“I know that I hung
on a wind-battered tree
nine long nights,
pierced by a spear
and given to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree
whose roots grow in a place
no one has ever seen.
No one gave me food,
No one gave me drink.
At the end I peered down,
I took the runes—
screaming, I took them—
and then I fell.”
(Havamal verses 138 – 139, “The Poetic Edda” translated by Jackson
Introduction to the Runes was first presented by C. Allen Reed for White Oak Groove CUUPS on November 4, 2018. ©2018 Allen Reed
In the Norse tradition Odin hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse mythology, for nine nights on a shamanic style vision quest to learn the power and use of the runes. The runes are both an alphabet that is used for writing magic spells and messages and are also ideograms that represents different aspects of Germanic lore and culture. There are three major systems of runes that are studied by most modern people. There is the twenty-four rune system of the “Elder Futhark” (futhark is the first six sounds in the traditional pattern of the runes) the “Younger Futhark” the sixteen rune system used by the Norse/Vikings and the “Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Futhorc” (the “a” sound in the other systems was changed to an “o” sound by the Anglo-Saxons) with up to thirty-three runes.
The first reference to the use of what may have been runes is by the Roman historian Tacticus who describes in 100 CE that the German tribes would gather in the spring and slips of wood each marked with a symbol, possibly a rune, would be cast onto a white linen sheet. A priest would then gather three of these slips of wood and interpret the meanings of the three symbols.
Modern scholars date the “Elder Futhark” to the second century CE. One of the earliest examples of the use is on the “Vimose Comb”, a hair comb from Funen, Denmark. The inscription on the comb is the man’s name “Harja”. The comb is dated to about 150 CE. However, the system was sophisticated enough by then that it likely developed over the previous one hundred years. The full “Elder Futhark” is first seen on the “Kylver Stone” a stone slab from a burial in Sweden dated to the 5th century CE. This stone seems to have been being used to practice the cutting of runes as it contains no real message just the runes cut in order. There are close to 350 examples of inscriptions using the “Elder Futhark” from personal items such as bracteates, a single sided metal medallion, to large runestones such as the “Rok Runstone” dated to the 6th Century CE from Sweden that has inscriptions in both the “Elder” and ” Younger Futhark”.
The twenty-four runes of the “Elder Futhark” are divided into three sets of eight runes called an ‘aett’ (which means eight). Each ‘aett’ is named for the rune that starts the ‘aett’, so Freyr’s ‘aett’, Hagals’s ‘aett’ and finally Tyr’s ‘aett’.
The meanings and translations of the “Elder Futhark” were lost until they were translated by Sophus Bugg, a Norwegian linguist, in 1865. The names given to the runes of the “Elder Futhark” have been reconstructed in “Proto-Germanic” based on the names of the runes in the “Rune Poems” and the use of the Gothic alphabet/runes.
Many runes seem related both in shape and sound to the alphabets from the Mediterranean. Quite possibly some of the inspiration is from the Etruscan alphabet that may have come the German tribes by way of the amber trade that reached from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Seas.
The “Younger Futhark” dates to about 700 CE. At this point in time the twenty-four “staves”, each separate symbol in the Futhark is referred to as a stave, while a whole inscription is referred to as a rune, were reduced to sixteen staves. This is the Futhark found on the Viking Age runestones in mostly Denmark and Sweden.
Despite the number of runes being cut back to sixteen in the “Younger Futhark’ the runes are still separated into three sets of runes, still called an ‘aett’ despite not having eight runes in each set. Instead there are six runes in the first ‘aett’ and five runes in each of the two other sets.The “Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Futhorc” came to England with the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the 5th century CE. The Anglo-Saxons added staves to their Futhorc as their language was different from both that used for the “Elder Futhark” and the “Younger Futhark”. Also, some staves were added after the conversion to Christianity to emulate letters from the Roman alphabet.
The “Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Futhorc” continued to be used after Christianity reached England. Of the almost 100 items with the “Anglo-Saxon Futhorc” runes on them a number of them are on large monumental crosses.
