Friday, September 25, 2009

Seax from the Mercian Hoard and Rune Staves

As a few dazzling images of items found in a farmer's field in modern Staffordshire circulate internationally, collectors of edged weapons are intensely interested in the finds, which represent some of the most exquisite workmanship in Anglo-Saxon weapons and equipment.

One of the items is a gold hilt from a knife or seax. The seax or scramseax is the most common short edged weapon found throughout Europe in the second half of the first millenium. The word really could translate simply to 'knife' as the form and shape of the seax as well as its size varied tremendously. Although the object found in the Mercian hoard is described as the 'hilt' for a 'seax', many of the ancient seax knives had no hilt at all.

The most famous English seax probably is the one found in the Thames which is engraved with the entire Futhark or Rune Alphabet as well as the name 'Beagnoth', probably the name of its owner. In the old Anglo-Saxon culture, letters as well as words often were considered to contain magical potency both among pagans and Christians. Runes, either individually or in magical formulae such as 'alu' or 'aluwanda' were engraved in stone or wood and upon metal. In fact, one of the powers that belonged to Odhinn, described in the Havamal is that of carving runes. The challenge given there: 'Do you know how to carve them, how to stain them?'

In Scandinavia, Runic perpetual Calendars were made in the form of Rune Staves known as Primstavs. I have included an image of a Swedish primstav that shows how close these carved wooden calendars are to the ancient form of the Seax.

In the old Northern cultures, a wooden wand carved with runes could be as powerful a weapon as a metal dagger if it had magical potency. The Northern civilisations were not alone in such beliefs. Romans commonly buried lead tablets with curses engraved upon them in lieu of using a traditional weapon to cut an enemy's throat.

Engravings with magical power can be either offensive or defensive in nature. As discussed in an earlier post, one of the Mercian hoard items is a strip of gold engraved with a verse from the Vulgate Scriptures that calls for the power of God against the wearer's enemies.

The images shown here include three contemporary seax reproductions. As you can see, one has a hilt and the other two have none.

Other images show the seax that was found in the Thames with a close view of the runic engravings of the Futhark and the name of Beagnoth.

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