The existence of mystery schools in the Viking Age (800-1200 CE) is deduced from myth and folklore. The poems of the Edda display the structure and content of cultic texts used within the framework of initiatic organizations. Later, in Medieval Europe, we hear about secret societies associated with the Wild Hunt, Odin, and the Einherjar.
Their mysteries centered around the runes, which were already deployed magically in Ancient Germanic times (400-800 CE). The runic alphabet, or Futhark, is found in the archaeological record from the second century onwards. But its roots are far older.
The Ancient Germanic rune alphabet contains keys which make it possible to trace the origins of the Northern mysteries to shortly after the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago; more properly the Late Glacial Maximum, lasting from 13,000 to 10,000 years ago.
After the glacial period, birch was the first deciduous tree to populate Europe. Its appearance coincides with the meaning and position of Berkana ‘birch twig’. The rune comes at the beginning of the third Aett; the Futhark is divided in three Aettir. The other tree species that populated Europe at that time was pine, represented by Eihwaz ‘yew’ in the runic alphabet.
Norse mythology provides another clue. Ask and Embla are the names of the first man and woman, created by a triad of gods and made from wood. Askr means ‘ash’ and embla ‘elm’. The two kinds of wood form a pair since very remote times.
Elm was used to make bows because the wood is flexible. Ash is used to make arrows, because the wood is very straight. Ash and elm represent bow and arrow. The weapon appeared in Northern Europe in Mesolithic times. Again, its appearance coincides with the end of the last Ice Age. Moreover, the Dutch word for elm is iep, cognate with modern English ‘yew’. Elm trees practically disappeared around 6,000 years ago, after which hunters switched to yew, equally known for its flexibility. Maybe Eihwaz originally referred to elm.
Other, circumstantial, examples are Fehu and Jera. Fehu ‘cattle’ refers to the domestication of bovine creatures, circa 10,500 years ago. The Jera rune recounts a similar story. It means ‘harvest’ and refers to the cultivation of grain, domesticated around 12,000 years ago in the Levant.
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