Runes
An ancient alphabet found in inscriptions on stone in Scandinavian
countries. The runic alphabet belongs to the Germanic
group of languages, but is related to Greek and Latin alphabets.
The earliest inscriptions were pictured in the hands of the
goddess Idun, the keeper of the gods’ magic apples of immortality.
Dating from the 3rd century C.E., runic inscriptions have
been found in areas between the Black Sea and the Baltic (territories
occupied by Goths) as well as throughout Scandinavia.
At one point, Odin dies to acquire the runes for humankind,
and, as men were expected to imitate his sacrifice, high praise
was given to one who died in battle. In place of dying in battle,
a Norse warrior might carve the runes on his body and bleed
to death, that day thus being marked as a ‘‘red-letter day.’’
Runes were inscribed on stone monuments to commemorate
events and individuals as well as for magical purposes.
They were also used on objects like brooches. Typical of runic
inscriptions is the writing on an ancient Danish monument
which reads ‘‘Rolf raised this stone, priest and chieftain of the
Helnaes dwellers, in memory of his brother’s son, Gudmund.
The men were drowned at sea. Aveir wrote (the runes).’’ A Norwegian
monument indicates that runes were believed to give
magical protection ‘‘This is the secret meaning of the runes;
I hid here power-runes, undisturbed by evil witchcraft. In exile
shall he die by means of magic art who destroys this monument.’’
The use of runic inscriptions has been revived in both the
modern magical and New Age ideas and activities, and crated
a vast contemporary literature. Among the most popular,
Ralph Blum has adapted runes for divination purposes. His
publications The Book of Runes (1984) and Rune Play (1985) are
issued in conjunction with a package of twenty-five runic letters
on ceramic counters. These counters are ‘‘cast,’’ rather in the
manner of a simplified I Ching system, to give oracular guidance
on personal questions and decisions.
The concept of ‘‘casting the runes’’ also occurs in Western
magical practice, where spells are inscribed on a slip of paper
in runic letters, to be unobtrusively delivered to and accepted
by the victim of the spell. This is brilliantly described in the
short story Casting the Runes by M. R. James (included in More
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1911) in which one character takes
a ticket-case belonging to the victim and places the slip of
paper with the runic spell on it inside the case. He then hands
it to the victim, implying casually that he must have dropped
it. The victim recognizes the ticket-case as his own, and gratefully
accepts it, so the runes are cast.
Sources
Blum, Ralph. The Book of Runes. New York St. Martin’s
Press, 1984.
———. Rune Play. New York St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
Branston, Brian. Gods of the North. London Thames & Hudson,
1955.
Elliott, R. W. V. Runes. Rev. ed. UK Manchester University
Press, 1963.
Flowers, Stephen E. Runes and Magic Magical Formulaic Elements
in the Older Runic Tradition. New York Kang, 1986.
Hermannsson, H. Catalogue of Runic Literature Forming Part
of the Icelandic Collection at Cornell University. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell
University Press, 1918.
Howard, Michael. The Magic of Runes. New York Samuel
Weiser, 1980.
Peschel, Lisa. The Runes. St. Paul Llewellyn Publications,
1989.
Thorsson, Edred. Futjhark A Handbook of Rune Magic. York
Beach, Maine Samuel Weiser, 1984.
Tyson, Donald. Rune Magic. St. Paul Llewellyn Publications,
1989.
Willis, Tony. The Runic Workbook. New York Sterling Publishers,
1986.