The Norse Runes - A Basic Overview

Rune stones
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The runes are an ancient alphabet that originated in Germanic and Scandinavian countries. Today, they are used in magic and divination by many Pagans who follow a Norse or Heathen-based path. Although their meanings can sometimes be a bit obscure, most people who work with runes find that the best way to incorporate them into divination is to ask a specific question based upon your current situation.

Did You Know?

  • Odin was responsible for the runes becoming available to mankind; he discovered the runic alphabet as part of his trial, in which he hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days.
  • The Elder Futhark, which is the old Germanic runic alphabet, contains two dozen symbols. 
  • According to many practitioners of Norse magic, there is a tradition of making, or risting, your own runes rather than purchasing them.

Although you don't have to be of Norse ancestry to use the runes, you'll have a far better understanding of the symbols and their meanings if you have some knowledge of the mythology and history of the Germanic peoples; this way you can interpret the runes in the context in which they were meant to be read.

The Legend of the Runes

Ancient and cracked rune stone with summer background
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Dan McCoy of Norse Mythology For Smart People says,

"While runologists argue over many of the details of the historical origins of runic writing, there is widespread agreement on a general outline. The runes are presumed to have been derived from one of the many Old Italic alphabets in use among the Mediterranean peoples of the first century CE, who lived to the south of the Germanic tribes. Earlier Germanic sacred symbols, such as those preserved in northern European petroglyphs, were also likely influential in the development of the script."

But for the Norse people themselves, Odin was the one responsible for the runes becoming available to mankind. In the Hávamál, Odin discovers the runic alphabet as part of his trial, during which he hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days: 

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence.

Although there are no records of runic writing left on paper, there are thousands of carved runestones scattered about in Northern Europe and other areas.

The Elder Futhark

Runes on rock
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The Elder Futhark, which is the old Germanic runic alphabet, contains two dozen symbols. The first six spell out the word "Futhark," from which this alphabet derives its name. As the Norse people spread out around Europe, many of the runes changed in form and meaning, which led to new alphabet forms. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc contains 33 runes. There are other variants out there as well, including Turkish and Hungarian runes, the Scandinavian Futhark, and the Etruscan alphabet.

Much like reading the Tarot, runic divination is not "telling the future." Instead, rune casting should be seen as a tool for guidance, working with the subconscious and focusing on the questions that might be underlying in your mind. Some people believe that the selections made within the runes drawn are not really random at all, but choices made by your subconscious mind. Others believe that they are answers provided by the divine to confirm what we already know in our hearts.

Making Your Own Runes

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You can certainly purchase pre-made runes, but according to many practitioners of Norse magic, there is a tradition of making, or risting, your own runes. It isn't strictly necessary, but it might be optimal in a magical sense for some. According to Tacitus in his Germania, the Runes should be made from the wood of any nut bearing tree, including oak, hazel, and perhaps pines or cedars. It is also a popular practice in runemaking to stain them red, to symbolize blood. According to Tacitus, the runes are questioned by casting them onto a white linen sheet, and taking them up, while keeping one's gaze upon the heavens above.

As in other forms of divination, someone reading runes typically will address a particular issue, and look at the influences of the past and present. In addition, they look at what will happen if one follows the path they are currently on. The future is changeable based upon choices made by the individual. By looking at cause and effect, the rune caster can help the querent look at potential outcomes.

However, it's also important to remember that for those who work closely with runes, the carving is part of the magic, and shouldn't be done lightly or without preparation and knowledge. 

Additional Resources

For more background on the runes, how to make them, and how to use them for divination, check out the following titles: