In the basic plot of the old Germanic heroic poem Sigrdrifumal, a richness of information regarding the details of the quest of the spirit to transcend the limitations of the conditioned mind can be found. Here we have a small portion of the saga of the Volsungs isolated into its own book for a reason which has been buried by history. Perhaps the ancient scalds who recorded it recognized its completeness. We can only speculate. The Codex Regius combines the two poems into one with no breaks, while other sources separate them. This is easy to understand considering the chaotic structure of Sigrdrifumal. It appears as though there a missing section may have been added from a later manuscript, and yet the end of the poem is still obscured.
While riding on Hindarfjoll Sigurð sees a great light coming from the mountain. He finds a structure made of shields containing a figure lying as if dead. He approaches, removes the armour and discovers that it is none other than a Valkyrie lying within (Valkyries are Oðin’s ‘shield maidens’ who tap the slain warriors on the whoulder and carry their spirits to Valhalla upon their deaths). This is a familiar event in Scandinavian folklore. It seems to relate to the discovery of the Fylgja (Fylgja-‘to follow’. It is an attendant spiritual servitor, or guide, cognate with the “holy guardian angel’ of hermetic lore).
A light shining on the mountain reminds one very much of the iconography associated with a state of illumination that transpires once the sexual energy contained in the pelvic girdle is drawn up the spine into the head. The shield-burg could be the skull or the spirit seed that contains the part of the soul that connects the individual to the divine.
In one version of Sigrdrifumal, the figure is mistaken for a man before the helmet is removed, and then recognized as a woman as her golden locks spill out onto the pillow. This androgyny may indicate that Oðinic wisdom is similar to what in the martial arts is referred to as ‘soft’ power as well as ‘hard’. Soft power in this sense is not weak or ineffectual, but rather that it attains its power through subtle means and chi rather than through muscle strength. This coincides with Oðin having been taught Seidhcraft by Freya, for which he was sometimes accused of being effeminate. The Fylgja of a warrior was also thought to come either in the form of an animal guide, or as a human of the opposite gender which may point in the direction of Jung’s concept of the ‘Anima’.
Sigurð goes on to cut open the figure’s mail coat, which is as close as though it were skin. He inserts his sword and cuts from the neck downwards, then out through the sleeves. Anyone with any familiarity with the runes immediately finds this form familiar. Algiz is the rune associated with the Valkyries.
What begins to emerge from all this is the makings of a runic ritual.
As she awakens the Valkyrie asks who wakens her, then launches into the creation of a magical draught brewed in a meadhorn.
She blesses it with two stanzas of prayer to the spirits of light and darkness, the Æsir and Æsinjur (gods and goddesses) and the earth itself to give them wisdom, words, and healing hands.
The Valkyrie then tells Sigurð her history. We hear of times long ago, which may indicate a secret about the Fylgja connecting it with previous incarnations or genetic memory in the individual. If that is so, then Sigurð’s fylgja being punished by sleep for disobeying Oðin may be related to his having become cursed for winning the Rhinegold from the dragon Fafnir, and thereby invoking the curse of the Rhinegold. Another reading gives the conclusion that the sleeping nature of the Fylgja may relate to Sigurð’s own personal history, as psychology teaches us that the loss of the sense of divinity that children have as a matter of nature occurs due to social conditioning or trauma, which in this case manifested in the burying of his sense of personal wisdom in a wall of shields within him. This locked power becomes accessible after having destroyed the beast Fafnir and finding his power by facing this shadow. This is strangely reminiscent of Reich’s ‘character armour’ and by cutting into the centre of the armour, we reveal the true nature of the soul as androgynous and wise.
The next several stanzas seem to deal with some various magical uses of the runes.
The first stanza begins with two lines relating to the offering of the magical draught to Sigurð. Then Sigrdrifa claims that the beer is filled with magical songs and Gamanrunar, or pleasure runes. This is interesting as it is a well known fact that beer recipes, up until the 17th century, when Germany passed the first purity laws against beer additives, included a variety of ‘magical’ herbs that may easily have been associated with magical songs and pleasure. That aside, the runes that might be associated with pleasure and song would be Ansuz, Wunjo, and Gebo.
