The Mysteries of the Runes

by Dale Grothe

Runes are the symbols used in the writings of ancient Nordic and Teutonic peoples. The earliest examples date back to 200-300 AD, and their origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend says that the runes were revealed to Odin when, in one of his many ordeals to gain knowledge, he hung himself from the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, pierced by his sword. Near-death on the ninth day, he saw the runes in the waters below. Academic theories on origins vary, but a common view is that runes were prehistoric symbols used in spells and divination that later became associated with phonetic alphabetic symbols when such writing systems spread across Europe from Greece and Rome.

Runes were carved on monuments called Rune Stones that had a variety of purposes. There are over 3,000 such stones across Scandinavia. Some were memorials to the dead, some depicted legends, and others had supernatural functions such as protection and curses. A group of runestones called Sigurd Stones provide the earliest Norse depictions of the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer. One commonly called the Ramsund Carving or Sigurd Carving (Sigurdsristningen) is shown at the top.

In these writings, runes are clearly used as alphabetic letters spelling out words in the old Norse language of the time. The chart above shows a set of runes called the Elder Futhark and the sound associated with each. It is known that individual runes carved on pieces of wood or bone were used in spell casting and divination. Exactly how these “rune staves” were used has been lost, but the symbolic meanings of each rune are known from writings such as the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems. Modern practitioners have taken such information and devised divination methods using rune staves. Today one can find rune sets in wood, ceramic, on polished stones in the spiritual crystal shops, etc., as well as many books on interpreting runes for divinatory readings.

It is interesting to use the phonetic association of runes to spell out names, etc. The only caution is that English phonetic spelling does not correspond to how the runes form sounds. So while the name “Johnson” could be spelled by directly assigning a rune to each of the seven letters, the resulting phonetics would not match, because the “H” is silent. So:

ᛃ ᛟ ᚾ ᛇ ᛟ ᚾ

In my name Grothe, there is one rune ᚦ that corresponds to the “th” sound rather than using t and h.

X ᚱ ᛟ ᚦ

Scholars and mystics study the ancient Norse runes from many perspectives. There is information in the Kringen library and a multitude of other sources if you wish to explore further.

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