Erussard (2020 Congress)

Laurence Erussard
(English Department, William and Smith Colleges)

Divination, the Carving of Runes, and Their Relationship to Poetry in Icelandic Literature

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session II of II on
“Revealing the Unknown”
Part II:  “Sortilège, Bibliomancy, and Divination”

Co-Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Phillip A. Bernhardt–House

2020 Congress Program

2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 22 March 2020, with an Update on 19 November 2020 reporting the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress]



We know less than we would like to about Norse magic. This lack of information is probably due to the fact that no pre-Christian practice was recorded before the early 13th century, two hundred years after the Church brought the culture and technology of writing.

Some of the sagas of the Icelanders include descriptions of the carving of runes and of their use in divination or healing. In these accounts, the rune magician is also a poet. In texts such as Egil’s Saga, the understanding and the technique of rune magic are linked to literacy, wisdom, and poetry. The oracular quality of these runes and their interpretation mirror their original discovery by Odin as it appears in the Havamal. In all instances, the characters demonstrate or explain that they have a deep knowledge of how to wield the runes but they never explain or show the spells themselves. However, either the recitation of poetry precedes or follows the carving of the runes, or a specific meter describes the magical power of the rune. In some cases, the poem itself activates the power of the carved runes and causes their effects. The connection between poetry and rune lore seems to indicate a division between the intellectually sophisticated rune magic and other types of magical practices.