Sunday, November 26, 2006

Using Runes: Starting

Runes were the first comprehensive script used by the peoples of central and northern Europe. They are accessible to all who share this inheritance, and who approach the Runes with the right attitude.

The original 24-Rune Futhark was developed, probably from a combination of Etruscan, Greek, Italic and early Germanic symbols, around 250bce. In Norse mythology the god Odin is credited with the discovery of the Runes after being hanged on the World Tree for a period of 9 days. 'Futhark' has the same meaning as 'alphabet' and is constructed in a similar manner, using the initial sounds of the first 6 Runes. The Anglo-Saxons later added a further 9 Runes, while the Scandinavians eventually cut the number down to 16. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century a German called Guido von List invented an 18-rune Futhark known as the Armanen Futhark. It was this Armanen Futhark that was later appropriated by the Third Reich. Since it has no archaeological validity, it is beyond the scope of this essay. The 24-Rune 'Elder Furthark' is the earliest Futhark, was used for the longest time-period, and is considered the standard today.

The traditional tripartition of the 24 runes is: FEHU to WUNJO = first aett; HAGALAZ to SOWILO = second aett; TIWAZ to OTHALA = third aett. 'Aett' simply means 'group of eight' and each group is traditionally ruled over by different male and female cosmic forces, in accordance with George Dumezil's tri-functional hypothesis of Aryan mythology and culture.

It is always best to make your own Runes, rather than relying on commercially manufactured Runes. This is easy to do, whether on wood (as is traditional), stone, bone or metal.


Sometimes the last two runes (DAGAZ and OTHALA) are swapped around, especially when the runes are used for measuring time, so that DAGAZ is the last rune - marking mid-day. If you want to use the runes as a clock, then the runes follow each other on the half-hour, starting with FEHU (12:30-13:30), then URUZ (13:30-14:30) and so on, until DAGAZ (11:30-12:30); so that the middle of the “hour-glass” shape of the DAGAZ Runestave marks mid-day exactly.

Mid-day is to the day as mid-Summer is to the year, so you can also use the runes as a calendar, with the central point of DAGAZ indicating mid-Summer, and the central break of JERA marking the Winter Solstice. The rest of the runes, each lasting for a period of just over a fortnight, can be plotted around these two dates. Notice how the Winter runes – HAGALAZ (hail); NAUTHIZ (need); ISA (ice) and EIHWAZ (yew – an evergreen) crowd around the coldest time of year. The same is true with the other runes: SOWILO (sunshine) and BERKANO (birch-tree) in Spring; GEBO (gift) and WUNJO (joy) at harvest-time. Uncanny, isn't it? We can only hope that seasonal changes due to climate change don't knock these correspondences out of kilter.

Rune Poems and the Esoteric Meaning of the Runes

Our main sources for the esoteric understanding of the Runes are the Anglo-Saxon, Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic Rune poems. The two latter Rune poems are based on the Scandinavian 16-Rune 'Younger Futhark', hence the apparent gaps in the verses. Each of the Rune-poems could be nothing more than mnemonics (“A is for apple” etc.), although that's unlikely, given their consistency, internal logic and spiritual resonance.

Some people interpret the Runes depending on whether the facing Rune is upside down or not, but there is no evidence in the traditional literature that Rune-casters, or 'Erulians', took any notice of the directions of individual staves when casting the Runes. It's most likely an innovation taken from tarot cards, so can be safely ignored. Even worse, some modern Rune-sets include a “blank-rune”, also taken from non-Germanic fortune-telling techniques. This is an abomination, which should be stamped out! The word 'Erulian' is from the Germanic Heruli tribe, who are believed to have spread knowledge of the Runes across Europe and who practiced ritual homosexuality.

There is enough to learn from Runes: times, seasons, and in particular and most interestingly the roots of words (e.g. 'Fee' and 'Feudalism', 'Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum' from FEHU; ur – meaning 'proto' in German, or 'first', from URUZ etc.), and concepts that were important to our ancestors in an agriculturally-based society, without getting into the whole esoteric stuff.

This is how I think the Runes can initially best be used – as a link to understanding the past and a stimulus for the creative imagination – rather than for tawdry magic. At their best they express eternal patterns within the European mind, Jung's archetypes if you will, and should be contemplated poetically.

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