Ehwaz – The horse rune

Norse mythology

Published 13 June 2024
- By Editorial Staff
The Ehwaz rune on "Odin Rides to Hel" by W. G. Collingwood, 1908 (colorized by TNT).

ᛖ – Ehwaz, is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of the e-rune with the IPA sound value of [e(ː)].

Its literal meaning is certainly “horse” – and the symbolism of the rune, according to the legends, is very closely associated with Odin and travel between the worlds, especially the worlds associated with death.


This article is part of our exclusive series on the origins and secrets of the Nordic runes in the Elder Futhark and the merits of the intriguing Uthark theory proposed by the Swedish philologist Sigurd Agrell, professor at Lund University, Sweden.

The Uthark is a secret cipher, based on positioning the Fehu rune at the end of the rune row, like an ace in a deck of cards, revealing esoteric philosophy reaching deep into the heart of Norse culture and religious beliefs.


Meaning and interpretation

The shape of the ᛖ-rune has been noted by some to resemble the back of a horse. Further into the past, it is believed that the horse was associated with death among the Norse, much as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse appear in Biblical mythology. Among other things, it is said that the Norse saw the horse as a “fylgja” for man – that is, a protective spirit that accompanied man through life and into death. One of several theories for the horse’s symbolic association with death is that the earlier Indo-European waves of largely horse-borne people to Europe may have had a terrifying effect on the indigenous people of the time, to whom some researchers believe the horse was more unknown.

The god Hermod kneeling before Hel, the Norse goddess of the dead in the realm of Hel in an illustration from 1090 by the English artist and illustrator John Charles Dollman. In this scene, Hermod asks for the return of the soul of the god Baldr to life. Hel consents on the condition that everything in the Nine Realms of Norse cosmology should weep for Baldr. When the giantess Throk refuses, Baldr had to remain in the afterlife.

Professor Sigurd Agrell’s theory about the special numerical magic of the runes resonates very clearly with Ehwaz as the 18th rune. It is clear that Odin is associated with the number 18 in countless contexts. For example, Odin’s troll songs are all 18, and according to the Eddic song Vafþrúðnismál, Odin asks the jötunn (giant) Vafþrúðnir 18 questions. Odin as a wizard with a magic staff is also a motif in old black art books. His staff is called Gapallder, whose number of extended spikes is indeed 18. In an old Anglo-Saxon book of medicin it is also said about Odin: “then Woden took nine divination sticks, then he struck the adder snake so that it flew into nine pieces” – again alluding to 9 and 18.

Nine being the number of the norns and the most significant number of all is represented by Nauthiz.

The connection of the Ehwaz rune with death is also rooted in the hints that Odin may have been regarded as a god of death in earlier times. The magical eight-footed horse Sleipner transported the Aesir between the nine worlds in general, but in particular to and from the underworld Hel. In the book Gylfaginning, Hel is introduced in chapter 3 as a location where “evil men” go upon death, and into Niflhel. The text further details that Hel is in the ninth of the Nine Worlds. Snorri Sturlason writes that Hel was cast down into Hel by Odin who “made her ruler over Nine Worlds“.

Tacitus also states that Mercury is the highest god among the Germans, corresponding to Odin, and notably Mercury accompanies the dead to the realm of the underworld.

Place names based on Odin are also common in Sweden, the most famous being Odenplan in the capital Stockholm, but also places such as Odensala in Östersund in northern Sweden and Onslunda in Scania in southern Sweden.

Symbolism and magical use

The very close connection between runic magic and numerological mysticism in the Mithraic cult of the Roman Empire is also reflected in the Ehwaz rune. According to the Mithraic monthly calendar, the symbol M stood for the number 18.
It is also known that the horse was held in high esteem by Celts, Romans, and Slavs – and that the Greeks made special sacrifices of the horse to deities associated with death.

