knowledge perhaps acquired from reading Snorri’s Prose Edda or the Codex Regius poems.84 Although Sólarljóð draws heavily upon these sources for pagan mythology, it differs from the poems of the Poetic Edda in employing characters and conventions from Norse myth ‘for rhetorical effect’, making the adaptation of the mythology to a new frame of reference explicit.85 This deliberate weaving of pagan tropes into the Christian framework of the dream vision is summed up in the incongruous reference to the ‘mála-dísir . . . dróttins’ (‘the Lord’s dísir of counsel’) (st. 25), and the poem is best characterised as a ‘late pastiche of paganism’86 rather than an attempt to actively combine belief systems. Indeed, many of the figures in Sólarljóð associated with the pagan world cannot be verified from any other source, and are probably invented solely for the purpose of this pastiche. This situation makes the reading of the runes in the poem somewhat problematic, particularly as the complex symbolism was probably ‘intended


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to be more effective than illuminating’.87 Both formal similarities such as the use of ljóðaháttr metre, and stylistic affinities such as the extensive use of gnomic material and seemingly deliberate cultivation of the arcane, have led a number of critics to stress the affinity of Sólarljóð to Hávamál, ‘its artistic model in the older pagan poetry of Iceland’.88 It might be argued, for example, that the runes in Sólarljóð represent a deliberate mockery of the myth in Hávamál, and specifically the divine inception of the runic script, relegating its position to a straightforward index of barbarism. The central issue in terms of interpreting the runic motif in this late Eddic poem is whether it functions as anything more than just a symbol of otherness associated with a diabolical legacy of paganism. If the runes are indeed to be identified with the pagan past and the landscape of the hellish otherworld in the poem, it is perhaps surprising that they make their first appearance within what can only be described as an overtly Christian symbology. The section of the poem we are concerned with is not the instructive material that makes up the bulk of the first half of the poem, but the dream vision in which the narrator recounts his otherworldly journey – the section with the clearest analogues in the European Christian tradition – and particularly that sequence which Falk edits under the title ‘Hvad sjælen saa i seierheimerne’ (‘what the soul saw in the victoryrealms’).89 The very first reference to runes occurs on the deathbed of the narrator. Racked by fever and shivering brought about by ‘heljar meyjar’ (‘hell’s maidens’) (st. 38), he sees on one side the sun, the ‘sanna dagstjörnu’ (‘true day-star’) (st. 39), setting over the noisy world, and hears on the other side the creaking of Hell’s gate (st. 39). Many critics view the sun, a recurring image in the poem, as symbolising Christ, ‘det nye Jerusalems sol’ (‘the sun of the New Jerusalem’),90 an image which has a ‘lengthy exegetical history in Western Christianity’.91 Others, including Ólsen, have read this sól more literally, as the setting sun glimpsed as the dying man departs the world,92 but denying the symbolic aspects of the such imagery seems to be rather at odds with the narrator’s own statement that ‘sól ek sá; svá þótti mér, / sem ek sæja á göfgan guð’ (‘I saw the sun: it seemed to me that I looked upon worshipful God’) (st. 41), or indeed, his recognition of its majesty: Sól ek sá, setta dreyrstǫfum; mjök var ek þá ór heimi hallr; máttug hon leiz á marga vegu frá því, sem fyrri var. (Sólarljóð, st. 40)

I saw the sun, set with bloody staves I was then inclining greatly away from the world. Mighty it seemed, in many ways beyond that which it was before.

The phrase setta dreyrstǫfum (‘set with bloody staves’) need not refer to the runic script – Ólsen reads the dreyrstafir as denoting the rays of the setting sun for example93 – but the use of the verb setja, also used of ornament or inlay, reinforces the impression that the sun is adorned with letters. These

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staves are almost certainly to be envisaged as runes, as they are referenced more explicitly later in the poem at sts 60 and 61, again in relation to dreyri (‘blood’ or ‘gore’). The reddening of runes is something we have already come across in a number of poetic contexts, so the appellation dreyrstafir may quite legitimately be translated as ‘bloody runes’,94 although there is no reason why the poetic associations here cannot also encompass Ólsen’s preference for the crimson rays of the sun; indeed, the image of the cloudstreaked sky at sunset being etched with reddened runes is an arresting one. A further indication that we are dealing with a composite image of runic writing is the statement in st. 44 that ‘tunga mín var til trés metin’ (‘my tongue seemed like wood’), which represents a striking image of the narrator’s loss of linguistic agency as well as a physical manifestation of his illness. His ability to speak has been curtailed, the bare stave of the tongue standing in direct contrast to the sinking sun, set with blazing characters that proclaim his fate. The contrast being expressed here through the bare tongue and the celestial runes appears to draw on the same associations of script and executive power we saw at work in Rígsþula, although here the power to author the fate of the individual lies with the image of Christ in judgement. The narrator’s tongue may conjure up an image of a runestick on which this judgement is to be codified, a bodily incision not wholly removed from the engraved palms and fingernails of Sigrdrífumál or the piercing of Óðinn before he gains knowledge of the runes. Unlike many of the remnants of Norse myth in this poem that are clearly and deliberately aligned with the denizens of Hell – the mysterious Bjúgvör and Listvör dripping ferrous blood from their nostrils (st. 76), ‘Óðins kván . . . móðug á munað’ (‘Óðinn’s wife . . . bent on lust’) (st. 77), or the ‘gýgjar sólir’ (‘the ogress’s suns’) (st. 51) – the runes, at least in their first appearance in the poem, are aligned with the Christian complex of imagery. We should at this point take into account Larrington’s useful distinction in the poem between the ‘set of positively-valued signifiers which nevertheless carry pagan resonances’ including the ‘Dísir . . . dróttins mála’ (‘the Lord’s dísir of counsel’) (st. 25), and those signifiers, such as the heathen gods, which cannot be rehabilitated.95 The runic script, by explicit association with the sun/Son, surely belongs in the former category. There remains, however, something of a contradiction between the identification of the runes with the Christ symbol, and the ‘absolute opposition between heavenly and diabolic tropes’ that Larrington identifies most clearly in the dichotomy of bloody runes and heavenly script in the next reference to runes in the text.96 These particular manifestations of the script are encountered in the description of Hell, as the narrator journeys through the sigrheimr (‘victory realms’) and recounts various symbolic and harrowing sights, including the unfortunates being punished. The various groups of sinners appear to carry visible tokens of their misdeeds, the ‘blóðgu hjörtu’ (‘bloody hearts’) of the ‘dark women’ literally hanging out of their breasts (st. 58). In a similar manner, those men who died without receiving the


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sacrament carry a token of their sin: a pagan star stands over their head painted with feiknstafir (‘baleful runes’), whilst envious men carry bloody runes marked on their breasts: Marga men sá ek moldar gengna, þá er ei máttu þjónustu ná; heiðnar stjörnur stóðu yfir höfði þeim fáðar feiknstöfum. Menn sák ek þá, er mjök ala öfund um annars hagi; blóðgar rúnir váru á brjósti þeim merkðar meinliga. (Sólarljóð, sts 60–1)

I saw many men gone into the ground those who couldn’t obtain the sacrament; heathen stars stood over their heads coloured with baleful runes. I saw men then, who greatly harbour envy of another’s arrangements on their breast bloody runes were painfully marked.

It is again difficult to identify the symbolism behind these markings – to decide whether the runes are employed in a Manichean frame of reference whereby they represent tokens of evil in and of themselves, or whether they were used because the poet was aware of other traditions linking them with, for example, portents or bodily engraving. As we saw in the discussion of Sigrdrífumál in the previous chapter, there is certainly a poetic precedent for runes carved upon the flesh, and it may well be the semiotic value of the runes as symbols that is being stressed in both these cases, as markers which, as Njarðvík points out, signal the complete exclusion of the sinners.97 In the case of the men unable to obtain the sacrament, we may be dealing with something more radical than the exclusion of the unbaptised in Christian Iceland – here the implication seems to be that the ancestors are themselves damned, marked out by a script that is diabolical because of its older sacred associations. Indeed, there is perhaps a deliberate inversion of the operative use of runes in Sigrdrífumál, the script etched on the body not to lend power to the subject, but to brand them with the judgement of a Christian God. It is hard to avoid the dichotomy being set up in the poem between the runic symbols carried by these unfortunates, and the symbols that signal out the blessed: pure candles burn brightly over the heads of the generous (st. 69), and in the case of those who aided the poor in life, it is reported that ‘lásu englar helgar bækr / ok himna script yfir höfði þeim’ (‘angels read holy books and the writing of the heavens over their heads’) (st. 70). If there is a scriptural mythopoeia at work in the poem, it might be the aligning of these ‘visual tokens’ in ‘absolute opposition’; runes with the symbols of a miserable fate, and the himna script of the book associated with salvation.98

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The runes are not inappropriate to be associated directly with Christ and a sacred sphere, but the message they transmit is a doleful, fateful one, not of salvation, but of etched sins and miseries, and of Christ in judgement rather than benediction. Whilst the contrast is clear enough in the symbology of the sinners and the blessed, the final strophes of the poem (the section Amory refers to as the ‘runic epilogue’), suggest that this binary was not replicated elsewhere in the landscape of the Christian afterlife, and that the runes fulfilled a more complex role as symbols of written authority: Arfi, faðir

einn ek ráðit hefi,

ok þeir Sólkötlu synir hjartarhorn, þat er ór haugi bar inn vitri Vígdvalin. Hér eru þær rúnir, sem ristit hafa Njarðar dætr níu, Bǫðveig in elzta ok Kreppvör in yngsta ok þeira systr sjau. (Sólarljóð, sts 78–9)99

Heir, I the father, alone have interpreted – except for the sons of Sólkatla – the hart’s horn, that which from the grave Vígdvalinn the wise carried. Here are the runes which the nine daughters of Njǫrðar carved Bǫdðveig the eldest, and Kreppvör the youngest, and their seven sisters.

Whilst it is possible to read the two images of the horn and the carved runes as distinct and separate, we have seen that the idea of runes written on a horn is a fairly naturalistic (or at least poetically consistent) association. It is also clear that the hjartarhorn is to be related to the sun-stag that appears earlier in the poem as an image of Christ, and that it is an object with deep symbolic import, perhaps representing the revelatory crux of the poem. Amory points out the regenerative power ascribed to horns in the medieval Physiologus, and suggests that the horn is here representative of Christ’s resurrection.100 Amory even identifies Vígdvalinn with the apostle Peter, and the barrow with the empty tomb of Christ. The inscribed horn is thus symbolic of the teachings of Christ ‘communicated through the Roman Church to the faithful in Iceland’.101 These ‘mystical characters’ play a vital role in this allegory of transmission: indeed, we might say that the poem is re-inscribing the pagan past with the truth of the Christian story, and situating runes as the cultural and technological precedent to scripture. This is remarkably similar to the situating of runes as a prophetic Old Testament script in the Old English poems treated in Chapter 1 in this volume, and perhaps reflects a similar desire to assimilate this important symbol of Germanic heritage into the scriptural narrative of the Scandinavian Church.


