Runes were my first love in my witchy studies. They are still what I connect with the most. This post is an introduction focusing on the history of runes and their uses.
This is not meant in anyway to be an exhaustive resource. Even future posts will only be providing you somewhere to start, a jumping off point for your own research.
Runes are something to study and respect, just like any other divination method, if not more so.
I am by no means an expert on the runes. I am still learning and will always be learning.
My hope is that by teaching you about them I can not only share knowledge with you, but refine my understanding and find deeper meaning for myself!
First things first, let’s talk about where the runes come from.
History of Runes
Runes are primarily a system of communication.
Before Greek and Roman alphabets were spread across Europe, they were used as a writing system.
Runes do not represent a language, they can and were used to write many different Germanic languages. Similar to how English, Spanish, French, and others all use the Roman alphabet.
The earliest runes are known as the Elder Futhark. The name comes from the first six letters spelling out futhark. This system has 24 characters in it that share common elements to other writing systems around the area.
It is theorized, though can’t be proved, that most early European writing systems have the same origin. There are not a lot of surviving items with writing done in Elder Futhark, yet it is the most well known today.
The more commonly found writing system is the Younger Futhark. This system reduced the number of characters to 16.
Two other branches of this writing system were also created. These were the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc with upwards of 30 characters, and the Medieval Futhark with 26.
Just as our letters have names, so do the runes.
However, it is impossible to know the true names of most of the runes. This is because they were never written about using runic systems.
Our only records about runes and how they work are not written using runes, but with the Roman alphabet.
Scholars have triangulated the names of the runes based on how they are referred to in different languages. There are many different interpretations out there because each scholar will come to their own conclusion of what is closest to correct.
The Poetic Edda contains couplets used to remember the runes and also acts as another source to help decode their names.
In some people’s opinions, these poems are also the source of meaning of these names.
At the time they were created, runes were used for writing and that was it.
There is no evidence of them being used for any magical purposes while they were the primary writing system.
They may have been used to write spells and the like, but the runes as individual symbols did not hold any special power or meaning. At least not that we can tell.
Today we use runes for a variety of purposes, mainly the Elder Futhark.
People have interpreted meanings for each rune from poems and Norse Mythology. This is where we get runes as a form of divination from.
Along with divination, runes can be used in spellwork, as talismans or amulets, or to essentially write in code.
Some traditionalists would say that the runes are not to be used for divination, this was not their purpose and they don’t hold power there.
In my opinion, the fact that people have been using them for this purpose for a while has given them that energy and power. And the connections to the myths and poems makes sense in a way that respects their origins.
Divination can come out of anything as long as you give it the intent and respect it deserves.
Even tarot started out as playing cards!
How do you start studying runes?
This is a question that has been on my mind lately. Even though I’ve been studying runes for months now, I still wonder sometimes if I started in the right place and where I need to go next in my learning.
I think your approach should depend on how you intend to use runes
If you want to use them as a writing system, study them as a writing system. Look into the history of runes and how they connect to other languages. Also look at the different Futharks, don’t limit yourself to the Elder.
If you want tho use them for divination (which is probably what you’re here for if you’re reading this) start with the myths and poems.
Either way, I think it is valuable to understand the runes from both perspectives, I know that’s what I’m going for.
My studies so far
In my own studies I started with a little bit of both approaches.
My first book contained mostly information about the divinatory meaning of the runes and information about how to use them for that. But it also had a decent amount of information on the historical use of them too.
I read through the first few chapters about the history of runes, how they evolved and changed, and basic Norse mythology.
Then I dove into learning about the runes individually.
My strategy was to only learn about one or two at a time, maybe three if I was in a good groove.
I wanted to make sure I gave each rune time to sink in a bit before moving onto the next so I didn’t get too overwhelmed.
As I was learning and taking notes about a rune, I held it in my hand I felt that this gave me a chance to learn from the energy of my own runes. It also gave me the sense of teaching them as well.
Looking back with the knowledge that they never used to have meanings, I think this was a good choice. It was also a great way to bond with them.
I didn’t go straight into reading runes after I learned about them.Instead I transitioned to reading about Norse mythology. This helped give me more context for where the meanings of the runes come from.
After that I started dipping my toes into reading them. I still haven’t gone all in, but what I have done has been very insightful. So far I love it.
My most recent studies have been from the scholarly approach, learning about what historical information is really out there.
There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to runes. It’s important to me to filter through that and make sure the sources I use are accurate.
Moving forward, I plan on reading the Eddas and more mythology. Then I want to deep dive into connecting all of the information I have gathered and finding what everything means to me personally.
These are the resources I either have used, or are planning to use in the future
- Runes, Plain & Simple: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need – Kim Farnell – This is the first book I read about runes. It has been a wonderful resource so far.
- Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman – Love, love, love this book. Very well written and engaging.
- Various articles from users on the Pagans and Witches Amino
- Jackson Crawford on YouTube – Dr. Crawford is a professor at the University of Colorado. He is an excellent scholarly resource for anything Old Norse.
- The Message In The Runes –
- The Poetic Edda and The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok– translated by Jackson Crawford – These are essentials for anyone studying Norse mythology. There are many translations out there. I’ll be going with Dr. Crawford’s because I love the way he speaks and approaches the subject.
- Runes: A Handbook – Michael P. Barnes – A scholarly approach to runes. Recommended by Dr. Crawford (can you tell I love him). This is a $60-80 textbook so I won’t be getting it any time soon but I would love to have it.
What about other runes?
When talking about runes, some people like to add in Witch’s Runes and other symbols used for divination.
While I don’t think these are invalid for divination, I don’t think they are runes.
Remember that runes are a writing system. they are not symbols. Witch’s “runes” are only symbols. They can still a valuable tool, but they’re not runes.
Even the Elder Futhatk, when used to create symbols, are then just symbols, not runes.
For example, the Helm of Awe is a common Norse symbol. Although it incorporates runes, it is not a rune.
Notice how the title says part one?
That’s right, this is gonna be a series.
Next up will be some mythology, since you got the historical view here.
Then I’ll get into the meaning of the runes, one aett a month. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what an aett is later.
I’m very excited to share the runes with you, let me know if you have experience with them or if you have any questions!