Beginning to Understand Runes
About this edition and previous editions: People new to using runes need a clear and simple guide. In response to this, the Skvala Press first produced this rune primer as an eight page leaflet in 1994. The second edition had improved rune graphics, a recommended reading list and clearer interpretations. The third edition corrected some mistakes and ambiguities, and added a short historical section. Much of the fourth edition was completely rewritten and also added a section on mythological origins plus extra graphics. The final fifth edition adds just a few small changes that reflect the continuing personal journey of the author.
A Rune Primer
Copyright © 1994, 1998, 2003, 2007 The Skvala Press
About the author: Stormerne lives in the UK and has studied runes since the 1970s. For many years he was an enthusiastic follower of the reconstructed polytheist Germanic pagan religion known as Heathenry, working in his local pagan community giving talks and workshops, hosting the Rune Ring study group, broadcasting on BBC Radio Suffolk's Thought for the Day and writing many magazine articles. Stormerne now more often refers to himself as a polytheist and a seer, and is not currently affiliated with any heathen organisation.
What are the Runes?
The Runes are an ancient writing system that contains characters just as our our modern alphabet does. As well as an idea, each rune represents a sound, and thus runes are means for spelling words. Just as the alphabet is named from the first two characters in it, so the rune row is known as the "Futhark" from the first six runes. Originally, runes were usually made up of straight lines, making them easy to carve.
Where do they come from (historically)?
The oldest runes that have been reliably researched by conventional archaeological methods date from more than 1,700 years ago. This set is therefore known as the Elder Futhark, although because it is associated with the culture of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, it is sometimes called the Common Germanic Futhark. Some theories say these runes are based a derivation from Latin script, whereas others suggest a Gothic script was the origin. The theory with the least objections to it (though by no means without detractors) is that runes were derived from the North Italic script, which itself was derived from Etruscan.
More recently the Futhark became modified, and 1,200 years ago the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark became as many as 33 when they arrived in Northumbria (North-Eastern England). Across the North Sea their needs were different, and the Viking Futhark instead shrank to a meagre 16 staves (though this was later re-expanded by the use of "dotted" runes).
Where do they come from (in myth)?
According to myth, the god Oðin discovered the runes as a result of a deliberate self-sacrificial ritual.Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallowsBut it's another god called Heimdall who first teaches runes to mankind (having presumably learnt runes from their discoverer Oðin). He travels the world using the name Ríg and fathers three children. To one of them he teaches all kinds of lore and gives him his own name (Ríg).
For nine long nights,
Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin,
Offered, myself to myself
The wisest know not from whence spring
The roots of that ancient rood.
They gave me no bread,
They gave me no mead,
I looked down;
With a loud cry
I took up runes;
From that tree I fell.
- from The Words of the High One (Hávamál) - translated from the original Icelandic by W. H. Auden and P. B. Taylor.Out of woodlands came Ríg walking,Later this rune knowledge is passed from father to son.
came Ríg walking, and taught him runes;
his own name gave him as heir and son,
bade him make his own the udal lands,
the udal lands and olden manors.
But Kon only could carve runes,And in time the son's prowess exceeds that of his own father.
runes lasting ay, life-keeping runes:
to bring forth babes birth runes he knew,
to dull sword edges and to calm the sea.
In runes he rivaled Ríg the Earl;
with wiles he warred, outwitting him;
thus got for himself, and gained to have,
the name of Ríg and runic lore.
- three verses from The Lay of Ríg (Rígsþula) as translated by Lee M. Hollander.
What can they be used for?
As the runes each represent sounds, not surprisingly they can be used for writing. Historically, runes were often used for inscriptions on monuments in the same way that modern monuments carry inscriptions using an alphabet. They were also used for passing messages. Yet although very many thousands of runic artifacts have been discovered across Northern Europe, few people nowadays use them much for this, apart from inscriptions of some special meaning.
Runes were definitely used for magical purposes. Not only is this use described in ancient writings such as the Eddas, there have been many artefacts found whose runic inscriptions do not make linguistic sense and whose purpose can only be understood in terms of magic. Unfortunately the ancients left scant instructions on how actually to use runes for magical purposes! Some people in modern times have experimented with rune magic and have attempted to rediscover these arts.
One historical magical use of runes was in healing. Egil's Saga was written about 775 years ago, and describes events that happened 250 or more years earlier. When the subject of the story, Egil, visits a farm, he finds that the farmer's daughter is sick and has been wasting away for some time. Egil asks whether anything has been done, and is told, "Runes have been graven, and it is a farmer's son a short way off who did that; but ever since it has been far worse for her than before." Egil then finds the runes carved on a piece of whalebone in the bed. He scrapes the bone clean and burns both it and the shavings. Then he carves new runes, laying them under her pillow, and she quickly becomes well. Egil says (in poetry), "No leech should unleash runes save rightly he can read them. Of men it happens to many a mirky stave benights him. Well, spied I on scraped whalebone ten secret runestaves graven. Those to leeklinden maiden brought wasting all too lasting." (Egil's Saga - translated from the Old Icelandic by Jones.) Nowadays, runes are sometimes used for healing. Practitioners have discovered how to use runes to tap energies which can be directed magically.
