Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Hearken to the Witches' Runes

We can be virtually certain that the Hwicce, the Anglo-Saxon tribe said (by some) to have given its name and lore to historic witchcraft, knew and used the runes.

They, of course, would have named them in the Mercian dialect of Old English, the language that they spoke every day. It is worth asking what those names might have become had the runes remained in continuous use into our day.

Certainly they would have modernized along with the rest of the language; many of the Anglo-Saxon rune-names have remained part of the living language and are entirely recognizable today. We would expect the names to have retained a certain amount of archaic vocabulary, and also to reflect a certain degree of semantic and phonetic “drift” as well: i.e. to include words whose meanings have changed over the centuries, and whose pronunciations no longer reflect those of Old English.

Since some of my family come from the old Hwiccan tribal territories, I figure I have as much right to the runes as anybody. My entirely personal decision to base this version on the Elder, rather than the Anglo-Saxon, furthorc may offend some rune purists. Oh, well. In my experience (I wrestle with it myself), purism is usually its own punishment.

My heart-friend and colleague singer-songwriter Sparky T. Rabbit (reborn to the tribe) always insisted on naming the runes by their modern names—ice-rune, ox-rune, elk-rune—and I find that the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of this approach manages to cast a fresh and intimate light on the runes, even while retaining their essential mystery.


And that's good enough for me.

Fee's Eight

Fee Old English feoh meant “cattle, goods, money.” In a pastoral economy, livestock = money.

Ox (or: Aurochs). I'd always thought that “ox” meant “steer” (i.e. a castrated bull), but I was wrong. An ox is a male bovine (intact or not) used for traction. For those who prefer their bulls wild, fierce, and giant, there's always Aurochs, the wild (now extinct) bull of Europe.

Thurse OE þurs, “giant,” survived in dialectal use down into modern times.

Ose If OE ós, “[pagan] god” had survived as a free-standing word (instead of just a component in theophoric names like Osbert, Oscar, and Oswin), this is probably what we'd say today. It's the English equivalent of Old Norse áss, the singular of æsir.


Keen It's not clear whether or not there's a connection between OE cén, “torch,” and céne, “bold, swift, brave.” If we'd used the word continuously, though, this is what we would say today.


Win The archaic sense of OE wynn, “joy,” survives in the word “winsome.”


Hail's Eight





Yew In OE, this was éoh (with a long E), as distinguished from short-E eoh ("horse") below.



Sol OE had two words for “sun.” Sól, grammatically neuter, means the Sun in se. Sunna, grammatically masculine, denotes the Sun as being/wight/god.


Tew's Eight

Tew The old proto-Indo-European Sky Father survived into Anglo-Saxon times as the god Tíw, for whom Tuesday is named. 


Horse The Anglo-Saxon rune-name eh (or eoh) did not survive into Modern English, and I am not a sufficiently good linguist to say what it might have become if it had. (At a guess, I'd say probably yew, a problematic homophone with the tree—and rune—name. One can see here, maybe, why this one didn't survive.) So I'll just follow Sparky's lead here and let name follow meaning. Call it linguistic drift.

Man OE mann meant “person, human being.” A male human being was a wer (Middle English were, as in werewolf). A female human being was a wíf (“adult woman [regardless of marital status],” Modern English wife) or a wíf-mann (Modern English woman), literally “woman-person.”


Eng (or Ing) This old god-name would likely have been assimilated over the years to the old tribal name Angle, which gave us “England.”  


Ethel OE éðel = “country, native land, ancestral home,” whence the derived meaning of “inheritance.”

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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