Runes are symbols, a little like the letters of the alphabet, that represent sounds. The sound they represented has been long lost and the current sounds associated with them are a ‘relatively’ modern introduction. Furthermore many of the symbols now in common usage are not the original ones. Thus we should think of two systems here – the original and genuine system of runes and the newer but inauthentic system.
We know that shamanic practises in Europe were common right up until the 17th century. Christianity and the Age of Reason finally succeeded in removing much overt shamanic practise.
Shamans healed via herbalism and other forms of healing, could ‘shape-shift’, had ‘out-of-body experiences’ [in which they ‘flew’ hence the story of witches flying on broomsticks] and could ‘travel’ around the spiritual plane, could perform incantations and spells, and often were able to prophecy (see prayer) or had ‘second sight’.
The existence of shamans or runemasters’ is recorded in the Eddas. In Edil’s Saga, for example, Egil Skallagrimsson, a big ugly man who was a farmer, poet and warrior was also a runemaster. The first recorded use of him using runes for magic was in 934. The sagas contain a number of stories about his exploits, especially in battle with Gunnhilde – a so called ‘witch’.
Knowledge of the original runes was passed on between shamans [wizards, witches, priest/priestesses whatever you like to call them] by word of mouth and the name means ‘secret’, ‘whisper’ and ‘mystery’ indicating that the runes were part of a secret set of sounds known only to this group of people.
The name rune also means "secret, something hidden", seems to indicate that knowledge of the runes was restricted to an elite. Even the 6th century Björketorp Runestone warns:
Haidzruno runu, falahak haidera, ginnarunaz. Arageu haeramalausz uti az. Weladaude, sa'z þat barutz. Uþarba spa.
I, master of the runes conceal here runes of power. Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who breaks this (monument). I prophesy destruction / prophecy of destruction.
The same curse and use of the word rune is also found on the Stentoften Runestone.
Most of the shamans within this ancient religion were women and magical traditions in places such as Scandinavia were mostly taught by women. Knowledge of the true meaning and also the sounds associated with the old runes continued even after the introduction of Christianity, but eventually the persecution of so called witches and witchcraft eventually led to the loss of knowledge of the sounds and meaning. During the 17th century, for example, the last [known] shamans in Iceland were burned to death.
Despite the ‘expert’ opinion found in many texts, which gives the origins after Christ, I believe the earlier texts which state that the original runic symbols are much earlier in origin.
One mythological style description states that as the last Ice Age ended and tribes spread north, a tribe known as the Volsunger who were hunter gatherers used a system of Ur-Runes which was said to give them certain powers. [I have assumed for the moment that the use of Ur and the capital of Babylonia/Sumeria being Ur is a coincidence, but it may not be]. They spread thoughout Europe, into Russia, Britain and Scandinavia using a path called the White Wyrm [White Way – snake serpent – a tunnel] until eventually they moved into Sweden and left examples of Ur-Runes at Hallristningar a province of Sweden. There are in fact petroglyphs in this region today dating from well before Christ. In effect, the runes themselves are prehistoric in origin and probably stretch back to Neolithic and Paleolithic days.
In Norse mythology the runes are said to originate in ‘mythological time’ with Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. Even after the spread of Christianity, the ‘divine origin’ of the old runes was still understood. This is attested as early as on the Noleby Runestone from around 600 CE that reads Runo fahi raginakundo toj[e'k]a..., meaning "I prepare the suitable divine rune ..." and in an attestation from the 9th century on the Sparlösa Runestone which reads Ok rað runaR þaR rægi[n]kundu, meaning "And interpret the runes of divine origin".
The idea that the old original rune system was ‘god given’ is an important one. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic mediaeval manuscript Codex Regius. Along with Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends. The Poetic Edda contains the Hávamál ("Sayings of the high one") presented as a single poem. In the Hávamál, Stanza 80, the runes are also described as reginkunnr – that is ‘divine’ or god given:
Þat er þá reynt,
er þú að rúnum spyrr
þeim er gerðu ginnregin
ok fáði fimbulþulr,
þá hefir hann bazt, ef hann þegir.
That is now proved,
what you asked of the runes,
of the potent famous ones,
which the great gods made,
and the mighty sage stained,
that it is best for him if he stays silent.
The Rúnatal or Óðins Rune Song (Rúnatáls-tháttr-Óðins) is a section of the Hávamál where Odin reveals the origins of the runes, or of secret knowledge. It runs from Stanzas' 138 through to 165. In section 138, Odin describes his self-sacrifice (to himself):
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
In Stanza 139, Odin continues:
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
Use for runes
The main use for the runes in the original system was to communicate with the supernatural world. The runes were in their original form a system for encoding the sounds used to communicate with heaven – the gods.
All evidence points to the fact that the original rune sounds were ‘chanted’ or ‘sung’ in a specific order. They may also have been recited, but were always in poetic form – rhymed – and then accompanied by a musical instrument – a lyre or harp for example. The word ‘song’ has been used in Indo-European languages to denote magical practices and the Lapps used the word ‘runo’ to denote song and incantation.
Their purpose was to heal and also to work ‘spells’ or ‘charms’. Incantations or ‘prayers’ used to communicate with the spiritual world. The rest of the Hávamál poem, for example, describes the fact that runes were used to record ‘spells’.
In stanza 157 of Hávamál, Odin decribes a rune spell used to bring ‘the dead’ to life [though the symbol of the hanged man is being used here], dead does not mean dead:
Þat kann ek it tolfta,
ef ek sé á tré uppi
svá ek ríst ok í rúnum fák,
at sá gengr gumi
ok mælir við mik
I know a twelfth one if I see,
up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
And talks with me.
But perhaps of especial importance, the Rúnatal has 18 verses which show that the runes were linked together to produce ‘charms’ or ‘spells’, which were then sung and related to various magical practices. Some examples follow:
1. A charm I know no king can say
Nor any man has mastered
Help it is called because it aids
At times of sickness and sorrow
2. Another is there that I know
Which is required for all
The sons of men that would obtain
Knowledge of healing skills
3. I know a third, in battle’s need
It fetters any foe
It blunts the edge of enemy swords
Nor wiles nor weapons wound
9. I know a ninth, if I have need
To shelter ship in storm
It quiets the wind and quells the waves
And soothes the sea to sleep
In case anyone is tempted to laugh at these verses and deny the existence of the ability of a shaman to link together sounds to produce a spell, I will remind them of the passage from the New Testament.
Matthew 8:23-27 (New International Version) - Jesus Calms the Storm
23Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him.
24Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.
25The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!"
26He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
27The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"
There are a considerable number of observations on this website related to environmental influence.
The fact that the charms or spells were sung is born out in these two related verses which are about capturing a girl and then keeping her.
16. I know a sixteenth, with that spell
Any girl grants my desires
The white armed maiden’s heart I turn
Her thoughts I turn to me
17. I know a seventeenth, and if
It’s sung it has the power
To keep the girl true to me
And slow to spurn my love
It is also born out in the following:
Time will it take you, Loddfafnir
To learn to sing these songs
Though helpful when you understand
Useful in need and knowing
The High One has sung this in His Hall
Helpful to men; but giants it harms
Hail speaker and knower too
Joy to those who have listened
Understanding the old rune system
The key to understanding their significance is again to understand them less as letters of an alphabet and more symbols of a musical note system. They were thus like the cuneiform system.
The ‘notes’ are formed from straight lines. In the example below, taken from a time when all the original symbolism of the runes had been lost, but the shapes were probably still valid, the runes can be seen as a set of vertical lines with various lines of a non-horizontal nature attached to them.
It has been suggested that runes are formed from straight lines in order to make them easier to carve or record on stone or wood, in effect for much the same reason that cuneiform took on its appearance – the method of recording determined the shape, but ancient peoples worked numerous spirals and concentric circles into their carvings, as such I think this suggestion may be invalid. Instead it is probably more suggestive of their origin in a system of recording sounds which had much in common with the cuneiform system.
One of the most interesting links in the whole system, which suggests a musical connection is the way the runes were divided.
In music, an octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. This relationship, according to Paul Cooper in Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach " is a natural phenomenon which has been referred to as the 'basic miracle of music,'" the use of which is "common in most musical systems.”
In the earliest known Runic symbols there were 24 runes and these were divided into 8 sets of 3. Each set was called an AETT (Iceland), AIRT (Scottish) or AIRD (Irish). According to the descriptions, the three aetts corresponded to the 3 parts of the universe [they thus had a relationship with the Trinity].
If we put this another way, each rune described a vibrational pitch and the vibrational levels were divided into three areas of heaven [levels and layers].
Another connection is the use of the word ‘stave’. In runic descriptions, stave refers to the single upright stem of a runic character – and is probably of the same root as ‘staff’. In standard Western musical notation, the staff or stave is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces, each of which represents a different musical pitch. The notation is different but the roots may be the same. In modern notation, notes – the music symbols - are placed on the staff according to their corresponding pitch or function. The same may be the case with the semi-horizontal lines of the runic symbols – the difference is that the lines were placed on the staff whereas in modern notation, the staff is placed on the lines - but this is pure speculation on my part.
There are also some other strange coincidences between the shapes of the runes and modern music notation, if we compare the three runic symbols on the left and the modern musical notation on the right, you cannot help to spot a similarity, as though the notation was found useful but adapted and used slightly differently.
It is noticeable that there are ancient runic symbols that are not formed from the staff , for example, these too bear a remarkable similarity to modern notation:
And there are some odd symbols formed from the staff but which look almost like letters of the alphabet, for example:
I am not suggesting that their meaning is the same, simply that this adds more weight to the argument that the runes were originally a musical notation that was in a sense also an alphabet.
The use of a staff probably relates in symbolic terms to the tree of life [rod, celestial pole and so on]. But it is worth noting that the word for ‘god’ or at least the pantheon of gods found in Norse mythology is ‘áss’ and Old Norse áss means a "pole, beam, or mountain-ridge". Anderson in his translation of the Prose Edda (1897) similarly states that "in this latter sense, the gods are the pillars of the universe".
