Runes is a form of divination. The term rune is derived from the Indo-European root ru, which means mystery or secret. Runes were at first ancient Norse and Teutonic alphabets, and symbols that were ascribed with various magical, mystical, and divinatory properties. These various alphabetical signs have been passed down through the centuries and were thought to possess religious and magical meanings. Personal runes can represent letters, deities, qualities, events, and natural forces.
Runic symbols have been found carved on rocks dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, (c. 8000 BC – 2000 BC). Continuing discoveries showed they had been carved by tribes in Northern Italy; they were also present in Sweden, and among the Germanic people.
According to myth, the runes were created by the Norse god Odin (also Woden or Woten), the one-eyed chief of the gods, also the god of wisdom and war. Odin acquired the forbidden and mystical knowledge of the runes by impaling himself by his own spear to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days and nights.
The runic characters, originally derived from the Roman alphabet, first appeared in the Germanic lands around 200 AD. They numbered 24, divided into three groups called Aettas, which corresponds closely to the phonetic sounds of the Roman alphabet.
Although runic carvings were found throughout western Europe, but the greatest concentration was in England where the alphabet was increased to thirty-three characters from its original twenty-four. In Scandinavia it was reduced to sixteen. In Britian the alphabet was called “futhorc” after its first letters F, U, TH, O, R, K.
The runes coexisted for centuries along with Christian symbols such as the cross. One of the earliest historical references to them is in the 4th. century AD when the Gothic bishop Ulfilas in devising the Gothic alphabet borrowed the U and O from the runic alphabet.
In Western Europe during the Dark Ages runes were believed to possess potent magical powers. These magical powers attributed to runes were believed to be released in the etching of names, phrases, memorial inscriptions, and spells upon bones, metal, wood, and stone. The were inscribed on grave stones to described the deeds of the departed and to ward off grave robbers. It was thought that a swords having a runic inscription became more powerful to inflict more pain and death upon the enemy. The powers of runes was sought for various things such as victory in battle, healings, acquisition of psychical powers, protection from the evil eye, cursing, love, fertility and other enchantments. Such belief and interest in the runes was diminished by the Inquisition.
Magicians etched them on magical tools, even sometimes sprinkling blood on them to increase their magical potency. The magicians passed these tools onto their initiates, telling the initiates of their power by word of mouth. Runic symbols were inscribed–but never in the light of day–on items such as wands made of hazel, ash or yew, swords, chalices, or stone tablets to obtain whatever the magician desired.
Belief in runic power was strong among the German soldiers during World War I. This was because “secret chiefs” of the Germanen Order, a runic society founded in 1912, signed their names in runic characters. They sold amuletic bronze rune rings to solders for protection. A rune mania occurred throughout the country which included yodelling during yoga-like exercises to release the rune’s mystical powers, and meditating over runes to cure illnesses.
Perhaps two runes were destroyed forever by the Nazis. These are the swastika, originally Mjoelhir, Thor’s hammer and the symbol of the Earth Mother and the sun; and the sig or S rune, the trademark of Heinrich Himmler’s “Schutzstaffel,” or the SS. The Norse neo-Pagans tried to bring back the Swastika as a runic symbol without much success.
The ancient usage of the swastika not only as a symbol by Indo-European cultures dates back perhaps prior to 700 BC in Greece where it was painted on amphoreis and various ceramic artifacts, and even graves. Also it exists in many other cultures such as the Chinese and Native Americans.
Beginning in the 1980s and continuing to the present it became popular to use rune stones for divinatory purposes, they are cast like coins or sticks in I Ching or laid out in crosses or wheels such as Tarot cards. Some modern witches inscribe their magical tools and personal jewelry with runic characters.
The magical use of runic in Western practices has been revived in New Age ideas and activities. Ralph Blum, a Fullbright scholar and Harvard graduate, has adapted runes for oracular purposes. He details these purposes and activities in his two books The Book of Runes and Rune Play which are accompanied by 25 letters stationed on ceramic counters which can be used for casting in a similar divinatory manner as in I Ching.
Another method of casting runes in Western magic is to write the letters on slips of papers that are given, handed, or sent to the victim of the spell. Such a method was brilliantly described in the short story Casting the Runes by M. R. James in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1911. In the story one character slips runes into a ticket case of the victim. The case is then dropped where the victim will noticed that it is his. He assumes he dropped it and picks it up; therefore, the runes and their spell are casted onto him.
Alan G. Hefner and Demetrius Drystellas