Rune Lore

“In the lead was a young girl
with a harp and golden hair.
Her gray eyes were oceans, ready
to drink the depths around her.”

Story of a Silver Tongue, lore of the ice elves from far north

This is a custom set of dice for my most recent D&D character, Eðða Silfur. She’s a harpist and lore bard that collects epic poems in her magical Book of Holding. Also one hell of an archer. She is named for the Poetic Eðða, which is the collection of Norse poems from which we know the familiar stories of Odin, Thor, the Trickster Loki, and others. Her character is based in Norse mythology, and her dice celebrate that. As with all dice I make, the symbols have special meaning which relate to both the mythology and the character herself. Here’s a portrait of her with her raven, Kvaeðinn (which means one who speaks in meter, assuming I’ve conjugated the Norse word correctly), a nod to Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn.


Character portrait by Monkan (@monkiponk on twitter)

First, I’d like to call out a huge help in my research- I cannot recommend enough this YouTube video series for learning about Norse culture and history. Dr. Jackson Crawford is an expert on Norse language and lore, and goes into real depth on many interesting topics from gods and beliefs, to Viking daily life, to runes and magic, to poetry. For free! (He also has a Patreon!) They are easy to get lost in if you’re an academic and a nerd like me, and they are reliable accurate information.

So, here’s the whole set of dice, with individual descriptions of the symbols below:

The two symbols on the d20 are a harp and an apple. The harp is Eðða‘s primary instrument, as it is mine in real life. The meaning of the apple is a little bit more subtle, but I love its connection poetry in Norse mythology. Bragi is the Norse god of poetry, and his wife is Iðunn who is the keeper of the apples of youth. These apples the gods must occasionally eat in order to retain their immortality. In most ancient mythologies, it is well understood by the heroes that the only way to truly live forever is if you are told of in stories for generations to come. So, you must perform great deeds worth of such songs and poems, that they may be passed down in oral tradition. In this sense, I love that the god of poetry and the goddess who keeps the apples of youth are partners. To be honest I don’t know if this is concept that is specifically represented in Viking myth, but the idea is there nonetheless. So anyways, Eðða has a whole apple theme to her character and her expletive of choice is “Oh, apples!” when I roll a 1. This makes her sound very nice and charming much of the time, but I would not test her temper.

The d6 has a distinct symbol for each number, each of which also represents an ability. The 1 is Thor’s Hammer for strength, and the 2 is Odin’s eight legged steed Slepnir for Dexterity. For Wisdom, the 3 is the triskelion, a symbol related to Odin showing his three interlocking drinking horns that hold the Mead of Poetry. The 4 is Constitution with a symbol called the Helm of Awe, a  magical spell symbol often etched on armor to scare their enemies and provide protection during battle for protection. The 5 is for Charisma showing the valknut, another symbol of Odin’s representing his magical ability to manipulate enemies during battle. Last, the 6 is Intelligence and shows one of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, who were his messengers and collected information about the world to bring to him.

The d10s have runes from the Eldar Futhark, one of two systems of runic writing the Vikings used at different points in their history. [EDIT: I’ve since learned the Elder Futhark was actually pre-Viking and I should have used the Younger! When i remake these on the 3D printer I’ll fix this inaccuracy.] The Younger Furthark has 16 runes and the Eldar has 24, so neither set was ideal for the d10 pair. So I just cut four symbols from the latter arbitrarily based on aesthetics. I really like how they came out! Etched runes were used to perform what the Vikings called galdrar, basic magic spells used for every day purposes. I’ve incorporated this into how I play the character, assigning runes to each spell she knows and drawing it in person when she casts them. It adds to the drama of the action and keeps the Norse theme alive to other players. There is another type of magic practice by the Norse called seiðr, or divination magic. This was practiced by women called vǫlva who were seeresses. This is also built into her character both in her present (spell progression) and her background story (see the epic poem below).

The d12 has the symbols for Yggdrasil and Skuld’s Net. Yggdrasil is the Tree of Life within which the nine worlds exist, including Midgard which is the land of mortals. Skuld is one of the three primary fates in Norse mythology, called the Norns. There were actually many Norns, but Skuld, Urðr, and Verðandi were the three most important, and somewhat represented past, present, and future. In some historical poems, Skuld was a Valkyrie who would choose who lived and died during battle. The Vikings believe that the day in which they were to die was predetermined, so the idea of being caught in Skuld’s Net is being unable to escape that fate. So generally, both of these symbols together for me just represent kind of the big picture cosmology of the Vikings.

