Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
The discovery of the script of the ancient Germans, supposed to be of
Egyptian or Phenician origin, was attributed to Wodan, who was regarded
as the chief expert in magical writing. The so-called noxious runes were
thought to bring evil upon enemies; the helpful ones averted misfortune,
while the medicinal runes were credited with healing properties.
These ancient characters formed the earliest alphabets among the
Germanic peoples, and are found throughout Scandinavia, as well as in
Great Britain, France, and Spain, engraved upon monuments, stones,
coins, and domestic utensils. The Gothic word runa meant originally a
secret magical character, and was used to signify a mysterious speech,
song, or writing. The reputed inherent therapeutic qualities of
medicinal runes were potent psychic factors, through the subconscious
mind, in healing disease.
The Anglo-Saxons made use of runic inscriptions, not only as curatives,
but also to banish melancholy and evil thoughts. After their conversion
to Christianity, biblical texts were substituted for the runes, and the
art of composing the former was studied with as much care as had been
devoted to the heathen charms. The term rune became a synonym
for knowledge and wisdom; an oracular, proverbial expression. The
traditional belief of the Anglo-Saxons in the efficacy of healing runes
persisted in the fourteenth century. When foreign medical practitioners
settled in England at that period, the cures wrought by them were
attributed to the superior virtues of the charms employed, rather than
to their professional skill.
The ancient Saxons, before their arrival in Britain, were wont to go
forth into battle, having engraven upon their spears certain runic
characters, which were valued as protective charms, and served to
inspire confidence on the part of the warriors. These magic inscriptions
were believed to have been either invented or improved by Wodan, who
taught the art of putting them into rhyme, and engraving them upon
tables of stone. In William Camden's "Britannia," are
described divers medicinal inscriptions, found in Cumberland. These were
used as spells among the borderers even as late as the close of the
eighteenth century. A book of such charms, of that era, taken from the
pocket of a moss-trooper or bog-trotter, contained among other things a
recipe for the cure of intermittent fever by certain barbarous characts.
In Paul B. du Chaillu's work, "The Viking Age" (London, 1889), mention
is made of the ancient northern custom of employing runes as medical
One Egil went on a journey to Vermaland, and on the way he came to the
house of a farmer named Thorfinn, whose daughter, Helga, had long been
ill of a wasting sickness. "Has anything been tried for her illness?"
asked Egil. "Runes have been traced by the son of a farmer in the
neighborhood," said Thorfinn.
Then Egil examined the bed, and found a piece of whalebone with runes on
it. He read them, cut them off, and scraped the chips into the fire. He
also burned the whalebone, and had Helga's clothes carried into the open
air. Then Egil sang:
As man shall not trace runes,
except he can read them well,
it is thus with many a man,
that the dark letters bewilder him.
I saw on the cut whalebone ten hidden
letters carved, that have caused the woman
a very long sorrow.
Egil traced runes and placed them under Helga's pillow. It seemed to
her as if she awoke from a sleep, and she said that she was then
The ancient northern peoples wore protective and defensive amulets,
which were fastened around the arm, waist, or neck. These amulets were
styled ligamenta, ligaturae, or phylacteria, by the writers of the
early Middle Ages. They were usually fashioned as gold, silver, or glass
pendants. Cipher-writing and runes were commonly inscribed upon them,
often for healing, but contrariwise, to bewitch and injure.
Among the peoples of Western Europe, ancient magical healing formulas,
relics of previous ages, were employed in medieval times by rural
charlatans, who professed to cure ophthalmic disorders by the recitation
of ritualistic phrases, together with suitable gestures of the arms and
fingers over the affected eyes. Dislocations were said to have been
promptly reduced by means of runic enchantments, which were doubtless
supplemented by mechanical treatment; while fractured bones of man or
beast were alleged to unite readily under the influence of Odinic
charms. Wherever the Teutonic races were found, a knowledge of runic
remedies appears to have prevailed.