Every Rune is a pictographic symbol of some cosmic principle or force.
Runes are not only letters. They represent so much more. In translation, the word rune means both a letter and a mystery. By writing or carving a Rune, we are invoking its power. The Nordic tribes haven’t considered Runes to be made up or created. They are eternal, ancient, and ever-present forces that Odin discovered by sacrificing himself to himself by hanging nine days from the Yggdrasil tree.
Odin’s discovery of the Runes
Beneath the Yggdrasil tree live three Nornes who create everyone’s destiny by carving the Runes in the trunk of the Yggdrasil tree. Nornes are Urd (the past), Verdani (the present), and Skuld (the future). Odin was watching the Nornes from Asgard and envied their knowledge of the Runes. Since Odin eternally seeks more knowledge (that is his main characteristic because he is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to gain more wisdom), he decided to learn everything about Runes. Runes didn’t show themselves to just about anyone. You had to be worthy of their mysteries. Odin hanged himself off the branch of the Yggdrasil tree and pierced himself by the spear. He was hanging above the Urd well and staring into its waters for nine days and nights, calling out the Runes. At the end of the ninth night, the Runes accepted his sacrifice and showed themselves to him. After he saw, understood, and memorized the Runes, he finished his sacrifice with a long scream. With the knowledge of Runes, Odin became the most powerful being in the Universe.
Odin sacrificed his lower self to his higher self, where the old part of him died so the new could grow. We see here a correspondence with the Tarot cards in the card of The Hanged Man. For this card, Waite (author of Raider Waite Tarot cards) says that it represents wisdom, sacrifice, intuition, and divination. On the card, there is a halo around a man’s head that symbolizes enlightenment and epiphany.
History of Runes
The oldest discovery of Runes dates back to the year 160 in Denmark. There is another, even older finding from the year 50 in Germany, but it isn’t officially confirmed because the quality isn’t good enough to determine if indeed those are Runes or if it is the old Roman alphabet. The Runic alphabet or Futhark (often used term because of the first row of Runes) is the first system of letters in Germanic and Nordic tribes. It evolved through centuries and was divided into different variations, but the Elder Futhark is what is used in neopaganism today and considered to be the oldest variation of Runes.
There are two main categories of using the Runes, drawing and casting. By drawing, we mean the three different methods of drawing the Runes and placing them in front of us before reading their meaning. We can use one, three, or five Runes. Casting is the term associated with the work with nine Runes that are held and then thrown in front of us, hence the word casting.
We use the method of drawing one Rune in the mornings when we want to get a prediction for that day, when we are in need of a short answer or a resolution of doubt, or when we want to connect with a Rune on our spiritual path and get it as a message from the Gods.
We use this method by randomly drawing out three Runes and placing them in front of us from right to left in a way that the first Rune is on the right and the third on the left, while the second one is in the middle. The first Rune represents the situation which we are inquiring about, its current state. The second one represents the challenge we must face, and the third one is a possible overcoming of that challenge so the situation would be resolved.
We first randomly draw five Runes and place them in front of us by forming a cross. In this method, we are placing the Runes with their face down and will read them later on when all are placed in their positions. The first Rune goes in the middle, the second one left from the first one on the West, the third one goes above the first one on the North, the fourth below the first one on the South, and the fifth Rune goes on the right from the first on the East. We read the Runes first horizontally from left to right in the order 2, 1, 5, and then we read them vertically from the bottom up in the order 4, 1, 3. Runes 2, 1, and 5 represent the past, present, and future. Rune 4 are problems and challenges associated with the Rune of the present that we need to deal with, and Rune 3 shows us the possible results and resolutions.
Casting of Runes
The casting of Runes is the traditional way of dealing with Runes that involves nine of them and is perfected by long-time usage. Only experienced practitioners use this way because it requires the combination of intuition, knowledge of Runes, and combining different Runes together. This method is practical for receiving an answer to a question, but it is more often used to show us our current state and place on our spiritual path. We first use one of the meditation techniques to calm down and get into an elevated state of consciousness. When we are ready, we randomly draw nine Runes and hold them tightly in our clasped hands. We connect with the Runes for a while and allow our energies to merge while our arms are slightly bent in the elbows so that the Runes are held in our hands in front of our heart. Now we open our hands and cast the Runes in front of us. Runes can be cast on any surface, including tables and floors. To protect your Runes from damage (especially if you’re using the crystal ones) place a thick cloth on the surface beforehand so your Runes don’t break.
