Little can be gleaned from the writings of classical authors
on the subject, but manuscripts of the Middle Ages by such writers
as Snorri Sturluson and Saemund Sigfússon (The Eddas)
and Saxo Grammaticus, and such epics or pseudohistories as
The Nibelungenlied, shed some light on Teutonic magic practice
and beliefs.
From these writers one can arrive at several basic conclusions
(1) that magic with the Teutons was nonhierophantic,
and was not the province of the priesthood, as with the Celtic
Druids, for example; (2) that women were its chief conservators;
and (3) that it principally resided in the study and elucidaTetford,
William N. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
tion of the runic script. In the same manner as in early Egypt
it was part and parcel of the ability to decipher the hieroglyphic
It seems that all kinds of people dabbled in the practice of
magic, and, to a great extent, sorcery was principally the province
of women. Perhaps only those who could read the runes—
that is, those who could read at all—were able to undertake the
study of the occult, and therefore the unlettered warrior too
restless to study was barred from all participation in the subject.
Women in all ranks of life seem to have been addicted to the
practice of sorcery, from the queen on the throne to the wisewoman
or witch dwelling apart from the community. Thus the
mother-in-law of Siegfried bewitches him by a draught, and
scores of similar stories could be imagined.
Generally ancient Teutonic magic was not very high; it was
greatly hampered by human considerations and much at the
mercy of the human element on which it acted and the very
human desires that called it forth. In many cases it was rendered
useless merely by the cunning of the object upon which
it was wreaked. It does not seem to have risen very much above
the type of sorcery in vogue among primitive peoples in modern
times. It is surprising, with all these weaknesses, how powerful
a hold sorcery had upon the popular imagination, which
was literally drenched with belief in the supernatural.
In its various forms—German rune, Anglo-Saxon run, Icelandic
run—the word is derived from an old Low German word
raunen (to cut or to carve), since the runes in ancient times were
invariably carved instead of written. It later came to designate
the characters themselves.
Comparatively few people were able to decipher the runes,
and the elucidation was left to the curious, the ambitious
among the females, and the leisured few in general, perhaps
including priests and lawmen. Consequently the power to decipher
runes was a mysterious gift venerated among ordinary
people who believed that the ability to elucidate them meant
the reader possessed magic powers. The possessors of this ability
maximized it so the belief in their prowess would flourish. A
certain amount of patience and natural ability were necessary
for mastery of such an intricate script, and the tradition that
they were connected with sorcery lingered long in some parts
of Iceland.
In later times the word runes came to be applied to all the
alphabetical systems employed by the Teutonic peoples before
the introduction of Christianity. Their origin is obscure; some
authorities deny that it is Teutonic and assert that the runes are
merely a transformation or adaptation of Greek characters,
others that they have a Phoenician or even cuneiform origin.
That they are of non-Teutonic origin is inferred from their
strong resemblance to other scripts. It has also been argued
that it was unlikely that they could have been invented by the
Teutonic race given their state of organization and learning at
the time the runes first came into general use.
Runes have been divided into three systems—English, German,
and Scandinavian—but the difference between these is
merely local. They were not employed in early times for literary
purposes, but for inscriptions only. Runes were usually found
on stone monuments, weapons, implements, and personal ornaments
and furniture. In England, runic inscriptions are
found in the north only, where Scandinavian influence was
The first symbols of the runic alphabet are for the letters f,
ú, th, ó, r, and c. For this reason the order of the runic letters
is not called an alphabet but a futhorc. The system is symbolic.
Thus the first letter pictures the head and horns of an ox, and
is called feoh after that animal; the second is called ur, the word
for bull; the third, thoru (tree), then os (door); rad (saddle); and
caen (torch). The runes were probably derived or evolved from
a purely pictorial system in which the figures of the animals or
objects stood for the letters of the alphabet.
Since runes were carved, some connection may be possible
between the Anglo-Saxon secgan (to say), and the Latin word secare
(to cut), especially since secret signatures were made by
merely cutting a chip from a bark manuscript. The old meaning
of the word spell was ‘‘thin chip or shaving.’’ The Roman
historian Tacitus mentioned that in Teutonic divination, a rod
cut from a fruit-bearing tree was cut into slips, and the slips,
having marks on them, were thrown onto a white garment to
be taken up with prayer to the gods and interpreted as they
were taken. A special use of light cuttings for such fateful crossreadings,
or ‘‘Virgilian lots,’’ may have given the word spells its
particular association with the words of the magician.
