In Egil’s Saga we come across quite a few references to the runes and even some references that could possibly be the use of the runes for casting lots. While it’s not positive that the casting of lots was done with runes I have chosen to include such passages so that those viewing this site can find these references in the work and decide for themselves. In all actuality the casting of lots was probably done with sticks or other materials notched with lines or numbers but you can decide that for yourselves when you read the passages.
When reading Egil’s Saga we come to find that Egil Skallagrimsson was not only a powerful warrior, poet and farmer but also very accomplished in the use of runes. At one point he was told about a young woman who had been confined to bed due to a serious sickness. When Egil is brought to this woman he comes to find a whalebone with runes carved on them in her bed. The runes on this whalebone were carved as healing runes by someone not trained properly in rune carving and thus was the reason that the young woman was not getting well but becoming more sick day-by-day. Egil steps in and cuts new runes that help the woman start on her road to recovery. There are other great encounters of the runes in this story so let’s take a look at them so we can better understand the uses and usefulness of the runes.
Egil took out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand with it, then took the drinking-horn, carved runes on it and smeared them with blood. He spoke a verse:
I carve runes on this horn,
redden words with my blood,
I choose words for the trees1
of the wild beast’s ear-roots;2
drink as we wish this mead
brought by merry servants,
let us find out how we fare
from the ale that Bard blessed.
We cannot say for sure which runes were carved on Egil’s drinking-horn because we do not know which set of runes Egil was familiar with. If it were the elder futhark we might assume that “trees” might mean Elhaz which refers to the elk and whose runic shape appears to look like the elk’s horns. Or we might even assume that it could be the rune Uruz, which stands for the auroch (wild ox) whose large horn may even have been the source for such a drinking horn. However the spread and shape of the elk’s horns would look more like a tree than the horns of an auroch. Also the line that contains “the wild beast’s ear-roots” is more likely to refer to Uruz and we would probably not see a double reference to the same rune in two lines of Egil’s verse. So assuming that the elder futhark runes were used by Egil, it would be safe to say that both Elhaz and Uruz would have been carved on the drinking horn to protect Egil from any sort of poison.
The reason we see Egil cut his own hand and cover the runes he had just carved with blood was a way thought to invoke the power of the runes. Because of this we also see why many runes are colored or associated with red. Red paint, ink or other material would represent blood and help release the power and magick of the runes that we are using.
Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.
The head on the pole in this case is the head of a horse. Egil had an encounter with Prince Rognvald, son of King Erik and Queen Gunnhild, as he and his men were approaching Herdla. Prince Rognvald and his crew went to spy on Egil, but when Egil spotted the warship that Prince Rognvald and his twelve crew members were in he steered his ship and rammed the warship. Jumping on board Egil told his crew not to let anyone escape alive and Prince Rognvald and his twelve crew members were killed. After the battle Egil and his companions raided Herdla plundering all the valuables they could find. They then prepared to set sail to make their escape, but before they could Egil ran back inland took a hazel pole and a horse head and cursed King Erik and Queen Gunnhild.
The idea here is that Egil was going to use the power and magick of the runes to make sure that his curse on the king and queen would work. An oral curse is one thing but to add the intensity of the runes would make this curse visible and known to all that did not hear him when he said it.
‘We had some runes carved,’ said Thorfinn. ‘The son of a farmer who lives close by did it, and since she’s been much worse. Do you know any remedy, Egil?’
Egil said, ‘It might not do any harm if I try something.’
When Egil had eaten his fill he went to where the woman was lying and spoke to her. He ordered them to lift her out of bed and place clean sheets underneath her, and this was done. Then he examined the bed she had been lying in, and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. He burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired. Then Egil spoke a verse:
No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well;
many a man go astray
around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw
ten secret letters carved,
from them the linden tree3
took her long harm.
Egil cut some runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying. She felt as if she were waking from a deep sleep, and she said she was well again, but still very weak.
