The Three Aettirs of the Elder Futhark Runes


While Cooper refers to the “Elder Futhark”, he uses the names and meanings of the runes of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Traditionally only the first three rune rows (aettir) of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc are used for divination, although the “extra” runes might be used for magick. Cooper discusses only the these first three rows.

The Aettir In Magick
By D. Jason Cooper

© 1994, D. Jason Cooper, Esoteric Rune Magic, pp. 48-63

There are three aettir (aett is singular, aettir is plural) of the Elder Futhark. This fact has often been mentioned In both occult and academic books on the runes, but no one has bothered to wonder what this division means.

The Enochian alphabet has no similar division; its only internal structure is its alphabetic order and numerology. The Hebrew alphabet has both these divisions and the division between single, double, and mother letters..

Perhaps this is why when the runes regained popularity the existence of the aettir did not excite much attention. Indeed, the only mention of their use was as the basis of ciphers such as the twig runes or tent runes. Additionally the aettir form the basis for runic numerology, a sophisticated subject in its own right.

But the aettir, on examination, create a careful division of the runes. This system has several implications for the magical use of the runes. The aettir not only imply an initiatory structure, each aett being one degree in a three-degree system, but they seem to reflect the age-old division of Aryan tribal society: nurturer, warrior, and priest/king. This theory of the division of Aryan societies, by the way, is not an occult theory, but an academic one associated most closely with G. Dumezil.

In its simplest form, the theory is as follows. When the Aryan tribes swept from the steppes, they brought with them a society already divided into three groupings…

These groupings affected the different Aryan societies in a variety of ways. in India the divisions multiplied, became more fixed, and were transformed into the caste system. In Iran, too, the caste developed but was much less complicated and rigid, and eventually atrophied into merely two divisions: priest/king and everybody else. These divisions apparently explain a wide variety of phenomena. For example, in early Rome there were priesthoods called flamens. G. Dumezil believed the Latin flamen to be a corruption of “Brahman.”

Furthermore, there were three major and twelve minor such priesthoods-priesthood here being an office held by an individual. The three major priesthoods were dedicated to the gods Quiurnus, Mars, and Jupiter. Dumezil saw these as reflecting the nurturer, warrior, and priest/king respectively.

Similarly, medieval society with its division of people – “those who work, those who pray, and those who fight”- reflected the same ancient traditions. Dumezil saw the same division in Germanic society. We should not think Dumezil’s ideas have been universally accepted…

What Dumezil has done, however, is trace structures of society to their common origin. Where we find the structure remaining in society we can expect it to exist in its institutions. This is certainly the case with the Germanic tribes.

The divisions Dumezil noted were essentially those of the Germanic pagans. They had nurturers in their farmers, women, and to an extent, merchants. They had their warriors, the Vikings being one example, and their priest/kings. Many royal houses traced their ancestry back to one of the gods. In the pagan era all royalty had divine sanction.

These divisions are reflected in the aettir of the runes in different ways. If you look carefully, you may notice some overlap in the duties of the runes. Each aett has its complement of functions and its own character.

Freyja’s aEtt

The first aett is Freyja’s, the aett of the nurturer: the mother, the farmer, and the merchant. It is also the aettir of the first degree and shows this in its structure. The runes set three pairs of opposites which are fairly typical of the kind of test/choice early students face in initiatory training.

Take the first two letters: feoh and ur. These are domesticated and wild oxen, respectively. The similarity is obvious, since both deal with cattle. The distinction is between the social, domesticated, and responsible on one hand and the wild, untamed nature on the other.

Do not assume that feoh is good and ur is bad. The task of the student is as much to get away from his or her own conventional ways of thinking as to learn the methods of magic. On the other hand, the student must often face parts of him or her-self he or she hoped never to face again: the student must learn to capture and tame the wild side of his or her own psyche.

The second pair, thorn and os, is even easier to see as a dichotomy, since it admits no ambiguity. It is all demons, especially the one called thorn, versus all gods, especially Odin. In other words, the student has to choose the gods with every fiber of his or her being.

To choose the gods only because it is expected is not good enough. The student has to see the reality of the choice, and make it using all the factors of him or herself unleashed (the lesson of feoh and ur).