The meaning of the word rune varies from language to language and era to era. One translation for the word rune is knowledge or lore. Other scholars give it the meaning of occult knowledge and mystery. As mentioned above in the “Younger Futhark” each runic symbol is called a stave but the use in English of the word rune for a single symbol has become common.
Runes are referred to as being “cut” as the earliest runes that are found were cut into wood or stone. Runes are based on the use of a vertical or angled line. This is because if cut into wood a horizontal line would blend in with the grain of the wood or possibly split the wood itself.
In Nordic tradition runes can be used to make protective magic as in one of the Eddic poems where poison is detected in a drinking horn when runes are carved into the horn causing it to shatter and spill the poisoned drink onto the floor. Warriors were also admonished to carve “victory runes” on their swords. There are actual examples of swords and spears being found with the Tyr, the Norse god of justice and battle, rune inscribed on them that may be associated with the idea of a “victory rune”. There is also the Negau helmet from Austria dated to the first century BCE which is inscribes with runes that seem to be an invocation to Tyr.
Runes can be used to write messages but for many years it was thought most such messages were on the large monuments such as runestones and the monumental crosses in England. However, in the 1950’s after a fire in Bergen, Norway about 700 runic inscriptions were found carved on wooden sticks and bone. Dated to about 1300 CE these messages show that runes were still being used long after Christianity came to Norway when it was thought the Latin alphabet had made runes obsolete. These messages were found in the Bryggen area near the harbor where the merchant trading group the Hanseatic League had a colony. These messages vary from business transactions to more personal notes such as “The blacksmith slept with Vigdis of the Sneldebein people”. This inscription is on what may be a wooden hair pin, perhaps a gift from the smith to Vigdis?
Runes can still be used to write messages. It is somewhat easier to use the “Elder Futhark” has it has twenty-four symbols so is closer to the twenty-six letter Latin alphabet we still use (see attached sheet with runes and alphabet). In the “Elder Futhark” in most cases the first letter of the name of the rune represents the sound of the letter. (See video by Dr. Jackson Crawford on names of the “Elder Futhark” runes). So some effort has to be done to make the runes work with modern English. For instance the rune “Kenaz” is used for both ‘C’ and ‘K’, the rune “Wunjo” for both ‘V’ and ‘W’ and the rune “Jera” for both ‘J’ and ‘Y’.
In modern times most people use runes as a form of divination. For this the runes of the “Elder Futhark” are those most commonly used. To use the runes for divination you must look to the “Rune Poems” to learn the meaning of each rune. There are three surviving sets of “Rune Poems”. The Norwegian Rune Poems, the Icelandic Rune Poems and the Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Rune Poems. Each of these sets of Rune Poems provide the name of the rune and a short passage as a memory device to associate with each rune.
The Rune Poems were written down after Christianity reached northern Europe so there is some effort by the authors to make the poems more suitable for Christians rather then the pagans who originally used the runes. The Norwegian and Icelandic Rune Poems give us information about the sixteen runes in the “Younger Futhark” while the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poems tell us about the runes in the “Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Futhorc”. If there were ever a set of Rune Poems associated with the “Elder Futhark” they have been lost. Thus, the surviving Rune Poems have been used to recreate the meanings of the runes in the “Elder Futhark”.
Here are examples of the three different Rune Poems for the first rune “Fehu” which means cattle or wealth in the “Elder Futhark”.
Norwegian Rune Poem
“Wealth causes trouble among relatives;
The wolf is raised in the forest.”
Icelandic Rune Poem
“Wealth is trouble among relatives
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.”
Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Rune Poem
“Wealth is by all very much welcomed;
Each man shall deal it out freely.
If he will from the Lord get approval.”
Each rune there after has a similar set of poems that give us the name/meaning of the rune and a short poem to make it easier to remember what the meaning is. Since there are only sixteen runes in the “Younger Futhark” the runes in the “Elder Futhark” not included in the “Younger Futhark” only has one Rune Poem taken from the Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Rune Poems.
As an example the rune “Gebo” is named as ‘Gift’ in the Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Rune Poem.
“Giving, to all men, brings credit and honor
Help and worthiness –and to every outcast
is the estate and substance, that have naught else.”
