sowiloI fell in love with runes when I read The Hobbit as a youngster. As a system of writing, they were ancient and real, but now virtually forgotten – a mystery come down from the past.

Then Ralph Blum put out his book-and-runes set and runes became the new divination fad. He was chastised for his ignorance of the historical uses of runes (and even their names), but the truth is that history itself has scant little to offer us for instruction in the use of runes.

We do know they were used for active magic – to protect an item from theft or harm, to curse, to bring good fortune. There is some reason to think they may have been used for divination as well, although that suggestion is open to various interpretations.

The runes were first and foremost an alphabet, used to write the old Germanic dialects that would later evolve into German, English, Dutch, and the Norse languages. The oldest inscriptions go back to around the beginning of the common era, and their use finally petered out in the 1700s. The forms of the letters imply borrowing from the Etruscan writing of northern Italy.

Since we do not know any authentically ancient divinatory or magical meanings for the runes, we are more or less free to interpret them and use them as we choose. We do know the names of the runes, however, and these make an excellent starting point for constructing meanings for them. The rune names are a veritable catalog of things of importance to the ancient Germanic peoples: cattle, hail, sun, gift, ice . . .

To go further, one can refer to the rune poems. Three such poems survive: one in Old Norse, one in Icelandic, and one in Old English. A short verse is devoted to each rune, elaborating on its name. Although some have found esoteric significance in these verses, they were most likely intended as mnemonics.

In my own practice, I emphasize the use of runes in active magic rather than divination. A talisman with a rune carved in it can bring that energy into your life. Runes can also be scratched into candles for candle magic, or placed on a doorway or other permanent marker. When I do use them for divination, I usually just pull a single rune stone, and interpret it as the energy or idea that is present or needed at this time.

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