In the poem Hávamál, we learn that the god Ódin hung in a tree for nine nights, pierced by a spear, neither drinking nor eating in order to attain knowledge about runes. Such a drastic approach to becoming a runic literate was unlikely used by the Vikings. But in the Icelandic sagas, we often hear that the Vikings had used runic magic and - in the late Medieval folk songs - rune casting is mentioned as a method to gain a girl’s attention and love. Runic magic seems more of a Medieval and Early Modern invention than a Viking-Age fact.
According to the sagas, runic inscriptions held magical powers. With the aid of inscriptions, you could predict the future, protect a person against misfortune, imbue objects with different qualities, or you could write down conjurations, curses, and spells. Most runic inscriptions that have been found, however, contain more down-to-earth messages. These have been carved for everyday use.
In the sagas, we hear how runes and magical words were used in relation to health. In Egil Skallagrimsson’s saga, the skald Egil uses runes to cure a young girl, who has been enchanted by false runes. Egil carves new runes, places them under her pillow and as a result the girl is healed. The moral of the story is that runes and words can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Runes carved upon rune stones also served a variety of purposes. For example, the inscription on the Glavendrup stone on Funen contains a warning to anyone who would dare to damage or move the stone.
The runic inscription reads: Ragnhildr placed this stone in memory of Alli the Pale, priest of the sanctuary, honourable þegn of the retinue. Alli's sons made this monument in memory of their father, and his wife in memory of her husband. And Sóti carved these runes in memory of his lord. Þórr hallow these runes. A warlock be he who damages(?) this stone or drags it (to stand) in memory of another. This last sentence puts a curse upon anyone who damages the stone or places it as a monument to another person.
The Vikings also used omens – warnings from nature – to predict the future. This is described in the sagas. The Vikings believed that natural occurrences were messages from the gods. Omens could be deduced from, for example, observing the way in which birds flew or horses galloped. Such warnings could also come from rare natural phenomena, like solar eclipses.
Runes in the Middle Ages – communication and tradition rather than magic
Runes were carved in Denmark during the medieval period, as well as in the Viking Age. In recent years significant numbers of medieval runic inscriptions have been found. These inscriptions were used in many different ways: they were carved in God’s honour, for serious purposes and for fun.
Runic magic was not completely forgotten and medieval staffs also display curses written in runes. The runic staff or wand was waved at the person, who its user wished to “catch”. According to medieval ballads, it was possible to seduce a woman using runes. In the ballad “The Knight Stig’s runes and wedding” Stig is in love with Kirsten. He tries to win her affections with the aid of a rune staff, which he waves under her skirt. But unfortunately the staff accidentally rolls under Princess Regitze’s dress and the magic works upon her instead. The princess falls in love with Stig straight away and he has to marry her.
The medieval runic inscriptions have been interpreted as evidence of how the Danes held onto their earlier beliefs. But many inscriptions are associated with the Christianity. Thuribles, church bells and amulets display runic inscriptions. In the medieval period some may have regarded such inscriptions as rudimentary. However, they were probably an effective means of communicating with the section of the congregation that was not familiar with Latin.