To use the runes for divination in most cases each rune is cut into wood, stones or other materials so each rune is on a separate “tile”. However, some who use the runes also make cards with each rune as they are easier to make at home or a set of rune cards can be purchased.
Once you have made or purchased your runes you will want to cleanse and charge them, in particular if you have purchased them, as you have no idea where they have been and who has handled them. There are different ways to do this and you should do it the way you feel comfortable. Some will suggest putting the runes out under the light of the full moon for a night, others feel that a day in the sunlight is enough. A quick way to do it is to light a candle and pass the runes through the heat of the candle. You can also smudge your runes. Most folks use sage but my feeling is that since runes are a European form of divination I prefer incense with an Old World scent.
After cleansing you will want to imbue your runes with your spirit. The easiest way to do this is place them near your bed while you sleep for several nights.
You will want to keep your runes in a bag, a box or wrapped in a piece of natural cloth, linen, cotton or silk are often preferred. As I said I keep my bag of rune tiles on my altar.
You can not ask the runes complex or multiple questions you must keep the question simple and straight forward.
There are a number of ways to use the runes for divination. (See the attached sheets for a guide to the meanings for divinations) The two simplest methods are the one-rune and three-rune layout. Different sources provide slightly different ways to do each of these layouts. The method I use is to have the rune tiles in a small bag that contains the runes on my altar. I mix up the rune tiles in the bag and then hold the bag clasped between my hands while thinking of the question I want answered. I then take nine slow calming breaths, to represent the nine worlds of Nordic mythology. For the one-rune method I then reach into the bag and take out the first tile that comes into my hand. For the three-rune method I draw out three rune tiles and place them in front of me from left to right.
When I am using cards instead of tiles I shuffle the cards and hold them in my hands while I take the nine breaths and then cut the deck and take the top card off the top of the bottom part of the deck. If I want to do the three-rune method I cut the cards to draw the first card then shuffle the cards briefly two more times before cutting them two more times to get the second and third rune.
The one-rune method provides a quick answer to my question. For the three-rune method I start with the rune to the left to provide the problem to be dealt with, the center rune provides the course to be taken and the rune on the right provides the way things should turn out if you follow the advice of the center rune.
If you are reading for someone else you do not want them touching your runes. Instead I find the best way to do it is to spread out a piece of natural cloth and spread the runes out on the cloth. The person who is getting the reading should then place their hands on the cloth, but not the runes, and while taking the nine calming breaths think about the question they want answered. The person should not tell you the question they want answered. You then flip over the tile or tiles, depending on if you are doing a one-rune or three-rune reading. When doing a three-rune reading you flip over the tiles from left to right of the person having the reading done and then do the reading in that direction.
Some modern readers of the runes use reversed runes but I personally feel that is a carry over from doing tarot readings so do not use reversed runes. It has also become common to include a blank rune tile or card in a set of runes. I again feel this is a modern convention so do not include a blank rune in the runes I use. However, if you want to use these conventions that is up to you.
Once you start working with your runes it is a good idea to keep a rune “diary” so you can start to learn the names, meanings and interpretation of each rune. It also helps to show you if there is a pattern to the answers you are getting to the questions you are putting to your runes.
Rune Divination and Magic
The Book of Runes
St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY
- The Rune Cards
St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY
- Runes For Beginners
Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN
Cooper, D. Jason
- “The Aettir in Magic” from Esoteric Rune Magic pp 48-63
- A Practical Guide to the Runes
Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN
Paxson, Diana L.
- Taking Up The Runes
Weiser Books, San Francisco, CA
Gresham Publishing Co, Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland
Historical Rune Studies
- The Poetic Edda
Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, Indianapolis, In
- Names of the Runes (Elder Futhark)
- Several Erotic Medieval Inscriptions Found in Bergen
Njardvik, Teresa Drofn Freysdottir
- Runes: The Icelandic Book of Futhark
The Icelandic Magic Company, Reykjavik, Iceland
Sheffield, Ann Groa
- Long Branches: Runes of the Younger Futhark
Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Rune Studies
- The Old English Rune Poem: a critical edition
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada
- An Introduction To English Runes
The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England
- The Rune Poem
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA