Runemarks – Using Runes

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Most readers will already be familiar with the concept of runes. From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, runes have been portrayed with more or less accuracy throughout fantasy fiction as mystical symbols, magic charms and a means of telling the future.

The Nazis were fascinated by runes and their meanings, and are responsible for having spread a great deal of confusion and misinformation about them. As a result, the nature of runes in general has often been misunderstood, and some of the symbols, like the now infamous swastika, are generally seen as signs of evil.

The truth is that there are many aspects to the runes. No-one knows where they came from, but in a time where stone, and not paper, was the writing material of choice, the straight, simple lines of a runic alphabet were by far the easiest form of record, and so runic-style alphabets have been with us in one form or another for at least 30,000 years.

But the runes are far more than just letters in a pre-Christian alphabet. They were used in many different ways over most of Europe, and they exist in many different forms, although the version with which we tend to be most familiar is the futhark or futhorc, named for its first six letters; a system of 24 symbols, roughly equivalent to the letters of the alphabet.

However, language itself holds clues to the way runes were once perceived. In Old English, the word rune – runian – means “to whisper.” In Old Irish, run is a secret. In Old Norse, runar; mysteries. In Icelandic, runi, friend. In Finnish, runo, song, chant. In Middle Welsh, rhin; magic charm. In Old Norse alone there are countless different words for runes, some of which, like Sigrun, “rune of victory”, still exist as childrens’ names. Over the centuries, runes have been used to empower amulets, weapons and jewellery; to carve on graves and standing stones; to speak or sing as part of an incantation; to cast in the form of divinatory runestones. Many runes were strongly associated with the names and characters of pre-Christian gods; thus Thuris is linked with the god Thor and Tyr with the god of the same name, whereas others – such as Hagall, hail, Aesk, the Ash Tree and Isa, ice –possess certain characteristics from nature and the elements.

Their meanings are still fairly obscure, and have been interpreted in many different ways. Many of the interpretations are taken from the Old English, Norse and Icelandic rune poems – short verses written to explain the runes – but given that these rune poems are sometimes confusing and contradictory, as well as having been written quite late, and at a time when Christianity had taken over from paganism and runic lore was already largely lost and misunderstood, their use in terms of translation is perhaps rather limited. In any case, a rune used in one country at one time may have quite a different meaning in another.

It may be better, perhaps, if you really want to use the runes, to study the symbols yourself and to find out what they mean to you. Of course, symbols are just marks in the dirt until you give them meaning, but seen and used in the right way, they can be very powerful.

Look at such emotionally charged symbols as (for instance); the cross; the swastika; the crescent. Look at the way marketing logos (another kind of symbolic shape) have been used to influence our buying habits and brand loyalties. Imagine how you might feel if you happened to see on an ambulance, in the place of the comforting Red Cross, the Chanel or Louis Vuitton logo instead.

Which is just a way of saying that we all use symbols of power in our daily lives, and the use of runes for magical purposes is not so very different.

Now onto the runes themselves. Why use the traditional runemarks at all? Why not make up your own set, with symbols that mean something special to you?

Well, actually, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Some people do precisely that, with excellent results. Personally I prefer to use the traditional runes because of what they represent about my own heritage and ancestry, but my interpretation of what they mean is also in some way personal to me. In spite of what some people maintain, there are no rules in magic. At best, there is a series of guidelines; the rest is all about trial and error and finding out what works for you.

In Runemarks , you’ll see that I have used a slightly different version of the futhark we know best, with only 16 runes at the start. This is partly because for plot reasons I needed to add extra runes as the story developed. Historically, however, the opposite happened, and in some places some runes were dropped from use. This is a more complete list, with some of the traditional meanings.

F – Fehu (Fé): cattle. Cattle is a strong symbol for wealth and prosperity, a source of food, of stability, security and growth. The rune itself looks quite a lot like a pair of horns or antlers, maybe signifying defence, aggression, strength. It is associated with fire, prosperity and survival.

U – Uruz (Úr): the aurox, or wild ox. This now-extinct animal exists now only in stories, but played a part in many legends. The rune shape itself suggests the shape of the animal, with its massive shoulders, and it is usually seen as a symbol for strength, power and primal force.

Th – Thorn (Thurs/Thuris): the thorn. This rune is closely linked with the god Thor and his hammer. We can see the shape of the hammer in the rune, as well as the idea of a protective thorn hedge, a defence against enemies (in legend, Thor was the gods’ main defence against the frost-giants). It is therefore a strong rune, both dangerous to its enemies and a comfort to its friends.

Oe/Ae – Ós (Ask, Ansuz): the Ash. Its root can be seen in the word Aesir, the name given to the main family of Norse gods, and its meaning is linked to the World Ash, Yggdradsil, the tree that supports the Nine Worlds. So it signifies: divine inspiration; magic; the connection between heaven and earth.

