The literal meaning of this rune’s name is "cattle" or "livestock". The broader translation as "wealth" developed later: because livestock were valuable enough to use for trade, this makes very good sense. "Fee" (the money charged for a service) in English is a direct descendant of that root word. The central idea behind fehu, in any event, is movable property: something physical that has value and can easily be exchanged with others. (The other form of wealth, immovable property or land, is symbolized by a different rune.)
On still another level (metaphysical/magical), fehu is a fire rune: the Norsemen did connect gold with fire in their poetry ("fire of the sea", "the dragon’s bed"). Fehu’s fire, though, is a raw primal fire with no more will or consciousness behind it than an animal has. Such chaotic, powerful flames can destroy just as easily as they create: think of Muspelheim, the fire on one side of Ginnungagap (the primal abyss). When the energies of Muspelheim and Niflheim met, the universe was created in the middle; yet the same fire and ice will destroy the world at Ragnarok.
Psychologically, fehu can refer to many kinds of energy. It sometimes indicates materialism and greed, which ruin relationships. One of the rune poems has this verse for fehu: "Money causes strife among kin; the wolf grows up in the woods". Anyone who’s seen a family fight over an inheritance, or over who spends and owes what, knows how true that can be!
Fehu can also indicate sexual desire or fertility: cattle are living things, with the same urge to breed in order to keep a herd surviving. Even common expressions like "the heat of passion" (fire) and "he’s horny" (cattle/fertility) support this interpretation. The gold/fire/sex trio would also link fehu quite strongly to Freyja—a goddess of wealth, love and magic on the one hand, but a deadly warrior on the other. The point here is (and this comes as quite a shock to ceremonial/Wiccan types) that fire most often had a female symbolism in Germanic terms, and water a male symbolism. That correspondence wasn’t absolute, though, as you’ll see in some of the other descriptions.
Uruz originally meant the aurochs, a species of wild cattle. They were huge animals, with horns as long as a man was tall—very strong, and very dangerous to deal with. Yet hunting these wild bulls was a manhood ritual in some Germanic tribes: young men had to face the aurochs with only a spear, and bring back the horns as proof of the kill. So the root ideas of uruz seem to be wildness, brute force, dangerous undertakings, sometimes testing ("taking the bull by the horns").
The horns of uruz are both a weapon (on the live beast) and a container (made from the dead one). The aurochs’ horns were, after all, valued as drinking cups in those days. And the Norse name of the rune could also refer to "drizzling rain" or the water from melted snow; this makes uruz a complement to fehu in another way (fire/water, Muspelheim/Niflheim). Both are elements of creation, but both have a negative side. Stampeding beasts, snow melting so fast that it washes a whole town away with the flood: that’s how dangerous uruz is.
This rune is a symbol of raw power, plain and simple—strength, a neutral animal force. It can mean that a person is up agains some dangerous tests in life, or that he is running roughshod over others (a bully or power-crazed person). On a more positive note, it can refer to a person’s physical health and strength. In fact, uruz is very commonly used in healing spells, to charge a person up with vital energy.
This is a really nasty rune; its name literally means "giant ". People with a background in ceremonial magic might think of Teutonic giants as elementals—BIG elementals with an attitude problem. Giants are the first beings that were created when fire and ice came together...Ymir (whose body was used to make the world) was the ultimate one. Given what we know about the Norse creation story, the order of the runes so far seems to outline that story: fehu (the primal fire), uruz (water/melting ice), thurisaz (the giants taking shape as a result).
The first three runes themselves, incidentally, spell an obscene (but possibly significant) Old Norse word. To put it politely, the word is a name for the female sexual organs.
At its most abstract, this is a rune of destruction, chaos, violent physical force. "POW...WHAM...outta my way, man!" Ralph Blum calls this the "gateway" or "non-action" rune, but he couldn’t be further from wrong. Thurisaz is not a gateway, unless a hole forcibly smashed through a wall counts! It indicates sudden and dramatic change, breaking down barriers—which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not. (There is a big difference between wrecking a house that someone actually lives in, and a house that’s become unsafe.)
Thurisaz is one of the runes Freud would have loved if he’d known about runes; it’s an intensely phallic rune, connected with the brutal side of maleness. (At least two of the surviving rune poems call the giants "torturers of women.") In the Eddas, thurisaz is one of the few runes we see specifically being used in a spell. The spell in question was being cast on a woman (Gerdhr) to blackmail her into marrying Freyr; the magician basically threatened her "If you don’t go along with me I’ll hex you so no one will want you except a three-headed troll!"
