Deciphering the Gandersheim Rune-Casket

Some weeks ago, I posted an article criticising the failure of runologists to read the incision on the base of the Gandersheim Rune-Casket. You can read my original post  here. This time I wish to show how a modified version of distinguished etymologist Prof. Elmar Seebold’s reading provides a satisfactory decipherment of the script.

The inscription has no word-breaks and reads:
Runes: GRC-runes#
Transcription: hælYGæliEuritneþiisiGhYræliinmu#
(where Y = Ioh, E = Ear, G = Ior and # is not a rune, probably some kind of stop)

[Update: You can read Dr Gaby Waxenberger’s article online here. As at March 2016 the full article was available in the preview. Note that I do not agree with Dr Waxenberger’s translation, but her summary of preceding efforts is excellent and her exposition of the inscription and the individual runes is the work of an expert.]

In his contribution to “Das Gandersheimer Runenkästchen : internationales Kolloquium, Braunschweig, 24.-26. März, 1999”, ed. R. Marth; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 2000, Elmar Seebold breaks it up as follows:

hælYG æli Euritne þii siG hYræ liin mu#

and takes it as meaning, in standard Old English:

halig eali gewritne þy sie hire lin *muts

“holy in temple carved the be her linen hood”, i.e. “holy be her linen hood in the carved temple”

where eali is a locative and *muts is an unknown word meaning almucia, a clerical hood. The reading of muts is disputed and I agree with Alfred Bammesberger that it is wrong. I also disagree with Seebold’s reading of ge-, based on unconnected OHG scribal practice. In any case, the word for carved is awriten, not gewriten, which means only written. Otherwise I adopt his reading in the following discussion.

I note that OE i is here represented in three different ways: i, ii, Y (Ioh). It is unlikely that i and Ioh represent different sounds, as we have -YG alongside -iG. ‘ii’ probably represents long ‘i’.

The alternation between the three forms may depend on spatial considerations, helping to line up the G’s and fill up the space – Ioh takes up more space than i.

Seebold reads æli as the instrumental-locative of WS ealh, temple. Wright lists ealh as an example of breaking of a before l + cons., which he says did not take place in Anglian. Wright §64. So the Anglian form would be alh or ælh.

In the oldest period of the language, the instrumental ended in -i, later -y. Wright §334. Ealh is declined like mearh, dropping the h in all cases except. n.a.s. Wright §337 So æli could be an early Anglian form of WS eale (inst).

‘ig’ is a frequent spelling for long i in late O.E. Wrenn §16. A runic spelling of iG [=ij] for long i would certainly be legible, allowing the positioning of the star rune Ior in the middle of the line. So siG = sie, sy presents no problems.

Euritne: Seebold’s argument that Ear represents the prefix ge- makes no sense, as his supporting example relates to the distinct Ior rune.

An attempt to divide the ‘ea’ sound between the previous and subsequent words was denounced by R. Page as a methodological error, so we won’t go there!

So what can it Euritne mean? We need to keep in mind that to the clergy, runes were a code and the key to the code was knowledge of the names. There would have been no available standard runic orthography. Words would have been spelled out runicly according to the way the runesmith pronounced the rune names.

The logical candidate is the word for carved, awritne. Now this would not be spelled with the Ear rune. But the a- prefix has a common variant æ-, which would give æwritne. For the same reasons that I read ær for this rune in the rune puzzle in The Husband’s Message, (see my post), I believe that here it stands for æ-. The ‘ea’ sound in the rune name ear represents æ + a. It is likely that æ in the word æwritne would have been followed by a glide in the form of -a-, owing to the presence of the following w. So from a phonetic point of view, Ear [pronounced æ:ar] would be exactly the correct rune. So æwritne could then be written Ear+w+r etc. C.f. the authorities cited in Waxenberger 2003 p. 169 re the spelling ea for æ, especially before w.

Finally, given the documentary evidence regarding the use of the casket as a reliquary of Saint Mary, it is fairly obvious that MU stands for the Latin abbreviation M(aria) V(irgo), or in the genitive, M(ariæ) V(irginis). It is rather surprising that Seebold missed this.

In assessing a reading, we need to bear in mind that the script was subject to spatial constraints, in that it had to fit the available space and the star-runes had to line up in a cross. This could have affected both spelling and word-order.


hælig æli æwritne þi sig hiræ lin M(ariæ) V(irginis)

In standard OE:

halig eale awritne þy sie hire lin M(ariæ) V(irginis)

or in normal word order:

halig sie M(ariæ) V(irginis) hire lin þy awritne eale

“holy be the V(irgin) M(ary’s) her clothing in the carved temple”


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