In the pre-Christian Germanic worldview, the spoken word possesses frightfully strong creative powers. As Scandinavian scholar Catharina Raudvere notes, “The pronouncement of words was recognized to have a tremendous influence over the concerns of life. The impact of a sentence uttered aloud could not be questioned and could never be taken back – as if it had become somehow physical. … Words create reality, not the other way around.” This is, in an important sense, an anticipation of the philosophy of language advanced by the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his seminal essay Language. For Heidegger, language is an inescapable structuring element of perception. Words don’t merely reflect our perception of the world; rather, we perceive and experience the world in the particular ways that our language demands of us. Thinking outside of language is literally unthinkable, because all thought takes place within language – hence the inherent, godlike creative powers of words. In traditional Germanic society, to vocalize a thought is to make that thought part of the fabric of reality, altering reality accordingly – perhaps not absolutely, but in some important measure.
Each of the runes represents a phoneme – the smallest unit of sound in a language, such as “t,” “s,” “r,” etc. – and as such is a transposition of a phoneme into a visual form.
Most modern linguists take it for granted that the relationship between the signified (the concrete reality referred to by a word) and the signifier (the sounds used to vocalize that word) is arbitrary. However, a minority of linguists embrace an opposing theory known as “phonosemantics:” the idea that there is, in fact, a meaningful connection between the sounds that make up a word and the word’s meaning. To put this another way, the phoneme itself carries an inherent meaning. The meaning of the word “thorn,” for example, derives in large part from the combined meaning of the phonemes “th,” “o,” “r,” and “n.”
The phonosemantic view of language is in agreement with the traditional northern European view, where “words create reality, not the other way around.” The runes, as transpositions of phonemes, bring the inherent creative powers of speech into a visual medium. We’ve already noted that the word “rune” means “letter” only secondarily, and that its primary meaning is “secret” or “mystery” – the mysterious power carried by the phoneme itself. We must also remember the ordeal Odin undertook in order to discover the runes – no one would hang from a tree without food or water for nine days and nights, ritually wounded by his own spear, in order to obtain a set of arbitrary signifiers.
With the runes, the phonosemantic perspective takes on an additional layer of significance. Not only is the relationship between the definition of a word and the phonemes that comprise it inherently meaningful – the relationship between a phoneme and its graphic representation is inherently meaningful as well.
Thus, the runes were not only a means of fostering communication between two or more humans. Being intrinsically meaningful symbols that could be read and understood by at least some nonhuman beings, they could facilitate communication between humankind and the invisible powers who animate the visible world, providing the basis for a plethora of magical acts.
In the verses from the Völuspá quoted above, we see that the carving of runes is one of the primary means by which the Norns establish the fate of all beings (the other most often-noted method being weaving). Given that the ability to alter the course of fate is one of the central concerns of traditional Germanic magic, it should come as no surprise that the runes, as an extremely potent means of redirecting fate, and as inherently meaningful symbols, were thereby inherently magical by their very nature. This is a controversial statement to make nowadays, since some scholars insist that, while the runes may have sometimes been used for magical purposes, they were not, in and of themselves, magical.
But consider the following episode from Egil’s Saga. While traveling, Egil eats a meal with a farmer whose house is on the Viking’s route. The farmer’s daughter is dangerously ill, and he asks Egil for help. When Egil examines the girl’s bed, he finds a whalebone with runes carved on it. The farmer explains to Egil that these runes were carved by the son of a local farmer – presumably an ignorant, illiterate person whose knowledge of the runes could have only been flimsy at best. Egil, being a master of runic lore, readily discerns that this inscription is the cause of the girl’s woes. After destroying the inscription by scraping the runes off into the fire and burning the whalebone itself (!), Egil carves a different message in different runes so as to counteract the malignancy of the earlier writing. After this has been accomplished, the girl recovers.
We can see from this incident that the heathen northern Europeans made a sharp distinction between the powers of the runes themselves, and the uses to which they were put. While the body of surviving runic inscriptions and literary descriptions of their use definitely suggest that the runes were sometimes put to profane, silly, and/or ignorant purposes, the Eddas and sagas make it abundantly clear that the signs themselves do possess immanent magical attributes that work in particular ways regardless of the intended uses to which they’re put by humans.