THE SACRED RUNES LEARNED FROM HEIMDALL ( Part 1 )
The mythic ancient history of the human race and of the Teutons may, in accordance with the analysis above given, be divided into the following epochs: - (l) From Ask and Embla's creation until Heimdall's arrival; (2) from Heimdall's arrival until his departure; (3) the age of Skjold-Borgar; (4) Halfdan's time; (5) The time of Halfdan's sons. And now we will discuss the events of the last three epochs.
In the days of Borgar, the moral condition of men grows worse, and an event in nature takes place threatening at least the northern part of the Germanic world with destruction. The myth gives the causes of both these phenomena. The moral degradation has its cause, if not wholly, nevertheless essentially, in the activity of a female being from the giant world among human beings. Through her, men become acquainted with the black art, the evil art of sorcery, which is the opposite of the wisdom drawn from Mimir's holy fountain, the knowledge of runes, and acquaintance with the application of nature's secret forces for good ends (see Nos. 34, 35).
The sacred knowledge of runes, the "fimbul-songs," the white art, was originally in Mimir's possession according to the myth. Still he did not have it of himself, but got it from the subterranean fountain, which he guarded beneath the middle root of the worldtree (see No. 63) - a fountain whose veins, together with the world-tree's deepest root, extend to a depth which not even Odin's thought can penetrate (Hávamál 138).
By selfsacrifice in his youth, Odin received from Bestla's brother (Mimir; see No. 88) a drink from the precious liquor of this fountain and nine fimbul-songs (Hávamál 140; cp. Sigurdrífumál 14), which were the basis of the divine magic of the application of the power of the word and of the rune over spiritual and natural forces, in prayer, in sacrifices and in other religious acts of atonement, in investigations, in the practical affairs of life, in peace and in war (Hávamál 144 ff.; Sigurdrífumál 6 ff.).
The character and purpose of these songs are clear from the fact that at the head is placed "help's fimbul-song," which is able to allay sorrow and cure diseases (Hávamál 146). In the hands of Odin, they are a means for the protection of the power of the Aesir, and enable them to assist their worshippers in danger and distress. To these belong the fimbul-song of the runes of victory; and it is of no small interest that we, in Hávamál 156, find what Tacitus tells about the barditus25 of the Germans, the shield-song with which they went to meet their foes - a song which Ammianus Marcellinus 26 himself has heard, and of which he gives a vivid description.
When the Germanic forces advanced to battle, the warriors raised their shields up to a level with the upper lip, so that the round of the shield formed a sort of sounding-board for their song. This began in a low voice and preserved its subdued color, but the sound gradually increased, and at a distance it resembled the roar of the breakers of the sea. Tacitus says that the Teutons predicted the result of the battle from the impression the song as a whole made upon themselves; it can sound in their ears so, that they thereby became more terrible to their enemies, or in such a manner that they were overcome by doubt
. The above-mentioned Hávamál strophe gives us an explanation of this: the warriors were inclined to confidence if they, in the harmony of the subdued song increasing in volume, seemed to perceive Valfather's voice blended with their own. The strophe makes Odin say: Ef ek skal til orrostu leiða langvini, undir randir ek gel, en þeirmeð ríki fara heilir hildar til, heilir hildi frá - "If I am to lead those to battle whom I have long held in friendship, then I sing under their shields. With success, they go to the conflict and successfully they go out of it." Völuspá 50 also refers to the shield-song, where it makes the storm-giant, Hrymr, advancing against the gods, "lift his shield before him" (hefiz lind fyrir) an expression which certainly has another significance than that of unnecessarily pointing out that he has a shield for protection. The runes of victory were able to arrest weapons in their flight and to make those whom Odin loved proof against sword-edge and safe against ambush (Hávamál 148, 150). Certain kinds of runes were regarded as producing victory and were carved on the hilt and on the blade of the sword, and, while they were carved, Tyr's name was twice named (Sigurdrífumál 6). Another class of runes (brimrúnar, Sigurdrífumál 6; Hávamál 154) controlled the elements, purified the air from malicious beings (Hávamál 155), gave power over wind and waves for good purposes - as, for instance, when sailors in distress were to be rescued - or power over the flames when they threatened to destroy human dwellings (Hávamál 152). A third kind of runes (málrúnar) gave speech to the mute and speechless, even to those whose lips were sealed in death (see No. 70). A fourth kind of runes could free the limbs from bonds (Hávamál 149). A fifth kind of runes protected against black magic (Hávamál 151). A sixth kind of runes (ölrúnar) takes the strength from the lovepotion prepared by another man's wife, and from every treachery mingled therein (Sigurdrífumál 7, 8). A seventh kind (bjargrúnar and limrúnar) helps in childbirth and heals wounds. An eighth kind gives wisdom and knowledge (hugrúnar, Sigurdrífumál 13; cp. Hávamál 159). A ninth kind extinguishes enmity and hate, and produces friendship and love (Hávamál 153, 161).
Of great value, and a great honor to kings and chiefs, was the possession of healing runes and healing hands; and that certain noble-born families inherited the power of these runes was a belief which has been handed down even to our time. There is a distinct consciousness that the runes of this kind were a gift of the blithe gods.
In a strophe, which sounds as if it were taken from an ancient hymn, the gods are invoked for runes of wisdom and healing: "Hail to the gods! Hail to the goddesses! Hail to the bounteous Earth (the goddess Jord). Give us words and spiritual growth and healing hands while we live!" (Sigurdrífumál 4).
In ancient times, arrangements were made for spreading the knowledge of the good runes among all kinds of beings. Odin taught them to his own clan; Dáinn taught them to the Elves; Dvalinn among the dwarfs; Ásvinr (see No. 88) among the giants (Hávamál143). Even the latter became participants in the good gift, which, mixed with sacred mead, was sent far and wide, and it has since been among the Aesir, among the Elves, among the wise Vanir, and among the children of men (Sigrdrífumál 18).
The same Dvalinn, who spread the runes to his clan of ancient artists, is the father of daughters, who are in possession of bjargrúnar(helping-runes) and who, together with dises of Asa- and Vana-birth, employ them in the service of man (Fáfnismál 12-13). To men, the beneficent runes came through the same god who as a child came with the sheaf of grain and the tools to Scandia. Hence the belief current among the Franks and Saxons that the alphabet of the Teutons, like the Teutons themselves, was of northern origin. Rígsþula expressly presents Heimdall as teaching runes to the people whom he blessed by his arrival in Midgard. The noble-born are particularly his pupils in runic lore. Of Heimdall's grandson, the son of Jarl-Borgar, named Kon-Halfdan, it is said (Rígsþula 43-44):- En Konr ungr kunni rúnar ævinrúnar ok aldrrúnar; meir kunnihann mönnum bjarga, eggjar deyfa, ægi lægja. Klök nam fugla, kyrra elda, sæfa ok svefja, sorgir lægja.- - But Kon the young had knowledge of runes, runes of eternity, runes of earthly life. Well he knew also, how to deliver men, blunt sword-edges, and subdue the ocean. Bird-song he learned, and how to quench fire, to sooth and comfort, and drive away sorrow.
The fundamental character of this rune-lore bears distinctly the stamp of nobility. The runes of eternity united with those of the earthly life can scarcely have any other reference than to the heathen doctrines concerning religion and morality. These were looked upon as being for all time, and of equal importance to the life hereafter. Together with physical runes with magic power - that is, runes that gave their possessors power over the hostile forces of nature - we find runes intended to serve the cause of sympathy and mercy.
Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Volume 1 by Viktor Rydberg