The Futhark and spiritual growth
I once heard someone describe the runes as a “lesser form of magic”, or a “lesser arcana”. I have also heard that the runes deal with lower energies than for example the powers dealt with in Kabbalistic magic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I understand the Futhark in much the same light as other ancient cultures viewed the power of the written word and the alphabet; magical alphabets consist of letters and these letters are symbols of concepts or powers. The German mystic Rudolf John Gorsleben described a primal man seated upon a mountain, this holy man has flashes of inspiration and he then expresses the power and core of these concepts in the form of markings. The markings come to stand in for the concepts, expressing their full power by a single sign. If I tap into the rune Laguz – meaning ‘water’, I connect with the power of water in its many moods and phases.
The runes express concepts and powers from Germanic myth and Germanic worldview. Runes like Ansuz, Ingwaz and Teiwaz refer directly to deities for instance. I believe that the runes are a summary of all important forces of creation and therefore they reflect the whole or a cosmology. Frequently, entire rune rows were used as magical formulas in their own right. The Futhark as a whole may have been used to add additional power and perhaps order and wholeness to an amulet or magic object.
As mentioned in the Sigrdrifumal runes can be found in all things:
on the shield that stands before the shining god . .
On the paw of the bear and on Bragi’s tongue,
on the wolf’s claw and on the eagle’s beak,
on the bloody wings and on the bridge’s end,
on the loosening palms and on the healing step…
A useful mythic/symbolic way of understanding magical alphabets can be found in the Hebrew and Egyptian traditions where the world is sometimes depicted as being spoken into being. Texts like the Sepher Yetzirah and the Sepher Ha Bahir expand upon such notions by describing how God created the universe by arranging the letters of the alphabet. Egyptians believed that words and letters could take on a life of their own. Runes can be seen as existing at the very beginning of creation myth in the fires of Muspellheim and the ice of Niflheim (going into how runes relate to cosmology is a complex subject in its own right). The primal frost giant Ymir is formed in the gaping void between the two extremes and contains the potential of all worlds to come (the seed crystal or Hagalaz in its “snowflake” pattern). Ymir is slain and the cosmos is fashioned from his body. The process of creation can also be related to the first few runes.
A word on rune meanings
With regards to rune meanings as those commonly found in the New Age Esoteric market, we can argue that these meanings are modern interpretations to a certain extent. What sources we have for rune meanings are mostly rune poems, runic names as words used in specific contexts and the etymology of those words. The meanings are fleshed out by utilization of the surviving myths. One can sometimes find surprising insights from the surviving and recorded myths. These are at least the kinds of methods the better books concerning rune magic would employ. Insights are justified by surviving lore. However at the end of the day it is far better to just get on and work with the runes in a practical manner and experience them, as opposed to worrying about whether meanings are modern interpretations. Anyone with any experience in magic will realize that the historical validity of a magical system is not what makes the system effective. Even a fabricated mythology or system can be worked and used to achieve successful results. There are plenty of surviving artifacts and amulets inscribed with runes that serve as references to the magical power of runes.
The names of the Elder Futhark are reconstructed through the use of surviving sources (Anglo-Saxon and Younger Futhark names) as well as the names of the letters in the Gothic alphabet. There is no list of the names of the Elder Futhark.
Runes for spiritual growth
Rune magic is strongly geared to actually making things happen and the production of real world results. Yet, every rune also holds deeply spiritual meaning and relates to concepts found in Germanic (or more commonly Norse, material of which survived the most) cosmology and myth. To me the most useful runes for spiritual growth and the one’s I utilize the most are Ansuz, Elhaz and Mannaz.
The true name of the rune commonly called Elhaz has long been a matter of debate. Some have suggested Algiz – Protection and others Elhaz or Elk. An examination of where elks are found in existing lore can be very beneficial. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem calls the rune “elk-sedge”, a kind of sedge grass with sharp edges which can cut if grasped. Other suggested meanings have related the rune to the divine twins “the Alcis”, the word Alhs or sanctuary, or even Algis – a swan. What most modern authors agree on is a basic meaning of the word ‘protection’. The sedge grass can ward off harm through its sharp edges and the Elk can ward with its mighty horns. The Younger Futhark usage of the shape of the rune for ‘man’ and ‘yew bow’ also adds to its mystical implications (one form of the rune contains both the upright and inverted forms, combined into a tree shape) – a bow made of Yew is also a warning against attackers.
