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Runic Amulets and Magic Objects

Runic Amulets and Magic Objects

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Runic Amulets and Magic Objects
    Book Description:

    The runic alphabet, in use for well over a thousand years, was employed by various Germanic groups in a variety of ways, including, inevitably, for superstitious and magical rites. Formulaic runic words were inscribed onto small items that could be carried for good luck; runic charms were carved on metal or wooden amulets to ensure peace or prosperity. There are invocations and allusions to pagan and Christian gods and heroes, to spirits of disease, and even to potential lovers. Few such texts are completely unique to Germanic society, and in fact, most of the runic amulets considered in this book show wide-ranging parallels from a variety of European cultures. The question of whether runes were magical or not has divided scholarship in the area. Early criticism embraced fantastic notions of runic magic - leading not just to a healthy scepticism, but in some cases to a complete denial of any magical element whatsoever in the runic inscriptions. This book seeks to re-evaulate the whole question of runic sorcery, attested to not only in the medieval Norse literature dealing with runes but primarily in the fascinating magical texts of the runic inscriptions themselves. Dr MINDY MCLEOD teaches in the Department of Linguistics, Deakin University, Melbourne; Dr BERNARD MEES teaches in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-504-8
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. ix-ix)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  7. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Many objects once thought of as having magical powers feature texts written in runes, providing sources that today shed light on the lives and experiences of the northern European peoples the ancient Romans first called Germans. These pre-Christian Germanic or Teutonic folk were not just early Germans or Scandinavians, though; they are the ancestors of several modern nations in Europe and beyond – from England and Holland to Austria and Germany and up to the Nordic countries, from North America to Australasia as well – and also include tribes who once ruled over other peoples such as the Franks, Lombards, Burgundians and...

  8. 2 Gods and Heroes
    (pp. 15-39)

    The Norse gods are described in the Saga of the Ynglings as galdra smiðir, ‘smiths of incantations’, so it is not too surprising to find invocations to them on early runic amulets.¹ The most obvious way of calling on the divine to fill an object with magic powers, then, might seem to be to inscribe a message requesting that the gods (or a particular god) bless the item concerned. In fact we do have a clear example of such an inscription in runes, on a buckle, perhaps once part of a saddle strap, found at a site known as Vimose...

  9. 3 Love, Fidelity and Desire
    (pp. 40-70)

    Rather than invoke the gods or other supernatural or semi-divine figures, a significant number of the inscriptions found on rings from Greek and Roman times simply bear short amatory messages such as ‘love me’. In fact this practice lives on today in what traditionally have been called ‘posy rings’ – rings inscribed with short romantic dedications like ‘forever yours’. It is clear that there often is a not entirely rational side to ‘posy’ inscriptions; in a way modern posy rings (and similarly inscribed lockets etc.) can be thought of as amulets of a sort. Yet the ancient Greeks and Romans did...

  10. 4 Protective and Enabling Charms
    (pp. 71-101)

    This is one of the rune-lore stanzas from the Eddic tale the Lay of Sigrdrifa. It describes the use of ‘victory-runes’ in what seems a clear description of an amuletic employment of runes, i.e. using them to create a magic sword. In fact ‘victory-runes’ (sigrúnar), or at least ‘battle-runes’ (valrúnar, wælrūn), are mentioned several times in both Old Norse and Old English literary sources, although not in circumstances that make it clear what they actually are. A similar description is also known from the Old English poem Solomon and Saturn, however, where we are told ‘On his weapon he inscribes...

  11. 5 Fertility Charms
    (pp. 102-115)

    Sympathetic magic in runic amulet texts was not confined to rhetorical ‘just as . . ., so too . . .’ inscriptions or even to metaphors (or metonyms) like the charm word ‘hail’, but also extended to more nuanced and complex symbolic expressions. A common place where sympathetic magic was used in Germanic tradition was in customary medicines which often feature certain types of vegetables, animal stuffs, flowers or herbs chosen because of the beneficial attributes associated with them. Leeks, for instance, were widely used in medieval medicine in order to revive and heal, and they are recorded both in...

  12. 6 Healing Charms and Leechcraft
    (pp. 116-162)

    The Ribe cranium, whose inscription invokes a divine triad for help against dwarfstroke, seems to be the earliest datable example of a runic charm against some form of pain or disease. The use of runes in explicit healing magic thus appears to be comparatively late. Most examples of such finds are also Scandinavian, although some restorative formulas and healing charms are recorded in runic letters in England and other parts of Europe. Nonetheless leechcraft, the medieval art of healing, often seems to have had less to do with modern notions of medicine than with the supernatural.

    In the Middle Ages,...

  13. 7 Pagan Ritual Items
    (pp. 163-183)

    There are several more early runic inscriptions found on objects that may have been amulets, but they are carvings which often more clearly represent aspects of pre-Christian religious thought and belief. Many of these items might well have been similar to phylacteries then – i.e. items with inscriptions that were partly votive in nature rather than exclusively amuletic. These may still have been expressions which were thought to convey protective or remedying powers, however, in addition to their general sense of sacredness. There seems little other reason why an object like the Vimose buckle (considered at the outset of chapter 2)...

  14. 8 Christian Amulets
    (pp. 184-210)

    With the piecemeal conversion of the Germanic kingdoms a new influence becomes apparent in runic amulet texts. Old runic standards such as the charm words alu or laukaz begin to be usurped by recognisably Christian elements and features – especially, as we have already seen, in healing charms. The first Germanic groups to convert were the emigrant continental tribes, the Goths then the Franks, Burgundians and the Lombards. Irish missionaries then began the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons which was completed as a result of St Augustine’s mission that emanated directly from Rome. Irish monks again participated in the conversion of the...

  15. 9 Rune-stones, Death and Curses
    (pp. 211-232)

    For most Scandinavians, accustomed to stumbling across rune-stones when walking through the countryside, runic inscriptions do not possess the same aura of mystery as they do for many from other countries. In fact, usually to the disappointment of those who first encounter them, most runic inscriptions carved on raised stones and rock faces say little more than ‘X raised this stone in memory of Y’, with perhaps some formulaic expansion, e.g. ‘a valiant man’. Deviation from this standard is rare, and the comparatively humdrum nature of these rune-stones may seem worlds apart from the more colourful messages encountered on runic...

  16. 10 Runic Lore and Other Magic
    (pp. 233-253)

    Runes often feature in magical contexts in Old Norse literature (and to a lesser extent in Old English sources), so it is little wonder that they have often been taken to be essentially magical by those not familiar with the thousands of examples of mundane runic inscriptions. Many instances of runes which are described in literary texts have been referred to already in previous chapters, of course, where they seemed directly relevant to the amuletic and religious inscriptions that have survived. There are passages in old Germanic literature where the appearance of runes is not clearly reflected in actual inscriptions,...

  17. 11 Conclusion
    (pp. 254-256)

    The creation and employment of amulets bearing runic inscriptions was both an ancient and longstanding tradition. The earliest examples are often the earliest inscriptions in runes that have survived and the most recent are often contemporary with the decline in use of the Old Germanic alphabet in each of the descendent runic traditions. Rune-inscribed amulets are found in England, Frisia, and East and Central Europe, as well as in most of the reaches of the Viking world: from Greenland and Ireland to Denmark and Sweden. It is also evident that the different traditions share a common inheritance in terms of...

  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-269)
  19. Index
    (pp. 270-278)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 279-279)