Runic inscriptions were often carved in a red color, sometimes even colored red with blood. Odin’s Rune Song shows us that Odin wounded himself with a spear before taking the runes. There is new evidence that shows that this reddening of the runes may have a connection to the stars above.
In the previous parts of this series we have seen all the evidence that shows how Odin’s hanging is a myth that is written in the constellations. The more evidence we find, the more we realize that there is no way around the fact that the myths have a celestial basis.
The examples from the Norse myths make it clear that the runes are connected to the Well of Urd, where the Norns dwell, the goddesses of Fate. The runes are an old force, which likely predates the Elder Futhark alphabet, from which the later runic alphabets were derived. The runes are connected to the life force itself, which is distributed by the Norns, and as magic signs, runes represent the invisible forces of nature that form the divine and natural order of things. In the constellation Scorpio, we have found the nine twigs on which he carved the runes.
Scorpio, which we usually associate with a scorpion or a serpent, can represent many things in myths from around the world. I have presented evidence that Scorpio can also be seen as a branch that grows out of the World Tree Yggdrasil. The multiple “heads” that come out of its slender body can be seen as the twigs on which Odin carved the runes.
In this myth, the tree Yggdrasil can be linked to the Milky Way itself. The brightest part of the Milky Way band, which is the luminous core of our galaxy, is linked to the Well of Urd. The Tree has one of its roots in this sacred well, and the Norns sprinkle snow-white clay onto its bark every day to prevent it from rotting. It is from this brightest cluster of stars and nebulae that we can envision Scorpio growing like a branch of the Tree in the image below:
The runes are not only found by the waters of Urd’s well, they also have a connection with another vital fluid: blood. To truly understand the mystery of the runes and its celestial basis, we need to take a look at this essential component in the carving and cutting of the runes.
Carved and Cut with Blood
Now that we know that Scorpio represents the runes, let’s take a look again at two lines from stanza 137 of Odin’s Rune Poem in the Hávamál. These lines tell us that Odin wounded himself with a spear in his sacrifice of himself to himself:
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to my own self given…
The fact that Odin stabbed himself with a spear becomes of more significance when we consider that the blood that flowed from his wound may play a crucial part in his taking of the runes. There is an abundance of evidence in Icelandic literature that the runes were often colored red with blood. In the Lay of Hymir in the Poetic Edda we find the following lines:
Of old the gods made feast together,
And drink they sought, still unsated they were;
Twigs they shook, and blood they examined:
Rich fare in Ægir’s hall they found.Hymiskvitha : 1
These lines describe the gods themselves performing an act of divination by throwing lots in the form of twigs, combined with blood. It is clear that the gods themselves are subject to higher Powers, and don’t have complete control over their own destiny. It is still the Norns that pull and weave the strings of Fate.
Runes were also used to give special powers to an object and make it into a talisman. The legendary Saga of the Volsungs describes such a ritual:
The horn was lined
With runes manifold,
Carved and cut with blood.VOLSUNGA SAGA. Chapter 34
In this passage, runes were carved into the inside of a drinking horn to protect the drinker from poison in the beverage. The runes were reddened with blood to fill them with magical potency. The sources imply that blood was a necessary ingrediënt to activate the power of the runes. We can find more examples of rune magic in the later Icelandic sagas. In Egill’s Saga, the Icelandic warrior poet Egill cuts his hand with a knife, then carves the runes into a horn, and smears them with his blood to activate them for magical protection.
In another example from Grettir’s saga, the völva (seeress) Þuríðr cut runes on a tree root, and colored them with her own blood to kill the outlaw Grettir:
She looked at the tree and bade them turn it over before her eyes, and on one side it was as if singed and rubbed; so there whereas it was rubbed she let cut a little flat space; and then she took her knife and cut runes on the root, and made them red with her blood, and sang witch-words over them;Grettir’s saga, Chapter 81
The witch in Grettir’s saga not only reddened the runes with her blood, but she also carved the runes on the root of a tree. This passage from a medieval icelandic saga seems to hearken back to more ancient Germanic ritual practices, especially if we consider that the woman that cut the runes was a völva. These wise women were already described by Tacitus in 98 AD.
The excerpt from the saga above in which the wise woman or witch carved the runes and reddened them with her blood may be a memory of an older ritual that stems from an ancient Star Myth tradition. This is in line with the evidence from the myth that we are investigating. Odin had to wound himself with a spear before he could take the runes. Can the blood from Odin’s wound and the reddening of the runes also be linked to the stars in the sky?
The Rival of Mars
In the image of the constellation Scorpio below, I have highlighted the bright red star Antares. In the screenshot taken from the star-gazing software Stellarium, its red hue may not be as clearly visible, but if you look closely, you can see that it is warmer in color than its surrounding stars. The close-up of the star Antares in the long exposure photograph gives a better idea of the red-orange hue of the star.
Antares is the fifteenth-brightest star in the night sky, which makes it one of the brightest stars that can be seen with the naked eye. Because of its brightness and its red color, the ancient Greeks saw it as a rival to the god of war. They connected Ares, the Greek god of war, to the red planet Mars. Mars is the Latin name for Ares. The name Antares can be translated as Anti-Ares, referring to its rivalry with Ares. Antares is often linked to symbols in myth that are red in color, such as fire, or the red heart of a beast. But most often, this star is linked to blood.
Scorpio can be seen as a dying or wounded figure in myth, with Antares symbolizing the blood on its chest. The hellhound Garm in Norse myth is such a figure that is described as having a bloody chest, and it can be linked to Scorpio when the constellation is envisioned as a crouching dog. In the case of the Greek hellhound Cerberus, it is a dog with multiple heads, and with serpents for tails. While Scorpio may not be immediately evident as a crouching dog, the various clues in the myths – the bloody chest, the multiple heads, the snake-tails – make a strong case for the association between Scorpio and the hound of hell.
