The inscription alu, found on bracteates as well as other objects including the Elgesem stone (KJ 57), has been examined repeatedly, with interpretations as diverse as “magic,” “ale,” “hale,” and “protection.” Nearly all of the analyses of alu have begun from the assumption that the use of bracteates was sacral and thus the meaning of this charm word was also sacral.
The metal-detector discovery of a new bracteate (IK 635) from Scalford, Leicestershire, in 2010, may throw new light on the use of bracteates as well as the interpretation of alu. This new find has an imitation Latin inscription but no runes, so it cannot be used to bolster the argument that word and image are directly linked. Yet the Scalford piece offers a connection between bracteates and beverages (ale?) through its unique image, interpreted as a man holding a glass beaker. This image type has not previously been known on bracteates, although scenes of women and men offering beverages are displayed on several guldgubbar and Gotlandic picture stones. Behr proposes that the Scalford picture should be read as a profane example of hospitality by a leader in the Germanic hall rather than as a magical or divine scene.
I propose that we should consider the profane use of bracteates by women and men as we interpret the runic inscriptions on them. From this perspective, I will examine the interpretation of alu as “ale” used in feasting and drinking in the hall and perhaps also as an aid during and after childbirth.