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Perhaps the difficulty of reading the runes in this poem ultimately stems from a conflict between two registers: that of the sacred rune acquired by a poet ‘widely versed in Eddic tradition’,102 and the realities of the runic script as used in the thirteenth century. The poetic image of runes distilled from Eddic poetry belongs in a vision of Hell,103 alongside Óðinn and the ogresses’ sons. Yet the adoption of runes for Christian memorial inscriptions and overt expressions of piety perhaps also gave them a central place within the identity of the Scandinavian Church, and allowed for their use in an overtly Christian symbology. The poet of Sólarljóð is at once banishing the former conception of runes to the past whilst simultaneously reinvigorating their sacred potential in the present. By assimilating the runes in this way, the poet not only combines in the diorama the central dichotomy between the poetic and the practical explored in the previous chapter, but dramatises the appropriation of writing by the Church, and the dominance of the himna script. As Frye points out, ‘once Christianity had come to power in both spiritual and temporal areas, the bible became the basis for a cosmology that helped to rationalise the existing structures of authority’.104 The poet recognises that runes, and their poetic associations with wisdom, written heritage, history and knowledge, could not be completely banished to the heathen past, as they carried cultural weight and represented an existing structure of authority in the real world. Ultimately the power dynamics explored in Hávamál and Rígsþula are re-expressed as the Church’s control of humankind’s most enduring and revolutionary technology.

Conclusion The poems covered in this final chapter represent three distinct mythical constructions of the runic script at different stages of transmission. Hávamál is an arch-narrative pertaining not only to the origins of runes, but also to the peculiar nature of script itself, revealing within its sacred framework certain perceptive observations on the mechanics of writing and its cultural symbolism. Although the date of Rígsþula cannot be firmly established, it is almost certainly a later mythical narrative which complements the sacred genesis of the script in Hávamál. It can be read as a myth pertaining to the engendering of social orders and the reception of writing by humankind, but it also serves as an exploration of the role writing has to play within the inheritance culture of the late Viking Age. Finally, we saw how the late medieval poem Sólarljóð draws on the representation of the script in the mythological poems of the Edda, adopting the rune to serve as an emblem of pagan otherness within a medieval Christian landscape, but also assimilating it into the scriptural mythopoeia of the Scandinavian Church. All three poems enter into a dialogue about the role that writing plays within society, and the power that comes from control of this technology – both actual (in the form of codifying and authorising inheritance) and symbolic (in terms of initiation into sacred knowledge and asserting and

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maintaining control over cultural capital). Read without attention to this consciously literate discourse, these poems will be found to contain all the elements of numinous scriptural history: associations with sacrifice, divinity, secret knowledge and magic. It is this mythology of feiknstafir and diabolical potency which underpins the popular vision of runes as a mystical script, and which led antiquarians such as Bishop Thomas Percy to dismiss these myths as primitive expressions of awe by a people ‘barbarous enough to think there was something supernatural in writing’.105 Despite the conceitedness of such a pronouncement, Percy is right that writing is portrayed as extraordinary and potent. What he and his contemporaries failed to pinpoint was the fundamental role of sacred narratives in expressing the value of writing in the real world, interrogating the impact this technology has on society and appropriating the authority that it afforded. It took the development of semiotics as a discipline, and the consequent deconstruction of the dualism of speech and writing, for us to begin to appreciate the value of this discourse – a discourse that has profound implications for a society still being radically transformed by new applications of the written word. Although our sensibilities might have changed, the central importance of this discourse certainly has not.

Notes 1 Two foundational studies that adopt this as the primary definition of Norse mythology are J. de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols, 3rd edn (Berlin, 1970) and Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964). For a critical survey of approaches to defining Norse mythology, see John Lindow, ‘Mythology and Mythography’, in Carol J. Clover and John Lindow (eds.), Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (Toronto, 1985), pp. 21–67. 2 Heather O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla (London, 2008), p. 2. 3 For a recent reassessment of the relationship between Old Norse myth and ritual, see Jens Peter Schjødt, ‘Myths as Sources for Ritual – Theoretical and Practical Implications’, in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society (Odense, 2003), pp. 261–78. 4 James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, vol. 7, Pt 2 (New York, 1990), p. 88. 5 Margaret Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, Vol. 1: The Myths (Odense, 1994), p. 15. 6 Walter J. Ong argues in his important study that alphabetic writing was invented only once, in Mesopotamia, Orality and Literacy (London, 2002), p. 88. However, the logosyllabic writing systems of Mesoamerica were certainly developed independently. 7 Wayne M. Senner (ed.), The Origins of Writing (Lincoln, NE, 1991), p. 10. 8 Ibid., p. 14. 9 Rolf H. Bremmer, ‘Hermes-Mercury and Woden-Odin as Inventors of Alphabets: A Neglected Parallel’, in Bammesberger, Old English Runes, pp. 409–19, at p. 417. 10 On this tradition, see Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 233–6. 11 Terje Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Woodbridge, 2005), p. 15.


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12 Eugen Mogk, for example, suggests that parts of the poem date back to the early ninth century, Geschichte der Norwegisch-Isländischen Literatur (Strasbourg, 1904), p. 87, whilst Evans suggests a fairly late compilation of disparate gnomic material, Hávamál, p. 7. 13 Deyr fé / deyia frændr (‘Cattle die / kinsmen die’) (sts 76 and 77:1–2). This may be a semi-proverbial statement, as Clunies Ross suggests, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 50–1. However, Eyvindr ‘poet-spoiler’ may also be deliberately echoing a well-known Eddic stanza for rhetorical effect: including removing the consolation of lasting reputation which follows these lines in Hávamál. 14 Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda (Oxford, 1996), p. 14. 15 See Elizabeth Jackson, ‘A New Perspective on the Relationship between the Final Three Sections of Hávamál and the Role of Loddfánir’, SBVS 24 (1994–97): 33–58. 16 In support of the unity of the Rúnatal section of the poem (contrasting with Evans’s view of its incoherence), see Elizabeth Jackson, ‘Eddic Listing Techniques and the Coherence of “Rúnatal” ’, Alvíssmál 5 (1995): 81–106. 17 Side A of the Noleby Stone (Vg 63) reads runo fahi raginakudo toj-a ‘[I] paint the suitable rune derived from the gods’. In Hamðismál (st. 25) the compound reginkunngi is also used to refer to Iǫrmunrekkr, king of the Goths. In the case of the inscriptions, the translation ‘divinely inspired’ – suggesting a continued influence over composition at the moment of carving – may be valid, particularly as both the Noleby and Sparlösa stones (Vg 63 and 119) include creative (or non-formulaic) elements, Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Woodbridge, 2006), p. 213. 18 Patrik Larsson, ‘Runes’, in Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse– Icelandic Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2005), pp. 403–26, at p. 418. The Sparlösa and Noleby inscriptions both originate from Västergöland, Sweden, and the latter ‘cannot be younger than ca. A.D. 450’, Elmer H. Antonsen, Runes and Germanic Linguistics (Berlin, 2002), p. 183. 19 See, for example, A.G. van Hamel, ‘Óðin Hanging on the Tree’, Acta Philologica Scandinavica 7 (1932): 260–88 and J. Fleck, ‘Óðinn’s Self-Sacrifice – A New Interpretation. II: The Ritual Landscape’, Scandinavian Studies 43 (1971): 385–413. For a study of the ritual function of other Eddic poems, see Einar Haugen, ‘The Edda as Ritual: Odin and His Masks’, in R.J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason (eds.), Edda: A Collection of Essays (Winnipeg, 1983), pp. 3–24. 20 S. Bugge was perhaps the most vehement proponent of the Christian influence on the poem, as expressed in his Studier over de nordiske Gude og Heltesagns Oprindelse (Oslo, 1881), p. 219, whilst Klaus von See’s more recent arguments for Latin borrowing continue to be influential, ‘Disticha Catonis und Hávamál’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 94 (1972): 1–18. For the argument against extra-Scandinavian borrowing, see Evans, who suggests the influence of shamanic practices and Finno-Ugric mythology, Hávamál, pp. 29–34; and Carolyne Larrington, ‘Hávamál and Sources Outside Scandinavia’, SBVS 23 (1992): 141–57; and A Store of Common Sense (Oxford, 1993), pp. 97–108. Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, I, p. 224. 21 Claude Lévi Strauss, Tristes Tropiques trans. John Russell (New York, 1961), pp. 288–97, at p. 292. 22 Anthony Faulkes, Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, 2nd edn (London, 2005), ch. 15, p. 17. 23 Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, I, p. 224.

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24 Ibid. 25 C. Zimmermann, ‘ “How to Do Things with Runes”, Illocutionary Forces and Communicative Purposes behind the Runic Inscriptions in the Older Fuþark’, Futhark 1 (2010): 85–107, at p. 91. 26 Ong, Orality and Literacy, pp. 174–5. On the ‘new linguistic operations that writing permits’ see also Jack Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987), p. 270. 27 Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, I, p. 224. 28 Mats Malm, ‘Skalds, Runes and Voice’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 6 (2010): 135–46, at p. 142. 29 I do not follow Fleck in reading this episode as a coherent and replicable ritual, although his argument that Óðinn is hanging by his feet and has his hands free to ‘take-up’ the runes is a compelling one, ‘Konr-Óttarr-Geirroðr: A Knowledge Criterion for Succession to the Germanic Sacred Kingship’, Scandinavian Studies 42:1 (1970): 39–49. 30 van Hamel uses this observation to further his argument that Óðinn’s hanging is a self-actualising martyrdom in which he conquers the power of the runes, and wins his place as All-Father and ruler of the gods, ‘Óðin Hanging on the Tree’, p. 266. 31 Henning Kure, ‘Hanging on the World Tree: Man and Cosmos in Old Norse Mythic Poetry’, in Anders Andrén et al. (eds.), Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives (Lund, 2006), pp. 68–71, at p. 69. 32 Bǫlþorn does not appear in any other Eddic poem. Snorri appears to have taken his information in Gylfaginning directly from Hávamál or a common source, and tells us nothing more than is mentioned here. 33 See Quinn, ‘Liquid Knowledge’, and the discussion of the sacred mead in the previous chapter. 34 An earlier reference to runes at st. 80 repeats the idea of the runes being made by the ‘mighty gods’ and their staining by fimbulþulr (‘the mighty sage’). 35 Roy Harris, Rethinking Writing (London, 2000), p. 162 and p. 182. 36 The official website of the Ásatrú Alliance, (2013). Accessed August 2016. 37 Anatoly Liberman, ‘Germanic Sendan “To Make a Sacrifice” ’, JEGP 77 (1978): 473–88, at p. 473. 38 Liberman suggests that sendan here means ‘to make a sacrifice’, drawing on a disputed reference in Atlakviða to distributing pieces of Atli’s butchered children at a feast, ‘Germanic Sendan’, p. 473. 39 For example, in Ynglinga saga, where Snorri relates that a sacrifice was to be given to Óðinn for a good year, a good harvest and for victory in battle, each at the appropriate time of year, Aðalbjarnarson, Heimskringla, I, ch. 8. 40 CV, p. 578. 41 Lee M. Hollander (trans.), The Poetic Edda, 2nd edn (Austin, 1962), p. 37. 42 Stanzas 141–5 represent a particularly chaotic metrical sequence, as Evans points out in Hávamál, p. 4. 43 Ursula Dronke (ed. and trans.), Poetic Edda, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1969–2011), p. 32. 44 Other references to rúnar in Hávamál, such as the closing statement of Gestaþáttr ‘þat er þá reynt / er þú at rúnom spyrr’ (‘that is now proved, what you asked of the runes’) (st. 80) and the reference to ‘judgement of runes’ in the High-One’s hall (st. 111) may refer to the broader meaning of rún as secret wisdom, as Spurkland argues it does in the account of Óðinn’s sacrifice itself, Norwegian Runes, p. 14. For the etymology of ON rún and the connection between sounds and secrets, see Malm, ‘Skalds, Runes and Voice’, pp. 135–46. 45 This is perhaps not so very different to the linking of developed Latin literacy with magic practices in twelfth-century England, as explored by David Rollo,





