Runes are magic – or not?

After a bit of a hiatus, which has nothing to do with a lack of ideas and everything with my annual progress review and upgrading from MPhil to PhD for good, here is the next blog post trying to answer questions people have asked me when they heard I was doing research in runology.

One question that nobody working with runes ever escapes is the issue of magic. It might even be the most frequently asked question I have encountered so far. And of course, the issue is hotly debated on the internet and there are volumes of popular books on runes and magic.

So are runes magic? Were they ever? It is impossible to give an exhaustive overview of all ideas about this complex field within just one blog post, and it might well yield enough material for an entire PhD thesis. Or two. After all, runes were in use over more than a millennium in a vast area. Thus, I will focus on Orkney once again, and try to see if there is any evidence for magic runes in the Orcadian corpus.

First of all, there are many inscriptions in Orkney which are clearly anything but magic. They can indeed be quite mundane. They can, for instance, spell out the classic memorial formula “X raised this stone in memory of Y”, like OR 14 from Tuquoy or OR 18 from Skaill Home Farm. Others, like OR 15 from Earl’s Bu, are possibly runic jokes: This piece of cow rib has an inscription that says “This bone was …” (carved?). There is not much scope for interpreting such words as any form of magic.

Other inscriptions in Orkney are slightly less self-explanatory. Could magic be the solution? Orkney has quite a few runic inscriptions that are very difficult to make sense of. In many cases, that is because of their preservation condition, so the runes are so worn that it is difficult to distinguish them, as for example on the church ruin at the Brough of Birsay, OR 16. That does not mean that these inscriptions were never legible, just that now we will never be able to read them any more.

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OR 16, Brough of Birsay: Only some faint staves remain visible, the inscription is illegible – but that does not make it magic

Another class of inscriptions that Orkney yields are those where the runes are discernible but appear not to make any lexical sense. There is, for instance, the lead weight from Quoys in Deerness (OR 22), which appears to say in line A: “…rasab…”. This does not make any sense in Old Norse and could have been interpreted as “alphabet magic”. However, an equally valid explanation has been put forward recently by Michael Barnes (Futhark Journal 6, 2016): In Latin, this line could say “iras abi”, which means “Go away!”. So while the purpose of the text could indeed be magic, as in banishing or sending away an unknown entity, the runes do not make the magic, the actual words make it.

On the whole, there is not a single inscription from Orkney where the runes are inherently magic symbols, while some inscriptions could possibly have served to such a purpose. Obviously, I am still very much at an early stage of my research but from what I’ve seen so far, I would not say that runes in Orkney were seen as inherently magic during the Viking Age and later medieval period. They could, however, be a means of expressing such magic, just like any magic spell, for example the famous “Avada Kedavra” from Harry Potter can be written in Roman letters – yet, that does not make the Roman letters themselves inherently magic.

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