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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The Runes: Feoh (Wealth)

feohIn this blog series, we will go through the runes as they are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem. The first rune in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc is Feoh. Feoh translates as cattle, and in Anglo-Saxon culture cattle meant wealth, so this is the modern interpretation of the rune. It is the root of our word, “fee” with regards to money.[1] The segment of the Rune Poem reads thus:

Wealth (Feoh) is a comfort to any man

yet each person must share it out well

if he wants to win a good name before his lord.[2]

To pronounce the name of this rune, you’ll need to get a little continental in your throat. The first part is easy, fay. The second part uses a glottal stop at the end similar to the word loch pronounced with a Scottish accent, but much softer. Just slightly close off the back of your throat when you end saying och and you’ll have it. Fay-och. You can also bypass this, if it is troublesome, by pronouncing an “h” sound at the end. Fay-o-hhh, but this technically isn’t perfect.

Cattle, whether in the form of cows, sheep, goats, etc. were a major part of Anglo-Saxon economy. In a cash poor society, where few people had many gold or silver coins, your wealth was determined by how much you could sustain yourself and your community. If you had cattle, you had dairy and meat, as well as the offspring with which you could barter, trade or even sell for coin. Cattle is wealth that is moveable, as opposed to inherited wealth such as a building, home or farmland. Feoh’s meaning is deeper than simply wealth however, for it is wealth that has to be looked after, wealth that has to be managed. Cattle don’t just take care of themselves on the farm. Feoh is wealth that is earned from hard work. It is not a gift, like the rune gyfu which we will look at later in this series. Rance states that Feoh may have been the first rune in the Futhorc because of the importance between keeping cattle and agriculture, and the development of writing.[3]

Yet Feoh does not just mean wealth alone; wealth must move, it must be put for the benefit of everyone, and not hoarded solely for personal use. Wealth occurs when we have an excess of something, an abundance of a resource. If our needs are just being met, we are sustained and sustainable, but not wealthy. If we have an abundance, then sharing that excess helps everyone achieve a sustainable state. We see this happening in nature, where through underground networks of roots and funghi trees can help other trees to grow when they are placed in less favourable positions regarding sunlight or water. A community is stronger when wealth is shared, rather than the fewest having the most, (which sadly the latter is the norm for today’s society). The rune poem admonishes hoarding, and tells us that each person must share in their wealth if they want a good reputation in the eyes of others. In the class system that existed in Anglo-Saxon culture, a lord ruled over the land, and if he/she was a good lord, they demonstrated the Anglo-Saxon virtue of sharing with gifts, which then in turn help the barons and other nobles to be able to share their wealth with the common folk, who then shared their wealth in turn. It wasn’t a perfect system by any means, and we must remember that slavery was a thing back then, so it wasn’t all mead and roses. However, what we can take from Feoh today is that we must put back into whatever system we live in, or give back to our family, friends and community with the wealth or abundance that we have, in order for the ecosystem that we live in to thrive.

When meditating upon the shape of the rune, you can see both the meaning of cattle and the meaning of sharing wealth. The two upright branches can resemble cow or oxen horns in profile. It can also look like a person in profile, either giving or receiving something with arms outstretched. I have used the rune Feoh in trance posture, either sitting or standing with arms outstretched before me, palms facing each other. It provides a feeling of well-being, and brings energy to the head area especially, giving a sense of fullness and comfort, just like the Rune Poem states.

I’ve meditated upon the wealth in my life, while gazing or holding this rune in the palm of my hand. I look for ways to share that wealth, so that I am a contributing member of my community and ecosystem, rather than simply taking and consuming resources all the time. Feoh is giving with arms outstretched, and also learning to receive wealth with grace. All too often, we dismiss our many talents and what may come from them, and in doing so we do ourselves a disservice. The work that we do should provide benefit, and in that benefit we are hopefully able to share back.

At the end of harvest, here in England we celebrate Harvest Home, which is today a church service usually followed by a supper. In ancient times, the last grain of wheat or barley left at the end of harvest was left out for Woden’s steed. In East Anglia, there is the tradition of leaving a small portion or corner of the field unharvested, for the land/nature spirits, or for the Devil himself as it is now known as The Devil’s Plantation. Where do you have abundance in your life, and where can you give back? Where is the line between holding a good relationship with your family/friends/community/ecosystem, and martyrdom? Do you give too much? Remember, there is nothing wrong with comfort, as long as there is reciprocity. Wealth also takes many forms, and does not just mean monetary wealth.

Feoh is useful in spellcrafting for monetary purposes, but remember: you have to work for your wealth. It will not just land in your lap. In divination, it can mean all of the above, with the importance of sharing something underlying the outcome.[4] It may ask that you reassess what is valuable in your life, or what skills you have in abundance. Chanting the rune while standing in the posture which emulates this rune can help you do discover more about the wealth in your life, and what you need to do to achieve it and subsequently share it so that everyone benefits. There is an element of reputation with regards to this rune, which is something that our Anglo-Saxon forebears held highly in esteem. No one would want to be seen as miserly. Remember, wealth is an abundance of a skill or resource, and so share wisely.

 

[1] Pollington, S. Rudiments of Runelore, Anglo-Saxon Books (2011), p.17

[2] Translation by Stephen Pollington, from Rudiments of Runelore, Anglo-Saxon Books (2011), p.45

[3] Rance, S. The English Runes, Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination, Anglo Saxon Books (2017), p.19

[4] Albertsson, A. Wyrdworking: The Path of the Saxon Sorcerer, Llewellyn (2011), p.114

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)