AN INTRODUCTION TO RUNES
By Wyrd Wyrm
I would like to start this by saying that this is my experience with runes. It is not presented as a work of authority but just the musings of an amateur but keen user of runes.
Runes first came to my attention through the works of J.R.R. Tolkein. Inparticular the dwarven maps found in 'The Hobbit'. These maps had runic notations some of which were later translated in the text. From then I translated the other dwarven runes in his books and worked out the dwarven alphabet.
Tolkeins runes are pretty much what I use now. Tolkein had taken his runes from a Viking long boat found in the river Thames.
Shortly after joining the craft I heard about a study course on runes held by The Servants of the Light. This was a weekend course. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that runes were used as mystical symbols, but had not realised the existence of a magical system based on the runes. Or should I say - the magical system upon which the runes are based.
The weekend really instilled a love for the runes, due in no small part to the instructor Tony Willis. He covered the history or runes, their uses for divination, magical charms, path working and much more.
What are runes?
The word rune is thought to quite literally mean 'secret'.
Runes are angular letters that first appeared in Northern Europe. Each rune is a mystical symbol, whether they are mystical symbols that developed into a writing system, or letters that became mystical symbols is not known for certain.
They are used as oracles for divination or magical charms.
The knowledge of runes was passed from master to apprentice. These masters or runic shaman were usually nomadic, travelling from village to village plying their trade for food and supplies. They had to be good at their art or they would not make enough to survive.
They learnt to remember the runes through poems.
The most famous of these is 'The Old English Rune Poem'. Most modern writers take this
poem as their reference for the meanings of the runes. Our knowledge of this poem comes
from later writings of the Christian monks
in the 11th century AD. It was never published until 1705, and shortly after that the original was destroyed in a fire. It has been suggested that the original recording by monks was altered to confirm with christianity. I subscribe to this theory so do not use the poem as my sole source of reference. The interpretation of this poem is also a personal thing, and different authors will give their own interpretations. As with any system of magic I recommend that you find your own meanings for the runes rather than try to adopt a system that is someone elses.
Norse legend tells us that Odin was hung on Yggdrasil, the tree that supported the worlds for 40 days, and that he gave up an eye in order to be given the runes that he then taught to Man.
History is divided as to when runes were first seen. Roman historians including Tacitus and Vernantius Fortunatis, mentioned runes. They told us of Germanic tribes casting augaries using sticks of ash (the tree) carved with signs. Fortunatis uses the word 'runa'.
Yggdrasil was an ash tree, and the rowan tree, or mountain ash, has been attributed with magical properties. So could the word 'rune' be derived from 'rowan'?
Runes were introduced to England in the 5th Century AD, in fact by this time they had spread across Northern Europe, even as far as Iceland. Runes have been found in Northern America but this was probably due to Norse travellers landing there and carving on a rock to commemorate their landing. Runes do not appear to have been taught to or used by the native populations.
Different areas adopted the runic system but often added new runes. The oldest known runes are known as the Elder Futhark, and has 24 runes. The runes most commonly used in England originally had 29 runes but later expanded to 33. Perhaps this was to accommodate new sounds or even new beliefs. In contrast to this, a Scandinavian futhark contracted to 16 runes.
In our alphabet, letters represent sounds. In runes, each character represents a sound and a meaning. So each rune has a hieroglyphic value as well as a phonetic value. This is the same as the Hebrew alphabet. This dual functionality allowed each rune to represent a mystical philosophy so that the futhark could contain the all the knowledge from the physical world to the power of the heavens.
Runes are made up of straight strokes - either vertical or slanting. There are no horizontal strokes suggesting that they were specifically meant for carving onto wood as it is much harder to carve wood against the grain. They were also carved onto stone, but because most runes were carved onto wood we have fewer examples of runes to study, hence a very incomplete history of the runes.
