Image from YouTube
Since Saturday February 27, 2021, news has been circulating about the American Conservative Union’s convention, “CPAC,” which was held in Orlando, Florida. Internet observers claimed that the CPAC’s stage was shaped like a Nazi symbol used during World War 2 by several regiments and organizations attached to the Nazi army and the SS.
Subsequently, some cunning soul apparently Googled the symbol and found out that it is called an “Odal rune” and that it is a Nazi-reconfiguration of the so-called “Othala rune,” a grapheme in the writing system that was used in different forms by central-, northern-, and eastern Europeans between roughly 100 CE and, well, today. You can find inscriptions written by different peoples, most likely belonging to hundreds of different local and regional ethnicities, who throughout the centuries have carved runes in a geographical area spanning from Greenland in the northwest to Turkey in the southeast. People have carved runic inscriptions everywhere in Europe and the North Atlantic.
The latest version of this writing system was used in Sweden until the early 20th century. At different times, the runes have resurged, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, where the many runic stone monumentsstill scatter the landscape, and, if you’re nerdy enough, you can get a book about runes and learn to read what the monuments say and be really cool in your 6th grade class … or so I thought. Anyway, in Scandinavia, there are still people who think it’s fun to do graffiti with runes, just like some of their ancient cousins did in the Hagia Sophia church (now mosque) in modern-day Istanbul. All in all, to us Scandinavians these letters from an ancient writing system are part of our heritage, our everyday lives, and our identities.
The history of the so-called “Odal” rune is this: we can identify it in texts carved in wood, metal, stone, and bone in the period c. 100-750 CE in Scandinavia. These inscriptions are called epigraphic inscriptions as opposed to those in manuscripts. An example of an epigraphic inscription that displays the rune is the Swedish Vadstena-inscription. Vadstena features the runes in full, displaying all the 24 characters particular to the early runic writing system. The early runic writing system is named after its number of characters: it is often called the 24-Fuþark (that is pronounced: foo-th-ark, because the “þ” is a symbol for “th”). The word “fuþark” comes from the first six letters in the writing system: F, U, þ, A, R, K.
In my home country Denmark, sometime around 700 CE, something happened. Some genius came up with a plan to shorten the Fuþark and ditch no less than eight letters. In Denmark, and subsequently in the rest of Scandinavia, people began carving their messages in rocks, stone, bone, and metal with the shortened Fuþark, which we now call the 16-Fuþark or the Younger Fuþark. Because the 24-Fuþark came before the 16-Fuþark, the 24-Fuþark may also be referred to as the Elder Fuþark. The letters that were cut from the 24-Fuþark were G, W, J, P, Ï, E, NG, and O.
Back in 700 CE and all the way through to the 1100s, the Scandinavians–the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Icelanders, and, thanks to the Viking Age migrations, plenty of other insular and coastal people around the Baltic Sea, the Russian inland, northern France, England, and Scotland, even Greenland and for a short period in Newfoundland in Canada–spoke a language that displayed broad commonalities. That language is what we call Old Nordic or sometimes Common Nordic. This was the Viking Age Scandinavian language. Thanks to their runic inscriptions we can see that these people largely spoke the same language. There were a few dialectical variations, but nothing major. The English and the French didn’t know what to make of these people, so they invariably referred to them as “Northmen” or “Danes,” sometimes just “heathens,” and probably for that reason, we see medieval Icelanders from the 1200s, writing about the Viking Age language, calling it “dönsk tunga” or “Danish tongue.”
This Danish tongue began splitting in the 1100s into what we scholars call West Nordic and East Nordic. Roughly speaking, this split gave us Icelandic, (West-)Norwegian, Norn, and Greenlandic Norse in the West, while in the East we got (East-)Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Gutnish, Aaland Swedish, and Fenno-Swedish. I say “roughly” because the Norwegian languages are a linguistic bees’ nest and some of the Swedish dialects seem to have been more conservative than the Icelandic language, and Danish pronunciation is just all kinds of weird thanks to Plat-Deutsch and Frisian.
What happened next, though, is that the different languages began moving in their own directions, sometimes closer, sometimes farther apart. In the meantime, increased interactions across the North Sea called for more specific terminology among the English when talking about those Scandinavians. They were pretty familiar with “Danes” now, but also needed vocabulary for the North Atlantic Scandies. Thus, in the 1590s, the word “Norse” materialized as an English designation for “Norwegians” under influence from Dutch and Danish.
