Algiz (also known as Elhaz, said as all-yeese or ale-hawz) is the fifteenth rune. I know it would make sense to start at the beginning when talking about runes, but this one’s been on my mind lately. I once long, long ago promised to talk more about runes, so I’m starting with this one. I’ll talk about what Elhaz means and what it means to me a little later in the post.
When working with runes, the first place we Heathens go to are the rune poems. There are three “primary” ones (Norwegian, Icelandic, and Anglo-Saxon) and I recently discovered that there’s a fourth one from Switzerland. While some runes remain consistent in meaning throughout the poems, Algiz has two main interpretations as well as a changing appearance over the centuries.
|Norwegian (Old Norse)*|
|Ýr er vetrgrønstr viða;
vænt er, er brennr, at sviða.
|Yew is the greenest of trees in winter;
it is wont to crackle when it burns
|Ýr er bendr bogi
ok brotgjarnt járn
ok fífu fárbauti.
and brittle iron
and giant of the arrow.**
|Eolh-secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð beorna gehwylcne
ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ.
|The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
|Swiss Rune Poem (written in old German)|
|Yr al (or Yr al bihabet)||Yew holds all|
The poems–and the rune itself–are confusing, because the Anglo-Saxon (A-S) poem takes the same rune shape, and changes the meaning from Yew to a plant called elk-sedge (Eolh-sedge). In the A-S poem, there is a different rune shape for Yew, called Eihwaz. It’s also interesting to note that at some points in history Algiz was an inverted version of the rune for Mannaz (Man). But at the time the A-S poem came around, Mannaz had the ‘M’ shape we see on runestones today. Put all this together and you get… I don’t know. But I will talk a little about what I’ve discovered.
Algiz as Elk-sedge
There seems to be two distinct directions Algiz can move in. The first relates to the Anglo-Saxon poem, and as that’s the one I best understand so I’ll talk about it first. The Elk-sedge was an underwater plant with sharp edges that at one time I was taught (sorry, I don’t remember where) would be planted to stop invading armies. The enemy army would try to cross a marsh, but without knowing the safe path would get cut up by the plant and arrive already wounded before the battle had begun. The rune seen this way talks about letting enemies defeat themselves. It’s a reminder that in some situations, as much as you may want to fight, the best thing you can do for your cause is sit back and let somebody else shoot themselves in the foot.
TheScott and I are currently in a legal waiting game, trying to see if we will get to adopt our girls or not. The forced inactivity and sense of helplessness as somebody else makes one of the most important decisions of our lives has been driving us crazy. Algiz has turned up in my readings, and I find the reminder comforting. This is not something I can force. I need to find the strength and inner calm to watch somebody else’s train wreck. It’s been hard not to feel guilty as my husband and I basically hope for somebody else to fail. I’m usually happy to wish positive change for others, even people I dislike. Algiz reminds me, though, that I’m staying at home, doing the best I can with the situation given to me, and if anybody else gets hurt, it’s not my fault. They beat themselves, and I have no guilt in the outcome.We’re here to protect the girls for as long as we can and the best we can.
Algiz as Yew
The idea of Algiz as Yew is different, and while I’m happy to describe it, I have less analysis. A yew tree is an evergreen species and one of the types of tree Yggdrasil is thought to be (although ash is a more common choice). The shape of the rune in reverse, as it’s shown in the Icelandic and Old Norse versions, shows roots going into the ground with a strong trunk, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon version in which you can see the branches sticking up dangerously. The Swiss version (also in the inverted shape) seems to refer to the Yew as Yggdrasil, the tree that holds the universe in its branches. Though the Norwegian rune poem is mostly cheerful–referring to the tree’s life in winter and crackling fires–the Icelandic poem has more thematically in common with the Anglo-Saxon, talking about the military aspects of a yew tree as a choice for crafting bows and arrows. Throughout all three major poems, there is a common theme of protection and success in times of strife.
Which way is up?
The shape of the rune has remained constant, other than shifting directions from the spines pointing up, to down, then back up for the A-S incarnation. This is interesting mostly because in the rune alphabets in which the spines point down, Mannaz–the symbol of man–is the same symbol with the spines pointed up. In this shape, Mannaz likely refers to the basic Heathen “prayer” pose. We don’t kneel and bow our heads, we stand erect with our arms up (“touchdown, Thor,” one might say). This gives an extra dimension to Algiz in the upside-down form, because it’s both a tree with roots and an upside-down human. The hanged man often refers to Odin, who hung on Yggdrasil (possibly a yew tree) for nine nights in order to receive the runes. Whether or not Odin hung himself upside-down or rightside-up is something I’ve seen debated, as the Hávamál (the poem which tells the story) doesn’t describe how he hanged himself, just that he did. But to me, this connection in the runes with the upside-down man and the rightside-up tree is an interesting one.
This is totally my own take on it (as I’ve never seen anybody else say something like this) but this relation to Odin reminds me of the Elk-sedge, and the idea that sometimes the hardest work we can do is to be still. Odin waited in agony for nine days in order to gain the runes, and sometimes we, too, must be patient under duress for the things we want. If the yew tree refers to Yggdrasil, it’s a reminder that the universe moves at it’s own time, not ours. The best we can do is be prepared and remember that the rough times in life are not death, but a winter that comes before the blossom of spring.
Anybody else work with runes? What are your thoughts in Algiz?I know its interpretation is controversial! I’d also love to hear stories from around The Realm about the pain of stillness.
*First three translations from “Runic and Heroic Poems” by Bruce Dickins, published in 1915. I’m not sure who did the last one, but there’s not much to translate there.
** arcus=bow in Latin ynglingr=the Swedish dynasty of the Yngling family (who are supposed to be descended from Freyr Ingvi). For some reason the last line is partly in Latin, partly in Norse (as is the last line of every rune in this particular poem) and Dickins didn’t translate any of it. If anyone knows why, I’d love to hear. This has always been a mystery to me.