It is known that around the time of the first emergence of runes, there were many Jews in Northern Europe. Many had fled there to escape persecution. It has been suggested that these Jews inspired the development of runes. There are many arguments to support this: the similarity of use of characters, the central 'tree' (Yggdrasil and the Kabbalistic tree of life), the similar number of characters, and even the first character of each alphabet.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Aleph representing a cow and symbol of wealth. The first rune is Feogh - representing cattle and wealth.
Personally I believe that runes were developed as a unique system with possible Jewish influence later. The Jewish system was developed by a very different culture to that of the Norsemen or Germanic tribes. Also, the Jewish system is defined by a monotheistic belief, whereas Yggdrasil is home to many Gods, Goddesses, various spirits and even giants - powerful enough to challenge and sometimes defeat the Gods.
This pantheon has more in common with Roman beliefs, but there is no evidence of Roman influence. The runic magical system is based on Nature and the tangible. Gods were considered to be reachable, they actually roamed the realms of men. The tribes that employed the nomadic runic shaman believed that the only honourable death was by the sword in battle. This is very different to the Jewish beliefs. Certain aspects, prevalent in Kabbalah, such as love, peace and women are hard to find in the runes.
Because of this, many writers of runes place the runes on the Kabbalistic tree of life. I do not choose to do this. Much as I respect the Kabbalistic system I feel that it demeans the runes to view them as another system seen as a poor relation to Kabbalah. To fully place the runes on the tree of life it seems that the meanings have to be tempered in order to fit. This is similar to what the christian monks did when they first recorded (butchered) the meanings of the runes. If I want to use the tree of life I prefer to use it as is, the same with the runes.
For me the runes are a unique gateway to 'Wyrd'. Wyrd in itself is a unique link from Man to the Gods. Included within its threads are all aspects of everything contained within and without Yggdrasil. Wyrd is often compared to Karma or Kismet. This is like drawing similarities between jellyfish and turtles - both have domed tops and live in the sea!
It is because so little is really known and understood about the runes and the magical systems of the runic shaman that modern writers try to explain them by drawing these references to other religions. If they do that then why not just use the systems that are better known. I don't see Zen superimposed on Kabbalah.
Having said that - any magical system is down to the individual practitioner, and because so little is known about the runes then any explanation could be valid. The only writings we have are from observers - not the practitioners themselves. These observers came from religions that looked upon runes as part of a practice they considered backward, so their observations could be flawed.
My own belief is that the path to the runes lies within the runes themselves. Before using the runes for divinatory or talismanic purposes, seek for yourself within the runes and then you will find the runes for yourself.
My own mentor for the runes taught me in this way. He also introduced me to runes not found in any futhark. Through these he showed me how to use a runic system without the constraints of a book full of someone elses rules. He also took me through numerous pathworkings for me to find the runes myself.
This opened up a whole new world for me. The path workings were the most vivid and real for me, the astral realms visited were places I could know and recognise without strict guidance or being told what I could see. This helped me to live within the runes, and because of the tangibility of them I found that it is the most 'living' system I have yet found.
I have found that most systems (e.g. Kabbalah and Tarot) deal with external influences whereas I can live within Wyrd and the runes. I am probably biased as I learnt the runes before I fully learnt any other system. Also, an entire system based on the runes can be derived from experience, trial and error. All without the need for serious study - which suits someone like me - lazy and simple.
Having said all this, anyone starting with the runes would be well advised to read a few books on the subject as it is always helpful to have a guide when starting a new journey. There are many books on runes, and some of them are worthwhile.
Bear in mind that a system derived by someone else may not work for you. so if you do not enjoy one book then don't blame the runes - try another book. If you are going to add the runes to the Hebrew tree of life then why not stick with the tree of life. I don't believe that it will aid understanding - it is more likely to change the runes to fit that system.
This has been an introduction to runes based on my experience - not to be taken as authoritative or definitive.
If this has interested you and you would like to know more then I highly recommend 'The Runic Workbook' by Tony Willis. If you would like me to write here on how I use runes as my magical system then email the webmaster, otherwise thank you for reading this far and may the threads of Wyrd weave you health, Wealth and Happiness, or as the runic shamen might have said 'Flag, Flax, Fodder and Frigg'.
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