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Beginning to Understand Runes
(Third edition)
A Rune Primer Copyright © 1994, 1998 The Skvala Press
About this edition: People new to using runes need a clear and simple guide. In response to this, the Skvala Press first produced this rune primer as an eight page leaflet in 1994. The second edition had improved rune graphics, a recommended reading list and clearer interpretations. This new edition corrects some mistakes and ambiguities, and adds a short historical section.


About the author: Stormerne has studied runes since the 1970s. He lives in England with his wife Arlea. Both are committed heathens. They work in their local pagan community giving talks and workshops. They are not currently affiliated with any heathen organisation.

What are the Runes?

The Runes are often thought to be an ancient writing system - rather like our modern alphabet. In fact they have always been far more than that, and may indeed have started as sounds and ideas rather than the means for spelling words. Just as the alphabet is named from the first two characters in it, so the rune row is known as the "Futhark" from the first six runes. The runes are all made up of straight lines, making them of course easy to carve, though the reason may come from a deeper symbolism.

Where do they come from?

The oldest runes that have been reliably researched by conventional archaeological methods date from more than 1,700 years ago. This set is therefore known as the Elder Futhark, although because it is associated with the culture of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, it is sometimes called the Common Germanic Futhark. There is evidence to suggest that the runes existed in some form long before then - perhaps two or three millenia. This would be appropriate as the runes seem to embody the values of a whole culture, and the roots of that culture can be traced back further for some considerable time. More recently the Futhark became modified, and 1,200 years ago the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark became as many as 33 when they arrived in Northumbria (North-Eastern England). Across the North Sea their needs were different, and the Viking Futhark instead shrank to a meagre 16 staves (though this was later re-expanded by the use of "dotted" runes).

What can they be used for?

As the runes each represent sounds, not surprisingly they can be used for writing. And although very many thousands of runic artifacts have been discovered across Northern Europe, few people nowadays use them much for this, apart from inscriptions of some special meaning. More common today are the uses that take advantage of the meanings of the runes. Each rune has at least one meaning. Most have many meanings linked by a common thread. These meanings exist because the runes are more than just graphical symbols. They are also symbols in the same sense that dreams may contain symbols or a poem may contain symbols. They stand for things, objects and actions, but they can also stand for values - the values that pervaded the Germanic society of earlier tribal times. And indeed they can and do stand for the primal powers of the Cosmos! The runes can therefore be used to help understand the values and heritage of Northern Europe as a whole. They can be used in meditation and in healing. They can be used in magick and in divination. A whole lifetime could be spent in learning about them and using them, and still there would be more! The most popular use at present is divination - "Casting the Runes"- although this represents but a part of their power.

What is a "set" of runes?

A set of runes is a collection of 24 objects upon each of which is inscribed a single rune. Many beautiful sets exist, and most people who are at all intent on furthering their studies of the runes sooner or later make one or more sets of their own, together with a special pouch to put them in. However, many people will begin with a "bought" set, and there is nothing wrong with this to start with. Traditionally a set is made of wood, each small stave having a rune carved into it. The wood should be of an indigenous tree. Fruit bearing trees like apple are favoured, but others, especially oak, ash and yew are common too. These sets will often be works of art, but it is still possible to make sets from other materials. Metal and even plastic will do, with the runes painted on. Even a set of Smarties (like M&Ms) painted with cochineal has been tried successfully!

Why use a set of runes?

A set of runes is helpful when studying individual runes or for meditation purposes. It is also helpful for "consultation" when one or more runes can be picked blind and "at random" from a bag. The runes picked then have some bearing on the situation or question at hand. This form of divination is quite common found and relies on the effect that Carl Jung called "synchronicity" and that the original users of the runes would have called Wyrd. Those tempted to use runes for fortune-telling may well be disappointed, as although they can help show developing future patterns, the effect of personal will needs also to be considered. They can best be used in those situations for insights, advice or perhaps a fresh view of things.

How was the use of runes described in history?

There are a number of instances of the use of runes being described in historical documents. Two examples will suffice.

The Roman Tacitus, writing 1,900 years ago about the customs of Germanic tribes, describes a divination technique which is supposed to describe the use of runes. "For omens and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the gods, and looking up to the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them." (Germania - translated from the Latin by Mattingly.)

