Tag: Runes (Page 2 of 3)

Odin’s Scream and the Whispers of the Runes

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.

Odin Hanging on the World Tree by Emile Doepler & Arthur Koopmans
Artwork: Odin sacrificing himself upon Yggdrasil (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. Coloring by Arthur Koopmans.

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[1]

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:

Odin's Hanging Star Myth (David Mathisen)
The towering Ophiuchus is one of the so-called “giant constellations”

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:

The constellation Hercules (H.A. Rey)
Two versions of the constellation Hercules

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:

Odin screams as he takes the runes - Star Myth
Odin Screams as he lifts up the runes – envisioned in the constellations

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:

Odin riding Sleipnir with a trident in his hand, from an 18th Century Icelandic Manuscript – source

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 shape of the Algiz rune:

Ophiuchus holding Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput as the rune twigs that Odin holds in his hand

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.

Heimdal at Bifröst with horn by Emile Doepler (1905)
“Heimdallr at the Bridge of Heaven” by Emile Doepler (1905) Source

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.

Ophiuchus with Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput symbolizing a disembodied organ held by Ophiuchus

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…

Coming soon:

Part V   Odin’s Fall and the Secret Fire


Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

Source Texts

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World


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

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

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 constellation Scorpio with Antares
The constellation Scorpio with the bright red star Antares.

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[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[2] describes such a ritual:

The horn was lined

With runes manifold,

Carved and cut with blood.


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[3], 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?

Knife of a Viking woman with blood
Replica of a Viking woman’s knife.  Photograph edited by the author. (Source)

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.

Antares in Scorpio - a bright red star

The bright red star Antares. Left: Reconstructed view of Antares (Source). Right: Photograph by Dylan O’Donnell (Source).

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:

Ophiuchus ans Scorpio as Odin carving the runes with blood - Star Myth
Odin imagined in the stars as carving the runes with his spear and painting them with his blood.

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 Rök Runestone by Bengt Olof Åradsson.
The Swedish Rök runestone. Photo: Bengt Olof Åradsson (edited by the author). The runes on rune stones were often painted with red pigment such as red ochre, red lead or vermillion.


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:

Part IV   Odin’s Scream and the Whispers of the Runes


Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

[2] The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, translated by Jesse L. Byock (1990)

[3] Smiley, J. (2005). The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin UK.

Source Texts

Grettir’s Saga

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

The Saga of the Volsungs

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Arith Härger

Video: Blood on the Runes


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: Arthur Koopmans

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…


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?


Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


[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


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.

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