Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Runemarks

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Runemarks

by Joanne Harris

Runemarks by Joanne Harris
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 544 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 544 pages

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Norse mythology
Norse mythology is the best preserved version of Germanic paganism, sharing the same essential pantheon with Anglo-Saxon mythology. Both have their roots in a hypothetical Indo-European mythology that is believed to be at the root of most pre-Christian religions in Europe and India (including Hinduism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism) because they all share significant commonalities. For example, Zeus, Jupiter, Thor and Indra are all thunder-gods and all are associated with the same day of the week - Thursday: English derives Thursday from Thor, while the French Jeudi and Italian Goivedi come from the Latin Jovis (or Iovis) Dies meaning Jupiter Day.

Norse mythology is a collection of believes, not a set doctrine. Originally orally transmitted, most of our knowledge of it comes from a few medieval texts including the Elder Edda (Poetic Edda), and Younger Edda (Prose Edda), which were written down between 1000 and 1300 AD.

The Norse believed there were nine worlds, most of which play a part in Runemarks

  • Asgard, the location of Valhalla and the home of the principle gods, known as the Aesir, including Odin, Thor and Loki.
  • Vanaheimr, the world of the Vanir, a sort of second-division of gods including Njord, the god of the sea, and the twins Freyr and Freyja (fertility and other aspects), who are generally at war with the Aesir or being held hostage by the latter.
  • Midgard (literally middle-earth), the world of humans - which Norse legend says will be destroyed at Ragnarok (Fate of the Gods), when the Aesir wage war with the giants.
  • Muspell and Niflheim - the primordial realms of fire and ice where creation began; Niflheim later became Hel.
  • Hel - the underworld, ruled over by Hel herself.
  • Alfheim - the land of the elves.
  • Svartálfaheim - the land of the dwarves.
  • Jotunheim - the land of the mountains.
     

Runes - Pragmatic or Divine?
Runes were the alphabetic script of the people of Northern Europe. Although there is debate of the origins, it is believed that they derived from Roman letters. In addition to their use as a written alphabet, runes also served as symbols used for magic and divination and are actual words in the language; for example fehu (F) can mean cattle or wealth (one being synonymous with the other). Thus, the rune Fehu indicates possessions won or earned, good luck, sign of hope and plenty, success and happiness. Whereas Fehu Reversed indicates loss of personal property or esteem, or some sort of failure; cowardice, stupidity and so forth. Runes remained in common use well into the 17th century, until they were officially banned by the church in 1639.

Norse mythology says that the runes originated from the god Odin and came to man through the god Heimdall, the guardian of the gods and the link between Midgard and Asgard. Heimdall sired three sons with human women: Thrall, Churl and Jarl. When Jarl was old enough to show signs of his nobility, Heimdall claimed him as his son and taught him the runes. Thus Thrall, Churl and Jarl were the ancestors of the three classes of men: slave, freeman and noble.

A less divine interpretation is offered by the Eastern Roman historian Procopius (500-565 AD) who records that after raiding the European continent for a few generations, the Germanic people known as the heruli, retreated back to Scandinavia in 512 AD. As their old territory was now occupied by the Danes they settled in present-day Sweden. The Proto-Norse word for the heruli is erilar, etymologically close to jarl (the modern-day Norwegian word for Earl). So it doesn't seem too far fetched to extrapolate that the heruli might have brought back the runic alphabet with them and leveraged their knowledge of the runes into a magical art, thus placing themselves firmly at the top of the local hierarchy; and, like many a culture before and after them, then consolidated their position with the help of a few well placed myths!

This article was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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