Runes are more than just age-old symbols of a forgotten Germanic alphabet. In addition to their use as part of a writing system, runes doubled as a revered method of divination that is still capturing the fascination of people centuries later.
The simplicity of the runic characters made them easy to carve into wood, bone and rock; yet, those with the ability to navigate the complexities of a reading were considered sources of a powerful, unique knowledge.
The 24 Runes and Rune Readings
The 24 symbols from the Elder Futhark (or, runic alphabet) are the most popular choice for rune readings. Every character in the Elder Futhark has its own meaning and correlates to different aspects of a life experience on the physical and spiritual planes. In addition, runes are divided into three groups called aettir to denote the three stages of a life experience. The first eight runes are referred to as Freya’s Aett. The next eight runes fall into Hamdall’s Aett with the last eight resting in Tyr’s Aett.
Runes do not predict the future. The compelling insight they provide has to do with filtering thoughts and ideas deep within the subconscious that reveal hidden truths. After taking time to meditate on a question or circumstance, runes are cast or spread in patterns to help reveal the unseen aspects influencing a situation. When used correctly, runes will shed light on possible outcomes and clarify aspects of the human condition. While the information runes provide can aid in making decisions, it is never their responsibility to decide anything for anyone.
Interestingly, there are no hard and fast rules for interpreting a spread. This means runecasters must rely on intuition and the ability to remain neutral in order to let the runes speak their magick. Otherwise, there is a risk of clouding the vital information that needs to get through.
The History of Runes
Before adopting the modern Latin alphabet (the “ABCs”), ancient Germanic and Scandinavian civilizations used runes as a form of written communication. Inscriptions have been found on stones from as early as AD 150. It is generally accepted that runic letters are derived from Old Italic (Etruscan) letters. Some theorize that this is because the Germanic people served as mercenaries for Rome and adapted the letters used by their employers to their own spoken language.
As Christianity spread throughout Northern Europe, runes were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet. However, even up to the 20th century, runes were used for traditional and decorative purposes. Over time, the alphabet transformed and evolved. Elder Futhark is the oldest alphabet, used from the 2nd to the 8th century. Anglo-Frisian runes (also known as Anglo-Saxon runes) were used from the 5th to the 11th century. Marcomannic runes were used in the 8th and 9th centuries. Younger Futhark was used from the 9th to the 11th century. Medieval runes were used from the 12th to the 15th century and Dalecarlian runes were used in rural Sweden from the 16th up to the 20th century.
Runes in Modern Times
Runes appear today in fantasy literature and video games. J.R.R. Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon runes on a map in The Hobbit, and used them to develop his own runic alphabet, “Cirth,” which he often references in later novels. Runes also have a special significance to neo-pagans and those who study divination and the occult because of their connection to Norse mythology and magic.
It is thought that the earliest examples of runic writing were charms or curses. Therefore, the 24 letters of Elder Futhark alphabet hold special meaning. Some claim that they can be used to predict the future through prophecy. A recent study published by two professors (of linguistics and history) in Melbourne, Australia has shown that runes had been used to create small magical objects, known as amulets. These amulets could be carried (usually in the form of a necklace or small stone) to protect one from evil or to bring good fortune.
How to Use Runes
Runes would often be used to invoke the protection and good favor from Nordic gods. In fact, the origin of runes is attributed to the gods in a famous Eddic poem titled “Havamal.” The author of this poem claims that the runes were created by Odin through an ancient act of self-sacrifice. Odin is best known for being the father of Thor and is associated with not only war and battle, but wisdom, magic, poetry and prophecy.
Though the origins and uses of the Elder Futhark alphabet still remain largely a mystery, most discovered runes (of the later alphabets) have been found as inscriptions on large, angular slabs of rock known as runestones. These stones were often erected as memorials to important men.
Runic calendars have also been in use for many centuries. They are either written on parchment or carved into wood or bone. The calendar is “perpetual” and is based on a 19-year-long cycle of the moon. Weekdays are marked by specific Younger Futhark runes and special feast days and pagan holidays are indicated by additional symbols.
The mysteries surrounding runes and their potential magical influence make them an interesting area of study for many scholars and for those interested in the ancient power of divination. Rune reading is a popular form of fortune telling and is similar in some ways to tarot reading. The 24 runes of Elder Futhark are inscribed on small stones, crystals or tiles and are drawn at random or dumped on a mat from a cloth bag for interpretation.