The third pair, rad and ken, complete the simple opposites in his aettir. They are the otherworld and the journey to the land of the dead on one hand, the light of the torch on the other.

With this pair we seem to have an image of a two-part initiation. On the physical level we have a person in a cave (rad) who has been subject to sensory deprivation (darkness) being brought the light (ken) before being brought out of the cave as if reborn.

Psychologically, we have a typical shamanic ride into the otherworld on a cart or an animal (rad). There the shaman uses his or her harnessed magical powers (ken) as a guide, conducts the journey safely, and returns.

Note that initiations in caves were common in both Germanic and Celtic cultures. In the case of the Germanic tribes, torches were a symbol of magical power. Even today torch light parades, a tradition started by the pagans, take place.

The final two runes are gyfu and wunjo. Gyfu is the gift, the exchange; wynn, the glory. In the light of previous pairs it would seem the parallel here is that in return for the gift the student receives the glory, which in this case means wisdom.

The sacrifices the student has made (and a last such sacrifice may be indicated by the rune gyfu) yield the wisdom of wynn. The student has passed the degree of the nurturer (Freyja) and it ready to undergo the tests of the warrior, Heimdall.

Heimball’s aEtt

Heimdall is sometimes thought of as a god of silence, which might seem like priestly meditation to some. I believe he, in conjunction with Loki, forms a special description of the world. Loki is the bound giant whose fingers eat away at coastlines.

Loki is a shapeshifter, as dunes change shape. He steals, as erosion steals topsoil or land. Yet he brings the gods their greatest treasures (usually of gold), as erosion reveals alluvial gold or other items.

Heimdall is the watcher against this. He is associated with goats because they live on the cliffs identified with him. He is identified with sea cliffs because they are seen as Heimdall watching for Loki’s arrival. His horn is the waves crashing against the surf, the sound heard throughout the nine worlds.

He is associated with the land, in that Heimdall refers to the land just as do the names Vanaheim and Svartalfheim. Similarly, Freyja is called Merdall, which is the sea equivalent of Heimdall. But Heimdall himself was born of the sea, as land is often thought (correctly, geologically speaking) to be born of the sea.

In essence, Heimdall is a warrior. Ever-watchful, he struggles against overwhelming odds, showing unending courage in his watchfulness.

His aett begins with hoel. It is winter, ice, and the season of cold. In this we again have the dichotomy of Loki and Heimdall.

Winter is a season in which people spend long months indoors. Pranks and mischief become common and can go too far. This was the sort of thing against which Heimdall, watchful and patient, was to stand.

The second rune is nyd, necessity. Long periods of enforced rest, even boredom, can lead one past the obvious. The usual mechanisms of personality break down and the individual reaches for something inside him or herself. He or she finds sources of power beyond his or her dreams.

When such things occur, and they do occur in several societies, they are described in terms of combat or in relation to a warrior. It is interesting to note here that Freyja’s aett starts with safety and moves to danger, while Heimdall’s aett starts with danger and moves to its resolution.

The next two runes of Heimdall seem to repeat the relationship of the first two: isa (spear or ice) and ger (the year, especially the harvest). Naturally Isa (as ice) parallels hoel, and ger (harvest with the implication of winter stores) parallels nyd.

If so, this implies the application of the power of nyd, in turn made necessary by hoel. Defense of the food stores against the enemy, human or natural, is part of this. But there is another dichotomy represented here.

Isa is the barren time of winter. Ger is the fruitfulness of the harvest. In this the warrior reaches into his or her lowermost depths to find the wellspring of personal strength, a strength which exists almost by natural law.

The runes go through boredom and find necessity. They go rough barrenness and find fruitfulness. One would expect a third such division, yet the next two runes do not provide it.

Both eoh and poerdh deal with restriction. Eoh is natural restriction, and might be compared to the literal meaning of the Latin prohibit, which means “for life.” Poerdh is the funeral mound and its entrance. It is death not in the mold of rad, a crossable state, but it is death as a warrior finds it–an impenetrable barrier; a final limit.

The last two runes are also similar in direction, but on different scales. That is, eolh is protection while sighel is the sun salvation and protection.

Restriction is matched with protection and death is matched with salvation. In this poerdh is not an absolute barrier; any breach of that barrier exists only through a higher power. Sighel, as the sun, transcends death. It is not the warrior who digs permanently deeper into him or herself to eventually overcome even death: for this he or she requires outside aid. With that in mind, we turn to the third aettir.