The d4 has the symbol for Gungnir, which is the name of Odin’s spear. There is a story where Odin gouges out his eye with Gungnir and hangs himself from Yggdrasil for nine days in order to obtain the knowledge of magic runes. It is for this reason that Odin is often portrayed as being very wise, whereas Thor is more often depicted is only a warrior. So I like to think the spear represents self-sacrifice in some ways.

Finally, the d8 depicts Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. The Serpent is a monstrous snake or sea serpent that encircles the entire ocean surrounding Midgard and holds it together by biting its own tail. There are several stories of battles between the Serpent and the gods, and it is said that when it let’s go of its tail Ragnarok will begin. This was really hard to make because the snake had to wrap around each face of the di. It would have probably been easier to draw in a 3D modeling program, but alas since I cannot draw I just had to finagle an old 2D image of the serpent such that it stretch across each face. I really like how it came out though! Here’s a video:

As a final edition to the set, I made two d6 bardic inspiration dice that I could physically hand to players to use during the game. I probably won’t remake them when they level up to d8’s, but it’s never bad to have extra d6’s lying around. These dice are based on the oldest recorded piece of secular viking music, as discovered in the Codex Runicus (picture below). They use different staff and musical notation than modern music, but it is reminiscent enough to get the gist. The runes under the music translate to “I dreamt a dream last night,” but that’s the only line recorded in the Codex. It is also the first line of a Danish folk song that has survived until until today, but there are variations on how the melody and rhythm should be played out since our understanding of the Viking notation is very limited. I thought this was a really cool piece of history that would make a nice touch to a set of dice for a bard. I ended up doing the staff and music notes as a wrap of one piece, and even though it has a lot of fine detail it came out really well. I had to spray a light glue over the top of the runes to make sure they didn’t come off. I think they look really beautiful! I’m kind of in love with them.

Since Eðða is an expert in epic poetry, it has been a great opportunity to write another epic poem of my own.  This poem describes her backstory, providing insights into her as a character as well as into Norse mythology and culture. I’m used to writing ballads in a somewhat traditional medieval form characterized by quatrains (four-line stanzas) with iambic meter (a set number of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables), and rhymes at the end of lines. But the structure of ancient Norse poetry is quite different!

There’s a few different forms, but I chose to write in Ljóðaháttr, or song meter. (It’s kind of pronounced like lee-oh-deh-hawter, but you should ask a real linguist or a Scandinavian person to pronounce it for you.) This form has 3 lines (or 6 half-lines) and a set number of stressed (but not unstressed) syllables per line. It has two stress syllables in lines A & B, and 3 in C. I’m structuring the lines as AB / C / AB / C for page brevity, but modern forms and reprints of ancient texts vary by culture and region. The biggest difference from what you may be used to hearing is that they didn’t use rhyming. Instead, alliteration is the focus. One stressed syllable in line A must alliterate with a stressed syllable in line B, and two stressed syllables in C must alliterate within the line. In ancient Norse language, the first syllable of every word was always the stress syllable, so in English this can be a little tricky to work in words where a middle syllable is stressed. Note also that any vowel can alliterate with any other vowel (or y). The sk/st sounds are only supposed to alliterate with sk/st, but I have neglected this rule since it was already challenging enough.

It’s been a challenge to refocus my way of thinking on alliteration instead of rhyme, but fun to try something new. I also borrowed tidbits of what I learned of Norse myth and Viking culture to fold into the poem, for example referencing seiðr and galdr magic. That being said, not everything is historically accurate- for example in this poem elves take on the role of humans in terms of their worship of the Norse gods, yet they also embody the rivalry those same gods have with the giants. Really, elves in Norse lore had their own realm just as the gods, giants, humans, and dwarves did, and they came into the well known Norse stories very little. I also put a few twists on our understanding of historical texts, such as using the uncertainty over whether famous seer Mímir is a giant or a god as the seed for a religious conflict at the center of the story. So I hope you enjoy and learn from the poem, but don’t take it as canon or me as an expert.

One last note- there is another meter called galdralag (incantation meter) which is nearly the same as Ljóðaháttr. The primary difference is that it repeats one or more C lines at the end of a normal 3 (or 6) line stanza. This was used in Norse texts when the poem was speaking about magic or when magic spells were actually being used within the story. I have used this technique in my own poem as well as a fun way to emphasize Eðða‘s use of magic in her exploits and to reference her magic capabilities as a bard class character.

