Rune Lore

“In the lead was a young girl
with a harp and golden hair.
Her gray eyes were oceans, ready
to drink the depths around her.”

Skáldsspá, by Jamie L. Molaro


This is a custom set of dice for my most recent D&D character, Edda Silfur. She’s a harpist and lore bard that collects epic poems in her magical Book of Holding. Also one hell of an archer. She is named for the Poetic Edda, which is the collection of Norse poems from which we know the familiar stories of Odin, Thor, the Trickster Loki, and others. Her character is based in Norse mythology, and her dice celebrate that. As with all dice I make, the symbols have special meaning which relate to both the mythology and the character herself. Here’s a portrait of her with her raven, Kvaeðinn (which means one who speaks in meter, assuming I’ve conjugated the Norse word correctly), a nod to Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn.


Character portrait by Monkan (@monkiponk on twitter)

First, I’d like to call out a huge help in my research- I cannot recommend enough this YouTube video series for learning about Norse culture and history. Dr. Jackson Crawford is an expert on Norse language and lore, and goes into real depth on many interesting topics from gods and beliefs, to Viking daily life, to runes and magic, to poetry. For free! (He also has a Patreon!) They are easy to get lost in if you’re an academic and a nerd like me, and they are reliable accurate information.

So, here’s the whole set of dice, with individual descriptions of the symbols below:

The two symbols on the d20 are a harp and an apple. The harp is Edda‘s primary instrument, as it is mine in real life. The meaning of the apple is a little bit more subtle, but I love its connection poetry in Norse mythology. Bragi is the Norse god of poetry, and his wife is Iðunn who is the keeper of the apples of youth. These apples the gods must occasionally eat in order to retain their immortality. In most ancient mythologies, it is well understood by the heroes that the only way to truly live forever is if you are told of in stories for generations to come. So, you must perform great deeds worth of such songs and poems, that they may be passed down in oral tradition. In this sense, I love that the god of poetry and the goddess who keeps the apples of youth are partners. To be honest I don’t know if this is concept that is specifically represented in Viking myth, but the idea is there nonetheless. So anyways, Edda has a whole apple theme to her character and her expletive of choice is “Oh, apples!” when I roll a 1. This makes her sound very nice and charming much of the time, but I would not test her temper.

The d6 has a distinct symbol for each number, each of which also represents an ability. The 1 is Thor’s Hammer for strength, and the 2 is Odin’s eight legged steed Slepnir for Dexterity. For Wisdom, the 3 is the triskelion, a symbol related to Odin showing his three interlocking drinking horns that hold the Mead of Poetry. The 4 is Constitution with a symbol called the Helm of Awe, a  magical spell symbol often etched on armor to scare their enemies and provide protection during battle for protection. The 5 is for Charisma showing the valknut, another symbol of Odin’s representing his magical ability to manipulate enemies during battle. Last, the 6 is Intelligence and shows one of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, who were his messengers and collected information about the world to bring to him.

The d10s have runes from the Eldar Futhark, one of two systems of runic writing the Vikings used at different points in their history. [EDIT: I’ve since learned the Elder Futhark was actually pre-Viking and I should have used the Younger! When I remake these on the 3D printer I’ll fix this inaccuracy.] The Younger Furthark has 16 runes and the Eldar has 24, so neither set was ideal for the d10 pair. So I just cut four symbols from the latter arbitrarily based on aesthetics. I really like how they came out! Etched runes were used to perform what the Vikings called galdrar, basic magic spells used for every day purposes. I’ve incorporated this into how I play the character, assigning runes to each spell she knows and drawing it in person when she casts them. It adds to the drama of the action and keeps the Norse theme alive to other players. There is another type of magic practice by the Norse called seiðr, or divination magic. This was practiced by women called vǫlva who were seeresses. This is also built into her character both in her present (spell progression) and her background story (see the epic poem below).

The d12 has the symbols for Yggdrasil and Skuld’s Net [Edit: Since making, I believe that Skuld’s Net is a modern creation, not historical.] . Yggdrasil is the Tree of Life within which the nine worlds exist, including Midgard which is the land of mortals. Skuld is one of the three primary fates in Norse mythology, called the Norns. There were actually many Norns, but Skuld, Urðr, and Verðandi were the three most important, and somewhat represented past, present, and future. In some historical poems, Skuld was a Valkyrie who would choose who lived and died during battle. The Vikings believe that the day in which they were to die was predetermined, so the idea of being caught in Skuld’s Net is being unable to escape that fate. So generally, both of these symbols together for me just represent kind of the big picture cosmology of the Vikings.

