The Havamal Rune Query
In the Codex Regius, after the Voluspo, or description of how the world was created, there is a collection of verses called the Havamal, or The Words of the High One; it exists in no other texts, except for a couple of verses quoted by Snorri and 2 lines in one saga. It seems to be a collection of assorted bits of advice attributed to Odin (as in other cultures such are attributed to Confucius, Solomon, or “Poor Richard”, or the Dalai Lama, and probably equally accurate in such attributions), and some stories about Odin, including the winning of the runes.
In the rune section, one of the verses- identified as 143-145 (depending upon the translation), asks eight questions about using the runes. Although calling it an interpolation seems oxymoronic in a collection, this clearly was. But I find it as good a bit of traditional advice as many others of the collection, such as the well known: “Praise a day when it is passed, a woman when cremated, a torch when you’re done with it, a sword when proven, a virgin when bedded, ice when crossed, and ale when drunk.” (Verse 81), perhaps better, as I find the misogyny unpleasant.
My understanding is that the original was in Icelandic. Since I don’t know Old Icelandic, this means that I am totally dependent upon the various translations to know what the words are. But once it’s translated, I am willing to apply my own experience and attitude to examine the basic concepts. I find it a fair lesson plan on Rune magick use, and specifically for RúnValdr.
This is the Icelandic (although I understand that in the original they abbreviated the Vet du after the first line).
Vet du, hur du rista skall? Vet du, hur du reda skall?
Vet du, hur du färga skall? Vet du, hur du fresta skall?
Vet du, hur du bedja skall? Vet du, hur du blota skall?
Vet du, hur du sända skall? Vet du, hur du slopa skall?
The verse asks a series of questions, which seems to be a checklist, asking whether the rune user knows his stuff. It suggests both that which should not be forgotten, as well as the order in which one should do the steps. I’ll go through it line by line to show how it can be useful for us modern folk.
The first line is variously translated as:
Do you know how to (rista) write or cut or grave them?
This line asks up front can you actually carve the runes- are you literate? If you aren’t you’ve got no business doing magick with the runes.
Do you know your As from your (no, I’m not going to say elbow) your Feoh? Do you know what sounds they make and what their names are, and what they mean. In the past, people didn’t learn from books, they learned from teachers. And before they were “allowed” to use rune magick, they had to learn the runes to the satisfaction of their teachers. They probably meditated on them, and practiced writing, and were drilled on meaning. You can be pretty sure they could write words before they used them for magick. Before you use them for magick, first learn what each means. Be familiar with the runes. You really need to know what energy you are calling up when you write it, chant it, or in RúnValdr, focus on it.
The second line is variously translated as:
Do you know how to (reda) read or rede or expound or interpret them?
It may mean read, but I think it more likely that the meaning the verse is going for is rede. The word “Reda”- would be “Rede” in Anglo-Saxon which means council or advice. You may have heard of the English King AEthylrede Unrede, which is translated by moderns as Ethelred the Unready, but the joke, at the time (using the rede part of his name) was un-rede, which should be thought of as badly counseled, or unwise. Modern people would have called him Ethelred the Clueless.
Rede is the ability to analyze a problem and come up with the right answer. It’s asking basically: “do you know how to think”? Do you know how to diagnose? Do you know how to decide which rune you should be using? Do you know what’s going to happen when you power up this rune?
It may not seem that much different from the first question about whether you know how to form the runes- but really it is. You might wonder why they don’t ask “can you read?” before “can you write?” But it’s asking more if you understand the magickal use- the secret- of the runes. (Some say that the word rune means secret.) First you need to know learn the shapes and sounds of the symbols- and then what they do.
You need to know which rune to use before you start working. This is not the kind of tool where you try each one to see what it does. This is not to say that you don’t learn them one at a time. When you are learning to use herbs, it’s good to learn one, and thoroughly know what it does, then learn another, on and on until you have a great number to choose among. You can use a similar system with runes- if you only use the runes that you are sure you know what they do, you are less likely to get results you weren’t expecting- but you also (until you’ve finished learning all of them) will not have access to the full range of possibilities the runes offer.
This line may be reminding you to take a good, clear look at the situation you are about to be changing (because putting runes into the situation WILL change it). A lot of what we are doing is healing, but just as before you administer a medication, you need to know what the underlying problem is before you start changing it. What changes would be good? What changes might make it worse? We’ve all heard of situations where a symptom was gotten rid of (“cured”), and another symptom came out- because the underlying cause wasn’t dealt with. Vomiting may be uncomfortable, but if what it’s accomplishing is getting toxic spoiled food out of your system, you don’t want to stop it, but help the purging.
