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

The Anglo-Saxon Runes: A new blog series

In this series of blog posts, I will be looking at the runes in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, known as the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Futhorc. As I have been studying various forms of Heathenry for quite a few years now, I have felt a calling to connect more fully with my ancestry and a real pull towards learning more and experiencing the ways of Anglo-Saxon, or English magical and religious traditions.

The runes have always appealed to me more than the Druidic ogham. I tried for years to get on with the ogham, but it never took. However, the runes come naturally to me, and seem a lot less abstract, for their shapes vary much more than the ogham, and settle much more easily in my mind. When I visited Sweden a couple of times, finding the runic standing stones just outside a village or on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere was fascinating. Though I couldn’t quite read it fully, when I ran my fingers down the markings the stories came alive within me. Similarly, I am surrounded by the heritage of my Anglo-Saxon ancestors, living as I do so very close to the Sutton Hoo ship burial site here in the East of England, and with the Saxon recreated village of West Stow nearby.

Runes are so much more than an alphabet, as they are also used in magical workings. Alphabets the world over have been used in this way, not merely to communicate information on a mundane level, but also to boost and support magical workings in various formats[1]. I have used runes for many, many years in my magical work, and it’s always been successful.

In Scandinavian texts, the runes are won by Odin, who hung himself on the world tree for nine days and nine nights in order to gain the insight and wisdom of their mystery. Indeed, the word rún in Old Norse means mystery or a magical symbol. In Old English, rún means a learning, a consultation or even a whisper or confidence.[2] Though the continental traditions viewed the connection of Odin and the runes as paramount, it seems less likely that the Anglo-Saxons associated their Woden with the script, as their runes developed much later, without the attached story concerning Woden.[3] This is interesting, because the translations of the eldest runic alphabet,  the Elder Futhark, depend on the Old English Rune Poem, the Norwegian and Icelandic poems. The Elder Futhark stems from the Common Germanic language, whereas the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc contains the sounds we hear in the Old English language. So, we are using poems from similar languages in order to understand the eldest version of the runes, the Elder Futhark, because we have no original Germanic Rune Poem to help with translation.[4]

Were the stories made to fit with regards to Odin, or was the original story simply not remembered by the time the Anglo-Saxons developed them for their own use? Was the story left out by the Christian monks who recorded it? We may never know, so we look to the Norse, Icelandic and Old English poems to help understand and translate the eldest runic script. Those who work from an Anglo-Saxon context may or may not place an emphasis on working or connecting to Woden when working with the runes.

The Norse Elder Futhark consists of twenty-four runes. This is the most common form of runes you will see today, sold at many Pagan marketplaces, and with many books written about their meaning. The Icelandic Younger Futhark developed around CE 800, and has sixteen runes. The Anglo-Saxon runes date to CE 400, and so lie in the “middle” historically of the Germanic and Icelandic versions, containing 29 runes. Though the dating of the Old English runes land in a definitively Pagan era, it was only recorded for posterity in the tenth century by Christian monks, and so we have to bear a possible bias in mind in the translation and interpretation of the Old English Rune Poem, with information possibly left out for various reasons.[5]

It is called the Futhorc (or Futhark in Norse and Icelandic) because that is what the first runic letters spell out. Each rune has a verse attached to it, which describes or alludes to the mystery of the rune itself. My favourite translation is Stephen Pollington’s version, from The Rudiments of Runelore (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995). I highly recommend picking up this work, as well as Suzanne Rance’s The English Runes, which uses Pollington’s translation. It’s also important to understand the context in which the runes were used, and better understand the mindset and pagan practices of the Anglo-Saxon. For this, I recommend Alaric Albertsson’s works Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Sorcerer and Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan.

The Old English Rune Poem is a beautiful work, which sometimes speaks in riddles and is a joy to try and figure out on your own before looking up each definition and interpretation from learned sources. Much like the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit (and we all know Tolkein was a big fan of Old English culture and society, let alone the runes) it is fun to tease out just what is meant by a “gannet’s bath”, or which rune is referred to as “cold and slippery, glass clear and glistening like gems”. Simply leave out the name of the rune and read the poem, and it’s all a riddle.

The Old English Rune Poem is the eldest recorded rune poem, as the Norwegian Rune Poem dates to the 13th century, and the Icelandic Rune Poem two hundred years later. I have found very few copies of the Old English Rune Poem in actual runic script, however, here is one that may help you get an idea as to what it would have originally looked like, from the website All Things Linguistic.

