Exploring Tarot and Runes: 16 – Sowilo

Sowilo [pronounced so-EE-lo] means Sun and is one of the simplest runes to translate into tarot. Before I get on to explaining the obvious connection between Sowilo and The Sun in tarot, one thing that is important to note is that the sun in Norse pagan tradition, unlike modern esoteric constructs, is coded as female. Furthermore, a number of archaeological finds point strongly to the preeminence of sun worship in Bronze Age Scandinavia.

sowilo

Elements of the sun-cult appear to have survived in the myths that have been left to us in the Goddess Sol, also known as Sunna. In Snorri’s Prose Edda, Sol is not a personification of the sun, but the charioteer that drives the sun across the sky, chased by the wolf Skoll (which may also be another name for the great wolf Fenrir) who is fated to devour her and the sun at Ragnarok. Her brother is Mani, the charioteer of the moon, and she is wed to an otherwise unknown figure known as Glenr (whose name means Gap Between Clouds – if that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is).

trudholm sun chariot
Trundholm Sun Chariot, Denmark, dated approx 1400 BCE  

Some evidence does however point to the idea that the sun was a personified goddess to Bronze Age Germanic peoples, and there appear to be some surviving pieces of this tradition in later Norse myths. The existence of Thor long predates the rise of Odinn, with his mythology dating back to Proto Indo European myth, and while common Viking and post-Viking age stories hold Odinn as the All-Father and progenitor of Thor, there is ample suggestion in older sources that Thor was the first god, born not from Odinn and Jord (the Earth personified), but from Sol and Jord, two female deities. Considering the short-circuit this could have caused in the brains of Christian writers such as Snorri and Saxo, it is little wonder scant evidence of this myth and origin story survive.

Anyway, without rambling on too much, the all-encompassing importance of sun worship in Bronze Age Scandinavia changed over the centuries and appears to have lost much of its popularity, however there are more inklings of its importance amongst later pagan worshippers than much of Norse mythology initially suggests, and the Norwegian rune poem sums it up perfectly, “Sun is the light of the world; I bow to its holiness“.

the sun

Much like The Sun in tarot, Sowilo speaks of illumination, brightness and victory. It is the bringer of great joy, light and truth; the shadows have been chased away and the cold, harsh need of previous runes like Nauthiz, Isa and Hagalaz are melted away.

The Icelandic rune poem states, “Sun is the sky shield, and a shining radiance, and the nemesis of ice.” This idea of the protective power of the sun as a shield also echoes in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, where we see the sun as a vigilant guide for those at sea, “The sun guides seafarers who ferry across the fishes bath until the seahorse [ship] brings them to land.

 

empressThis idea of protection and guidance has a very different feel to the protection of our attending, ancestral spirits seen in the previous rune. While Algiz represents a protector not quite of this world, existing in liminal space between this and the otherworld, sometimes seen but most often not, the protection of Sowilo is shining and all-apparent. It is in this vein, along with the sun’s holiness expressed in the Norwegian rune poem, that I also feel hints of the power of The Empress. She is life itself, nurturing, protective, abundant and generous, she brings fertility and growth to the land, much like the sun’s rays; she, like Sowilo, is a shining beacon of life that warms her children and promises prosperity.

 

Sowilo, like other runes, cannot appear merkstave (reversed), but in this singular instance I will not be exploring the shadow meanings for this rune (although others do). For me, Sowilo is as good as it gets, it has the power to blast away the negative energies of any number of the more challenging runes – or all of them combined. No matter how dreary a rune-casting may look, the presence of Sowilo gives strong cause for optimism, and the promise that regardless of the difficulties you face, there is a bright, shining, all-encompassing light at the end of the tunnel – life will always prevail, you just have to hold- tight long enough for sunrise.

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 15 – Algiz/Elhaz

Algiz/Elhaz [meaning disputed, generally understood to represent protection]. The phoneme of the rune, a Zh sound, fell out of usage by the time of Viking era to be replaced with R, as such the rune is not amongst the Norwegian or Icelandic rune poems and survives only in the Anglo-Saxon rune-poem as Eolh-secg. The most commonly used translation is ‘Elk-Sedge’, however this meaning is very ambiguous and some scholars have argued its etymological inaccuracy. Other meanings, reconstructed linguistically in Old English, Gothic and German, posit a variety of different meanings such as eel-grass, holy grove, elk, sword and swan. Whichever meaning most appeals, the overriding understanding of this rune remains relatively constant as meaning some form of divine or otherworldly protection. For me, swan is where it gets most interesting and resonates the strongest.

algiz upright

In Norse mythology swans were closely connected to female fate spirits, most notably, the Valkyries, choosers of the slain on battlefields. Swans are also connected to the fylgjur, one or more ancestral spirits that attach themselves or belong to a family, protecting and guiding its members. They are said to come in either animal or humanoid form. [Additionally, two swans are said to drink from the Well of Urd (Origin) at the base of the World Tree Yggdrasil (also associated with the fate-goddesses, the Norns). According to the Prose Edda, the waters of the well are so pure, that any being that drinks from it or submerges itself in its waters will become white in colour.]

