The runes are thousands of years old, and come to us from Northern Europe. An argument can be made that the runes had their origin as far back as the Stone Age, when humans first started scratching symbols on walls. In Norse mythology, the runes are a gift from the God Odin who, wounded and hung from a tree, sacrificed to himself for nine days and nights, spied the runes and seized them up.
The word ‘rune’ does not translate as ‘letter’ or ‘character’ but more along the lines of ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’. Also, the runic alphabet is not called an alphabet, but ‘futhark’, because that’s the word spelled out by the first six runes. There are three different futharks, the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Saxon Futhark, but it is the Elder Futhark we will cover here, because that futhark is the one most-commonly used.
Runes have also been used as an active alphabet, on memorial stones, as territory-markers, and in magic. Whole books have been written about the runes (for those wishing to go deeper into it, see my by-no-means-comprehensive bibliography on runes at the end of this section), but here I will only give a brief definition of the divinatory meanings of each rune:
Fehu-designed to resemble a stalk of grain, fehu represents wealth or power that can be moved from place to place, such as money, livestock, precious stones, horses, cars, bikes, credit cards, cash cards, or debit cards. (This is in contrast to Othala, which represents stationary wealth, like land or structures on the land). Fehu right-side-up in a reading can mean some tangible gain coming to you, such as money, credit, a vehicle, or an animal, but it can also represent productivity, prosperity, or fertility. Reversed or badly-aspected, fehu can indicate problems with one’s wealth, resources leave your grasp, or perhaps greed.
Uruz-is associated with the aurochs, the original wild, aggressive and dangerous ox native to Europe. Killing one of these ferocious beasts was a rite of passage for many a young man in very-early Europe. This represents the power of life, and the energy which organizes and holds life together. A purification which leads to strength. Willfulness and tenacity are called for here. There is a striving toward goals which serve oneself or others. I call this the maturity rune, because sometimes calls on the subject to find new strength in themselves they didn’t know they had. Reversed or badly-aspected, it can indicate the subject is weak and being dominated by others, or is in the grip of some obsession which can weaken them.
Thurisaz-represents a thorn. Thurisaz is a force of nature and that force is opposition. If this rune turns up in a reading, the subject is being opposed by other forces, which may be hindering or stopping their progress. The subject may not even know who it is who is opposing them, so betrayal may be present here. Because this rune resembles the male genitalia when viewed from the side, it can represent the male element of sexuality, in both its positive and negative manifestations. In some cases, it can represent protection from enemies Thurisaz can indicate a crisis is coming, one which may act as a catalyst for change.
Ansuz-represents a mouth, particularly an open one, such as the beak of one of Odin’s ravens, who traveled the world and relayed messages to him. This is sometimes called, ‘the God rune.’ Ansuz in a reading can represent messages, signals, communication, inspiration, knowledge, education, and all activities of the mind. Reversed or badly-aspected in a reading, it can represent a garbled message, or even deliberately-false communication, delusion, or misunderstanding.
Raidho-means ‘ride’ and represents a chariot or cart, pulled by a horse. This rune represents cyclical, rhythmic, and proportional motion. In a reading, raidho traditionally represents travel, or going on a journey, although this may be a spiritual or inner journey, as well as an actual physical journey. It can also represent institutions and giving or receiving messages, since messengers traveled by horse. The message received may also be advice or following directions or a set plan of action. Reversed or badly-aspected, raidho can mean crisis, standstill, thwarted travel plans, a change of direction, blocked progress, or at worst, irrationality.
Kenaz-this rune represents a flaming torch. By that representation, it is meant to convey ‘controlled power’ which can then be applied to human endeavor for good or ill, since fire can destroy, but well-applied, it can bring illumination or the construction of useful items. This rune can point to first degeneration, then regeneration or transformation. This is the rune of human passion, lust, and sexual love in its positive sense. This rune is creativity, craftsmanship, and a will to generate. Reversed or poorly-aspected, this rune can mean blocked creativity, degeneration without regeneration, the darker side of human passion, lust and sexuality, or so much light brought to a subject, it has been broken down into un-rejoinable fragments.
Gebo-this rune means ‘gift’. It is any exchange between two parties. It can represent contracts, agreements, alliances, either legal or emotional. The subject may either soon receive a gift or honor, or be called upon to bestow them on someone else. This can also be love affairs and weddings. Gebo carries with it a sort of warning—‘better not to ask, than to ask for too much, as a gift demands a gift’ says one traditional verse associated with this rune, so an element of reciprocity attends this rune. When badly-aspected by other runes, gebo can indicate extravagance, stinginess, or cash-flow problems.
