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Runes: The Alphabet of Odin

Page history last edited by Rick Fehrenbacher 14 years, 6 months ago

Origins and Historical Use

Runes first appeared in literature in the text of the Havamal where Odin discovers them while hanging from Yggdrasil, the World Tree. These symbols that he learned were reputed to be charged with magical powers which, if cast or marked out correctly, could enact powerful spells which could do anything from making a warrior impervious to damage, to allowing a dead man to speak with the living. This amazing power symbolizes the very power of Odin as the Father of All, and it is no wonder that these runes have captured the attention of so many over the course of history. The purpose of this page will be to describe the role of runes in Proto-Germanic (read Viking) society, as well as their archelogical origins, the meaning of each of the runes, and their uses in modern society among Neo-pagan faiths.


The first group of runes to be found on the archeological record (150 BCE) belong to the aptly named Elder Futhark, named thus for the phonetic sound of the first six letters (f, u, th, a, r, k). Below is an image of the elder futhark which gives the phonetic value of each of the runes. 


The Elder Futhark of Norse Runes

The Elder Futhark was used from its appearance in the archeological record through until approxmiately the 8th century. At this time, a newer alphabet of runes seems to have either been developed or have simply evolved from the original twenty-four. This newer system of runes (pictured below) is aptly referred to as the Younger Futhark.


The Younger Futhark. Shown in both Long and Short form.


As can be seen above, both the Younger and Elder Futharks contain enough letters that they could be used for writing after a fashion; however items which have runic inscriptions on them more commonly use the more expansive alphabet of the Elder in place of the Younger. And though we do find instances of large groups of runes being carved in certain places, usually in the form of large runestones (see left), for the most part it seems that they were only rarely used to write with, usually to claim ownership of an item or to boast about the workmanship involved in creating the item. This use of runes can be seen having been employed either way in the image of the antler comb which dates from between 150 and 200 CE  with the engraving "Harja" on its handle.



Silver brooch with runic inscription.

This practice of labeling items by either the maker or the owner of the object continued throughout at least the first half of the 1st millenia AD, as can be seen on the fibula or brooch seen right, which dates from sometime in the third century according to the National Museum of Denmark. The inscription on the piece reads "alugod".









The Runestones


Though there is not an abundance of information in the archeological record of if runes were used on a regular basis, or how they were used if in fact they were, we do have the good fortune of having been left an example of a way that they were used that has lasted through the centuries mostly intact. These examples are the runestones: large stones which have been carved with patterns of runes in warying degrees of complexity. A few of them have been deciphered and found to be grave markers for great men, whose exploits were carved in stone so they would not be forgotten. Below is one such runestone, which was carved on all its sides, dating from the 10th century. It is a memorial stone which was carved for a priest named Alli the Pale, crafted by a carved who was contracted by his wife and sons. This stone bears not only the longest runic inscription found in Denmark but also a curse for anyone who would move it saying, "A warlock be he who would damage this stone or drags it to stand in memory of another."


These stones, because of the massive amount of work which it would take to create and erect them, are interesting. They show us a way that runes were used practically in the conveyance of information. This means that though the society as a whole did not leave any sign of routinely using the runes as a form of written communication, that they were used for purposes which were thought to be important, which can give us an idea of how significant they were to the Norsemen who developed them.






Other Theorized Uses


     As stated in the Havamal when Odin gains mastery of the runes at the end of his self-imposed crucifiction he learns "Nine mighty spells" (line 140, Havamal). These spells were to be cast using the runes to guide their form, thus giving another side to runes and another use which they might have been put to, an arcane use. Below is a slideshow which gives the mystical meanings of each of the runes in the Elder Futhark, those which Odin himself gained power and mastery over, these meanings are just a few of those that are accepted, taking those which appear commonly throughout multiple sources.





Uses in the Modern Age.

Runes continue to be used throughout the modern age, they are found not only in literature like that of the eminent J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy writers by the score, but also they can be found in movies and video games as well. However their most common use is found in religion. Faiths both old and new continue to use them for various things, and in a multitude of ways.


Probably the most common way that they are used is for divination, there are many websites devoted to the reading of runes many of them like this one, which explains a few of the most common methods of reading runes as well as an example of a casting and the meaning derived from it.  The process of runic divination is handled much in the same way that tarot cards are chosen at random and read, each ones meaning is interpreted in relation to the others chosen, then an overall message is divined.


Another way which I have found is one which has been used throughout history, the carving or engraving of runes on an object to achieve an end. In other words, it is the utilization of runes in their most mythological sense, as a source of power, which when organized in a specific group or order and then charged, blooded, or coloured (a process which commonly involves the spilling of blood on the runes to bring out their latent energy in a sort of sacrifice) in order to activate the charm. These charms can be anything the original charms which are described in the Havamal (see excerpt), others which have been developed and used over the course of time from when the first runes appeared in the archeological record, or completely new ones that are tailor-made for a purpose. When used for this purpose there seems to be any number of different things that these charms can be made to do; from protecting a building against fire, keeping a warrior safe in battle, or causing someone to fall in love with you. This readily adaptable use seems to have become fairly common throughout history and the tradition has carried on through to the modern age.


Within this previously explained use I found another which is compelling on a different level. Runes, and runic charms as tattoos (see this page for information on some of the charms which have been historically used). This use of runes is one that I have not, as yet, been able to find a large amount of information on, with the notable exception that it is considered very dangerous among those who use runes in a mystical/magical manner. They caution that any group of runes which is to be tattooed or applied to a persons body should be done in a temporary format before being done permanently, though it gets a little vague on the why of it or even what could possibly happen.


However, it seems that the majority of texts written on runes and their use have been appropriating runes for use in ways which it seems that they were not originally intended, with alterations in everything the materials which they are traditionally cut from (usually fruit bearing woods being substituted for metal), to shifts in the meanings of the runes themselves. This has made the already dizzyingly complex tradition of runic lore even more inscrutable to the casual student and according to those few Odinists which I have spoken with, this has led too many people astray and in their opinions is causes people to attempt to work with powers which they do not fully understand for uses which they were not originally meant. (For more on Odinism in the modern age look here and here)


Works Cited and Special Thanks


Uppsala - This site is a wealth of information, it contains the meanings of the elder futhark runes as well as lessons which the iniate in runic lore and runic mysticism can meditate on.


Sunnway -  This site has quite a bit of information on runes and their uses as well as a page on runic tattoos and charms, though I have been informed that this is not the best site by a few of the Odinists which I have spoken with.


THE ELDER FUTHARK - An aptly, if unimaginatively named website which has not only the meanings of each of the runes of the elder futhark, but also contains information on alternative names and forms (shapes) from various places within the historical record.


Special Thanks


Osgot the Odinist- for his insights on the use and importance of runes on a personal level.


Vingtor - for his guidance on the importance and perils of runic and charm tattoos.


Bloodofox - for the wonderful photos of the rune carved antler comb and the silver brooch as provided on WikiCommons.


Danielle Keller- for the photos of the Glavendrup stone as provided on WikiCommons


Maksim - for the image of the younger futhark in long-branch and short-twig form.


Invaeling - for the image of the elder futhark with english alphabetical representations.









Comments (3)

Örn Ironfist said

at 6:05 pm on Dec 10, 2009

I might not have the powerpoint changed in order to go into that also until after finals week as I am also working on my other project which will be taking a tremendous amount of time. But rest assured, I'll get that in there now that I know it is something that interests you, or I will do an entire new page on the relationship between the Aesir and Runes.

Andrew said

at 1:33 pm on Dec 5, 2009

I noticed that in the powerpoint, the rune Tiwaz is associated with the god Tyr. Are any of the other runes associated with other gods? For instance, Thuriaz to Thor, Othala to Odin. It might be a different and interesting way to view the runes.

Carmen said

at 6:35 pm on Dec 4, 2009

That site I was telling you about is www.llewellyn.com. Also, if you haven't checked it out, www.witchvox.com has everything you need to know about neopaganism.

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