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 14 – Perthro

Perthro [exact translation unknown] is one of the more mysterious runes in the Elder Futhark and its original meaning has been lost to time. Furthermore, the “P” sound was uncommon in old Germanic languages and this rune did not survive the culling of eight runes in the development of the Younger Futhark set. As such we only have the Anglo-Saxon rune poem to guide us to clues about the rune’s meaning.

perthro

There is some consensus amongst the educated guesses of Perthro’s meaning, and it is generally translated to mean “gaming piece” or “lot cup”, which is in keeping with rune’s shape and the sole surviving poem.

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 13 – Eihwaz

Eihwaz [pronounced Ay-wahz and occasionally Yoo-wahz] translates to “Yew”, which was a spiritually and practically significant tree for a number of Northern European pagan tribes. There is much discussion as to whether or not the great World Tree is in fact a yew, rather than the ash attested to in lore. One of the main points of contention is that Yggrassil is spoken of as an evergreen tree, which the yew is but the ash is not. One of the most prolific (and controversial) writers on the subject of runes and Norse cosmology, Edred Thorsson, mentions that an ancient alternate name for the yew tree was “needle ash”. Yew trees can live for over one thousand years and are associated both with death and eternal life, in fact many old Christian churches were built amongst yews in sacred groves, appropriated from their Pagan ancestors.

Eiwaz

The Old English rune poem speaks of the yew in similar ways to interpretations of the Strength card: it has a “rough bark from without”, but is deep rooted, a guardian of fires, and a “joy to the home”, implying concepts of longevity, protection, strength and safety.

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 12 – Jera

Jera [pronounced Yeh-ra] translates to (and is the root of) the English word “year”. A welcome rune after the trinity of challenges presented by the previous runes, Hagalaz, Nauthiz and Isa, Jera represents harvest-time, and more specifically, a good harvest season. The Norwegian rune poem speaks of the generosity of Frothi, a Danish king appearing in old sources who may or may not have been a real historic figure (we also find a similar character, Ing or Ingvi, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who I will cover further in the rune Ingwaz). The details of his legend and the incredible prosperity of his reign strongly links him to the mythology of the Norse god Freyr, son of the sea god Njord and brother of the slightly more famous Freyja.

Jera

Freyr is a god of sexuality, fertility, fecundity, agriculture, harvest, frith and sacral kingship, said to rule over the sun and rain, and can be understood as the patron god of this warm and bountiful time of year. Among his many attributes, he was known as a beautiful, noble and generous god, who rules benevolently over the realm of humans. Likewise, according to lore, Frothi was the best of kings, said to reign over a time of unprecedented peace and plenty.

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 11 – Isa

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.

isa

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.

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 10 – Nauthiz

Nauthiz [pronounced Now-theez] translates directly to ‘need’ in Old English with the same meaning in Old Norse, with the added nuance of ‘constriction’. This rune along with the preceding rune, Hagalaz, and the following rune, Isa, form a trinity of the most challenging runes.

nauthiz rune

Although not attested to in any ancient sources, many scholars believe that these three runes relate to the Norns – Urd (became), Verdandi (becoming) and Skuld (become), similar to the Greek Morai – who carve the fate of each infant in runes at the time of their birth. In many ways they represent the inevitability of difficult times in human experience and the events that hold within them the potential to either destroy us or set us on a more enlightened and emboldened path. It is in this sense, the ups and downs of life and luck, that all three runes can be seen inextricably tied to the Wheel of Fortune.

nauthiz final

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 9 – Hagalaz

Hagalaz [pronounced HA-galaz] means ‘hail’. A less than welcome rune, Hagalaz refers to the ambivalent forces of nature. Not just an inconvenience from which shelter is sought, a hailstorm to the ancient Norse could spell the destruction of entire fields worth of crops and a destabilising of their homes and animal shelters or perilous trips at sea.

 

hagalaz-pic

In our modern times, this rune represents an outside power that disrupts your potential or assumed success. Plans or projects have been implemented and suddenly a big spanner is thrown into the works, grinding everything to a halt. In its most archetypal context, Hagalaz can be seen as the downturn of the Wheel of Fortune. Everything was going so well, until it suddenly wasn’t, and now nothing feels like it is going your way.

hagalaz3

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 8 – Wunjo

Wunjo [pronounced Vun-yo] is a very happy rune and one of the least complicated to unpack. Translated to English it simply means ‘joy’ or ‘bliss’. For me, it is a rune of success, contentment and happiness on the earthly plane rather than any sort of spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment (which we will see later in the rune Sowilo).

 

wonjo-upright

Representing the more mundane joys of life, I see Wunjo represented in the happier cards of the tarot’s minor arcana such as the 6 of Wands, where will and sustained efforts have yielded success. There is a sense of joyous recognition for the things we have achieved and the acknowledgment that our successes positively impact not only ourselves, but also those closest to us.

wunjo upright BLOG

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Exploring Tarot and Runes: 6 – Kenaz

Kenaz [pronounced ken-ahz] is another rune attributed different meanings and rich with symbolism, so there are quite a few cards to cover! The most widely accepted interpretation is torch, as attested in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem. At its heart, this rune speaks to the human discovery of fire, an event of pure elemental harnessing that empowered humankind and shaped our destiny and capacity for not only survival but also our ability as a species to thrive. As such, Kenaz is associated with spiritual revelation, enlightenment and the powerful wisdom of the gods. On a more mundane level, it speaks of a time of teaching or learning and opportunities for knowledge, clarity, understanding and utilising skills

kenaz-upright
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