Egil's Saga was written about 775 years ago, and describes events that happened 250 or more years earlier. When the subject of the story, Egil, visits a farm, he finds that the farmer's daughter is sick and has been wasting away for some time. Egil asks whether anything has been done, and is told, "Runes have been graven, and it is a farmer's son a short way off who did that; but ever since it has been far worse for her than before." Egil then finds the runes carved on a piece of whalebone in the bed. He scrapes the bone clean and burns both it and the shavings. Then he carves new runes, laying them under her pillow, and she quickly becomes well. Egil says (in poetry), "No leech should unleash runes save rightly he can read them. Of men it happens to many a mirky stave benights him. Well, spied I on scraped whalebone ten secret runestaves graven. Those to leeklinden maiden brought wasting all too lasting." (Egil's Saga - translated from the Old Icelandic by Jones.)

Can anyone use them nowadays?

Some will find it easier than others. There is no doubt that we each have talents that allow us do effortlessly that which would take someone else a lot of time and hard work even to come close. Interwoven with the runes is the heritage of a people. This heritage is built around certain ways of seeing things. It is built around the ethnic heathen religion of the North, and it is difficult to use the runes successfully without having an affinity with these things.

How can the meanings of the runes be discovered?

The Elder Futhark is the one that embodies the most ancient symbolism and is the one that is studied the most. It will be dealt with here as space allows. It should be remembered, however, that there would be no virtue in its being an old system unless it was also an enduring system. What it embodies is as valuable today as it was centuries years ago. Yet like the people of Northern Europe, the runes are not static. Like the their ethnic religion which still grows with them, the runes too are organic. Just because we now live in a time of high technology and consumerism, it does not mean we cannot recall our past or use tried and trusted techniques to help us.

To start to understand the meanings of the runes, picture yourself in the world of that people years ago. People are far fewer in number and more widely scattered, clustering in family or tribal groups. They live pragmatically with Nature, understanding its balances, rather than assuming dominion over it. But they are not primitive. They live well in a land of contrasts, a hospitable and industrious folk who take pride in their self-reliance. They do not lack courage or high endeavour. They are fiercely proud of who they are and know that this is the right of all that lives. They are deep thinking and creative, but when need arises they can be warriors. Their Gods and Goddesses are those of fruitfulness and plenty, inspiration and poetry, might and magick, justice and war. We still remember some of these Gods in the names for the days of our week!

The mythology of the North credits the God Ošin as discoverer of the runes and the watchman of the Gods Heimdall as teacher of runic knowledge to mankind. Yet those who use the runes must take care not be didactic. For although they share in knowledge first given to one culture, there are other cultures in the world with knowledge of their own! And even to people of their own culture, the idea is not to mould thoughts but to encourage people to think for themselves - to help people become free spirits but to enable them to take advantage of what has gone before. What follows is therefore not "holywrit", but simply food for thought.

What are the meanings of the runes?

These are some ideas about the meanings of the runes, the literal meanings and just some of the deeper meanings. None of this is meant to be an exhaustive list. It should instead be used as a starting point for personal research. The 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are considered in turn in their normal order. This never changes except for the last two runes which are listed by some users in reverse order. The ancient name is given first, then the literal meaning and then other ideas. The names of the runes are the Common Germanic names. There are some slight variations of these heard which are mentioned where appropriate.

FEHU means cattle. To the people of the North, cattle meant wealth, but wealth that must move to be effective, else it become a sore. They thought of true wealth as being a good reputation, yet fame too must be put to work to be of any worth.

URUZ means aurochs. This was a fierce wild ox against which youths tested their courage and hunting skill. Its horns were much prized and it was eventually hunted to extinction. It represents raw primal strength.

THURISAZ means a giant, but this rune is more often associated with the God Thor and his famous Hammer. It is a powerful penetrating force that can be used for attack or defence, for it represents both the force of will and the thorn that protects.

ANSUZ means a God. This rune is often associated with the God Ošin and represents communicating, outwardly with speech, and inwardly with sensitivity and inspiration. It can also represent the wind, for like Thor, Ošin is a God of the storm.

