Why does Odin scream when he takes the runes? Why are giants such a noise bunch? The stars may have the answers…
We have seen how Odin hung on the World Tree for nine whole days and nights, and how this Tree has its roots in the stars of the night sky. The stars are the home of the gods and their myths.
We now know from where Odin took the runes, and how he himself is the one who carved and painted them. These runes however, are immaterial in their origin, as the myth suggests. Odin did not invent the runes. The runes can be seen as divine laws that are woven into the fabric of the universe – determining the fate of gods and mortals.
Odin saw the shapes of the runes, and then he carved and painted them, presumably with his own blood. The presence of a bright red star near the celestial twigs that carry the runes suggests that the practice of reddening the runes may be of celestial significance.
We started out with looking at David Mathisen’s celestial interpretation of the hanging Odin. As we keep delving deeper, it becomes clear how deep the roots of this myth go. Let’s return to the poem and see where it leads us:
None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes,
then back I fell from there.Hávamál 138
So few lines, so full of meaning… The first line of this stanza says that no one refreshed Odin with food or drink while he hung on the tree. Many scholars have noted the shamanic undertones in Odin’s prolonged state of deprivation. Fasting is one of the techniques that shamans across the world have practiced as a preparation for shamanic ceremonies and ritual initiations.
Fasting is a technique that can be used to improve experiences of altered states. It would have helped to bring the shaman to the Otherworld, the realm of spirits, and it may have helped Odin to find the shapes of the runes.
In a similar manner, Francis Crick supposedly first saw the double helix shape of the DNA molecule while he was under the influence of LSD, although this is disputed.
We will return to Odin’s fasting later. Now, let’s pick up where we left off with Odin’s taking of the runes.
We have seen through several examples how the runes were perceived by ancient people as more than just the letters of an alphabet. The myths and sagas tell us that the runes were symbols with magical qualities, attached to songs of power.
To the ancients, there was magic in the act of writing, and there was magic in the power of song and incantation. In the poem, Odin took the runes with a scream. This is yet another clue that we should be looking for a certain constellation in the night sky.
Screaming he took the Runes
After nine days and nights of hanging from a tree, Odin let out a scream as he took up the runes in his hand. As we now know, Odin can be linked to the constellation Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus is one of the larger constellations that can be seen in the sky.
David Mathisen has demonstrated in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology) that the towering constellation Ophiuchus can be linked to many of the giants in Norse myth. When we look at the constellation Ophiuchus below, we can see that he is a head taller than the figure of Sagittarius, towards which he seems to be leaning:
One of the giants that David Mathisen has shown to be linked to Ophiuchus is the primordial giant Ymir, whose name may be translated as “Screamer.” Many other giants have names with “yeller” or “screamer” in them.
There is a certain constellation that seems to be linked to the screams of giants, and to the scream or voice of several other mythological characters. One of the rules that can be derived from the Star Myths, is that a figure associated with a certain constellation can derive its attributes from surrounding constellations.
Star myth Rule:
- Mythological figures linked to a certain constellation can derive their attributes from neighbouring constellations.
The roaring voice of Ophiuchus figures can be found in a constellation that is placed near the head of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see what looks like a four-armed whirlwind. This is the modern way of viewing the constellation Hercules.
It is not often that the modern way of looking at the constellations is that useful, but this is one of those cases. In the image below, you can see Hercules in both its modern form as a whirlwind, and you can see H. A. Rey’s version.
The latter looks more like the actual Hercules that we know from the myths as a sturdy figure carrying a club:
A Voice like a Whirlwind
In his books, David Mathisen has shown that Hercules in his “whirlwind form” is linked to roaring and sucking vortices in myth. Heroes like Odysseus must navigate around these treacherous maelstroms, and sometimes the hero gets sucked in, to be transported to a magical realm.
In Volume One of his Star Myths series, we can find the example of the imposing forest guardian of Mesopotamian myth, called Humbaba or Huwawa. This Humbaba is also an Ophiuchus figure. In the epic of Gilgamesh it is said that the giant Humbaba’s voice is like a whirlwind.
