Runes are the ancient Norse alphabet used for communication, divination, and magical work. Here, American runologist Edred Thorsson provides an in-depth guide to the world of runes for beginners and enthusiasts alike. Thorsson's presentation of this powerful system provides a valuable tool for self-development and spiritual transformation.
The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic:
- Introduces the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark along with their definitions and mystical properties
- Explores the historical lore of runes using archaeological evidence to explain where the runes come from, what they mean, and how they evolved
- Reveals the hidden lore and esoteric dimension of runes, looking at the cosmology of the Old Norse to explain the role runes played and how they were used over time
- Includes specific sections on rune magic and divination, rune poems, and runic numerology, as well as instructions on how to make your own runes and imbue them with numinous power, arrange the optimum setting for a rune reading, and prepare yourself psychologically and spiritually for casting the runes
This book includes material from the author's previous books Futhark, Runelore, and Runecaster's Handbook.
About the Author
Edred Thorsson is an American Runologist and proponent of occultism and Germanic mysticism. He received his doctorate in Germanic languages and Medieval Studies from the University of Texas and has published over two dozen on Esoteric Runology. He lives in Texas. Visit him at: www.runaraven.com.
Read an Excerpt
(TO 800 C.E.)
This chapter is intended to provide the runer with a basic outline of runic history and development from the oldest times to around 800 C.E. (or the beginning of the Viking Age) and includes a section on the Old English and Frisian traditions that continue beyond that time frame. It is necessary for anyone entering upon the esoteric study of the runes to have a fundamental notion of the historical context of the tradition. The discussion here will provide the foundation for this task; independent readings and studies must build the larger edifice. The majority of the information contained in this first part of the book has been gleaned from scholarly works on runology (see Bibliography). The exoteric facts and interpretations contained in these pages will serve the runer well as an introduction to the wondrous world of rune wisdom developed in later parts of the book.
The Word Rune
The most common definition for the word rune is "one of the letters of an alphabet used by ancient Germanic peoples." This definition is the result of a long historical development, the entirety of which we must come to know before we can see how incomplete such a definition is. Actually, these "letters" are much more than signs used to represent the sounds of a language. They are in fact actual mysteries, the actual "secrets of the universe," as one who studies them long and hard enough will learn.
Rune as a word is only found in the Germanic and Celtic languages. Its etymology is somewhat uncertain. There are, however, two possible etymologies: (1) from Proto-Indo-European *reu- (to roar and to whisper), which would connect it with the vocal performance of magical incantations, and (2) from Proto-Indo-European *gwor-won-, which would connect it to the Greek and Old Indic gods Ouranos and Varuna, respectively, giving the meaning of "magical binding." This is also an attribute of Odin. The word may have had the essential meaning of "mystery" from the beginning.
In any case, a Germanic and Celtic root *runo- can be established, from which it developed in the various Germanic dialects. That the word is very archaic in its technical sense is clear from its universal attribution with a rich meaning. The root is found in every major Germanic dialect (see table 1.1). What is made clear from the evidence of this table is that "rune" is an ancient, indigenous term and that the oldest meaning was in the realm of the abstract concept (mystery), not as a concrete sign (letter). The definition "letter" is strictly secondary, and the primary meaning must be "mystery."
This root is also found in the Celtic languages, where we find Old Irish r?n (mystery or secret) and Middle Welsh rhin (mystery). Some people have argued that the root was borrowed from Celtic into Germanic; however, more have argued the reverse because the Germanic usages are more vigorous, widespread, and richer in meaning. Another possibility is that it is a root shared by the two Indo-European dialects and that there is no real question of borrowing in the strict sense. Perhaps the term also was borrowed into Finnish from Germanic in the form runo (a song, a canto of the Kalevala), but the Finnish word may actually come from another Germanic word meaning "row" or "series."