What do people use runes for mostly nowadays? Divination. Yet this is strange, for there is NO historical evidence that runes were ever used for divination! If fact there is no evidence that runic divination was ever practised before the late 20th century, from around 1970 onwards. The Roman Tacitus, writing 1,900 years ago about the customs of Germanic tribes, describes a divination technique which is supposed by some to describe the use of runes. "For omens and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up to the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them." (Germania - translated from the Latin by Mattingly.) These "signs" (or notæ in the original Latin) could be anything, and it's only wishful thinking that would make them runes.
Yet since it is possible to do successful divination with almost anything provided you know how divination in general works, divination with runes has become very popular. It takes advantage of the meanings of the runes. Each rune has at least one meaning. Most have many meanings linked by a common thread. These meanings exist because the runes are more than just graphical symbols. They are also symbols in the same sense that dreams may contain symbols or a poem may contain symbols. They stand for things, objects and actions, but they can also stand for values - the values that pervaded the Germanic society of earlier tribal times.
The runes can also be used to gain an insight into the values of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe during the Dark Ages. They can be used in meditation and in healing. They can be used in magic and in divination. Certainly a whole lifetime could be spent in learning about them and using them. And though the most popular use at present is divination - "Casting the Runes" - this represents but a part of their potential.
What is a "set" of runes?
A set of runes is a collection of objects (24 if you're using the Elder Futhark) upon each of which is inscribed a single rune. Many beautiful sets exist, and most people who are at all intent on furthering their studies of the runes sooner or later make one or more sets of their own, together with a special pouch to put them in. However, many people will begin with a "bought" set, and there is nothing wrong with this to start with.
Sets are often made of wood, each small stave having a rune carved into it. Some people insist the wood should be from a tree indigenous to their country. Some prefer fruit or nut bearing trees like apple, especially if they'd like to think that Tacitus was talking about runes! Others people prefer oak, ash or yew.
These wooden sets will often be works of art, but it is still possible to make sets from other materials. Pebble sets are popular. Metal and even plastic will do, with the runes painted on. Even a set of Smarties (like M&Ms) painted with cochineal has been tried successfully!
Why use a set of runes?
A set of runes is helpful when studying individual runes or for meditation purposes. A set for these purposes will often be painted large on pieces of card.
However, most people nowadays use rune sets for divination. One or more runes can be picked blind and "at random" from a bag. Or they can be sprinkled on a surface. The runes picked or falling on the surface in a particular way are then interpreted as having some bearing on the situation or question at hand. This form of divination is quite common and relies on the effect that Carl Jung called "synchronicity", a modern sounding concept that has much in common with what the original users of the runes would have called Wyrd.
Can anyone use them nowadays?
Some will find it easier than others. There is no doubt that we each have natural talents that allow us to do effortlessly that which would take someone else a lot of time and hard work even to come close. Those that need to "work at it" will need to develop an affinity with the way the original users of the runes saw things. These heathen peoples of Northern Europe had particular values and a particular mindset and heritage, and it is difficult to use the runes to their full potential without having an affinity with these things.
How can the meanings of the runes be discovered?
The Elder Futhark is the one that embodies the most ancient symbolism and is the one that is studied the most. It will be dealt with here as space allows. It should be remembered, however, that there would be no virtue in its being an old system unless it was also an enduring system. What it embodies is as valuable today as it was centuries ago. Just because we now live in a time of high technology and consumerism, it does not mean we cannot recall the past or use tried and trusted techniques to help us.
To start to understand the meanings of the runes, picture yourself in the world of those peoples many years ago. People are far fewer in number and more widely scattered, clustering in family or tribal groups. But they are not primitive. Living well in a land of contrasts, they are hospitable and industrious people who take pride in their self-reliance. They do not lack courage or high endeavour. They are fiercely proud of who they are. They are deep thinking and creative, but when need arises they can be warriors. Their gods and goddesses are those of fruitfulness and plenty, inspiration and poetry, might and magic, justice and war. Looking across the centuries at these people, we still remember some of their gods in our names for the days of the week!
What are the meanings of the runes?
These are some ideas about the meanings of the runes, the literal meanings and just some of the deeper meanings. None of this is meant to be an exhaustive list. It should instead be used as a starting point for personal research. What follows is therefore not "holywrit", but simply food for thought.
