Spine as Symbol in the Ancient World: Vikings – The Spine as the World Tree

The 13th Rune – Eihwaz – The Spine as the World Tree

This post takes us from Ancient Egypt to the land of the ice giants, elves, and dwarves. But as you’ll see, the symbolism of the spine as World Tree is abundantly clear, even more so than in Egypt. This post is intended as a continuation of a series, so before reading this post I suggest going back to my previous post in this series: SPINE AS SYMBOL IN THE ANCIENT WORLD: EGYPT – THE BACKBONE OF OSIRIS AS THE WORLD TREE

This story is mostly about the ancient magical symbols the early northern europeans developed at the end of the last ice age. These symbols work in a specific order, and it just so happens that there is a symbol that represent the spine, right in the middle of them all.

Aetts & Runes

what is an aett? An aett is a collection of 8 runes. There are three sets of 8 runes – making 24 in total. The runes go in a specific order, they aren’t random symbols, and each has a meaning associated with it. We don’t know for sure how old these symbols are. The runes themselves are quite ancient. But the organization of them into three sets of eight as the Elder Futhark probably happened in the second century under the influence of the Etruscans.

The runes themselves are far more ancient than the alphabetical Etruscan influenced Elder Futhark. They had nothing to do with writing and everything to do with magic. As you can see if you look them up, certain runes correspond to certain Latin style alphabet letters. But the order is completely different. The first rune looks like an F, which is what it represents, but not as much like an F as the fourth rune. The rune for M looks like an M, but not as much as the preceding rune, which looks exactly like an M, but stands for E.

If all that sounds confusing, it sort of is. But then, these were ancient symbols that preceded agriculture. They were never intended to be an alphabet by their original developers. E looks more like an M, because it is Ehwaz – Horse – and the M shape looks like the back of a horse.

Each of the three aetts corresponds to an evolutionary journey of the individual. The first is the path of knowledge that leads to a happy life. It finishes out with the rune Wunjo – which means joy. The second is the path of transformation. It begins with Nauthiz – the rune we get the word “nothing” from. The third set of runes is the pathway towards spiritual ascension and ends with the rune Othala,  the rune of spiritual inheritance.

The Second Aett

Each of the aetts is also represented by a god. For the second aett this god is Heimdall. Heimdall is the guardian of the Bifrost bridge. But Heimdall is also the personification of the World Tree known as Yggdrasil.

Rune 13 is just off center of the second set of eight. It is Eihwaz, the yew tree. While some have translated the old stories to ascribe the Ash tree to the identity of Yggdrasil, there is far more evidence that Yggdrasil was actually a Yew tree. This ranges from additional linguistic and mythic evidence, to a wild explanation for the story of how Odin received the runes on a magic journey.

Odin hung himself as a sacrifice on Yggdrasil for 9 days and nights.

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there

The yew tree emits a toxic vapor that can act as a hallucinogen. In all likelihood, Odin was a real person who practiced an ancient form of magic and became known as a god for his contributions of knowledge. The yew toxin is quite an irritant. I’ve had a few run ins with it myself while woodworking. It’s very uncomfortable and Odin is lucky to have lived.

Eihwaz and the Spine

In addition to representing the world tree, transformational fire, the eternal, and guardianship, Eihwaz represents the spinal column and the soul.

Most of the association for Eihwaz come through the lore of the Yew tree and its link to the great World Tree Yggdrasil.  As the yew it represents transformation, eternal life, inner change and endurance.  As the World Tree it is the Axis Mundi, the central column which joins and unites the worlds, the pillar of creation and the manifestation of the present moment.

Similarites to Egypt

In Egypt the pillar representing the spine and world tree was erected during an annual agricultural fertility ceremony. In the Elder Futhark, the rune Jera, which means “Year” stands for the annual cycle and the harvest. It precedes the Eihwaz rune. The Rune Perthro, which represent the Norns or fate goddesses, follows it.

For the Norse, the Fates are extremely powerful, but can be influenced. The future was not set in stone. What you have with these three runes, in order, is a cycle of renewal and transformation that can attract the blessings of fate if you act well. The central pillar of that transformational ability is the human spine and nerve system. That spine was represented in the Viking world by a rune representing the World Tree Yggdrasil.


Main Photo by Sam Bark on Unsplash


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