Vanic Runes: An Exploration of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc

This article appears in Visions of Vanaheim, an anthology on the Vanir and Vanic practice compiled by Svartesól (Gullinbursti Press; April 2009).

Disclaimer: the following article is not a guide for divination, but rather food for thought, and a look at how the runes speak in a specifically Vanic context. Certainly, divinatory meanings can be extrapolated from the poems and accompanying paragraphs, but the intent is not for that.

The runes are traditionally seen as a solely Aesic system, having been brought into the Nine Worlds by Odin. However, it is said that the runes went to all people, and there are examples of other Beings than Odin using runes, such as Skirnir’s threatening Gerda with runemagic if She did not consent to meet Frey, and Freyja learning the runes from Odin in exchange for teaching Him seiðr. The runes that seem to speak most of the Vanir are, naturally enough, the Anglo-Saxon futhorc.

Feoh

Feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum;
sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan
gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan.

Wealth is a comfort to all men;
yet must every man bestow it freely,
if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.

It’s fitting that a piece on Vanic runes starts with fertility, wealth, sharing, and the pleasures of life. Feoh is all of those things. The word itself means “cattle,” but unlike the animal sense that Ur brings, it is cattle as a means of acquiring and measuring wealth, sustenance and prestige. The poem talks about the comfort it brings; the Vanir are very much about enjoying the pleasures of life and the world. However, just as it is a sorrow to lack, in a Vanic life, it is a sorrow not to share what one has freely. Frey does not hoard His light; Freyja does not partition Her love-making to only the rich or famous. Gifting is a vital part of any Vanic ethos, as gyfu will show.

Ur

Ur byþ anmod ond oferhyrned,
felafrecne deor, feohteþ mid hornum
mære morstapa; þæt is modig wuht.

The aurochs is proud and has great horns;
it is a very savage beast and fights with its horns;
a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.

The aurochs was an awesome animal, the Old World equivalent of the North American great bison, and would have been a familiar animal to the pre-Aesir Vanic cultus. While the major Vanic animal was the boar, I would propose that the aurochs was just as important, and may have been replaced by the boar as the former died out. Certainly, the poem’s description fits the nature of the Vanir-at-war – proud, ruthless, mettlesome, and at home in the wild. Note, too, the ability of Frey to fight just as well with an antler/horn as he did with a sword. The aurochs is a symbol of strength, of power, of self-confidence; certainly all the Vanir we know of exude those traits in Their own individual ways.

Þorn

Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.

The thorn is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.

“The thorn is severely sharp – for any thane to seize it is hurtful.” Obviously, the poem is fairly straightfoward: thorns and briars hurt! But what does that mean in a Vanic context? First, it is my UPG that the blackberry, a fruit normally found wild in bramble and briar patches, is sacred to certain Vanir women, notably Holda and Nerthus, Who are certainly said to be “uncommonly severe” to those who follow Them. Second, I feel it is a warning that all is not as it seems when you deal with the Vanir. Too many have the assumption that the Vanir, because They are gods mostly concerned with fertility and agriculture, that They are tree-hugging pacifist hippie Gods; however, a real look at Them will show that They are just as much concerned with Death as with the continuation of Life, especially the older generations. Nerthus may be an Earth Goddess, but She is not the Nurturing Mother – She is the Devouring Cunt, the Ever-Empty Womb of the Earth that swallows us all at the end, the Quicksand and Peat that sucks you slowly to your death with one wrong step.

Ós

Os byþ ordfruma ælere spræce,
wisdomes wraþu ond witena frofur
and eorla gehwam eadnys ond tohiht.

The mouth is the source of all language,
a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise men,
a blessing and a joy to every knight.

The actual translation here is “The God(s) is the source of all language …,” Ós being the word for a God or the divine in Old English. Traditionally, the god in question is Odin; I would agree partly, but only in the figure of Ódr, husband of Freyja. That is not to say that the other Gods, including actual Vanir, are not wise – after all, the poem Hrafnagaldr Oðins specifically states that “the Vanir know.” Know what? Well, They certainly know battle-magic, which would be a “blessing and joy” to warriors; They know seiðr, which can be used to prophesy and divine, bringing wisdom and comfort to the Witan; and They know the flows of Wyrd, the source of everything, including language. They are truly the Gods this rune speaks of.