The magical uses of the runes are not covered in this introductory document, nor are their uses for healing. However, it is possible to base divination with runes on these meanings.
The 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are considered in turn in their "normal" order. Archaeologically, there is no "right" order! Though the order varied little for the first half of the futhark, variations did creep in in the second half. Taking "an average" is what gives us this so-called normal order which only changes for the last two runes (which are listed by some authors in reverse order according to their personal preference). Beware any author that creates a theory bound in with the sequence of the runes because historically there is no evidence for a fixed sequence!
In what follows, the ancient name is given first, then the literal meaning and then other ideas. The names of the runes are the Common Germanic names. There are some slight variations of these heard which are mentioned where appropriate.
FEHU means cattle. To many tribal and farming peoples, cattle meant wealth. But wealth must move to be effective; sitting idle it can become a sore. One kind of wealth that lasted was a good reputation, yet even fame must be put to work to be of any worth.
URUZ means aurochs. This was a fierce wild ox against which youths tested their courage and hunting skill. Its horns were much prized and it was eventually hunted to extinction. It can represent raw primal strength.
THURISAZ means a giant, though some people associate it with the god Thor and his famous Hammer used for killing giants! It can also represent a powerful penetrating force, attacking or defending, for it represents both the force of will and the thorn that protects.
ANSUZ means a god. Some people specifically associate it with the god Oðin. It can also represent communicating, outwardly with speech, and inwardly with sensitivity and inspiration. It can also represent the wind. (Like Thor, Oðin is also a god of the storm.)
RAIDHO means the act of riding. It can therefore mean transport and travel. To some it can mean a career, and also order or being in control.
KENAZ means that which burns. This can be a fire, perhaps a torch or a pitch-brand, and such illumination can bring knowledge - to ken something. Or it can burn like a sore.
GEBO means giving. Unasked for gifts were a source of suspicion in olden days for a gift "demanded" a gift in return! Give and take is an exchange, and this exchange is an essential part of successful relationships (like marriage).
WUNJO means joy. Some people also associate it with the Anglo-Saxon goddess Hreða whose feast occurred in March.
HAGALAZ means hail. Though hail appears to be just a destructive natural force, it acts as one of Nature's essential checks and balances, clearing away dross and weak growth. And after the hail has melted, the resultant water helps sustain the strong survivors that remain.
NAUTHIZ means need. A time of need is often the spur that ends complacency. And without a time of need, perhaps we would not appreciate the times of plenty so well.
ISA means ice. Cold, still and slippery, it indicates the poise and focus that can be achieved in meditation. It can represent a freezing of circumstances, since putting something "on ice" means maintaining the status quo (though it can result in stagnation).
JERA simply means harvest and the idea of growth through the cycle of the year's seasons. The harvest is the result of your work. Whether this reward is good or bad can depend on what you have sown and how you have tended it!
EIWAZ means a yew tree. Coming after Jera, it reminds us change and the cycle of life and death. The yew is intensely poisonous, and its wood can be used to make bows - bringers of death. Yet of all North European trees it lives the longest, so it can also represent endurance.
PERTHRO. The original meaning of this rune is unknown. It may be a dice-cup and could therefore represent luck or wyrd. Wyrd is not fate or fortune: it is a positive evolutionary force. Think of Wyrd and the three Norns - Urð (What is), Verðandi (What is becoming), Skuld (What should be).
ALGIZ (or ELHAZ) means protection. This rune shows the warding hand, or defensive horns, or spines. This rune also resembles a person standing with arms raised. Is this in defiance, in invocation, or in blessing?
SOWILO means sun. The sun represents success and victory. It shines with a permanent and limitless light. It clears away the clouds of doubt to bring confidence and optimism.
TIWAZ means the god Tiw (after whom we name Tuesday). Tiw was a god of courage and honour and his rune was carved onto swords for victory in battle.
BERKANA means a birch tree. Some people associate this rune with the goddess Oster (after whom we name Easter) whose feast occurred in April. It is a rune of awakening, of growth and of fertility.
EHWAZ means a horse. To some this symbolises trust, such as that required between horse and rider or two people in close relationship (or a human and their patron deity), and would be a rune of partnership and commitment between two parties who want to "make things work".
MANNAZ means mankind, complete with all the frailties and all the potentials of being human. To some it represents contracts and oaths made between men and/or women, and hence they link this rune to the goddess Vár who hears such oaths.
LAUGUZ means water. Water cleanses and refreshes. It finds its own level, and it contains the teeming flow of life. It reflects the sky above it, and mirrors the calmness or ferocity of the wind that flows over it.
INGWAZ (or INGUZ) is associated with the god Ing or Yngvi-Frey. It is an "earthy" rune representing sex and fertility, and the life contained in the seed.
