Odins Rune Poem

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This excerpt from the W. H. Auden and P. B. Taylor translation of the Havam?l contains Odin's telling of how he obtained the runes and runic power. Odin continues with a description of the 18 charms he learned. What those charms looked like we can only guess.

The H?vam?l is part of the "Elder" or Poetic Edda, which is one of the primary written sources for Norse mythology. This excerpt from the W. H. Auden and P. B. Taylor translation of the Havam?l contains Odin's telling of how he obtained the runes and runic power. Odin continues with a description of the 18 charms he learned. What those charms looked like we can only guess.

Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows

For nine long nights,

Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin,

Offered, myself to myself

The wisest know not from whence spring

The roots of that ancient rood.

They gave me no bread,

They gave me no mead,

I looked down;

With a loud cry

I took up runes;

From that tree I fell.

Nine lays of power

I learned from the famous Bolthor, Bestla' s father:

He poured me a draught of precious mead,

Mixed with magic Odrerir.

Waxed and throve well;

Word from word gave words to me,

Deed from deed gave deeds to me.

Runes you will find, and readable staves,

Very strong staves,

Very stout staves,

Staves that Bolthor stained,

Made by mighty powers,

Graven by the prophetic God.

For the Gods by Odin, for the Elves by Dain,

By Dvalin, too, for the Dwarves,

By Asvid for the hateful Giants,

And some I carved myself:

Thund, before man was made, scratched them,

Who rose first, fell thereafter.

Know how to cut them,

know how to read them,

Know how to stain them,

know how to prove them,

Know how to evoke them,

know how to score them,

Know how to send them,

know how to send them.

Better not to ask than to over-pledge

As a gift that demands a gift.

Better not to send

Than to slay too many.

The first charm I know is unknown to rulers

Or any of human kind;

Help it is named,

for help it can give

In hours of sorrow and anguish.

I know a second that the sons of men

Must learn who wish to be leeches.

I know a third: in the thick of battle,

If my need be great enough,

It will blunt the edges of enemy swords,

Their weapons will make no wounds.

I know a fourth:

it will free me quickly

If foes should bind me fast

With strong chains, a chant that makes

Fetters spring from the feet,

Bonds burst from the hands.

I know a fifth: no flying arrow,

Aimed to bring harm to men,

Flies too fast for my fingers to catch it

And hold it in mid-air.

I know a sixth:

It will save me if a man

Cut runes on a sapling' s roots

With intent to harm; it turns the spell;

The hater is harmed, not me.

If I see the hall

Ablaze around my bench mates,

Though hot the flames,

They shall feel nothing,

If I choose to chant the spell. [seventh]

I know an eighth:

That all are glad of,

Most useful to men:

If hate fester in the heart of a warrior,

It will soon calm and cure him.

I know a ninth:

When need I have

To shelter my ship on the flood,

The wind it calms, the waves it smoothes

And puts the sea to sleep

I know a tenth:

If troublesome ghosts

Ride the rafters aloft,

I can work it so they wander astray,

Unable to find their forms,

Unable to find their homes.

I know an eleventh:

When I lead to battle old comrades in-arms,

I have only to chant it behind my shield,

And unwounded they go to war,

Unwounded they come from war,

Unscathed wherever they are

I know a twelfth:

If a tree bear

A man hanged in a halter,

I can carve and stain strong runes

That will cause the corpse to speak,

Reply to whatever I ask.

I know a thirteenth

If I throw a cup of water over a warrior,

He shall not fall in the fiercest battle,

Nor sink beneath the sword,

I know a fourteenth, that few know:

If I tell a troop of warriors

About the high ones, Elves and Gods,

I can name them one by one.

(Few can the nitwit name.)

I know a fifteenth,

That first Thjodrerir

Sang before Delling's doors,

Giving power to Gods, prowess to Elves,

Fore-sight to Hroptatyr Odhinn,

I know a sixteenth:

If I see a girl

With whom it would please me to play,

I can turn her thoughts, can touch the heart

Of any white armed woman.

I know a seventeenth:

If I sing it,

The young girl will be slow to forsake me.

I know an eighteenth that I never tell

To maiden or wife of man,

A secret I hide from all

Except the love who lies in my arms,

Or else my own sister.

