If you’ve ever done a quick Google search on the occult, or divination, or even spirit communication, you might have come across these rigid, straight-lined symbols. You may also have seen them if you’ve dug into your computer’s character map and seen the symbols in Unicode.
This is the runic alphabet, or Elder Futhark. The modern computer language is not quite like the original, but it is a compromised version somewhere between a scholarly and amateur interpretation.
What Are Runes:
So, what are runes? And why aren’t they called letters, or characters, if they’re just another alphabet? Simply put - because they’re something more than letters.
There are 24 runes, and each one has a name. The names are almost always based on the first sound of each symbol. The runes comprise the runic alphabet, called “futhark” after the first six: Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raidho and Kaunan. If this is surprisingly simple, it's worth nothing the word “alphabet” comes from the names of the first two Semitic letters of Aleph and Beth. Not all the original names of each rune are known, and the names we know them by now are reconstructed from Common Germanic and Old English.
Runes are not just a means of communication by written and spoken language. The word “rune” itself means secret, or mystery. The characters themselves each contain their own magical attributes, and each rune’s pronunciation, not just the visual symbols, carries meaning as well. In this way, they are symbols with significance, a visual representation of spoken magic. The words the runes make up, therefore, contain new, or more meaning and intention in the sounds they create when spoken.
The Origin of Runes:
The Elder Futhark is the oldest form of the runic alphabets, and its first use dates back to between the first and second centuries. It is 2000 years old! It was a writing system used by early Germanic tribes for several centuries before the Vikings. The symbols appear in carved inscriptions on mostly stone, but also found on wood, boulders and metal. The design of each rune is written with straight lines - designed specifically for being hand-carved, not written with ink.
The Germanic tribespeople believed not that the runes were invented, so much as they were eternal; pre-existing their known world, as they each carry a significance beyond just their pronunciation.
As the northern European tribes migrated and moved toward Scandinavia around the 8th Century, the language was simplified, took on a slightly different look and became the Younger Futhark, the written language of the Vikings.
Ancient runestones are mostly large, upright standing stones, carved with pictures and runic inscriptions. They’re seen primarily in Scandinavia, (where they exist in the thousands!) with some discovered in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe Islands as well. The Norsemen who created these stones took their culture with them where they raided and conquered, and the use of runestones is no exception.
The Younger Futhark remained in use until the 17th Century before its understanding was lost to history. In 1865 it was deciphered again, and since then, the runes have gained a lot of popularity.
The runes have always been associated with the god Odin, even as they was being utilized by the early Germanic tribes. Odin, a dominant god in a pantheon of many at that time, moved north with the people and their beliefs. He was revered to be the highest magician, and as the cults of Odin rose to power, the runes and the runestones remained under his magical domain.
Runic magic is most notably mentioned in the Poetic Edda, a Medieval manuscript of Old Norse Poems. Other collections of similar poems include using various runes for divination, and applying the symbols to objects to invoke a specific aspect or god. A significant use of this form of magic are Icelandic magical staves, or sigils, that supposedly had magical effects, written in grimoires dating from the 17th Century and later.
Historically, the early Germanic tribes did in fact partake in the ritual of marking particular items with meaningful symbols, “casting” or throwing them down on a white cloth, and interpreting the meaning of what symbols are shown.
Modern runecasting is a phenomenon which has its roots in Hermeticism and classical Occultism, which originated during the Renaissance. Between the 17th Century and the very recent 1980’s, several systems of using runes for divination have been created based on the original 24 letters of the Elder Futhark.
Retaining their names and implied meanings, but drawing on the Chinese divination system known as the I Ching, the most famous catalyst for rune casting comes from Ralph Blum’s 1982 book, The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle. His rune book even came with the familiar little bag of stones, each stamped with one of the 24 symbols and instructions on divination and interpretation. This model has lasted throughout the decades, and the book has never gone out of print since its first publication.
The magical application of the sounds of the runes is not lost to history, or modern usages, either. The work of Stephan Grundy, an American scholar in Germanic Neopaganism, proposed singing or chanting the runes in an active method of creating magic, rather than the passive interpretation of rune use through divination. Keep in mind that these are very modern and far-removed interpretations of the original Indo-European runes. The height of their use and meaning, around 1500 years before now, is full of mystery and meaning we've lost to time. If it isn't written in stone (pun intended), we're not getting it back, so all we have are the more famous and well-marketed interpretations.
The staying power of runic magic, and a means to answer questions to the unknown, invoke a power to set an intention, or procure details of a future event speaks to the modern human need for answers, and control. We may not have evidentiary proof that runic magic has a quantifiable or measurable effect, but the possibility, and symbolism they can convey is powerful enough to hold on into the Information Age. The Runes have existed for 2000 years, and thanks to scholarly efforts, research and preservation, I can confidently “foresee” them sticking around into the (mostly) unknowable future.
Thanks for reading,