What images do the runes conjure for you when you work with them or think about them? The bearded Viking with a horned helmet, a gleaming axe and a bag of runes bouncing on his muscular thighs! Or do you lean more towards the wart-faced wise woman, raven on her shoulder, bent over the fire, inhaling foul-smelling smoke and uttering obscure poetic prophecies. Perhaps you've grown beyond these fantasies and simply use the runes for decision-making and insight, functions they can well fulfil. But do you know how the runes were read traditionally?
Casting the Runes
They were not taken from a bag and laid out in a pattern. That is a modern practice. When a question as to the future or the outcome of certain events needed to be answered, sticks or twigs would be cut from a nearby tree, a fruit-bearing tree for that was the tradition. It reflected the notion that one's actions in casting the runes would bear fruit in the future. The runic symbols would then be cut into the wood and a sacred space would be prepared. The rune staves would be cast three times to examine the question. This was done in order that no hidden elements would be missed and to ensure that any shadow forces from the past that could interfere with the outcome had literally been unbound and rendered ineffective.
A Magical Act
To cast the runes was a magical act that helped to create the future. Once cast, the future was decided and the rune sticks would be burned, their ash left to honour the place where the casting had been made. This doesn't mean that the modern practice of reading the runes has no value. It simply draws attention to the need to examine the history and traditions of any spiritual tool we undertake to use. This attention is a mark of our respect for what has gone before.
The Origin of the Runes
The Vikings did not originate the runes. They were the latter-day users of a runic system known as the Younger Futhark. This consisted of sixteen visible characters or symbols and two hidden ones that were used only in magical work. The system that the Vikings used was derived from a much earlier system known as the Elder Futhark, evolved by the Teutonic (Germanic) peoples. We do not in fact know exactly who the Teutons were, since the name was given to them by the Romans and is derived from the Celtic word meaning 'tribe'. Historically, we know the Elder Futhark was in use for engraving on jewelry at least fifty years before the birth of Christ, making it much older in all probability. There are twenty-four runes in the Elder Futhark and these are divided into three tiers of eight runes. Each of these tiers is called an 'aett'. Each rune traditionally occupies a fixed place in this structure of tiers. This place is known as its stead. The word 'futhark' is derived from the first six letter characters of the runes in sequence, the character 'th' being regarded as a single letter.
The Mystical Tradition
The Elder Futhark is a system of sacred symbols that links language to a secret mystical tradition. As such, the runes are the keepers of a cycle of mysteries. As we came to know them through meditation and magical focus on their symbolic shapes, the runes reveal their mysteries to us. The word 'rune' means both a secret and to whisper or to roar. This tells us that the runes have their origins in a culture that passed on its traditions orally through song and chant, then later came to write them down.
Dialogue of Living Sound
Though the runes form an alphabetic sequence, they are essentially ideographic rather than alphabetical. In other words, they were devised to symbolize and make known a series of ideas or principles rather than to simply function as building blocks in a system of verbal or written communication. For the ancient peoples, to chant a name aloud was to invoke its magic. So it is with the runes. As we chant their names aloud, the magic comes like a roaring wind, then whispers their secrets. Through the runes, the mysteries of life itself are revealed. Through the runes, we create a dialogue of living sound with the environment in which we live.
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