What Is Rune Casting? Origins and Techniques

Runes
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In some modern Pagan traditions, divination is done by casting runes. Much like reading Tarot cards, rune casting isn't fortune-telling or predicting the future. Instead, it's a guidance tool that works with your subconscious to help solve problems by looking at potential outcomes.

Although their meanings are occasionally obscure—at least for modern readers—most people who cast runes find that the best way to incorporate them into divination is to ask specific questions based upon the current situation.

Key Takeaways: Rune Casting

  • Rune casting as divination was documented by the Roman historian Tacitus, and appears later in the Norse Eddas and Sagas.
  • Although you can purchase pre-made runes, many people opt to make their own.
  • Rune casting isn't fortune telling or predicting the future, but it does serve as a valuable guidance tool.

What Is Rune Casting?

Rune casting is simply an oracular divination method in which runes are laid out, or cast, either in a specific pattern or randomly, as a form of guidance through problems or situations in which you need help making a decision.

Runes won't give exact answers, like what day you'll die or the name of the person you're going to marry. They don't offer advice, like whether you should quit your job or dump your cheating spouse. But what they can do is suggest different variables and possible outcomes based on the issue as it presently sits. In other words, runes will give you hints that will force you to use some critical thinking skills and basic intuition.

As with other forms of divination, such as Tarot, nothing is fixed or finalized. If you don't like what the rune casting is telling you, change what you're doing, and alter your prospective path.

History and Origins

Divination Tools
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The runes are an ancient alphabet, referred to as the Futhark, which was found in Germanic and Scandinavian countries prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet in the late Middle Ages. In Norse legend, the runic alphabet was discovered by Odin himself, and so the runes are more than just a collection of handy symbols one could carve on a stick. Instead, they are symbols of great universal forces, and of the gods themselves. 

Dan McCoy, of Norse Mythology for Smart People, says that from the perspective of the Germanic people, the runes weren't merely some mundane alphabet. McCoy writes, "The runes were never 'invented,' but are instead eternal, pre-existent forces that Odin himself discovered by undergoing a tremendous ordeal."

The existence of rune-staves, or carved sticks, most likely developed from the symbols found on early Bronze and Iron Age rock carvings throughout the Scandinavian world. The Roman politician and historian Tacitus wrote in his Germania about the Germanic peoples using carved staves for divination. He says,

They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips these they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state's priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayer to the gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation.

By the fourth century C.E., the Futhark alphabet had become common around the Scandinavian world.

How to Cast Runes

To cast the runes, the first thing you'll need—obviously—is a set of runes to work with. You can purchase a set of pre-made runes commercially, but for many practitioners of Norse Paganism, there is a custom of risting, or making, your own runes. Tacitus wrote that the Runes were typically made from the wood of any nut bearing tree, but many practitioners use oak, hazel, pine, or cedar. You can carve, wood burn, or paint the symbols on your staves. Some people like to use stones—use acrylic paint with a clear coating on top of it to keep it from rubbing off with use. For many people who work closely with runes, the creation is part of the magical process, and shouldn't be done lightly or without preparation and knowledge. 

In some magical traditions, the runes are cast, or tossed, out onto a white cloth, as in Tacitus' day, because not only does it provide an easy background to see the results, it also forms a magical boundary for the casting. Some people prefer to cast their runes directly onto the ground. The method you choose is entirely up to you. Keep your runes stored in a box or bag when they're not in use.

There is no one specific method of casting runes, but there are a few different layouts that have become popular with rune casters. Before beginning, you should place your hand in the bag and move the runes around so they are thoroughly mixed up prior to the actual casting.

As with other forms of divination, rune casting typically addresses a particular issue, and looks at the influences of the past and present. To do a three-rune cast, pull three runes, one at a time, out of the bag and place them side by side on the cloth in front of you. The first one represents a general overview of your issue, the middle one indicates challenges and obstacles, and the last one shows potential courses of action you can take.

Once you get a feel for how your runes work, try a nine-rune cast. Nine is a magical number in Norse mythology. For this cast, simply take nine runes out of your bag, all at once, close your eyes, and scatter them on the cloth to see how they land. When you open your eyes, take note of a couple of things: which runes are facing up, and which ones are turned over? Which ones are near the center of the cloth, and which ones are further away? Those that are face-down may represent issues that haven't come to pass yet, and the ones which are right side up are the matters you need to truly focus on. In addition, the ones at the center of the cloth are the most important matters at hand, while those closer to the edge are relevant, but less significant.

Interpreting Your Results

FUTHARK Runic Alphabet and its Sorcery interpretation
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Each rune symbol has multiple meanings, so it's important not to get too hung up on the specifics. For instance, Ehwaz means "horse"... but it can also mean wheel or luck. What could Ehwaz mean for you? Does it mean you're getting a horse? Maybe... but it could also mean you're traveling somewhere, you're entering a bike competition, or it's time to buy a lottery ticket. Think about your specific situation, and how the rune could apply. Don't disregard your intuition, either. If you look at Ehwaz and don't see horses, wheels, or luck, but you are absolutely positive it means you're getting a promotion at work, you could very well be right.

Keep in mind that at the end of the day, runes are a sacred tool. McCoy reminds us,

While the body of surviving runic inscriptions and literary descriptions of their use definitely suggest that the runes were sometimes put to profane, silly, and/or ignorant purposes... the Eddas and sagas make it abundantly clear that the signs themselves do possess immanent magical attributes that work in particular ways regardless of the intended uses to which they’re put by humans.

Resources

  • Flowers, Stephen E. Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition. Lang, 1986.
  • McCoy, Daniel. “The Origins of the Runes.” Norse Mythology for Smart People, norse-mythology.org/runes/the-origins-of-the-runes/.
  • McCoy, Daniel. “Runic Philosophy and Magic.” Norse Mythology for Smart People, norse-mythology.org/runes/runic-philosophy-and-magic/.
  • O'Brien, Paul. “Origins of Runes.” Divination Foundation, 16 May 2017, divination.com/origins-of-runes/.
  • Paxson, Diana L. Taking up the Runes: a Complete Guide to Using Runes in Spells, Rituals, Divination, and Magic. Weiser Books, 2005.
  • Pollington, Stephen. Rudiments of Runelore. Anglo-Saxon, 2008.
  • Runecasting - Runic Divination, www.sunnyway.com/runes/runecasting.html.