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«runic AMULETS AND MAGIC OBJECTS Runic Amulets and Magic Objects Runic Amulets and Magic Objects MINDY MACLEOD and BERNARD MEES THE BOYDELL PRESS © ...»

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Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees






Runic Amulets and

Magic Objects

Runic Amulets and

Magic Objects




© Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees 2006

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation

no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner First published 2006 The Boydell Press, Woodbridge ISBN 1 84383 205 4 Publication of this work was assisted by a publication grant from the University of Melbourne The Boydell Press is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc.

668 Mt Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620, USA website: www.boydellandbrewer.com A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library This publication is printed on acid-free paper Typeset by Pru Harrison, Hacheston, Suffolk Printed in Great Britain by Cambridge University Press Contents List of illustrations vii Acknowledgements viii Preface ix Abbreviations x 1 Introduction 1 The principal runic alphabets 13 The names of the runes 14 2 Gods and heroes 15 3 Love, fidelity and desire 40 4 Protective and enabling charms 71 5 Fertility charms 102 6 Healing charms and leechcraft 116 7 Pagan ritual items 163 8 Christian amulets 184 9 Rune-stones, death and curses 211 10 Runic lore and other magic 233

11 Conclusion 254

Bibliography 257 Index 270 Illustrations

1. Pforzen buckle 20

2. Ribe skull fragment 26

3. Charnay brooch 43

4. Narsaq stick 69

5. Lindholmen amulet 72

6. Dahmsdorf and Kovel spearheads 79

7. Undley, Lelling and Tjurkö pendants 91

8. Björketorp stone

–  –  –

All illustrations are by Bernard Mees, except for figure 6 which is reproduced from L.F.A. Wimmer, Die Runeninschrift (1887), figure 13 from Danmarks Runeindskrifter (1941) and figure 14 from Meddelelser om Grønland 67 (1924).

The runic fonts used are freeware by Odd Einar Haugen; see http://helmer.aksis.



In 1997 the Uppsala professor, Dr Henrik Williams, was visiting Australia as a guest of the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Melbourne. He had discovered, to his surprise, that there were two people in Melbourne writing independently on runic matters and decided to bring them together. The first products of our ensuing collaboration were two jointly written papers. We found that our differing backgrounds served to complement each other’s weaknesses, if not always strengths, and we soon discovered we were often able to cover a lot more ground than a single writer could be expected to.

Our respective backgrounds as a Scandinavist on the one hand, and as a Germanist (who has also read in classics), on the other, are a good guide to the principal authorship of the different themes and geographies covered in this work.

It grew from our second joint paper, which was inspired by an observation by the American linguist Dr Thomas L. Markey.

Research for this work was supported by two generous grants, from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation of New York and the Greta Hort bequest to the University of Melbourne, which enabled research trips to Italy and Denmark respectively. Thanks are also due to the Departments of Medieval Archaeology and English at the University of Århus, Denmark. The University of Melbourne, and especially its Department of History, has also helped fund the study by means not just of the use of its facilities, but also in the form of publication subsidies.

Abbreviations CIL Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, ed. Theodor Mommsen et al., 17 vols (Berlin 1863– ).

DR Danmarks Runeindskrifter, ed. Lis Jacobsen and Erik Moltke, 2 vols (Copenhagen 1941).

IK Ikonographischer Katalog of Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit, ed. Karl Hauck et al., Münster Mittelalter-Schriften 24, 4 vols (Munich 1985–89) NA Catalogue number from the runic archives in Oslo of an inscription from Norway (other than from Bergen) not yet published in NIyR, but listed in the downloadable University of Uppsala database ‘Samnordisk runtextdatabas’, http://www.nordiska.uu.se/forsk/samnord.


NB Catalogue number from the runic archives in Oslo of an inscription from Bergen not yet published in NIyR, but referenced in the Norwegian National Library on-line database ‘Runeinnskrifter fra Bryggen i Bergen’ http://www.nb.no/baser/runer/index.html.

NIyR Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer, ed. Magnus Olsen et al., 6 vols (Oslo 1941– ); and cf. Jan Ragnar Hagland, ‘Runer frå utgravingane i Trondheim bygrunn 1971–1994’, which has been published on the internet (http:/www.hf.ntnu.no/ nor/Publik/RUNER/ runer-N774-N894.htm) as a preliminary version of NIyR vol. VII.

SR Sveriges runinskrifter, ed. Sven Söderberg et al., 15 vols (Stockholm 1900– ).

U UR Catalogue number from Uppland Prehistorical Society’s collections of an inscription from Sweden not yet published in SR, but listed in the downloadable University of Uppsala database ‘Samnordisk runtextdatabas’, http://www.nordiska.uu.se/forsk/samnord.html.


M ANY objects once thought of as having magical powers feature texts written in runes, providing sources that today shed light on the lives and experiences of the northern European peoples the ancient Romans first called Germans. These pre-Christian Germanic or Teutonic folk were not just early Germans or Scandinavians, though; they are the ancestors of several modern nations in Europe and beyond – from England and Holland to Austria and Germany and up to the Nordic countries, from North America to Australasia as well – and also include tribes who once ruled over other peoples such as the Franks, Lombards, Burgundians and Goths. The runic texts surveyed in this book are often previously misunderstood keys to comprehending the religious, cultural and social world of the early Germanic peoples prior to and during their conversions to Christianity, and the cultural and intellectual Latinising that followed the adoption of both the writing system and the official religion of the late Roman Empire.1 The study and interpretation of old Germanic inscriptions, though, can be a strange business. In fact it has been suggested that the first law of runic studies is that ‘for every inscription there shall be as many interpretations as there are runologists studying it’. This may seem a bit too clever or even a little bewildering. But a lot of what passes for expert runic interpretation has too readily strayed into the fantastic in the past, and never more so than in considerations of the runic legends that appear on amulets and other similar items. This is at least part of the reason why no major contributions to the topic of this study have appeared before and why the subject of runic amulets has usually been treated so poorly when it has been assessed at all.2 1 The general introductions to the study of runes in English are R.W.V. Elliott, Runes, 2nd ed.