49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

59 60 61 62 63 64

Sacred script Glamorous Sorcery: Magic and Literacy in the High Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 2000). The Codex Wormanius (AM 242 fol.) contains the four Grammatical Treatises in addition to the Prose Edda. Several leaves have been lost, including the stanzas that conclude the poem, which finishes abruptly with a crow’s admonition of Rígr. On the poem’s manuscript context, see Sigurðr Nordal’s introduction to Codex Wormanius (Copenhagen, 1931). Vǫluspá opens with the lines ‘Hlióðs bið ek allar / [helgar] kindir, / meiri ok minni, / mǫgo Heimdal[l]ar’ (‘I ask for the ear of all hallowed kin, high and low, sons of Heimdallr’) (st. 1), whilst Hyndluljoð refers to him as being born ‘rammaukinn miǫk, ragna kindar’ (‘with great influence of the human race’) (st. 35), providing some support for Heimdallr’s relationship with humankind. The treatment of stanzas is less traditional, however, their lengths varying considerably, often clearly for poetic effect. See Klaus von See et al., Kommentar zur den Liedern der Edda, 7 Vols (Heidelberg, 1997–2012), III, pp. 502–3 and Dronke, Poetic Edda, II, pp. 211–14. On the distinction between Eddic and skaldic verse, see Clunies Ross, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, pp. 6–18 and pp. 21–8. Georges Dumézil, ‘The Rígsþula and Indo-European Social Structure’, in Einar Haugen (ed.) and John Lindow (trans.), Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, 1973), pp. 118–25, at p. 118. See, for example, Sverre Bagge, ‘Old Norse Theories of Society: From Rígsþula to Konungs skuggsiá’, in J.E. Schnall and R. Simek (eds.), Speculum Regale: Der altnorwegische Königsspiegel (Vienna, 2000), pp. 7–45, at p. 10. Frederick Amory, ‘The Historical Worth of Rígsþula’, Alvíssmál 10 (2001): 3–20, at p. 5. Dronke, Poetic Edda, II, p. 204. Bagge, ‘Old Norse Theories of Society’, p. 27. Ibid., p. 37. Birger Nerman, ‘Rígsþula 16:8 dvergar á oxlum, arkeologiskt belyst’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 69 (1954): 210–13. Fleck goes some way to remedying this neglect in his article ‘Konr–Óttar– Geirroðr’, equating the runes throughout with numinous knowledge. See Hines, ‘Grave Finds with Runic Inscriptions’, p. 188. For a comprehensive discussion of references to erilaz in older fuþark inscriptions, which occur in a variety of contexts and may represent an ethnic rather than social label, see E.A. Makaev, The Language of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, trans. John Meredig (Stockholm, 1996), pp. 36–46 and Bernard Mees, ‘Runic “erilaR” ’, North-Western European Language Evolution 42 (2003): 41–68. This earl is generally accepted to be Håkon Eriksson, Earl of Lade, later ruler of Norway and Earl of Worcester under Knútr. Side A: ‘I have kept vigil all night, and not . . .’ Side B: ‘battle now, as the earl’s men . . .’ This inscription probably refers to breaking into the barrow at Maeshowe, Michael Barnes, The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney, Runrön 8 (Uppsala, 1994). Thomas D. Hill, ‘Rígsþula: Some Medieval Christian Analogues’, in Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington (eds.), The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology (London, 2002), pp. 229–43, at pp. 231–2. Amory, ‘The Historical Worth of Rígsþula’, p. 5. For references to the rune carver as skald or poet, see Judith Jesch, Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (Woodbridge, 2001), p. 6, note 2. For a further discussion of social rank expressed in runic inscriptions, see Jan Paul Strid,

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65 66


68 69

70 71 72 73 74

75 76 77 78 79 80 81


83 84


‘Runic Swedish Thegns and Drengs’, in Helmer Gustavson et al. (eds.), Runor och runinskrifter (Stockholm, 1987), pp. 301–16. There are a number of inscriptions that outline quite involved inheritance situations, most notably the Hillersjö inscription (U 29), whose labyrinthine serpent design reflects this complexity. Birgit Sawyer, The Viking Age Rune-Stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia (Oxford, 2000), p. 47. The tradition of raising rune stones reached its zenith in the late Viking Age, and was particularly fashionable in Sweden. Dronke states that these compounds are unique, Poetic Edda, II, p. 200. Whilst this is true for the term aldrrúnar, a reference to (a)iuinrunoR can be found on a ninth-century rune stone from Malt in Jutland (DR NOR1988;5), which, although badly damaged, appears to make reference to ævinrúnar, as well as teitirúnar (‘runes of gladness’). CV, p. 12. This impressive inscription from Uppland was commissioned by a certain Ingríðr in memory of Ingimarr, her husbandman, and her sons Danr and Banki/ Baggi. The inscription also mentions that she had a causeway raised, and that the family owned the estate in Runby. Fleck, ‘A Knowledge Criterion for Succession to the Germanic Sacred Kingship’, p. 49. Dronke, Poetic Edda, II, p. 234. Ibid. Lawrence de Looze, ‘The Outlaw Poet, The Poetic Outlaw: Self-consciousness and Poetic Process in Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 106 (1991): 85–103, at p. 98. Indeed, a verse attributed to Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney in Orkneyinga saga includes the fact that he ‘rarely forgets runes’ as the second of his nine skills, see Judith Jesch, The Nine Skills of Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney (Nottingham, 2006), p. 5. von See et al., Kommentar, III, p. 646. Karl G. Johansson, ‘Rígsþula och Codex Wormianus: Textens function ur ett kompilationsperspektiv’, Alvíssmál 8 (1998): 67–84. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 12. Barbara Johnson, ‘Writing’, in Frank Letricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (eds.), Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd edn (Chicago, 1995), pp. 39–49, at p. 48. Lindow, ‘Mythology and Mythography’, pp. 21–67, at p. 53. Maureen Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition (Toronto, 1981), p. 16. Editions of the poem include Hjalmar Falk (ed.), Sólarljóð (Oslo, 1914); Bjorn M. Ólsen (ed.), Sólarljóð (Reykjavík, 1915); Njörður Njarðvík (ed.), Sólarljóð (Reykjavík, 1991); and Carolyne Larrington and Peter Robinson (eds. and trans.), Sólarljóð, in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, VII:1 (Turnhout, 2007), pp. 287–357. On the genre of the dream vision and its position within the framing structure of Sólarljóð, see Brittany Schorn, ‘Eddic Poetry for a New Era: Tradition and Innovation in Sólarljóð and Hugsvinnsmál’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 7 (2011): 131–49, esp. pp. 133–4. Frederic Amory, ‘Sólarljóð’, in MSE, pp. 607–8, at p. 608. Carolyne Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool: Neo-Paganism in Sólarljóð’, in Bela Brogyanyi (ed.), Germanisches Altertum und christliches Mittelalter: Festschrift für Heinz Klingenberg zum 65. Geburtstag (Hamburg, 2002), pp. 177–96, at pp. 182–3.

180 85 86 87 88

89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99

100 101 102 103 104 105

Sacred script Larrington and Robinson, Sólarljóð, p. 287. Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool’, p. 192. Schorn, ‘Eddic Poetry for a New Era’, p. 139. Amory, ‘Sólarljóð’, p. 607. Margaret Clunies Ross argues that concentrating on this link to the exclusion of other influences has led to ‘an overvaluation of the similarities between the two poems’, ‘Review of Bjarne Fidjestøl, Sólarljóð’, SBVS 21 (1982–83): 111–14, at p. 113. However, the reappearance of the runic trope in the second half of each of the poems is a further indication of their broad congruence. Falk, Sólarljóð, p. 31. Ibid., p. 22. Frederic Amory, ‘Norse-Christian Syncretism and Interpretatio Christiania in Sólarljóð’, Gripla 7 (1985): 251–66, at p. 254. Ólsen, Sólarljóð, p. 42. Ibid. CV, p. 106. Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool’, p. 189. Ibid. Njarðvík, Sólarljóð, p. 91. Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool’, p. 189. I follow Larrington and Robinson in reading this stanza as a direct address by the father to his son. This reading negates the need to emend faðir to gen. sg. fǫður, which would be necessary if the fǫður arfi, ‘the father’s inheritance’ was the object of the sentence. As Larrington and Robinson point out, ‘the convention of a father addressing his son is frequent in wisdom poetry’ and it fits the rather personal nature of his counsel, Sólarljóð, p. 352. Amory, ‘Norse-Christian Syncretism’, pp. 261–3. Ibid., 263. Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool’, p. 183. Ibid., p. 184. Northrop Frye, ‘Blake’s Bible’, in Robert D. Denham (ed.), Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974–1988 (Charlottesville, 1990), pp. 270–86, at p. 275. Thomas Percy, Northern Antiquities Vol. 2, Facsimile Reprint (New York, 1770/1979), p. 216.