Rad

Rad byþ on recyde rinca gehwylcum
sefte ond swiþhwæt, ðamðe sitteþ on ufan
meare mægenheardum ofer milpaþas.

Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors
and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads
on the back of a stout horse.

This rune, though the poem is about riding, is less about the mode of transportation and more about the journey itself. Certainly, the horse is sacred to the Vanir, specifically Frey, but Rad is not the Horse rune. Rad, the rune of journeying, is twofold, as the poem states – there is an inward, “easy” route, and the harder outward one. As any spiritworker who does regular journeying will tell you, stepping out of your inner worlds is extremely dangerous. The possibilities of the journey itself is also twofold. There is the meaning of spiritual journeys, seiðr, and pathwalking, and then something that is hinted at in the poem itself – the dichotomy of slander, empty bragging and gossip, and the “high road” of frith-building, true honor and respect, which certainly requires much courage.

Cen

Cen byþ cwicera gehwam cuþ on fyre
blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ.

The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame;
it always burns where princes sit within.

Light is an interesting thing. The presence of light immediately creates a dichotomy between what is illuminated and what is shadowed – darkness only exists as a discernible entity in the presence of light. So is it with the Vanir – They are at once Light and Dark, some more of one than the other, but all in balance. Frey brings Light to the Worlds, but goes into Darkness every year; Njord is calm and even-mannered, but He killed Midir in anger; Nerthus brings peace during Her procession, but demands a yearly sacrifice. Gerda is a dark, reserved Jotun, but Frey fell in love with the Light inside Her, and They balance both the Light and Dark within each other. Freyja is the sacred Whore Who brings joy to people through lovemaking, but also the Mother Sow that savagely defends Her own; Gullveig is the battle-witch, and the joy of gold and wealth.

Gyfu

Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
wraþu and wyrþscype and wræcna gehwam
ar and ætwist, ðe byþ oþra leas.

Generosity brings credit and honour, which support one’s dignity;
it furnishes help and subsistence
to all broken men who are devoid of aught else.

“A gift for a gift” says Hár in the Hávamál, and reciprocity is an important Heathen value. But there are strictures on the type of gift, if you wish to gift in a Vanic style – it must be given willingly, joyfully; no stinginess or reluctance. Frey does not go grumbling each year, resentful of the gift of His life to sustain the Nine Worlds – He goes willingly, happily, aroused as if to His honeymoon, running with passion into the cold embrace of Death. Nerthus’ slaves did not complain; they gave of themselves willingly and gladly, throwing themselves into the black void of Her embrace for one chance to see Her as She is. Sif and Sigyn do not care for Their husbands and families because of any meekness or coercion – it is Their gift to the men They love. A gift is not truly a gift if it is not given with all your being behind it; it is simply a payment or a tribute.

Wynn

Wenne bruceþ, ðe can weana lyt
sares and sorge and him sylfa hæfþ
blæd and blysse and eac byrga geniht.

Bliss he enjoys who knows not suffering, sorrow nor anxiety,
and has prosperity and happiness and a good enough house.

Wynn is probably one of the most Vanic of runes – it speaks of joy, prosperity, a good home, and self-contentment. It is the rune of frith, of peace-making, because there is no happiness in war, and the Vanir understand that intimately. While certainly not pacifists or poor fighters (They were winning, after all, before They offered truce), the Vanir realise that happiness and prosperity, good homes and bliss cannot be found on the battlefield or in the destructions of war; they can only be cultivated in peace and tolerance.

Hægl

Hægl byþ hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte,
wealcaþ hit windes scura; weorþeþ hit to wætere syððan.

Hail is the whitest of grain;
it is whirled from the vault of heaven
and is tossed about by gusts of wind
and then it melts into water.

The Anglo-Saxon shape of Hægl is that of a snowflake. I feel this is Holda’s rune, as She is intimately connected with snow and winter in folklore; it can also be associated with Skadhi and Ullr, Who are the Gods of the woods and wilderness, especially the snowy mountains of Norway and Sweden (and Colorado). The poem doesn’t seem to make much sense other than as a simple description of how frozen water acts, until one looks closer, and realises that it is an allegory for life – we are as seeds tossed unto the earth from the “heavens,” yet even during our lives we are subject to the gusts of “wind” that are caused by our wyrd and orløg as well as the decisions we make. And when our time has come, we “melt” into the earth to nourish the next generation of seeds.

