The Elder Futhark
The first evidence we have of runic writing is primarily in the form of names engraved on combs and other personal items. The runes used straight lines, because they were primarily carved: it is hard to make curves when carving. This early runic writing is called The Elder Futhark, despite being non-standardized in the early centuries.
The Younger Futharks
Later, kings and wealthy men began having runestones carved, mostly in Younger Futharks. This practice coincided with the early efforts at Christianizing Northern Europe, so more of the Runestones contain Christian poetry and imagery than contain pagan.
“Wait,” you might ask. “Everything so far has been about the runes as a writing system. I thought they were a system of divination, like Tarot? I didn’t sign on to learn a new alphabet.”
And many strict reconstructionist neo-heathens agree with you. They say that there is no evidence that the runes were ever used historically as anything but a writing system.
But I think that they are wrong. The earliest writing about the Germanic peoples is a book called Germania by the ancient Roman historian Publius Tacitus in 98 CE. Tacitus wrote in his book on the culture of the people North of him that:
“Augury and divination by lot no people practise more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment.”Tacitus, Germania, Stanza 10
Modern neo-heathens who use runes in divination act under the assumption that the strange marks carved into the wood are the runes. We have no other surviving marks which would have been strange to a Roman observer from the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, so we choose to assume that the runes are it.
The Rune Poems
Our best source of information as to how the ancient peoples interpreted the runes comes from a collection of three rune poems, the Icelandic, Norwegian, and Old English rune poems. These three rune poems contain descriptions of each rune.
Again, we don’t know if these rune poems were how the ancient peoples interpreted the runes in divination or in magic, but we have no other descriptions of the runes to go by. Many say that the rune poems were more like A is for Apple, B is for Ball, to teach people how to write with the runes. It’s possible that they’re right.
Wait, Then Why Am I Doing This?
Over the course of the past century or so, a form of magic and divination called Galdr has been developed by neo-pagans and neo-heathens in which we work with the runes as if the rune poems tell us things about their nature. Whether it was true of the ancient peoples or not, it is true of modern peoples that Fehu means wealth and Isa means ice.
This is the magical system I will be teaching you. It is a modern magical system, based on Norse mythology and culture, the rune poems, and a healthy dose of UPG (unverifiable personal gnosis) by well-read authors over the past century.
Note: Galdr is not explicitly pagan: All three rune poems make at least oblique references to either Jesus or the Christian god. If this was used as a magical system during the migration era when the poems would have been composed, it was being used by Christians who knew the stories of Odin, Thor, and Tyr.
There is a way that each futhark was written down, and it was remarkably consistent. A large fraction of the runic inscriptions we have still surviving are of the runes broken into three rows (four for the Anglo-Saxon futhorc). These rows are called aetts. In the Elder Futhark, there are eight runes in each aett. In the most common Younger Futharks, there are 16 runes broken into three aetts. In the most common Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, there is a fourth row containing four additional runes.
Many modern magical practitioners ascribe esoteric meanings to these aetts. Each is named after a god whose name begins with that letter: Frey’s Aett, Heimdal’s Aett, and Tyr’s Aett. (You will sometimes also sometimes see the first two aetts named after goddesses: Freya/Frigga’s Aett and Hel’s Aett. The third aett is always Tyr’s.)
Unfortunately, we have no consistent esoteric magical meaning for the aetts from one modern author to another, and no historical evidence for the aetts having a magical meaning. In this blog, I will use the aetts as a convenient grouping, but I will not be talking about them as being specifically magical.
By this point in the post, most neo-heathens will have something to be mad at me about, so the only thing I will address in this last section of this post is the mythical origin of the runes.
The god Odin, king of Asgard, lived the full Fool’s Journey. When he got to The Hanged Man, he took it a little further than is probably a good idea: He hanged himself from the world tree, Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, a sacrifice of himself to himself. He even pierced himself with his own spear, Gungnir.
When he was in full Ten of Swords mode, he had a vision. The runes came to him in this vision and he learned the magic of Galdr. He then got down from the tree and taught the magic to four others: a dwarf named Dvallin, an elf named Dain, a jotun named Asvid, and an unnamed human. Each of them brought the runes back to their own people and taught everyone who would learn.