The second stanza dealing with the runes lists the uses of the Sigrunar, or ‘victory runes’. By their very title, the first of the Futhark to enter the mind is Sowulo, which is known in some systems as ‘Sig’ (‘Victory’). Other runes that might fit the mold of ‘victory rune’ might be Algiz, Thurisaz, or Tiwaz, each of which have protective properties. This may be misleading, as protection and victory are very different things. In that case, the victory runes might be Othila, as it is Oðin’s rune, the rune of completion of a long task. The feeling of being victorious might be encapsulated in Wunjo, the rune of joy. The only one we can know for certain from the text would be Tiwaz, as the last line of the stanza says to call on Tyr twice and that rune is named for Tyr. This might be instructions to place a Tiwaz rune on the sword twice, or once on each side.
The third stanza deals with Ölrunar, or “ale-runes”. The text seems to suggest that these runes deal primarily with trust issues, though combining that with the fact that the persons being asked to keep one’s trust are ‘the wives of another’ it follows that they are perhaps better known as “fling-runar”. These runes are to be written on the back of one’s hand or on ‘horn’ (either a drinking horn, or a phallus could be indicated here). Nauthiz is listed in the text as being drawn on the nails to ensure one’s illicit secrets are kept secret. A moment of reflection would beg the question as to why the figurehead of a culture that believed that ‘those who committed evil with other men’s wives’ would be chewed for eternity by serpents and wolves would be sending an emissary empowering one of his agents to do just that. It is either a mistranslation, or there is something we have missed. The stories seem to suggest that the typical attitude of the immortals towards human sexual dramas is taken in a lighthearted manner to say the least. Perhaps the many millennia of being disincarnate leads them to the conclusion that the pains and pleasures of incarnation are to be experienced in as much relish as one can muster, while there is still time. Perhaps, also, it provides the gods with some much needed entertainment. Perhaps there are a few of them up there who prefer soap operas to comedies.
The following stanza seems to also deal with ale-runes, but of a different sort. This type is more for protection against poisoning. The leek was a common charm against poison in ancient times. ‘Leek’ may also be a reference to the Laguz rune. It was known to be a common custom among Germanic peoples to bless the drink with a Thor’s hammer sign before imbibing. This serves perhaps as proof against poison, as stated, but also perhaps as a means of dedicating the drink as an offering to Thor. As Thor is the warder of human kind, then it would make sense in both readings.
Bjargrunar are described in the next stanza. These are runes used to ease childbirth and protect the mother and child in the act of giving birth. Runes that might be suitable for birthing would be Berkana, Inguz, Perthro. They are to be ‘risted’ (written) on the palms and limbs of the mother. Also, the Disir are called in at this point. This makes perfect sense considering the role of the Disir as protectors of mothers and of the hearth and home. One translation refers to the Nornir (Fates) in place of the Disir. This coincides runically as Perthro is associated both with the Norns and with birthing. Inguz is here indicated due to its energetic similarity to a womb.
The next stanza deals with Brimrunar, or ‘brine-runes’. These are charms relating to the safety of ships at sea, which must have been a very useful skill to know in times where boats were the primary method of distance travel. The first rune that immediately leaps to mind when dealing with the brine would be Laguz, the water rune. Considering its shape, Laguz might be considered a suitable candidate for the ‘mast rune’ mentioned in the text. The reference to ‘laying fire’ on the the oar might suggest Kano. It may also be that the runes are expected to be burned into the wood of the oars, which seems a suitable way of writing them on wood. Of course, another possible reading of the brine runes would deal with the water element on an emotional level. If this were the case, then the runes most likely to ‘calm the seas’ as it were might be Laguz, for its association with flow and water, Raido for bringing the errant mind back to the proper path and calming the fury, and perhaps ehwaz as it would be the rider on the horse of the emotions who wishes to get control and be the rider instead of the ridden.
Next is the Limrunar, or ‘limb-runes’. These are runes dealing with healing. Leechcraft was thought to be a half-magical practice in ancient times, combining rune lore with hands-on healing and, one can assume, wound dressing. Runes that might be of use here are Uruz, which would give a definite charge of powerful health giving energy, Sowulo, who’s positive energy and light would be greatly beneficial to the mental and emotional aspects of the patient, and Ansuz, which would call upon the powers of Oðin. These runes were probably written on the bark of trees to transfer the illness from the patient to the wood. In different translations the boughs to be used would either be to the east or to the west. This is confusing as it is therefore difficult to decide what the meaning would be without knowing for sure which direction.
