WitchCraft 101
Advance WitchCraft
Find the Path
Crytstal Sections
Candle Section
Pagan Calendar
Search Site



No one knows where runes began, but the best guess is that around 500 B.C.E. a Germanic tribe of mercenaries crossed the Alps into northern Italy on an extended campaign, and there became familiar with the Etruscan alphabet. They would have had shamans with them. To their illiterate eyes Etruscan letters looked like so many magical symbols, similar to their own ancient signs of magic, which have been preserved in hallristningar, or prehistoric rock carvings.

A fusion took place between the hallristningar and the Etruscan letters. Some believe this was the work of a single man. This seems unlikely, although undeniably a single man, or woman, began the process, which had to start with an individual. Likely this person was illiterate, recording Etruscan letters alongside the older magical symbols brought down from the mountains.

Mercenaries carry little unnecessary baggage with them, and illiterate mercenaries do not keep writing instruments. Runes were shaped to be cut into the soft green back of twigs. They were given names to make them easier to carry in the head. Eventually they gained the settled meanings they now possess, but this process may have taken generations, and may have occurred after the runes were carried back over the Alps into the northern forest.

Around the time of Christ when the Romans decided they wanted to conquer the lands they called Germany, they found rune magic being worked. Runes are not explicitly mentioned in the Latin literature of this time, but in A.D.E. 98 Tacitus speaks of divination by lots cut from the bough of a fruit-bearing tree, upon which "certain marks" are made. There can be little doubt that he is referring to runes in some form.

Eventually the Latin alphabet mingled with the runes and changed them into the finalized set of symbols known today. This was likely the time the runes became a written alphabet, signifying letters and sounds as well as magical powers. An evolution would have occurred in the names of the runes to accommodate this shifting emphasis, but they probably retained their older magical meanings.

Such a useful magical tool did not go unnoticed. Tribes like the Heruli, who were especially gifted in rune lore and were known far and wide as master magicians, spread the use of runes all across the north during the period extending roughly from the third to fifth century A.D.E. In different regions the runes were adapted to different languages. They reached their greatest increase in Northumbria in the ninth century, where they numbered thirty-three distinct symbols. Paradoxically, at the time they were growing in England, they were shrinking in Scandinavia. The Danish and the Swedish-Norwegian futharks (rune alphabets) achieved a final form in the eight century of only sixteen symbols.

The far-ranging Vikings carried rune lore with them to Iceland when they settled that bleak land, and even to Greenland. Although runes have been reported in Minnesota and in Nova Scotia, there is considerable doubt of their authenticity.

The Christian Church began to exert its power against rune magic. At first it was merely persuasive. It did not do for a newly established priest in a pagan community to forbid the people their religion, particularly when those people were Vikings. But as the Church's power grew, do did its persecution of the runes. Iceland has the distinction of being the last known stronghold of the rune magic. In 1693 the use of runes was explicitly prohibited by Icelandic law.

The rune alphabet given on these pages is the German futhark, a name that is formed out of the first six letters--F, U, Th, A, R, K. For magical purposed it is the best. The Scandinavian rune alphabets of sixteen symbols have been so reduced, they have lost much of their meaning. On the other hand, the English alphabets of twenty-eight and thirty-three runes suffer from the arbitrary addition of symbols lacking a long magical history or potent association.

The German furhark of twenty-four runes is the most ancient, with a beginning lost in time, It was from this rune alphabet that all others evolved. More structure of the runes intact. This structure has two main aspects.

The first is its division of the alphabet into three families, or aettir. of eight runes each. These aettir bear the names of the runes that begin them, and are called in order Feoh, Heagl, and Tyr. Each aett takes its quality from the nature of the rune that names it. Feoh is domestic, mild and physical; Haegl is wild, severe, and emotional; and Tyr is balanced, just, and intellectual.

The second part of the magical structure of the futhark is the division of runes into pairs. Pair runes are next to each other. The runes in a pair relate to each other in a clear, forceful way either by contrast or by compliment. For example, Feoh means cattle. Ur means aurochs. The aurochs was a fearsome beast the size of an ox with the black hide of a bear and the disposition of a rhinoceros. To the Germans it represented freedom, valor, and potency--just the opposite qualities of the domestic cow.

Although the runes form the original German futhark, the names given for them are names applied to the same individual runes in the Old English futhorc (so called do to the slightly different pronunciation of the first six runes). This was done because the Old English names are more common in English literature on the runes, and to avoid the necessity of using an entirely new naming system when ever reference is made to the English extensions of the basic rune alphabet. They should be considered as the English translations of the German names.

Before all else, runes are magical. They evolved over the centuries as the active instrument of the system of magic the Teutonic peoples used in daily life to solve practical problems such as easing difficult childbirths, calming storms at sea, stopping the flow of blood from a wound, and any other matter that might arise where help was needed.

Some runes are constructive in their working, while others are destructive--that is, some build things up through such actions as healing, cleansing and growth, while others break things apart through decay, imbalance, and brute force.

Since it is possible to join and multiply runes esoterically for increasingly subtle and specific uses, there is no end to the magical works they may accomplish, In their infinite versatility, runes are preeminent and have no serious rival in magic, other than the Hebrew alphabet, which is also combined for magical effects.

Perhaps the most ancient medium upon which runes were cut is human skin. Tattooing and ritual scarring are almost universal in primitive cultures around the world at all periods. The Volsunga Saga speaks of a cutting of runes into the palms of women in childbirth. This may be a carryover from a time when pre-runic symbols were commonly carved on the skin for various purposes.

At the limit of historical records, runes were cut primarily into the bark of the green wood of fruit-bearing trees. All lines of the early runes were vertical and diagonal for this reason, so that when cut into wood across the grain, there would be no splitting of the wood, as might occur if some strokes were made with grain.

Later when the Teutonic tribes were more settled, runes were carved into stone monuments, memorials, and permanent markers. The forms of the runes adapted to the new medium. Horizontal lines and curved lines appeared, made possible because stone usually has no significant grain. Still later, runes were penned on parchment by medieval monks as a scholarly hobby.

When cut into twigs or roots, the bark contrasted clearly with the white wood beneath. To bring the runes alive, the rune master stained them with his or her own fresh blood. Blood fed the runes and awakened their power. This is why runes are always written red for magical purposes.

Back To Rune Magic

Thanks so much to the enlightened words of Donald Tyson. Reprinted partially or entirely from Rune Magic.