Here we see a situation of misused runes. Thorfinn’s daughter, Helga, had been sick and some farmer’s son had carved, what he thought, were healing runes on a whalebone to help her get well. However when Egil inspected the runes carved on the bone he noticed that they were causing her more harm than good. To get rid of the old runes Egil scrapes them off into the fire and burns the rest of the bone. He then cuts the proper new runes and places them under Helga’s pillow in her bed.
Scraping off the runes on the whalebone was a necessary start to help Helga get better. The reason that Egil burns them was to make sure that the power of the runes was no longer there. If he had simply scraped the runes off the chips of the bone would still be in the room. Burning the bone converts the bone into another material – from a solid to a gas if you will. This releases the power of the bad healing runes allowing Egil to cut the proper healing runes. Egil also speaks about how no man should carve runes unless he can read (understand) them well. This is a general warning that if the correct runes are not used in a certain situation that they can have a different result than what we intended.
The man who had carved the runes for Helga lived close by. It transpired that he had asked for her hand in marriage, but Thorfinn had refused him. Then the farmer’s son had tried to seduce her, but she did not want him. After that he pretended to carve love runes to her, but did not know how to, and what he carved had caused sickness instead.
This is the chapter where we find out why Helga, Thorfinn’s daughter, became sick in the first place. The farmer’s son was in love with Helga and when all other ways had failed him he resorted to carving runes in order to make her fall in love with him. However since he was not skilled in the runes he ended up carving runes that made her ill.
Then Thorgerd said, ‘What will we do now? Our plan has failed. Now I want us to stay alive, father, long enough for you to compose a poem in Bodvar’s memory and I will carve it on a rune-stick. Then we can die if we want to.
In this chapter we see Egil’s daughter, Thorgerd, trying to get Egil’s spirits up. Egil’s son, Bovar, had died and Egil had retreated to his bedchambers in hopes that his life would not continue much longer. However, Thorgerd comes to his room and tells him that she hopes that Egil will make a verse in Bodvar’s memory so that she can carve it into a rune-stick. The thought of doing such a thing was enough to pull Egil out of bed and get him back on his feet. He proceeds to write twenty-five stanza verse in memory of his son.
In this saga this is the one time we see the use of the runes simply as a writing system. The runes in all the other chapters are used as powerful symbols for magick or curses. The reference to the runes in chapter 58 might possibly have been used in the same manner, but it’s not clear. The reason I say that is because the curse that Egil sets on King Erik and Queen Gunnhild is rather long and if Egil and his crew were trying to escape odds are that he would not take the time to carve the whole curse on the pole. More likely he would have carved a few runes that would set such a curse making sure that there are enough runes carved to make it clear, to anyone who saw the pole, just what the curse was intended to do.
I had mentioned that Egil’s Saga had also contained the act of casting lots. The following chapters and quotes are where this is mentioned. Feel free to have a look at them and decide for yourselves if these “lots” might have been runic symbols or not. I will not explain the situations in which the quotes take place in the story since that has no bearing on whether or not the “lots” could be runic symbols or not.
Chapter 48 – Before the time came to put away the tables, the earl said that they should cast lots to pair off the men and women who would drink together, as far as numbers allowed, and the remainder would drink by themselves. They all cast their lots into a cloth and the earl picked them out.
As you can see the casting of the lots could or could not be rune symbols. On the one hand they could simply be dice as they would not be too uncommon at such a time. However in chapter 48 we see that they cast these lots onto a cloth, a practice that would not make sense for throwing dice, but would make sense for casting the runes. There is a third possibility that the lots were neither dice nor runes but some other form that would allow you to pair a lager group of people up.
Footnotes / Notes:
1 - trees: horns
2 - ear-roots: part of the head
3 - linden tree: woman
All quotes for Egil's Saga taken from The Sagas of the Icelanders ©1997 Leifur Eiríksson Publishing Ltd. and translated by Bernard Scudder and Egil's Saga (Penguin Classics) translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes.