The Runes: Ūr (Aurochs)

In this blog series, we will go through the runes as they are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem.

downloadWe now turn to the second rune in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which is Ūr. This rune perfectly follows Feoh, the first rune, as Feoh’s literal translation is “cattle”, meaning wealth. Ūr means aurochs, the bovine precursor to our domesticated cattle.

Ūr is pronounced “ooor”, with an elongated “ooo” sound, as in Sutton “Hoo”, or the word “boo” and is followed by a rolled “r”. In the Old English Rune Poem, the translation reads thus:

Aurochs is fierce and high horned

the courageous beast fights with its horns

a well-known moor-treader, it is a brave creature.”[1]

I think it’s important to understand the animal that lies behind each of the animal-based runes in the Futhorc in detail. So, as such, I’ll go into quite a bit of detail regarding aurochs!

Auroch skeleton Copenhagen

Aurochs skeleton from Copenhagen

Our own “taurine cattle” stem from one of two subspecies of domesticated aurochs, the other being zebu cattle from an Indian subspecies[2]. Aurochs were a wild bovine breed, which stood at around 5.5 feet high at the shoulder, on average.[3]  The European bison is a cross-breed developed from aurochs.[4] They had long forward facing horns, which curled upwards at the tips, not too dissimilar to the Highland Cow. In fact, it is thought that they also had a long curly forelock, like the Highland  Cow (so cute!). In aurochs, both the male and female carry impressive horns, whereas in most other bovine it is simply the bull that has horns. The horns were particularly prized, as we will see later.

Auroch Cave Painting Lascaux, France

Aurochs cave painting, Lascaux, France

Aurochs were solitary creatures for the most part, who gathered in small herds (less than thirty) at certain points in the year. They grazed heavily in the autumn, fattening up to survive the long northern winters.[5] In the Paleolithic era, aurochs were hunted by our ancestors as evidenced in the cave paintings found as Lascaux and Livernon in France. When not being hunted, aurochs generally ignored humans unless aggravated, whereupon they could attack with their horns, even throwing a man up in the air.[6]

Extinct in Britain by the 1200’s, the last surviving cow died on the continent died in 1627, in Poland.[7] What we know of aurochs stems from two sources. The first, Anton Schneeberger, was the last known person to have studied the aurochs in person in the 16th century.[8] The second is Julius Caesar, who in his Gallic War Commentaries stated:

“…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.” – Julius Caesar. Gallic War Commentaries, Chapter 6.28

Taking down an aurochs was a rite of passage for young men, as stated by Caesar.[9] He also raised the importance of the horns as drinking vessels. In the evolutionary sense, horns were developed in cattle as a means of defense as well as attack, and as a show of power. Perhaps this is why they were used as drinking vessels, often richly decorated with precious metal to be used among the nobility. To drink from an aurochs horn not only showed your power, but perhaps even bestowed it through the magical laws of contagion to the person who was imbibing the beverage.

sutton hoo reproduction drinking horns

Replicas of Sutton Hoo drinking horns

The symbol of the horns can be seen in the rune itself. While aurochs horns faced mostly forward, rolling upwards at the tips, in the rune it shows the horns facing downwards. This is the bull or cow’s lowered head, ready for battle or to defend its territory or young. It is both an aggressive and defensive position. Ūr could also be seen as an aurochs in profile, the torso and legs, with the classic shoulder higher than the hindquarters which distinguishes it from many other bovine breeds.

In divination, Ūr could mean power, strength, a rite of passage, courage, bravery, a need for some solitary time or just some time spent out in the wilderness (as referenced in the “moor-treader” aspect of the poem), re-wilding, combativeness, a challenge of power (which you either need to ignore or act upon, like an aurochs would), a aggressive or defensive act, nobility, hardiness and vitality.

Using the Ūr rune magically can empower many rites, rituals, spells and talismans. But be warned – aurochs were wild creatures, that were extremely difficult to tame. The power behind Ūr has a similar wildness behind its power.

You can create the rune of Ūr in trance posture in two ways, as I have found. You can stand with your left arm against your side, and your right arm away from the body, bent at the elbow with the fingertips pointing down to the ground. This emulates the rune as we see it, and instils a protective sense, almost as if you are putting your arm around someone or something to protect it. You can also do a more aggressive trance posture with the rune, by bending down to face the floor at the waist at a 45 degree angle (hold in your lower belly to protect your lower back) and hold your hands over your head, angled slightly downwards to form the downward shape of the rune, as if you are a bull or a cow ready to charge. This rune is also easy to emulate with your left hand held out in front of you, fingers together, thumb separate, all pointing downwards.

Sources

[1] Pollington, S. Rudiments of Runelore, (2011) Anglo Saxon Books

[2] Bollongino, R. et als, “Modern Taurine Cattle Descended from Small Number of Near-Eastern Founders” (PDF). Retrieved 25 Aug 2020

[3] Kysely, R. (2008). “Aurochs and potential crossbreeding with domestic cattle in Central Europe in the Eneolithic period. A metric analysis of bones from the archaeological site of Kutná Hora-Denemark (Czech Republic)”. Anthropozoologica

[4] Cooper, A. et als (19 October 2016), “The Higgs Bison – mystery species hidden in cave art”, The University of Adelaide, retrieved 13 January 2017

[5] van Vuure, T. (Cis) (2005). Retracing the Aurochs – History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers.

[6] van Vuure, T. (Cis) (2005). Retracing the Aurochs – History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers

[7] Albertsson, A. Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Sorcerer, (2011) Llewellyn

[8] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination (2017) Anglo Saxon Books

[9] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination (2017) Anglo Saxon Books

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