After that, the antiquarian interest began to grow all over Europe. When that happened, the English soon saw a need for a word that would apply to those distinct dialects spoken in the Atlantic north of Scotland. For that reason, the word “Norse” was soon applied to those who spoke Norwegian dialects, Icelandic, Faroese, etc. This happened in the 1680s, and from 1844 the word “old” was added to the complex as well, so that English-speaking scholars could distinguish the older West Nordic language (Old Norse) from the contemporary 19th century (Norse) versions. You know, distinguish the West Nordic language from the 1100s from that of the 1800s, the Old Norse language from the Norse language.
What this means is of course that nobody who ever spoke Old Norse or Norse can be assumed to have used a so-called “Odal” rune. The so-called “Odal” rune went out of fashion with the revision of the runic writing system in the 700s, roughly 3-400 years before “Old Norse” materialized. We have the runes that the Old Norse speakers wrote down. We have thousands of short inscriptions in wood and bone from Bryggen in Bergen, Norway. We also have the Third Grammatical Treatise from Iceland (the one that calls the Viking Age language “Danish tongue”), and they don’t use the so-called “Odal” rune.
No, the tenure of the so-called “Odal” rune is this: around the same time that the Danes made that horrible mistake of shortening the writing system–it was horrible because they did away with graphemes that were still needed, so their writing just got more complicated–yes, around that time, the English were still using runes too. They did not do away with the so-called “Odal” or “Othala” rune. As is evident from numerous manuscripts from the period 900-1100, the English runes kept the so-called “Odal” or “Othala” rune. At this point you may also be wondering why I keep throwing “so-called” in there all the time. Well, that is because “Odal” and “Othala” are not names that were ever used by anyone of those people who actually wrote with these runes. We have a decent number of manuscripts that actually use the names for the runes and mention the “o” rune’s name too.
The oldest one is the Vienna ÖNB MS 795 manuscript from roughly 900 CE. It contains the Gothic letter list. In that list, the Gothic letter “o,” which is derived from the Greek alphabet, is called “utal.” This manuscript also contains a list of the English runes where the “o” rune is called “oeðil.” Similarly, in the later Oxford MS St. Johns College 17 and the much later Hicke’s facsimile, it is called, respectively, “oeþel” and “eðel.” The name, by the way, in both of these manuscripts, is attributed to two different graphemes. Finally, in MS 9311-9319 in Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Brussels, in the Lat. MS. 14436 manuscript in Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, and in Hrabanus Maurus’s De Inventione (much later versions), the letter is called, respectively, “othil,” “odil,” and “othil” or “otil.”
None of these manuscripts write “Odal” or “Othala.” Neither do the other manuscripts that I did not bother to include. Scholars have attempted to understand the meaning of the names of the different runes. In doing so, they have investigated their etymological context and related words. For the words that we find in these manuscripts, they have looked to comparative words they could identify in other medieval languages. So, in Old Saxon they have found “óðil,” in Old High German (“high” as in farther up the Rhine–don’t get any ideas) they found “uodal,” and in Old Norse (NOT the Viking Age language) they have of course found “óðal.” Judging from a comparison of all these words, including the Old English “eðel,” we can surmise that sometime in the early periods of the Germanic languages, there was a common word that meant “homeland” and probably looked like this: *ōþilan/ōþalan, not “Odal” or “Othala.”
What this means is 1) that that rune has nothing to do with the “Norse” and 2) it never carried the name that is circulating in the media, until modern times, and 3) that the winged legs that we see on the so-called “Odal” rune were not used, not by those who carved in the Elder Fuþark, nor by those who carved and wrote with the English Fuþorc. The only ones to use it were Nazis and their ideological descendants.
The Odal rune is an all-American political symbol. It has nothing to do with us Scandinavians, so stop calling it a “Norse rune” and start calling it an American symbol of hate, racism, bigotry, and Neo-Nazism.
Main sources used:
Runes: A Handbook. By Michael P. Barnes. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Runes, Magic and Religion: A Sourcebook. By John McKinnell, Rudolf Simek, and Klaus Düwel. Wien: Fassbaender, 2004.
The Significance of the Rune-names: Evidence from the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic Sources. By Inmaculada Senra Silva. Unpublished PhD-thesis at the University of Sevilla, Spain, September 2003.