So- are you pretty sure you know what effects the runes you’ll be using will create?
The third line is variously translated
Do you know how to (farga) tint or stain or depict or paint or colour them?
In normal writing, the characters were quite readable when cut or scratched into the wood or bark or bone, although for greater legibility, you could rub the scratches with ash or other dark material. We know some of the carved rune stones in Scandinavia were painted with red, black and white paints. However, this line probably refers to the technique of powering runes up by rubbing ones own blood (or spit) into the carved lines. Adding a bodily fluid is a down-and-dirty, time-tested method of putting energy into a magickal working. This question may refer to lost techniques where blood was used to put human energy as a power source for the magickal working beyond the energy of the runes. Other techniques would include rubbing in spit, menstrum, tears, herbs, dirt, or even paint (modern magicians are fond of “dragons blood ink” which is made with a colored resin, but the energetic power is said to be similar to blood). The energy of spit is VERY close to that of blood- although it wouldn’t increase legibility so feel free to use spit if you want to try this technique. Blood is not required, but other than tying you very personally to the working isn’t bad either. (Obviously one must be careful with all bodily fluids for medical reasons.)
In RúnValdr, we don’t generally cut physical runes, we use symbols made of projected energy, but the concept is the same. Do you know how to power them up- to add energy to the working if necessary? (Also, do you know when it is necessary?) For RúnValdr, we can get literal- what color are you visualizing the symbol in? Red is the default for most, because it is like the blood=life energy once used, but other colors are more appropriate for other workings. As a quick guide Red is for energy, vitality, power, and passion, Yellow is for intellect and helps with mental fog, Orange balances these, and is very good for the immune system, Green is for growth and wealth, it’s good for the nerves, Blue is soothing and cooling, Purple is soothing spiritually, White is purifying. Black is grounding. Look into color symbolism and color therapy for what colors would work best in which best help your intent. This is not traditional for using runes, but is a modern adaptation. If it works- it’s real.
The fourth line is variously translated
Do you know how to (fresta) make trial or prove or try them?
Fresta can be translated as prove. What it means here most likely is did you actually get the energy in with the coloring? The rune master probably taught his student how to “feel” the energy. This question comes before sending and hallowing in the Havamal verse. When you’ve chosen then written and colored runes onto an item with magickal intent, you can often detect an energy signature- a “buzz” to them.
Even if you can’t feel the energy, I think this line may also be suggesting: “do you know how to check your work, and make sure you did it right?” Are you confident about the runes (and other techniques) you’ve chosen to use in this situation? Think about alternative meanings for each rune, and remember that sometimes the universe seems to get perverse glee out of giving you what you’ve asked for rather than what you think you’ve asked for. Double checking before rather than after and having to try to “undo” the working afterwards. Have you done all the steps? (In a RúnValdr attunement- did you actually get the power down into the gut area?) Could you feel it working? If you wrote down your plan, which isn’t a bad idea, check it now. Did you remember the affirmation? (I tend to forget that one) Did you connect a power source or put on a “timer” if this is a good situation to use those. Which symbol are you using to seal the working? I would do this check just before sealing or sending- “make sure it’s right, and then go ahead” (for those of you old enough to remember the Mickey Mouse Club).
The fifth line is variously translated
Do you know how to (bedja) ask or bid or evoke or pray or invoke them?
This may or not be directed at the runes, but it seems likely that it refers to invoking the gods. While the runes have energy, so do many crystals, musical tones, times of day, and herbs. Using any of the innate properties of these can be considered “natural magick”, or thaumaturgy. This line (along with the next) appears to be more “theurgy”, or magick which coming from the gods. People rarely speak to the runes, but often call on the gods for aid. This line, especially when translated as pray or invoke, seems to be asking if you know how to address the gods? It may mean “do you know how to bid the runes do what you want them to do”, or you might ask one of your landwights or ancestors for help. As rune energy reaches across the nine worlds, rune working might be a way to more easily reach such wights. So the question if you know how to ask may be addressing the better and worse ways of speaking to them.
In my experience, landwights like to be useful, and just loved to be asked to do things to help at all- but you should also offer them gratitude and offerings of milk and honey and other traditional gifts at the appropriate times. Ancestors should generally be approached with respect- when you call them from Helheim, you may be interrupting, although you probably won’t be getting in touch with any of your Idisi that aren’t keeping an eye on the living family anyway. Still, when your Grandmother was alive, did you interrupt her conversations or order her around? I don’t THINK so.
