AN INTRODUCTION TO RUNES Or: A Very, VERY, VERY Brief History Of Runes (Abridged)


Or: A Very, VERY, VERY Brief History Of Runes (Abridged)

The word rune has been translated as meaning secret, mystery, perhaps even whisper. The runes are a series of symbols that, on a practical level, each represent a phonetic sound. On a magical level, runes connect with a very primal Power, the elemental substance of the Universe. It is the same power that binds atoms together, & tears atoms apart.

Runes are the cornerstone of Asatru. Asatru is a very old, earth-based heathen (or pagan) religion. The term means “true to the Gods” (as is Icelandic for God), or more specifically “true to the Aesir”. The term Aesir generally refers to two allied races of Gods & Goddesses, the Aesir & Vanir. These were the primary deities of the peoples of Northern Europe. In some archetypal form or another, they date back to the first pre-historic humans that wandered onto the European continent.

Foremost among the Aesir is Odin, the one-eyed All-Father, chief of the Gods of the Northlands. It is said that Odin discovered the runes amongst the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, as he hung for nine nights & nine days, suspended head down, having sacrificed himself to himself.

There are several different sets of runes. These are called futharks (or futhorcs), from the phonetic sounds of the first six runes in each set. The oldest of these, dating from at least the 1st century Common Era, is the 24-rune Elder, (or Germanic) Futhark. It was used over much of northern Europe until around 800 C.E. The 16-rune Younger (or Norse, or Viking) Futhark was used from around 800-1100 C.E., mostly in Scandinavia & Iceland. The Anglo-Saxon (or Frisian) Futhorc, with 26 to 33 runes, was used primarily in the British Isles from about 750-1100 C.E.

With the end of the Viking Era and the Christianization of Northern Europe around 1100 C.E., rune usage went “underground." Although Christianity became the state religion of Iceland (lasting until the 1970s), many still secretly practiced the old heathen ways, and rune lore was passed orally from generation to generation. It was much the same in the Scandinavian countries, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, in the other countries of Teutonic descent.

The revival of German folkways in the latter half of the 1800s brought a renewed interest in the runes. In the early 1900s, the Austrian mystic Guido Von List developed the 18-rune Armanen System (armanen is a Teutonic word meaning essentially high priest). List claimed that these runes came to him in a vision as an interpretation of the 18 rune poems in the Havamal (The Sayings of the High One), from The Poetic Edda. The Armanen System is still used today, primarily in modern German ceremonial magic by such secret societies as the Fraternitas Saturni and the Ordo Templi Orientis.

By the 1930s the National Socialist Party in Germany had risen to power, and had co-opted many runic symbols as well as begun to persecute mystics in general, including the runic secret societies. While some rune scholars fled Germany, many were imprisoned and some executed. The runes again went “underground”.

The most recent rune revival began in the late 1950s in Germany, but didn’t really arrive in the U.S. until the early 1980s when Ralph Blum published his first book. Although much of Blum’s work was self-admittedly based on drug-induced insights rather than historical research, he still deserves credit for jump-starting the current popularity of the use of runes as a divination tool.

Excerpted from:


Used with the permission of the author.

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Comment by Loclynn on January 19, 2012 at 1:25am

Thank you Rick :) 

When digging into the history of  runes, one runs into a tapestry of loose ends and conjecture. How ever the information is worth knowing at a mundane level. In my experience with runes I have found the lack of a concrete footing to be a blessing. 

This lack of historical clarity opens the psyche to dip deeply into the well of the imagination. Orthodoxy generally leads to a constriction of imagination. There is a kind of fuzziness out at the edges of reality  were the imagined and un-imagined are in a state of flux. It is from this leading edge that the numinous emerges out of the well of experience.  

As the archaic revival becomes more and more mainstreamed the many faces of the revival such as wicca and Asatru  are becoming more institutionalized. While this shows a more open and inclusive world view inculcating into the social norms it also erects new walls to growth as it attempts to stand on its own brand of authoritarian doctrine. 

I believe the runes are fuzzy enough to avoid falling into the concrete trap of total orthodoxy. Hopefully your post here will prompt a deeper dialog of these ideas. 