From all this, it’s easy to see how the rune got its bad reputation. Even the Anglo-Saxon Christians felt as if they needed to change the name of that rune when they kept on using them. A blatant pagan reference in the futhark would have disturbed them, much as a child’s alphabet book with "D is for devil" would disturb some people today. But the new name ("thorn") still implied something painful and undesirable.
As I’ve stated a number of times in this guide, though, no rune is 100% good or bad—and that includes thurisaz. The positive side of this rune relates to the god who most resembles the giants, and who can beat them at their own game: THOR. Thor is also huge and violent (when he needs to be), but he uses that violence to stop worse things from damaging our world. And he too has that fertility/sex association: the thunderstorm bringing rain to the crops, which is why so many farmers worshiped Thor back then. As far as his connection with human fertility, there was a custom of blessing the bride at a Norse wedding by swinging a hammer over her lap. The symbolism of that custom should be obvious enough, based on what I’ve said so far. The hammer deals death but also brings life; and its wielder is the strongest, most manly and active of all the gods.
The name of this rune literally means "god", one of the Æsir. (The singular form of Æsir, by the way, is Ás—the same element in compounds like "Asatru" and "Asgard".) Judging by the evidence in the rune poems, though, the specific god connected most strongly with this rune is Odin. In particular, I would connect ansuz with Odin in his aspect as a poet and magician—the Lord of Speech and Knowledge.
Even at its most mundane, ansuz is a rune of communication, messages, inspired words—learning and teaching. The Anglo-Saxon Christians recognized this when they re-interpreted the name of the rune: the Old English word for a pagan god was os, which happened to sound like the Latin word for "mouth". (Though the two words do NOT have a common origin, the Latin word at least still made sense in the rune poem: "Os is the source of all language, a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise men....")
On a more esoteric level, ansuz has to do with magic. Galdr in Old Norse is sometimes used for magic in general; but its original meaning was "incantation", the words of a spell. Of course, ansuz can also refer quite literally to a person’s spiritual life—their relationship with the gods.
On a negative level, too, ansuz can mean several things. It can show that somebody has delusions of grandeur, even of godhood: insanity at worst, or possibly just empty talk and a know-it-all attitude. Lest we forget, the Germanic tribes saw madness and inspiration as closely related; Odin’s name refers to them both. The dark side of ansuz can also mean evil spirits such as the restless dead, the Wild Huntsmen who ride with Odin. It may warn against meddling with magic or psychic forces that are best left alone.
The name of this rune can be translated as "journey", but also as "ride" or "wagon" (the thing used for riding). Its core meaning, not surprisingly, is motion. But the motion symbolized here is ordered movement along a definite path; after all, roads lead somewhere, and travelers usually have a destination in mind.
Raidho is a rune of direction, control, and purpose—a right path in both a physical and spiritual sense. It indicates the spirit of the rules, as opposed to the letter of the rules; after all, a traveler does have to account for the situation (the weather, the condition of the road, and so on) to get where he needs to go. The path defined by raidho is clear and direct, but not rigid.
Metaphysically, raidho is also a rune of the sky and celestial cycles. The sun and moon, after all, are both personified as wagon-driving deities; and Thor, too, is said to drive a wagon through the clouds when it thunders. (In some ancient Germanic languages, words related to this rune-name could mean both "thunderclap" and "wagon".) Raidho relates to Thor in still other ways—he is described as a traveler and adventurer, and a defender of cosmic order.
As far as the negative side of raidho, it can mean that a person is being forced to move or act at the wrong time. It may also warn that someone has lost a sense of direction or perspective: confused, over-concerned with the rules, or just plain wrong.
The literal meaning of this rune’s name is "torch". It shows creative, transforming power: fire cooks food, forges tools, and drives off dangerous animals when people bring it under control.
Kenaz is also a symbol of intelligence and vision (since the torch allows people to see at night). The cartoon cliche of a light bulb over a person’s head when he gets an idea could be called a modern image of kenaz’ intellectual aspect.
Kenaz rules over still a third kind of creative fire: sexual energy, which brings living things into being. It’s no coincidence that the name of that rune comes from the same Indo-European root as words for both "knowing" and "giving birth". The root idea is "bringing forth": a spark creates flame, an idea creates a tangible result, and sexual reproduction creates new life. "I knew him in the Biblical sense" is a joke to most people today, yet that old usage supports the idea that kenaz is a rune of sexuality.
All the same, kenaz is a bit more spiritual in its sexual aspect than some of the other runes that have sexual overtones. It may refer to sex-magical practices, but can also indicate "sublimation" in the Freudian sense: the creative fire within, channeled towards making something other than babies. Fehu and kenaz are both fire runes; but the difference between them is like the difference between a forest fire (vast and chaotic) and a hearth fire (contained and channeled usefully).
Sometimes, of course, even controlled fire is dangerous. The Norse poetry connects this rune with cancer and decay, which might be seen as the life force run wild or burnt out. (In modern Swedish, too, the word for gangrene is kallbrand: literally, "cold fire". This word shows that the "torch" and "decay" aspects of kenaz aren’t as distant as they seem.) Therefore, one bad side of this rune is destruction without re-forming, or re-shaping into a wrong form.
It can mean that someone lacks the knowledge or energy to do something—or that he is misusing what he does have. The same torch that lights a hall can burn it down, if one spark blows the wrong way. (The Germanic tribes knew that all too well, because they usually built their homes from wood.)
The name of this rune can be translated as "gift", "generosity", or sometimes "marriage". Too many New Age rune books make this a rune of romantic love, sex, and marriage exclusively, yet there is MUCH more to it than that. The people who see gebo that way don’t realize what gift-giving meant to the Germanic tribes: it was a sign of loyalty, mutual trust and obligations. Gebo is a rune of equal exchange; in modern times we might say a "50-50 proposition" or "tit for tat".
A gift was always given with the understanding that the receiver would give something back in return. Lords, for instance supported their followers with food, supplies and shelter in exchange for their fighting service. Brides and grooms, too, exchanged gifts in marriage. Even a sacrifice to the gods was offered as a payment for what the gods had done (or were expected to do) for their worshipers. In all three cases, there was an even exchange; both sides gave something.
Gebo as sacrifice is one of the runes of Odin. The Hávamál, an Eddaic poem, has Odin describe his ordeal on Yggdrasil this way: "wounded by a spear and given to Odin, self by self to me..." It shows a willingness to sacrifice the old for the sake of the new.
Like all of the runes, gebo has its bad side as well. Runes do NOT change meaning just because a tile appears upside down: context is what makes a positive or negative meaning, and reversal is irrelevant. So, even though gebo can’t be physically turned upside down, it isn’t always a pleasant rune. One possible meaning is that "you get back what you give"; someone who treats others poorly will be treated poorly himself. Just as good is returned with good, bad is returned with bad. Another possible negative meaning is that someone may be trying to manipulate you with bribes, buy your influence. Lastly, it may be a warning to people who expect to get something for nothing. The Hávamál says "a gift always looks for a gift"; the modern equivalent might be "there is no such thing as a free lunch".
Most books translate the name of this rune as "joy", but others translate it as "glory" or "perfection". Wunjo is indeed a rune of happiness—friendship, family ties (Gundarsson connects it with the image of a tribal banner), being with like-minded others. But it rules over another kind of happiness as well: the happiness that comes from success and having wishes fulfilled. The name of the rune has roots in common with "wish" and "win", which originally had the connotation of working hard to get the thing desired. Glory or perfection has no value unless it is earned. Conversely, a person has to have the right attitude to keep going; the Hávamál stresses the importance of staying cheerful and not losing courage when life goes wrong.
The down-side of wunjo can also take one of two forms. First, it can mean loneliness, depression, emotional pain in general. Second, it can mean self-delusion, believing that nothing is wrong even when a serious problem exists. Setting hopes too high may lead to disaster; so can trusting the wrong people, or believing a message that is too good to be true.
HEIMDALL'S ÆTT (the second group of eight)
The name of this rune literally means "hail"-- which falls from the sky and damages whatever it hits. More loosely, it can refer to bad weather or natural disasters in general: the elements at their most destructive. It can also indicate other setbacks that are as unstoppable and uncontrollable as the weather, totally beyond the reader’s power to change. Because of that aspect, I sometimes nickname hagalaz the "oh s**t" rune; many people who get news that bad would swear about it.