This example shows us that the constellation Hercules in its whirlwind form can be linked to a roaring voice. In Norse myths, this roar is attributed mostly to the noisy giants. In the myth of Odin’s hanging though, Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be seen as the scream that emanates from Odin’s mouth.
Tridents and Thunderbolts
We have seen that Scorpio can be identified with the nine runic twigs, but when Odin lifts up the runes, they may be linked to a different celestial snake.
Ophiuchus can be seen in the image below to carry the snake asterism called Serpens. The right side of the snake is called Serpens Caput, the “Snake’s Head”. The actual head of the snake is the small triangular ring at the end of the snake’s body, which you can see in the image below:
David Mathisen has shown throughout his books that this snake’s head can be seen as a small object that is held by the constellation Ophiuchus. He has also shown that this object held in Ophiuchus’ hand can be linked to the writing tablets that the Egyptian god Thoth hands over to Ra.
The scribe god Thoth himself can be identified with the constellation Hercules in the image above. The god Ra, who receives the tablets from Thoth, is linked to Ophiuchus. A detailed analysis of the Egyptian myth about the origin of writing can be found in his Star Myths of the World Volume One.
We know that in the Norse myth, Odin can be identified with Ophiuchus. As Odin lifts up the runes from below, could Serpens Caput represent the runes that he holds in his hand?
The Snake’s Head asterism could be envisioned as a small tablet in Egyptian myth. However, it doesn’t seem to visually resemble the rune twigs that Odin takes, at least not in this form.
If you look closely at Serpens Caput, you can see that there is an extra star on the top of the snake’s head. By altering the lines that connect these stars, David Mathisen has shown how this asterism can be envisioned as a trident shape. Mathisen has linked Ophiuchus to several mythological figures that have a trident as weapon, such as the Indian Shiva or the Greek god Poseidon.
The vajra, the ritual thunderbolt weapon of the Vedic tradition, can also assume the form of a trident. And in an Icelandic manuscript from the 18th Century, we see Odin depicted with such a thunderbolt weapon in his hand, and on his horse Sleipnir:
Elk’s Antlers and Burning Plants
When we see Serpens Caput in the above manner, I would argue that we can also see this asterism as a forked twig, or as a bundle of twigs.
There is even a rune that has this exact same shape, and that is the Algiz ᛉ rune. This rune is commonly known as Algiz or Elhaz, possibly from the Proto-Germanic word for “elk”. This name is rather appropriate, since the shape of this rune resembles the antlers of an elk, but the original name of this rune is unknown.
In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, this rune is linked to eolh-secg, or “elk-sedge”, a plant that burns the blood of those who touch it.
In the image below you can see how Serpens Caput can resemble a twig or a bundle of twigs held by Odin, and how this resembles the ᛉ shape of the Algiz rune:
There are other constellations that, to my mind, can be linked with this trident shape. We will deal with those at a later time. As you can see in the Icelandic illustration above, the trident motif is repeated all over.
The idea of a plant that “burns the blood” of those who touch it also reminds of the relation between the runes and blood that we have examined in the previous part of this investigation.
Secrets and Whispers
With all this mystery surrounding the runes, let’s take a look at what the word rune actually means.
The English word rune can be derived from the Proto-Germanic word runo, which can be translated not only as “letter”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. This in itself gives us a clue that we are not merely dealing with the letters of an alphabet. Clearly, the runes were perceived as being more than that.
The predecessor of the word runo has been reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European language as rewhn (“to roar, grumble, murmur, mumble, whisper”). It is interesting to see how rewhn can mean “to roar”, since we have seen how Odin took the runes with a scream. We have also seen how this is related to the constellation Hercules as a roaring wind or vortex.
Clearly, the runes contained a special kind of knowledge, which was best kept secret. Odin had to go through great efforts to acquire them. As we have seen in Part Two of this series, the secret of the runes lies with the “higher Powers”, who first conceived them.
This fits with the myth from the Rig Veda, which describes the vedas as the vision of a higher entity called Brahma.
