Origins of Runes

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Runes are letters of an ancient Germanic alphabet with each conveying a unique symbolic meaning. The word rune means “mystery” in Celtic and Germanic languages. Though sometimes associated with fortune-telling, most Runes practitioners realistically point out that the Runes were not designed to predict the future. By accessing ancient wisdom, Runes were designed to produce a greater awareness of the connection of all things, the nature of cause and effect, and the interactions between our personal lives and the rest of the world. Like any balanced archetype system, Runes represents an overview of human psychology, the physical world, and the universe.

Present day Rune casting involves asking a specific question, then interpreting the meanings of the symbols inscribed on a set of stones (sometimes sticks or cards). The techniques for selecting Rune stones are varied. A single stone can be chosen from a bag in answer to a question, or a number of stones (usually three or nine) can be laid out in a variety of patterns, similar to a Tarot spread, for interpretation. Or, a handful of stones can be drawn, then cast onto a special cloth, where unique meanings can be assigned to Runes in the face-up and face-down positions.

Choosing a method of Rune casting is largely a matter of personal taste. None of these methods, or others omitted here, should be considered more authentic than the rest, since there is no reliable record of precisely how Runes were cast for divination in ancient times. When using the Runes, listen to your own wisdom in selecting the appropriate technique.

There is historical research regarding the formation of the Runic alphabet, and the people who used it. The word ‘Runes’ refers to the unique symbolic mystery or idea behind each rune-stave—the inscribed shape or carving in wood, clay, or stone. Though considered by modern historians to have been savage in their excursions, the Vikings were in touch with the Earth and the cycles of nature. According to Nordic mythology, Odin, father of Thor, discovered and invented the Runes. Seeking divine knowledge, Odin hung upside down from a tree limb and was enlightened with the knowledge of the Runes.

Archeological evidence suggests that symbols found on early rock carvings throughout Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the second Bronze Age and early Iron Age led to the development of the rune-staves. The derivation of the Runes’ meanings, like the origins of the rune-staves themselves, remains mysterious. In Germania 10, Tacitus—the Roman politician, orator, historian, and author from the first century A.D.—describes a number of forms of divination, including ways of interpreting the flights and calls of birds. It was later surmised that the shapes of the rune-staves were derived from the patterns of bird flight. Also, Tacitus writes of omens being read in the snorts, whinnies, and neighs of pure white sacred horses kept by the public in sacred forests. The obvious link to these sacred horses is the nineteenth Rune, ehwaz, “the horse.”

There are a variety of theories about which alphabets the rune-staves were related to—including Greek, Latin, and North Italic alphabets. O.V. Friesen proposed the idea that near the Black Sea in the third century A.D., Goths invented rune-staves based on the cursive and capital letters of the Greek alphabet. Danish scholar L. F. Wimmer identified similarities between some rune-staves and Latin, and also concluded the creation of the rune-staves would have been in the third century A.D. However, these theories are questioned because the earliest inscriptions—from Norway and Denmark—can be dated to the second or third century A.D., which means their invention, distribution, and rise in popularity was already underway for quite some time by then.

The most widely held view of the rune-staves’ origin is that they derived from the North Italic scripts of Italy, which, like Latin, came from the early Etruscan alphabet. Both rune-staves and North Italic alphabets were written from left to right as well as right to left, but many of the rune-staves do not resemble North Italic in form. Some claim that the Germanic tribes of the alpine regions could have learned the North Italic alphabet as early as the fourth century B.C. The Futhark alphabet, as we call it today, evolved from this encounter and by the second century B.C. it was spreading northward. It appears likely that the Common Germanic Rune was created between the fourth century B.C. and the first century A.D.

