The following is an excerpt from The Runes Revealed: A Beginner’s Guide to Runic Divination by Beth Taylor.


The Origins of the Runes


         Runes are the ancient alphabet-like symbols used by the Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tribes of northern Europe dating back about 2,000 years to the beginning of the Christian era.  Archeologists date the earliest runic inscriptions found from the late second century AD; due to the maturity of the script and the techniques of recording it, there are hints of origins at least a century earlier.


            However, since it appears the first runic symbols were carved almost exclusively on wood, there are no surviving examples of these earliest inscriptions.


            The actual origin of the runes is shrouded with mystery.  The word rune itself comes from a root meaning “secret” or “mystery” in Old English, and “to whisper” in Old German.  This reflects the fact that their meanings were passed down orally for centuries; the first written manuscripts of the names and meanings of the runes were the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian rune poems dating from the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD.


            Comprised solely of straight vertical and diagonal lines, the runes were carved first into wood and bone and later into stone and metal.  They were used to mark property, record events and imply certain magickal forces or qualities such as victory in battle, fertility in marriage, and protection of home and family.  Runes were also used for divination, much as they are today.


            There is debate among runic scholars about the origin of the runes.  Theories offer Latin, Greek, and Northern Italic derivation; the latter would explain why many of the runes resemble Roman letters. 


            Other sources point to the Hallristningar rock carvings of the latter part of the Stone Age or early Bronze Age as the origin for the runes.  These primitive pictorial and symbolic carvings can be found throughout the northern European countries of the ancient Germanic tribes including the Scandinavian countries, (particularly Sweden), and as far south as northern Italy. 


            Some of these Hallristningar symbols are identical to those in the later runic alphabet; others represent concepts, (such as the sun, water, horse, and man), which may have became the basis for different runic symbols.






Hallristningar symbols



            There are runic scholars who believe it was a combination of the influences of the Roman alphabet and primitive Hallristningar rock carvings that led to the development of the runes.  This, if one can judge by simply looking at the runic symbols, seems to me to be quite likely.


            Whatever their specific origins, by the fifth century AD, the runes had spread throughout the northern Germanic tribes.  The alphabet was called a “futhark;” this name taken, (like the word “alphabet” from its first two Greek letters “alpha” and “beta”), from the starting letters of the first six runes in order: fehu, uruz, thurisaz, ansuz, raido and kenaz. 


            This original alphabet was called the Elder (or Germanic) Futhark and consisted of 24 symbols.  It was used by the northern Germanic tribes of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and northern Germany.  It continued in use in Scandinavia until about 700 AD. 





            In Anglo-Saxon England around the fifth century AD, the futhark evolved to accommodate the extra sounds and letters of their language and the Anglo-Saxon Futhork with 33 runes developed. 








            A third futhark came to being in the eighth century AD in Scandinavia, when changes in the Old Norse language occurred.  This Younger Futhark simplified and discarded many of the runes, reducing the number from 24 to 16.






            This form of the runic alphabet became commonly known as the “Viking runes” and continued in use in Scandinavia into the seventeenth century AD, when, in 1639, they were officially banned by the Catholic church as “pagan.”  The runes existed only underground, (with a brief and misguided period of partial use by the Nazis during the W.W.II era), until their reemergence as a divinatory tool in modern times.


            The Elder Futhark is considered the original runic alphabet from which the Anglo-Saxon and Younger Futharks evolved.  It is the most widely used futhark, and the one upon which this book is based.


            The letters of the Elder Futhark are divided into three groups of eight letters called aettir, or singularly as aett.  Aett simply means family or related group.  In the following chapter, The Rune Definitions, the rune meanings in each aett are discussed in detail.


            I have listed a number of books in the bibliography that go into greater historical detail than I have here; I would recommend that those interested in delving deeper into the roots and origins of the runes refer to some of these noted volumes.



The Norse Mythology


            Throughout history, the runes have been closely linked to the Scandinavian peoples and the gods and goddesses of their religion.  The runes are a part of most of the significant poems of the period, called Eddas, as well as most of the sagas that tell of the Norse deities.


            The runes are presented in the myths of the Eddas as something already in existence and waiting to be revealed.  The poem Havamal, (“Song of the High One”), in the Poetic Edda (1200 AD) describes how Odin, the All-Father and the god of magic and wisdom in Norse mythology, discovered the runes during a self-imposed ordeal of shamanic initiation in an attempt to receive greater wisdom for mankind.


            Odin hung upside down for nine days and nine nights from the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree or Tree of Life. With a self-inflicted wounded from his own spear and without food or drink for nine days, Odin had a shamanic vision and “saw” the runes.


            I know I hung on that windswept tree,

            Hung there for nine days and nights

            Wounded by my own blade

            Bloodied for Odin.

            Myself an offering to myself

            Bound to the tree that no man knows

            Wither the roots of it ran.


            None gave me bread.

            None gave me drink.

            Down to the deepest depths I peered

            Until I spied the Runes.

            With a roaring cry I seized them up

            Then dizzy and fainting I fell.


            Well-being I won

            And wisdom, too.

            I grew and joyed in my growth.

            From a word to a word

            I was led to a word.

            From a deed to another deed.



Odin’s self-imposed initiation by hanging upside down from the Tree of Life is portrayed on the twelfth tarot card of the Major Arcana, the Hanged Man, which commonly symbolizes self-sacrifice and a resulting change in perspective.    




Hanged Man tarot card



            The individual runes have associations with the Norse deities as well.  Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Ing all have their own runes.


            Ansuz, the rune of communication and words, is linked with Odin, the All-Father, the god of wisdom and the runes.


            Thurisaz, the rune of change and protection, represents Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir.  One of Odin’s sons, Thor was the god of thunder and lightning and was similar in size and strength to a giant, whom he battled to keep under control.


            Teiwaz, the warrior rune, is associated with Tyr, the god of war and battle.  Tempered with a sense of justice, Tyr represented law and order as well.


            Inguz, the rune of conception and fertility, is named for the god Ing, the Danish/Anglo Saxon name for Freyr, the god of agriculture and fertility. 


            Rich in tradition, magickal lore, and history, the runes are an integral part of the Norse mythology and Northern culture.


The above is an excerpt from The Runes Revealed: A Beginner’s Guide to Runic Divination by Beth Taylor.

P.O. Box 387 • Mt. Airy, Maryland 21771
Copyright © 2009 Beth Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Home | Contact Us