In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars

In the first part of this series, we have looked at David Mathisen’s interpretation of Odin’s sacrifice on the World Tree Yggdrasil from a Star Myth perspective.

We have seen the similarities between Odin’s hanging and the Egyptian Osiris in the tamarisk tree, the Buddha under the Tree of Awakening, and even Jesus hanging on his wooden cross. What all of these gods and spiritual teachers have in common is the sacrifice that they had to make in order to rise anew to a higher state of being. 

For many, the myths are a source of spiritual truth and archetypal lessons. But there is an increasing amount of evidence that the myths and the wise lessons that they teach us are also linked to the constellations in the sky. The myths convey eternal truths about our existence in this world by using that which for our ancestors came closest to the world of the divine: the vault of heaven and all the luminous objects in it.

The evidence shows that the hanging Odin can be identified with the constellation Ophiuchus. The Tree from which he hung is the World Axis, linked to the Milky Way itself. The tree Yggdrasil is sprinkled with the snow-white clay from the Well of Urd, which lies at its base. This well with its shining white clay can be found in the brightest and widest part of the Milky Way band: the Galactic Core, where we can peer into the innermost regions of our own Galaxy.

In the image below, you can see the first part of his celestial myth played out on the canvas of the night sky:

Odin's Hanging on Yggdrasil - a Star Myth (David Mathisen)
Odin’s hanging on the World Tree envisioned in the constellations based on the work of David Mathisen

But we haven’t found the runes yet that Odin retrieves from the deep through his sacrifice. Before we can find out where these runes are located in the sky, we must first take a brief look at what the runes really are.

On Wood they Carved

Many historians see the runes in the first place as a writing system. The main runic alphabet consists of 24 runic letters, and is called the Elder Futhark. The runic characters represent phonemes, the “building blocks of sound” in the Old Norse language. The name F-U-TH-A-R-K is derived from the first six letters of this alphabet, and it is named the “Elder” Futhark, because it is considered to be the oldest form of the runic alphabets. These runes were used for writing words in the Germanic languages of Northern Europe before the Viking Age. 

The runes, with their stick-like shapes, are ideal for carving in hard materials such as wood, stone, bone and metal. Below you can see a variation of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark alphabet:

The Elder Futhark Rune Alphabet
The Elder Futhark alphabet (Source)

Not only do the Norse runes look like they are created out of sticks themselves, but there is also evidence from historical sources that rune-like markings were carved into wooden sticks. The Roman historian Tacitus describes how the ancient Germanic people used wooden throwing sticks with certain markings on them to practice divination in the Germania (98 AD):

No people are more addicted to divination by omens and lots. The latter is performed in the following simple manner. They cut a twig from a fruit tree, and divide it into small pieces, which, distinguished by certain marks, are thrown promiscuously upon a white garment…

Tacitus, Germania

The throwing of these sacred lots was one of many types of divination, in which the opinion of the gods was sought on important matters concerning the benefit of the community. Whether or not the markings that were carved on these throwing sticks were actual runes or something similar to runes is not clear from this historical anecdote. But if we look at the poem Völuspá from the Poetic Edda – the main source of our Norse myths – we find the following passage:

From there come the maidens, mighty in wisdom,

Three from the dwelling down beneath the tree;

Urth is one named, Verthandi the next, and Skuld the third.

On the wood they carved, Laws they made there, 

and life allotted to the sons of men, and set their fates.

Völuspá 20[1]

The passage above names the three Norns, the goddesses of Fate. These goddesses live at the Well of Urd, which can be linked to the bright Galactic Core in the Milky Way band. These goddesses represent the Past, Present and Future of the universe. They write the laws of the world, and they have control over the lives and destinies of all the creatures that inhabit it. The poem clearly states that the Norns determine the Fate of us humans by carving on wood.

By practicing divination using carvings on wooden sticks, the ancient Germanic peoples emulated these higher powers in an effort to determine their fortunes in life. The following lines from the Hávamál mention the runes more explicitly in the words of an unkown wandering singer called Loddfafnir:

It is time to speak on the wise man’s chair At Urth’s well.

