Home Magic worked with Runes and Numbers

Or: ... calculating words cleverly calculated

If today we speak about „magic“, we tend to think in terms of witchcraft, which suspends the law of nature. In the Middle Ages, however, they understood "magic" in terms of power over things (OE magan = can; mæg = he can). Behind the concrete things they suspected hidden forces that determine their kind. It would therefore be possible to gain power over things, if one knew the formulas to which they obey, in this context name and number1. From this point of view a rune (e.g. the rune t-Rune which stands for ‘victory’) was the very thing itself, while the individual victory (e.g. Titus’s victory over the Jews) was just one occurrence of this kind. Since the sign (rune) represents the thing in itself, it was considered more real than the individual phenomenon. And since these runes have a numerically definable position in the runic row, the number turns into an organizing principle of magic quality. Thus the 24 runes of the fuþark were divided into three groups of 8 runes each (aett, pl. ættir). The rune t-Rune, for example, is number 17 (position and value) in the runic row of 24 and in the 3rd aett number 1 (3/1)2. Thus the system of 24 runes defines things by their runic names, numbers and values. To know them meant to gain power over the phenomena.

But all over again: The Germanic runic row , fuþark, was composed of 24 runes with each rune standing for a certain subject, being almost identical with it. Thus the f-rune, f-Rune, in the Anglo-Saxon runic poem bears the name feoh, the Old English word for 'cattle' or rather the entire live-stock (Germ. Vieh). As anything from hen to ox served as means of payment those days feoh became synonymous with wealth in terms of money. Another one, E-Rune, stands for wealth in terms of land.

The g-rune, g-Rune stands for gifu, gift, a very important source of income those days, when salary was not yet heard of. And as all the 24 runes were supposed to be magically effective, quite a number of runic practices were developed to use their assumed power. This could have meant the accumulation wealth by the gifts of a royal donor, while other symbols had been good for divine assistance, be it at home or at war. Other runes were carved to avert the bad and to secure the good.

Thenumber of runes (24) in the older fuþark does not result from the number of sounds needed to be transcribed. The row of 24 serves numeric purposes along with magic. Just like each rune each number has its particular meaning: Eleven (11) refers to elves, 3 is divine, 9 even more so, 4 and 8 times of it even more so. The product of all that mixes the cocktail: Inscriptions could number 24, 48 or 72 runes, sometimes 240, 480 or 720 symbols. Or 12 times 300, or, or or … There was a meaning with all numbers, a meaning which is fairly uncertain today.

Apart from 11, the numbers 3, 4 und 8 were regarded to be of high significance, and even more the product of these numbers (24, 48, 72 etc., respectively 240, 480, 720 etc. The same goes for 3, 9 etc., 30, 90 etc. respectively 300, 900 etc.). Thus, it is not surprising that the entire runic row of 24 characters was regarded as a sequence of three groups (ættir) of eight runes (ætt) each. Every single rune had the numeric value of its position in the runic row. Therefore the sequence: f/u/Þ/a/r/k, could be read as 1/2/3/4/5/6. Adding up all the numbers from 1 to 24 we arrive at a numeric and, consequently, at a runic value of 300. However, as each and every number will have had its particular significance, we have to take care not to confuse chance and intention!

Applied to runic texts this means: Inscriptions composed of a certain number of symbols 9, 24, 48, 72 etc. might be figured with magic intention. Sometimes dots were inserted, most likely just for bringing the number of symbols up to the score intended. Thus, the F-panel (front) bears 68 runes and 4 dots to achieve the score of 72. Apart from the number also the value of the runes may be figured with magic intent. As said above each rune has the value of its position in the runic row, dots counting 1 each. If, for example, an inscription is composed of 72 symbols and their value adds up to 720 (as on the F-panel)3 this is most certainly figured for such a purpose. The casket is full of such calculations! More about that later.

When - due to consonant shifting - the Germanic fuþark had changed into the Anglo-Frisian fuþorc of first 27 (3 x 9) and later 33 (3 x 11) runes, the underlying system of 24 (3 x 8) remained untouched. They simply added a fourth ætt, to the existing three ættir. The change seems to have given more impact on the qualities of 9 and 11.

As remains to be seen, the rune-master developed such perfection at runes and values that they constitute a real challenge to our pocket calculators.

1 Helmut Birkhan, Magie im Mittelalter (München 2010) refers to 'magic and mantic (i.e. soothsaying) as forces guaranteeing the coherence of the cosmos.
2 For ætir see K. Düwel, Runenkunde (2001), S.182 ff, Verschlüsselungen und Geheimrunen - runische Kryptographie.
3 Heinz Klingenberg (Runenschrift – Schriftdenken – Runeninschriften, Heidelberg 1973) figured the runic value of the front panel 720 and thus came to the same result as we, indepently from him.


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