Welcome to Week Four of Ancient Runes. We will be covering the first eight runes of the Elder Futhark today. I know that you are still coming to grips with the sounds of all 24 runes, but it will get easier as you use them, so keep practising.
Before we start discussing today’s runes, let me introduce you to the concept of aett (pl. aettir). The runes of the Elder Futhark can be grouped into three sets of eight runes each. One such set is called aett, with the plural form being aettir. This word is derived from the Old Norse word for clan or family. Each aett is associated with a specific Germanic deity, whose name begins with the first rune of that particular aett. We will spend the next three lessons studying the three aettir and their runes in great detail. Today we will begin with the runes of the first aett, which is named after Freya.
I also need to introduce the concept of “merkstave” to you today. This is a term that is not generally used by Muggles, except those who practice divination with runes; but in magic and spellwork, the merkstave position of runes plays an important role. Literally, merkstave means “dark stick” in Old Norse/Germanic. It refers to the dark, or other, side of the rune. The “stick” part comes from the original practice of carving the runes onto pieces of wood, which is also the origin of the German word for letter, “Buchstabe” (literally “beech stick,” referring to the beech wood sticks used). Thus merkstave refers to the dark side of the stick, the one without a carved letter/rune.
In divination, merkstave refers to the position or orientation of a rune when it is drawn. In magic, generally we use the term merkstave to denote a rune that is in any way opposite to its standard form: either standing upside down, mirrored left to right, or in some cases turned by 90°. In all these cases, the merkstave form suggests an opposite or negative meaning compared to the standard rune, however this can be very different depending on the context.
The regular form of the rune is variously referred to as standard or upright. Both terms are correct in relation to magical texts, although they may have different meanings when it comes to divination.
Please note that not all runes have merkstave forms, which will be clearly stated in the following descriptions. Some runes are used more commonly in their merkstave form, which will also be noted.
The First Aett – Freya’s Aett
Freya’s aett is the first family of runes in the Elder Futhark. It begins with the rune called Fehu, which has the sound value “f” and stands for cattle or wealth (which were in fact close to the same thing in those times). Your textbook tells you that the runes in Freya’s aett are symbolic of nurturing and concerned with concrete matters of daily life. This is slightly misleading, as you will notice when we cover these runes in this lesson, but it can certainly be said that the meanings of these first eight runes were essential components of life for the Nordic people. In magic, the runes of this first aett are particularly helpful as supporting and assisting forces, which can be added to spells to enhance or otherwise assist their effects.
Standard Merkstave Variants
The Muggle understanding of this rune is “wealth” and “cattle,” as noted on your hand-out. In many old societies (and in quite a few tribal societies that exist today), the number of cattle an individual owned was synonymous with their wealth. The Nordic tribes were no exception. Owning cattle and gold were ways to raise yourself through the ranks of tribal society. We can also view Fehu’s wealth beyond that of the material; Fehu can refer to the richness and gain of spirituality or individual happiness. In the wizarding world, we focus on this second interpretation. In Schreiber’s corrections, Fehu stands for fortune in both the material and immaterial sense of the word.
Merkstave, Fehu represents the opposite: loss (both personally and materially) as well as the negative forces that come with wealth: greed and poverty.
We can use Fehu in a practical aspect to stabilize our magic and reduce the chances of backfire and side effects. Therefore, Fehu is a favourite of those looking for a little added protection to their spellwork. It also is ideal for combining with other runes to temper the effects of those runes, particularly in spells of unknown result. Though Fehu’s inherent meaning is wealth, do not make the mistake of trying to find a loophole to Gamp’s Principle Exception of Wealth with this rune.
Standard Merkstave Variants
The Muggle interpretation of Uruz is somewhat befuddled, and the finer nuances depend on which language you are approaching the rune from. In broad strokes, however, Uruz means “aurochs” (a type of horned cattle) or “water”. Associations with this rune include bravery and strength, and Schreiber noted this for her interpretations as well. However, instead of an aurochs, Schreiber noted the pictographic translation to be that of a Graphorn, which is incidentally the symbol for the number two in arithmancy.
