Heathen’s Journey: An explanation of the runes & how to use them

The leaves are turning, the apple cider’s brewed, and the veil thins: it’s officially fall.

Fall is one of the best times to explore new mysteries, to explore a new magical practice. Mabon was the perfect time for me to initiate myself into a year of dedication to working with the runes. I took the opportunity on the autumnal equinox to cook myself a feast, give thanks for the wisdom of the last year, and step forward on my heathen’s journey.

This started as a rather long post – I wanted to give you my runic initiation ritual and also provide you with an initiation ritual. But then I realized I wanted to first answer more questions about what the runes are, and you probably have some questions before you’re ready.

While working with the runes is more common here in Minnesota (we have a LOT of Scandinavians here), I know that this wisdom isn’t as present in other parts of the pagan community. And so, before I launch into a full-on description of my initiation, I want to answer a few questions you may have.

What are the runes?

The runes are a deep, multi-faceted relic of ancient pagan practice. They are not only an alphabet, but a series of magical symbols that are directly connected to the Norse pantheon.

Many heathens who work with the runes also study Old Norse and other Scandinavian languages, as well as study anthropology and archeology. While I was in Norway, I actually did get to see one of the world’s largest collections of rune artifacts in Bergen. Some of the rune sticks carried poetry, some grocery lists, some messages, and some code.

The runic alphabet is called a futhark. There are multiple futharks, but Nordic witches primarily work with the Elder Futhark. There is also a Younger Futhark, as well as an Anglo-Saxon Futhark.

Here’s the Elder Futhark:

f fehu u uruz th,þ thurisaz a ansuz r raidho k kenaz g gefu w wunjo
h hagalaz n naudhiz i isa j jera ï,ei eihwaz p perthro z elhaz s sowilo
t tiwaz b berkano e ehwaz m mannaz l laguz ? ingwaz d dagaz o othala

You’ll notice that the futhark is divided into three lines of 8 runes each. These are referred to as aetts. Each aett has its own cosmology, and in a way, its own journey – much like the journey of the Major Arcana in tarot.

I have some theories about the journey through the aetts, but I will share these later – once we are collectively more familiar with the runes.

Because the runes are first and foremost an ancient alphabet, literate Norse ancestors used them in everyday life. Many of the rune sticks that have been recovered contain very simple messages. Much like if someone were to find your grocery list or doodles hundreds of years in the future.

One of the world’s largest collections of rune sticks is in Bergen, Norway. While I was in Norway last summer, I got the chance to see the public exhibition at the Bryggens museum. Most of these runes come from the middle ages, when Bergen was a flourishing medieval fishing port.

There are lots of runic inscriptions that read like graffiti – a lot of “Sigurd was here.” One of the most famous rune sticks found at Bryggen is the saying “Gyda says that you are to go home.” Runes were in continued use as an alphabet even as Scandinavia was moving toward Christianity – it took time to abandon the futhark for the Latin alphabet.

The runes in spellcraft + divination

Just as our Latin alphabet is used in magic, the futhark (runic alphabet) was used in spellcraft. For the modern practitioner, using the runes rather than your everyday alphabet can help to put you in the mindset of sacred ritual, because the use of a different alphabet will take you out of your everyday.

There is also evidence that the runes were used in magic. One of the rune sticks found at Bryggen contains the inscription for what appears to be a protection spell and a love spell:

Edited text

Side A:
Ríst ek bótrúnar,
ríst ek bjargrúnar,
einfalt við álfum,
tvífalt við tröllum,
þrífalt við þursum

Side B:
við inni skœðu
skag-valkyrju,
svá at ei megi
þó at æ vili
lævís kona
lífi þínu

Side C:
Ek sendi þér,
ek sé á þér
ylgjar ergi ok óþola.
Á þér renni óþoli
ok ‘ioluns’ móð.
Sittu aldri,
sof þu aldri

Side D:
ant mér sem sjalfri þér.

Possible translation

I carve remedy-runes,
I carve protection runes,
once over by álfar,
twice over by trõll (‘?magic-workers, trolls’)
thrice over by þursar (‘?magic-workers, giants’)

by the harmful
‘?skag’-valkyrja,
so that you may have no power of action
though you always want,
?crafty woman,
in your life

I send to you,
I chant on you
a she-wolf’s lust and restlessness.
May restlessness come over you
and a j?tunn’s fury (reading iotuns).
Never sit,
never sleep.