However, due to the sixth line in this verse, paired with this one, I think this line is referring to addressing the gods (although I expect an experienced rune worker would be able to use the runes in various ways depending upon the occasion). For important workings you may be calling one or more of the Asir, (or Vanir or Alfar or Jotuns) in, and asking them to cooperate with this magickal working. Some folk I know define ALL magickal workings as religious. Some say that they only work magick as a way to commune with the Gods, and that humans have no power- anything healing or helping that happens is the Gods working through them. I don’t happen to feel that way, but I can understand what they are saying, but I worry that those folk are not taking responsibility for effects they are creating- essentially dumping it on the Gods.
I certainly don’t think that working with the “Divine Plan” is a bad idea. This is something like the “rede” question- make sure that what you are doing is appropriate to the situation. If Odin is busy doing something in one of his various interlocking schemes, I certainly don’t want to be trying to work against him, because I’m pretty sure he’s much better at using rune magick than I am, and in any conflict of intent- his would win, and I might suffer some collateral damage, even if there was no animosity involved. Also there are times when asking for help can get you some direct help you really need. As I said, many wights like to help. Don’t you like to help the people you like?
(One night several of us were laughing about mistakes one could make. Although you might put the sun, or the earth or the sea into one end of Roloxone as a source of power, you wouldn’t plug it into a God- because it would probably tick them off. We pictured responses of various gods to discovering you were trying to attach the Roloxone conduit to them.) Asking for help is often the best way to get something done, and the first step is to figure out who is best to ask in a given situation.
The sixth line is variously translated
Do you know how to (blota) offer or score or sacrifice or consecrate them?
The word Blot is used for sacrifice- and it’s the word used to describe the sacred ceremonies of modern heathens. Blot is also used to mean to consecrate or to make holy. Often a consecration of an item would be done by carving runes onto it, and blessing it in a ritual. Blot, of course, also is a cognate of blood- harkening back to the question about coloring the runes, and times when bathing something in blood was seen as hallowing (not gross). So this line asks do you know how to do the right ritual? Remember, a ritual might be a big- many days long festival, or something as simple as making the hammer sign over a horn of mead. Different situations call for different rituals. But rituals are actions taken to bring a blessing or the attention of the gods to something.
The runes have their own energy- but when we use it, we are selecting which rune’s energy we want, and directing it to a certain thing we want to happen- as we would use any tool. (The Runes are more of a master tool KIT than a single tool.) When we do RúnValdr we are using the unique energy of each rune, and our intent (which means our will to direct the process) and we may be tapping into other energy sources like the sun or earth, and asking for some help from the gods or wights, and sometimes we may be doing it at a certain time to enhance the effect, or be utilizing an object or substance with it’s own properties to which we are adding rune energy. While the working may only take seconds, it’s still a fairly complex process drawing from a lot of sources of power- no wonder it works so well! But the energy is coming from somewhere (or several somewheres) and we have to maintain balance.
Think about our old friend Thor. What is thunder, but the result of a great deal of energy going from one place to another (lightning) creating a big empty space, where the air masses, shifting around to become balanced again, crash together with a force that makes a vibratory/ sonic effect (thunder) on the material plane- even though the original effect was energy moving from one place to another. That may be an over simplification to the point of some inaccuracy, but it does illustrate the concept. Whenever you move energy, you create a cascade of effects, and if you are aware of them, you can exert enough control to reduce any effects you don’t want.
But getting back to the sacrifice question, there’s the whole aspect of reciprocity. In modern monotheistic religions God is the source of all, and there’s nothing we can offer Him except worship, honor, obedience; basically, to pay attention to him. Our Gods are closer to our level.
The very next verse in the Havamal reminds us of this:
“Better to ask too little than offer too much, the return must match the gift,
it is better not to send than to pay too much.”
A gift is expected for a gift. The gods may be more powerful than we are, but they still are bound by what we give them. There are many theories about this. That they get their power from the energy we send to them, or that they and we are bound by the natural laws of the universe, which requires balance. Both gods and lesser wights certainly seem receptive to many of the physical offerings we make. (Thor seems particularly fond of mead, beer, and in our family’s experience- rum.) I’m not sure exactly how it works, but experience seems to bear it out. If you are asking the gods for help- you should be offering them something in return. Or as we say when discussing Hanso, you can’t make something from nothing. You have to give to receive.
