In Norse myth, the Runes were a gift from the god Ódhinn (Odin), who discovered them after nine days hanging in Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in search of wisdom, knowledge and enlightenment.
The search for wisdom was, in fact, the single most dominant trait possessed by Ódhinn. Thus, while many remembered him only as a god of war and battle, the Norse revered him even more highly as the god of wisdom, poetry and magic. This makes it even more appropriate that Ódhinn would have been the god associated with the Runes.
Runes, like any alphabet, may be used for writing and communication, but they are far more than just an alphabet. The Runes are also used as a system of magic and as tools for divination.
Often referred to as the Futhark, there are a number of variations. Just as most modern European languages use approximately the same alphabet (with slight variations, mostly in terms of added letters such as the Spanish “ñ” or the French “ç”), there were historic and regional variations of the Runic alphabet. These include the Elder Futhark (24 runes), the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc (29-33 runes), the Younger Futhark (16 runes) and the Armanic Futhark (18 runes). Still other versions have included as many as 36 runes. The Anglo-Saxons are credited with spreading Runes and Runecraft throughout Europe.
The first three of the above-mentioned Futharks have deep historic roots, while the fourth system is the result of the occult vision of Guido von List. However, all four systems can be seen for what they are, facets of the underlying runic reality.
In this project, however, we will be concentrating on the Elder (or Germanic) Futhark, believed by many to be the actual version of the Runes transmitted to humans by Ódhinn himself. And, since the use of Runes as an alphabet for written communication may be obvious, we will concentrate on the two primary magical uses: Divination and Bind Runes.
When being used for divination, the Runes would be carved on stones, pieces of wood, etc. There would be 25, with the last being blank, known as “Ódhinn’s Rune."
The 24 actual characters were divided into three groups, called Ættir, of eight symbols each, named for the gods Freyr, Hagal and Tyr.
These three Ættir were:
Freyr's Eight: Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raido, Kenaz, Gebo, Wunjo
Hagal's Eight: Hagalaz, Nauthiz, Isa, Jera, Eihwaz, Perth, Algiz, Sowilo
Tyr's Eight: Teiwaz, Berkana, Ehwaz, Mannaz, Laguz, Inguz, Othila, Dagaz
The blank Rune did not belong to any of the Ættir, but rather is considered the “Rune of Mystery,” or “Ódhinn’s Rune.”
Interest in, and use of, the Runes fell into disuse after World War II, largely because a prewar revival of German interest in folklore and tradition had become tainted by Nazi ideology. Little was written of them after the war until the 1950’s and 1960’s. Since then, however, interest in Runelore has seen a major revival through the New Age movement in general, and the efforts of groups dedicated to Asatru, the revival of Norse-Germanic Paganism, such as the Rune Guild, an initiatory group founded and headed by Edred Thorssen, one of the foremost modern authorities on Runes and author of a number of excellent books on the subject.
Jennifer Smith, author of Raido: The Runic Journey, comments that “They [the Runes] are, however, much more than a curious alternative to Tarot cards for telling fortunes. They provide a key to understanding the lives and beliefs of the ancient people who created them, and have much to teach us about a way of life that was perhaps more intimately connected to the natural world, and to the realm of spirit, than our own.”
It is particularly significant that most alphabets (including the modern English version) use letters solely to represent sounds, while in the Runic Futharks, each character carries an inherent meaning of its own, in addition to the sound it represents.
For example, “A,” “B,” and “C,” the first three letters of the English alphabet, are meaningless sounds, whereas the names of the first three Runes in the Elder Futhark are words in their own right. In the old Germanic language, Fehu = Cattle, Uruz = Aurochs (Ox) and Thurisaz = Giant.
This fact, combined with the fact that the Runes also have magickal and religious significance as well, it is easy to see that they carried a level of significance substantially greater than would be seen in our more “modern” alphabet.
The image of the young Ódhinn (Odin), bound and hanging upside-down in the tree, is the basis for the Hanged Man image in most tarot decks. (Back)
This comes from the names of the first six letters in the Runic alphabet: fehu, uruz, thurisaz, ansuz, raidho, and kenaz. This is similar to our “ABC’s,” or “alphabet,” derived from the Greek alpha and beta. (Back)