Nyd

Nyd byþ nearu on breostan; weorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnum
to helpe and to hæle gehwæþre, gif hi his hlystaþ æror.

[Need] is oppressive to the heart;
yet often it proves a source of help and salvation
to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it betimes.

Need, or necessity, has long been toted as the “mother of invention.” And it is true – nothing new would be created were there not some need for it, even if that need is one that does not seem “oppressive” – for instance, many people have a need to experience beauty, but the lack of it does not immediately endanger their lives (whether or not it can cause long-term damage is a debate for another time). The Vanir understand need – Frey’s death fulfills the need of recharging the Nine Worlds to keep them alive; Njord has an irrevocable need to be near the ocean, as Skadhi does the mountains. Nerthus and Sigyn understand Duty, as do the three hostages to the Aesir; in fact, there are possibly no Beings in the Nine Worlds that are more conscious of Duty than the Vanir, with the exception of Hela.

Is

Is byþ ofereald, ungemetum slidor,
glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne.

Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.

Ice is the rune of winter, of stasis, of slowing down and looking within. The poem describes the many qualities of ice, but notably only the ice that is usually called black ice or clear ice, as opposed to rime, the solid white ice that is named for the frost thurses. Black ice is indeed immeasurably slippery, and is a great danger to those who are not paying attention and moving without caution. While there is no specifically Vanic trait about this rune, all the Vanir know well the value of mindfulness and taking time to reflect so that one does not slip up. And when we stop and look around us, we find that the ice that was once a danger unheeded is now a thing of great beauty.

Ger

Ger byþ gumena hiht, ðonne God læteþ,
halig heofones cyning, hrusan syllan
beorhte bleda beornum ond ðearfum.

Summer is a joy to men, when God, the holy King of Heaven,
suffers the earth to bring forth shining fruits
for rich and poor alike.

Harvest and cycles are the epitome of the Vanic way. That which was sown is reaped, the trees give forth their yearly abundance, and all are blessed with the bounty of nature. Harvest was a three month-long process, starting first with the grains and nuts and then the autumn fruits and vegetables; oftentimes, those three months were the most joyous in the community, because all the year’s hard work had finally come to fruition and they were (hopefully) prepared for another harsh winter. There were feasts and blóts all through the period of Lammas to Winterfylleth: as each harvest came in, the people would give of it to the Gods in thanks for Their blessings. Frey is the one most associated with this time, though all the Vanir work to bring forth fertility and bounty in the Nine Worlds.

Eoh

Eoh byþ utan unsmeþe treow,
heard hrusan fæst, hyrde fyres,
wyrtrumun underwreþyd, wyn on eþle.

The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.

While most Heathens and Northern Tradition Pagans view Yggdrasil as being an ash tree, I personally feel that there is some merit in its being a yew. As such, Eoh speaks to me of the Nine Worlds and the Tree themselves, as Rad speaks of journeying. The line about flame is especially interesting, as there is no tale we know of that tells of the origin of the Tree itself, but the saga of Northern mythology starts and ends in fire, and the yew is a highly flammable tree because of its oils. Also, the root of the Tree is Helheim – all Life is supported by Death, something the Vanir know well.

Peorð
i
Peorð byþ symble plega and hlehter
wlancum [on middum], ðar wigan sittaþ
on beorsele bliþe ætsomne.

Peorth [luck, gambling] is a source of recreation and amusement to the great,
where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.

Luck is very important in the Northern Tradition. Called hamingja in Norse, it is seen as a driving force in a person’s individuality in and of itself, rather than some random chance. Some conceptualizations of it portray it as a figure similar to the fetch/fylgja or dísir – a female guardian figure responsible for the person’s well-being or happiness. However, unlike modern ideas of luck, there are specific things about the hamingja that need to be noted. One is born with a certain amount of it, and can either lose it or make it grow, but once lost or wasted, it cannot be regained. However, Peorð is also the rune of Wyrd, and the glyph can be seen as the Well of Urð (though on its side).