Conclusion The shape of things to come

The co-option of the rune by the poets of Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland represents the first stage in the script’s long and complex reception history. As Foys points out in his study of The Husband’s Message, in certain respects the use of runes within a developed manuscript culture represents a ‘transliteracy of obsolescence’ which bears witness to the decline of a tradition; and yet in the process of remediating the rune and representing the tradition to itself the Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets also reinforced the script’s continued relevance as a cultural and literary symbol.1 This symbolic value is at times connected with narratives of scriptural history and cultural identity, and on other occasions with particular reading practices that foreground the textual dynamics of the written word. We are thus not dealing with a ‘recoverable practice of runology’ encoded in the literature, as Lerer has effectively demonstrated,2 and there is little in the poetry that can (or should) inform the reading and interpretation of inscriptions. Indeed, to claim that the runic imagery in poems such as Beowulf or Sigrdrífumál represents nothing more than a distortion of runic practice in the real world in many ways misses the point that these are expressions of the cultural value of the script rather than its practical applications, the poets manipulating a tangible scriptural heritage in order to re-imagine the literate past and achieve particular literary effects in the present. Even poems that record pre-Christian mythology about the runes are concerned with reconciling a cultural product with an existing belief system, and tell us far more about the social impact of literacy than they do about what people were using the script for. Read collectively, the various manifestations of runes in poetry suggest that this process of reconstructive engagement played an important role in mediating cultural heritage and interrogating a flourishing culture of letters in Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland. In Chapter 1 we saw how the runic imagery in the Old English poems Daniel, Beowulf and Andreas consistently associates the script with prophetic messages that both foreshadow the destruction of pre-Christian peoples and anticipate their conversion. This representation of the script as a prophetic Old Testament signifier is consistent with both the use of runes on the deeply syncretic Franks Casket – in which the script serves as



a meaningful conduit for merging Germanic and early Christian narrative – and also with apparent attempts by Anglo-Saxon ecclesiasts to incorporate runes into an Isidorean paradigm for scriptural development. The situating of the runes as an Old Testament script in the poetry hints at a wider integrationist narrative which attempted to understand the role of the script in salvation history and to align an Anglo-Saxon inheritance with an Old Testament past. Of course, the historically implausible association of runes with Old Testament prefiguration and prophetic writing is a minor component of a much wider process of reconciliation between Germanic and Christian heritage in Old English literature. This process of cultural assimilation produced such striking individual moments of synthesis as the warrior Christ in The Dream of the Rood, but also led to the development of more pervasive cultural narratives that integrated an Anglo-Saxon heroic past with a Christian present. As Howe writes of the ancestral migration myth, ‘Neither able nor willing to discard their continental history, the Anglo-Saxons recast [their migration] as a biblical event that predated the coming of Christ’, this blending of Germanic and Old Testament narratives giving ‘a biblical warrant to their preconversion experience’, and allowing for the Anglo-Saxon ancestors to enter into Christian history.3 The use of runic imagery in depictions of prophetic Old Testament writing represents an analogous re-alignment of Germanic and Christian history at the level of written heritage, and points to an evolving integrationist myth of runic literacy. This was a narrative of the runic past which departed in significant ways from the historical realities of the runic tradition in England, and which in many ways challenged the conventional narrative of scriptural history. However, the multivalent characteristics of poetry provided a space for such problematic contradictions to play out, and allowed for the selective cultural memory of reddened runes and monumental writing to be co-opted as a typology which anticipated Christ.4 What is more, associating runes with prophetic writing whose symbolism was misunderstood by original readers is a move that would have encouraged continued engagement with the runic heritage of Anglo-Saxon England – the implication being that those who understand the script as an irrevocable sign of God’s presence are able to reveal its providential symbolism in the present. Chapter 2 turned to look at a group of Old English poems in which runic symbolism is indeed co-opted in the present, focusing on the runic strategies employed within the late tenth-century Exeter Book. If the runic imagery in Beowulf, Daniel and Andreas speaks to an underlying narrative of rapprochement between this Germanic inheritance and Christian salvation history, the co-option of the script by poets such as Cynewulf and the authors of the Old English riddles represent a conception of runes based first and foremost on their symbolic utility to Christian exegetes. As an antiquarian use of the script detached from the epigraphical tradition, it is perhaps unsurprising that the value of the runes as signifiers of a particular kind of



‘invested’ reading becomes the paramount association. It is also unsurprising that literary conceptions of the script – including the story of Imma in the OE Bede which pointedly associates the ‘alysendlic rune’ with the ability to unlock bonds – seem to have exerted an influence on the way in which the script was used by poets and scribes. The runes that appear throughout the Exeter Book – whether in the form of so-called abbreviations, clues alongside the riddles or within the developed strategies of poems such as The Husband’s Message – are all united by their association with ‘unlocking’ and with the revelation of meaning. The Cynewulf riddles in Christ II and Juliana skilfully draw upon this poetic conception of the rune in order to engage the reader in a form of invested disclosure, the runes signalling the point at which the poem takes an anagogic turn towards the fate of the individual who must reveal the message of earthly dissolution lying behind the runic conceit. Cynewulf’s guided disclosure relies on a developed connection between runes and revelation, a connection which almost certainly developed in tandem with the increasing rarefication of the script amongst a community that understood the written word as a vessel for God’s revelation to humankind. I would argue that the cultural narrative given expression in Daniel, Beowulf, and Andreas represents an earlier stage in the assimilation of runic heritage into Anglo-Saxon literary culture, and that it was perhaps a precondition for the kind of intellectual play that we see in the Exeter Book. The idea of the runes as script of Old Testament pedigree is not necessarily incompatible with the notion of releasing runes – after all, the solver of the runic riddles becomes a reader of scriptural mysteries in the present. Indeed, it may be significant that the most developed use of the revelatory motif by Cynewulf unites these two poetic conceptions of runes to a degree, as it ‘reveals’ a prophetic warning about the approach of Judgement Day. However, it is hard to escape the impression that in the Exeter Book the runes represent an academic plaything – a script only notionally connected with a Germanic inheritance, and whose special characteristics and associations arise primarily from its alterity on the page. On the one hand, the runic imagery in Daniel, Beowulf and Andreas gives voice to a narrative, however outlandish, which explains a script in use and negotiates its place in scriptural history. The runic conceits in the Exeter Book, on the other hand, point to the internal dynamics of a scribal community representing the script to itself as a statement of its own ability negotiate obscurity and reveal Christian truths. If the alterity of the script on the page is an important component in the hermeneutics of the Exeter Book poems, in other poetic contexts it is the appearance of the script that forms the primary rationale for its deployment. Chapter 3 considered the ‘ornamental textuality’ of the runic script in three contexts in which the visual alterity and materiality of the script appears to have played a key role in the conceit of the poem and its expression on the manuscript page. In Solomon and Saturn I, the runic Pater Noster (often



dismissed as an ornamental afterthought), is perhaps best understood as a deliberate co-option of a script associated with the tactile, physical world of epigraphy and particularly appropriate to the physical personification of these violent letters. What is more, the unusual designation of the Pater Noster as ‘palm-twigged’ may result from the unique aspect of the runic script used to render this prayer on the manuscript page, suggesting that the runes may have played a role in the conception as well as the realisation of this extraordinary poem. In the OE Rune Poem, the presence of the runes on the page appears to have influenced the layout and structure of the poem as well as the depiction of several of the riddles on the rune names. The poem’s discourse on the letters of the fuþorc also seems to have inspired an experiment with textual space, the poet varying the length of strophes in order to partly encode the ættir division and the shape and form of the letters themselves referenced on occasion in the characterisation of the runes. In the Norwegian Rune Poem such attention to the physical characteristics of the letter is more systematic, suggesting that the poet was presenting a series of riddles on both the name and the appearance of individual runes. In each of these three contexts the visual alterity of the script appears to have inculcated a response to runic heritage that valued the aesthetics of the script as much as its ability to represent language. Chapter 4 addressed a question implicit in all literary responses to runes: namely, the extent to which the poetry reflects practice in the real world, and the degree to which older traditions are preserved through the vagaries of transmission. The heroic poems of the Poetic Edda represent a particularly interesting test case for addressing the relationship between poetry and practice due to their recording of legends set in the Migration Period, and representation of a Germanic tribal society with knowledge of runes. Whilst it is easy to dismiss the catalogue of runes and runic applications in the poem Sigrdrífumál as a wholly imaginative reconstruction of runic heritage, points of overlap – such as the category of victory runes and the association of the alu and laukr formulas with runic practice in the Migration Period – suggest that echoes of genuine rune lore may have been preserved and perhaps intentionally selected for their exotic nature, in keeping with the outlandish, exaggerated characters of the legendary cycle. Comparing this conception of runes with that in Atlamál – a poem that seems to represent a late reworking of traditional material and includes the anachronistic representation of a runic communiqué – demonstrates how little accommodation has been made to contemporary practice elsewhere in the Poetic Edda. Freed from an aesthetic of plausibility by their setting in the deep past of the heroic world, poets reworking the Sigurðr cycle incorporated the most obscure aspects of runic heritage fossilised in the poetic idiom, constructing cultural memory in the process. Finally, Chapter 5 examined the role of runes within the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda and the role of writing within the wider mythic complex. The poems Hávamál and Rígsþula together present a relatively



complete narrative of the divine origins and reception of the runic script, whilst Sólarljóð offers a poetic account of its assimilation into a Christian scriptural mythology. In each case, the myth pertains not to the actualities of runic practice in the ‘relation of theory to practice’,5 but to the social value of writing, the possibilities afforded by the written word and the politics of literacy. For the Icelanders recording these myths, the continuing currency of the runic script may have come from its importance as an emblem of writing and written heritage. The myth of Óðinn’s reception of the runes was probably not valued in Iceland because of a continuing belief in the divine origins of the script, but rather because it served to interrogate a technology that had revolutionised Icelandic literary culture. In Sólarljóð we see how imperative it was to co-opt the symbolic currency of the rune into the mythology of the Scandinavian Church, even if the script itself had a negligible practical value in an ecclesiastical culture dominated by the technology of the book. In its rapprochement between runic heritage and Christian scriptural history, the late pastiche poem Sólarljóð perhaps bears comparison with a much earlier phase of poetic reception in Anglo-Saxon England, expressed most clearly in Beowulf and in the syncretic scriptural iconography of the Franks Casket. Indeed, the situating of the script as a signifier of a terrible fate and of Christ in judgement in Sólarljóð is similar in many ways to the association of runes with Old Testament prophecy and judgement in the Old English poems treated in Chapter 1, particularly in the way that runes are not excluded from sacred history, but rather co-opted to serve a particular role connected with the foreshadowing of an ascendant Latinate textuality. The difference is that in Anglo-Saxon England this narrative was intended to authorise the continued use of runes alongside the roman alphabet, and to find a place for this important symbol of Germanic inheritance within the textual culture of the Anglo-Saxon Church. In Sólarljóð, we see a polarisation of the symbology of runes and Latinate book-writing and little effort at the syncretism that characterises the Anglo-Saxon material. This Old Norse poem presents a myth that writes the book into the ascendancy, bearing testament to the Christian faith through the careful displacement of a script that seems here to have become symbolic of the recent pagan past.

Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse: worlds apart? Perhaps the clearest distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Norse responses to runic heritage is the fact that Old English poetry reflects the adoption of the script to play a niche role within a vibrant ecclesiastical culture, whilst Old Norse poetry maintains a close association between the script and a pre-Christian complex of imagery. Before attempting to further rationalise this apparent divergence in response to the runic script, we first need to acknowledge the bias in the material selected for inclusion and the limitations of the present study. The aim of this exercise in reading runes in poetry has been to identify some of the prevailing literary discourses surrounding



the runic script, to assess its role in the hermeneutics of the poetry and to understand the co-option of this feature of literary heritage in context rather than in literary isolation. However, one thing this study has made clear is that no single paradigm exists to understand the complex of runic imagery presented in such a diversity of texts. Several potentially illuminating uses of runes in poetic texts – including the fairly extensive use of the máðr and fé abbreviations in Old Norse manuscripts – lay outside the scope of this book, even though this scribal co-option of runes clearly marks a point of crossover between the two traditions. Similarly, whilst there are fewer examples in Old Norse literature of the kind of runic play that we see in the Exeter riddles, there are certain runica manuscripta in the Icelandic tradition in which runic characters are employed in inventive ways within literary texts, the curse in Bósa saga being the most well-known example.6 References to runes in skaldic poetry are few, but Egill’s poetic diatribe against sloppy rune carvers discussed in the introduction is one potentially illuminating example of the crossover between poetry and practice. Critical attention to these omissions may change or clarify our view of Icelandic responses to runic heritage, and should certainly make us wary of drawing these conclusions too tightly. That being said, there are several broad distinctions emerging from this study that require further comment. First of all, it is clear that, on one hand, in the literary culture of Anglo-Saxon England we find runes used fairly often, but spoken about rarely. In medieval Iceland, on the other hand, we find a great deal of poetry evoking runic imagery, but fewer conspicuous co-options of the script by Old Norse poets. This may in turn reflect a broad distinction between the attitudes to runic heritage in these two literary cultures. In medieval Scandinavia the runic script had an ongoing currency within the wider Norse complex, even if the evidence suggests that the tradition of runic writing did not flourish in Iceland itself. Icelandic poets, I suggest, had more of an interest in preserving the mythology and rune lore associated with the script as custodians of a precocious literary culture than they had in adapting this material to reflect current runic practice. In addition, it is clear that the pre-Christian mythology retained a real significance for Icelandic poets, enshrined as it was in the predominantly secular culture of skald-craft. Rune names with pagan associations, although ‘purged’ in England, were retained in Norway and Iceland,7 and whilst the conversion had a profound impact on Icelandic society, there is certainly ‘no reason . . . to think that this change of religion deprived traditional myths of all their truth value’.8 In other words, for poets in medieval Iceland, runic inheritance was unashamedly tied up with pre-Christian cultural heritage, was retrospective in sentiment even when representing a living tradition and paid little heed to runic developments elsewhere in Scandinavia. The combination of this marginal contact with runes and the tendency to preserve and rework myth and history as part of Iceland’s extraordinary literary flourishing would account for many of the apparent distortions of practice, but also



the occasional faithful preservation of earlier conceptual engagements with runes, including the myth of origins in Hávamál. These conditions certainly gave the Icelanders the freedom to appropriate the rune as a literary topos, and to use it to throw light on their own developed literary culture. In Anglo-Saxon England the poets and scribes employing runes in literary texts were at even more of a remove from the epigraphical tradition. Runic coin legends suggest that ‘in East Anglia as late as 800 an ability to write in runes was fairly widespread’,9 whilst in the north of Northumbria a tradition of runic writing may have persisted as late as the eleventh century.10 However, there is no doubt that a scribe writing in Winchester or Glastonbury in the tenth century, far from the historical centres of runic activity in England, would have been at both a chronological and geographical remove from the tradition of inscribing Anglo-Saxon runes.11 We are thus dealing with a scribal culture looking inwards to its own conventions of representation, and focused on the cultural symbolism and appearance of the runes. The script, in and of itself, thus became the primary focus in the literature, its otherness determined in a large part by its difference on the page and its association with the epigraphical practices of an earlier age. What is more, it is clear that the script was swiftly divested of any associations with pre-Christian narratives of origin in Anglo-Saxon England, and the mythologizing of the script that we see preserved in texts such as Beowulf and Andreas is one of reconciliation between Germanic heritage and Christian salvation history. Even the echoes of earlier conceptual engagements with the script that we see in Bede’s account of the litteras solutorias seem to have been reinterpreted by the poets in terms of Christian revelation and the unlocking of meaning through reading, and there is certainly no desire to preserve Germanic traditions about the runes, even when they serve as a useful symbol of a literate Anglo-Saxon past. Indeed, it should be remembered that all the Old English texts in which runes appear are demonstrably and wholeheartedly Christian, in a way that the poems of the Edda are not. This perhaps touches on the fundamental difference between the Norse and Anglo-Saxon responses to runic heritage: one culture was interested in preserving pre-Christian material relating to runes as an important feature of its poetic inheritance; the other was interested in co-opting the rune as a symbol of Germanic heritage and scriptural alterity unencumbered by pre-Christian conceptions of the script. This in turn may reflect the fact that in Anglo-Saxon England the literary culture was almost exclusively dominated by the interests and concerns of the Church, whilst in Iceland a less-centralised literary culture developed which was more amenable to the preservation of pre-Christian traditions. The very different attitudes towards a pre-Christian heritage, as well as relative remoteness from the respective epigraphical tradition, perhaps goes some way to explaining why in the Anglo-Saxon poetry the focus is on what we might call the concrete terms of runic textuality – the material legacy of the script, its association with unlocking, its form and aspect – whilst



the Norse runic imagery, as we have seen, more usually pertains to the social dimension of writing and the implications of literacy. This distinction can be taken only so far, and it would not be sensible to labour the point, particularly when there is much work to be done on the Icelandic runica manuscripta. Indeed, in one particular respect the runic imagery in the two bodies of literature actually has much in common. Both poetic traditions exploit the alterity of the runic script, its associations with an earlier period of writing and its particular textual conventions in order to engage with the written word within a written medium. In this sense of harnessing an alternative tradition to act as a critical discourse within the literature, the cultural responses are, I think, broadly comparable.

An image of writing If there is one feature uniting the various uses of runes and runic imagery in Old English and Old Norse poetry, it is the script’s role in drawing attention away from the message encoded by the written word and towards the medium, or what Bredehoft refers to as the ‘veil’ of the script itself.12 As Johnson points out, ‘images of writing in writing testify to an enduring fascination with the mechanics and materiality of the written word’,13 and the literary interrogation of writing as a process may be a key indicator of a fully literate society. However, the self-referentiality implicit in ‘writing about writing’ also makes it a singularly difficult topic to engage with directly,14 particularly ‘since the means of appraisal are influenced by the media’.15 In order to move outside of this ‘unclosable loop’ we have need of a metalanguage that disrupts the familiar terms of reference and thus allows for a discourse about the formal characteristics of writing through the written word.16 It is perhaps no surprise that in the developed literary cultures of AngloSaxon England and medieval Iceland, the runic script came to serve just such a ‘meta-scriptural’ role. As a script both familiar and strange, native and exotic, the runes could be used to negotiate the difference of the past, to promote alternative reading practices and to highlight the aesthetics of the written word. Runes allowed the poet to foreground the particular characteristics of written as opposed to spoken language – its material basis and visual hermeneutics, its ability to transcend temporality and reveal information privately – and to draw attention to the impact of this technology on human interactions, history and social constructs. Whether writ large on the wall as a message to the Shinarites, mirroring the dissembling strategies of the jay through a shifting scriptural register, or referenced as a poetic image of words altered in transmission, runes in poetry allow for a productive discourse on literacy and scriptural heritage precisely because of their difference from the textual culture in which these poems circulated. This otherness, Lerer suggests, is constructed in opposition to Christian concepts of the word as a vehicle for revelation, and reflects a superseded literate mentality



that imagined letters to have ‘a power of their own’.17 Yet surely we should qualify this statement in light of the consistent association between the runic script and the dynamic realities of the written word. Rather than representing something outside and ‘other’ to the inherited culture of letters, what runes often seem symbolise within the poetic metaphysics of presence is the ‘other’ of writing itself, in its most emblematic and self-signalling form. I would argue that rather than representing a superstitious legacy about the written world, the rune in the manuscript environment actually constitutes a ‘healthy sign’, defined by Eagleton as ‘one which does not try to palm itself off as “natural” but which, in the very moment of conveying a meaning, communicates something of its own relative, artificial status as well’.18 This meta-linguistic effect can only be a result of distance from practice, and the interaction of a dominant system with the less familiar ‘other’, and it only reinforces the impression that these literary engagements are at some remove from the runic tradition that they reference. It is also clear that we should regard the runes as an essential component of the meaning of a poem, even when seemingly ‘ornamental’, and recognise that in the context of poetry they carried a host of associations borrowed from the runic tradition and constructed in contrast to the roman alphabet. We should therefore properly understand the representation of runes in these earliest medieval sources as the first stage in the appropriation of runes as literary and cultural symbols. Indeed, in the image of runes presented in Old English and Old Norse poetry we find many of the nascent ideas about the script that have come to dominate the popular imagination, including an association with esoteric and cryptic practice, a link between the script and cultural or national identity, a connection with the divine, and the privileging of shape and form over the function of the letters as phonetic signifiers: in short, the idea that the script is more than simply an ordinary alphabetic writing system. Many of these ideas are directly related to the misreading of Old English and Old Norse poetic conceptions of runes as both contemporary with the use of the script by the society recording the poetry, and as theory that relates directly to a practiced tradition. To read the runes correctly we do need to be aware of the epigraphical conventions, and have some understanding of the runic tradition to which they ultimately refer. But this relationship, the comparing of like with unlike, should not be the focus of the discourse: runes in literature need to be read on their own terms. To loosen, if not break, this chain of connection allows us to read the runes in full awareness of their unique place in the literary imagination, as ‘signs of writing’ above and beyond their function as written signs.19

Notes 1 Martin K. Foys, ‘Media’, in Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling (eds.), A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies (Chichester, 2012), p. 143. 2 Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), p. 16.



3 Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (New Haven, 1989), p. 72 and p. 105. 4 See ibid., p. 72. 5 Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. 7, Pt 2, p. 88. 6 Guðni Jónsson (ed.), Fornaldar sögur Norðrlanda III (Reykjavík, 1959), pp. 281–322, at p. 295. See Macleod, ‘Bandrúnir in Icelandic Sagas’, in Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross (eds.), Preprints of the 11th International Saga Conference (Sydney, 2000) for an interesting discussion of the references in Bósa saga and Egils saga, which certainly seem to be ‘of literary rather than historical interest’, p. 260. 7 Lucien Musset, Introduction à la Runologie (Paris, 1965), p. 135. 8 Margaret Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, Vol. 1: The Myths (Odense, 1994), p. 18. 9 D.M. Metcalf, ‘Runes and Literacy: Pondering the Evidence of Anglo-Saxon Coins of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries’, in Düwel (ed.), Runeninschriften, pp. 434–8, at p. 438. 10 See Findell, Runes, pp. 54–5. 11 The importation of Scandinavian runes into the British Isles might be said to represent an interface of sorts, but it is clearly not the tradition, or the runic alphabet, that the poets are drawing upon. 12 Thomas A. Bredehoft, The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus (Oxford, 2014), p. 3. 13 Barbara Johnson, ‘Writing’, in Frank Letricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (eds.), Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd edn (Chicago, 1995), p. 39. 14 Barry B. Powell, Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization (Chichester, 2009), p. 11. 15 Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, ed. David Godfrey (Victoria, 1986), p. 6. 16 Johnson, ‘Writing’, p. 39. 17 Lerer, Literacy and Power, pp. 16–17. 18 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1996), p. 117. 19 This phrase refers to Roy Harris’s influential study Signs of Writing (London, 1995), in which he argues for writing to be studied as an independent mode of communication.


