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Saga of the Volsungs

The Saga of the Volsungs is a Norse Epic dealing with the dragon slayer, Sigurd. It’s a wonderful tale that makes many references to the runes. In chapter 21 we get a close look at how many of the runes are used when Brynhild speaks a short verse to Sigurd. Throughout this tale we see how important it is not only to know how to use the runes, but to use them and read them properly.

Chapter 13

Regin, the son of Hreidmar, was Siguard’s foster father. He taught Siguard sports, chess, and runes.

Early in the story we can get a look at how important the runes are going to be in the tale. It’s mentioned that Sigurd is taught how to use the runes by his foster father. Later in the story we’ll come to find out how important it was for Sigurd to learn how to read and cut the runes.

Chapter 21

She answered: “You know them better than I. But gladly I will teach you, if there is anything I know that will please you about runes or other matters that concern all things.”

Chapter 21 is a great section to read. If you’re not planning on reading this entire saga I would suggest that you at least glance over this chapter. It’s full of information on the runes. This is the section where Brynhild tells Sigurd all that she knows about the runes and their uses.

Chapter 21

Beer I give you,
Battlefield’s ruler,
With strength blended
And with much glory.
It is full of charmed verse
And runes of healing
Of seemly spells
And of pleasing speech.

Victory runes shall you know
If you want to secure wisdom,
And cut them on the sword hilt,
On the center ridge of the blade,
And the parts of the brand,
And name Tyr twice.

Wave runes shall you make
If you desire to ward
Your sail-steeds on the sound.
On the stem shall they be cut
And on the steering blade
And burn them on the oar.
No broad breaker will fall
Nor waves of blue,
And you will come safe from the sea.

Speech runes shall you know
If you want no repayment
In hate words for harm done.
Wind them,
Weave them,
Tie them all together,
At that thing
When all shall attend
The complete court.

Ale runes shall you know
If you desire no other’s wife
To deceive you in troth, if you trust.
They shall be cut on the horn
And on the hand’s back
And mark the need rune on your nail.

For the cup shall make you a sign
And be wary of misfortune
And throw leek into the liquor.
Then, I know that,
You will never get
A potion blended with poison.

Aid runes shall you learn
If you would grant assistance
To bring the child from the mother.
Cut them in her palm
And hold her hand in yours.
And bid the Disir not to fail.

Branch runes shall you learn
If you wish to be a healer
And to know how to see to wounds.
On bark shall they be cut
And on needles of the tree
Whose limbs lean to the east.

Mind runes shall you learn
If you would be
Wiser that all men.
They were solved,
They were carved out,
They were heeded by Hropt.

They were cut on the shield
That stands before the shining god,
On Arvak’s ear
And on Alsvid’s head
And on the wheel that stands
Under Hrungnir’s chariot,
On Sleipnir’s reins,
And on the sleigh’s fetters.

On bear’s paw
And on Bragi’s tongue,
On wolf’s claws
And on eagle’s beak,
On bloody wings
And on bridge’s ends,
On the soothing palm
And on the healing step.

On glass and on gold
And on good silver,
In ale and in wine
And on the witch’s seat,
In human flesh
And on the point of Gaupnir
And the hag’s breast,
On the Norn’s nail
And on the neb of the owl.

All that were carved on these
Were scraped off
And mixed with the holy mead
And sent on widespread ways.
They are with elves,
Some with the Æsir
And with the venerable Vanir,
Some belong to mortal men.

The are cure runes
And aid runes
And ale runes
And peerless power runes
For all to used unspoiled
And unprofaned,
To bring about good fortune.
Enjoy them if you have learned them,
Until the gods perish.

Now shall you choose,
As you are offered a choice,
O maple shaft of sharp weapons.
Speech or silence,
You must muse for yourself.
All words are already decided.

A lot of what is said above is pretty much laid out for you. There shouldn’t be much to explain, however I will say a few things about the runes that may have been used. As always we are uncertain as to which set of runes were used around the time of this saga and we will assume the use of the elder futhark.

When we take a look at the elder futhark and the mention of the runes above we can make some connections. For example the “runes of healing” could be uruz, which is a healing rune. The stanza which mentions “victory runes” also mentions the name Tyr which would be the rune Teiwaz since it’s name is derived from Tyr’s name. There are of course some other easy connections between the runes mentioned in the verse and the runes of the elder futhark, but the rest I’ll leave for you to take a closer look at.

Do not always assume that since the runes listed on the elder futhark page stand for something other than what you are looking for that it’s not the proper rune. For example in the verse above one stanza talks about “mind runes” yet there is no rune that stands for the mind or for thought. However, if we look at the meaning of the rune Kenaz we see that it deals with learning and knowledge, two things handled by the mind.

Chapter 34

The drink was mixed with the strength of the earth and the sea and the blood of her son, while the inside of the drinking horn was carved with all manner of runes, reddened with blood, as is here told:

The horn was lined
With runes manifold,
Carved and cut with blood.

This is another case where the runes are used to protect the drinker from added poison in the drinking horn. The runes are carved on the inside of the horn and reddened with blood to set them in motion. The idea here is that if some poison were to enter the drinking horn, either in some mead or simply poured in, the horn would counter the poison. We see in Egil’s Saga (chapter 44) that the runes counter such poison by shattering the drinking horn. In this saga we see that the runes are carved only as a precautionary measure and are never put to the test.

Chapter 35

The queen, aware of the king’s private meeting with his counselors, suspected there would be treachery toward her brothers. Gudrun cut runes, and took a gold ring and tied a wolf’s hair onto it. She gave it to the king’s messengers who then departed as the king had ordered. Before they stepped ashore, Vingi saw the runes and changed them in such a way that Gudrun appeared to be urging the brothers to come and meet with Atli.

Here we see the runes being used to deliver a message to Gudrun’s brothers. However, before the message is sent it is changed in order to make it look like Gudrun is trying to get her brothers to visit her and to come into danger.

Chapter 35

Vingi then showed him the runes that he said Gudrun had sent them. Now most people went to sleep, but some stayed up drinking with a few of the men. Hogni’s wife, Kostbera, the fairest of women, went and looked at the runes.

As with the passage above we see the runes that Gudrun had used to warn her brothers have been changed. However the message was never closely examined by anyone except Kostbera. She is a competent rune reader and notices that some of the runes do not appear to be correct.

Chapter 35

Kostbera began to look at the runes and to read the letters. She saw that something else had been cut over what lay underneath and that the runes had been falsified. Still she discerned through her wisdom what the runes said. After that she went to bed beside her husband. When they awoke she said to Hogni: “You intend to go away from home but that is inadvisable. Go instead another time. You cannot be very skilled at reading runes if you think you sister has asked you to come at this time. I read the runes and wondered how so wise a woman could have carved them so confusedly. Yet it seems that your death is indicated underneath. Either Gudrun missed a letter or someone else has falsified the runes.

The last part of chapter 35 dealing with the runes is when Kostbera brings the false rune message to her husband Hogni. Kostbera has already noticed that the runes had been carved over and tampered with. Knowing that this was more likely a message of warning than of invitation she tells Hogni that it could mean his doom. She knows that Gudrun is well versed in the use of the runes and that there is no way she could have made a simple mistake when carving the rune message.

This saga is full of rune information and it’s worth reading if you are interested in studying the runes. You get to see the many different ways that the runes were used as well as some good idea on which runes were used for specific purposes. You also get a good idea on just how important it was to understand the runes to avoid situations where a changed message could mean something totally different than what it was intended to mean. If you read any one saga I highly suggest that it be this one, not only because of the rune information found in it, but because the story is excellent as well.