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Othala article for my rune book

To: , "Volmarr Wyrd" 
From: "Ingeborg S. Nordén" 
Subject: Othala article for my rune book
Date: Thu, 23 Sep 1999 18:24:49 -0500

Greetings, everyone!

Here's that article I promised to send; I'm also sharing it with a few other
rune-minded Heathens.  Enjoy and gods bless!



Many rune scholars have debated whether this rune or dagaz should be counted
as the twenty-fourth.  Historical evidence exists for both versions,
actually:  the Anglo-Saxon rune poem places dagaz there, but the oldest
known futhark inscription (the Kylver runestone in Sweden) has othala last.
With no way to know which ordering was originally right, the decision seems
to be up to us…and I do personally favor placing othala last, for several

First, the name of the rune literally means “inheritance” or “ancestral
 land”:  it makes good sense for the futhark to end as it began, with
another rune that symbolizes wealth and property. “Land and personal
property” were often mentioned together –but still contrasted—in the old
laws of Germanic countries; that would support the idea of fehu and othala
standing at opposite ends of the rune row.  Cattle and money (fehu) could be
easily transferred between people, but the family farm (othala) was harder
to lose.  Even now,  Scandinavian laws allow a family to redeem land that
they have owned for at least twenty years—if one of them buys it back within
that same amount of time.

The Scandinavian languages, by the way, are the only ones that still use a
form of this rune’s name with its original meaning:  Swedish _odal_, Danish
and Norwegian _odel_, Icelandic _óðal_.  Swedish also has a verb _odla_, “to
cultivate”:  raising crops was something done on the home soil, but the word
also suggests a connection between “cultivation” and “culture”, as in the
traditions that a group of people share and pass down.  (Swedes can talk
metaphorically about “cultivating one’s soul” using that same word!)

Second, placing a rune of the dead last (because death is the end of at
least one lifetime) sounds logical:  an inheritance can’t change hands until
someone dies.   Ancestral spirits were part of ancient Germanic religion as
well:  people sometimes sat on a relative’s grave overnight, to speak with
and learn from him.  Several pagan texts also mention a festival dedicated
to the Disir (female ancestral spirits), though different areas must have
celebrated it at different times of year judging by the evidence.  (Some
tribes held their Disir-sacrifice in mid-October by the modern calendar;
others held theirs in early February.)

 Third,  othala can be seen as a boundary marker or enclosure (think of
property lines or a fence around someone’s yard):  beyond that line is
unknown, unfamiliar  territory.  (It’s no accident that “familiar” is
derived from “family”…or that a person “feels at home” with something he
knows well.)   The very end of the futhark seems like the most logical place
for a rune with those aspects.

The rune doesn’t always refer to an actual home or family, though:  it can
allude to any place, or group of people, to which someone feels strongly
attached.  (In readings I’ve done for myself, othala frequently turns up to
symbolize Sweden or people living there…not an interpretation I’d use for
just anyone!)  The idea of “kindred spirits” and “home is where the heart
 is” fit this aspect.

So far, you’ve probably gotten the impression that my favorite rune is all
positive—but that’s no truer for othala than for the other twenty-three.
Prejudice--especially racism and rabid flag-waving--is a manifestation of
this rune; one Nazi troop stationed in the Netherlands actually used it as
part of their insignia.  (Because of that, some European governments have
classed the othala-rune as a hate symbol and forbidden people to display it
in public!)

Even a less violent aspect of othala (as with any other rune) can still be
bad:  it can warn that a person needs to pay attention to his family or
social conventions, that he has crossed a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed
even if no “crime” was committed in the legal sense.  On the other hand, one
extreme is as harmful as the other; othala might appear in a reading for
someone who worried too much about conforming and following tradition for
its own sake.


Ingeborg S. Nordén

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