RAIDHO means a chariot and the act of riding. It can therefore mean transport and travel. More subtly it means being in control. To be in control one needs order, and while this can mean acts of ritual, on a deeper level it means cosmic order.

KENAZ means fire, perhaps a torch or a pitch-brand. Illumination can also bring knowledge - to ken something - and knowledge about others is often most rewarding when about one's kin. Fidelity to one's spouse or to one's leader or king.

GEBO means giving. Unasked for gifts were a source of suspicion in olden days for a gift "demanded" a gift in return! Give and take is an exchange of forces. This exchange is an essential part of successful relationships (like marriage).

WUNJO means joy. It also means wonder and as "wunsch" the act of wishing- not a vague act but one of willing into being. The Anglo-Saxon name for this - "wynn" - though not linked linguistically, can act as a reminder that true winning is not a haphazard act.

HAGALAZ means hail. Hail is a destructive natural force, it is true. But it is one of Nature's essential checks and balances, clearing away dross and weak growth. As a result the world is stronger. And after the hail has melted, it helps sustain that which remains.

NAUTHIZ means need. A time of need is often the spur that ends complacency. Without a time of need, perhaps we would not appreciate the times of plenty so well.

ISA means ice. Cold and still, yet indicating the poise and focus that can be achieved in meditation. Freezing of circumstances means maintaining the status quo, but it can mean stagnation. Defending by freezing the attack.

JERA simply means harvest and the idea of growth through the cycle of the year's seasons. The harvest is the result of your work. Whether this reward is good or bad can depend on what you have sown and how you have tended it!

EEWAZ means a yew tree. Coming after Jera, it reminds us of the cycle of life and death. For the yew is intensely poisonous, and its wood can be used to make bows - bringers of death. Yet of all North European trees it lives the longest, so it also represents endurance and its branches the diversity of life.

PERTHRO is a dice-cup. To some it can mean fatalism or "luck", but it is really a positive evolutionary force. Think of Wyrd and the three Norns - Urš (What is), Veršandi (What is becoming), Skuld (What should be). If you do see this is a rune of luck, remember "fortune favours the brave".

ELHAZ means protection. Often known as "Algiz", this rune shows the warding hand, or defensive horns or spines. This rune resembles a person standing with arms raised. Is this in defiance, in invocation, or in blessing?

SOWILO means sun. The sun represents success and victory. It shines with a permanent and limitless light. It clears away the clouds of doubt to bring confidence and optimism.

TIWAZ means justice and is associated with the God Tyr. Justice is a state of balance. Vengeance is an act redressing the balance, and may actually foreshadow peace, for peace without justice cannot last.

BERKANA means a birch tree and is associated with Ostara, Goddess of the Dawn. It symbolises the rebirth found at spring time (Ostara/Easter time) and at dawn every morning. It is a rune of awakening.

EHWAZ means a horse. It symbolises trust, such as that required between horse and rider or two people in close relationship. It is therefore a rune of partnership and commitment between two parties who want to "make things work".

MANNAZ means mankind. It means all the frailties and all the potentials of being human. It represents contracts and oaths and hence is linked to the goddess Vįr.

LAUGUZ means water. Water cleanses and refreshes. It finds its own level, and it contains the teeming flow of life. It reflects the sky above it, and mirrors the calmness or ferocity of the wind that flows over it.

INGWAZ (or Inguz) is associated with the God Ing or Yngvi-Frey. It is an "earthy" rune representing sex and fertility, and the life contained in the seed.

DAGAZ means day and the point of balance in the day-night cycle. Daylight certainly brings clarity, yet twilight illumines the mysteries of both the day-world of light and the night-world of darkness.

OŠILA means inherited land. Odal land stayed in the family and was tilled for the benefit of that family. It represents that which is handed down. This includes our language, our mythology, and our runelore, as well as physical possessions.

How can these meanings be interpreted?