Although the word is clearly of common Germanic stock, the actual word in modern English is not a direct descendant from the Old English run but was borrowed from late scholarly (seventeenth-century) Latin — runa (adjective, runicus) — which in turn was borrowed from the Scandinavian languages.
The Odian definition of rune is complex and is based on the oldest underlying meaning of the word — a mystery, archetypal secret lore. These are the impersonal patterns that underlie the substance/nonsubstance of the multiverse and that constitute its being/nonbeing. Each of these runes also may be analyzed on at least three levels:
Form (ideograph and phonetic value)
Idea (symbolic content)
Number (dynamic nature, revealing relationships to the other runes)
With the runes, as with their Teacher, Odin, all things may be identified — and may be negated. Therefore, any definition that makes use of "profane" language must remain inadequate and incomplete.
Throughout this book, when the word rune is used, it should be considered in this complex light; whereas the terms runestave, or simple stave, will be used in discussions of them as physical letters or signs.
Early Runic History
The systematic use of runestaves dates from at least 50 C.E. (the approximate date of the Meldorf brooch) to the present. However, the underlying traditional and hidden framework on which the system was constructed cannot be discussed in purely historical terms — it is ahistorical.
Essentially, the history of the runic system spans four epochs: (1) the elder period, from the first century C.E. to about 800 C.E.; (2) the younger period, which takes us to about 1100 (these two periods are expressions of unified runic traditions bound in a coherent symbology); (3) the middle period, which is long and disparate and which witnessed the decay of the external tradition and its submersion into the unconscious; and finally, (4) the periods of rebirth. Although the use of runes continued in an unbroken (but badly damaged) tradition in remote areas of Scandinavia, most of the deep-level runework took place in revivalist schools after about 1600.
It may be argued that a historical study is actually unnecessary or even detrimental for those who wish to plumb the depths of that timeless, ahistorical, archetypal reality of the runes themselves. But such an argument would have its drawbacks. Accurate historical knowledge is necessary because conscious tools are needed for the rebirth of the runes from the unconscious realms; the modern runic investigator must know the origins of the various structures that come into contact with the conscious mind. Only in this context can the rebirth occur in a fertile field of growth. For this to take place, the runer must have a firm grasp on the history of the runic tradition. For without the roots the branches will wither and die. In addition, the analytical observation and rational interpretation of objective data (in this case the historical runic tradition) is fundamental to the development of the whole runemaster and vitki. If a system is not rooted in an objective tradition, many erroneous elements can more easily find their way into the thinking process of the practitioner. Clarity and precision are valuable tools for inner development.
As the runes (mysteries) are ahistorical, they must also be without ultimate origin — they are timeless. When we speak of runic origins, we are more narrowly concerned with the origins of the traditions of the futhark stave system. The questions of archetypal runic origins will be taken up later on. The runes may indeed be said to have passed through many doors on the way to our perceptions of them and to have undergone many "points of origin" in the worlds.
There are several theories on the historical origins of the futhark system and its use as a mode of writing for the Germanic dialects. These are essentially four in number: the Latin theory, the Greek theory, the North-Italic (or Etruscan) theory, and the indigenous theory. Various scholars over the years have subscribed to one or the other of these theories; more recently a reasonable synthesis has been approached, but it is still an area of academic controversy.
The Latin or Roman theory was first stated scientifically by L. F. A. Wimmer in 1874. Those who adhere to this hypothesis generally believe that as the Germanic peoples came into closer contact with Roman culture (beginning as early as the second century B.C.E. with the invasion of the Cimbri and Teutones from Jutland), along the Danube (at Carnuntum) and the Rhine (at Cologne, Trier, etc.), the Roman alphabet was adapted and put to use by the Germans. Trade routes would have been the means by which the system quickly spread from the southern region to Scandinavia and from there to the east. This latter step is necessary because the oldest evidence for the futhark is not found near the Roman limes and spheres of influence but rather in the distant northern and eastern reaches of Germania. The idea of trade routes poses no real problem to this theory because such routes were well established from even more remote times. The Mycenaean tombs in present-day Greece (ca. 1400–1150 B.C.E.) contain amber from the Baltic and from Jutland, for example. More recently, Erik Moltke has theorized that the futhark originated in the Danish region and was based on the Roman alphabet.
