Reprinted from "Rainbow Wind" Magazine
The third rune of the third aett bears the reconstructed Common Germanic name Ehwaz. Later, its name became Aihws in Gothic (note how archaic Gothic is), and still later, Eh in Anglo-Saxon. If you remember that “k” in Indo-European changed to “h” in Germanic, it’s easy to see that Ehwaz is a close cognate to the Latin “equus,” meaning of course, “horse.” We have borrowed the Latin word “equine,” meaning “having to do with horses,” is a borrowing from the Latin and a good way to remember the name of this rune. the sound associated with this rune is that of the letter “E,” but in its “continental” value; that is “eh” or even “ayy” (as enunciated by Fonzie on Happy Days). Still, many use this letter for writing the English letter “E” without creating confusion. The important thing is to make a clear distinction in pronunciation between “Ehwaz,” the horse-rune and Eihwaz or Ihwaz, the yew-rune.
Since Ehwaz did not carry over into the Younger Futhark, only the Old English Rune Poem has a verse for it. Isa, as “Is” filled in for both letters in the Younger Futhark. The OERP describes horses being a joy for princes, all in a battle context. “And it (the horse) is always a comfort to the restless.” That is true enough. The bond between humans and horses is a deep, ancient and enduring one. Although they are of no particular use in most cases today, having been replaced by the internal combustion engine in a culture that refuses to consume horseflesh (our Heathen forebears and modern Icelanders were/are avid horse-eaters), we still keep them around! Riding programs for the handicapped are very therapeutic, and a prison-based horse-training program has transformed for the better some of our worst criminals!
This rune has a certain special significance for me after twelve years of living in Fayette County, Kentucky, the center of the US horse industry. Even as I write, over 100 life size fiberglass horses, painted in a variety of colors and patterns, decorate the sidewalks of the main streets of our city.
Magical and divinatory meanings for Ehwaz include horse, journey, process, faithfulness, trust, dependability, transformation, loyalty, dignity, vacations, orderly change, travel for fun, seeking, driving, and piloting. Horses were the main means of land transport in the North. This continued into this century in Iceland. I’m not talking about stagecoaches, just plain horseback riding. Horses have plenty of loyalty and trust in them. They’ll let you ride them to death or take them into danger. Mules and donkeys know better! Horses are a symbol of male sexuality. The term “horse-hung” says it all. The relationship between humans and horses is based on mutual trust and respect. This must be earned, for a gift looks for a gift, as the Havamal says. This should surprise no one as the horse is most associated with the God Ingvi Frey.
The horse had a great many spiritual connotations in Germanic (and also in the related Celtic) cultures. Horses were carved into hillsides in Britain. There are still “horse whisperers” around who can communicate with and tame horses via mysterious means. Odin rides Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse. Horses were especially associated with Frey. There was evidently also a pair of twin horse-riding Gods in Heathen Germany. Little information about them has survived. I’d like to hear more about them. Sometimes horses pulled the carts carrying traveling Deity images; although cattle were used, according to Tacitus, to draw the cart of the Vanic Earth Goddess Nerthus, who was evidently forgotten by the Viking Age but has made a big comeback in contemporary Heathenry. Sacred horses were sometimes kept in his Ves (sacred enclosures), and horse behavior, according to Tacitus, was used as a form of divination.
Some folks were wont to run naked with the horses at night. This is related to the concept of “shape-shifting,” in which of course the physical form does not change (our religion does not contradict the laws of physics), but rather one assumes the “hyde” or astral form of the animal, along with some of its might and characteristics. There were three groups of warriors; Berserkers, Ulfhednar, and Svinfylking, whose totems were the Bear, Wolf, and Wild Boar, respectively. They sought a divine ecstasy though synthesis with their totem animal. The Sheils again warn us that the Ulfhednar were a dangerous lot and their “order” was phased out as society became more stable. Evidently, the ravening, on-the-attack wolfish persona eventually took over (I know there are other wolf personas as well), leading to eventually insanity. My own take on this is that folks working with wolf totems should watch for signs of problems, but continue the relationship in the meanwhile! If you go run with the horses, especially in the nude, get permission first, or else you’ll really have to watch out for the police and/or the horse farm security officers!
