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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.

Timeline of Rune History

This is only a brief timeline of the runes. I will be adding more as this site continues to grow so please be sure to check back often.

5th century B.C.E.
In the Alpine region the ‘alphabets’ known as North Etruscan, North Italic or Alpine come into existence. Later these ‘alphabets’ will play an important role in the development of the runes.

4th century B.C.E.
The Alpengermanen are thought to have come into contact with Alpine (or North Italic or North Etruscan) ‘alphabets’ and made use of them.

3rd century B.C.E.
There is a fusion between the Alpine alphabets and the pre-systemized runes forming the 24 staves of the Germanic or Elder runes. A bronze helmet found at Negau in Steiermark that was dated to possibly the 3rd century B.C.E. was inscribed in a Germanic language with Alpine lettering.

2nd century B.C.E.
Rome conquered Etruria and brings in the Roman alphabet. However the letters of the Etruscan alphabet may have advanced north through traders.

Near the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. Germanic survivors of the battles of Vercellae (the Cimbri) and Aquae Sextiac (the Teutons) stay in the area. The Cimbri, before crossing the Alps back towards Germany, may possibly have learned the runes and passed them on the Suevi.

1st century B.C.E.
The Cimbri, Suevi or possibly the Teutons advance the runes northwards down the Rhine river. At this same time the Marcomanni move the runes eastward. A goblet found at Vehlingen with a runic formula is dated to the 1st century B.C.E.

1st century C.E.
The Roman author Tacitus writes his “Germania 10” in which he gives an account of the divinatory methods of the ancient Germanic people. Also in this work it is presented that although men carried out the rituals Tacitus may have witnessed, women were held in high regard for their holiness and gifts of prophecy.

200 C.E.
A lance tip carved with runes is found at ØvreStabu in Norway and is said to date to this time.

400 C.E.
Around this time Rome is looted by people who are familiar with the runes. These people may have taken some Roman letters and incorporated them into rune lore. Also the Kylver stone, a Gothic grave slab in Gotland, shows us the first f-u-þ-a-r-k (f-u-th-a-r-k) order.

550 C.E.
A gold medallion found in Vadstena Sweden shows the three families of runes separated by double dots.

800 C.E.
Earliest date of a purely Norse rune-stave inscription.

1000 C.E.
Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem is written.

3rd century C.E.
By this time the runes have made their way to Denmark, Jutland, and Scandinavia by traveling along North Sea costal routes consisting of the Frisian Islands, Heligoland Bay as well as across Schleswig-Holstein.

6th century C.E.
Saxons bring to England the 28 rune-staves of the futhork that was developed in Friesland.

9th century C.E.
Development of the 33 rune-staves in Northumbria.

Early in the 9th century the use of the Germanic Futhark comes to an end. However, after a short transition an entire Scandinavian rune-row comes into existence mainly based on the Germanic runes.

11th century C.E.
Icelandic rune poem is written.

13th century C.E.
Norwegian rune poem is written.

16th century C.E.
Runic inscriptions in Gotland date to as late as the 16th century.

17th century C.E.
Runic inscriptions in Iceland date to as late as the 17th century.