This theory still holds a number of adherents, and some aspects of it, which we will discuss later, show signs of future importance. In any case, the influence of the cultural elements brought to the borderlands of the Germanic peoples by the Romans cannot be discounted in any question of influence during the period between approximately 200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E.
It must be kept in mind when discussing these theories that we are restricted to questions of the origin of the idea of writing with a phonetic system (alphabet) among the Germanic peoples in connection with the runic tradition, and not with the genesis of the underlying system or tradition itself.
The Greek theory, first put forward by Sophus Bugge in 1899, looks more to the east for the origins of this writing system. In this hypothesis it is thought that the Goths adapted a version of the Greek cursive script during a period of contact with Hellenic culture along the Black Sea, from where it was transmitted back to the Scandinavian homeland of the Goths. There is, however, a major problem with this theory because the period of Gothic Greek contact in question could not have started before about 200 C.E., and the oldest runic inscriptions date from well before that time. For this reason most scholars have long since abandoned this hypothesis. The only way to save it is to prove a much earlier, as yet undocumented connection between the two cultures in question. More research needs to be done in this area. Also, it is probable that Hellenistic ideas, even if they played no role in runic origins, may have had a significant part in the formation of some elements of the traditional system.
The North-Italic or Etruscan theory was first proposed by C. J. S. Marstrander in 1928 and was subsequently modified and furthered by Wolfgang Krause, among others, in 1937. Historically, this hypothesis supposes that Germanic peoples living in the Alps adopted the North-Italic script at a relatively early date — perhaps as early as 300 B.C.E. — when the Cimbri came into contact with it and passed it on to the powerful Suevi (or Suebi), from whom it quickly spread up the Rhine and along the coast of the North Sea to Jutland and beyond. There can be no historical objections to the plausibility of this scenario, except for the fact that the initial contact came some three to four hundred years before we have any record of actual runic inscriptions.
As a matter of fact, there is an example of Germanic language written in the North-Italic alphabet — the famous helmet of Negau (from ca. 300 B.C.E.). The inscription may be read from right to left in figure 1.1.
The inscription may be read in words Harigasti teiwai and translated "to the god Harigast (Odin)," or "Harigastiz [and] Teiwaz!" In any case the root meanings of the first two words of the inscription are clear. Hari-gastiz (the guest of the army) and Teiwaz (the god Tyr). In later times, it would be normal to expect Odin to be identified by a nickname of this type, and we may well have an early example of it here. Also, this would be an early proof of the ancient pairing of the two Germanic sovereign deities (see chapter 13).
As can be seen from the Negau inscription, the scripts in question bear many close formal correspondences to the runestaves; however, some phonetic values would have to have been transferred. No one Etruscan alphabet forms a clear model for the entire futhark. An unfortunate footnote to runic history has recently been added by a certain occult writer who in two books has represented a version of the Etruscan script as "the runic alphabet." This has perhaps led to some confusion among those attempting to unravel runic mysteries.
The idea that the runes are a purely indigenous Germanic script originated in the late nineteenth century and gained great popularity in National Socialist Germany. This theory states that the runes are a primordial Germanic invention and that they are even the basis for the Phoenician and Greek alphabets. This hypothesis cannot be substantiated because the oldest runic inscriptions date from the first century C.E. And the oldest Phoenician ones date from the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.E. When this theory was first expounded by R. M. Meyer in 1896, the runes were seen as an originally ideographic (the misnomer used was "hieroglyphic") system of writing that then developed into an alphabetic system acrophonetically (i.e., based on the first sound of the names attached to the ideograph). One aspect of this is probably correct: the Germanic peoples seem to have had an ideographic system, but it does not appear to have been used as a writing system, and it is here that the indigenous theory goes astray. It is possible that the ideographic system influenced the choice of runestave shapes and sound values.