Runic inscriptions [N] A + number = Preliminary registration number of runic inscriptions found in Norway outside Bryggen in Bergen. [N] B + number = preliminary registration number in the Oslo Runic Archives of runic inscriptions found at Bryggen in Bergen. Br Barnes = inscription published in Barnes, The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney. DR + number = inscription published in Lis Jacobsen and Erik Moltke (eds.), Danmarks runeindskrifter, 3 vols (Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1941–42). [DR] EM1985 = inscription published in Moltke, Runes and Their Origin. [U] Fv [+ year + page no.] = Fornvännen. Tidskrift för svensk antikvarisk forskning 1– (1906–). G + number = inscription published in Gotlands runinskrifter (SRI 11–12). Hs + number = inscription published in Marit Åhlén, ‘Runinskrifter i Hälsingland’, Bebyggelsehistorisk tidskrift 27 (1994): 33–50. IK + number = bracteate published in Karl Hauck et al. (eds.), Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit: Ikonographischer Katalog, 3 parts, 7 vols (München: Fink, 1985–89). [X] ItUOÅ1979 [+ page no.] = inscription published in Aslak Liestøl, ‘Andres gjorde meg’, Universitetets oldsaksamling årbok (1979): 228–34. KJ + number = inscription published in Wolfgang Krause and Herbert Jankuhn, Die Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark, 2 vols (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966). [DR] MS1995= inscription published in Marie Stoklund, ‘Die Runen der Römischen Kaiserzeit’, in Ulla Lund Hansen (ed.), Himlingøje – Seeland – Europa: Ein Gräberfeld der jüngeren römischen Kaiserzeit auf Seeland, seine Bedeutung und internationalen Beziehungen (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Nordiske oldskriftselskab, 1995), pp. 317–46. N + number = inscription published in Magnus Olsen (ed.), Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer, 6 vols (Oslo: J. Dybwad, 1941–1990). Ög + number = inscription published in Östergötlands runinskrifter (SRI 2). NOR [+ year + page no.] = inscription published in Nytt om runer – Meldingsblad om runeforskning – (1986–). Sm + number = inscription published in Smålands runinskrifter (SRI 4). Sö + number = inscription published in Södermanlands runinskrifter (SRI 3).



SRI = Sveriges runinskrifter, 14 vols (Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 1900–). [DR] Til5 = tillæg / supplement to DR. U + number = inscription published in Upplands runinskrifter (SRI 6–9). Vg + number = inscription published in Västergötlands runinskrifter (SRI 5).

Reference works Bierbaumer, Peter and Hans Sauer with Helmut W. Klug and Ulrike Krischke, Dictionary of Old English Plant Names (2007–9), Bosworth, J. and T.N. Toller, An Anglo–Saxon Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898). Cleasby, Richard and Gudbrand Vigfusson, supplemented by William R. Craigie, An Icelandic–English Dictionary, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). Fritzner, Johan, Ordbog over det gamle norske sprog, vol. 3 (Oslo: Den Norske Forlagsforening, 1896). Gneuss, Helmut, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 241 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2001). Ker, N.R., Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). Runenprojekt Kiel, Sprachwissenschaftliche Datenbank der Runeninschriften im älteren Futhark, Samnordisk runtextdatabas / Scandinavian Runic-Text Database, http://www.nordiska. Toller, T.N., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921).

Editions and translations Abbot, H.H. (trans.), The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Cambridge: The Golden Head Press, 1968). Anlezark, Daniel (ed. and trans.), The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, Anglo-Saxon Texts 7 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009). Bæksted, Anders (ed.), Islands runeindskrifter, Bibliotheca Arnamagnaeana 2 (Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1942). Barney, Stephen A., W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (eds. and trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Bauer, Alessia (ed.), Runengedichte: Texte, Untersuchungen und Kommentare zur gesamten Überlieferung, Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia 9 (Vienna: Fassbaender, 2003). Baum, Paull F. (ed. and trans.), Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1963). Bellows, Henry Adams (trans.), The Poetic Edda (New York: The American–Scandinavian Foundation, 1923). Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson (ed.), Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla, 3 vols, Íslenzk fornrit XXVI–VIII (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1941–51). Byock, Jesse (trans.), The Saga of the Volsungs (London: Penguin, 1999).



Colgrave, Bertram and R.A.B. Mynors (eds. and trans.), Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969). Dickins, Bruce (ed.), Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915). Dronke, Ursula (ed. and trans.), The Poetic Edda, vol. 1–3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969–2011). Edgar, Swift (ed. and trans.), The Vulgate Bible, Vol. I: The Pentateuch, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Edwardes, Alice, Runes: And Other Poems (London: Chelsea Publishing Company, 1925). Evans, David A.H. (ed.), Hávamál, Text Series 7 (London: VSNR, 1986). Falk, Hjalmar (ed.), Sólarljóð (Oslo: Jacob Dybwad, 1914). Farrell, R.T. (ed. and trans.), Daniel and Azarius (London: Methuen, 1974). Faulkes, Anthony (ed.), Snorri Sturluson: Edda: Skáldskaparmál, 2 vols (London: VSNR, 1998). ———, Snorri Sturluson: Edda: Prologue and Gyfaginning, 2nd edn (London: VSNR, 2005). ———, Snorri Sturluson: Edda: Háttatal, 2nd edn (London: VSNR, 2007). Finch, R.G. (ed. and trans.), Vǫlsunga saga (London: Nelson, 1965). Godden, Malcolm (ed.), Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, Text, EETS s.s. 5 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Guðni Jónsson (ed.), Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Íslenzk fornrit VII (Reykavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1936). ———, Fornaldar sögur Norðrlanda III (Reykjavík: Íslendingasagnútgáfan, 1959). Halsall, Maureen (ed. and trans.), The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), The Poetic Edda, 2nd edn (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962). Kemble, J.M. (ed. and trans.), The Dialogue of Solomon and Saturnus (London: The Ælfric Society, 1848). Klinck, Anne L. (ed. and trans.), The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1992). Krapp, George Phillip and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 6 vols (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931–53): I, George Philip Krapp (ed.), The Junius Manuscript (1931); II, George Philip Krapp (ed.), The Vercelli Book (1932); III, George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Exeter Book (1936); IV, Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (ed.), Beowulf and Judith (1953); V, George Phillip Krapp (ed.), The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius (1932); VI, Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (1942). Larrington, Carolyne (trans.), The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Larrington, Carolyne and Peter Robinson (eds. and trans.), ‘Sólarljóð’, in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Scubjects, Part 1: The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages VII (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 287–357. Marsden, Richard (ed.), The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novi, vol. 1, EETS o.s. 330 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).



Menner, Robert J. (ed. and trans.), The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (London: Oxford University Press, 1941). Miller, Thomas (ed.), The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 4 vols, EETS o.s. 95, 96, 110, 111 (London: EETS, 1890–8). Muir, Bernard J. (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002). Muir, Bernard J. (ed.) with Nick Kennedy (programming), The Exeter DVD: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006). Neckel, Gustav (ed.), Edda – Die Lieder des Codex Regius, 2 vols (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1962/68). Njörður P. Njarðvík (ed.), Sólarljóð (Reykjavík: Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands Menningarsjóðr, 1991). Ólsen, Bjorn M. (ed.), Sólarljóð (Reykjavík: Prentsmiðjan Gutenberg, 1915). Page, R.I. (ed.), The Icelandic Rune Poem (London: VSNR, 1999). Rauer, Christine (ed. and trans.), The Old English Martyrology (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013). Sigurðr Nordal (ed.), Codex Wormanius – The Younger Edda, Corpus Codicum Islandicorum Medii Aevi II (Copenhagen: Levin and Munksgaard, 1931). ———, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, Íslenzk fornrit II (Reykavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1933). Tolkien, Christopher (ed. and trans.), Saga Heiðreks Konungs ins Vitra (London: Nelson, 1960). Tupper, Frederick Jr. (ed.), The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910). Williamson, Craig (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977). Zupitza, J. (ed.), Ælfric’s Grammatik und Glossar (Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1880). Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (eds.), Flóamanna saga, Íslenzk fornrit XIII (Reykavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1991).

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Index of Inscriptions Anglo-Saxon: Ash-Gilton sword pommel 31, 46n78, 125; Baconsthorpe pageturner 13; Bewcastle Cross 13, 25; Brandon pin-head 101; Chessel Down scabbard plate 31, 125; Collingham Cross 25; Faversham sword pommel 125, 144n26; Hackness Cross 90, 100; Harford Farm brooch 25; Holborough spear 125; Honington clip 28–9, 45n69; Maughold stones 25; Ruthwell Cross 13, 25; St Cuthbert’s Coffin 13; St Paul’s stone 25; Thames scramasax 31; Vale of Pickering disc 101; see also Franks Casket Denmark: Års II (DR IK8) 131; Fyn II (DR IK249) 131; Gallehus horn (DR 12) 128, 146n64; Illerup finds 124, 128, 145n41; Jelling II (DR 42) 84, 169; Lindholm amulet (DR 261) 129; Lund rib-bone (DR Til5) 134; LyngeGyde (DR IK298) 131; Malt (DR NOR1988, 5) 179n67; Ribe Healing Stick (DR EM1985;493) 129; Schonen I (DR IK149, 1) 147n85; Seeland II (DR IK48) 145n45; Skrydstrup (DR IK166) 131, 132, 147n85; Vimose finds 124–5 Norway: Bryggen (Bergen) inscriptions 80n78, 90, 133–4, 141–2, 148n116, 149n128, 163; Einang (N KJ63) 146n62; Fløksand knife (N KJ37) 147n82; Gol Church (N 575) 10n6; Hamarøy (N 538) 128; Herrem (N 455) 146n63; Hoperstad Church

