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.