Merkstave, Uruz speaks of slowness, dullness, and potentially even cowardice depending on how it is combined with other runes.
In magic, Uruz can be used to bolster and enhance the effects of a spell, though precautions must be taken as side effects can also be juiced up. For this reason it is not uncommon to find Fehu and Uruz inscribed together.
I feel it’s important to note while it’s still early in your magical career that you should be very careful with the kind of magic you are doing. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and every spell has some consequence, whether you are aware of it or not. This is the Law of Unintended Consequences, and it states that every action has some unintended or unforeseen reaction that may be positive (i.e. luck, goodwill), negative (backfire, unnecessary harm), or neutral (the benefits and negatives cancel each other out). It is vital to keep this in mind with all of your spellwork but with runes especially; you will come across examples and texts throughout your time in this course where misuse of runes has resulted in some very unfortunate circumstances, and you would be wise to learn all you can to avoid following in those footsteps.
Standard Merkstave Variant
To the Norse, giants were known as the “jotun,” which is the translation typically prescribed to Thurisaz in both the Muggle and wizarding worlds, and generally the meaning sticks as an ideogram. It can also be associated with the god Thor. As human-giant relations have always been haggard at best and downright lethal at worst, it should come as no surprise that the magical use of Thurisaz is associated with change, constructive conflict, and defense. Schreiber’s corrections tell us that the standard form of this rune is used to denote the giant race, and it has been used in this sense on maps to mark the territories of giants. This use eventually became so common that the rune assumed the more general meaning of danger as well.
Merkstave, Thurisaz represents unbridled destruction and danger, as well as unresolved conflict. Thurisaz is most commonly used in its merkstave form to bolster defensive spells and decrease destruction caused by offensive spellwork. As noted in your textbook, this requires a great deal of skill and concentration as the defensive spellcaster must keep both the spell and the rune in mind while building the defenses. However, even the best work is not impervious and the spell will eventually shatter if enough offensive magic is thrown at it. Your book used the Battle of Hogwarts in the Second Wizarding War as an example, where professors used the merkstave Thurisaz alongside strong protection spells to build a defensive wall around the school.
On rarer occasions, Thurisaz upright can be used to strengthen offensive spells. This is highly discouraged, however, as the results cannot really be predicted or contained.
Standard Merkstave Variant
The Muggle meaning of Ansuz is directly related to the meaning of the word ”Aesir”, which is ‘god’ or ‘gods’ in Norse mythology. Its interpretation speaks to the spiritual and magical side of human nature. Schreiber corrects the meaning to “the Nordic magi”. Ansuz therefore also stands for higher powers, and specifically communication with this higher power, e.g. through prayer.
Merkstave, Ansuz speaks to delusion and misunderstanding, and it may be used in conjunction with memory and befuddlement charms to increase their effectiveness. However, when used on Muggles, Ansuz can cause the spell to overpower the mind and leave the recipient generally incapable of higher cognitive functioning. It was declared illegal by the Ministry of Magic in 1939. For more information on this, I urge you to consult Muggles and Magic: Laws for Them, Laws for Us by Aristol Humperdink.
The magical associations hold Ansuz to refer to advice and communication as well as wisdom, and the rune can be used to enhance the effects of divinatory tools and spell craft. It may also increase the effects of communicative devices, though to what extent is still unknown. Most widely known are the quills inscribed with Ansuz that promise to “increase information retention!” when used for notes. While this may or may not be true, I would advise students to avoid spending the extra money.
Standard Merkstave Variants
Across all languages, Raido has the same meaning: to ride, to journey; this holds true for the Wizarding world as well. Raido is significant in the use of magical transportation, and the original portkeys were in fact small rune stones inscribed with Raido that allowed witches and wizards to travel from one village to the next. Raido does not just represent physical journeys, but also spiritual and life journeys.
Upright, it may indicate positive changes while merkstave may represent chaos or stagnancy. As with all runes, read Raido in context with other runes to understand the precise meaning.
Raido’s magical effect is most notable in transportation spells, as it helps to stabilise them. It can, for example, reduce the effect of Portkey-sickness if inscribed onto the Portkey before activation. Unfortunately however, there is no evidence to suggest that Raido reduces the risk of splinching while Apparating.
