The Runes: Thorn

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

The third rune, Thorn is a tricky one, as its meaning has shifted with the Anglo-Saxon language. In Old Norse, it is connected to thurs, a malevolent entity of raw power. Some accord this entity to the giants found in Old Norse literature. But in Anglo-Saxon, it is thought that the shape of the rune dictated the meaning, and so we have “thorn”.[1] It is believed that the change occurred during the Christian period, and so the younger Norwegian Rune Poem may hold an older vestige of this rune’s meaning.

Alaric Albertsson states that the rune means “hawthorn”.[2] This may be due to the laying of hawthorn hedges in the Anglo-Saxon agricultural world, and taking rest in their shade, albeit carefully. It may connect to the English thyrses in this way (Old Norse thurses) in that the hawthorn, being a tree of liminality especially in Celtic lore (a faery tree) allows beings to travel between the worlds and thus, assail humanity should they so wish. As far as I can tell from my research, this is, however, all conjecture.

Swain Wodening makes the connection between Thorn and the Old Norse god Thor (Thunor in Anglo-Saxon). He states that Thor had connections to many thorny plants such as nettle and thistle, plants which use thorns or spikes to defend themselves, much as Thor was the defender of humanity against the giants.[3] All in all, these are all theories, and you will have to make your own mind up regarding the various possible meanings that surround this rune.

In the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem, the verse reads:

Thorn is painfully sharp to any warrior

seizing it is bad, excessively severe

for any person who lays among them.

Thorn relating to a warrior is interesting, in that when I first read this verse, the concept of the Celtic Fianna warriors running through the woods with braided hair as a test came to mind. Should any of their braids catch on branches or thorns as they raced through the forest, they failed their test. Though this is a purely Celtic concept, there are similarities between Celtic and Northern European cultures in aspects of spirituality, artwork, commerce and more. Though this may have nothing to do with the Fianna warriors, it may have something to do with being out in the wildness of nature as a warrior, otherwise why mention it in relation to the flora? This could just be a mix of metaphors from the Old Norse into Anglo-Saxon, where a warrior fought off thyrses or giants, rather than was overly wary of the surrounding plant life. Or maybe it was a caution against the abundance of nettles that can be found all across the UK!

I found out the hard way when I first moved to these lands of the power of nettle, after walking through a field thick with them, not knowing what they were, and coming away with stinging hands and legs. We didn’t have stinging nettles where I grew up in Canada. So, maybe this is a simple warning not to make your camp or sleep near nettles when you are doing your warrior thing!

Another thing that came to mind when I first read the Old English verse is the Christian clergy in the line “excessively severe for any person who lays among them”. Saint Benedict was said to have come across a blackbird (a bird of liminality and the Druids in Celtic lore) which stayed with him for a moment, close to hand, before flying off. After this, Benedict became overcome with carnal thoughts of a woman he had seen once, and in order to shake off these emotions, he threw himself into a patch of nettles and briars. This remedy was so successful, Saint Benedict claims he was never overcome with that sort of temptation again. Severe? Yes, indeed. Excessively severe? I would say so. So perhaps this rune has a relation to Saint Benedict, but perhaps from a more “moderate” Anglo-Saxon Christian viewpoint.

Blackthorn

From my point of view, I view thorn as a cautionary tale, based on my own experience with plants here in the UK which was hard learned. There are many spiky and stingy plants around here, such as hawthorn and nettle, but also blackthorn. Blackthorn has the longest, most vicious spikes of them all, and has a tendency to break off into the skin and then go septic. Unwary foragers, farmers and even horses can fall foul of the blackthorn. An extra element of Christianity comes into play with this as well, for it is said that the crown of thorns that Jesus wore came from the blackthorn.[4]

Whether you’re a warrior or a farmer, a forager or a gardener, being around thorns reminds you of the power of nature. A small plant may cause you great discomfort, a lapse of mindfulness can cause you great injury. Thorn reminds us of this, in that we need to take care, that we need to be aware of our surroundings (and this may again relate to the Old Norse thurs). Thorns can be seen as aggressive when we are on the receiving end, but we must remember that thorns protect a plant. Therefore, Thorn can be used in regards to workings of protection, although some may use it in the form of a curse. It is a good warding rune, to keep people away from you and your possessions. But it must be worked with carefully, lest you feel its sharp sting!

You can easily form the rune with your hands, with your left hand being straight and your right hand forming the sideways “v” shape. You can also stand in trance posture with your right arm at your hip, making the shape of the rune (and also giving off a “go on if you think you’re hard enough vibe).

Thorn is an interesting rune, in that its history is murky and muddied from different cultures. Yet it shows a great merging of understanding that I think is at the heart of Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition. Learn what you can from those around you, from the land itself, and let that inform your life. Take it all in. Use what works. The Anglo-Saxons were practical folk.

And watch out for thorns.


[1] Pollington, S. Rudiments of Runelore, Anglo-Saxon Books, (2011), p.18

[2] Albertsson, A. Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Sorcerer, Llewellyn, (2011), p.98

[3] Wodening, S. Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times, Angleseaxisce Ealdriht, (2003) p. 185

[4] Don, M. “What’s Your Poison? Backyard Troublmakers”, The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2003/mar/09/gardens accessed 23 Sept 2020

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