I’ve copied a preview of the poem below. It’s turned out to become more of a book-length composition, but some day once it’s finished I’ll file it over with the other poems!

SKÁLDSPÁ [Poet’s Prophesy]

Winter’s icy winds raced
and howled like hungry wolves.
They had arrived early this year
to stalk the skies of Kattegat.

Frost settled on root and Freyr
withdrew blessing and bounty.
Crows pecked at the withered crops
and sang from barren branches.

The elves measured their meager stores
against the winter’s wane.
“Surely we will starve before spring,”
they said in solemn tones.

They huddled grimly ’round the hearth
as the king consulted his thoughts.
The long nights that loomed ahead
would bring no forbearance.

“Let us ask my older sister,
for Sigrid is a vǫlva, a seeress.
Her visions may reveal to us
what is the will of the gods.”

Sigrid arrived with a regal presence
wearing ivory inlaid with garnets.
Her black lambskin mantle was lined
with ermine and stitched in silver.

She bore the seiðstafr, a bronze distaff
adorned in clear crystal.
With a thread from the Web of Wyrd,
it ties her to the fates.

The villagers parted as she passed
to enter the high hall.
She embraced her brother coolly
and took the seat at his side.

“You look troubled, King Torsten.
I have heard the news of the harvest.
I assume you have summoned me
to do a divination?”

“I must find a way to feed
our people,” he permitted.
“Perhaps we may appease the gods.”
Sigrid nodded assent.

“First, you must make a sacrifice
to Freya and father Odin.
After this, I will perform the
sacred seiðr ritual.”

And so the king sent for a pig
and a lamb for the bloodletting.
They were hung by the hind legs
and cut across the neck.

He beseeched the gods as blood gushed
forth like a red rain.
He burned herbs above the bowl
so that smoke mingled with steam.

Immersing his hands, he made runes
upon his breast and brow.
Blood was sprinkled on silent elves
and onto the bare earth.

Sigrid watched the ceremony
with an air of apathy.
It would be a more modest feast than
her services usually secured.

When it was time, she took her seat
upon a high platform.
She signaled with the seiðstafr
for the music to commence.

Three musicians moved to encircle her
like spinning winged seeds.
Each embodied one of the fates
which we name the Nornir.

In the lead was a young girl
with a harp and golden hair.
Her gray eyes were oceans, ready
to drink the depths around her.

Though she observed the audience keenly,
they did not notice her.
For all eyes were on the seer
who waited to speak to the spirits.

The girl played a melody like a
braided stream in spring.
Her fingers plucked the fine strings
with the rhythm of ravens’ wings.

Her warm voice was vibrant with
the resonance of an oak.
She sang a varði-lokur, a spell
to summon the spirits hither.

“Come gather, gandr of the
wood and icy fjord.
Come gather, gandr of the
field and open sky.
Here we ask for aid.
Here we ask for insight.”

Only the keen-eyed may have
seen when the spirits arrived.
They were flits of light, a flurry
among the moving dancers.

Entranced, the seer swayed rhythmically
and her wide eyes were empty.
She chanted quietly, as if conversing
in an ancient tongue.

As the music came to climax, a great
wind arose around her.
A deafening stillness descended then,
abruptly ending the séance.

It was several minutes before Sigrid
broke the silence to speak.
“Be anxious no longer, for I have seen
the path our people must follow.”

“Golden horns will herald a battle
after an umbral moon.
An ancient feud will end when its children
bond in branch and blood.”  

“This I have divined thanks to
the gift which Freya has given me.
I believe we must battle the giants
to raid their winter rations.”

A mixed cheer went up among
the elves, but mostly murmurs.
The ice giants were foe, indeed,
but a raid in winter was risky.

“Odin sacrificed himself
upon the ash’s branch.
By this he gained great power
to wield over his enemies.”

“We too must be willing to
offer up our blood.
For in war we are united and
earn entrance to Valhalla.”

“In three weeks, the night wolf
will snare the moon in the sky.
When the eclipse passes, we
can defeat the giants forever.”

The elves hung on her every word
and began to cheer and chant.
Sigrid smiled at her sway with
the hunger of hot coals.

King Torsten tried to hide
a frown at what unfolded.
Though he did not doubt the prophecy,
a winter war seemed madness.

He wondered truly what design
his sister may hold secret.
“I must think on this,” he said
as people dispersed to feast.