Marva Dasef is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, a fat white cat, and a saucy black cat. Retired from thirty-five years in the software industry, she has now turned her energies to writing fiction and finds it a much more satisfying occupation. Marva has published more than forty stories in a number of on-line and print magazines, with several included in Best of anthologies. She has several already published books of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery.
She’s here today to talk about runes. So, take it away, Marva.
Marva: Okay. What is a rune? Besides my second most important character in the Witches of Galdorheim series, that is. Briefly, runes make up the oldest Norse alphabet. Yes, those Vikings were busy writers as well as raiders and looters. The Eddas are Norse adventure novels (okay, they’re generally written in poetry form). But well-known books such as Beowulf weren’t written in runes. Believe it or not, Beowulf was written in Old English, not Old Norse. Or maybe that’s the only translation that lasted through the centuries.
Today, we can see runes written centuries ago on large stones dotting the Scandinavian countryside, but very little on a portable media like paper. The Eddas were more an oral tradition, than written. The Skald (poet) of a Viking Lord’s staff memorized hundreds of stories. Skalds’ storytelling helped people from going crazy during the long, dark winter nights. After all, without any schools, few people could read anything. Runes used as symbols, however, were recognized by everyone. Think about traffic signs. Many today have no words, but are universally accepted signals for concepts. Stop, School Zone, Yield, Train Crossing…you can figure out what they mean whether you can read the language or not.
Some Skalds did record their tales on paper made of very thin animal skins called vellum. From these fragments, scholars (hm, that sounds a lot like Skald, doesn’t it?), could reconstruct the runic alphabet. Often the story is accompanied by pictures. A very early graphic novel perhaps.
Many fantasy novels based on Euro-centric mythologies use runes in their plots, be it a tattooed rune on the hero’s chest, the discovery of a runic tablet that leads a worthy band of heroes on a quest for dragon’s gold, or a villain who casts his dark spells in the ancient runic language. All very cool stuff.
Runes are not just fantasy made up by Tolkien. I researched runes and found a few I could use to give some depth to the magical language of the witches.
Elder Futhark is the oldest known runic alphabet. Each rune has a name. Each rune is also a word of power. The Rune markings in the graphic (see below) match the interpreted Elder Futhark (the Runes in spoken form) shown in the excerpt. The name of the language comes from the first six letters that make up the Runic alphabet.
In one sense, Futhark is simply an alphabet like ours. But in terms of magic, runes are like hieroglyphics in that each rune stands for a word or concept rather than simply a letter of the alphabet. They can be used either way. In magic, the runes are used as words of power which enhance or direct a spell. I found a handy phrase chart and used some real runes in the series, but had to use the interpreted spelling in a form one can sound out even if you don’t know what they mean.
The origin of the runic alphabet might have come from early Greek and Roman alphabets called Italics. If you read about Futhark, you’ll see it’s far more complicated than this easy explanation. It’s mostly guesswork on the origins of runes, but the fact is runes appear on stones in the Scandinavian countries, not Italy.
As language developed, written runes were set aside for the more modern Roman alphabet. But the use of runes as words of power survived even Roman conquest thanks to the Druids, the ancient pantheistic religion later smeared by accusations of witchcraft and magic.
Well, witchcraft and magic are fine by me. I wish they really existed. Considering the popularity of fantasy books incorporating magic, I’d say a lot of people wish magic was real.
In the Witches of Galdorheim books, I decided to use runes as the magic language. I call it Old Runish. Kat, in Bad Spelling, just can’t get the pronunciation of the runes right, mistaking îgwaz for perßô. The results are often spectacularly wrong. In other words, she is a really bad speller.
Here’s a fun link to a translator. Click on the Launch Interactive link, then type in your name to see it written in the runic alphabet. I typed in Bad Spelling, Midnight Oil, and Scotch Broom. Hey, that last one is almost readable! Click here to try your own: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/write-your-name-in-runes.html
In my novels, Aunt Thordis is the top witch on Galdorheim and a master of Old Runish spells. If magic can be done, she’s the one who can do it. In the following excerpt, Thordis seeks information from Kat’s flash frozen father. She wants to know why Kat is such a lousy speller and suspects the girl’s father has something to do with it. Thordis invokes a runic spell to break through to the man’s frozen brain for answers. She must be careful, however, since the spell is used to re-animate the dead. At the end of the excerpt, you can read the translation of the spell. It’s pretty creepy.
Excerpt from Bad Spelling: Chapter 4-Bell, Book, and Candle
Hands on her hips, Kat’s Aunt Thordis stood in the glacier cave regarding the icebound figure of Boris, the wandering Siberian. She tsked and shook her head.
