The runes have both factual and mythological roots. From German tribes to Vikings and Odin to New Agers, runes have played a powerful part in history.
Runes are an ancient alphabet, first seen among German tribes in Central and Eastern Europe. Although the runes adapted as they were received by different cultures (one set has 38), a standard set of 24 runes was established by 400 A.D. The word rune is derived from the Gothic word runa, which means mystery, and that is exactly what the runes represent. From their use in divination to a non-verbal form of communication, runes have resurged in New Age culture.
About the Runes
The runic alphabet is known as “futhark,” which is representative of the first six characters, much like the English alphabet is named after the Latin names for the first two letters: alpha and beta. Runes have no lowercase letters and may be written from left to right or right to left. All runes are drawn using straight lines, which made them easy to carve into wood, stone and metal. Originally scratched into rocks, runes have also been found on items from great stone monuments to everyday, household items. The runes were carved to communicate both poetry and belonging.
History of the Runes
The German tribes brought the runes to Scandinavia, and were popular in among the Swedes and the Danish Vikings. Often described as illiterate and barbaric, the Vikings were able to communicate using runes. They also used runes for fortune telling, protection and casting spells. The runes were believed to be sacred, magical symbols.
With the dawn of Christianity, the Latin alphabet became more popular. However, especially in Scandinavian countries, Latin and runes often appeared side by side on graves and monuments. During the 17th Century, the medieval Church banned the usage of runes for both magical and everyday practices. This was the Church’s way of purging superstition, paganism and magic from Europe. However, the runes lived on and have been used by many groups from Nazis to New Age followers.
The belief in the magical powers behind the runes dates back to Norse mythology. The chief of the Norse gods, and the one responsible for the knowledge of the runes, was Odin, god of wisdom, poetry and magic. He was also the god of battle. The name Odin means fury or frenzy, which governs the inspiration for both warriors and poets.
There are two popular myths that explain how Odin obtained knowledge of the runes. The first claims that Odin speared himself to the World Tree Yggdrasill for nine days and nights in self-sacrifice. Suspended from the tree, Odin learned of the runes and shared the knowledge with his people.
The second myth alleges that Odin traded one of his eyes for a sip from the Well of Mimir. Water from Yggdrasill seeped into the well and was known to contain great wisdom. With his drink, Odin was given the knowledge of the runes.
Rune masters were specially trained to use runes in divination and sorcery. One poem, carved in runes, read: “Let no man carve runes to cast a spell, save first he learn to read them well.” People truly believed in the immense magical powers the runes were rumored to have. One rune master carved protection runes on his drinking horn. When a rival attempted to poison his drink, the horn broke in half.
Another rune master was required to fix the mistake of the original, novice rune master, who had carved the incorrect runes on an ornament hung above a woman’s bed. Instead of receiving good health, she quickly became sick. The second rune master corrected the runes and the woman was instantly healed.
Run casting, or reading the runes for divination purposes, is typically done in one of two ways. Rune casters, who were typically women, would lay the runes facedown before them and pluck three to answer the question asked. Rune casters would also keep their runes in leather pouches from which they would dump the runes on the reading surface. The runes that landed face up were used during the reading.
American Museum of Natural History: The History of the Runes
NOVA/PBS: Runes through Time
Myths Encyclopedia: Odin