Some modern rune magicians associate hagalaz with the image of a cosmic seed or universal pattern, basing their argument very loosely on two bits of traditional lore. First, three of the rune poems speak of hail as a "cold grain" , but this is probably no more than a description of its size and shape. (People also speak of salt or sand as "grains", but they don’t think of those substances as living cosmic building blocks.) Second, hagalaz happens to be the ninth rune in the Elder Futhark; and the cosmos is divided into nine worlds according to Norse lore. This argument is weak, however. If the myths had specified some other number of worlds, would numerologists then select whichever rune had that place--whether or not it made sense otherwise?
associates hagalaz with the goddess Hel—partly because she is a death goddess
(and thus a destroyer), partly because hagalaz is the first rune of her name.
This does make more sense than the cosmic egg/nine worlds connection, although
only one reference in the lore supports the idea: the Prose Edda gives the name
of Hel’s hall as Eljudnir ("sleet-cold").
As I’ve already mentioned under thurisaz, though, hagalaz can point out that something harmful or useless should be destroyed. The Old Norse rune poems say that hail is "the sickness [=destroyer] of snakes"; in other words, sometimes a setback (hail damaging crops) keeps something even worse (getting killed by a snake bite) from happening. One Swedish proverb expresses this quite well: "Evil must be driven out by evil."
The idea of countering one bad thing with another makes hagalaz useful as a defensive rune. One alternate form of the symbol, which shows six lines radiating outward like a snowflake, was used on hex signs to protect farm buildings in medieval Germany. (A blue, six-rayed star also appears on ambulances in the United States; some rune magicians have interpreted this star as the "snowflake" version of hagalaz. This makes some sense, whether or not the designer of that symbol intended it as a rune: ambulances are sent out when accidents have hurt people, and bring people who keep the situation from getting worse!)
Of course, like any other rune, hagalaz isn’t one-sided. It can indicate any sudden, surprising event: something that comes (like hail itself) "out of the blue" and makes a dramatic impact. If other runes in a reading look favorable, hagalaz may even show an unexpected lucky break. (We still speak of something gained by sheer luck as a "windfall", like fruit blown down from a tree after a storm.)
This rune’s name translates as "need"-- distress, hard times, frustration. Unlike hagalaz, however (which means a problem that people CAN’T change), nauthiz represents a problem that CAN be solved if someone notices it in time and works to stop it! As the Old English rune poem says: "Need is constricting on the heart, although it often becomes a help and salvation to the sons of men, if they heed it in time."
On a very basic level, nauthiz relates to survival instincts—like the sudden rush of strength that people gain in a life-or-death emergency. It can be invoked to help avoid serious accidents or provide strength in a crisis. (Americans might think of invoking nauthiz as the magical equivalent of dialing 911.) But this is not a rune to use lightly, since it can cause stress as easily as averting it.
The shape of this rune suggests a fire-drill, which is much harder to use than a modern lighter (or even the flint and steel that a Germanic tribesman might have, if he were lucky!). The Old Norwegian rune poem also supports the image of nauthiz as a fire-drill: "Need offers little choice; the naked freeze in the frost." If a naked man were outdoors in the cold, in fact, he would probably have only TWO choices: either get a fire started somehow, or freeze to death! A similar idea is expressed in the Danish proverb: "Need teaches the naked woman to spin." (Again, we have another "spinning" tool providing the way out of a hard situation.)
Even as a fire rune, however, nauthiz has a double-edged power. The need-fire, if you remember, was kindled by friction. That can mean that stress or hard work is wearing a person down ("need is the grief of the serving-woman", says the Old Icelandic rune poem). Nauthiz can also symbolize sexual passion, as sexual activity also involves heat and friction. Some Norse love spells did, in fact, use nauthiz to represent the need for attracting a lover.
Finally, nauthiz may appear in a reading for someone with a psychological disorder (especially paranoid or obsessive-compulsive types). Some people, after all, feel needs that are not realistic or healthy. At its mildest, this aspect of nauthiz may mean that the subject of a reading is worrying too much.
The literal meaning of this rune’s name is "ice"—which, in Germanic magical tradition, is considered a distinct element unto itself. Ice, not earth, is the element that symbolizes unchanging rigid matter. That is the key idea of the rune: On one hand, ice can hinder movement, prevent growth (as in frozen soil), and cause death. On the other, ice preserves things (as in refrigeration) and holds matter in a definite, fixed form; an ice cube is more substantial than a puddle.