DAGAZ means day. To some it indicates the point of balance in the day-night cycle. Daylight itself certainly brings clarity, yet twilight illumines the mysteries of both the day-world of light and the night-world of darkness.
OTHILA means inherited land. Odal land stayed in the family and was tilled for the benefit of that family. It represents that which is handed down. This includes our language, our mythology, and our runelore, as well as physical possessions.
How can these meanings be interpreted in divination?
As previously stated, divination using runes is probably a modern phenomenon as there is no evidence that the ancient peoples who habitually used runes ever did so for the purposes of divination. So we have no clues from them. Instead we have to look for knowledge of how divination itself works.
The meanings of the runes cannot always be approached too logically. Intuition is usually required to find the right interpretation. The meanings above are only a fraction of the lore discovered on runes, so answers may not be immediately obvious. Using the runes for divination or consulting about a problem requires you to mentally phrase your questions first. The more precise the question, the more precise the answer.
Let your intuition tell you how many runes to take. Be aware of how the images of runes interact and modify each other. For example, Nauthiz and Ansuz might indicate a need for greater sensitivity or communication; Kenaz and Lauguz might potentially indicate a clash of opposites. Yet in different circumstances the same runes might show lack of inspiration in one case and great empathy in the other. Therefore you may need to decide beforehand which interpretations you are going to use.
If you are unsure, check your insight with a further rune. Many are superficially positive or negative - this is a simple confirmation or rejection, yes or no. An ambiguous answer might indicate you are on the wrong track- you are getting the right answer but to the wrong question!
Bear in mind, however, that sometimes a precise answer is exactly what is not required. The runes can free you from such black and white reflexes by giving you things to think about. Therefore, if you don't understand the runes you have drawn, never put them back and try again! Try instead to meditate on them, over many hours if you need to. Gradually the meaning will seep through - perhaps in a trickle, perhaps in a flash.
It is not possible in a short publication like this to give anything except the bare beginnings of an education in runes. The important thing will be to try them and to find out how you react to them. Be patient with yourself. Remember, the runes are not on trial. Even though their use for divination is fairly recent, they were once of great value magically to the ancient Germanic peoples and they are in ever-growing use today. But neither are you on trial. They are symbols of great potential power and mastery will not come overnight.
How can I find out more?
There are now very many books dealing with runes, the people that lived with them as a way of life and their religion and mythology. But all books have not been created equal and many cannot be recommended. A personal teacher is always an advantage but the same problem arises. How then to proceed?
It is useful to know what to avoid. Avoid all books that insist that runes are a universal answer for everyone since this is plainly not the case. Avoid books that somehow try to harmonise the runes with other systems such as tarot, numerology, astrology etc. - the runes are a self-consistent system and such exercises are doomed to failure (even if they are sincere) and at best merely pad out the pages. Avoid the professional authors for their interests may not be your own - they have contracts to fulfil, tending to cover in breadth rather than in depth, and will not have the single-mindedness necessary to do the subject justice. Avoid the seekers of self-aggrandizement who suggest you should enrol in this or that organisation (of which they are, of course, the grand leader). Avoid all books that are historically inaccurate or those that treat divination as the only or main use of runes. Avoid all books that do not see the runes in the context of those peoples that first used them - their values and their gods.
You will also find sets of runes on offer, and many of these have an accompanying book. Once again, tread warily. If the set includes the notorious blank rune, then think again! This so-called rune is a modern invention and there is no evidence that it was ever used by our ancestors. Not only is it unnecessary (since its usual supposed meaning is included as part of Perthro), it makes no sense if you try to use it in active rune magic. The best you can do with such a set is use the blank rune as a spare in case you lose one! And you'll find books sold by themselves which attempt to include it as a rune too, so now you know how to deal with these...
That may appear to rule out the majority of books. And it does! However do try the following, for they contain good information and manage to steer clear of most of the pitfalls mentioned above.
Runes. An Introduction - Ralph W. V. Elliott, M.A. - Manchester University Press, 1980 - ISBN 0-7190-0787-9 Rudiments of Runelore - Stephen Pollington - Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 - ISBN 1-898281-16-5 This is, of course, not meant to be an exhaustive list. Use it as a starting point for personal research.
If you are intent on using runes for divination, you could do worse than read the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem (or the other Rune Poems) and base your understanding on their descriptions. These are included in Stephen Pollington's book.
The photographs of runic artefacts are, in order:
- The Vadstena Bracteate - 6th Century CE
- The Kylver Stone - 5th Century CE
- The Franks Casket - 8th Century CE
- The Thames Scramasax - 9th Century CE
- The Möjbro Stone - 5th Century CE
- Modern heathen wedding ring - 20th Century CE