“You poor, dumb—” She stopped, thinking better of it. Speaking ill to the dead was rarely a good idea. You never knew if they’d come back to get even.
“Boris,” she said, trying a different tack, “we need to talk. Despite the fact you couldn’t navigate your way around a bathtub and were so foolish you tried to dig out an ice cave, my sister did fancy you, and you’re still my niece’s father.”
She held her hand up with the palm facing Boris. Thordis frowned. This might be harder than she thought. Even though Thordis was the strongest witch in Galdorheim, she felt a counter spell pushing at her, like a wall she couldn’t see but only sense. Something around Boris repelled magic.
Thordis squared her shoulders and put real effort into her second sight. Yes, she felt a slight tingle. As she suspected, the icy grip of the glacier suspended the man between life and death. If the witches thawed him out, he’d be d-e-a-d, dead. As it was, he had frozen solid in the instant before he died—the process of death incomplete.
“Ah, you’re still alive. Good.” If Boris were truly dead, she’d not be able to have a conversation with him. No matter what the circumstances, she wouldn’t delve into the black arts. Necromancy—raising the dead—was near the top of the black list.
Thordis removed Ferro, her ferret familiar, from the top of her carryall and set him aside. He chittered at her then hunched down on the ice shivering. She opened the bag and rummaged through its contents. She drew out a little silver bell, a black candle, and a copy of the Magical Book of Runic Spelling.
The fifteenth century Church, Thordis chuckled at the thought, believed they originated the rite of bell, book, and candle. Equally humorous, they thought the items were for an excommunication ceremony. Little did they know the monk who created the ritual was one of her own—a warlock gone deep undercover to keep a close eye on the Church. The very fact it took twelve priests and a bishop to perform the rite didn’t ring any bells with those silly men. Obviously, thirteen people gathered to perform magic made a coven. The long-dead monk probably got a good laugh at that.
Never mind what the Church thought, the true purpose of the ceremony was to communicate with, not excommunicate, the dead. Although Boris was pre-dead, it would serve the same purpose. At least Thordis hoped so. Boris knew things Thordis wanted to know, and she was determined to pry them from his icy-cold brain. Thordis lit the candle, rang the bell, and prepared herself to chant the spell to wake Boris. She’d never talked to him when he was alive, since he was a mundane, and any non-magical person was simply not worth her time. Now, she had to find out a few things. Specifically, why was her niece so powerful, yet so incompetent as a witch? If her spells just fizzled, she could believe the girl just wasn’t trying.
Instead, they failed spectacularly, and often messily, like her recent attempt to transform the rabbit. Perhaps she could get some answers out of Boris, even though she doubted he was intelligent enough to even realize he had them.
When she felt her magic to be at its peak, Thordis opened the book to the chapter titled Speaking to the Dead. The incantation woke the dead, so waking Boris should be a piece of cake. It also provided translation services. After all, why try to speak to the dead if they can’t understand what you’re saying?
ef ec se a tre vppi
sva ec rist oc i rvnom fác,
at sa gengr gvmi
oc melir viþ mic.”
But nothing happened. She slowed down and spoke the spell with precision, putting as much magical force as she could into it. Finally, she felt the spell break through the barrier.
“Boris, do you hear me?”
“Good. Your daughter is having…trouble becoming a proper witch. Of course, I believe it’s your fault; well, maybe fault is too strong a word. I suspect her poor performance has to do with having a mundane father, but now I feel…something more.”
* * *
Translation of the rune spell:
I know a twelfth one if I see,
up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
And talks with me.
–From the Hávamál, an Old Norse Edda (collection of proverbs) from the 10th Century
The entire series is available in a single volume containing all three novels and the bonus short story.
BAD SPELLING – Book 1
A klutzy witch, a shaman’s curse, a quest to save her family. Can Kat find her magic in time?
MIDNIGHT OIL – Book 2
Shipwrecked on a legendary island, how can a witch rescue her boyfriend if she can’t even phone home?
SCOTCH BROOM – Book 3
A magical trip to Stonehenge lands a witch in the Otherworld where an ancient goddess is up to no good.
SPELLSLINGER – Prequel Short Story
What does a half-warlock, half-vampire kid do to have fun when his home is a desolate arctic island?
by Marva Dasef. Visit my website for more information about the series. https://sites.google.com/site/mdasefauthor/books/galdorheim
Blog: I regularly feature articles about the legends and myths I use in not only the Galdorheim series, but also in a two-book middle-eastern fantasy set. http://mgddasef.blogspot.com