What Do We Know About The Runes?
Do modern rune practitioners use runes the same way as their ancient Germanic and proto-Germanic forebears? Do they even mean the same thing when they say the word “rune”? And how much does it matter?
As someone whose practice centers around rune magick, I feel safe in saying:
1) We probably don’t mean the same thing--or rather, all the things--that the ancient proto-Germans meant when they said the word “rune”.
2) Our forebears may or may not have used runes the way we use them today.
3) Contemporary rune-work is valid in its own right. But knowing more about the ancient take on runes, can help anyone who is interested in the runes today!
Let’s take a quick overview of the three points above. Once you understand them, you’ll have a better idea of what the runes meant to earlier peoples, how they are used today, and how we can use ancient information to use the runes even more proficiently in the future.
What Does the Word “Rune” Even Mean?
There is a difference between the word rune as used today, and the way it was used by the ancient Germanic and proto-Germanic peoples.
Today we think of the rune as an alphabetical symbol that you can write on a piece of paper or carve into either wood, stone or bone—generally for use in divination, pathworking, or spellcasting. And these are all 100% valid methods of working with the runes today.
But the word as used by the ancient Germanic peoples had other meanings as well. Back then, the word “rune” could mean “song” or even “word”. Interestingly enough, it could also mean "mystery."
Rune-singing may also be linked to the practice of Galdr (spell-chanting). The Havamal attests to Odin by the name, “The King of Singers,” for example.
So it’s important to keep in mind that, even when you are reading a primary source (such as the Poetic Edda), the word "rune" doesn’t necessarily mean "magickal letter".
Unfortunately, even the best original sources don’t usually clarify what is meant by the term, when the word “rune” shows up in a story or poem. The original listeners might have understood what was meant because of their own cultural context.
And that may be the reason we don’t have any ancient sources that just come out and say, "These are the runes [as letters], and this is what they mean."
That doesn’t mean that the runes, by whatever form they were known then, weren’t used for magic. They were! Let’s explore how they were used.
How Did the Viking-Era Scandinavians as Well as Ancient Proto-Germanic Peoples Use the Runes?
Some of the best evidence we have for the runes as a magickal device, is the Eddic poem Sigrdrifumal. For example:
"Victory runes you must know
if you will have victory,
and carve them on the sword's hilt,
some on the grasp
and some on the inlay,
and name Tyr Twice.”
Concerning divination, there is this paragraph from Germania by Tacitus:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices and casting lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips these they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state's priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayer to the gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking auspices.” Birley, A. R. (Trans.) (1999). Agricola and Germany
Does this means that Germans/proto-Germans in the time of Tacitus used runes for divination? At first glance, that is what it seems like.
But without being absolutely sure what those markings were or what they looked like, we simply can’t say for sure. Those markings might have been runes. They might also have been pictograms or something similar to hyroglyphs. They could have been symbols receive in dreams, or otherwise unique to each practitioner. They could have even been random markings!
What we do know is that the runes were used as letters much like our alphabet today. In addition, each letter/rune was associated with one or more different concepts.
What about rune-poems? Weren’t those spells? Well, it’s possible that rune-poems were mnemonic tools for memorizing the alphabet or other important information.
We also know that the ancient Germanic peoples would carve runes into things in order to make certain things happen. (See the example from the Sigrdrifumal above.)
But there is simply so much misinformation about what the ancients actually did, that it is important for modern practitioners to know the difference. Knowing the difference helps us sound more credible to people who do know the historical difference, for example.
The Runes and Rune Magick Today
Even if ancient rune-poems were more mnemonic than magickal (although there is actually a huge crossover between all things mnemonic and magical…), you can certainly make your own rune-poems with magickal intent, and they will likely work. You can even use the ancient rune-poems magickally as well!
As well, you can use the runes for divination today. You can use them for spellcasting. Many people have done just that and had fantastic, real results. So it is a valid practice today. It’s valid because it works!.
I count myself as a contemporary rune practitioner--even though I also draw from ancient sources. I think it’s important to understand that much of modern rune magick is just that--modern. I don’t think that makes the practice any more or less valid (after all, results are results). This applies to everyone who works with the runes!
Unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to really cover contemporary use of the runes, how it’s done, where most practices come from (you might be surprised), and where the rune work seems to be headed in the future. I’ll cover that in another post soon.
For now, just let me know in the comments section if you have any questions. I hope this post has helped you become more familiar with the origins of the runes!