The early Manx culture was a blend of Celtic and Viking in roughly equal proportions.
The Isle of Mann was never conquered by the Romans so the Christianity that came to the Isle was a blend of the Celtic version which was brought over from Ireland, and a very odd Norse Pagan-Christian fusion that arrived with the last of the Vikings. There were several false starts at introducing the New Faith and the pre-Christian pagan influence was far stronger on the Isle, and lasted much longer than on the mainland. The majority of the Manx these days are terribly proud of their Christian heritage and tend to exaggerate the extent to which and date it became dominant on the Isle. Sometime between 800 and 1200, making it among the last of the western European countries to convert. As a result, many examples of Viking Runic inscriptions and Celtic Ogham are found throughout the Isle, dating from the pre-Christian and the early Christian eras.
With the strong Viking influence on Mann, carving runes seems natural. Up until now I have always carved my runes on stones, my first set done decades ago on green granite. I’ve carved quartz pebbles collected from the northernmost point of the Isle of Mann, the Point of Ayre and silven slates from the mermaid coves at the Sound, near where the god Manannan first stepped foot on the Isle.
This is a set of apple wood staves, a gift for an organic apple orchardist; made from pruned wood of the heritage variety trees that she planted and that are still in her care.
Instead of carving the symbols the way I have done on stones, these are pierced, so one is able to see through the rune shape.
Sigils such as the runes function as templates to shape energy, much like the play-dough molds from childhood – energy gets pushed through one side and comes out the other, rune-shaped. I wanted to make this image literal with these runes. When I make something magickal, I typically have a rough idea of what I want, I may begin a project, gather materials, but momentum doesn’t build until after I’ve dreamed the work.
This sometimes takes weeks, sometimes months or years. Needless to say, I don’t always finish a project quickly, especially if it’s an important project. While I was awaiting the dream, I sewed a moose hide bag for the staves.
In this case, I dreamed the final product and in the dream I was doing the work with hand tools, whereas I normally carve runes with a motor tool because of their diminutive size. The motor tool would have been much faster and less awkward, but in the end, carving and filing by hand I only had to redo one rune due to my own clumsiness.
Carving a set of runes is a meditation, completing each of the runes of the cycle and focusing one-at-a-time on the universal forces which they embody. The act of making the shape connects the carver with the energy of the rune itself, and forms a bond with all those carvers in the past whose hands made those same shapes on stones and staves.
With this set and the technique which I had not done before, I began with the simplest rune and worked in sets of 8, based on the complexity of the design. The constraints imposed by piercing meant that I had to find a way to suggest the shape of some of the runes without physically cutting them.
Once cut and filed, I laid out the rune cycle. To my chagrin I counted twenty-three runes! Apparently one of the rune blanks walked away from the work bench, and insisted on being carved start-to-finish on the Vernal Equinox. I’ll leave you to guess which one it was.
I coloured the symbols with ochre which I found in a stream and ground by hand, to vivify the runes. Ochre is the colour of the blood of the land, and the blood of the land gives life. Depending on who I’m making the runes for, I may rubrify them with other materials. Lastly, I finished the staves with a natural sealant made from linseed oil and resin.
From here they will make their way to the hands of their recipient, who will do what she will with them. My work has moved them from tree to stave, through dream to work, and from symbol to physical form. Now my work with them is done.