The Saga of the Volsungs: Magic Writing

“She saw that something else had been cut over what lay underneath and that the runes had been falsified.” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 97)


Though the women in myth do not (usually) possess the power of violent, physical force that the men have when solving their problems, they nevertheless possess an equally useful skill: knowledge, specifically the use and understanding of the written language to manage their affairs and of society in general. Gudrun, along with Brynhild (67), and Kostbera (97) posses not only the ability to read and write the runes (the men, too are capable of this as well), but more importantly they
correctly interpret these runes.

Sigurd says of Brynhild, “Never can there be found a wiser woman in the world than you,” (71) after she teaches him the power, “mighty things,” (67) of the various runes. These runes – victory runes, wave runes (the sea), speech runes, ale, aid, healing (here a branch), and the mind – are very much like magic spells, or as we would recognize them as “legal fictions,” (Sapiens, 31) in that the ability to use these runes (words, writing) allows the clever person to manage a society.  As writing is a representation of something else, these runes carry with them the power and knowledge to control what they are representing. With the ability to, for example, control troop information in a battle (victory runes), or to heal an injured soldier (branch runes), or to educate a village, clan, or city (mind runes) so that information is not lost “Until the gods perish,” (70) people can control and manage their lives and the societies they live in even if they are made refugees, conquered, married off, or live vast distances from one another. In this way the runes (language) are representative of the power of the people who understand them and can use them wisely.

Yet while Brynhild says the runes are, “For all to use unspoiled / and unprofaned,” (70) it is a man, Vingi who profanes the runes and attempts to conceal Gudrun’s message of warning to her brothers. And while the men, such as Hogni are capable of reading the runes at the basic level, they are incapable of reading deeper into their meaning. These men are easily fooled by the false runes and it is a woman, Kostbera who, “discerned through her wisdom what the runes said,” (97). She even goes as far as to insult Hogni’s literacy, “You cannot be very skilled at reading runes,” (98) and backs up her runic interpretation by saying how she, “wondered how so wise a woman could have carved them so confusedly,” (98). For her the truth of the matter is clearly written, yet the confused nature of the runes speaks to the complexity of the political situation and ultimately Hogni does not heed the hidden warning (prophecy) and thus is doomed by Atli’s false invitation.

And it is in this complexity of interpretations, the female’s deeper insight as opposed to the male’s more literal interpretations of the runes, where we can glimpse the complexity of a political society as well as the woman’s role in preserving their society. Society is preserved through the use of language which the woman master, even if they are not always successful in forestalling a momentary disaster. And, to take my analogy a little further, the preservation of the Icelandic and Viking peoples still exists within our own magical runes of modern language. These cultures still “exist” because our runes say they existed, and while we can’t point to an actual Viking, their culture “lives” on through language.