What are Runes?Runes are the letters of the alphabet of the ancient Germanic races of Northern Europe. Little is known about the origins of the runic alphabet, traditionally known as futhark after the first six letters of the runic alphabet, namely Fehu, Uruz, žurisaz (Thurisaz), Ansuz, Raižo (Raido) and Kaunaz (Kauno) = F - U - Th - A - R - K.
The word means 'mystery' or 'secret' in old Germanic languages; in old Norse the word 'rune' means 'letter' or 'inscription'. There are three different runic alphabets, the Norse, which has 16 characters, the Anglo-Saxon with 40, and what is considered to be the oldest, the Elder Futhark (shown below) which has 24. The earliest known Runic inscriptions date from the 1st century AD, but the vast majority that have been found date from around the 11th century.
The primary characteristic distinguishing runic alphabets from others is that each letter, or rune, has a specific meaning. For example, where 'ay', 'bee', and 'cee' are simply sounds denoting the first three letters in the English alphabet, the names of the first three runes, 'fehu', 'uruz', and 'žurisaz' are actual words in the old Germanic language, translating into 'wealth', 'aurochs', and 'giant'.
Runes purportedly also have a magical as well as a religious significance, thus transforming what we understand as the simple process of 'writing' into a magical act. Their use, however, was significantly reduced when Christianity came upon the scene, probably because of their connection with magick. Nowadays they are used more as tools for divination and meditation purposes rather than as a language.
A runic reading is not fortune telling, but an evaluation process. The reader looks at what has occurred in the past in relation to the issue in question, then at what is happening now, and finally in what direction the querent is headed. So, although runecasting is classed as 'divination', a runecaster does not see, or even attempt to see into the future. Instead, he/she examines the cause and effect and points out a probable outcome. Odin, the Norse God, supposedly hung upside down for nine days in order to gain 'the wisdom of the runes' - see also the 'Hanged Man' in the Major Arcana of the Tarot.
A very simple spread is the Norn or Odin Spread, consisting of three runes representing past, present and future. Norn is an 'extinct' North Germanic language that was spoken on the Orkney and Shetland islands prior to their being returned to Scotland by Norway in the 15th century. After this, its use was discouraged by both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish government. It is also any of the three Fates or goddesses of destiny in Norse Mythology. You can find any number of sites on the internet showing different layouts for runes and how to interpret them, so I shall not elaborate upon that aspect on this site.
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