Thus the gods were symbolically linked to poles or staffs and mountains. The runic code is thus ‘divine’ because as its foundation it has a pole or staff supporting each note. Even modern day notes bear a passing resemblance to the runes with quavers, double quavers and so on.
An extract from the Rúnatal shows how the word stave was used.
Learned I grew in hidden lore
Prospering in wisdom
Word from word bestowed a word
And deed from deed new doings
You will find runes, and right read staves
String staves, mighty staves of sages
Staves that Bolthorn stained
Graven great by Odin
For Aesir by Odin, for elves by Dain
By Dvalin for the dwarves
By Asvid too for hated giants
And some made for myself
Know how to cut, know how to read
Know how to stain, know how to prove
Know how to ask and sacrifice
And know how to send and destroy
The staves are the key to the note system.
You have to know how to both record and read the notes, to make sure they work and also how to use them in communication with the spirit world – send messages to spirit helpers.
The degeneration and final loss of the system
Two forms of degeneration took place with runes. In the first place the sound associated with the symbol was changed. The old sounds were lost and new sounds to be found in the languages themselves replaced them. In the second place, the symbol systems themselves diverged and the rune symbols changed shape. What we now have therefore is several systems of symbols, which may or may not contain some of the original rune symbols, but none of which represent the original ‘magic’ sound of the ‘Word’.
Lost sounds - We have seen that the sounds and meaning of the runes themselves was lost once witchcraft was stamped out by the Christian church. In effect, the runes became ‘silent’ spiritually.
Even before this happened, however, outside shamanic circles, sounds were being allocated to the runes which matched the needs of a population wanting to communicate person to person using written language. Hence, even before the magic and secret sounds were lost, a sort of parallel system of sound was being evolved to cater for the needs of a written form for language. The ‘letters’ were allocated to the sounds used in everyday speech. As Proto-Germanic evolved into its later language groups, new runes were then added to support new sounds. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon futhorc has several runes peculiar to itself to represent diphthongs unique to (or at least prevalent in) the Anglo-Saxon dialect.
Rune shape changes - A further degeneration in the system occurred as the runes themselves became altered. Each culture both created new runes, changed the shapes of runes, and even stopped using so called ‘obsolete’ runes completely.
This can be evidenced when we look at the problems archaeologists trying to decipher the older runes, have come across. Many are undecipherable using the ‘new’ meanings. There are a number of comments from scholars about the ‘nonsensical sequences’ they have come across in the very very old manuscripts and inscriptions. But some scholars have realised that the older rune systems may have a different purpose
“The earliest runic inscriptions found on artifacts ……. sometimes, remain a linguistic mystery. Due to this, it is possible that the early runes were not so much used as a simple writing system, but rather as magical signs to be used for charms”
In effect, the new rune systems were used to represent the language of communication between people and any of the original uses as a common language of magic was lost. In the mid-1950s, for example, about 600 inscriptions known as the Bryggen inscriptions were found in Bergen. These inscriptions contained inscriptions of an everyday nature—ranging from name tags, personal messages, business letters and expressions of affection to “bawdy phrases of a profane and sometimes even vulgar nature” [good eh, they sound well worth a listen!]. Following this find, it is nowadays commonly assumed that at least in late use, Runic was simply a widespread and common writing system, much like our alphabet.
This means that current rune systems are to a large extent meaningless as any form of record of spiritual communication being a sort of hybrid of letters of the alphabet and sounds used in everyday speech.
Despite this, it is the current runes themselves – the new letters – which seem to have taken on the most importance. In pseudo magical circles, runes have taken on a life of their own, and much of the original symbolism and understanding of them appears to have been totally lost. The letters are incorporated into bangles, amulets and talismans and also used in ‘divination’ by so called ‘rune-masters'.
Additional details are provided on the page on Runes and the Elements
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Beowulf - The Hero's Sword
- Beowulf - Using Battle Runes
- Dickinson, Emily - To hear an oriole sing May be a common thing
- Engel C - Sami shamanic drums and bells
- Led Zeppelin - Battle of Evermore
- Lyall Watson - Ancient Egyptian - Ogham and Runes
- Lyall Watson - Celtic - Ogham and Runes
- Mutwa, Vusamazulu Credo - Ogham and hieroglyphs
- Norse - Jelling
- Poetic Edda - Sayings of the High One [extract]
- Poetic Edda - Sayings of the High One [extract]
- Poetic Edda - Sayings of the High One [extract]
- Poetic Edda - Sayings of the High One [Odin's sacrifice]
- Poetic Edda - The Song of Rig [extract]
- Poetic Edda - The Song of Rig [extract]
- Poetic Edda - Völuspá [extract]
- Saint Brendan - 13 The Voyage of Saint Brendan
- Seven Ages of Man - 06 Dwarfs/The Neanderthals – Keightley and Mithen
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - The Power of the Drum
- Thomas, Dylan - In the Beginning
- Ynglinga saga - 07 Chapter Seven