There are a lot of misconceptions about runes and how they were used by the Vikings, this short guide aims to provide a simple introduction to where they came from and how they were used
What are Runes?
The Runes are the characters of an ancient writing system, equivalent to our modern alphabet. The first six characters of the rune row make the word “Futhark” and that is why the different sets of runes are known as futharks. Each rune represents a different sound, and runes are combined phonetically to spell words. Unlike our alphabet, each of the runes also has its own meaning which represents an important idea or concept, this allowed the runes to be used for esoteric purposes as well as linguistic purposes. The word Rune comes from the Germanic root “runa” which means secret or whisper
The history of the Runes?
Some people think that the elder futhark is the oldest writing in existence but that is not the case, the earliest runic inscriptions that have been found were in use among the Germanic peoples from the 1st or 2nd century CE. This futhark is known as the Elder (or Germanic) Futhark, a sequential listing of the all 24 runes of the Elder Futhark was found on the Kylver Stone in Gotland, Sweden which has been dated to approximately AD 400. Long before the runes came in to use people were reading and writing in languages including Latin and Greek. This means the runes were almost certainly invented by people already familiar with Latin (The Germanic people often served as mercenaries in the Roman army) which suggests they were deliberately looking for “secret” or even “magical” writing.
What do Norse myths say about the Runes?
According to the myths the goddess Frejya brought the knowledge of magic to the Aesir, Odin learned the runes by sacrificing himself to himself on the world ash Yggdrasil for nine days until he had a vision which revealed the runes. Heimdall then shared the knowledge of the runes with people.
What were the runes used for?
Runes were used for writing, sometimes just ordinary every day writing, sometimes inscriptions on monuments to commemorate something important, sometimes to add magical enchantments to items. Runes were definitely used for magical purposes. Not only is this use described in ancient writings such as the Eddas, but there have been many artefacts found whose runic inscriptions do not make linguistic sense but which do make sense in terms of magic. Unfortunately the ancients left very little information about how to use runes for magical purposes, although people in modern times have had varying degrees of success in working it out for themselves. It is much less likely that the runes were used for divination, there is no reference to runic divination in the surviving written records although they do tell us the Vikings used other methods of seeking divine inspiration
Today the runes can be used to gain an insight into the values of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe during the Dark Ages. They can be used in meditation and in healing. They can be used in magic and in divination, they can be used to write ‘secret messages’ they are fascinating to study and to use whether your purpose is modern or understanding the past.
There are many books dealing with runes, but most focus on the modern use of runes for divination rather than the history and original uses. If you want to learn more about the runes in their historical context I would recommend starting with the Anglo Saxon Rune Poem and the following original sources, all of which can be found online and in books in various translations:• Freyja and Magic – Yngling Saga – part of the Heimskringl• Odin learning the runes – Hávamál, part of the Codex Regius• Heimdall sharing the runes with people – Rígsþula or Lay of Ríg, part of the Codex Wormianu• Runes used for magic – Egil’s Saga and Sigrdrífumálfrom the Codex Regius