The Runelaw By Mark Puryear
Over the past four to five decades, we of the Odinist/Asatru faith have been toiling to develop a working, viable set of traditions that truly reflects the ancestral culture from which this way of life originates. Books have been written, organizations established, magazines distributed, websites built, etc. Throughout this process we have sought to delve into the ancient records so that we can build something spiritually significant for our lives today.
One of the most important aspects of this has been the formulation of a system of ethics and morals that we can call our own; one that speaks to our ancestors’ culture and resonates the voices of our Gods and Goddesses. Several systems have been developed, the Nine Noble Virtues, the Nine Charges, the Nine Virtues and Vices, etc. typically as a simplified guide to help one lead an honorable life.
This approach has been effective, for the most part, in that it has provided a foundation for many people to be able to grasp the general notion that is Heathen morality. It has shown the naysayers that we do have a profound system of ethics and that we too live by a strict code.
But what about the specifics? What about the philosophy behind our ethical beliefs? If we do not have a code that has a broad spectrum to meet the many circumstances we face in life, do we not face the possibility of spiritual Chaos?
I am not proposing a system like that of the Middle Eastern cults, where every facet of existence is dictated by the ‘Commandments’ of an overpowering deity, but rather a set of maxims that we can live by and apply when we face the various events of our lives.
After all, the very word ‘law’ (ON lögr) comes from our ancestral culture, and there is plenty of evidence to show that our forefathers were very much concerned with matters of justice and keeping the peace.
There are several ancient law codes that have survived such as the Gràgàs, the Udal Law, and the Scanian Law. These codes were written down in the Christian era, but were collected from the oral traditions of the Northern tribes that had been in place much earlier. Then there are the Eddic lays, such as Hàvamàl and Sigrdrifumàl, which offer us unique collections of moral wisdom straight from the lips of the divine. We look to these lays and codes for a better understanding of how our ancestors upheld the law, and how they viewed punishment for it.
It seems that the most general view of transgression was that when one wrongs the community they must make amends for this in order to set things right for themselves and for those around them.
This notion of direct amends is even recognized by the Gods in the act of Afrad Gjalda or Gamban Gylda, both meaning “The Payment of Compensation.” In the Völuspà (23) we are directed to the conflict between the Aesir and Vanir, when the latter demand that the former pay compensation for Gullveig’s death, and we know that Loki and his children are
made to pay for their crimes against the divine order. We see on several occasions mention of the divine Thing, or court of law, which mimics in its entirety the Things of Midgard (see Völuspà 6, 9, 17, etc., Grímnismàl 15, Hymiskvida 39, and so on). In understanding this we know that our ancestors saw their legal system as divinely inspired and thus sacred.
These laws and customs for religion came to us by way of Heimdall, the great culture-bringer who came to us as Rig to introduce all manner of methods for civilization. He brought us agriculture, means of controlling fire, ways to build homes and settlements, and all manner of valuable tools that humans need to form a society and keep it together. He established the first Thing and taught our earliest ancestors the law, from which was established the first system of order and peace.
In the lore we are told that he came and taught our people the Æfinrúnar and Aldrúnar (The Ásatrú Edda XX. 85), which translate as “Eternal-Runes” and “Runes of Earthly Life.” We cannot reach any conclusion other than that these runes were those which dealt specifically with the ways that human beings are to conduct themselves both in a religious and a mundane sense.
The notion that they are both “eternal” and deal with the “earthly-life” of us mortals shows that these codes of conduct were meant to have lasting validity, and that they were meant to act as guides for us to help one another and work together in forming our societies.
But these runes did not originate with Heimdall, just as the more spiritual runes did not originate from Odin when he learned them during his sojourn on the World-Tree. All runes or ‘secret knowledge’ originate from the fountains of the Underworld. In this case we look to the well of Urd or Urdarbrunn to see where these Æfinrúnar and Aldrúnar come from.
Urd is the hightest of the Norns, and we have a passage in the lore which states that she and her sisters came from the “sea (i.e. the fountain), which stands under the tree; one is named Urd, Verdandi the second– they scored on wood– Skuld the third. They established laws, allotted life to the sons of men, and pronounced örlög” (The Ásatrú Edda LIII. 45). It is fitting that they would have this connection to primordial law, since it is they who control the Thing of the Dead, the Helthing, where all are judged for the deeds they have performed in their lives before a divine tribunal.
The idea that they were “scoring on wood” reminds us of the following passage from Tacitus’ Germania (10):
“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.”
It was originally suggested by Jacob Grimm in his landmark Deutsche Mythologie, that these “signs” (notæ) were in fact runes. This connects this passage to the above concerning the Norns and their establishment of the law, which they “scored on wood.” We also see the mention of örlög or urlag in the above passage. Örlög means “The Original Law,” and is thus connected to the rune Úrr or Uruz, which can denote “original, primeval.” Even when it is translated at “Aurochs,” this still translates as “The Primordial Cow,” which remains within the realm of our interpretation. So here we have a concept, a law that is directly related to a rune and this is not the only one.
In the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem the very first rune, Feoh (ON Fé, Gothic Fehu), we are told that it (“Wealth”) “is a comfort to all men; yet every man must bestow it freely.” This is a direct condemnation of greed, and shows an edict within the poems that have retained much of our runic wisdom.
It is interesting to note as well that the two poems within the lore, the Hávamál and the Sigrdrifumál, both contain maxims towards leading a decent life, and runic wisdom. In Hávamál (155) Odin states that with his runes, “where hatred grows among the sons of men– I soon can set it right.” This relates to his position of being a ljóna or “peacemaker,” a judge in a Thing who keeps the peace. Compare Grímnismál (15) where we learn that in the hall of Glitnir Forseti “settles all disputes.”
These runes that Odin as, which allow him to keep the peace must be identical to the Æfinrúnar and Aldrúnar that were given to us by Heimdall to maintain order and civility. Sigrdrifumál has the Malrúnar or “Speech-Runes,” which are used by the mute dead in order to regain their speech before the Helthing, “if you do not wish that the strong one (Odin) shall requite you with consuming woe for the injury you have caused.
All those runes must you wind, weave and place together in that Thing where the host of people go into the full judgments” (12). So we see in both cases a connection of the runes to law or some form of legal system. This makes the reconstruction of a code of law based on the runes not only plausible, but likely.
With the evidence pointing to a sacred Odinic law using the runes, we then have the burden of trying to rebuild such a system using what has been left to us in the futharks (runic alphabets). This process was done by looking to the themes connected through each rune, through translating their names and how they are represented in the Rune Poems, then seeing if there are laws applicable to those themes with which we could match them. This was a long and painstaking process involving the study of ancient legal codes, lore, sagas, and histories. Once this was done, we were confident that we had built a system of religious ethics and morals that would stand the test of time, that would truly be ‘Eternal-Runes’ for our folk to live by.
Our faith has no dogma, no rigid explanations of lore that demand one way or another to be correct. However, we do need some moral foundation for us to live by, which we can agree is a standard all who are true to our faith must follow, otherwise we fall into the trap of spiritual anarchy. One cannot have order without law, and one cannot follow the Gods of the ordered universe without desiring to maintain that order.
Because of this we follow the laws given here: