Is it possible that an ancient oracular system, which evolved more than a thousand years ago, could still be relevant in the twenty-first century? Indeed, you may ask, can something so rooted in the past and seemingly steeped in superstition, be relevant at all in our modern day and age? The surprising answer is yes, but first I’d like you to join me on a whirlwind tour into the runic mindset…
What are runes?
The word sounds so similar to ‘ruins’ that to the uninitiated it might conjure up images of crumbling architectural structures. While runes are from the distant past, they have nothing to do with derelict buildings. Runes are ancient symbols making up an alphabet of divination and magic that were used between roughly the first century BCE and the eighth century ACE. The most predominant runic alphabet (out of those that evolved) is known as the Elder German Futhark – ‘futhark’ being the first letter sounds of the series of 24 rune names (similar to the word ‘alphabet’ which is derived from ‘alpha’, ‘beta’, etc.). Instead of being used to make up words, however, the symbols were principally applied as a divinatory tool in much the same way that tarot cards or astrological correspondences are utilised to frame and help understand developments in our respective lives.
How are they used?
The process of reading the runes begins by swirling them face down on a white linen cloth. Then a predetermined number are chosen and turned face up in a preselected configuration. The rune shaman is able to read or extract meaning from this juxtaposition of symbols within the template through a synthesis of objective knowledge and intuitive insights. A message or advice is revealed to the person (known as the querent) who is consulting the runes. The querent assimilates and integrates this advice rationally as well as subconsciously through a process which sparks creative problem-solving in line with their ideals and aspirations for unfolding the best possible version of their future selves.
Interesting fact: The word ‘write’ initially meant ‘to scratch or cut’, while ‘book’ is a variant of ‘beech’ [tree] — the bark and branches of which were used in the carving of runes — and ‘read’, as recently as early medieval times, meant ‘to guess or decipher’.
In ancient times, sages ‘read’ stars, comets and other natural phenomena to anticipate events of great historical (and sometimes hysterical) importance. ‘As above, so below’ goes the old maxim, reflecting that whatever happens in the microcosm – our physical world – is somehow plugged into the macrocosm. Over the ages, prophets creatively intuited meaning from stellar fireworks, or even more commonplace sources like the patterns of bird flight or animal spoor. Nobody dared ask how it worked. In the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung packaged an explanation of the ‘divinatory connection’ in a very neat theory that he called ‘synchronicity’ (meaningful coincidences).
Oracular tools like the I-Ching and astrology were refined over many thousands of years of observation. Roughly 3 000 years ago, wizards of altered states of consciousness (shamans) would report on their dream visions or access doorways of consciousness between different planes of reality. Shamans were literally ecstasy experts, reading cosmic email!
‘Ecstasis’ is Greek for ‘outside the normal seat of consciousness’. To the shaman, travel to other worlds, distant seeing and healing, as well as clairvoyance and communication with spirits, were all possible and natural. And no doubt fun. It was from these spirit journeys that Bronze Age shamans brought back cosmic insights that were then encapsulated in rock-art symbols – the earliest rune forms.
Runic divination can therefore arguably be said to be the oldest western oracular tool. Fortunately, to read runes today, you don’t need to be a shaman or undergo the dubious privilege of a hallucinogenic trance. The wisdom is accessible to any seeker of self-knowledge. So the homework has been done for us. The only snag is that the key to the meaning of the rune symbols was transmitted orally between shaman and pupil. In fact, this oral passing on of the wisdom is mirrored in the name ‘runa’ (rune) itself, which means both ‘a secret’ and ‘to whisper’.
Towards the end of the last millennium, the church was starting to get grumpy about the general erosion of its authority. A blanket ban was imposed on runes, seen as competition, and practitioners had to figuratively go underground for fear of being strung up. Yet the key to the symbols reached us after a close brush with fate 1 000 years ago…
The only written source of rune meanings in Old English was a manuscript from about the year 1000. Ironically, it was bound between two Christian texts and remained unnoticed until the early 1700s. George Hickes had asked a friend, Humphrey Wanley, who was studying ancient texts in the British Museum, to keep an eye open for any references to runes. Wanley copied the material he’d chanced upon and forwarded it to Hickes. Although the original on calfskin parchment was destroyed in a fire and Wanley’s copy lost, the single page of the transcribed Rune Poem survived in the Hickes Thesaurus of 1705.
