What Are Runes?

Many parts of North-western Europe, particularly Scandinavia, feature large runestones and carvings with runes inscribed. These runes are crucial to understanding the history of the region. But what exactly are runes?

Runes are letters from the ancient Germanic runic languages in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain. They’re usually carved into metal, stone, bone, or wood.

These languages were the primary form of communication between 160 CE to 1100 CE in Scandinavia.

The rest of this article will discuss the origin and history of runes, what they were used for historically, and how they are used today.

There will also be a quick overview of some of the main runic languages and facts about runes.

Also, see What Is Norse Mythology? to learn more.

Runes’ Meaning, Purpose, and How To Read Them

Runes are an important part of Scandinavian history, so it’s crucial to understand what they are. Understanding runes allow people to gain a deeper understanding of Scandinavian history and culture.

What Runes Mean

Apart from being actual letters of a runic alphabet, runes are also believed to carry spiritual powers. Many people believe that runes can harness spiritual energy.

Different runes carry different meanings and connotations. As a result, they’re also used widely in oracle readings, fortune-telling, and divination.

They’re believed to hold power and energy that can be used to divine the future.

What’s The Purpose of Runes?

Because of their complex history, runes have many purposes.

They’re used as a form of written communication, in which each rune represents a letter in its respective alphabet.

Many ancient Scandinavian carvings contain stories and poems about Scandinavian history and mythology. Most of these are carved in runes.

Apart from that, each rune also represents an object or idea. For example, Eihwaz represents Yggdrasil [1] and carries meanings related to spiritual transformation, obstacles, and trials.

So, in this context, runes are also used for divination and religious purposes.

In Norse mythology, many famous weapons were inscribed with runes to harness and channel spiritual energy. People interested in the subject can learn more about them in the article, ‘Weapons Mentioned in Norse Mythology.’

How To Read Runes

Runes are quite a bit more complicated than most modern alphabets. They can be read from left to right or right to left.

In some cases, they may also be read from left to right for the first sentence and then right to left for the second.

Historians have still not fully deciphered how to read runic scripts as works of text. 

However, there are modern, spiritual uses for runes. When it comes to divination, there are three ways to read runes.

Single Rune Divination

Single Rune divination, as the name suggests, is a form of divination in which the diviner selects one rune to answer his/her question.

Here are the steps to follow in single rune divination.

  1. The diviner should close their eyes and concentrate on their question.
  2. They should meditate to calm themselves down and relax.
  3. They should focus on the question and will themselves to find an answer.
  4. When they have sufficiently focused on the question, they should reach out and pick one rune.
  5. They should look up all possible interpretations of the rune to find their answer.

Remember, each rune can have multiple meanings. In divination, the meaning might even change based on the position of the rune (upside-down, right-side-up).

Dual Rune Divination

Dual Rune divination is a little more complicated but also offers more elaborate answers. Here are the steps to follow.

  1. The diviner should close their eyes and meditate to center themselves.
  2. They should focus on their question.
  3. Once they have entered a calm, meditative state, they should take out two runes.
  4. Alternatively, they could pour two runes out of a bag.
  5. Analyze and interpret the runes individually and as a pair.

Some runes have positive meanings, while others have negative meanings. A person’s interpretation of the runes will depend on their meaning and position.

For example, a positive rune that fell out right-side-up has an overall positive indication.

Tri-Rune Divination

Unlike the previous two, Tri-Rune divination deals with the divination of a person’s past, present, and future. Here are the steps to follow.

  1. The diviner should close their eyes and center themselves.
  2. Instead of ruminating on a question, they should consider themselves and their situation as a whole.
  3. They should meditate on their past, present, and future while considering their character, personality, and dreams as a whole.
  4. Pour out three runes or pick them from a bag.
  5. Interpret each rune on its own but also interpret them as a trio.

In this method, each rune represents either the diviner’s past, present, or future.

How Many Types of Runes Are There?

Since runes were used in many parts of the world, particularly in western and northern Europe, there are many runic alphabets.

Although there are many runic languages, the most common alphabets are the Elder Futhark (CE 150-800), Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (CE 400-1100), and Younger Futhark (CE 800-1100).

Elder Futhark is considered the parent system of the other two.

The 24 runes used most often in divination come from the Elder Futhark system. Futhark is an acronym made from the first six runes in the runic alphabet (similar to the QWERTY acronym used for modern keyboards). [2]

The Origin of Runes

Runes are thought to have originated between 100-150 CE [3]. However, there might be runic inscriptions dating as far back as 50 CE.

Runes were the primary form of written communication for the Germanic People. Until approximately 800 CE, the Elder Futhark system was widely used in northern Europe.

By 800 CE, Scandinavia had started to use the Younger Futhark system. This was also the time of the Vikings, a vibrant and fascinating period of Scandinavian history.

To date, there is still some debate about the original purpose of runes. There are two main schools of thought regarding runes – the Skeptical and the Romantics. [4]

The Skeptical thought believes that runes were a form of written communication and nothing more. That they were only used to communicate, much like the way we use the English alphabet.

However, the Romantics believed that runes were used for mystical purposes. Rune originates from the Old English word rūn, meaning secret or mystery. [5]

The Romantics believed that the Germanic people used other scripts to communicate while saving runes for more spiritual purposes.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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