Some authors have suggested that the rune is a Germanic prayer stance where arms are lifted up towards the world of the divine.
I consider this rune as a deeply spiritual one because it is a connection between man and the higher worlds, particularly Asgard, the abode of the gods. The rune hallows and wards because it fills you with divine energy, it is the human being striving towards divine qualities, drawing power from above. Some have linked the rune to Heimdall and the rainbow bridge Bifrost, both serving as links between the divine and the human. Heimdallr fathered the various human classes as related in the Rigsthula and Bifrost links Asgard to Midgard. The bridge consists of fire, air and water and burns anyone unworthy of crossing. Heimdall is also the guardian of the bridge.
The rune protects because it renders something holy and whole. K. Gundersson states that the rune can be used in place of the pentagram as found in general western magic and that it gradually purifies through continuous use. I utilize the rune in my own constructed Elhaz rite, which is both a rite of warding and a rite of calling upon the higher self.
I appreciate the link some have made between this rune and the concept of the Valkyrja – swan maidens. The Valkyries were originally war spirits and choosers of the slain but they are also found as brides of various heroes and teachers of lore, for example in the Sigrdrifumal. Later folklore had the swan-maidens, where maidens would fly with their cloaks of swan feathers and sometimes these cloaks would be stolen and the Swan maiden would become the bride of an earthly man. I see the concept of the swan maiden as akin to the concepts of shamanic spirit brides. Through the rune Elhaz one can reach out to the guardian and guide of the soul.
Elhaz is a deeply spiritual rune of striving towards the divine and of attainment. It calls upon the higher, raises energy and brings the human and the divine closer together.
The next rune is Mannaz, meaning man or more properly human. The rune is related to Elhaz, due to the fact that in the Younger Futhark, the shape of Elhaz came to be used for the younger man-rune. Gundersson suggests that Elhaz is reaching up and drawing down divine might, while Mannaz is the inherited seed of the divine. Mannaz is a rune that makes me ask “What makes us human?” The Norse story of the creation of man suggests that humans were fashioned out of trees when Odin and his two brothers Villi (Will) and Ve (Holiness) or Hoenir and Lodurr (depending on source) came upon an Ash and an Elm on a lonely shore. Upon these forms they bestowed the divine gifts of Ond (breath, spirit), Odhr (Inspiration, Consciousness) and La or Litr (Concepts like hue and appearance). In other words, from the myth I see man as a conscious being, capable of abstract thought. Man is an animal aware of its existence, aware of itself and aware of its mortality. Man has the capability of questioning the world around him and of improving thereon due to the divine gifts from the God of Consciousness. I see Mannaz as a Hugrune of the mind/thought and a Malrune of Speech/Complex language ability – truly aspects which sets man apart from most other animals.
Some authors draw a link between Mannaz, the rune, and the being named by Tacitus in his Germania as Mannus, an ancestor of Tvisto, who sprang from Earth. The names do seem to be a close cognate. Mannus is described as a divine ancestor of various Germanic groups. In the Eddic poem Rigsthula we see a similar idea of the divine ancestry of humankind as the god Rigr (some link the figure to Heimdall but others have suggested that it could also have been Odin) fathers the three classes of human society. A careful reading reveals that the poem has a progression, with each generation being more open to the presence of the divine guest in a kind of evolution.
Through Mannaz we can connect to and nurture our link to the divine and start the process of reclaiming this divine inheritance. Mannaz is the rune of the perfected or whole man and through this rune we can strive to unlock those very qualities and also awaken the Hugr. Mannaz is the rune of nurturing those divine gifts which makes us human and of always seeking to further knowledge of ourselves and our world through magic, inspiration and rational thought. I utilize Mannaz in rituals to draw upon these qualities and strive towards the full potential of humanity.
I see runes as reflecting all powers necessary to spiritual growth and development within themselves. Runes are powerful and raw natural forces and can produce real world results-oriented magic; however runes also reflect the highest spiritual principles, to which we can strive. The runes are a complete system of magic, mysticism and attainment all on their own.