Isa [pronounced Ee-sa] means ‘Ice’ and is the final rune in the trinity of more challenging runes that make up the first three staves of the second aett. In a mythological context, ice is one of two primordial elements that shaped the creation of the world.
According to Norse mythology, in the beginning, before Gods, giants or humankind, there were two realms – the land of ice, Niflheim, and the land of fire, Muspelheim. Between these realms lay the void of Ginnungagap [translation: The Open Mouth of the Sacred Descendants]. The freezing slush and lava of the two worlds mingled in this chasm, and from this alchemy the proto-giant Ymir and the primordial cow, Auðumbla, were formed. Ymir drank from her milk while she licked blocks of salty ice, from which the father of the Gods, Buri, emerged.
More giants were born from the arms and feet of Ymir, and with the giant’s daughter Bestla, the God Buri had three sons, Odin, Vili and Ve. The three young Gods slew Ymir and created the Earth and sky from his bodily remains, next taking a block of ice from Niflheim to create the moon and embers from Muspelheim to create the stars, including the Earth’s own Sun.
For a region where harsh winter months spanned much of the year it is little wonder that ice held special meaning to its inhabitants. Both beautiful and hazardous, Norse peoples would have been well versed in its dangers and had much time to ponder its deeper cosmological significance.
Primarily then, this rune symbolises a freezing in time and a precarious or antagonistic environment. Caution and a slow steady approach is required and a detour may be necessary to reach safe ground. In moments such as these we see a message much like the Four of Swords, where conditions around you urge a time of stasis, preparation and deep thought. One needs to rest and store up resources for the challenges ahead, or even retreat until the situation improves.
The Anglo-Saxon rune poem provides an added layer for consideration, saying that while ice is “cold and slippery” it holds the allure of being “jewel-like and glistening, fair to behold”. This implies the message that ‘all that glitters is not gold’, and that as beautiful or tempting as something may be, it is ambivalent or even hostile to your well-being. This idea of illusory beauty or temptation is reflected in the Seven of Cups, where our figure is drawn to a number of choices, but is unaware of which hold true potential and substance and which are the product of wishful thinking or deception.
One of the Goddesses that can be associated with this rune is Skadi, a Jotun (giant) who marries into the Gods and becomes part of the Aesir (Gods) family. She is associated with cold climates, mountain ranges, snow and hunting and much like her environment, is known for being somewhat unforgiving. If we can imagine the sort of traits necessary to survive the perils of harsh winters and icy conditions, we find a character much like the Queen of Swords: astute, intelligent, aware of her surroundings, mindfully silent, diligent, perhaps even cold or frigid and not easily warmed to the people around her.
It is interesting then that in the Isa rune we can find both an augury of hazardous or illusory conditions, and the remedy: an attitude of sharp and detached intelligence, objectivity, pragmatism and cool patience.
Isa cannot appear merkstave or reversed, however if it is shadowed by its positioning or surrounding runes it can take on much similar meanings as the Four of Swords or Queen of Swords reversed, warning against being overly cold or too long in stasis. Much like the Two of Swords, we can also see the suggestion that forward movement does not seem possible at this time; we are stuck, blindfolded and the choices open to us feel unclear or equally undesirable. We may feel we are ‘walking on thin ice’, but one cannot simply stay in the middle of a frozen lake for fear of the next step, a decision, even an unpleasant one must be made or we risk atrophy.