The seventh line is universally translated
Do you know how to (sanda) send them?
Apparently this word is not at all ambiguous. Now you’ve put it all together, can you get your working on it’s way to where it needs to go? (“Once you’ve pulled the pin, Mr. Grenade is no longer your friend.” Although I hope you aren’t doing any workings that could backfire on you that badly!) But the basic rule of energy healing is, that thinking about it doesn’t heal the patient, you have to actually DO it.
In RúnValdr, since we are working with energy forms, this isn’t as
problematic as it might be with galdor: a rune spell carved onto a
piece of wood or bone, or energy raised by chanting. When you charge a magickal item, often putting it proximity of the target directs the “current”; chanting, done properly, with intent directs the energy to the target as it is raised. When you are using mental images you need to make sure the energy goes to follow your intent. With healing (which is MY default working) we are usually working right on the person, and sending the energy to the part of his or her body that needs the energy- directing it by your intent through your eyes, or hands. But the process is worth thinking about- some of the ways we can use Runic Reiki harken back to the magick written about in the Lore. I haven’t personally explored the possibilities of Astral Travel using Greel-ya, however it strikes me that in many of the sagas the word “sending” actually referred to “sending” your spirit to another place or person- sometimes in a borrowed body of an animal, or in the shape of a spirit animal. This question may be asking if you know how to do that.
To do any sort of magick, you need an energy source, an energy conduit, and a directing mechanism. The runes contain their own energies, and if we want to we can also tap into other energy sources in the same working. The strands of the web of wyrd that connect all of us provide the conduit. Other cultures call it by other terms, but the connections are there. RúnValdr is the technique we are using to kick the assembled message out and along the web, but there are many others. How do you find the “thread” or conduit to your “target”? The key is to be able to hold a clear picture of your target in your mind, if you can do that, you will naturally be led to it, as you can tell by heat, or light which direction the sun is in.
The last line is variously translated
Do you know how to (slopa) spend or consume or kill or destroy them? (Other translations suggest send or sacrifice, although those terms are not used in the same translations as the ones where those words appear in another line.)
I’ve seen the suggestion that the various destructive sounding translations are referring to those uses of runes that are aimed at confounding your enemies. However because it’s the last line in the verse, I think what it means is “Do you know how to finish? Do you know how to clean up after yourself?” (put your toys away?) or Do you know how to turn it off if you change your mind?
As I mentioned in the sending line, you have to make sure you’ve actually not left anything around physically or spiritually. I’ve seen far too many examples of New Age practitioners raising power (sometimes as a part of a religious ceremony) and not even grounding it after their circles, so someone else has to go out and clean up their mess- and put the energy back into the right streams so that it doesn’t start creating weird and unintended effects. Energy, like water, goes bad when it stagnates.
If you’ve been charging objects- make sure you haven’t left little bits of charged stuff where it might create unexpected effects. I know my cats showed a marked preference for the charged water in the chalice on the kitchen altar to the water in their bowls- so I started charging their water bowl contents, and they don’t go up on the altar after the blessed water unless I forget to bless theirs.
We are manipulating energies here, and while some of what we are doing is intentional, we can leave residue around. Any time you do magick/ energy/ rune work, you’ll want to look around and make sure you’ve put everything back where it goes- both physically and on other planes. Sometimes this does mean burning or burying, or purifying some scraps or surfaces. If you have been working with a spirit animal or some other joining with another spirit- you want to make sure that any energy connections you’ve made are cut, or put back to where you want them. It’s possible that the original writer may have been talking about the type of magick where some sort of magickal helper was created. It’s not that hard to create an energy being, and while some of them fade away when their job is done, some find energy sources that keep them lively, and when they get bored, well, it’s like the broom in Disney’s Sorcerers Apprentice. If you create a wight to do something and aren’t continuing use his help, send his energies back to where you got them. One could consider that “killing”.
There’s an old magickal saying: “Don’t call up anything you can’t put down.” When I do any spell, I want to make sure there’s a way to “un-do” it if I need to, a failsafe. If you don’t know how to stop something, if it starts having unintended effects, perhaps you should think again before starting it.
So my interpretation comes out to:
Do you know how to carve runes? Do you know what they mean?
Do you know how to color them? Do you know how to check them?
Do you know how to ask for help? Do you know how to pay for it?
Do you know how to send them on? Do you know how to clean up after yourself?
Remember, this is NOT a translation, it is my personal interpretation of this millennia old advice to try to make it work for me here and now. I hope it will help you with your RúnValdr and other magickal work.