On Erilaz – Runecarver ?

Something I have been intending to take a look at for some time is the meaning of ‘Erilaz’. It is a controversial term. Why?

Because its etymology and derivations are that of the warrior-aristocracy – ‘Jarl’, ‘Earl’; and yet if we look at its archaic attestations in various Runic inscriptions, it appears almost as if it is the self-designating title of the Runecarver. 

This has lead some to – understandably – impute that there is a ‘sacral’ function to the title. And others to insist the contrary. I do not think my modest contribution here is likely to set the debate to rest, but here is how I see things.

First and foremost – it is absolutely not denied that ‘Erilaz’ likely intended, at least most of the time, to refer to a member of the martial noble class (or ‘caste’ if you prefer). The subsequent occurrences we have for terms derived from it are completely correct in that respect. 

However, the notion that it therefore follows that all prior occurrences of ‘Erilaz’ must therefore have that same direct and ‘literal’ meaning is a curious one. Perhaps the men carving out these runes and performing the relevant rites to ’empower’ the weapons and amulets at issue were, indeed, members of the nobility who had a ‘dual competency’. Or perhaps these operations were undertaken by priestly sorts on behalf of powerful patrons who would then wield or otherwise make use of the items thus produced. The latter seems peculiar – the former ‘right’, but for potentially the wrong reasons. 

Certainly, we have reasonable attestation elsewhere in the Indo-European world for the men who would be priests also coming from what is otherwise an ‘aristocratic’ situation – the Roman ‘caste’ system with its Patrician families supplying both the literal ‘Patriarchy’ of Rome as well as various of its priestly stations, for instance; or, rather pointedly, the situation of the Pontifex Maximus as ‘Rex Sacrorum’ (‘Sacred King’) during the Roman Republic – a situation which conspicuously echoes other Indo-European occurrences wherein the King is, effectively, the High(est) Priest of the realm likewise. 

And certainly, if we examine, say, the Rigsthula’s allegorical presentation of the Nordic caste model – we find that it is Kon [the King – although the etymology of Kon is .. interesting and conceals something] that is granted not only the title that is his name, but also the divinely bestowed potency of being able to work with the Runes. And to be able to understand the Speech of the Birds – or, at least, one Bird in particular, that famously sagacious and divinely discoursing specimine, the Crow. The latter, in particular, may pertain to divinitory rites also – c.f the situation of Romulus & Remus’ divination competition involving carrion birds at the claiming of Rome’s first effective Kingship. 

However, we also find that Jarl, the ancestor / mythic archetype for the Jarl caste is taught the Runes by Rig (the divine progenitor of humanity in this understanding; with a name itself connoting ‘Regality’ (although perhaps one could suggest ‘Binding’ – like ‘Rigging’), and hailed in the verse as Rig Gangandi – ‘Rig the Wandering’ or ‘The Striding’), Who has likewise claimed the young Jarl as a Son. So certainly, there appears to be an understanding in the Germanosphere by the late Viking Age for the warrior aristocracy also encompassing, as of birthright, at least certain of those ‘priestly’ competencies. 

And this, we should perhaps expect – after all, if we turn our attention to the mythic segments of the Ynglinga Saga, we do not seem to observe any inherent contradiction between either Odin or Frey, or for that matter Njord, holding a sovereign’s position as Chief or King yet also having the competency and capacity to act as a priest. Indeed, in various cases, the acting as a priestly figure is what precedes acting as the regal one. 

So the notion of – at least ‘in potentia’ – the nobility performing performing sacral roles is not in any great doubt amidst the Nordic or Germanic sphere. Some of them evidently could do these things – and without particular acts, perhaps, being entirely concentrated within a ‘Priest’ caste as developed amidst the Vedic Aryans. But ‘some’ is not ‘many’ and even ‘many’ is not ‘all’. And I have absolutely no doubt that there existed quite a range of metaphysical operations which were not easily within the grasp of an ordinary member of the Jarl caste – to which he would have to turn to a specialized individual with the requisite competency to perform these either on his behalf, or with him. 

Said priestly sort would quite likely be noble-born himself – because it would not do to have a low-born commoner conducting such important operations; the inherent divinity of bloodline being in large measure precisely why the competency accrues in the first place within the relevant Germanic metaphysics. 

Now one of those aforementioned metaphysical operations, I suspect rather strongly, would be Rune-carving. At least in the early period of Runes’ utilization, in the first half of the 1st millennium A.D. 

