The use of Runes for Divination and Magick probably predate their use as an alphabet for written communication.
Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote the earliest known detailed description of Runic divination.
In his Germania, written c. 98 CE, Tacitus wrote that the drawing of lots by the Germanic tribes was done by first cutting a branch from a nut-bearing tree, then cutting it into slips (thin strips or disks.) Each of the slips is then designated by certain “notae,” or “signs.” While there is no clear-cut evidence that the “notae” referred to by Tacitus were Runes, this would seem probable.
These slips were then thrown randomly over a white cloth, then the diviner (the priest of state if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family in a private consultation) offered a prayer to Ódhinn or the other gods, and, while looking up into the sky, selected three slips, one at a time, and interpreted their meaning from the signs carved on them.
Gazing into the sky, instead of looking at the Runes, served the same purpose as blindfolding, but was believed to give the blessing of the gods to the selection of the Runes. There may have been (and quite probably were) many other methods of using the Runes for divination which have been lost to us because they were never written down. This may have been partly because the methods were considered sacred and secret, and partly because they were so well known to people of the time that no one thought it necessary to write them down or to describe them.
Random selection of a specific Rune from a bag, then meditating on its meaning and significance is one of the most basic methods. This can be used as a search for answers to a specific question, but is primarily used as a simple search for wisdom.
Many of those who use the Runes make this a daily ritual. They begin the day by selecting a single Rune stone, and then meditate on it repeatedly throughout the day, carrying it with them and holding it frequently.
There are a number of other methods used today, including a variety of layouts or spreads designed for particular types of divination, or to find answers for specific questions. This is analogous to the variety of spreads used by those who use the Tarot cards for divination and prophecy.
Rune Casting Layouts
Note: For each of these spreads, click on the button below and use the meanings described in the Rune Meanings page.
A. Ódhinn’s Rune. Place the Runes into a cloth pouch, and shake them up. Reach into the pouch and draw out a single Rune. Make sure when the Rune is pulled out, and you turn it over that you do not accidentally do not invert the Rune. This Rune will reveal the crux of your present situation, or the basic answer to your question.
B. Three Rune Spread. (Probably the one described by Tacitus)
Place the Runes into a cloth pouch. Draw out three Runes and place them in a horizontal line in front of you. Reading from the left to the right, the positions represent;
1) You now,
2) The Challenge ahead of you, and
3) The Best Outcome.
Read the Runes and interpret them relative to their position.
C. Runic Cross
Place the Runes into a cloth pouch. Now draw out 6 Runes and place them in the following order. Place the first Rune in the center of your work area. This represents you now. The second Rune goes to the left of the first Rune. This represents your past. The third Rune goes to the right of the first Rune. This Rune represents the future. The forth Rune goes below the first Rune. This Rune reveals the foundation of the situation. The fifth Rune is placed above the first Rune. This Rune is the challenge ahead of you. The sixth Rune goes above the fifth Rune. This rune represents the best outcome.
D. Three Life Spread
This spread is useful for exploring past incarnations. There are five runes involved in this spread. Place the Runes into a cloth pouch, and remove five of them, placing them in the following order. The first Rune goes on the right side of your work area. This Rune is your birth and your childhood in this life. The second Rune goes to the left of the first. This Rune represents your present. The third Rune goes to the left of the second. This Rune is your future in this life. The forth Rune goes below the second Rune. This Rune reveals a past incarnation, one relevant to the question or problem you are considering. The fifth Rune goes above the second Rune. This Rune is a future incarnation (probably your next). Interpret the Runes relative to their position and also relate them to what must be gained in each incarnation.
Tacitus, Cornelius: The Agricola and the Germania, Translated by H. Mattingly, (Middlesex, UK: Penguin 1970) (Back)