When reading the Runes, we have to take into account their position, not only their meaning. Runes that have landed around the center have a stronger influence, while their power decreases as they are further away from the place where we have cast them. Runes that are touching have to be read together, and those that are directly opposite to one another are considered to be conflicting influences. We start our reading from the center outwards by first reading the ones which are faced up so that we can see their symbols. Only when we finish reading the Runes that we can see do we turn to reading those that are facing down. Those Runes that are facing up are more important because they are closely linked to the reason for our divination. Those that are facing down represent the future influences and potential outcomes of what might happen if we change something or step out of our comfort zone. We can look at this as event-driven outcomes: “If I stay on the path I am on, then the Runes which are facing up are my story,” and, “If I change something about me, then the Runes facing down are the outcome.” With Runes that are facing down, we accept that their number shows the potential number of results that may happen. The farther the Rune is, the probability of that outcome is smaller. This type of Rune usage is often used by Seidr practitioners who consciously and intentionally change their destiny by refusing to accept its predetermination and who actively use their thoughts, decisions, and actions to create their own path. The Runes facing down can also be understood as those who give a glimpse into different possible futures that we choose to build.
“Whether used for the self or in service to others, the Runes continually reflect the collective in the individual, the unknown in the known, and the personal embodiment of the unknowable in All Things.”
S. Kelley Harrell
The meaning of Runes
24 Runes are divided into three Aetts or families, and they belong to three different Norse deities. Sometimes people use 25 Runes in neopaganism where the 25th Rune is an empty one, but there is no official confirmation that the empty Rune ever existed. If you ask me, it doesn’t even make sense. A Rune is a symbol, and that means that a stone or a piece of wood without that symbol is just an empty stone or wood. Using the empty Rune may not be logical to me, but don’t let that stop you from using it if you so wish. The three Aetts are Runes of Freya, Hagal (Hagalaz, Heimdall), and Tyr. The first Aett, Freya’s, are Runes connected with Midgard or the physical plane. They symbolically represent the current state of affairs. The second Aett, Hagal’s, is linked to the underground world and the land of the dead. It symbolically represents the past, karmic debts, and the opposing forces of fire and ice. The third Aett, Tyr’s, are Runes that are associated with Asgard or the home of the Gods. They symbolize our best and brightest future, overcoming of challenges, and the dawn of new time.
- FEHU (cattle), represents wealth, abundance, success, fertility, safety, Freya’s Rune
- URUZ (bull), represents strength, courage, potential, and freedom
- THURISAZ (thorn), represents reaction, defense, conflict, and catharsis
- ANSUZ (mouth), represents communication, understanding, and inspiration
- RAIDHO (wagon), represents travel that we do not control, rhythm, spontaneity, evolution, and decisions
- KENNAZ (torch), represents vision, illumination, creativity, progress, and vitality
- GEBO (gift), represents exchange, partnership, and generosity
- WUNJO (happiness), represents comfort, harmony, reward, and is often considered the Rune of a wish that comes true
- HAGALAZ (hail), represents forces of nature, rage, testing, and overcoming of obstacles
- NAUTHIZ (need), represents restrictions, power of will, endurance, and relying on one self and our skills and strengths
- ISA (ice), represents clarity, stagnation, introspection, and waiting
- JERA (year), represents cycles, changes, endings, harvest, and reaping of the rewards
- EIHWAZ (yew tree), represents balance, death, wisdom, and the tree of life
- PERTHRO (divination chalice), represents destiny, mystery, secrets, and divination
- ALGIZ (stag), represents protection, instinct, defense, and animal guides
- SOWILO (sun), represents health, honor, victory, and completeness
- TIWAZ (the god Tyr), represents masculinity, justice, leadership, battle, and logic
- BERKANA (birch tree), represents femininity, fertility, healing, regeneration, and rebirth
- EHWAZ (horse), represents travel that we control, transport, movement, and trust
- MANNAZ (humanity), represents individuality, friendship, collaborations, and help
- LAGUZ (water), represents intuition, emotions, dreams, hopes, and fears
- INGUZ (seed), represents goals, growth, common sense, and home
- OTHALA (heritage), represents ancestors, experience, wisdom, and values
- DAGAZ (dawn), represents awakening, firm beliefs, endings, and hope
When working with Runes, I strongly encourage you to connect with them and meditate often while you are learning them. While the meaning of Runes is generally considered somewhat constant, there are slight deviations amongst those who use them, and your “take” on a particular Rune may not be the same as everyone else’s. The list above brings the meanings that I’ve been using for years and that works for me. That does not mean that you will find the exact same list in other sources. The lists of meanings and interpretations are always very similar, but they are seldom exactly the same.
Do you want to learn more?
Walking with Runes
To go on a Rune walk, you will need FIVE THINGS: a Rune set, a wooden stick, a path in Nature to walk on, a knife, and a good attitude. Never once have I been on a Rune walk that something hidden didn’t reveal itself and made quite obvious. It always feels like a kick in the butt in a way, but that’s how Runes usually work. They don’t understand the meaning of the word subtle.
The image of Odin used in this page was taken from AkikioNagamatsu, and is free to use under Pixabay licenses.