Here is the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, or Old English Rune Poem, in full, translated online by Dr Aaron K Hostetter[6]:

The Rune Poem

Wealth is a comfort to every man,

although every man must share it out greatly

if he would obtain a portion of the Lord’s glory.

 

The ox is single-minded and over-horned,

most savage beast, fighting with his horns,

well-known moor-stepper. That is a proud creature.

 

Thorns are severely sharp. To any thane

seizing it is an evil, measurelessly cruel

to every man who comes to rest upon it.

 

The mouth is the beginning of all speech,

a support to wisdom and a comfort to the wise,

and a prosperity and trust to every earl.

 

Riding is a comfort to every warrior

in the hall, and very trying to those who sit upon

a powerful courser over the mile-paths.

 

A torch is known by every living being to be on fire,

white and bright, most often burning

where the nobles rest themselves within.

 

Gifts are an honor and praise of men,

a support and a distinction, and to every wretch

mercy and meat to those who are free from other possessions.

 

Joy is enjoyed by those who little know of woe,

pains and sorrow, and to those who have of themselves

profit and bliss and also many citadels.

 

Hail is the whitest of grains. It comes down from heaven’s breeze,

the wind’s showers rolls it down, and after it becomes water.

 

Need is a constraint on the breast, although it often comes to the sons of men

a help and a healing of every one, if they hearken to his demands before.

 

Ice is really cold, measurelessly slippery

glistening clear as glass, most like gemstones

a floor created by frost, and a fair face.

 

The new year is the hope of men, when God allows,

the Holy Heaven’s King, the earth to give

her bright fruits to rich and poor alike.

 

The yew is an unsmooth tree without,

hard, fixed to the earth, a warden of fires,

supported by its roots, a joy in the home.

 

Peorth is always a play and laughter

to the proud where warriors sit

in the beer-hall, happy together.

 

Elk-sedge keeps its home most often in the swamps,

it grows in the water, and grimly wounds,

it burns the blood of any man who grasps it.

 

The sun is ever a hope to seamen,

when they carry themselves over the fishes’ bath,

until their brine-horses bring them to shore.

 

Tir is a certain token, it keeps its troth well

with noble men. It is always on its journey

over the clouds of night, never wandering.

 

Birch lacks fruit, even though it bears

shoots without seed. It is lovely in its branches,

high in its crown and fairly adorned,

laden with leaves, pressing into the breeze.

 

Horses are for earls the joy of noblemen,

a steed proud in its hooves, where the heroes about him,

prosperous on horseback, weave their speech,

and ever a comfort to those on the move.

 

Man is in mirth, dear to his brother;

though every one must depart to another place,

because the Lord wishes, through his own doom,

that our wretched flesh be commended to the earth.

 

The waters seem to men to be broad,

if they should venture upon an unstable ship,

and the sea-waves terrify them so,

and the brine-horse cares not for his bridle.

 

Ing was first among the Eastern Danes

seen by men, until he soon afterwards

departed over the ways, a wagon running after him.

Thus bold men named this hero.

 

A homeland is very dear to every man,

if there he may enjoy in his household

what is right and fitting, very often with its fruits.

 

The day is the Lord’s message, dear to men,

the renowned light of the Measurer, a mirth and troth

to the prosperous and the wretched, useful to all.

 

The oak is fodder for flesh on earth

for the sons of men. It frequently ferries

over the gannet’s bath. The spear-waves test

whether the oak possesses reliability for noble men.

 

The ash is very tall, dear to men,

stout in its trunk, its hilt is rightfully fixed,

although it fights against many men.

 

A bow is for every noble and earl

a joy and an honor. It is fair on horseback,

support on a journey, some part of a warrior’s tackle.

 

The gar is a river-fish, and though he takes

his food on land, he owns a lovely home

surrounded by water, where he lives in joy.

 

The grave is terrible to every earl,

when the fixed flesh begins,

the corpse cooling, to choose the earth

paleness as its bedmate. Fruits fail,

joys depart, mankind ceases to be.

 

With each blog post, I shall write about the rune in turn, its connection and interpretation through the Old English Rune Poem, and my own understandings and working with this rune. I hope that you enjoy this blog series!

 

[1] Pollington, S. The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011, p.422

[2] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination, Dragon House 2017, p. 8

[3] Pollington, S. The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011, p.422

[4] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination, Dragon House 2017, p. 9

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

[6] Hostetter, A. The Rune Poem, from the Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-rune-poem/ (accessed 14 Aug 2020)