The central supreme deity of the cult, Mithra, bears a striking resemblance to Odin and is accompanied by two ravens, like Odin’s Hugin (“thought”) and Munin (“memory”). Mithra also creates the material world in a way reminiscent of how the Aesir cut the giant Ymer into pieces after he was nourished by the primordial cow Auðumbla. Ymer’s teeth then become the mountains, the blood the oceans, and the hair the forests. Mithra instead kills the “primeval bull” – from whose body the world is created.

Mithra and the primordial bull from which the world is created, depicted in a Roman statue from around 100-200 AD, exhibited at the Galerie du Temps at the Louvre-Lens. Photo: Ottaviani/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to some historians, the Mithraic religion also had a strong foothold among Roman legionaries in areas bordering Germania, and it is speculated that this may have been a major reason for the influence of Mithraism on the symbolism of the runes and the Norse mythology in general.

The Kårstad inscription

On a runic stone found in 1927 in Stryns municipality Norway, first dated to 200-400 AD (later postponed), there is a spectacular inscription consisting of a total of 18 runes in 2 rows of 12 and 6 runes respectively. At the top we find a swastika (sun cross) and the stone is also decorated with several boats.

The inscription from Kårstad, Norway.

The carving reads as follows:
ᛖᚲᚫᛚᛃᚫᛗᚫᚱᚲᛁᛉᛒᚫᛁᛃᛁᛉ
ekaljamarkiR baijiR or ekaljamarkR baijR
I AljamarkiR (=stranger) (am) the magician (=the cult speaker)

There is some doubt about the interpretation, but professor Agrell’s interpretation has been highlighted on Wikipedia and describes in detail several possible gematric connections found on other artifacts with swastikas. Agrell also suggests that there may well be significant symbolism with reference to Odin as well as Njord and Ing. We will look at this in more detail in the article on Ing.

The first rune in the first line starts with the Ehwaz rune ᛖ.
The total number of runes is 18 and the sum of all runes counted with the numerical values of the Uthark is 180, which happens to be the Ehwaz rune, Odin’s rune, times the numerical value of the Is rune, the rune of death (18*10).

Rune researcher Magnus Stenlund believes that it is clear that the magic spell invokes the god of death Odin and his magical help to the earthly wizard who carved the runes.

The spell is very similar to many other gematric formulas on other artifacts. For example, the Björketorp stone has a similar numerological death spell in the form of 10 runes with a total numerical value of 100.

The Seax of Beagnoth also has 17 runes and is based on 17 with a numerical value around 17. The Scania bracteate is similarly given 15 runes with the help of binding runes and has the same number 15 hidden in the sum of the runes.

The same applies to a number of artifacts that we have described in the series, where we usually find the numbers 13 and 24 together with the individual “focus number”.

The eight-legged horse Sleipnir on the Tjängvide stone (Tjängvidestenen), dated to between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the Völund stone (Völundstenen), the eighth and most famous of the Ardre stones (Ardrestenarna).
Photo: Statens Historiska Muséum/CC BY 2.5

Divination

As the rune that takes us to the underworlds of death, Ehwaz in a rune reading can especially allude to something that lies beneath the surface, and either an opportunity or a necessity to discover repressed or unconscious sides of ourselves – or our surroundings.


The basics of rune divination

According to Norse belief, the runes represent aspects of the web of destiny, called the web of Urd (Wyrd). This web is intimately connected to time and the three Norns; Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. The Norns are weaving the threads of the web and represent what was, what is and what is to come.

Tacitus, among others, noted that rune divination was a widespread practice among the Norse. One of the most basic forms of such divination is to pray and draw three runes on twigs or cards which will signify the three Norns. By reading the web of Urd one may understand the present of Verdandi as well as the past, and also lift the veil of Skuld and see what lies hidden in the future.


For example, an upright Ehwaz can suggest that we will get the answer to a long-hidden secret, and that we will feel relief and joy about it.

An upside down Ehwaz rune may suggest a delusion stemming from hiding or denying something – and a fear of being found out. Again, it is important not to read the rune too strictly. Ehwaz can suggest that what has been swept under the rug will come out against our will – but that this can also be a “devil in disguise” that ultimately brings us to reconciliation with our past.

Discover the following rune Mannaz – The rune of man

The Nordic Times

 

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