R – Rad (Raido): a journey, a cycle. (Rad means “wheel” in German, and “path” in Old English). A complex rune, implying, not just travel, but a quest for enlightenment.

K/ C – Ken (Kaun, Kaen): a torch, a piece of kindling. One of several fire-runes, I see this one as signifying wildfire rather than hearth-fire. Some of the rune poems also identify it with destruction, plague and death; the devouring flame that destroys as it illuminates.

G – Gyfu (Gebo): a gift. The name refers to both giving of oneself and receiving. Love; generosity; openness. A partnership.

W – Wýn (Wenne, Wen): joy, bliss, love, (sexual) pleasure. A rune associated with the Freyja, the goddess of love (a counterpart of Venus).

H – Hagall (Hagalaz, Haal): hail. This rune is often seen as a symbol of damage and destruction, like hail, destroyer of spring crops. In Iceland and Scandinavian cultures, this is a powerful and familiar image.

N – Nyd (Naudiz, Naudr): need, hardship, compulsion. This complex rune contains the idea of binding and constraint, and its shape reflects that of a knot in a piece of string.

I – Isa: ice. This is the only rune that has stayed the same in all versions of the runic alphabet, and it symbolizes danger and impediment, as ice slows movement and halts growth.

G – Ger (Ar, Jera): grain, harvest, a garden, fruit. A rune related to the autumn, season of harvesting and plenty and to the earth-goddess Gerda, first wife of Odin.

E – Ehwaz: the sedge grass. Pronounced “eh,” as in “elephant”. This type of grass grows in swamps and hides the path. Its dagger-shaped leaves can cut if handled carelessly, and it represents danger and uncertainty.

E – Eoh (Ýr): the yew tree. Probably pronounced “aye”. The yew is a strong, powerful tree, closely associated with death. Its berries are poisonous, and it was often used in magical ceremonies to drive away evil spirits. It symbolizes madness, intoxication, magical frenzy, spirits, the underworld, the dead.

Ph – Peord ( Petra): an obscure rune that may refer to a drinking-cup or cauldron (the rune shape looks rather like a cup on its side), but which may also contain the idea of a gateway or portal, perhaps into another world.

S – Sigel (Sól, Sowelu): the Sun. A rune of light, fire and happiness, symbolizing power, joy and success.

T – Týr (Tir): Closely linked to Týr, the god of war, this rune looks like a spear or an arrow, and tends to be a rune of aggression, war, combat and victory. It was often carved onto weapons and amulets to ensure success in battle.

B – Beorc (Bjarkán): the birch tree. A rune of springtime, of light and of fertility; also associated with birth, blessing and growth.

E – Eh (Eihwaz) – marriage, eternity. The shape of this rune suggests two people holding hands, and tends to signify a strong partnership, friendship or love.

M – Man (Mannaz, Madr): mankind. There are two symbols for this rune, used variously at different times. One looks rather like a human being with arms held up; the other, like two people with linked arms.

Its meaning may be either; thought; imagination; memory; feeling; the human condition.

L – Laguz (Logr): water, the ocean, a lake. This rune may symbolize birth, depth, feelings, floating, dreaming, danger, healing, reflection.

I – Ing (Inguz): Another fertility or harvest-rune, symbolizing birth, wealth and plenty. The rune shape looks something like a corn dolly, and has associations with the gods Frey and Freyja.

D – Daeg (Dag, Dagaz): day. The shape of this rune looks to be based on the double axe-head, or thunderbolt. It is a solar rune, symbolizing power, strength and light.

Oe – Ethel (Othila): an obscure rune, which may mean “homeland” or “inheritance”; the place where each individual soul belongs, the place where each of us comes to rest once our long quest for enlightenment is finally done.

All right! Now that you have the runes and their meanings, you may be wondering how you can use them. Well, for me the beauty of runes lies in their simplicity. Simple to make, simple to apply, they have a multitude of possible uses, once you have got to know them well, and the easiest way to get acquainted with the symbols and their meanings is to make up a set of runestones.

Nowadays these are mostly used for divination (telling the future), although there are plenty of other uses for them too. Mine are generally made of beach pebbles or river stones, with the symbols drawn on in permanent marker. You could, however, choose to make your own set out of pieces of wood and to burn on the symbols using a soldering iron. The material doesn’t matter, although the more natural and personal it is to you, the better.

For practical purposes, your runestones need to be; more or less the same size and shape, and small enough to handle easily (though not so small as to be fiddly). Most people either make or buy a little bag in which to carry their runestones, and they sometimes use a square of silk on which to do their casting.

Some people like to create a ritual for their runecasting, with scented or coloured candles or invocations to the spirits of the place. If, like me, you prefer not to spend too much time on ritual, casting the runes is pretty straightforward.

Just find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, empty your mind of distractions and decide what question you want to ask. Then, reach into your bag of runes, pull out a rune at random, and focus on what it tells you.

The trick here is to make sure that you phrase your question in the right way. There are no runes for “yes” and “no”, so questions like “Does Ben love me?” or “Will I get that job I want?” are unlikely to get you a proper answer. But a question like: “How can I get that job I want?” or “What will happen if I ask Ben out?” may well produce results.

If your problem needs more than a single-rune answer, you may want to go for something more complex. Picking a handful of runes at random and dropping them onto your square of silk also works very well; taking into account the position of the runes, whether they fall in reversed position or not; how close they are to each other, etc. will give you a lot more to work with.

Or you could try my favourite; the basic standard three-rune trick. Pick three runes out of the bag. The first represents your problem. The second shows you the cause. The third predicts the outcome.

For instance, I may be having trouble with the attitude of someone at work, and I want to know what to do to resolve it. I draw my first rune: Ós, signifying communication. So far, so good. I have to work with this person, and I need us to be able to talk to each other honestly.

I draw my second rune; the cause. I pull out the rune Isa, ice. This is a pretty good illustration of the situation as it stands. My colleague and I are at an impasse, neither of us able to make a move. I have already tried to find out what her problem is, without success. My problem is that I dislike confrontation, and she senses this and sometimes takes advantage.

So far, I haven’t been able to decide whether to face my colleague directly and force a discussion, or try to ride out her unpleasant behaviour in silence, in the hope that things may improve.

I pull out my third rune. Týr, the aggressor. No, it doesn’t mean that I should stab her in the back (although sometimes that’s just what I feel like doing), but it does suggest that a direct, bold, fearless approach is the best. I arrange a meeting and tell her exactly why I am unhappy with her attitude. She tries to respond in her usual bullying style, but armed with Týr, I am able to withstand it. I keep my temper, but I explain to her how I feel. It turns out that my colleague thought that I was being cold and aloof, and she’s happy to have our disagreement out in the open. We leave on much better terms, having cleared the air (and broken the ice).

No, it isn’t rocket science. It really is just common sense. But sometimes we need a little push from elsewhere to understand what we already know. The more thought you give to the meaning of the runes, the more useful to you your answers will be. And don’t always expect an easy solution. Magic is as much about hard work as it is about inspiration. The runes aren’t there to think for you. They are there to help you think for yourself.

If this doesn’t sound like magic as you know it, then don’t worry. Magic is nine-tenths spadework. And for those who don’t believe in magic, remember that there’s nothing supernatural about focusing your mind. The mind is capable of many things, both positive and negative. Rune magic is basically about giving your mind something on which to focus, while your subconscious goes about the business of solving your problems and improving your life.

Which is not to say that if you’re ill, you shouldn’t see a doctor. But a rune of strength, like Daeg or Týr, carried in your pocket as a charm to ward away sickness and disease, will help your subconscious mind to concentrate on the idea of healing itself.

In the same way, if you’re not Ben’s type, then it’s pointless to try to use magic to seduce him. It may work for a little while, but eventually you’re both going to realize that you and he are not made for each other. But if you lack the confidence to find out, a rune like Wýn, drawn on a river stone and carried in your pocket, may encourage you to think more positively about him, to banish negative thoughts, to stand up straight and smile - in short, to believe in yourself – all of which will make you more attractive and more likely to draw his attention.

Do bear in mind, however, that, whether or not you believe in magic – or even in karma – negative thinking can be dangerous to you. By that I mean that if you’re angry with someone and want to punish them (by writing a runic curse, for instance), the negativity generated in your subconscious mind is also likely also to harm you. So, just as frowning gives you wrinkles, thinking bad stuff about somebody else will cause bad stuff to happen to you.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t wish on bad people what they deserve. What goes around comes around, and if you use a harvest rune like Ing or Ger to make sure that your enemy reaps the consequences of his actions, it won’t be long before he gets his karmic come-uppance. Just make sure you do it right, in a way that won’t cause you to suffer any fallout. In the same way, think about your motives before you use magic to further your ends. If greed, envy or hatred becomes your principal motivation, then focusing on those ugly thoughts will act like a magnifying glass to your subconscious mind, and far from becoming more attractive to others, you are likely to send out negative messages about yourself without even meaning to…

Now that you have a few ideas, it’s time to go away and try some of these methods for yourself. It’s okay to be creative; remember, there is no rulebook for magic. It’s also okay to use trial and error; what works for one person may not work for you. Have fun, work hard, believe in yourself and – good luck!