Standard Merkstave Variant
Schreiber follows the Muggle interpretation for Kenaz, which is disease, and extends it to also include magical maladies. There is some speculation in the divinatory aspects, however, that may suggest a more accurate reading is “torch” (we will talk more about this particular rune and its divergent meanings next year), but when it comes to using Kenaz in spellwork, the primary effects noticed are in relation to health and disease.
Like Thurisaz, Kenaz is used mostly in its merkstave (rightward-facing) form to promote vigour, health, illumination, and creativity. Used upright (or leftward-facing) in its standard form, Kenaz associates itself with weakness, ill health (often mentally), and confusion.
Kenaz lends itself to potion creation more so than wand work. For hundreds of years, potioneers have carved the rune into cauldrons and phials, and even St. Mungo’s has Kenaz placed around the wards to promote health. It has been suggested that the late Potions Master, Severus Snape, used Kenaz to enhance the efficacy of several of his signature potions. Certainly for anyone desiring to become a healer, this rune may be of great use when performing your duties. (In the picture to the right, we see Kenaz upright, which suggests the brewer had ill-intent.)
Gebo, as the Muggles understand it, means “gift.” Sophia Schreiber opted to leave interpretation of this rune open, as little is known or understood about Gebo. “Gift” is possibly an all-inclusive word for theorized interpretations such as sacrifice, companionship, and generosity; those are generally the accepted understandings.
Merkstave, Gebo may represent the dark side of these qualities: greed, loneliness, and selfishness. In an effort to make our lives more difficult as translators, upright and merkstave Gebo look exactly the same, and translating this rune correctly requires a great amount of context.
Using Gebo in spellwork is not recommended. Runologists are still arguing over the practical aspects of this rune and nobody is quite sure of the effect it has. In my own research, I suspect it was used in spellwork during times of perfect planetary alignment, possibly with human sacrifice to seal the work. Since all of these forces are incredibly powerful, these were spells most likely meant to bring destruction to rival civilizations or influence the course of history within a kingdom. As such, you should never use Gebo in your work, lest some undesired consequences result.
Upright Merkstave Variant
Schreiber and the Muggles both agree on the basic interpretation of Wunjo: joy. This rune deals specifically with emotional states, and healers at St. Mungo’s often place Wunjo in wards with mentally unstable patients to bring calm, happiness, fellowship, and clarity.
Merkstave, Wunjo represents the opposite: sorrow, anger, delirium, and debilitating mania. Wunjo works to enhance any spell that requires emotion to function, such as the Patronus Charm (which requires happy memories).
There have been several instances throughout history of Wunjo being used, both positively and negatively. It is said that the former Headmaster Albus Dumbledore placed the upright Wunjo around his office, causing a sense of calm and happiness to overtake those who entered. On the other end, Morgan le Fay, the infamous witch of the Middle Ages, is rumored to have used the merkstave Wunjo to depress those around her, ensuring her total power during her reign. From the tale of a rebellion mounted against her, we can learn that upright Wunjo can effectively cancel out merkstave Wunjo, allowing whole peoples and areas to immediately begin to feel like themselves.
We have yet again come to the end of another lesson. Remember that your midterm will be held after the lesson next week. You will have time to study, and it will be open note. Next week we will cover runes 13-18, which you will also be tested on in a separate quiz. Before I see you next week, take a look at Chapter Four: Heimdall’s aett. For today, you have a quiz on the runes we studied as well as the vocabulary covered in this lesson.
Aett: Set of eight runes dedicated to one particular Germanic god. There are three aettir in the Elder Futhark.
Freya: The Norse goddess of beauty and fertility.
Law of Unintended Consequences: Every action has an unforeseen positive, neutral, or negative effect.
Merkstave: Literally “dark stick”; refers to a rune drawn or shown in an inverted or mirrored position.
Standard or Upright: The normal form of the rune.
Image credits: Rae Elliot (horn, cauldron on table)
Original lesson written by Professor Genesis Starfight