Sunday, 7 June 2015

Germanic Divination – Runes

Anglo-Saxon ring with Runic inscriptions
(8th-10th century CE)
In 98 CE the Roman historian Tacitus described the divination methods of the Germanic people:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices [typically by observing the movements of animals, especially birds and horses] and the casting of lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut [or fruit] bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the Gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices [Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, Oxford World’s Classics at 42].”
In this passage we seem to have the earliest recorded description of Germanic divination and, possibly, the use of Runic markings to do so. Tacitus does not refer to the Runic alphabet explicitly, only that strips of wood were marked “with different signs”. These signs could have been of anything, and certainly there is a possibility that they were not Runic at all but, perhaps supporting the case, the earliest archeological evidence of Runes dates from the second century CE – only one lifetime after Tacitus’ description. Professor Page of the University of Cambridge writes: