One of the things I find most fascinating about the Vikings is their use of runes. Runes were invented by people who were already literate, so from the very start they have been secret and mysterious. By the Viking Age runes had evolved to a point where the younger futhark was used just like any other alphabet for day to day communication, but the Elder Futhark seems to have continued to be used for ‘magic’
The first rune in the Elder Futhark is Fehu, which means movable wealth or more literally, cattle. The Anglo-saxon rune poem says “Wealth is a comfort to all; yet must everyone bestow it freely, if they wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”
Cattle is only part of the story here – today cattle mean cows. Cows have been used as part of barter systems for thousands of years and having a cow was an unmissable sign that the household had the means to feed themselves so it’s fairly obvious to associate cattle with prosperity, even now.
To the Vikings “Cattle” did not just mean cows, it comes from the Anglo-Norman catel which means ‘sum of money, capital, moveable wealth’ – so when the runes were in contemporary use cattle meant personal property of any kind, including livestock of all types. So we’re really looking at everything we can buy, sell or own that is not land or property. In modern terms it’s what accountants would call tangible personal property. In Viking terms, this translates to how much bling you wear and how generous you are with your resources – what you wore and how ornately it was decorated showed your place in society.
Vikings had fairly socialist ideas about wealth. Hoarding was for dragons not people. Money needed to be used. If you were rich enough to pay for all the bling you were funding tradesmen and artisans – giving gifts to your loyal followers, and to those of higher status you wanted to curry favour with, wealth moving means a flourishing economy – wealth hidden away in a bank causes economic stagnation. It’s a concept that has been talked about a lot lately especially in response to policies of austerity. Economists have long known that giving money to the poor stimulates the economy in ways that giving to the rich no longer does. Poor people spend what they have so the money moves around the community, Rich people tend to invest so if the money goes to them it stops moving and the economy sinks. Our society really has changed a lot since Viking times.
A lot of people think of the Fehu glyph as representing the horns on a cow. I prefer to think of it as a display stand with hooks for showing off your fancy things, either to trade or just so everyone can see them and know how fortunate you are. That represents the side of Fehu that’s about showing off, wearing the bling, being generous. It reminds me that there is so much more behind the rune that wealth and material success.