Speech runes or “Malrunar” would be the focus of the next stanza. Here seems to be runes dealing with getting out of legal troubles. The ‘thing’ indicated here would be the annual meeting of the tribe where legal disputes between individuals were brought before the council. Having control over whether or not one was to be brought to trial seems to be a kind of astral ‘get out of jail free’ card. It seems to be a means of charging the whole thing with a field of magic that would be in one’s favor. Runes that might work in this case would be Ansuz, Tiwaz, or Raidho.
The last stanza that deals with runes is about Hugrunar, or “soul-runes”. They deal directly with wisdom and perceived wisdom. This is one set of runes that we have coming directly from Oðin in the form of Hroptyr (‘maligned one’ or ‘hidden god’).
He got them from the liquid that leaked from the head of Heiðdraupnir (‘bright dripper’) which may be Mimir’s skull. It is fairly safe to assume that the source of this liquid is Mimir’s well, as there are several references in the lore to drinking from his well in order to gain wisdom. The fact that the next stanza deals directly with Mim’s head makes it clear that this is what we are dealing with: that the wisdom runes come from Oðin who learned them from drinking the mead of wisdom from Mimir’s well.
Oðin is depicted here as holding ‘Brimir’s sword”. Brimir may be another name for Ymir, in particular the aspect of him that comes from his blood, as ‘brim’ translates as ‘surf’ and as we know the sea was made from Ymir’s blood. Why Oðin has Brimir’s sword is unclear, though we do know that he killed Ymir, and would therefore have had rights to his arms.
Stanzas 15 to 17 of the poem seem to constitute a discreet unit. It seems to be a rune chant. The first line of stanza 15 tells one to write on the shield before the shining god, though in another translation it is goddess. This is perturbing, as it would very much change the meaning of the line. ‘The shining As’ is Heimdal, whereas the ‘shining goddess’ would be Sunna. The reference to the shield might point at Sunna more than Heimdal, as we know that Sunna holds the shield Svalin (‘cooling’) before the sun. The next line tells one to write on Arvak’s ear and Alsvith’s hoof, and this further supports the theory that we are talking about Sunna, as they are her horses charged with pulling the wagon upon which the sun sits. Line three continues the list of places to write the runes with a reference to Thor’s cart (as Thor is Hrungnir’s slayer), and Oðin’s horse.
Stanzas 16 and 17 seem to be a list of uses for rune charms. They have mythological overtones, which leads one to conclude that they are archetypal images used to refer to many situations. Each phrase has several possible interpretations, which reflect the nature of the charms themselves. By extension, there may be very few situations where runes can’t be applied efficaciously, for healing, warfare, or to incite poetry.
Stanza 18 seems to be a more direct indication as to how to use the runes. Carving them into an object, then scraping them into mead seems like a potent means to get the energy of the runes into the body and being of the intended. After that follows a list of beings who have power over the runes through association. It follows that those same beings would be under the influence of the runes as well. If they are identified with each other, then one is the other. To use a rune is to evoke the spirits that are associated with it. The beings listed are Æsir, Elves, and humans. The runes, when imbibed in drink make their way to these archetypal beings and the energies meld into a course of action.
Stanzas 20 and 21 describe a dialogue between Sigurð and Brynhild. Brynhild seems to give Sigurð an ultimatum of sorts. He is presented with a choice between swearing fealty to his destiny, or turning away. He chooses the path of the hero in following his Valkyrie and winning her love throughout his life.
Stanza 22 on the other hand seems to be a fragment from another poem. Its meter is different, and its content could be seen as incongruous with the previous lines. It is not hard to see why a copyist would have lumped them together at this point, as the lines constitute some sound advice and it is not inconceivable that the Valkyries would be giving Sigurð life lessons after he has sworn allegiance. These lines sound as though they would be better placed within the Loddfafnir section of Havamal. Whatever their heritage, I will comment on their import.