Wunjo-represents a clan or tribal banner flapping in the breeze. Wunjo’s fundamental meaning is joy, happiness and bliss, particularly in a group or social setting. Wunjo can also mean ‘job well done, now is the time to celebrate.’ It also connotes the harmonization of diverse elements and binding them together. Wunjo is also a rune of healing, especially of emotional problems and conflicts with others. Reversed or badly-aspected, wunjo indicates strife, stagnation, alienation, and a joyless existence.
Hagalaz-represents hail, a destructive force in nature. Hagalaz is change, blight, destruction, and disruption. Hagalaz indicates powerful outside events or forces beyond our control. If there’s a disaster rune, Hagalaz would be it, but much will depend on the runes surrounding it. Hagalaz is also considered a ‘seed’ rune, so keep in mind the disaster it foretells carries within it the seed of a new way of being. Hagalaz is one of those runes which has no reversed meaning, for its meaning is clear–destruction.
Nauthiz-represents two sticks being rubbed together to produce a fire. Pronounced ‘now-theeze’, Nauthiz is the rune of constraint, compulsion, necessity, delay, lack, and occasionally, pain. Nauthiz is also friction, opposition, and compelling, possibly-unpleasant fate, but also the ability to counter the effects of such a fate. One of the positive side effects of Nauthiz is greater strength, enhanced creativity, and the opportunity to learn where our wyrd (fate) lies. Reversed, Nauthiz can be a warning that you are taking a misguided or inappropriate course of action, one which will result in failure or loss for you. Nauthiz reversed can also mean a release or relaxation of restricting conditions.
Isa-represents an icicle. Pronounced ‘ee-sah’, Isa is stillness, inertia, gravity, calmness, and inactivity. Isa holds things in place. When Isa is active, it feels as if things are ‘frozen’, unmoving and immovable. Nothing is happening, or the same old things are happening, and it doesn’t appear anything will be changing soon. Keep in mind, when this rune appears, that winter is just nature resting-up for the next bout of fertility and growth, so perhaps this period of stasis is what is needed right now. Isa strengthens our patience, and our ability to wait. Obviously, it has no reversed meaning, for Isa’s meaning is absolute: for now, you can do nothing.
Jera-represents a broken open seed-case. Pronounced, yare-uh, it translates as ‘year’ and represents the harvest time of year, when after months of effort and careful tending, the farmer harvests the crops he planted in the spring. So Jera represents beneficial outcomes, but a period of persevering effort and waiting is involved. In a reading, it means the subject will reap rewards for their earlier efforts, but a period of time is involved. Jera is a rune of gentle change, rather than the dramatic change of Hagalaz. This is one of those runes which has no reversed meaning, for its meaning is pure.
Eihwaz-represents the yew tree. Pronounced ‘ay-wahz’ Eihwaz is associated with Ygddrasil, the Norse ‘World Tree.’ Eihwaz connotes paradox, and the union of opposites, the yew being an evergreen with poisonous needles, and Ygddrasil connecting earth and sky. This rune can indicate spiritual journeying. A potentially difficult or dangerous situation can be turned around to one’s advantage, or the situation will resolve itself in the subject’s favor. A detour or re-routing may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If you face a hindrance or minor setback, it will do no lasting harm. Eihwaz also connotes defense or protection, because the yew was a favored wood in the making of bows.
Perthro-represents a dice cup. Since dice is used in both games of chance and divination, Perthro represents, chance, the workings of fate, the laws of cause and effect, and sychronicity. Perthro is a rune of change and becoming. When the opening of the dice cup is to the right, it indicates chance and fate will go favorably for the subject. Reversed, with the opening of the dice cup to the left, it suggests the workings of chance and fate will not go in the subject’s favor. Perthro can also mean forces already set in motion are working themselves out, and possibly an unexpected or random factor is going to intervene in the situation.
Elhaz-represents the horns of the elk. Pronounced ‘el-hazh’ this is the rune of protection, as the horns of the elk serve to keep open space around it and defend the animal against danger. The subject is being protected, if they are concerned about being exposed to danger. A secondary meaning of this rune is the connection between the natural world and the divine world, and it suggests time spent in nature may help the subject gain spiritual knowledge and a greater sense of connection to all that is, and to the Divine. Reversed or badly-aspected, this rune represents vulnerability, a sense of isolation, and disconnection from the wider world.
