There is some evidence indicating that in addition to being a writing system, runes historically served purposes of magic. This is the case from earliest epigraphic evidence of the Roman to Germanic Iron Age, with non-linguistic inscriptions and the alu* word.
* In mediaeval sources, notably the Poetic Edda (a modern attribution for an unnamed collection of Old Norse anonymous poems), the Sigrdrífumál (also known as Brynhildarljóđ), a section of the Poetic Edda text in Codex Regius, mentions ‘victory runes’ to be carved on a sword, ‘some on the grasp and some on the inlay, and named Tyr twice’.
In early modern times, related folklore and superstition is recorded in the form of the Icelandic magical staves. In the early 20th century, Germanic mysticism coins introduced new forms of ‘runic magic’, some of which were continued or developed further by contemporary adherents of Germanic Neopaganism. Modern systems of runic divination are based on Hermeticism, classical Occultism, and the I Ching.
An erilaz (a Proto-Norse word attested on various Elder Futhark inscriptions, which has often been interpreted to mean ‘magician’ or ‘rune master’) appears to have been a person versed in runes, including their magic applications.
In the 17th Century CE, Hermeticist and Rosicrucian Johannes Thomas Bureus (1568 - 1652), a Swedish polymath, antiquarian, mystic, royal librarian, poet, and tutor and adviser of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, having been inspired by visions, developed a Runic system based on the Kabbalah and the Futhark which he called the Adulruna.
The Armanen runes, ‘revealed’ to Guido von List (1848 - 1919), an Austrian occultist, journalist, playwright, and novelist, in 1902, was employed for magical purposes in Germanic mysticism by authors such as Friedrich Bernhard Marby and Siegfried Adolf Kummer, and after World War II in a reformed ‘pansophical’ system by Karl Spiesberger. More recently, Stephen Flowers, Adolf Schleipfer, Larry E. Camp and others also built on List's system.
Several modern systems of runic magic and runic divination were published from the 1980s onwards. The first book on runic divination, written by Ralph Blum in 1982, led to the development of sets of runes designed for use in several such systems of fortune telling, in which the runes are typically incised in clay, stone tiles, crystals, resin, glass, or polished stones, then either selected one-by-one from a closed bag or thrown down at random for reading.
Runic divination, or rune-casting, tends to employ a ‘set of runes’. Each letter making up one of the Germanic runic alphabets is carved, painted, or printed onto small tokens made of clay, wood, stone, etc. Generally, the alphabet used is the Elder Futhark (see below) which is made up of 24 runic letters; thus most rune sets contain 24 tokens (commercial sets sometimes add a ‘blank rune’ as well). These tokens can be randomised for divination purposes in several ways. For example, they can be drawn a from a bag, tossed onto a cloth, or arranged in various ‘spreads’. The meanings of the runic characters are then interpreted by the rune- reader.
Modern authors like Ralph Blum (b. 1932) sometimes include a ‘blank rune’ in their sets. Some were to replace a lost rune, but according to Ralph Blum this was the god Odin's rune, the rune of the beginning and the end, representing ‘the divine in all human transactions. In Norse mythology, Odin hung upside down for nine days to gain the wisdom of the runes.
Later authors such as Diana L. Paxson and Freya Aswynn follow Blum in drawing a direct correlation between runic divination and tarot divination. They may discuss runes in the context of ‘spreads and advocate the usage of ‘rune cards’.
N.B. In 1982, a modern usage of the runes for answering life's questions was apparently originated by Ralph Blum in his divination book The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle, which was marketed with a small bag of round tiles with runes stamped on them. This book has remained in print since its first publication. The sources for Blum's divinatory interpretations, as he explained in The Book of Runes itself, drew heavily on then-current books describing the ancient I Ching divination system of China.
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What are Runes?Runes are the letters of the alphabet of the ancient Germanic races of Northern Europe. Apart from what is written above, 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, ţurisaz (Thurisaz), Ansuz, Raido and Kauno = F - U - Th - A - R - K.
The primary characteristic which distinguishes a runic alphabet 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 'ţurisaz' are actual words in the old Germanic language, meaning '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.
N.B. The image above and to the right bears an inscription using cipher runes, the Elder Futhark, and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th-century Rök Runestone in Sweden
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