A Norwegian and Icelandic poem as well as Scandinavian prose also act as pointers of meaning to the mysteries of the code of magical signs developed by the Teutons or ‘people of the north’. Teutonic mythology mentioned in medieval works further contextualises the runes. As early as the first century BCE, Julius Caesar was sufficiently impressed by the practice of runic divination to write about the custom as witnessed firsthand during his German campaigns. The Roman historian Tacitus also mentioned it a generation later.
In the 20th century, linguistic paleontology was born. The rebirth of rune lore was made possible by a synthesis of comparative religion, anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. Rune symbols are to be found all over northern Europe: On Viking stave churches, rock menhirs and medieval jewellery. Historically, runes were used to read and/or influence weather, tides, crops, fertility, health and love. To focus on good fortune, the Vikings carved rune symbols on their bronze drinking cups, battle spears and armour, the lintels over their doorways and the prows of their ships.
Runes have a lattice of correspondences, each associated with a deity (god and goddess role models who personified traits seen as valuable or instructive for the community), plus an element, polarity/gender, colour, herb and tree. They resonate and correlate transcendentally with other oracular traditions such as the tarot and astrological systems. Similarities with geomantic divinatory symbols dating back to Neolithic times are also apparent.
But the most startling aspect of runes is their uncanny accuracy in reflecting the dynamics of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realities. By drawing various patterns of runes (rune-casts), the rune shaman is able to identify and clarify the best choices of action (or non-action) necessary to ensure that a person’s life unfolds with greater balance and insight.
The interpretative process is a combination of objective analysis and intuitive (subjective) extrapolation. Runes may fall in either an upright or reversed position, and can be paired in thousands of different permutations. We therefore have in our hands a powerful method of communicating with the divine pattern of the cosmos via our higher self, in order to manifest greater vitality, love, abundance and peaceful wellbeing in our lives.
Although the word divination is derived from the Latin ‘divino / divinare’ (‘to foretell’), runes have relevance not because they are tools for fortune-telling, but because they can be used as a lens for examining day-to-day challenges. Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. So if you want a different result, make a different choice. The runes will act as pointers.
Runes are particularly useful for navigating unexpected circumstances. When the hectic nature of everyday life blinds us to the greater picture and either freezes us into non-action through over-analysis, or, on the other hand, impulsive decision-making, the runes can act as a sounding board through which to reassess our situation calmly. By stimulating lateral thinking, runes empower us to reflect first on a situation before taking specific action or changing one’s outlook to attract a shift in circumstances.
Taking a decision literally changes life’s game board paradigm. Krishnamurti talks about the ideal of ‘choiceless awareness’, which in itself is an attitudinal choice. Through new choices (reflections, decisions, actions) and guided by one’s higher self, it is possible to tack forward progressively to one’s North Star. Runes subtly awaken this process, illuminating greater understanding and nurturing conscious awareness, while honouring change as the law of universal flow.
Runes emphasise the importance of free will in shaping our destiny. So-called ‘problems’ are seen as rerouting opportunities. A problem is simply the first step in the process of finding a solution. Runes encourage open-systems thinking and the celebration of life through multiple options. They free us from a sense of bondage to time. The whispered wisdom of the runes is a shout to celebrate the eternal now.
As the year 2000 dawned, there was a strong interest in divinatory systems. However, this enthusiasm fizzled as the world settled into a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset. Two decades on and lockdown has served as the catalyst for a resurgence of interest in systems that help us take stock of where we are, both personally and globally, reflecting ways of being and assisting in creatively solving everyday problems with which we and the world grapple.
My first website on runes (1999) featured a homepage with ancient, crumbling stone pillars, a wheel of runes and animated flames to complete the mysterious look. During lockdown, I completely refreshed the site in hues of light green to revitalise the otherwise dark Gothic overtones carelessly associated with the runes by many practitioners. I have chosen instead to accentuate visual imagery of roots, moss, lichen and trees (collectively symbolising imagination, creativity, rebirth, renewal and growth) – which are very much what runes are designed to trigger both at an individual and transpersonal level.
Visit www.odinsrunes.com for an instant (free) three-rune reading, to help address whatever question you might have in mind. You will also find out why the mythological god Odin earned the title ‘Guardian of the Runes’.