Eolh

Eolh-secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð beorna gehwylcne
ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ.

The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.

Eolh is the rune of holiness, of taboo, of the sanctuary; the Old English word wíh is what this rune embodies. Eolh itself is similar to the OE word for temple, ealh, and the poem reminds of the dangers of violating the sacred spaces carelessly or with malice. It is worth noting that the description the poem gives of where the elk-sedge is similar to Tacitus’ account of Nerthus’ holy grove, the Vane Who is most concerned with wíh.

Sigel

Sigel semannum symble biþ on hihte,
ðonne hi hine feriaþ ofer fisces beþ,
oþ hi brimhengest bringeþ to lande.

The sun is ever a joy in the hopes of seafarers
when they journey away over the fishes’ bath,
until the courser of the deep bears them to land.

Sunna is well-loved in all the Nine Worlds (except perhaps Niflheim), but especially in Vanaheim, because She is the one that causes all the crops to grow. However, the poem speaks of sailing, which is the place of Njord. And indeed, the sun is a vital resource in sailing, both as a compass-guide and by the light it offers, light which is often rare in northern climes, and as such, is preciously revered by farmers and sailors alike, both of which the Vanir are.

Tiw

Tir biþ tacna sum, healdeð trywa wel
wiþ æþelingas; a biþ on færylde
ofer nihta genipu, næfre swiceþ.

Tiw is a guiding star; well does it keep faith with princes;
it is ever on its course over the mists of night and never fails.

Tiw/Tir is named for the Norse God Tyr, and the Norse and Icelandic poems talk about His attributes as God of Victory and Justice. The Anglo-Saxon poem takes a different angle, referring to the North Star, another important guide for sailors, as well as hunters (both Vanic occupations – Njord is a master sailor, and many Vanir are associated with hunting and woodlands). There are also hints of the importance the Vanir place on trustworthiness, what in Norse is call mægen or honor.The North Star (currently Polaris) does not move in the Great Procession; all the other stars move around it, at least from the perspective of us on earth. As such, it can always be counted upon to show true north; similarly, to the Vanir, keeping troth and word is vital to not only reputation, but the ability to build and maintain frith.

Beorc

Beorc byþ bleda leas, bereþ efne swa ðeah
tanas butan tudder, biþ on telgum wlitig,
heah on helme hrysted fægere,
geloden leafum, lyfte getenge.

The birch/poplar bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers,
for it is generated from its leaves.
Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies.

The birch tree is a major Northern Tradition plant, commonly seen in Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Saami/indigenous cultural herbology as a purifier. The Finnish saunas use birch twigs as a means of stimulating blood flow and cleansing of both the space and the people within; in Celtic and Germanic cultures, birch twigs were often cut in early spring and brought inside to bloom, thus blessing and warding the house. The birch is also one of the trees, along with the ash and oak, that usually comprise sacred groves, which are commonly associated with the Vanic cultus (the Aesic cultus was more temple-oriented)

Eh

Eh byþ for eorlum æþelinga wyn,
hors hofum wlanc, ðær him hæleþ ymb[e]
welege on wicgum wrixlaþ spræce
and biþ unstyllum æfre frofur.

The horse is a joy to princes in the presence of warriors.
A steed in the pride of its hoofs,
when rich men on horseback bandy words about it;
and it is ever a source of comfort to the restless.

There is a common saying that the dog is man’s best friend. However, in the millennia before the medieval and modern eras, no animal was more important to humankind than the horse. The horse provided food, skins for clothing and shelter, transportation, increased ranges in territory and hunting/foraging and great power in battle. Beyond the practical, however, there is an almost spiritual symbiosis between humans and horses – ask any horse owner, and they will tell you of that connection. The most famous horse in the Northern tradition is actually a Jotun – Sleipnir, child of Loki – but the tribe of Gods with the greatest connection to horses is the Vanir. Frey, though He rides a boar, has a horse, Blóðughófi (Bloody-hoof) and is strongly linked with horses in the Sagas (such as the horse Freyfaxi, which was dedicated to Him by Rafnkel Freysgodi, and the horses of Throndheim). Holda is said to ride a horse when She leads the Wild Hunt. Historically, the domestication of the horse and the time of its greatest importance were the Mesolithic and Neolithic Eras, the time when the Vanic cultus was most likely the strongest and most wide-spread.