Stanza 22 speaks of being guiltless towards kinsmen. This means making an effort to follow one’s word when dealing with those who one lives closely with. It is immediately obvious why this would be a good way of not only keeping friends, but also in maintaining a healthy self-respect which so often comes from having harmonious relationships with those one deals with on a daily basis. Wasting energy in pointless feuds on a daily basis has a negative effect on Hamingja and will quickly taint other situations in one’s life. The last two lines refer to the increase in general happiness achieved through forgiveness, but it is relevant to note that in different translations there is a discrepancy between on one hand taking no vengeance at all and on the other lessening the extent to which one takes vengeance. Although it is easy to see how forgiveness can quickly lead to happiness, it also seems as though a Christian copyist may have translated the text differently than a pagan one. The Christian may turn the other cheek, and the pagan may pay back kind with kind. What actually occurs is up to the individual, however it is clear that more forgiveness means less resentment and that can only lead to less emotional self-poisoning over time.
Stanza 23 deals with oath taking. It is pleasing to have my own opinion on the matter clearly stated by such an ancient text. So often it seems easier to tell people what they want to hear in spite of one’s true wishes only to disappoint them later when it was never one’s intention to follow through on the oath. This only leads to disappointment in one’s friends and that down the road may poison relationships. The strange thing is that if honesty where employed at the outset there may be an initial moment of conflict between wills, but in most cases that will be much less than the long term poisoning that results from the former situation. The “warg of oaths’ or the ‘wolf of his word’ mentioned in the last line refers to the person who frequently disappoints their friends and family by not keeping their word. The text suggests that it is through this process that one comes to being shunned and mistrusted by those who would otherwise support one, leading to poverty and shame.
Stanza 24 is a warning against arguing with fools at the Thing. This is a way of protecting one’s reputation against slander by choosing one’s words and battles with care.
Stanza 25 tells of how one would be perceived if one keeps silent about the things that are of concern to you. This is seen as the way of cowardice in a society that values open discussion. To complain of things after one has left the situation when open conflict was called for is seen as the way of the weak and the coward. If one is wronged, speak up fearlessly and the truth will not be mistaken for the words of one’s detractors. To keep silent is often seen a sign of guilt, whether that guilt exists or not. If the liars and the fools are able to speak their version of the story it will be believed unless contradicted openly.
Stanza 26 is a warning against staying with an evil minded woman. What more need be said. It is too easy to be robbed and killed in one’s sleep, or entrapped emotionally. At times the unknown danger of the world at night is preferable bedding down with serpents. Becoming entangled with an evil minded person only leads to sharing in their bad luck.
Stanza 27 warns one to be focused on the task at hand, to have keen perception in the moment so that no fatal surprises will come on one when one is distracted in battle.
Stanza 28 warns against unhealthy sexual obsession. A lot of energy can be lost by being unable to let go of one’s obsession.
Stanzas 29 and 30 tell of the dangers of taking the ire of a drunk seriously. It is unwise to get riled up over things said when the wine is flowing. Getting too involved in the brawls of the drunken only leads to sorrow and woe.
Stanza 31 tells that if one seeks to fight a strong enemy, it is better to have it out than to die secure in your home.
Stanza 32 warns against being false, lying, or beguiling maids and the wives of other men. These are seen as evil courses of action.
Stanza 33 tells one to bury those corpses one may stumble across in one’s travels. This is not only sanitary, but respectful.
Stanza 34 deals with pre-burial rites of cleansing and prayers.
Stanza 35 warns against trusting the word of one of the family members of those you have killed. There is sure to be a smoldering resentment in such people, despite their outward appearance of civility.
Stanza 36 warns one to be constantly on guard against the evils of the world. They never rest, and so in order to conquer them, great efforts must be made towards being awake and aware.
The 27th and final stanza warns against being wrathful or treacherous towards one’s friends. There are enemies enough in the world at large, and to make waves with one’s allies is to shorten one’s life all that much more.
As you can see, the meaning of this poem takes on new light when interpreted with an informed knowledge of the runes and their meanings. On one hand we have an apt description of the path of the spirit towards liberation, and on the other is a list of tools and ethical advice to aid the hero on that journey. Its value is incomparable when read with the right understanding. It is no wonder that it has retained so much influence over the minds of the ancestors of its originators. The mythic resonance is encoded in the forms that populate its lines. We would go so far as to say that a full understanding of the implications of this poem will lead to a spiritual awakening in the reader.