Some rune books extend the fixed-form idea and associate isa with the ego: a fixed sense of self and concentrated willpower. I personally disagree with that interpretation; if isa did turn up in a reading that related to someone’s mental life, I would think of stubborn resistance to change or activity.
Of course, whether isa is a good or a bad rune depends totally on context. It can mean that a certain situation is cooling off or frozen; this is sometimes desirable, sometimes not. Inactivity in a crisis may be deadly (ignoring a person trapped in a disaster area) or necessary to survive (hanging from the edge of a cliff to avoid a fatal fall).
Three of the rune poems, too, speak of ice as a roof or bridge over water: a path which exists where none normally would, but still has its risks. Even though walking over a frozen river may be possible, one false step could kill. The author of the Icelandic rune poem may have had that in mind; he called ice "a danger to dying men". Besides cooling or inactivity, then, isa may indicate a possible—yet VERY risky—solution to a problem. ("Ice, we call the broad bridge; the blind need to be led." In other words, people who can’t see where they’re going shouldn’t step onto the ice!)
Although the second ætt begins with a string of three grim-sounding runes, the next rune breaks that pattern: jera literally means "year", but often implies a fruitful year or good harvest. Like wunjo, this rune generally has a positive feel; both runes, though, indicate that happiness has to be earned. (Useful crops seldom grow in a field that isn’t planted or tended properly!) But what makes jera distinct, magically speaking, is that good timing plays as much of a part as hard work. No farmer would sow wheat in the fall or harvest it in the springtime; no matter how hard he tried, working like that would give him poor results. The rune also implies a need for patience, not expecting immediate rewards: fruit that’s eaten before it ripens often tastes bad, after all.
On a negative note, jera may indicate that a person is getting some kind of karmic lesson: "a man reaps what he sows", to use a cliche. It may be a sign of bad timing (as already mentioned), or a warning that the subject is repeating self-destructive actions—caught in a vicious circle.
No one knows exactly which sound this rune originally represented; the existing evidence suggests that its phonetic value varied from one language to another. However, eihwaz appears as a purely magical sign, not a letter, in most inscriptions discovered so far. Its phonetic value seems less important than the meaning of its name: the yew tree.
Anyone who’s studied old Germanic religious practices should know the main significance of the yew. According to at least one poem in the Eddas, Yggdrasil is an evergreen, which means that it could not be an ash tree as most people think. One kenning for the yew in Norse poetry, however, is barr-askr or "needle-ash"; this would indeed be consistent with the idea that Yggdrasil is an evergreen.
As a symbol of Yggdrasil, eihwaz can be interpreted on many levels. First, Yggdrasil is a link between the worlds—a transcendent connection. As the German rune poem puts it, "yew holds all". Second, Yggdrasil is a place of initiation—the tree from which Odin hanged himself to gain the runes. And third, the yew is a tree of both life and death. (Not only are yews evergreen, as mentioned before; but they can also live for over 1000 years. Nearly all parts of the tree are deadly poisonous, however; even lying in the shade of a yew can kill small animals, since the needles emit a toxic gas on hot days.
The Icelandic rune poem translates the name of this rune as "bow" (the weapon), which isn’t as inconsistent as it seems: bows were often made from yew wood, probably because the tree had a magical connection with death-dealing. (As a practical material, yew wood is actually a poor choice for making bows—it tends to break and splinter instead of bending.) Because of the association with bows, eihwaz is sometimes seen as a rune of the god Ullr, who was an archer and hunter.
In body-energy workings, this rune represents the spinal column: the straight central path along which life force flows. Considering that people are often spoken of as trees in Germanic poetry, this image makes good sense; even now, we say that human bodies have "trunks" and "limbs". (The Eddas themselves, too, say that Odin and his brothers carved the first humans from two trees they found on a beach.)
The yew has one final aspect worth mentioning: a symbol of the magic wand/staff, a defense against supernatural evil. (To quote a German proverb, "Before the yews no [evil] magic can remain.") Even after the Germanic countries were Christianized, the yew was believed to trap evil spirits, so the trees were left standing in graveyards where old pagan sites had been.
Eihwaz can be one of the hardest runes to interpret correctly when it appears in a reading. At its most optimistic, it’s a sign of endurance and protection—having strong roots in ordinary reality, yet still being in touch with transcendent forces. At its most pessimistic, it can warn of an upcoming death or the influence of someone already dead. As the World Tree, it can indicate a "dark night of the soul" like Odin’s hanging. Finally, as a bow-rune, eihwaz can mean a hunt or quest of some kind.
