Kenaz – Rune Meaning Analysis

Photo by Frédéric BISSON

I originally wrote this article several months ago. My contemplation of Kenaz sparked a deep investigation into myself and into the ways in which we obtain knowledge of reality, determine truth and transmit wisdom to one another. I’ve since read many things by R.D. Laing, a famous psychiatrist (The Politics of Experience) and Carl G. Jung, a psychoanalyst who is considered one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. I also began to search through Greek philosophers and other Eastern spiritual texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching for parallels to the runes.

At any rate, Kenaz is a remarkably powerful rune to meditate upon and contemplate, and the journey this single rune can send the seeker upon is nothing short of life long and life changing. I apologize to the rune community for my long absence, and I cannot promise that this absence is over. But here, at least, is my current analysis of Kenaz…

It is commonly agreed that Kenaz relates to the Dutch/German ‘kennen’, and the English word ‘ken’, which means “to know”, with an alternate meaning of “to be able to” — immediately invoking the old adage “knowledge is power”. In Old English, another related word ‘cennen’ means “to beget” or “to bring forth from the mind,” and is without much doubt related to the word ‘cunning’ — skillful deceit. Prior to the 14th Century we find similar words over much of europe which link Kenaz to learning, knowledge and intellect. “Kunst”, Dutch, is said to relate as well, as it means art, or craft.

Another related word here is ‘kin’. The idea of kinship between and amongst people is particularly important – and thus Kenaz has been argued to refer to ancestry.I have suggested with Othala and Ansuz that there are many distinct ways in which the idea of ancestry plays itself out, that do not necessarily have to do with blood ancestry. Kenaz represents the knowledge handed down from generation to generation, which is built upon and honored. This sort of ancestry in turn associates the rune with a knowledge of origins and of causation, which are the chief functions of both myth and science. Both the known and the unknown meet here.

In the elder futhark, Kenaz means “Torch” or “Torchlight”, as a source of heat and light.

Kenaz also represents  the inner-fire/body heat that is passed on — as cold means death. In terms of progeny, this inner-fire is feminine: the womb, a necessary heat carried by mothers all the way back to the beginning. (Fathers contribute the seed, INGUZ).

The word “Kaun”, which means sore, is another loose interpretation of Kenaz — and due to this, we could say that the rune also refers to knowledge of medicine, particularly midwifery, traditional lore, and any feminine occult knowledge.

Kenaz does not only represent a Torch, but any controlled use of fire:

It can represent the hearth, which for many eons was a central feature of the home. Keeping the home-fire burning was of utmost importance — those who gathered about the hearth were kindred, not always exclusively family, but sharing the bond of the hearth and the activities that went on around it, such as storytelling and teaching and crafts.

Kenaz can represent the forge. Here, the male aspect of Kenaz shines. Blacksmithing is a great example, in this case, of knowledge and craft being taught in a master/apprentice fashion. It is knowledge applied to create powerful tools and weapons. The transmuting power of human-controlled fire is obvious in the symbol of the forge; as should be the nature of the relationship between teacher and learner, the tradition of knowledge that dates farther back in many cases than does human record.

Knowledge as Power

Perhaps the deepest of Kenaz occult mysteries is the pursuit of knowledge — for the sake of power. That “The Truth will set you free” is a very old idea indeed, and it is this seeking, gaining, applying and recognition of the truth that lay behind every authentic search for occult knowledge. But this knowledge — indeed ‘cunning’ — is a double-edged sword — fire may serve us, but it is not our friend. So it is that our quest for truth can be seen as a purifying fire. We are not always going to like what we discover, but we must bow to what we know as truth, and recognize that which we, in fact, do not know.

Recollection, clarity of thought, sharpness of wit, insight and intuition — these are our inner-torch, that light of consciousness so necessary if we are to begin to uncover the secrets of a universe which doesn’t give up her secrets easily.

Kenaz’ energy propels the investigation of of hidden regions, a light in the darkness. It is concerned with origins, with the underlying cause and effect of the world. It is pre-scientific, though science can be viewed as an extension of the occult underpinnings of Kenaz. The ideas of science are often generated by intuition before they are proven or disproven. It is this generative fire that is important — more an art, a craft — but very pragmatic and totally necessary for the human psyche’s health.

Knowledge gives us a decisive advantage in the world — whether braving the elements (or other people). So radical is this advantage when applied that it is easy to compare its possession to the acquisition of fire — we need but imagine how profound a difference this has made for humans. A dedication to learning and truth-seeking bestows the same profound difference to the individual and their kindred.

Kenaz allows us access to our inner-forge. With applied self-knowledge, we may deconstruct our illusions, beliefs and habits and shape ourselves anew. This is the deepest alchemy, the greatest art and craft and the ultimate knowing: the craftsmanship of our self on the forge of inner-fire. Drawing from the amazing power and teachings of Kenaz, we can become whatever we will.

Ignorance is often compared to darkness, and we stumble sightlessly through it, unable to truly understand anything but our own blind predicament (if that). Illumination comes through the use of Kenaz.

A Note On Cunning

Stories tell us that even the noblest King requires a praiseworthy, cunning mind. This change in the meaning of cunning occurs sometime after the 14th century, as we can see from etymological research: cunning (adj.) early 14c., “learned, skillful,” prp. of cunnen “to know” (see can (v.)). Sense of “skillfully deceitful” is probably late 14c. As a noun from c.1300. Related: Cunningly.

I can think of no situation, aside from the feints of chess, bluffs of poker and innocuous trickery of the illusionist where deceit is purely positive. Cunning seems to easily lead to a darker side of Kenaz, the domain of Loki; mischief, trickery, manipulation. In my view, honor, and honesty, are much more powerful traits. Needless to say, the world is not black and white, and our particular biases over a word color our ideas. My point is merely that it may be useful to contemplate situations in which cunning could create clearly positive outcomes.


Reversed, Kenaz is a symbol of willful ignorance, deceit and the use of knowledge for purely destructive or manipulative ends. It signifies the loss of knowledge, over time, the extinction of bodies of lore, collective forgetting. Kenaz reversed is such a force of ignorance that it can rival, in raw power, the force of knowledge in the world.

As a result of this dynamic, it can be useful to consider this murkstave to represent the giant/god Loki, and all his unconscious cunning and destructive mischief — as well as its manifestations in human society.

10 thoughts on “Kenaz – Rune Meaning Analysis”

  1. In reference to cunning and kenning…I understand them both to be “a certain knowing”…like Kristen Krascek said: ” but I “feel” that kenning is sort of like gleaning information from the universe, perhaps even by meditation or even maybe by scrying, but I think it is more related to thought and meditation.” Which brings me to two fascinating words…wort cunning and cunning woman/man. Wort cunning can loosely be understood as “the knowing or understanding of herbs (all things green)-an herbal healer…such is the knowledge of the cunning woman/man.

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