Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ðorn / Þorn (Thorn)

Ðorn Þorn (Thorn)


It occurred to me, as I watched the conservators cleaning dirt from the soft gold of a part of the Staffordshire Hoard with an actual organic thorn, what an evocative word this is. 

A thorn is the English name given to a sharp, woody spine produced by a number of plants, notably;
  •  Hawthorn (Hagaðorn), Crataegus monogyna (also called Quickthorn and Whitethorn) .Used since ancient times as a protective hedge, its Anglo-Saxon name means ‘Hedge Thorn’. Its name recalls the spear-wielding anti-hero Hagen of Götterdämmerung. Its musky-smelling white blossom, the ‘May’, was used to decorate May-poles and to make garlands for the ‘May-Queen’. Its red berries were considered to have apotropaic qualities. It was part of the mystic triad of trees; the Oak, Ash and Thorn.
  • Blackthorn (Slaþorn), Prunus spinosa (also called the Sloe). Also used to create a dense, impenetrable hedge.
The Old English word ðorn þorn is identical with the Old Norse þorn. The word can also mean spike, including the spike of a buckle.
It derives from the Proto-Germanic *thurnuz from the Proto-Indo-European *trnus and the P.I.E. root *-tar meaning to go through, penetrate.

Myths record an association betwixt the thorn and a charmed sleep. In the Grimm's Fairy Tale, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the princess is pricked by a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. An impenetrable thorn hedge grows up around her palace until the day when her destined prince arrives to wake her.
Similarly, in Germanic myth, the ex-valkyrie, Brynhild is pricked with a svefnþorn (sleep-thorn) and falls into an enchanted sleep to await the arrival of Siegfried.

When it first came to be written down, Old English borrowed most of its letters from the Latin but for some common sounds in the Germanic languages, there were no equivalent Latin letters. Thus the Anglo-Saxons took characters from their own runic script resulting in the letter Ð / ð (called thæt) for the voiceless ‘th’ and the letter Þ / þ (called thorn) for the voiced ‘th’ sound. As the language evolved the fine distinction between the two was lost and the letters were used almost interchangeably. When the Scandinavians eventually took to writing, they borrowed the Old English script but, in the case of the þ-rune, they kept the old meaning.
In Old Common Germanic runes, the þ-rune is called Þurisaz, changed to Þurs in Old Norse. A ðyrs / þurs is an evil ogre, an ettin (jötunn) or giant, one of the enemies of the gods. In Norse Mythology, the giant Hrungnir was said to have a heart of stone, sharp-edged and triangular in shape. On the Skane Bracteate, the Þ rune is triangular, and thus this symbol is often called ‘Hrungnir’s Heart’.

Further understanding can be gained from examination of the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, the Norwegian Rune Poem and the Icelandic Rune Poem.
Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.

The thorn is grievously sharp,
an evil thing for any warrior to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.
Although called thorn here, the description is apt both for the plant and the dire enemies of the gods; no good ever came of their interactions.
Þurs vældr kvinna kvillu;
kátr værðr fár af illu. 
Thurse causes anguish to women;
misfortune makes few men cheerful. 
Þurs er kvenna kvöl ok kletta búi
ok varðrúnar verr. Saturnus þengill. 
Giant : torture of women, cliff-dweller, and husband of a giantess.
Both the Norse and Icelandic poems retain the meaning of jötunn and dwell on their penchant for torturing women. It is likely that this is a sexual allusion; comparing the thorn with the penis; certainly the Anglo-Saxons were fond of such ‘double entendres’. The archaic* but still current slang term for the penis : ‘prick’ derives from the Old English prica - puncture and prician - to prick. A pricðorn is a thorn-tree.
(* Earliest recorded use as slang-word for "penis" is in the 16th Century.)

An interesting use of the Þ-rune in rune magic is made in Skírnismál (Skirnir’s Journey)
Here, Skirnir has given up trying to convince Gerð to marry his master, the god Freyr and instead resorts to threats.
26. "I shall strike thee, maid, with my rune-carved staff,
To tame thee to work my will;
There shalt thou go where never again
The sons of men shall see thee.

27. "On the eagle's mound shalt thou ever sit,
And gaze on the gates of Hel;
More loathsome to thee than the light-hued snake
To men, shall thy meat become.

28. "Fearful to see, if thou comest forth,
Hrimnir will stand and stare,
Men will marvel at thee;
More famed shalt thou grow than the watchman of the gods!
Peer forth, then, from thy cage,

29. "Madness and howling, tearing affliction and unbearable lust,
Tears and torment are thine;
Sit down ! for my curse is on thee
Of heavy heart. And double grief.

30. "Fiends will oppress you all the long weary day
In the halls of the Rime-Thurses every day you shall creep without hope, without choice,
Weeping shalt thou get instead of gladness,
And suffer grief with tears.

31. "With a three-headed giant thou shalt live out thy life,
or else be without a mate !
May your mind be seized !
May you waste away, pining !
Be like to the thistle that in the hay-loft
Was cast and there was crushed.

32. "I went to the wood, to the living forest,
To win a magic wand;
with which I will tame you, Girl, to work my will)
I won a magic wand.

33. "Óðinn grows angry, angered is the best of the gods,
Freyr shall be thy foe,
Most wicked girl, who the potent wrath
Of gods hast got for thyself.

34. "Give heed, frost-rulers, hear it, giants.
Sons of Suttung, And the gods, ye too,
How I forbid and how I deny
pleasure in men to this girl
benefit from men to this girl

35. "Hrimgrimnir is he, the giant who shall have thee
down beyond the Corpse-Gates,

36. "where bondsmen, there by the roots of the tree,
Will hold for thee horns of goat-piss;
A fairer drink shalt thou never get,
girl, to meet thy desire,
37. "Þurse-runes I rist, and then three more,
Frenzy, perversion and lust;
But I’ll scrape off each rune I writ
If I find there is no need."

The terrible curses Skirnir threatens Gerð with are as a result of an invocation to the spirits of the Netherworld. He carves three Þ-runes then three more but, interestingly, the Futhark contains no such runic symbols for frenzy, filth or lust. Logically then, a triad of troll-runes must pervert the usual meaning of the following invocation of three runes. Wunjo (O.E. wynn) has the usual meaning of joy, rapture or bliss so could easily be perverted to frenzied madness.
Kaunaz (O.E. cen), as well as meaning torch, can mean abscess or ulcer, so it requires only a little stretch of the imagination to interpret the troll-meaning to be filthy perversion.
The true meaning of the rune-symbol Perþo(O.E. peorð) has never been adequately explained. Some authorities suggest fruit tree or dice-box or even chess-piece. The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem states :
Peorð is a source of recreation and amusement to the great,where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.”
Dice-box or cup fits fairly well here but are we not forgetting the English love of the double meaning? It is my belief that this rune also denoted the female genitalia. The word, with its unusual ‘p’ initial letter, often indicating a foreign origin, is similar to the Proto-Slavic ‘pizdă’ - meaning the ‘female genitalia’. A troll-rune perverted perþo thus could be interpreted as ‘Lust’.

All this brings us to the conclusion that a triad of þ-runes invert or pervert the meaning of a rune or runes which follow them. One wonders if the conservators busy with their thorns are aware of all this thorn-magic - one hopes so!

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