The d4 has the symbol for Gungnir, which is the name of Odin’s spear. There is a story where Odin gouges out his eye with Gungnir and hangs himself from Yggdrasil for nine days in order to obtain the knowledge of magic runes. It is for this reason that Odin is often portrayed as being very wise, whereas Thor is more often depicted is only a warrior. So I like to think the spear represents self-sacrifice in some ways.

Finally, the d8 depicts Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. The Serpent is a monstrous snake or sea serpent that encircles the entire ocean surrounding Midgard and holds it together by biting its own tail. There are several stories of battles between the Serpent and the gods, and it is said that when it let’s go of its tail Ragnarok will begin. This was really hard to make because the snake had to wrap around each face of the di. It would have probably been easier to draw in a 3D modeling program, but alas since I cannot draw I just had to finagle an old 2D image of the serpent such that it stretch across each face. I really like how it came out though! Here’s a video:

As a final edition to the set, I made two d6 bardic inspiration dice that I could physically hand to players to use during the game. I probably won’t remake them when they level up to d8’s, but it’s never bad to have extra d6’s lying around. These dice are based on the oldest recorded piece of secular viking music, as discovered in the Codex Runicus (picture below). They use different staff and musical notation than modern music, but it is reminiscent enough to get the gist. The runes under the music translate to “I dreamt a dream last night,” but that’s the only line recorded in the Codex. It is also the first line of a Danish folk song that has survived until until today, but there are variations on how the melody and rhythm should be played out since our understanding of the Viking notation is very limited. I thought this was a really cool piece of history that would make a nice touch to a set of dice for a bard. I ended up doing the staff and music notes as a wrap of one piece, and even though it has a lot of fine detail it came out really well. I had to spray a light glue over the top of the runes to make sure they didn’t come off. I think they look really beautiful! I’m kind of in love with them.

Since Edda is an expert in epic poetry, it has been a great opportunity to write another epic poem of my own.  This poem describes her backstory, providing insights into her as a character as well as into Norse mythology and culture. I’m used to writing ballads in a somewhat traditional medieval form characterized by quatrains (four-line stanzas) with iambic meter (a set number of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables), and rhymes at the end of lines. But the structure of ancient Norse poetry is quite different!

There’s a few different forms, but I chose to write in Ljóðaháttr, or song meter. (It’s kind of pronounced like lee-oh-deh-hawter, but a linguist or a Scandinavian person would be better able to describe.) This form has 3 lines (or 6 half-lines) and a set number of stressed (but not unstressed) syllables per line. It has two stress syllables in lines A & B, and 3 in C. I’m structuring the lines as AB / C / AB / C for page brevity, but modern forms and reprints of ancient texts vary by culture and region. The biggest difference from what you may be used to hearing is that they didn’t use rhyming. Instead, alliteration is the focus. One stressed syllable in line A must alliterate with a stressed syllable in line B, and two stressed syllables in C must alliterate within the line. In ancient Norse language, the first syllable of every word was always the stress syllable, so in English this can be a little tricky to work in words where a middle syllable is stressed. Note also that any vowel can alliterate with any other vowel (or y). The sk/st sounds are only supposed to alliterate with sk/st, but I have neglected this rule since it was already challenging enough.

It’s been a challenge to refocus my way of thinking on alliteration instead of rhyme, but fun to try something new. I also borrowed tidbits of what I learned of Norse myth and Viking culture to fold into the poem, for example referencing seiðr and galdr magic. That being said, not everything is historically accurate- for example in this poem elves take on the role of humans in terms of their worship of the Norse gods, yet they also embody the rivalry those same gods have with the giants. Really, elves in Norse lore had their own realm just as the gods, giants, humans, and dwarves did, and they came into the well known Norse stories very little. I also put a few twists on our understanding of historical texts, such as using the uncertainty over whether famous seer Mímir is a giant or a god as the seed for a religious conflict at the center of the story. So I hope you enjoy and learn from the poem, but don’t take it as canon or me as an expert.

One last note- there is another meter called galdralag (incantation meter) which is nearly the same as Ljóðaháttr. The primary difference is that it repeats one or more C lines at the end of a normal 3 (or 6) line stanza. This was used in Norse texts when the poem was speaking about magic or when magic spells were actually being used within the story. I have used this technique in my own poem as well as a fun way to emphasize Edda‘s use of magic in her exploits and to reference her magic capabilities as a bard class character.

UPDATE: I finished my poem! It’s a whole book. You might also like the many short poems I’ve written for D&D.

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