From the available physical evidence it is most reasonable to conclude that the runestave system is the result of a complex development in which both indigenous ideographs and symbol systems and the alphabetic writing systems of the Mediterranean played significant roles. The ideographs were probably the forerunners of the runestaves (hence the unique rune names), and the prototype of the runic system (order, number, etc.) is probably also to be found in some native magical symbology.
One piece of possible evidence we have for the existence of a pre-runic symbol system is the report of Tacitus in chapter 10 of his Germania (ca. 98 C.E.), where he mentions certain notae (signs) carved on strips of wood in the divinatory rites of the Germans. Although the recent discovery of the Meldorf brooch has pushed back the date of the oldest runic inscription to a time before Tacitus wrote the Germania, these still could have been some symbol system other than the futhark proper. In any case, it is fairly certain that the idea of using such things as a writing system, as well as the influence governing the choice of certain signs to represent specific sounds, was an influence from the southern cultures.
In the end it is most likely that the runes originated in the Latin script. The amount of economic and cultural exchange between Rome and Germania was far more vigorous than is often assumed. What is most interesting about the whole process is that the Germanic people did not just accept the Latin script as a practical way of writing (as other peoples did), but rather they entirely reformed it in a variety of ways to make it part of their own unique and particular worldview. It is this incontestable fact that most obviously leads reasonable people to conclude that there is something mysterious about the runes. They encode esoteric cultural secrets.
This summarizes the story with regard to the exoteric sciences. But what more can be said about the esoteric aspects of runic origins? The runes themselves, as has been said, are without beginning or end; they are eternal patterns in the substance of the multiverse and are omnipresent in all of the worlds. But we can speak of the origin of the runes in human consciousness (and as a matter of fact this is the only point at which we can begin to speak about the "origins" of anything).
For this we turn to the Elder or Poetic Edda and to the holy rune song of the "Hávamál," stanzas 138 to 165, the so-called "Rúnatals tháttr Ódhins" (see also chapter 8). There, Odin recounts that he hung for nine nights on the World Tree, Yggdrasill, in a form of self-sacrifice. This constitutes the runic initiation of the god Odin: he approaches and sinks into the realm of death in which he receives the secrets, the mysteries of the multiverse — the runes themselves — in a flash of inspiration. He is then able to return from that realm, and now it is his function to teach the runes to certain of his followers in order to bring wider consciousness, wisdom, magic, poetry, and inspiration to the world of Midhgardhr — and to all of the worlds. This is the central work of Odin, the Master of Inspiration.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic"
Copyright © 2018 Edred Thorsson.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Historical Lore
Chapter 1 Elder Runes 3
Chapter 2 Viking Age Runes 23
Chapter 3 Medieval Runes 37
Chapter 4 Modern Runic History 43
Chapter 5 Contemporary Runic Revival 54
Chapter 6 Historical Rune Magic and Divination 57
Chapter 7 Runic Codes 72
Chapter 8 Rune Poems 76
Part 2 Hidden Lore
Chapter 9 Inner Runelore 95
Chapter 10 Esoteric Cosmology 117
Chapter 11 Runic Numerology 129
Chapter 12 Runic Psychology 135
Chapter 13 Runelore of the Gods 141
Chapter 14 Sitting at the Well of Wyrd 163
Chapter 15 Runic Divinatory Theory 166
Chapter 16 Runic Symbolism and Divinatory Tables 170
Chapter 17 The Tools of Runecasting 200
Chapter 18 Rites of Runecasting 203
Chapter 19 The Ways of Runecasting 208
Part 4 Rune Magic
Chapter 20 The Rune World 229
Chapter 21 Foundations of Rune Magic 237