The meanings of the runes cannot always be approached too logically. Intuition is usually required to find the right interpretation. The meanings above are only a fraction of the lore discovered on runes, so answers may not be immediately obvious. Using the runes for divination or consulting about a problem requires you to mentally phrase your questions first. The more precise the question, the more precise the answer. Let your intuition tell you how many runes to take. Be aware of how the images of runes interact and modify each other. For example, Nauthiz and Ansuz might indicate a need for greater sensitivity or communication; Kenaz and Lauguz might potentially indicate a clash of opposites. Yet in different circumstances the same runes might show lack of inspiration in one case and great empathy in the other. If you are unsure, check your insight with a further rune. Many are superficially positive or negative - this is a simple confirmation or rejection, yes or no. An ambiguous answer might indicate you are on the wrong track- you are getting the right answer but to the wrong question! Bear in mind, however, that sometimes a precise answer is exactly what is not required. The runes can free you from such black and white reflexes by giving you things to think about. Therefore, if you don't understand the runes you have drawn, never put them back and try again! Try instead to meditate on them, perhaps over many hours, and gradually the meaning will seep through - perhaps in a trickle, perhaps in a flash. It is not possible in a short publication like this to give anything except the bare beginnings of an education in runes. The important thing will be to try them and to find out how you react to them. Be patient with yourself. Remember, the runes are not on trial. They have been of the greatest value to the people of Northern Europe for a very long time and are in ever-growing use today. But neither are you on trial. They are symbols of great power and mastery will not come overnight.

How can I find out more?

There are now very many books dealing with runes, the people that lived with them as a way of life and their religion and mythology. But all books have not been created equal and many cannot be recommended. A personal teacher is always an advantage but the same problem arises. How then to proceed? It is useful to know what to avoid. Avoid all books that insist that runes are a universal answer for everyone - this plainly is not the case as is discussed above. Avoid books that somehow try to harmonise the runes with other systems such as tarot, numerology, astrology etc. - the runes are a self-consistent system and such exercises are doomed to failure (even if they are sincere) and at best merely pad out the pages. Avoid the professional authors for their interests may not be your own - they have contracts to fulfil, tending to cover in breadth rather than in depth, and will not have the single-mindedness necessary to do the subject justice. Avoid the seekers of self-aggrandizement who suggest you should enrol in this or that organisation (of which they are, of course, the grand leader). Avoid all books that do not see the runes in context of the North European heritage - its people, its values and its Gods. You will also find sets of runes on offer, and many of these have an accompanying book. Once again, tread warily. If the set includes the notorious blank rune, then avoid it. This is a modern invention and there is no evidence that it was ever used by our ancestors. Not only is it unnecessary (since its usual supposed meaning is included as part of Perthro), it makes no sense if you try to use it in active rune magick. The best you can do with such a set is use the blank rune as a spare in case you lose one! And you'll find books sold by themselves which attempt to include it as a rune too, so now you know how to deal with these... That may appear to rule out the majority of books! However do try the following, for they contain good information and manage to steer clear of most of the pitfalls mentioned above. Rune History and Lore: Runes. An Introduction - Ralph W. V. Elliott, M.A. - Manchester University Press, 1959 - Out of print (try your library) Rudiments of Runelore - Stephen Pollington - Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 - ISBN 1-898281-16-5 Runes in Sweden - Sven B. F. Jansson (trans. Peter Foote) - Gidlunds, Sweden, 1987 - ISBN 91-7844-067-X Rune Magick - generally good, but beware of occasional modern overlays (like trying to assign the runes to the "Four Elements"): Helrunar. A Manual of Rune Magick - Jan Fries - Mandrake of Oxford, 1993 - ISBN 1-869928-19-9 Futhark. A Handbook of Rune Magic - Edred Thorsson - Samuel Weiser, 1984 - ISBN 0-87728-548-9 Leaves of Yggdrasil - Freya Aswynn - Llewellyn, 1990 - ISBN 0-87542-024-9 - now republished as... Northern Mysteries and Magick: Runes, Gods, and Feminine Powers - Llewellyn, 1998 - ISBN 1-56718-047-7 Old Norse Rune Mysteries and Rune Codes - Thor & Audrey Sheil - Trollwise Press, 1991 - PO Box 080437, Staten Island, NY 10308-0005, USA Miscellaneous: Anglo-Saxon Mythology, Migration, & Magic - Tony Linsell (illust. Brian Partridge) - Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994 - ISBN 1-898281-09-2 Once again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Use it as a starting point for personal research. And one final point to beware of - just because one book by a particular author is listed, it does not mean that any other books by the same author are necessarily worth reading!

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