To learn to sing them, Loddfafnir,

Will take you a long time,

Though helpful they are if you understand them,

Useful if you use them,

Needful if you need them.

The Wise One has spoken words in the hall,

Needful for men to know,

Unneedful for trolls to know:

Hail to the speaker,

Hail to the knower,

Joy to him who has understood,

Delight to those who have listened.

The first poem describes the activities of valkyrie-like sorceresses called the "Idisi" who have the power to bind or to free battling warriors.

Once the Idisi set forth, to this place and that;

Some fastened fetters; some hindered the horde,

Some loosed the bonds from the brave --

Leap forth from the fetters! Escape from the foes!

The second poem tells how a number of these goddesses unsuccessfully attempt to cure the injured leg of Balder's horse. Wodan (Odin), with his unfailing magic, knows the right charm, and the horse is healed. This pre-Christian incantation is similar to charms against sprains recorded in the Orkney and Shetland Islands during the nineteenth century.

The second poem, the one dealing with sprained ankles, is supposed to work by the magic of analogies: the story about Pfohl and Wodan, who cured Balder's horse, is assumed to repeat itself when the story is magically retold. Note the alliteration in the High German text. This is typical of the poetry of the era. End rhyming did not appear until several centuries later.

Phol ende Uoden vuorun zi holza

duuart demo Balderes volon vuoz birenkit.

th? biguolen Sinthgunt Sunna era suister;

th? biguolen Fr?ia, Volla era suister;

th? biguolen Uodan, s? h? uuola conda;

s?se b?nrenki, s?se bluotrenk?, s?se lidirenki:

b?n zi b?na, bluot zi bluot.

lid zi geliden, s?se gel?mida s?n!

Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,

There Balder's foal sprained its foot.

It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;

It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;

It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:

Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,

Like limb-sprain:

Bone to bone; blood to blood;

Limb to limb -- like they were glued.

Odin is also recorded as knowing nine more rune charms. In the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm" Odin performs magic with "glory twigs" [wuldor tanas]. The nine twigs bore runic initials of the nine plants they represented, which in turn were related to the powers inherent in the plants. Note how this poem has been "Christianized".

"Twig" also refers to "tein", a kenning for a rune symbol. In Norse numerology, three, nine, and multiples of three and nine are very potent magically. Nine wunjo staves are often used as the symbols on glory wands.

In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, plants ash, oak and thorn represent the powers of As (Ansuz), Ac and Thorn (Thurisaz). The glory twigs combine the protective power of Thorn with the divine force of As and the growth potential of Ac.

Mugwort, waybroad (plaintain) open from the east, lamb's cress, attorlathe, maythe, nettle, crabapple, chervil and fennel, old soap; work the herbs into dust, mix them with the soap and apple juice. Work then into a paste of water and ashes; take fennel, boil it in the paste and beat with the [herbal] mixture when he applies the salve both before and after

Sing the charm [galdor] on each of the herbs three times before he prepares them, and on the apple likewise. And let someone sing into the mouth of the man and into both his ears, and on the wound, that same charm [galdor] before he applies the salve.

These nine go against nine poisons.

A worm came crawling, he wounded nothing.

Then Wodan took nine glory-twigs.

Smote then the adder that it flew apart into nine [parts].

There apple and poison brought it about

that she never would dwell in the house.

Chervil and Fennel, very mighty two,

these herbs he created, the wise Lord

holy in heaven when He hung;

He established and sent them into the seven worlds,

to the poor and the rich, for all a remedy.

She stands against pain, she assaults poison,

who has power against three and against thirty,

against enemy's hand and against great terror

against the bewitching of little vile wights.

Now these nine herbs have power against nine evil spirits

[wuldorgeflogenum, "fugitives from glory"],

against nine poisons and against nine flying venoms:

Against the red poison, against the foul poison,

against the white poison, against the purple poison,

against the yellow poison, against the green poison,

against the dark poison, against the blue poison,

against the brown poison, against the crimson poison.

Against worm-blister, against water-blister,

against thorn-blister, against thistle-blister,

against ice-blister, against poison-blister.

If any poison flying from the east,

or any from the north . . . come

or any from the west over humanity.

Christ stood over the old ones, the malignant ones.

I alone know running streams

and the nine adders now they behold.

All weeds must now give way to herbs

the seas slip apart, all salt water,

when I this poison blow from you.

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