We can find another clue in the gates of the Underworld that the dog guards. We have seen that the rectangular body of Ophiuchus with its pointy top can be seen as the shape of a house, but it can just as well represent a gate, door or portal to the netherworld. Scorpio is placed right below Ophiuchus as the hound at its steps.
Now that we know that the red star Antares symbolizes blood, we can connect this with Scorpio as the nine runes and with Odin’s spear wound. When we combine this with the examples from the myths and the saga literature, we come to the following realization: the reddening of the runes may be linked to the bright red star Antares in Scorpio.
A Gift of Life
The sympathetic scholar and artist Arith Härger explains in one of his videos how the ancients thought that blood contains the spirit, the life force of a being. It has been this way since paleolithic times. The ancients thought that the life force in the blood could animate an object, by imbuing it with spirit. In Härger’s view, the runes offered revealed wisdom after they had been fed the spirit that resides in the blood. Give some, get some in return.
The idea of runes as revealed wisdom fits with the evidence that we have gathered for the use of runes in divination. The ancients thought that reddening the runes with life-blood could reveal the will of the gods, or that of the higher powers of Fate. Only by giving a gift of blood could Odin learn the wisdom of the runes.
Odin as the Óðr represents the spirit of life itself. He is the Great Spirit, the all-pervading spirit that gives life, energy, inspiration and passion. He represents that feeling of bliss that comes with feeling connected to the larger cosmos, which knows no bounds. To become connected with the source, with the Well from which this unbounded spirit flows, Odin had to align himself with the great Tree Yggdrasil, the Cosmic Axis.
This life force, as Härger explains, is also connected with the spirits and the combined wisdom of the ancestors that walked this world before us. The Well of Urd is the well of all origin, and thus contains all the memories of the past. The World Tree itself can then be seen as the ancestral tree that arises from it – the branches of which follow the flow of Fate. Ancestor worship was linked to the tribe of the Vanir gods above all. From the Vanir also comes the magical practice called seidr, which is linked to divination, prophecy, and the carving of the runes.
The combined wisdom and experience of the ancestors had to be fed to the runes before they could reveal what the future holds in store.
The runes were perhaps not only colored red because of what people thought were the potent properties of blood, but perhaps also because of the underlying celestial symbolism. The Norse myths and the runes are part of an ancient Star Myth tradition. In these Star Myths, we can find more explanations as to how and why ancient rituals were performed. Many or even most of these rituals can be seen as live reënactments of the myths, and thus also as a reënactment of the stars in heaven.
Looking at the myths and legends from a Star Myth perspective can greatly aid us in the understanding of the traditions of people from ancient times all the way up to the Middle Ages, and even to this day.
The old the saying goes: “As above, so below”.
Carved Under a Red Star
We have seen the link between Scorpio and the rune twigs, and the red star Antares as the blood that makes them red. In part 2 of this series, we saw Ophiuchus as Odin beating Scorpio the snake with a stick. The same stars that make this stick can be seen as Odin’s spear Gungnir. When we combine the two, we can see Odin carving the runes, as envisioned in the constellations below:
The following stanza of the Hávamál reveals how the so-called “high Powers” made the runes, and how Odin then carved them:
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.Hávamál 141
When comparing the Olive Bray translation above with that of Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda, it becomes clear that the “great Singer” and “Utterer of gods” both refer to Odin, which makes it clear that it is Odin himself who carved and colored the runes. The witch that carved the runes in Grettir’s Saga also sang a witch’s song over them, which reminds us that the runes are related to magical songs. Odin is called the “great Singer” in this poem, which implies that he too sang the runes.
The myth makes it clear that Odin did not invent the runes. They were revealed to him while he was hanging from a noose, and Odin materialized them by carving them into twigs, and he painted them red with his own blood.
The reddening of the runes can also be seen on many medieval runestones, although most runic inscriptions were made with red paint as a substitute for blood. The pigment that was used for the red paint could be based on red ochre, red lead, or even the expensive vermillion. You can see an example of such a runestone from Sweden in the image below:
The runes were first created by the “holy gods” or “high Powers”. Odin possibly saw or heard these runes near the Well of Urd, and then carved the runes into the twigs (Scorpio). He then painted them with the blood that flowed out of his spear wound. The blood which reddens the runes is likely a reference to the red star Antares in Scorpio. Odin had to give the runes his own life-force, his own spirit, so that the wisdom of the runes could be revealed to him. By using the stars as a metaphor, the myth teaches us that wisdom, inspiration and creativity must be fed with the force of life itself in order to flourish. This force of life is symbolically linked to the vital force that sustains our bodies: the blood that courses through our veins. This great, arousing force is what the Norse called Odin.
Now that we have identified the twigs on which Odin carved the runes, and the possible reason why the runes were painted red, we can continue with the lines of the poem that deal with Odin’s taking of the runes in the next part of this series. The lines in this myth are densely packed with meaning, and they have not yielded all their riddles yet:
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
The above lines still leave us with some questions. To name a few:
- Why did Odin cry aloud when taking the runes?
- What is the significance of Odin’s lack of food and drink?
- Can we find a falling Odin somewhere in the night sky?
The myth also brings to mind the question whether the runes might be linked to other constellations in the night sky. We have found a lot of answers already to age-old mysteries, but as always, these lead us to more questions. The next part of this series will start with a scream…
Continue with the next part:
Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars
 my adaptation of the Bellows translation
 The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, translated by Jesse L. Byock (1990)
 Smiley, J. (2005). The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin UK.
David Mathisen’s Blog
Featured image: Arthur Koopmans