XIX (N 408) 2; Hurum Church VI (N 564) 163; Oslo (N A33) 163, 178n60; Sele II (N 237) 2; Trondheim (N A142) 3 and (N A173) 90; Ulstad (N 53) 90 Sweden: Björketorp (DR 360) 123; Bro (U 617) 163; Drävle (U 1163) 127; Eneby (Sö 145) 164–5; Forsa rune ring (Hs 7) 147n105; Grötlingbo (G 36) 164; Hammenhög (DR IK267) 131; Hillersjö (U 29) 179n65; Kälvestenstenen (Ög 8) 163; Komstad (Sm 76) 163; Kylver (G 88) 145n45; Mariedamm (Nä 10) 100; Mos spearhead (G 269) 124; Nibble (U 659) 163; Noleby (Vg 63) 154, 176n17, 176n18; Nora (U 130) 164; Överselö (Sö 206) 24; Ramsund (Sö 101) 107–8; Rö (KJ 73) 146n62; Rök (Ög 136) 136, 148n113; Runby (U 114) 166, 179n69; Sigtuna amulet (U Fv1933;134) 129, 134; Skänninge (Ög NOR2001;32) 134, 148n116; Sparlösa (Vg 119) 154, 176n17, 176n18; Vadstena (Ög 178) 100 Elsewhere: Dahmsdorf-Müncheberg lance (KJ 32) 124; Gånge-Rolfs Drikkehorn (X ItUOÅ1979;229) 146n63; Kovel spearhead (KJ 33) 124; Maeshowe inscriptions 163, 167, 178n61; Nebenstedt I (IK 128) 131; Øvre Stabu spear (KJ 31) 124; Pietroassa neck ring (KJ 41) 147n104; Thorsberg shield-boss (DR 8) 124



General Index abbreviations see runes: logographs Abecedarium Nordmannicum 15, 111–12 Ælfric 42, 54–5, 76 ættir 98, 100–1, 111, 184 Aldred (glossator) 57 Andreas 8, 21, 38–40, 49, 181–3, 187 Atlakviða 128, 139–41, 177n38 Atlamál 9, 118, 139–43, 148n119, 184 Atli 119, 128, 139, 141, 177n38 Attila the Hun 118–19, 141 Augustine, St., Bishop of Hippo 14, 152 aurochs 73, 97, 102–3 Azarius 44n37, 45n69, 46n70 Baldr 63, 107 baptism 36, 40, 48n110, 172 Barthes, Roland 93, 111 Bede: account of Imma 8, 13, 52–4, 76, 87, 183, 187; Historia Ecclesiastica 52–5, 59, 78n11, 78n15; Life of St Cuthbert 53 Belshazzar 20–2, 27, 44n39 Beowulf 29–30, 32, 34–6 Beowulf 8, 29–38, 181–2, 185; Grendel-kin 29–30, 32–4, 47n89; manuscript 33, 36–7; relation to Andreas 38–41; runic abbreviation in 36–7, 57, 83, 48n112; runic hilt 29–36, 38–41, 46n75, 46n83, 47n92, 57, 83 Blake, William 153 Bǫlþorn 157, 177n32 Book of the Taking of Ireland, The 33 Borghildr 127–8 Bósa saga 186, 190n6 Bragi 134, 136 Cain 32–3, 35 Cassian 33, 36 Chaldean see invented alphabets Chaldeans 26, 39, 85, 87 Cham 33, 36, 47n92 charms 54, 78n16, 91, 122, 130–2, 134, 160; see also numinous practice; Pater Noster Christ: Ascension narrative 71; Christogram 108; Christ’s prayer 87, 96, 113n35; Crucifixion 25, 154–5, 182; foreshadowing of 18, 39, 42; in judgement 169–71, 73; nativity 18; recognition of 49

Christ II (The Ascension) 56, 70–3, 183 Church: Anglo-Saxon England 1–2, 14, 16, 18, 28–9, 40, 42, 52, 77, 92, 182–7; Scandinavia 146n81, 173–4, 185–7 Codex Regius 57, 118, 121, 143n2, 143n13, 154, 168–9; see also Poetic Edda Codex Runicus 82 Codex Wormanius 168, 178n46 Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae 86 Cynewulf 3, 8, 38, 56, 70–6, 83, 85, 182–3; authorship and identity 48n115, 71, 80n90, 81n92, 81n93, 81n97; see also Christ II (The Ascension); Elene; Fates of the Apostles; Juliana; scribal colophons Daniel 21–3, 26–8, 41, 45n66 Daniel, Book of 20–2, 27–9 Daniel (Old English poem) 6, 8, 21–9, 34, 41, 44n37, 45n45, 46n70, 83, 88, 128, 181–3 De inventione litterarum 14–15, 26 Derrida, Jacques 32, 114n45 Diodorus Siculus 152 dísir 134, 169, 171 dream visions 139, 150, 169–70, 179n82 Durham Ritual 57 Edwardes, Alice 1 Egill Skallagrímsson 2–3, 10n8, 24, 127–8, 138, 186 Egils saga 2–3, 10n8, 24, 127–8, 138, 147n102, 186, 190n6 Egyptian: heiroglyphs 152, 168; mislabelling 26 Elene 71, 80n90 Enoch, Book of 32, 47n89 Ermanaric 118, 141 Exeter Book 8, 49–51, 75–7, 84, 78n27, 78n31; Cynewulf’s poems 70–5; provenance and date 55–6; runic abbreviations in 57–60; runic riddles 60–8; see also individual poems Christ II (The Ascension); The Husband’s Message; Juliana; The Order of the World; riddles; The Ruin; Vainglory; The Wanderer; Widsith Fáfnismál 107, 122, 136, 148n109 Fates of the Apostles 38, 71, 81n95

Index Flóamanna saga 133 Flood, The (Biblical) 8, 15, 30, 32–6, 40, 47n87, 47n92 Franks Casket, The 7, 15–21, 16, 19, 29, 41, 43n15, 181–2 Frazer, Sir James George 150 giants 17, 30–6, 40, 47n87, 47n94, 60, 158; see also þurs glosses 44n44, 57, 62, 98, 103, 116n89, 116n93 Gospels of St Chad 82 Goths 118–20, 124, 147n104, 148n113, 176n17 Grani 107–8, 136 Greek alphabet 14–15, 41, 43n13, 57, 82, 87, 108, 152 Greenland 4, 133, 139–42, 149n128 Grettis saga 24, 33, 167 Grípisspá 138, 141 Guðrún 127–9, 134–5, 139–40 Guðrúnarkviða I 134–5, 146n75 Guðrúnarkviða II 5, 24, 127–8, 130, 141 Hákon Eriksson 163, 178n59 Hákon Hákonarson 162 Hamðismál 118, 142, 176n17 Harald Bluetooth 169 Haraldr hárfagri 162 Hávamál 3, 5, 24, 51, 54, 152, 163–4, 166, 174, 177n44, 187; abbreviations in 57; date and provenance 154–5, 176n12, 176n13, 176n20; influence on other poems 119, 122, 170, 177n32, 180n88; receipt of runes 153–7, 159–61, 171, 177n29, 177n30; rune types in 123, 144n32; structure of 154, 160–1, 176n16; see also Óðinn Hebrew alphabet 14–15, 26, 45n64, 87, 153 Heimdallr 156, 161, 178n47 Hell 89, 93, 169–71, 174 heroic legend: Anglo-Saxon 17–20, 41, 49, 55; Norse 107–8, 118–19, 122–3, 127–30, 138–43, 184 Hickes, George 1, 98–100, 102, 104, 115n67 Hǫgni 139–40 homiletic material 54, 71–2 Hrothgar 29–32, 34–8, 46n77, 47n92, 48n108, 57 Hugsvinnsmál 168, 179n82


Husband’s Message, The 56, 60, 68–70, 75–6, 83, 181, 183 Hyndluljoð 178n47 Iceland: flora and fauna 136, 139; literary tradition 4, 24, 103, 111, 130–1, 142–3, 150–1, 169–70, 185–8; political history 161–2, 168; runic tradition 4–5, 90, 111, 129–30, 133, 140, 142–3, 149n131, 185–6; see also Icelandic Rune Poem; runica manuscripta Icelandic Rune Poem 103, 115n78, 116n91, 116n93, 117n130, 129, 134, 147n93 invented alphabets 14, 26–7, 41, 87–8, 45n59 Ireland, literary tradition 33, 86, 95, 113n20, 114n38, 162, 167 Isidore of Seville 14–15, 43n6, 43n13, 87, 169, 182 isruna tract 25, 90, 100–1, 115n76; see also runes: cryptic forms Jewish history 14, 16–18, 21, 26, 41; see also Hebrew alphabet Jonah 18 Juliana 56, 70–1, 73–5, 183 Junius Manuscript 21, 28, 46n70 Konr ungr 162, 164–7 Kostbera 139, 141 Latin: inscriptions 24, 134, 141; sources and textual models 7, 33, 38, 84, 86, 100, 176n20; translation of 23, 52, 54, 95, 114n38, 116n91; see also glosses; roman alphabet; script mixing Lindisfarne Gospels 57 literacy, runic 6–7, 12n39, 50, 112n9, 120–1, 155–6, 163–7, 182 liturgical tradition 23, 26, 28, 46n70, 48n110, 71 magic see numinous practice manuscripts: AM 687 d 4to 147n93; Bamberg MS Msc. Part. 13/2 45n61; British Museum, MS Cotton Domitian A. ix 87, 90, 91, 96, 98, 100–1, 104; British Museum, MS Cotton Otho B. x 98, 105; British Museum, MS Harley 1772 (4) 112n4; British Museum, MS Cotton



Vitellius A. xv (Nowell Codex) 33, 36–7, 37; Brussels, MS Bibliotheque Royale, 1828–30 44n44; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 41 43n4, 57, 86; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 173 112n3; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 214 112n3; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 422 85–6, 91, 94, 96–7; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6250 43n13; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13067 45n64; Munich MS Lat. 14436 45n61; Oxford, St John’s College MS 17 26; Royal Library, Copenhagen, MS Bartholiniana D 116n104; Royal Library, Stockholm, MS Papp 116n104; SKB A 120 112n2; St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 878 14–15, 117n132; Vatican Library, MS Urbinas lat. 290 45n57; see also Codex Regius; Codex Runicus; Durham Ritual; Exeter Book; Gospels of St Chad; Junius Manuscript; Lindisfarne Gospels; Vercelli Book Mermedonians 38–42, 48n120, 49 metalworking, literary depiction of 32, 89, 106–9, 114n37, 117n120 metre 105, 121, 135, 159–60, 162, 170 migration, Anglo-Saxon 17–18, 182 Migration Period 119–21, 123–6, 131–3, 137–43, 148n113, 184; see also older fuþark Mímir 123, 135, 137, 155 mise-en-page 98–102 Nebuchadnezzar 20–1, 29, 48n108 Nephilim 32–4; see also giants Norns 136, 148n109 Northumbria 13, 16, 43n6, 52, 74, 78n11, 187 Norway: history 162, 178n59; literary tradition 105–11, 116n102; runic tradition 4, 90, 114n41, 140–1, 149n131, 186; see also Index of Runic Inscriptions; Norwegian Rune Poem Norwegian Rune Poem: form and metre 105–6; Germanic grundform 105, 116n102, 117n130; pictographic principle 107–10, 117n19; textual history 105 numinous practice: consecration and dedication 126, 130, 146n71; fertility