Mann

Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof:
sceal þeah anra gehwylc oðrum swican,
forðum drihten wyle dome sine
þæt earme flæsc eorþan betæcan.

The joyous man is dear to his kinsmen;
yet every man is doomed to fail his fellow,
since the Lord by his decree will commit the vile carrion to the earth.

In many ways, this rune reflects and focuses the other “human” runes of gyfu, eðel and wynn, as the poem depicts. One who has much Wynn will certainly be more amenable to the process of Gyfu, because the miserable are not prone to giving or building frith, and a generous and joyful man raises the reputation of his Eðel and family, thus making him “dear to his kinsmen.” Even though the second half of the poem is Christian in basis, I still see in it a reminder, as with all things Vanic, that there are two sides to the coin – Light and Dark, Joy and Sadness, Life and Death – and we are all doomed to die, that others might live in our places, one part of the cycle that we are still in thrall to.

Lagu

Lagu byþ leodum langsum geþuht,
gif hi sculun neþan on nacan tealtum
and hi sæyþa swyþe bregaþ
and se brimhengest bridles ne gym[eð].

The ocean seems interminable to men,
if they venture on the rolling bark
and the waves of the sea terrify them
and the courser of the deep heed not its bridle.

While the OE word lagu is cognate with Latin lacu “lake,” the poem describes the largest lake of all – the ocean. However, this depiction of the ocean is much different from the one for Siegl, though it uses many of the same words. This is the terrifying storm, the devouring hurricane, the Sea that threatens to tear the boat apart and swallow all within. Njord, being a sailor Himself, knows well the power of the Sea, and is on good terms with the Nine Undines and Ran Herself, for which They allow Him to calm Their storms on occasion.

Ing

Ing wæs ærest mid East-Denum
gesewen secgun, oþ he siððan est
ofer wæg gewat; wæn æfter ran;
ðus Heardingas ðone hæle nemdun.

Ing was first seen by men among the East-Danes,
till, followed by his chariot,
he departed eastwards over the waves.
So the Heardingas named the hero.

The AS poem for the Ing rune tells us the story of Yng, the eponymous ancestor of the Ynglings, a royal family of medieval Sweden (and later, Denmark), and who was probably either an avatar of Frey, or Frey Himself. The obviously Vanic symbol of the wain (wæn) is the main focus here, though it is interesting that the tale has him coming and going from the east, when Vanaheim is traditionally to the west; however, if one looks at it from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxons, the East is Geatland (as opposed to the West-Danes of Denmark and the Danelaw), and Sweden, two of the major Vanic regions in Scandinavia.

Éðel

Eþel byþ oferleof æghwylcum men,
gif he mot ðær rihtes and gerysena on
brucan on bolde bleadum oftast.

An estate is very dear to every man,
if he can enjoy there in his house
whatever is right and proper in constant prosperity.

Family was very important in ancient times, because not only were you the product of your ancestors, the whole family’s mægen, hamingja and orløg rested in your hands. Yet family meant more than the blood relationships. Before the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization of much of Western civilization in the modern era, family meant land – the land where your fathers and mothers were born, lived, and died, with few exceptions. Land also meant all the various spirits that must be propitiated – the crops, the wild and domesticated herbs, the earth itself, the housespirits, the trees and rocks, and everything else that was necessary to “enjoy … whatever is right and proper in constant prosperity,” a topic we have already discussed as being greatly important to the Vanir.

Dæg

Dæg byþ drihtnes sond, deore mannum,
mære metodes leoht, myrgþ and tohiht
eadgum and earmum, eallum brice.

Day, the glorious light of the Creator, is sent by the Lord;
it is beloved of men, a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor,
and of service to all.

Like Siegl, Dæg is about the light of Sunna. But where Siegl is the Light being useful (and with connotations of victory given its similarity to sig), Dæg is the new day, the bright beginning, since dæg can also mean dawn. This is the rune of the Second Chance, the ability to start anew, to make this day worth living regardless of what happened before. Many ancient cultures did not view time with the obsession of past-future that we do; instead, each day was taken as is (hence the need for daily auguries, to determine what the best use of the day was to be). One of the lessons the Vanir teach is to take each thing that comes as it comes, stopping our mad rush into the future to stop and enjoy the sensations of the now, whether those be chocolate, good food, better sex, or even just watching a spider spin a web.