This is because even if we were to presume that literacy and ability to write in the requisite script during this era was surprisingly widespread amidst the Germanics (i.e. concentrated not merely in the hands of a few individuals of a tribe from the aforementioned noble station), the ability to do so in the appropriately ritual / metaphysically empowering manner to make for a proper talismanic inscription would almost certainly be possessed only by a subset of those functionally literate. Certainly, to a standard and with concordant recognition that would afford others coming to the individual in question to commission their work for religious purposes. After all – just as one tends to prefer a builder or a doctor with qualifications that one can see, check, and if necessary verify … so, too, for something potentially quite ‘life and death’ as a runic device, one would prefer somebody who knows what they are doing (and are known to do so). 

Except whilst it would be quite straightforward to therefore presume that ‘Erilaz’ as it features in this or that Runic inscription is simply a declaration of the ‘caste’ background of the inscriber … even if it is accepted that a Priest, a Runecarver does come from the ‘Jarl’ caste, this ‘straightforward’ explanation does not get us very far at all. What is it about being an ‘Erilaz’ which renders it aptly appropriate as the term of self-referencing that we find on various of these archaic emplaced invocations? 

And the answer is – we must take a ‘functional perspective’ here. Not merely to nor towards the Priestly figures we may half-glimpse in our mind’s imaginings for an archaic Germanic Rune-inscribing rite … but for the entire clade of the Jarls as well.

Why is a Jarl a Jarl? 

On one level, because he’s born into the requisite caste. 

Except that absolutely does not answer why the ‘Jarl’ label is used. For the nobility, I mean – the much-aforementioned ‘warrior aristocracy’. 
Why not something like ‘Noble’ (from a Latin term – Nobilis – meaning ‘Distinguished’), or ‘Aristocrat’ (from a Greek term – Aristos – meaning ‘Best’; hence ‘The Best Men’)?
Or,, going further East – ‘Kshatriya’, which in relation to Sanskrit ‘Kshatra’ ( क्षत्र – ‘Rule’, ‘Regime’, ‘Dominion’), effectively means ‘Ruler’ [and there is something potentially interesting going on with the further-back etymology from PIE – but more upon that some other time, perhaps]. 

The Kshatriya example is interesting to us – because it is a case of a functional epithet. The Kshatriya is referred to as such because it is what he does. What does he do? He ‘rules’, he enforces the Rule. That is why he is a Kshatriya. It is not simply because he was born into such-and-such a family (and this goes into a far broader and eminently useful concept found in the Hindusphere, particularly in its more archaic ages, wherein it is both the ‘second birth’ of initiation into a Caste that actually confers its epithet and its responsibilities … as well as the actual taking up and  discharge of those responsibilities which renders one eligible to bear the title and its accordant respect. But those are discussions for another time.).

So what, then, is the ‘function’ which both informs and underpins a Jarl, an Earl, an Erlaz (Proto-Germanic proper) or an Erilaz (Proto-Norse) ?


Or, to phrase it in Old Norse – ‘Jara’ (compare ‘Jarl’ for the noble); in Proto-Germanic – ‘Ero’. 

This would fairly easily explicate the usage of ‘Erilaz’ and its derivatives for a member of the warrior aristocracy – but how does it help us to understand why ‘Erilaz’ can specifically designate a Rune-cunning one ably engaging on operations utilizing same? 

For this, it is useful to have a tangible exemplar. To which we shall turn in a moment. 

To phrase it succinctly – I suspect rather strongly that an element we have reasonably well-attested in the Vedic texts, wherein ritual operations often become a somewhat semi-symbolic battle between the ritualist and demonic forces, is also relevant for other Indo-European metaphysical understandings elsewhere. Except because it is only with the Vedic / Hindu religion that we actually have the extensively detailed commentaries and ‘operating manuals’ which allow us to look behind the simple and straightforward narrative presentations of myths to how these are to be applied … we are engaging in an exercise in ‘extrapolation’. 

From the Sakamedha sacrifice as explicated in the Shatapatha Brahmana:

“On the first day he offers a cake on eight potsherds to Agni Anikavat. For it was after shaping Agni into a sharp point, that the Gods rushed forward, intent on slaying Vrtra; and that sharp point, Agni, swerved not. And so does he (the Sacrificer) now rush forward, after shaping Agni into a sharp point, intent on slaying his wicked, spiteful enemy; and that sharp point, Agni, swerves not: this is why he sacrifices to Agni Anikavat.”

Elsewhere, as I have detailed to a certain extent in my previous work, we have Vedic priests carrying out key roles in other metaphysical combats that have occurred also in ritual circumstance – both in their initial manifestation, as well as the Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’ / ‘Mythic Resonance’ invocatory sense. As we can see from the aforementioned Sakamedha ritual instruction, the Myth being drawn from as the template may seem to have overtly martial character; although it should also be noted that in an array of circumstances, the Priest (or God – potentially also acting as a Priest) doing the fighting is either enhanced by or actively Themselves utilizing metaphysical (i.e. ‘priestly’) means to fight. With, for example, the Weapon of Trita Aptya – we are deliciously unsure whether the language utilized in various Vedic hymnals to refer to this designates simply the ‘Ancestral Songs’ (i.e. Hymnals, Mantras, Rites) that He is equipped with, or whether the weapon referred to in RV X 99 6 is a rather more tangibly ‘hard-pointed’ (Ayah-Agrah) one (a situation complicated by the ‘Vipa’ characteristic ‘spoken of’ in the verse alongside – but, again, for a future (A)Arti-cle of mine to consider). 

But to bring it back to the situation of the Erilaz – while we have no direct evidence to suggest a metaphysical combat is essential to the inscribing process, it is most certainly the case that an Erilaz is wielding a blade. Even if the blade in question is the inscriber’s chisel. 

A figurative parallel could also, perhaps, be inferred – the situation of the Jarl in warfare is not merely a ‘combatant’, a warrior fighting himself directly. Rather, it is as a leader of men and a marshaller of forces – the implementer, we may suggest, of the design congealed within his mind. The parallels for our runecarver are obvious. He, too, is a marshaller of forces – it is just that the forces in question are metaphysical ones rather than bodies of armed warriors. He, too, immanentizes out into the world in front of him a design which has congealed within his mind – only instead of formations and strategy with which manpower is to be maneuvered upon the war-field, he is carving out the design he has conceptualized. Making ‘operational’ what was previously ‘only’ mental and implicit. 

An Erilaz is, therefore, an Erilaz – not because he has been born into the ‘Jarl’ caste and is simply also co-occupying the title with his kin(d); but, rather, because he is doing something that is recognizably (if figuratively, perhaps) something that a Jarl does. Even if he is doing it on an entirely different plane in some respects to that which his more mundane relatives may so happen to habitually engage in as their duty and effective societal role. 

However, another possibility ought also to be considered herein.

Presuming for a moment that the etymology is accurate – Erilaz and Ero, Jarl and Jara should derive from Proto-Indo-European *h₃er : a term which, while it *can* connote both combat and ‘argument’, also includes in its definitional ambit the notion of ‘incitement’, ’empowerment’, ‘causing to move’ or ‘motion’, and something either ‘raised’ or ‘being raised’. I took a look at some of the more intriguing potential applications of *h₃er in “Artemis Orthia – The Inescapable Indo-European Goddess Of Cosmic Law ‘Midst The Mediterranean : Part Two – Tracking the Skeins of Fate Via The Golden Bowstring”, particularly in relation to ‘Furor’ qualities of Divine Inspiration, and shall not seek to repeat that here. 

Suffice to say we may regard the sense of *h₃er as ’empowering’ something to happen as eminently relevant here. A Jarl commanding an army ’empowers’ it – he brings it into being, he empowers it to do something (to move, particularly – to assume the shape of his design) when he issues his orders thereto, he empowers his ‘design’ to victory through his cunning and the force of arms that he has brought together to deploy and to command. An ‘Erilaz’, in the sense of a runecarver, is doing something similar – he is deploying, certainly, forces he has brought together (i.e. the Runes) according to his design … and, in so doing, he is ‘raising up’, ’empowering’, bringing to life (and ‘living’ in the sense of ‘motion’ – or, rather, ‘motion’ in the sense of ‘living, akin to the archaic rendering of ‘Quick’) not only the design, but the forces thusly entailed. This is why he is an Erilaz rather than a mere scribe – because when *he* inscribes these Runes, he brings them to life and ensures that they have the requisite force to them. Their status is ‘raised up’ and ’empowered’ from the mere scratchings of a sharp object upon stone or wood, to something which is a metaphysical pattern upon the surface of Reality Itself. Something done, we can safely presume, via rather more than simply carving them – consider the particular occurrence in Egil’s Saga [Green Translation]:

“The queen and Bard then mixed the drink with poison, and bare it in. Bard consecrated the cup, then gave it to the ale-maid. She carried it to Egil, and bade him drink. Egil then drew his knife and pricked the palm of his hand. He took the horn, scratched runes thereon, and smeared blood in them. He sang:

‘Write we runes around the horn,
Redden all the spell with blood;
Wise words choose I for the cup
Wrought from branching horn of beast.
Drink we then, as drink we will,
Draught that cheerful bearer brings,
Learn that health abides in ale,
Holy ale that Bard hath bless’d.’

The horn burst asunder in the midst, and the drink was spilt on the straw below.”

Or, phrased more succinctly – in response to suspected poison in his ale, Egil carries out a ‘short-form’ runecarving wherein a brief talisman is both inscribed and sung, and then empowered utilizing Egil’s own blood. Thus causing the drinking-vessel bearing the poison, and upon which the relevant words have been both spoken and scribed, to break and thus discharge its poison onto the floor rather than into his gullet. 

Now, as I say, this is likely an ‘on the fly’ style of empowerment – necessary, given the circumstances, which demanded a swift employment; and likely more viable precisely because it only had a single ‘job’ to do over such a constrained period of time. ‘Test’ for poison once (or, at least, for the duration of the drinking session), and then that would be that. This also may help to explicate why it’s Egil’s own blood that is utilized here – because the blood of another sacrificial victim would be rather hard to come by in such circumstances; although other interpretations are, of course, possible (including the possibility that it’s precisely because the talismanic effect is intended for him and keyed to him that his own blood – his own life force – that has rendered it ‘active’). 

More involved runic inscriptions for more enduring sites or more powerful devices would, of course, naturally entail more complicated ’empowerments’. These may include entire substantive rituals in sequence, featuring lengthier chants and invokings (perhaps done by multiple figures in a similar manner to various Vedic rites – where various different grades and specializations of priest are engaged to produce precisely this effect, particularly in the ‘dialogue hymns’ but also where some engage in more of a sustained ‘chorus’ whilst others fulfil more specialized roles interlocking with same) – and, we can hypothesize, rather grander styles of ‘offering’ of the material kind. 

Egil’s own blood from a minor and self-inflicted flesh-wound may have been sufficient to ’empower’ a small rune-row on a drinking horn for a limited-duration and heavily localized effect … but for a runestone expected to stand for centuries? A well-made weapon which might be in-service for years or even be passed down from father to son (whether for ceremonial usage or otherwise)? These must surely demand a grander commitment. 

There is an intriguing ‘economy’ of energy at play – a sort of ‘First Law of Thaumadynamics’ we may suggest – involved in the investiture of blood (or some other such force) to bring to ‘motion’ and ‘activity’ a Runic inscription. I coin it a ‘First Law of Thaumadynamics’ (‘Thauma’ (θαῦμᾰ), here, being a perhaps relevant Ancient Greek term – for magic, something miraculous, a wonder) to reference the famed First Law of Thermodynamics – the one wherein, at least in a closed system, energy is ‘conserved’. There is no ‘something for (or, for that matter, from) nothing’. In order for energy to be over there, it must have come from over here. Blood appears to be utilized precisely because it already bears energy, bears ‘life’ within it. In a Hindu ritual context, we have an array of substances which provide ‘life’ to proceedings in different contexts which may, perhaps, suggest scope for some degree of ‘alternative’ fuel sources – although that is speculation for another occasion. 

Now, sidereal reality is not necessarily just such a ‘closed system’. Indeed, we can fairly posit that the fact that the Runes are there as an application of a Divine template works precisely upon just such a ‘broadened understanding’. The Runes don’t simply work because they happen to have had a certain level of physical energy put into their inscription, alongside – it should seem – a certain level of metaphysical energy put into their empowerment via the investiture of blood (or, for that matter, mental energy engaged in their conceptualization, inscribing, and execution). But rather, those acts and energies are necessary to ‘tether’ things – to form a ‘knot’ at one end of almighty strands or threads which may then ‘draw down’ the power on an ongoing basis thereto. A Rune is, if you like, an Eliadian Eternal Return all its own – the small ‘Ansuz’ which we might inscribe, if properly empowered, being a ‘gateway’ for the energies of the supernal Ansuz (indeed, also for the energies that are in that general conceptual sphere – ‘Divinity’, for example) to come out and down into this world of ours in the immediate proximity of the Rune as we have drawn and empowered it. Even if improperly empowered – or not at all – there is still some degree of ‘resonancy’ between the rune found here in our world and drawn by our own hand, and the one which exists (indeed, more than exists) as an effective ‘pattern within Reality itself’ on high. 

The acts of empowerment undertaken by the Erilaz, therefore, effectively do their part to impute an ‘opening’ into the otherwise (mostly) closed system within which we are operating. Providing an ‘anchoring’ (a ‘grounding’ is perhaps better – lightning-bolts and other such electrical currents most definitely intentionally in mind) whereby some level of the relevant energies are able to emanate into said system. With a small-scale and simple ’empowerment’, the effect is more likely to be temporary and likely heavily localized. With a more involved, ornate, and substantive commitment of the requisite resource(s), grander outcomes are possible. A situation akin to the processes necessary for the invocation (er .. ‘ignition’) of nuclear fusion – wherein a certain level of energy investiture is necessary in order to initiate the fusion reaction in question, and ‘containment’ is also required in order to ensure that the resultant reaction doesn’t simply dissipate. Thus producing, once ‘ignition’ energy has been achieved in the requisite conditions of containment (‘focusing’ is perhaps more apt for what we are contemplating here) – a somewhat self-sustaining chain reaction. As with the nuclear analogy – an input of energy below that critical threshold is still going to produce some measure of ‘result’ ; something on the order of a ‘fission’ reaction or a mere conventional explosion in terms of our analogy. But let us move forward lest I become overly ‘entangled’ in my own series of analogies and hypothesized conceptual metaphysics. 

What we can state with reasonable certainty is that ‘Erilaz’ does not merely mean ‘person who can write’ nor hold a chisel. That there is something particular – and particularly powerful – connoted via its tangible and its tacit application in the inscriptions that have come down to us thus far.

It is easy to take the ‘obvious’ approach, put it together with its etymology and descended terms and those mentions from the Rigsthula, and conclude that it is simply a term for ‘Nobility’ which just so happens to also have been applied in a specific sense (or even not even that) by certain runecarvers. There is certainly some merit to that approach – we can see how and why members of this rarified ‘Erilaz’ clade are likely to have been similarly drawn, via birth, from the ‘Jarl’ caste as previously discussed; some might also suggest that the actions entailed in serious Runecarving express an intrinsic ‘nobility’ of spirit likewise.  Yet it seems to me that to presume that is all there is to it, would be to miss much – and also propose that, for the first time that I can think of, an archaic Nordic term is only, effectively, ‘single-dimensional’ rather than containing within it an intentionally intricate web of analogy and implicit definitional understanding of the sort which is evocatively invocative for the ‘essence’ of the concept. 

We have reasonable comparative evidence from elsewhere in the Indo-European sphere for the sense of a ‘Commander’ and ‘Combatant’ / ‘Battler’ being eminently relevant for a complex metaphysical working. The sense of ’empowerment’, even if it is something perhaps implicit in the etymology for the Proto-Nordic term rather than overtly intended at the time of the inscriptions utilizing the word which have come down to us, is also evidently incredibly relevant for a proper understanding of the Erilaz’s role (as a Runecarver) in bringing the Runes to life. 

As I say – I do not expect my work here to settle the ongoing disagreements in the academic sphere about what ‘Erilaz’ means in those context it has been found to occur within.

Yet in any case, it has hopefully helped to elucidate some vital approaches [‘Upasads’, indeed] with the Runes. 

2 thoughts on “On Erilaz – Runecarver ?

  1. You make an interesting point about the “combat” angle that I think ties into (explains?) the fact that the “Jarl” position seems to combine both the Brahmanic “cosmic-maintenance” function and the Kshatrayic “complete-man” function. If the maintenance of the cosmos is conceived of as a war (against evil), as inherently violent, it makes sense to not get upset about the warriors and the priests intermarrying (assuming for simplicity that firm bloodline differences ever existed). The end result after however long being the marriage of the first and second Dumezilian functions into one seemless whole, dedicated to physical and spiritual warfare as a unified profession of holistic violence.

    Maybe “a farmer is waging a war against hunger” is harder to justify when you can’t subsidize corn syrup production.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: On Erilaz – Runecarver ? – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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