Origins of Numerology

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

The art of Numerology has existed since the ancient discovery of mathematics. To this day, most cultures attach special meaning to certain numbers and their position in a sequence. As we have just seen, the Chinese I Ching describes the differences between even (earthly) and odd (heavenly) numbers. Numerology has also been used to correlate the significance of numbers to an alphabet, giving each letter a numerical value. A well-known example is the Hebrew alphabet of twenty-two characters—the same as the number of trump cards in the Tarot deck. Because of the applicability of numbers to alphabets, numerologists are able to use words or names, in addition to numbers, to reveal divinatory meaning.

There are three major forms of Numerology— Kabbalic, Chaldean and the Pythagorean. They can be used in any combination to produce a reading, but whatever system you prefer, I suggest using it consistently so as not to confuse yourself. The one you find that you are drawn to is good enough.

Kabbalic Numerology—which is often used to interpret names—originally derived from Hebrew mysticism, is an outgrowth of the Hebrew alphabet with its twenty-two vibrations. Later it was adapted for the Greek alphabet, then the Roman alphabet. Thirteenth century Kabbalists believed that the Old Testament was written in a secret code inspired by God. They used Numerology as a tool to decipher this code. It also happens that twenty-two-base Numerology adds a significant dimension to the interpretation of the twenty-two Trump cards of the Tarot deck.

Chaldean Numerology has closer ties to Astrology, having originated in Mesopotamia, which was also the birthplace of Western Astrology. It is also related to the Vedic system of India, as well as the Kabbalah. The basis of Chaldean Numerology is that each letter has a unique vibration and is assigned a number from 1 to 8 based on its energetic quality. The number 9 is kept separate from the other numbers—except when it appears as a from the other numbers—except when it appears as a sum of vibrations—because it is considered the most sacred number. In Chaldean Numerology, single digits reveal the outer nature of a person, while double digits describe inner qualities.

The third and most popular form of Numerology is the method developed by Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and metaphysician of the 6th century B.C. Pythagoras is famous for his formulation of the Pythagorean theorem, which calculates the hypotenuse of a right triangle, a basic construct of modern geometry. According to legend, Pythagoras was the founder of Numerology and practiced it to divine the fates of individuals, predict the events of certain locations, and use name changing as a means to alter destiny. In the Pythagorean system, numbers were assigned to letters in the Greek alphabet based on their position in the sequence. Pythagorean Numerology generally uses both the name and the date of birth, and then examines the relationships between them, much like the Chaldean method. The basic vibrations are 1 through 9, and the master vibrations are 11 and 22, which are never reduced to a single digit. In the 1800s, when scientific discoveries regarding magnetism, light, and electricity were progressing rapidly, the idea that energy patterns of vibrations corresponded to numbers became popular. Overall, the use of Numerology for self-knowledge and divination has continued to blossom with undying popularity.

Origins of Tarot

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

This system of divination now known as Tarot first became popular in card form in Europe during the early fifteenth century, assisted by the invention of the printing press. Early images of twenty of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards (Arcana means “secrets”) can be seen in an Italian deck of A.D. 1440. The Visconti family’s decks, forebears of Tarot decks in use today, appear to have been created as a recreational pastime for the nobility. Across five centuries, the structure of the modern deck of Tarot cards remains identical to the game decks enjoyed in the fifteenth century. The Marseilles family of decks, still in print today, is the oldest of the standard Tarot deck pattern.

Even though Tarot may have started as a card game, members of secret societies assigned mystical meanings to the cards, adding corresponding astrological, numerological and kabbalic symbols over time. There is no doubt that the images on modern Tarot cards have roots at least as old as Western civilization, going back as far as Egypt and maybe China. Because Tarot now incorporates a synthesis of Astrology, Numerology, the Jewish Kabbalah and harmonic theory, our Tarot scholar, Christine Payne-Towler, refers to Tarot as “the flash cards of the Western mysteries.”

The highly symbolic Tarot deck provided a way to secretly preserve ancient teachings and divination systems during a period when the Christian church was hell-bent on repressing such knowledge. The Church’s persecution of so-called heresies, which was sometimes represented in Tarot images, caused the esoteric information to be sheltered by small groups of like-minded people, by whom it was carefully preserved, and selectively shared in the guise of a card game.

Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin deserves much credit for the establishment of modern Tarot, including its use as a means of divination. In 1781 he announced that he had discovered the mythical teachings of Thoth, the Egyptian god who invented magic and writing, in the symbols on the Tarot deck. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known as “Etteilla,” was the first to create a deck of thirty-two cards to be used specifically for divination in 1770.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Eliphas Lévi had expanded Court de Gébelin’s work by joining it with the Jewish mystical system, the Kabbalah, although he did not abandon Egyptian symbolism in his deck. Lévi’s work was key in fueling a Tarot revival. Lévi does not get as much credit as he deserves, largely due to the efforts of A.E. Waite, the English Tarot scholar of the early 1900s who translated Lévi’s works from French to English. Various members of England’s Order of the Golden Dawn went so far as to rearrange the order of the traditional Tarot deck, assigning some different astrological correspondences, as well as making other small changes. In order to establish its own reputation and influence, it was in the Golden Dawn’s interest to discount Lévi’s more traditional teachings, even to deny the validity of all Tarot knowledge that had come before. Waite’s translated texts included many notes encouraging the reader to dismiss Lévi’s ideas.

To a large degree, these efforts were successful. Today it is not uncommon to hear claims that Tarot originated in England, when in fact the French, Italians, and Spanish were using it over 100 years earlier than the English. Most decks in popular use today are derived from Waite’s ‘Rider-Waite’ deck—or the Book of Thoth Tarot, an even more creative deck designed by Aleister Crowley, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn society.

Origins of Astrology

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Early Astrology was a marriage of astronomy and mythology. Several ancient cultures—including Mayan, Indian and Chinese—mastered astronomy to determine celestial events like solstices, equinoxes, moon cycles, seasons, and eclipses. They also used it to help interpret events or determine auspicious times for various activities. Astrological traditions from cultures other than our own have remained in continuous use since ancient times, including Vedic Astrology and the Mayan Calendar. Western Astrology as we know it is a descendant of Mesopotamian celestial observation and omen-reading that began around 2000 B.C.

According to archeological evidence, it is likely that there was a religious, as well as astronomical, significance to megalithic constructions such as Stonehenge and Easter Island built in various parts of the world from 4000 to 2000 B.C. Some historians assert that the mathematical sophistication of these early cultures was equal to that of Renaissance Europe, and that this knowledge was passed along to Mesopotamia around the same time as the development of star-based omen lore in 3000–2000 B.C.

There is little known about the practicing astrologers of these times, except that they also would have been astronomers, and that at least part of their divination practices involved interpreting patterns of events based on observable movements in the heavens.

In 538 B.C., Mesopotamia was conquered by the Persians, who contributed their greater mathematical sophistication to Mesopotamia’s astronomy. Humans were now able to calculate the paths of planets across the sky (or around the Earth, as was the understanding of the time), and develop horoscopes much like the ones we use today. The oldest natal horoscope ever found is dated April 29, 410 B.C.

Modern Astrology, including sun sign interpretation, was systematized by Ptolemy in his book Tetrabiblos during the second century A.D. Ptolemy synthesized much of the contemporary astrological thinking and arranged it into a consistent and unified body of work. Much of modern Western Astrology borrowed from Ptolemy’s work.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Astrology was condemned and suppressed by the Church. It didn’t find a widespread following again until eighth century Spain during the wars with the Arabs, who had continued to use Astrology. The Emperor Charlemagne hired an astrologer and took up studies on the subject. Astrology was used by the ruling class throughout the European Reformation (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), and then fell into disfavor until the Theosophical movement revived interest in the United States during the 1880s. Ironically, it was during this period of neglect by the ruling classes that Astrology became almost respectable among the general public, and this trend of interest in and use of Astrology is still increasing today.