As I’ve often said in this guide, the exact order of the futhark often shows relationships that are too striking to be coincidental. Eihwaz, the previous rune, has an unpronounceable sound; perthro has an untranslatable name. (Since the word never appears anywhere else but in lists of rune-names, finding a workable translation is difficult at best!) There are at least three theories of what perthro might have meant in Primitive Germanic:
Linguistic debates aside, perthro is the proper rune of Wyrd or the unknowable. (The runes were designed as a writing system as well as a magical tool; to quote Kveldulf Gundarsson, "A ‘blank rune’ makes about as much sense as a ‘blank letter of the alphabet’".) Perthro is the "runecaster’s rune", so to speak: a symbol of Fate at work, or of magical abilities (especially divination). Its shape also suggests an open container, so some modern writers connect perthro with the Well of Wyrd. Considering that fate is placed there before it is read by others, that too makes sense.
Perthro, like the rune before it, is fairly hard to interpret exactly in a reading. Sometimes it means that a person is experiencing a run of luck (good or bad) that has karmic roots. Sometimes it can mean that someone is involved with occult forces; remember that the word "occult" itself just means "hidden" or "unknown". Occasionally, however, perthro may appear in a reading as the Norns’ way of saying: "That’s none of your business" or "You’ll have to find THAT out the hard way." (As I said before, this is the REAL "unknowable" rune!) I sometimes explain it to my American rune students this way: "Perthro is the Norns’ way of ‘pleading the Fifth Amendment’...not giving any evidence that can be used against them."
Some rune books give the name of this one as algiz; actually, both names fit the rune well, for different reasons.
Elhaz means "elk" (in the European sense; in America, the animal is called a moose), and the shape of the rune does suggest antlers. Moose and stags have those horns for a reason—fighting off enemies that get too close. A parallel to this exists in the Eddas, too: because he gave up his sword, the god Freyr is supposed to use a stag horn as a last-ditch weapon at Ragnarok. (Some Wiccans seem to think this makes Freyr an aspect of the Horned God archetype, but that simply isn’t true. Nowhere in Germanic religious art is Freyr depicted as having horns growing from his head; "having" a stag’s horn as a weapon doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s part of the wielder’s body!)
The other name of the rune is algiz, "sanctuary" or "temple". Again, the shape of the rune suggests the posture some Germanic tribes used when they invoked the gods. This rune, then, combines the ideas of defense (actively fighting off harm) and spirituality. I strongly associate it with Heimdall, the sword-bearing watchman of the gods. By extension, elhaz/algiz is also the rune of Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that Heimdall guards); it connects the worlds above and below, but it also burns the frost giants who try to cross. Even Thor is too heavy (too similar to the giants) to cross the bridge safely; he has to wade through four rivers to get to Asgard. This should give you a clue about which beings the stag horn/sword/fire wardings are meant to harm.
In a reading, elhaz may indicate that someone’s safety is an issue (something that needs to be guarded against). It may also refer to somebody’s spiritual life and relationship with the gods.
Many of my rune students have learned about Wiccan or Greco-Roman mythical symbols first, so they are often confused about the "sun" rune being feminine. But that is the way the Germanic tribes saw things: the sun was a female nurturer, and the moon was a male, rational measurer. (As far north as those people lived, they seldom experienced the sun’s destructive, "masculine" side!)
In spite of the difference in gender-symbolism, sowilo does have many traits expected of a solar rune: strength, light, life force, and hope. Sunlight means smooth sailing and a clear sense of direction...no confusing fog or storms. "[Sun] is by seamen always hoped for/when they fare far away over the fishes’ bath/until the brine-stallion they bring to land."
The sun was also referred to as a shield in the Icelandic rune poems ("shield of the clouds")--a perfect complement to the sword/stag horn protection of elhaz. Elhaz is fighting off evil; sowilo is keeping it away in the first place ("[sun] is...the lifelong sorrow of ice").
The positive side of this rune is fairly obvious; still, any good thing can be misused or taken too far. The same sun that warms the croplands can burn skin; the same light that allows vision can blind someone who stares at it too long. The energy of sowilo can harm someone who is too rigid or set in his ways (it "melts ice"); the shape of the rune suggests a thunderbolt, and sunlight (like Thor’s hammer) is traditionally said to destroy trolls.