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What are Runes?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Runes are letters in a family of ancient alphabets known as runic alphabets. Runes were used as a method of communication across Scandinavia and in other Germanic nations from around the 3rd century CE to around the 13th century, when they were displaced by the Roman alphabet. Thousands of examples of runic inscriptions can be found in stones, coins, and artwork, and many Scandinavian countries also boast extensive collections of runic manuscripts. Runes are also used by some people as a tool for divination, since these individuals believe that runes have mysterious powers.

The primary runic alphabet is often known as Futhark, in a reference to its first five letters. The runic alphabet was probably derived from the Etruscan alphabet which was once in wide use in Italy, and it characterized by angular characters, with no curves or soft edges like those found in the Roman alphabet. This is common to alphabets developed during this period, since they can be readily chiseled into stone.

The word “rune” is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word which means “secret,” or “mystery.” Writing was widely held to be mysterious by many early European cultures, since it abstracted spoken language, turning it into symbols which could be read. The runes in a runic alphabet each represent individual sounds, and each rune also has a meaning; for example, fehu, the first rune in Futhark, makes an “F” sound and it also means “cattle.”

During the period when runes were used for writing, they were associated with mystery and magic as well as communication. Runic inscriptions were often added to garments, homes, and weapons to confer protection, for example. This mystery led to the displacement of runes as Christianity spread across these Germanic nations, since the Christians believed that runes were pagan. Fortunately, many extant examples of runic writing exist, for historians who want to learn more about pre-Christian culture in Europe.

Modern mystics use runes for divination, much like tarot cards. These mystics draw runes from a set to answer questions or create spreads which are supposed to predict upcoming events. Each rune has a specific meaning in the context of divination, and the interpretation of runes can become quite complex, especially when a large number of runes is used in combination. People who choose to use runes for divination would do well to recall that the history of these arcane symbols is very complex and lengthy, and the practice of magic is only a small part of it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By lonelygod — On Jun 08, 2011

Those that are interested in practicing rune casting often go through an initial stage of attuning themselves to the different runes they will be using.

This process is quite intense and involves meditating on a single rune for a day. This doesn't have to be a consistent window of 24 hours, but it is recommended that you write the run repeatedly, up to 100 times, and repeat the name of it until you know it completely.

Often those practicing this kind of attunement believe that they have visions regarding certain runes, and feel that this helps them to better read the stones.

By wander — On Jun 07, 2011

For those who are interested in the more mystical aspects of runes, they are available for purchase at most new age stores that cater to occult studies and Wicca. You can buy them in sets, and occasionally they will come with a book teaching you about the different meanings.

I think that learning to cast runes is one of the more fun ways to gain insight into what is really happening in a situation.

The stones are quite beautiful and come in a variety of colors. There are many believe that different set of runes have different personalities. So you may find interacting with the stones a unique and enlightening experience.

By BoniJ — On Jun 06, 2011

Some people feel that by making their own runic alphabet that they will be empowered to perform magic, divination, and mystery rituals.

If you wish to make you runes out of stone, the directions go something like this. Find 24 stones about the same size and shape from a mountain river. With a sharp tool, engrave your symbols onto the rocks.

Next, you have to do some empowering with air - move your stones through lighted incense several times. To empower with fire - light a candle and move runic stones through the flame. To empower with water, go to a fast moving river and hold the stones in the stream. And last, to empower with earth, dig a hole in the dirt, bury the bag of stones and leave it there for one night. The stones are then empowered.

Any believers?

By Clairdelune — On Jun 06, 2011

While we were visiting relatives on the Swedish island of Oland in the Baltic Sea, we saw many rune stones still anchored in the ground. Some of them were fairly tall. They are believed to be grave markers of those who held high positions in the Scandinavian society. As I remember, the carvings were straight angles. There was quite a bit of writing on the front of the rune stone. I think that what was written was a tribute to the person buried there.

A relative of mine had studied runes and was able to tell us how to write some words. It's very interesting, but hard to learn because of all the different varieties of writing.

By CaithnessCC — On Jun 06, 2011

@Acracadabra - You are right in thinking there are a few types of runes, which seem to have evolved and changed, much as all language does.

Futhark runes are thought to be the original type, and the template for all later versions. Gothic runes were next, then replaced with Anglo Saxon runes around the 5th century. More letters appear in the alphabet at this stage.

A modified version of the original Futhark runes was developed, and interestingly became a little different at this point between Scandanavian countries. The final stage saw the runic script become Latinised, and gradually phased out except for decorative purposes.

By Acracadabra — On Jun 06, 2011

I'm doing a project on ancient runes and their meanings. This article is really helpful but I wonder if there are several versions of them. Considering they were around for ten centuries I suspect there may be.

By MissMuffet — On Jun 06, 2011

Someone once told me that runic alphabets were used for writing everything from personal letters to graffitti! I'd love to see some examples of the latter, presuming they still exist somewhere.

By Valencia — On Jun 06, 2011

My friend is really into all things mystical, and she is always talking about Celtic runes and some kind of alternative horoscope.

According to her I'm not a Gemini, instead she calls my sign 'Othala'. No matter how much I insist that I don't even like yellow, supposedly my favorite color, she won't be budged!

I guess if it makes her happy I shouldn't complain. After all, there are worse things she could be getting up to.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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