Taking up the runes



“I looked down;

With a loud cry

I took up runes;

From that tree I fell.”*


Odin is the chief and most powerful god in Norse mythology. The story goes that Odin discovered the knowledge of the runes after hanging upside down pierced by his own spear for nine days and nights from Yggdrasil, a sacred tree representing the entire universe. Through this experience he gained wisdom and well-being.

This story is reminiscent of The Hanged Man archetype in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. The Hanged Man card is associated with sacrifice, surrender, enlightenment through meditation and seeing things from a different perspective. The story is also reminiscent of the stories of Buddha (who meditated under the Bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment) and Jesus (who was executed by crucifixion on a wooden cross and was also pierced by a spear during the process).

What exactly are the runes?

  • The word “rune” means “secret” or “mystery”, as does the word “arcanum” relating to the cards of a Tarot deck (plural “arcana”).
  • The runes are letters, symbols and sounds of an ancient Norse alphabet. Unlike the letters of the alphabet we use today, each rune is the name of a deity, animal, plant, object or concept that featured in the daily lives of the ancient Norse people.
  • The runes are a means of communicating with the living and also a means of communicating with the world of spirit and interacting with the energy matrix of the universal mind, i.e. it is a tool used in divination, rituals and magic.
  • Runes are available in various physical forms today, including wooden tiles and discs, pebbles and gemstones inscribed with the rune symbols as well as illustrated card decks.

I will be focussing on the Elder Futhark rune alphabet, the runes most commonly used in divination today. There are 24 runes in the Elder Futhark alphabet, comprising three “aetts” (sets of eight). It is “elder” in the sense that it is the oldest of several futhark alphabets. The word “futhark” is an acronym derived from the first six letters of the Elder Futhark alphabet, in a similar way to the derivation of the word “alphabet” from the Greek words “Alpha” and “Beta”.

The meaning of the runes

I will summarize the three divisions of the runes known as aetts and I will list highlights for each rune including a few keywords that I believe convey the main symbolic meanings of each of the runes.


Aett 1 (from Fehu to Wunjo) is associated with a primary level of initiation, the ancient societal division of the nurturer, practical matters, creation and production.


Rune 1: Fehu “Goods and chattels”

Letters: F

Literal meanings: cattle, gold, fire

Symbolic meanings: wealth, material possessions, earnings


Rune 2: Uruz “Strong as an ox”

Letters: U

Literal meanings: aurochs (wild ox)

Symbolic meanings: strength, boldness, determination


Rune 3: Thurisaz “A thorny issue”

Letters: TH

Literal meanings: Thor (Norse god), thorn, giant/enemy

Symbolic meanings: challenge, defence, conflict


Rune 4: Ansuz “Words of wisdom”

Letters: A

Literal meanings: Odin (Norse god), mouth

Symbolic meanings: communication, language, knowledge


Rune 5: Raidho “The way forward”

Letters: R

Literal meanings: wagon/ride, wheel, riding, road

Symbolic meanings: travel, journey, development


Rune 6: Kenaz “A shining light”

Letters: C, K

Literal meanings: torch

Symbolic meanings: guidance, warmth, inspiration


Rune 7: Gebo “Ties that bind”

Letters: G

Literal meanings: gift

Symbolic meanings: exchange, approval, contract


Rune 8: Wunjo “Ode to joy”

Letters: V, W

Literal meanings: joy, bliss

Symbolic meanings: celebration, pleasure, wish come true


Aett 2 (from Hagalaz to Sowilo) is associated with a secondary level of initiation, the ancient societal division of the warrior, psychological matters, and struggle.


Rune 9: Hagalaz “Forces of nature”

Letters: H

Literal meanings: hail

Symbolic meanings: chaos, forced change, disruption


Rune 10: Naudhiz “Hour of need”

Letters: N

Literal meanings: need, necessity

Symbolic meanings: lack, hardship, burden


Rune 11: Isa “Still life”

Letters: I

Literal meanings: ice

Symbolic meanings: restriction, withdrawal, inactivity


Rune 12: Jera “Just rewards”

Letters: J, Y

Literal meanings: year, harvest

Symbolic meanings: cycle, result, reward


Rune 13: Eihwaz “Crossing over”

Letters: E, EI, I, Y

Literal meanings: yew tree

Symbolic meanings: death, ending, transition


Rune 14: Perthro “Mysterious ways”

Letters: P

Literal meanings: lot/dice cup, game, music

Symbolic meanings: chance, fate, mystery


Rune 15: Elhaz “Silver shield”

Letters: Z

Literal meanings: elk, swan, sedge grass

Symbolic meanings: protection, assistance, prayer


Rune 16: Sowilo “Victory cry”

Letters: S

Literal meanings: sun

Symbolic meanings: success, glory, vitality


Aett 3 (from Tiwaz to Othala) is associated with a tertiary level of initiation, the ancient societal division of the priest and king, organizational matters, rulership and sovereign order.