 

love me as you love yourself.

source 1

It’s unclear whether these are a part of the same spell or different spells – love spells, especially this kind of love magic, tend to be considered dark, and the protection may have been necessary because of the nature of the spell.

I have used the runes primarily for spellcraft, because each rune represents a concept such as “gift” for Gefu, “year” for Jera, or “giant” for Thurisaz. In this way the runes can provide a strong representation of the energy that you want to work with in your spell. Often, I will carve a series of runes into a candle I’m using to work magic. You can sing or chant the runes to raise their energy in the circle. A lot of heathenry is very close to earth.

Seidh is an old form of magic that is referenced in the Norse myths that is very primal – raw energy raised in very physical ways. Runes can be used in seidh, but it is a distinct form of magic all its own. I’ll also explore the seidh ways in this series, but it is its own subject.

You can draw runes from a bag for a simple reading (1-rune read of a situation or a past, present, future spread). One of the more complex ways of reading runes is through throwing them over a rune cloth. The cloth usually has a circle on it, and is divided into four quadrants (or twelve houses). Those runes that fall outside of the circle are not considered in the divination. Then, depending on where the runes fall and their relationship to one another on the cloth, you can divine a more thorough reading.

More is coming on this later as well.


Creating your own rune set

Yes, you can purchase rune sets – but if you purchase rather than create your set, you will need to take special care to build a body relationship to your runes. The runes are an alphabet, and they must be made sacred in how you use them.

Because creating your own rune set is relatively easy to do, I highly recommend that you make your own set before you purchase any. You can do this by cutting disks off a branch and burning or carving the rune into them. You can also paint the runes onto stones of your choice. Many rune sets that you can purchase are the runes carved on turned amethyst. I like the feel of the stone runes, but the set that I use is still the one that I made almost ten years ago from a willow switch.

Many rune workers will initiate their runes in a special ceremony. It is traditional to prick your finger and trace the outline of the runes with your own blood. This creates a deep connection to your runes that is a lived, bodily experience. You will notice that many sets paint the runes on with red – this is why, it’s hearkening to this tradition of painting the runes with blood.

I’ve been feeling the call to create a new rune set, now that I have initiated myself into learning. I’m hoping to carve them from ash this time, as the great tree Yggdrasil is said to be an ash tree.


That’s all I have for you today! My next post for you will be an initiation ceremony for working with the runes. In between sharing rituals and magic practices, I will be answering questions about the runes, ancient Scandinavian culture, and I may even have an interview with a Viking archaeologist for you!

What questions do you still have about runic practice? What would you like to see from this column?

Let me know in the comments! I’m still new to the rune journey, but have been surrounded by nordic practice in many ways, so if you’re curious about a particular aspect of rune magic, let me know!

 

1  John McKinnell, Rudolf Simek and Klaus Duwel, Runes, Magic and Religion: A Sourcebook, Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia, 10 (Vienna: Fassbaender, 2004), pp. 131-32 [P 6]; Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Anglo-Saxon Studies, 8 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 134.

6 comments

  1. Vincent says:

    Thank you for bringing some attention to one of our most familiar Northern divinatory practises! As a fun aside, the word aett, or ätt, means “lineage”, or “family tree”.

    • Abbie Plouff
      Abbie Plouff says:

      Ahh that’s so cool! Mind if I add that info to the body of the text? I’ve got my own theories about the different aetts, but need to do more research before I post anything about it.

  2. mceeves says:

    Lately I’ve been getting drawn to Futhark runes, a little in part due to finding out I’m partially of Scandinavian descent and I’ve had an interest in the past. Since deciding to go through with learning them, I’ve seen posts such as this one spring up all of a sudden (as well as a couple of other signs/readings) so I’ll take that as a sign that I made a good decision!

    Thank you for the info!

  3. Diana says:

    So great! Very looking forward to this series. One thing that could be good would be a list resources for digging more into rune lore, like Eldred Thorsson’s works and so forth.

  4. jmk (Judy) says:

    There’s certainly something about this time of year. I’ve also felt the urge to work more closely with my rune stones this month. Thank you for an informative article. I’m looking forward to future posts.

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