Comment by Sigha on January 19, 2012 at 11:42am

Is not Ralph Blum still for most of us drawn into the runes the fire starter? ;) I always smile when i come across someone who says "i have got a rune set" . Than i am told it is the set of Ralph Blum that comes with the little book ♥

 Very nice article Rick, thank you for this summary on the history of runes.

Comment by Rick on January 19, 2012 at 11:08pm
Different perceptions, different perspectives, different experiences, I reckon (or as the wife says, our mileage varies... hehehe). I believe that esoteric knowledge has to have it's roots in mundane knowledge. Even chaos has structure, it's just... chaotic... ;) I don't find the runes fuzzy at all, rather that they have the utmost clarity, and are rock-solid. I don't see much historical ambiguity to the runes, but there probably are more authors than not who are ambiguous, poorly researched, or presenting personal gnosis as historical accuracies, or simply repetitively rehashing the 'historical' gnoses of others. Now, nothing against personal gnosis, we all have our epiphanies, but such notions should be identified as such when sharing with others (especially when sharing with beginners) and not claimed as some long-lost Herulian tribal tradition. There's the Lore, such as comes from the various rune poems and other verifiably ancient sources; there's tradition, that which is more or less generally agreed upon by many people; and finally there's gnosis, the view from behind one's own eyes. All of these are as valid as we choose to believe them to be, but all should be distinguished and distinguishable when presented for public consumption. Anything less is simply disingenuous. In my opinion, a strong dose of Lore and tradition goes a long way to avoiding some of those dead-end side roads on the path to the Well. Now, don't misunderstand, I think we should each strive to build our own personal Ivory Tower so high that the top is fuzzy in the distance, but if that tower stands on shifting sand rather than bedrock the results could be unpleasant at the least, and disastrous at the worst.
These conversations should be taking place over a horn of the Little Woman's homemade mead on a warm, lazy afternoon, rather than through the impersonality of the internet (we accidentally let a five gallon carboy of it sit in a closet for about six years... it'll peel paint... good stuff!).
@ Sigha:
Hmm... ya know, I haven't been inside a brick-and-mortar book store in years. I guess Blum's book-plus-rune-set can still be found on the shelves, I don't really know. He didn't come up on the first page of a quick Google search. I was many years a suffering student of the runes before someone showed me his book, and they had bought it for the rune set, not the book But I'm sure that his book has sold many, many copies. My introduction was Freya Aswynn's Leaves of Yggdrasil and later Edred Thorsson's Futhark (fifteen or so years ago Silver Ravenwolf was all the rage... that's a sobering thought).
Comment by Loclynn on January 20, 2012 at 12:40am

:) this is the cozy spot for me.My closest neighbor is ten miles away yet I spend everyday with friends and family through the medium of the internet. :) 

I agree that a good footing is helpful, but the past is a murky swamp. History is always a mix of imagination and reasonable  conjecture. People have worked very hard to reconstruct the lore and I do draw on it widely, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.  When a spiritual path becomes institutionalized it's orthodoxy becomes a rigid fundamentalism that chokes spiritual growth. 

By fuzzy I mean that runes are only known in part, they are not fully known. After dozens of books, hundreds of web pages and thousands of conversation new understanding continues to poor forth there secrets from the well of wyrd.   

Comment by Ian Biggins on January 22, 2012 at 6:15am

Thanks for this Rick. I've gotten so out of touch with the runes lately due to work and stress. It was nice to have this to ease myself back in.

Comment by Rick on January 23, 2012 at 6:54am

Glad to be able to help in some small way.


Comment by Ellen Coaty on March 16, 2012 at 3:40pm

Rick and Loclynn, this is the most intelligent conversation I've "heard" in a long time.  I appreciate both of your points of view and the eloquence and kindness with which you express it.  This is my first day exploring the group, and I am profoundly impressed. I believe I have stumbled on to a treasure here, and am deeply grateful. 

Comment by Rick on March 16, 2012 at 7:57pm

Thank you, Ellen, for your kind words. "Eloquent" is a word rarely applied to this ol' redneck red-dirt farm boy... :D

Comment by Ellen Coaty on March 18, 2012 at 2:19pm

Hahaha, yeah right! I think that persona is an illusion, and I am grateful to see beyond it. :) However, that said, I think the soil in OK is the most beautiful color! It always makes me want to stay, and I'm always just passing through. Hope to see more of the state than I-40 one of these days! :)


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