Sowilo-represents the sun, also a lightning bolt which links heaven and earth. Pronounced ‘so-wee-low’ the sun rune is the rune of strength, energy, life force, success, honor, and achievement. In a reading, it can indicate illumination, clarification, and the appearance of change or the emergence of a guiding principle after a period of stagnation. Though an energetic rune, this can also indicate a need to rest and restore one’s health, to hold one’s energy in reserve. This is another rune which has no reversed meaning.
Tiwaz-this rune is associated with the Norse God Tyr, a sky god who was considered the god of justice, particularly by war or judicial combat. Pronounced ‘tee-wahz,’ this rune also has associations with self-sacrifice for the greater good and warrior-hood. In a reading, this may call on the subject to demonstrate a warrior spirit, although this may be spiritual battle, as well as legal or actual battle. I think of this as the Warrior rune, as it may call for courage and boldness on the subject’s part. Reversed, Tiwaz can indicate injustice, cowardice, rigidity, prejudice, or loss of perspective.
Berkano-means ‘birch tree.’ Pronounced ‘ber-kah-no’, this rune has strong associations with fertility, birth, re-birth, the cycle of life, healing and Mother Goddess energy, resembling as it does a pregnant belly and breasts swelling with milk. This rune can turn up in a reading at significant life turning points, such as the conception or birth of a child, the beginning of a new enterprise, or some other important beginning. Reversed, this rune can indicate barrenness of body or spirit, or a need for nurturance, shelter, or to conserve one’s energy.
Ehwaz-means horse, particularly the symbiotic relationship between horse and rider, and by extension represents every partnership working in concert toward a common goal. Pronounced ‘eh-wahz’ the horse was sacred to both Odin and Freyr of the Norse pantheon. This rune can represent change, movement, progress, physical or astral travel, or teamwork. Reversed, Ehwaz can indicate the breakup or loss of a relationship, progress halted, no change for now, or efforts to prevent a partnership from either forming or working effectively.
Mannaz-means man, or human, the self. Pronounced, ‘man-nahz’ this rune raises questions of identity and function—what does it mean to be human? How do we fulfill our potential and where do we fit in society? This rune can call for introspection on the subject’s part. This rune also is associated with mental work, intelligence, memory, the ability to reason, and acceptance of the human condition. Reversed, it can indicate either an enemy, or one may be one’s own enemy, or a failure to accept ourselves as we are, and a poor adjustment to society.
Laguz-means ‘lake’ also ‘leek’. Pronounced ‘lah-gooz’ it has associations with water, especially flowing, moving water and the feminine. This rune can indicate a need to go with the flow of events, or that sympathetic help is coming, for leeks were seen as a healing, protective herb. This rune can represent new life or creativity welling up from the depths of the unconscious. Reversed, laguz can represent problems with conception or the female reproductive organs, blocked help, or a refusal to submit to the flow of events and just letting things happen as they will.
Ingwaz-this refers to the God Ing, also known as Yngvi. Pronounced, ‘ing-wahz’ this is a fertility rune, and the symbol is considered to represent either a seed, or the male scrotum. It can represent creative power, particularly masculine creative power. This is also associated with the fertility cycle and acceptance of death as a part of life, since the seed must ‘die’ in order to give birth to the potential plant contained within it. This rune has associations with sex, sensuality, and love.
Dagaz-means ‘day’. Pronounced ‘dah-gahz’ this rune is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. This is a rune of slow and measured progress, rather than sudden success, but the end result will be a complete transformation or a dramatic change from the situation which existed before. This rune is the arrival of spring, sunrise, or sunset. This rune can indicate that good things are coming, and may in fact have been on the way for a while, but we only experienced the good fortune now.
Othala-this rune means ancestral property. Pronounced ‘oh-tha-lah’ this rune represents solid and stable wealth which cannot be easily moved, things like land or territory, and the structures which stand on such land. This rune is a contrast to Fehu, which represents wealth which can easily be moved from place to place. This rune can also represent the more intangible inheritances from forbears, such as traditions, customs, societal position, or DNA. This rune is kinship and wise government of familial resources. Reversed, this rune can represent disownment; either a rejection of family, one’s inheritance, or the family’s values, or a rejection by family of one considered an errant member.
This, then, is the Elder Futhark. Some rune sets accompany these with a blank stone, called Wyrd, to represent the unknown. The Younger Futhark uses fewer of these runes. The Anglo-Saxon Futhark includes all the above, plus seven additional runes in their system, but I’ve never seen the additional seven Anglo-Saxon runes used in divination. In fact, I’ve seen a rune-reader or two who actually advise against using them in a reading, because of the extremely powerful energies a few of the Anglo-Saxon runes represent. But for those who want to get to know them, and use them in readings, I will cover them in the next installment.