Rune 17: Tiwaz “Man of honour”

Letters: T

Literal meanings: Tiwaz/Tyr (Norse god)

Symbolic meanings: law and order, leadership, service


Rune 18: Berkano “New life”

Letters: B

Literal meanings: birch tree

Symbolic meanings: growth, (re)birth, nurturing


Rune 19: Ehwaz “Hand in hand”

Letters: E

Literal meanings: horse, marriage

Symbolic meanings: partnership, teamwork, companionship


Rune 20: Mannaz “Human being”

Letters: M

Literal meanings: man, human

Symbolic meanings: humanity, society, group participation


Rune 21: Laguz “Body of water”

Letters: L

Literal meanings: water, lake, sea

Symbolic meanings: emotions, creativity, subconscious mind


Rune 22: Ingwaz “Win-win situation”

Letters: NG

Literal meanings: Ing/Freyr (Norse god)

Symbolic meanings: solution, integration, harmony


Rune 23: Dagaz “Light of day”

Letters: D

Literal meanings: day

Symbolic meanings: breakthrough, awareness, activity


Rune 24: Othala “Family values”

Letters: O

Literal meanings: estate/inheritance, land, ancestry, origin

Symbolic meanings: home, family, cultural identity


Please note that there is considerable variation in the stated meanings of the runes from author to author. The rune meanings listed above were derived by considering information from various sources and then filtering out those meanings that are in my opinion the most universal and the most significant. I felt it necessary to make a shortlist for each rune, without any overlapping meanings between the runes, to enable me to make a clear distinction between the runes. They are not the only meanings for the runes but should give one a good feel for the energy of each rune.

Casting the runes

It is customary to cast the runes onto a white cloth that defines the boundaries of the field. Cast the runes on the field or draw them one at a time without looking and place them in position if you are using a positional layout. A scatter cast is less structured than a positional layout and therefore more complex and challenging. You can either scatter all the runes in your set on the field or grab a handful and scatter them on the field. If you decide to use a positional layout instead, you can use most layouts used for card readings. Below are two examples of simple positional layouts with a Norse flavour.

Odin’s Rune spread:

Draw a single rune and interpret its guidance for the matter at hand.

The Three Norns spread:

In Norse mythology, the three Norns named Urd, Verdandi and Skuld are the goddesses of fate, who maintain the Yggdrasil tree representing the universe and together weave the tapestry of human lives.

Draw three runes and place them from left to right in the following positions:

1. Urd (Past)   2. Verdandi (Present)   3. Skuld (Future)

The three runes represent the time path of an issue and should be read in the context of a continuous flow of time, taking into account the interaction between adjacent runes (read between the runes).

I find it fascinating that the name of the Norn representing the future is the same as the Afrikaans word “skuld” meaning debt, which makes perfect sense in the context of time and natural law. Our future is influenced by our past and present actions and choices. We reap what we sow.

What about reversals?

A reversal is a concept in cartomancy where a card is interpreted somewhat differently if it is inverted during the shuffling process. Not all card readers take reversals into account in their interpretation of a card reading. Many books about the runes include “reversed” meanings for those runes that can appear in a “reversed” position as opposed to an “upright” position (8 symmetrical runes look the same whether they are “upright” or “reversed”). Note that if you are performing a scatter cast the runes can land in more than two possible positions.

Another term relating to the position or aspect of the runes in a cast is “murk stave”, meaning “dark stave”, as opposed to “bright stave”. I have seen the term “murk stave” used to refer to runes that land face down and/or reversed and/or outside the field. “Reversed” and “murk stave” meanings for runes generally imply a negative, diminished, or obscure energy of the rune in a cast.

What about the blank rune?

The infamous 25th “blank rune” is a concept that was propagated by author Ralph Blum in the 1980’s. The generally accepted divinatory meaning of this rune is that an answer to the question asked is not forthcoming at this time. I choose not to use this rune, especially as the 14th rune Perthro encompasses the unknown factor anyway.


“Waxed and throve well;

Word from word gave words to me,

Deed from deed gave deeds to me.”*


“Hail to the speaker,

hail to the knower,

Joy to him who has understood,

Delight to those who have listened.”*


(*These are extracts from the Norse poem Hávamál, The Words of the High One, as translated by WH Auden and PB Taylor.)


First published here http://www.mywingsofdesireblog.blogspot.com/p/runes-study-group.html


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2 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    I always thghout runes were the big stones at places like Stonehenge and Avesbury. Having been lucky enough to have been both places as a child I feel like I remember that word associated with them. Perhaps that was writing that is on Stonehenge’s. I have heard that Stonehenge is roped off now and you can’t touch them anymore. My mom is British and more in tune with spiritual things than I am. She had very strong feelings overcome her when she leaned on the stones at Avesbury. She has also had visions touching the ruins of Sheldon Church here in the Carolina Low Country. I will have to ask her about what runes mean to her.

  1. Apr 5, 2012

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