The original, Old Norse phrase from Odin's self-hanging episode that is usually translated as "I took up the runes" reads, "upp nam ek rúnar." The word nám can mean either "to learn" or "to pick something up." The Icelandic words nám ("studying") and nemandi ("student") are both related to the word nema ("to learn"). The word rún means "secret," and the meaning of the Icelandic personal names Rún and Rúnar are "friend you tell your secrets to." During the time period the poem's composition is ascribed to, the words for alphabetical symbols were letur ("letter") and stafur ("stave"). Only in later ages did the word rún come to be used for the old symbol system of Germanic letters. This all points to a translation of the Old Norse as "I learned the secrets" - mystical secrets, to be sure, but to be understood as spells or incantations, not as runic letters.
The importance of runic characters as a secular alphabet is also evidenced by modern linguistic echoes of their use. Runic letters were, generally speaking, engraved into stone or cut into wood. Beech-wood was most often used for inscribing runic messages, due to its softness and ease of cutting. The modern German word for beech-tree (Buche) gives us the word for book (Buch) and letter (Buchstaben - literally, a beech-stick). These wooden and stone inscriptions, throughout the Germanic world, were used for a wide variety of communicative purposes - to send messages of war and love, to record laws, to memorialize the deceased, to announce property ownership. In other words, they were an alphabet that was used for anything that needed to be written down, and not just for magic spells.
In trying to decide whether runes were used for magical use or for practical use, we have poetry and etymology at war with each other. The more one dives into the existing scholarship on the subject, the clearer it becomes that the background discipline of the scholar tends to determine which side of the argument they take.
|Mimir and Odin by Willy Pogany (1920)|
As for Odin's special relationship to the hanged, this can be traced back to two major historical sources. In the 11th century, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen described the pagan temple at Uppsala, located in what is now modern-day Sweden. He writes of a rite that occurred every nine years - nine being a sacred number in the Norse conception, as there are nine worlds in their mythological construct. Nine members of every species of animal were sacrificed, including human victims. They were hung on trees in a sacred grove: "Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims."
This ritual practice of human sacrifice on earthly trees clearly reflects the mythological tale of Odin and his self-sacrifice on the World Tree. In 98 AD, the Roman Tacitus wrote of the continental Germans, "Above all other gods they worship Mercury [his Roman interpretation of Wodan], and count it no sin, on certain feast-days, to include human sacrifices in the victims offered to him." Clearly, the Swedish sacrifice reported by Adam of Bremen had roots in older Germanic ritual.
In 921 AD, the Arab travel writer Ibn Fadlan described a Viking funeral ritual that he witnessed on the banks of the Volga. Among the grisly rites that accompanied the cremation, a young slave girl was killed and burned with the deceased warrior chief so that she could join and serve him in the next world. Fadlan writes, "Two held her hands and two her feet, and the Angel of Death wound a noose around her neck ending in a knot at both ends which she placed in the hands of two men, for them to pull. She then advanced with a broad-bladed dagger which she plunged repeatedly between the ribs of the girl while the men strangled her until she was dead." This repulsive act could not better illustrate the ritual origins of the Odin hanging myth; the victim is both strangled and stabbed, just as the god hung and stabbed himself. Unaware of the mythology and the role of Odin as the ruler over Valhalla ("hall of the slain"), the Arab writer found no meaning in the bloody act. That he described the woman running the ritual as the "Angel of Death" is evidence for the existence of the female ritual leaders known as "choosers of the slain" - the valkyries in their original, pre-mythologized form.
In Hávamál, one of the runes that Odin knows enables him to speak with the hanged dead. He says, "I know a twelfth one if I see, up in a tree, / a dangling corpse in a noose: / I can so carve and colour the runes / that the man walks / and talks with me." Clearly, the hanged dead have a special relationship with Odin. Known as Dragudróttin ("lord of the dead"), Odin's dealing with the departed goes beyond merely those who have died by hanging. In his endless quest for knowledge of the future, he several times quizzes the dead for information.