July 2, 2013

Rune Staffs

        Here's Olaus Magnus again, with some more woodcuts of interesting fantasy stuff.  Magnus was a Swedish diplomat who published his History of the Nordic Peoples in 1555.  (I've shared some of Magnus's other work here and here.)  I enjoy the mix of history, fantasy possibilities, and, of course, wood block prints to illustrate his work.
        Today I've got a few wood block prints illustrating the use of rune staffs.  I've had an affection for runes since a little knowledge of Norse history introduced me to the futhark around the same time that Tolkien introduced me to the fantasy properties of runic alphabets.  (Cool linguistic note: the root of the word rune meant "secret" or "whisper."  That root has developed into words in the modern Baltic languages meaning variously, "to cut (with a knife)", "to speak," and "song," or "poem.")
        Historically, it's important to note that the mythology of divination using runes is a modern invention, but nevertheless, runes were clearly believed to have divine and magical properties.  But what exactly are the rune staffs mentioned by Olaus Magnus in his History of the Nordic Peoples?  I tried to do a little research, but found nothing.  In the first depiction above, parents are shown teaching their children how to use and
read rune staffs.  But how do you use a rune staff?  The children may be enlightened, but I'm not!
        The rune staffs show up again in a picture of "the Signification of Thunderstorms for Every Specific Month."  What are the wise men with the rune staffs doing?  Meteorology?  Prognostication?  Recording rainfall?  Warding off lightning and floods?  Praying for rain?  Playing solitaire or gambling?  If Magnus tells us in Book 1 Chapter 35, I don't know.
        And finally, here is Magnus's chart of "The Alphabet of the Geats," which he also calls in Latin "Alphabetum Gothicum."  Thanks to my history and my Tolkien, I think the runes have a wonderfully mystical, romantic look… but are they magic?  Of course they are.  All writing is magic, as cultures around the world have known and we would be wise to remember!

[Pictures: On Rune Staffs, woodcut from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus, 1555;
On the Signification of Thunderstorms for Every Specific Month, woodcut from Magnus, 1555;
The Alphabet of the Geats, woodcut from Magnus, 1555 (All images from avrosys.nu.)]


Pax said...

These rune staff markings look similar enough to Irish ogham to point to a definite cultural contact between the locals and the "Vikings". Are there any block prints of ogham? Thanks for an enjoyable post.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Scholars apparently debate whether the ogham alphabet derived from runes or from the Latin alphabet, which had more cultural contact at the time of ogham's origins. I think a major reason for the similarities is due to the method of writing - any time you have to scratch lines into stone or wood you're going to favor straight lines and angles over curves.