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„I carve healing runes“


Old Norse runic prayers and healing

After a hiatus, we are bringing a new article that loosely follows on from the article Friendship with the God, which discussed the function of figurines of gods carried in bags. In this post we will look at other cult objects, namely bones, sticks and bronze plaques with engraved healing inscriptions. I firmly believe that these objects vividly demonstrate not only the relationships described in the aforementioned article, but are an important testimony to the nature of the early Scandinavian cult.

The question of healing runic inscriptions has been discussed many times in the professional literature. In this article, which will be divided into analysis and synthesis, we aim to enumerate them, their basic characteristics and in general to introduce the problem into English. We are dedicating this post to those interested in runes and to those interested in reenactment to complete the mosaic of the cultural background of the Viking Age.

Analysis – list and translation

In this section, we will count all inscriptions that can be dated to 700–1100 and that can be evaluated as having healing quality. These inscriptions will then be compared with other texts in the synthetic part. It is important to mention that the number of medical inscriptions grows by an average of one inscription every ten years, and it is therefore possible that the whole topic will be rewritten in the near future.

Almost every inscription has at least two possible interpretations. However, it must be noted that individual interpretations vary in details that do not limit the creation of more general conclusions, so we have decided to quote standardized readings according to the Rundata database, unless otherwise stated. We will supplement the originally versed texts with a possible poetized form.

Hemdrup staff (DR EM85;350)

In 1949, a stick of ash wood about 50 cm long and 2.1–3.4 cm thick was found in a swamp near Hemdrup, Denmark, which is dated to the 10th or 11th century. The staff is slightly curved and has a circular diameter. At one end it resembles a whistle, at the other it is slightly burnt. It is decorated with an engraved scale motif and several scales are engraved with runes, triquetras and figures (one humanoid and four dog-like). Although the end part is not legible, the latest analyses (Back Danielsson 2001Röstberg 2009) of the first part favour an interpretation which reads the inscription as follows:

„The storming one never won you over, Ása has luck in struggle.“
(Vann þik æva fjúkandi, Ása ey á á úfi.)

A poetic version might look like this:

„The storming one never won you over.
Ása has luck          in struggle.“
(Vann þik æva fjúkandi.
Ása ey                    á á úfi.

The figures evidently correspond to the text: the humanoid figure in feathered clothing, seemingly being chased by dogs, is depicted next to the word “Storming” (fjúkandi).

Sigtuna rib (U NOR1998;25)

A 24 cm long and 1.3–2.7 cm wide cow rib from Sigtuna was discovered in 1996. The inscription, which is dated to 1080–1120, consists of 1.1–1.9 cm high runes, with at least four of them are coded. The current version of the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages project reads the inscription as follows:

„Jórill’s woundcauser, disappear from Krókr! He bound the fever, he fought the fever. And did away with the abscess. He has fully cought the pus. Flee away, fever!“

(Jórils óvrið, vaksna úr Króki! Bant hann riðu, barði hann riðu auk siða sarð sārarann; vara hafir fullt fengit. Flý braut riða!)

A poetic version might look like this:

„Jórill’s woundcauser, leave from Krókr!
He bound the fever,
he fought the fever,
and did away with the abscess
He has fully          cought the pus.
Flee away, fever!“

(Jórils óvrið, vaksna úr Króki!
Bant hann riðu,
barði hann riðu
auk siða sarð sārarann;
vara hafir            fullt fengit.
Flý braut riða!

Ribe skull (DR EM85;151B)

In 1973, part of a skull with an engraved runic inscription was found in Ribe. It is roughly rectangular in shape with a size of 8.5 x 6 cm and a thickness of 0.5 cm. The runes themselves are 12 mm tall. A roughly 6 mm wide hole is drilled into the fragment. Dated to the 8th century, it is probably the oldest surviving inscription written in a younger fuþark. The inscription is accompanied by many interpretive problems, especially connected with the words buri / bóurr. We chose the variant presented by Hall (2009: 206):

„Úlfr and Óðinn and Há-Týr. buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf is overcome. Bóurr.“

(Úlfr auk Óðinn auk Há-Týr. Hjalp [buri] es viðR þæima værki. Auk dverg unninn. Bóurr.)

Canterbury Runic Charm (DR 419 / Cotton MS Caligula A XV, ff 123r–123v)

The so-called Canterbury Runic Charm is perhaps the most famous healing runic inscription ever. It was discovered in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript Cotton MS Caligula A XV, dated 1073–6, as a marginalia on two foliae. Based on linguistic comparisons and historical context, it is believed that the inscription may have been first written down around 1000 by a user of an East Scandinavian dialect, probably a Dane (Hall 2009: 201). The reason for its preservation in the manuscript, which is rare, may lie in the antiquarian approach of the scribe. Although there is some debate over the terms sárþvari and æðrafari, the text can be translated fairly reliably:

„Gyrill the wound-causer, go now, you are found. May Þórr hallow you, lord of giants, Gyrill the wound-causer. Against veins’ rushing.“

(Gyril sárþvara, far þú nú, fundinn ertu. Þórr vígi þik, þursa dróttin, Gyril sárþvara. Við æðrafari.)

A poetic version might look like this:

„Gyrill the wound-causer,
go now,                 you are found.
May Þórr hallow you,        lord of giants,
Gyrill the wound-causer.
Against veins’ rushing.“
(Gyril sárþvara,
far þú nú,           fundinn ertu.
Þórr vígi þik,     þursa dróttin,
Gyril sárþvara.
Við æðrafari.

Bronze plate from Sigtuna (U Fv1933;134 / SHM 19692)

Another well-known healing inscription is a text engraved on a bronze amulet plate found in Sigtuna. The plate, which is 82 mm long, 27-29 mm wide and 1 mm thick, was found in 1931. It is dated to the 11th century. The inscription resembles the Canterbury Runic Charm:

„Giant of the wound-fever, lord of the giants! Flee now! You are found. May three torments take you, wolf, may nine needs take you! The wolf takes these and with these the wolf remains calm. Use the magic charm!“

(Þurs sárriðu, þursa dróttinn. Flý þú nú, fundinn es. Haf þér þrjár þrár, úlfr! Haf þér níu nauðir! Úlfr hæfir þessi sér auk es unir, úlfr. Njót lyfja!)

A poetic version might look like this:

„Giant of the wound-fever,            lord of the giants!
Flee now!                    You are found.
May three torments take you, wolf!
May nine needs take you!
The wolf takes these and with these the wolf remains calm. Use the magic charm!“

(Þurs sárriðu,             þursa dróttinn.
Flý þú nú,             fundinn es.
Haf þér þrjár þrár, úlfr!
Haf þér níu nauðir!
Úlfr hæfir þessi sér auk es unir, úlfr. Njót lyfja!)

Bronze plate from Solberga (Öl Fv1976;96A, Öl Fv1976;96B)

In 1972, during an excavation in Solberga near the village of Köpingsvik, Öland, two plates were found, on which a total of over 240 runes are engraved. They are thought to date to the 11th to early 12th century (Gustavson 2016). It is believed that the plates were engraved for a woman in labor. The first plate has dimensions of 86 × 19 × 0.7 mm and does not have a hole for hanging. The first part of the inscription is encrypted, an interpretation has been attempted by Sofia Pereswetoff-Morath (2017: 156; Palumbo 2017: 92-93), who presents the following reading:

„Keep this quiet: I name enough […] with help delivered [?]. And may Christ and Saint Mary help you, Ōlǫf! The helping-woman binds with a ring and marks with healing signs. Perverse giant and howling troll, go from you, Ōlǫf!“

(Þigi þess: nū minns ek … bort eiʀ kaos (?). Ok Kristr ok sankta Maria biargi þēʀ, Ōlǫf! Biargguma baugaʀ ok æiʀumarkaʀ. Frān þēʀ in argi iotunn, Ōlǫf, ok þrymiandi þurs æltit!)

The second plate has dimensions of 85 × 15–20 × 1 mm and is equipped with a hole for hanging. The most recent reading is as follows (Pereswetoff-Morath 2017: 160):

„I mark the three-headed troll, covered with crushed earth, [to leave] from the man’s woman. May I enchant him there, destroy him! His head pained him when it disappeared into the fire.“

(Þurs ek fā hinn þrīhǫfðaða hinn meramuldiga frān manns kunu. Hann at seiði, ōiðki!
Sinn haus virkti hann ī, ī loga (?) umliðinn.)

Bronze plate from Södra Kvinneby (Öl SAS1989;43 / SHM 25654)

The last thing to mention is an unusually interesting amulet – a bronze plate from Södra Kvinneby on Öland. The plaque was discovered around 1955 and measures 53 x 47 mm. It dates back to 950-1100. The inscription consists of 143 runes (including five bindrunes) engraved on five lines. An image of a fish is engraved next to the last rune. It is the text of the inscription from Södra Kvinneby that has perhaps received the biggest variety of interpretations. The most recent version (Pereswetoff-Morath 2017: 142; Palumbo 2017: 90-91) prefers the following reading:

„Here I carve help for you, Bófi, with complete assistance. Fire is safe for you, the fire which took all evil away from Bófi. May Þórr protect him with the hammer which came from the sea. Flee from the evil one! Magic evil achieves nothing with Bófi. Gods are under him and over him.“

(Hǣr rīst ek /rīsti’k þēʀ berg, Bōfi, meðʀ fulltȳ(i). Hyrr es þēʀ vīss, en brā allt illu frān Bōfa. Þōrr gǣti hans meðʀ þēm hamri sæm ūʀ hafi kam! Flȳ frān illu! Vitt fǣʀ ækki af Bōfa. Guð eʀu undiʀ hānum auk yfiʀ hānum.)

Synthesis – interpretation and wider context

Healing inscriptions represent a specific group of runic inscriptions, which today constitute only a fraction of the extant runic corpus, and which are difficult to decipher without extensive commentary. Most of the surviving runic inscriptions are inscriptions on stones, which usually have a uniform structure and a simple tone that facilitates reading by the public. In contrast, healing inscriptions are tailored to the individual and there is variability in them. In the literature, the term “prayer” is used for healing inscriptions to avoid association with magic:

We might be tempted to classify such formulas as magical, but that would do little to correspond to the Old Norse understanding of the term. For the Old Norse people, magic (seiðr) and the corresponding ritual activities (denoted by the verb síða) carried strongly negative connotations and were far more likely to be activities that induced chaos. The quoted inscriptions, whose purpose was to eliminate chaotic powers, on the contrary fell into the category of a completely problem-free religious ritual (siðr).“ (Starý 2010: 197, Note 1)

The limited number of “prayers” could lead to thoughts about the uniqueness of these objects. However, the opposite seems to be true; healing inscriptions were certainly common and must have been overwhelmingly engraved on organic materials such as wood or bone. In addition to the survival of many inscriptions carved in wood and bone from the Viking Age, clearly placing them in the light of the most available materials, healing inscriptions carved in bone are also mentioned in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, as will be discussed later. Although amuletic bronze and silver plaques were particularly popular in the area of today’s Sweden, Denmark and Russia and retained their character until the 16th century (for example, in Denmark 48 specimens are known from the period 1070-1500, see Steenholt Olesen 2010), when lead variants and Latin texts also began to appear, organic materials were quite possibly preferred for healing inscriptions because they were supposed to promote faster healing. In the article “Þorbjǫrn the Skald Carved the Runes” I mentioned the use of runic wooden poles erected in memory of a deceased person, but in the context of practical rituals a better example would be the so-called disgrace pole (níðstang), which was a wooden post with a runic inscription and impaled horse remains; the pole-builder wanted to show that his opponent was “an outcast to every man [níðingr] and will never be tolerated in the company of good men, will call upon himself the wrath of the gods, and bear the name of a perfidious outcast” (Vatnsdæla saga 33):

And when all was ready for sailing, Egill went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse [formáli], he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eiríkr and queen Gunnhildr’ – here he turned the horse’s head landwards‘This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits [landvættir] who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eiríkr and Gunnhildr.’ This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.“ (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 59)

The brothers waited until the afternoon, and when the day advanced, JǫkulL and Faxa-Brandr went to Finnbogi’s sheepfold, which was by the enclosure. They took the pole and carried it to the enclosure. There were also several horses that ran to leeward from the blizzard. Jǫkull carved a man’s head at the end of the pole and carved runes on it with the full mentioned curse. Then Jǫkull killed the mare, cut a hole in her shoulders, impaled her on a pole, and turned her head towards the Borg [Finnbogi’s home].” (Vatnsdæla saga 34)

In these quotations we can notice the coexistence of the oral (formáli) and the written component (rune engraving) of the ritual. It is questionable to what extent the engraving of healing inscriptions was accompanied by the oral part, which is evident from the Anglo-Saxon parallels; in Scandinavia, we can see similar behaviour at the staff from Ribe [DR EM85;493], dated ca. 1300, as opposed to one possible reading of the inscription preserved on a sheep bone from Dublin [IR 10] which says “writing heals a possessed woman, amen“. It is clear that runic prayers have a preventive and supportive function, released during the body’s contact with the object, thereby supplementing and perhaps even replacing herbal medicine in desperate cases. Closely related to this is a pluralistic understanding of causes, and therefore pluralistic actions. Natural (secular) and mystical (sacred) perception of the world formed inseparable links; not a single aspect of reality could be omitted to preserve the causal chain. As Fiona Bowie (2008: 215) states: “There may be uncomplicated ‘natural’ explanations of events, but they do not clarify the chance and coincidence that cause natural events and people to intersect in time and space.” Of course, period people responded to a natural fact such as illness by administering what we would call medicine today, but at the same time they interpreted the interplay of all circumstances as the action of chaotic forces that could be prevented by oral formulas, runic inscriptions or symbols. Amulets, such as the plate from Södra Kvinneb, as well as hammers amulets (whose other functions will be indicated later) and others, could have been a prevention against the agents of chaos and thus their manifestations in the material world, which also makes them a kind of medicine, in today’s view placebo. So we have to agree with Jiří Starý (2010: 199) when he says:

The Old Norse were quite a pragmatic and highly rational people, and it is really hard to imagine that at the moment of a broken mast or illness, they would invoke or intimidate demonic beings and assume that the problem would resolve itself. Their first idea in such a case was doubtless to repair the mast or administer a cure, which is occasionally directly mentioned in magical formulas. At the same time, however, we should certainly not ignore the religious overlap of similar activities: it turns out that the myths associated with overcoming chaos strongly influenced the thinking of man, who perceived things in the world of his ordinary experience through their lens.

Examples of bronze plates – amulets.

The runes could perform a beneficial function only if they were put together in the correct sequence, which includes, for example, the logic of the text, the absence of errors, alliteration and metric, the invocation of positive power, the naming and intimidation of negative power, as will be said later in the text. Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (chap. 74) vividly shows that runes that were put together wrongly could turn the result against the patient, which, as Egill says in his stanza, “happens to many men“:

While Egill and the others sat eating, Egill saw that a woman who was ill was lying on the cross-bench at the end of the room. Egill asked Þorfinnr who this woman was that suffered so much. Þorfinnr said that she was called Helga and was his daughter. ‘She has had a long illness and is wasting away [krǫm]. She never sleeps at night, and is not in her right mind [hamstoli].’ ‘Has anything been done for her illness [mein]?’ said Egill. Þorfinnr said, ‘Runes have been carved. The man who did that was a farmer’s son from not far away. After that it was much worse than before. Do you, Egill, know anything about such illnesses?’ Egill said, ‘Perhaps it won’t get worse if I take a look.’ When Egill had finished eating he went to where the woman lay and spoke to her. He told them to take her from the bed and to spread clean sheets under her which was done. Then he went through the bed on which she had been lying and he found a piece of whalebone with runes carved on it. Egill read these and then he erased the runes, scraping them into the fire. He burned the entire piece of whalebone, and had all the bedclothes she had used carried out into the wind. Then Egill said:

‚No man should carve runes,                     unless he can read them well;
many a man goes astray                     around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw                   ten secret letters carved,
from them the woman                          took her long harm.’

Egill carved runes and placed them under the pillow in the bed where she lay. It seemed to her as though she woke from sleep, and then she said that she was well, though she was still weak.

The structure of the “prayers” is similar despite their variability; through prayers that are often versed (in the meter fornyrðislag and galdralag) they ensure communication between man and the chaotic agent, often also a guarantor of health. The intensity of communication is different, sometimes acute, other times it is a simple statement after application of treatment. The person asking for help is represented by women (Ása, Ōlǫf) or men (Bófi, Krókr) in the surviving inscriptions. The mainstay of communication is the naming and personification of the chaotic agent, unless we count the amulet from Södra Kvinneby, which uses the umbrella term “evil”. We thus meet “The Storming One”, þurs Gyrill/Jórill, a perverted giant, a three-headed clay þurs and the dwarf Bórr. The discovery and naming of the disease should be understood as a diagnosis, i.e. an important part of the healing process. When comparing the agents from the mentioned inscriptions with later Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon healing inscriptions, we can notice a clear hierarchy of disease agents. The inscription on a wooden stick from Bergen (B 257, 14th century) ranks elves, trolls and þurs (“I carve runes of help, I carve runes of protection, once against elves, a second against trolls, a third against þurs.“), even the Anglo-Saxon incantation Against a sudden pain (Wið færstice, 11th century) counts witches, elves and old gods (“Whether it was the shot of the Æsir, or it was the shot of the elves, or it was the shot of the witch, I want to help you now“; Komarec – Revická 2009: 178). The range of chaotic agents in the Anglo-Scandinavian space was truly extensive, starting with people who wield magic (witches, sorcerers), malevolent spirits and demons “floating in the atmosphere and attacking unwary people” (MacLeod – Mees 2006: 130), continuing with worms, wolves, dwarfs and imps, elves, and finally trolls, þurs, and in the case of Christian England, old pagan gods (Æsir). Unlike the Anglo-Saxon healing books, which record an enormous amount of detail, including chaotic agents and diseases caused (mainly head, eyes, ears, mouth, feet, skin, but also poisons, worms and fevers), we know only a limited number of analogies from Scandinavia, which we will now try to calculate. The parasites that were the subject of the article Parasites of the Viking Age, are unfortunately not seen in connection with disease and chaotic agents, but their potential eradication with vegetables is often mentioned.

The Storming One (fjúkandi) from the Hemdrup staff is interpreted as one of the demons or malevolent spirits. The manifestations of The Storming One are not clear, but there is speculation about a fever (Back Danielsson 2007: 235; MacLeod – Mees 2006: 127). Röstberg suggested that the charred end of the stick may be related to the burning of the wound, since according to some sources fire is supposed to work against diseases (e.g. Hávamál 137: “fire is good against sickness” [eldr við háttum], see Röstberg 2009: 210). The name fjúkandi can be related to other demons, such as bifindi („Trembling One“), gangandi („Walking One“), riðandi („Riding One“), rinnandi („Running One“), sætjandi („Sitting One“), signandi („Sailing One“), farandi („Travelling One“) a fljúgandi („Flying One“), which we know from high medieval inscriptions inscribed on a pine staff from Ribe and a bronze plate from Högstena:

I pray Earth to guard                    and High Heaven,
the sun and Saint Mary     and Lord God himself,
that he grant me                   medicinal hands
and healing tongue                    to heal the Trembling [bifindi],
when a cure is needed.         From back and from breast,
from body and from limb,                  from eyes and from ears,
from wherever evil can enter.
A stone is called Black,       it stands out in the sea,
there lie upon it nine needs,
who shall neither sleep sweetly,
nor wake warmly,
until you pray this cure,
which I have proclaimed in runic words.
Amen and so be it.“

(Staff from Ribe [DR EM85;493], ca. 1300)

„I practice witchcraft against the spirit, against the Walking,
against the Riding, against the Running,
against the Sitting, against the Sinking,
against the Travelling, against the Flying.
Everything shall loose its vitality and die.“
(Bronze plate from Högstena [Vg 216], 12th century)

In the case of the Högstena plate, the subject addresses every conceivable spirit; tries to insure against all eventualities. Unfortunately, we do not know the manifestations of these diseases, but the term bifindi (“tremble”) has been repeatedly compared to fever and malaria (e.g. Moltke 1985: 496), as has the disease riða (“tremor”), which is mentioned in both Sigtuna inscriptions. It is important to mention that from the 7th to the 20th century, malaria caused by Plasmodium vivax protozoa, transmitted by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, appeared in northwestern Europe. To outline the terrifying atmosphere of the Viking Age, we can quote a few excerpts from a work written by Otto Knottnerus (2002):

„Though the coastal inhabitants had created a niche in the wetlands protecting them against human predators, their defence against natural enemies was largely insufficient. (…) In these zones death-rates were 25-50% higher than in inland areas. This was not caused by tropical malaria, but by the prolonged debilitating effect of tertian and quartan fevers. (…) [Even in 16th–18th century] every fourth or fifth death was indirectly caused by malaria or related diseases. (…) While tertian fevers mainly attacked children and adolescents, adults are known to have suffered from quartan fevers for many years. The local population will develop a certain immunity, which, however, can only been acquired through a brutal selection process which kills many children under five years old. Moreover, the immunity acquired is specific only for a distinctive strain. Any one who has endured a tertian infection, can always catch another quartan or tropical infection. Foreign immigrants, seasonal workers and travellers who lack immunity will be heavily affected too.. (…) Only Iceland kept free from malaria.“

In the case of the skull from Ribe, the cause of an unspecified painful disease is a dverg, i.e. a dwarf, who also appears as a chaotic agent among other Germanic peoples (MacLeod – Mees 2006: 26). Researchers repeatedly report on a hole in the skull, which may be related to the terms buri / bóurr and which may be a symbolic trepanation (see e.g. Mørup 1989: 408–14). The best parallel may be the Anglo-Saxon incantation Against a Dwarf (Wið Dweorh) (11th century), which was apparently directed against fever:

„Against a dwarf one should take sevel little wafers, such as one worships with, and write these names on each of them: Maximianus, Johanne, Martinianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards the charm, that is given here later, one should sing, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, and then above the man’s head. And then go to a maiden and place it on her body, and do so for three days. The victim will soon be well.

Here he came in    walking in a sprider form,
had his harness     in his hand.
He said that you      were his steed,
he laid his traces    on your body.
Then they began    to rise from the land,
soon they came    from the land,
then the limbs    began to cool.
Then came in    the dwarf‘s sister,
she put an end to this    and swore oaths
that never he will     hurt the sick one
nor the one     who knows this incantation,
nor the one    who can sing this incantation
Amen. So be it.“
(Wið Dweorh; Komarec – Revická 2009: 176–7)

