book cover From The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism edited by Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis, Citadel Press 2002, ISBN: 0806524065

by Arlea Hunt-Anschütz

Runes are characters used in Germanic writing systems for inscriptions on wood, stone, bone, metal and clay. Each rune represents both a sound and a word beginning with (or including) that sound; thus runes can be used as letters, to spell out words, or as symbols to stand for words. For example, the rune called dagaz can represent the 'd' sound or the word 'day'.

According to the Norse Eddas, the runes have a divine origin. The god Odin discovers the runes while hanging on the world tree. The god Heimdall (calling himself Rig) teaches runelore to his half-human royal son, who then shares the knowledge with his human descendants. The Valkyrie Sigrdrifa teaches runelore to the hero Sigurd.

Historically, runes developed sometime around the first or second century CE when a North Italic alphabet was adapted to the sound system of the common Germanic language and amalgamated with ancient Germanic symbols. The oldest form of the runic alphabet, the 24 character Elder Futhark, evolved into different scripts as groups of Germanic peoples migrated and their dialects diverged into different languages. The Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, in its Northumbrian form, contains 33 characters, whereas the Danish version of the Scandinavian Futhörk contains only 16.

Since runes were originally inscribed into hard surfaces, they weren't suitable for recording lengthy texts. They tended to be used for practical purposes, such as indicating the owner or maker of an item or commemorating the dead on memorial stones. There are references in both Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature to people carving brief messages in runes on wooden tablets to be delivered by courier to their intended recipient. Excavations at Bryggen in Bergen, Norway have uncovered a number of these runic message sticks containing both business and personal correspondence.

The magical use of runes is well documented. There are several passages in the Norse Sagas and Eddas and in Anglo-Saxon literature which tell of people carving runes into bits of wood, artefacts such as weapons or drinking horns, and even body parts, in order to achieve magical effects such as healing, cursing, or protection. The archaeological evidence offers support for the literature. There are formulas engraved on iron- age weapons and amulets which repeat the same rune many times. Since they could not possibly be an attempt to spell out a word, they are generally interpreted as having magical intent. There are also examples of 'magic words' carved in runes. The word ALU, 'luck', has been found on various items and appears to be an attempt to enchant them.

The word 'rune' goes back to a Germanic word meaning a secret or mystery. The name may have been adopted for the characters because writing was a secret known to few or because the characters could convey information silently. However, an element of magic and mystery continued to be associated with the use of runes up through medieval times, and it is this element that has provoked interest in runes among the modern Neo-pagan and New-Age communities. Many popular books have been written on the subjects of rune-magic and runic divination and the latter, especially, has had widespread appeal.

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