I saw and was silent, I saw and I thought, I listened to men’s speech.

I heard about runes, They were not silent with counsel.

Hávamál 111

Here we have another mention of the runes in relationship to the Well of Urd – Urd being the Norn who presides over the Past, and the origins of the universe. In the Völuspá, the Norns were described as carving men’s destinies on wood, but it doesn’t mention explicitly that these carvings were runes. The above lines from the Hávamál however, do mention the runes in relation to the home of the Norns. By connecting the runes to the Norns, the myths imply that the runes are connected to the origins and the fate of the universe itself.

Odin took his runes from the World Tree itself. This implies that he carved the runes on twigs that grew from the tree. The ancient Germans made their divination lots from the twigs of a fruit tree, which makes the connection between runes and twigs a likely one. In the Eddic poem Hymiskvitha, the gods themselves used twigs for divination, mingled with blood – but Odin had to discover these runes first before he and the gods could use them.

These sacred twigs give us something more tangible to work with in our effort to determine where the runes are located in the night sky. We could expect to find the runes in a constellation that represents the twigs of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

But how many runes did Odin exactly take? This question will be very relevant as we will investigate more clues that can reveal the celestial metaphor on which this myth is based.

Baresma, Zoroastrian sacred twigs
The Holy Baresma: the sacred twigs of the Zoroastrian faith.
Source: Chess and Playing Cards, Culin, S. (1898)

Nine Mighty Songs

Runes and writing in general were for a long time associated with acts of magic, which was mostly practised by a learned elite. The words “spell” – as in “magic spell” and the “spelling” of words –  are connected. The word “grammar” did not only describe the rules of language, but also meant “magic” or “enchantment”. The related word “grimoire” refers to a book of spells. In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the different songs are called “runo”, a word borrowed from the proto-Norse language. This confirms a connection between runes and songs

The Hávamál says that Odin lifted up the runes after peering into the deep, but the poem doesn’t mention explicitly how many runes he took. The myth says that Odin learned nine mighty songs from the son of Bolthorn (or “Evil thorn”), who we might identify with Odin’s wise teacher Mimir:

Nine mighty songs I learned from the great

son of Bale-thorn, son of Bestla;

I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,

with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.

Hávamál 139[2]

These lines seem to describe an event that is separate from Odin’s hanging. They describe how Odin learns a different set of runes, described here as “nine mighty songs”. This passage is inserted into the story of Odin’s hanging, which is about his discovery of the runes. This suggests that the two events are closely connected, and that these “nine mighty songs” and the runes may be interchangeable.

We have seen in the first stanzas of the Hávamál (137-138) how Odin took the runes, then in the stanza above (139), we hear of nine mighty songs, and then in stanza 141 we hear of the runes again: “Hidden Runes you will find and signs to read, many symbols of might and power, by the great Singer painted, by the high Powers fashioned, carved by the Utterer of gods.”

At the end of Odin’s Rune Poem in the Hávamál, we also find a description of eighteen rune charms: magical spells that describe the powers connected to eighteen different runes. Since Odin recounts eighteen different spells after taking the runes, and since he learned nine of these spells from Mimir, the poem implies that Odin found nine runes for himself while hanging from the tree.

We can thus conclude that Odin carved nine runes into twigs of the World Tree, and that he learned nine runes from the wise Mimir.

An Anglo-Saxon charm from the 10th century can provide more evidence for the exact number of runes that Odin took. The Nine Herbs Charm speaks of how Odin took nine glorious twigs and used them to smash a serpent into nine pieces:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

The mention of the “nine glory twigs” hints at the idea that Odin took a number of nine runes. The mention of a snake that gets blown into nine pieces makes it all the more easy to determine where among the stars these nine runes may be located…

The Branch on the World Tree

The first few lines of Odin’s Rune Song give an important clue as to where to find the runes that Odin took. Let’s look at these two lines again:

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes…

There is no doubt that we should look for the runes somewhere below the hanging Odin. If we envision Ophiuchus as Odin hanging from the tree, then we should find the runes somewhere underneath this constellation. We have already seen that underneath Ophiuchus, we can find the Galactic Core, the Well of Urd. It is sometimes speculated that Odin peered down into the well while hanging from the tree, and that Odin may have seen the shapes of the runes in its waters.

I would argue that between Odin and the Well of Urd, we can find one single branch with a bunch of twigs growing out of it. Beneath the constellation Ophiuchus we find the constellation Scorpio (officially called Scorpius). In the image below you can see Scorpio underneath the feet of the figure of Ophiuchus:

The Constellation Scorpio as a branch of Yggdrasil
The constellation Scorpio below Ophiuchus as the branch from the World Tree.

We know Scorpio best as a scorpion, as the name would suggest. Researchers in the field of astrotheology (the field of research dealing with astronomical links to myth and religion) have also linked Scorpio to the snake at the bottom of the tree – a theme that is prevalent in ancient cosmologies around the world[3]. As David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series, the constellation Scorpio can represent many more things, based on its long, slender, and winding shape. 

Mathisen has linked Scorpio to many multi-headed beings in mythology, such as the three-headed Cerberus, the watchdog of the Greek underworld. The multi-headed Hydra of Lerna that was slain by the hero Hercules can be linked to the same constellation Scorpio. An image of the Hydra on a bronze fibula (a brooch or a pin for fastening garments) shows the Hydra with six heads. However, the number of heads of the Hydra was first mentioned in the writings of Alcaeus (c. 600 BCE), who gave the monster a number of nine heads

While Scorpio figures in myth are not always connected to the number nine, there are plenty of other examples which link the number nine to Scorpio. Especially in Norse mythology, the number nine is very prevalent. As we will see, there are good reasons to believe that in this myth too, Scorpio is linked to the number nine, and thus to the nine runes that Odin takes. 

In the close-up of Scorpio below, I have put breaks between the lines, so that the individual stars that make up the constellation are better visible. I have also marked the bright red star Antares at the point where the body of Scorpio branches off. When we see the head of Scorpio branching off into several segments, it becomes possible to see how Scorpio might be seen as a branch with nine twigs in this myth. Let’s look at some more evidence that links the runes to Scorpio.

The constellation Scorpio with Antares (H.A. Rey version)
The constellation Scorpio with the bright red star Antares

A Snake Came Crawling

Now that we have found the region where we should look for the nine runes, let’s take a closer look at the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm to see what clues we gather from it that can help us decypher the myth of Odin’d hanging:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

There apple brought this pass against poison,

That she nevermore would enter her house.

nine herbs charm

We can link the snake in this charm to the constellation Scorpio with great certainty. The charm describes how Odin hits the snake with a stick so that it scatters into nine pieces. In the close-up of Scorpio above you can see how it can be seen as a snake that scatters into multiple parts, which reminds of the Hydra snake that gets its nine heads chopped off by Hercules in the Greek myth.

Ophiuchus may be envisioned as carrying a spear, as we have seen in the previous part. In this case, the spear may be seen as the stick with which Odin hits the snake. We can imagine a line extending from the spear in his right hand (on the left side of Ophiuchus), towards the star Antares in Scorpio.

Sagittarius is another candidate for Odin hitting the snake. David Mathisen has identified Sagittarius as one of the constellations that can be linked to Odin – particularly when Odin is in his role as a practitioner of seidr magic. In the image below, I have also drawn a line from the bow-arm of Sagittarius towards the snake. In this case though, the stick does not end in Antares. 

Odin in the Nine Herbs Charm killing Scorpio as snake (Star Myth)
Odin smashing the snake into nine pieces.

If we see the red Antares as the snake’s wound as a result of its beating by a stick, then Ophiuchus seems to be the most likely candidate for the one who hits the snake. Ophiuchus often plays the role of a dragon-slayer or serpent-slayer in myth. This is an additional reason to believe that Odin destroying the snake refers to Ophiuchus.

