A Short History of the Runes

A Short History of the Runes
Runes are perhaps the most well known magickal alphabet of Northern Europe, and associated mainly with Vikings and Scandinavia, although most evidence points to areas now part of modern Italy as being the most likely. Today the everyday alphabet is concerned with the transmission of information and the letters that make it up are devoid of meaning and any sort of power on their own. Each Rune on the other hand has its’ own power and meaning within its’ symbol.

“They come from a time before language, when concepts and ideas were as solid as stone and as easy to manipulate. Both to express your ideas and impose your will on events” One practitioner of Rune magick told me.

I don’t know how accurate he was but the mystic nature of the Runes can be seen in the different languages of Celtic, Old English, and even modern Irish where the meaning is ‘to whisper’ and ‘to keep secret’ In Anglo-Saxon times the ruling counsellors of the tribes and rulers called their gatherings “Runes” - in part because the Runes would have been consulted as part of the discursive process, particularly when problems or disagreements arose. As they spread they changed slightly under the influence of the society using them. Thus at various points in history you had Scandinavian Runes, Saxon Runes, Norse Runes and British Runes, frequently being used side by side.

The only Rune I know of in regular use today is the one that is derived from the Rune called Thurisaz or Thorn. The ‘Th’ sound derived from it preceded words as a shortened version of ‘the’. The Old English Runic equivalent looked vaguely like the current letter Y which is why in historical re-enactments and tourist traps, particularly in the UK there are shop signs reading “Ye Olde..” the “Ye” is really pronounced “The” and the “e” in “Olde”is silent as in many modern English words today.

Most current Runic divination and magick practice is based on a set of 24 symbols called the “Elder Futhark”, there are older ones but these seem the most popular. Futhark comes from the sounds of the first six symbols, much as qwerty is symbolic of the first line of the typewriter and computer keyboard. These Runes cover most human endeavours and desires and are considered by their users to be “The true magickal heritage of Europe”

The use of Runes was popular in all aspects of life, from divination to martial arts; in the latter it was common to carve them into weapons and armour to enhance their effectiveness. The evidence for this comes from archaeological finds, and poems such as Beowulf, along with manuscripts containing mention of Runes being used to open locks and speed healing. Their usage was popular from 250 CE until the early part of the seventeenth century. However in 1639 the use of Runes for any purpose was outlawed in Iceland and anyone caught doing so was accused of “Witchcraft” and burned alive. But their use was continued in the rest of Scandinavia until the latter part of the eighteenth century albeit in overtly non-magical form.
Of course making something illegal rarely stops its’ use, but it did put a bit of a dent in the esoteric uses of Runes. Such skills ended up being handed down as a family tradition or part of various secret societies customs. As a result many key principles became distorted or lost, and the art stagnated. Even with the various “Occult Revivals” of the 19th and early 20th centuries they were overlooked in favour of Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinent magickal skills and tools. Only with the research resources and information explosion starting in the middle of the last century did they start to come to prominence with the rise of the Nazis.

Hitler was a member of a number of secret magickal societies several of which used the Runes as one of their tools. They aimed to use Hitler as a figurehead to set in motion their own agenda but overestimated their control over him. He took the skills he had been taught and used them to become leader of the Nazi party and then Germany. The most obvious use of the Runes in this scenario was the Swastika, both found in other societies as the ‘sun wheel’ and from the group of very early Runes predating the futhark called the “Rune Hoard” by magickal practitioners and academic scholars. Also the use of the Sig (Sun) Rune infamously used as collar flashes by the SS, who were to be the priest caste of the society that Hitler was trying to build.

The Nazis were defeated by both magickal and practical means but, unsurprisingly, the Runes carried negative connotations for several decades afterwards and anyone showing interest in them was regarded with deep suspicion. It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that they became acceptable as a legitimate part of magickal study. I became aware of this resurgence during the 1990’s when talking with members of an apparently scholarly re-enactment group in northern England and commenting favourably on the Bindrunes – combined Runes with magickal meaning – they had on their outfits and tools.

They explained that they were doing experimental archaeology at a nearby farm built as near as possible to Viking design as possible and trying to live as the Vikings in the 8th to10th centuries had lived. Their Pagan practices had started as an intellectual part of this but they had quickly found that Runes and petitioning the Norse Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses had produced impressive real-world results. They even kept the grants coming and the project progressing when both were supposed to shut down after a given length of time.

I explained that it sounded like they had tapped into the dormant energies of the area where the farm was as it really had been a major Viking settlement in the past. This, combined with their sincere desire to learn about the past had resulted in the positive results. They said this was what other Occultists had intimated, and that the use of the Runes in divination and magick had been suggested as the spark that had set all the events in motion.

In the 21st century the Runes are coming back into prominence in European magick and also in more mainstream life. Several major companies are using Runes, Runic designs, and Bindrunes in their company logos. Whether this is deliberate or just a result of more people being aware of the Runes and their power it is difficult to say. What seems certain is that the Runes, in all their uses, are once again rising to prominence in the world and it will be interesting to see how this affects events in the years to come.

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