Below is a sheet of rune cards I’ve devised which you can down-load, print out and use. The second page of this download is just a design for the card back, so if you want to leave the back of the cards bare, just instruct your printer to print out only the first page. I recommend spraying it with a few coats of clear acrylic sealer first, before cutting them out, in order to prevent smudging over time. If you want to be authentic and use stones, you can go to a craft store for the supplies and paint (or carve, or wood-burn) your own, or you can search Etsy.com, where crafters have created lovely rune sets for purchase.
Reading The Runes
So how does one read with the runes? Well, any standard layout one uses with cards will do. In a pinch, you can always pull just one rune to give you an on-the-spot assessment of your situation. Or you can do a standard past-present-future layout with three runes laid out in a row. One method of laying out the runes which I saw in Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes looks like the following:
Most any card layout you would use for Tarot cards, can be used for the Runes. As you use the Runes, other meanings may start suggesting themselves to you.
1. Ask the runes for an on-the-spot, one rune reading for you right now, then pull a rune at random. Do you think it accurately reflects your situation right now?
2. Do a past-present-future, three-rune reading for yourself or someone conveniently near-by, if they’re willing. Take notes of this reading, then return to it a few weeks or a month later. Did the future rune come true? How did it play out in your, or the other person’s life?
3. Think of an issue you’ve been wrestling with, and do the Ralph Blum rune-spread shown above. Does the Challenge rune resonate with you as the proper way to proceed in this instance? Note the future rune, and re-visit it in a few weeks, or a month. Is that how the matter turned out?
A Selected Bibliography
What follows is a by-no-means comprehensive bibliography on the subject of the Runes, just several books I have on the subject:
Blum, Ralph. The Book of Runes: a handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1982. ISBN: 0-312-08999-6. A warning up front: many Rune purists despise this book (and for that matter, any book on the Runes by Ralph Blum), but it was the book which came with my first set of runes. Parts of this book read like poetry to me, after all these years, they come back to me, unbidden, at the right moments. Consider this book an introductory work at best on the subject.
Howard, Michael. The Magic of the Runes: their origins and occult power. Wellingborough, Northhamptonshire, U.K.: The Aquarian Press. 1980. ISBN: 0-87728-467-9. This small paperback includes a description of the meanings of each rune, but it really focuses on, and goes into much more detail about, the cultural conditions in which the runes developed and were used. It’s a good, brief introduction to the culture around the Runes. The last chapter in the book discusses the Celtic Ogham alphabet.
Thorsson, Edred. Futhark: A handbook of rune magic. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1984. ISBN: 0-87728-548-9.
Thorsson, Edred. Runelore: a handbook of esoteric runology. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1987. ISBN: 0-87728-667-1.
No bibliography about the Runes would be complete without discussing the works of Edred Thorsson. Many rune afficionados consider him the go-to expert on the subject. The Handbook of Rune Magic focuses most of its attention on the meanings of each rune, but also its use in magical workings, and even a chant and ‘runic yoga’ position for each rune. The last two chapters in the first book focus on the theory and practice of runic magic. Runelore goes more into the history and cosmology of the Runes.
Paxson, Diana. Taking Up the Runes: a complete guide to using runes in spells, rituals, divination, and magic. San Francisco, CA/Newburyport, MA: WeiserBooks. 2005. ISBN: 978-1-57863-325-8. Approaching the runes in pairs, Paxson, covers the ancient meanings, modern meanings, and how to interpret each rune in a reading. She gives a good overview of how each rune’s meaning is defined by the various rune experts. She includes rituals and songs to use with the Runes, but this book’s strength is, it’s structured for the person who wants to teach the runes to others. Really, she could’ve titled it ‘A Teacher’s Guide to the Runes.’
Willis, Tony. The Runic Workbook: understanding and using the Power of the Runes. Wellingborough, Northhamptonshire, U.K.: The Aquarian Press. 1986. ISBN: 0-85030-469-5. Like all the other books, Willis discusses a little of the history of the Runes, but he covers the meanings of the runes in groups of four or five, then the end of each section, he discusses another layout/spread to use with the runes. This was the first book I read that taught how to construct Runescripts and Bindrunes for use in magic. He also discusses the Anglo-Saxon Runes, path-working with the runes, and includes a diagram of how the Runes would be positioned on the Kabalistic Tree of Life.