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‘Casting Lots’ in Sagas

We see in a few of the sagas the mention of ‘lots’ and the act of ‘casting lots’ for many purposes. On each of the saga pages I had said that it was uncertain if these lots were really runes or something else completely. There is some evidence that these lots may in fact have been runes or pre-runic magic symbols that were carved on branches.

In the first century A.D. the Roman author Tacitus wrote his Germania 10 in which he gives an account of some divinatory practices of ancient Germanic people.

For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required.

The different signs that were scored on the wood could have only been one of a few things. First off it’s possible that they had carved magical symbols onto the strips. If this is the case they may have been the runes being used as magical symbols or actual magical symbols that date to a pre-runic time. We have to take into account a few things here. If the symbols were in fact magical pre-runic symbols then why would we find items, such as swords and rings, from this time period that contain magical inscriptions carved in runes. Not the pre-runic symbols, but the actual rune symbols. However, there’s another side to this coin. If the runes were used for magical inscriptions then why would we see so many variations in different rune sets? If they were used for magic then there would be no need to make changes to the design of the symbols. It would be similar to the symbols used in astronomy, since each symbol stands for something specific, like the sun or the moon; there is no need to change the symbol. So the symbol gets passed from culture to culture and through time unchanged. However, using the runes as a writing system would give reason to why there were changes in the shapes of the runes.

There is one other possibility that could lead us to believe the symbols carved were rune shapes. This possibility is that the runes were used for both magical purposes as well as for writing. The magical inscriptions were simply oral commands carved onto an item to give the power of the command to the item it was being carved on. This seems to be the more likely explanation. The runes used as a system of writing would allow someone to add magical inscriptions to something without having to know a separate list of magic symbols.

With all that said is it safe to assume that the terms ‘casting lots’ and ‘lots’ referred to the runes in the sagas? Well without any solid proof the answer would be no, we can’t say for certain. However, the possibility of this happening is greater than the possibility of it not happening. At least that’s what I am lead to believe, still you should try to decide that for yourself.

Saga of the People of Vatnsdal

In the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal we do not come across too many mentions of the runes, but we do find that magic and witchcraft are mentioned a lot in the story. Whether this magic and witchcraft is rune related in anyway is not known. It is quite possible that some of the magic weapons, staves and other items may have been inscribed with runic symbols. However since there is no evidence to back this up the passages that mention magic and witchcraft have been omitted from this site.

Like Egil’s Saga we do come across the idea of casting lots in this saga. Again I have decided to put those passages onto this page so that the readers can come to their own conclusions if the runes may have been used in the lot casting. There is only one mention of the word ‘rune’ in this saga so I have started with that passage, after that I have put the few other passages that might be somehow rune related. Again that is for you, the reader, to decide.

Chapter 34

Jokul carved a man’s head on the end of the post, and wrote in runes the open words of the curse, spoken of earlier. Jokul then killed a mare, and they cut it open at the breast, and set it on the pole, and had it face towards Borg.

In this passage we see that Jokul uses the runes as a way to make his oral curse into a written one. This is much to the same effect as we have seen Egil do in chapter 58 of Egil’s Saga. Take into consideration the similarities between the passage of Egil’s Saga and the one here with Jokul. Both of the men after speaking and oral curse carve the curse in runes on a pole. Also both men use a horse (or a part of a horse in Egil’s case) and set it on the pole. Why this is done I cannot say for certain. It may have something to do with the power and status of the horse. If we look at the Gothic rune Egeis/Eyz we see that the gods used horses in divination, shamanism and royal pageantries. So quite possibly the horse could bring the gods attention to the curse. The only other reason that I could think of why a horse may be used would be because of Sleipnir, Odin’s horse. It was said that this eight-legged steed had the runes carved on his teeth. There may be a connection then that a horse on a rune carved pole would carry the message to the gods in a manner similar to the way Sleipnir carried Odin.

