The Runes - Wisdom of the Past...
"It is a mistake to assume that events far apart in time are thereby
separate. All things are connected as in the finest web of a spider.
The slightest movement on any thread can be discerned from all points
in the web."
-- Brian Bates, The Way of Wyrd
We live in a time of spiritual searching, where knowledge from the
past is sought as eagerly as the experience of the new and unknown. In
the course of that searching, our era has seen many of the great
traditions of spiritual wisdom come to life around us once more,
reviving what may be forgotten in the mind but remembered in the soul.
We may feel strongly moved by karmic connections with such knowledge,
seeking it out with an intuitive urgency that is drawn from such inner
memories and their echoes. Knowledge from the past reminds us that we
have lived before just as it speaks of what has enduring value.
Foremost amongst the ancient traditions that have been born again is
that of the Vikings and the runes.
The Viking Tradition
Many of us have had the joy in childhood of reading the Scandinavian
legends, the tales of Odin, Loki and Thor. They were the gods of these
early sea-faring folk whose world was born from the meeting of fire
These ancient gods were known as the Aesir. They ruled the Northern
climes from their home in Asgard, leading lives filled with wondrous
adventure, poetry and feasting. They fought with their traditional
enemies, the frost giants and awaited the day known as Ragnarok, the
last day of gods and men when a conflagration of flood and fire would
sweep across the final battle of good and evil, leaving only
devastation in its wake. The earth would then lie ruined, awaiting the
coming of Baldur, the fair-faced shining god of the Aesir, whose
resurrection and return from his sojourn in the underworld would bring
redemption and new life.
The Book of Runes
Such joy as you might have found in these half-remembered tales of
childhood might then have been renewed in adult life with the
publication of Ralph Blum's Book of Runes. This commercially
successful divination kit helped to bring runic awareness back into
public consciousness, though there are many works now that can aid
both reader and student in catching the flavour of the runes with more
accuracy and clarity. If this has been your story then, whether you
know it or not, you are already steeped in an important tradition of
western magic and spirituality.
Awaken the Magic
The runes may have come to you by other means, without the stories to
start you on the way. A set of runes is an item of considerable
magical power and, as such, it will present itself in a moment of need
as an unexpected gift, an intuitive purchase or an accidental find.
Whatever the case, you might have developed a passion for them,
working with them regularly or even professionally for a while. Or,
you could be just using your runes from time to time, idly examining
future possibilities, often startled by their accuracy.
You might have found the runes but your initial interest could have
waned and your set now sits gathering dust on the shelf, confusing and
somewhat mysterious. Or, the runes might not yet have come into your
life. They may be a soul memory, latent, hidden in the unconscious.
Yet the ancestors who walked the path of rune magic long ago will have
written those patterns in your unconscious, inscribing them in the
earth of your body. Thus, when and if a set of runes does come into
your life, you can use them to awaken the magic that lies within you.
What images do the runes conjure for you when you work with them or
think about them? The bearded Viking with a horned helmet, a gleaming
axe and a bag of runes bouncing on his muscular thighs! Or do you lean
more towards the wart-faced wise woman, raven on her shoulder, bent
over the fire, inhaling foul-smelling smoke and uttering obscure
poetic prophecies. Perhaps you've grown beyond these fantasies and
simply use the runes for decision-making and insight, functions they
can well fulfil. But do you know how the runes were read traditionally?
Casting the Runes
They were not taken from a bag and laid out in a pattern. That is a
modern practice. When a question as to the future or the outcome of
certain events needed to be answered, sticks or twigs would be cut
from a nearby tree, a fruit-bearing tree for that was the tradition.
It reflected the notion that one's actions in casting the runes would
bear fruit in the future. The runic symbols would then be cut into the
wood and a sacred space would be prepared. The rune staves would be
cast three times to examine the question. This was done in order that
no hidden elements would be missed and to ensure that any shadow
forces from the past that could interfere with the outcome had
literally been unbound and rendered ineffective.
A Magical Act
To cast the runes was a magical act that helped to create the future.
Once cast, the future was decided and the rune sticks would be burned,
their ash left to honour the place where the casting had been made.
This doesn't mean that the modern practice of reading the runes has no
value. It simply draws attention to the need to examine the history
and traditions of any spiritual tool we undertake to use. This
attention is a mark of our respect for what has gone before.
The Origin of the Runes
The Vikings did not originate the runes. They were the latter-day
users of a runic system known as the Younger Futhark. This consisted
of sixteen visible characters or symbols and two hidden ones that were
used only in magical work. The system that the Vikings used was
derived from a much earlier system known as the Elder Futhark, evolved
by the Teutonic (Germanic) peoples. We do not in fact know exactly who
the Teutons were, since the name was given to them by the Romans and
is derived from the Celtic word meaning 'tribe'. Historically, we know
the Elder Futhark was in use for engraving on jewelry at least fifty
years before the birth of Christ, making it much older in all
probability. There are twenty-four runes in the Elder Futhark and
these are divided into three tiers of eight runes. Each of these tiers
is called an 'aett'. Each rune traditionally occupies a fixed place in
this structure of tiers. This place is known as its stead. The word
'futhark' is derived from the first six letter characters of the runes
in sequence, the character 'th' being regarded as a single letter.
The Mystical Tradition
The Elder Futhark is a system of sacred symbols that links language to
a secret mystical tradition. As such, the runes are the keepers of a
cycle of mysteries. As we came to know them through meditation and
magical focus on their symbolic shapes, the runes reveal their
mysteries to us. The word 'rune' means both a secret and to whisper or
to roar. This tells us that the runes have their origins in a culture
that passed on its traditions orally through song and chant, then
later came to write them down.
Dialogue of Living Sound
Though the runes form an alphabetic sequence, they are essentially
ideographic rather than alphabetical. In other words, they were
devised to symbolize and make known a series of ideas or principles
rather than to simply function as building blocks in a system of
verbal or written communication. For the ancient peoples, to chant a
name aloud was to invoke its magic. So it is with the runes. As we
chant their names aloud, the magic comes like a roaring wind, then
whispers their secrets. Through the runes, the mysteries of life
itself are revealed. Through the runes, we create a dialogue of living
sound with the environment in which we live.
While many modern sets of runes have the additional twenty-fifth rune,
the blank rune, it is important to note that this is an invention of
modern commentators and is not a part of the authentic runic
tradition. The 'P' rune, Perthro or Peord performs the function given
by modern commentators to the blank rune. It represents the
unknowable, the journey into the unknown and the risk that must be
taken. Thus, Perthro holds the key to a mystery at the heart of runic
lore, the runecast itself. Perthro is both the act of casting the
runes and the Well of Consciousness to which we go as a seeker.
When we cast the runes, we come to draw the waters of knowledge and
inspiration from this sacred place. This is the Well of the three
Sisters, the Fates or Nornir who spin the webs of past, present and
future that bind all life together and who cut the threads when the
time is come to end a pattern. In Teutonic myth it is known as the
Well of Wyrd.
The Well of Wyrd
When we draw from the Well, we are not simply predicting the linear
development of our future that grows directly from where we are now.
Rather, we are looking at how our current situation has grown from
roots in the past and what we must do in order to either fulfil what
we have begun or to change direction completely. Sometimes we must
change the way the past has affected us before we can earn a new
future. When we sit with our runes, preparing to cast them or lay them
for a reading, we keep alive a tradition thousands of years old. We
are poised on the edge of the known, preparing to commune with the
hidden forces of this world, ready to entrust ourselves to the
unknown. In this way, each of us becomes a seeker, ready for
initiation, preparing to give what the journey asks of us.
The Norns or Weaving Women of Teutonic spirituality play an important
role in the mythology of the runes. These three women bind and unbind
the fabric of existence. Odin himself, the giver of the runes is
subject to the power of the three Sisters, Urd, Verdandi and Skuld,
the triple Goddess of ancient times. Urd is the oldest and rules the
past. Verdandi is the middle sister and rules the present. Skuld is
the youngest and rules the future. Their work, the tapestry of fate,
can be read in the runes.
