An Introduction to the
Rune of the Month
Welcome to the Rune-of-the-Month-Club, or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Runes but were Afraid to Ask! (Boy, is my age showing!) This first column is an introduction to runes, their history, and their use. I'm including a useful but far from exhaustive bibliography as well. 25 more installments will follow, one for each rune of the Elder Futhark plus a wrap-up article. What the Hel's the Elder Futhark, you ask? Good point! Let us begin:Edit
Runes are the original alphabetical writing system of the Germanic peoples. The runic alphabet is called a futhark. "Alphabet" comes from the names of A and B in the Greek language. "Futhark" is derived from the first six letters of the runic alphabet in its traditional order. (Th is one letter.) The futhark's order is not typical of that of most alphabets. "Our" modified Latin/Roman alphabet, the one used to write most European and many other languages as well, is in the typical order (A, B, C, D....), going all the way back to the original Phoenician prototype, which in turn was pieced together from borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphs. The futhark's order was rearranged for magickal purposes, and has remained constant, even though other futharks were later developed by adding or deleting runes. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (the phonetic value of the fourth rune changed from "a" to "o") added from four to nine runes, depending on time and place, to the end of the futhark. The Vikings used a number of versions of the Younger Futhark, which was reduced to 16 runes. The Elder Futhark is divided into three aettir (the singular is aett), of eight runes each. These aettir (families) are retained in the Younger Futhark, although each aett is shorter. There is a "fourth aett" of varying length at the end of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Most agree that the Elder Futhark is the best for the purposes of magick and divination. While some other alphabets have magickal uses (the Hebrew one in particular comes to mind), the runes are unique in that they are a magickal and divinatory system first and a writing system second.Edit
To the question "What are the Runes?" many answers are possible. Steve Wilson, a friend and teacher of mine, once answered that question with the words "a part of the structure of the Universe." Pam C. has some excellent comments on the nature of the Runes at the end of this article. I also plan on adding comments from Runeworld list members (the list I helped start after the articles were finished).
Divination with runes is relatively easy. Get twenty-four roughly identical small objects. Small stones are nice; so are little pieces of wood. You can get them at craft stores. If you're broke, use beer-bottle caps or even pieces of cardboard or paper. Pretty, nice rune sets are fine, but it's the rune itself that counts. That, and your knowledge of the runes and wisdom and experience in interpreting them. On each one, put a rune of the Elder Futhark until you have the whole futhark. Put them in a bag (paper will do but cloth is both more attractive and more durable) big enough to easily put your hand in and manipulate the runes. Congratulations! You now have a rune set! Think of an important question or situation you need guidance on. Call on Odin for wisdom and guidance. Pick three runes; or if reading for someone else, have the other person pick out the runes unless you're doing it over the phone. You'll easily get the hang of it. Handle the runes until you come to one that feels "right" or "different." The rune first is the past or cause. The second is the present, or action to be taken. The third is the best possible or currently most likely outcome. However, just because the runes say something, that doesn't necessarily mean it is destined to happen. Norse Heathenism is not a fatalistic or passive religion! We make our own Wyrd (more or less fate, karma or destiny) to a considerable extent. If any of the three seems unclear, pick two more, without putting the first three back in the bag. These two are adjective runes, and their purpose should be clear to the grammatically literate. For an ongoing situation, you may want to do another reading on it in a week or two. Thanks to Odin afterwards is most appropriate.Edit
The only person I know who was trained in runic magick from an oral, mostly hereditary tradition is my friend Thorr Sheil. More on him and his books later. Some folks don't believe such traditions could have survived. I personally don't care much one way or another. His material is very down-to-earth and works extremely well. When I have something important to do magick-wise, I call him and run up my phone bill instead of contact the "Big Three" popular rune-book-writers via e-mail for virtually nothing. All three of them are online, but Thorr Sheil isn't. The fact I call him for advice says all I need to say about my respect for him as a rune wizard.Edit
In any case, since few have a wizard/ess at hand, most of us must use books for our primary source of information. The following are some excellent sources of information. I will also be telling you about some not-so-good sources. I'm not saying not to read them, I'm merely suggesting that you read the good ones first and that when reading the rest, you should keep an eye open for what's not worth incorporating into your own work. First, before you get into the magickal and divinatory aspects of runes, learn about their history. Don't put the cart before the horse! Runes: an Introduction by Ralph W. V. Elliott is essential reading. Either the 1959 or 1989 editions will do. I also highly recommend Runes and their Origins: Denmark and Elsewhere by Erik Moltke and Anglo-Saxon Runes by John M. Kemble (the latter first published way back in 1840, but still in print!). An Introduction to English Runes by R.I. Page covers rune inscriptions in England both of Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins. If your local library doesn't have these, it can get them via interlibrary loan for a nominal fee.Edit
Most of my own runework is based on that of Thorr and Audrey Sheil. I especially recommend Volume III (Runes and Holy Signs) of The Road to Bifrost. Shipping included, it'll run you $24.00, and I truly believe it'll be the wisest investment in a magickal book you'll ever make. He and his wife Audrey also have other, more advanced rune monographs to read later. All of them are worth owning. Note: THE SHEIL'S WORKS ARE NOW BACK IN PRINT:Edit
Now on to the "Big Three" writers on runes. I call them that because they seem to be the ones held in highest esteem by most of the Germanic Heathen ( = Germanic Pagan) community. Thorr and Audrey Sheil are very committed to Heathenism as a household religion and aren't involved in, or even interested in, organized Heathenry, and this, along with the fact that they publish their own books (can't blame them myself, publishers, not writers, get most of the profits) has had the result of making their books less known and less used than they deserve to be. (Please note: the Sheil books are currently out of print.)Edit
By way of clarification, most of us Germanic Heathens are Norse/Viking Age oriented, mainly because this is the best known and preserved form of our religion. Others are Anglo-Saxon or German oriented. You need not be Heathen or even Pagan to work with runes, although Heathens may expect somewhat better results. Here are the "Big Three": Edred Thorsson's runic trilogy: At the Well of Wyrd, Futhark, and Runelore are excellent. They are published by Weiser. His other works are published by Llewellyn (1-800-THE-MOON for a free catalogue). Also good and by Edred Thorsson: A Book of Troth (his book on Heathen religion) and Northern Magic. Nine Doors of Midgard is meant as a sequel to his runic trilogy, but in my honest opinion it's a bit iffy and very heavily under the influence of (non-Heathen) ceremonial magick. Under Edred Thorsson's legal name, (Dr.) Stephen E. Flowers, his doctoral dissertation, Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition was printed by American University Studies, Series 1: Germanic Languages and Literature, Vol. 53. The publisher is Peter Lang of New York, Berne (Switzerland) and Frankfurt am Main (Germany). You can readily obtain this learned, detailed, and fascinating book from Interlibrary Loan for about a dollar (in the US and Canada anyway).
Kveldulf Gundarsson's work is in a similar vein to Thorsson's runic trilogy, and is also published by Llewellyn. Teutonic Magic covers the runes very well. His Teutonic Religion is the best readily available introduction to contemporary Heathenism. (Update: both of Gundarsson's books are now out of print!) Freya Aswynn's Leaves of Yggdrasil (recently republished with a CD and some additional material as Northern Mysteries and Magick) should probably be saved until after you've read some of the works of the other two authors. It's a brilliantly written book but by no means an easy read! It is also published by Llewellyn (www.llewellyn.com).
Many other popular books on runic magick and divination have been written. Thorsson, Gundarsson, and Aswynn's books all have bibliographies. This should provide you many more references for further study. By the way, do not expect to find any of these popular "how-to" books on Heathenism, runes and other Norse magick on the shelves of your local library. Occult books disappear pronto, although I don't know whether that is due to curious teenagers, dishonest Pagans (plenty of those around unfortunately I've observed), :-( self-appointed fundamentalist Christian censors, or a combination of all three! Book-stealing is low. Photocopy if you must, but don't steal. You may be able to find the scholarly books on runes, although a university library is more likely to have them than a public library. While interlibrary loan can get you the scholarly works, I wouldn't count on them being able to get you the "how-to" books. Start saving your pennies!Edit
Feel free to email me and describe your own work and the conclusions you've reached! I hope this series will prove informative and enjoyable, but most of all it will inspire you to read about and work with runes on your own!Edit
The following insightful and poetically beautiful quote is from Pam C., a fellow student of Thorr and Audrey Sheil, posted of course with her kind permission:
"...to know a thing's "name" gives us power over it (according to magickal tradition), but there lies the mystery. What is meant by a name is to know a thing to the core, to understand how it thinks and feels and reacts. Only then do you know its "name" regardless of what it prefers to be called. It is the occult name, the hidden name that is most important. And so it is with Runes. They are more like living things than not. Each has a personality with many facets, and a polar opposite. They are more known than learned. Introduced, than taught. Therefore, is this a clue as to runes being magickal potencies?"
Please note that further comments by Pam appear at the end of the "Suggested 'Field Trips' for Runic Study" article, and also at the end of the following "Rune-of-the-Month Club" articles: Fehu, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Hagalaz, Isa, and Perthro. Pam C. is the only person I know who can make Hagalaz, Isa, and even Thurisaz sound poetic!
Answers to "What is a Rune?" from Runeworld "founding" listmembers, late July Y2K (the list didn't make it; I killed it in disgust due to it being wrecked by a certain obsessive, socially obnoxious Heathen runester, who knows who he is :-)
Note from Jordsvin: If you are looking for a Rune list, I recommend Vitki list on egroups.com. Or, search under "Runes" on egroups.com and you'll come up with plenty.
From Courtney: A gift from Odin filled with Mystery.
From Dane: The Runes, when considered singly, are symbolic representations of primal formative and/or ordering forces that have shaped and driven the universes, both manifest and unmanifest, since their beginning. Collectively, they form a three dimensional map of the universes that, with study, can illustrate the complex interplay and relationships of these forces to each other, to the universes, and to our manifest lives.
Most of the Runes (possibly all of them) have a direct relationship to something physical. In turn, the shape or use or effect of that physical object relates to the principle or energy embodied in that Rune. Further, the principle or energy being described is instrumental in defining the shape and/or effect of the physical object, therefore creating a closed loop that can be approached either inductively or deductively.
Runes are not a belief system so much as they are a system of thought. They form a structural framework which, when overlayed upon the universes, provide us with a means to understanding, and allow us to navigate through the seeming chaos.
From Aluric: While the forms of the runes were obviously derived from N. Ital./Etruscan models, there doesn't seem to be the kind of slavish imitation common in the development of language. The runic figure 'X' for instance, is the 'G' rune, while the 'P' is 'W' (pronounced 'v'.) The word 'runo' or 'runa' meand 'mystery' in half a dozen N. European languages.
The Teutons, our Elder kin had a very sophisticated 'psycho-cosmology'. I believe the runes were created w/ 2 purposes: A) To facilitate mundane communication and B) To act as a kind of 'shorthand' for the forces that drive the hu-man mind/soul/body complex, and the uni/multiverse--structured exactly the same, and following the same rules of order.
From Sandra: A Rune is a written symbol similar to a letter. They are often inscribed on stones of similar appearance. These are called Rune Stones. Rune Stones originated in Scandinavia, where they were used as objects of divination, to counsel about the future and play an important role in Norse mythology. Each rune has it's own special meaning, and can be interpreted to foretell future events and help the user master their destiny. Runes were used for writing.
From Brock: Several very good models of the etymology of the word "rune" have already been presented, so I wont make an attempt to rehash that. I see the runes as being the keys to opening one's perception of reality.
When I think of a rune in my own personal work, I think of an inherent quality, power, or essence of a particular type related to that symbol. These phonetic characters have meaning to me because I use them today, here and now in rune divination and personal ritual work.
The meanings themselves are derived from historical meanings. We should see to it though that we take those meanings into modern contexts and strive to find how they relate to the world today.
From Inish: I think a rune is an symbol for part of the "ways things are" or the "order of the multiverse" (for lack of better terms), which speaks on many levels with both immediate and occult meanings.
Thanks folks for your comments!
last modified 08/14/2007