Tyr’s aEtt

Tir, in his original form of Tyr, was the head of the Germanic pantheon. His name comes from the same source as Jupiter (originally Deus Pitar) and Zeus. He was a sky god whose worship went back at least to the Bronze Age; we have carvings which show a one-handed figure who is taken to be a god.

It is possible that his ancestry is much older than this. The rough outline of the Germanic mythic universe, a column or tree holding up a skull which is the sky, seems to go back to the days of the Neanderthal. In a Neanderthal cave, a stick on which rests a skull has been found. Surrounding the stick is a ring of stones. The stick relates to Yggdrasil, the world tree; the skull is the skull that is the sky. The stones can be compared to the Midgard serpent. The parallels are too close to ignore.

The first rune of the aettir is tir, a complex rune that is not only its god’s initial but also a version of his name. It is a rune that represents victory and protection and is a symbol of cosmic justice.

We in the modern world forget that among ancient tribes war was seen as a test, and the gods gave victory to those who were most deserving. Those who deserved victory were those who displayed the martial virtues of courage and order. When the technology of weapons was usually equal, this was not an illogical stance to take.

The rune tir was the promise of such a victory. But it can also be seen as the priest/king’s dispensing of justice. The priest/king must see clearly what is right and where something has gone wrong, which leads to the next rune.

Moral value in peace and war is perhaps ensured by the rune boerc. Boerc stands for atonement.

Where victory in war is considered a moral victory it becomes imperative that the members of the army not have pollution in their souls. This was as true of the Germanic pagans as Cromwell’s New Model Army-and in both cases seems to have been a concern only until it was time to sack the town. The duty of the priests was to ensure that atonement.

In times of peace, the priests or rulers had a similar duty of atonement politically and personally. It was assumed that there was, on a social and personal level, a natural state of health and smooth functioning. When something went wrong it was because of an imbalance or a pollution. In any of these cases an atonement was necessary to restore health.

The third rune of the aett is ehwis, which represents the twin gods, the Aclis. Only three runes specifically refer to a deity. os in the first aettir is any god, though it is sometimes taken as Odin specifically. In the third aett are tir and ehwis: cosmic justice and the gods who help people, respectively.

The Aclis seem to have been very close to the human race, even if they did not have a large formal cult. Their tendency to be the originators of various royal houses shows this. In an aett of the priest/king we would have to have some reference to the functions of the office and the gods as overseers of this. The notion of the divine king given special powers would last until the time of Charles I.

The atonement necessary was often a punishment. Sentencing was not to reform someone, but to provide atonement, which itself was thought to provide the basis for rehabilitation.

Ehwis is the rune of calling on divine aid, but also of strengthening the bonds of society. The atonement that was required made certain everyone reaffirmed the social norms.

The next rune is manu, which is the human being. It represents the race or the individual. So from cosmic justice or victory in war we devolve to atonement, the Aclis, and the race or the individual. Throughout we move from the most distant to the closest to us. The simple dichotomies of Freyja are not seen here. Here are functions of priesthood and rule, though more the former than the latter. The next four runes change this relationship.

Lagu as the sea, ing as the people, and odel as the property is almost a thumbnail sketch of Germanic society. Furthermore, if we start with manu we have the individual who is splashed with water at birth (lagu), becomes one of the people (ing), and inherits property (odel).

In these last runes, though the priestly function is still described, rulership comes to the fore. The result is the last rune, doerg. This is light, shining day, salvation; the culmination of right rulership, right life, and the final event of initiation.

It is possible that a random collection of symbols, if they are strong enough, will always seem to have various interconnections. But the structure of the three aettir belies such a notion.

For a start, each of the three ends with a rune of positive nature and successively greater scope: wynn (glory), sighel (sun), and doerg (day). It implies the end of a course of instruction in which the student has passed the tests and is ready to go on to the next step.

Each aett has certain runes which directly or indirectly cover similar concepts. Each, for example, has a rune for light. In Freyja this is ken, the torch. In Heimdall it is sighel, the sun; in tir it is doerg, the radiant day. Note that the light is successively greater in power or covers a wider area.

Each aett has a rune referring to wealth or personal achievement. Freyja has feoh, Heimdall nyd, and tir odel. All have a reference to the deities in os, sighel, and tir and ehwis.

Each aett has a specific emphasis. Freyja has four runes of danger, evil, or cost to the runecaster (ur, thorn, rad, and gyfu); Heimdall has three (hoel, Isa, and poerdh); tir has, at most, one (lagu was sometimes the dangerous sea).

If we examine where similarities exist in two out of three aettir there is a much wider development. For example, only rad and poerdh deal with death; the aett of tir has no such rune, as if priest/kings or the members of the third degree had faced and conquered the problem.

In the same way, the aett of tir has no reference to ice or snow. Freyja has thorn and Heimdall has both hoel and isa. Yet it is Freyja’s aett which lacks any reference to a weapon. Isa in Heimdall’s aett and tir in Tir’s aett both refer to a spear. We should note that of the deities only Freyja was associated with peace rather than war.

When we look at functions rather than images there is even more overlap. Each aettir has at least one rune of protection, each has at least one rune useful as a good luck charm, each has a rune useful in healing magic, and so on.

It seems clear that there was an intended structure in these aettir; the runes were probably taught in groups of three. But more than that, they were taught as a degreed system. Evidence for this is in the declining number of “negative” or “testing” runes, and the change from simple dichotomies to a more complex and panoramic use of the runes in the aettir.

This last point, incidentally, parallels the Tarot, where the Major Arcana begins with dichotomies or choices and winds up with groupings of cards showing different aspects of one principle. So in the beginning the choice is between gutlessness and guile (Fool and Magician), the spiritual and chaste or the sensual and sensuous (High Priestess or Empress), and political or religious authority (Emperor or Hierophant). Later, there are groups of cards like Star, Moon, and Sun, or Justice, Hermit, and Wheel.

But more importantly for us, the aett of a rune has some effect on its magic. Ken is not the same as sighel or doerg, and there is more to the difference than mere scope or scale.

aEtt Magic

The runes you choose to use, whether individually or combined, are affected by the aett in which they belong. There is more to a choice between ken, sighel, and doerg than scale or personal preference. There is a greater difference between isa and tir, both involving a spear, than isa and hoel, both involving ice or winter.

This difference or similarity becomes extremely important in runic magic: a gift demands a gift; better not to pledge than to pledge overmuch. As I’ve said before, the runes are an ecological magic. It requires from you a necessary balance of intents, actions, and results. You need to make a statement or sacrifice before any significant magical work.

The nature of this balance differs depending on which aett is involved. This difference reflects the group of the society to which the rune belongs.

So feoh is wealth within Freyja’s aett of the nurturer, while odel is wealth (or property) within the terms of the priest/king. These terms are as follows:

Freyja’s aett of the nurturer is concerned with love, happiness, life, and enjoyment.

Heimdall’s aett of the warrior deals with matters of achievement, money, victory, power, and success.

Tir’s aett of the priest/king is used for matters of justice, spiritual achievement, understanding, establishing order, atonement, and all matters dealing with politics or rulership/authority.

When choosing a rune, then, one must look not only to its use or image, but to the aett in which it belongs. When combining runes, the same rules can apply.

For example, feoh is wealth in relation to personal happiness, livelihood, and enjoyment. It is not suitable when used in magic for becoming a millionaire because it doesn’t take that much money to be happy on a personal scale.

On the other hand, odel is wealth which also indicates one’s rank in society. Becoming a millionaire is quite germane to its function, if only because of the change in status involved.

Neither deals with money on its own terms: it is money to get happiness or money to establish a particular role in society. But it is Heimdall’s own aett which involves money, even though it doesn’t have a rune specifically for wealth.

This is because money, in the terms of Heimdall’s aett, is a part of victory. It is built from associations of nyd, ger, and other runes. So nyd’s general use of success includes monetary success, ger’s comfort implies financial comfort, and so on.

But the aett of the rune has its own effect. Feoh could not be used to get enough money to dump a spouse; odel cannot be used to ensure success for the unjust. Moreover, to use feoh one could not sacrifice personal happiness to balance the money. What can you offer, then?

There are essentially two kinds of sacrifices suitable in runic magic: the gift to the gods and the personal sacrifice.