The victim of the snake bite is probably the constellation Virgo, which we can find to the right of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see Virgo as a person lying on its back – having succumbed to an affliction of some kind – in the vicinity of Scorpio as the snake:

Odin killing a snake in the Nine Herbs Charm (Star Myth)
Scorpio as both the snake and the nine twigs.

After Odin’s slaying of the snake, the charm says that it will never again enter the house. This implies that the man got bitten by the snake at his own house. The house is likely to be another reference to Ophiuchus. If you look at the figure of Ophiuchus in the image above, you can see how the long rectangular body of Ophiuchus together with his triangular hat can be seen as a house with a pointy roof – as has been noted by David Mathisen in his books.

The events in this charm seem to center around Scorpio, and the charm mentions “nine glory twigs”. The fact that there are nine of them, and the fact that the snake too gets blown into nine pieces, strongly hints at the idea of the constellation Scorpio representing the nine twigs.

In the myth of Odin’s hanging, Odin does not carry a stick, but his spear Gungnir. If we imagine the stick that Odin uses to kill the snake to play the role of his spear Gungnir in Odin’s Rune Song, it is easy to imagine that Odin also uses his spear to carve the runes into the nine twigs. The point where Odin’s spear touches Scorpio as the branch of the World Tree can be placed at the red star Antares.

It seems like we have found the nine runes…


CONCLUSION:

When we connect all the evidence, I think it is safe to say that in this myth Scorpio represents a root or branch of the World Tree from which grow nine twigs. These nine twigs can be linked to the nine runes that Odin carved while he hung from the Tree. These nine runes are connected to the Well of Urd, the point of origin of the world in ancient myth, out of which emerge all the invisble forces that create life and that determine the fate of humankind.


In the next chapter of this series we will continue our investigation of this myth. By treating this myth as a Star Myth, new insights reveal themselves, which can change the way we understand not only the myths, but also the sacred rituals that were performed in ancient times.

New light will be shed on the history of the Norse and the runes in chapter three of this series.

Part III   Carved under a Red Star: Why were the runes carved red?


Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

[2] my adaptation of the Olive Bray translation

[3] Collins, A. (2006). The Cygnus Mystery: Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins in the Cosmos. Duncan Baird Publishers, p. 65

Source Text

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

Nine Herbs Charm

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems (Ursula Dronke 1997)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)

Featured image: “Divination” by Emil Doepler (1905) – source. Edited by the author.

5 Comments

  1. Allen Roberts

    hi, I have traced the runes to the Sumerian cuneiform, all turned onto their side, but oddly enough, I have finding that the early pictographs of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs may be connected, and they seem to match up with common constellations.

  2. Christopher Johnsen

    Hi, Mathisen gets some of it right – the Aur is Mistletoe on the Ash tree. Sleipnir is Scorpius – see: https://www.academia.edu/37595198/The_Horses_of_the_Aesir_and_Ancient_Chronology
    I have most of the myths figured out now and have published on Loki, Ferris, Odin, Frey and Freya, Thor goes Fishing was my first essay.

    To properly make runes requires a recently hanged corpse : see https://www.academia.edu/81941798/Frey_and_Freya_The_Mandrake_Twins

  3. Christopher Johnsen

    Hi, you haven’t joined one of my discussions in a while. I have figured out Loki, Frey and Freya since I last heard from you.

  4. Arthur Koopmans

    Hi Christopher,
    I have been busy with many things other than than writing and this blog, but the links you provide look intriguing. I may get back to those later. Interesting that you mention a link between Freyr and Freya and the mandrake plant in your comment. The link has been made before of course between these divine twins and the constellation Gemini, but through an independent route I also suspected a link in old beliefs between the mandrake and similar plants and this constellation, due to visual similarity. A link between these twins and the plant strengthens this idea. Also in a manuscript illustration, a dog was placed beneath the mandrake, depicted as two humanoids. The dog may relate to Sirius and Canis Major below Gemini. Folklore about the scream of this plant I suspect is also related to comet/meteor mythology, because this region of the sky is also close to the radius of the Taurid meteors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *