In my rune research the other day, I followed a hypothesis that “eight” and “ætt” are cut from the same cloth. That there is more than phonetics connecting the two. It turns out that I wasn’t far off. Átta is the Old Norse word for the cardinal number eight, descended from átt which relates to directions (north, north-west, west, south-west, south, south-east, east, north-east). Also according to Cleasby-Vigfusson, certain writers would write átt and ætt indiscriminately which tells me that at some point they held the same meanings. In other words, during the development of the Old Norse language, the word that references the cardinal directions could have been the same as the word for family (though a comment in CV calls this “fanciful”, it is the only thing that explains the shared usage).For me, this was the trigger for further exploration.
We already know that the heavens are divided into eight segments (cardinal directions, as well as mythologically) for Norse Heathens. Add to that this idea of “family”, and we end up with an interpretation of ætt as a possible social compass (which I’ve seen mentioned in a few different places over the last month or so). A guidance given to us by our connection to our kin. This idea struck me as very powerful, and I started to re-examine the Elder Futhark with it in mind. Three rows of eight (átta). Each row referred to as an ætt.
When I started to replay the meanings of the runes with this idea in mind, I noticed a kind of story arc from rune to rune. This idea had occurred to me before, too, but I figured I would stick with it this time and see what happend. Especially since it was a story arc that I was also noticing in my readings of Njal’s Saga and Egil’s Saga and that I had seen inklings of in the Havamal. In short, the order of the runes through the Elder Futhark can be seen as a template for living, as a model to follow in order to get the most out of Heathen life.
For example, the meaning of FEHU is clear as being about wealth, but wealth in a more transient mode — ie, pocket money — with a warning that it can spoil relationships (Gunnar returning from his adventures dressed in fine furs, Sigurd and his “river fire”: neither of which led to great happiness). Whereas the meaning of OTHALA is also wealth, but wealth that is able to be bequeathed to next of kin (what Flosi and Kari end up with at the end of Njal’s Saga). Wealth that is in the form of a stable home, family, inheritance. Even just looking at those two runes, we can start to see the beginnings of a story — from pocket money to transferable wealth — but can’t make much more out of it other than the idea that money now can become an inheritance later.
Looking at the Futhark in this light also helps with some of the more confusing interpretations. KENAZ is a great example of this. It’s a real puzzler. Across the three rune poems, it is represented as meaning three different things: a scab from a skinned knee or a battle scar, the weight of misfortune, or the lamp-lit safety of a cozy cottage. Looking at the rune by itself poses a challenge for interpretation — though it is possible, and most runesters ignore the Icelandic and Norwegian poems altogether. However, when looking at it from the point of view of ætt-as-story-arc, we can begin to see that KENAZ is the wound you live from and tell stories about. Especially coupled with RAIDHO to its left and GEBO to the right. H0w many sagas are there, heroic tales are there, that tell of a hero who goes on a journey (RAIDHO) only to return home with scars and stories (KENAZ) and gifts (GEBO) for his friends? And this continues through every row: each rune has a meaning that sets it as a particular place in a person’s life.
FEHU and OTHALA, KENAZ can all be viewed with this overarching idea, and so can the other 23 runes. Using this interpretation, each rune represents a moment or concept within the progression of one’s life. Either it is a moment that must happen in order to move forward, or it’s a moment that — if it does happen — has to be handled in a certain way or with a certain process.
The first row represents the arc of youth: get some money together (FEHU), prove yourself in tests (URUZ) and against strong opponents (THURISAZ). Journey off into the world and return with stories and gifts to the joy of your clan (WUNJO). The second row is the introspective process of middle age. It’s about internal needs (NAUTHIZ) and their relationship with the forces of nature (ISA) and how we control our interactions with them (PERTHRO). The third row is old age, then. Great sacrifice starts it off (TIWAZ) and there are images of rebirth (BERKANO) and renewal (reconciliation? retirement?), connections with other people (MANNAZ) in a more profound way than before, and then the end. OTHALA and our ability to bequeath some legacy to the next generation’s youth. Obviously there are runes I’m not mentioning, but you get the idea.
Once we have a template, we can do all kinds of things with it. We can use it as a guide for our children, we can use it as a foundation on which to build a society. We can even use it as a map to find ourselves if we’re feeling lost or as a guide to what might be coming up next. I’m using it as a way of trying to find more accurate interpretations of each rune’s meaning. It makes sense that a society priding itself on wordplay, wisdom, and storytelling would have developed a system like this. Given that, I feel comfortable continuing in this vein in the hopes of putting more of the pieces together.
I’ve got a lot more work to do with this line of work, but I figured I would share what I’ve got so far in the hopes we can all help add to the collective thought and work towards recreating so much of what has been lost over the years.