The þurs, i.e. the giant who is the greatest opponent of the gods in the myths, were considered to be the strongest agents of disease (Starý 2010: 190, 196): “In Old Norse myths, the þursar are practically always the arch-enemies of the gods, who, despite constant attempts, never succeed in eradicating them, and their seat of Útgarðar – a constant source of monstrous phenomena, optical illusions and danger – remains the leading representative of uncontrollable and unyielding chaos throughout the world’s existence. This is often matched by their descriptions, which escalate into the monstrosities: thus the wife of þurs Hymir has nine hundred heads […], while þurs Hrungnir is said to have had a stone head and his stone heart was equipped with three spikes […] . […] In general, we can say that manifestations of chaos in the material world, starting with unusually strong frost or storms and ending with volcanic eruptions, were attributed by the Old Norse people to the action of the þursar, who represented an unusually large and complicated group of beings. We know a whole range of their species designations (but without being able to determine how the individual genera of þursar differed) and their surviving proper names number in the hundreds, while only a few of them can specifically define their areas of activity. In general, however, we can say that they were seen as rulers over heat and cold, hostile atmospheric conditions, stormy seas and destructive fire, and were fondly blamed for all the harmful consequences that these phenomena entailed, from the breaking of the mast to the avalanche. Another usual activity of the þurs was to inflict various diseases and health problems.” Giants appear four times in our list. In the case of the Canterbury Rune Charm it is Gyrill who causes inflammation of the veins and “a wound that hurts like a spear” (sárþvari); also in the Anglo-Saxon incantation Against a sudden pain, pain is associated with missiles, which can be compared with the saying “stabbing or shooting pain”. Gyrill/Jórill is mentioned for the second time on the rib from Sigtuna, where a tremor is attributed to him. The same disease is probably caused by the þurs mentioned on the bronze plates of Sigtuna. In the case of both Sigtuna inscriptions there is an accumulation of chaotic agents. We also see an accumulation of agents in the case of the Solberga plates, where giants are responsible for birth complications. These particular plates are of particular interest as they were intended for a woman in labor, and can be related to the stanza from Sigrdrífumál (9), where runes drawn and hung on the hand of a woman in labor are mentioned:

„Helping-runes you must know       if you want to assist,
and release children from women;
they shall be cut on the palms      and clasped on the joints,
and then the dísir asked for help.“

Because of how universal a scourge the giants were, they appear quite frequently in the sources. Of particular note is the stanza corresponding to the rune ᚦ in the Norwegian Rune poem, which deciphers þurs as the agent responsible for women’s diseases:

„Giant causes       anguish to women;
misfortune makes few men cheerful.“
(Starý 2004: 144)

It was the giantess Áma who caused the erysipeloid (Old Norse ámusótt); this was supposed to be treated with earthworms (ámumaðkr) and one case of healing is referred to as “the departure of the giantess from the leg” (Cleasby – Vigfússon 1874: 43; Starý 2010: 197, Note 3).

Other important elements in communicating with chaos are calling a positive agent, binding or destroying an illness, expelling an illness from a sick person’s body, enchanting an illness, defaming a negative agent or wishing the afflicted good luck. There can be many positive agents. “Úlfr and Óðin and Há-Týr” are explicitly mentioned, although we can only be certain about the middle name. According to both Scandinavian (Hávamál), Anglo-Saxon (Nine Herbs Charm) and Old High German (Second Merseburg Charm) traditions, Óðinn is a good doctor who uses incantations and herbs for healing (see Gardeła 2008: 248ff). Others are Christ and Saint Mary. A repeatedly mentioned positive agent is Þórr, who is called upon to fight a giant (Canterbury Runic Charm) or evil (Södra Kvinneby plate), and the myths associated with Þórr are presented as foreshadowing the battles waged on the earthly plane. Although we do not know a number of myths, it is certain that the Old Norse man possessed a large supply of giant names, on which she or he blamed all sorts of earthly calamities, from which Þórr could help. How large this stock was can be illustrated by quotations from poems on Þórr composed by the Icelandic skalds Þorbjǫrn dísarskáld and Vetrliði Sumarliðason in the second half of the 10th century (Starý 2010: 192):

„There was a clang         on Keila’s crown,
you broke               all of Kjallandi,
you had already               killed Lútr and Leiði,
you caused Búseyra              to bleed,
you bring Hengjankjǫpta         to a halt,
Hyrrokkin had died               previously,
yet the swarthy Svívǫr                  was earlier deprived of life.
(Þorbjǫrn dísarskáld: Poem about Þórr 2)

You broke the bones of Leikn;          you thrashed Þrívaldi;
you overthrew Starkaðr;          you stepped over the dead Gjálp.

(Vetrliði Sumarliðason: Lausavísa 1)

A hammer amulet from Købelev with the inscription “this is a hammer“. Source:

All evidence suggests that Þórr, as guarantor of health and happiness, protector of shrines and ruler of the weather, enjoyed extraordinary popularity among the common people (see Perkins 2001); today we could label it as Þórism. Myths about him were among the most popular and were widely quoted. The effort to ensure good luck to a child by giving a name containing the name Þórr- (e.g. Þorsteinn, Þorbjǫrn, Þorgeirr, Þórarinn, Þorgrímr, Þorvaldr, Þormóðr) was common in Scandinavia even after the Viking Age, as evident by Icelandic bishop and saint Þorlák Þórhallsson in the 12th century. Popularity can also be demonstrated by quoting an inscription from a well-known runestone from Rök (Ög 136) that reads “Let us tell the folk tale / to the young: Þórr.” It is important to understand that in the Viking Age the mere mention or depiction of Þórr and his hammer had an apotropaic function : the image of a hammer engraved on a runestone has the same function as the rune phrases “May Þórr hallow this monument” (Þórr vígi þessi kuml) or „May Þórr hallow these runes“ (Þórr vígi þessar rúnar). The sword from Sæbø (9th century) bearing the inscription “owns 卍móðr” (oh卍muþ) shows another interesting finding – the swastika is another symbol representing the name Þórr. What makes Þórr a functional god is the fact that every mention of him hallows (vígja) and protects (gæta). The phrase “May Þórr hallow you, lord of giants” from the Canterbury Rune Charm, which is a variation on a verse from the then-common Þrymskviða (“Þrymr, lord of the giants”), shows that hallowing with a hammer can work against giants. In addition, hallowing with a hammer played an important role during the wedding and the wedding night, when the hammer was placed on the lap of the bride and then under the bed, an custom to ensure fertility in the bed and prosperous offspring that was preserved in some parts of Scandinavia until the modern era (Boudová 2012: 34 –37; Elgqvist 1934). The fact that the number of hammer amulets in graves is 28% : 72% in favor of female graves could correspond with this (Jensen 2010: 107), especially if we take into account the quote above, according to which the þurs is responsible for female diseases and childbirth problems. Other interesting examples are thunderstones, i.e. prehistoric stone axe hammers that

„were placed next to milk so that it would not sour, they protected grain in granaries from rats, they were supposed to guarantee the well-being of livestock, luck when hunting game and fish, and when carried by a person as an amulet, the stone protected against diseases, misfortunes and bad dreams. There are also known cases when stones were placed in the bed of e.g. pregnant women or small children. Fragments of the thunderstone could even be ground into a powder and then mixed with water and given to the sick as medicine. In addition to the preserved stories, this is also evidenced by the abraded places and broken pieces on the many ‘thunderstones’ found. As can be seen from the latest findings, the thunderstones performed a protective function even after death. Thunderstones were rare artifacts that people usually protected well once they were found. There are numerous cases of thunderstones kept in chests, walled up directly in the walls of buildings, suspended under the roof, or, on the contrary, stored under the threshold or floor. In the Nordic countries, the power of thunderstones was enhanced by their subsequent association with the god Þórr and his hammer. Ravilious believes that people saw Mjǫllnir directly in the thunderstones, so they looked for stone objects that were as close as possible to a hammer or an axe in shape. The very names for thunderstones in Nordic languages confirm this fact. The inhabitants of Scandinavia therefore believed that thunderstones were thrown to the ground by Þórr himself. And just as Þórr’s hammer protects the realm of the gods from danger, the thunderstones were meant to protect them and their entire homes.“ (Boudová 2010: 22)

Thunderstones were also used during the Viking Age (Gardeła 2014: 55), and can be found in graves and settlements of that time. The amulet from Södra Kvinneby may have had the same function (“May Þórr protect him with the hammer which came from the sea”). In the myth of the burning of Baldr, Þórr even hallows the funeral pyre (“Then Þórr stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjǫllnir”; Gylfaginning 49). These findings therefore lead to the conclusion that the hammer amulets, thunderstones and some other amulets, as well as the hammer engravings and the name Þórr, are to be understood as a source of universal hallowing. Instances of syncretism, such as a hammer and a cross engraved on the same object, or references to people turning to both Christ and Þórr, are apparently attempts at universal help.

The sword from Sæbø, Norway, 9th century. Source: Lorange 1889: Tabl IV.

It is explicitly mentioned in the inscriptions that healing is seen as a fight against a chaotic agent. On the rib from Sigtuna, we can also find binding and fighting disease, which has a number of analogies from the mythical (see the already mentioned verse about Þórr binding the giant Hengjakjǫpt; the binding of Fenrir) and the heroic world (Béowulf fighting Grendel) and rich Scandinavian art (Lundborg 2006). This extended pattern follows the logic that a chained and defeated enemy can no longer do harm and one can benefit from its defeat. We can record the expulsion of the disease from the sick person’s body five times, specifically “go now” [far þú nú], “flee now” [flý þú nú], “leave” [vaksna úr], “go” [æltit] and “sign [to leave] from” [ek fā (…) frān]. The enchanting an illness is much more complex idea. Just as Egill, in the passage mentioned above, conjures all the spirits of the land to wander until they drive his adversary abroad, so the inscription on the Sigtuna plate threatens disease in these words: “May three torments take you, wolf, may nine needs take you! The wolf takes these and with these the wolf remains calm“, in agreement with the quoted inscription from the Ribe stick (“A stone is called Black, it stands out in the sea, there lie upon it nine needs, who shall neither sleep sweetly, nor wake warmly, until you pray this cure“) and the Icelandic folklore incantation (“The rock stands in the sea, its name is Black. There lie upon it nine adders, who shall not wake up or sleep peacefully until the bleeding stops“; Jón Árnason 1954-61: III, 470). The basic idea of such an incantation is to burden the disease or injury with a burden, thereby preventing further deterioration of the disease; the nine-fold calculation of the rune ᚾ has the meaning “bond” or “bonding request”, while we do not know the exact meaning of the three-fold engraving of the rune ᛁ (Starý 2004: 144-5).

To understand the complexity of the Old Norse relationship to negative agents, it is necessary to say that there are cases of their deliberate summoning. As Jiří Starý (2010: 198) aptly notes: “However, it is characteristic of the Nordic relationship to chaos that people did not renounce even negative power and tried more than once to use its powers for their purposes. The means for this was magic, which did not invoke gods, but demonic beings, and whose goal was not to drive away and neutralize these beings, but on the contrary: to activate them and use their powers to achieve one’s own goals and harm enemies. From the point of view of order and chaos, it was thus an activity directly opposite to, for example, the aforementioned prayers, and society also – unsurprisingly – prosecuted it with moral condemnation and punished it through the law. It is interesting to note, however, that magic has more than once used virtually the same procedures and mythic allusions.”

Sometimes it is a direct invocation of them, as in the case of the runic inscription N B 252:

Ími heated the stone.
Never shall the smoke smoke.
Never shall the cooking be cooked.
Out heat,       in cool.
Ími heated the stone.“
(Starý 2010: 198)

In most preserved cases, however, it is a multiple engraving of the rune ᚦ and other runes, as in the case of Eddic Skírnismál, the runic inscription N B 257 (14th century) and the so-called Fart Runes (17th century):

I carve thee a þurs and three runes therewith:
Longing and Madness and Lust […].
Rage and longing         fetters and wrath,
tears and torment are thine.
Where thou sittest down            my doom is on thee
of heavy heart           and double dole.“
(Skírnismál 29 and 36; Starý 2004: 145)

„I send to you,                  I look at you,
wolfish evil              and hatefulness.
May unbearable distress                and […] misery take effect on you.“
(Inscription on a wooden stick from Bergen N B 257; Starý 2004: 145)

„I carve you eight Æsir,
nine Needs, thirteen Giants.“
(Fart Runes; Starý 2004: 144)

Summary and conclusion

Early medieval medicine, deprived of the possibility of systematic recording, was a medicine with slow, if not any, progress in recognizing and understanding the laws of the body, the causes of disease, etc.” (Komarec – Revická 2009). Medicine is referred to as lyf in Old Norse, and this word then translates into compounds such as lyfsteinn (i.e. a healing stone, said to be worn around the neck or on the hilt of a sword to help heal a wound), lifkona (“healer”) or lyfrúnar (“healing runes “; see a bronze plate from the 11th or 12th century with the inscription “I carve healing runes, runes of help” [Ög NOR2001;32]). Almost every person had to know the basics of first aid, but in the literature we also meet professional healers, for whom the term læknir is commonly used. It could be both men and women, although women do not get as much space in the sagas (see saga descriptions here). Desirable attributes of a healer were the “healer’s palm” (lækshendr, manus medica; according to Magnúss saga góða 28, healers were recognized by their soft palms) and the “healing tongue” (lyftunga; i.e. a number of healing spells, incantations and the ability to communicate with the patient); apparently they also had a deeper knowledge of the use of runes. It is believed that the main content of their profession was cutting, cleaning, cauterizing and washing wounds, bandaging, straightening bones, administering herbal infusions, applying stones and herbs, carving runes, incantations and, in the case of women, midwifery (Foote – Wilson 1990: 93). Although we cannot say much about the performance of the work, Old Norse society was literally obsessed with the hierarchization of wounds, for which there were strictly graded prices of fines, and the price of the work of the healers, who were often mediators between the feuding parties, was included in the fine. The Danish master Henrik Harpestræng († 1244) and his translations of continental books represented a certain turning point in the healing practice, which worked with a superficial knowledge of the human body (see Óláfs saga helga 234; garlic porridge given to the wounded, by which one could tell if the stomach had been hit). However, folk way healing did not change significantly with the advent of Christianity, and the same formulas with a modified positive agent were used practically until modern times.

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Primary sources

Egils saga Skallagrímssonar = Saga o Egilovi, synu Skallagrímově. Transl. K. Vrátný, Praha 1926.

Gylfaginning = Gylfiho oblouzení. In: Snorri Sturluson. Edda a Sága o Ynglinzích. Přel. H. Kadečková. Praha 2003: 37–101.

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Wið Dweorh = Proti skřetovi. Transl. M. Komarec – V. Revická. In: Čermák, Jan (ed.) Jako když dvoranou proletí pták, Praha 2009: 177.

Þrymskviða = Píseň o Trymovi. In: Edda. Transl. L. Heger, Praha 1962: 147–155.


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