If you ever saw the Kirk Douglas movie The Vikings, or the more recent fantasy adventure The 13th Warrior, you will remember that at a point in each story when nobody knew what to do, an old female shaman of the tribe was asked to throw the runes, or the bones. She threw a handful of things with marks on them on the ground, picked up those that landed in a certain way, and told the puzzled warriors exactly what had to be done. And she was obeyed implicitly. She had used the sacred language of the runes to access the mysteries of the immediate future, the wisdom of Odin.
The runes are magical symbols. They are not strictly an alphabet, because alphabets are based on a specific word order such as alpha, beta, gamma in Greek; aleph, beth, gimel in Hebrew; A,B,C, in modern English and many other languages. The sounds of the rune symbols don’t associate with this abcd stuff at all. The basic orders of the sounds of various kinds of runes is F,U,Th, A or O, R, K. Because of these sounds the rune sequences are called Futharks or Futhorks, depending on the 4th symbol in the series.
What’s that got to do with your ancestors? Well, these symbols were sacred, and were used for spiritual and magickal purposes by those people whose languages derive from the Germanic languages. And the rune tradition is that people who know the runes always come back when they reincarnate, into a tribe or group that speaks the old language, even as it changes over time.
The Germanic language is the root language of Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, Low German, and High German. If you speak one of these languages as a native language then you have a connection to the runes in your very DNA.
When Ralph Blum in the ’80’s put out his Book of Runes it was a stunning success. Over 600,000 copies were sold and it is currently in its tenth edition. But it wasn’t the book that appealed to thousands of people. The book was hardly worth reading from an historical point of view. It was the velvet bag containing the artificial stones with the runes engraved on them, that came with the book. A piece of marketing genius. People picked them up and felt that something that had been missing from their lives was now in their hands.
I studied runes for decades before I even met one other person who could draw them out. But after Blum’s effort every book publisher wanted a book on runes and people who knew a lot about them and people who knew very little about them supplied the need. Now there are dozens of books available.
The shapes of the runes were discovered by a remarkable shaman who endured a nine day fast, hanging, wounded from a tree. Other people have done that too, particularly in the Mediterranean area where several of them became founders of religions. This man did too. His name can be written as Odin, and he became known as the head of the Norse pantheon of gods. The runes that he discovered to be symbols of the powers behind the laws of the universe are still very potent entities. As is Odin. Iceland, the oldest real democracy in the world not only has 100% literacy, but two official religions. The oldest one is Odinism, the younger one is the Christianity that the Icelandic rulers allowed because of the commercial advantages when all of Europe was being converted, often by force.
But the energies of centuries are still attached to the worship of Odin, sometimes under his other names such as Wotan, Wodin, Woden. Those who worship Odin nowadays often call themselves Asatru. Look up the word on Google.com and you’ll get over 444,000 web sites. This isn’t a fad like pet rocks.
Everyone who speaks English says the names of the Norse gods every week. Tuesday is named after Tiw, Wednesday after Woden, Thursday after Thor, Friday after Freya, and of course Sunday after the Sun, which in the Germanic languages is a feminine, creative force. This group of deities is still available in your DNA, and so is the astounding wisdom of Odin, that can be accessed by doing what he did, and understanding the runes.
The different Germanic countries established slightly different sequences of runes for their working and writing inscriptions. The oldest sequence is called the Elder Futhark and has 24 sacred symbols that take years to appreciate. The rune magicians modified the Elder Futhark in some countries and distilled it down to 18, two of which they apparently kept secret according to the stories. The Anglo Saxon Futhark eventually had a total of 33 runes and could easily be used for writing because of the number of letters that matched sounds in the language. Like the other letters used for magic, the Hebrew letters, every rune had a sound, a number and was the name of something.
In the last century an occultist named Guido von List who had studied the Norse scriptures, was in bed, in the dark for eleven months after cataract surgery, which in those days was dangerous. During that time he had an epiphany in which he realized the shape and names of the two secret runes of the Younger Futhark. His new set he called the Armanen runes, and these are widely used in Europe. In the Norse scriptures is a long poem by Odin and it contains the story of his initiation and descriptions of eighteen of the runes. Von List believed that his eighteen was Odin’s eighteen and they became used by many European magicians.
They were the first runes that I heard about as a young man, and they fulfilled all kinds of magical criteria. The almost universal symbol of harmony and equilibrium is made when two equilateral triangles intersect and form what is commonly known as the Star of David, or Solomon’s Seal. Inside the star is a hexagon. When the diagonals of the hexagon are drawn there is a diagram that can be used as the basis for the perfect proportions of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life with its 22 paths corresponding to the Tarot trumps. And every one of the Armanen runes is in this diagram which corresponds to the Kabbalistic blueprint of the energies of the universe. When two or more of these runes are combined for magical purposes the whole bind rune has a greater effect than the sum of its parts. Putting Armanen runes together is coordinating universal energies. The same thing can be done with Elder Futhark runes that resemble the Armanen.
So, how can you find out about these runes, which many people use for divination, and others for magic? Use the Web. Go to google.com and type in ‘runes.’ You will get over two million hits. Before Ralph Blum wrote his book, based entirely on a random pulling of the runes, there might have been ten hits if google.com had been active.
Use google again and try ‘Elder Futhark’…37,200 hits. ‘Younger Futhark’ 13,900 hits. ‘Armanen’ 14,000. Most published books on the runes are about the oldest set, the Elder Futhark. This is because the rune scholar Stephen Flowers, aka Edred Thorrson wrote several very sound books that everyone else copied. One totally original rune author is Freya Aswynn. She writes only from her experience and copies nobody. She’s probably the only feminist in the world who worships Odin. Look up both of these and check their books on amazon.com.
The Armanen group is called a Futhork because the fourth rune is OS and doesn’t begin with A as in the other sequences.
When I took my Masters at the International College of Esoteric Studies I found that though they had access to the manuals and writings of dozens of different secret and occult societies, and ritual magic galore, they had nothing on runes. So I wrote, for those initiates of many systems, a book about the magic that can be done with just one of the 18 Armanen runes. It looks like a symbolic snowflake and is called HAGAL. All the other books that everyone has written are on the websites I have mentioned.
Anyone particularly interested in the HAGAL volume can contact me (click on "Contact Us").
One last point. All the powerful rune sequences contain a number of runes exactly divisible by three. The universal law of mundane affairs is threefold. Everything is in a state of Create, Sustain, or Destroy. Astrologers call it Cardinal, Fixed, Mutable. Yuppies say Start, Continue, Stop. It’s symbolized in the threefold Celtic Knot. The three Norns are the ones who weave the past, present, and what may come from the present. Some call them the Three Wyrd Sisters.
One reason I tell my students to buy Blum’s book secondhand to get the runes and then throw it away and keep the runes, is because his set has a blank rune. This makes 25 and breaks the pattern. Besides, runes were carved on wooden staves and then thrown. Nobody would throw a stave they hadn’t carved.
In fairness to Blum, he made people think about runes again. He has written many books and ran with the fad he created. Now about two million people use his runes, though many of them get their rune data from other sources, as I hope readers of this little essay will do.