Runes are essentially straight lines cut or drawn onto a surface to represent one of between 22 and 36 spoken sounds and / or letters. These individual runes are also associated with natural, physical and emotional nouns, and in turn further associations with those nouns are attributed to each rune mark. The word rune comes from the Northern European word “runa”, meaning secret or mystical.
Runes originate from the Northern European pagan tribes, particularly in what is now known as Scandinavia and northern Germany. While there are some similarities between runes and Ogham (a form of writing associated with modern Druidry), examples of ancient rune carvings and the lack of similarly dated Ogham suggests that runes predate many forms of pagan writing in Europe. It is said in the text “The Havamal” that the God Odin obtained the knowledge of the runes by hanging upside down from the tree Yggdrasil for 9 days. There are 3 sets of runes in common use; the Fultharc (Scandinavian), Fulthorc (Anglo Saxon) and the Seax Wicca runes devised by writer Raymond Buckland in the 1970s.
There are typically three ways of using runes. The first is as a simple alphabet. Each rune symbol consists of a collection of straight lines; curves are more difficult to draw or cut and can be misinterpreted if poorly made. Each rune symbol has a name, and most correspond with modern English language letters. Some rune symbols are used for the sounds of two or more letters together such as “th”. Single rune symbols are sometimes used for a variety of similar sounding modern letters, such as “v” and “f”.
Words are constructed from grouping the symbols phonetically. Each word is written with a space between it and the next word. Sometimes the space will be filled with a small dot in the middle horizontally between the end of the preceding word and the start of the following word. There are no upper and lower case rune symbols, all letters are of equal size. At first glance, runic writing can look as if it is written in code, but with a translation sheet the letters quickly become recognisable and the words easy to read.
A second use for runes is as a divination tool. The symbol for each rune is carved or drawn onto a small disc of wood or a pebble, or some other similar regular shaped small object. It is considered important to use objects that are all the same size and shape so that the user is not subconsciously moved to draw out one in favour of another. The runes are then either placed in a bag or box and drawn out individually, or they are thrown and scattered all together onto a cleared space or board, often with a circle drawn onto it. Those runes that fall outside the circle are discarded; those that lay on the circumference are considered, and those that lay within the circle are given more prominence.
It is common to use the wood from a yew, beech, birch or oak tree to make wooden runes. Traditionally the symbols would be first cut into the wooden discs, and then painted with a dye or with blood. Modern runes often have the symbols burnt into the wood with a soldering iron. It is considered extremely bad manners to touch another person’s runes uninvited.
The third common use for runes is as protection or good luck charms. Using a single rune or a combination of two or three, is thought to focus the mystical power of each rune in a specific direction. Just as someone might carry a lucky rabbit’s foot or a 4-leafed clover, so rune charms are made and carried. These can be created in many forms, and often appear on key fobs, purses, earrings and other jewellery. They may be painted across the tops of door frames, made into cross stitch samplers, or used to embellish any kind of earthen ware or wooden hand made gift.
Specific runes are associated with individual deity and attributes. If a woman wished for a happy and welcoming home, she may want to display the rune associated with Frigga on her front door. If a person wanted to see justice done in a situation, they may choose to carry the rune associated with the God Tyr for the duration of the situation. The rune for health could be given to someone about to undergo surgery, or who may be suffering from a long illness.
The authenticity of Northern European Fultharc and Fulthorc runes can be validated by many different examples carved into rock across Europe. These include the Vaksala Runestone in Sweden which dates from the 12th century, and the Kylver runestone in Sweden found in 1903 and which has been dated to around 400 AD.