Do you ever have a conversation with someone who is so hella smart that it kind of blows your mind? Friends, I have experienced that, and it is with our very own J.S.!
Because this is what happened the other day: I reviewed Midsommar, filmmaker Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, for us, calling it “a ponderously paced but spooky and riotously colored acid trip.” Later that night, J.S. messaged me to talk through some plot points, and while talking spoilers, we started discussing runes, which are ALL THROUGHOUT Midsommar.
SPOILERS FOR MIDSOMMAR FOLLOW, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THEM, YOU SHOULD GO AWAY NOW
In the film, anthropology PhD student Josh (William Harper Jackson, from The Good Place) decides to join Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on the trip back to the compound where he grew up for research for Josh’s dissertation. When they arrive in Hälsingland, Sweden, Josh is curious to learn the secrets of the Hårga religion that Pelle and the others in their community (ahem: cult) follow, and Pelle informs him that their written record is in Elder Futhark, the oldest form of the runic alphabet.
And once you see those runes for the first time, you’ll realize that certain runes of the 24 in the Elder Futhark alphabet show up everywhere during Midsommar. Pelle’s “family” stitch the runes on their clothes, incorporate them into their artwork, arrange themselves into the shape of certain runes, and even put them on the maypole that takes up central space in the Hårga compound.
What the hell do they all mean? Well, J.S. gave me a primer on them during our day-long chat, and I think the theories J.S. put forth are fascinating and add so much context to the film. Some of the theories J.S. suggested illuminate various Easter eggs and secrets Aster hid throughout Midsommar, and please know that basically every smart thing written in the following post came from J.S.
So, first and foremost: Runes have both literal and figurative meanings, and some of the runes in Elder Futhark don’t exactly have direct meanings in our current times. I’ve used J.S.’s interpretations of these rune meanings here, and also done some research on my own, but if you have any other theories, please share in the comments!
Let’s start with the runes that are on the maypole, which is a major component of the Midsommar celebration. In the trailer for Midsommar, the pole is shown flipped:
But in promo stills for the film, you see the pole head-on:
Is that duel presentation of the pole purposeful? Maybe! J.S. taught me that runes have one meaning when presented as intended and another meaning when reversed or merkstaved, which assigns them a “dark” meaning. In the second image, you’ll see on the left the rune Fehu, which can mean wealth, power, or charisma, and on the right, there’s the rune Raidho, which can mean journey or control, or growth or evolution. Placed together like that on the maypole, I think they refer to the cult’s belief that these rituals and the Midsommar festival will bring the Hårga 90 more years of life.
Once you see those two runes, you’ll see them everywhere. When Dani (Florence Pugh) arrives in the building where they’re staying and looks up, she sees myriad painted images; you’ll see on the bottom the Fehu symbol and toward the top a series of maypole figures, including the one we see in the film.
Pelle is also wearing the Fehu symbol on his tunic, which as J.S. noted means prosperity for him in particular because by the end of the film—when all four of Pelle’s guests have been used by the pagan cult for their own purposes—Pelle is seen wearing a crown of laurels. He is triumphant for having brought the best set of sacrifices.
Also notice that the maypole itself looks like the rune Tiwaz, which means justice, sacrifice, or law.
In fact, there is a legend about Hårga (which is a real place in Sweden) that involves a devil forcing people to dance until they died, and you see a version of that in the film, where the women in the cult, and Dani, dance around the maypole until the last one standing is coronated as the May Queen. It is the May Queen who chooses the cult’s final sacrifice.
Speaking of Dani! This is a good time to go back to those merkstaved runes that J.S. mentioned. So if a rune is presented in a way that is rotated or reversed from how they are originally written, they assume a “dark” meaning. You see this on the outfit Dani is given to participate in the maypole dance, before she is crowned the May Queen: Embroidered on her dress is a merkstaved
Raidho on the left and a merkstaved Dagaz on the right. J.S. explained the dual symbols this way:
Raidho normally means growth or evolution, but reversed it means discord, delusion or death. Makes sense since they’re recreating the demon causing all the young to dance themselves to death.
The other run is Dagaz, which is purity. But it is also altered, which in normal runes shouldn’t be. Dagaz is one of the symmetrical runes and is holy.
And that’s not all! The rune Ansuz, meaning gods or ancestors, shows up on the gown worn by Siv (Gunnel Fred), who serves as a sort of high priestess within the commune (her power, and the choice given to the May Queen, suggest that the Hårga are matriarchal). And when Dani is being led around by another woman, it looks like the woman’s dress has the rune Kenaz on it, which can mean torch—or cunning. Seems about right!
Oh, and runes are also all throughout the building where Pelle’s guests stay — not just on the ceiling, as Dani noticed, but on all the walls. In this photo with Josh, you see three at once: From left to right, Perthro, which can mean fate or prophecy; Othala, which can mean home or inheritance (and is also the shape of the tables where the Hårga eat their first meal, where the two elders are honored before their sacrifice); and Fehu again.
Here’s the Othala table scene:
And here’s another point when Perthro shows up: When the community runs a Shirley Jackson-style lottery to determine who could be the ninth and final sacrifice for their ceremony, the balls have a variety of runes on them, in particular Perthro, which can mean fate, as we discussed.
Oh, and the aforementioned Fehu pops up in another corner of the building where Will Poulter’s Mark is hanging out, too.
Speaking of Josh and Mark: Something J.S. noted is the way that Midsommar hides various darkly funny puns in those same runes. After Josh disappears (read: is killed) after asking too many questions about the runes and the Hårga religion, Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) sees his leg sticking out of the ground, with the rune Ansuz carved into it; recall that Ansuz means knowledge or insight. But in this context, with Josh having been killed for his desire for more knowledge, this is a kind of fucked-up joke and insult! And also darkly comedic is a moment at the very end of the film, when the building where the nine sacrifices is burning down, with them inside. As the building is collapsing, the only parts of it that remain standing include the door frame (which I have outlined in purple below), and the shape forms the rune Ehwaz.
I’ll let J.S. take it from here:
Ehwaz literally means horse, but it used to reference anything that involves travel, boats, chariots, even planes in modern times, etc. Spiritual, it means passage and in the context of the movie, the 9 are sacrificed … But, it the same context, Ehwaz can mean portal. Which means that Ehwaz in this context has two meanings, the souls going into the beyond like I said, but also it’s a fucking Runic pun!
Portal! Because it’s a door into the building. It’s a joke. A weird Swedish cult runic joke!
I’ll also return to J.S. for our final rune lesson. One of the most memorable images in the film, which is featured prominently in the trailer, is that of two palms from a bowing figure smearing blood upon a stone tablet. In the film, you get the context for this: Two elders from the community, whom we see honored at that dinner with the tables arranged like an Othala rune, are carried to a cliff. Cult members and the guests, including Dani, Christian, and Josh, are waiting below; the outsiders don’t realize that the two elders are preparing to throw themselves off. Upon the cliff, the elder man and woman both cut their palms, and the woman is the figure who kneels before this tablet with palms full of both her own blood and the man’s. The tablet is divided into a grid with nine runes.
I tried to identify these all but couldn’t, and J.S. came to the rescue. Let me allow J.S. to take over again, because she cracked the hell out of this code.
9×9 grid to make a spell. 9 worlds in Norse mythology.
The X runes in the corners are Gebo. Which means gift. [Note from Roxana: I’ve highlighted these four runes in green because they go together in J.S.’s interpretation, and I’ve highlighted the others in blue, because they go together.]
The left and middle are Raidho, which is growth or evolution or the journey to seek those things. The one in the bottom is Pertho, which is secrets or the occult.
The one on the right is Tiwaz, which means honor and justice and self-sacrifice. It’s the symbol for the Norse God Tyr, who put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth knowing that Fenrir would bite it off when Tyr betrayed him.
The one on the top is Algiz, which literally means shield. It also symbolizes protection and it is one of the earliest runes. People carved it on everything, on amulets to protect against spells, on rings to protect against poisons, on belt buckles to protect the belly or the groin, on the breast of jerkins and armor to protect the body in warfare. But this Algiz is merkstaved. The reverse of Algiz means hidden danger or the loss of divine connection.
So the 9 runes together like that is a spell and covenant. Reading it top down, you need to make the appropriate gifts as payment to prevent the lost of divine favor. These gifts have to be of both physical and spiritual growth and has to be willingly given in self-sacrifice. And the Perthro at the bottom finalizes the spell as magic and mystical and of change.
The woman put her blood and the blood of the other elder on Raidho and Tiwaz. She’s acknowledging that she’s ending her life as the ultimate self-sacrifice and she does it willingly and with honor.
But even further than that, the spell itself tells you what kinds of gifts it requires. Each of the 9 squares represents an individual gift. The 4 Gebo runes are the 4 from the community that need to be given. The twin Raidho are Simon and Connie [note from Roxana: two other outsiders who are invited to the ritual by Pelle’s brother], who are engaged to each other. Tiwaz is Christian, he even wears it on his chest. [Note from Roxana: Before the ceremony where Christian is forced to have sex with a woman from the cult, after she places him under a love spell using her menstrual blood and pubic hair, the cult dresses him in a tunic with Tiwaz embroidered on his chest].
And Pertho is Josh, the guy who is looking for secrets, and Mark is The Fool and is Algiz merkstaved. [Note from Roxana: Mark disappears after disrespecting a sacred tree by urinating on it, and after being killed, is turned into a mannequin with a jester’s hat on top.]
So, did J.S. blow your brain, because mine certainly was! I thank J.S. profusely for this, and I think having some understanding of the runes in Midsommar adds so much to the film, from greater context regarding the pagan cult’s belief systems and machinations to the humor Aster injected throughout.
Now, there are just three things I can’t figure out:
What are the runes in the religious building that the Hårga set alight to burn their sacrifices? I think they are doubled Sowilō runes, which mean sun, fire, guidance, and wholeness. Sounds about right for this final ceremony that is supposed to maintain the success of this sun-obsessed pagan cult, right?
What was the purpose of the Oracle? I told J.S. that I think the character, who is revealed to be born purposefully out of incest, is a misdirect. I read some reviews saying they thought the Oracle had killed Josh, but my memory of that scene is that Josh is stealing information about the cult from their sacred building, the Oracle wakes up and realizes he’s inside, but that someone else comes into the building wearing Mark’s skinned face and attacks Josh. The Oracle is certainly spooky, but we don’t see him actually do anything inherently evil or malevolent. Also note that his outfit is embroidered with every single rune. If he is a living embodiment of their language, but also the most pure person in their community because he is a child created intentionally out of incest, does that mean the Hårga know what they’re doing is evil?
And my last irritation: Aster has mentioned in a lot of interviews that many scenes they shot were cut from the final film. Does that include a scene where people levitate? Because there is a clip in the trailer where a man’s feet levitate upward and then fly across a room, but I have no memory of that appearing in Midsommar. Was there an original idea that the cult would have even more magical powers, and that concept was axed? Maybe that was too similar to Hereditary? I AM VERY CURIOUS ABOUT THIS.
So, what do you think? Did you pick up on the runes that J.S. did? (And I must add that there were other runes J.S. mentioned in our conversation that I didn’t include here because I couldn’t find any promo images, gifs, or other items to demonstrate the point.) Are there any plot points that irritated you, like the floating feet? What are your thoughts on the Oracle? Sound off!
Header Image Source: A24