The Tapestry of Fate
Remember that for the ancient peoples, the word fate was used
differently from the way we are accustomed to using it. What we have
done or not done in the past creates our present conditions - that is
the runic concept of fate. In the present, we experience the energy of
our own past choices. This comes about through what is known as
'orlog' or layers. It is a central theme in runic spirituality and
crucial to our understanding of work with the runes. We are radiant
beings, pouring energy into the world around us, drawing energy from
So, action taken (or not taken) literally creates layers of energy
that adhere to us and influence present conditions. Our fate is this
energy field layered in around us through our decisions and actions,
thus bound into the aura of our being. It is not a force outside us
that takes control while we look on. It is our wyrd, a living and
vibrant web of force that fills us, surrounds us and links us to the
web of life. To know ourselves we must know the forces within our own
If We Fight Ourselves... Who Wins?
Without such knowledge, we have no power for if we don't recognize our
wyrd or fate then we haven't taken responsibility for our lives. In
our present choices, we meet our own past selves. If we own them, we
can change our lives through self-mastery. If we disown or deny these
past selves then fate becomes a force outside us that we struggle
against. But if we fight ourselves, who wins?
The task of the runes is to open up these layers of fate, to unravel
the complex threads and show us how we have arrived where we are. It
is here that we find the true meaning of the term 'wyrd'. While our
own English word 'weird' is derived from this term, the concept it
embodies is more potent than the simple notion of something that is
strange or bizarre. One's wyrd is that which has been created by what
is laid down (orlog) in the past.
The Runes are Teachers
The runes are teachers. They disclose the true nature of past action,
urge courageous self-honesty in facing the issues and then offer the
gift of choice and change through powerful insight. Through the runes,
we glimpse the web of the three Sisters and discern something of its
pattern. Thus we can begin to undo the knots and tangles and retie the
threads to bind a new and different path. But, in doing so, we must
know and understand the forces in the greater web for we are all part
of a much larger pattern and we all have a path to walk within it.
There is not just the wyrd of the individual, the creator, but also
that of the group, the community, the planet and the universe, the
co-creators. This vast sea of consciousness is the divine principle,
that which transcends the individual, be he animal, human or god. More
than two thousand years ago, the runes were evolving in a culture that
understood the essential paradox of existence, the balance of personal
power through self-mastery with surrender to the greater pattern. For
the Teutonic peoples, the greater pattern was the web of life, the web
woven by the three Sisters that even the gods must heed and obey, for
they are bound within it just as are we mortal folk.
The Loom and the Web
The Sisters at their loom, weaving the swirling fibres of chaos into
order, then surrendering their fabric to the winds of heaven that
return the pattern to primal chaos... The Sisters call us endlessly to
the dance of life, the passage of death and renewal through rebirth.
Here we find a primal image of spiritual understanding. Here, in the
ceaseless weaving, we discover the pattern of the Wyrd in a moment in
time and take our next steps. Then, in the next moment, the Wyrd has
shifted for we have shifted and so we move on.
The Fabric of Life
The runes are not simply a fortune-teller's tool, they are the hammer
and diviner of the Wyrd, part of a system of spiritual belief that is
older than Christianity and as complex and beautiful as Hindu or
Buddhist thinking. It is a system that embraces reincarnation and
rebirth, that holds the web of life as central and sacred, that is
steeped in a magical tradition where responsibility for one's own acts
and destiny is the core of existence.
When you use the runes you don't just read the future, you participate
in its creation by linking with the past and building on past effort
or even changing your path or destiny. When you draw the runes, you
draw water from the well of magical power, the Well of Wyrd. When you
cast them, you give yourself to the web of life and its ever-changing
Here endeth this remarkable article by Neil Giles on the magical
tradition of the Runes.