Ác

Ac byþ on eorþan elda bearnum
flæsces fodor, fereþ gelome
ofer ganotes bæþ; garsecg fandaþ
hwæþer ac hæbbe æþele treowe.

The oak fattens the flesh of pigs for the children of men.
Often it traverses the gannet’s bath,
and the ocean proves whether the oak keeps faith
in honourable fashion.

The oak is another sacred tree among many of Europe’s ancient peoples – the Greeks attributed it to Zeus; the Celts named it as the special tree of the Dagda. There is a specific oak forest in Northern lore that is well-known – the Iron Wood of Angrboda and the Jotnar. Yet the oak is also sacred to the Vanir, both as the tree itself (useful for shipbuilding and making homes from) and as the major source of food for the Vanir’s most attributed animal, the boar.

Æsc

Æsc biþ oferheah, eldum dyre
stiþ on staþule, stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on firas monige.

The ash is exceedingly high and precious to men.
With its sturdy trunk it offers a stubborn resistance,
though attacked by many a man.

The fourth in the futhorc, the ash tree is the traditional representative of the World Tree (switching with the yew); however, it was also a favored wood in the production of spears and polearms, the major weapons of the masses before the invention of smelting. The poem also refers to another usage – many shields were made of ash, being cheaper and easier to work than the harder oak. While such blatant militarism might seem anathema to the common understanding of the Vanir, one need only remember that They were winning in the war against the Aesir, and that many of the Vanir probably would not have had swords, to understand how this tree might be well-loved in Vanaheim, beyond its usefulness in non-military contexts

Yr

Yr byþ æþelinga and eorla gehwæs
wyn and wyrþmynd, byþ on wicge fæger,
fæstlic on færelde, fyrdgeatewa sum.

Yr is a source of joy and honour to every prince and knight;
it looks well on a horse and is a reliable equipment for a journey.

If any of the Vanir resonate with this rune, it is Ullr, since Yr’s glyph is the hunter’s bow. The poem speaks of the many uses that bows have – sport (the source of joy and honor among nobility), war (mounted bowmen are a very powerful force), and survival in the wilderness (for both food and protection). The concept that Yr speaks to, and Ullr also teaches, is the power in focus, but not the focus of a camera, or the loose sort of focus most of us give to something we’re doing. This is the focus of the Hunter, of the Artist, of the Craftsman – the pouring of oneself into the moment, when everything falls away but the task at hand. Yr calls us to remember that focus, and apply it to the everyday, whether that be in the home, at work, or in our relationships with the Gods.

Ior

Iar byþ eafix and ðeah a bruceþ
fodres on foldan, hafaþ fægerne eard
wætre beworpen, ðær he wynnum leofaþ.

Iar is a river fish and yet it always feeds on land;
it has a fair abode encompassed by water, where it lives in happiness.

The normal translation of Ior is an eel, though the description may actually be that of a crocodilian or similar species (which may also be the basis of the European dragon legends). Some have postulated that the river-fish in question is actually Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, though the poem certainly paints a much different picture of it than is normally the case if that is true.

Ear

Ear byþ egle eorla gehwylcun,
ðonn[e] fæstlice flæsc onginneþ,
hraw colian, hrusan ceosan
blac to gebeddan; bleda gedreosaþ,
wynna gewitaþ, wera geswicaþ.

The grave is horrible to every knight,
when the corpse quickly begins to cool
and is laid in the bosom of the dark earth.
Prosperity declines, happiness passes away
and covenants are broken.