The gift refers to a physical object presented to the gods. This can be left in a sacred place (the common Greek and Roman custom), burned (akin to Chinese funeral practices), or buried. In all cases the object is meant as much as a votive offering as anything else: it is a declaration of your intent rather than a quid pro quo. As a general rule, the following are good examples of dedications for runic magic for significant goals.

Gifts related to Freyja’s aett can include planting trees, choosing a bad patch of soil and rehabilitating it, cutting flowers and placing them on an altar, or making provisions for the poor (especially food for feoh or ur). Small gifts such as statuary can be stored in a sacred place, buried, or burned.

Gifts for Heimdall’s aett can include weapons, coins, acts of courage, overcoming a fear or a bad habit, or acts of reconciliation.

Tir’s aett can include almost any item of the previous two aettir. Significantly, it can also include other magical acts, such as undergoing a special initiatory journey through the astral realms, or using a ritual to enhance the justice of the world.

All three can include votive acts, such as lighting a candle and saying a mantra or a prayer for the length of the burning of the candle. They can include specific numbers or times of prayers to a particular deity associated with the rune or runes you wish to use.

In personal sacrifice, however, there is a different rule. Whereas with objects or actions you need items that match the character of the aett, personal sacrifice requires the opposite. Do not sacrifice love to please Freyja.

In other words, the sacrifice to be made must strengthen the precepts of the aett. In the case of physical objects this is done by similarity; in the case of personal lifestyle it is done by removing encumbrances.

So take the example of Freyja’s aett: a personal sacrifice might be to spend more time with your children, bringing greater strength to that area of life. In return, the magic may eliminate financial or personal difficulties elsewhere in your life. It can mean a change of personality to become a more circumspect, caring person.

In cases of Heimdall’s aett, personal sacrifice can include doing exercises to improve physical condition (both sports and exercise originated as preparations for war). Alternatives include shedding superfluities of life: cleaning out all your old junk is a simple example.

Runes of Tir’s aett can be supported through acts of meditation or by becoming a calmer person. Matters of understanding and piety also form a foundation for personal sacrifice.


Say you want more money. First, check the runes which deal most closely with this. There are several runes which will work. There are feoh and ur in Freyja’s aett; nyd, ger, and sighel in Heimdall’s; and in Tir’s aett, odel.

But what is the money for? Somebody out of work may only be looking for comfort, e.g., knowing he or she will be able to pay the rent next month. For this person, nyd is clearly inappropriate. Ur, with its implication of danger, is unlikely as well. This leaves odel and feoh.

Either one would be suitable. But feoh more closely approximates comfort. Odel would be more appropriate for the money to do something&endash;e.g., the money for college fees. Assuming we settle on feoh, there are several gifts that might be made.

First, we can establish what we want the money for. We can restrict ourselves in that the money will be used for comforts and necessities rather than luxuries. If after receipt of the money there is a sudden purchase of foreign trips and gold bullion, expect severe reversals of fortune.

Individual gifts can be made, such as planting trees. The number of trees can be set numerologically, or can be one tree per every hundred or thousand dollars necessary. Or you can change your personality to strengthen the principles of Freyja-resolving not to think depressing thoughts for a period of three months, for example.

Let’s take another example: suppose you want power. You’ve been at the bottom of the stack all your life and you want your card played. You want the chance to call your own shots in life, and don’t care much whether the power is financial, political, or even simply a nebulous belief in power. We don’t have to start with anything more than that rather vague statement to work out the appropriate rune(s) and gifts. And in this case there are many from which to choose.

If we’re talking about a problem of not getting your share, we should look to Tir’s aett. We’re dealing with a question of justice and setting things right. The rune for that is tir.

However, if you believe a previous life, pollution, or karmic debt is at the root of your troubles, boerc is the appropriate rune.

It may not be your pollution, but society’s. The deck may be stacked against you. In such a case you may wish to call upon divine aid, so runes such as os or ehwis would be appropriate.

If you want money or property in proportions that make people respect you, use odel. If, however, it is the position of respect that is most important, you would be looking at the runes ing or isa.

And there are more general positive runes like ken, sighel, or doerg. And runes to attack enemies who hold you back (tir), to protect you from them (eohl), to gain preferment from those higher up (lagu and doerg), or even to achieve success through a lifetime of right action (ger and eoh).