Fate and Magic

Although I had said that I was not going to make mention of the magic and witchcraft involved in this saga I have decided to include one passage that may possibly be linked to a rune casting. The section talks about determining the fates of men that have gathered at a feast. Traditionally this sort of thing is done by a woman casting the runes and reading a man’s fate from the runes. However, there is no mention of the word rune but there is talk of ‘a magic rite in the old heathen fashion’.

Chapter 10

Ingjald and his men prepared a magic rite in the old heathen fashion, so that men could examine what the fates had in store for them. A Lapp enchantress was among those present. Ingimund and Grim arrived at the feast along with a large retinue. The Lapp woman, splendidly attired, sat on a high seat. Men left their benches and went forward to ask about their destinies.

The use of the runes to ‘examine what the fates had in store’ for people was not an uncommon practice. However, the one thing to look at is the fact that the readings were done by a Lapp enchantress. Would she cast runes for this ritual or would she go into a shaman-like trance to see the future? It may be safe to say that this is a reference to a rune casting. If she were to enter into a trance to see each man’s destiny she would possibly have to jump in and out of such a trance for each fate that she was looking at. That’s a very exhausting thing to have to do, but casting the runes for each man wouldn’t require her to do such a thing and might be a more likely a situation.

Casting Lots

There are several mentions of the use of lots in this saga. 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 42

Thorgrim was considered best suited for the chieftain’s role because of his kinship with the Vatnsdal people, but it was to be settled by lot, because many others thought themselves well suited.

Chapter 42

The lots were then places in a small cloth and it was always Silver’s lot which came up, because of his magic powers.

Chapter 42

Silver’s lot had secured the godord.

Again we have to determine if the lots used here were some form of the runes or something else completely. It is possible that bindrunes1 may have been used to represent each person that was in the running for the godord. But is just as possibly that each man was assigned a number or symbol that was drawn on some material and then drawn from the cloth.

Rune Casting

It is still unknown if the runes were first developed for the use of a writing system or for the use of divination (or casting lots). Either way, in the past, the runes were used for casting, we even see evidence of that in mythology and sagas. Recently there has been a new found interest in new age items and we have see a revival of using the runes for casting and divination. You can now buy a set of runes almost as easily as you can buy a deck of tarot cards. However, if you want your runes to be special to you there’s no better way than to make them yourself.

Once you have your set of runes, what do you do? Well there are many fine books out there to help get you started. If you buy your runes, a lot of sets come along with a small starter book that will introduce you to the history, myths and meanings of the runes as well as how to cast them. If you would like to make your own you can follow the guides below and then use the rest of this site to find out the meanings and images.

So let’s get started…

Picking a rune set – Decide which rune set is best for you to use for casting.

Making your own rune set – Find out how to make your own personal set of runes.

What you need for casting – A list of item that are good to have for casting.

How to do a reading – Find out how set up a reading and where and when to cast.

Casting layouts and spreads – A list of casting spreads and layouts to choose from.

Casting record sheets – Here are a few PDFs for you to use to download, print and record your rune casts on.

Improve Your Casts Through Meditation – Learn how to improve your rune casting through meditation in this 4 page article.

* Layouts that were created by Dan Gronitz for this website. If you wish to use any of these layout ideas in any media please contact me.

** – Indicates a rune cast adapted from a tarot card spread.

Runes in Mythology and Sagas

An important part of runic knowledge can be learned by examining the mythology, sagas, and folklore of the people of Northern Europe, Iceland and even Greenland. By doing so we start to get an understanding of where the runes may have come from, how there were used and even some of the mystery and magick behind them.

For this section I have broken down the stories or myths and have given my input on how the runes come into play in that story or myth. A good place to start is to take a look at how the runes are said to have come into existence in Norse mythology. After we examine the runes in mythology we can begin to learn and understand more about how the runes were used by the people in the saga tales.


Odin Discovers the Runes
Runes of the Hávamál

Sagas of Iceland

Egil’s Saga
Saga of the People of Vatnsdal

Other Sagas

The Saga of the Volsungs


‘Casting Lots’ in Sagas