From Sweden’s more than 2,000 runestones to the 26 that speckle the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, runestones stand as a symbol of a time prior to and when Vikings ruled the seas and Norse settlers immigrated to the new lands discovered and seized by them.  Yet, in many ways, these stones or, more specifically, the runic carvings on them are a bit of an enigma by virtue of their dual purpose as both alphabet and magical tool, an enigma brought on by the name of these angular letters itself – Runes.  

The term “rune” comes from the Old English word ‘run’ meaning secret or mystery; in some instances, it is even interpreted as magic.  Yet, the symbols also served as an alphabet and questions remain on both the magical front and the etymological one.  These are the two faces of the Runes.

The Origin of the Runes

Runes are fascinating because there are two stories of their origin, one in etymology and one in mythology.  From a historical perspective, Runes were probably in use as early as 2,000 years ago, though because they were carved largely into items that breakdown in most soils, such as wood, bone and antlers, the earliest runic examples date to only about 1,800 years ago.  According to Norse Mythology, however, Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, is responsible for getting the Runes, a story I will come back to shortly.

The Runes as an Alphabet

Runic carvings have been found in Scandinavia, England, Germany, and eastern Europe (Russia, Poland and Hungary), and in a few areas around the Mediterranean.  However, there are only three main runic alphabets, all having northern European roots.  The Anglo-Saxon Futhark (England) and the Younger Futhark (Scandinavia) evolved from a common ancestor – the Elder Futhark (Germanic). The name futhark is based on the first six letters in it – F-U-th-A-R-K , with each letter making a unique sound.  The Elder Futhark consists of twenty-four letters, but through time and across geographical separations, the number of Runes and, in some instances their shapes, changed.  For example, in Scandinavia around the time of the Viking Age, the number of Runes had been reduced to sixteen, while in England, the Anglo-Saxons expanded it to thirty-three.

Futharks versus the Roman Alphabet

Many people have wondered why the Runes did not translate more fully into a written language.  There are numerous reasons for this.  Runes were created to be carved or engraved.  In fact, inscriptions on wood were made against the grain or at an angle with the grain, because carving with the grain would make it difficult to distinguish the letter from the wood’s natural lines.  Using natural products that were readily available was far easier than the complicated process the Christian world used to create “paper” from sheep or cow skin and making feather quills and mixing ink.  In addition, there was no standard way of writing Runes; it varied by sentence structure with engravings that read from left to right, others that read right to left, and in some cases altering direction from one line to the next, a process called boustrophedon.  Additionally, the shapes of letters could vary and words were spelled the way the writer thought they sounded.  Essentially, there were no grammar rules or standard writing protocols.

The Runes in Mythology

According to the Poetic Edda, the poems that record the stories of the Norse gods, Odin obtains the Runes through a nine day ritual where he hangs on Yggdrasil (the world tree) without food or drink, pierced by a spear, a sacrifice to Odin, himself to himself.  Looking downwards, he spies the Runes.  He seizes them, then falls to the ground.  However, although Odin seizes the Runes and gains wisdom and insight from them, it appears as though Heimdall, the Norse sentry, who stands guard at Bifrost bridge at the gates of Asgard, is the one that actually gives the Runes to humans by teaching them to his half-god half-human son, Jarl.  This is the Rigsthula myth, where Heimdall is Rig.

In truth, we know very little about how Runes were used for magical purposes.  We know that they were used, but we don’t know how or which ones were cast for specific spells or situations.  Still, some myths and sagas mention their use for magical purposes and the Rune Poems tell us the meaning of each Rune from the Elder Futhark.  It is those poems on which most of our Rune interpretation is based.

We’ve Got Them. Now, What Do We Do With Them?

Today, Runes are used in a variety of ways, but most commonly for what people refer to as divination, though I prefer to say as an oracle, for guidance.  In this regard, we pose a question to the Runes about which we are seeking guidance.  While focusing on a question for which we seek guidance, we can draw a variety of combinations of Runes to help us answer it.  The most common draws are single Rune and three-Rune, though others exist.  In the three Rune draw, there are a number of ways to decipher the message.  One, related to Norse Mythology, is called the Norn draw, where the three Runes represent each of the Norns – past, present, future.  Another, which stems from more recent Rune use, provides an overview, challenge, and required action for the question.  Still others provide single, richer interpretations (than a single Rune draw) based on the Runes’ positions in the draw and how they relate to and support each others’ meanings.

Runes are also used for many other purposes.  They can be used in rituals, on altars, carved or written on charms or amulets, and many people use them in tattoos.  In these instances, Runes can be used either as a letter from the Futhark (such as for a person’s name) or for their magical meaning (for example, for protection or success).

One other way that Runes can be used both as letters and for magical purposes is bind Runes.  Bind Runes are multiple Runes that are drawn or carved together to form a single image or symbol.  Again, as letters, in this instance they are usually used with names.  For magic or divination purposes, uses are more varies and can be chosen intentionally (you consciously select the Runes to use) or in the same way you choose them in a draw as mentioned above.  As an example, they can be used to promote a strong and happy marriage.

 For more than 2,000 years, humans have used Runes to communicate in two ways – through written words and symbols and for magic purposes.  Though they never became an alphabet in the same sense as the Roman alphabet, they have survived on Runestones throughout northern Europe and several thousand runic inscriptions.  Moreover, they are growing in use as a modern day oracle, a claim the ABCs cannot make.

About the Author

Karen has worked with the Runes for several years and has been writing a weekly blog about them, called The Wonder of Runes (www.ireadrunes.blogspot.ca), for the last two.  In addition to her blog, Karen published a novel based on Norse Mythology, called The Son of Nine Sisters, and is writing its sequel.  For more information about the Runes or Karen’s writing, you can contact her at Karen@jerainstitute.com