Belief in Nature Spirits
Among the lesser figures of mythology who were believed to
have direct contact with ancient Teutonic peoples and assist
them, or were connected with them in the practice of magic,
were the duergar, or dwarfs, trolls, undines, nixies, and other
spirits. Belief in them was distinctly animistic. The people believed
that dwarfs and trolls inhabited the recesses of the
mountains, caves, and the underworld. Nixies and undines
were said to dwell in the lakes, rivers, pools, and inlets of the
sea. In general these were friendly to humans, but objected to
more than occasional intercourse with them.
Although not of the class of supernatural beings who obeyed
humans in answer to magical summonses, these, especially the
dwarfs, often acted as instructors in the arts of magic. Many instances
of this are found in tales and romances of early Teutonic
The dwarfs were usually assisted by adventitious aids in their
practice of magic, such as belts that endowed the wearer with
strength (like that worn by the dwarf ‘‘Laurin’’), shoes for swiftness
(analogous to the seven-league boots of folk tale), caps of
invisibility, and so forth.
Witchcraft was much more in favor among the northern
Teutons than it was in Germany, and this circumstance has
been attributed to their proximity to the Finns, a race notorious
for its propensities toward magic. In Norway, Orkney, and
Shetland, the practice of sorcery seems to have been almost exclusively
in the hands of Finnish women. There is little doubt
that the Finns exercised upon the Teutons of Scandinavia the
mythic influence of a conquered race; that is, they took full advantage
of the terror inspired in their conquerors by an alien
and unfamiliar religion and ritual in which magic was an integral
The principal activities of Teutonic witchcraft were the raising
of storms, the selling of pieces of knotted rope (each knot
representing a wind), divination and prophecy, and acquiring
invisibility. Since the sea was the element of the people, it became
the chief element of the witch of the northern Teutons.
Thus in the saga of Frithjof, the two sea witches Heyde and Ham
ride the storm and are sent by Helgi to raise the tempest that
will drown Frithjof. They take the shapes of a bear and a stormeagle.
In the saga of Grettir the Strong, a witch-wife, Thurid,
sends adrift a magic log that comes to Grettir’s island. The log
leads to his downfall.
In the north of Scotland, the Teutonic and Celtic systems of
magic may be said to have met and fused, but not to have
clashed, since their many points of resemblance outweighed
their differences.
Animal transformation also played a considerable part in
Teutonic magic and witchcraft. In early Germany the witch
(hexe) seems to have also acquired the characteristics of a vampire.
Second Sight
The Teutons seem to have excelled in prophecy and divination;
the practice was more widespread among the northern
Teutons than the southern. Prophetic utterance was usually inEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Teutons
duced by ecstasy, but it was not the professional diviner alone
who was capable of supernatural vision. Anyone under stress of
excitement, and particularly if near death, might become fey
(prophetic), and great attention was invariably paid to utterances
made while the person was in this condition. (See also
Holland and Germany)
Berger, H. A. Nordische Mythologie. Zittau & Leipzig, Germany,
Bugge, E. S. The Home of the Eddic Poems. London David
Nutt, 1899.
Elliott, Ralph W. Runes An Introduction. New York Barnes
& Noble, 1971. Reprint, Greenwood Press, 1981.
Golther, W. Religion und Mythus der Germanen. Leipzig, 1909.
Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. 4 vols. London G. Bell,
Kauffmann, D. F. Northern Mythology. London Dent, 1903.
Meyer, E. H. Germanische Mythologie. Berlin, 1891.
Stephens, George. The Old-Northern Runic Monuments of
Scandinavia and England. 2 vols. London, 1866–68.
———. Prof. S. Bugge’s ‘‘Studies on Northern Mythology’’ Shortly
Examined. London Williams & Norgate, 1883.
Wilken, Ernst. Die Prosaische Edda. Paderhorn, Germany,