Runes of divination and magic?

Souvenir Handmade Icelandic Magic Runes

Icelandic Magic Runes

Public domain

Magical Runes

Runes are often said to have magical properties. Eddic poetry and the Icelandic sagas occasionally show characters cutting runes to effect a cure or achieve another outcome. However, runes are also used for general communication as when Grettir cuts a rune stick to send a message. This latter usage has more in common with what is known of actual rune usage. Runes are used on runestones with the same effect as carving on modern grave stones. Runes are also used on rune sticks to send messages to people. The large number of medieval rune sticks recovered from Bryggen in Bergen is plentiful evidence of this. The messages can be incredibly prosaic such as an instruction to come home now, or they can be declarations of love, or even just practising writing the futhark.

Magic Runes

9th century Viking graffiti in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Runic Graffiti in Istanbul

(c) Niamh Kehoe

Runic Graffiti

Runes were also commonly used for graffiti. From Istanbul to the Orkneys, Vikings carved runes to the effect that 'Ragnar woz ere', merely to declare their presence in a place. Runic inscriptions even appear in medieval stave churches like Heddal, or in other churches like , both of which are in Norway. While the Heddal example appears to read 'Maria' according to some interpretations in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, not all runic inscriptions are equally as pious. Many, in fact, are downright profane. The runic poem in  is a riddle that appears to have the solution 'Guðrún'. Was the priest lusting after a member of his congregation?

Souvenir Tyr 'Runestone' Necklace from Sólarfilma

Tyr 'Runestone' Necklace

Public domain

Runes for Divination

This image shows one of several runic necklaces in the 'Runestones - Ancient Stones of Prophecy'. it is popularly believed that the Vikings used runes for divination.  However, despite later Icelandic magical texts using runes and rune-like symbols, there is no evidence for the Vikings using runes as divinatory aids. The evidence is an extension of Tacitus' statement that the Germanic tribes marked sticks an used them to take auspices (Germania, 10). This pre-dates the Viking Age by 700 years, and thus cannot be accepted as solid evidence for Viking usage.

The use of runes for ordinary, everyday purposes as noted above speaks to a usage that is everyday, not esoteric. Perhaps spells were carved in runes, but the power comes from the spell, not the runes, as it would in a spell written in the Latin alphabet. Similarly, it is possible that Germanic peoples used runes for divination, but there is no evidence that the Vikings cast the runes to foretell the future. The evidence for divination in the Viking Age suggests a culture of prophecy by seeresses instead.