How might the idea of the runes as “secrets” or “whispers” be linked to the constellations? Can we see a secret being whispered into someone’s ear?
In the previous image, we have seen the constellation Hercules above Ophiuchus in his two main forms. The left side of the image shows Hercules handing something over to Ophiuchus below, where Serpens Caput represents the object that is given.
I would propose that Serpens caput might also be envisioned as an ear into which a secret is whispered from above. The whisper, like the scream, could be linked to Hercules in its whirlwind form, which is shown in the right side of the image.
The Ear of Heimdal
There is evidence that provides further support for this interpretation in David Mathisen’s Star Myths of the World Volume Four. In this book, he shows how Ophiuchus can also be linked to the Norse god Heimdal, the Watchman of the gods, a god with a supernatural ability of hearing.
The constellations in the night sky have been likened by Mathisen with actors who can play multiple roles in the same story. Let’s make this rule of thumb that he mentions into an official Star Myth rule:
Star myth Rule:
- The same constellations can play many different mythical figures, and they can even play more than one character in the same myth.
The icelandic poet Snorri Sturlusson mentions in his Prose Edda – an important source of Norse myths – that the watchman of the gods is a son of Odin. In the myths it is told how Odin sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge of the unknown.
Heimdal is said to have sacrificed an ear, so that he could hear all the things that happen outside the home of the gods. Both the eye of Odin and Heimdal’s ear have been linked by David Mathisen to Serpens Caput, which can be seen as a disembodied organ held in Ophiuchus’ hand.
As the ear of Heimdal, the “serpent-head” can be envisioned as an ear attached to the head of Ophiuchus by the right half of the Serpens asterism.
We can now see how these constellations may be linked to the sharing of the runes as “secrets”. These secrets may be seen as whispered into the ear of an Ophiuchus figure, by a Hercules figure above.
We have seen how Hercules as a vortex can be the visualization of a voice, or a roaring sound, so it could represent a whisper as well. Both the “whisper” and the “roar” can be found in the meaning of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word rewhn, from which the word rune is derived.
Odin’s Rune Song doesn’t speak about secrets being whispered into Odin’s ear; rather, he finds the runes somewhere in the depths below. But we have seen from the etymology of the word rune that the runes are linked to the trading of secrets, and these secrets were given in the form of a whisper.
In the myths of ancient Egypt and India, the gifts of writing and divine wisdom were handed over from above. In the Norse myths, the nine runes were taken by Odin from the deep, from what could be called the Underworld.
But since there are more than nine runes, perhaps not all of these runes came from the depths below. What these myths seem to suggest is that there is wisdom not only in the realm of heaven above – which we associate with the world of light – but there is wisdom too in the netherworld, at the roots of the World Tree.
The constellation Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be linked in myth to Odin’s scream when he takes up the runes, and to the screaming giants. The etymology of the word rune shows that the word can be translated as “roar” or “scream”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. Hercules as a human figure can be seen as whispering a secret into the ear of Ophiuchus, with Serpens Caput as Ophiuchus’ ear. This asterism can also represent the runes that Odin takes, and the Algiz rune.
The runes can be seen as visions from the deep, or as whispers from above. They can represent divine laws that manifest in the building blocks of speech, in magical songs, in words of power, and in letters for writing.
This myth presents a riddle that is hard to solve when we look only at the lines of the poem itself. If we don’t shy away from investigating a larger world-wide mythological tradition linked to the stars, then we can begin to understand the secret knowledge hidden in this poem. By looking at the stars above, we can salvage its age-old wisdom.
So far, we have only focused on one small part of the night sky. As we go deeper into the investigation of this myth in the next part of this series, we will broaden our horizon, so that we can see the full extent of the sky that this myth describes, and what the implications of this might be…
Part V Odin’s Fall and the Secret Fire
Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars
 my adaptation of the Bellows translation
Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray
David Mathisen’s Blog
Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume One, Second Edition (David Mathisen 2019)
Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)
The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)
Featured image: “Odin Screaming as he Takes the Runes” by Arthur Koopmans
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