(Manchester 1989) and R.I. Page, Runes (London 1987). Studies of the traditions of individual countries include R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, 2nd ed. (Woodbridge 1999), T.

Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions, trans B. van der Hoek (Woodbridge 2005), S.B.F. Jansson, Runes in Sweden, trans. P.G. Foote (Stockholm 1987), and E. Moltke, Runes and their Origin, Denmark and Elsewhere, trans. P.G. Foote (Copenhagen 1985). Other standard works include the still useful L. Musset, Introduction à la runologie (Paris 1965), W. Krause, Runen (Berlin 1970), and K. Düwel, Runenkunde, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart 2001).

2 Cf., however, the recent sourcebook by J. McKinnell and R. Simek, Runes, Magic and Religion (Vienna 2004) and the useful surveys of later runic amulets: E. Moltke, ‘Mediaeval rune-amulets in Denmark’, Acta Ethnologica (1938), 116–47 and K. Düwel, ‘Mitterlalterliche Amulette aus


This first apparent law of runic studies also masks the fact that many people who interest themselves in runic texts are often neither linguists nor experts in the study of inscriptions. Often what pass for expert interpretations of runic inscriptions turn out to be no more than educated guesses by specialists in medieval literature or archaeology. Our aim here is not to provide new readings or linguistic interpretations of the runic texts we assess, though on occasion it has become obvious to us that some commonly accepted interpretations have proven implausible when the amulet inscriptions are taken in their proper context. Our main approach is epigraphic: we have arranged the inscriptions according to type, and then assessed them in terms of what they have in common, an approach that has often enabled us to sort plausible interpretations from the improbable even before considering other issues.

The usual interpretative approach in runic studies is basically etymological.

We have mostly refrained from etymological argument here, though. Etymological analysis is essential when assessing fragments of only partially understood languages. Nonetheless it is often done in the absence of other considerations – later or etymologically reconstructed meanings are often blithely read onto early forms without due attention being paid to matters such as immediate context and broader meaning relationships, or what linguists call collocation and semantic fields.3 The traditional approach has also often proven too restricted in its horizon – few runologists seem to be interested in comparing runic texts with similar expressions from other epigraphic traditions. We have been open to comparing runic amulet texts with those appearing on Greek and Roman amulets especially in light of the progress made in the last few decades in the understanding of Graeco-Roman magical practice. We have also been influenced by some of the methods developed in Etruscan studies, where given the difficult nature of the language, a stress on isolating and comparing formulaic elements is considered essential. The impressive recent developments in the understanding of Celtic and other areas of early European epigraphy have also proved significant to our assessments.

The texts surveyed in this book appear on a wide range of media commonly dubbed amulets by runic scholars, including pieces of jewellery, pendants or plates of copper, bronze or iron, worked pieces of bone and sticks or crosses of wood. Experts in medieval studies, though, often call an inscribed object carried or worn for magical reasons a talisman; a similar item is only an amulet for these Holz und Blei mit lateinischen und runischen Inschriften’, in V. Vogel (ed.), Ausgrabungen in Schleswig 15 (Neumünster 2001), pp. 227–302. The only comprehensive attempt to survey runic magic is the often speculative S.E. Flowers, Runes and Magic (Frankfurt a.M. 1986). Cf. also from an archaeological perspective A.L. Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones (Oxford 1981) and M.K. Zeiten, ‘Amulets and amulet use in Viking Age Denmark’, Acta Archaeologica 68 (1997), 1–74.

3 The best analysis of early runic grammar is the often-idiosyncratic E.H. Antonsen, A Concise Grammar of the Older Runic Inscriptions (Tübingen 1975), which is indebted to the 1965 Russian original of È.A. Makaev, The Language of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, trans. J.

Meredig (Uppsala 1996), and Nordicists still tend to rely on A. Noreen, Altisländische und altnorwegische Grammatik, 4th ed. (Halle a.S. 1923), or later works substantially dependent on it.


inscriptionless.4 scholars if it is Those who study the classical and early Near Eastern world, however, maintain a different view and instead call both types of objects amulets. In fact more modern items of a similar ilk – for instance lucky rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers – are better known in normal speech merely as charms. But the distinctions often made between amulets, talismans and charms are usually artificial. The word talisman comes from an Arabic description for magical stones, rings or other objects that were known to the ancient Romans as amuleta – so it does not make much sense to call any sort of ancient charm a talisman. On the other hand, the word charm can be a confusing description as the same term can equally apply to a spoken or chanted spell, or even merely a more mundane effect, such as charisma – personal charm. Talisman and amulet are actually synonyms, then, though amulet is the usual description used in runic and classical studies for what medievalists often distinguish as talismans.

Other words for amulets or charms in English include periapt (cf. Greek periapton ‘pendant’) and phylactery (cf. Greek phylaktêrion ‘amulet’). In normal use, however, the description phylactery is usually restricted to amulets with clear religious associations, most commonly the small cases with sacred writings folded up in them (tefillin) traditionally used in Judaism. Similar items in Christian environments are usually just called amulets, though, as they normally have no official standing as religious items. The distinction between amulet and phylactery or periapt is, again, somewhat artificial, and not one an ancient Greek would have made.

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