As you can see there are many possibilities here. In this example we would need to narrow down exactly what is wanted and in what order. That is, take the matter in steps and use the magic item by item to achieve what you want.

If the odds are stacked against you, start with eohl. This is a rune of protection in Heimdall’s aett. It can be used by drawing on its strength over time through ritual use, meditations, and the like.

The sacrifice to be made can be twofold. First, a change in lifestyle. Simply look for points of weakness and vow to slowly shut them down. If money is a problem, prepare to cut down on expenses and save. If you tend to get people angry, vow to cut out that habit.

The material sacrifice can be something appropriate to Heimdall’s aett or the associated gods Magni and Modi. A small knife or a spearhead can be engraved with the rune eohl, or eohl on one side and tir on the other. This can be buried or stored in a sacred place. Using it as a regular knife, however, is not a good idea. Some coins might be gifted. Wooden letter-openers can be carved or bought and burned.

Once protection is established, you need to look at the next step. This can be any one of several things, but we’ll establish the aid of the gods. This means the rune ehwis.

This is in Tir’s aett, so the sacrifice here could easily be a series of projections into the rune. Time spent watching a candle flame while silently carving and coloring the rune over and over could be another act of sacrifice. Time spent in self- improvement, to be worthy of the help of the twin gods, can be an important form of sacrifice.

With the aid of the Aclis through the rune ehwis, you would need to choose a third rune. The choice could be nyd to achieve the goal, or tir to strengthen oneself. It is possible that the magic of the first two runes will choose the third for you. This may come by some coincidence, through inspiration, or in a dream. But the process should be clear.

At each stage another rune is chosen to overcome the problems at hand so that you can go a step further with your program. But when choosing multiple runes, particularly when they are to be used at the same time, the aettir have one more role to play.

Relations Between the aEttir

It is common to combine runes to achieve a particular magical effect. Combining runes into a monogram was a common practice, one that continues today.

Suppose you want to combine the powers of nyd and ken, for example. These runes deal with harnessing and unleashing power; certainly an advantageous combination for, say, an athlete. But ken is in Freyja’s aett and nyd is in Heimdall’s. Does this cause problems?

Not really, but their combined strength may only be more precise and not actually twice as powerful than either rune separately. This is a case where two plus two, because of inefficiencies, may only make three, if even that much.

To maintain strength you must be aware of the aettir and the type of sacrifice involved in each. In this case Freyja is for the love of the sport, and nyd is for success and victory. The runes must be combined in such a way that ken makes you do your best, and nyd makes your best good enough to win.

It doesn’t take two sacrifices for these runes. Better to have one overlapped sacrifice in the form of concentration on the combined pair. You must invest energy to achieve the desired results.

Only then, to seal the power, do you make a physical sacrifice. This can be as small as burning a candle or drinking an oath to the action.

We’ll be examining this in more detail in the chapter on combining runes. But there are some rules we should remember when dealing with the aettir and choosing runes from them.

First, the functions of the runes in the aettir parallel each other, but those in successive aettir are more powerful and more general in purpose. So the success of nyd is more general than that of feoh. Where Freyja’s aett has thorn the ice demon, Heimdall’s has ice and winter, and tir’s simply has atonement.

Second, when combining runes do not simply pile up the runes of a whole aett or combine runes of the same function from each of the aettir. Some of the runes in the same aett counter each other, and parallel runes in different aettir do not always reinforce each other. So though os and ehwis can combine well, feoh and odel generally do not.

Third, do not combine dark runes or runes of danger. Thorn and hoel mix about as well as alcohol and gunpowder. There are some unavoidable exceptions in which the more difficult runes are mixed, but until you have experience, avoid them.

Fourth, when combining runes establish a key rune which will determine the “home” aett.

That being said, we will turn our attention back to the individual runes. We will need to learn them through meditation in order to draw from them the maximum magical value.



cooperCooper, D. Jason: Esoteric Rune Magic, St Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1994, ISBN:1-56718-174-0
cooperusingrunesCooper, D. Jason: Using the Runes: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Art of Runecraft. Aquarian Press, London, 1987, ISBN=0850305683.  A companion to Esoteric Rune Magic, designed to be an introduction to the general field of the runes and Germanic paganism. Uses the Anglo-Saxon Futhark.

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