Horse phalluses may have been used in religious worship; with scurrilous verses recited to it. The rite was dedicated to Frey, or perhaps the “Mornir,” which may be Jotun-wives. While the historicity of this is iffy (the story is in the Sagas but is of dubious veracity, I remember one after-blot chat session which turned into an exchange of dirty jokes. I started hoisting my horn (no mummified horse-phallus was handy, I'm sorry to say) and saying “may the Mornir accept this sacrifice.” Some interesting and pleasant things occurred in the week following that impromptu sumbel. You may want to try it yourself sometime!
The Sheils note that the horse is a symbol of the subconscious, and state that the “emotional” mind is the horse upon which the conscious Self rides. In this way, Ehwaz ties into Laguz, the water-rune. I think they are onto something here, seeing horses as symbolizing the subconscious. Horses are as dumb as rocks for the most part, but have plenty of emotions. Thoroughbreds, our Kentucky specialty, are particularly neurotic.
Ehwaz, the horse-rune, takes us on our spiritual journey of inner transformation. Just as Odin rides Sleipnir, this rune can lead us into the inner realms of our being. Inner insight and growth are the vehicles of inner change as we explore (and experience) the Mysteries of our religion. Other runes involved in this journey are Sowilo (evolution), Perthro (seeking), and inspiration (Ansuz). These set the stage for Ehwaz. Elhaz imparts the will toward transformation. Elhaz is a reaching up to draw the energies of Asgard into oneself. When invoking the Gods and Goddesses, many of us stand with our arms raised and legs together, transforming our bodies into the form of the rune Elhaz. Hence, Elhaz and Ehwaz are in sympathy, while Tiwaz and Elhaz are opposites. Tiwaz is offensive, Elhaz defensive. Ehwaz is when we begin, as it were, our transformational spiritual journey to the Divine Realms. The human and the divine conditions differ in degree more than in kind, and in the spiritual journey, we begin the process of ascent to the Gods themselves. Some have called this the “spear wound” after Odin’s self-sacrifice on Yggdrasil, while in more contemporary language it has been called "a spiritual emergency." It can be very upsetting to put it mildly, but I can personally testify that in the long run, the journey is worth it!
The Sheils also report a relationship of opposites between Tiwaz and Ehwaz. Tiwaz brings the will of Asgard to Midgard (think of divine justice). Ehwaz is the upward journey from Midgard to Asgard that is the Heathen’s spiritual journey. Their actions, while opposite, are both necessary. This will to journey toward the Divine Powers is the path to inner peace. The “horse” is our companion and means of transport. We must bring all parts of the multipartite “Self” into harmony as the journey proceeds in order for it to succeed. Thus, our spiritual path is a way toward wholeness. Ehwaz, the spirit-horse, is within us as well as our vehicle. It provides the strength to make this journey. We choose to accept the call to the initiatory journey, even if that be under considerable duress at times. We can to some extent choose the course and pace. We are somewhat at least “in the driver’s seat.” In this sense, Ehwaz as a rune of travel differs from Raidho, in which one is merely a passenger. The parts of the self just mentioned include the subconscious and the “hyde” or whatever name you give to the part of the self which journeys in seidhr and spae-work.
Ehwaz thus has much to say to seidhr-folk. It is a rune of journey, not of conquest. It seeks discovery and the establishment of friendly contacts, including power plants andanimals, and other wights who help us seidhr-folk in our workings. It works just as well in these tasks right here in our “mundane” lives in Midgard. Use Ehwaz to find true and trustworthy friends and allies. It can also help to obtain transportation, and to smooth along virtually any process.
All in all, Ehwaz is a rune of peace, leading to paths that will permit the accomplishment of a goal through non-confrontational means. For those given more to spiritual battles, it can also help the individual find places where he or she can follow that path. Thus, Ehwaz can be a war-horse as well, as seen in the Old English Rune Poem. Remember while Heathenism does not encourage gratuitous violence, it nevertheless sensibly and pragmatically recognizes that conflict is a part of life, including spiritual life. Those three groups of animal-totem warriors mentioned earlier come to mind, as do the Zen-influenced Samurai of old Japan, who sought spiritual enlightenment in the ecstasy of battle.