Many people view the Vanir, especially the most well-known ones, as merely being Gods of life and fertility, peace and happiness. While that is certainly part of what They are, it is not all of it, especially for the older Vanir Who are more primal and Jotun-like. Tacitus tells of the bloody nature of Nerthus’ rites; Holda is said in folklore to steal children and eat them. Njord can calm the storms, but also can deny harbor to ships, dooming them to the rocks. Not only are Their natures involved with Death, Their very life cycle is dependent on it. Life cannot live without death; the seed must die to grow. Frey goes to Hela every year to ensure that Life continues, not knowing if She will allow Him to return this time. Nerthus kills Her own Son every year in the name of Death. Gullveig was willing to die and be reborn three times. The Vanir understand and embrace the importance of death, of the slow rotting and falling away, because without it, They could not exist as They do.

The following four runes, from Northumbria, are not included in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem; their status as distinctly separate runes is contested (for example, Cweorð may possibly be an alternate form or derivation from Peorð). I have included them anyway, because I feel there are certain lessons that they have to share, regardless of their origins. You will notice that they loosely correspond with the four elements of Wicca and Neo-paganism, as well as the four suits of the Tarot.

Cweorð – Fire-twirl

Cweorð is the Rune of Fire, but not the illuminating fire of Cen or the saving warmth of Nyd – this is the Pyre, the Wildfire that destroys homes and forests (of which we have seen much of in recent years). Though many of the other runes speak of destruction and death, none quite top this one. Cweorð teaches the lesson of Fire as Purifier – destruction of the old, the worn-out, the no-longer-useful to make way for the new, the way woodlands and prairies need occasional destruction to remain healthy. The very reason that this has been such a problem in recent years in the outer world is that we have decided we know better than nature, and have allowed deadbrush to build up by stopping smaller fires or otherwise inhibiting the natural processes. The Vanir, however, understand the necessity of that destruction, and urge those who would follow Them to be open to the Pyre, to not repress and ignore those things we do not like, but instead give them up to the purifying flame.

Calc – Cup

Another rune linked with water, Calc speaks of reflection, of looking inward, of containing the free flow of Lagu into something useful. It can be the scrying bowl, the mirror pool in which answers are sought. But it can also be the peace-cup that is shared among friends and former enemies; the cauldron of Ægir comes to mind, as well as the story of Kvasir and the mead of Poetry. There is a danger, though, in relying too much on reflection, in that the person most easily deceived is oneself; divination is not set in stone, nor can peace be maintained without work. The converse of this is a symbol well-known in later European mythology – the Holy Cup, the Grail. This aspect of Calc is the idealism that fuels passion, that starts pilgrimages, that calls people to a higher cause and path. But just as the illumination of Cen can be twisted in Calc’s depths, so too can that idealism be hollow and without foundation. Calc is very powerful, but care must be taken that one does not fall into the trap of thinking its shallows are deeper than they seem.

Stan – Stone

The very word stone brings to mind many qualities – rigid, steadfast, hard, grounded, immovable, secure, guarding, strong. Stones can make walls, homes, weapons; they can also be dangerous – sailors fear the embrace of the rocks, where the breakers are, because just a brush can wreck a hull beyond repair. Even far from the sea, rocks can be troublesome, if they are in the field one is trying to plow. Mountains are obstacles to be climbed or passed around; caves and tunnels are deep depths that can collapse on the unwary. All of the Northumbrian runes have their dangers, and Stan is no exception. But the major lesson that Stan has for us is the strength and power of steadfastness – loyalty in word and deed, perseverance in hardship, protection of the weak, resolve in the pursuit of frith – all the qualities that the Vanir hold dear. This, above else, is the focus of Vanic virtues; just as an arch cannot stand without the keystone, so do all the other runes mean less without the steadfastness and grounding of Stan.

Gar – Spear (Odin’s)

If Peorð is the rune of personal wyrd, Gar is the rune of Universal Wyrd, of the Well itself, the Great Tangle of Life. While the rune is named for Odin’s spear, which could decide the fate of battles, the glyph itself looks like a spider’s web, signifying the interconnectedness of all life and individual wyrd that make up the Whole. That weaving in and out, the way that all strands of the web affect the others, is vitally important in this day and age, and the Vanir are well aware of that. We have long been disconnected from the cycles of Life and Death, and rampant individualism is the mantra of Western civilization; the Vanir teach us that such concepts are anathema to both our health and the health of the world, that cutting ourselves off from the source of Life only leads to sickness and dis-ease, the effects of which are well-advanced in our modern culture

(c) 2009 Nicanthiel Hrafnhilð

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