Heathen’s Journey | What’s the difference between tarot and runes?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here: My primary use for the runes is not, actually, for divination purposes.

While this might be the primary function that a lot of people think of the runes for, I have almost exclusively used them in ritual and spellwork. If I’m working on manifesting something big, using the runes in ritual has been massively helpful throughout my years of practicing witchcraft. Using the runes in ritual can look like a lot of things – one of the most basic things to do is to carve particular runes into your spell candle, or to chant the runes in circle.

After practicing with the runes this way for many years, I’m finally starting to use the runes for divination. I opened up to doing readings for querents at the March blue moon, and it was a really incredible experience.

But it also helped me realize the differences between reading tarot and reading runes.

Yes, they are both systems of divination (or can be used as systems of divination), but they do behave differently, and I’ve found that I use tarot and runes for different sorts of questions. Neither is better than the other, but I do find that the two systems have different personalities.

Asking the right questions: scope and timing

Something that absolutely REVOLUTIONIZED my own tarot practice was pulling a card for myself every day. Just in the morning, pulling a card and meditating on it. I realized that tarot, divination in general, didn’t need to be a huge ritual for just the perfect question. Tarot can be an everyday thing.

Throw your cards in your bag, draw one on your lunch break, bring ’em out at the bar, quick wisdom that can change throughout the day is how I read for myself. Yes, I will every once in a while do a big spread to help me out with a thorny issue, but these are more often seasonal, for special occasions, or when I have a very specific need.

This sort of casual relationship to my tarot deck has not translated to my relationship to runes. When I was first learning to read the runes as a divinatory tool, I tried to pull a rune a day. And … I kept getting the same rune, for multiple days in a row, until I gave up.

I’ve started to think of the runes as a more long-term energy, and tarot as more short-term.

I think of the tarot’s minor arcana as the everyday, and the major arcana being cosmic energy. The addition of the minor arcana really means that there are a lot of everyday, material-world elements of this system. Oracle decks are designed to be drawn from once a day, or even just when you have a specific need, and so they also have an element of the earthly. When major arcana cards come up in readings, I usually read these as high-level energies that speak to big changes going on in your life from a cosmic perspective. Some days, we’re more connected to the cosmic shifts, hence our card of the day will be a major. Some days, we’re more concerned with the earthly, and so the minor arcana will be the card of the day.

In comparison, runes have no chill.

If the major arcana is cosmic energy, and the minor arcana is earthly energy, the runes as I read them are spirit or primal energy. The runes connect me directly to spirit in a way that can be uncomfortable. They also feel less human – as if they are a way of breaking down the barrier between this world and the animal world, as if the runes are an energy not just created for humans but transcends humanity.

So yes, this is a cosmic energy, but it has almost a deeper thrum to it – as if I’ve tapped into a ley line and am able to take that energy up and out of the earth. And that is not an energy that you want to play with any old day or an oracle for casual questions.

In this regard, I see the tarot as an incredibly useful every day tool and ally. The energy of the tarot moves faster, and you are able to ask the tarot more mundane questions and find useful answers. On the other hand, the runes are an extremely powerful tool and often their energy takes longer to change. So for my big questions and seasonal readings, runes are my go-to divination tool.

Useful answers: tarot and the runes

Tarot can be extremely practical. I have done readings around things like “should I make this purchase” or “how do I have this conversation”. The combination of major and minor arcana is really great for coming up with practical answers to questions while keeping a pretty tight scope and timeline.

The runes will sometimes answer in riddles, poetry that I need to write down and work out on my own. Rune readings take me longer – not just because I’m still learning, but also because of the way the message is transmitted. I’ve found that these messages really do work best when given the scope of a season, a year, to work within.

The runes also compel action. They are demanding. Often, tarot feels like a suggestion of what I should do, or what I could do to get a better outcome. Runes demand change, and if I’m not willing to make those changes they will call me the fuck out.

Even now, my primary relationship with the runes are in spell work – and so when I draw runes for divination, the act of a rune reading almost feels like manifestation. It’s a small spell, in and of itself, and if I am to accept all of the messages, there’s almost a request that I do something with the information. Almost as if my promise to do something is a prerequisite for accessing the information provided in a reading. And if I try to read the runes casually … the reading will slip from my memory, much faster than a ‘meh’ tarot reading.

There may come a time when the runes and the tarot are interchangeable as far as systems of divination goes for me, but I don’t think so. They feel too different. And what’s more – with tarot, I already have a system for very practical questions. I have something I can go to on the daily basis, when I’m on the go. I have the oracle that is fine-tuned to the fast energy of my life.

What I need is a connection to spirit realm. I grew up in a haunted house. I’ve had … experiences with spirits making themselves known, whether I’m in circle or not. And over the last year, I’ve been feeling the call to work with spirits again.

The runes are more than happy to serve as a connection to spirit realm. It’s like they’re a language that I can use to communicate directly with not only my ancestors, but other spirits. I’ve used the tarot this way too, but the runes feel more communicative.

(But this is another essay … one that I’ll feel much better writing after I’ve spent some more time with the runes.)

Reading runes for others

Reading runes for other people is still definitely an experiment for me. I’m a bit too bashful to read for people in person (that and I’m still learning the system, and it’s super complicated, so it takes me a long time to do).

I opened up my books for email rune readings during the March full moon, and the feedback I got was largely positive – and also some “seriously how did you do this”.

A couple of people asked questions that are a bit lighter – but when I drew the runes and placed them for the realms of Yggdrasil, they immediately went to a deeper place. A question like “what’s going on with that cute boy?” became a deep introspection on repeated bad relationships, ancestral trauma, and reparations. Which turned out to be exactly what was going on for the querent – though not at all what they anticipated getting in return.

Part of this is my own lack of expertise in working with this oracle – I do think that the more practised the reader, the more the tool bends to suit the question that is actually being asked. Runes are still an energy that I don’t have full control over.

But it is also firmly within my own ethics not to shy away from the deep topics, to ask the hard questions and go all in.

I definitely want to open myself up for reading for others more often, most likely around the Full Moon (or Dark Moon), as well as holidays. Hopefully this post can help us both to contemplate the right questions to ask this powerful force for divination.

6 comments

    • Abbie Plouff
      Abbie Plouff says:

      Honestly, you can really do either – I have a set that I made a long time ago, and I also have a set that I bought last fall. I primarily use the set I bought, actually. If you do buy a set, you can initiate the runes and personalize it that way. Part of the reason I use the set I bought is the wood it’s made out of. The runes are carved in Hawthorn, which is a plant ally that I work with quite a bit in other areas as well, whereas the runes I made are basically scrap wood and I don’t have a deep connection to the particular tree or bush they came from.

      I do encourage people to make their own, but I totally understand that’s not always possible (sometimes we just don’t have any time at all and just want to get the thing.) You could always buy a set, and then make your own custom set later. When you make a custom set, definitely think about your own associations with trees. Yew and Hawthorn are both extremely traditional trees to create a rune set from.

  1. Wren says:

    “Runes have no chill” is my favorite thing ever, and also a really great aspect to remember as I begin delving in.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I no longer use runes much, for anything, as my practice has drifted more towards the Hellenic, but my understanding of the runes is as individual spirits themselves, ones that Odin was the first to know, and he paved the way for us to know them. The Tarot, on the other hand, I do not experience as a collection of separate spirits individual to the cards, but as a single spirit per deck, attached to the design of the deck instead of the individual physical deck, and in a much quieter way.

    Thought you might find it interesting.

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