This rune merits much exploration, and can lead to unexpected places!
At the Well of Wyrd by Edred Thorsson (for the translations of the Rune Poems).
A Book of Troth by Edred Thorsson (for his explanation of the different parts of the Self).
Germania by Tacitus (originally published in 98 C.E.)!
The Road to Bifrost volume III: the Runes and Holy Signs by Thorr and Audrey Sheil; more of whose works can be found at http://members.aol.com/OnkelThorr; along with a lot of other interesting goodies.
Here are some comments by my friend and linguistic consultant, Ingeborg S. Norden:
Hail Jordsvin (and my other rune-minded friends)!
Just a few comments to add to the article:
Even when you consider that motors have replaced live horses for transportation these days, there is still something of the Ehwaz rune about those high-tech vehicles. People still measure motor strength in "horsepower" (those of us who haven't gone 100% metric, anyway). Some vehicle owners (especially bikers) also treat them like living things: giving them proper names and caring for them near-religiously. (Sounds like the saga heroes who owned special horses, doesn't it?) If you want a look at the dark side of Ehwaz in a high-tech world, though, I'd read Stephen King's _Christine_...about the demon-possessed car. Ehwaz as close partnerships in general...I agree with you there. Heroes in the lore did treat their horses almost as equals, not just a tool for getting around--and the horse returned the favor, more often than not. Looking at the _Volsungasaga_ again, I can't help thinking of Sigurd's horse Grani; it wouldn't accept any other rider, and even died voluntarily on Sigurd's funeral pyre. The relationship between those two makes me think of an old Beatles song: "I get by with a little help from my friends..." Ehwaz as related to shapeshifting, and to spirituality: I recall a play (Peter Shaeffer's _Equus_...surprise, surprise!) in which the hero is a teenage boy, sentenced to psychiatric treatment after blinding several horses at a riding stable. The boy is sexually repressed, raised by a strict Christian mother and a militant atheist father. His obsession with horses arises after the father discards a gory painting of Jesus in the boy's bedroom, replacing it with an innocuous-looking photograph of a horse. Eventually, the boy's private rituals evolve into a bizarre, pseudo-Christian horse cult: he sneaks into the riding stable at night, prays to one particular horse as a god, and rides it nude. (The boy's mother had read to him that some cultures mistook men on horseback for a single creature...and some mistook them for gods.) None of the imagery in that play is Germanic, but it does teach about the dangers of identifying TOO strongly with animals in a ritual context--especially at the wrong time and place! *WHEW* When you've been studying runes for 14 years, a single rune can conjure up MANY images and ideas. You probably won't be able to quote all of this on your web site, but feel free to use any part you see fit (after giving me the credit, of course).
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Ehwaz as close partnerships in general...I agree with you there. Heroes in the lore did treat their horses almost as equals, not just a tool for getting around--and the horse returned the favor, more often than not. Looking at the _Volsungasaga_ again, I can't help thinking of Sigurd's horse Grani; it wouldn't accept any other rider, and even died voluntarily on Sigurd's funeral pyre. The relationship between those two makes me think of an old Beatles song: "I get by with a little help from my friends..."
Ehwaz as related to shapeshifting, and to spirituality: I recall a play (Peter Shaeffer's _Equus_...surprise, surprise!) in which the hero is a teenage boy, sentenced to psychiatric treatment after blinding several horses at a riding stable. The boy is sexually repressed, raised by a strict Christian mother and a militant atheist father. His obsession with horses arises after the father discards a gory painting of Jesus in the boy's bedroom, replacing it with an innocuous-looking photograph of a horse. Eventually, the boy's private rituals evolve into a bizarre, pseudo-Christian horse cult: he sneaks into the riding stable at night, prays to one particular horse as a god, and rides it nude. (The boy's mother had read to him that some cultures mistook men on horseback for a single creature...and some mistook them for gods.) None of the imagery in that play is Germanic, but it does teach about the dangers of identifying TOO strongly with animals in a ritual context--especially at the wrong time and place!
*WHEW* When you've been studying runes for 14 years, a single rune can conjure up MANY images and ideas. You probably won't be able to quote all of this on your web site, but feel free to use any part you see fit (after giving me the credit, of course).