109, 130–1; invocations 124–5; in Latin tradition 53, 87, 91, 134, 177n45; protection 95–6, 127–8, 130–1, 145n56, 165; pseudo-medicinal 131–4; spells 51–2, 122, 157, 160, 165–6; see also charms; runes: and magic or paganism; sortilege Old English Rune Poem 8, 73, 95, 97, 111, 115n60, 115n68, 115n80, 184; structure 98–102, 99; textual history 98, 115n67; rune names 97, 102–5 older fuþark 9, 100–1, 119–21, 123–32, 136, 140, 143n15, 144n18, 148n113 Old Norse mythology: afterlife 168–75, 186–7; definition and role of 118–19, 150–1, 169, 185; sacred mead 122, 130, 137–8, 151, 157, 177n33; myth of runic origins 135–7, 152–61; origin of social classes 161–8; unlocking charms 51–2; see also Hávamál; Óðinn; Rígsþula; Sólarljóð oral tradition 7, 84, 142; meeting of orality and literacy 38, 51, 89, 93, 96–7, 110, 122–3; mnemonic principle 107–11, 134; vocalisation of letters 61–2, 64, 68, 157 Order of the World, The 49 Orkney 163, 167, 178n61, 179n74 Óðinn 3, 51–2, 76, 124, 136–7, 148n114, 174, 177n39; neck riddle 63; sacrifice of an eye 155–6; self-sacrifice 122, 153–7, 159–61, 171, 177n29, 177n30, 185; see also Hávamál pagan past 13, 159–60, 169–73, 186; neo-paganism 158; rehabilitation of 14, 18–19, 28–9, 35–6, 41, 43n6, 52–3, 168–70; see also numinous practice; ritual; runes: and magic or paganism Pater Noster prayer 8, 85–97, 114n38, 114n41; see also Solomon and Saturn I Percy, Bishop Thomas 175 Physiologus 173 Poem of 50 Questions 33 Poetic Edda 3, 5, 8–9; date and compilation 118, 143n2; historicity of 8–9, 119–20; see also individual poems: Atlakviða; Atlamál; Fáfnismál; Grípisspá; Guðrúnarkviða I; Guðrúnarkviða II; Hamðismál; Hávamál; Sigrdrífumál; Vǫlundarkviða

Index pregnancy and childbirth 52, 109–10, 133–4, 136, 147n95 puns and word games 39, 51, 62, 79n59, 93, 95, 128, 130 Reginn 107–8 Riddles: definition 60–1; keys in 58–60, 75–7, 83; lewd riddles 50–1, 58–9, 63, 130; Riddle 5(3) 67; Riddle 6(4) 67; Riddle 7(5) 67; Riddle 8(6) 67; Riddle 17(15) 67–8; Riddle 16(14) 67; Riddle 19(17) 63–5, 79n59; Riddle 23(21) 66; Riddle 24(22) 61–2; Riddle 42(40) 23, 49–51, 60–1, 66, 75, 83; Riddle 47(45) 89; Riddle 58(56) 3, 66–7; Riddle 60(58) 68; Riddle 64(62) 65–6; Riddle 75(73) 62–3, 79n49; Riddle 76 (74) 79n49; Riddle 91(87) 75, 83; ships in 64–6, 68, 70 Rígr 161–7, 178n46 Rígsþula: date and composition 161–2, 168, 178n48; role of writing in 163–8 ritual, pre-Christian 120, 123, 126, 150, 165, 175n3, 176n19; and sacrifice 154–60, 177n29, 177n39 roman alphabet 14, 26, 41, 90, 95, 152–3, 172–4, 177n45, 185 Romulus and Remus 17–18, 44n24 Ruin, The 59–60, 59, 89 Rúnatal see Hávamál rune categories: ævinrúnar and aldrrúnar 165–6, 179n67; ale runes (ǫlrúnar) 5, 122–3, 126–32, 132, 145n53, 145n60; biargrúnar 52, 133–4, 136, 138; bókrúnar/bótrúnar 132, 138, 148n116; brimrúnar 127, 133; dreyrstafir 170–1; feiknstafir 168, 172, 175; gamanrúnar 122–3, 144n32; hugrúnar 133, 135, 138; limrúnar 127, 133–4; málrunar 133–4, 138, 142, 147n101; skiprúnar 133, 147n93; victory runes (sigrúnar) 5, 96, 123–6, 114n57, 144n26; see also runes; runic inscriptions; Sigrdrífumál rune-master 68, 129, 158, 163, 178n58 runes: bind runes 16, 125, 145n45; as clues to riddles 3, 50–1, 56, 59–68, 70–2, 75, 83, 98, 183; conventional names 50, 56, 73, 95, 97–8, 102, 105–11, 186; cryptic forms 16–17, 19–20, 22–3, 26, 51, 69, 90, 100–1, 133, 147n93, 148n113; display script


21–4, 82–5, 88, 91–5, 97, 110–12, 112n4, 125, 170–1, 183–4; etymology of run / rún 22–3, 54, 78n16, 177n44; god-derived 151, 154, 161, 176n17, 177n34; as letters of insular alphabet 13, 56, 82; logographs 3, 56–60, 64, 67, 69, 71–5, 86, 124, 131, 147n82, 186; and magic or paganism 1, 5–6, 22–3, 39, 54, 86–7, 122, 124–5, 129–34, 143, 157–61, 165–6, 170, 175; marginalia 67–8, 82, 111; modern perception of 1–2, 158, 175, 189; as ‘Old Testament’ script 7–8, 15, 17–18, 20, 25–9, 36, 39–42, 87–8; origin myth 119, 135–7; origin of script 120, 143n15, 144n16; reddened runes 23–5, 41, 45n46, 45n52, 45n53, 128, 171, 182; reference marks 10n14, 82, 112n3; revealing poison 24, 127–8, 130, 132; variants 98, 117n119, 140–1; see also rune categories; runic inscriptions; writing runica manuscripta: Anglo-Saxon 4–5, 10n14, 13, 24–7, 43n13, 56, 82, 111–12, 187; link with epigraphy 20–1, 24, 27–9, 42, 56, 69, 76, 84–5, 97, 100, 113n12; Norse 5, 82, 112n2, 138, 142, 186, 188 runic inscriptions: alu formula 126–7, 129–32, 132, 144n26, 145n51, 145n53, 145n60, 147n85, 147n88, 184; amulets 3, 126, 129, 131–2, 134–5, 137, 148n114; bracteates 100, 121, 123, 126, 131–3, 132, 145n45, 145n51, 147n83, 148n114; carving of 83–4; communiqués 68–70, 83–4, 120, 139–42, 149n128, 149n131, 156, 159, 184; on horns 126–9, 132–3, 141, 146n63, 146n64, 173; inheritance function 164–8, 179n65; laukaz formula 130–3, 132, 142, 146n75, 147n82, 147n85, 147n88, 184; memorial function 34, 83, 85, 121, 135, 165, 169, 174; nauð 126, 128–9, 148n109; owner’s or maker’s marks 31, 34–5, 121, 124–5, 128, 145n41, 158; personal names 31, 69, 121, 145n41, 145n46, 158; ráð rétt formula and runic proficiency 2–3, 10n6, 138, 166–7; rúnakefli 3, 45n53, 68–70, 80n78, 83, 90–1, 141–2, 159, 171; unintelligible 120–1, 128–9, 145n37; on weapons 30–1, 45n50, 95–6,



123–6, 135–7, 144n26, 147n82; see also Index of Runic Inscriptions runology, modern discipline 1, 3, 5, 9; antiquarian knowledge1, 14–15, 24, 55, 82, 98–100, 105 sacrifice see ritual Saga of King Heiðrek 63 scribal colophons 70–5, 80n90, 81n95, 82, 112n6 script mixing 16–18, 42, 56, 62, 84, 93–5, 110, 112n9, 134, 189 Sigrdrífa 3, 122–3, 127, 130, 137–8 Sigrdrífumál; 9, 52, 119, 141–2, 159; drinking vessels 126–32; Mímir myth 135–7; minor rune categories 133–5, 138; structure and metre 121–3, 135, 144n28, 144n29; weapon inscriptions 123–6, 142; see also Mímir; rune categories Sigurðr 20, 107, 122, 127, 130, 136–8 skaldic poetry 2–3, 10n8, 131, 133, 154, 176n13, 178n48, 178n64, 186 Skírnismál 159, 167 Sleipnir 136 Snorri Sturluson: Gylfaginning 136, 155, 159, 177n32; Háttatal 147n101, 161; Prose Edda 178n46, 168–9; Skáldskaparmál 105–7, 161; Ynglinga saga 52, 177n39 Sólarljóð 168–75 Solomon and Saturn I 5, 8, 45n50, 77, 110–11, 113n24, 183–4; Lord’s Prayer tradition 88–91, 114n38, 114n41; manuscript versions and copying 86–7, 96–7, 113n18–19; personified letters 91–5; protection in battle 96; sources 85–6, 113n20; see also display script; Pater Noster sortilege 2, 39, 114n38; see also charms; numinous practice Soul and Body II 92 Sveinsflokkr 131, 146n81 Syriac see invented alphabets

textuality, runic 83–5, 88, 91–5, 97, 111, 112n9, 112n10, 167, 183–4 Tolkien, J.R.R 1 Týr 103, 108, 115n84, 116n93, 123–5 universal history 14–15, 18–21, 23, 72, 169, 185 Vainglory 49 Venantius Fortunatus 45n52, 84 Vercelli Book 38, 56, 57, 71 Vǫlsunga saga 121, 130, 137, 144n29, 148n107 Vǫlundarkviða 118–19 Vǫluspá 130, 154, 155, 156, 178n47 Wanderer, The 49, 77 Wanley, Humfrey 100, 102, 115n67 Weland 15, 18, 44n22 Wessex 4, 10n11, 76, 81n101 Widsith 49, 55 wisdom tradition 85, 97, 105–6, 122, 130–1, 153–5, 169, 180n99 Worm, Ole 1, 105, 109, 112n1 writing: on the body 48n120, 52, 92–3, 126, 128–9, 133, 135–6, 156, 171–2; and cognition 49–51, 156–7, 177n26; esteem of 143, 152–5, 157–60, 166; origin myths 13–15, 151–5, 169; prophetic 7–8, 15, 18, 27–9, 34–5, 38–9, 41–2, 87–8, 173, 181–3; social implications 9, 50–1, 119, 155, 161–9, 174–5, 181, 185, 188; tactile writing 84–5, 89–97, 184; technology of 14, 39–40, 122–3, 151–2, 155–6, 161, 174–5, 185, 187–8; theory of 114n45, 156–7, 158, 161, 168, 175n6, 188–9; see also literacy: runic; runes; runic inscriptions þing (assembly) 135, 147n102–3 Þórður Þorláksson 133 þurs 102, 129, 134, 148n116